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Damp grass tickled my ankles as I moved through an English country night, through air scented with the familiar November smells of smoking leaves and sheep-dung. This was my fourth butterfly: golden lovely with peach-tipped wings and emerald feelers. The underbelly gleamed silver-blue as I watched my paintbrush make its arc, gliding across the chapel's outside wall. For light, I held a small torch between my teeth, drooling as I worked.

"Oi!" A shout came, but I hardly noticed. Nothing could compare with this wondrous sensation, the thrill of bringing what danced in my head to life. I was so utterly absorbed that the grim fields and trimmed hedges had all but morphed and melted into shapeless oblivion. Then the shout came again, bouncing off the clouds, trawling the grass: "What do you think you're doing?"

Butterfly, artist unknown

"Butterfly"

artist unknown

Fear broke in me like a medieval plague and the brush slipped from my fingers when I saw the dark bulk of a man. I bounded to the left and then to the right. A split second later, I was running, my feet slapping against the tarmac. But, he was faster than I, and feeling his arm around my neck, I struggled and kicked, sucking for air.

"Sod off!" I snarled, trying to bite him. That very morning, in the predictably awful fashion of my boarding school, the headmistress had hovered behind the lectern, speaking sternly. There was a vandal at large, she said, wreaking havoc and defacing school property willy-nilly. This vandal must be caught -- and she would be punished...

"Watch your language, young lady. Blimey! What do they teach you at this posh school then?"

He took me straight to Miss Malone, who came to the door in a terrycloth dressing gown. She spluttered and spat. I was a terrible disappointment she said, and I agreed, thinking that the more contrite I seemed, the easier it all would be. But Miss Malone was not fooled by my teary voice and shining eyes -- nor did she seem to understand the need I had felt to honor the chapel by adorning it with an international symbol of beauty and bounty. She escorted me at six to the headmistress, who was seated in her breakfast nook sipping tea. She put down the cup, looking at me over the tops of her bifocals.

"Ah, yes," she said. "I see. Sit down."

I sat, wondering if I could convince the headmistress that there was no need to tell my parents, no reason for the other girls to know. But, the headmistress didn't much like to discuss things and was eager to dispose of me so that she could finish her toast and marmalade. "I suppose you ought to be suspended, if not expelled," she said. "We'll have to call a staff meeting." And then to herself she muttered: "What a bother that'll be." Turning back to me she said, "Now run along to prayers, Imogen."

She always called me Imogen. I expect she had me confused with someone else.

As if in a trance, I moved through the melee of shouts, the jostling, the shrieking, and fooling to the great hall. Girls everywhere whispered and giggled when they saw me coming.

"We all know it was you," Monica sneered. "We heard Miss Malone telling you off."

"It's been spread," Geraldine said.

"Vandal!" hissed Marina as we filed into prayers.

"I am not a vandal!" I cried, but there was no force in my voice. Word was out and now I had to resign myself to the truth. I was a spod, a loser, a flaming misfit -- and there would be no more pretending, no more skulking in the shadow of the pretty ones, the loved ones. This, for me, was real, and despite its cruelty, the knowledge also contained a grand and glittering freedom.

 

Elizabeth Stamford was raised in England, and has lived and worked in Namibia, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka. She is currently living in New York City and is pursuing an MFA at New York University.



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