The night is a star-studded sheaf of sky, smeared against the glass. Orion cartwheels over the horizon; his hunting dogs chase their tails. It's a game of tag, played on a playground a million miles away.
Lilly watches. Distant. Detached.
Time drips, and drops. It oozes in slow, sluggish dollops. The crystal conservatory revolves, turns on its axis, a clinking carousel.
The sun rises. A child chases it like a hoop across the horizon. It sinks. Orion does gymnastics. The sun rolls across the sky. She watches it over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over and over, and—
The thought slices through Lilly's muggy mind, sharp and clean as a blade: why?
In a panic, Lilly realises she cannot feel her body. She can't even take a deep breath to calm down, because she can't feel her mouth. Even her thoughts are slow and sludgy, like porridge. She tries to relax, and remember the parts of her body one by one.
Head shoulders knees and toes. She's been standing still for so long she quite forgot she had knees, head, mouth or toes.
Eyes ears mouth and nose.
A nose! A nose! A kingdom for a nose. She's been watching the stars for so long, Lilly has almost become a constellation herself. Now, she pieces herself back together, connects the dots, puts herself back in order.
The thigh bone connected to the knee bone the knee bone connected to the leg bone the leg bone connected to the-
Connected to what? It's been far too long since she last moved thigh bone, leg bone, or any other bone besides.
It returns to her; the sensation of an arm, the sensation of a leg. She joins the last dot, and the picture is complete. Her. Lilly Lidell of Ripley, daughter of the local parishioner. Just like whenever she'd wake from a wonderful dream, and remember in disappointment that, Oh, right. Of course. I'm still me.
Now comes the hard part.
It takes her a fortnight, but Lilly wriggles her toes.
A week, but she clenches her fingers.
Four days, and Lilly blinks.
Three, she scratches her nose.
Two, she yawns.
One, she stretches.
Lilly emerges from a deep, long slumber, with a great long "Huuuuuuuuuuuuuoooouuuaaaaaaahaaa!" of a yawn, and most importantly; she looks down.
And blinks, again. This time, it's in surprise. The conservatory, round, tall, and gilded like a bird cage, is a clutter, full of boxes, barrels, carved cabinets from Calcutta, longswords, shortswords, all sort of swords but only the sort of swords that look expensive. Silver serving trays and gold glittering dinner plates. Boxes of live white mice; caches of gemstones, fossils and ammonites; a dinosaur skeleton; a tank with several, luminous fish; an old wooden spinning wheel, and, a crate entirely chocked with ticking clocks set to different hours.
Lilly steps forward, reaching her hand out. It hits, smack, like a lost bumblebee, against a glass wall. Her brow furrows. A partition? A window? She feels it out, trying to find where it ends and begins. The glass makes a left turn, then another, and another. Soon Lilly is back where she started. She's done no more than rotate on her heels.
A box. A glass box.
She's trapped. The fear rises up in her throat like bile, but she swallows it down. Her eyes catch on a piece of paper. She reads,
Albino specimen, eighteen years old
The fear rises again, and this time she cannot choke it down. This is a museum, and Lilly has been put on display.
The glass proved strong, shatterproof, and soundproof- though in that respect there was one other option; that there was no one around to hear her yell.
Lilly slumps down against the glass. How did I get here? I can't even remember...
What Lilly does remember: leaving Ripley. She remembers using the last of her inheritance on the train fare to London. She remembers she was supposed to have met her cousin at the station.
And she remembers standing on the platform, everyone staring. So, so many people, so that in the end all their faces blurred into one, became the same. She'd been intimidated. The world had spun. And-
Here, the footprints she left behind are footprints in the sand, washed away by the tide.
"This way Mr Darling. Madam."
Lilly's head twangs up like a cello string. She hears rich, musical laughter.
"Lindon, for God's sake! Call me Jude. You know how I detest these formalities."
There's only seconds to decide. She could call out for help; she could also be paralysed and end up stuck watching the stupid stars for a decade.
Lilly stands, slides her arms back into the fastenings, and stays as solid as stone.
A gas lamp flares. Lilly squints, her eyes watering. The squeal of shoes on marble, and shadows are cast like sails on the silk tapestry. One, two and three. It's a strange coincidental effect; standing behind the tapestry, their shapes are transposed onto the sheet as cleanly as shadow puppets.
"I hope you'll forgive my self-indulgence," the round, portly shadow called Lindon says. "I've been building this collection for decades, and I must admit, I've become quite proud of it."
"On the contrary," says Jude, "I've always been curious about the Earl's famous collection myself. It's a shame I haven't had the chance to see it till now." His shadow, tall and slim, never stays still. He uses his hands to shape his words as we would use our mouths.
Lindon's laughter, a tad embarrassed. "Ah, Jude. You have me. The truth is, I have several, ah, delicate artefacts here I would not display willy-nilly to just anyone."
"You mean they're stolen?" says the third and final voice. A woman. Matter-of-fact. She walks out from behind the tapestry, a plump hourglass of a woman, cheeks red with rouge. As she leans over to examine a Roman vase, her thick rope of hair falls over her shoulder.
"I prefer to call them, delicately acquired," Lindon says with a chuckle. He changes from shadow to man, an old man, robust from a lifetime of living well, and strides up beside the woman. "This, Madam, is a one of a kind 4th century vase, from the age of the Roman empire. Observe the pattern. There's nothing else like it in the world. One of my contacts discovered it in a flat in Edinborough, where the previous owner was using it for flowers. Dismissing how I acquired it, it has lasted over a millennia and now, will last many more. Without people like myself taking an active approach, beautiful artefacts such as this would soon disappear from the world."
His voice takes on the rousing tone of a politician, speaking to a crowd. The woman's is as dry as a stiff vodka, "I would have thought it 1st century, myself."
Lindon's quizzical glance has more than a smidgen of disdain in it. "Oh?" he says.
The final shadow steps out from behind the tapestry. Jude wraps his arm around the woman tenderly. He's striking. A bundle of bones. All angles, no curves; his high cheekbones look sharp enough to cut yourself on. Yet he has a certain sloping grace, and a certain sloping smile, fixed in perpetual amusement.
"Judith has an avid interest in the classics," he explains. "As for myself, I never pretend to be anything other than a hedonist, and will admit my interest lies not in the past but in the present."
Judith's eyes look over the shoulder of- was it her husband?- straight into her own. Lilly's heart pounds dryly. She never realised before this moment how difficult it was not to blink.
"This is an odd piece of pottery you have here, Earl," Judith says.
"Ah," Lindon's pleasure is tangible. He smiles, the cat not just with the cream, but the whole bottle of milk. "This is a recent acquisition."
"A fine wax figure. I don't think I've seen better. Very lifelike," says Jude. For some reason, the corner of Judith's mouth twitches. She eyes her with interest.
"She's as lifelike as is possible," says Lindon. "She's a real, live girl."
Jude repeats, in a surprising mimicry, "'Delicate artefacts' –Eh Lindon? I had no idea you meant this delicate. How did you do this?"
"When I was travelling in the Indies, I met a woman who sold me certain spells for certain purposes," says Lindon.
Judith gives her a look she cannot place. A moment later it strikes her; it's the look of an artisan, examining an inferior work.
"Why is she so pale?" asks Jude. "A side effect of the spell? Her hair is completely white."
"She's an albino," says Lindon. "It's a discolouring of the pigments in the skin. Isn't she beautiful? Pure as fresh snow."
Judith looks at Jude from under her lashes. He nods. Jude strides to examine some nicknack or other. "Lindon, where is this wonderful necklace from?"
Arrogance and pride drag Lindon's feet away from Lilly. "Ah! Well this, my friend, is-"
Judith leans close to examine Lilly through the glass. Their bond of mutual womanhood is enough to give Lilly the courage to move. She mouths: Help me.
Judith smiles. She leans forward to breathe on the glass. Spun sugar, it steams up. With one finger, backwards, so Lilly can read it, she writes one word.
While Lilly sleeps, shadows move. They slip, easily and freely as the slide of a secret note, under the doorway. They crawl on their bellies across the floor, avoiding the pale veil of moonlight. They climb the case, where Lilly lies, nodded off, cheek smeared against glass and lips moving from the remnant of some old nightmare. With long, creeping, crawling hands, they press the latch, and the case springs open. Their work done, they subside into slumber, seeping back, harmlessly, into the dark corners of the conservatory.
When Lilly wakes, she finds the case open.
She creeps out.
Into the conservatory.
Into the garden.
The shriek of cicadas, the clack of the shishi-odoshi.
The chill wind, creeping into her clothes.
The slumbering fragrance of jasmine.
After her weeks of incarceration, Lilly's escape was startlingly easy. The doors were all unlocked, the staff absent. The one servant sat sleeping at the postern. Suites of vaulted chambers opened out of one another like systems of Chinese boxes, and Lilly found herself at the gate.
The carriage is waiting for her outside. The black gelding snorts impatiently, scuffing its hooves on the cobbles. Judith climbs out. She rushes to Lilly, and quite suddenly, embraces her.
"Oh, thank goodness! We were worried sick you wouldn't be able to make your way out."
Crushed into Judith's ample bosom, Lilly's voice is muffled and her "I'm sorry, but who are you?" comes out more like, Mmmorrymutmoomarmou?
Judith pulls back, lifts Lilly's head with a finger, turns it from side to side. Lilly almost expects to be told to open her mouth and say, "Ahh." For a second, she's back in time, her mother is still alive, the village has not yet turned on her.
But it's cold, she doesn't know where she is, and her mother is dead.
Judith says, "How do you feel? Sometimes ill-cast enchantments like yours can leave lingering effects."
"I feel a bit groggy," Lilly admits.
As though pulled by strings, the corners of Judith's lips twitch up into a wry smile. "I think anyone would be, after a sleep as long as you've had."
The curtain on the carriage twitches open. "Judith, dear, chit chat is all very well but it's hardly the weather for it."
Judith laughs, in short, sharp barks. She ushers Lilly towards the carriage. "Come, come," she says.
"Where are we going?" asks Lilly.
"Why, you're coming home with us of course," laughs Judith.
The top of the carriage is filled with acrid smoke from Jude's black cigarette, poised between his forefinger and thumb. Lilly finds herself sandwiched tightly between him and Judith.
"Hello there," says Jude, "I don't believe we've been acquainted. My name is Jude Darling, but please, call me Jude. And the ravishing lady by your side is my twin sister, Judith."
For all their differences, Lilly had not noticed the striking similarities between them; the same cloudy grey eyes, the same nut brown hair. A shared enigmatic smile.
Fearful Symmetry by Christina Ridgley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.