The Songbird's Overture

Page 1


MY VOICE cut off abruptly with a loud sneeze, and I waved away the cloud of dust hanging in front of my face. "Sorry about that," I said to the old pig watching me from where she lay in the straw. "Shall I try the song again?"
"Please spare us the torture!"
I jumped, then saw my sister's eyes peering between the wooden slats of the stall. " Josette!"
She oinked like a pig. "Save us from her caterwauling! She sounds worse than an angry tomcat."
"I do not!"
"Do!" She shrieked with laughter and bolted out of the barn.
"I don't," I said to the pig, but she only emitted a world-weary sigh and began chewing absently on a cob of corn. Her brood squirmed around her stomach, each of them fighting for a choice spot. There was one pig in particular who bullied the rest, knocking his siblings around, and sending the runt toppling until I was sure he didn't know up from down.
Setting aside my pitchfork, I picked up the big piglet, ignoring his squeals of protest. Turning him round so we were face to face, I fixed him with a dark look. "No one likes a bully."
He shrieked in indignation, jerking his little form from side to side in an attempt to escape back to his gluttony. I focused intently on his pink face. "Sshhh."
The pig went silent, dark eyes locked on mine with an almost eerie focus. It gave me the shivers, so I hugged him to my chest and watched as his tiny sib-ling found a spot and started suckling. My father would say it was wasted effort, but being on the runty side myself, I was sympathetic to the little pig's plight. I hummed softly to the animals, not quite ready to invite my sister's mockery with another song.
My ears caught the faint jingle of a harness and the stomp of hooves against dirt, the sounds making my stomach clench with excitement. She was here! With the piglet still in my arms, I ran to the barn door, eyes watering from the brightness as I peered down the lane.
"Cecile, put that pig back in its pen and get to work. Those stalls aren't going to muck themselves."
I stiffened, only just catching sight of my father before he led the plow horse around the corner to the fields. The uncharacteristic frown on his face rendered him almost unrecognizable, and he'd been short with everyone since the moment he came down for break-fast. Even though I didn't entirely understand why, I wasn't fool enough not to realize what had put a bee in his bonnet. Or, rather, who.
Returning the piglet to his mother, I retrieved my pitchfork and started work on another stall. I was barely halfway through when my fingers began to twitch, finding their way to my pocket to check for the crinkle of paper after each load I dumped into the wheelbarrow. When I couldn't stand it any more, I leaned out to make sure my father wasn't lurking around the corner, then pulled out the piece of parchment. The creases where it was folded were starting to become worn and fuzzy, and it was a bit stained from my grimy fingers.
Tucking my skirts around my legs, I sat on the floor of the barn and tilted the paper into a dust-filled beam of light, my eyes taking in the few lines. I traced over my mother's familiar script with one finger, pausing on each of the words I recognized, including my name. I'd made my father read it over and over again until I'd memorized it, and then I'd pocketed the precious article before he could toss it in the fire. It was the only proof I had that my mother was coming to visit us. The fact that it was written on paper made her arrival a certainty rather than a childish hope.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I imagined her reading the words aloud, the sound of her melodic voice in my ear. Dimly, very dimly, I could remember her singing softly to me so that I would fall asleep, the soft touch of her dainty fingers against my hair, and the flowery scent of her perfume drifting across my bed. That had been when we lived in the city, when I was only a little child, and before my father had taken my brother, sister, and me back to Goshawk's Hollow.
I hardly saw her after that, only an occasional visit here and there, which, rather than sating me, only made me hungry for more. Two years ago, my father had taken me to Trianon to see her perform. I couldn't remember the name of the opera, or even what it had been about, but I could picture my mother standing on the stage, her crimson ringlets spilling over her elaborately costumed shoulders clear as day. The opera house had been full to the brim, or at least it had seemed so to me, and yet the audience had been utterly silent and still, captivated by the sound of her voice. I'd never seen anything like it before or since. When the performance had ended, every single person stood, clapping, cheering, and tossing roses onto the stage, and I had never wanted anything as badly as to be her. Every night since I had dreamed of singing on that stage and curtseying at the end to the roaring accolades of the crowd.
The letter tore away from my fingertips, and my eyes snapped open in time to see my sister run out of the barn door, the paper clutched in her fist.
"Josette!" I shrieked and tore after her.
We sprinted through the yard, boots splattering mud up against our skirts. I was older, but Joss was taller, and not even the anger flooding my veins was enough fuel to catch her. "Give it back!"
She only laughed, the sound filling me with a twisted combination of fury and fear. I needed that let-ter. I had to get it back. Illogical or not, I felt that if I lost the paper where her promise was so carefully inked, that the promise would cease to exist at all.
The dogs ran after us, their barks adding to the cacophony. My father shouted from the distance, but whatever he said was drowned out by all the noise. Josette's fist was crumpling my letter into a tighter ball with each step she took. At best, she'd hide it from me, at worst... My eyes burned with a frustration I could scarcely explain, my anxiety building like steam in a kettle until it exploded out of my throat. "Joss, stop!" The wind rose, catching the two words and rushing them through the yard. Everything went still.
The animals fell silent. The dogs stopped chasing. My sister's legs ceased moving midstride, and she top-pled onto the ground.
I stopped running, my chest heaving in and out as I stared at her still form. "Joss?" What had happened?
Very slowly, she turned her face to look at me, tears streaking her cheeks. "She isn't coming, Cecile." She scrambled to her feet and ran into the house.
Her words made my stomach clench, but I went after her, barely managing to cut her off before she made it to the stairs. Forced into the kitchen, she scurried over to the far side of the table.
"What do you girls think you're doing?" Gran demanded, slamming down the bread dough she was kneading. "You're tracking mud all over my clean floor, and both of you have chores to do."
"Joss took my letter!" I shouted.
Gran hefted a wooden spoon. “Josette de Troyes, give your sister back her letter."
Joss shook her head rapidly, her cheeks flushed red. Why was she doing this? She was going to ruin everything.
"Give it to me!" I demanded, holding out one hand. It was no wonder our mother never came to see us, why she never invited us into the city. Why would she want to? Why would she waste her time on two muddy squabbling farm girls in the middle of nowhere when she could be dining nightly with Trianon's finest? And why wouldn't my idiot sister understand that if we ever wanted to see her, we had to be better.
"I won't" The vehemence of Joss' voice startled me out of my silent rant. "Not until you promise to stop watching for her. To quit waiting for her. To quit wanting her in our lives!"
Silence hung in the room as we stared each other down, it dawning on me for the first time that maybe my sister didn't feel the same way about our mother as I did.
"Why?" I whispered, "Why would I want to forget my own mother? Why would you?"
Joss' bottom lip trembled, and with one free hand, she wiped away the tear carving a track in the mud on her face. "Because she forgot about us."
My stomach lurched, and my ears filled with a dull roar. Everything seemed far too bright, forcing me to suck in a deep breath to settle my nerves. "She didn't forget," I said, forcing the words out through numb lips. "The letter says she's coming for my birthday. It's written on the paper in your hands." Not that she could read it any better than I could.
Joss' shoulders shuddered. "Not any more, it doesn't."
I gasped as she flung my letter into the fireplace. Shoving the table out of the way, I dived toward the flames, but it was too late. All I could do was watch the paper turn to ash, the sound of a wooden spoon cracking against Joss' backside barely registering in my ears as Gran berated her for what she had done before sending her out to finish my chores.
A hot fat tear rolled down the side of my nose, and I scrubbed it away hard enough to make my cheek sting, the stench of pig on my fingers seeming worse than normal. My nails were cut down to the quick, but they still held dirt around the edges, and my palms were thick with callouses. The boots I'd inherited from my brother were crusted with mud, and I could smell farm and sweat rising from my dress. I didn't feel like I was worth the effort of a trip across a field, much less the hours-long journey from the city.
Gran's slippers brushed softly against the floor as she came around the table and sat next to me. Her thin arm wrapped around my shoulder, pulling me close. I resisted for a heartbeat, clinging to the remnants of my anger, but then I gave up and collapsed against her. "She isn't coming, is she?" The words came out muffled from where my face pressed against her dress.
I felt rather than heard Gran sigh. "Oh, my sweet girl, there's no telling what Genevieve will or won't do. I gave up trying to understand that woman a long time ago."
I stiffened. "She isn't that woman, Gran. She's my mother."
She inhaled deeply, and I waited for her to launch into her usual tirade, but she stayed silent. Which was somehow worse. I'd always thought the warm feeling I got whenever Gran spoke out against my mother came from my righteous satisfaction at being able to defend her, but maybe that wasn't it at all? Maybe what really fueled the feeling was Gran's assurance that it wasn't our fault and that we deserved better. I bit my lip, wishing Gran would say Genevieve was a terrible mother, that she was selfish, that she wasn't worthy of children like us.
But she said nothing at all; she wasn't even looking at me. Her eyes were fixed on the fire, her normally smiling mouth turned ever so slightly down at the corners. My heart began to beat harder in my chest, unease pricking at my skin. "It's Joss' fault." I knew it wasn't, but I hoped my accusation would provoke her into saying something. "She doesn't even care."
Gran met my gaze and sniffed disparagingly. "Is that what you think?" She shook her head slowly. "Your sister was barely more than a baby when you left Trianon. That city was never a home to her, and Genevieve has never been a mother to her. To your sister, that woman isn't just a stranger, she's a stranger who's slowly pulling apart her family. She took back your brother, and now Joss is afraid she'll take back you. And you've made it very clear to us that that is exactly what you want."
I flinched, feeling the slow burn of shame rise on my cheeks, because I knew it was true. I did want to live with my mother in the city. How could I not? How much better a life would it be to live in her big home with new dresses, and servants, and no chores? And there was my most secret wish — the one I had never told anyone — that one day I too might be able to stand on stage and sing to adoring crowds. But now that dream seemed tarnished by selfishness, as though wanting to do something more than slop pigs and milk cows made me a bad sister, a bad granddaughter.
"I'd come back," I whispered, as though the option of leaving had already been offered. "It isn't as though you'd never see me again."
"Like your brother has?" Gran raised one eyebrow. "Gone six months and we've not seen him once."
I grimaced. Had it been so long since Frederic had left?
"I know you think living in Trianon with your mother is the only way you'll be happy. That it will be wonderful, like a dream where you can have every-thing your heart desires, but I think the reality will be much harder than you believe." Gran's eyes searched mine. "I also know that me telling you so is pointless. You've always had to find things out yourself, no matter how much the finding caused you grief."
I looked away, uncertain whether her words should make me feel proud or foolish.
"But that's enough of us sitting here on the floor." Gran rose to her feet, hauling me to mine with surprising strength. "Today is your birthday, and whether Genevieve comes or not, we'll still have cake. But I need time to make it." She shooed me in the direction of the stairs. "Go wash up. Joss will do the rest of your chores so that you can have the afternoon to yourself."
• • •
My free afternoon was only made better by the new dress waiting on my half of the bed that I shared with Joss. It was dark blue wool with yellow daisies embroidered along the collar and down the sleeves. But the best part of it was that the hem reached all the way to my ankles. Pulling it on, I twirled around, imagining how much older and taller I must appear, wishing, in perhaps a not-so-rare moment of vanity, that we owned a looking glass. Racing down the stairs, I skidded on stocking feet into the kitchen.
"Well aren't you a sight." Gran dusted her hands off on her apron. "Go show your father."
Joss was sitting on the front stoop putting a final coat of polish on my boots. She looked over her shoulder when the door shut, her eyes still red from crying. She handed me the boots and I sat down next to her to put them on.
"I'm sorry 'bout your letter. Gran said I deserved to be fed to the trolls for doing it," she said, wiping her fingers on her skirts. "I just..."