I freed my tongue when I was eight years old. I remember the day very clearly.
My fostered brother Hap, more like an uncle to me, had paid us a brief visit the day before. His gift to me was not a little pipe or a string of beads or such simple things as he had brought me on previous visits. This time he had a soft packet wrapped in a rough brown fabric. He put it on my lap and when I sat looking at it, unsure of what to do next, my mother took out her small belt-knife, cut the string that bound it, and unfolded the wrappings.
Within were a pink blouse, a vest of lace, and a set of layered pink skirts! I had never seen such garments. They were from Bingtown, he told my mother as she gently touched the intricate lace. The sleeves were long and full, and the skirts rested on a pillow of petticoats and were overlaid with pink lace. My mother held them up to me and for a wonder, they seemed to be the right size.
The next morning she helped me put them on and caught her breath to see me when the final sash was tied. Then she made me stand still for a weary time while she worried my hair into reluctant order. When we went down to breakfast, she opened the door and ushered me in as if I were the Queen. My father lifted his brows in astonishment, and Hap gave a whoop of pleasure to see me. I ate breakfast so carefully, enduring the chafing of the lace and keeping the sleeves from dragging through my plate. I bore the weight of the garments bravely as we stood in front of the manor and wished Hap a pleasant journey. And mindful of my glory, I walked carefully through the kitchen gardens and seated myself on a bench there. I felt very grand. I arranged my pink skirts and tried to smooth my hair, and when Elm and Lea came out of the kitchens with buckets of vegetable parings to take down to the chicken house, I smiled at them both.
Lea looked away uneasily and Elm stuck her tongue out. My heart sank. I had supposed, foolishly, that such extravagant garments might win me their regard. Several times I had heard, as Elm intended I should, that I was “dressed like a butcher’s boy” when I wore my usual tunic and leggings. After they had passed me by I sat a time longer, trying to think it through. Then the sun went behind a bank of low clouds and I suddenly could not stand any more chafing from the high lace collar.
I sought out my mother and found her straining wax. I stood before her, lifting my pink skirts and petticoats. “Too heavy.” She understood my garbled words as she always did. She took me to my room and helped me change into leggings of dark green, a tunic of lighter green, and my soft boots. I had reached a decision. I had come to understand what I must do.
I had always been aware there were other children at Withywoods. For the first five years of my life, I was so bonded to my mother, and so small, that I had very little to do with them. I saw them, in passing, as my mother carried me through the kitchens or as I trotted at her heels through the corridors. They were the sons and daughters of the servants, born to be part of Withywoods and growing up alongside me, even if they sprouted up taller much more swiftly than I did. Some were old enough to have tasks of their own, such as the scullery girls Elm and Lea and the kitchen lad Taffy. I knew there were children who helped with the poultry and sheep and the stables, but those I seldom saw. There were also little ones, infants and small children who were both too small to be given work and too young to be separated from their mothers. Some of them were of a size with me, but far too babyish to hold my interest. Elm was a year older than I was, and Lea a year younger, but both of them were taller than I was by a head. Both had grown up in the pantries and kitchens of Withywoods, and shared their mothers’ opinions of me. When I was five, they had shown a pitying tolerance for me.
But both pity and tolerance were gone by the time I was seven. Smaller in stature than they were, I was still more competent at the tasks my mother entrusted to me. Yet because I did not speak, they considered me stupid. I had learned to keep my silence with everyone except my mother. Not only the children, but even the grown servants would mock my gabbling and pointing when they thought I was not near. I was certain it was from their parents that the children learned their dislike of me. As young as I was then, I still understood instinctively that they feared that if their children were near me, somehow they would become tainted with my oddness.
Unlike their elders, the children avoided me without bothering to pretend it was anything but dislike for me. I would watch their play from a distance, longing to join in, but the moment I approached they would gather their simple dolls, scatter the acorn-and-flower picnic they’d been sharing, and race off. Even if I gave chase, they easily outran me. They could climb trees whose lower branches I could not reach. If I dogged their steps too much, they simply retreated to the kitchen. I was often shooed out of that room with a kindly voiced, “Now, Mistress Bee, run along and play where it’s safe. Here you’ll be trodden upon, or scalded. Off you go.” And all the while Elm and Lea would make simpering faces and shooing motions from behind their mothers’ skirts.