Home > Odd & True

Odd & True
Author: Cat Winters


ONCE UPON A TIME . . .


“Tell me the story again,” I urged my sister in the nighttime blackness of our attic bedroom.

Odette rolled toward me on her side of the bed. The straw mattress crunched and shifted beneath her weight, and her brown eyes shone in the trace of moonlight straining through the shadows.

“Please,” I said with a hopeful squeak in my voice, which made me sound such a baby compared to her, an eight-year-old girl, almost nine.

“Oh, Tru.” My sister burrowed her right cheek against her pillow. “You know the story so well.”

“Tell me again. My leg hurts, and I really, really want to hear it.”

She sighed with a force that rustled the curls peeking out from beneath my nightcap.

“Please, Od,” I begged. “Tell me about the day I was born . . . and Papa’s horse . . . and the tower.”

Downstairs, our uncle William readjusted his chair and coughed on the pipe smoke that clogged up his throat every evening. I stiffened, fearful that Od would tell me to be quiet and go to sleep. Outside, the wind howled across the roof with a mournful wail that shook the rafters and turned my insides tingly and cold. Mama’s hand mirror lay propped on the windowsill, the glass turned toward the trees behind the house to capture anything diabolical that might creep toward us while we slept. Sometimes I wondered if the mirror was enough . . .

“All right.” Od sighed again. “Since it is your birthday, I suppose I could tell you the story . . .”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I smiled and wriggled my shoulders beneath the wool blankets.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“Here it goes, then.” My sister leaned close to my left ear and whispered, “Once upon a time, on a cold January morning, five years ago today, a girl named Trudchen Maria Grey was born in a castle built to resemble a stone Scottish fortress called Dunnottar . . .”

I swallowed, while rain pelted the thin glass of our windowpane. The wind—that fierce and tempestuous witch borne from high on the snowcapped peaks of the Cascade Range—blew through the cracks in the walls and turned our sheets to ice.

Odette snuggled close enough that the warmth of her body and her long cotton nightgown burned away the chill. Our elbows touched. I closed my eyes, and the splattering of the rain turned into the galloping of hooves tearing across a golden canyon.

“Tell me more,” I whispered, even though I knew what was coming next.

“Papa hurried home from selling one of his grandest paintings to a rich ranchero who lived in an old adobe by the Pacific Ocean. He loosened the reins and urged his handsome black stallion forward, and he smiled when he spied the first stone tower of the palace he’d built high on the side of a California hill. I’m sure you don’t even remember that tower.”

“But I do.” I nodded and saw in my mind’s eye a rounded tower made of gray blocks of stone, topped by a brilliant scarlet flag that rippled in a breeze. “I think I do remember it.”

“We moved away from there when you were just two, Tru. You couldn’t possibly—”

“I remember!”

“Well . . . then you must remember how magnificent it was. The castle was filled with furniture made of velvet, rugs from the Far East, and other spellbinding treasures from across the world. And it was, oh, so colorful . . . greens and reds and gold and bright royal blue. Performers arrived the night after you were born. Persian dancers, an Arabian flutist, a lady opera singer in a horned Viking hat . . . They celebrated. Everyone was always celebrating inside our castle, and the place smelled of roasted turkey and gingerbread cakes and . . . and . . . and little chocolate pastries sprinkled with powdered sugar that looked just like fresh, sweet snow.”

“Didn’t the noise of the party wake me up, if I was a sleeping little baby?”

“Not at all, silly.” Od pulled on one of my blond curls and let it spring back against my cheek. “Mama kept you wrapped in a heavy cloth to muffle the noise.”

“Mmm,” I said in a dreamy murmur, and I saw it all: our beautiful, brown-haired mother holding a swaddled, infant version of me close to her chest while music, dancing, and feasting surrounded us. I saw vast stone walls that stretched three stories high; windows carved into the stone in the shape of thimbles; women with hair the color of ravens, swiveling their hips, hypnotizing the room with the movements of their arms, which jangled with gleaming bracelets.

In the real version of life, I smelled Uncle William’s pipe smoke from downstairs and heard the clicking of Aunt Viktoria’s knitting needles, but I told myself they were the scents of the roasting turkey on the crackling fire, the tap-tap-taps of ladies’ heels gliding across a marble floor.

“Wasn’t there an elephant?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, of course,” said Od. “Papa knew all sorts of people—artists, poets, actors, explorers, a magician, fortune-tellers, circus folk. He invited P. T. Barnum, who happened to be in California that very night. In the front garden, I rode Barnum’s famous elephant, Jumbo, while Papa painted a portrait of me doing so. The magician even managed to levitate the beast off the ground.”

“But the magician was bad, wasn’t he?” I tugged the quilt over my right shoulder. “He once took you away and made Mama cry. And he hurt Papa.”

Od drew her bottom lip inside her mouth and hesitated, the way she always stopped and left me waiting—gaping, holding my breath—before speaking about the magician.

“He wasn’t entirely bad,” she said. “He practiced his most wondrous spells on us. You probably don’t remember, but he used to raise us into the air without any strings attached to us, like he did with the elephant. Long before that awful old polio attacked you, you were flying up to the tallest tapestries inside our castle walls, as free as a sparrow.”

“I flew?” I asked, my eyes widening, for I had never heard this part of the tale.

“Yes. The magician wore a cape lined in red silk, and he’d lift his arms—”

I heard the flap of a long black cape and saw the sheen of the crimson lining.

“—and he’d utter a magical phrase: ‘Lifto magicus Escondido.’” Od raised her head off the pillow and propped herself up on an elbow. “We rose off the ground, floated into the air like two Russian ballerinas, and ran our fingertips through the top tassels of tapestries with pictures of golden-haired ladies on swings. Mama even gave me a feather duster so I could swipe away all the cobwebs up there.”

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