The Glass Town Game
Once, four children called Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell lived all together in a village called Haworth in the very farthest, steepest, highest, northernest bit of England. Their house stood snugly at the very farthest, steepest, highest bit of the village, just behind the church and the crowded graveyard, for their father was the parson. Every Sunday he stood up in the chapel and told the tightly buttoned people of Haworth all about the wonders of a buttoned-up heaven and the dangers of this buttoned-down earth. The four of them were mostly looked after by their Aunt Elizabeth and their maidservant, Tabitha, for a parson has very little time
for children, what with all that worrying about heaven and earth and buttoning, both up and down. But oftener and oftener, they looked after each other, which suited them very well.
Charlotte was the oldest. Her thick hair parted through the center of her skull like a dark sea. She had a round, pale face, a fearsome scowl, and a smile that was slow to come, but worth the wait. Branwell felt quite strongly that just because he was eleven and Charlotte was twelve didn’t mean she could do anything he couldn’t do, or know anything he didn’t know. He had dark eyes and eyelashes and eyebrows and dark, curly hair. When he frowned, which he almost always did, he looked just like a storm cloud come to life. Emily, close behind her brother at ten years old, had ringlets the color of hazelnuts, soft gray eyes, and a wonderful memory. She could remember the tiniest details, like the color of the gloves she wore on the day their mother died. As for Anne, the youngest, she was very nearly the prettiest child in Haworth. Her hair shone almost the same blond as the girls in fancy paintings. Even though she’d only just turned eight, she watched everyone with her wide gray-violet eyes so intently that the whole house felt a little as though she were spying on them, making reports to some invisible spymaster.
There had been more of them, once. They used to be six. Maria and Lizzie, older than Charlotte, with matching fiery brown eyes and red cheeks and big, rolling voices. All the girls but Anne had gone merrily off to school together, but Lizzie and Maria caught matching fiery fevers and what came back in the carriage with poor Emily and poor Charlotte they’d buried in the churchyard. It was too big a thing to hold in their heads all at once, like the idea that the moon was actually a huge cold stone hanging in the lonely dark forever. They knew that was true, but if they tried to go outside and see how vast and empty it really was, they just couldn’t make it feel true. They couldn’t keep something that distant and frightening inside them for more than a minute. They had to go on with living, one foot in front of the other. How could anyone do that knowing something so unfathomably heavy and silent was just hanging above you all the time, with nothing to keep it from plummeting toward you without a bit of warning? All they could face in the night was a few soft beams of moonlight through the window, and the knowledge that they would never be six again.
Most days, the four of them were quite content to play indoors in the room at the top of the stairs. They tried not to cause much trouble for Aunt Elizabeth and
Tabitha and Papa. Causing trouble meant extra chores and early bedtimes with no candles. Still, they could never manage to be completely good. Each of them had a criminal specialty, a particular wickedness they could never resist.
Emily was an expert smuggler. She could burgle the stumps of candles up to their room before Tabitha even noticed they’d burned down low. The very second Papa finished reading an issue of one of his magazines, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the Leeds Intelligencer, or the Quarterly Review, it would vanish from his bedside table in Emily’s hot little hands. She hid bits of seedcake and bread and boiled carrots away in her skirt at supper and fed them secretly to a little gang of birds through the playroom window.
Anne really did spy on nearly everyone. She could sneak and creep and vanish again like a fox in the hedgerows. Her ears were like little soft bear traps lying in wait for any scrap of whisper that floated through the house, and the village, too. She didn’t understand exactly every word gruff grown-ups in brown coats and brown skirts mumbled under their breath. But she always remembered them anyhow so that she could ask Charlotte what compound interest or tuberculosis meant after supper. Secrets great and small stood no chance when Anne was about.
Charlotte could lie better and with a straighter face than any member of Parliament. She knew the truth was important, and honorable, and befitting the daughter of a parson. But whenever anyone asked her the simplest little question, a thousand terribly un-simple, magnificently un-little answers came flooding into her mind, and each of them shone far brighter than the tatty old truth. When Tabitha spoke sternly to her on the subject of stray salt left all over the kitchen and not tidied up in the least, she could have just apologized like a fine, upstanding girl. They’d snuck downstairs to play Polar Exploration and built up proper banks of snow crystals to conquer. But wasn’t it just an awful lot more interesting to tell the maidservant that a star had fallen to earth last night, and walked all the way across the moors without touching the grass, and stars are just beasts for salt, don’t you know? Even if Papa asked her something as tiny and silly as whether or not she had seen his pipe lying about, Charlotte would sometimes tell him she hadn’t when she could see it resting just there, on the left-most bookshelf. She just wanted to see what sort of evening would unfold if she did the unexpected thing.
Branwell, however, had a true genius for badness. He was both a vandal and a brawler. He pinched his sisters whenever he could—it was so glorious to hear them
shriek and see them squirm! He tussled with the neighbor boys, and should a dog ever bite him, he would bite back, every time, and hard. Branwell, when he was not hurling himself at things, had begun to furtively sketch the girls’ faces on the plaster wall of the room at the top of the stairs. He desperately loved to draw, and he had no other models. He had no interest at all in becoming a parson like his father. Branwell would be a great painter. He hadn’t told Papa yet, of course, but he knew it in his kneecaps. He practiced on his sisters because he didn’t like to paint himself. After all, it was a boy’s job to make things—furniture and machines and money and books and governments and art and such. It was a girl’s job to sit still and let someone else make something out of them, and that was that.
Almost all their crimes went to furnish that room at the top of the stairs in high style. It was hardly more than a drafty white closet, nestled like a secret between Papa’s room and Aunt Elizabeth’s. But the four children ruled over it as their sovereign kingdom. They decreed, once and for all, that no person taller than a hat-stand could disturb their territory, on penalty of not being spoken to for a week. The geographical features of their empire were few: a woven green rug, a little matching desk and bookshelf, a slim bed against one wall, and a tall,
narrow window that looked out on a splendid oak tree and down into the churchyard. Of course, none of them slept in that slim bed. The room at the top of the stairs was for better things than snoring. They kept it well-stocked with paper and inkwells and toys and watercolor paints. At the moment, they counted among the subjects of this small and tidy kingdom: Snowflake, Rainbow, and Diamond (a half-blind elderly raven, one-legged sparrow hawk, and motherless baby owl who visited at the window most nights), Jasper the pheasant who could not fly up into the tree but visited all the same, pecking among the roots, and two dusty dolls with lavender bonnets. But the three older children had ignored the dolls for months in favor of their prize possessions: twelve jointed wooden soldiers Papa had given as a Christmas present to his only son. The girls had made a quick end to that. No sooner had Branwell got the box open but his sisters had seized up his troops and named them outlandish things like Crashey and Bravey and Cracky and Sneaky and Gravey and Cheeky and the Duke of Wellington and Rogue and Goody and Naughty and Napoleon Bonaparte and Stumps, shouting with excitement while Bran fumed. Each quickly claimed their favorites for themselves and hoarded them close. Only Anne still loved her doll. Branwell could be bullied out of his soldiers, but Anne
would not be moved on the subject of the ratty old thing with yellow horsehair and green glass eyes.
Charlotte and Branwell’s favorite game was Welly and Boney. Charlotte adored the Duke of Wellington as fiercely as Branwell worshipped Bonaparte. The battle lines were drawn, the playroom nation divided. They knew all about the war with France from Papa’s magazines. But whenever they tried to imagine what a war was actually like, it unfolded in their heads like a cross between a chess game, a horse race, a country dance, and a very racy night at the theater. What they felt absolutely certain about was that, some time ago, a French fellow named Napoleon Bonaparte had crowned himself King of Everything without asking Everything its thoughts on the subject. Then, another, different fellow called the Duke of Wellington, who was English like themselves, boldly, fearlessly, and possibly single-handedly, thumped Bonaparte and whumped him and jumped him until he was King of Nothing Much. Papa still didn’t drink claret wine. He said it was too French to be any good for him. The whole world had once loved playing Welly and Boney, and Branwell and Charlotte did not want to be left out just because they’d gotten born a bit late.
Emily much preferred Polar Exploration, with her wooden men Captains Ross and Parry slashing the
frozen sea in half to find treasure at the bottom. Whenever she touched Parry’s wooden shoulders, ice filled Emily’s mind, ice that went on and on forever and never stopped. It looked so clean to her, like a perfect lace tablecloth. Until her great wild roaring ships tore the lace to pieces, their sails clanging with icicles, their cannons full of fire.
Anne liked stories of Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses best. In her hands, the wooden army became a glittering court full of schemes and intrigue and whispers behind curtains. She read through all of Papa’s magazines very carefully for any smallest mention of the Royal Family. She wanted her games to be so near to real life that she could hear the bells of Westminster in her dreams. Finally, Anne found a perfect playmate, a minor, unimportant young Princess nearly her own age. She named the horsehair doll after the noble child and made her the star of all her imaginings. Of course she was always very respectful and never let Branwell torture or starve the Princess. You had to mind your manners, she knew, when telling unreal stories about real people. Anne did hope the girl wouldn’t be cross at having fantastic tales told about her in Yorkshire. Victoria wasn’t in any danger of inheriting the Crown in real life, after all, and London was so awfully far away. Surely the Princess wouldn’t be bothered by Anne fibbing about her to make
a nice story, as long as it was very nice.
But no matter the game, Branwell insisted on being at the center of it, whether he lurched around as Scurvy, the Vicious Prince of the Arctic Seals, or the wicked Marquis of Douro, out to steal Princess Victoria for his bride, or even as Napoleon himself. As the only boy, Bran knew the burden of being the hero of all their games, and indeed their lives, rested firmly with him. But somehow, his sisters were far too dense to understand this essential truth. He allowed them to touch his things only because he was magnanimous and very kind to those less excellent than himself.
Just lately, however, Crashey and Bravey and Welly and Boney and Ross and Parry and the boys had not fought quite so valiantly as they used to. Something about Gravey and Rogue’s wooden caps and delicately carved rifles seemed to droop and sigh. The brave wooden lads lay in every which position, snoozing against the narrow windowsill, routed on the battlefield of the bed, hiding in terror behind a fortification of stacked books. Branwell’s drawings suffered, as well. He could not get Anne’s hair to curl the right way anymore, and Emily’s nose simply would not nose. Now, whenever Emily tried to imagine the Arctic Circle, she could only see the flat, unbroken ice groaning on into forever, and no grand ship would
come to shatter it. Anne’s little wooden kingdom got rather stable and boring. She couldn’t even coax Douro into sticking his dagger into one rival Lord. Even Charlotte’s lovely handwriting melted into a sad little scrawl. Tabitha always said Charlotte wrote just as pretty as King George and twice as clear. But now, you could not tell her capitals from a chimney sweep’s swipe.
“It’s on account of the Beastliest Day,” whispered Anne to her brother. Her eyes widened to hold the tears that trembled in her lashes. “It’s so close now!”
“I know, Annie, I know,” sighed Branwell, licking the tip of his best drawing pencil. “But if we say its name it’ll only come faster. Now hold still. I’ve almost got your hands looking like hands again and not paws.”
The Beastliest Day hung like gray, wet curtains over the Parsonage. Even the grown-ups couldn’t pretend everything was perfectly all right, and it’s practically a grown-up’s job to pretend everything is perfectly all right. But Charlotte and Emily would not allow one word on the subject. If Branwell or Anne so much as took a breath to speak of it, Emily would only say: Hush. We’re together now and now is all that matters. And Charlotte would say: None of that. We’ve just got to stick as close as we can while we still have the chance, and soak up that close like a washcloth.
One rare evening, Papa and Aunt Elizabeth and Tabitha sat in the red-rugged parlor by the fire, going about their mystifying old-people games: knitting, sewing, and tidying the books. Anne had only recently come to understand that tidying the books didn’t mean Papa sat in his big cocoa-colored chair in the night dusting up the corners in Mr. Coleridge’s poetry or soaping down the fairies in Mr. Shakespeare’s plays, but something or other to do with money and making more of it come in than go out.
Aunt Elizabeth held up a lace shawl to the firelight. The pattern was so fine it looked like the flames themselves. Emily gave a strangled little sigh of envy. Aunt Elizabeth had such a clever hand with everything. She could make a dirty old piece of string into a ball gown if she had a mind to. Emily could hardly manage socks without help with the blasted heel. But she immediately regretted making any noise at all. The girls had become so sullen lately that Aunt Elizabeth seized upon her niece’s sigh as a rare sign of life and ran off into the hedges with that sigh in her pocket. She patted Emily’s head and dove straight into the Forbidden Topic without warning.
“It’s for you to take with you, my darling. It really won’t be so terrible, you know . . . ”
Emily froze. Charlotte’s head snapped up from her book. The girls’ glares burned so fiercely Branwell turned away, feeling his own cheeks go an unseemly red.
“Don’t you dare say that,” Charlotte hissed. “Or Maria and Lizzie will come up out of the ground and show you just how wrong you are.”
Aunt Elizabeth’s face drained of color. A tiny yelp escaped Anne’s throat. They weren’t to use those names in the house! Charlotte said. And if you didn’t do what Charlotte said the sun would fall out of the sky and the river would turn black and the moors would catch on fire.
Tabitha folded her spectacles sternly and laid them in her lap as she usually did before telling one of her ripping stories of goblins on the Yorkshire moors. But this time, she didn’t say anything about Ginny Greenteeth pulling wicked children down into her green dungeon under the River Nidd.
“We must all suffer through dreadful things in this wicked world, poor duckies. But . . .” The blue-eyed maid started to say: when we come out the other end we’re always the stronger for’t, but she couldn’t quite believe in it. She started again: but the good Lord never lets us draw a card we can’t play, but caught herself, and thought better of talking cards in front of the Master. Finally, she tried: but now’t’s so beastly as we dream it in the dark, but even that
left a bad taste in her mouth. She couldn’t lie to little ones. It was a weakness in her, she knew.
“But what, Miss Tabby?” chirped Anne. Tabitha felt certain, as she so often did, that the child knew her exact thoughts just as plain as a picture.
“Yes,” Emily said coldly. “But what?”
The twisted, furious expression on Emily’s dear face withered up her words. Tabitha flushed shamefully, put her glasses back on, and squinted at her embroidery.
Papa felt instinctively that he was losing control over his parlor. “I’ll have none of this back-talking,” he grumbled from behind a formidable mask of gray beard, spectacles, and soft evening cap. “You are my daughters and you will do as you are told. The books can’t bear all four of you eating your way through Yorkshire and half of Scotland. And a country parson’s daughters will tempt few husbands of real substance. If only we’d had more boys!” His craggy, half-handsome face softened. “I have prayed for a better fate than this, poppets. And I shall keep praying, every night and day. God gives us only a few choices in this life, but He always looks after us, in His way. Now, no more long faces! Mind your Bees and it’ll all come out right enough. Do you remember your Bees?”
The children looked round at one another. Papa
never did the Bees. It was Mama’s little saying she’d made up all by herself for her babies. She would tell them sternly to repeat after her and then make marvelous buzzing noises against their cheeks like a whole hive of bumblebees until they couldn’t breathe for laughing. They kept saying it long after she was gone, when they couldn’t sleep for worry or sorrow or cold. But there were fewer bees now. They’d retired Maria and Lizzie’s parts. It seemed only right, after everything.
“Buck up,” whispered Charlotte, weeping softly into her book.
“Be brave,” whispered Emily, clutching her sister’s hand.
This was where Maria would say: button your coat! And Lizzie would chime in: buckle your soul! But they didn’t, because they couldn’t.
“Busy hands,” mumbled Branwell, pressing the sharp end of his pencil miserably into his thumb.
“Make bright hearts,” finished Anne, as somber as the rest, even though she didn’t remember Mama at all, except for a fuzzy, buzzy idea of something soft and warm and sweet and safe, with big dark eyes and hair as long as forever.
January came with an awful suddenness. All the holiday things had been put neatly away and the serious business
of the year pressed hard against the house at the top of the hill. All the long week before, it had rained mercilessly, until the whole world seemed made of nothing but mud puddles and the only folk still living in it a few half-drowned field mice and badgers with stuffed-up noses. All week long, Charlotte and Emily had stared mournfully out the window of the room at the top of the stairs, hoping the whole world would just drown itself and leave them alone at the helm of their house, which they would steer and sail like Noah’s old yacht. They had gotten quite a ways into a very sober listing of Which Animals They Should Like to Save and Which to Leave Owing to Being Crawly or Otherwise Horrid. All week long, Branwell and Anne had talked of nothing but What We Shall Do When the Rain Stops. For surely the rain couldn’t last all the way up to the Beastliest Day. It just couldn’t. The world wouldn’t do that to them.
But when, at last, the rain ran away down to London to bother the bankers and the barons instead, their time had run out.
The Beastliest Day was upon them.