Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Mad Dinner Party

The following is a chapter from my young adult fantasy novel, "My Curious Adventures With a Witch." This novel is complete and I am currently attempting to find a literary agent.

I occupied the library at Stanton House, the eighteenth century manor house where I have lived all my life. I lounged in a green velvet armchair beneath a glowing crystal gas sconce, and I was reading Sylvie and Bruno, by Lewis Carroll. I usually felt comfortable in the library’s atmosphere, with its dark green floral wallpaper, designed by William Morris; an abundance of tall bookcases; a parquet floor and numerous rugs; and a mantel covered with a tasseled silk scarf topped by a clock and two glass domes housing dried flowers. Unfortunately I was not alone, for my parents were in the library, too. It was usually my haven, where I could escape to read or to write letters in solitude. But once in a while my parents liked to pick out books too, though my father’s taste in literature differed considerably from my own.

My father wore, as usual, a sober black suit with a very white and starched shirt collar, as he sat stiffly in an armchair across the fireplace from me, and his glasses seemed too close to the edge of his aquiline nose. His black hair seemed as stiff as his collar and his posture, and it was parted in the middle. My mother, on the other hand, wore a conventional pale grey frock with slightly puffed sleeves, a great deal of lace, and a yoke reaching to a high collar. Her hair was medium brown like Aunt Amaryllis’s, rather than the black sported by the rest of my immediate family, and it was swept up to the top of her head. She moved slowly in front of a bookcase, for she wanted to pick a book she had not read yet, which I thought in this library must be impossible.

“I fail to see why you spend so much time at your aunt’s house,” my father said, looking up at me from what looked like an original edition of Vanity Fair, one of my least favorite novels. I was surprised he was reading a novel rather than a newspaper or a collection of sermons or something unfathomably boring concerning business. “Surely you don’t find anything interesting in an aging woman who hardly associates with anyone but her servants and has never married. I am always suspicious of any woman who never marries.”

I took a deep breath, since I wouldn’t dare retort to my father, even after that odious remark. I mentally noted that I would never marry. “Oh, but Rowanwick Hall is a lovely manor house, Father,” I attempted to explain from the depths of the fairy tale Sylvie and Bruno. I decided not to mention that most of the servants at Rowanwick were fairies. “It is so full of, ah, personality. Also, Aunt Amaryllis has interesting animals, and a lot of gardens behind the house, and an orchard.” I started to read again, but my mother spoke.

“When we were children,’ my mother said, turning from a bookshelf and placing her hands on her hips, “the sorts of animals she acquired were lizards, toads, bats, rats, and an alligator. I assure you, they were quite interesting, Violet.” I bit my lip. Tall bookcases abounded, flanking the fireplace, lining the wall opposite, and creating aisles throughout the capacious room. Between bookcases and framed pictures, gas sconces adorned the walls, with two lights each; one of these lights glowed on my mother’s scowl.

“Her taste in animals hasn’t changed much,” I said. My eyes were wide and innocent as I looked at my mother. “But she has a cat.” I scooted up abruptly and unfortunately swung my elbow in the process, nearly upsetting a crystal-shaded lamp that matched those on all the other little tables cluttered with books, bookmarks, and porcelain knick-knacks.

“I’ve decided to invite her over to dinner Friday next,” Mother said.

“What a splendid idea!” I said, holding the lampshade steady. That probably explained why my father brought up the topic of my aunt, one of his least favorite subjects. My book flipped closed and I rustled pages hastily to find my place. “Though hardly in character, if you don’t mind my saying so, since I’ve never known you to keep in contact with her for more than the briefest moments.”

“We do mind your saying so,” my father said with a scowl. I ignored him. I have a talent for ignoring him.

My mother said, as if she were also ignoring my father, “Yes, well, unfortunately your father has reminded me that forgiveness is a virtue, so I have resolved to do this.” I looked at her and noticed her scowl.

“Another virtue is obedience to a husband, young lady, and you had better not get any silly ideas from that strange aunt of yours,” my father said. I clenched my teeth and thought at him: obedience is only a virtue for dogs, not women, and I shall never obey a man.

“I have written an invitation,” my mother said, as if my father had not spoken, “and I thought the servant girl Jenny could hand deliver it, but rather than take her away from her duties, how would you like to go call on Amaryllis and give her the invitation yourself?” As she said this, she pulled something small and flat out of her pocket and held it out toward me. It was a plain white envelope.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said with a deadpan face, rising from my favorite tapestry armchair and putting down my book. I was delighted to get away from my father and visit my aunt, who was much more amiable company. I took the envelope from my mother and, hoping she did not change her mind before I vacated the library, I drifted rapidly toward the door. “Do excuse me.”

“Encouraging her!” my father growled before I had quite closed the library door behind me.

At Rowanwick Hall, the servant Molly led me into a long, darkly paneled drawing room, where the décor struck me as heavy and somber. In the center of the room stood a rectangular table with thick urn-shaped supports reminiscent of the posts on a tester bed, and several carved chairs surrounded this table. The tables, chairs, cabinets and chests throughout the room and lining the walls matched the center table. The walls did not need many pictures, for coats of arms and strange carved wooden creatures decorated the wainscoting and the paneling. Aunt Amaryllis sat in an enormous and elaborately carved armchair, where she poured over a vast yellowed spell book that lay open on the center table.

“Hello, Violet dear,” my aunt said, without looking up from the spell book. “I’m looking for a love potion.”

My aunt wore a ruffled and beribboned red brocade gown, and I wondered whether the gown she wore truly was over a hundred years old, or whether she had it specially made in that old style. Perhaps she made her own garments magically, since everything I saw her wear came from a previous age. Other creatures besides Aunt Amaryllis and I occupied the room: the three little dragons and a furry black cat, Devious, sat by the hearth, where flames danced and hissed happily.

“What would you do with a love potion?” I asked with the raise of an eyebrow. “Has some respectable old gentleman in a dusty top hat been courting you while I am at home?”

“Well, dear, do sit down,” Aunt Amaryllis said, and after I had done so, gracefully and keeping my eyes on her face, she continued, with her hands clasped over the tome, “You’re almost eighteen years old, dearie, and I think it is time you begin to consider making a match. The best way, in my opinion, would be if you gave a gentleman a love potion.” I flinched at the thought. This rather disappointed me, for I thought Aunt Amaryllis of all people would not have such priorities. She normally seemed so unlike my parents.

“Oh, no,” I said under my breath, and added aloud, “That really is not necessary, Auntie. My parents have made it quite clear they will take me to London next Season, you know—“

“Now, now! Don’t argue with me, Violet. A love potion would insure the match, and it would work faster.” My aunt did not seem to understand that I would much rather take my time. “I would have no objection to your becoming a spinster like myself, if it were not for your parents. You and I both know them—they will want to marry you, the eldest daughter, off to the first elderly, wealthy, curmudgeonly, horrible man they come across.” This image terrified me and inspired a fluttery sensation in my chest. I clasped my hands together and stared at my aunt, who did not smile reassuringly but looked entirely too earnest. I heard the fire snap and a log faintly thump.

“She’s right, you know,” Flagstone, the dragon, said with a smoky cough.

“That doesn’t sound the least bit pleasant,” I said, getting up and pacing across the floral rug spread crookedly over the parquet floor. “I don’t want anyone shoving me into marriage, with or without a love potion. Marry in haste, repent at leisure, as they say.” I stopped and stood facing the mantelpiece, where I eyed the clutter of clocks, candles, incense pots, used matches, small brass bells, and china animal figurines. Above the mantel was a grand and arrogant portrait of an ancestor from the seventeenth century whose velvet and lace clothing vaguely reminded me of Oscar Wilde.

“Ah, but have you actually told your parents how you feel about marriage?” my aunt asked, leaning toward me. I could not see my parents having interest in my feelings or even believing that I have a right to have feelings. I suspected that my aunt truly had no idea how unapproachable my parents were, especially my father, and somehow it seemed disrespectful to spell this out to her.

“I rather doubt they would listen. I don’t remember them ever taking me seriously when I stated an opinion, and this is certainly one they would not appreciate.” I felt flustered and spoke more quickly than usual, and my aunt raised her eyebrows. “What a dreadful topic this is—I wish you hadn’t brought it up. Well, in any event, what I came here for,” I said hastily, “was to give you this invitation, Auntie.” As I spoke, I turned to my aunt and pulled the invitation out of my plaid waistcoat pocket, stepped forward, and handed it to my aunt. She tore open the little envelope and scanned the card.

“Dinner at Stanton House!” Aunt Amaryllis said. “I declare, I can scarcely believe it, after all these years. I wonder what my sister is scheming.”

“Don’t I get to go?” Brimstone, the grayish-yellow dragon, said in his nasal voice.

“Do you want your parents frightened out of their wits?” Aunt Amaryllis asked, turning to me. I looked at her. I imagined my parents’ hair standing on end, and further imagined them standing on chairs and staring in horror at Brimstone. Somehow I liked the image.

“Certainly not!” I said nonetheless. I was not above this attempt at respect for my parents.

“Then no, Brimstone, you’re not going.” Due to this statement, the dragon in question literally smoldered; grey smoke rings drifted upward out of his little snout, and his eyes turned red. I turned to my aunt and sat back down across from her.

“Then you do intend to go?” I asked.

“Certainly,” my aunt said, absent-mindedly stroking Cobblestone’s head. He squeezed his eyes shut like a contented cat, and a little puff of smoke rose from his pale green nose. “I do not deliberately shun my sister. She is the one holding old grudges—really, I can’t even remember why we stopped communicating.” She bit her lip.

“I am delighted that you will come!” I said. I could not have been more genuine, for I enjoy my aunt’s company immensely and felt a great deal of curiosity as to how my immediate family would react to her.
“But please, Auntie, don’t cause a lot of mischief there; even my mother doesn’t know about your magical practices, or at least hasn’t mentioned them, and I fear it would be a great shock to her, as it would to other people. Such as my father. And my brother and sisters. I know you wouldn’t be burnt at the stake in this day and age, but something might happen; you might even find yourself in a lunatic asylum.”

“I don’t expect my own family would put me in a lunatic asylum,” Aunt Amaryllis snapped. “And if they did, they certainly couldn’t keep me there.”

Cobblestone smokily giggled and said, “We could get you out easily.”

Aunt Amaryllis said, “Nonetheless, my sister might end up in such a place herself, if she tells anyone about me. You say she does not know about my practices, but I should think she has some memories. I believe it is at least part of the reason she has not communicated with me in so many years.” I thought holding a grudge for so long seemed absurd and foolish.

“It was so long ago. Please, Auntie, don’t turn this dinner party into a disaster. Do remember that your sister has invited you, which rather suggests she has, ah, forgotten.”

“Oh, I’ll try to be good, perhaps, but don’t expect more.”

“Oh, I shan’t,” I said softly. I already perceived that next Friday would be a memorable night.

My aunt picked up a plate of scones from the table beside her and offered them to me, and after I had taken a scone, I passed the plate to Flagstone. The dragon heated the treats with a puff of flame from her mouth and proceeded to devour the entire plate of pastries. I turned my head away but could hear her snort, chomp, and gulp.

I walked outdoors when Aunt Amaryllis arrived at Stanton House in a somewhat old-fashioned coupe with two horses and a coachman in eighteenth-century livery. I had never seen him on my aunt’s grounds and I suspected he was a fairy or elf of some kind, especially when I perceived his pointed ears. I soon forgot him, however, as my aunt stepped down from her carriage wearing a yellow, slashed and puffed gown from the Renaissance. I thought that my parents would consider such a bright color positively scandalous, and it was a pity my aunt had not donned a sedate grey gown of a modern cut; on the other hand, her eccentricity was one of her most admirable traits, in my opinion.

When my parents, sisters, and brother met her in the blue sitting-room, their jaws hung oh so slightly, for they were not accustomed to someone with such an unconventional appearance; even my mother had not associated with her sister for years, despite their geographical proximity. I only knew that they had had some sort of disagreement when they were very young, and that they had not spoken since my mother married.

After an exchange of greetings, my mother said, “It has been so long since I saw you, Amaryllis. Why did you not come to see us sooner?”

“You’re the one who insulted my alligator, Hyacinth.”

“And you’re the one who tried to burn me in my sleep, and who poisoned my tea, and used my guinea pig for an experiment—“

“Never you mind,” my aunt interrupted. Her crisp nasal voice was even louder and sharper than usual. “It is no use bringing on old arguments.”

By then, we were all seated around the fireplace. I sank into a large armchair and engrossed myself in needlepointing a floral pelmet, hoping my aunt wouldn’t behave as she normally did. She sat across from me, and my mother sat on the edge of a chair close beside her and leaned toward my aunt. The resemblance between them was remarkable, now that I saw them together for the first time. They both had medium brown hair, although my mother’s hair was minus the white stripe. They both had sharp noses and chins, but long eyelashes and a dimple in her chin softened my mother’s face. Her mauve dinner gown, with its ruffles and square neckline and silk flowers descending down the skirt, seemed terribly conventional compared with Aunt Amaryllis’s anachronistic garb. Also, my mother seemed prim and stiff compared to Aunt Amaryllis, who lounged almost like a man.

I am the eldest of five siblings. Rose, the prettiest, or so she continually reminded me, was two years younger than me. She and I both have very thick and long black hair, and she looks more like me than she would admit, but she is of a smaller frame and shorter stature than I. Rose had in recent years somehow grown into someone I didn’t particularly like, but hopefully it was merely a youthful phase. Periwinkle was my only brother, a bookish and quiet fourteen-year-old with spectacles hanging off his sharp nose, as though he were practicing to become our father. He was quickly becoming quite lanky and gawky. Lily, the twelve-year-old, was the one with whom I knew how to communicate. Heather, the youngest, was a ten year old with goggle eyes who was prone to get into everything, like a curious kitten, and yet despite this characteristic I rarely noticed her. Her face was the roundest in the family. All four of my siblings had thick black hair and pale skin like my own.

“Violet said you have interesting animals,” my mother said to Aunt Amaryllis after an awkward silence. “What pray are they?”

“Oh, she must have been referring to my tarantula, or the skunk,” my aunt said with an amiable grin. “Or perhaps she meant the dragons.” I scanned the faces around the room and concluded that nobody knew what to think of this; their facial expressions were, in general, full of confusion; Mother looked at my aunt with her eyebrows lowered in perplexity. Father scowled horribly at Aunt Amaryllis, and he lifted his chin higher than usual. My aunt added, “Oh, and I have a remarkably ugly, ill tempered earthworm named Ruthwimp, that used to be a vicious barrister. I think I shall set it loose in the gardens soon.”

“Would you please explain, Auntie?” piped up Lily, the twelve-year-old. I was surprised, since she was the most timid of us. I looked at her and observed that her eyes were round and she leaned forward from the edge of her seat.

“Certainly, child,” Aunt Amaryllis said, “though I hardly know where to start.”

“You mentioned dragons,” Lily said. By her standards, this was positively loquacious.

Aunt Amaryllis said, “I have three small dragons that live with me; I assure you they are excellent companions, except when they torch a tapestry or make a mess on the carpet, or threaten the cat.”

“I should very much like to see them,” Lily said. Her blue eyes were extremely round.

Apparently my aunt’s speech impressed Lily and nobody else. While Aunt Amaryllis spoke, my mother laughed hysterically; my father clenched his fists and continued to scowl. I wished I might fade into the wainscot, but I continued to needlepoint a red rose as though I were calm. Ten-year-old Heather chewed her lower lip and stared at our aunt. Periwinkle kept his pale blue eyes on my aunt and crossed his arms, while he sat up straighter than usual; normally, our mother had to remind him about his posture. Rose, who was, in my somewhat biased opinion, given to melodrama, allowed her jaw to drop in a most inelegant manner. Shortly thereafter a servant rang for dinner; consequently, we all withdrew to the dining room rather more silently than usual.

The dining room appeared as it always did, except for more valuable table settings, and somehow this transition in the evening’s festivities distracted everyone and created a sense of sanity that the family had lost during our conversation. The room was lengthy, to accommodate the long linen-covered table, currently set with numerous candelabrum and the best porcelain. The green, abstract wallpaper was visible between very large mirrors that reflected the candles in hundreds of little lights, and the chandelier overhead added to the candlelight. I kept expecting my parents to convert to electric lights, but so far they had said nothing of it. On the sideboard stood many bottles of wine, ale, and brandy, accompanied by a pitcher of lemonade.

My father sat at the head of the table and my mother at the foot, and Aunt Amaryllis sat by her. I sat across from my aunt before anyone else had a chance to reach that seat, and best of all I did it without running. Rose sat near our father, and across from her sat Periwinkle. In the center, Lily sat next to me and across from Heather. Two serving maids, for we have no footmen, and the butler arrived with turtle soup and vermicelli soup. While the maids served the food, the butler poured us drinks.

After we had supped in silence for a few minutes, my aunt said, “We really ought to have a picnic some time, Hyacinth. I rather think West Africa would be a most stimulating location for it. Don’t you agree?”

Father dropped his spoon into his soup bowl, picked it up, and dropped it again. He said coldly, “I imagine Africa would be inconveniently far away for no more than a picnic.” I half expected him to recommend Hadrian’s Wall, where my parents had taken us on picnics several times.

“Oh, no worry,” my aunt said, not in the least taken aback by Father’s coldness. “I have my own transportation which is quicker and easier than you might suppose.”

“Indeed!” Mother said. I sipped from my water glass while I imagined my aunt landing her broom in the middle of a jungle. If my parents had not been present, I would have asked her how long she thought it would take her to travel to Africa on her broom.

The butler supervised while the two maids brought the next course, which consisted of boiled salmon, turbot in lobster sauce, and trout. When everyone except Aunt Amaryllis had plates of fish, Periwinkle, to my slight surprise, spoke to my aunt.

“Aunt Amaryllis, are there any interesting animals at your house that you haven’t yet mentioned?”

“Young man—,” my father began sternly, but my aunt cut him off.

“It’s quite all right,” she said to my father, and turned to Periwinkle. “Yes, there are indeed. The slimy creatures on your plate rather remind me of them, to tell the truth.” Periwinkle stopped chewing, grimaced, and put his fork down.

“But please go on!” Heather said impatiently, winning a glare from our stern father.

“If you must know,” my aunt said, “I have in one cupboard many jars containing frogs.”

“Frogs!” Periwinkle said. “May I call on you tomorrow?”

“They’re not just any frogs,” my aunt said. “They’re enchanted princes.” I looked sideways at my father, then at my mother, and I was not pleased with the horrified looks on their faces. I might best describe my father’s face as purple. Even if he thought Aunt Amaryllis was telling fictional stories, he wouldn’t approve.

“Well, then, dear aunt,” Rose said, batting her eyes, “If you have a cupboard full of enchanted princes, then I want to call on you tomorrow also.”

“I’m not sure how suitable these frogs would be as husbands,” my aunt said. “Our ancestors have transformed them over the centuries, and they must surely have had reasons to do it. It makes me wonder about the princes’ character. I also wonder how old they’ll look when they’re turned back—I rather think some of them must not be a day younger than three hundred years old. If I didn’t have such reservations, I would be happy to look up a spell to transform them all back, but as I say, I can’t help suspecting they deserved a severe punishment.”

Aware of my conventional parents, I felt butterflies in my chest that I didn’t often feel, thanks to my unflappable, or almost unflappable, disposition. My mother’s face displayed a wide-eyed, puzzled look, and my father openly scowled, not an unusual facial expression for him. I think that in ten years he will have horrible lines around his mouth, and then perhaps he’ll regret scowling so much and do it less often. By then, however, I expect I shall not live in the same house as he and therefore shall not benefit from the transformation. Looking around the table, I came to the conclusion that the whole family had lost its appetite for fish, which on this occasion seemed vaguely similar to frog, and the butler came to the same conclusion as I, for he ushered the maids in to remove our plates.

I distracted myself by watching the servants while they occupied the dining room and everyone at the table remained silent. The butler filled our glasses, and the maids returned with the removes: potato and carrot pie, pears in vanilla sauce, strawberries, cauliflower, and compote of apples. Once the servants left, we resumed our somewhat awkward conversation.

“Aunt Amaryllis, if it turns out that even one of these frog princes is not a blackguard, then please do let me know,” Rose said, smiling mockingly. “My parents, you must know, remind Violet and me frequently enough about marrying well, and I rather think that a prince would impress them more than a viscount.” Observing my sister’s smile, I did not believe she took my aunt seriously; perhaps my warning about a lunatic asylum was not so far-fetched.

“Yes, then, I shall let you know,” Aunt Amaryllis said. “If I ever stop putting off transforming them back, that is. You never know how they’ll turn out. But I do have spells for changing people into animals and back again, so I expect it will work on the frogs.” Thinking of my aunt’s love potion, I was almost inclined to agree with Rose, for a change. I imagined opening up this cupboard of my aunt’s and setting free the frogs. Perhaps Rose and I could each marry a prince, and our parents would cease threatening to marry me off. But whenever I associated marriage with myself, I felt those butterflies in my chest.

“This is preposterous nonsense,” Father said, putting his fork down. I ate my cauliflower, remembering to take dainty little bites, and did not let the conversation stop me from enjoying the food. We all have our priorities.

I looked across the table and saw a piece of potato magically floating toward Aunt Amaryllis’s mouth, and I quickly shook my head at her and cleared my throat. She looked at me, shrugged, and the piece of potato dropped to her plate. She sunk her fork into it. I realized that my shoulders were higher than usual, and I lowered them.

“What is preposterous nonsense?” my aunt asked, boldly staring my father down. Only Aunt Amaryllis could do that.

“This pretending to have a cupboard full of frog princes, and encouraging my daughters with such foolish notions. I’ll have you know, I bring up my children to have sense.” I looked at my father and thought, is that why you hid my copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was nine years old? I wouldn’t dare say such a thing aloud, and I therefore turned to my plate and started on the pie. The crust was flaky and the potatoes and carrots inside were still steaming hot, seeming to melt in my mouth.

“You mean you want them to be bores like yourself,” Aunt Amaryllis said. My mother choked, and I heard Heather spit out some lemonade. Bravo, I thought, gulping.

“Such impertinence in my own house!” my father said.

“Please!” I said. “Let us not argue. I think imagination is very important, and it is quite possible to have both imagination and sense.”

“As you just proved, dearie,” Aunt Amaryllis said, grinning at me. I smiled back and resumed eating my pie. I forgot to take small bites. My father glared at me, but to my surprise he did not say anything. No doubt he was still too angry with my aunt to say anything about my unladylike eating habits. Or perhaps he was angry with me for speaking out of turn. We ate in silence for several minutes before my mother haltingly attempted to start a new conversation.

“Well, Amaryllis,” Mother said. “I am struck by how you seem to have enchanted my daughter. She spends so many hours at your house nowadays, it rather surprises me.”

“We get along very well,” my aunt said shortly.

“It seems so odd that one so normally unsocial should call on someone much older than herself,” my mother went on. She obviously did not want to dismiss this subject, and I suspected she was trying to find out if my aunt’s magical practices had something to do with my visits.

“I am teaching her—,” my aunt began. Without my thinking about it, my leg swung and kicked my aunt’s leg. She jumped slightly and stared bug-eyed at me. The last thing she needed to do was tell my parents that she was teaching me to be a witch! I would have thought even Aunt Amaryllis had more discretion than that, but apparently not.

“Teaching her?” my father said. “Well, go on, then. What are you teaching my daughter?”

Still looking unblinkingly at me, my aunt said, “I am teaching her botany.” I suppressed the deep sigh of relief that I wanted to emit.

“Botany!” my father said. No doubt, I thought, he didn’t approve of teaching mere females anything besides amateurish piano playing, water colors, pottery painting, hair weaving, and needlework.

“Yes,” Aunt Amaryllis said. “Mainly I am teaching her about herbs. The different names and uses, and what they look like, that sort of thing.”

“How delightful!” my mother said. “Really, I had no idea. Violet, why did you not tell us the other day?”

“I did not think it would interest you,” I said.

“Come now, you’re our daughter,” my mother said. “You should give us credit for interest in what you’re doing.” She took a sip of wine. I refrained from saying that I only expect my parents’ disapproval in what I’m doing.

“Forgive me, Mother, I do not mean to offend,” I said. “It simply never occurred to me that either you or my father would be interested in my newfound knowledge about, ah, plant life.”

“Be that as it may,” my mother said, “perhaps you can help with the gardening next summer.”

“That would be very nice,” I said with a slight smile, as I imagined planting a very interesting variety of herbs in place of the turnips in the kitchen garden. “I had thought of doing it at Aunt Amaryllis’s house, but to plant my herbs here at Stanton House is even better.”

“But Hyacinth,” my father said sternly, “you are forgetting that Violet will be in London at that time. It will be her first season.”

“Oh, yes, how could I forget!” my mother said. I returned to my pie in order to keep my mouth shut. Somehow the pie did not taste as good now. “Yes, Violet dear, you could be married by next August! How would you like that?” I gulped.

“Do you want me to humor you, or do you want an honest reply?” I asked. I heard at least one of my siblings emit a snort. My father scowled at everyone, as if to weed out the snorter.

“You could save yourselves the bother of the Season,” my aunt said.

“Why on earth?” my father said.

“I have a better idea for getting Violet married,” Aunt Amaryllis said. “I have this simply delightful love potion.”

“Yes, why don’t I use it on one of the frog princes,” I said. “Please, Auntie, I don’t like the direction this conversation is headed. I don’t want to think about marriage.”

“And what do you want to do?” my father said with a scowl. “Become a scientist, I suppose!” His tone seemed to stick a knife into my heart. I thought it very scathing, and although I should know better than to delude myself into ever thinking that my father had any respect for me, it nonetheless hurt.

“No, dear father,” I said coldly. “I shall become a very good sorceress, one who sets enchanted princes and princesses free. Even better, one who sets enchanted young ladies free, bourgeois or otherwise. I expect I shall make quite a fortune from it, and advertise in magazines like The Women’s World.” My father’s face turned purple again, and Periwinkle hastily placed a bowl of nuts in front of him.

“I was afraid those London magazines would fill your head with nonsense about New Women and such,” my father said in a voice that reminded me of a growl.

“You could be a sort of private investigator, like Sherlock Holmes,” Lily said. Her dark blue eyes were as big as saucers.

“There you have it!” I said. “Violet Meadows, investigator specializing in magical crime. How does that sound?” It was as though Aunt Amaryllis’s presence had triggered me to speak openly in front of my father for a change. Normally I tended to keep quiet around him, but my patience with him has worn thin in recent months.

“Lily, I find it deplorable that you read such trash,” my father said, referring to Sherlock Holmes.

“How do you know it is trash?” Aunt Amaryllis asked, but my father ignored her and turned to me with a horrible glare.

“And as for you, Violet, your babbling is at least as bad as your aunt’s!” my father said. “No daughter of mine will become a private investigator! You will marry and lead a respectable life. I have heard enough rubbish out of you.” We ate in sullen silence for a few minutes. I silently fumed at my father for trying to run my life. Respectable, indeed. I thought about what I really wanted to do with my life, and I came to the conclusion that I definitely wanted a career as a painter, but at the same time I rather thought the magical investigator idea sounded quite appealing. I had never thought of it before this dinner conversation.

“It shouldn’t take this long for the next course,” my father said, probably for the sake of saying something. “What do you think the butler is doing in there?”

“Perhaps he’s stuffing a dormouse into the teapot, Father,” Periwinkle said. “I hear they do that.” I was glad to learn that someone found my copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“No, only March Hares and Mad Hatters do that,” I said.

“Be silent!” my father said, although I am not a child, and Periwinkle was fourteen years old and no longer quite a child, to be seen and not heard. I suspected that other parents would think this way, but not my father.

As though the servants had heard my father’s complaint, they brought the entrée: a stew of potatoes, cabbage, onions, and mushrooms; peas, curried rice, dinner rolls, and Manchester pudding. As soon as the butler and maids departed the dining room, I sank my fork into the pudding, which was full of currants and raisins. Ironically, while she urged Rose and me to marry money, my mother insisted that we learn some domestic arts, to be prepared for anything, and so I had helped the cook make this pudding.

We ate in silence for several more minutes, long enough that I felt awkward and looked around the table hoping someone would speak up. Since I could think of nothing that would interest both my father and my aunt, I had no idea how to start a conversation myself. Fortunately, my sister Rose did the honors. Or perhaps unfortunately.

“May I ask, Aunt Amaryllis, what you really do alone in that big house all day?” Rose asked. This confirmed my suspicion that Rose didn’t believe in the frog princes, and she apparently was under the impression that our aunt’s life was boring. As I already mentioned, I did not like the latest developments in Rose’s personality.

“I do whatever I feel like doing,” Aunt Amaryllis said cheerfully. She added a grin for good measure. “I make sure the fairies haven’t destroyed the kitchen, or the dragons any other part of the house, and I work in the garden, dry and mix herbs, make potions and experiment with new ideas. A new spell or a new incantation once in a while doesn’t hurt.” I could sense my father fuming.

“What did you expect her to say,” Periwinkle said to Rose. “Knitting?”

“Certainly not!” Rose snapped. But she said no more on the topic.

“But what, Rose, do you do in this house with all these people around all day?” Aunt Amaryllis asked, to my surprise. I thought Rose the last person in whom my aunt would show interest. Perhaps she was merely being polite, but that seemed rather dubious; I knew my aunt better than that.

“She mostly sulks and snaps at us,” Periwinkle said. Rose glared at him.

“I do nothing of the sort!” Rose snapped.

“See what I mean,” Periwinkle said.

“Enough, children,” my father said. “We could use some silence from you.” His scowl could have frozen a gorgon.
“I certainly appreciate your children’s interest in me,” Aunt Amaryllis said, looking at my father with one raised eyebrow and her chin up, and then at my mother. “I am flattered if they even know I’m alive.”

“Oh, please, Auntie, don’t bring that up,” I said.

“Very well,” my aunt said. I spread marmalade on my dinner roll and sank my teeth into the hot bread.

“Rose does have a point,” my mother said, as though Aunt Amaryllis’s last jibe had never reached her ears, even though they sat close together. “I do wonder what you’ve been doing for the past nineteen years, since we parted. Obviously you never married.” I glared at my mother for implying that marriage was such a top priority in life.

“What I’ve been doing?” Aunt Amaryllis said. Her eyes looked unfocused, and I realized she was gazing far off, over my shoulder. I wondered if she was trying to decide whether she should tell her sister about her travels to strange, fantastic lands. “What I’ve been doing for the past nineteen years is basically the same as what I told Rose I do day to day.” That settled that, I thought.

The evening was proceeding much more smoothly than I had anticipated, all things considered. Although my aunt’s conversation was peculiar, and mine was not terribly ordinary either, at least Aunt Amaryllis did not turn the dog into a bear or transform any of the dishes into something more palatable.

“Please pass the salt,” Rose said. Before anyone could touch the saltcellar, however, it glided through the air, apparently under its own power. Cornelius Werthalton, our shaggy sheep dog, barked ecstatically, and this struck me as the one occasion when we should have remembered to close the dog out. I had not even noticed he was in the room until that moment, so he must have silently slipped through the door seconds ago. The saltcellar landed next to Rose’s plate.

“What the blazes was that!” my father growled. “And who let the dog in the dining room?” The butler, no doubt overhearing from behind the closed pantry door, rushed into the room, bowing, and grabbed Cornelius by the collar and led him out into the corridor.

My mother laughed hysterically; she was not as mundane as my father, but she simply couldn’t cope. If the flying salt was enough to disturb my mother, I thought she must have forgotten her childhood. Rose and Heather stared at the saltcellar, as though waiting for it to move again.

“We have spoken quite enough about me,” my aunt said, though I felt inclined to disagree. “Do tell me, Hyacinth, what you have been doing for the past nineteen years. I don’t recall asking you. Are you satisfied?”

“Satisfied?” my mother said. “I suppose I am. I don’t really think about it terribly much. That is, I am content, but really that is the same thing. Has my daughter told you nothing?” my mother asked. A raisin seemed to stick in my throat.

“She has told me plenty of things,” Aunt Amaryllis said. “But nothing about you, for she has much more interesting things to discuss.” I stared at my aunt as though she had stood on her head and let out an ear-piercing scream in public. She was not helping me retain amiable relations with my parents.

“Really, the lack of communication we receive from my eldest daughter is appalling,” my mother said, looking at me and waving her fork vaguely in my direction as she said it.

“I hope you will forgive me, Mother,” I said after swallowing a bite of onion and potato. “Although I am your eldest daughter, I am quite young, and it is folly to expect me to have the eloquence of a prime minister.” The moment I said it, I could sense that my father was about to explode.

“Are prime ministers eloquent?” my aunt asked, giving me a genuinely perplexed gaze. “I never noticed. True, I pay little mind to such dull people.”

“And what has Violet said?” my mother asked coldly, looking at me. What a time for her to stick stubbornly to a topic. I looked down at my plate. The rice would be good and spicy, I thought, so I started on it.

“Well, where shall I start? She gets along with her sister Lily, though certainly not Rose, and she does not appreciate my attempts at making love potion. Dear, dear, I can’t think of a thing she’s said about you or her father, and it’s no wonder. But really, we sound as if Violet isn’t in the room with us. You should ask her, if anyone, these questions.” While my aunt said all this, Rose gave me a horrible glare, and I wanted to tell her that it didn’t improve her beauty, but at the same time I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation.

“Dear aunt,” I said hastily. “Why don’t we start this over—why don’t you ask Mum something about herself. I am certain she would be a much more interesting topic than I, for she has lived longer.”

“I am surprised you think me an interesting topic, considering how obviously little you speak of me,” my mother replied. I resolved to remain quiet for the rest of dinner, although I questioned my ability to keep that promise.

“Very well, then, Hyacinth, you said you are content. Is there nothing in your life that you find lacking, that you want deep down?” my aunt said.

“Grandchildren,” my mother said. I choked. “But it can wait,” she added hastily, glancing at me. I gulped down some water. It could wait an excessively long time, I thought. When I was certain I would not choke again, I took a small bite of pudding.

The servants returned, and we sat back and digested our dinner while the maids removed the dishes from the table, and the butler removed the candlesticks and glasses. When nothing stood on the tablecloth except a few crumbs, the butler delicately removed the tablecloth to reveal another, also made of white linen. He then returned the candlesticks and approached the sideboard, where he poured Madeira and port, and more lemonade for the children. The maids, meanwhile, brought dessert, which consisted of figs, dried fruit, ginger ice cream, pineapples, grapes, Blanc mange, and orange water ice.

“My dear sister, I cannot imagine why you would be concerned with grandchildren,” my aunt said. “You still have very young children yourself. Why on earth would you rush to build the excessive population up even more?” My mother scowled at Aunt Amaryllis. Perhaps I was too early in thinking the evening went smoothly. We had this entire dessert to munch through, and my aunt could act swiftly.

“What a horrid way to phrase it,” my father said stiffly. His words contained more starch than his collar, I thought. I helped myself to a spoonful of the ice-cold ginger ice cream and savored it before swallowing.

Rose stabbed a pineapple with her fork and said, “I cannot help but wonder why you and Mother have scarcely spoken to each other in all these years.”

“Why, indeed,” Aunt Amaryllis said. I looked out of the corner of my eye at my mother, who stared at Rose in alarm. “We had many quarrels in our youth. Keep this in mind, you with your four siblings.”

“That doesn’t strike me as sufficient,” Rose replied after consuming some fruit in very tiny bites. “Begging your pardon, dear aunt, but there must be a deeper reason than that.”

“Do you indeed want to know?” my mother asked icily.

“Yes!” Rose said. My aunt smiled at her grimly rather than with her usual wide grin. I thought with alarm that Rose should have taken a hint from this.

“Do you have any idea what it was like growing up with her?” my mother said. I stopped chewing. Everyone seemed to freeze. “I never knew what would happen next with her abnormal, wicked experiments! One day the flames would walk out of a fireplace and walk around as though they were living creatures.” While my mother spoke these harsh words, a strange pressure arose in the air around the dining room. I looked around the room while my mother continued speaking in the same tense, harsh manner. “I was terrified for my life, day after day, and by the time I was thirteen, I had fits and my governess locked me in the attic. That attic is very dark and full of shadows.”

“That—that explains why you never go up to the attic, Mama,” Periwinkle said haltingly. Considering how much our mother’s behavior alarmed me, it had to be working terror into my younger siblings. Looking around the room again, I noticed how the chandelier swayed overhead, even though no windows were open to create such a breeze. I looked at the fireplace, and I saw faces in the flames.

“As I remember it, you were only locked in the attic for an hour,” my aunt said.

My mother’s voice became quite shrill as she continued speaking. “Yet I was not the one whose sanity should have been questioned. Oddly, our mother did not seem to see her behavior as wicked, which it most certainly was, wicked and abnormal and not in the least respectable!” The room felt increasingly more oppressive as this argument continued.

“That is enough, Hyacinth!” my father finally said. “You are upsetting the children.” I felt suffocated and opened my mouth, gasping for breath.

“I would not have run away from home and married your father if it weren’t for this wonderful aunt of yours!” my mother said to me in almost a screech and with a dismissive wave toward Aunt Amaryllis. I had never before seen my mother like this.

“In that case, I would never have been born,” I said softly, mentally adding, not in this incarnation.

“You neglect to mention how much like an abomination our father considered me,” Aunt Amaryllis said in a voice colder than my ice cream. “He gave you all the praise and attention, because you were the normal one.”

As she said this, the faces in the fireplace flew out of it—flames shaped like bats rushed at my mother and flew around her head. My siblings screamed, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see most of them duck under the table. My mother, whose eyes bulged, sank in her seat, and she was so tense that I felt horribly nervous merely occupying the same room as she. But the tension in the air did not arise only from my mother.

“Do you, dear sister,” Aunt Amaryllis said flatly, “have any idea how I felt, growing up with a sister and a father who never showed me any respect, let alone affection or acceptance, and who called me a monster on a daily basis?” The fire bats howled around my mother now, and the windows rattled. She let out a little scream as she moved her head around, looking up at the fire bats. So this, I thought, is what happens when my aunt is truly angry. “You were embarrassed to be around me, rather than accepting me as I am. You never so much as tried to understand me, but rather tried to make me something else, something that I would never want to be. That was your real problem, Hyacinth. Your life wasn’t what you were terrified for. I didn’t fit into any compartment your narrow little mind could live with!”

My mother let out a hysterical scream and, sobbing loudly, rose from the table so abruptly that she upset her wine glass, which I promptly picked up. She dashed out of the room, while I sniffed at the wine. My father choked meanwhile and soon stomped out also, following our mother and slamming the door. Instantly the fire creatures and the wind dissipated entirely. Heather and Rose stared openly where the bats had flown, and then they exchanged looks and followed the example of our parents by departing in haste. Lily’s eyebrows rose to an unsurpassable elevation, and Periwinkle sat in a daze.

Aunt Amaryllis’s magic trick had inevitably ruined dinner, but I chose to finish my dessert. After we who remained sat in a tense silence for several minutes, Periwinkle and Lily rose and exited slowly and silently, Lily only uttering a scarcely audible, “Excuse me.” Aunt Amaryllis and I remained. I looked at the door, half expecting it to open again and everyone to say, “Ha, all in good fun! See, we’ve returned!” But the door remained closed. I looked across the table at my aunt, who had returned to her usual self, except that her face was ashen. I picked up my spoon and helped myself to the ginger ice cream. The chill dessert melted in my mouth. It was scrumptious.

“Goodness, what manners this family has!” my aunt said more shakily than usual. She stared at the door. “Except for Lily, they didn’t excuse themselves.”

“You may as well help yourself to my mother’s ice cream,” I said.

“I realize I forgot myself, but really, that was a simple bit of magic,” Aunt Amaryllis said, as she reached her spoon toward Mother’s bowl. My aunt’s anger seemed to have vanished completely.
“I rather think your silly parents overreacted.”

I smiled and said, “After this, I shall think nothing of believing ‘as many as six impossible things before breakfast,’ as the White Queen would say.”

“Oh, stuff and nonsense,” Aunt Amaryllis said between spoonfuls of ice cream. “You saw much more peculiar things at Barren, I must say.”

“Nonetheless, those adventures were without the company of people like my parents. I have come to the conclusion it is best that you and my mother continue to keep as little contact with each other as possible. I hope you don’t think it impertinent of me to say such a thing.”

“Unlike your pompous father, I think it is important to listen to the young,” my aunt said. “And I quite agree. Although Hyacinthe and I are siblings, we simply do not get along. I shall avoid my sister as though she were a rotten jar of dragon fruit.” I dipped my spoon into the ice cream and was astonished when the dining room door swung open. There my father, reminding me of a pot of boiling water, stood clenching his fist.

“You evil witch,” he growled at my aunt. “Get out of my house!”

“Father!” I said, dropping my spoon. I was shaking all over, too stunned to know what to say or do.

“You go to your room!” He said to me. I rose from my chair, but my father started moving toward us with his shaking fist raised. “I should—I should have you locked up!” He said, as he moved forward. Aunt Amaryllis stood up.

“I’m not the one who should be locked up!” my aunt said. She raised both her hands and said,

“Stonestonestoneturnetostone!” My father stopped moving. He seemed to have frozen in the same position and with the same scowl. I turned to my aunt, who didn’t look a bit ruffled.

“Well then,” I said. “I’m off to my room. It was a …pleasure having you over, Aunt Amaryllis. I hope we never do this again.”

“So do I, dear, so do I!” my aunt said, turning and embracing me. “Now you go along. The spell will wear off soon.”

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