22 Jan Free Short Story: Her Life’s Madness
This story is all about Celia—it was a free writing exercise I did once that gave me greater insight into her day, as well as the workings of Miss Mabel’s School for Girls. This isn’t as gripping a scene—but is lovely for sinking into a fantasy world for a few minutes.
Celia woke with a sigh as deep as the winter wind.
The floorboards beneath her feet were cold, even with a fuzzy rug covering them. She yawned, sitting on the edge of the bed, allowing time for the dizziness of waking to fade. Night stretched across the horizon outside her window. Darkness proliferated still, accompanied only by the dimming twinkle of a few stars.
With another deep yawn that made her eyes water, she shuffled to her pile of clothes. Her back protested as she bent over, creaking like an old branch bowing in the wind. An unpleasant groan escaped her.
“Heavens. I’m too old for such early mornings. About makes your bones break, winters so cold here.”
She pulled her beige dress over her head, smoothing it over the soft contours of her pooched stomach, frowning in annoyance. She used to be so skinny, when she was young. Her skin wasn’t so transparent. Her hair wasn’t so thin. No amount of magic could change the appearance of some things. At least, not with her education level with incantations, which wasn’t very much.
The lamp came to life when she waved at it, a small stub of flame flickering in the darkness. It lit her way down the stairs well enough, but she didn’t really need it. She’d walked this staircase for the last twenty years. Every groove and step felt familiar, like old, reliable friends.
Despite the cool air in the kitchen, a fire jumped to life in the grate as she walked past. A few logs rolled off the pile and arranged themselves in a perfect stack on top. Soon, the sound of pockets of sap popping rang into the kitchen air.
With one eyes still sleepily closed, Celia puttered over to the pantry, muttering under her breath.
“Have no idea how lucky they are, sleeping through the early mornings. Can barely open my eyes to see the flour!”
Her well-stocked pantry was the epitome of organized. Baking ingredients on one side, herbs on the far wall, fresh vegetables and fruits to the left. All the cast iron pots and pans hung by pegs in the kitchen, or cluttered cupboards. Everything had a place, and remained in it. That was how she liked it.
She pushed aside a few glass jars filled with dried leaves and thistles, then she shook her head and pulled the jars back towards her.
“Take ‘em out, so I can see them. I’ll forget, and we got a pudding due tomorrow.”
She bustled backwards out of the pantry, arms loaded with an assortment of jars and linen bags. They fell to a thud on the counter, where she abandoned them to find one of her favorite bamboo bowls. A jar of butter fell, but stopped a few inches from the floor and hopped back onto the counter, steadying itself.
“Uh huh.” She shot it a dirty look, as if it had plummeted to the ground on purpose. “That’s why I set a spell on the glassware, you know. Like to go falling off.”
Celia rolled through the recipe in her head, ticking the things she needed for her breakfast rolls off as she gathered them in a pile. Soon, a cloud of flour surrounded her, settling in her hair like dust, as she stirred and kneaded it into a large serviceable lump. For any hands less practiced and strong than her own, it would have been far too heavy and thick to manage. Celia hummed under her breath, falling into a kind of trance as she began to pluck balls of dough off, rub them in between her palms, and press them on a sheet that sat, waiting, after being buttered by a nearby brush.
The room was getting warmer now, taking the ache out of the joints in her hands and wrists. In the distance sat a vague spark of light on the horizon.
“Carrot cake with rum for dessert on the weekend. Like it or not, I’ll have to use up the cheese somehow ‘fore it goes bad. Oh, the students. We’ll give it to the culinary students for a dish to make for dinner tomorrow. Or is it fish day tomorrow?”
Her hands worked like a methodical machine. It was so second nature that she barely thought about the movements, letting her mind flitter over her day, roaming here and there.
“Need to clean the attic,” she mumbled. A quill scrawled her words on a nearby parchment. “Mabel’s got a meeting with the teachers in the classroom after dinner tonight. Fresh thyme from the garden, too, for the chicken.”
The fire hissed and crackled. Four more logs dropped to the floor and rolled into position in the hearth. The light in the room swelled, making the shadows longer. Celia’s hands and fingers seemed to fly over the rolls, which lined up in perfect precision on the baking sheet.
Once the rolls finished, the two sheets lifted. She pulled the oven door down, checking the temperature with her hand, before allowing them to enter.
“Just right to raise. Not too hot. Chill’s taken off.”
She spoke to the rolls as if they cared about the temperature as they disappeared inside the toasty warmth to double in size. Celia was already bustling towards the other side of the room, the limp bow from her apron strings at her back bouncing up and down with every step. Before she made it to the large barrel of oats sitting on the floor of the pantry, the tell-tale patter of feet above her began. Like a trickle of water, the sound moved across the kitchen and started down the stairs, which the pantry sat beneath. Celia popped her head out see four bleary-eyed first-years standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Well, it’s about time!”
The ever-increasing mark of dawn on the horizon grew, fading from tones of black to a mixture of blue and orange. One of the first-years stumbled, almost falling asleep on her feet.
“Go on,” Celia commanded a blonde. “Measure out the oats as you always do. Feona and Marj, go set the tables in the dining room.”
Girls appeared in various states of alertness. Celia was ready, assigning jobs like a commanding officer. Within no time the kitchen had transformed from a quiet shell of life to a bustling hubbub of voices and banging pots. The smell of fresh bread and melting brown sugar filled the air, wafting into the halls of the school.
Almost as soon as they appeared, the girls left, carrying the foods they were in charge of out to serve. Celia remained behind to stare at the messy array. Instead of going into the dining room to eat, she grabbed two fresh rolls and a small bowl and ate standing at the cupboard in the closest thing to silence she’d find until the girls went to sleep.
Once the girls finished eating, the first-years came back for clean up. The white porcelain dishes lined with dried oatmeal, and the bits of dried dough on the wooden bowls, disappeared into the steaming barrels of water. Within thirty minutes, the kitchen sparkled again, order restored. Celia inspected the pantry, checked to make sure the dirty dishwater was gone, and dismissed the girls to their classes.
Not ten minutes after they left, three girls wandered in. Third-years. Two of them were loud and obnoxious, often quarreling with each other over how to perfectly execute a recipe. The third was a quiet girl named Hannah. She spent more time listening, and working quietly by herself, than she did speaking. When she did pipe up, one of the other girls tried to speak over her, and she backed down. Celia could sense that it wasn’t out of shyness or fear. Hannah seemed to understand that it was a battle that wasn’t worth fighting, so she simply ignored it. Although their interaction was based on a teacher-student world, Celia liked Hannah better than any of the rest of the girls.
Hannah sat quietly on the bench that maneuvered itself in from the dining room, settling to the side of the island in the middle of the kitchen floor where most of the stirring and chopping was done. They all had slabs of leather folded in half and bound by a leather tie. Pieces of parchment and paper sat inside. Hannah pulled a few aging sheets of paper out and set them in front of her, while the other two, Marjerie and Janessa, argued over a birthday party the day before.
Celia rolled her eyes with a little sigh. “Girls, girls. Settle down. Class is about to begin. Today, we are going to work with frosting. Please go get the cakes you prepared before the weekend. They should still be wrapped in the icebox in back.”
Marjerie and Janessa tripped over each other on their way. Hannah waited behind, giving Celia a small smile as she passed. When they returned with her bidding, all of them had cakes stacked in three tiers in front of them. Hannah’s cake stood straight and true, the dimensions and proportions perfect. Marjerie’s sunk in the middle, forming a hollow crater inside. Janessa’s tipped precariously to one side.
“Tut, tut, Marjerie. I told you not to beat it so much. Janessa, you didn’t put enough flour in, and you didn’t make sure the oven was the right temperature before you put the cakes in.”
Both girls frowned at their cakes. Hannah said nothing, her eyes on a book, as if her perfect cake didn’t exist. Celia shot it a glance. There was nothing wrong with it. The frosting between the layers was even, and the same thickness on each layer. She tried to find something wrong with it, but couldn’t.
“Hannah, you’ve done very well.”
Hannah nodded once to acknowledge the compliment, but simply turned a page in her book while Marjerie and Janessa shot her dirty glares from the sides of their eyes. Celia cleared her throat.
“Let’s move on, shall we? I believe we can learn how to do buttercream frosting today, and from there, we’ll practice the art of frosting. It’s not as easy as you’d think. Gather your supplies. The recipe cards are in your homework packets.”
Celia skimmed through an old recipe book she’d had since she was a little girl while they gathered their things together. The page were old and splattered with bits of flour, grease, and oil. But the book never fell apart, the paper never broke away. It stayed together, despite the centuries that had passed through the lines of her family. At the back sat a recipe for buttercream that her mother taught her. She looked it over to reacquaint herself with it, then proceeded with the class.
By the time the three girls made the frosting, smeared it on their cakes, and themselves, and started to practice piping, Celia looked at the wall clock in surprise. The numbers were made of iron and sat directly on the wall. Two skinny arms with bulges that narrowed to a point at the end showed the time.
“Oh, dear. It’s past time we’re done. Clean up quickly, please! I must get started on lunch.”
While the culinary students put their creations back in the ice box, Celia had Janessa bring her two chickens she had roasted a few days before and began to slice them. Not long after the third-years walked away, the first-years appeared to help again. Celia re-directed them to their jobs. Within thirty minutes a lunch of shredded coleslaw with carrots, a platter of cut-up chicken, and a plate of fresh bread and cheese went out the rambunctious girls in the dining room. Celia sat on the stairs and ate a piece of bread with melted cheese, then leaned against the wall and closed her eyes.
“Cleaning, dinner preparation,” she murmured. The quill whipped around her parchment even though she never looked at it anymore. “Dessert for the celebration in two days. One more class after three. Need more firewood, remind the first-years. Don’t forget the cinnamon twirl bread for breakfast, Celia.”
“Miss Celia. Are you indisposed?”
Her eyes flew open. Miss Mabel stood a few stairs above her, crimson silk gown cascading onto the stair just above Celia’s eye. One of Mabel’s perfect eyebrows reached a high arc in question.
“No,” Celia said. “Just thinking through my day.”
“I see. Well, does that happen to include cleaning the upstairs classroom?”
“Just after lunch.”
“Wonderful,” Mabel smiled with a coy sense of allure that even Celia wasn’t immune to. Then again, Mabel always smiled when she got what she wanted. “Thank you, Celia.”
She disappeared as quietly as she came, with nothing but the swish of silk in her absence. Celia eyed the last piece of toast on the far side of the room, dripping with golden cheese, and snatched it up before the first years returned to the clamor of the kitchen.
Two girls Celia on her way to the closet to get her cleaning supplies. Celia nodded, pulling a worn kerchief out of her pocket, and tying it around her head to protect her salt and pepper curls. Once she found the bucket in the midst of the cleaning supplies the girls had thrown into the closet, she snapped her fingers. It lifted into the air and followed behind her up the stairs.
Celia walked to the far end of the hall, passing the new teacher’s office on the left. Regina. Her deep voice carried through the hall as Celia passed the front entryway, and then the third-year classroom. All their heads were low, bent over their desks, a flurry of feathers moving as they took notes.
Gaining the spiral staircase at the end, Celia slowly bang to wheeze her way up, gripping the banister as if her life depended on it. Once she made it to the attic, she stopped to huff. From there, she beckoned for the supplies to follow her into the classroom. There, she sat down and ordered the broom to begin working.
The attic was quiet, and surprisingly warm. She gazed out the window to see the tops of Letum Wood stretching to the horizon in a mass of spindly gray branches, pricking the sky like an upturned hairbrush. The clouds came low to meet the trees, hanging in a dismal chunk of cottony gray.
Finally catching up with her pounding heart, Celia took a rag and began to dust, not trusting the magic to get all the intricate details, especially on the bookshelf. While she worked, she hummed, thinking back on her life before her husband died.
Movement from the other side of the attic came, but Celia kept working. It wasn’t likely that Mabel would come out of her office to speak with her unless she needed something, but Celia was okay with that. In the aftermath of the pandemonium of the kitchen, silence was refreshing.
Once the classroom gleamed, Celia made her way back to the kitchen, leaving the cleaning supplies to return the closet with a silent command. Once she returned, the kitchen was toasty, lit by the continuously fed fire. She sighed and sat on a stool to plan the meals for the next week, her cookbook at the ready.
A few girls rushed in with some questions for her, which she answered. Then she collected the jars with the dried leaves, pulled a mortar and pestel from the cupboard, and began to grind while she looked through more cookbooks. There were many cookbooks. They lined the top of the hearth. She buzzed through them, shuffled back to her small table, and began to flip through, muttering under her breath.
“More meals to plan. Who ever said girls didn’t eat too much? Couldn’t be any harder feeding an army.”
With a deep sigh of satisfaction, Celia sank back into her life’s madness.