Chapter 1 – Jaden
Magda Ellenborne rubbed the sleep from her eyes and crawled from under the threadbare quilt on the pallet she shared with her sisters. She sighed and stretched, then rose to prepare for another day. The fact this was her eighteenth birthday didn’t matter. There was no day off for birthdays. She owed six out of seven days labor to her employer, and unless her birthday fell on her day off, she had to work.
Careful not to step on her brother or father sleeping on their adjacent pallet, Magda hugged her wrap tight against the cold and went to the hearth. She stirred the coals, adding more fuel from the dwindling pile until she coaxed a small flame into life.
With the firelight helping, she padded barefoot on the cold dirt floor, back to her pallet and the daily ordeal of waking her sisters.
“Get up,” she said and nudged the twin mounds beneath the quilt. “Help me get ready.”
Moans of displeasure rose from the mound. “Let us sleep. Get Ben to help you.”
“No.” Her voice rose at the thought of her ten-year-old brother seeing her naked. “He can’t help me bind my chest. Now, get up.” She kicked the closest mound firmly.
“Ow! Stop it.”
Magda nudged again. “Then get up and help me. I will not be late again because of your laziness.”
“Fine,” her sister, Ella, or it may have been Nora, said before one of them tossed the quilt clear and sat up.
Magda squinted in the dark, trying to make out which twin it was, then, deciding it didn’t matter, grabbed her sister’s hand, and pulled her to her feet. “Hurry up.”
In the dark of the one-room home, Magda removed her nightshirt and pressed the end of the cloth wrap against her side after checking her father and brother still slept.
“Here.” She handed the wrap to Nora—Ella had not risen yet. “Pull it tighter this time. It nearly came loose yesterday.”
Nora huffed and tugged on the wrap, which came free and dropped to the floor.
“Easy,” Magda hissed. She snatched up the cloth and replaced it to her side. “It’s dirty enough without dragging it on the floor.”
“It’s not my fault. Hold it tighter, and you won’t drop it.”
The sleepy voice of her father came from beneath his blanket, “Nora, help your sister and stop complaining.”
“Yes, Father.” Nora wound the cloth strip around Magda’s midsection, working her way higher.
Magda turned slowly. She guided the wrapping as Nora fed it to her under tension. “Hold it tighter,” she said and pressed the cloth against her breasts. This was the tricky part. Too tight, and she couldn’t breathe. It was uncomfortable, but too loose, and she risked being exposed.
Nora exhaled loudly but increased pressure.
Magda grasped the end of the cloth wrap from her sister and tucked it within the multiple layers about her chest. “Thank you, Nora.”
“You’re welcome. Can I go back to bed now?”
Magda leaned over and kissed her sister’s forehead. “Of course. I can do the rest.”
She pulled on her work attire: rough-spun trousers, boots, and the loose-fitting tunic, then considered her hair. It had grown out in the weeks since it was last cut, and she couldn’t chance it.
Moving silently to her father’s pallet, she knelt and asked, “Can you cut my hair, please?”
Her father stirred, sitting up and draping his bare shoulders with his blanket. He blinked in the dim light and pointed to his belt hanging on a peg in the wall. “Bring my knife.”
Magda retrieved the blade. She passed him the knife and sat, her back to him. “It’s not that long, but I don’t want to take a chance.” She turned her head. “You understand, don’t you?”
“Be still,” he said, patting her shoulder. “Yes, I understand. You are very brave to do this, but I worry for you, sweetheart.”
“I know, but the job, the horses, I love it.”
“Just be careful.”
“I am, always.”
Her father cut her hair. When he finished, he said, “There you go, Jaden. Have a good day at work.”
Magda smiled and kissed her father’s cheek. “I know it’s necessary, but it feels strange every time you call me that.”
“You have to ‘become’ Jaden if you’re to survive. Don’t think of yourself as Magda, my daughter. When you walk out that door, you are the boy, Jaden Sommer. Never forget that.”
“I know.” She squirmed uncomfortably. The chest bindings were pinching her flesh. “Someday, I hope to cast off this lie and be myself.”
“Perhaps, someday. But not today.”
Magda, now thinking of herself as Jaden, stood and collected his cloak from his peg on the wall. He swung it over his shoulders, securing it at his throat and lifting the hood to obscure his face.
At the door, Jaden pointed to the lumpy quilt and said, “Make them get up. They need to find work today. I’ll see you tonight.”
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