“Do it again, Bee-ee. Make the turkey noise.” Taffy stood over me, so tall he had to crouch inside the bower. I looked up at him and shook my head.
Then Taffy slapped me. Hard. Once and it rocked my head one direction, and then again almost instantly, from the other side, and I knew this was how his mother slapped him sometimes, rocking his head back and forth so that his ears rang. When the blood flooded salt into my mouth, I knew it was done. I was on the path. And now it was time to twist free of them and run, run, run, because from that point there were so many paths that led to my lying on the earth, broken in ways that could never be mended. And so I snapped my wrists from their grips and pushed through the willow trunks and out through a gap none of them could negotiate. I fled, not toward the manor, but into the wild part of the woods. In a moment they were after me. They chased me, but a small person can run doubled over and use the trails made by rabbits and foxes. And when the trail led into a thick and prickly bramble, I went where they were far too large to follow me without tearing their clothes and skin.
In the middle of a briar patch, I found a hollow, a place where soft grass grew and the brambles shielded me all around. I hunkered down in it and froze there, shaking with fright and pain. I’d done it, but oh, the cost. I heard them shouting and beating the edges of the bramble with branches. As if I would be foolish enough to leave its shelter! They called me vile names but could not see me, nor tell for certain that I still hid there. I made no sound as I opened my mouth and tipped my face down to let the blood run out. Something in my mouth had torn, a piece that went from the underside of my tongue to the bottom of my mouth. It hurt. It bled a lot.
Later, when they were gone, and I tried to spit out the blood, it hurt even more. My tongue moved in my mouth now, flapping like a piece of leather on an old shoe. When the afternoon was ending and the shadows deepening, I crawled out of my briar bower. I went back to the manor by a long and winding way. I stopped at the creek and washed the blood from my mouth. When I went in to the evening meal, both my parents were horrified at the spreading blue bruises on my cheeks and my blackened left eye. My mother asked me how it had happened, but I only shook my head and did not even try to speak. I ate little. My free-flopping tongue got in the way. Twice I bit myself before I gave up and sat staring at the food I longed for. For the next five days, it was hard to eat, and my tongue felt like a strange object that flapped in my mouth.
And yet, and yet, it was the path I had chosen. And when the pain lessened, I was shocked at how freely I could move my tongue. Alone in my room, after my mother thought me asleep, I practiced my words aloud. The sounds that had eluded me before, the sudden starts and sharp endings of words, I now could make. I still did not converse, but now it was because I chose not to, not because I could not. To my mother, I began to speak more clearly, but only in a very soft voice. Why? Because I feared the change I had wrought in myself. Already my father looked at me differently since he had seen I could hold a pen. And dimly I knew that the girls had dared to attack me because I had worn the pink dress that declared a status higher than theirs, one they felt I did not deserve. If I began to speak, would all the servants retreat from me, kindly Cook Nutmeg and our grave steward? I feared that speech would only make me more of a pariah than I already was. I longed so for companionship of some kind. It was to be my downfall.
I should have learned my lesson from what had befallen me. I did not. I was lonely, and the lonely heart has hungers that can overpower both common sense and dignity. Summer advanced, my mouth healed, and I began again to spy on the other children. At first I kept my distance, but it was too frustrating to view them from afar where I could not hear what they said or see what they did. So I learned to go ahead of them and shinny up a tree to look down on their games. I thought myself very clever.
It had to end badly, and it did. That day is as vivid as a dream to me still. They had caught me watching them when I sneezed. For a time they had me treed, and I was fortunate that acorns and pinecones were the best ammunition that Taffy could find. At last I thought of climbing higher up the tree, out of his range. But a tree slender enough for a small child to shinny up is thin enough for three hearty children to shake. For a time I rode the whipping top, and then I fell, flung in a wide arc to land flat on my back. Airless and stunned, I lay helpless. They were silenced and awestruck as they crept up on me.
“Did we kill her?” Elm asked. I heard Lea suck in a terrified breath and then Taffy shouted boldly, “Let’s be sure of it, then!”
That brought me out of my daze. I staggered to my feet and ran. They stared after me, and I thought they would let me go. Then, with a roar from Taffy of “Get her!” they came after me, as eager as rabbit-hounds on a trail. My legs were short, my fall had dazed me, and they came close behind me, yammering and shrieking. I ran blindly, my head down, my hands clasped over it to shield myself from the rocks that Taffy scooped up and flung with ever-increasing accuracy. I did not plan to flee toward the lambing shelter. I ran silent as a hare, but when a large body suddenly stepped in front of me and snatched me up high, I shrieked as if I were being killed.