Nine-year-old Ella felt the swing arc up and back until it stopped midair. For a moment, she stared down at the grass, worrying that she might fall. Then the swing began its descent, slowly at first, then gaining speed. As she plunged, Ella jerked back and pulled on the ropes with all her strength. Her vision blurred as she shot forward, feeling herself being pressed onto the seat as she swooped over the ground.
The swing sailed upward, and she knew this would be the highest she had ever reached. The swing slowed to a stop, the tautness of the ropes slackening. For a moment her stomach ached with weightlessness.
Above her, beyond the hemline of her pinafore, her slippers seemed to reach the sky. Ella glanced to her right and looked over the eight-foot stone wall. She craned her neck as high as possible. Downhill in the distance, between neighboring houses and beyond the rooftops of the town, stood the king’s castle. Even farther away she caught a gleam of sunlight reflecting off the river that wound its way down from forested mountains on the horizon. Ella’s spirits soared.
Almost instantly she felt herself dropping as the swing began its downward journey. Exhilarated and tired, she let the swing slow.
She glanced around the place she cherished most, the garden behind her family’s home. The plot had been divided into quadrants. At the center, near the swing, lay a tiny pond, its sides lined with stone and its water still as glass. Closest to the house and to the left lay the vegetable garden, while the flower garden was to the right. In the back, behind the vegetables, stood fruit trees and a bell-shaped beehive. To their right lay the family cemetery, where her mother was buried. Ella’s heart ached at the thought of her mother, who had died years before during an outbreak of the plague.
Thinking of her mother reminded Ella that her father was weeks overdue to return from his recent travels. She yearned to see his smiling, bearded face again and hear his laughter as he hugged her, kissed her, and smothered her with love.
“Ella!” screamed a mature woman’s voice.
Ella’s insides twisted tight at the sound of her stepmother’s voice. That her father would eventually remarry after the death of her mother, Ella understood. Her father had been lonely, and Irmgard was a neighbor who had lost her own spouse during the plague.
Ella’s father had explained to her that he thought she needed the guidance and comfort of a woman, and since Irmgard had two of her own daughters, Ella would enjoy companionship when he was required to travel.
Even though Irmgard treated Ella nicely, especially when her father was around, Ella sensed hostility from his father’s new wife. And Irmgard’s daughters, Claudia and Yvette, followed their mother’s example.
“Ella, come here!” yelled Irmgard.
Ella could tell by the tone of Irmgard’s voice that something was wrong. She slipped off the swing and headed toward the house. She stepped through the back door and followed Irmgard and her daughters to the little parlor just off the foyer at the front of the house.
Irmgard plopped down on a chair and from a side table picked up a piece of paper that had been folded in the shape of a letter. She sighed. “I have just received the most terrible news.” She glanced at her daughters and then to Ella. “Your father is dead. While traveling, he contracted the plague and died.”
Ella burst into tears. Her knees buckled, and she crumpled to the floor.
Claudia and Yvette rushed to their sobbing mother, and she pulled them close, an arm wrapped around each.
After a few minutes, Irmgard sniffed and eased her daughters aside. “I don’t know how we are to survive,” she said, “but rest assured that I shall find a way.”
Over the next week, Irmgard searched the house room by room. In the following days, she dismissed the butler, the chambermaids, and the kitchen staff. Ella loved each of them, and she cried at their departure.
A few days later, Irmgard summoned Ella to the parlor. “My daughters and I have only enough money to get by. There is nothing left for you.” Irmgard paused. “Unfortunately, my dear, I must cast you out of the house.”
Ella stood dumbfounded. She couldn’t believe what she had just heard. Her father had been a rich man, or so she thought. But now there was no money. And Irmgard was telling her she must leave the house, the only home she had ever known. Surely Irmgard was teasing, playing a cruel joke. Then Ella thought of the household staff that Irmgard had sent away, and she realized Irmgard would really do it. From time to time, she had heard of children living on the street, begging and stealing to survive. The thought of living homeless, cold, and hungry in some dark alley terrified her.
Irmgard stood, grabbed Ella by the arm, and eased her toward the front door.
Ella screamed and tried to pull away.
Irmgard pulled the door open and dragged Ella closer.
Ella shrieked and sobbed. “Please, don’t do this.”
Irmgard pushed Ella over the threshold.
“Please!” screamed Ella. “I’ll do anything to stay.”
Ella expected to be shoved away and to hear the door slamming behind her. But Irmgard clutched Ella’s arm tight.
“Well,” said Irmgard, as if she were thinking something through. “There might be one way.”
“Please,” said Ella, gasping. “Anything.”
“Are you willing to work?”
Ella’s mind raced. With a house full of servants, she had never been asked to do anything. But surely, she figured, that was better than being tossed out on the street. “Yes, yes,” she said, “I can work.”
“And by work,” said Irmgard, “I mean anything and everything. You will wear what I tell you, and you will sleep where I tell you. And you will do what I say, without hesitation or question?”
Ella felt her throat constrict, and her lips quivered. She fought back tears, but she nodded.
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