I’ve posted a couple of these before already, deleted scenes that never made it into the book. But they’re necessary, always necessary in laying out the details of a character’s background, a bit of history that never makes it into the current events of the book, but needs to exist to shape everyone and everything in the world trapped inside said book.
And so today I bring you another deleted scene, from the childhood of my main protagonist, Dorothea Hawes. If you’d like to read the other deleted scenes I’ve posted so far, you can find them here and here.
I hope you enjoy.
The matron’s woolen dress smelled of perpetual damp, the fumes only growing stronger when she stood quite near a fire or any other source of heat. The heavy skirt, darkened with dirt and moisture near the hem, swished across the wood floor, caught on the edges of the threadbare rugs, and knocked the occasional chair off balance. But when she stood over your shoulder, the rough weave of the wool scratched your arm, and you thought of nothing but brushing it off like you would an irritating insect. But you could not, and so you remained still, with the old woman breathing down your neck, her bones creaking in time with the slow, steady cadence of your words.
And when you faltered, she only hit your back with the flat of her hand, your spine straightening, sometimes even arching away from her touch. It was never a forceful strike, nothing meant to cause you pain, but simply a reminder that she was there, that she was behind you, beside you, watching, listening to the Word of God as recited by your tongue. It became clear to your mind, quite soon after your arrival, that she never touched you but to hit you, and that this same queerness of behavior followed true with her treatment of all the other girls. And there were so many of them now, enough girls to fill every bed, so that you fell asleep every night to the sounds of breathing and bare feet kicking at thin blankets.
As soon as you finished reading, the book passed to the next girl, and then the next, until the entire lesson had been read. One of the other matrons spoke then, telling you to go to your rooms, and the lights were put out behind you, darkness filling your wake as the footsteps of fifty girls shuffled up the stairs to the dormitories.
There was some light from the moon, casting shadows on the wall as you stepped out of your dress and took care to hang it on the peg beside your bed. The nightgown was cold, and you shivered as the stiff fabric slid across your arms, over your back, but it did little to prepare you for the cold of the blanket that you tugged up to your chin, over your mouth, just high enough so you wouldn’t have to see the pale cloud of steam escape from your lips every time you exhaled.
One by one, the girls around you fell asleep. Better to sleep than to suffer through the cold, and you wished that sleep would come to you, but it never did, leastways not until the ephemeral light of dawn colored the windows, and then only a few minutes of rest were your before the bells began to ring, another day called to life with the sound of shuffling feet, this time tramping down the stairs, on their way to breakfast.
The sleep itself was not what frightened you. It was the dreams, the visions that flashed before your eyes, always right there, yet always just out of reach. And the voices were louder then, because you didn’t have the strength to fight against them or to shut them out. And knowing this, they taunted you, telling you things you never wished to know. And in the morning, when the ringing of the bells pushed that other ringing out of your mind, you only felt more tired than the night before, the look on your face prompting a few of the other girls to ask if you were unwell. But you told them that you were fine, and then you washed your face, and rebraided your hair, pinning it close to your head before covering it with the stiff white cap.
Another day of lessons then, of basic reading and writing, and then hours of sewing, or in your case, because your stitching had never been fine, of untangling bits of thread and yarn for the others to use. The work was dull, numbing to both body and mind, and you sat with your eyes narrowed, your back bent over the task, and when the lights dimmed, the work was brought nearer to your face, until your eyes were mere slits, the red reaching in from the corners, stinging until you had no choice but to wipe the tears away with the back of your hand.
Night came again, overtaking you before you were aware of it, the bells ringing again, and you fell into step behind the other girls, while being pushed up the stairs by the dozen or so girls behind you. Another night, your dress hanging on the peg, and the exhaustion swept over you and around you until the dreams pressed in again, the voices attacking with greater precision, never trying at the same place twice, but always searching for a weak point. And when they found it, they slipped inside, only you couldn’t battle them in your sleep. One voice in particular was more familiar than the others, yet it spoke softly to you then, almost lulling you into a deeper slumber, one that threatened to smother you with its offer of comfort.
The screaming didn’t wake you. Your throat was already sore from it, as if you’d been crying out for some time, and when you finally opened your eyes, you saw the other girls in the dormitory, all of them crowding away from you, pressed against their own beds, against the walls, a few of them running out the door, nearly falling down the stairs in their haste to escape.
One of the matrons appeared a few moments later, still in her nightdress. You remember the look on her face, the horror that flashed in her eyes, and it was then that you noticed the placement of the other beds in the room, all of them far away from your own, as if they’d been swept toward the walls with a great hand, and only your bed still sat untouched in its original position.
Gathering herself, the matron staggered forward, her hands on your shoulders, gripping them, shaking until the screaming stopped, and you gasped for breath, unaware before that moment that you had almost fainted from lack of air. She struck your cheek and called you a stupid girl, a monster, and as she spoke, the soft, familiar voice echoed the same thought in your ear. Only you were much more inclined to believe him above all others.