Odette carried on the usual pleasantries with Edmund and Ingrid. Inside, she concealed the devastating pain. Just to look upon Ingrid made Odette ill. Her bones ached as though she had a fever as she traced the stitches and scars with her eyes. When she noticed that differing skin colors composed the girl’s face, panic strangled Odette’s chest as she imagined her own face being torn apart and sewn together again. Had the skin changed color because it had decomposed? Or was it the skin of another? Was it even human? Her intestines churned just to think of it. She scanned for the nearest waste bin in case she really became ill.
One side of Ingrid’s face hung down further than the other, seemingly having a different shape to the jaw bone. Her nose had been ripped off at some point, having only a thin layer of flesh to cover the bone, but none of the cartilage to finish its structure. She stopped herself from reaching up to check that everything was aright with her own nose.
But it was Ingrid’s eyes that sent goosebumps across Odette’s flesh. They were positively yellow, save for her icy blue irises and reflective pupils. The pupils flashed purple and green and all sorts of different colors with the changes of the light, like those of a cat. Whatever her eyes were composed of, it couldn’t be human. They hypnotized Odette, thankfully, as it gave her an appropriate place to stare.
Ingrid coughed, a wet, heavy cough, then asked, “But why must I have a teacher? I’m not permitted outside. What do I need to learn?”
Edmund stooped down to Ingrid’s eye level, seemingly unaffected by the girl’s disturbing features. He spoke in a soft, fatherly voice. “We hope to reintegrate you into society in time, so you must be prepared when that day comes. And besides, Miss Dufour is going to be much more than a teacher to you. She’ll be a companion, a play mate, someone to talk to. She’s going to teach you such wonderful things, you’ll paint, you’ll play music, you’ll read interesting stories. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it and in time, the two of you will be fast friends.”
Odette flashed her glistening smile, masking the fear that she would never be able to overcome the sickness to bond with the girl. Her heart sank as Edmund said, “Well, shall I leave you two ladies to get better acquainted?”
She gave another smile to the girl, then motioned Edmund off to towards the door. She whispered, “I don’t have a lesson planned yet for today. How long would you like me to stay with her? I’m not certain what to do. I haven’t yet gathered the necessary supplies and reading materials and-”
Edmund stopped Odette’s avalanche of words. “It’s all right. You don’t have to conduct a formal lesson today. Besides, there’s plenty of supplies right here in the room. I have some business in town to attend to, so I’ll have Mrs. Weber come up and fetch you when it is time for supper.”
Odette’s mouth dangled open as she had so many questions. Yet she stood in silence, letting her questions follow Edmund out the door. She turned back to Ingrid, whom had not moved from her spot since her curtsy. “Well, then, why don’t you tell me about yourself? What do you enjoy doing?”
Ingrid stared at her unlaced shoes. “I’m not allowed to do much.”
Odette sat upon an armchair facing a tea table and motioned for Ingrid to take the other seat. The warmth of an artificial heater prevented her from shivering from nerves. “You must do something to fill your day. What about your book over there? I see you have a good many books. I love reading myself.”
Ingrid picked up the book she had left on the floor. “I can’t read very well,” she said, “but I like the pictures in this one best.” She displayed a hand-painted German copy of Alice in Wonderland that took Odette’s breath away. Never had she seen anything like it, at least, not for a non-English copy.
“It’s certainly magnificent,” Odette said as she flipped through the pages. “And soon enough, you’ll be able to read every word. What is your favorite picture in here?”
Flipping with a rapidity that made Odette nervous about the integrity of the pages, Ingrid opened to the very last picture of the book, where Alice was awoken by her sister inside a charming English garden. Odette asked, “Why is that one your favorite?”
Ingrid stared at the picture. Did she have tears in her eyes or was that only their usual glassy glow? “I like to think that this looks like me and my sister before the accident.”
“I see,” Odette said. What could she say in response? Ingrid looked nothing like the painting of the healthy, rosy-cheeked Alice, but she knew that she was supposed to look like her. As Odette glanced around the room, some reflective shards in the rubbish bin caught her eye, the lack of mirrors in the room making sense. She changed the subject altogether, “Do you remember your sister?”
“No,” Ingrid answered, easing herself into the chair like an elderly woman. “I’ve only been told that I have an older sister and that we played together all the time.”
“Do you feel lonely without her?”
“It’s hard to miss someone you don’t know.” She paused to cough, hacking like she had the flu. Then she added in a voice barely audible, “But I suppose it would be nice to have someone to play with.”
“It is quite wonderful to have a big sister. I have one myself. We did play together growing up, but there are some challenges to having a sister, if I’m being fair.” Odette thought back to the fight she and Cadence had before she left. As she glanced out the window, she tried to pick out the bakery from among the cobblestone homes on the hills. “You have share everything with her, especially if you’re the younger sister. You receive all of the hand-down dresses. Nothing is yours. You share such close quarters that you’re bound to disagree.” The view from Ingrid’s window did not face the main strip in town and the bakery was nowhere in sight. A wave of remorse washed over Odette and churned in her stomach. Could she ever return home? Would she, if given the chance for something grander? Shaking herself from the dread that so often comes with contemplating the future, she said, “But overall, I love my sister. I would do anything for her and I know she would do the same. And perhaps you and I will come to think of each other as sisters one day.”
Ingrid looked up from her hands, her glossy eyes hopeful. With a furrowed brow, she stared back down at her mangled hands, unwashed and sullying her pretty little frock. “But we can’t possibly be sisters.”
“And what makes you say that?”
“I’m a monster,” she whispered, her voice soft, but not from the illness this time.
“Ingrid, don’t say that. You aren’t a monster. You’re just a girl.” Pity overthrew the disgust in her mind and she wanted nothing more than to reach out to the girl. She withheld her hand, for fear that even compassionate touch would spook her like a feral cat.
“That’s not what the servants say. I hear them through the vents. I’m deformed, I’m a monster, hideous,” her voice raised into a rasping shout, “cursed, plagued, diseased, an animal!” Thin, cloudy tears fell from her inner corners. “A bad omen. A corpse. Witch! Demon!”
Odette let her screech until she lost her voice. “Don’t listen to them. People fear what they don’t understand.”
“And what would you know about that? You’re the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen! Everyone must love you.” Ingrid swiped at the tears on her nose.
“I’m certain your situation is incredibly difficult and I don’t claim to have same difficulty.” She took in a deep breath before admitting, “I may not have any deformities on the outside, but I do have one on the inside. And someone did stop loving me for it.”
Ingrid looked up, that hope shining in her eyes again. “But why would they do that? Just for something on the inside?”
“Yes, for something only on the inside. I can never bear children. It’s not medically possible. And my husband left me because of it. He thought there was something very wrong with me, that I was ill and that he might catch it, too. And when he left, most of the town believed that there was something very wrong with me as well.”
Ingrid stared at Odette, speechless. Though staring slack-jawed was improper, Odette thought that should be a lesson for another day. She continued, “I don’t have many friends. It’s only my sister, a couple from town that I’ve known my whole life, a friend from school that moved to England, and now you. We’ll help each other to be less lonely. Does that sound agreeable?”
Ingrid nodded and jumped off the chair, her spirits renewing her health, if only for the moment. “All right then,” Odette said, “now let’s have a look at the other books you have on the shelf. We’ll begin our first lesson in literature.”