The Takeaway Stone

Carole Oldroyd

I cannot say now why I did it. No, that is a lie. It is only that I would rather not admit the thing out loud, nor even give it leave to rattle around inside this unsound mind. But rattle, it will. And stab and thrash. There is no one left to listen, save for the slithering and flying and crawling creatures that inhabit this place. The telling is for me, to perhaps ease both my conscience and my transition. Whatever comes next, I do not know. My only remaining hope is this stone that burns hot in the palm of my hand. I won’t let go.

Hateful world, which creates gossip circles and otherwise exclusionary groups. From childhood, I never felt I belonged. The feeling wasn’t cultivated as much as it was thrust upon me by the mean-spirited girls with their immaculate frocks and perfectly arranged hair. We were not contemporaries; we only happened to be of approximately the same age and unfortunately also live within the same house. 

Their unladylike taunts launched like a volley of darts and hit their mark with precision. “Dirty Bess, Dirty Bess, only has a dirty dress!”

When I was younger, my mother cautioned me not to take their remarks to heart. “Elizabeth, m’darling girl,” I remember her soothing me in her fading Irish lilt while mending a silk stocking that was far too fine for either of us to wear, “this is a thing that all young girls endure. In time, you will find your place.”

I think I would have preferred being a boy. Even kitchen maids’ sons were schooled in the village, where books, communal lunches, and friends were attainable. I was relegated to carrying pails of water, building fires, and taking lessons with soot-stained fingers by kitchen lamplight in the evenings.

Mother is to be credited for attempting to buffer the effects of their taunts. She tried in many ways to make me believe that I was special. One evening as she braided my hair for sleep, she told me a story of the Takeaway Stone. The stone, she said, was magical. It could only be used by a woman with magic in her blood. After tying up my braid, she opened her sewing box, pulled out a small, shiny rock, and handed it to me. “My mother gave this to me. And her mother gave it to her. One day, it will be yours. If ever you are in trouble beyond hope, reach for it. It will carry you away.”

It was a lovely story. But if ever there had been a situation to be carried away from, surely life as a low-ranking servant would qualify.

Mother’s health turned poor after the scandalous stillbirth of a son; whose father was a secret she kept. Fortunately, her seamstress skills assured our survival. But during the winter of my seventeenth year, when sickness icily swept through the servants’ chambers, she was laid to rest in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

She had her place; mine was never revealed. My sole inheritance was her sewing box, and the curious, shiny stone. I carried it with me from then on.

Time only amplified my cruel situation. As I grew into a scullery maid position, the ladies only grew more wicked.  

Once, my unfashionable dresses were the source of their taunts. Now, the attacks caused real harm. One of the ladies rose effortlessly through the ranks as prime instigator. Her name, and it stings my tongue like rusty iron, was Anna.

Lady Anna, as she insisted that I call her, was beautiful. Her black hair reflected sunlight like a mirror. Her blue eyes seemed to glow against her pale skin. Her heart, however, was as dank as the sludge under a shaded, rotting log. Lady Anna had many pastimes, as young women of her station often did. But no parlor game was nearly as fun as seeking out the plain-faced scullery maid for entertainment.

Sundays were particularly awful. Sometimes, after returning from a fierce sermon in the village, the other girls accompanied Lady Anna on her quest.I recall being encircled by those creatures in their fancy dresses, many of which bore the fine needlework of my mother, chanting words that still make my face flush hot. 

“Dirty Bess, Dirty Bess, three-penny harlot, you must confess!”

It was true that my dresses were stained. I was also accustomed to slurs about my mother’s supposed loose morals. But now, they suggested I was the same. If those rumors took hold, I would surely never marry.

While most of the girls were satisfied using words as weapons, some enjoyed slapping me hard across the face or pulling my hair. Lady Anna was rarely satisfied until she saw blood. Maybe it was a pin or a small razor she had hidden in her pocket. It didn’t matter as long as it was sharp. As an even greater assault, she would then drag me to the servants’ table in the kitchen to dress whatever wounds she had inflicted. Mrs. Dudley, the head cook, always praised Lady Anna’s kindness and scolded the accident-prone scullery maid.

For me to speak harshly would result in immediate termination without a letter of reference. To strike one of them, even in defense, would risk something much worse.  

Foul creatures, all. But I would have my revenge.

My plan was foolproof, or nearly so. It was that lukewarm space in-between that sealed my fate.

It was easy enough to fashion the device of my plot: a small poppet, stitched in the wee hours, using scraps from my mother’s sewing box. On the doll’s head were wisps of my own copper-red hair. The eyes were two knots of brown thread. The mouth was a thin line of pink yarn. After stabbing my finger to produce a drop of blood, I smeared it to form a heart on its chest. Then I plunged the pin straight through the red stain.

It wasn’t pretty. But no one would imagine Lady Anna possessed expert sewing skills. All that must be planted was the seed of implication: she dabbled in forbidden witchcraft to harm the scullery maid. The vicar was old-fashioned. Witch trials may be relegated to the past, but that didn’t save the stretched neck of an occasional poor, accused soul now and then. Lady Anna would serve as payment, and I would not shed a tear.

While the ladies were having tea on a Tuesday afternoon, I sneaked upstairs and hid the poppet in one of Anna’s pockets. With evidence planted, the rest of my plan would easily unfold.

On Wednesday, I pleaded with Mrs. Dudley for half a day’s leave to go into the village. Her brow furrowed in displeasure, but she ultimately agreed.

Once away from the manor house, I ran at top speed into the village. The air was bitter cold, but it helpfully stung my cheeks red and caused tears to form. The vicar’s eyes flew open at the story I told in seemingly terrified pants and puffs. He gasped when I described witchcraft and the blood-stained poppet. I stood reverently as he prayed. And then I turned to leave.

The deed was done; now I had only to wait for that seed to grow.

For three days, I carried out my duties with an uncharacteristic lighthearted manner. The kitchen maids teased that I must have a suitor. Mrs. Dudley asked whether I was ill. Even Lady Anna’s taunts failed to cause their usual mental anguish. I was happy.

I barely heard the bell ring on Sunday evening. The kitchen was abuzz with activity, as servants prepared the family’s meal. But a hush fell at the booming voices of the lord of the manor and other men whom I could not quite identify.

They grew closer. Words rang out toward the kitchen as clear as fine crystal. “Fetch the scullery maid to my study, now!” The voice did not suggest compassion.

Mrs. Dudley stepped away from me. A footman pressed his back against a wall. Three kitchen maids scurried. I eyed the back door and looked around the room at the accusing faces.

You’ve been caught. Run, m’darling, run. It was my mother’s voice, as clear as if she were standing there and not across the divide.

The thicket welcomed me. I broke through vines, dashed around rocks, trudged through mud, and ultimately took cover behind an old, rotting log.

The shouts and barking dogs grow louder now. I am prey to be hunted before being torn asunder.

The time for the telling is over; it is time for doing. Mother said I have magic in my blood. I have no choice left but to find out. The latest cut from Lady Anna was still fresh. I scratched until red flowed, held the Takeaway Stone hard against it, and wished with all my heart, not caring who or what heard me.

  THE END


Carole Oldroyd is a full-time chandler, freelance writer, and mischief maker, who spends most of her days mainlining coffee and earning her living with wax and words. She and her two cats (RIP, dear Sashi) are plenty familiar with rattling doorknobs, footfalls on the staircase, and things that go bump in the night. She believes that if more people were familiar with James Whitcomb Riley’s spooky poem, Little Orphant Annie, which her grandmother used to recite with animated glee, we would all be a lot kinder to one another.

Cover design by Carole Oldroyd.

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