Maya sat with the other ten six year olds; Three boys, seven girls. The orphanage did not separate boys and girls until they were 12. The table next to them held the seven year olds. There were thirteen of them; three boys and ten girls. At every table except the three year olds, the girls outnumbered the boys by quite a lot. In fact, at the thirteen year old table - there were no boys.
The Headmistress told them all every year that it was much more likely for the boys to be taken to a farm, or business, or home: because they could be used for hard work. The girls after age fifteen, were often taken because of their looks, or if a rich person needed a maid. At eighteen, male or female, you had to leave the orphanage. Maya did not want to leave.
The orphanage was the only home she ever remembered. She was too young to remember being left on the doorstep on that bone chilling winter night, for she was all of six months old. The Nurse said she was lucky to have survived at all. The second reason she didn’t want to leave the orphanage, was Mason. He was at the nine year old’s table. He had been her best friend since she was four. She remembered their first meeting- it made her smile.
Mason was looking over at her when she smiled at her memory. He waved a spoon half filled with porridge at her. She waved back, pointed to her head- wiggled her finger, and smiled bigger. She knew that he understood that the first smile was because of what was going on inside her head, and the second smile was for him. One of the reasons she liked him so much, is he understood her quirks like that - even that first time they met.
Her mind drifted back as she ate her porridge mechanically - smiles drifting from her eyes to her mouth and back again with regularity. She let the memory surface in full bloom:
Already at four, she had to carry water in a child’s size bucket to the kitchen from the river. She had made more than a dozen trips already that day. The two boys that were assigned to carry water had only made three trips. They kept horsing around and playing games. They told her if she stopped carrying water, or told the Cook that they weren’t bringing much water to the kitchen, they would throw her in the river. That scared her to death.
She didn’t know how to swim. She saw little Teresa’s body when they had fished it out of the river- caught in an eddy near some rocks. Everyone had gone looking for her- and found her bloated swollen body wedged in those rocks. She had drowned. Teresa was nine when she drowned. Teresa was as tall and strong as any boy her age. If she couldn’t swim in the river and survive, how could tiny little me- thought Maya.
So she just kept carrying water until her arms wouldn’t lift another bucket. The Cook found her standing on the path. Just standing there. Shaking. Exhausted. But the Cook didn’t know about the boys not bringing any water to the kitchen. The Cook took her cane off her belt loop. She would teach this little girl not to be lazy. She swung with fury and landed a stinging blow. One that would have cut skin right through the frayed material of the little girls dress.
But the blow didn’t land on the little girl. It landed on the side of a boys face. A very determined boy. A seven year old boy who was almost as big as a ten year old. The blow did draw blood. Blood that dripped from the boy’s ear, neck, and cheek. He had stepped in front of little Maya before the Cook could stop her swing.
“What the hell are you doing boy? Are you crazy?”
The boy shook his head and pointed to the two boys with their empty buckets:
“Those two have not carried a single bucket to the kitchen since this morning. Not one. (Pointing to the little girl behind him) This little girl has made more than forty trips with her bucket. She is just tired. I have been working in the garden and watching. She needs some food, drink, and rest.
(Pointing to the two boys again) They need to carry two buckets a piece and fill the cistern to the top before you let them go. You feed her. Make them do their work. “
“Why who do you think you are to order me around? I will cane you again.”
The boy might have only been seven with a ten year old body, but he had the will of a Man. He looked her right in the eyes, with a force that made the Cook back her fat body up a full step.
“I am Mason. I will tell the Headmistress that you caned a four year old girl who outworked two boys. I will tell her that you aren’t following the rules: Caning is for only major offenses. And only on the bum, and never to draw blood or leave a bruise. (pointing to his face- which was swelling a bit along the slash the cane had left, and was still dripping blood) I will show her my face- and tell her exactly what happened.
If you feed the girl and send her to rest, I will tell everyone I was running down Slope Hill and got whipped by a branch that sprang back. It is your choice.”
Mason’s hand had taken Maya’s tiny hand in his as he made this speech. The two lazy boys (both bigger than him) and the Cook (definitely bigger than him) all looked tiny in comparison to the presence Mason had. The Cook nodded. Hooked her cane back on her belt and said to the two boys:
“You will fill the cistern…to the top. And no supper but bread. Leaving a little girl to do all your work. You are lucky I don’t take the cane to you. (Pointing to Mason) YOU…you take your little girlfriend into the kitchen. Tell Miss Parcel I told her to clean your face, and feed both you and your little girlfriend. Then go to your dorms and stay there until supper.“
With that the fat Cook turned her back on everyone - disgusted with the whole thing. She stormed off to one of the outbuildings to cool down (and take a nip from the flask she kept in her apron pocket). They all clearly heard her say under her breath: “Royalty he thinks he is. Humph.”
The two boys were standing staring at Mason…any visions or dreams of retribution or revenge clotted in their throats as Mason turned (not letting go of little Maya’s hand) and looked at them. His look broached no contest. Little Maya was only four, but she had lived in the orphanage her whole life. She knew where this could lead.
“What about them? Aren’t you afraid?”
“Of them? (and he scoffed) No. If they try anything against you, or me…(he intensified his look at the two boys with clotted threats still clogging their throats) I will throw them in the river. In a day or so someone will find their bodies.“
That is all it took. The two boys and their four buckets hurtled towards the river, they had a cistern to fill, and a promise to hide from.
Still holding hands, four year old Maya, and seven year old Mason, headed in to get lunch, a nap, and a future.
Maya was eighteen. She would have to leave before her nineteenth birthday. She was fifteen when the Lord of the Manner took her to his house. When he tried to take her innocence, that very first night; well Mason had taught her a few tricks …just in case. When she was returned to the orphanage the next morning, nobody spoke about the big bruise and black on eye on the side of the Manner Lord’s Face. Although his wife kept remarking about how pretty the yellows and purples were coming in. The Lord of the Manor kept his remarks to himself.
The Lord told the Headmistress that he and his wife had decided to go to their Country place for the summer. And therefore would not need the services of Maya after all. Maya tried to look meek. And failed. The Lord’s wife winked at Maya as she ushered her husband back in the car. Maya curtseyed and caressed the broach the Lady had given her…”for standing up for herself, and her gender.”
It was the only piece of jewelry Maya owned. That broach and the clothes on her back was all she had.
Her nineteenth birthday was less than a week away…where could she go? She could read, write, sew, and cook. She could sing a little, and had a good strong body. Those were her only skills and resources. She begged the Headmistress to let her become the Overseer of the girls dorm.
But Miss Parcel had taken that position four years ago, and the Board didn’t want anyone thinking that the orphanage could be staffed by orphans. The Headmistress did have an Uncle who’s wife died leaving him with six children to watch over- and she could take that job. But the Uncle wanted a wife, not a Nanny. Maya politely refused both the Headmistress and the Uncle.
She wished Mason was there to tell her what to do. Or to hold her hand for a while. Either would be okay. She hadn’t seen Mason since she was twelve years old. He had grown big and strong. At fifteen he was the biggest boy in the whole town, not just the orphanage. A stone mason came and took him away. Just like that. No goodbye. No last words. She came in from working the garden and went to supper. Everyone at her table was quiet.
At first she didn’t know why. Then she saw the empty place at the big boys table. The boys who were fifteen or older. His place was empty. She started to cry. The Headmistress herself had come over to the table to hold Maya.
“Now. Now. Now. Dear girl. You didn’t think he would stay here forever did you? He was stronger than any two boys, as smart and clever as any of them too. He found a place with a good man, a stone mason. That is a skill he can use to forge a life. You want him to be happy, don’t you?”
Maya simply nodded. Words wouldn’t come out. Because in her head, three words were circling around in bright discovery: “I loved him.” Until that moment he was gone, she hadn’t realized she had loved him since that day on the path to the river. She just thought he was part of her life, the best part. And now…he was gone. And she couldn’t tell him how she felt.
She didn’t remember running from the Dining Hall. She just ran. Maybe it was just coincidence, but when she fell to the ground sobbing, it was where she'd first met Mason - and he took that blow meant for her. She vowed never to cry again. And she kept that vow …until.
Maya packed the gifts she had gotten earlier that day. She was nineteen now, and had to be gone by sunset. The Headmistress had given her a Ten Pound Note, a coat, and a new blouse. The Cook (the new one, not the old fat one) had made her some travel bread, and a small cake to eat. Maya had never had cake before, and ate every last crumb, gave the Cook a giant hug thanking her with both her words and her joy at eating the cake. The younger girls had worked for weeks to make her new boots. The boots that Maya was wearing with pride.
She would walk away from the orphanage with more money than she ever had, a broach, a nice blouse, a warm coat, new boots, and some bread to eat. She would find a way to make it in the outs world. She had to.
A car was pulling into the drive. A big car. She had heard that they were making cars now that could hold six or more people. This car looked bigger than the Headmistress Office. The Driver got out and opened the passenger compartment door. Everyone in the orphanage was staring open mouthed at the giant shiny car- it was bigger and prettier than any car they had ever seen.
“Maybe it’s the King!” Whispered out loud one of the ten year olds.
“Shh.” Was all the Headmistress said.
A man stepped out. A big man. With big hands. And a bigger smile. His eyes quickly scanned the forty or so people on the Veranda, stopping only when he saw Maya.
Maya couldn’t breathe. She just stared. Her mind had one word bouncing off the inside of her skull - getting louder and louder as it careened from her brain to her heart and back again: Mason.
It was Mason.
The Headmistress did not forget either her Manners or her Duty.
“Mason, good to see you. Why have you come back?”
(The Headmistress had a very good idea, but she wasn’t going to voice it. She wanted to hear both what Mason had to say, and how Maya would respond)
“Good Day Headmistress. I have come to pick up my Bride, if she will have me.”
With that, he looked at Maya standing on the top step. His smile was just a bit tentative, because he wasn’t quite sure what Maya would do or say.
Maya took her fingers, pointed to her head, and made them circle. Mason threw his hat in the air and bounded up the steps. Even when Maya was four, he knew that signal…a “Yes” was bounding around inside her head. He recognized it immediately. As he bounded upwards, he had to brace his huge arms, for Maya had flung herself downwards from the Veranda. They met in a rush of feelings, and a crush of bodies banging together.
Somehow Mason kept his feet, swinging Maya in a long lazy arc around him, as she kept saying: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Everyone was clapping, cheering, or crying at the scene. Mason set her down firmly, but gently. Never letting go, he took a large piece of paper out of his suit pocket.
She looked quizzical, but not scared. Her mood would not accept anything lower than deliciously happy. Her eyes widened a bit in question as he unfolded the paper and handed it to her.
It was a good thing Mason was strong and holding her, when she read that paper. Because she sagged in his arms, almost with lifeless limbs. The Human soul cannot hold too many dreams becoming reality at one time. That much gratitude has to find an outlet.
Maya screamed. It was a sound so lovely, filled with dreams beyond dreams, hopes beyond hopes, and love beyond love, that no one that was there ever forgot it. Nor did anyone ever match it.
“It’s mine. Truly?”
Mason crushed her to him, as he fell to his knees holding her.
“Ours, Dear. Ours. We shall live here after a few renovations.”
The paper lay on the ground next to them. The Headmistress picked it up, brushed the dirt off so it wouldn’t get smudged. She couldn’t help but read the gold gilded letters: DEED of Ownership.