Soot

Prologue

A cry split the cold morning air. The child, who only moments before had been chasing the pigeons, had fallen down and scraped her hand. She lay where she fell, propping herself up on the uninjured hand and looked aghast at the scraped palm on the other. The scrape looked at first just like skin that had peeled off, but soon little droplets of blood oozed out and began to trickle down to the child’s wrist.

Her wailing hadn’t ceased, and within a few minutes the stone courtyard where she’d been playing was full of people balking at the tremendous noise she was making. A woman scooped her up, ignoring the blood smearing across the white cloth of her apron and took her inside. The stone courtyard emptied as people grumbled and then went back inside the large stone building and got back to work.

“Hush, now,” murmured the woman soothingly in the child’s ear. “There, there. ‘S alright. ‘S just a little scrape.” The child had stopped her wailing by now and had subsided into hiccuping whimpers, tears still streaming silently down her face at the subtle, pulsing pain in her palm. The woman’s face was averted from hers as she put the child down on a wooden stool beside the fireplace, and the child took this opportunity to look at the blood on her hand again. Tentatively, looking quizzically at the redness, she stuck out her tongue and licked it. The taste was strange and metallic, mixed with the dirt that had stuck to the blood. She shuddered a little.

The woman bustled around her, moving around the fireplace, fetching a basin and water and setting it over the fire to heat. Absentmindedly, she patted the child’s matted hair between motions. She got a clean cloth from somewhere and, when the water was hot but not too hot, she took it off the fire and placed the basin beside the child. She dipped the cloth into it, wrung it out, and then tenderly washed the child’s scraped hand. The warmth stung, but the child was calm now, her big eyes fixed on the woman’s face.

“There, now, y’see?” the woman said, taking the child’s other hand and washing it as well. “No more tears now, there’s a good girl. Don’t hurt so bad now, do it?” Her eyes finally met those of the child. The woman gulped.

The child’s eyes were black. The woman couldn’t tell where the pupil ended and the iris began. It seemed like the child had only extremely large black holes set within the whites of her eyes. For all that, she was still only a child. Maybe two years old, three at best. She was skin and bones, almost, although her cheeks retained the roundness of a baby and had a healthy pink flush to them. The child’s hair color she couldn’t make out for it was too filthy and matted, bits of twig sticking out of it here and there making it look as though a bird had idly built its nest there one morning while the child still slept. The child’s limbs all looked to be working and normal, if too thin. The woman thought to herself, instinctively, that the child was probably full of lice and that she needed to be scoured immediately.

But then she met those eyes again. The woman bit her lip, thoughtfully.

“You got a name, child?” She asked abruptly.

“Thea.”

“Ah,” the woman said. She bit her lip again, hard. She looked around her, making sure they were alone and that no one had heard the child utter her name. No one in the large, bustling kitchen had been paying them any attention. It was near supper-time, and they were all busy. She would be told off for not helping tonight. The woman brought her mind back to the child before her and came to a decision. In years to come, she wondered whether she’d been taken on by a fit of madness or whether it was just that the child was much too thin for comfort.

“Your name isn’t Thea. Y’hear me, child? Your name isn’t Thea. You’re gonna be my daughter, and you’re name’s gonna be-” she hesitated, thinking. “Your name’s gonna be Soot, cause o’ your eyes, little one.”

“Soot,” the child repeated. “Soot,” she said again, touching her small nose.

“Soot,” the woman agreed.

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