A Lesson In Gratitude

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"Jori!" Mother called. "Breakfast is ready!"

I set down the bucket, waded through a few chickens pecking at grain, and rounded our home at a run. The morning sun hit hard and warm. Shielding my eyes with my hand, I spotted Mother leaned against the frame of the arched doorway.

"Come, come," she urged, waving me forward after she finished drying her hands on her apron. "I made your favorites. Nothing but the best for the birthday girl."

"You didn't h—."

"It was my pleasure." She hooked at an arm around my shoulders and pulled me inside. "Today is extra special. My little girl is finally twelve."

My eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark interior of our home which was one round chamber litter with dusty furniture and things Mother had hoarded over the years. Our meal table stood between the fire pit and the door.

I gasped, glancing at Mother in confusion.

"It's fine for today," she said, answering my unspoken question.

"Really?"

She nodded, nudging me forward. I hesitated in front of the table, lined with a bench on either side. My three favorite dolls — Beamus, Mrs. Pompin and Luna — were all propped around my plate of hard-cooked eggs with toast and bowl of porridge. This was the first time Mother had ever allowed them there during meal time.

Lifting the front of my cream-colored dress and oak-brown pinafore, I stepped over the bench and sat down. Mother took her place opposite me.

"Well," Mother said, picking up her knife and fork. "Let's dig in."

I picked up my spoon, scooping up a spoonful of porridge. I paused, counting twelve berries in its center. Last year it was eleven.

"After we finish I'm going out tod—"

"You're leaving?" I interrupted, looking up and almost dropping my spoon. She frowned and I quickly apologized.

"Only for a few hours. I'll be back by midday."

"But..." My gaze slid to Beamus who was leaned against my cup of goat's milk to stay upright. He was the bravest of my dolls and the Prince of a kingdom I had invented.

Tell her, Beamus said, at least in my imagination. His black button eyes judged me. Locks of yellow-yarn hung in front of them, pushed down by his sewn-on green cap.

"But what?" Mother asked.

I gulped down a spoonful of porridge, feeling as if I had swallowed a stone.

Don't say it. You'll upset Mother! Mrs. Pompin warned in her high, crackling voice. She had grey yarn hair tied in a bun and wore a purple linen frock.

"I..."

"For the Heavens' sake!" Mother snapped, I jumped, thinking I was about to be scolded only to see her grab a cloth napkin from the table and begin patting away a splotch of porridge that had fallen onto the front of her pinafore. She tossed her braid over her shoulder to keep it away. "And I just cleaned this."

Mother and I wore the same outfit, only mine was smaller and her dress was grey. Our braids were the same, but hers was straw-yellow and mine was chestnut-brown. Mother had moss-green eyes and I had ones so dark she called them, "onyx-colored". I also tanned much darker than Mother whose skin stayed lily-white year round. I often felt we differed inside as well.

"What were you saying?" Mother asked, tossing the napkin on the table.

"N-nothing," I said, gaze dropping to the island of berries in my porridge. Their red liquid seeped into the sea of grain.

Liar, Beamus accused.

"Don't be so gloomy. I won't be gone that long. And, I'll bring you a present."

I forced my lips into a grin, a practiced expression.

Tell her!

Don't you dare! Mrs. Pompin said.

Mother smiled back, unaware of the imagined argument in my head. When Mother was not around I spoke aloud in their voices, altering pitch and inflection for their personalities. I was careful not to act out these conversations around Mother, the one time she witnessed one she called it "disturbing" and reminded me that my dolls were not alive.

I knew that. But who else could I talk to? Mother? The animals?

They were my friends, real or not.

Be brave, Majorie. You need to tell your Mother what you really want.

That was easy for Beamus to say. He was fearless.

Don't be foolish. Bravery kills, remember? Mrs. Pompin was right.

My heart sank as the words died in my throat.

I stirred at my porridge, feeling my chance slip away. For weeks I had rehearsed this day, imagining how I would tell Mother, how I would ask.

"You're not eating. Is something wrong?" I heard the worry in Mother's voice.

"I'm fine," I said, voice almost a whisper. "I'm cooling it."

"Aw, that's right. You have such a sensitive tongue." Mother stabbed a piece of her remaining egg and put it on the last of her toast before eating it all. While chewing, she said, "I made extra for lunch. If I'm a little late, don't wait for me."

"All right, Mother." I blinked hard to keep tears out of my eyes. I dare not look up or she would see I was about to cry.

There's always next year, Beamus finally relented which is what he said last year and the year before that.

Why could I never say it?

I wanted to break a Rule. I wanted to go beyond the Markings — trees with painted symbols that surrounded our home. They trapped me here because it was against the Rules for me to go past them. It was one of the Rules that protected us, and the only one Mother never followed herself.

She could go, yet I could not.

And I wanted to change that.

"Do the dishes, please," Mother said, standing up, her legs pushing out the bench. I heard it scoot across the wooden floor. "I'll be back soon. Happy birthday, Jori."

"Thank you, Mother."

I watched her put on her long overcoat and grab her satchel and leave from the corner of my vision.

And then she was gone.

There's always next time, I thought.

I could not have been more wrong.

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