Elisfield was, so far as Madelyn could tell, exactly that: a field. There was a small slip of a town that lay mostly along one avenue and on parts of another. At the intersection between these two roads stood the courthouse where Uncle Lionel practiced law.
The school house was a clapboard building that sat near a river. Having attended a fine school in the city, Madelyn soon found that she was leaps and bounds ahead over her country schoolmates. She quickly became bored with her lessons and eventually found herself abstaining from them entirely.
Instead, she would sit down by the river and sun herself on a rock. Sometimes, she would open her notebook and draw in it.
If Madelyn was lonely, it was nothing compared to Mary Isler.
Within a few short days, Mary had drawn back into herself again and took to staring blankly to the west. At times, when she thought her daughter was in school and when Lionel was busy at trial, she would take the long way to go to the general store. On more than one occasion, Madelyn caught sight of her mother roaming out by the train tracks.
Whenever the cargo trains would pull into the station, Mary Isler would find some excuse or other to catch a glimpse of them. But both Mary and her daughter knew that Ben O’Malley did not conduct cargo trains, and that it was a rare thing for a small place like Elisfield to receive many visitors.
Lionel was aware that his niece seldom went to her classes, but he was so wrapped up in the nuances of a case that he had very little time to dedicate to the education of a young girl. Early on, he had petitioned his sister to take action, but she was so distant that he would have been shocked senseless to find that she’d ever heard a word he said.
And, at any rate, a young fatherless girl had no need for a rural education. It would do nothing for her on its own, and finishing school was out of the question. Lionel could not really afford it and he doubted Madelyn would ever go, anyway.
It was for that reason that, as the weeks progressed, very little was done to guide the girl. She spoke less and less and her notebook was filled more and more with secret drawings nobody ever saw.
October came in a fiery rush, and before long the fields surrounding the town were ablaze with intense, brilliant color. Madelyn began crushing berries and flowers together and rubbing them on the pages of her newest drawings. She used scraps of cloth for brushes and river water for blending. She probably could have gotten proper brushes from her uncle, but he was still cross about her skipping her lessons.
One late afternoon, Madelyn came up the walk of her uncle’s home at around the time all of the other school children were making their way back.
She paused at the door.
Something was different.
Through an open window in the kitchen, she could hear a soft humming. A breeze brushed past her, carrying on it the sweet, faintly spiced scent of warm bread baking in the oven.
She tilted her head without moving; she could hardly hear it, but the humming sounded vaguely familiar.
When she entered the foyer, she paused to remove her scarf and cap. As she combed out her soft curls and fixed her ribbons in the hall mirror, something on a small table caught her eye.
It was a cream colored envelope that had already been opened and discarded.
It was addressed to her mother.
“Momma?” Madelyn called as she rounded the corner into the kitchen. She froze at the door.
Mary Isler paused in her tune and spun around, holding a loaf of bread still warm in its pan. She grinned at her daughter, her green eyes sparkling. “Madie, darling, how was school?”
Madelyn blinked a few times, not quite sure of what to say. Eventually, her mouth remembered how to form the word good.
“That’s nice, dear. Run along and get washed up for supper, then.”
Madelyn hesitated as she turned around. Something was off about the way her mother looked at her, though she couldn’t quite place it. It was as if she wasn’t focusing. Her face was smiling, and yet it wasn’t—as if the muscles were unsure of themselves and were not quite cooperating properly.
And then there was the humming.
She puzzled over this as she made her way up the stairs. Momma never hums, she thought, placing her school-books on her writing desk, she didn’t even hum when papa would play.
She was not quite sure why, but a pair of ice-blue eyes popped into her head just then.
A chill shot through her. Her fingers tensed up.
She shook her head and wondered to herself if she was going mad. Then she poured cool water from a pitcher and into the porcelain wash basin on her dresser. She splashed some of it onto her face and neck.
She took a deep breath.
Without another thought on the subject, she changed into a cotton apron and headed back downstairs to help her mother with dinner.
Lionel eyed his sister suspiciously from across the table. She was, at present, an enigma. She was both beaming and unsteady all at once. She chatted away in a lively fashion, and yet the usual grace with which she generally moved seemed off-beat. Every now and then, one of her limbs would break apart from its intended course, resulting in an occasional jerking motion that Mary Isler didn’t seem to notice at all.
In general, her sentences seemed normal enough, apart from a nervous tick in her voice that took the shape of strange staccato-styled ha’s…as if she were about to laugh for no reason and then completely forgot about it.
A couple of times, Lionel and his niece asked her if she was feeling alright. She stared at them, confused, and mumbled something under her breath about a man named Ben.
“Who is Ben?” Lionel mouthed to Madelyn.
“The conductor on the train,” Madelyn said, her face carrying as much concern as his own.
“The train, my dear, my darling, my Mary”
They looked to the half-crazed woman twitching and mumbling at the far end of the table. She focused her eyes at them for a moment and cocked her head, confused.
“Momma?” Madelyn asked, her voice quivering at the finish.
“Yes, dear? Did you say something?”
Lionel watched his niece’s mouth open and close. She looked to him for help.
“Well, Madie, out with it.” Mary Isler spooned food into her mouth. “Oh, for goodness sakes, child, if you have something to say, say it. Don’t just linger on unfinished sentences. It’s rude.”
“Uh, Mary, love,” Lionel began, searching for a way to delicately broach the subject, “I, um, I see you received a letter today.”
His sister’s face broke into a girlish grin. Her green eyes glazed over and her pale cheeks flushed. She bit at her lip like a silly teenager and her fingers casually combed at her hair. “I might have received word from an acquaintance.”
Lionel raised his eyebrow. “Who was it, Mary?”
Mary blinked at him with wide eyes. “Who was who?”
Lionel shifted his glance with impatient uncertainty. “Who was the letter from?”
Mary giggled like a schoolgirl. “A friend,” she replied.
“I see,” he said, carefully, gripping the edge of his table. “Was it your friend Ben?”
Mary’s eyes rolled into the back of her head. She began to sway in her seat and a thin line of drool dripped down from her lip.
“Good Lord!” Lionel leapt up and caught his sister just as she was about to fall from her seat.
“Momma!” Madelyn shrieked. She gripped her mother’s hand.
“Madie. It’s alright; it’s alright—I’ve got her. Dorothy?!” Lionel called out to his housekeeper.
An older woman with deep ebony skin rushed in to the room. “Yessir?” She asked. “Lordie, what’s happened to Ms. Mary?”
“Dorothy, listen to me. I need you to take Madie into the kitchen. Giver her some milk or tea or something,” Lionel said, shifting the weight of his sister’s body back onto the chair. “Wake Ebber. Tell him I need him to fetch Dr. Rosteburg. Now.” He felt his sister’s head. She was burning up.
Dorothy nodded her head and fought to pry Madelyn from her chair. The girl was having none of it. She kept hold of her mother’s limp hand. Tears streamed down her face.
Mary’s head rolled around on her neck. Her green eyes glazed over—just pale peridot disks set beneath thick lashes. Lionel patted her cheeks and splashed water onto her face from a glass on the table. Her lips kept moving, releasing unintelligible mumbling and a sickly bubble of foam.
Her eyes snapped open.
She jumped forward at Madelyn.
She grabbed Madie’s wrist, her rigid hands like a vice. The girl screamed.
“Beware the dolls—their glass eyes and painted faces…the cracks in porcelain—the scratches that don’t bleed and the eyes that don’t blink. They see. They see everything.”
Madelyn stared at her mother; frightened tears fell freely down her pale face.
Lionel sat glued to his spot for what felt like an eternity. Mary’s face went blank, but her grip on her daughter remained iron-clad.
Dorothy, sufficiently terrified and characteristically superstitious, began clawing frantically at Mary’s fingers, fighting to free the girl from her mother’s grip.
“Let go, Ms. Mary! Let the child go!” Dorothy commanded. The girl cried.
Lionel gasped. Mary’s nails were digging hard into Madelyn’s skin, drawing blood to its surface. He grabbed his sister’s fingers and twisted them back. She shrieked as they snapped.
Dorothy and Madelyn fell to the floor. The older woman pulled Madie out, shielding her eyes.
Lionel sat and cradled his shaking, wailing sister until the doctor came.