Authors: Julie Berry
The Amaranth Enchantment
For Jack, for Plum, and always, for Phil
Immortal amarant, a flower which once
In Paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man's offence
To Heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows, And flowers aloft shading the fount of life, And where the river of bliss through midst of Heaven Rolls o'er Elysian flowers her amber stream; With these that never fade the Spirits elect Bind their resplendent locks.
--Milton, Paradise Lost, iii, 353-361
I sit on a velvet stool at Mama's feet, watching her brush her hair.
I don't like brushing my hair. Nurse yanks the snarls, and it hurts. But when Mama brushes hers with slow, smooth strokes, it spills like chocolate over her milk white shoulders.
Nurse wants to put me to bed, but Mama is going to a ball tonight, and she says I can stay up to watch her get ready. I am five years old.
Mama flicks her hair toward me like a horse's tail. It tickles my face. Anna, her maid, wrestles with her heavy hair the way Cook battles with brown bread dough. I play with Mama's tin of lilac-scented powder and wait for Anna to finish weaving in strands of tiny pearls.
At last Mama turns to me. "Well?"
"You look like a fairy queen," I say.
She smiles. "Then you're my pixie."
Papa comes in and fastens the clasp of Mama's necklace. A net 2
of emeralds and gold unfolds at her throat. Papa kisses her neck, then stands back to admire her. Mama brushes the stones with her fingertips.
"Someday, Lucinda," she says, "these jewels will all be yours."
"I already have some," I say, pointing to a gold charm bracelet around my wrist.
They smile, kiss me, and hurry down the hall, warning me to be good for Nurse.
Papa, so tall and handsome. Mama, sparkling and trailing perfume.
They leave for the ball.
But they never come back.
I was sweeping the shop when a glimmer between two floorboards caught my eye.
A penny? I knelt for a closer look.
With a fingernail I pried out a grimy length of delicate chain. I rubbed it between my fingers. Gold! I tugged until it popped loose, then moved to the window for better light.
My heart beat faster. Just a short length of kinked chain, broken in the middle. Near the clasp, clotted with dust, was a tiny pendant. I bit my lip and polished the dirt away.
I knew it, even after ten years. A golden rose enameled red. My eyes misted over.
Aunt appeared at my side. "What's that you got there?" I closed my fingers over the bracelet.
"It's mine," I said. "From when I was little. I just found it in the floorboards."
She held out a hand. "Give it to me."
Oh, why didn't I think to conceal it from her? "It's mine! My parents gave it to me."
She paid no heed, but pried my fingers apart and snatched the bracelet. She
dangled it in front of her nose. I watched, fuming. Could she never let me have something of my own, even something so small as a happy memory?
"Shoddy work," she pronounced. "I'd have thought your parents could have afforded better. Still," she dropped it into her pocket, "it'll clean up enough to sell when Ernest repairs it."'
I knew what would come of it, but I was too angry to care. "That bracelet belongs to me," I said. "You can't have it." Aunt took a step closer.
"Listen here, my girl," she said. "Nothing belongs to you. This trinket," she patted her pocket, "is a tiny payment on all you owe us for your keep. Seems you need a reminder of that."'
Next would come the wallop. I braced myself.
The bell on the door jingled, and Aunt froze. In a wink she had on her storefront smile, and the hand that was about to slap me was patting my shoulder. Harder than necessary.
A woman entered the shop. She was tall and slim and dressed in a gray cloak with a hood that hid most of her pale face. The wind swirled around her as she entered, even for a moment after the door shut.
"How may I assist you, Madam?" Aunt said in her customer voice as she slid back behind the counter. I jabbed at the corner with my broom.
The woman approached Aunt.
"I am in somewhat of a hurry." Her speech was refined, with an accent I couldn't label. "I need a new setting for this." She opened her hand.
Aunt sucked in her breath. In spite of myself I edged toward the counter for a better look.
In the woman's smooth palm lay the largest gem I'd seen in ten years of hovering around Uncle's goldsmith's shop. It was perfectly round and smooth, about the size of a walnut, and milky white, though its surface glinted with reflected colors.
People just didn't bring gems like that into Montescue's Goldsmithy. Aunt's eyes bulged.
"Is it a pearl?" I asked.
The lady turned her gaze my way. She blinked as if startled.
Aunt hissed through her teeth at me, then favored her customer with an oily smile. "Pardon our servant," she said, her voice dripping like honey. "She's an ignorant, presumptuous girl who forgets her place."
As if I could forget my miserable place.
The woman studied me up and down. Was I dirty? I brushed off my apron.
"I see," she said. She turned to Aunt. "Can you create a 6
new setting for this so I may wear it on a chain as before?"
"Certainly," Aunt said. "Although... how shall I say... this is an unusual piece. So splendidly large! The amount of gold it will take, and the challenge of setting a round stone without facets..." She coughed lightly.
The woman pulled a purse from within her cloak and poured out a pile of gold pieces on the counter. "I am prepared to pay whatever is needed."
Aunt's eyes gleamed as she watched the woman scoop the coins back into her purse. "We are most gratified, Madam, that you have entrusted Montescue's with this precious ornament! I assure you, no detail will be spared." She smiled the closed-lip smile that hid her terrible teeth. "If you'll just sign your name and address in our book, we'll contact you when the setting is finished."
She pushed the red leather volume toward the lady, who dipped the pen in the ink and wrote.
Aunt made a show of squinting at the writing. "I've forgotten my spectacles.
What is your name, Madam?" Aunt did not own spectacles, nor could she read.
"Beryl," the woman said, her hand on the door.
No surname, I noticed. Strange. She looked at me again, which gave me a curious, goose-pimply feeling, as if she could read my thoughts.
For the first time, I noticed her eyes. They gave me a pang, they were so lovely, wide and deep and long lashed.
Like something I might have seen once in a dream of a guardian angel. I had to force myself not to stare.
To Aunt, the woman said, "If you'll pardon the question, I am in need of a servant. I would gladly rid you of this 'presumptuous' girl and take her in hand myself."
Aunt's gracious-for-customers face curdled. She blinked rapidly.
Take me in hand? I wasn't a dog in need of training. Servant to a wealthy lady? My parents had such servants once. If my parents were still alive, I'd have a lady's maid myself right now.
But they weren't, and I didn't.
It seemed likely this Beryl would feed me and unlikely she'd beat me. If she did slap, slim as she was, her wallops shouldn't sting so much as Aunt's. I nearly let myself hope.
Beryl continued. "I would offer a fee for your inconvenience, to help find a replacement."
She really wanted me. Whatever for?
Aunt's mouth opened and shut. I wanted to laugh. I could practically see the wheels spinning in her head. What to say now? That they couldn't get on without me? That I wasn't, in fact, a servant but unpaid almost-kin? That they couldn't afford to hire a paid servant? But she wouldn't dare offend the lady.
Perhaps she would sell me. And how would that feel?
As of this moment, just fine.
Aunt wasn't my real aunt, nor Uncle Ernest my uncle, 8
though once he was, back when he was married to my mother's sister, Evangeline, who died. Evidently I took after Evangeline in face, which didn't help my cause with Aunt. Since my parents died and Uncle took me in, she had soothed her itch by tormenting me daily. But there we were, until I saw my way clear to supporting myself.
Such as by finding employment as a servant. Why not? At fifteen, I was ready.
I looked up at Beryl and Aunt, who were still locked in a staring match.
Beryl spoke before Aunt could answer. "I apologize. It was presumptuous of me to ask. We'll say no more about it." And with a small bow, she withdrew and shut the door. Thunk went the door against the jamb, and goof went my little flicker of hope.
I watched the woman's back disappear down the street. "Is she gone?" Aunt asked, breathless. I nodded. "Ernest!" she shrilled, grabbing the gem and running toward the stairs. She halted in the doorway and turned.
I looked down. I'd hoped she had forgotten.
Aunt closed the distance between us in two steps and clouted my ears.
"That's for speaking out of turn," she said, and slap. "That's for making eyes at her so she'd want you. As if anybody would. A fine spectacle you made of yourself. And this"--slap, slap--"is for crossing me over this insignificant rubbish."
Meaning my bracelet.
She turned and vanished through the doorway to the kitchen and on up the stairs.
At least she'd gotten both sides evenly. I rubbed my ears. They felt hot.
I let a couple of tears fall. Not for the slaps. She couldn't hurt me there. I cried for the bracelet, and for Mama and Papa, and for the friendless days on end that I'd spent in this wretched shop without being able to recall their faces. The bracelet had given me a fleeting memory, sweet as candy, until she snatched it away.
No, not quite friendless. Uncle was kind, in his way. But he couldn't shield me from Aunt's spite--no more than he could shield himself.
I wiped my eyes and rubbed my face and put my sorrows back where they belonged.
In the rare moments such as these when I was alone in the shop, I liked to pretend it was mine. I took my rag and stood behind the counter, polishing its glass surface. Inside, on red velvet faded to brown, sat the few forlorn little ornaments that Uncle kept for sale. Mostly he did goldsmithing work to order, repairing belt buckles and hair clips for folks who came in, but he kept a scant inventory of dusty, outmoded pieces. The days when Montescue's was a fashionable, prosperous jewelry store were gone.
There was one piece I loved, a garnet ring. Easily the finest piece we had, if only a garnet. Sometimes Uncle let me slip it on when Aunt was out. I rubbed out a smudge
in the glass over where it stood in state among the other tawdry trinkets, and dreamed it was my own.
The bell tinkled. Twice in one morning! I looked up.
A handsomely dressed young man came in looking bewildered, as if he'd taken the wrong turn on Jericho Street. He consulted a card in his hand. At the sight of the shabby store his face fell, but he entered anyway, apparently determined to make the best of it. Twice he looked over his shoulder and out the window, as if hoping to avoid being seen.
When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he noticed me for the first time and smiled.
I stared and forgot to curtsy. Underneath his broad-brimmed hat, his features were so noble and fine, he looked like he'd swallowed the sun for breakfast.
He approached the counter. "Good day," he said. "I'm hoping you can help me find something very special." He smiled, showing his dimples.
I couldn't resist. "How special?" Was I being coy with a customer?
He dimpled even more. "Very special. A gift for a lady, as it happens."
Ask a foolish question, Lucinda.
"Something unusual, something that says..." He gazed upward, gesturing melodramatically, "... forever."
Twang went my heartstrings. Forever. Even if I wasn't the lady in question, I was charmed, and not just by his
unnerving beauty. There was more to his eyes than sparkle--something pure and hopeful, like a boy picking flowers for his mother. It made me trust him right down to my toenails.
"A gift that says 'forever,'" I repeated slowly. "Well, the goldsmith could engrave the word 'forever' on the back of something, but that would cost extra...."
"No, no, no." He looked flustered for a moment, then relaxed. "You're teasing me."