Accident of Birth
by Stephanie Burgis


From the moment Septimus O’Callaghan walked into Mrs. DeYoung’s Sunday garden party, looking as beautiful and as impossible as a young Greek god, I thought I could predict everything that was to follow.

Eliza and I had been sent to stay with our aunt Mary in the cottage community on Lake Superior with a single goal in mind: matrimony. Eliza was a ‘sure thing’ in gamblers’ terms; I’d heard my parents discussing it the night before we left.

“At least Eliza is an angel,” Mother said.

“No problems there. But by God...” My father paused to take a swig of whiskey. “We’ll be saddled with her sister forever.”

“Nonsense. There will be young men lining up to marry Martha.”

"And put up with her face in a wife?”

“If you make it worth their while.”

“Oh, I will. Believe me, I will! I’d give half my fortune to have that shrew off my hands.”

That was the night I stopped trying to curb my wayward tongue. When we arrived on the shores of Lake Superior, I found my mother’s words proven true. There were indeed young men, rebuffed by Eliza, who proved willing to risk my ugliness for my father’s money--but none of them had yet persisted past my contempt.

In the past, I’d shed many bitter tears over the inequity of Fate that left me short, dark and ugly, the shadow to my younger sister and the natural target of our father’s wrath. But now I swore a new vow to myself: if I could not be beautiful or beloved, I could at least refuse to be sold.

The beautiful young man appeared by our sides sooner than even I’d expected, doffing his hat and smiling with great flashes of white teeth.

“Septimus O’Callaghan, ladies, at your service.” As he replaced his hat, a rose sprang out of it, long-stemmed and fragrant. He mimed surprise as he handed it to Eliza. “A small token.” His eyes were blindingly blue.

Eliza giggled, letting her eyelashes sweep down to hide her own eyes. “Why, Mr. O’Callaghan, you’re a magician!”

I said, “I didn’t know Mrs. DeYoung had hired performers for her party.”

“Martha!” Eliza hissed.

But Mr. O’Callaghan only grinned, looking at me for perhaps the first time. “Hardly a professional, Miss--?”

“DeWitt,” I said. “Eliza’s sister.”

“You’re sisters?” He blinked. “I’m sorry, the resemblance--”

“Is nonexistent.” I gritted my teeth.

“Of course they’re sisters,” said a stranger’s voice. “Look again, Septimus. And think.”

That was the moment I noticed, for the very first time, that another man stood behind the first, as dark, broad and short as the first was tall and fair. I bit back a gasp of surprise. We stood in broad daylight, yet a moment before, I could have sworn that Septimus O’Callaghan stood alone in the green grass overlooking Lake Superior.

Eliza pouted. “Do you really find us similar, sir?”

“Not at all,” the man said. “But I’m not surprised.”

“I’ll have to apologize for my friend,” Mr. O’Callaghan said. “He doesn’t attend many public functions.”

“That much is obvious,” I said. “Do you make a point of popping out of thin air, sir?”

He met my eyes, and his lips twitched. “Do you?”

“Ladies.” Mr. O’Callaghan tipped his hat. “We’ll be seeing you again very soon.”

“Delighted,” Eliza murmured. Her eyes gleamed as she watched his golden figure move away.

Aunt Mary signaled to us from the other end of Mrs. DeYoung’s garden. As blatantly as any matchmaking aunt could, she raised her eyebrows in the gentlemen’s direction.

Eliza grinned smugly and lifted her rose. Its fragrance filled the air, luscious and heady.

“Careful,” I said. “Magical gifts can disappear.”

“Only for you, Martha. Only for you.”

I looked up, pulling my gaze away from the red petals. Both of the men were gone.

In the next week, however, they seemed to have accepted all the invitations that we too had chosen. Four nights later, at Mrs. DeBarry’s musical salon, Eliza and I sat in spindly garden chairs, clapping at the end of the final tinkling string quartet of the evening. Septimus O’Callaghan spoke behind us.

“The two nymphs!”

“Nymphs?” I turned to glare at him and his dark friend as our other neighbors scattered out in search of food and drink. “Surely a magician can be more original than that.”

“Don’t you care for nymphs?” Mr. O’Callaghan drew up the deserted chair behind us. “What about fairies, then? They live in these parts.”

“We may be women, Mr. O’Callaghan, but we aren’t infants.”

“The fairies steal infants sometimes, and leave their own behind,” his companion said. “There’s a blood-curdling tale for full-grown women.”

Eliza made a moŁe of disgust. “I’m sure I don’t want to hear any bloodcurdling tales.”

“Of course not.” Septimus leaned towards her and smiled intimately. “How could you?”

His companion grinned slowly. “Your sister does, though.”

I glared at the man. “Do you have a name, sir? Or are you only Mr. O’Callaghan’s shadow, after all?”

"I have a name,” he said. “I’ve been called several names, in fact.”

“And?”

He shrugged. “I don’t choose to share them.” He stood up, pushing back his chair. “Are you ready, Septimus?”

“Almost.” Septimus bent over Eliza’s chair. “Has my token found a good home?”

“It blooms as though it were new each day.” Eliza’s voice, for once in a man’s company, came out in its own normal key. “How did you do it, sir?”

"Magic,” he said. “If you ever want me, wish it on the rose.”

“How romantic.”

“How ridiculous,” I said. But the words fell flat on my tongue as they walked away.

Aunt Mary bustled up. “Oh, I’ve missed them again! It’s the oddest thing--no one seems to know anything about their families.”

“Are they impoverished wastrels, then?” I asked.

“Well, I hardly know--”

“They can’t be!” Eliza’s cheeks flushed red. “Martha, how could you say such a thing! Mr. O’Callaghan is the most gentlemanly man I’ve ever met.”

I blinked. Eliza had never spoken up in favor of any of her admirers before. “Gentlemen can lose their fortunes, too. And wastrels are charming by definition, aren’t they?”

“If you had any feelings, you wouldn’t treat it as a joke.”

“Why not? You’ve been playing games with your suitors for the past two years. Can’t I take any amusement from it?”

“Girls--”

Eliza shoved her chair back. “You’re just a bitter, nasty old spinster, Martha, and do you know what? You deserve it!”

Aunt Mary’s hand fluttered around her bosom as Eliza stalked off, clearing a path among the fascinated spectators.

“Oh...dear,” Aunt Mary murmured. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...”

Without a backwards glance, she hurried after Eliza, the lake breeze ruffling her hair and skirts.

I stood alone under the gaze of the assembled party, cheeks burning.

Eliza had been wrong. If anything, I had too many feelings.

That night I sat awake in the windowseat of my room, watching the steady white glitter of stars in the black sky. My skin tingled with shame and anger and, worse, humiliation.

Eliza had been right. I was a dried-up, bitter spinster, jealous of the success of my younger sister.

Had Eliza’s own heart finally been touched? I’d thought it only another decorative flirtation, designed--as ever--to show herself off as well as possible. Had Eliza actually found a man she admired more than her own reflection?

Bitter, bitter, bitter... I bent my forehead to the cool glass and closed my eyes against my own reflection.

What I would do in Eliza’s place...

Of course they’re sisters,” Septimus’s strange friend had said. And he had looked at me as if in recognition. “Look again, Septimus, and think.”

I had thought and thought, with all the shrewish wits my father had ever reviled in me. But for all my pains, I could not fathom what the scoundrel had meant by it.

The next morning at breakfast, Eliza looked through me with icy disdain. Aunt Mary chattered nervously for the first five minutes and then fell silent, starting at every clink of knife or fork. Bright sunlight beat at my eyes, and my tired head throbbed.

I reached out for my coffee cup, but my hand caught it at an angle. Hot liquid spilled across the table, and Eliza jumped back, throwing down her napkin.

“For heaven’s sake, Martha! Can’t you do anything right?”

Words caught in my mouth, and failed. I pushed my chair back and left the room.

 I walked blindly through my aunt’s house, nearly running, twice bumping into the hard floral patterns of the wallpaper. I found myself at last at a window overlooking the forest that rose behind the house, just as a familiar figure stepped out of the trees, only twenty feet away.

Golden hair glinted in the morning light as Septimus O’Callaghan looked around my aunt’s garden, smiling. He twirled a rose in his right hand. As I watched, he plucked a single red blossom, and tossed it into the air. It did not fall. Instead, it sailed through the air, circling gently, across the twenty feet of grass, up above the window where I stood, and higher still.

I gripped the windowframe. Septimus turned away--but next to him, solid and impenetrable, his friend smiled straight at me and tipped his hat.

A flash of white light burst in my vision. For a moment, I saw not one, but two dark men, Septimus’s golden appearance but a semblance, a disguise . . . .

I stumbled back, gasping. The men were gone. 

I ran up the long staircase, holding my skirts above my ankles. I skidded into Eliza’s room. Her red rose sat in its vase on the windowsill, blooming still, five days after its gift.

A rose blossom lay on her pillowcase. Gold letters traced a message beside it.

Tonight, at midnight. I wait for you.

Dizziness buffeted me, but I did not fall. My skirts tangled in my legs as I lurched forward. Gold dust melted off the pillowcase and into my skin, leaving no mark.

Eliza met me as I left. “What on earth were you doing in my room?”

I moistened my lips with my tongue. “Nothing. Only...” I swallowed over bitterness, forced myself to meet her hard blue eyes. “Be very careful, Eliza.”

“Around you? I certainly will.” She swept past me, slamming the door behind her.

Soft as silk, the rose petal slid against the palm of my clenched fist.

That afternoon, at my aunt’s garden party, I could not stand still. Lake Superior glittered in the distance. The conversations around me sounded as the jangling of bells. I drifted away from the party, towards the forest.

“Hiding? I wouldn’t have thought it of you.” Septimus’ friend spoke directly in my ear.

I swung around to face him, but what I saw gave me a chill of fear. “You don’t cast a shadow.”

“Don’t I? How clumsy of me.” He looked down at the grass behind me. “Have you noticed yet that you’re losing yours?”

I gritted my teeth. “One cannot lose a shadow.”

“One can when it was only on loan. You’ve carried it long enough, don’t you think?”

“Will you stop talking in riddles?” In my rage, the broad outline of the man before me seemed to blur against the sun. “I saw you this morning. I saw your friend.”

“You’re learning to see what you really are. It’s lucky I found you now, this summer.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The guise is already fading. Soon, even that foolish girl would have begun to suspect. Haven’t you wondered, all along?”

“You’re laughing at me.”

“I’m in deadly earnest.”

But he grinned as he stepped in close. The scent of pine needles filled my senses. His eyes were dark, but flecked with green. The green of leaves in the thick, deep forest, the green of growing, lush, fecund life--of life as I had never allowed myself to think about it--

“Haven’t you ever wondered what you’re missing?”

I moistened my lips. The rest of the garden party could have been a hundred miles away. “Who are you?”

“Come with me and find out for yourself.”

“Where? How?”

“Tonight. Here in the woods, wish for me.”

“You haven’t given me a rose to wish on,” I said. My voice came out absurdly sharp with irritation, and he laughed.

“Why should I bother? You don’t need one. You’re one of us.”

“But--”

“Enough,” he said. “Choose as you will.”

He turned and walked away, through the crowd. I kept my eyes on his broad figure as long as I could, and yet I still could not swear to how he left. Did he vanish or was he merely hidden by the crowd?

“Martha?” My aunt took my elbow. “My dear, you look flushed. Are you ill?”

I--I hardly know.”

“It must be the sun. Why don’t you lie down a while?”

I tossed and turned in my bed all afternoon, as the garden party continued without me. Eliza’s high, tinkling laugh sounded beneath my window. I flung my arm up over my head. The rose petal lay beside my pillow, fragrant and heady.

Green grass, soft on the forest floor . . . .

My skin tingled as if set aflame.

On my way to my aunt’s dining room that night, I stopped in the middle of the hallway. Electric lights shone in the wall sconces, but darkness pressed in against the windows. I was alone. Slowly, I turned to look behind my shoulder.

“Martha!” Eliza emerged from the dining room. “There you are. Aunt Mary wouldn’t let us start supper without you. What’s taken you so long?”

The words dropped from my lips like stones. “Nothing of significance.”

My shadow had flickered in and out of sight on the polished wooden floorboards.

That night, as midnight neared, I stood in the grass outside Eliza’s window. Light from her bedside table silhouetted the rose that bloomed there, fresh and expectant.

Was I, too, enchanted? Or had I finally found my true home?

Wind rustled through the dark trees. The forest opened up before me, rich and dark with mystery.

I took a breath and stepped inside.

 

About the Author:

Stephanie Burgis is an American writer and Clarion West graduate who lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband, Patrick Samphire, and their border collie, Nika. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Say..., The Fortean Bureau, Jabberwocky, Lone Star Stories, Flytrap, and on Escape Pod. For more information, please see her website.


Story © 2005 Stephanie Burgis. Painting by Ernst Fries, circa 1824.