Half-flying and half-running, a slender woodland sprite propelled himself off the decaying brick buildings and ducked into narrow doorways. Thick fog billowed over crumbling, cobbled streets beneath him. The Realm of Men made him skittish. Anything could happen to a solitary sprite in a world that knew no stories. His eyes darted about in caution and he flew to a nearby rooftop.
A camera hung from his neck and bumped on his chest with each change of direction. It weighed him down; sprites were not made for hauling things like a common draft horse, or dwarf, but he pressed forward and alighted on an old chimney. He sat there watching the fog shift and fold back on itself. Tendrils of mist wrapped around buildings and tucked into shadows before a cold, early-spring sun bored through the clouds and dissipated the last of the fingers of old man fog.
Human life whisked about below him, hurrying to jobs, schools, and errands. Pulling coat collars close to their necks, no one spoke to each other. Most scuttled up the road to factories and the streets soon cleared. He watched them leave with mild interest, wishing he were here to make some mischief. Oh, he could have such fun with the dodgy folks of earth, but he was not here for them.
He soon noticed a little girl sitting alone outside a red brick tenement. A prick of knowing stung at his heart. She was the one. The one he had come to document. He could sense it. She crumbled a dry biscuit on the street before her. Pigeons scurried over, and sparrows swept down eager to join the feeding.
His heart beat faster and he struggled to unscrew the lens cap off the camera. The ambassador from the City of Atmøs had gifted the camera to his father the evening before, and oh how he eyed it with envy! After a night of eating and drinking mulled rum, the ambassador and his father had fallen into a deep sleep. He smiled, remembering how easy it had been to replace the camera in his sleeping father’s arms with a square shaped rock. He then zipped away with the real one in hopes of recognition and fortune as the first sprite journalist.
If only he could get the blasted lens cap off! Was it the lever on the left, or the button on top? He grumbled at himself for not listening to the ambassador’s instructions on how to use the blasted mechanism. He pressed a toggle switch on the side of the camera down and the lens cap sprang off. He lifted the viewfinder to his face and snapped a few frames.
A tickle of joy crept up his spine. He giggled and adjusted a few buttons before bringing it to his eye again, but the girl was gone. He ground his teeth and stamped his foot in exasperation. He looked down the hill. No one. He looked up the hill. Her solitary figure labored up the cobbled streets. He leapt off the chimney and landed on the side of the street opposite her. He lifted the camera to his eye, and Snap! Click! Whir! He smiled as he took another picture of the girl destined to bring the mythological folk and the Realm of Men together again.
Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. The words pounded through her head with each stride as she rushed up the hill to school. Hot embarrassment flushed her cheeks as she wiped away the angry tears that gathered in the corners of her eyes. She knew she wasn’t much: long, brown hair pulled back in a low pony-tail, an out of style cotton skirt and blouse, a sweater no thicker than tissue, and sturdy walking shoes that her feet slipped around in no matter how hard she pulled on the laces.
Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. The accusatory words spoken that morning by her landlady echoed back at her. She thought she heard the click of a camera behind her. She stopped and gasped for breath. She saw no one, and reached for the small book in her shirt pocket. Good. It’s still there. She climbed the hill in dread, not wanting to arrive at school before she had to.
She realized that Mrs. Kendrick had not meant any harm with her hurtful words. How could her landlady have known that she sat right outside the kitchen window? While she warmed her shoulders against the sun-kissed wall, and fed her biscuit to the birds, she overheard Mrs. Kendrick’s visiting sister ask about the tenants. Mrs. Kendrick chirped away, telling her that Penny’s father was crazy for wandering the river every evening in his boat, and about Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Penelope.
Her father noticed too late the holes in her stockings, or her knobby wrists protruding from her sweaters, and then would bring home clothing from the dumpsters lining the streets of the city. Mrs. Kendrick gave her the shoes her own plump feet had worn down. The thin leather soles barely shielded her feet from every hard stone and pebble on the slick streets. Mrs. Kendrick’s swollen feet stretched the leather to the maximum, and the splat of Penny’s footsteps, rang as an ever- present reminder of her poverty.
The small book in her shirt pocket thumped against her chest. She checked again to make sure her thin sweater covered its outline. Good. No one would see it as long as she kept her sweater buttoned. She walked in the shadows of the ash-covered buildings and furrowed her brow, intent on ignoring the stern, printed signs lining the street.
She hated the signs. Their constant presence burned their messages into her memory. If she wanted to, she could recite each one as she passed. “Ordinance 461: For our own protection every man, woman, and child must remain indoors from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.,” she said to herself as she passed a blue, rectangular sign. “Remember:” a white octagonal sign screamed at her, its red words thick and straight across it, “Every man has his uses.” She scrunched her nose, that one was so strange. She tried to walk past the third one quickly without reading, but it had engrained itself on her soul and she could not help but whisper, “Don’t Worry: The Protectorate Can Think For You!” She shivered and quickened her pace up the hill to The Protectorate State School for Girls.
Fellow students walked around her chattering and laughing. Marjorie Carr and her group of friends stood on the stairwell at the entrance of the school scrutinizing the other girls as they entered the building. Penny climbed the far end of the stairs hoping to avoid their harsh, critical gazes.
She spied her friend Eva ahead of her, and walked a little more quickly to catch her. “Eva,” she whispered. “I brought it.” Eva grinned, but looked straight ahead.
“Show me during lunch,” she whispered back, and Penny smiled. She relished her lunch breaks with her friend.
They passed Penny’s father polishing a display cabinet in the hallway. He worked as the school’s caretaker, and often she would bump into him as he mopped floors, pruned the bushes, or polished the cabinets like he did today. He smiled and waved the dirty polishing rag. A pang of embarrassment warmed her cheeks, and she ducked inside her classroom. She slid into her usual desk in the back of the room and stared ahead as Mr. Brubacher dragged a piece of chalk across the blackboard.
His thick voice rolled out of his crooked neck like the porridge she had eaten that morning: dry and thick. Today, he drilled them over and over again preparing them for the final examinations at the end of the year. They would be tested on their knowledge of the laws, ability to stand in a queue, and how well they could follow rules. After their examinations they would receive their occupations, and Penny would never have to see Mr. Brubacher again.
She liked the idea of never returning to school again, but she wished that school could be more enjoyable. Her father told her that before she was born, children learned from books. She sighed, wishing she could read books in school, but no, no that was for home.
In the secrecy of home, her father told her tales of a time when people read books and told stories. Twelve years ago, when she was just a baby, their neighbors and quite possibly the whole world collectively forgot the stories and used their books to build fires, stuff the cracks in their walls, or in some of the poorer neighborhoods, to clean themselves after using the bathroom. Her father spent evenings begging neighbors to give him their old hardbacks before they ripped them up and threw them in their hearths. He stacked hundreds of books in his small coat closet, including the pocket book of fairytales she smuggled out that morning.
She entertained herself by recounting the tales she had read the night before. She remembered the tale of Aschenputtel, and imagined bearing the taunts of evil stepsisters and the oppression of a wicked stepmother. She smiled to herself as she imagined the grand ball, and what it would feel like to escape a dreary life. A sharp thwack across the back of her head brought her attention back to the stuffy classroom.
“Not paying attention again Miss Collins?” Mr. Brubacher said, and lowered his sweaty face next to hers. He flicked the wooden ruler he used to strike her. “You will never find an occupation under the Protectorate. You’re a pathetic example of citizenship. I think a little after school training with the custodian change that. You could never hope for anything more.” He said.
His eyes narrowed, and he turned to the front of the classroom. A few of the girls tittered in their chairs. She could tell it was a nervous laugh, but it panged her all the more. She seemed to be the brunt of all his ridicule, and the girls’ laughter ensured that he would keep it on her.
Her eyes prickled in the corners. She would not let them see her cry. Never a day went by that Mr. Brubacher didn’t torment her with physical punishments, or insults towards her father. She hated Mr. Brubacher.
She sat up straight and tried to show him that his words didn’t bother her, but her jaw tightened with anger. Several times she heard the click of a camera, but dared not to look around the room and garner his attention again.
After four long hours of review the bell finally rang signaling lunch break. She tightened her sweater, dashed out the door, and leapt down the steps two at a time.
“Hey, caretaker’s skint!” Marjorie yelled from across the dry grass. “Do you have any lies for us today?”
Penny flushed red and tightened her sweater around her neck.
“Shut up Marjorie,” Eva shouted, running up from behind Penny and grabbing her arm in solidarity.
Marjorie used to be their friend. Penny would regale her and Eva with her father’s tales until the day Mr. Brubacher learned of her stories and threatened to expose them all to the Protectorate. After that, Marjorie never spoke to Penelope unless it was to taunt her, and now kept a hawkish eye on all she did and said, threatening to tell Mr. Brubacher if she ever told stories again. Marjorie headed towards them; her group of friends close behind.
“No one’s talking to you Eva.” Marjorie snarled and stared down at Penny. Penny instinctively placed a hand over her hidden book.
“Go away,” Penny whispered. Marjorie frightened her. She never knew what misery the angry girl would try to inflict on her. A wicked grin curled Marjorie’s lips.
“What did you say, Liar?” She stepped closer to Penelope, her hands on her hips. Penny heard Mrs. Kendrick’s voice in her head again. Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Mr. Brubacher’s voice joined hers. You’re a pathetic example.
Penny’s heart tightened in pain at the thought of her own insignificance. Fingers of shame scrambled up her neck and wrapped around her throat. She didn’t know what to say, and gaped wordless and alone.
A gentle breeze brushed her cheeks and danced with her hair. It brushed away the shame. She shivered and tightened her thin sweater closer around her, breathing in deeply.
“I said go away Marjorie.” Her heart flipped as fear grew inside her chest, but she stood tall in front of Marjorie’s angry face. Marjorie’s eyes widened in surprise, but soon narrowed into a glare. She raised her hands and shoved Penny backwards. Penny’s worn shoes slipped on the pebbles beneath her feet and she fell to the ground.
The book flew out of her pocket and landed with a thud in front of her. The girls around them laughed as she tumbled to the ground, but grew silent the moment they realized what had fallen from her pocket. Her book lay on the ground. She reached to pick it up, but Marjorie kicked it away. A long shadow covered the book as Mr. Brubacher ambled over. His smile swept round the group and landed on Penny.
“What’s this, Miss Collins, I hear about telling lies?” He smirked. The pages of the book rustled at his feet. Penny pushed herself up and reached for it, but Mr. Brubacher grabbed it and flipped through the pages.
“Miss Collins, what’s this?” The anger flashing in his eyes told her that he knew exactly what it was. She looked down at her shoes.
Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Tired of Marjorie’s accusations, and not caring anymore to fit in at her miserable school, Penny confessed.
“I only wanted to tell a story.” Her classmates looked confused, but Mr. Brubacher looked confused and angry. Penny scuffed her toes along the ground. She opened her mouth to protest this injustice, and the words came in a frenzy. “A story about a girl whose father died, and her step-mother made her work like a slave in her own home. There was a ball, and the girl wanted to go to it, but her step mother locked her away…”
“And do you know this woman personally?” Mr. Brubacher interrupted.
Penny looked behind Mr. Brubacher. A lone sparrow drifted in the breeze over the school. It’s wings outstretched as it floated in freedom. She squinted up at it. Oh to be a sparrow! To shed the confines of this place that would never understand her. To be free as herself. She felt Mr. Brubacher’s presence draw closer to her own.
“N-n-no, Sir. It’s a story.” His face leaned in closer, eclipsing the sparrow and her reveries of freedom. Whether on purpose or on accident she did not know, but he stepped right on the toe of her oversized shoe, trapping her.
“All stories are lies, Miss Collins.” He quipped. She struggled to get away from his hot breath and tobacco stained teeth, but her shoe wouldn’t budge under his weight. “There is no room for liars under the Protectorate. Your father will be interrogated at once,” he said as a thin smile stretched across his face. He ground his heel into the toe of her shoe.
The girls around her started to giggle. Only Eva stood with her mouth agape. Rage and embarrassment roared in Penny’s ears drowning out the giggling. Her fists clenched by her side, and before her brain had time to stop it, her right arm shot out and punched Mr. Brubacher in the jaw.
He howled in surprise, dropping the book as he brought his hands to his mouth. He stumbled back, releasing Penny’s foot. The laughter stopped. She used his moment of distraction to lunge for her book and ran towards the gates.
“You are expelled, Miss Collins!” Mr. Brubacher thundered from behind her, but she already knew she would never go back. She thought she heard the click of a camera button, but soon forgot about it as she made her way through the narrow streets of Edinburgh with one eye out for the grey uniforms of the Protectorate officials.
She ran all the way home and bounded up the flight of stairs to the fourth floor, her floor.
Wrenching open the door and tossing her bag on her father’s desk, she flung herself onto their couch. She had never hit anyone before. Usually she stored the embarrassment and anger in her stomach before it could bubble forth in words and violence. Today she did not.
Today, she let her anger take over, and she almost liked that better. She kicked off the offensive loafers, and flung them into the corner of the room. Swearing to never put them on again, she walked over to her father’s coat closet.
The leather bindings of the books filled the closet with a pleasant smell of earth. She closed her eyes and imagined she was far from this city of spies, fear, and suspicion. She imagined herself walking along a forest path taking baked treats to her grandmother while wearing a red cape. The face of Mr. Brubacher leered at her through the trees, a near perfect imitation of the wolf, and her daydream was over.
What would Mr. Brubacher say to her father? What would her father say to her? He kept the books hidden, and now she had revealed his secret. Would the Protectorate send them both to prison? She paced the room in fear.
When she was much younger and very afraid of the Protectorate, her father told her not to worry; prison was an empty threat, and they only fined those who broke the rules. She sighed, hoping he told the truth, and threw herself into her book of fairy tales. Rereading the stories she loved most, the sick feeling in her stomach dissipated as she waited for her father to come home.