Sophie’s wiry fingers quivered violently as they pressed glue in place, attaching a lace veil to a felt bonnet she had laid out on her workbench; her joints swelled; if she stopped now, she might sleep through the night without waking in painful sweats; but Sophie would not take a break; if Sophie stopped making hats for even a moment, she feared all she would do is stare at the old grandfather clock in the corner and count the seconds until her niece arrived to take the horrible creation out of her shop.
Sophie had finished the ridiculous order by three that same afternoon and tucked it beneath the front counter, out of sight of any customers or passersby; so no one might assume she’d lost her sense of taste. She thought she really should set guidelines on what is and is not acceptable on orders for lady’s hats—if not for women’s fashion at large, God help them, then at least in her own shop! In fifty years of ribbons, feathers, nettings and pins, Sophie learned to make the hat you’re paid for, not the hat you’re proud of; but in all those years, there was never such an abomination; such a concoction of trim and contour that made her squirm so much in her own skin. Where was that child?
A tinkling copper bell announced a customer’s arrival and at first Sophie did not know her estranged niece. The last time the old woman saw Ophelia was on her second birthday, when the child wore a bright yellow gingham dress with white ribbons in her hair, bright white socks and polished black shoes. Her sister Agatha and her despot husband managed to raise what Sophie considered a lovely child; just the sort to help an old woman not used to running a shop with one set of hands. The girl before Sophie now looked to be about ten years old, in blue, denim overalls, brown tangled braids, a dirty face and neck, and sharp green eyes. “We’re closed child,” said Sophie.
Ophelia turned to the sign in the window that clearly displayed its ‘Open’ side to the public, then back to Sophie with raised eyebrows and a grin. “Aunt Sophie?” She asked. “I’m Ophelia? Agatha’s daughter; your niece? Mama told me you were needing help since uncle Ralph die—since uncle Ralph. Did you have work that needs being done?”
Aunt Sophie’s face relaxed; she felt her cheeks warm as she felt the weight of the hat leaving her already; she nodded. “You’re very, very late young woman,” she said with a long sigh. Then, as if seeing her as human for the first time, “You are terribly dirty; doesn’t Agatha bathe you girl?”
“Oh she bathes me all right,” said Ophelia, “it’s just, she’s always saying she can’t keep up with me no matter how much she tries. You know Agatha tried to give me a bath three times a day every day for a week once? My skin was so red and sore, I couldn’t pull on a dress without yipping and biting my cheeks. But it didn’t matter anyway, because after the week was up, Agatha gave it up. Somehow I always ended up just as dirty at the end of the day as I did any other day.”
“That’s fine now Ophelia, but you shouldn’t call your mother Agatha. Mama’s all right like you said before; or Mother, or Mom. She doesn’t let you call her Agatha does she? Bless that woman if she does, I’ll have to have a talk with that sister of mine.”
“Oh no! It’s just that you called Mama Agatha, and it’s such a romantic name, don’t you think it’s a lovely, romantic name? and I don’t hear it very often because it’s Mama’s name, and we don’t know a lot of other people named Agatha—that is funny how some people know dozens of people with the same name as them like Ophelia, or Michael, or Aunt Sophie, but then some people like Mama’s got names that you just don’t hear so much? I like Agatha.” Ophelia sighed. “If I could be called anything in the world I think I’d like to be called Gwenvaria.”
“Gwenvaria? Now you listen Ophelia: there’s nothing wrong with your name, and I won’t be calling you by anything but what my sister calls you by. I’ve called you here for an important delivery. I need to know you can get it done. We don’t have any time for chit-chat at the moment, and I don’t see any reason a young girl like yourself should talk so much anyway. Now, you’ll need to leave now if you’re going on foot. She’ll meet you at the Rochester II boarding gate, I’ve arranged it all with her you understand?”
“I can get it done Aunt Sophie, I know I can, if you give me a chance. This place is so incredible! I’ve never been inside a hat shop before! I mean, not a real one. I’ve imagined them hundreds of times; they’ve always made the most fantastic visits. It’s so nice to know that the real thing is so much better than the imagination. Isn’t that wonderful when that happens? Does that ever happen to you? Oh, it’s just perfect. I would just love to stay Aunt Sophie!”
“I’m not sure what you are saying Ophelia, but I admit it makes me smile to hear you like the shop. I built it myself. Not the wood of course, I mean the business. And I’m glad to hear you have at least some interest in staying. I can’t say I hear many young people showing interest in working nowadays, especially not in craft trades. But all this can wait. I have lost feeling in my right hand and the cold eats at my bones. Are you ready to go now?”
“I’m ready! Is this the hat here?” Ophelia picked up the black veiled cap from the counter that Sophie had been working on.
Sophie snatched the hat from Ophelia’s hands. “No!” she said; then softer, “No; this is for me.” She bent under the counter and for several seconds Ophelia was not sure if her Aunt would resurface at all; indeed, neither was Sophie. As she knelt behind the counter, she stared at the monstrous hat and contemplated whether it might not be better to just sit down where she was, next to her grotesque offspring, and never come up again. She held her chest; she became aware her vision had dislocated and started to drift.
Aunt Sophie regained her homeostasis and returned with an extraordinary sight: a wine striped ribbon held a billowing cream ostrich feather that drooped over a wide brim. The hat’s woven body was mummified in embroidered silk, pinned in place with long needles, each capped with crystals. Ophelia thought it the grandest, most bizarre hat she’d ever seen in her short life.
Ophelia rushed out into the October afternoon; hat held to her chest; this was it, her first real adventure, and this time her Mama wouldn’t be able to stop her. Sure she would worry for a while and wonder where she was, but Ophelia planned to return to the pig farm when she finished with her adventures on the western coast of town. She looked towards the direction the taxi had taken her from the country. The streets were lined with shiny cars and two story apartments. A few local children chased each other along the sidewalks; their little white terrier joining in the romp. The air was cooler here than the farm and it settled salty on her tongue. Her father once told her that no any one town is ever very unlike any other one town, and if one keeps their eyes open and are very careful, one can never really be lost.
Ophelia smiled at her own wisdom. She threw back her head and sniffed the air; she licked a finger then thrust it in the sky; she laid her cheek to the dirt then listened intently. She didn’t know why she did these things, but she’d seen them all done somewhere, and she knew they must be important for getting where one needed to be. She spun herself in three semi-circles, then lowered her finger where she stopped. Finally, Ophelia stopped a passing gentleman on the street and kindly asked him to direct her to the way of the port, to which he gave her simple directions. Ophelia thanked him graciously. Sometimes, plain old asking works too.
Ophelia skipped off in the direction the man had directed until she came across a small market displaying in its window a roll of bright, patterned wrapping paper; the very same shade of candy-cane-red found on the hat Ophelia was carrying in her hands. It was such a perfect match it seemed to Ophelia a disaster not to buy the paper. Even though the gift was not from her, or for her, it is not often that one gets to give gifts as grand as custom made hats, especially young girls, and Ophelia had always hoped that one day she would be able to give someone a real hat; one that was all wrapped in real wrapping paper. There was nothing to be done for it, Ophelia entered the little market.
When Ophelia reached the counter with wrapping paper in hand, the clock over the clerk’s cabbage head read four-thirty. Based on Ophelia’s directions, she would make it to Rochester II with at least five minutes to spare. The clerk was busy wrapping up a dozen bottles of Horse Cellar Scotch in white paper and boxing them in a wooden crate for an enormous patron in a deep wine-red suit and yellow flat-topped straw hat.
The patron spent the clerk’s time half-choking on laughter from confusing idiosyncratic jokes that made Ophelia clench her teeth, and the other half complaining about the various shortcomings of the town and the county. You see, he could not wear his best shoes on outings for fear he’d destroy a third pair; he’d never felt so embarrassed or exposed in relieving himself like a ‘savage’ then he had in the public ‘facilities’ in the town—although Ophelia could not think what other means of relieving himself the man could possibly be used to—and that this poor soul had heard the chowder from the carts along the docks was famous, ordered three bowls the first night in port, but the putrid smell of the inland pig farmers from his brief visit to the butcheries burnt up his nostrils so terribly that all he tasted was onion.
At this, Ophelia could no longer keep quiet. “Maybe the pigs can’t stand the smell of you,” she said loudly, “you ever think of that?” The clerk stopped with the patron’s last bottle of scotch half-way in the crate; his wide, leafy ears twitching.
The enormous patron turned in three, slow rocking movements to face Ophelia. He breathed heavily through his open mouth. Ophelia thought the man looked like a middle-aged infant with dark sunglasses. A silky, sweat covered Ophelia’s forearms. “Hello there little mouse,” said the patron through a wet smile, “I didn’t hear you down there darlin’. Once I get goin’ I just get goin’, you know?”
“I said,” said Ophelia considering, “I said I’m in a hurry, and if you don’t mind hurrying up yourself and stop talking so much, because it’s really very rude to talk so loud about people you don’t know anything about anyway, especially when you’re a visitor in their town, because you don’t know who could be listening, so you don’t know who you could be offending, and especially because you’re wrong, and you’re a mean, big man, and pig farmers don’t smell, and because you want to know how I know? Because I am a pig farmer, and my mama and dad are pig farmers, and I just need to deliver this hat to a very rich lady so I can have a job in the hat shop, so I can work here in town, and then maybe I won’t have to be a pig farmer, but even if I had to be a pig farmer for the rest of my life I wouldn’t care because pig farmers might smell, but at least we’re not rude, hurtful people who say things about other people when they should worry about themselves, and how’s that for a pig farmer?”
The enormous patron wheezed out the beginning of a laugh, then choked on it like he inhaled a sausage; fell against the counter, then in an explosion of hoots and wheezes, had a good laugh. The clerk gave a twisty smile, understanding only that a laughing man warmed his tummy, but looked cautiously at Ophelia when her stare chilled his bowels. Ophelia pressed her thumbs into her fists as hard as she could push. The man recovered himself enough and said, “My, my young lady, who are you and where are you from? I want one of you, where can I get one of these?” he asked the clerk. The clerk shrugged, wide-eyed. “Ew, but what on earth is that?” He asked pointing at the hat in Ophelia’s hands. “We can leave that out of the deal.” He laughed again.
“I already told you all that,” said Ophelia, “and you don’t need to know my name and don’t you dare talk about this hat. My aunt made this for a very important lady. I told you, I’m in a hurry and if you are going to be rude—” Ophelia felt the soda pop rushing through her veins and her bones threatening to shake all her bits loose, so she dropped the paper, took her hat, and left the market with tears in her eyes. Presents and wrapping paper were all very romantic, but they would have to wait for next time. For now a plain old, unwrapped, ostrich-feathered-mummy-hat successfully delivered, and a job successfully done would have to do for Ophelia.
“Young lady!” Called a voice behind Ophelia. “Young lady, excuse me!” The enormous man ran out from the market with his crate of scotch clanking in his arms. “I have a big mouth,” he said. “I have a big everything, I can’t help it. My name is Poins. I’m sorry I offended you darlin’. I didn’t mean to run you out the door. I really dig your attitude. You’re a spirited kid. Why don’t you let me help you out? What did you need in there?”
“I accept your apology, but I don’t need your help; I’m nearly there now. I was just stopping in to match some wrapping paper to this hat my aunt made for a client. I’m supposed to deliver it to a woman at the port at five. I would have been early if it wasn’t for your talking. This is my first job for my aunt and I wanted to wrap the hat, to make a present out of it, you know? I’d never given anyone a real present before, but now that I’m saying it all again I see that it was a silly idea. Anyway, I’m sorry I said you smelled, but I have to go.”
Poins looked around the street. “You’re not going on foot are you?” He asked. “You’ll never make it. I just came from Port Royal this morning, you’ll need a car if you hope to make it there in time at all.”
Ophelia’s face went white and she gripped the front of her dress. Since that morning Ophelia had heard two distinct names used interchangeably; inlanders call all of the western coast of the town the ports. “Port Royal?” She said. “You mean there’s two ports? No! You don’t mean it.”
“Well, I would think you’d know your town better than a stranger. But I’m pretty sure, there is Port Laguna, which is just beyond these storefronts, and then Port Royal, which is a good five, ten minute drive up the coast.”
“Oh no! This can’t be happening; what will I do? If I mess this up, no one will buy hats from Aunt Sophie anymore and it will be my fault and then she will have lost her business and her husband in the same week! Oh, I can’t mess this up, I can’t! I can’t let Aunt Sophie down!” Ophelia went on like this until she collapsed into a stack of trembling knees and sobbing shoulders.
“Shh-shh-shh,” urged Poins. “Hush now, you’re all right, shh, there now, hush, hush, goodness girl you’re stopping people in the street.” Poins shifted his weight and looked around at the onlookers; they stared, but offered no help. “You know,” he started. “I could… I could maybe drive you there myself.”
Ophelia looked up into Poins’s smooth, rounded face; he had removed his glasses, his eyes were a deep chocolate-brown with flakes of rose gold that shrank into the iris. “Would you?” she asked.
“That’s Rochester II there,” said Poins, leaning over Ophelia and pointing at one of the tallest liners docked in the crowded port. It was two minutes to five; Poins had a moment of inspiration on the drive up the coast, and in the face of defeating traffic, devised a back route that put Ophelia within running distance of her delivery point. “You’ll have to go on foot from here. The crowd’s too thick.” And it was; boys and girls of all ages in their long coats and caps, knocking into each other with their bulky suitcases, wardrobe boxes, and bloated burlap sacs.
Ophelia held a bright white hat box with a picture of the same hat that Poins then wore on his head. Inside, Ophelia had placed her delivery. She now replaced the lid and took a breath. “This will work perfectly. Are you sure you don’t need it? I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve been on the docks before, but not by myself. Not with so many people. I always thought the docks were so romantic; sea voyages, sailors, pirates. There’s so much adventure, don’t you think there’s so much adventure and mystery about the sea?”
Poins laughed and messed up Ophelia’s hair. “I think I do. I guess I’m just not gutsy enough to say it anymore. Come on, you’re going to miss her, you gotta move it.”
Ophelia got up on her knees and hugged Poins around his large head, which was all she could manage to hold and Poins placed his oversized hand on her back, as gentle as if Ophelia were made of smoke. Then he watched the child slide down from his passenger seat and disappear into the crowd.
Rochester II was a straight run. Ophelia was small enough to avoid most contact if she was careful. The giant clock above currency exchange told Ophelia time was up, so she tucked the box under her arm and took off toward the ship. She weaved through carts of salted cod and beef tac, she skirted past a banana stand where the men were catching tarantulas the size of small dogs, and when a crew of lifeboats broke down and blocked the rest of Ophelia’s passage through the docks, she managed to squeeze under a Gordon’s Fresh Potato Chips trailer, out into the open, and make it to the Rochester II.
“Stop right there you!” Demanded the boarding master, holding his palm in Ophelia’s face. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Ophelia was breathing heavily. “Oh please… tell me there’s time… I have… a delivery… a hat for a passenger… on your ship…”
“Well, I’m afraid I can’t let you on the ship deary,” said the man.
Ophelia shook the hat box weakly. “I just… need to… deliver this hat. Please.”
The man took a long hard look at the odd little country girl; a filthy sight; scraped and bruised and muddied. “I’ll tell you what. If you give me the hat, I’ll deliver it for you.”
“That would fine I suppose.” It would have to be; she was out of options. If it could not be delivered by Ophelia, she would have to settle for it being delivered by not-Ophelia.
The man took out a notepad from his vest pocket along with a charcoal pencil. “If you give me the name,” he said, “I will bring it to her once we leave port.” He put the pencil to the pad and waited for Ophelia.
Ophelia’s eyes rolled and fluttered; oh, no… the name… what was the name? Did she have a name? Of course she had a name, everyone has a name, but what was her name? Did she write it down? She didn’t think she did. The man looked up at Ophelia. Ophelia grew more anxious. “Um,” she said. “I’m not sure of the name.”
“Well you can’t expect to get a delivery done if your don’t know who the package is being delivered to, can you?” The man smirked and shook his head; slapping his open fingers with his notepad, then replacing it in his vest.
Ophelia dragged herself a few feet from the boarding master and let herself collapse onto the side walk. She didn’t cry; she thought she might be all out of tears. She didn’t speak, or moan, or do anything. She just focused on the wet grey street and the jet black cracks and tried to find the tears again. The tears did something at least. But now, Ophelia felt empty and grey and wet…
“Awww, no she looks so sad, Sammm.”
“Dooo something. She’s just been staring at the ground for five minutes.”
“Seriously? We’re just visiting, keep out of it—Ouch! Frick! Really?”
“Um,” the voice is close; a male’s. “You okay sweet-heart?”
“Sweety,” the second voice; a female’s. “Can we do something for you hun?”
Ophelia looked up to see a young couple leaning over her on the sidewalk, one of them wore the same wicker flat top that Poins had recently purchased. Ophelia thought it fit the enormous man better than this thin, angled man. The woman had a soft, doll’s face with black eyes and exactly three freckles on either cheek. Or maybe she was a doll. Maybe this was Poins. Maybe she had finally slipped into the depths of despair, and these angelic figures were just the players of her mind. Ophelia reached out a hand to touch one of the doll’s black eyes, but the doll shrieked and drew back.
“I’m so sorry!” cried Ophelia, I thought you were manifestations of my deepest sorrow.
“You poked me in the eye!” Said the woman. “We were trying to see if you were okay!”
“Ophelia Corbronte!” Ophelia turned to find an old woman in a bright yellow dress standing by the boarding master. She held a feathered parcel over a terrible greenish hair. Ophelia thought it was the worst hair color she’d every seen. “Are you Ophelia Corbronte or aren’t you?”
“And you are the niece of Sophie Corbronte?”
“And your aunt told you to to be here no later than five this afternoon? I don’t know how they do it in the country young lady, but where I come from, punctuality is character. I don’t know what happened. I don’t much care. I am an old woman and I am tired. You’ve made me remove myself from my cabin and once again brave this ridiculous plank. I find it terribly rude and disrespectful that a bad little girl like yourself could take such a generous opportunity and disappoint so profoundly. Well dear, I think I’ve said my mind on it. Now, don’t cry, don’t cry. I’ve had my say. You’re here now aren’t you? There, there. That’s better. My goodness girl, you are emotional aren’t you? I’ve been expecting you for some time. There, there, I’m Ms. Noose, I believe you have a hat for me?”
Ophelia forgot all about the hat. She ran straight to Ms. Noose, put her arms around her waist, which took the old woman much by surprise, and squeezed. “Oh Ms. Noose!” Ophelia cried. “I know you’re angry with me, but I’m just so happy to have found you. I didn’t think I was ever going to! I mean, I did at first, I really did. I wouldn’t have told Aunt Sophie I could have helped her if I thought I couldn’t have. But things just started off so well Ms. Noose! I mean the hat shop! The patterns and buttons and ribbons and lace and, oh Ms. Noose! You tell me if you were a young girl again, and you came to work at a hat shop, and you were ten and you were used to working with pigs all day long, then you tell me how that would make you feel; I bet you would tell me it makes you feel like you can do anything, and that’s exactly how I felt Ms. Noose; honest! But I thought getting around town would be like the country, but it wasn’t. Then I wanted to wrap your hat in pretty paper because I wanted to make a present of it—I know it’s silly, but I wanted to make it special for my first delivery—but I met a mean mountain man who ran me out of the store, and then it turned out I was at the wrong port, but the mountain man turned out to be more of a moon man after all and he’s the one who drove me here, and he leant me the nice box to put your hat in so that it won’t get crushed on your journey to America—Oh my goodness, your hat!” Ophelia turned, just as a blaring horn sounded through the port.
“Ma’am,” said the boarding master, “we need all passengers on or below deck, we’ll be departing any minute.”
Ophelia returned to Ms. Noose with the hat box in hand. The woman took the parcel like a newborn in her arms. She thanked Ophelia again for her loyal service. “You have more manners than to say anything about my poisoned hair,” said Ms. Noose, “and I thank you for that dear, little one. But I’ll tell you this; I’ll tell anyone who will listen who the best hat delivery girl in the county is.” She warmed Ophelia with a last smile, then creaked up the plank and out of sight.
“Aunt Sophie!” Called Ophelia, bursting into the hat shop as Aunt Sophie was putting the sheets over the last of the hat racks.
“Ophelia?” Said Aunt Sophie. She tossed the sheet to the ground; hands loosely shaking with excitement. “Where in the devil have you been my girl?” She took Ophelia in her arms. “Ow, ow, ow;” her spine and hips popped and clicked; but Ophelia held them both together. “You silly girl! You left before I could tell you who you were delivering your package to.”
“I knew I didn’t forget it!” Said Ophelia. Then she told Sophie all about her adventure in the market and Poins and the docks and the couple and Ms. Noose.
“I’m very impressed with you Ophelia,” said Sophie. “I didn’t know what to expect at first, but ever since you took that dreadful hat far from here, I’ve had a fine feeling about things Ophelia, a fine feeling. I doubt we’ll have an ounce of trouble working side by side, the two of us.”
“Really?” Asked Ophelia. “You mean it? Oh, Aunt Sophie you don’t know what this means to me! I’ve been dreaming and dreaming of moving to the ports since, since, well for a while now, and I’m so grateful it’s finally coming true!”
“Well, it sounds like you earned it,” said Sophie.
“Oh, that’s not even the best part,” said Ophelia. “I forgot to tell you what Ms. Noose said she was going to do for us! Ms. Noose said that I did such a good job for you as your new hat shop assistant that she was going to tell every living soul she knows about me—and the hat shop of course—but about me and the shop too! Isn’t that great?”
The shop’s copper door chime sounded before Ophelia finished speaking. A young woman entered holding a white box in her hands. “Excuse me?” she asked. Ophelia recognized her at once as the doll-faced woman at the docks that she nearly blinded.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” said Sophie, “we’re just about closed for this evening, but we will re—”
“Actually,” said the woman pointing at Ophelia, “I’m here because of her.”
Ophelia felt ice water seep through her gut into her thighs. Sophie turned to Ophelia in surprise. Ophelia pointed to herself in surprise, “You see?” Ophelia said shakily. “Ms. Noose must be very influential.” Sophie did not look convinced, and she did not look away from Ophelia.
“It’s about this hat,” said the woman, holding out the hat that Ophelia knew to be the same one that should be on its way to America on the green nest of Ms. Noose’s head. The ice dribbled through her knees to her toes and began to tingle. “I’m afraid you and my husband mixed up hat boxes at the docks sweety,” said the woman. “Luckily, my husband was wearing his hat, but it looks like your’s was still in its box.” The horrible woman took the hat with both hands, so it was unmistakable, and lifted Sophie’s monster from the box. “It’s very… different. Anyway, I asked the boat guy and he had that old lady tell me where to find you. We just arrived, so…” the tingling turned to boiling and Ophelia needed to run. The woman leaned into the store, stretching in one foot, and placed the box on the closest shelf. Sophie’s stare was visibly heating Ophelia’s skin to uncomfortable temperatures; without another word, the doll-faced woman stole out the door and into the dark October night.
Sophie’s stare never left Ophelia’s face, but Ophelia could not meet it. “Does this mean,” said Ophelia after ten painful seconds, “that you’re not going to let me stay? Aunt Sophie? . . . Aunty?”
Thank you for reading. This scene sketch ended up at around 5k words. I started this yesterday around 10am; my goal for this exercise was to develop a story from scratch and develop a scene or sequence of scenes with clear intention and design focused on an imprudent little girl, then attempt to sketch out a draft that came close to that plan. This is different than most of my sketches, which are ‘from the seat my pants’ sketches, that give me more freedom, but are less structured.
I apologize for any errors in this sketch. This is basically draft 1.5 and I just don’t have the time or manpower to edit these properly, but I do my best. This is being published hot off the presses (just finished the last read through before typing this message); sorry for the delay, I could have kept working and working on this sketch. I enjoyed working on it; I hope you all enjoyed reading it. Please ‘Like’ my page of Facebook, and connect with my Twitter, Google+ page, and Linkedin for more free weekly reads. Thank you for reading; I write for you!