[Preview] Chapter 1: Alicia of Dunbrooke

Nov 3, 2021, 1:01:55 AM

The old wooden wagon wheels squeaked as they rolled down the cobblestone road. The horse hooves made a sharp, regular clop as they drove towards Aeterall’s city gates. They were getting close to the city. Alicia could tell from how high the sun sat in the sky. She could hear the trotting horses to her left and right. The high walls of the wagon didn’t allow her to see the other merchants abreast of them, but from her vantage point, she could make out the canvases covering their wagons.

She liked that her father didn’t cover their wagon on glorious summer days like this one. He did it for her benefit because he knew she liked to lay on the bed of hay between the bins and crates and daydream the hours away. Today was a fine day too. They started out at five in the morning while the stars were still out, and she watched them from her hay bed. As the morning ticked forward, the sky softened into reds and yellows announcing the sun’s arrival over the horizon. The heat notched up, but Alicia didn’t mind. Summer was her season. She loved the warmth that blanketed the Earth even if it was overbearing at times.

Alicia usually carried a book from the family’s tiny library to re-read, and she always had her leather bound journal, a sketchbook her father bought her years ago. She used it to keep her dearest thoughts and most useful observations and drawings. As the wagon rolled over the bumpy surface, she undid the leather tie and flipped through the pages feeling the thick, coarse paper. What should she draw next?

She flipped to a random page and examined the drawing. It was a sketch, as best she could reproduce, of the general store on Dunbrooke’s main street. She knew the colors of the shop, but she could only reproduce it in values of gray. From there she flipped back through the pages. It was like venturing backward in time.

For each drawing, she recalled when she had gotten the urge to reproduce it on paper and why. There were illustrations of steam locomotives; she was trying to understand how they worked. There were construction diagrams her father described to her for joining pillars of wood together without using nails. She drew the diagrams as they were cutting the wood beams for their neighbor’s new barn. She paged through the book glancing at some notes on one page and a drawing on another. She flipped to a drawing of a sparrow’s outstretched wing and stopped to stare at it. Birds. Drawings of them filled most pages of the book. The chickens in their coop. A blue jay on a branch outside her window. A mockingbird in the woods. Crows in flight. She would sit in the woods and toss breadcrumbs down to attract her subjects and then commit their likeness to paper. Since the creatures knew who fed them day in and out some of them would wait for her treats daily and didn’t mind modeling for her.

On another page, Alicia also had drawings of the bones and muscles of a dead sparrow she had found and dissected. It showed how the bones were laid out leading up to the wing, the wing itself, and how the muscles joined each part together. Later in one of her father’s books she was able to match the bones to the actual names and she became intimate with each one. She knew what they did and how the muscles contracted and flexed to make the bird’s wing move. Her first drawings were childish looking. It never seemed to work out right, and she hadn’t the knowledge to know why. Their faces were big, eyes too beady, beaks crooked, bodies too slim, too plump with stubby wings. Still, it served as a record of the birds she saw and pretended to befriend. Over time though she learned the curves and self-corrected. There was an artist at the county fair drawing caricatures and from watching him she learned how to shade better. A schoolmarm taught her how to use volumes and forms to create roundness and depth. “Observe,” she had said to Alicia. “Always observe and notice the form and contour and draw as if you were running your hand over the very thing itself.”

Above all else, birds were her people. If she could be a different beast altogether, she’d want wings and flutter about from tree to tree. She even remembered the one day in her mother’s garden when she came upon a hummingbird hovering right before her eyes. It darted its long, slender beak into one flower and then zipped sideways to the next and zigzagged around the bush until Alicia’s creeping presence frightened it away. She closed her eyes and imagined what that must be like to see the world like that.

From Alicia’s vantage point she could see the arch of the city gate creeping into view and shading the sun. The wagon stopped, and a soldier asked to her father’s papers. She listened to him as he climbed up along the side, and Alicia waved as he poked his head over. The soldier’s stoic face broke into a smile and he hopped down and let them pass into the city.

The din of people drowned out the quiet summer day. People moved in every direction and the small space of the wagon felt like the last sanctuary that Alicia would ever have.

Even so, Alicia jumped to her feet and leaned against the wall of the wagon peering down at the people as they passed by. Throngs of people jostled and squeezed by one another rushing to where they needed to be. Their horse and cart made slow strides through, but once they were free from the gate traffic, they trotted along towards the merchant alleyway.

The main streets in the city were wide, and Alicia watched the other carriages drive by and sometimes she waved to the drivers. She admired the stately stone buildings and peeked through the windows trying to catch a glimpse of the people inside. What were their lives like? She watched brick layers building up the walls of new buildings standing by the old ones and wondered who would reside in those new places. Maybe one day she would too.

The city blocks gave way to small open spaces. The buildings loomed over and shadowed the patches of grass and the smattering of trees — it was the city’s reminder to folks that the natural world still existed, although Alicia assumed one day the need for more buildings would gobble those parks up. She was glad she lived in a country town with fields and forests to ramble through.

They passed under another arch and to their left and right were other farmers setting up shop for the afternoon. Farmers who had been there at the break of day were packing up and heading home. Their wagon stopped along the wall and Alicia’s father jumped down to tie the horse. It was time to set up shop. Alicia slid her books away. She patted and smoothed her dress and apron and peered over the side of the wagon. Her father had removed the horse and tied him to a post where an attendant fed him. Then, he stopped to chat with the owners of the stall next to theirs.

While he caught up with the other farmers, she unlocked the side of their wagon wall and let it pivot on the hinges connected to the wagon bed as she let the wall rotate down. She had it most all of the way around and let it drop against the side without making much of a racket. She hopped down from the wagon and pulled the apple boxes, set them up, and hauled the crates of fruits and vegetables off one by one.

By and by, her father came about and helped move the heavier supplies and raise a canopy over their cart. Her father always let her prepare the chalkboard since her handwriting was the best and her spelling too. He had admitted to her a long time ago that he didn’t much care for school as a lad and now realized the price he was paying for it, but he knew how to till the soil, read the land, gather, and husband animals. What else would a man need to know to put food on the family table and keep a roof over their heads?

He had sent Alicia off to school to make friends, but he wanted her to spell better than he could. He bought books but didn’t know how to read them. The concepts and ideas were beyond him, but he figured, they might not be beyond his daughter. He never pushed the books in her direction. Alicia grew curious of his small library, and he never dissuaded her from pulling one off the shelf. In due time, he saw the frivolous investment pay off. Alicia was reading them to him.

“Do you think it’s good for her to be reading all these books?” Alicia’s mother had asked. “She talks nonsense, and it fills her head with crazy notions.”

If learning her words filled her head with odd notions, it was a side effect her father was happy to put up with. It made her interesting to talk too in the evenings before bedtime and on visits to the city, her smarts offloaded the difficulty of writing the stall signs, assigning prices, and handling the money. He could talk up the produce and she’d make the right change every time.

Alicia tended to the cash box and listened to her father as he sold the produce. He talked up its freshness. He’d even produce his pocket knife and slice a piece of apple, carrot, or whatever was being scrutinized by the ever changing sea of customers.

From her stool, she admired the mothers leading their flock of children, businessmen looking for a quick meal, and couples strolling through the merchant alley. Alicia swore that she never saw the same person twice, but the faces were the same and it was their clothing that changed week to week.

She enjoyed looking at the colorful, ankle-long dresses that the ladies wore and tried to deconstruct fancy hairstyles so she could try them at home. Her dresses were homemade and dowdy by comparison, but Dunbrooke wasn’t the big city.

In Dunbrooke, like the city, they may have had folks of every shade of skin tone living together, but their sense of fashion was simple: they wore clothes for working in the sun and soil. They prided how well their squashes, potatoes, and apples turned out over all else. Even the animals were better dressed and won awards at the town fair.

The customers who arrived first snatched up the best and ripest of their produce. The second wave took the next most appealing. In the third hour, stragglers came by looking for a bargain and haggled. Sometimes they would haggle with Alicia, but she held firm to their prices. One apple might remain in the crate, but it tasted just as sweet and juicy as the rest.

When four o’clock rolled around, the farmers stowed their wares and close up their wagons since the best produce had been sold.

“Good job today, Alicia,” her father would say. “Your mother’s got a list of things she needs in town. Here’s a bit of pocket money for yourself. Run along and don’t be late. I’d like to be out within an hour.”

Alicia hurried off down the alleyway calling out to the other farmers and merchants as she passed by them. At the end of the long corridor was the main street perpendicular to the merchant quarter, and it opened to a majestic view. Alicia loved the stone and brick houses that lined the row. She weaved between the couples and passersby as she hurried from one shop to the next on the main street. She needed baking supplies that Dunbrooke’s general store didn’t carry. From a sewing shop she bought a bolt of plain gray cloth, yarn, and needles for her mother so she could make new clothes for the winter.

On this day, as she checked each errand off, she got closer to the end of the street where she has never wandered before.

It would be a shame not to see what was further down. Alicia hauled her goods; they weren’t too heavy for her, and she came to the end of the street. There at the end was a giant roundabout. Five roads emerged from the roundabout like spokes on a wheel going off in different directions.

Her feet led her on. A large crescent shape building wrapped the roundabout in a long arch only broken by the roads. In the center, there was a park where young men and women had laid out blankets and lounged on the grass reading books and conversing with one another.

Alicia walked by an ironwork fence and peered over the shrubs on her tiptoes to see what was in the courtyard out of her purview.

There, inside stood a four-story building made of stone and mortar. Ivy vines grew and crept over all the green shutters. The windows had tall pointed arches and looked majestic.

To Alicia’s surprise, she saw a man leaning out of a window on the top floor. His foot perched on the sill. His hand, no his fingers, hooked him to the side, and he leaned out. Did anyone else notice or care? She wanted to call out but not a soul would stop to pay her any attention.

She turned back to the man transfixed by his fearlessness. He stepped back inside the window and adjusted his cap and surveyed the sky and then the ground below him.

His eyes fell on Alicia and he tipped his cap to her. She couldn’t see his face but she knew him to be smiling. He raised his finger and darted back inside of the building and Alicia felt relieved. A moment later he appeared wearing something against his back.

“Come on! We haven’t got all day! I want a turn!” The voice came from the ground on the other side of the ironwork fence.

“We have an audience!” The man at the window said. He hooked his fingers to the window sill and bowed.

Alicia grabbed the sleeve of the nearest man walking by. “Look!” she said pointing her shaky finger up at the window. What would he do next? Would he fall? Should they call for help? She glanced between the man’s sagging face and the young man perched on the window sill. The saggy-face man next to her didn’t share her exuberance or fright for what he saw.

He harrumphed and said “Damn kids and their ridiculous ideas! To think our taxes pay for this!”

“Pay for what?” Alicia asked.

“The University!”

“University?” Alicia turned back to the man. He held the window sill and heaved himself back and forth pivoting on his feet.

In the courtyard, there were several voices, all men, and they were counting down from ten.

“Three!” they shouted. The man at the top of the tower bent his knees, stuck his butt all the way back. He clung to the window sill on his fingertips and his entire body was inside the window.

“Two!” He adjusted his feet and steeled his gaze. Was he going to jump?

“Shouldn’t we do something?” Alicia said to the man beside her. “Shouldn’t we tell someone?!”

The man shook her off.

“One!” The triumphant voices from the ground below bellowed.

“Don’t!” Alicia’s plea died on her lips.

The man flung himself out the window and on his back a webbing of wood and cloth unfurled itself into two giant wings and they blotted out the sun. There was a great gleeful cry from the courtyard.

“Come on! Yeah! Over the wall! Over the wall!”

Alicia watched in awe. Her eyes tracked the man with giant wings sailing high above her and descending slowly. His hands were on handlebars and he pushed and pulled them to tilt the wings on his back as if he were adjusting sails on a boat.

His body was straight and parallel to the wings. The legs lifted and held up and he looked as majestic as any bird soaring through the blue sky.

He sailed right over the fence and angled his wings to follow the curve of the roundabout and touched down on the grassy knoll to the applause of the men and women picnicking there.

Alicia watched from the distance as he folded the wings back up behind him.

“WOO!” The flying man cried as he made his way back to the ironwork fence. He recognized Alicia and strutted over to her, proud as any peacock.

The man standing with Alicia harrumphed again and walked away muttering curses under his breath.

“Well?” The winged man said as he approached her.

Alicia stared at him dumbfounded.

He waited for a reply, and his grin grew bigger.

“Would you like to try?” he asked breaking the silence.

“No!” Alicia laughed. “Maybe. I mean, I need to get back, but how did you do that?”

The man turned around and patted the contraption on his back. “It’s an air glider! There’s a group of us, we’ve been studying birds and trying to figure out how to glide in the air. Just like those geese over yonder.”

“Is that true, you’re a university student?”

“Yes’m. You’re standing outside Huellen Hall of Science and Engineering!”

“Huellen Hall?” Alicia mumbled. “Science and engineering… This is Aeterall University?”

The man tipped his cap again in acknowledgment. “Sure is! I built this. Would you like to come inside? I could show you around,” he said.

Before Alicia could answer, a distant clock gonged, and she knew her hour was up. “As much as I would like too, not today, I need to be going.” She held her things close to her and walked away, but turned about to ask one more question: “Do you think, they’d ever let a woman study here?”

The young man adjusted the wings on his back. “Well…” He didn’t have to answer for Alicia to know her place. “I don’t know,” he finished.

“Then maybe it’s better I don’t visit. Thank you, though!” She lingered for a moment wanting to ask him about the wings, but she hurried off. Inside that courtyard it must have been a fantastic place. She imagined what the Huellen Hall classrooms would be like. She wondered about the room that man had jumped out of. Was it filled with contraptions like that?

The only thing she couldn’t imagine was herself standing in there as his peer, but still what an amazing thing. He flew! Like a bird right over the fence unfettered except by gravity.

Once Alicia and her father were under way again, she recounted the whole scenario to her father. He said little and never motioned to dissuade her story.

“Do you think, I could ever attend the university in Aeterall?” Alicia asked.

“Well,” her father began. “I don’t know. There ain’t no precedent of anybody from Dunbrooke ever obtainin’ a higher education like you’re alludin’ too.”

“Then… I’d be the first.”

Her father liked the sound of that. “You’d be the first.” He put her arm around her. Alicia took the other reign from his hand and curled up against her father. “You shouldn’t tell your mother. I suspect she’ll be something awful upset over this story.”

Alicia laughed. “That’s more reason to tell her! Could you imagine her face? Could you imagine my face when I saw him? I was horrified! I thought I was watching death, but he soared right over the iron fence, over the road, and the people in the park. It was just like one of my dreams!”

“Well, from the sound of it, that boy could’ve killed hisself. I don’t know if I’d be happy if you did that.”

“I don’t think I could do that!” Could she, though? Could she become closer to a bird with wooden wings?

“I wouldn’t tell your mother neither. She’s already distraught over the odd notions that fill your head with my books.”

“But what about you? Do you ever think a woman could go there?”

“Well now, I don’t know if a woman ever could. She has her place. Even if, I suspect it would be an awful lot of money if they took you. I don’t even know how you’d get in.”

“I feel like I’ve made up my mind. I want to go there. Maybe I won’t be able too. Maybe I can’t, but I want too. I feel like there’s so much to learn there, and I won’t throw myself out of the fourth story window. You needn’t worry about that! But I think I’ll tell mama just to see her face.” Alicia laughed again.

And sure enough, her mother’s reaction did not fail to delight Alicia or her father at the sheer fright of it.