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Cygnet

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Under your clothes, bruises are blooming. If you were to look in the mirror and lift your shirt, you would find them: livid purple and red blossoms shifting under your skin in the shapes of bigger boys’ boots. But you don’t look in the mirror. You covered the mirror long ago with a dressing gown, you keep a simple toilette, and when your housemates come for you, you command your hands to stop shaking.

You are almost done with sixth form, and you have not made a single friend. You tell yourself it’s just as well: every single boy at Eton is a simpleton of the lowest order, and you’re better off without any hanging off your elbow. Mummy and Daddy cannot be swayed into letting you take your GCSEs and A-levels now, and thus you are stuck here with a pack of braying donkeys whose grandfathers bought their way into the college. No surprise — you know that’s the way of the world. Someday, you’re going to twist it all in your favour. Someday, men like them will call you ‘sir’ with fear in their eyes.

But tonight, you are fourteen years old, your soft awkward body aches all over, and someone is trying to pick the lock to your room. You stand, frantic for a weapon, but all you can find is an umbrella, and you clutch it like a broadsword, exactly how your exasperated fencing master keeps trying to tell you is wrong, wrong, wrong. And damn them — your shaking hands.

The door opens and in tumbles a fey creature whose inky curls fall too long to be called proper. Your umbrella clatters to the floor as he drags in his tiny duffle and kicks the door shut behind him. He looks up at you with big eyes limned with angry tears.

“Intruder,” you say, and your youngest brother scowls at you. He is truly an ugly little thing, pointy and sharp with his angles all wrong. He is emerging from his baby fat with every bone at a nauseating slant, and to look at him induces nothing so much as vertigo. He pulls a worn bear out of his bag and kicks the rest under your bed before climbing in and making a nest of your pillows.

“Tell me a story,” he says, imperious as ever.

“You can’t be here,” you say. “How did you even get here?” It’s a three hour train ride from your home in Kent. You’ll have to call your parents. You’ll have to go to the house master to call your parents, and there will be questions. You wonder if your parents have noticed their youngest has slipped away, or if they are too occupied being in love or thinking about maths or fretting over the other one.

“Tell me a story,” your brother says again, pushing the cascade of curls out of his face. He needs a bath. He needs a solid swat to his bare bottom.

“You tell me what in God’s name you think you’re doing here.”

He tips his chin up and sets his mouth in an angry little arc. A tear slips down his face, but he’s scowling and fierce in a way that recalls a rabid badger to whom no one should extend a hand.

“Daddy took Redbeard to Dr. Treeby’s and now he’s gone forever,” he says. “It’s all Sherrinford’s fault!” He thumps his little fists on your bedding, tears flowing freely now, and something cold locks tight around the core of you. You sink into your chair and regard your brother for a long while.

You remember when he was born, your mother trying not to be disappointed that she got another boy in the genetic lottery. She was too old, over forty, and this was her last chance. But she smiled when she set him in your arms, you no older than he is now, you who looked into his eyes and found a vast, off-kilter understanding. And you remember your other brother, four years old and able to make your skin crawl, reaching up with tiny vicious fingers to pinch the baby’s arm and twist until his wail threatened to split your ear drums.

“What did Sherrinford do?” you ask. It feels like something you’re always asking. It feels like something you’ll ask until the answer is untenable, intolerable, unacceptable. Until something will have to be done about him.

“He called it an experiment,” your brother says. “But I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t.”

“Sherlock. Tell me precisely what Sherrinford did.”

“He put arsenic in his food,” he says. “I saw him. A little every day until he was so sick. He was so sick, Mikey.”

“Stop crying.”

Your brother nods, anger drained, misery forcing his chin to his chest and his arms around his knees. He’s hiding his face, but you can see the shuddering of his back. He is so small. You were never so small — you are and always have been big and sturdy. You try not to take up so much space, but you can’t help it. You stand and pace, fingers working nervously into fists. Your palms are soft. You’ll never be an athlete. You’ll never create with your hands. Your talents lie elsewhere.

Daddy may be a blind fool, but Mummy is shrewd. She will listen when you outline what must be done. She can set sentiment aside for pragmatism, when it’s needed. You have seen her run her hands, reverent, through the riot of curls on Sherlock’s head, and you have seen her hesitate to touch Sherrinford at all. Mummy knows, even if she cannot yet admit it. Mummy can be made to understand. Mummy can be made to help.

You slide into bed and haul your brother into your lap, a negligible weight, but bony. He’s safe and smelly right here in the Hopgarden. He sags against your chest and burrows into your body. It hurts where you’ve been hit over and over, but you let him. You let him.

“Once upon a time,” you say, “there was a duckling who did not look like his brothers and sisters.”

Your hands, unshaking, settle into his hair.

 

End