The chiming of the bell wakes me as always, insisting that I get up. I follow it’s order. I get up and feel around for the clothing that someone has been kind enough to lay out for me. I pull my nightgown over my head and put them on, taking care that they aren't inside out. Around me I hear the sounds of the other girls getting ready, they hurry around, twittering like birds. I feel my way to the washbin, where a few other girls have already gathered. It's exactly three steps to the end of my bed, five steps to the corner and another seven to the bin itself. I dip my hands in the cool water and clean my face. The water isn't frozen in the mornings yet, but it soon will be. Another year will have passed since my arrival at the orphanage and the death of my parents. It's getting harder and harder to remember their voices, their smell.
Another bell rings, signalling that it's time to go down to breakfast. The bells are the puppet masters of daily life, dictating every minute. As always, Rose appears by my side to lead me downstairs. I could make it by myself, unless there are unexpected obstacles. I enjoy Rose’s company though and I'm glad for the chance to spend time with her. Our schedules don't allow us any more time together and even if it did, I'm sure she wouldn't choose to spend it with me. Sure enough, as soon as she's sure I'm situated at the table, she drifts away to talk to her friends.
Sister Lucille stands up and clears her throat. Inwardly, I groan. She always says the longest prayers. Today is no exception; she drones on and on. Finally we all say Amen and we can eat. I dig in, famished. The sisters give us enough food, but it never tastes good. We always have porridge for breakfast, soup for dinner and potatoes for supper. No one cares though; it's better than nothing. Everyone eats quickly and soon the dining room is filled with the scraping of spoons on the wooden bowls. Another bell rings, sending us of to our lessons.
The room where we have our lessons is small and crowded. My desk is in the very back. Rose sits a row in front of me, but by the window. My desk mate's name is Annalise. She is neither kind nor cruel, she simply ignores me like so many others. Sister Catherine begins the lessons of the youngest children. She gives us, the elder ones, an arithmetic assignment to do. Sister Catherine is my favorite. She was the one who insisted that I could learn, who welcomed me into her classroom. I feel the raised dots. We're working on multiplication tables, so it's essential that I get every letter right.
All too soon, class is over and it's time for chores. This week my job is helping in the kitchen, one of the few jobs I am cable of. Other girls do the washing and cleaning, some work on mending clothes and others tend to the younger children. Cook is one of the nicest women at the orphanage and she tells the most wonderful stories to the girls that help her. Today it's about dragons.
“Dragons are the most wonderful creatures alive,” she tells us, “I had the good fortune to see one when I was a girl and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Its scales glittered in the sunlight and it claws were pure gold. It is said that dragons form bonds with some people but it's rarer than dragons themselves. King Juan the good was fortunate enough to have a dragon bond with him. He... ” She continues to tell her story as I stir the potatoes for dinner. Nice as she is, cook doesn't trust me with a knife. Cook’s stories make the time fly by, and soon it’s time for dinner. At this point, I’m told to stand in the corner, out of the way.
As I’m walking back to the dormitory with the other girls after dinner, Sister Catherine tells me, “The headmistress wants to see you. Follow me please.” Her voice is nervous and my stomach curls up in knots. Sister Catherine is never nervous. My thoughts whirl as she leads me to the office. The headmistress’s office is at the opposite side of the school so I have plenty of time to mull over what she could possibly want to see me about. “Wait here,” Sister Catherine tells me. She opens the door and walks in, but when she closes it behind her, it doesn't shut all the way. I know eavesdropping is wrong but I can't help myself.
“Are you certain you're willing to take her?” the headmistress asks.
“I’m sure,” an unfamiliar voice answers, “I need the help and the girl certainly cannot get an apprenticeship. It matters not to me that she is blind, I’m sure she'll work just as hard.”
“It's settled then,” the headmistress replies. Footsteps come towards me and I'm led into the room.
“Anna, say hello to Mrs. Johnson,” the headmistress commands. I curtsy towards the direction where I approximate the visitor is sitting.
“Hello, Mrs. Johnson, pleased to make your acquaintance,” I say.
“It’s settled then,” the headmistress announces, “Anna, you shall work for Mrs. Johnson. She has most generously offered you a position. Good day, Mrs. Johnson.” Without another word, a hand, that I’m guessing must belong to Mrs. Johnson, leads me from the room. I try to be grateful for getting a position, but my heart is filled with anger. No one bothered to ask me what I wanted to do. If I were allowed to choose, I would become a teacher for other blind students. Of course, it's nice to have a job, but I had hoped for something of a higher rank than servant. I ought not to complain though.
Mrs. Johnson’s grip on my arm is uncomfortably tight as she drags me along behind her. I hear the creak of a door opening and suddenly we are in the courtyard. Mrs. Johnson is moving far too quickly and I stumble over a tree root. She only waits a second for me to regain my balance before pulling me forward again.
“Watch it, girl,” she scolds. We pause briefly as she opens the gate, then continue walking even more quickly than before. A horse whinnies near by, causing me to jump.
“Up here,” Mrs. Johnson directs. I stumble up the steps into a carriage. Mrs. Johnson pushes me into a seat and sits down across from me. She knocks on something wooden, which must be a signal to the coach man because we start moving. This carriage is the finest I've ever been in, not that I've been in many. The seats are smooth leather, devoid of any cracks or bumps. They must be stuffed with goose down, otherwise they couldn’t be so soft. We ride in silence for what seems like an eternity, but can't be more than an hour or two. I wonder if I should attempt to start a conversation, but I decide against it. It would be improper for me, a servant, to speak to my mistress without being spoken to first. Eventually I hear snoring. It would appear that Mrs. Johnson has fallen asleep. I suppose that we will not be stopping for the night. The swaying of the carriage soon takes its effect on me as well, and I drift off to sleep.
The next morning I'm awakened by the sun shining through a window. Mrs. Johnson is still snoring away. My legs are stiff from staying in the same position all night. I'd like to stretch them, but I'm unable to do so without waking my mistress. Though comfortable, the carriage is small enough that if I stood in the middle, I would be able to touch both walls. I entertain myself by picturing what my new household will be like. I decide that Mrs. Johnson lives in gigantic manor with dozens of servants. She has a large ballroom that is the location of a ball every first Friday of the month. She has three young children and after their tutor quits will let me teach them instead. Mrs. Johnson stirs, pulling me back into reality. I don't understand how she can sleep so late; the sun has traveled far across the sky.
“Good morning, Mrs. Johnson,” I say. She makes no reply. We travel a few minutes longer before the carriage comes to a halt.
“We're here,” Mrs. Johnson announces. She leads me down the stairs. I follow her down what I assume is the drive. All around me, I hear noise- horses neighing, people talking, dogs barking, wood being chopped and water being hauled. We walk up five more steps before arriving at the door, which is immediately opened.
“Good day, Mrs. Johnson,” a deep voice says, “I'm glad to see that you have returned safely from your journey. The servants will bring in your trucks and deliver tea to your room if you wish. I'm sure that you'll want to rest after such a tiring trip. Would you like for me to have a bath drawn for you?”
“No thank you, Alfred,” she replies, “All I need of you at the moment is for you to take this girl to the cook. She can stir the pot and do other tasks of the sort. Make sure she doesn’t bump into anything.” The man, who I'm guessing is the butler, grasps my arm and leads me away. I hear Mrs. Johnson’s footsteps fading away as she walks upstairs. I am lead down a long hallway. The wooden floors make our footsteps echo through the house. I walk on my toes to reduce the amount of sound I make. We stop, and the butler opens a door. Immediately, the most tantalizing aromas imaginable waft out, only a few of which I can name. In the orphanage kitchen, food never smelled this good, at no fault of cook’s.
“What do you want?” a shrill voice snaps. The sound of the cook’s voice is enough to make me dislike her. Usually it's wrong to judge people by the sound of their voice, but sometimes it's all you need to know what their personality is like. The new cook is one of the latter types of people.
After working for cook that entire day, my first opinion about the cook hasn't changed. She treats her helpers terribly and hasn't said a kind word to anyone that I've noticed. I've been in the kitchen with her for hours and she still hasn't bothered to ask my name. There definitely aren't any stories being told in her kitchen. When she finally dismisses us for the night and leads me to a pallet by the fire, I collapse, exhausted. My arms ache from scrubbing pots all day and my feet hurt from standing.
As soon as the butler left, cook assigned me the job of dishwasher. Since then, I've been working nonstop, with only a short break to scarf down the lunch that someone shoved into my hands. It must be long past nightfall now. Someone lit the lantern ages ago. Although I'm exhausted, for some reason I can't fall asleep. Maybe it's the unfamiliar pallet, or the fact that the room is filled with snores. Just as I'm finally drifting off to sleep, I hear a noise that instantly jars me awake. A lamb is bleating loudly, clearly panicked. I vigorously shake the person next to me. Even as I do so, the bleating is joined by that of other lambs. Apparently the person sleeping next to me is in charge of tending to the sheep, for as soon as I manage to wake him up, he runs outside to find the source of the disturbance. Soon after he leaves though, the noise stops suddenly, making me wonder if it were all a dream. Once the noise stops though, I'm able to fall asleep. I don't hear the shepherd come back in.
The next morning, we learn what happened to the lambs. Three of them and an ewe were gone by the time the shepherd reached the pasture. They still haven't been able to discover what took them. Cook won't let this event disturb her though, and the day proceeds as normal. The other servants still don't talk to me, but sometimes I overhear snippets of their conversations. None of them seems happy here, most are planning to leave as soon as a better position opens up. Apparently Mrs. Johnson pays low wages and dismisses her workers, without a reference, for the smallest of infractions. She's gotten so desperate for help that she's been looking in the orphanages, which explains why she was willing to take me. My dislike for everyone in the house grows with every minute I spend here and I don't know how long it will be until it explodes and gets me dismissed. It grows even more when I'm told that I will be sleeping in the pasture until the thief is caught, so I can hear if anyone comes. It is for that reason, that while everyone else is preparing for bed, I am led outside to the pasture, with only a blanket for company. Having gotten little sleep the night before, I almost immediately fall into a deep slumber
In the middle of the night, I awaken. At first I can't think of why, but then I realize that the lambs are bleating again.
“Who's there?” I call out, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
“It is not who, but what, little one,” a voice booms. I barely manage to keep myself from screaming. The voice is the scariest thing I've ever heard, resonating through the ground in a way no human voice could. The vibrations send involuntary shivers up and down my arm and cause goose bumps to appear on my skin. The voice drips with malice and I don't doubt for a second that if the sheep weren't here, I would be devoured.
“What’s there?” I stammer, this time unable to keep my voice from shaking.
“A dragon, of course,” the voice replies, taunting, “What did you think I was, a pixie? I'm aware that you aren’t able to see, but still, you ought to know what a dragon's voice sounds like.” By now, I was shaking to hard to reply. Unfazed by my silence, the dragon continued, “I'll leave you here today, but I know you're unhappy here. My job is to find unhappy children and give them a new family. If you are here again tomorrow, I shall take you with me.” I hear a rustling sound and feel the breeze as the dragon flies off, leaving me standing in the middle of the pasture, alone again.
All the next day, I consider whether or not I should trust the dragon. In all the stories I've heard, in all the books I've read, dragons are portrayed as vicious beasts, that care about no one but themselves. Now, I’m beginning to wonder if that's true. Though the dragon I met last night was scary at first, it hardly seemed cruel. If it wanted to eat me, it easily could have done so while I slept. Even if there's only the smallest chance that the dragon is telling the truth about finding me another family, it's worth the risk. My other option, staying here, is safer, but will mean years of back breaking labor. However it doesn't involve risking death. Instead of making a decision, I contemplate what the dragon could look like. I know dragons have talons, sharp teeth and wings, but what color could it be? Only a few people have tried to explain color to me, but none of them did a very good job. I know the grass is green; the sky is blue; the sun is yellow; stars are gold; some flowers are purple, others are red; sunsets are orange; mud is brown; nighttime is black and Rose likes pink. No one ever bothered to tell me what color a dragon is. The only color that I know exists, and haven't mentioned yet, is silver. A silver dragon. I smile to myself; it's perfect.
That night, I'm taken to the pasture again. I don't even attempt to protest. The night is cold and soon I'm shivering. I pinch myself to stay awake; I don't want to be surprised by the dragon’s arrival. It feels like years, but finally I hear the sound of wings. I get to my feet. There's a slight thud as the dragon lands in front of me.
“I suspected that you would be coming back,” it says, “If you reach out, you’ll find that I’m standing about a foot in front of you.” I reach out. Sure enough, my hand touches something hard, which I'm assuming is one of the dragon's scales. They are as hard as armor. With some difficulty, and more instructions from the dragon, I climb onto it’s back. As soon as the dragon insures I’m settled, it takes off into the unknown. I don't look back.