Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
In the small village of Saint Agnes, along the rocky shores of Cornwall, in a country that time forgot, there lived a very lonely young girl named Opal Torchveil. While some of us are born to teach, or invent, or lead, or repair the things that others cannot, some of us have no idea what it is we are born to do with ourselves. Opal certainly didn’t. Her destiny was ripped away when she lost her parents at the age of three and was now far from any trace of that past life. But the funny thing about destinies is that no matter where we find ourselves, or what circumstances befall us, our true selves seem to find their way out, for good or ill, and today was the day that a shadow of Opal’s future was about to surface.
Each summer day had been blending into the next for Opal and the other children of Clattenrot Foster home. Yet from the moment she rolled off her bed of cardboard boxes and wandered through the dimly lit kitchen, Opal felt that today was somehow different. A stillness filled the air as she stood in line to receive her garden tools from Tommy Braskins, the eldest boy in the Clattenrot home, and the meanest. The shadow of something large passed above the children yet Opal was the only one to notice.
Perched on the peak of the equipment shed roof was a large black bird that Opal had never seen. At least twice as large as a crow, the bird’s eyes, nearly human in appearance, locked on her every move and as the children began their march through the cobble streets of St Agnes, past shops still in darkness and homes with sleeping families, the bird followed.
When Opal daydreamed, bored with her chores, she imagined fantastic creatures hiding among the dust balls she swept from under old furniture or camouflaged among the weeds she pulled. Yet this bird was different; it wasn’t imagined. But as she tried to get the attention of Ellis, the only kid at the Clattenrot Foster home who paid her any kindness, she ended up dropping her weeding trowel and earning a kick from Tommy for falling behind.
Opal now stood, as she often did, toward the back of the gaggle of children listening to Miss Clattenrot’s morning instructions. She scanned the garden for the large bird but all she could see peeking above the garden wall was a black hat on the head of someone standing near the bakery: Sift and Whip. She pressed the toes of her right foot into the dusty soil and began to drag them in a graceful arc, leaving behind a curved trail, ignoring Clattenrot’s lecture.
“The grounds will be impeccable. The lawns measured to precisely seven centimeters tall. And, put down your hand Ellis,” shouted Ms Clattenrot as she waved off the the question from the shortest and roundest of the boys.
“You will be issued rulers to verify the heights and I expect they will be returned clean and undamaged. Hand shears will be returned clean and oiled. If I fail to find your shears properly stored, you will be spending the next three nights in the basement.” Clattenrot’s coarse voice echoed off the brick walls of the shops surrounding the Teaberry garden. Her eyes scanned the children for a sign of understanding when she caught Opal scratching at the soil.
“Is that clear?” she snarled to the children as she stepped toward Opal. “What do have today Miss van Gogh? Another masterpiece in the mud?”
Opal’s breath stopped and she kept her gaze to the ground; avoiding Clattenrot’s stare. “Torchveil,” she murmured under her breath.
“What’s that? Speak up child, it’s rude to mutter.”
Opal raised her eyes to meet Clattenrot’s, nearly wincing as they first looked into the bloodshot orbs, but something about the air today gave her a strength. She straightened her small body and pronounced, “My name is Torchveil. Not van Gogh and not any of the other stupid names you--,” but Opal was cut off from speaking as her right ear blazed with the fire of a hard smack to the side of the head. The sound of Clattenrot’s open hand colliding with Opal’s face rung through the garden like a warning bell.
“Know your place,” growled Ms Clattenrot keeping her hard gaze on Opal’s wounded expression before she turned to scowl at the other children, who immediately raised shears and rulers to the their sides with military precision. They scattered from the assembly area behind Ms Teaberry’s candle shop to their assigned gardens and yards.
Opal was left alone in the Teaberry rose garden with Ms Clattenrot. She glanced toward the garden wall to see the owner of the black hat staring at her as he lazily leaned against the stone front of the bakery. He seemed out of place and as Opal eyed his odd clothing and curious expression the sting faded from her face. The man wore his old black fedora at a rakish angle. He was almost shabby-looking yet, not. His corduroy coat and grey wool suit with orange stripes, though wrinkled, were stylish in an eccentric sort of way. She could see the side of his face and a short pointed beard that sported patches of white which he stroked like someone deep in thought.
“Are you ready for crumpets Clattle?” shouted the sweet voice of round Mrs Teaberry from the back door of her candle shop. For some odd reason, the kind old woman enjoyed Ms Clattenrot’s company and stuffed her with crumpets and tea while the children tended to the landscaping business.
“Coming Teabee,” Ms Clattenrot shouted back in a sickening falsetto. “I’ll be watching you, you little twit,” she huffed as she marched away to stuff her face and gossip.
“No you won’t,” Opal muttered under her breath, turning her back to Clattenrot and her attention to the smell of roses. She tried to imagine herself rising above the garden on the drafts of sweet perfume with wings covered in rose petals. Up to a place where the ugliness of her life faded away. For a moment she could almost feel her feet lift from the ground and wings extend from her back.
But instead of flying above St Agnes, Opal instead dropped to her knees in front of the centerpiece of the garden (a prize winning rosebush with flowers of orange and red that resembled living flames in the right light.) She began snipping the turf to the required height of seven centimeters. She had no idea how much time had passed when she felt something small and hard strike her backside. Opal turned to see Tommy Braskins, the eldest of the boys at Clattenrot Place, standing at the garden gate.
“Oy you git. Wake up. Lunchtime.” Tommy surveyed the garden and curled his upper lip. “You’re not even half way though, Dopal.” He shook his head in disgust. “We’ll be pickin’ up your slack again,” shouted Tommy as he turned and headed back out the gate.
Opal slumped sideways in the grass and surveyed the garden. It seemed different somehow; the roses less colorful and their perfume had turned sour. As she fixated on the most spectacular flaming rose bush at the center of the garden, a dark shadow darted through the far right edge of her view. She turned, but nothing was there. She stood. The man with the hat was gone. Again there was movement but beyond the far edge of her vision. Opal spun herself around in a circle and back to the center of the garden to find the prize-winning rosebush; scorched and dead.
This had been the most spectacular plant in the whole garden, the one people came from other towns to visit and admire and envy and it had somehow turned black as coal. The flower petals, the leaves, the stems, all inky black and reeking of sulfur.
“No, no, no. This isn’t happening,” she shouted. “Not now. Not now.” She reached for a leaf of the dead shrub and watched as it turned to ash.