A maid gently lays out a dress almost as red as the girls hair, the fringe a simple yet pleasant white lace. She hummed softly as she picks up a brush to work through the squirming child’s hair, chuckling to herself at how obvious it was the girl was attempting to be on better behavior than she usually was. On most days, she was up and out of the house by the time the sun rose, slipping past any well meaning maid that tried to stop her. It was long ago now that they mostly gave up on the idea, letting her roam through the garden with the childlike wonder that many of them wished they still had, and which some of the more bitter of the staff had never known.
The girl let out a squeak of a complaint as the maid worked through a particularly rough tangle — even though she had just washed the girl clean there was still the occasional twig or leaf hidden in the mild curls. She looked up at the maid through the mirror, a look of childish suffering on her face.
“Just about done, my lady,” the maid only needed to fix the lace bow that went with the dress into her hair, smiling back at the girl in the mirror as she began to deftly braid part of her hair into the bundle of hair that flowed down. “You look beautiful, just like your mother.” The girl blushed deeply and smiled with a pleased look, one the maid expected as being compared to girls mother was a compliment to anyone. The Lady Cordelia was the picture of elegance and grace, though her odd mannerisms kept the staff on their toes more often than not.
As they finished up, the girl patted her dress as if to dust it off — a habit of hers from spending the majority of her time rolling around in the dirt — and looked up at the maid to mouth the words, “thank you.” The maid faltered before smiling back, the barest of hesitations reminding the girl that as kind as any of the maids were to her, her faults could not be hidden.
At the age of seven (and a half), Poppy Brookewood had never once in her life spoken a word out loud. She had been seen by many doctors of many specialties, and yet none could discern the cause. It appeared to be some kind of psychological block but the child otherwise had seemingly no mental disadvantages and was just as smart, if not actually ahead in her studies, as any child her age.
She could hold a pen fine, and she could write plenty good too. Poppy had no problems getting words and meanings across when needed, sometimes even just a look could convey a request to the staff. Any child her age without the gift of the spoken word, however, would never be seen as anything other than daft regardless of the kindness those around her showed.
The maids gossiped, as anyone would, and so Poppy knew the ramifications of her inability to communicate. Her father, though kind when they happened to meet, had long since taken to avoiding her. She knew, even at her age, that he did not want her to see his shame in her. He did not want to see the hopeful look in his eyes every time she opened her mouth and he certainly did not want her to see that hopeful look die when nothing came out.
A hand rubbed her back encouragingly as the maid startled her out of her thoughts. She gripped her hand, clearing her mind of things she could not change as the maid lead her down the stairs and to the foyer where her mother waited in a matching dress. Upon seeing her, Poppy ran toward her with a bounce in her step — Cordelia caught the girl, picking her up and spinning her in the air before hugging her to her body.
“There you are, my darling!” She laughed, her smile infectious. “You look absolutely stunning today my dear — you didn’t give Miss Caroline any trouble did you?” Instead of waiting for an affirmation from Poppy, Cordelia looked over at the maid who had served the Brookewood family since before Poppy had been born. She gave a pleasant nod, agreeing that Poppy had been on her best behavior.
Around her mother, Poppy never worried about not being able to speak. Cordelia, always the life of the party, spoke enough for both of them and always seemed to know what Poppy wished to say. They had conversations, though not of the traditional sense, but conversations nonetheless.
She gazed up at her mother and with that same uncanny ability of seeming to know what was on her mind after setting her down gently, affirmed the question that she held in her eyes. “We will be headed to the meadow today, Caroline.” She addressed the maid, asking her to prepare some light sandwiches before they were to head out.
Caroline had a disapproving look on her face, as most of the older maids did whenever venturing out to the wood beyond the estate was on the agenda. There were ghost tales aplenty of the forest spanning out to generations before Poppy’s birth. “It is a right place to be afraid of,” Caroline had told her once, “many of our parents lost loved ones to that cursed forest.” But it had only been a place of happiness for Poppy, a place her mother would tell her stories of her youth and make her crowns of flowers, flowers she was never allowed to bring back to the estate for one reason or another.
The butler, a surly man who generally gave her the same pitiful expression every time he saw her, was the one who handed them the basket for their outing a few minutes later. Poppy looked around for Caroline but the hard look on her mother’s face distracted her — “Simon,” she greeted, “I suppose you have something to say?”
“My lady,” he said, almost as if admonishing a child of Poppy’s age instead a woman of many more years. “Lord Hector has asked that I remind you your … dalliances through the forest are improper and unsafe. Especially for the young miss.”
Cordelia bristled at that last sentence, though the words leading up to that had barely affected her. “Lord Hector knows that I would never let any harm come to our daughter. And I do believe that as improper as my husband thinks a simple picnic is ultimately I am the lady of this land. Is that not correct, Simon?”
Simon sighed, and it wasn’t until he stepped to the side that Poppy realized that he had been trying to block their way. She’d never heard her father say he didn’t want them entering the forest, but it wasn’t an uncommon lecture of Simon’s to have them part with. Though, upon reflecting on it, her father and mother never had much conversation in front of her so perhaps it was one of those ‘adult talks’ they would ask her to leave and play while they had.
She wished dearly she could ask her mother to explain these things to her, but it wasn’t long until the two of them were at the edge of the forest and the worries of trouble were out of her mind without another thought.
Poppy grabbed her mothers hand, pulling her forward with excitement — she loved their visits to the forest, it was their time together away from the stuffy air of the estate and she knew her mother loved it just as much as she did, loved the magic on the wind and the wonders that she showed her one by one.
And so, when her mother stopped walking just beyond the trees and would not allow her to pull her any further, Poppy was confused. Cordelia stood, staring straight ahead as if looking through the forest, past it to some other place that Poppy could not see. The look on her face was a distraught one but only momentarily before she took a steadying breath and pulled Poppy backwards.
“Not today, my love. Not today.”