Mamma. Sleeping Late.
An Overdue Library Book.
AS COMMANDING GENERAL of the Army of Califa, Mamma is in charge of just about everything, so she is not much home—she’s always off on an inspection, or maneuvers, or at a grand council somewhere, or just working late. Thus, Crackpot’s crumbling is no particular bother to her. Idden, too, is nicely out of it, even if her current post, Fort Jones, is the back end of Nowhere. At least she can count on having someone else do her laundry and cook her supper.
Mostly just Poppy and I are stuck home alone, which really works out to just me alone, because Poppy only comes out of his Eyrie when the booze and cigarillos run out. Then he’s just a thin shadow in a worn cadet shawl and bloodstained frock coat creeping out the back door, off to buy more booze, so he hardly counts at all. Thus, it is me who reaps all the inconvenience.
When Mamma is home, she gets up at oh-dark-thirty and makes me get up with her, so that we can have family time at breakfast. This, of course, is not really family time, since Poppy isn’t there, and Idden isn’t there, and the First Flora isn’t there. On these occasions, it’s just Mamma and me, half a family, having half-a-family time. And since that’s all we are ever going to have, that’s what we have to learn to like.
It makes Mamma happy to pretend we are a happy family, so I sit and suffer through warmed-over takeaway and café au lait, and she asks me about school, and I ask her about work, and this morning time makes up for the fact that she stays at the War Department every night until ten and I usually eat supper alone.
But when Mamma is off on one of her trips, I sleep until the very last minute and rush off to Sanctuary School without my breakfast, but with an extra half hour of snore.
Now, the Butler may be banished, but that doesn’t mean that the House is entirely dead. Occasionally it groans and thrashes a bit, like a sleeping person whose body moves though her mind drifts far away. But it never moves like you would want it to, like before, when the potty would be next to your bedroom in the middle of the night, but tucked Elsewhere otherwise. Sometimes the long way is the short way and the short way is the long way, and occasionally there is no way at all.
This does not happen too often, because Mamma is strict that it should not. Before, the Butler kept Crackpot in order, but now it’s Mamma’s Will alone that keeps the House in line. She likes to be in control of things and usually is. But when Mamma is gone, her grip slips a bit, and then so does the way downstairs, or to the back door, or maybe even to the potty. The House moves not in a good and useful way, but in a horribly inconveniently annoying way. Sometimes you have to be careful.
Like the Elevator. Our rooms are spread along three floors, and it’s a bit of a hike to get from the kitchen in the basement up to my second-floor bedroom. The Elevator would be much quicker, but we aren’t supposed to use it without Mamma. Once, when I was just a tot, Poppy tried to take the Elevator back to his Eyrie. Mamma warned him not to, but he was drunk, and he roared that he would see her in hell before he’d take another order from her, General Fyrdraaca, sir! When he staggered onto the Elevator, the iron grille slammed just like an eyelid snapping shut in fear, with Poppy still cursing blue as the cage moved upward.
The Elevator came back empty a few minutes later, and for a full week, we could hear distant howling and shouting drifting around us, but always out of our reach. Poppy finally staggered out of the Door of Delectable Desires, disheveled and pale, and, without a word, started the long climb up the Stairs of Exuberance to his Eyrie, from which he did not stir for the next six months.
After that, Mamma made Idden and me swear not to use the Elevator without her. With her, the Elevator goes where it should: It wouldn’t dare do anything else. But she doesn’t trust it with the rest of us, and so I have to climb up and down a zillion stairs, which is a chore, particularly when you are loaded down with laundry.
And that’s where everything started—with the Elevator.
Mamma was gone on an inspection of Angeles Barracks, and I woke up on the sharp edge of running extremely late. I had been up until nearly three trying to write my stupid Catorcena speech—a total waste of time, for the speech is supposed to celebrate your family and future, and what about my family and future is there to celebrate? But I had stayed up half the night trying, and here was the result: I had overslept.
Tardiness is not encouraged at Sanctuary School. Most of the kids sleep there, and that I do not is a benefit Mamma arranged due to the need for someone to keep an eye on Poppy during her frequent absences. Of course, I’d rather sleep at Sanctuary, for Poppy is not someone you want to get stuck keeping an eye on. When he is good, there’s nothing to see, for he keeps to the Eyrie and is silent. When he is bad, he screams like a banshee and crashes furniture. But there are the dogs to consider, as well. If Poppy were left alone to feed them, they’d starve.
But anyway, I still have to be at Sanctuary on time, so I was in a tearing hurry. I’d already been late three times in the past month, which had gotten me only detention. But a fourth strike meant more than just detention. First, it meant a trip to the Holy Headmistress’s office, where Madama would sit me down and look at me sorrowfully, and tell me I must be mindful of my time because I was all that my mamma had left now that Idden had gone, and she relied on me. That would make me feel guilty, and I hate feeling guilty.
But even worse, then Madama would write Mamma a letter. And Mamma would come home and get that letter, and she would be superannoyed. Mamma superannoyed is fearsome. She doesn’t scream or whack, but she would give me the Look that has reduced colonels to tears, and then she would remind me about duty, honor, and responsibility. I would feel worse than guilty—I would feel ashamed. Having Mamma give you the Look is about the worst thing in the world. It means you’ve failed her. And she was sure to mention, too, how sad it was that I had failed her so close to my Catorcena. My Catorcena was only a week off. It’s a big deal, turning fourteen, age of majority, legally an adult, wah-wah, suitable now to be received by the Warlord, wah-wah, and so it’s celebrated in big-deal style. There’s an assembly where you have to make a public speech about your family’s history and obligations and the responsibility of adulthood. There’s a reception where the Warlord greets you by name, thus acknowledging you as his loyal subject. It’s all very tedious, overwrought, and complicated—a big whoop-de-do.
For some kids, this is the highlight of their lives, maybe the only time they get to see the Warlord in his courtly glory (you can see the Warlord propping up a bar South of the Slot any old time you care to look), the only time they have a fancy party at which no one looks anywhere but at them, the only time they get huge gifties. But I don’t care about the Warlord in his courtly or noncourtly glory, and I don’t care about huge gifties, and I don’t care about fancy parties. And I certainly don’t care about making a stupid speech about the history of my horrible, sad, decaying family.
Most kids want to ...