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Franny Billingsley Chime

To Richard, for always

1

The Trial

I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories—the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.

How can you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.

I know you believe you’re giving me a chance—or, rather, it’s the Chime Child giving me the chance. She’s desperate, of course, not to hang an innocent girl again, but please believe me: Nothing in my story will absolve me of guilt. It will only prove what I’ve already told you, which is that I’m wicked.

Can’t the Chime Child take my word for it?

In any event, where does she expect me to begin? The story of a wicked girl has no true beginning. I’d have to begin with the day I was born.

If Eldric were to tell the story, he’d likely begin with himself, on the day he arrived in the Swampsea. That’s where proper stories begin, don’t they, when the handsome stranger arrives and everything goes wrong?

But this isn’t a proper story, and I’m telling you, I ought to be hanged.

2

The Taste of Burnt Matches

“I want to go home.” My sister turned from the river and closed her eyes, as though she could wish away the river, and the barge on the river, and Eldric on the barge. But life doesn’t work that way, more’s the pity.

“We can’t leave now,” said Father. “It would hurt Eldric’s feelings, don’t you see?”

But Rose didn’t see. She never saw, not about feelings. “I want to go home.”

Villagers thronged the riverside, but they gave us plenty of room. I’d forgotten that, forgotten how they left a cushion of air around the clergyman and his porcelain daughters. We’d always be outsiders, even though Father’s spent twenty years in the Swampsea, and Rose and I have spent seventeen. We’ve never been anywhere else.

“One hundred and eighty-three steps until home,” said Rose.

The villagers never used to stare, though. If I were an ordinary girl, I might stare too. People like to stare at girls who’ve been ill, at girls whom they’ve hardly seen for three years, at girls whose stepmother has killed herself.

“Look!” said Father. “The barge is almost here.”

But the villagers are wrong about Stepmother, and so is Father. She would never kill herself. I’m the one who knew her best, and I know this: Stepmother was hungry for life.

“One hundred and eighty-three steps until home.” Rose was exactly right. I know; I’ve measured. The Parsonage sat exactly one hundred eighty-three steps behind us, its back to the river, its front to the village square.

“And,” said Father, “just think how happy Eldric’s father will be to see his son.”

“That I will,” said Mr. Clayborne, who was waiting with us in our cushion of air. He was more at home with the villagers than we were, even though he’d arrived from London only six months back. Perhaps it was because he was such a big, comfortable sort of man, while we Larkins are rarely comfortable, especially with ourselves.

“I don’t like boys,” said Rose.

Neither did I, but I knew enough not to say so.

“Rose!” said Father, but Mr. Clayborne was used to Rose.

“Eldric and I have never been apart this long,” said Mr. Clayborne. “Almost six months.”

Almost six months. Stepmother died two months and three days ago. I must never let myself grow used to Stepmother’s death. I must never smooth out time the way Mr. Clayborne had. I’d never say she’d been dead almost six months.

I remembered the day she died with absolute clarity. I remembered standing outside her sickroom door, wondering if I should enter. Why did I hesitate? I was afraid of awakening her, I suppose, which I’d call ironic if I were a poet, but I’m not, and anyway, I hate poetry. A poem doesn’t come out and tell you what it has to say. It circles back on itself, eating its own tail and making you guess what it means.

Stop, Briony! Stepmother would tell you to stop. Stop dreaming about her, she’d say, and attend to Rose, who’d just gone into a fit of coughing. Take care of Rose. That’s what Stepmother always said. I’d promised. I’d promised Stepmother I’d take care of Rose.

“Rose has such a cough, Father,” I said. “Oughtn’t she to be out of the wind?”

“Another few minutes won’t hurt,” said Father in his sermon voice, which is his favorite voice, the one he starches and irons every morning.

Have you become a doctor, Father? How do you know it won’t hurt? Or did you hear it from God? You don’t talk to anyone else.

The wind smacked at everything. It smacked the river into froth. It smacked the willow branches into whips. It smacked the villagers into streamers of hair and shawls and shirttails. The wind didn’t smack us up, though, not the Larkin family. We were buttoned and braided and buckled and still.

But not all the buttons and buckles in the world can protect a Larkin from the swamp cough. When Rose started coughing last week, I actually talked to Father. I asked him whether she might have the swamp cough. Father said what he always says, which is nothing.

That’s right, Father. Let Rose cough herself to death. Why waste money on the doctor? There is, after all, no cure for the swamp cough.

The Shire horses came to a stop, steam puffing from their great pink nostrils. The barge had arrived. I looked for Mr. Clayborne’s son among the passengers. I hoped he wouldn’t be one of those grubby stone-throwing boys. But they all are, aren’t they? I base my knowledge of boys on Tiddy Rex, nine years old, with the requisite grubby hands, but not altogether a bad sort.

At least I needn’t talk to Eldric. I believe boys are not much for conversation. If Eldric bothered me, I’d mention Mucky Face. He’s the resident river spirit and just loves boys. But to eat, Eldric dear. To eat.

“There he is!” said Mr. Clayborne. “See, on the left—tall, fairish hair?”

“What a good-looking boy!” said Father.

But I didn’t see any version of Tiddy Rex, grubby hands or no.

“There!” Mr. Clayborne pointed. “Coming down the gangway. Surely you see him now? Light hair, well built.”

“Oh,” I said. I hadn’t known he’d be so big. He was an enormous child. An enormous giant of a child, all six or seven feet of him.

“There’s my bad boy,” said Mr. Clayborne, waving Eldric over. He made it sound as though it were quite a good thing to be a bad boy.

Nor had I known he’d be so old. He was a university boy. I recognized the clothes from magazine pictures— the slim trousers, the checkerboard vest, the suggestion of a tie. I understood now why Mr. Clayborne wanted his bad boy to lodge at the Parsonage, with the clergyman and his daughters. I understood why he didn’t want his bad boy to lodge with him at the Alehouse. Bad boys and alehouses are an explosive kind of mix.

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