Taffy I feared. He was nine, bigger and heavier than Elm and Lea. He was the meat boy for the kitchen, bringing a freshly slaughtered chicken or lugging a butchered and skinned lamb. To me, he seemed massive. He was boyishly blunt and direct in his dislike of me. Once, when I followed the kitchen children down to the creek where they intended to sail some walnut-shell boats, Taffy turned on me and pelted me with pebbles until I fled. He had a way of saying “Bee-ee” that made my name an insult and a synonym for “stupid.” The two girls did not dare join in his mockery of me, but oh, how they enjoyed it.
If I had told my mother, she would have told my father, and I am certain that all the children would have been banned from Withywoods. So I did not. As much as they disliked and scorned me, all the more I longed for their company. It was true I could not play with them, but I could watch them and learn how to play. Climbing trees, setting walnut boats with leaf sails afloat, contests of jumping and skipping and tumbling, little mocking songs, how to catch a frog … all of these things children learn from other children. I watched Taffy walk on his hands, and in the privacy of my bedroom bruised myself in a hundred places until I could cross the room without falling. I did not know to beg for a spinning top from the market until I had spied Taffy’s red one. From a distance, I learned to whistle with my lips or with a blade of grass between my thumbs. I hid and waited until they had departed before I tried to swing on a rope tied to a tree branch or venture into a secret bower built from fallen branches.
I think my father suspected how I spent my time. When my mother told him of my desire, he bought me not just the spinning top but a jumping jack, a little tumbler fastened to two sticks with a twist of string suspending him. Of an evening, when I would sit by the hearth and play with those simple toys, he would watch me from lowered eyes. I felt in his gaze the same hunger I felt when I watched the other children play.
I felt I stole from them when I spied on them. And they felt the same, for whenever they discovered me watching them, they would drive me away with their shouts and name-calling. Taffy was the only one who dared pelt me with pinecones and acorns, but the others shouted and cheered when he hit me. My silence and timidity made them bold in their attacks.
Such a mistake. Or not. When I could not join them, I followed, and played where they had played after they had left. There was a place by a creek where slender willows grew thick. In early spring they wove the little trees together, and by summer the trees had grown into a shady arch of leafy branches. It became their playhouse, where they brought bread and butter from the kitchen and ate it on plates of big leaves. Their cups were leaves, too, spindled to hold a bit of water from the stream. And Taffy was Lord Taffy there, and the girls were ladies with necklaces of golden dandelions and white daisies.
How I longed to join them at that game! I had thought that a lacy pink dress might win me admittance to their circle. It had not. So that day I followed them stealthily and I waited until they were called away to their chores before I ventured in. I sat on their mounded moss chairs. I fanned myself with a fan of fern fronds that Elm had made and left there. They had built a little bed of pine boughs in the corner, and on a warm and sunny day I lay down upon it. The sun beat down but the bent branches of the shelter let in only a dappling of it. I closed my eyes and watched the light on my eyelids and smelled the fragrance of the broken boughs and sweet smell of the earth itself. I must have dozed. When I opened my eyes, it was too late. All three of them stood in the entrance, looking down at me. I sat up slowly. Against the sunshine outside, they were silhouettes. I tried to find a smile and could not. I sat very still, looking up at them. Then, as if the sun had come out from behind clouds, I remembered this day. I had dreamed it, and all of the many paths that could diverge from it. I could not remember when I had dreamed it, and then it seemed that perhaps it was a dream I was going to have. Or a dream of … something. A dream of a crossroads, a place not of two roads intersecting but of thousands. I folded my legs under me and stood up slowly.
I could not see the children for the overlay of dreams and shadows around them. I tried to study the myriad paths. One, I felt, led to something I desperately wanted. But which one? What must I do to put my feet on that path? If I went along another path, I died. There, they mocked me. There, my mother came running when I screamed. And there …
I could not make it happen. I had to allow it. I had to let the path form around me from the words I tried to say and the taunts they flung at me. The moment came when I could have fled but I was both too afraid to move and aware that only this path led to where I longed to go. The girls held me, their fingers biting into my thin wrists until the flesh stood up in ridges that were red, and then white. They shook me, and my head snapped back and forth on my neck, so hard that I saw flashes of light behind my eyes. I tried to speak, and it came out as gobbling. They shrieked with laughter, and gobbled back at me. Tears sprang into my eyes.