Accident of Birth
by Stephanie Burgis
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.
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.
least Eliza is an angel,” Mother said.
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?”
you make it worth their while.”
will. Believe me, I will! I’d give half my fortune to have that shrew off my
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
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.
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.
giggled, letting her eyelashes sweep down to hide her own eyes. “Why, Mr.
O’Callaghan, you’re a magician!”
said, “I didn’t know Mrs. DeYoung had hired performers for her party.”
“Martha!” Eliza hissed.
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--”
nonexistent.” I gritted my teeth.
course they’re sisters,” said a stranger’s voice. “Look again, Septimus. And
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.
pouted. “Do you really find us similar, sir?”
at all,” the man said. “But I’m not surprised.”
have to apologize for my friend,” Mr. O’Callaghan said. “He doesn’t attend
many public functions.”
much is obvious,” I said. “Do you make a point of popping out of thin air,
my eyes, and his lips twitched. “Do you?”
“Ladies.” Mr. O’Callaghan tipped his hat. “We’ll be seeing you again very
“Delighted,” Eliza murmured. Her eyes gleamed as she watched his golden
figure move away.
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
grinned smugly and lifted her rose. Its fragrance filled the air, luscious
“Careful,” I said. “Magical gifts can disappear.”
for you, Martha. Only for you.”
looked up, pulling my gaze away from the red petals. Both of the men were
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
“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.”
you care for nymphs?” Mr. O’Callaghan drew up the deserted chair behind us.
“What about fairies, then? They live in these parts.”
may be women, Mr. O’Callaghan, but we aren’t infants.”
fairies steal infants sometimes, and leave their own behind,” his companion
said. “There’s a blood-curdling tale for full-grown women.”
made a moŁe of disgust. “I’m sure I don’t want to hear any bloodcurdling
course not.” Septimus leaned towards her and smiled intimately. “How could
companion grinned slowly. “Your sister does, though.”
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.”
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
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.”
ridiculous,” I said. But the words fell flat on my tongue as they walked
Mary bustled up. “Oh, I’ve missed them again! It’s the oddest thing--no one
seems to know anything about their families.”
they impoverished wastrels, then?” I asked.
I hardly know--”
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.”
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?”
you had any feelings, you wouldn’t treat it as a joke.”
not? You’ve been playing games with your suitors for the past two years.
Can’t I take any amusement from it?”
shoved her chair back. “You’re just a bitter, nasty old spinster, Martha,
and do you know what? You deserve it!”
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.
stood alone under the gaze of the assembled party, cheeks burning.
had been wrong. If anything, I had too many feelings.
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,
had been right. I was a dried-up, bitter spinster, jealous of the success of
my younger sister.
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
Bitter, bitter, bitter... I bent
my forehead to the cool glass and closed my eyes against my own reflection.
would do in Eliza’s place...
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.”
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
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.
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.
heaven’s sake, Martha! Can’t you do anything right?”
caught in my mouth, and failed. I pushed my chair back and left the room.
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.
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.
gripped the windowframe. Septimus turned away--but next to him, solid and
impenetrable, his friend smiled straight at me and tipped his hat.
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 . . .
stumbled back, gasping. The men were gone.
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.
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.
met me as I left. “What on earth were you doing in my room?”
moistened my lips with my tongue. “Nothing. Only...” I swallowed over
bitterness, forced myself to meet her hard blue eyes. “Be very careful,
“Around you? I certainly will.” She swept past me, slamming the door behind
as silk, the rose petal slid against the palm of my clenched fist.
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.
swung around to face him, but what I saw gave me a chill of fear. “You don’t
cast a shadow.”
I? How clumsy of me.” He looked down at the grass behind me. “Have you
noticed yet that you’re losing yours?”
gritted my teeth. “One cannot lose a shadow.”
can when it was only on loan. You’ve carried it long enough, don’t you
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
“You’re learning to see what you really are. It’s lucky I found you now,
don’t know what you’re talking about.”
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.”
in deadly earnest.”
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?”
moistened my lips. The rest of the garden party could have been a hundred
miles away. “Who are you?”
with me and find out for yourself.”
“Tonight. Here in the woods, wish for me.”
haven’t given me a rose to wish on,” I said. My voice came out absurdly
sharp with irritation, and he laughed.
should I bother? You don’t need one. You’re one of us.”
“Enough,” he said. “Choose as you will.”
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.”
must be the sun. Why don’t you lie down a while?”
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
Green grass, soft on the forest floor . . . .
skin tingled as if set aflame.
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
“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?”
words dropped from my lips like stones. “Nothing of significance.”
My shadow had flickered in and out of sight on the polished wooden
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
too, enchanted? Or had I finally found my true home?
rustled through the dark trees. The forest opened up before me, rich and
dark with mystery.
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
Story © 2005 Stephanie Burgis. Painting by Ernst Fries, circa 1824.