The rocking chair rocked back and forth, forth and back, squeaking like a mouse.
The dark wood was polished and smooth, little tendrils of chestnut snaked across, covering the whole chair.
She ran her hand across the armrest, her light skin illuminated by candlelight in the winter storm. The wind blazed and tore at tree branches, the temperature threatening to lower below sub-zero, so even the penguins in the zoo would be shivering.
“Grandma! I’m here!”
The door slammed open and clanged against the wall, the candlewax trembling beside the rocking chair.
A girl walked in, carrying a book bag that was made out of brown cloth. She had dirty blonde hair, with streaks of chocolate brown in between. Her nose looked like a button - cute but tough. Her eyes were a green, the green of the forest floor or the swaying algae at the bottom of the ocean.
Her name was Florence.
Florence flopped her book bag beside the rocking chair and shut the door hard, pausing to watch little specks of snow drift in and sparkle in the light.
She looked over to her grandma in her rocking chair and asked, “No tea? I was hoping for some chai tea today, but I guess no tea is fine.”
Florence sat down on a chair across from her grandma and looked into her eyes.
They swirled like clouds in the night sky, the edges a deep navy blue. A snuggly yellow perched right on the edge of her pupil, hiding as if it was afraid. The two colours melted together like honey would, slowly but surely merging in the middle to create a beautiful, rich green.
One that looked identical to Florence’s.
“I’m just a bit tired today, but you can make some tea by yourself if you really want to.”
Her grandma’s name was Arabella Beaupre, and she was 72 years old.
On the day Arabella was born in Paris, France, it was a day of happiness, but also a worry was born along with her.
July 17, 1730
“Isn’t she so cute?”
“Yes, she is! I never knew such a baby could be this cute!”
Arabella’s parents were at home and set everything up for the new family member: the food, the chairs, the clothing, the room, everything.
“What about her eyes?”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re blue, and have yellow in the core.”
“The government might think that she’s a witc-”
“There will be no talk of that rubbish in my house.”
“But it could happen!”
“Let’s worry about that later, when it actually matters.”
Arabella’s mother kissed the baby’s forehead and went back to preparing the house for the baby, not worrying about her husband’s suggestion because it was very unlikely, but mostly because she didn’t want to believe it.
“Okay, but Mum didn’t teach me how to make chai tea. She only taught me how to make herbal tea, and I already had that in the morning. Will we need special water? Where would we get it? How-”
“Deary,” Arabella said softly, “Chai tea uses the same tea as herbal tea.”
“It does?” Florence asked with a heaping spoon of surprise.
Arabella nodded, smiling at Florence while she gathered the supplies.
“Grandma, at school Ms. Feverelli sent us homework where we have to interview someone,” Florence said while she poured boiling water into a pot, filling it a third full.
“Okay, who are you going to interview?”
“Actually, I don’t know.”
“Who did your classmates pick?”
“Well,” Florence started, “Pietro is going to interview the man at the market about selling and buying things.”
Florence’s grandma nodded.
She poured the boiling water from the pot into two drinking cups to warm them up as the steam snaked in front of Florence’s face, clouding her vision and blurring the view of her hunter green eyes.
“Giovanni is going to interview Ms. Feverelli because he wants to become a teacher when he grows up.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Florence?” her grandmother asked with curiosity.
“Hmm, I don’t know, maybe a lute player for the King, because it sounds very beautiful,” Florence responded.
That remark reminded Arabella about a time long past, one she would never forget.
December 24, 1739
“Arabella, it’s time for breakfast!”
It was a chilly morning, but quite warm for a French Christmas Eve. There was a thin layer of snow outside, blanketing everything beneath it like a child getting tucked into bed.
Arabella ran out of the bedroom to the dining room and jumped into her chair, eagerly looking up at her mother for breakfast.
Arabella’s mother placed down a plate of bread rolls with a teacup made out of china on the side.
“Yay! You made me English Breakfast tea today!” Arabella exclaimed and started digging into the rolls.
“I knew it was your favourite,” Her mother said, grinning at Arabella while she devoured the bread rolls.
“Can you play Summer from the Four Seasons? I think it fits the tea flavour today,” asked Arabella.
“Fits the tea flavour?” asked her mother. “What does that mean?”
“It just matches,” Arabella said, looking at her mother with a questioning look.
Arabella’s mother just shrugged and picked up her lute from its resting place against the door frame.
She looked out the window, at the snowflakes or maybe at the gentleman crossing the street. At the shop owners closing their shops for the long weekend or the lonely magpie that forgot to follow its relatives in the fall. At the cottage houses piled with snow or the castle in the distance, reminding her of all the things she could not, would not, or shouldn’t be able to do.
Maybe she thought about how her life would’ve been different, if she was the queen instead of a housewife, if she was a princess instead of a farmer.
Then she started playing.
The soft notes flowed through the air, like melted butter. Her nimble fingers plucked the strings gracefully and surely, not making one mistake. The dynamics were noticeable but just subtle enough that it would put you to sleep without you knowing it.
The magpie nudged under the windowsill, perhaps drawn by Arabella’s mother’s music.
A few people outside paused in their footsteps, looking around to find the source of the music. A baby who was wailing considerably loud stopped abruptly, snuggling into its blanket.
The parents looked at each other, confused, but just continued walking, so they could take advantage of the silence.
The noted flowed along the air, like a boat on a river, where everyone gathered to drink, socialize or swim, if they were feeling superfluous.
Someone was banging on the door.
“Open up! S’ouvrir ou bien!”
Arabella stopped sipping her tea and looked to her mother for assurance. Her mother set down her lute and carefully opened the door, coming face to face with some guards from the castle.
If guards came to your house, nothing was going to be good.
“Hello ma’am, I would like to ask you what that sound was coming from your house,” one of the guards asked.
“Oh, I was just playing my lute for my daughter Arabella. She likes to eat breakfast and listen to me play,” Arabella’s mother responded.
“Are you sure? We suspect that it might be some kind of witchcraft because not even our most talented lute players can play like that.”
“Well, if you would like me to, I could play a bit right now.”
The guards nodded, straightening their backs and looking down on Arabella’s mother as if she were a lowly citizen and should be looked down upon.
She picked up her lute, sat down and continued right off from where she had left off, the buttery notes slipping into the guards’ ears as undeniable talent.
Once she finished, she looked up expectantly for the guards’ responses and received a surprising one.
“You shall become our solo lute player, as you give us no option, no one could leave talent like that to rot away in a battered up shack,” said the tallest guard, looking like the leader. “Come to the castle tomorrow at 6 pm and the king will see if you are good enough.”
And that was the moment that changed Arabella’s family’s life forever.
The sloshing of water woke Arabella from her trip down memory lane. Florence dumped the two teacups in hot water, washing any dirt or dust away. She filled the pot up to two-thirds full, slowly heating up the water.
“I don’t know who I want to interview Grandma,” Florence said with disappointment. “Everyone else knows what to do but I don’t.”
“Why don’t you interview me?” Arabella asked.
“Well . . .”
Florence looked at her grandmother with knowing eyes, as if Florence was so much wiser and knew more things than her grandmother did.
“Not to be rude, but you haven’t really done that much. What would I talk to you about?”
“I could tell you about the witch huntings.”
Silence fell over the two characters, as thick as the cheddar cheese that Arabella used to eat when she was young.
“Witch huntings?” Florence asked softly, stopping at the tea-making process.
“It’s how your great-grandmother died.”
Florence looked her grandma straight in the eye.
No one spoke about Arabella’s mother, never ever ever.
It was forbidden, but here Florence’s grandmother was, inviting Florence to listen to the story.
“Come sit. I’ll tell you,” Arabella said, breaking the surprised silence in between them.
Florence set down the pot and cups and slowly sat down across from her grandmother’s rocking chair as if she were dangerous.
“What would you like me to tell you?” Arabella asked, getting prepared for a sad and gruesome storytelling.
“Could you tell me as much as you can? Ms. Feverelli said whoever does the best interview will get 5 apples to take home. Five!” Florence said, salivating at the thought of bright red apples, the colour of a red carpet or a glimmering ruby.
Arabella nodded and got comfortable in the seat because that story was going to be a long one.
July 17, 1744
It was Arabella’s 14th birthday, and her mother surprised her with a once-in-a-lifetime offer.
“I convinced the director to let you come to our performance today at the castle!” Arabella’s mother exclaimed, waiting for her daughter’s reaction.
Arabella’s jaw dropped while her mother just smiled at her.
“What time?” Arabella asked with pure excitement.
“7 pm, so after you have dinner.”
“Is Papa coming too?”
“Of course,” her mother said, “It’s your birthday!”
Arabella was so excited throughout the day for the concert that she tripped in front of Ms. Feverelli, wrote the same word 5 times incorrectly on the test and fell on Giovanni while exiting the building.
But she didn’t really mind.
In the evening after Arabella had had dinner, her mother led her family to the carriage that had come to pick them up.
“What is this?” Arabella asked, gazing up at the giant contraption.
“It’s called a carriage,” her mother answered. “The royal use it as transportation.”
“So are we royal now?”
“Not exactly, but we are going to the royal palace, so they provide transportation so we don’t have to walk all the way.”
Arabella nodded and just followed her mother into the carriage.
The lining was the colour of the expensive cream at the market, and it was embroidered with gold thread that looked like woven sunlight. The seats were a dark red, the colour of a rose that you might find in a deep forest. The ceiling was domed, having a little painting of France shining down from above. The two coaches were wearing military clothing, but it was all a deep royal blue like the bottom of the ocean, or like the edges of Arabella’s eyes.
It was a whole new world to Arabella, but her mother seemed unfazed.
“Do you get to go to work like this every day?” Arabella asked eagerly.
“No, mostly I walk or take a wagon,” she replied. “They only do this for special occasions.”
“How often do you have special occasions?”
“Hmm, maybe once every week or two.”
“Ce qu?! That’s a lot! When I grow up, I want to become a lute player like you so I can ride in this pretty carriage once a week for the rest of my life,” said Arabella, very certain on her statement.
Her mother merely nodded and they enjoyed the view from the carriage until they arrived at the castle.
When they got out of the carriage, they heard something unexpected and very unprecedented.
“3 members of the orchestra have been poisoned! The concert is cancelled! I repeat, the concert is cancelled!”
Arabella and her mother looked at each other frantically with worry and disappointment.
Her mother ran up to the man with a megaphone and asked, “What happened?”
“Didn’t you hear? 3 members of the orchestra were poisoned!” the man said.
“Yes, I already heard that. Are they okay?”
“What do you mean, are they okay? They’re dead. Would you be okay if you were dead? Please go, miss, you are blocking my view from the entrance.”
“But I’m the solo lute player, I was going to play this evening!” Arabella’s mother insisted.
“Oh, you are? Well then, go inside and turn to your left, the director will explain everything. And who is this youngster here?” the man asked.
“She’s my daughter,” her mother said defensively.
The man seemed to stare into Arabella’s eyes for a second too long, but then gestured to the door and started shouting into his megaphone again.
Once they entered the palace, it was unbelievable.
The ceiling was so high an elephant could stand up on its hind legs and feel comfortable.
The floor was made out of pure white marble, the black veins trailing across the ground.
The paintings showcased all of the king’s relatives who had lived many hundreds of years before him, but Arabella didn’t have time to process anything else because her mother pulled her to the left to meet the director of the orchestra.
“Hello ma’am, the concert has been cancelled,” the director said formally to Arabella’s mother.
“I know, but exactly what happened? Why did they have to cancel the concert?” her mother asked.
“Are you sure you would like to know?”
Her mother nodded.
“Fine. So 3 members of the orchestra got poisoned and a maid found them lying outside a bathroom yesterday. No one in this area of France even has access to poison, so the king has concluded it had to be a witch.”
Arabella’s mother cringed at the word ‘witch’ because if that was spoken something would happen to the accused.
That ‘something’ was being executed.
“Are they doing a trial or what?” her mother asked.
“Hmm, they might just pick whoever looks the most suspicious,” the director said casually.
“When are they going to pick someone?”
“In 10 minutes.”
“Hear ye, hear ye, every member of the orchestra will come forth with any family member to prove that they, nor any of their family members, poisoned Jaque Charpentier, Thibault Sylvestre or Claricia Levett.”
The head jury slammed a gavel on the table, sending out a low thump across the room.
Arabella was sitting sandwiched between her mother and father, nervous to hear when they would be called up. They had ran back to their home to get her father right before the proceedings had started since the carriage was too slow.
“First to step up will be Alberada Paquin’s family.”
The woman stepped up to the jury with her head hanged low, a man following her from behind.
“Is this your whole family?”
“Hold your hands out, and we will check for any signs of witchcraft. Any objections will lead to certain torture.”
The woman’s face stiffened as she and her husband held out their hands as the head jury walked in a circle around them, checking for who-knows-what.
“I have found nothing that could be related or connected to witchcraft, so you may step down and leave the castle, or watch the rest of the proceedings.”
Alberada just scampered off the platform, not looking back once at the jury.
“Next to step up will be Avenia Beaupre’s family.”
Arabella looked at her parents in distress, but her mother just lead the way to the platform, silent.
“Hold out your hands.”
Arabella thrust out her hands with fear curdling in her stomach.
The jury circled them like a vulture, observing which of them was the weakest.
The jury looked Arabella straight in the eye and paused.
“I have found something,” the jury announced.
The crowd gasped.
“Her eyes are a peculiar colour, but the child couldn’t have done it, so my conclusion is that Avenia Beaupre poisoned the members of the orchestra.”
“There is no buts,” the jury said, “The execution is tomorrow, 5 pm. Don’t be late.”
Silence overwhelmed Arabella and Florence in that little shack, Florence unsure of what to say, and Arabella being flooded with an absurd relief.
“Is that true Grandma?”
“Did you watch your mother get-um, like-”
“Yes, and it was the most brutal thing humankind could ever do to one another.”
Florence just nodded.
“Anyways, do you think you will win the apples?”
“Well, you should get going before it gets even colder.”
The wind howled as if in response.
Florence gathered her stuff and said, “Bye Grandma! I’ll tell you who won tomorrow, okay?”
It was Arabella’s turn to nod.
Florence opened the door and stepped out, leaving Arabella to soak in her thoughts.
It was only then when Arabella realized that Florence never finished making her tea.