The day she came, we were restless and expectant though we didn’t know why. It started with the older ones. They had sensed something and their agitation trickled down to the rest and made us spill the milk and miss stitches in our sewing.
Before lunch, we were called into the chapel. The Mother Superior, with a wart over one eye that weighed down the lid and gave her a constantly suspicious expression, stood before us, the altar behind her. She waited until we were completely silent before she spoke. Some of the little ones, sitting together in the back rows, held their breath.
“A new girl has come,” she said and her voice boomed, robustly shattering the silence and making us jump and tremble in our seats.
From the wings behind the altar, a space we had never been allowed to penetrate and which could not be seen even from the front pews, two nuns glided out with a thin girl framed by their hips. She looked very much like us: skinny, her clothes loose and faded, stringy hair. Except that she didn’t bow her head and stare at her shoes. She stood upright and turned her head a little to look at all of us. We thought we even saw a faint smile on her face.
The Mother Superior talked about Christian Kindness and Goodwill in the same voice she used to scold us, as if we had already done something to her: put a frog in her bed or heaping teaspoons of salt in her porridge, as we often did to new girls. But we weren’t listening to the Mother. We were staring at the girl. Her confidence surprised us, made us curious. She looked at us like she knew things that we did not and we wanted to know what they were.
At first we only studied her. She made us shy and we didn’t speak to her at meals, or say goodnight to her, or “bless you” when she sneezed. She didn’t seem to mind. She walked in loose, swinging strides and took her little smile with her everywhere, as though musing over a secret she’d learned. Wherever she sat at breakfast, the porridge wouldn’t cool and scalded our tongues if we weren’t careful. When she worked in the kitchen with us, the bread dough rose in mountains, heaving over the sides of the bowl. Tiny red spots, like miniscule blossoms, sometimes appeared on her clothes.
Then, one day, during our lessons, when Sister Imogene had fallen asleep at her desk, her face resting on both her chins as she snored hoarsely, the girl suddenly spoke to us.
“Would you like to know where I come from?” she asked, drawing concentric circles on her desk, as if she had been aware of our curiosity all along. We noticed a red dot on her shoulder. It was moving. She followed our gaze and plucked a ladybug from her clothing. It clung to her fingertip but when she blew on it, it zipped upwards into the air and disappeared.
“A kiss,” she said, “for luck.”
Until that moment, none of us could recall ever having seen a real ladybug.
She told us her name was Opaline. It was the name, she said, that her mother had given her, not the plain, regular one the nuns used. She said that her mother had been able to turn into a bear to protect her but one day she was shot by a hunter. Once her mother fell to the ground, bleeding, moaning human moans, the hunter realized what he’d done and dropped to his knees before the body in remorse.
Opaline sat on her desk as she talked, swinging her legs. We listened to her with our mouths open, as if trying to catch the words, like drops of water.
The hunter vowed to take care of her and raise her as his own and she lived with him in a cabin in the woods, until he was killed by an Enemy. She said the word enemy with a sigh, as if it were something that could afflict any one of us.
She told more stories at night, standing on a bed in the middle of the long row of cots, casting shadows across the floor in the shape of ghosts. Or sometimes in the privy, all of us crowded together behind the door, red and orange ladybugs nestled like jewels in our hair. The ones who couldn’t fit had to stand outside with their ears to the wood, straining to hear.
She said her mother had given her the name Opaline because when she was born she was just a tiny stone, a chip of something precious her mother could hold in her paw.
Her mother had given her the best gift, she said: the ability to turn into a bird whenever she wanted. That way, she could always fly from danger.
“Show us! Show us!” we cried.
Opaline shook her head. “I’ll do it when I have to.”
We began to observe ourselves with interest, scrubbing the sheets on the washboards, picking apples, mopping the floors, searching for something, though we didn’t know what it might look like. We had always known we were here because no one loved us and we’d been tossed away. Some of us had mild deformities, like harelips, others were sickly. Most were perfectly healthy but still girls and we knew that was as bad as anything else sometimes. Most of us would never find families and would grow up to be maids in rich people’s houses or work in factories. But Opaline said we could all do some kind of magic if we wanted to, though maybe not quite like her. The idea was thrilling. At any moment, any one of us could turn into something extraordinary. We kept watch and waited for signs. The only one who had already exhibited something exemplary was a girl who could put her feet behind her head, though she had to lean against a wall when she did it so she wouldn’t fall over. Now we sat on the edges of our beds at night to listen to Opaline perform. It was for her that we provided muffled applause, careful not to disturb the nuns’ rest.
We soon learned that the nuns grew drowsy in Opaline’s presence and while some would fight it, many succumbed to their languor. Once, Sister Caroline drifted off while writing capitals on the board, the chalk falling from her hand as her head tucked itself against her shoulder. For a moment, we froze, thinking maybe she had died but then she emitted a low, buzzing snore. When we looked at Opaline, she wore the same knowing smile as always.
Though she freed us from boredom many times, we were desperate to see Opaline transform. We begged her to do it for us. But she kept saying, “Only when I have to.” She said it almost sadly, as if referring to something unknown to us. Then, she’d tell us another story about the hunter, how he killed wild boar and bears insane with hunger and rage at the un-natural world. Or about her mother, the way her singing made fish leap in arcs out of streams and land on the bank.
For a time, she distracted us with her stories. Then, rumors began to circulate about Opaline: that she had dandruff, that she had wet her bed once or that she smelled like old cheese. We didn’t know who started them. We began to hide her things: a hairbrush, a stone she had picked up in the courtyard, her hymnal. But she always found them, as if she had intended for them to be tucked behind furniture, under floorboards, or buried behind the chapel.
Eventually, her performances in the dormitory at night became sparsely attended. Sometimes, when she began a story, a snicker or giggle could be heard which made her stop, mid-sentence, and close her mouth. Then, a look of resigned mournfulness came over her face. She said nothing in her own defense, only sighed. When she spoke in class, not everyone turned to listen.
It was an accident, in a way, when we burned her. It was an idea that had taken root earlier in the day during lunch, a period where our whispers could flow freely back and forth and when our minds were stimulated by nourishment.
Opaline had taken to sitting by herself at a table, brightly dotted with ladybugs, in the back of the dining hall. Rather than seem uncomfortable, as the rest of us certainly would have, she chewed her food slowly, swinging her foot under the table, that far-off, dreaming expression on her face that had started to irritate us. She seemed certain, even in her posture, that she was somehow superior to us.
Opaline had said over and over that she would only turn into a bird when she had to. It was inevitable that we would realize that we could create those circumstances artificially.
That night among the rows of flat, gray beds, fast, fierce whispers escaped. The plan was quite simple. The difficult part had already been successfully executed: the acquirement of certain wooden matches, which had been slipped out of Sister Rose’s desk drawer while she was visiting the privy. It was well known that Sister Rose had a penchant for smoking a pipe.
Then, we had only to strike one. It made a miniscule roar as it sparked to life and, shrieking, we tossed it in the direction of Opaline’s bed, then scurried back to our own so as to disguise our guilt and maintain a safe distance from the blaze.
The match landed in her hair, a lock of which began to curl and shrivel. An acrid smell coiled up through the air. She jumped up without a sound and began pawing at her head. The match fell towards the floor and died, disappearing in the dark.
The dormitory was silent. We sat on—or crouched under—our beds and stared at Opaline, who was standing on her mattress. She looked at us all calmly, the way she had the day the nuns had brought her into the chapel—with placid interest. We waited for her to say something, but after a moment she sat down and pulled the bedcovers over her head.
The next morning, Opaline had a burn on her forehead close to her hairline, like a crushed, bright-red berry, and a piece of her hair was missing. We looked at it for a moment, wide-eyed, a little guilty, then looked away.
Though the first plan had failed, it did not stop us from concocting another. This time, we were sure, there could be no possible accidents.
One of the little girls, easily dominated and bullied, was assigned the job of shadowing Opaline. After breakfast, she was to follow a few steps behind her and alert an older girl the moment Opaline headed for the commode.
This plan, too, involved a simple strategy. Already, there were two of us, the biggest we could get to help, crouching behind the privy, holding their noses, with twine in their pockets, waiting for a signal, which was a waving, grayish rag. When Opaline approached the square little shack, they would spring out and tie her hands behind her back, then lock her in the privy, with a scrap of wood fitted through the door handle. There was a window on the far side of the commode, a round hole carved into the wood. It would serve both as a way of monitoring Opaline and, if she did transform, as her means of escape. A small bird, we reasoned, could fit through the hole.
The little girl followed her for an hour, huddling in corners or under furniture, hoping to go unnoticed. But Opaline made no move towards privy, as if she’d found a way to guard all moisture within her body.
Finally, the little girl, who was maybe too little for the job, fell asleep under a desk.
The best and surest way to force the truth out of Opaline had been obvious all along. But no one had dared mention it because it involved an authority higher than our own and, once set into motion, would have been out of our control entirely. Yet it somehow happened, anyway, though no one took responsibility for it.
The nuns at the orphanage were all old women and had been so for as long as any of us could remember, as if they’d been born that way, wearing wimples. Mostly, we feared them. They drilled us in prayers and beat us for any kind of infraction: spills, fights, lies, theft. They didn’t like children very much and when they spoke about Charity and Mercy, it sounded as if they were talking about very well behaved girls they’d known long ago who bore no resemblance to us.
The one we feared the most was the Mother Superior. A girl who did something terrible might be sent to her office and then to the Box. The Box was like a discarded confessional, only too small for you to kneel. Many of us had been in there before and we knew what it was like. The wood was course and chafed your skin, sometimes sticking you with splinters. The pain began with your feet, then climbed up your legs from so much standing. The tallest of us also had to stoop just to fit inside, which produced wrenching cramps in our backs. They wouldn’t let you out even to use the commode and some girls wet themselves.
One morning Opaline was not at breakfast. Her table was empty, except for a few ladybugs, crawling in aimless patterns over its rough wood surface. There was a feeling of tension in the air and a smell of oniony perspiration. We noticed Opaline’s absence but said nothing as we ate our bread and drank down our milk. We noted the nuns whispering to each other occasionally over their own meals.
It soon came out that Opaline was in the Box. We all swore we didn’t know how the nuns found out, how they knew about the name she called herself or of the stories she told about her she-bear mother and the hunter. That she could turn into a bird whenever she wanted. Maybe they listened at the door at night when we were supposed to be asleep. Maybe they had a spy. Even though her popularity had waned and we’d tried, admittedly, to lock her up and set her on fire, we weren’t snitches and any tattletale who was found out was shunned for at least a month.
They kept Opaline in there for a day, then two, without food or water, until some of the younger ones, always the most sympathetic among us, began to wail that she must have died by now. On the morning of the second day the nuns summoned us to the chapel, which was always cold, with hard benches that bruised our bottoms. We sat in rows and they stood in formation at the altar, clean black and white towers stooping over soiled brown and gray lumps. The Mother Superior stood in the center. We were too nervous to whisper “Wart-Eye.” Her voice boomed, ricocheting off the walls like we imagined the voice of God Himself to be. She told us Opaline’s body, including her tongue, had been taken property of the Devil. She told us she was a witch and a liar because only witches can change their shape, with the help of the Devil’s power, and that for this they do his bidding, spinning lies to children so as to ensnare them. Her lip curled and she seemed almost to snarl when she said the word “ensnare.” The younger ones began to whimper. Questions formed in our minds and burst, unspoken, like bubbles on our tongues. How could they believe that Opaline could turn into a bird, but that it was a lie that her mother turned into a bear? And how did the nuns know that Opaline’s power was the work of the Devil, but when saints had turned into dragons, or brought people back from the dead, that it was the work of God? We knew better to ever ask a nun such questions.
It surprised us to realize that they, with their withered, imagination-less eyes believed, at least to a certain extent, Opaline’s claims.
That night, some of the oldest girls formed a plan together, after the little ones had gone to sleep. The biggest and the bravest would go to the Box, which was tucked away under the stairs, between the kitchen and the pantry. We would go and unlock the door and then, if Opaline could in fact turn into a bird, she would have her chance. If not, we would close the door again and leave her locked up, satisfied for once and for all.
Together, we left the dormitory, the first girl holding a trembling candle, ready at a moment’s notice to snuff it out. Behind her formed a short line. Each girl held the waist of the one in front of her.
Down the stairs and out into the night, through the cold mist that veiled the courtyard. Our hearts were pounding and we tried not to look up at the windows of the sisters’ dormitory for fear of seeing a nun’s withered potato face, or to think about the animals that lived in the woods surrounding the orphanage that might emerge from among the trees, snarling, ready to “ensnare” us.
We crept through the gray, empty kitchen and reached the Box. But when we tried to open it, we couldn’t. The nuns had put a lock on the latch, maybe in case the Devil came for Opaline in the night and tried to steal her away. We knocked softly but there was no answer.
“Opaline, Opaline! We’ve come to rescue you!” we hissed, lying a little.
Still there was no response.
We took the pins out of our hair. A knife and a fork were brought from the kitchen. With these tools we plied the keyhole. The lock was heavy and made of steel and would not budge. Then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, we tugged on the chain. It was old and too thin to support the weight it bore. When we pulled on it, it broke and the lock fell to the floor with a dull clang.
Though we weren’t all there when it happened, we heard that then the door was opened and inside there was not a soiled, quivering child but a small bird, black and mute and that when we stood back, the bird hopped out of the box, cocked its head at us, and flew without hesitation out an open window. Then, we tied up the chain on the latch, hiding the broken link, and replaced the heavy lock.
The next day, when the nuns opened the Box to release Opaline, they gasped when they found it empty and some of them had to spend the rest of the day in their rooms recovering from the shock of seeing the work of the Devil firsthand.
Some of us, who had secretly never doubted Opaline, despite the rumors, believed the story about the bird inside the box. If she couldn’t turn into a bird, then where had she gone? The ones who had once believed but now refused to admit it said that the nuns had sent her away in the middle of the night, before anyone could rescue her, and had lied to us about it so as to frighten us and convince us that the Devil existed. They thought themselves too grown-up and sophisticated to believe in Opaline’s tales or the nuns’ stories about saints, devils and miracles. We argued over about it sometimes, shouting and pulling out clumps of each other’s hair, rolling over the gritty floors, clawing at each other’s skin.
After she was gone, the ladybugs disappeared from the grounds, as if they had never been there in the first place. Meanwhile, we continued going about the quiet business of Growing Up, though into what we didn’t know. Sometimes someone came for a little one to adopt. The rest of us had lost hope of that ever happening. More often, people came for the bigger ones who could work. Yes, the nuns always said of us, we’d been taught everything we needed to know.
Sometimes we imagined Opaline was living in the woods, among the animals, and slept in a hollowed-out tree at night. We began to tell our own stories about her, forgetting easily that we had called her a liar: how her eyes changed from brown to an iridescent green, or violet. How she could talk to flowers and make them bloom. When a crow began to visit the courtyard, hopping about and pecking at the stone, always watching us sideways, we said that it was Opaline, come back to see us. But when we tried to feed it breadcrumbs from our open palms, it pinched our fingers with its beak and took off.
By then we had stopped looking for anything extraordinary in ourselves. But sometimes we had moments where we drifted, lingering in the courtyard, kicking pebbles, or sighing at night in our beds, our eyes unblinking in the dark that lay over us, thinking thoughts we wouldn’t turn into words out loud.