The candle melted down into nothing as Odette sketched by its fragile light. Though her eyelids grew heavy as the sun ascended, her mind spun about in every which direction. Surely, Ingrid will live, it was only an ear. One can live without both ears. But what was wrong with her blood? Is that why the surgery is taking so long?
And then there was that ghastly form underneath the sheet that the doctor wheeled in. What, nay, who could have possibly been under there? Odette resigned herself to ignorance and decided that she should be happy if only Ingrid were alive and well, if a tad more ear-less than before. Her livelihood depended upon it. She shook herself from such notions. Employment should never be a motive for well wishes. She added pleas for forgiveness into her silent prayers along with her supplications for Ingrid.
As the birds began their morning songs, a knock at her door sent her flying from her seat, knocking her chair half way across the room. Not caring that her hair was a mess and that she still had on her dressing gown, she flung open the door to Edmund.
“How is she?”
“She’s all patched up, resting in recovery. The surgery was successful.” Somehow, Edmund did not look at all ruffled from the events of the night. Sure, he was still in his clothes from yesterday, but they weren’t wrinkled nor bloodied like Odette’s dress. Not a hair out of place, the only indicator that he hadn’t slept was the faintest shadow of a beard growing.
“How will she hear now? Decently, I should hope with the other ear still in tact.”
“She’ll hear with both ears.” He smoothed his lapel, pride gleaming in his eyes. “The ear drum stayed in tact, it was merely the cartilage that fell off. We were able to reattach the missing cartilage. It may look a bit worse for the wear, but it is perfectly functional.”
Odette could breathe deeply for the first time in hours. “That’s wonderful news! But, do tell, why did it detach in the first place? Was she struck?”
“No, I believe the maid was telling the truth, especially from what I saw during the surgical process. It perhaps was not our best surgical work. In fact, I recall, by the time we got to sewing her ears, we were all thoroughly exhausted and so much of her original cartilage was lost, much like her missing nose, that we made haste to get it sewn on as best we could so that we could rouse her from her drug-induced sleep. It should be much better now, I assure you.”
This was the most detail she had pulled out of him so far. Did Edmund trust her at last? Or did he only give her more because she had already witnessed the event? She covered herself up to her neck with her dressing gown and rushed out from behind the door, hoping to further capitalize on the opportunity. “Well then, I must see her at once!”
He reached out to stop her, but retracted his hand when he saw she was not fully dressed. “Wait, Odette, she’s sleeping. You wouldn’t want to disturb her now.”
“I won’t wake her,” she called, hurrying down the stairs. “Besides, I’m her greatest friend in this world, she’ll want to see me when she wakes.”
His footsteps clambered after her. “Odette, please, I entreat you, her rest is critical to this process. At least make yourself decent, first!”
She did not relent. Her gown billowing after her like a warship’s sail, she ran barefoot into the basement, cold stone stinging the bottom of her feet. Edmund continued to entreat her, saying that they hadn’t had the chance to tidy up after the process. She laughed, but made certain to keep her voice soft in the echoing hall of the basement, “You still think I’ll faint from the sight of a little blood? Did yesterday prove nothing to you?”
A stench like no other leaked out through the slats of the door. It smelled almost like a butcher shop, with the sour smell of blood and flesh. Something else, though, something sickeningly sweet, something that smelled vaguely of paint remover intermingled with the other odor. Just before a gag overtook her, Odette saw Ingrid lying on a rolling bed, lying on her side with the repaired ear facing the ceiling. Beyond her, the doctor that she observed the night prior shut a drawer, a drawer filled with the purple legs of a girl.
Odette turned her face away to heave. She covered her mouth to stifle the gagging noise and shot up with a scream when Edmund put his hand on her shoulder.
“I apologize, I thought that you had taken ill,” he supplied, withdrawing his grasp.
She straightened herself up and pulled the strings of her gown tighter. “No, the smell overwhelmed me. I didn’t know you were that close behind me.”
“You made it quite the challenge. If not for the horrible smell, I would have never caught up to you.”
How could he be standing there so unaffected by the rotten smell? And did he know of the cadaver being locked away in his surgery? “Edmund,” she said, panting from the exertion, “did you know that there’s a body in there? Not Ingrid, but another body?”
“Who? Do you mean Dr. Brandt? He’s only cleaning up after the surgery.” He didn’t even glance to check, he kept his gaze upon Odette.
“No, no, the other little girl.” Odette’s voice faded into a whisper.
Now Edmund turned to peer through the iron slats, his brow furrowed. “No, there’s no one else in there, Odette.”
“She was put into a drawer and, oh no, I feel the smell make overtake me again.” She doubled over to gag again.
This time when he rested his hand on her shoulder, she didn’t recoil. “Let’s get you upstairs and away from this wretched smell.” He guided her up the stairs with her hand upon his arm. “I don’t know what you saw back there, but there could not have been another little girl. There’s hasn’t been another young girl here since Ingrid arrived. It seems, perhaps, that you are over tired and your imagination is running wild. I think that something about this place helps the imagination to run mad. Why, I myself have been known to see things on some late nights. But I’m a man of science, not superstition, so I can assure you that it’s all only a matter of tired eyes and a tired mind.”
Odette remained silent. She knew what she had seen, both that morning and that night. But if she was going to truly learn anything, she would need to discover it on her own.
“I’ll have Mrs. Weber bring you up some breakfast then why don’t you try to get some sleep?” Edmund continued. “Afterwards, you can use the carriage to visit your family, seeing as you won’t be conducting any lessons today. I think some fresh air and a change of scenery will do you some good.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” she said. Besides, she wouldn’t be able to learn anything today, what with Edmund and the servants up and about. She bade him goodbye and flopped upon her bed. Exhaustion overcome her until Mrs. Weber came by with the breakfast tray. Her appetite quashed by the rotten odor of the surgery, she only ate the toast. Sleep eluded her as she fretted about seeing her sister again, but mostly, why there was a corpse in the basement. She forced herself to doze off as she knew that she couldn’t arrive at her family’s home in the middle of the morning as they would be scrambling about to bake bread. But she woke up every so often to a gruesome image of the frozen, lifeless feet of the other girl. When she could bare the solitude no longer, she dressed herself and left for home.
Mrs. Dufour ran outside with open arms to meet Odette as she descended from the carriage. The bitter wind nipped at their faces and the matron ushered her daughter inside the warm shop. Odette cherished the homey smell of muffins and breads now more than she ever had before. Her father scooped her into his arms next. Cadence’s face appeared from the kitchen window, shocked and covered in flour. Odette guessed that she would turn away with a spiteful glare, but Cadence came running out from the kitchen and embraced her.
Tears pricked Odette’s eyes as she held her sister. Upon steadying her voice, she said, “I worried that you would be angry.”
“And I worried that you would be dead,” Cadence said, her voice shaking. “But here we both are. Now, come in, we just made some streusel with the last of the best apples of the season.”
“But isn’t that for a customer?” Odette asked as she swiped away her tears.
“It’s for us now. The customer can have the batch made with the questionable apples.” Cadence pulled her sister back into the kitchen.
As soon as Odette laid eyes upon the golden brown streusel, glistening from the sugary glaze, her appetite made a sudden resurgence. Her father finished sweeping the shop front as her mother boiled some tea. Though their supper was more humble than the feast she had enjoyed yesterday, the company and dessert made it twice as enjoyable.
Cadence left to deliver the pastries a little while later and returned with Helga and Henrick to join in their joyful reunion. Helga flew into Odette’s arms so fast that she almost tackled her to the floor. The four of them sat down for a glass of suspicious looking wine that Henrick boasted that he had brewed himself. And it tasted just as dubious as it appeared. Now that her parents were off to bed, the real questions came out.
“So, I’ve seen this Mr. Kohler about town. He’s quite a looker,” Helga said as she pretended to take a sip of the cloudy wine.
“Hey, I’m the only looker you’re supposed to be looking at,” Henrick said. He tossed his burly arm around his wife and yanked her close. Though he pretended to be hurt, he couldn’t hide the good humored smile on his face.
“He’s not the sort of man to catch my fancy, but he certainly is the sort to catch Odette’s. Isn’t he?”
Odette scoffed and hoped they wouldn’t notice her eyes light up. “He has nice bone structure, what do you want me to say, exactly?”
“Well, to start, does he have a wife?”
“No, he does not.”
Everyone smirked at each other over their wine glasses, everyone save for Odette.
“Then is he a widower?” Helga asked. Cadence’s smirk faded as she observed Odette squirm in her seat.
“No, the child is not his. She’s his niece.”
“Or so he says,” Henrick added with a wink.
Helga elbowed him in the ribs before she leaned across the table, dreamily asking, “Is he as charming as he seems?”
“Indeed, he’s very well mannered.” Odette swished the wine around her glass with her lips pulled tight.
“How did he acquire his wealth? Inheritance, I’m assuming,” Henrick asked.
“I believe that is where the bulk of it comes from. Though he does work. He’s an acclaimed physician, on the cutting edge of medicine.”
“Is that why he’s taken in his niece?”
Odette stared down at the dusty red liquid, recalling visions of blood from only a few hours ago. “I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say.”
“Not at liberty to say? What exactly is wrong with the girl? What would he need to treat her for?” Henrick chuckled as he asked, ignoring a glare from Cadence.
“That I definitely cannot disclose.”
“Disclose? What did you sign a contract or some such?”
Odette busied her hands with tucking her skirts tighter around herself.
“My goodness, I didn’t know that the child was ill! Can you catch it?” Helga said, straightening back up.
Odette’s eyes were upon the floor. “No.”
“Well, what could possibly be wrong that you can’t talk about?” Henrick persisted.
“Odette, I could use some help washing out the glasses,” Cadence said. She rose and swiped Henrick’s glass from underneath him.
Henrick snatched it back. “I’m not finished yet.” He poured himself another glass.
Helga asked, “Is she slow?”
Is the sediment in the wine spinning or am I dizzy?
“No, she can’t be. Why would she have a governess?”
“I don’t know, rich people do all sorts of odd things. Is she injured?”
“Is she mad?”
“Is she violent?”
“I think we all should stop.”
“Is she dangerous?”
“As am I.”
“Is she able to walk?”
“Has she hurt you?”
“Well, what could possibly be so bad?”
“I don’t know!” Odette screamed. “I don’t know! I don’t know! I. Don’t. Know!” She jolted back, astonished at the volume of her own words. Silence creeped into the room as she shrank down into her seat.
Cadence laid a hand upon her sister’s shoulder. Helga piped up, “We’re so sorry, Odette. We didn’t mean to trouble you so. We’re only worried for you.”
Odette rubbed her hands across her face, pushing back her loose curls. “You needn’t worry for me. I think she may be dying. Or perhaps part of her is already dead.”
“Who? Who is dying?” Cadence asked.
“My pupil. She’s – she’s not long for this world, I fear.” Tears gathered up in her eyes, tears that have needed to come out for weeks.
Cadence spoke softly, comforting Odette just like when they were children. “I didn’t know she was so gravely ill. But Mr. Kohler is a doctor, yes? Perhaps he has the cure for whatever is ailing her.”
“I certainly hope so,” Odette breathed. “But I’m starting to believe that he does not.”
“What did you say his full name was again?” Henrick asked, looking uncharacteristically serious.
“Where’s he from originally?”
“I sell paintings to a scientist in Berlin. I’ll inquire about this Kohler fellow the next time I’m out there.”
“Now, why do you think that she’s going to die?” Helga asked.
“I can’t say,” Odette said, rising up. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I don’t know that anyone’s ever seen this before. I really must be getting back.”
Cadence rushed out to say goodbye to Odette only to find her sitting against the shop front. “The carriage is late,” she lied, still staring up at the moon.
“I only want you to know,” Cadence said, sitting down next to her, “that while I may not always agree with your choices, I’m always going to be here for you.”
“So you’re still upset that I took the job?”
Cadence shrugged. “I suppose I just don’t understand it. It seems to be causing you more grief than its worth.”
The crescent shape of the moon disappeared beneath a cluster of gray clouds. “All I’ve ever wanted was to start a family of my own. This situation may not be ideal, but it’s mine and I intend to make the best of it, whether I’m raising Ingrid to be a polite lady of society or holding her hand as she fades away.”