Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Eldest
Christina Elaine Collins

We watch them toss the shoes into the fire, one by one, at my father’s command. Satin, laces, soles burning. Freedom burning.

True, freedom is different for everyone. For the tired, it is sleep. For the poor, it is wealth. For the sick, it is health, even death.

For my sisters and me, it is a pair of shoes.

Was.

We watch the servants douse the fire and sweep away the black corpses of twelve pairs of dancing slippers. The soldier stands in the corner, the only one not looking at the ashes. He glances at the walls and the ceilings. At the estate that is now his.

The chamberlain approaches my father. “Their chamber has been boarded up. The entrance to the tunnel, too.”

My father nods. “And the new room?”

“Ready. Their belongings have been moved.”

“Good.” He gestures for the soldier to come forward.

The soldier bends in a bow of modesty, his handless arm behind his back.

“So? Which one would you like?”

“Which what, sir?”

“I haven’t forgotten what I promised you if you figured out their secret. And you did.”

“Ah. Yes. I haven’t forgotten either.”

“Well?”

The soldier turns to us. We tense, a litter of puppies in a shop window. I hear our thoughts twisting in our heads. First: rivalry. If he picks one of my sisters, it means I’m less desirable. Then: protectiveness. If he picks one of my sisters, we’ll be separated. And: dread. If he picks me, we’ll be separated.

I force myself to relax. My chances are eleven to one. Less, really. We all know the odds lean toward April, the fairest, and December, the youngest. They know it, too. Their eyes dart around for unguarded doors, open windows. Of course there aren’t any. Our only way out has been discovered, closed up.

The soldier shrugs. “I’m not so young anymore, so I’ll take the eldest.”

His voice drips with logic. I can’t deny it. To marry the one closest to your age—it’s logical. If he’d picked the fairest, that would make him shallow. If he’d picked the youngest, that would make him a pervert. The soldier is neither shallow nor a pervert. Anyone can tell by the lines on his face that he’s a sensible, middle-aged man who wants to retire into a respectable life.

My sisters lean in, clutching my arms, as the weight of my twenty-six years bears down.

My chances were eleven to one.

~

“So you’re the eldest.” He smiles when we’re left alone. “Remind me of your name?”

“January.”

“Ah. Of course.” He reaches across the table and puts his hand on mine. I draw back. He raises an eyebrow.

I stand up and walk to the window.

“Didn’t realize I chose the coldest month of the year.”

I ignore him and look out at the hills drenched in gold. They look warm. It’s freezing in here.

“Is there a problem?”

I keep my eyes on the gold. “I’m sure you can figure it out. You were clever enough to figure out where we go dancing at night.”

He laughs. “I don’t know about that. It wasn’t all me.”

I turn my head slightly. “What?”

He shrugs. “It was an old lady who tipped me off. About avoiding your wine. Never would have thought of it myself. You would have put me to sleep like all the other fools.” He laughs again. “Funny little washerwoman. With all her doodads and ornaments.”

I turn and stare at him. A laugh rises in my throat, threatening to crack like thunder. “Where are you going?”

I pause at the door. “To tell my father.”

“Tell him what?”

“You cheated.”

“And he’ll believe you?”

“Yes. He will.” I leave, but as I walk down the hall, I know he won’t. I know there’s no point. I lost my father’s trust, for good, when he learned we’d lied about the dancing.

But to be fair, he lost my trust long before.

He lost it when I found him locking our chamber door every night. If he never locked our door, never kept us inside like precious, endangered pets, we’d never have looked for another way out. And we’d never have found the tavern. And we’d never have tasted freedom. And the soldier never would have taken it away.

~

The first night, November and March pulled the bed aside, and August and I lifted the door.

We stared at the hole. They looked at me, waiting. I knew that if I went down, they’d follow, because I’m the eldest. The eldest has to be bolder than the rest.

I grabbed a candle and stepped down. “Let’s see where it goes.”

As we crept squinting through the tunnel, I recognized the markings along the dirt walls. They were the same raven and wolf insignia from the banner hanging in the parlor—the crest of the family that had lived in the manor before us. My father liked to honor the history of places. The family was long dead, of course, but I wished I could thank them for the tunnel they built under my bed. For giving us something to do that night. Even if it was only going to lead us to the kitchens or the stables or back to where we started.

When the tunnel opened up, there were trees, silver ones, or maybe they only looked silver in the moonlight. There were sounds too. Close ones: Mosquitoes humming. Owls hooting. And far ones: Music floating. Laughter trickling. We followed the far sounds through bushes and branches until we stumbled into a clearing. We stared at the old brick house with a sign that said Fitcher’s Tavern. My sisters looked at me again, waiting. I knew that if I went in, they’d follow.

I blew out the candle and went in.

It was almost as dark inside as it was outside, but we could see the fiddlers, two women and two men, and, around them, women hooking arms and whirling and laughing and sweating. Men stood around the edges, watching the women and clinking jugs of ale.

We observed the dance for a while, but people stared. We were the new ones. I tugged on February’s sleeve. “We ought to leave.”

February nodded, but as we turned to get the others, a girl hooked arms with her. February squealed and reached out, hooking October’s arm. October squealed, too, and grabbed my hand. Panicking, I grabbed May’s. So we went, the twelve of us, into the dance.

I didn’t know what to do with my arms and legs. The women weren’t dancing the way we were taught in lessons. They were swaying, skipping, swinging, moving their hips in circles. There was nothing ballroom-like about it. August and November moved without hesitation, with authority, and I envied them. Each time I tried to imitate them, I felt more awkward.

Then I got my second drink and felt the movements less, the music more. The adrenaline more.

At one point I noticed my hair had come undone. Or maybe I had undone it. It swung a step ahead of me. I looked around; my sisters’ hair was loose too. Someone handed me another drink. June spun me and I laughed, heat and blood pounding in my cheeks.

When a barmaid told us it was closing time, we stumbled outside through the bushes and branches and fuzziness and somehow—I don’t know how—found our way back to the tunnel. We fell onto our beds, heads spinning, minds twirling, as we squinted in the sun that peeked through the curtains.

I must have fallen asleep, because the clock said eight when I opened my eyes. I shut them again, to stop the spinning.

August groaned in the bed across from me. “My head.”

Keys jangled outside our room.

April giggled. Then she groaned, too, from the effort.

The doors opened, and the servants rolled in our breakfast carts, on schedule, up to our beds. I attempted to sit up. The maid by my bed started. She looked at me. “Oh—Lady January—are you ill? Can I get you something?”

I couldn’t move my head because of the throbbing, but I managed to croak, “Just a new pair of shoes, please.”

~

They give us only high-heeled shoes now. Shoes we can barely walk in, let alone dance in.

We ache to move, me in my new chamber and my sisters in theirs. We ache because our feet no longer ache.

I can still dance barefoot; they can’t take that away. But I am never alone. The soldier is always there, or my father, or the chamberlain, or the servants. At least my sisters can dance in their room, after my father locks their door. And I, down the hall, lie on my back on the left edge of the bed, three feet from the soldier, watching the moonbeams dance on the ceiling.

It’s not the same, my sisters say when I see them at meals. It’s not the same without you. It’s not the same without the tavern. Nothing is the same.

Then one day they seem in good spirits. I catch them yawning and grinning at each other during breakfast. I pull June aside and ask her why everyone is so cheerful.

“We found another way out,” she whispers, beaming.

“Where?”

A servant walks by, and she presses her lips together, waiting for him to pass. She giggles and leans in. “Under April’s bed. We couldn’t believe—it’s the same tunnel, you know. And the chancellor was stupid enough to put us in a chamber without pulling up the carpets.”

I try to keep my voice straight. “You’ll be found out again. It will be worse this time.”

She shakes her head. “We go barefoot now. No slippers. No evidence.”

I glance down at her feet, but they’re covered.

She grins. “Yes, the blisters are worse. October stepped on glass last night—what a mess—but it’s a small compromise.

I frown. “She stepped on glass?” But that’s not what bothers me.

“She’s fine now.”

“Are you sure? What if it’s infected?” But that’s not what bothers me either.

What bothers me is that they can go on dancing without me.

She cocks her head. “You know,” she whispers, “you ought to check your floorboards for doors. There could be more. You could meet us.”

“I’ve checked.”

“Oh. I guess it would be impossible anyway, to sneak out with him in bed next to you. We know he won’t drink the wine.” She laughs.

I can’t bring myself to laugh back.

After breakfast, as I walk past my father’s study, I think about tattling. If I can’t go dancing, they shouldn’t be able to either. I pause at his doorway, hovering. I see his gray head bent over his desk.

After a minute, I keep walking.

In the main hall, two servants struggle to maneuver a sofa through the front entrance. The soldier must have ordered it for his study. He’s ordering all sorts of things now, for his new quarters. I pause at the corner and watch the servants bicker about who is carrying more weight than the other. They plod down the hall, almost dropping the sofa three times, leaving the front doors wide open.

No one is there to see me slip out.

The air is as warm as it looked through the window. When I get past the gates, I start to run. The road into town is long by foot; I’ve only done it by carriage. I move off the road into the trees, so as not to attract the attention of other travelers. I follow the road until I reach Chiddery, the brown roofs and cobblestone streets. People stare at my gown as I enter the crowd. I regret that I didn’t wear something plainer. I recognize nothing and no one, but I expect that. The odds of recognizing anyone from Fitcher’s Tavern are low, as low as the lighting there. I wonder, briefly, where the tavern is in relation to here. I know it sits on the outskirts of Marchen—something I’d learned during my last night at the tavern. Marchen neighbors Chiddery, but the tavern could be on the opposite side. I could ask one of the locals. I turn to a man selling apples on the corner. As I open my mouth to speak, I notice the shop behind him. An ornament of a ballerina hangs in the window. Wanda’s Washing, a sign says.

I walk past the apple cart and enter the shop. Ornaments hang everywhere: ballerinas, white, porcelain, toes pointed, frozen in arabesques and pirouettes and grand jetés. For a dance form so new to Europe, this Wanda seems very familiar with it. Everywhere else, clothes hang from lines, marked with tags that display different surnames. Soaps and towels and buckets lie scattered on shelves. A woman with rolled-up sleeves sits next to one of three tubs of water, scrubbing trousers against a washboard. She looks up. A few lines frame her eyes and her mouth, but she doesn’t appear to be more than forty. Not as old as the soldier made her out to be.

“Are you picking up?” she says.

“Pardon?”

“Are you picking up a load? What’s the name?”

“Oh. No. I’m not.”

“What can I do you for, then?” She stands up, tilted. I see a wooden leg peeking out below her dress.

I imagine her and the soldier bonding over damaged limbs and the demise of my sisters and me.

“What did we ever do to you?”

The woman blinks. “Sorry?”

“You helped the soldier. Gave him advice. Helped him take away our freedom. Why? You don’t even know us.”

She stares at me. She looks me up and down. “Ah.” Her eyes squint. “You’re one of the twelve dancing sisters.”

“I have a name.”

She doesn’t ask what it is.

“I used to dance, too,” she says. I look at her peg leg, wondering how. She follows my gaze. “I didn’t always have this.” She reaches out and fingers one of the hanging dancers. “I used to be good.”

“Then you should understand,” I say. “You should understand why we needed to dance.”

“Maybe. But it’s not that simple.”

“Seems simple to me.”

“When you hear about others who have something you lost, sometimes you can’t stand it. Sometimes you’ll say or do something to take it away from them.” She shrugs. “The day the soldier came by, I gave in to bitterness. I’m sorry it affected you so.”

“It was our one joy.”

The washerwoman shrugs again. “Then get your joy back.”

“I can’t. It’s gone.”

The softness in her face hardens to impatience. “Shame. Now would you mind? I have customers.”

I turn to see two young women enter the shop. They wave to the washerwoman. “Morning, Wanda.” They look at me and freeze. The shorter one looks at Wanda, embarrassed. “You didn’t tell us Lady January was a customer of yours.”

I look at my feet. Do all the women in Chiddery know what I look like?

Wanda grunts. “She’s not my customer.”

They ignore her and rush to my side, groveling and admiring my gown. They chatter about the soldier.

“He picked you. Of all twelve, he picked you.”

I glance at the door. “Well, yes, but it was really only because—”

“Oh, don’t be modest. He could have picked any of your sisters. But he picked you.”

They keep giggling. My sisters say I have the most pride of us all. Maybe that explains why I don’t correct these women. Why I let them think he picked me for some virtue I might have, some personality trait, or even beauty, and that there was nothing arbitrary about it.

~

It was dim, the lighting, but we were used to it by then. Entering the tavern was like walking through the woods at dusk: Your eyes strained at first, then adjusted. It was dark, but not so dark that you couldn’t see shapes, figures, illuminations of cheeks and noses and arms. It’s hard to tell who’s who in that lighting. It protected us. No one suspected our nobility.

“He’s watching you,” March said in my ear.

I glanced behind her, at the man—boy, maybe—with reddish hair. He held his ale in one hand and kept his other arm behind his back. He stood with the men who waited for the right level of inebriation before joining the dance. When I met his eyes he looked away, as anyone caught staring would do. It should have discomfited me, this stalking, but it didn’t. It was real. More real than the walls of our bedroom, the pages of our books. He’d spent the last several nights watching me, and I did what I always did. I shrugged and grabbed March’s arms, swinging her until she laughed, and I knew without looking that the men had their eyes on us. That he had his eyes on me. And that, worst of all, it was what I wanted.

Five or fifty dances later, I felt him come up behind me. Not touching at first. Just joining my movements. I caught glimpses of reddish hair but didn’t turn around. His hand found my waist. We danced and I didn’t know if I should let his hand keep running up and down my thighs, but I’d let it the last few nights. Something tingled in me. Was this what it was to be young?

I felt a tap on the shoulder, an arm pulling me away. February. She led me to a corner, laughing. “You’re welcome.”

“For what?”

“Saving you.” She nodded past me. “He was about to eat you up.”

“Oh.”

Someone handed me another drink but I didn’t like the taste. I passed it to April and looked over my shoulder but couldn’t find the reddish hair.

February poked me and pointed to a girl vomiting in the corner. I squinted. December. I should have known better, kept an eye on her. She’d had too much ale. At fourteen she was still the baby. I shoved through the crowd and lifted her, gesturing for my sisters to help. Stumbling but more experienced now, we carried December home, back to our other reality.

~

Dusk’s shadows move across the hills outside the window.

The man with reddish hair is out there, one of those shadows. A shadow of the shadow he was. I kick the wall, and myself, for letting February “save me” all those times. He could have been my way out. We could have gotten to talking. Maybe we would have kissed. Maybe we would have run away together. Maybe he was an artist, or a farmer, or a sailor. Maybe he was a foreigner—I never did hear his accent—and we would have moved to a villa in France or a mountain in Switzerland.

I press my forehead against the cold window glass. Maybe nothing would have happened. Maybe if we’d gotten to talking, I wouldn’t have liked the man with reddish hair, or he wouldn’t have liked me. Maybe he doesn’t even speak English.

Still, it would have been nice to know, just in case. I draw the curtains and turn away from the window. Yes, he’s a shadow now. A shooting star not wished on. A dance not finished.

But my sisters can still finish the dance. It’s not too late for them. I should tell them—make sure they know. It’s important that they know.

The door opens and the soldier walks in. I call him a soldier, but I guess he isn’t one anymore. He cradles his handless arm dramatically.

I try not to roll my eyes. “There’s no need to put on a show. It won’t make me feel sorry for you.” His injury can’t excuse what he’s done, what he’s taken.

He frowns. The lines on his face pronounce themselves, deep with weariness; I pretend not to notice. “I don’t care if you feel sorry for me or not,” he says. “It got me out of the war. That was all I wanted.”

“You wanted to lose your hand?”

“Why else do you think I did it?”

“Did it?” I step back. Of course. All the sympathy he’s gotten from my father, from the townsfolk, from everyone…all of it was stolen. My chest tightens. I laugh. “You’re proud to be a coward, then?”

His eyes snap to meet mine. “You don’t know anything about it.”

“I know it’s one thing to take credit for an old woman’s wisdom. It’s another to cut off your hand to escape duty.”

His cheeks redden. I have never seen passion on his face, not this kind. “It meant freedom.” His voice shakes.

I stand my ground. “How is that freedom?”

He looks at the wall. I think maybe he is not going to speak again. He is surrendering. I win.

He turns to the window. A shadow veils his face. “Have you ever been on a battlefield? Freedom is different for everyone. For an insomniac, it’s sleep. For a prisoner, it’s bail. For a soldier in combat, it’s injury.”

The shadow passes and I think I see a hint of red in his hair. No, it can’t be—I’m imagining things. I blink and it is gone. We stand in silence. I look at his sling. I wonder if I’ve spent too much time thinking about what freedom means for me, for my sisters, for the poor, for the sick—for everyone else but him. I wonder if I’ve been wrong. An amputated hand, a pair of dancing shoes—maybe they can mean the same thing.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

He sighs and pats my arm. “It’s all right.” He’s softened, knowing I’ve softened.

But as I watch him leave the room, the shadow falls back in place, and I wish I hadn’t looked at him like that, like I was sorry. Because he still didn’t bother to ask what freedom means for me.

~

I find Wanda at her tubs, washing a dress. She rolls her eyes as I enter the shop. “Oh. You.”

“Fix this.” I glare at her, my hands in fists. “Do your magic, or witchcraft, or whatever it is.”

She laughs. “Magic’s not in my repertoire. I can clean your linens for a good price, though.”

“Tell me how to get rid of him. Make him go away. You’re the one who helped him trick us. You fix this.”

“Is it really him you’re bitter about? Or your luck?”

“What luck?”

“Being the eldest.”

I blink at her. “Have you been listening? This is about the soldier and my—”

“Doesn’t it all come down to chance? Your odds were eleven to one. Slim, don’t you think?”

“Maybe, but that’s not what I—”

“It was luck that the soldier came into my shop.” She scrubs the dress harder against the washboard. “Luck that he came days after the proclamation. Luck that I saw the wine bottle on my windowsill and it occurred to me: you might think to put something in the men’s wine, to put them to sleep. Luck that the soldier is old, and wanted the eldest. Luck that you were born the eldest. Everything is luck of the draw, don’t you see? Good luck, bad luck, sometimes it’s both. Depends on how you look at it.”

“Enough of your superstitions, witch. Just tell me how you’re going to fix this.”

She sighs and shakes her head.

“Well?”

She stands and hobbles away. She disappears behind a curtain at the back of the shop. I follow her and pull back the curtain. She isn’t there.

I look around the shop. I could trash the place, topple things over, kick barrels onto their sides, smash the ballerinas, but I don’t see what good it would do. I leave, making my way home, back along the road to the manor. Maybe I shouldn’t have called her a witch. Maybe I should have been gentler. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to her at all.

When I reach the gates of the manor, I slow. Something about it looks wrong.

I hurry inside. Servants scurry around me, carrying handfuls of clothes and blankets. I grab a maid’s arm. “What’s happened?”

She looks at me and shrinks. “Oh, I can’t—I can’t be the one to—”

“Has there been a siege? A robbery? What?”

Her mouth quivers. “I’d rather that were it.”

“Tell me.”

She presses her lips together. I seize her shoulders, shaking her.

She starts to cry. “There’s a plague. Swept through Marchen yesterday. Everyone dead. It’ll spread. Your father says we have to flee.”

Marchen. The home of Fitcher’s Tavern.

I let go of her shoulders. “Where are my sisters?”

Her lip trembles again. She looks at the floor. “No one’s seen them since dinner last night.”

I turn away and lurch down the hall. I run until I reach their chamber. I bang my knuckles against the door; the knock echoes stupidly. I push the door open and step into the room. I scan the unmade beds, the nightdresses scattered across the floor. We always left such a mess; we were always in a rush to get to the tavern. But we made sure to clean up when we got back.

For a minute, maybe an hour, I stand there, my fists numb from clenching.

I notice in the silence my heart thumping in my chest. Boasting, bragging, taunting. Eldest, eldest, eldest.

Good luck, bad luck, sometimes it’s both.

I am standing here alive because I am the eldest.

I fly across the room, tripping on clothes and overturning chairs. June said it was under April’s bed, the fourth one. It takes all my strength to push the bed, to pull back the carpet, to lift the door. I descend the steps into the passage.

I can’t see without a candle, but it doesn’t matter. I feel along the tunnel walls. I start to jog. Then run. The tunnel opens up. I feel the village air seizing me, infecting me, contaminating my lungs, closing around my heart. I keep running. I inhale the fumes of burnt slippers, of blackened laces, soles, and corpses, and let them lead me to the place where my sisters wait for me, dancing on.


Christina Elaine Collins is an MFA candidate and teaching fellow at George Mason University. The Jabberwock Review has nominated her Cinderella reimagining, ‘The Last Midnight,’ for the Pushcart Prize, and her other fiction can be found in publications such as Empirical Magazine, Weave Magazine, Otis Nebula, and Status Hat. She was a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts from May to June 2012.