RLM Cooper is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville whose poems and short stories have been published in online magazines, literary reviews, and print anthologies both in the United States and abroad. She lives in the Pacific Northwest. For links to her work, please visit her blog: rlmcooper.com
When she was twelve, Lydia said, rather wistfully, "I wish I could fly," as she paged through the ornithological catalog on the professor's tea table.
The professor turned his head sideways, closed one eye, and looked at her with the other as he stroked his neatly-trimmed beard and said, "You will."
Most would have thought it terribly odd for a twelve-year-old girl, just budding into young womanhood, to be spending time alone in the cottage of a middle-aged (approaching elderly) gentleman. Even her mother had been concerned, if not downright apprehensive, until the afternoon she had trekked down the hill and surreptitiously peeked inside Professor Fitzpatrick's window where she found him reading to Lydia from some thick volume which, apparently, held her daughter in thrall. Lydia, who was primly sitting to attention in an overstuffed, wingback chair, followed every movement of the good professor as he gestured widely with his free hand and arm while holding the giant tome in the other, pacing and reading aloud simultaneously. At this, her mother had smiled and deemed Professor Fitzpatrick the most benignant of gentlemen whose company could only prove beneficial to her daughter. And, in this, she was correct for Lydia sorely needed a friend.
Born with a left leg shorter than the right, Lydia limped heavily without her specially built-up shoe. Even with the shoe, which was of necessity heavier than that of the right, there remained a noticeable wobble in her gait. This difference made her the target of those children in her school who were prone to bullying and so she was most often to be found in her own company. The bullying took many forms and though she tried her best to ignore it, there were times this tactic was simply not possible. Such was the case in her fourteenth year.
Late one spring afternoon as she was walking home from school, four boys began following her, taunting and laughing. They began pushing her to and fro until, at last, she fell to the stones along the path whereupon one of the group forcefully removed her left shoe and the four of them beat a hasty and noisy retreat, waving the shoe in the air as they carried it away with them.
Lydia was distraught. Her dress was dirty now and had suffered small tears from the thorns on the wild rose that grew untended, its leggy stems reaching out into the path itself. What could she tell her mother who had paid dearly for the shoe? She sat still on the path for a few minutes until she had dried her tears, then gathered her spilled books and began walking home, her left foot bruising on the stones beneath the thin stocking and her limp so pronounced without her shoe that she appeared as unsteady as a wind-tossed skiff.
She had mostly ceased bothering to ponder the question of why people bullied others, for she had long ago decided there was no definitive answer. Instead, she simply withdrew into herself and became animated only in the presence of her mother and her friend, the professor.
On this day, as she limped home and approached her door, she found there waiting on the stoop, the stolen left shoe. Inside, was a tiny note written on what appeared to be the torn corner of a notebook page. It said, simply, I'm sorry.
I am sorry. Not we are sorry. Out of four boys half again her size there was only one, it appeared, with a conscience that had compelled him to return the shoe along with an apology. The note was not signed. Perhaps he was too embarrassed or ashamed. She placed the note within the pages of her literature textbook and put on her shoe.
She told her mother only that her dress was torn because she had fallen along the path. There was no need making her mother worry or feel sad for a daughter who had long ago gotten used to such treatment. Her mother had fussed over the dress and finally allowed as how it was not beyond repair and then sent Lydia off to the professor's cottage with a plate of biscuits as she had done twice each week since Lydia was twelve and since she had seen for herself the benefits of his influence on her daughter.
Approaching the professor's cottage, Lydia never ceased to be captivated. The path itself would not have been long had it been straight, but it wandered to both right and left between stone walls enclosing brilliant green pastures of grazing sheep and cattle on either side beyond the shady groves of trees. At its end, it came to an abrupt stop at the old unpaved mill road that ran alongside a quiet, dark stream. To the right, not twenty yards distant, a small footbridge arched from the mossy side of the mill road to the professor's cottage nestled on what appeared to be its own tiny island within the stream. It was not really an island, however, since it was connected to the far bank. But it jutted out into the stream such that from the footbridge side it appeared very much like a small island.
Lydia always paused on the bridge to breathe in the scene. The professor's small boat was tied at the foot of the steps leading into the water near the left side of the bridge, and farther off to the left in the side garden, where the land ended and the stream pressed lazily against its buttress, grew a profusion of hydrangeas in all shades of pink and lavender and blue, a backdrop to an abundance of tiny purple things Lydia could not name. Beside the cottage door, roses and ivy climbed all the way to the thatched roof, brazenly intruding upon the green shutters and windows thrown open to the fresh air. At this scene, her earlier humiliation all but forgotten, an indescribable happiness bubbled up within her and she had to force herself to continue across to deliver the professor's biscuits.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she told the professor as she finally arrived. "I would save a lot more time, I know, if I didn't dawdle along the way."
The professor laughed and shook his head. "There is nothing you can do to save time."
Lydia's brow furrowed. "My mother often talks about saving time."
"I know. Many people do. But time cannot be saved. You can't just put it in your pocket and pull it out later when you need a few extra minutes. No. It just marches on by, relentlessly, without stopping--each second arriving quickly and just as quickly passing on by. Tick, tick, tick. The only thing we can do is wisely use the time we have for it cannot be saved and it will not come again."
Lydia decided she would need to consider this more fully but, for now, she changed the subject.
"Professor Fitzpatrick? Why do people bully other people?"
The professor sat her down in her favorite wingback chair and she watched silently as he poured steaming tea into a china cup emblazoned with daisies and buttercups. He looked solemn as he handed her the cup. "Because," he said at last, "they are afraid. They recognize their own shortcomings and they know deep down, at least thus far, they are failures. But they are incapable of admitting this and so to make themselves feel better, they feel they must make someone else feel worse." He looked at her seriously then and asked, "Has someone bullied you?"
Lydia described what had happened on her way home from school while the professor listened without interrupting. As she neared the end of her recount, she sat up and reached for her literature text which had supported the plate of biscuits all the way down the hill.
"But there was this." She opened the textbook, withdrew the torn triangle of notebook paper, and handed it to the professor.
"Ah!" His brows went up and he nodded. "At least one among them has a conscience. Do you know who it was?"
"No, I don't." Lydia was embarrassed that she was completely unaware of who these boys were. Such was her protective withdrawal over the years from the company of others in preference to that of her own where she felt safe.
"Well, no matter. But I will wager this boy will soon be forging his own path, leaving the other three behind."
"If only I weren't impeded by being crippled, perhaps--" Lydia was cut off mid-sentence by the professor.
"Non, non, non!" The professor had taken a stance with hands on hips. "Your brain is not crippled, is it?"
"Well, then. You have no impediment."
Lydia smiled at this man for whom she had such affection and said, "I just wish I were normal."
At this, Professor Fitzpatrick broke into laughter. "My dearest girl! No one is normal." He handed back the scrap of paper and said, "All right then! Today we will discuss the writing of Marcus Aurelius."
And so Lydia passed her days content in the company of Professor Fitzpatrick learning of more than ever she was aware. There were serious talks. Serious discussions. Wonderful readings by the professor as he flung his arms wide and mimicked various characters from Dickens and Shakespeare. Upon the reading of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors Lydia could not contain herself and erupted into peals of laughter, requiring a handkerchief to dry her tears. And when once she mentioned a thing was simply inconceivable, the professor had laughed heartily and said, "I often wonder why that word exists at all. After all, if something is inconceivable you wouldn't have been able to think of it in the first place, would you? But since you did, then it cannot be inconceivable, can it?" And Lydia would grow quiet, thinking, then burst into laughter as though the professor had made the most wonderful of all jokes.
On turning sixteen, Lydia's life grew more complicated and her visits to the professor were, of necessity, curtailed. Her mother had become ill and required the greater part of her time when she was not in school and so she visited the professor less often--sometimes only once a fortnight. In addition, and on the happier side of circumstance, she had been approached by a young man named Philip Martin whose mission in life, it seemed, was to walk Lydia home from school each afternoon. In this, she was more than a little circumspect and yet secretly pleased. She convinced herself that she worried overmuch. After all, it was merely a walk from school to home and Mr. Martin had, on all occasions, been a perfect gentleman.
When, after many months, her mother died, Lydia was distraught. Doubly so, for scarcely had the last shovelful of earth settled over the casket than she was taken in hand by her aunt Prudence, a stern and rigid woman who, it seemed, lacked the ability to part her lips in a smile. Like some revenant from a horror film--a black and white photograph come reluctantly to life--the fictional Mrs. Danvers had nothing on this intimidating woman. Aunt Pru had taken it upon herself to move kit and caboodle into her late brother's--now Lydia's--home where she set herself up, to all appearances, as queen bee.
The woman, never once admitting openly her own good fortune at now having both living and residence in the comfortable home of her long dead brother, pretended great concern for Lydia as damaged goods who, due to her "infirmity," would never find a husband. Most would have rebelled openly at this usurpation of both property and place, but Lydia did not. And so even as her aunt presented herself to the world as Lydia's savior (a ruse successful to all but the girl herself), Lydia sensed something deep within her aunt that she was particularly well-qualified to recognize. It is possible she would not have been able to name this intuition even had she been asked, and yet her confidence in her feeling was absolute and she accepted the woman without protest.
And so the days passed peacefully and without incident. Aunt Pru, ever stiff and unsmiling, and Lydia, who could find beauty in almost everything, cohabited peacefully enough that neither had reason for complaint. Lydia, in place of her mother, now baked the biscuits and carried them down the hill to the professor where she, quite happily, continued to be tutored in every possible subject by her smartest and best of all friends. And Mr. Martin, growing fonder by the day, continued walking Lydia home from school, until it was dismissed for the term, and then managed, somehow, to find excuses to pop up at unexpected times, both surprising and secretly pleasing Lydia.
Thus, Summer passed lazily into autumn, and autumn reluctantly gave over to the winds and chills announcing the Christmas holiday would be upon them very shortly. This holiday would offer, Lydia decided, an opportunity to put a chink in the facade Aunt Pru wore like a protective suit of armor. Seizing on the opportunity and ignoring her slightly exaggerated limp brought on by the cold weather, Lydia went shopping and her small, gaily-wrapped package was placed beneath the tree alongside a slightly larger one put there for her by Aunt Pru.
On Christmas morning Lydia and Aunt Pru sat facing each other on either side of the warmly cracking fireplace, their respective gifts in their laps.
"Shall we?" Lydia said with a cheerful lilt to her voice.
"You go first, Aunt!"
Aunt Pru nodded and pulled aside the red, glittery ribbon from the small box containing Lydia's gift. Lydia watched closely as she opened the lid and stared woodenly into the box. Only her thumb moved across the surface of the glistening fabric folded there.
"Oh, Aunt!" Lydia said, laughing. "Take it out of the box!"
Her good-natured entreaty had done something. She was sure of it, for Aunt Pru gathered the fabric in her hand and pulled it from the box. It spilled out onto her lap in a soft, glistening waterfall of sunset pinks and golds and purples.
"It's a silk scarf!" Lydia exclaimed as though it were the very first of its kind ever. "Isn't it lovely? And it will be so beautiful on you with your wonderful blue eyes!"
Her aunt, ever stiff, hid nearly perfectly the tiny hint of a smile that tugged at her lips. But Lydia was not deceived.
"Shall I open mine, now?" she asked.
Lydia opened her gift to find a sweater. It was as gray as her aunt Prudence. But Lydia was determined.
"Oh, Aunt! How lovely! And it's so soft, too! Thank you so very much!" She held it up to her face and rubbed the softness of it on her cheek. "I think, though, with your permission, of course, that it would be just fabulous with the iridescent mother-of-pearl buttons that daddy gave to mother on their very first anniversary. What do you think?"
"Hmmmm." Her aunt was reticent as ever, but she nodded her assent and Lydia jumped from her chair and embraced her aunt for the very first time since she had come to live in her house. Her aunt received the embrace stiffly, but she did not protest. The chink in the armor was becoming a hairline crack.
The week after Christmas, when Lydia had removed the ordinary gray buttons from the sweater and replaced them with the mother-of-pearl, she came downstairs to show the result to her aunt. Finding her in her room--the one that used to be her mother's--Lydia remained outside the door for a moment since she had yet to be discovered, and observed her aunt lovingly fingering the colorful scarf she had given her. Lydia felt an overwhelming emotion rise up within her but she remained silent. Then, she cleared her throat to announce her presence. Her aunt quickly closed the drawer containing the scarf.
"Look, Aunt! Isn't it lovely now?" Lydia entered the room and laid the sweater on her aunt's lap. "The buttons almost glow, don't they? I think Mother loved them almost as much as she loved your brother. I'm so glad they can be worn again on this wonderful sweater."
And there it was. Her aunt smiled the tiniest of smiles. But it was there.
Lydia wondered how long it had been since she had last smiled. Or had anything to smile about. Was she bullied in her youth, too? Was she never shown anything approaching love? Was she unwanted and afraid her whole life? Was that what had turned her into a gray, stiff photograph? Lydia did not know. And she would never ask. It was enough, for now, that she had almost smiled.
Over the next several weeks, Lydia noticed small changes in her aunt's demeanor. One very nice thing was baking the biscuits for the professor rather than leaving it for Lydia when she had come home from school. And she must have gone shopping one day while Lydia was in school because she was now wearing dresses of blues and purples and greens--still dark shades, but such a refreshing change from her usual black and gray. Once she wore a dress of deep red. The shade was so deep it appeared almost like her old black but Lydia was not fooled, and she was happy.
In April, Lydia came downstairs to find her aunt again in her room. This time her hair, usually in a severely drawn bun, was down around her shoulders.
"Aunt!" Lydia said. "Your hair! It's so shiny! Please, may I brush it for you?"
And the armor cracked open.
Aunt Pru did everything she could to suppress her tears but was unsuccessful. Her eyes misted up and and the mist became drops and the drops became streams that ran silently down her cheeks. Lydia embraced her and stroked her hair as though petting a kitten and embraced her again. There was no need for words now. She took the brush and began to brush her aunt's hair. And this was to become a ritual.
In May, on her seventeenth birthday, Professor Fitzpatrick invited her and her aunt and her "gentleman friend," Mr. Martin, to celebrate with him at his cottage. Aunt Pru was determined that she could not go. He doesn't really want me there, she said. And I have nothing to wear, anyway, she said. But Lydia refused to listen.
"Of course he wants you there! Why else would he invite you? And I have the perfect dress for you. You and mother are about the same size even though you are a little taller than she was. I think it will fit. I'll fetch it from the attic!"
Lydia dug through the trunk in the attic where she had stored her mother's things until she found the lovely spring green dress she had so loved on her mother and Aunt Pru wore it, along with the scarf Lydia had given her for Christmas, with Lydia and Mr. Martin hand-in-hand leading the way to the professor's cottage.
The professor greeted them warmly and bid everyone sit comfortably while he fetched tea and biscuits. Lydia kept a close eye on her aunt and after deciding she would be all right here in the company of Professor Fitzpatrick, she and Philip excused themselves for a walk in the garden.
Spring was going to be generous this year as buds were already opening to display the brilliant, saturated colors of the young roses and other flowers. Later, of course, when the blooms had been on full display, the colors would fade. But now they hinted of the riot of color that was to come.
Mr. Martin led Lydia to the garden bench and sat her down.
"I have a confession to make," he said.
"Oh? A confession?"
"Yes." He dug around in his pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. He opened it carefully and handed it to her. The paper itself was blank, but the top right corner was missing.
"Oh, Philip!" Lydia laughed. "I knew it was you."
"Yes, of course! Who else could it have been?"
"And you are not angry with me?"
"No. You were the only one with a heart."
"Well, I felt terrible for my part that day. And then, later, I felt even sadder for you when your aunt came to live in your house. Everyone did."
"That's only because they don't know her. You have to know someone before you can judge them. Assumptions can kill friendships before they even have a chance to start."
Philip looked long at Lydia and allowed as how she was wise beyond her years and, at that, she laughed again and suggested they check on her aunt and the professor to see how they were getting on.
As they approached the side of the cottage, laughter could be heard coming through the open windows and Lydia could see the professor and her aunt with their heads together over some kind of document on the tea table. The professor lifted the paper from the table and stood beside Aunt Pru, pulling her in close with his arm about her shoulders for a better view. The two of them stood there looking the document over conspiratorially, and smiling. First at the document and then at each other. Then at the document again.
Lydia could scarcely believe her eyes at this transformation in her aunt. She called out, "Hello! What are the two of you so excited about?"
The sound of Lydia's voice caused the two of them to jump, Aunt Pru to seat herself in Lydia's favorite wingback chair, and the professor to quickly fold the document and shove it into a creamy envelope. This little mystery was simply too much for Lydia and she and Philip went quickly to the front door and made their way into the professor's study without delay.
Hands on hips, she tapped her foot and looked at the two of them. "All right. What is going on?"
Aunt Pru looked at the professor. The professor looked at Aunt Pru. The two of them looked as though they had stolen the last biscuit from the jar. Finally, the professor said to Pru, "Shall we tell her?"
"Well, it is her birthday and she graduates next month. I think... yes! You should tell her."
"Tell me what?" Lydia was becoming very suspicious of this whole charade.
"Very well, then." The professor cleared his throat and fingered the creamy envelope. He handed it to Lydia.
"Happy birthday," he said.
Her aunt joined in with well-wishes of her own as Lydia hesitantly took the envelope and slowly removed the document. She read it through. She looked at the professor. She read it through again. Then she threw her arms around him.
"Oh, Professor Fitzpatrick! What a wonderful birthday present!"
"I've been in touch with the university for quite some time on your behalf," he said. "And, after they checked with your school, it seems they have agreed with me one hundred percent. You have been given a full scholarship to further your education."
"But Oxford! I cannot even imagine!"
"You are well-prepared and completely deserving, Lydia.
She took the letter and walked over to the window to read it again. Finally she turned and looked up. "Professor Fitzpatrick?"
"Yes, my dear?"
"Do you remember when I was twelve I told you I wished I could fly?"
He laughed. "Of course I do."
"Remember you said I would? Well, I think I am!" She spread her arms and twirled around without limping a single time. "I think I'm really flying!"
* * *