July 11, 2011
Once upon a time, there were two little girls.
As twin sisters, they were quite alike. Both had hair as pale gold as the May sunlight streaming through a gap in the clouds; both had eyes the same bright, poster-paint blue as cornflowers; both had lips stained deep, dark red as if soaked in cherry juice.
And as twin sisters, they were nothing alike. One, the elder by a handful of fevered heartbeats, feared nothing and nobody. When they played, it was she who first climbed every tree, she who rode highest on the swings, she who challenged the other children and stood up for them both. She was sure of herself, in mind and in body, excelling in gymnastics, running, rounders and routinely winning in the egg-and-spoon race on Sports Day, but at the same time gifted with a swift and sharp wit and a formidable memory.
Even at nine years old, no-one who met Peony forgot her easily. She blazed through the lives around her like a tiny flaxen comet.
The younger twin, on the other hand, was a soft and tremulous creature: fragile, frightened, coy and clumsy. She stayed in the shadows, against walls and in corners, unless her sister was there to draw her out, speaking seldom, communicating instead through looks and touches. She was too timid for sports, flinching away from the ball in rounders and freezing on the starting line of every race, but when there was music, everything changed. She would close her eyes and hide between the notes, becoming something fleeting and ethereal when she danced or sang.
Of everything the world could offer, Pris loved two things. Music, and her sister.
The twins lived in an enchanted manor on a high hill looking out across a great old river slowly dying into the sea. The manor nestled deep within a nest of gardens, one inside another, with orchards hiding flower beds that opened onto mazes that bowed down into fields of long dry grass blowing in the breeze. Only one road went there, a white chalk driveway that spiraled up the hill to the crowning house and its twin jewels.
The place was drenched, perpetually, in a haze of summer sunlight and the smell of dry grass and apple blossom, haloed around the walls in the same way the love of the girls’ mother and father – and their love for each other – surrounded them.
But one night, when the sky was black and shivering with thunder, a Terrible Thing happened. Bright flames wrapped around the enchanted manor, melting the windows into water and eating away at the wood and stone. The girls’ mother and father screamed and seared their hands on the white-hot doorknob but the line of nails across the door to their room told the tale of the wooden boards on the other side, and when they broke the windows, more planks blotted out the gardens and the fire engines that came.
The girls fled the flames. First they tried to go downstairs, but the fire and smoke were thick in the hallways and the blistered, reaching hands of the housekeeper sent both into flight. They ran up the stairs, climbing higher and higher as they looked for a way out.
A glass door, a thrown lamp, a high balcony, a long ladder, the swirl of blue lights and red engines and calm men with reassuring voices and strong but gentle hands. One sister stood atop the ladder, tugging on the other’s hand as she looked past her, back into the dark and the flames and screamed, falling as her sister flew back and away in a halo of smoke and sparks.
It was Peony that saved her sister, pushing her onto the ladder and letting go her hand.
But it was Pris that looked back and saw the monster in the dark.