So, as a consolation gift for not posting on here much lately, I give you the first chapter of my novel. It may not be any good, indeed I may change it drastically before all’s said and done, but I hope you enjoy it anywho.
Of a Dress and Being Ladylike
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
“Natalia, hurry with your chores! You don’t have much time before we need to leave!”
“Yes, Mother!” I run out to the barn, made of weathered but sturdy wood, trying to keep my plain, brown work dress from impeding my movements. It is stained and threadbare, but it matters not because I only wear it while I do jobs assigned by my parents.
“Good morning, Lace,” I greet our brown dairy cow, patting her flank and fetching my bucket and stool. She moos in acknowledgment.
I am the youngest of four children. We live on a farm, on the very outskirts of the town of Nemolia – a small town, with a population of about two thousand. Many of the citizens of Nemolia are farmers; the ones who aren’t bake bread, sew clothes, and otherwise produce necessities for those of us who are.
My father is the mayor of Nemolia. The townsfolk were unsure about their mayor living this far away from the main part of town, but he convinced them, partially because this has been our home for twenty years, and also he has a swift horse named Starrett who can get him from here to the town in thirty minutes.
With all his mayoral duties, though, he is often in town all day and sometimes even overnight, during busy times like this. He has a rented room near his office. I have not seen him since early yesterday morning, when I rose at dawn to see him off.
I finish with Lace and give her a kiss between the eyes, just before trotting off to the chicken coop to gather the eggs.
“Yes, yes, good morning chickens,” I say, and they welcome me with profuse clucking.
My basket filled with white and brown eggs of various sizes, I return to the barn to get the bucket of milk and then walk back to the house, made of sturdy logs weatherproofed by a thick clay mixture.
“Gracious, Natalia. We only have an hour!” My mother takes the basket and pail, setting them on the large, oaken table that my father made with the assistance of my two brothers, Marc and Thalen – the oldest and second oldest children in my family. Actually, I can’t think of a thing in our home that they didn’t build. They even built the house and barn, right up from the ground – with a bit of help from friends, of course.
“Time passes quickly when you’re milking and gathering,” I laugh as I dash up the stairs.
“Don’t run so, Natalia! It’s not ladylike!”
“I’m going to be late!” I argue, bursting into the room I used to share with my older sister, Calista. Now that she has married, it is all mine.
Striding to the wardrobe, I fling open the door and examine my dresses. They are not many, but one or two of them are my special favorites. I run a hand over the fabric of my favorite light blue dress and smile. I will not be wearing this today, however. My mother sewed me a special dress, just for this special day.
My mother only planned on having two children. She wanted a boy and a girl, but instead she bore two males. So she tried again a few years later, and when my sister was born, she was overjoyed. She loves my brothers, of course, but she has a special affinity for my sister and me. I was a surprise; she didn’t expect to be young enough to bear any more children, and she didn’t know if she could come up with a nice name that had four syllables. She had not thought much about it, though. When she did, she came up with the name Natalia without too much trouble. I like my name; I think she did a good job.
Here in Nemolia, our town in the province Audrinia of the country known as Iuthérnya, it is a long – upheld tradition to give children names with a number of syllables equal to their position in the family line. For instance, my oldest brother, the firstborn, is Marc. Thalen is second, Calista was born third, and I, the fourth, have a mouthful of a name. And the only nickname anyone seems to be able to come up with is Nattie, which I don’t like – I think it sounds like gnat. So I make everyone call me Natalia.
I push the hanging dresses aside and remove the large cedar chest in which my special dress lies, protected from any greedy fabric – consuming insects that may chance upon it, and place it on the floor. I undo the clasps and lift the lid in reverence. The yellow fabric seems to glow like the sun as I lift it out and lay it across the patchwork quilt on my bed. Grinning at the thought of how the skirt will fluff out when I twirl, I return to the kitchen, where the bathtub rests in a corner, shielded by a screen. Removing my work shift, I shiver, dipping my toes into the tub full of of cold water. We always have cold baths – it is just too much trouble to heat all that water – so I should be accustomed to the chill, but I have never been one to tolerate cold well.
Shuddering, I scrub myself down as quickly as I am able with my mother’s homemade herb – scented soap, and jump up and down when I am finished, trying to warm myself. Once I have calmed the gooseflesh, I squeeze the water out of my long brown hair, and dry off with a rough towel, which I then wrap around myself and flit back to my room.
Now I finally get to wear the dress that I have only tried on in the presence of my mother; no one has seen it but we two. I unbutton the bodice and step through it, down into the skirt. My mother says that donning a gown in this way is unladylike, but I find it easier; she isn’t watching me, anyhow. She is quite strict about maintaining a ladylike demeanor – too strict, at times.
Pulling the dress up over my thighs and sliding my arms into the puffed sleeves, I fasten the buttons and twirl. Sure enough, the skirts spread and float through the air as I dance around my bedchamber, imagining strains of beautiful music playing all around me. The ribbon of the sash brushes my arm, and I remember to tie it before returning to the kitchen.
“Natalia! You look like the sun!” my mother squeals as I glide down the stairs. “But, darling, when will you learn to tie your sash correctly?” She undoes my knot and reties the bow – I cannot see it, but because I know my mother, I know the bow will be perfect.
“Thank you,” I say. “Can you please help me with my hair?”
“Oh, Nattie, you know I’m no good at hair.”
“Mother, you’re amazing. And please don’t call me Nattie.”
“I suppose I’ll try, but don’t be angry if I make your hair look like a bird’s nest.” She finishes rinsing the bowl she is scrubbing, then washes her hands and fetches the boar’s – hair brush from its cupboard, along with several hair ribbons of pink and yellow.
I sit on a stool as she yanks and pulls at my tresses, biting my lip. I’m not sure if my mother is ungentle or if my head is easily irritated, but it has always hurt when my mother styles my hair. The result is always worth the pain, though. Her fingers are magical when they come in contact with hair.
After what seems like forever but is probably only ten minutes, my mother claps her hands together. “Finished!” She leads me to the cracked mirror hanging from a nail on the wall, and I gasp in happiness.
A braid runs around the crown of my head, intertwined with the pink and yellow ribbons. I cannot tell where it starts or ends, only that it is beautiful.
“Wait! I have to add the finishing touch. Close your eyes.”
I do so, and then feel things scraping my scalp as they are shoved into the tight braid. “Mother, what is it?” I wonder.
“Open your eyes and see!”
My braided crown now sparkles with shiny silver hair pins.
“Oh, thank you, Mother! It is lovely. The dress is lovely. You are lovely!” I hug her and then spin again, showing off the dress to her even though she made it.
“You are the lovely one, my dear,” she chuckles.
When I pause and lean against the wall, rather dizzy, and look at her face, she is smiling, but there are tears welling in her brown eyes.
“Mother, what is wrong?”
“My baby is growing up so fast,” she coos, coming to embrace me.
I laugh. “I have to wait just as long as everyone else.”
“But you are my last child,” she explains. “It is harder with you. Soon enough, your father will find you a husband, and then he and I will be all alone in this big house.”
“It is not that big, Mother. And you will never be alone. Marc lives just down the road, and Calista is only two miles away.” I purposely neglect to mention Thalen, who lives in the adjacent town, a four hours’ horseback ride from here.
“Oh, I know that, dearest.” She kisses me on my smooth cheek, tanned from wandering the woods and fields. “I shall miss having children to care for, though.”
“You are lovely,” I repeat my earlier sentiment, and return the kiss. I have the best mother anyone could ask for.
“Natalia!” my sister exclaims, bursting in through the kitchen door. “You look gorgeous!” She beams as she hugs me. It is awkward trying to embrace her around her bulging belly.
“Thank you, Calista!” I smile. “How are you?” I pat her round abdomen.
“Impatient. This child is taking his sweet time!” she laughs, bracing her back with both hands.
I pull out a chair from the table and help her to sit down. “Have you decided on a name yet?”
“Oh, yes! I have chosen to name him Jehoshaphat.”
I stare at her, incredulous, trying to figure out if she is jesting.
“Natalia, it was a joke!” she laughs.
“Oh, that is a relief. It would be terrible for my nephew to have such a torturous name,” I giggle. As if she would actually name her firstborn Jehoshaphat. “What makes you so sure it will be a boy?”
“I do not know! But when I picture a baby in my arms, it’s always a boy.”
I shake my head, grinning at my sister’s endearing oddness. “What are you really considering naming him?”
“We just can’t seem to come up with a good name,” she admits. “Every one we think of just does not seem to fit. Do you know how hard it is to find a name with one syllable?”
“Bet, Em, Ann, Ell . . .” I try to think of more, but cannot.
“Male names, Goose.”
“But what if it is a girl?” I decide to let her get away with her special nickname for me this time.
I had a bad cold once, several years ago, and Calista was of the opinion that when I coughed, I sounded like a goose. So she began to call me Goose. I have been unable to shake the nickname ever since. At least no one else picked up on it.
“He will not be a girl.”
I let her have her opinion, though I really cannot see how she can be sure.
“Are you hungry?” asks our mother. “I have only just put away breakfast.”
“I am, but we do not have time! The caravan is not going to wait for us. Tanar is outside with the buggy. Come, let us be off!”
I take Calista’s hand and haul her to her feet. We leave the house, and her husband Tanar indeed stands outside stroking his horses. He lifts Calista into the buggy, and my mother follows. I sit between them.
“How is the lovely Natalia today?” he asks, jumping aboard and cracking the reins, shouting “Yah! Git up!” to the horses.
“Fine,” I grin. “How are you?”
“Me? I am at a loss for names that Calista approves of. At this rate, my child will remain nameless until he’s old and gray!”
“You would have me be hasty with the naming of my first child?” my sister retorts.
We all giggle. My father made a good choice in Tanar as a husband for my sister. He is smart, strong, kind, and he makes us laugh.
“No, but I would prefer if my child has a name before it is born. I don’t want to have to call it ‘the baby’.”
“Him. Not It,” my sister corrects.
“I want a girl,” he argues.
“He is a boy.”
“She is impossible,” he mutters to me, just loud enough for Calista to hear.
“Tanar!” she exclaims.
“Believe me, I know,” I joke.
“Natalia!” My sister tries to give me a stern look, but ends up laughing instead.
We bounce along in the creaky wooden buggy, along the dirt road, until we begin to pass houses that become more and more frequent. I am becoming nervous now; I try not to fidget.
“You will do wonderfully, Natalia,” my sister assures. “It really should not be bad at all. There are others who will be sharing the crowd’s attention.”
“Not if I am nominated,” I say.
“Well, then you shall just have to accustom yourself to being stared at.” She pats my shoulder. “I am so happy for you. When I was fifteen, it was not a nomination year.”
“You would have been great,” I say.
“No, I would not have,” she chuckles. “I was not ladylike or wise or a good leader in any way.”
“You were, Calista! Remember all those times you hosted afternoon tea for our dolls?”
“And ended up spilling the tea every time.”
I have to agree. “Well, you did help me learn my letters.”
“Most likely the only thing I was wise in,” she says with a laugh.
“That is not true. You are a genius.” I nudge her gently. “And do you not recall leading me on strolls through the forest?”
“Do you not recall the time we lost our way and wandered until we met a hunter who brought us home? You were beside yourself.”
“I was not.”
“You bawled the entire time,” Calista argues. “Especially whenever I released your little hand.”
“Did not. You must have been beside yourself if you do not remember that I was the one comforting you.”
“Now, now, Natalia, it is not ladylike to lie,” Calista giggles.
“Oh, you know I am only teasing.” I grin. “I still think that you would have made an amazing ruler.”
“Natalia, it is over now, anyway. If I were fifteen again, I would still be glad not to be eligible.”
“I know. ” I smile, thinking my sister is too humble. Calista always manages to lift my spirits. I put an arm around her shoulders – it is easy; I am taller than her – and lean my head against hers. We are so close, no words are needed to tell her how much I treasure her.
The end of the caravan comes into sight now – all of the villagers are traveling for the day to Gludelin, the capital city of Audrinia, where the most outstanding fifteen-year-old girls will be nominated. The townsfolk are very cautious and discerning about this – they do not simply shout out names and end up with a dozen nominees from a single village. The fifteen-year-old girls from my village will stand on a platform and the others from Nemolia will decide which of us they would choose. They may give a short speech – indeed I have never heard of a nomination in which there was no speech – giving their reasoning, boasting of our kindness, genius, beauty, or courage, so the people from the other villages and cities can hear, and the things they say are recorded by scribes, in case there is future need for a reference as to why the girl was nominated.
Each town only performs their own nominations (we do not participate in the nominations of other cities), but since everyone participates in the final vote, we travel to Gludelin, the capital of our province of Audrinia, for the nominations so that the speeches may be heard by all.
When we reach the end of the long line of buggies, wagons, and horses, I see the back of my father’s head as he drives the large wagon positioned directly in front of us. My brothers and their wives and children are already waving at me from their places in the back.
“Father!” I call, wishing to wave to him as well.
“Natalia! A lady does not shout!” snaps my mother, but I care not.
My father lifts his hand into the air and waves it backwards, towards me. I grin and settle in for the long ride.
Tell me what you thought of it. 😀