There are days I remember like scenes crystalized in a snow globe, really slices of many different days merged together and distilled into smaller capsules of time. I see myself and my sisters, Rose and Celia, sitting at one end of the long wooden table of the orphanage dining room, not too close to each other, each with ample room for our morning tea, toast, papers, inks, embroidery, what have you, but still leaving two-thirds of the long table empty. We are not sitting like ladies, but contort ourselves into all sorts of shapes for better access to our fascinations, myself with one foot flat on the chair and a knee up close to my chest to rest an open book against, and a plate of breakfast perched between thigh and belly. Rose is sitting cross-legged, drawing in a large folio upon her lap, with precision and soul. She dips her pen into her tea cup by mistake and brings an ink bottle to her mouth, thinking it is toast. Celia is perched on her knees, chair with its back toward the table, presiding over a wide circle of accoutrements and instruction manuals, preparing for some experiment, hardly taking a sip or nibble at all in her rapture. The pages turning, the pens scratching, the rustling of papers and clanking of tools mix with the sound of knives on butter dishes and cups on saucers, an occasional exclamation of discovery or consternation. These morning hours, seen from the distance of decades, seem impossibly free. Athans will be working until the early afternoon, and we are certain not to be called upon to know or prove anything until he emerges from his study. If it be summer, the casement windows are flung open and birds alight on the sill, singing their morning songs. The flowering trees shake themselves awake and cast yesterday’s new blossoms into the air, delivering their soft-sweet petals onto the table. If it be winter, we have lighted the old stove, and the sound of crackling and shifting wood mingles with the woosh of icy wind and the scurrying of small industrious animals inside the walls. I have not combed my hair, but I let my fingers work through some knots when a hand is free from page turning or teacup lifting, unconcerned about bits of jam or buttery crumbs on my fingercomb; Celia has her hair pulled back, out of the way of her work, bound with a scarf that looks a bit like a sorcerer’s turban; and pretty Rose is already miraculously coiffed, with lovely braids and twists and chignons, flowers tucked amid her golden hair, wearing a neat and fetching dress, newly tailored by her deft hand. We let the tea go cold and forget to feed the stove until almost too late, just catching the last embers to start a new log a’ blazing.
If I shake the snow globe, the settling flakes show a table left uncleared, as we three go tearing across the vast yard, past marble statues and the splashing fountain, some dogs running at our feet, our skirts flying, birds scattering, either together all of us, or two and one, or each alone, to seek out a special spot where we cannot be spied by Athans from his tower studiolo (not that he is likely to look up from his work, but still, who knows?), to reach some perch for lake gazing or a bed of pine needles under a tall fir tree, or to find the rare lady slipper; or, if winter, to listen, on snowy days, to the silence of the brown and white world syncopated by our tromping over unshoveled paths, wrapped in capes and woolen scarves and wearing furry hats and boots, filling with icy snow. We walk sometimes for hours, not uttering a word, or singing madrigals or maybe telling secrets, returning, finally, hungry and thirsty and tired, in time to await Athans who emerges like clockwork from his study, to find us at the dining room table again, this time slightly more decorous than at breakfast, ready for our lessons. We no longer exist like this, except in this my vision. At the time, of course, I had no idea how happy we were.