Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

From the Superintendent of the House of Transformation to Comrade Benjamin Carruthers:

Through the efforts of our Visiting Agent, suitable homes with good citizens – mostly farmers – have been found for those of our inmates who have given evidence of a desire to improve their condition and pursue an honest and industrious life. There are always numerous applications on file for apprentices from this Institution. We are pleased to report that a large majority of those paroled to service are giving general satisfaction to their employers, and manifest their appreciation of the training received under the restraining influence of this Institution. Should they violate the conditions of their parole, and get into bad habits or company, they are again apprehended and returned to this Institution.
 

From the Superintendent of the House of Transformation to Servant Lucy:

I am sorry to report that I cannot provide you with the information you have requested, namely the current address of your son Emmanuel. We have found that it is bad for boys who have been placed out to work in local farms to come in contact with their people. These people visit them, give them gifts which they do not need, correspond with them, and in general get the boys dissatisfied with their surroundings, no matter how good they may be, with the result, in every case, that the boys run away, causing much trouble and expense to recapture them.


o—o—o

The road lay south of the transformatory. Bat made his way down the lane and under the gate-sign across the lane that said "House of Transformation." There were no guards to stop him – just a gate that had already been opened to allow through the horse-truck from the nearby farm that delivered fresh milk daily. The Superintendent wanted the transformatory to buy milk cows once it had the funding, but in the meantime, a portion of the House's tiny funds went to buy milk. Some of that milk even made its way to the boys' dining room.

The road was empty; the faintest light could only just be seen on the eastern horizon. Bat began to walk down the road, very aware of the cottage he had left behind.

Joe had insisted on coming with him, at least as far as the porch. "I want to sit alone on the porch and watch the sun rise," he had told Bat. "These days, there's always someone with me. No offense, pal, but I feel like I have a ball-and-chain around my ankle."

Bat could understand that, so he'd carried Joe down the stairs; then, at the younger boy's request, he'd gone back and fetched Joe's crutches from where they were usually kept, next to Joe's bed. The rest of the boys were asleep. If Trusty heard Bat taking Joe downstairs, he didn't emerge from his room to object. It was close enough to rising time for the boys, and Joe could do his work in the broom manufactory well enough with an hour's less sleep. When Bat left Joe on the porch, the boy was lighting up a cigarette.

Bat turned off the road, walking toward death.

o—o—o

"I can't find my shoe!"

Joe had been frantic that day, Bat remembered. They all knew the penalty for a lost shoe. With funds short for leather, a fifth of the apprentices had no shoes to wear at all and had to be confined to the cottages during bad weather.

"Why'd you take your shoe off in this weather?" That was Emmanuel, forever in a bad mood since he'd been returned to the transformatory after he attempted to escape home from the farm where he'd been placed out. He'd be at the House of Transformation till he'd regained the merit-grades he'd lost.

"It's freezing," agreed Mordecai, shivering as he stood in the snow. It was their play-hour; all six of the boys from the Little Dorm were together during the daytime, a rare occurrence these days.

"My foot was swelling up from standing all those hours, making those bloody brooms. Oh, the shoe must be here somewhere!"

"Take my shoes." Frank promptly divested himself of his shoes, ignoring the fact that he was standing knee-deep in the playground snow. "I'm bigger than you; they'll fit over your swollen foot."

"But then you'll be in trouble!" Joe tried to push the shoes back.

"Look, we'll all be in trouble if we don't get inside," Bat argued. "Chapel bell's rung for the end of play. —Oh, sweet blood, here's the Super."

o—o—o

The cemetery was very small. Bat had heard the Super boast about that fact. Bat made his way along the ragged rows, his feet squishing down in the ground made wet by the melting snow. All the gravestones were the same shape: circular, to signify rebirth. The inscriptions on the oldest gravestones had worn away.

o—o—o

"I am very disappointed with you boys," said the Super. "Taking your shoes off in weather like this! I know that you like to frolic in the snow, but really—"

"Sir, it wasn't like that!" protested Joe, shivering as he stood on his one, shoed foot, like a heron. Frank was shifting from foot to barefoot foot; his face had gone grey from the cold.

"Not another word from you. Where is No. 1611? Still in the hospital room? Well, take them upstairs, Master Modder."

The Watchman moved swiftly. Bat ran after them, three shoes in his arms, but he was too late.

o—o—o

The inscriptions on the gravestones had a bleak sameness about them as well. "Servant William / From Point Patience / Died in peace / Aged 17 years." "Servant Ashbury / From Dare Wharf / Died in peace / Aged 15 years." "Servant Anthony / From Little Cove Point / Died in peace / Aged 11 years."

Bat made his way down the rows, searching.

o—o—o

"Where's the Watchman? It's his job to look after them."

"I already told him." It was Joe's voice from the other side of the door, scornful. "Do you think he cares? Told us we deserve to be sick."

"What about Super?"

"We'll get hurt bad if we wake him." That was Slow. After three trips to the whipping post, Slow had finally grasped that even the most trivial and nonsensical of the Super's rules must be obeyed.

"We could fetch Trusty—"

"No!" It was Bat, sharp. "It's bad enough he has to be lying in the same sickroom as a consumptive. Trusty is barely breathing with that bad bronchitis he's got. We mustn't pull him out of bed."

"Don't you have the key?"

"Not me. Cook told me to wait here till the Watchman arrived."

"That could be when the cycle of time ends!"

"I'll tell Mastress Bennington," said Mordecai breathlessly. "She'll bring help, I know she will." And he was off, before any of them could make a half-hearted offer to go in his place.

"It won't do any good!" Joe shouted after him.

Frank simply moaned. He hadn't spoken for days.

o—o—o

Bat glanced at the light on the horizon. He was due to start work in the dining room soon, laying oil-cloths on the tables. He might lose a merit-grade if he was late. But the other boys had been talking all week about whether they should slip off the campus and come here. If he came here as the Little Dorm's representative, perhaps he could confine the trouble to himself. The Little Dorm already had a bad enough reputation with the Super.

o—o—o

"—ashamed of you boys for being out of your beds in the middle of the night. Just because No. 1611 is sick and Master Modder is stretched in his duties is no reason for you to take advantage of their absence to be waking my daughter and her husband from their sleep—"

"Say, can you just get the deciding over with, whether Frank and me are going to live or die?" That was Joe, understandably irritated by the delay.

"That is quite enough from you," the Superintendent responded with asperity.

"But they're sick," pleaded Slow. While Mordecai was gone, the boys had agreed that Slow should speak on behalf of them; he was clearly not the sort of boy to make up tales.

Unable to resist contributing, though, Emmanuel added, "Their feet are right bad. And they're shivering cold. They only have two thin blankets and one shoe between them—"

"And whose fault is that, may I ask?" Again, the Super's tone was sharp, but he had gestured to the Watchman, who obediently stepped forward and opened the door with his key. Bat let out the breath he had not known he was holding.

The door opened to the narrow punishment cell. Frank lay on the bed under the two blankets, eyes slitted open, moaning constantly. His feet were sticking out from the blankets; they were an ugly color. Joe had prudently backed up so that he was standing in the tiny space at the back of the cell; he was on one, shoed foot – his shoe was too small to fit Frank's feet, they knew – while his other foot was up against the wall, hidden in the shadows.

"Mm." The Superintendent prodded Frank's feet. "They do appear to need doctoring. I'll have the physician examine them when he comes for his usual visit, after week's break."

Slow emitted a wail. Joe shouted, "He won't last that long, you bloody fool!"

The Super glowered at him. "Don't you use that tone of voice with me, young servant."

"Look," said Emmanuel, trying to appeal to the Super's common sense, "if our doctor can't come sooner, couldn't you call for a doctor from the capital?"

"And pay his train fare here? You boys obviously have no sense how tight this transformatory's budget is."

Bat knew it was futile, but he made his own try. "If you let them go back to their own beds in our dorm—"

"On no account. They've served only one week of their punishment." The Super jerked the thin blankets over Frank's feet and turned to where Bat stood, holding the tray. "Is that their supper? Let them have their bread and water. . . . Good. Now, I want you two boys to eat your supper, stay warm, and I promise you that the physician will come see you, first thing in the morning after week's break. Till then, I trust that you will meditate upon the consequences of your dangerous behavior. Lock them up again, Master Modder."

There was silence after they left. Even Joe could not seem to think of any curses powerful enough for this occasion. Then Slow said, "Do you think he remembers they got no heat?"

Frank burst into tears.

o—o—o

It was the last gravestone in the last row. It was shaped just like the others; only the inscription looked crisp, fresh-carved.

"Servant Frank / From Solomons Island / Died in peace / Aged 13 years."

Perhaps he had indeed died in peace, sleeping under the anesthesia. But Joe's last sight of the older boy had been of Frank screaming from pain and fear as he was taken into the operating room to have his gangrened feet amputated.

Bat drew a ring of rebirth on his forehead, knelt down, and took the apple from his pocket. The Masters' Festival had been held the previous day; the boys had each been allowed an apple left over from the autumn harvest. Bat placed his on the grave. His throat tight, he said, "I know you're in a better place, Frank. I know you are. You just wait there for the rest of us. We'll come for you, in the end. And when we do, it'll be like old times in the Little Dorm."

The campus remained silent when he arrived back. The lamps in the kitchen and dining room were lit in the north wing of the Administration Building; otherwise, all the lights were out. The Superintendent had apparently already smoked his pre-dawn cigar and gone back inside to bed, for there was no sign of him on the porch, though the stub of his cigar continued to glow on the dirt path.

Bat moved automatically forward to stomp it out; the transformatory never held any fire drills, but Bat had been well trained by his boat-master as to the consequences of fire on a boat on the Bay. As he reached the cigar, he thought of what lay ahead. His own future seemed bleak, and as for Joe, who had survived the amputation of his right foot, there lay decades ahead in the broom manufactory that he and Frank had hated so much. The Super had already indicated that Joe would always have a home at the House of Transformation. Joe had managed to keep from spitting in his face.

o—o—o

". . . regret most deeply the unusual loss of one of our inmates. We pride ourselves on the transformatory's low mortality rate. I admit fully to my own poor judgment in not immediately summoning a doctor from the city, once the boy's condition was drawn to my attention. Next time I will not allow financial considerations to enter into such decisions. The boy's premature passage into rebirth is truly a tragedy."

The Superintendent's words. The Little Dorm hadn't heard him speak at the coroner's inquest; Emmanuel had stolen a newspaper from the Watchman and had read the news account to the other boys, the night after Joe arrived back from the hospital.

"But I strongly object to the suggestion made in Your Honor's court that I should not have punished the boys in the first place. I found the two of them frolicking in the snow, without any shoes on at all! No doubt, if I had not intervened, they would have given themselves pneumonia and died overnight. I rescued them from the snow and placed them in a locked room in an attempt to save their lives."

o—o—o

"There's malicious fools," muttered Bat as he ground out the cigar with his heel, "and there's well-meant fools. And then there's murdering fools. I know which one you are, Super." Feeling fury fierce in his chest like the return of a familiar friend, he picked up the now-dead cigar and tossed it into the shrubbery, to save the overworked grounds-boys from having to clean it up.

The shrubbery was placed against the Administration Building's basement. Standing with his back to the rest of the campus, Bat paused. Then he cautiously walked forward, knelt, and peered through the window.

Joe was right: fire was like a ravenous beast. It had already consumed most of the broom manufactory in the south wing, kept back from entering the central tower and north wing only by the stone wall at the end of the manufactory, which held no door. But the fire was reaching high enough that soon it would be lapping the floorboards of the main storey.

Bat backed away hastily, his gaze turning automatically, instinctively toward Family Cottage Trustworthy. Joe wasn't on the porch. Neither were his crutches.

Of course not. Only one arsonist lived on campus. Only one boy forever kept matches in his pockets. Only one boy had sufficient motive for revenge.

Bat's initial reaction was relief. He was saved – they were all saved. The Administration Building would burn down, no doubt slowly enough that the workers in the kitchen and dining room in the north wing would escape unscathed. But with no Administration Building, no dining room, no chapel, the transformatory would be forced to close. The boys would be sent home. They'd be free.

He had not yet proceeded far enough to examine the fallacies in this assumption when another thought occurred to him. Or rather, not a thought, but a voice.

Trusty's voice, on the first day: "Super's bedroom is above the broom manufactory."

Then he was running, shouting, before he knew what he was doing. Only old training from the fire drills made him pause as he reached the porch door. Placing his palm on the door, which proved to be cool, he flung his sleeve over the lower half of his face and opened the door.

Smoke greeted him. Not fire; the flames had not yet reached the main storey. But smoke was pouring through the floorboards, creating a thin haze like morning mist.

He looked around frantically. He'd never before visited the south wing, and he didn't have time to search all the doors in the corridor in front of him. The floorboards under his feet were blazing hot, even through the soles of his shoes.

Then it occurred to him that, if the Superintendent came out onto the Administration Building's south porch every morning, that must mean his room was closer to the south porch than to the tower porch.

A door stood to the right of Bat. He flung it open.

The Superintendent lay on his bed, under a quilt, with a bolster and pillow under his head. His eyes were closed and he was coughing – clearly unaware that he was choking to death in his sleep.

This was no time for servant protocol. Bat ran over to the bed and flung off the quilt.

"Wha—?" The Super's startled exclamation ended in a series of hacking coughs.

"Fire, sir!" Bat managed to choke out. "Come with me!"

The Superintendent was an intelligent man; he did not pause for further questions but sat up, slid his feet into the slippers next to the bed, and let Bat help him out of the room. Without his cane, he leaned heavily against Bat and would have fallen at one point, but Bat doggedly pulled him into the corridor and through the porch door.

Trusty took the Super from Bat's arm. He was still wearing the white gown of a hospital patient. "Heard you shouting," Trusty said tersely as the Superintendent leaned over the railing to vomit from the smoke. "I got him. Go ring the bell."

Six hours later, it was all over. While most of the inmates had turned the steam-pump hoses upon the main storey of the south wing to keep the fire from spreading, a select collection of journeymen, employees, and officers had extinguished the fire in the manufactory. The Superintendent was everywhere, giving orders as he hobbled along with the aid of the makeshift cane that Trusty had made for him, out of a long stick.

Now, as the Super consulted with Trusty, Bat sat on the steps of the tower porch of the Administration Building, feeling sick and shaken, and not simply from the smoke. He'd already told the local fire inspector that he'd seen the Superintendent's cigar fall through one of the broken window panes and start the fire in the basement. Joe had discreetly remained in Family Cottage Trustworthy during the fire, so no suspicion had fallen in his direction.

But would Joe understand why Bat had saved the Administration Building? Why he had saved the life of the man whose foolishness had killed Frank? Would any of the boys in the Little Dorm understand? Bat didn't even understand why he'd done it.

Breaking away from his conversation with the Superintendent, Trusty came over to Bat. Bat looked up at him, not knowing what to say. Trusty leaned over.

"Eight," he whispered in Bat's ear.

Bat looked down at the merit-grade badge that Trusty had pressed into his hand. He said slowly, "You know, at this rate, I'll be nigh on nineteen years old before I get my parole."

"Worry about that when time comes," advised Trusty and gave him a brief squeeze of the shoulder before going over to help with the inspection of the ruined broom manufactory.