Shapechanger’s Destiny

© Copyright 2009

Summer, 1854 – Spring, 1855

#

Kilrush, on the Shannon

west coast of Ireland

#

The forenoon had almost worn away when immortal shapechanger Mary McCarthy topped a rise and paused for a time. She gazed down a long gradual slope of green land broken into irregular plots by low hedges. Two plots held white dots: sheep. Another held larger brown blots which were cows. A mile or two to her left, eastward, was a substantial stand of trees.

At the bottom of the slope was the long sweep of the River Shannon. The river was so wide here that the land to the south across the river was an irregular grey line against the horizon

The hard-packed earth of the road before her split into a Y. The rightward arm was wider and better-kept. It led into the city of Kilrush, visible from here as a few brown or beige boxes among skimpy trees. The leftward arm was almost a foot path and led, eventually, to the river’s edge. So much was revealed when Mary shaped her eyes into weak binoculars for a minute or two.

Mary took the road less traveled. She wanted to bypass the city; she was eager to see the river and the ships which sailed upon it.

The water’s edge was marked by grey gravel several yards wide. Choppy waves made a white froth as they clashed with the shore. The water was grey with the faintest touch of green. This surprised her. She had lived for decades at the edge of Galway Bay and it appeared a different color of grey. Perhaps it was because the bay was large and part of the ocean, while the Shannon was still a river despite its size and nearness to the same Atlantic ocean to which the Bay connected.

Short of the water’s edge the path turned right and continued along a few yards inshore of the river. The wind blew into her face from the west. She could scent the salt water of the Atlantic ocean though the river did not open out into the sea for several miles further downriver.

Her shoulder-length curly red hair blew freely in the wind, which was quite immodest. A proper lady would wear a bonnet, or at least a scarf. But Mary was very improper, though no one looking at this apparently innocent and naïve young teenager could really believe such.

Soon Mary reached the harbor, a finger of the Shannon intruding into the land. It was perhaps three hundred yards wide and a half mile long. She turned into it and soon came to the quay, a built-up stone wall on her left that plunged deep into the river and let deep-water ships anchor up against the land.

She was as thrilled at the sights as if she was a girl again — the two huge two-story warehouses up ahead the likes of which she had never seen, less impressive (but still impressive) commercial buildings off to her right, and most especially the numerous sailing ships anchored at the quay. A few of the ships even had the three masts of an ocean-going vessel. A stream of merchandise was loading and unloading from the ships, from and to four-wheeled wagons which traveled with much rumbling and grinding noises along the graveled quayside expanse between the ships and the warehouses.

Most impressive to Mary was the dark ship with two bare masts that was moving sail-less out of the harbor mouth into the river, a white lace of water burbling past its prow and sides. The tall smokestack between the masts belched black smoke.

Mary stopped near an old man who was sitting with his back to a bollard and a fishing pole extended out over the river.

“Pardon me, sir. What is that dark ship without sails?”

He said, “Why, Missy, that’s the mail packet. Powered by steam it is. Goes from Galway up the coast, to Kilkee on t’other side of Loop Head –” Here he pointed west with a free hand. “Stops here, and goes up t’river as far as Limerick. Been doing it for years.”

“My goodness,” Mary said. Then for a minute or two both were silent as they contemplated the marvelous vessel.

“You’ve evidently lived here a goodly long time,” Mary said.

“Aye, man and boy, sixty-seven years, I have.”

“My goodness,” she said again. Mary felt that when you had a useful phrase that you should get full money’s worth for it. “You don’t look that old!”

“Oh, now, it’s the good sea air.”

“Well, you must know so much about the city — perhaps you could tell me where a good Christian girl could find lodging and work.”

At this the old man looked more closely at her from under shaggy white eyebrows, squinting in the bright sunlight, taking in her poor clothing and bare head.

“Child, are you alone in this town?”

Mary put on what she hoped was a sad expression, then lifted her chin and tried to assume a proud and plucky expression.

“I am, sir, these three days agone. Father and mother both — passed away of an illness. I was the only child left, so my uncle gave me a little money and dropped me off here this morning.”

The man pulled at his white bearded chin. “Well, there’s the Society of Friends, them as are called the Quakers. They’re good folk and they’ll put you up and give you work in the laundry.

“Then there’s the Presbyterians. They have a home for orphans, but they’ll try to convert ya.”

“They can try, sir. They can try!”

“Ah, you’re a proper Catholic girl, are you? Well, it can’t hurt to spend some time there, as long as you hold steadfast.”

He thought some more, then said. “Ask in town for those two places, but if neither has space, go to my sister and tell her Eamon Moran said to give you a room for the night.” He gave her directions to his sister. Mary thanked him earnestly and said her good-day to him.

Throughout the afternoon she replayed this scene on different impromptu stages, with several variations. In the process she got to know Kilrush, its stores and streets and neighborhoods, and some of its people. She also picked up several good and a good many not-so-good suggestions. Two or three she was sure were attempts to send her to a house of prostitution, or into their own house for equally unsavory purposes.

One man was not content with verbal persuasion. He tried to force her to accompany him. Mary bit the arm of the hand with which he grasped her shoulder so deeply that she drew blood. Then when he drew back his hand to strike her she slapped him so hard he near lost consciousness and completely lost interest in having anything to do with her.

He didn’t know how lucky he was that she’d been so restrained. If she’d used her fist and all her strength his skull would have smashed like an eggshell.

When evening came Mary walked a good ways outside of town and found a convenient hedge. There she disrobed, carefully folded her clothes and put them into her pack, and hung it in the densest part of the hedge. She narrowed her invisible witch hands to razor sharpness and sliced off some small leafy branches. They made a good if uneven mattress.

This did not bother her. As soon as she lay down her skin almost instantly turned to leathery toughness which would protect her from pebbles and twigs and insect bites.

Past midnight one of Ireland’s frequent showers woke her. She would have been perfectly comfortable in a snowy blizzard. For this she simply turned over and dropped back to sleep. She passed a contented night.

#

The next day Mary strolled through Kilrush investigating all the legitimate possibilities suggested to her, walking around each of them with her senses cranked up to extrahuman sensitivity.

The Society of Friends seemed like the best bet. She returned there just past noon, her senses working only at normal levels. It could be very unpleasant to hear and, especially, smell everything at high intensity.

There were four big buildings and two smaller ones in the mission, arranged in a rough square round a central yard. Two of the big ones fronted the street. The two-story one on the left was the laundry. The three-story one on the right contained classrooms, at the very least. She had heard enough during her reconnaissance this morning to tell that.

Mary entered the laundry. A woman about her own — real — age of 53 looked up from a waist-high counter where she had been sorting clothes.

“Can I help you, miss?”

Mary was wearing a scared-but-plucky expression, or so she hoped. She hadn’t had a mirror to practice it.

“Is it true that you take in orphans?”

The woman looked her up and down appraisingly. “Yes, we do. Are you the one who …?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Mary gave her brief story about two parents dead of an illness and an uncle with a sick wife and eleven kids who had dumped her here early this morning.

“I know that makes Uncle Robert sound heartless, ma’am, but he faithfully nursed all us back to health as could make it, and he gave me more money than he could afford to help ease me into a proper place.”

“Then why did he not stay around to ensure you had a place here? We cannot take in everyone. And why are you showing up here just now?” The woman was looking at Mary sharply.

“He brought me here at first light and had to get back. My … his wife … is still very sick. And … and I had to walk around and get up my courage to come in here.” Mary was trying out her scared-but-plucky expression again, cautioning herself not to overdo it. This woman was no fool.

“Well, now, do not worry. We can likely make a place for you here. But it is not my decision. Let me take you to my husband. I am Margaret Simmons, by the way. My husband Elisha is the pastor here.”

She turned and called a young woman up front to watch the place and ushered Mary out of the front door, then led her next door and into the mission proper. Down a short hall they turned into a long hall that ran the width of the building. The pastor’s wife led her far to the right to an open door at the end of the hall.

Margaret Simmons knocked on the door jamb and walked into the room. A man at a table looked up from stacks of paper work.

“Elisha, this young lady wants to apply for a position in the orphanage. What is your name?” She turned to look at Mary.

“Máiréad McCarthy, ma’am.” She pronounced her first name Mare-AY-the. The D at the end of her name was soft, so that her name rhymed with “bathe.” “But I ask everyone to call me Mary.”

“Well, Mary, I will leave you with Pastor Simmons.”

Left alone with the pastor Mary looked him over. He was perhaps sixty, would probably be tall and thin and a bit stooped when he stood. Like his wife he wore all-grey clothes, very plain but of good cloth. He looked stern, but Mary thought to detect laugh lines around his mouth.

He was looking her over as well. He motioned her to sit in one of the straight-backed wooden chairs in front of the table and led her through her story.

“And just how much money did your uncle give you? You understand that we have to support our good works with the earnings of our charges and from charitable contributions. And you understand that you will have to work, too.”

“Yes, I understand.” Mary dug in her pack and came up with the small handful of coins she had decided to give up. The rest was buried under a hedge, along with her knife. She spilled the money onto the front edge of the table.

The pastor glanced at it but made no effort to count it or even touch it.

“What would you bring to the mission, Mary? What do you expect from us?”

“Well, I’m very good with animals, sir. I can take care of young’uns. My father always said I was very responsible. He called me his little old granny.” She looked down at her twined hands, blinked rapidly several times as if to fight back tears, telling herself not to overdo the act. Simmon’s wife had seemed a shrewd woman. Her husband was likely to share that quality.

She looked back up at him. “And I can read and write and figure. I’m very good at figuring. My brothers teased me about that. They said I wasn’t a real girl.” She looked down at her hands again, blinked just a couple of times, and looked back up.

“No one will tease you about that here. The Friends believe that every person brings something special to the world and to the glory of God.”

His phrasing suggested that he had decided to accept her. But the bargain was not yet made.

He continued, “You likely know that we try to bring all our charges to worship God. Would you be willing to listen to us? We do not require our children to worship God in our way, but we do have services and you are encouraged to come to them.”

“I am a good Catholic, Pastor Simmons. But I will listen.”

He nodded. “That is all we ask. Now, I think we may have a place here for you. We shall see. If it does not work out, we will try to find a place for you elsewhere.”

At that he took possession of Mary’s money, counted it, and stowed it away in box in a drawer build into the table. From another drawer he took a book and entered her name into it along with details extracted from their conversation and from a few questions he asked her.

“Now let me show you around and get you settled in.” He rose and ushered Mary out.

In addition to the classrooms she knew were there, the big building contained the homes of the missionaries, more offices besides the pastor’s, and a meeting place for worship.

After the quick tour the pastor walked her back to the laundry and turned her over to his wife.

Margaret Simmons again called someone to take over the counter top and led Mary back into the laundry area. It included a big room with tables where perhaps three dozen girls worked, all of them young teens down to children perhaps six years old. There were also storage rooms and several smaller rooms where additional work was done. Mary smelled a wonderful miscellany of strange scents, cleaning compounds of various kinds no doubt.

At one room they stopped where a young woman with straight deep red hair and creamy skin worked at a table. Mistress Simmons waited until the woman finished some very finicky work with a long beautiful dress of dark blue shimmering silk.

When the woman got up and carefully hung up the dress Margaret introduced the two of them and asked her to show Mary to the dormitory and get her settled in.

“Welcome to the Society of Friends, Mary,” the pastor’s wife said, then briskly left her.

Bridget had been examining Mary. Now she smiled at her and led her out the back door and across the square there. This contained a few small trees, a well, some shoulder-high boxes which seemed to be storage bins, a huge pile of firewood under an open-air shed, and a coal bin. There was also a big packed-clay rectangle that might be a play area.

Mary hoped so. She had always felt that children should do more than work, that their excess energy should be expended in play. This had occasioned some of her first serious fights with her husband, which included a good deal of shouting and some creative flinging of kitchen implements by Mary — carefully chosen not to break when they, as she intended, just barely missed Timothy.

Her husband had taken off his belt at that, the first time, which Mary thought an unfair advantage since he was twice her size. She had reminded him that a woman who could expertly carve a pig would have no trouble applying a knife to a man.

That, plus the knowledge that Mary had brothers at least as big as he, had been why that was the last time he had ever offered violence to Mary.

One of the two big two-story buildings that made up the back side of the square missionary compound was the girls’ dormitory, the other the boys’ dorm.

The top floor of the girls’ dorm contained living quarters for the unmarried women of the mission. On the first floor was a large room divided into four equal-sized areas by two crossways aisles. It was filled with beds for the orphaned girls. There was a room for preparing and serving food, another for bathing and toiletry, and smaller ones for storage. There were also a few tiny private rooms for the senior girls.

Bridget led Mary to a set of dressers build into one wall of the large bedroom. There she had Mary leave her possessions, which Mary did, folding up the deerskin pack and tucking it behind everything.

“What’s this?” said Bridget, picking up the book of fairy tales that Mary had rescued from an abandoned house. The first and last thirds of the book were gone and the rest weathered and warped. Flipping through it, Bridget read a paragraph here and there, then returned the book to the dresser.

“You’ll be able to read all sorts of books here. The mission has a lending library for everyone who lives here.”

“Oh, goody!” said Mary, clapping her hands and almost jumping up and down. She did not have to pretend to girlish joy. Reading had long been a passion of hers.

Shelves built into another wall were where the bed-clothes could be gotten. Loading up Mary with a set of bed-clothes and taking her to one of the beds, which she said would be Mary’s, Bridget showed Mary how to make the bed the right way. Mary observed and approved. She would not have done it much differently.

Back at the laundry Mary was set to work. She was started out with simple tasks, such as heating and carrying water, lighting and extinguishing fires. In the process she met a number of the other orphans.

That night she met the rest of the girls, except for whose who lived in homes where they had jobs as domestic servants or as tutors. Mary would meet most of those at the weekly worship service. She was issued two sets of clothing and some other essentials, including a bible.

When Mary exclaimed at owning such an expensive item, a young blond girl with a superior air told her that it was not that expensive, given the new modern printing presses.

“And,” the girl said, “is not our spiritual growth worth any price?”

Mary nodded in a considering way, secretly amused by the blonde’s precocity. One of her daughters had been the same way. And turned out all right, too.

#

That night and the next morning Mary had a simple but good meal, prepared by a rotating kitchen staff in the dormitory. Every girl was required to learn how to cook. They also learned how to shop for food, which they did weekly in groups. Having the orphans do activities like this not only saved the staff of the mission from doing them but also was educational. Mary approved; it was what she had done with her children.

Mary quickly settled in and worked hard and well. Soon she was taught simple skills such as making soap, which she knew how to do, of course, though she did not let on. This and other skills she had from her previous life helped begin building a reputation for catching on quickly.

From making soap she graduated to making “saponaceous lye,” which was just lye that was partly soap. It both cleaned and bleached linens and other off-white or stained cloth.

She did not know why they did not just come straight out and say “soapy lye” but she went along with it. Anyway, she liked the sound of the strange word. Sometimes she would whisper it to herself “say-po-NAY-see-us.”

As the days went by Mary came to see that the mission was not like the orphanages described in those depressing stories by Charles Dickens. For instance, the Quakers taught specialized skills to any laundry workers who had mastered the basics. The Friends were not operating a sweat shop but an educational institution meant to give orphans useful professional experience.

Mary was one of those willing to study the advanced topics. She learned how to clean lace, linens, sarcenets, lawn, and tiffanies. Silk was a very advanced topic, there being different ways to clean white and to clean colored silks. Colored silks required four different variations, one for pink, rose, and lemon colors, a second for blues and purples, a third for black, and yet a fourth for red or rusty-black silks. Silk was very expensive and a bit delicate, so only the very best laundry workers were allowed to clean them.

Mary also learned the many special kinds of cleaning materials, including furze blossoms burnt to ash, gum arabic, starch, tobacco-pipe clay, liquid blue, French chalk, oil of vitriol, pearlash, archil, bullock’s gall, benzine, boiled logwood, solution of tin, and (of all things) bread crumbs.

It did not take long for Mary to see how a laundry woman could make lots of money by starting her own business. Of course, she would have to partner with some man, since it was nearly impossible for a woman to own her own business.

The Quakers had ways of encouraging such entrepreneurial thinking. Advanced workers were given a tiny allowance which they could use for anything. And in later years this encouragement paid off; it was not unusual for grateful alumni of the mission school to contribute to its upkeep.

The Quakers also taught other domestic and mechanical arts besides laundry and cooking and cleaning, always through practical experience as well as classroom work.

#

Sunday was the day of worship and rest for the mission. The church service was almost achingly simple. It made her miss the rich ritual of the Catholic church that her family had attended in Ballyvaughan, the beautiful stained glass window that glowed like heaven when the sun shown through it, and the beautiful vestments of the priest.

Still, Mary did not think at bottom that it was too different from what took place in a Catholic church. It was still about a man in a pulpit preaching to an audience.

What was different was the fellowship afterwards where different people testified to their spiritual growth. Quakers believed in an inner light which was, at least a little, different for everyone. You were supposed to cultivate it, to let it guide you to do the right action. This freedom was exactly opposite to the way Mary had been taught, which was that someone else knew better than you what was right, and that this right was always the same regardless of circumstance. It gave her much to think about.

Of course, returning from the dead rather than going on to Heaven also gave her much to think about!

At noon Sundays there was a feast. Each weekend a different group of orphans was responsible for preparing this, and they took much thought and pride in doing a good job.

But the big moment for Mary was after the meal, when the mission library was opened for several hours. Each week one of the younger members of the Friends staff presided over it, checking out books and helping students find books.

When Mary walked into the room the first time she was literally staggered. Holding onto the door jamb, she just stared. There were hundreds of books here!

Two or three other orphans entered, jostling her a bit. This woke her up and she entered as well. After a moment of standing inside the door she got her mental equilibrium back and began examining the books in the shelves on each wall.

She quickly saw that her impression of large numbers of books was a bit false. Some shelves held books which were duplicates and seemed to be for the several classes that were taught at the mission. These were thin with cheap covers and some of them were battered or written in or both.

Balancing that were the books in a locked case just behind the librarian’s desk. These were leather-bound with beautiful, sturdy pages, some of them illustrated. One of the books had a lacy illustration on the cover that was made of silver.

Mary’s breast and brain were so full of joy that she was nearly delirious. She exerted her extrahuman body control and instantly calmed enough to examine the books more closely.

Before she knew it the afternoon had flown and she was agonizing over which of three books she wanted to check out. She finally chose The Heir of Redclyffe, only because it was written by a woman, Charlotte Mary Yonge.

She had been told but never believed that women wrote books. What a marvel this modern world was becoming, what with the fast printing presses and women writing books and all! The next thing you knew there would be steamships that swam underwater or in the air!

Mary read till it was time for lights out. She did the same the next night.

The third night as she was reading The Heir in her bed the snotty little blond girl came up to her.

“What are you reading?”

Mary showed it to the little girl, whose name it turned out was Barbara. “They tease me sometimes and call me ‘Barbarous.’ But it is Barbara,” she said.

Mary thought that the little girl’s alternate name might be more apropos but kept silent.

“What’s it about?” the little girl said.

“Well, it’s about two cousins, Guy and Phillip. Guy has a bad side but Philip is worse, and they both like Amy …”

“Does anybody get killed?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ve just started. But I don’t think so.”

Barbara climbed up on the foot of the bed. “Maybe it gets better. Read to me.”

Mary smiled to herself but frowned at Barbara. “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you know.”

“Of course you can. That’s a stupid thing to say.”

“Then why don’t you say the honey word? It’s ‘please.'”

Barbara frowned at that but she understood instantly and gave a patently false sweet smile. “Please read to me.”

“This is too long to read before lights out. I have a better story for tonight.”

She got up and went to her drawer in the dressers built into the wall and swapped Yonge’s book with her bedraggled fairy tale book.

By the time she had returned to bed and settled herself cross legged there were three more little girls ready to listen to a story. They sat or lay on the floor, however. Evidently none of them wished to contest the foot of the bed with Barbara.

Mary began reading. The text was often blotched or blackened beyond recognition, but Mary knew the story well. She did make a few strategic changes to the story and expanded it a little.

“Once upon a time there was a little orphan duckling ….”

Before she had gone more than a score of sentences more girls had arrived, sitting or lying on the floor or neighboring beds. Not all of them were little girls, either.

Mary started over, reading just as she had learned to read with her children. She varied the pace and tone of her voice, used different voices for different characters, spoke loudly at some spots and almost whispered at others, paused at several spots.

There were several satisfied sighs when she finished the story with “… and the ugly little orphan duckling was a majestic swan. The end.”

Mary looked around at a satisfied audience, including Barbara, who was evidently not too disappointed that nobody had gotten killed. And including Bridget, who was leaning against the wall. She had turned off all but one of the kerosene lamps positioned high up at the four corners of the big room, but left the last lamp on till the end of the story.

Bridget clapped her hands then and said “Light’s out! Everyone in bed.”

Everyone scrambled for their beds, trailing an occasional “Thank you!” Mary pinched out the candle in the holder mounted on the bed’s headboard and settled snugly into her bedclothes. Candle scent accompanied her into sleep.

The next night and the next the girls expected her to read to them. Mary finally declared that she would do that only once a week. There were instant protests, Barbara’s being the loudest. Mary finally let herself be bargained down to twice a week, which was exactly what she had intended when she had made her announcement.

#

The Quakers also gave all orphans classes in reading, writing, arithmetic, and very basic history and geography. Mary already knew all the basic material.

However, she did not want to seem like a smart-aleck and pretended to know less than she did. She let herself be placed in the classes appropriate, not to her knowledge, but to her age. This now seemed about 15.

She quickly rose to top of the reading and writing classes and was given permission to study independently in literature. However, she let herself stay in the medium-level math class. It would be too attention-getting for her to excel in an area that boys naturally did.

One day she slipped up.

The teacher had given a long arithmetic problem to the class, with several terms. Mary was studying an algebra book she had checked out from the library and glanced up long enough to read and quickly solve the problem. She had always been good in arithmetic. A woman had to be when she went to market or she would cheat herself if no one else did. Since her death she had become even better. The powers which kept her body perfectly healthy and let her be superhumanly strong and efficient when she wanted to be worked on her mind as well.

She instantly figured the answer in her head and chalked it onto her slate and returned to her book. She was fascinated by the idea of a variable. She thought of it as a little pot that could hold any one of a range of numbers. Even more interesting were formulas, which were made of variables separated by arithmetic operators, and equations with formulas separated by an equals sign.

She was warned by an unusually silent class and glanced up. The teacher, a young man named Edward Timmons, was looking at her. He was an American Indian, a round man with long coarse black hair, very tanned skin, a big nose. He spoke English with an American accent like all the other Quakers, only perhaps a little more precisely. Unlike the stoic stereotype of an Indian, he had a boyish face which smiled often. He was not smiling now.

“You do not seem to be working on the problem, Mistress McCarthy.”

“No, sir. I finished it.”

“That was very fast. What is the answer?”

Mary read it off. Mister Timmons shook his head.

“I am afraid that is wrong. Perhaps if you would pay more attention to the class and less attention to your book you would do better.”

The class, mostly boys, laughed at this. Mary’s cheeks burned as she blushed. She instantly squelched the extra blood flow to her face, frowning meanwhile at the problem on the blackboard. No, she was right. He was wrong.

Her brow relaxed as she realized what had happened. Meanwhile the laughter had died down. Mr. Timmons was frowning at the class. With his face a frown was very impressive. She lifted her hand and spoke up.

“Mister Timmons, I see where the problem is. Your seven looks like a two.” Then she gave the right answer.

“Yes, that is correct, Mistress McCarthy. I apologize. Continue as you were but stay after class.”

The teacher gave the class a last long problem. While he was waiting for everyone to do it he did some figuring of his own. Mary guessed he was computing the answer the way she had first done.

After class Mary stayed in her seat, ignoring the whispers and snickers of several of her classmates as they filed out with sidelong glances at her. Mr. Timmons came to her and sat in one of the seats beside her, glancing at the book she was reading.

“How long have you been holding back, Mistress McCarthy?”

She looked down at her hands, back up at him. “From the first.”

“And why?”

“Boys do better at mathematics than girls, and they get mad if you do better than them.”

“I see. I understand. But that would mean that you are ignoring the gifts God gave you. That you are listening to them and not Him. Perhaps you would think about that in the next few days.”

Mary needed little time that night to remember that she was after all 53 years old, despite the apparent age of her body, and that the boys were just that: boys.

The next week she was promoted to the advanced math class.

#

The people who’d created and who ran the Friends’ Kilrush orphanage had come to Ireland from America. This puzzled Mary. Surely that country had plenty of orphans too.

But Parson Simmons and his wife had been taken away from Ireland when quite young. Perhaps they’d been moved by simple nostalgia. This could be a powerful force, as Mary well knew. She’d had many wonderful experiences since dying and leaving her old home. Still, as two nights ago when she’d suddenly remembered washing a dish in her awful old kitchen, she occasionally felt a sharp pang of loss.

The American origins of the orphanage had one delightful effect which she discovered in late November. Americans celebrated a holiday called Thanksgiving.

By now she was doing kitchen duty like all the rest and volunteered to help cook the Thanksgiving feast. It gave her great satisfaction to fix food for what she was coming to think of as her new family, all hundred-plus of them.

Among other pleasures of the celebration was a skit that told of the first Thanksgiving. Everyone was vastly amused when Mister Timmons, the American Indian, came out dressed as a Pilgrim. They laughed even more when Parson Simmons came out dressed as an Indian.

#

The orphans of the mission were well if cheaply clothed and fed. They were not overworked. Though they worked long hours, the hours were no longer than those of the Quaker missionaries. When the orphans got sick, the missionaries had modern medical talent and supplies, supplemented as needed by medicos from Kilrush.

Still, that autumn bad colds and flu made miserable a number of those who lived in the mission. Mary helped the sick as well as she could, as did most of the older orphans. That was the pattern. Older helped younger, and younger helped younger still.

Mary found that she now had a healing touch. Or perhaps that a skill she had always had was magnified. Before her death, not one of her own seven children had died, an unusual case where she had grown up.

Whether it was an old skill enhanced or a new one entirely, now when she sat by a child’s bedside and held her hands, or lay in the bed and cuddled the child, when Mary hoped the girl would get well, she did so within a day or two.

Cuts and bruises also healed quickly after her touch. Under her cool hands pain quickly diminished. She was very deft at cleaning and bandaging cuts. She did not let on, of course, that her witch sight let her see/feel/taste a wound and see into the wound as if she were a tiny bird flying into it. And that her witch hands let her tend those wounds as no ordinary human could, cleaning them and pressing the sundered edges together in exactly the way that would best help her patient’s bodies heal their wounds.

#

With Christmas coming up Mary gave much thought to the presents she could give. She bought trinkets from the stores with her saved-up allowance. She also made things like sweets and mittens and other small presents. With her experience as a seamstress before her death and her extra-human witch hands she could cut and sew these items very quickly and precisely.

Though she could only do this at full speed when no one was around. Anyone watching would have assumed that she was a supernatural being like the brownies, who were supposed to do marvelous things if left a bowl of milk in the night.

In the process of making gifts she discovered another use for her witch hands. In addition to dissolving objects, and cutting them when she narrowed the dissolution effect to a razor’s width, she could also glue things together. She simply partly dissolved two separate surfaces and pressed them together, then ceased the dissolution effect. It only took seconds for the two surfaces to bond together, becoming one piece.

Experimenting, she found that her extra-natural “glue” worked best on material that had been alive. Or was alive. She thought she could do this with flesh as a quick fix to wounds. There, however, it would be better to clean a cut and carefully align the edges and let the person’s or the animal’s body heal the damage. She should glue flesh together only if the wound was immediately life-threatening.

She could also glue things together that had never lived, such as stone and metal. The harder the object the longer it took to dissolve it. But she could dissolve anything, even iron, she discovered.

All these abilities could be very useful. It meant, among other consequences, that she could never be kept in a jail.

Though, now that she thought about it, she decided that it would be better to use her witch sight and witch hands to pick the lock on the door than to cut or dissolve part of the jail door.

When the time came to share gifts Mary received several herself. One was from several of the younger girls, including Barbarous Barbara, who had pooled their meager resources to buy a book. It contained fairy tales similar to the battered one from which she had been reading earlier in the year.

#

As Spring wore on Mary’s reputation as a healer grew and she was graduated to working on boy’s ills as well, with such suitable safeguards for her safety and modesty as the Quakers thought needed for all the girls given this extra responsibility.

Having raised three boys and a husband, Mary was amused at this. But of course everyone thought of her as fifteen, though everyone recognized her as unusually mature for her age.

And tall. In the last few months she had put on a growth spurt, one deliberately decided upon and carefully monitored and controlled by her esoteric powers. So, though she grew taller and the proportions of her limbs changed, she remained as graceful as ever. Though more graceful than she let anyone see. Had anyone seen her move in all her power and grace they might well have thought her a supernatural being.

One aspect of her guided growth no one but Mary could perceive. She was slowly making her bones denser, stronger, and more flexible to support the extraordinary strength and speed of her enhanced muscles.

The boys were more prone to illness and injury than girls. Probing with her esoteric senses as she fixed them up she could tell that men’s bodies were a bit more fragile than women’s.

They also were more prone to injury because of their tendency to fight. Mary thought this tendency healthy overall since it was men’s duty to protect others. But it could be carried too far. She administered a few sharp reprimands where appropriate.

Most boys moderated their behavior after a few encounters with “Granny” McCarthy’s tongue — or a smart box upside the head precisely calculated to cause the least harm and the most pain. Soon no one wanted to mess with Granny McCarthy.

Almost no one. Some of the injuries were caused by bullying. Reprimanding the bullied had no effect on the bully.

After the third such injury caused by the same individual Mary lost patience.

That night a little before lights out she slipped out of the girl’s dorm and into the boy’s. She carried a tree branch that she had used her witch hands to trim into a smooth, nimble switch.

Standing just inside the doorway, Mary surveyed the room. No one had yet noticed her and the boys carried on as usual, some studying, a few already asleep, some chatting in small groups, a couple wrestling in a friendly way. Across the room she saw her target, holding court before a half-dozen other boys.

The boy closest to her noticed her first.

“Hey!” he said, hastily slipping a shirt on over his naked chest.

“You aren’t allowed here!” a boy further on protested.

Mary ignored them and began to stalk across the room, letting a little of her extranatural power and control show. The crowd before her melted away. Those who did not know the unwisdom of crossing Granny McCarthy instinctively recognized the folly of standing between a tigress and her prey.

She stopped in front of the big boy who lounged on his bed while around him other boys stood or sat on chairs and other beds. She put her fists on her hips, one of them holding the switch. It projected back and down from her waist like a sword. No one there failed to recognize the warning in some dim way.

“Billy, I’m disappointed in you. You could be the best of them. Instead you act like some asshole English lord.”

He sneered at her. “So, it’s Granny McCarthy.”

“Here’s what you are going to do, Billy. You are not going to beat up anybody else, or threaten anyone else, or say ‘boo’ to anyone else — ever.”

“Or what?”

“Unless — they attack you. Then you can defend yourself. But I had better be convinced of that.”

He fondled his crotch suggestively. “You need to be taught a lesson, bitch. Get out of here now or I’ll give it to you.”

One or two of the boys around his bed laughed. They were nervous laughs. The Quakers were strict about the slightest disrespect of boys to girls. A boy could get pitched out of the orphanage over it. Even the dumbest boy there recognized what a disaster that would be.

“When I want your pitiful prick, you asshole, I’ll tell you. Get up.”

The boys were stunned. They might talk like this but girls did not.

Even Billy blinked at her language but he quickly rallied. He stood up slowly, letting his height uncoil toward the ceiling, his man-sized bulk spread out.

Mary had been bullied by her brothers. For a time. Even the biggest of her brothers eventually learned not to.

She pointed the switch toward the head of the bed. “Bend over it.”

“I’m going to bend you over it. And give you what you deserve.”

Mary’s anger flared and she switched it off.  She wondered if he was stupid enough or fool enough to mean it.

Billy snatched at the wrist of her switch hand.

Mary could have let him capture it and try to control her — only to find that she was much stronger than he and vastly more in control of her body and its leverage.  But the superiority of greater strength over lesser was not the lesson she wanted to teach.

Instead she pivoted out of the way of his snatch like a toreador avoiding a bull and struck the back of his hand with the switch. It was just a flick. With her full strength the switch would have cut like a knife.

He inhaled sharply and recoiled, cradling his hurt hand in the other. There was shock on his face, and not just at the pain. To him — and everyone else there — she had struck with the speed of a mongoose and just as quickly pivoted back into place to stand exactly where she had been.

To Mary, her senses and muscles turned up to extranatural speed and power, he had seemed to move slowly.

Billy roared and lunged forward, both hands outstretched to grab whatever part of her that he could. Mary stepped aside and struck him lightly on one cheek, not quite enough to bring blood. He screamed in pain and rage and turned to try again. She avoided him and struck his other cheek.

Many of the boys watching gasped. Both red welts on Billy’s face exactly mirrored the other.

Not every boy was as perceptive. One of Billy’s cronies behind Mary rushed forward.

Mary felt the floor boards flex under her feet at his first step, the whisper of feet on wood, felt on the back of her neck the air behind her displace toward her. She whirled around and out of his path and struck him on a cheek as well. He screamed and rushed past, fell onto Billy’s bed and cradled his face in his hands, weeping.

Billy was made of sterner stuff, or else anger had washed all sense from him. He came at her again, arms wide to catch her if she went to one side or the other.

She did neither. She leaned forward and extended her switch to touch him just under his nose. As he drove forward she pulled her hand back, but exactly enough to put painful but not fatal pressure on his face.

If she had not, the sharp tip of the switch could have traveled up one of his nostrils into his brain. What penetrated his mind instead was pain like fire on one of the most sensitive parts of his body. He stopped his advance, reeled back, and reached for his upper lip with both hands. Mary slashed the outside of both arms, this time hard enough to draw blood.

Billy screamed and reeled back, tripping on his bed, falling. Mary slid forward and pushed him so that he fell on the floor face down in front of her. Reaching down she jerked the loose waist band of his pants down to bare his hairy buttocks. She whipped those several times not quite hard enough to draw blood, then stepped back.

She pointed her switch at another boy who she had identified as a friend of Billy’s.

“Take care of him.”

She pointed at another boy and told him to do the same for the other boy.

As the two injured were led away Mary turned to look at the rest of the boys.

“YOU will not bully THEM. That would make you as bad as them. You can fight, you can protect yourself. But not bully. It’s evil, and I will not put up with it. Now get to bed.”

Shortly thereafter the youngest male missionary came in to turn all the lights off. He was amazed and puzzled to find that all the boys were tucked in bed with the covers pulled up to their chins. Or in a few cases, over their heads.

#

The next morning as she had planned Mary was on call to help take care of the medical needs of the orphans.

After the first class Pastor Simmons brought Billy and the other hurt boy in. They looked chastened, as if they had just received a lecture on not fighting. Though that was not the reason for their distressed faces when they saw who was waiting in the little infirmary. Billy stopped abruptly, and the other boy shrank back behind his bulk.

The Parson showed his surprise, though only Mary or his own wife might have been able to see it. He stared at the boys, then looked at Mary.

She was looking at him in cool inquiry. He looked at the boys again, saw where their gaze was resting. The tiniest smile touched the corner of his eyes.

“Mary, it seems the boys have been fighting. Take care of them, will you?”

“Yes, Parson. I will. You can leave them with me. I can handle this.” She pointed at the cuts on the two boys arms.

“Yes, I am sure you can.”

After the Parson left Mary briskly cleaned Billy’s arm cuts and put bandages on them. She also deadened the pain with her witch hands enough for the pain not to be too distracting. She needed only a lotion and her own cool hands to soothe the welts on the boys’ faces and on Billy’s bottom.

Afterward she straightened up. “There! You’ll be fine now. In fact, I think you’ll be better than fine.”

They both made hasty noises of agreement and quickly left.

Mary looked after Billy with approval. He was coming along nicely. Eventually he might shape up to being someone worthwhile. With a little help from Granny.

#

The story must have been too good to be kept secret. A week or two later Mr. Timmons, while loaning Mary one of his personal books on mathematics, said, “I hear the boys are calling you Granny McCarthy. Don’t let it bother you, Mary. You know how silly boys can be.”

The tone of his voice said he meant to be soothing, the smile around his eyes said something else entirely. Quakers generally did not believe in violence, but this one apparently felt that some people sometimes required — encouragement.

#

A few days later when the girls settled in for the night Mary said, “Tonight I’m going to tell you a story that my mother told me.”

On the foot of Mary’s bed Barbarous Barbara, as usual, sat alone. Under Mary’s influence she was becoming less barbarous, but none of the other girls yet felt certain enough about that to risk taking a place on Mary’s bed.

Except little five- or six-year old Sophia, who tried to climb up on the bed. Barbara leaned over and picked up the little girl and set Sophia between her legs. The little girl leaned back against Barbara’s chest, a thumb in her mouth and big eyes looking intently at Mary.

No one knew who she was or who had abandoned her at the orphanage. Her name was one given to her by Pastor Simmons. Her hair had been so lice-ridden that it had been shaved off, and she did not speak. One of Barbara’s hands now was idly running back and forth over Sophia’s fuzzy head.

Sophia could speak. Mary had probed her with her esoteric senses and knew that the little girl had no physical or neural impediment to speech. She could understand speech, and do what she was told or asked, but she simply was not yet ready to talk.

“In days long past, as you should know if you don’t, bards were given honor even above kings.”

At the word bard Sophia’s brow wrinkled. Mary looked at her and said, “A bard, as you should know if you don’t, goes around the country making poetry and songs about places and people and happenings that they come across. Then they sing or declaim them elsewhere so that people far away will know about them.” The little girl’s brow unwrinkled.

“Is Barbara a bard?” This from a little girl lying on a near-by bed cuddling with three other girls near her age. Other girls lay in other near-by beds, and a few had made temporary pallets out of their bed clothes close to Mary’s bed. Every orphan girl at the Quaker mission listened to Mary’s stories, even the older ones who pretended to be reading or sleeping or sewing because they felt too dignified to do kid’s stuff like listen to bedtime stories.

“Why, I believe you are right. Or she could be if she wanted.”

Barbara loved singing and had a marvelous voice. She looked back at Mary with no expression on her face, but Mary knew as surely as if she could read minds that Barbara was thinking How could anyone be stupid enough not to know something so obvious?

“The king of the bards at one time was Senchan. And he was a very important man. The most important bard of all, he recked. So when he traveled he always brought two dozen or more other bards with him so that everyone would know how important he was. And at every castle its king seated these bards at his own high table, with the bard king in the king’s own place.”

As always at this time of the night auburn-haired Bridget was moving gracefully about the girl’s dormitory dousing the kerosene lamps high on the walls. She was so quiet and unobtrusive that only Mary noticed her. She and Mary traded faint smiles.

“One day the bard king visited Guaire, the king of Connaught. Which, as you should know if you don’t, is the province of west Ireland, containing County Galway and County Mayo.”

“And Leitrim!” “And Roscommon!” “And Sligo!” came from various girls around Mary.

“Yes, and I see some people have been studying their geography. Well, King Guaire set a good table, better even than that of Senchan when he was home. And this made the high bard angry. And he sulked.”

Mary made a sour face and turned it all around for everyone to see. Her audience laughed, some of them shrieks that were immediately shushed by other girls.

“This was on the first day of their visit. And on the second day traveling noblemen and women came from the court of Munster Province, which, as you should know if you don’t, is our very own part of Ireland, the south part, where our County Clare is.”

Several little girls began to recite the list of six counties in Munster and Mary held up her hands and shushed them.

“This visit was one long-planned, to discuss some serious business. And the visitors were honored greatly but were, of course, seated at the table below the one where the bards sat. But even a little bit of attention to someone else displeased the bard king. And he sulked and turned away food, saying that it was poorly made.”

Mary waved a hand imperiously as if sending food away, her head turned up and away, nose wrinkled as if she were smelling something awful. There was more laughter.

“On the third day, as the bards were being escorted to the table, a cat ran across in front of them, perhaps chasing a mouse. Now, as you should know if you don’t, cats are very important because they hunt mice and other small animals –“

“Rats!” “Bugs!”

“Yes, all that. All things that can eat up our food and make us starve. So the escorts of the bards stopped them to let the cat go by. And it angered High Bard Senchan something fierce that anyone or anything would be allowed to go before him, and impede his progress.”

Mary waved her hands all around as if furious, and there was much laughter.

“And the High Bard began to declaim a satire. Which, as you should know if you don’t, is made up of very harsh, insulting words. And the satire was against the Cat King, who Senchan thought was a myth.”

“Is he?”

“Well, you would think that, wouldn’t you? He was supposed to be a cat as big as a bull, and ten times strong as a bull, with red eyes like coals of fire. But Senchan –” She leaned forward and dropped her voice to a whisper. “– was wrong. There is a Cat King, and his name is –“

She said it very slowly, with much hissing sibilance, “– Ir-u-san.”

There were “Oohs!” and “Aahs!” and much mutual hugging at that.

“But as luck would have it the Cat King could not come and punish Senchan. He had been hurt when a mountain fell on him, and he was in his bed in his snug cave, being nursed by his Cat Queen. And all his sons were far away on important business for the Cat King.”

Mary paused and looked all around.

“But as luck would have it the King’s daughter was only a hundred miles away. When she heard he was hurt she raced faster than the wind and gave a great leap and joined her father in his warm, comfortable cave. Her name was Bearach.” She said the word very clearly, BAYER-ock, giving the end the Gaelic harking sound like the German “ach” sound.

“In English her name means Sharpclaws. Now her father told Sharpclaws about the great insults spoke by Senchan. She was very angry and said she would go and bring this man to him for punishment. And he gave her permission and she leaped from the cave and rushed to Connaught Castle.

“She leaped over the castle walls and raced up the stairs to the dining hall and shouted –” Mary put on a growly hissing voice, “‘Where is Senchan?'”

Mary paused to let them imagine the scene, then continued.

“The bard king cried out in terror and called to the warriors present to protect him. But not a one moved, because Princess Sharpclaws was a terrifying sight to even the bravest man.”

“What did she look like?”

“Bearach is a bean chaitt,” she said, giving it the Gaelic sounds: BAYAN-cot, the hard C having the “kh” sound.

“This means ‘cat woman’ because the Princess could be a woman or a cat or in-between. The English call this kind of person a werecat. However, in English you must always call Princess Sharpclaws a ‘cat LADY’ because she is royalty. Anyway, she is tall as a man, and ten times as strong. Most of the time her body is a woman’s but with cat ears and stripes like a tiger’s. They start from her eyes, very narrow, and get bigger as they go back and down her body.”

Mary put her hands in front of her eyes, fingers together, then drew them outward and back. She slowly spread her fingers to give them some idea of what the tiger stripes looked like.

“She has fur over all her body and claws instead of toenails and fingernails. Her teeth are sharp.”

All the little girls were clutching each other in a delight of terror and even the older girls were having a hard time keeping their blasé façades.

“Sharpclaws grabbed the bard king and raced away with no more effort than if he had been a mouse. But even a cat lady tires a little when carrying a man, so she stopped at a village to rest, near a forge. And the blacksmith at the forge was none other than Saint Kieran.

“Seeing frightened Senchan and scary Sharpclaws he asked the bard what was the matter. The bard told the saint that he was about to be murdered. Kieran became wrathful at this and pulled a sword blade out of the fire, all red with heat, and he struck Sharpclaws through the heart!”

There was a great chorus of Ohhhs from the listeners, sounding disappointed and sympathetic to poor Sharpclaws.

“Or –” Mary held up one hand. “He tried to. But if a cat is nimble, you can imagine that a cat lady must be ten times, a hundred times, as nimble.

“And she turned her body aside so that the sword passed by her, and grasped the saint’s wrist and took the sword from him as easily as if he were a baby. And she dropped the blade and at the same time –“

Mary lifted one hand and curved her thumb and fingers as if they were clawed, then made a sharp downward slash in the air.

“– cut that red-hot blade into a half dozen pieces as it fell. She laughed and explained the situation to the saint, saying that the bard was to be punished not killed or tortured, for she knew that her father was a just man. But she also scolded the saint, saying he should remember to get both sides of a question before he acted.

“Then she took the bard on to her father’s home. There he was put to hard but honest work, and fed plain but wholesome food. And everyone was courteous to him even when he spoke to them in insulting ways. For a year and a day he was kept in her father’s domain.

“Then Senchan was told to bathe all over and wash his hair, and they gave him oil for his hair to make it glossy. He was given new clothes, styled as befit his station, and of better cloth and cut than any he had ever seen. Finally he was allowed to go home, and was astonished as cat people lined the road away from the Cat King’s cave, waving goodbye. He shed tears as he left the cave far behind, for to his surprise he had unwillingly come to feel that it was his home. And he was courteous and kind to everyone throughout all the days of his life.

“And the moral of this story is that everyone, no matter how exalted, how high, should be polite, even to cats.”

There was much quiet for a minute or so, then everyone sighed in satisfaction.

“Now, to bed everyone,” Bridget said, positioned under the last lit kerosene lamp.

However, before anyone could do anything little Sophia took her thumb out of her mouth and spoke up. “Is,” she said.

Mary blinked. “What did you say, honey?”

“IS!” repeated Sophia, an exasperated look on her little face.

Barbara was not at a loss. “She means, ‘You kept saying the cat lady IS this, or IS that.'”

Of course, Mary thought. “Yes, the cat lady is still alive, out there somewhere.” She waved toward the walls. “Maybe even right outside, just beyond the doors.”

All the girls in the dormitory looked at those walls, and in imagination through them. Some shivered, two or three cowered under their covers, one giving a little shriek, but most only looked wondering.

Mary said, “Don’t be afraid. Remember that the cat lady never hurt anyone in the story? If she is outside, it is only bad things that must be afraid. And she is protecting us from them.”

Meanwhile Barbara had gotten off Mary’s bed and was leading Sophia to her own bed. The narrow bed seemed huge when her little body was tucked under her covers.

As Bridget doused the last kerosene lamp Barbara was crawling into her own bed. Somehow, in the last week or so, the bed beside Sophia’s had become Barbara’s.

As Mary rolled onto her side and snugged her covers about herself, she wondered if Barbara knew that Mary had aimed the bedtime story and its moral about politeness toward her.

Dropping into dreamland, Mary decided that she must.

Then her eyes opened wide, for some deep part of herself had just realized that Mary’s last words, after the story, were directed at her own self. She had told the truth, except about the location of Princess Sharpclaws.

The cat lady was she herself, and she was inside the dormitory. She was protecting all the girls, and the boys, and the members of the mission. This was her home — for the next few years, anyway — and this was her family.

And with that the cat lady fell easily into sleep.

#

Only Part One of Shapechanger’s Birth is on this Web site. You can get the entire downloadable book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $2.99.

Want to read more now? Then travel with her on the Danger Road.

© Copyright 2009

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3 Responses to Shapechanger’s Destiny

  1. Pingback: Final story of Part One of Shapechanger’s Birth now online | Shapechanger Tales

  2. Richard G. Swift says:

    Liked that.
    Thanks,
    Rich

  3. Pingback: Final story of Part One of Shapechanger’s Birth now online | Shapechanger Tales

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