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The kids and I caught a pigeon in the city once. It was grey, with a faint sheen on its feathers resembling the residue of bubble liquid, all fluorescent with rainbows. It blinked its emerald eyes and swiveled its little neck from side to side, probably wondering if we were in possession of some kind of food.
My brother held the bird in his hands. Its swollen body seemed too big for his small fingers, an overwhelming mass of pigeon crammed between two tiny clasps, and fat mounds of silvery feathers poured from the cracks between skin.
We caught it in the lonely, witchy district that I will call Lightbulb Town, for the time being. The fat bird had been sitting outside of one of the many apothecary shops, a cracked onyx necklace in its beak, washed in a patch of bronzy sunlight. Anne raced towards it, her little shoes clapping on the pavement.
“Oh, look!” said Hiemell. “They have candies!”
She was pointing to the little witches’ brew place just beside the corner where the pigeon sat, munching on its onyx.
“Perhaps, do you think the pigeon could choke?” Anne asked me, running up. “Oh, Wren, dearest, do save the poor thing!”
“Shora, Beatrix, take the little ones into the shop. Here’s a pence for each of you,” I said. The coins glittered in the waxy light.
The other children skipped happily up the porch and were soon buried in the sweet-smelling air of the little shack before us. Anne gazed up at me with eyes the color of tropical ocean water. Not that I knew anything of what the tropics looked like, except for descriptions in books; I had never been to the ocean.
As quietly as I could manage, I tiptoed towards the bird, wondering how this could possibly work. I called to mind the images of all the quiet brown mice that scurried around our English manor every night, silent as the trees and grass outside, willing myself to be silent. The grey sky seemed to frown its disbelief down upon us.
The pigeon appeared to be drunk or blind, however, for it did not move a feather when I knelt down and slowly pulled the jewels away from its beak. “Wherever did you find this, bird?” I asked it.
The eyes of little Hiemell peered up at me. “Aren’t you supposed to be in the shoppe?” I said, noticing him, irritated.
“Pij,” he said, and got right down on his knees. My hands weakened at the thought of all the scrubbing it would take to get the filthy London dirt off of his knickers. He, however, was enthralled. Without a second thought, he wrapped both tiny hands around the engorged bird and lifted it straight up. The pigeon did not seem surprised. I imagined that it had seen much greater heights than the one it was held to now during its flight. Maybe it had even seen the ocean.
“Come on, ‘Mel, Anne,” I said. “We must make sure that your sisters and brothers haven’t yet eaten all the rock candy in this shop.” The twins, with their coal-black hair and warm, greenish-blue eyes, both latched on to my skirts as I made my way into the dirty store.
“Shora? Where are the other children?”
Shora turned to me with glazed eyes. She had always been a strange child. Only four years my junior, she seemed a completely different species from the human race I knew, with her endlessly long, wispy yellow hair and her bottomless grey eyes. Her dress, hand-kitted from the faded flowered curtains that had hung in the attic for years until I finally called the handyman, hung loosely around her skeletal frame, and her eyes were hollow.
“Four, five, six, seven, eight, all their souls Borsel will take.” Her voice was windy.
“Shora,” I said firmly, my patience fraying. “Now is not the time. Where are the children?”
There was a tumbling sound, and the closet door swung open. A coughing, dusty Beatrix, her ebony hair all out of its braid, collapsed onto the floor. Tangled ropes hung loosely around her wrists. Fresh tears made tracks in the clouds of dirt on her face.
As if on cue, a deep cello note of fear seemed to scrape across my stomach. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I tried to stop them.”
“I was only out for a second!” I cried. “Children, is this a trick? Come out at once! You all are definitely not getting any candies now!”
“Where’s Leno?” Beatrix howled breathlessly. She crawled on her hands and knees over to Anne and Hiemell, who both still held fast to my skirts. Throwing her arms around them, her eyes blurred with tears, but her lips were contorted with a feral rage. “They won’t take you two. They won’t.”
“Who is they?” I screamed, looking around the shop. It appeared to be completely empty, except for a few colored bottles of liquid on the window. The floor was filthy.
“Shora, where is Leno?” Beatrix pleaded, looking up at her indifferent sister.
Shora looked at both of us very slowly, her eyes like fog, and drifted dreamily towards the wall. With a slight pull, she unearthed a hidden door that my eyes had completely missed. Out tumbled Leno’s dark form.
I raced over to him as quickly as I could. He was obviously trying to stop the tears. His body shook. “I went after them as best I could, Wren,” he sobbed.
“Four, five, six, seven, eight, all their souls Borsel will take.” Shora’s voice was growing more urgent with each syllable she spoke, hoarser, a seething growl.
“Leno! There’s blood on your forehead!” I gasped, racing over to him as I felt the puzzle pieces of the world shattering around me. He winced with pain as I ran a finger over the dark, bleeding gash that I now realized ran from the side of his ear to the edge of his cheek.
“Bella, get Hiemell and Anne out, now,” I said. The pigeon looked at me with emerald eyes, clamped between Hiemell’s ruddy fingertips. Bellatrix’s face flushed deeply; sweat glinted from her forehead.
“It was so horrible,” she said, darkness in her eyes, as she tumbled out the door.
Leno and I threw our arms around each other the second she had disappeared. His warmth seeped quickly into my skin, which just a second ago had been frozen with fear. Hot blood from his cheek stained the fringes of my hair. Our relationship had to remain a secret; otherwise, I would undoubtably be fired. Leno’s rich parents would not want their eldest son marrying the lowly nanny. Shora was the only one who knew, since she was nearly omnipresent throughout the house, and entirely inescapable, but the girl was practically an oasis of secrets; she would never tell.
When we finally broke apart, I wiped blood from the corner of my eye. Leno was still shaking. I could feel the pain coursing through his hands. “Leno, what happened?”
He struggled to find the words. “A blue man...” he said, motioning before him. Just the sight of his shaking hands, strong and able, sent tingles down my spine. “A shadow-man of sorts came. He threw Bellatrix in the closet first, and ignored Shora and me. He grabbed the children, all of them, Wren - he took Loula, Brier, Corsey, and Dhommas; all of them, the littlest ones. I followed him - it -out into the back, and then all I could see was a snowy field, looking vaguely familiar, but it definitely wasn’t London, and the thing, carrying the babies, was plundering into the distance. Flying shards of ice hit my face; that’s what cut me. Then the blue man disappeared, and I was in a closest and there was this tear on my face. I tried to save them, but I couldn’t.”
Wretchedly, I turned to Shora. “What did you see, Shora?” I said. “What do you know?”
“Four, five, six, seven, eight. All their souls... Borsel will take.”
“Who is Borsel?” I asked, walking closer to her, pleading.
She looked at me, her eyes like silver wire. “Thief,” she said. “Magician. Piper.”
“So you’re telling me there really was a blue man, and the children are gone,” I said, my voice a cry. “Where did he take them?”
“Silver field of snow and ice, blood and souls, the sacrifice.”
“Why is she speaking in rhymes? Help me, Leno,” I said raggedly. The seams of my world were coming apart.
Leno crumpled to the floor. The blood had reached the edge of his white shirt.
In desperation, I ran to the window. Behind the vials of purple, blue, and green glass, thick clots of spiderwebs grew. I snatched up a handful of them, and raced over to him, plastering the webs onto his face. The glistening strands soaked up some of the blood racing from his open flesh. I hoped it would be enough to save him.
I ran for hours that night throughout the city. I must have plundered every shop in Lightbulb Town, and it is a strange town, believe me. If you ever find yourself in the darkness of the streets of Victorian London, never visit this place. There are strange potions and dark, illegal knowledge floating around the shabby roofs of the eldritch shacks.
Since that awful, dreary day, Leno’s memory has faded, but he sticks to his tale of a snowy place. Hiemell and Anne, the only surviving young children, have grown to be bizarre and warped, close to mindless with insanity. Bellatrix took her grief and confusion out in fury, growing to become a fat, matronly wife who carried a rolling pin, freshly covered with flower, for beatings. I myself have traveled to Alaska, Antarctica, and Norway - to all the distant, snowy crevices of the earth, looking for the four children I have lost. Loula, Brier, Corsey, and Dhommas, little children, all of their souls stolen by some blue man of sorts, by something that I will never know the truth of. Shora continues to speak in couplets.
Was it a gypsy that carted off the children? Was it some evil spirit? I will possibly never unearth the answer. Allowing those children to run off was my greatest flaw. I have seen so much snow that my eyes are blinded with white. I have searched caves beneath the northern lights, and I have stood bare-handed in the middle of a blizzard, praying to hear the cries of stolen children, knowing the impossibility of it all. And pigeons follow me everywhere, always.