Siala's Orphans

by Ciarrai Manning


The brilliant blue sky was a stark contrast to the dark clouds that hung over our heads that Monday morning as we made our way through the shanties and into the upper class section of Cork. We knew we weren't allowed there. We knew that within moments of setting foot on Elder Street, several distinguished members of the neighborhood would come running at us, brandishing their canes and shouting threats and cruel names at us. They would probably call my brother a "street rat" and label me a "doxy." But we couldn't back down. Our futures depended on us reaching the Orphanage, our prospective new home. At least, that's what the Old Man had said.

My brother, Ciarron, and I are orphans. We don't know who our parents were, or whether they are even still alive. The Old Man had been the closest we ever got to a parent. He hadn't been a blood relative, and he never told us how he had come to be the one who raised us. We did know, however, that he had loved us, and we loved him deeply in return. He had become sick during that horrid epidemic that the adults called An Gorta Mor. All of the potatoes available had somehow become poisoned. A lot of our neighbors had died from eating them. That, along with losing our humble home thanks to the blizzards two winters ago, killed our beloved Old Man. Yet, before he left us, he told us this:

"There is only one place left for you now. Seek out Mistress Bitney's Orphanage, at 214 Elder Street. Don't look that way, Ciarrai, the Upper is not as frightening as stories tell, although I do advise you make your journey quick and unnoticed. Believe me, children, your lives will be much better at the Orphanage. Go with my blessings and my love, and tell Mistress Bitney that I sent you. She should be expecting you."

And so, after ensuring that the Old Man received a proper burial and an appropriate service, Ciarron and I packed our meager belongings and started the journey to the Upper. The sun was high in the sky as we reached Pine Street, where the wealthy part of town begins. The change in social status was becoming obvious in the states of the houses we passed. The whitewashed walls were cleaner than the rough stone sties found in the shanties, and instead of potato fields surrounding them, beautiful flowerbeds filled with native and some exotic plants adorned these homes.

The Old Man had been right when he had said not all Upper folk sneered down at us poor citizens. One middle-aged woman with a babe on her hip took pity on us. She offered us access to her well so we could wash ourselves some and slake our monstrous thirsts. I played with her little baby while Ciarron washed his face. The little girl had her mama's lovely, big brown eyes and a little tuft of curly golden yellow hair alike to the color of Ciarron's and mine on the top of her pink head. I made faces at her while she clung to my finger. I couldn't get enough of her sweet gurgle of a laugh. All too soon, we had to bid farewell to the two of them and continue on our way.

Within mere minutes, we finally arrived at the corner of Pine and Elder. Right away we could see number 214 three houses down. I could feel Ciarron's heart wildly beating in tune with mine as we swiftly and quietly fluttered down the street and up to the front stoop of number 214. The door was a lovely shade of brown with an ornate and ancient looking knocker. My own heart had slowed its pace, but I could still hear my brother's beating frantically. Without a word I knew that Ciarron wanted me to knock, as he was too nervous. Ciarron knew that I too was nervous. Why shouldn't we have been? We had no way of knowing if we were to be welcome at the Orphanage or what kind of life we would have if we were. Yet, my recklessness dominated my nervousness, and I lifted and dropped the knocker without hesitation.

The door creaked as it opened, and I couldn't help but stare at the boy who opened it. He looked to be about my age; his ear-length, curly dark brown hair had fallen in front of one of his oddly familiar, almond-shaped, deep yet bright blue eyes. I became acutely aware that my dress was torn and stained, my face dirty, and my hair tangled. Ciarron was unfazed and clearly a lot calmer than before.

"We're looking for Mistress Bitney," I heard him say.

"Come in, I'll get her," the boy replied. Timidly we stepped inside. As the boy loped down the hall before us calling "Grandma," Ciarron and I looked around at our surroundings. A grand spiraling staircase to our left rose several floors while a winding hallway lead toward the back of the house and out of sight. Despite the elegance of the building, what struck us the most was the obvious fact that the interior was larger than the quaint, humble exterior.

There was little time to ponder how this could be, for the boy was returning, followed by an elderly woman with long white hair and eyes as blue as her grandson's. She smiled warmly at us when she reached us at the door. Her smile spread clear up to her eyes, which upon closer inspection were adorned by many laugh lines and noble crow's feet.

"Mistress Bitney?" Ciarron inquired.

"That would be me," she replied in a lovely, thick British accent. Then, upon seeing the sorry state of our raiment and hearing the protests of our empty stomachs, she ushered us into a large kitchen to the right of the great hallway. She sat us down on two wooden stools and herself upon an identical seat on the other side of the rough-hewn table at one end of the room. Without looking away from us, she addressed the boy, who had followed us into the kitchen. "Liam, dear, would you fetch some food and juice for our guests?" Liam nodded once and began bustling around the cupboards.

"Now," Mistress Bitney continued. "What can I do for you poor dears?"

Ciarron looked at me and I at him. I could feel how weary he was from three days' lack of sleep. Silently I told him I would take care of the talking.

"My name is Ciarrai," I began. "And this is my brother Ciarron." I proceeded to explain to the curious woman about our unknown parents, our life with the Old Man, and finally the death of the Old Man and our surprisingly unhindered journey to the Orphanage. "The Old Man," I concluded, "told us to tell you he sent us."

For a moment after I finished our story, Mistress Bitney was silent. Before she could speak again, Liam appeared at the table with two plates full of cheeses and fruits and two wooden trenchers full of an amber-colored liquid. When he placed one of the plates and one cup before me he smiled at me. He had a warm, infectious smile with a touch of mischief; I didn't even realize when I returned it. It was then, at that moment, that I noticed a silver cord stretching the distance between us. I could feel it, too, a slight tugging from his heart to mine that gave me a strange and unidentifiable feeling. I knew that he noticed it as well when his bright eyes widened slightly. In the infinite instant when our eyes locked once more, I could somehow feel our futures becoming tightly intertwined, although even to myself that sounds crazy. Unfortunately, the intense, and short, moment was broken abruptly when Mistress Bitney once more spoke. It had happened so fast I'm still not positive that it actually happened.

"This Old Man," Mistress Bitney said, "do you know what his proper name was?"

"Otto," Ciarron spoke up. "He never told us his surname. Did you know him?"

Her eyes became shaded by a memory, and when she finally answered, it was as though she spoke from a distance. "I did; a long time ago. He sent me a letter recently, it was the first time I had heard from him in a years. He told me that his health was failing and that he would be sending two exceptional children to me. I am assuming those two children are you. Your surname is Manning, is it not?"

"Yes, ma'am, it is," my brother replied.

"Mistress Bitney," I began asking, "Wha—"

"Siala, darling," she interrupted. "All my orphans call me by my first name. It adds a sense of closeness to the classrooms."

Ciarron and I smiled, knowing that her words had just told us we could stay there.

"Siala," I continued, "What did the Old Man mean by saying 'exceptional'?"

"Did Otto never tell you what purpose my Orphanage serves?" Siala looked slightly confused. We shook our heads. "My Orphanage is a school. But not just any school, it's a school of magic."

Ciarron and I must have looked surprised, for Siala laughed. We shouldn't have been surprised; our whole lives my brother and I have been able to do many things others cannot. Like how we can speak to one another in our minds; or how Ciarron can manipulate a person's emotions with his thoughts; how we both can see and hear form far distances; and how I can see and feel what others can not, like the silver cord, or Ciarron's heartbeat. We've just never put a word to our abilities, let alone the word "magic." And when Siala ceased to laugh, we explained all this to her.

"All the more reason for you to stay here!" she replied enthusiastically. "You will be happy here among other children with similar talents, and safe from the scorn of those who do not understand us. All of my orphans are respected in this area of town.

"So now only one question remains: Where shall you two sleep?"

Ciarrai Manning Page 5