Court of Clubs
Isabel turns the small brass key on the music box gently but stops when the coil inside seems tight enough. She places the wooden box onto the dusty floor of the dark empty warehouse and smiles at the anticipation of the sweet song. She bites her lip and lifts the lid, the twinkly notes echo in the darkness and Isabel slowly begins to twirl with her arms outstretched, drunk on the happy little tune. She closes her eyes and, for a brief moment, she remembers being a child.
She stops still and smiles once more as she glances around at her finger paintings that now cover all of the floor that the candlelight touches. This had been the second night she had worked on this drawing and she wasn’t finished yet. Isabel places her hands on her hips and lets out a huff of exhaustion.
“Busy little bee, buzz buzz buzz!” She laughs loudly but quickly covers her mouth. “Shh!” She tells herself off sharply. “Must stay hidden, have to keep quiet. Must stay hidden, have to keep quiet. Must...quiet...” She begins to trail off from her mantra, interrupted by her childish thoughts. “Quiet as a mouse, squeak, SQUEAK - NO!” Isabel slaps her own face to stop her silliness. The stinging sensation on her cheek has the desired effect, her eyes dart around the shadows of the warehouse while her darker and calmer side gives her some control. As the music box begins to repeat the song once more, a half-smile appears on her face and she skips over to the dead man’s body lying at the edge of the candlelight.
Kneeling next to the body, Isabel barely seems to notice that this was once a living, breathing man with a family and a life filled with memories. She lifts his stained shirt to reveal a hole in the man’s stomach. Without pausing, she plunges her hand into the wound and removes it soaked and dripping with blood. She scurries over to a blank section of floor that is still within the illuminated circle of dim light and continues to paint, simple doodles of flowers and ornate shapes flow from her fingertips, all the while humming along happily to the tune of the music box.
Each line she creates seems to spawn the next as the connected drawing flows across the floor effortlessly. Its as though every line has a purpose and is well thought out in advance, yet the fog cast over Isabel's eyes tell a different story as if she isn't even here.
From the shadows, a pair of eyes watch the young woman go to and from the body like a bee between flowers. This was not the first time Thirzah had found Isabel like this. She had spent many of her nights tracking Isabel down to make sure this wasn’t happening. It might have felt like her efforts were fruitless, but what else could she do? Her fellow sisters had shunned Isabel, afraid that her childlike character would expose them all. Thirzah sighs at the thought of what she now had to tell Isabel, and hopes that her childlike mind would let her understand.
The music box slows to a complete stop and the silence wakes Isabel from her dreamlike state. She gets up and walks towards the small wooden box, brushing her bloody hand clean on the side of her long black dress. An action repeated a number of times as some sections of the dress are soaked through.
“Please, no more.” Says Thirzah, making her presence known by stepping into the dim light. “I don’t know how you can stand to listen to that same tune over and over.”
Isabel beams at Thirzah and struggles to hold in her excitement at the sudden sight of her. “It’s almost done!” She looks at the floor, presenting her latest work like a joyful child. “Well, not really but you get the idea, this part is -”
Thirzah cuts in with an air of sadness. “You’ve been very busy.”
Isabel lowers her head knowing full well that she shouldn’t be doing this. In the shocked silence drifting from Thirzah, Isabel's guilt turns to anger as she remembers what always follows Thirzah's disappointment.
“You can’t wash it away!” Cries Isabel stubbornly stamping her foot. “I ain’t finished!”
“You should never have started sweetheart, and you know that.”
Thirzah walks over to the candle, ignoring Isabel’s winces as she steps on some of the blood painted scribbles. She lifts the candle up high and the light extends beyond its current range, revealing more drawings that stretch into the shadows. Thirzah takes a few steps forward and sees another body also surrounded by Isabel’s artwork. Thirzah doesn’t want to look any further, she is too afraid to know how many bodies there are. This has been the worst incident to date, or maybe it was because Thirzah hadn’t been keeping a close enough eye on her that Isabel had been able to get this far. Thankfully, the empty warehouse that was once used to store wool had kept her hidden.
“Busy little bee.” Thirzah says softly.
Isabel hugs into Thirzah. Deep down she knew what she was doing was wrong, but couldn’t help it nonetheless. She tightens her grip on Thirzah and, for the second time tonight, she closes her eyes for a brief moment and remembers back to her childhood, to what it was like to have her mother hold her like this.
“We need to talk.”
“But I ain’t finished!” Isabel steps back, crosses her arms and protests. “I know what you’re gonna say! I promise that I’ll -”
“This isn’t why I came to find you.” Thirzah looks into Isabel’s childlike eyes and sighs, knowing what will make her contented. “Carry on if it makes you happy. But you have to listen to what I have to say.”
Isabel bursts with excitement, kisses Thirzah on the cheek and quickly returns to the body to soak her hand. Thirzah watches her little bee return to her work and uses the time to think of where to start with what she has to say, and decides that there isn’t any reason to dance around this issue. She has to keep it simple and to the point.
“Isabel, I’m leaving London.” She says quickly and instantly notices that Isabel slows to a stop, losing all interest in her drawing. “And before you ask, I’m afraid I won’t be coming back this time. This is goodbye.”
Isabel’s bottom lip shakes, understanding what has been said but thinking it was her fault. She tries hard not to let the first tear break the surface.
“I’m sorry, I... I... I’ll stop drawing, I promise this time, I will. I can be a good girl.”
“Sweetheart, it isn’t because of anything you’ve done.” Thirzah delays, thinking of a way to make her grasp the situation. “The little ones need me, too many of them have been sent away, I have to help them.”
At the mention of the children, Isabel begins to understand.
“But why can’t you come back afterwards?”
“It’s too far, and I will need to make a life with the children there, to support them. What if you were to come with me? We can start a home in a new land.” Thirzah slides the question in but she ready knows the answer and continues anyway. “It’s a free and open world out there. A coin there is worth more, imagine the house I could build us, you could continue all this undisturbed and you won’t have to worry about -” Thirzah stops as she can see her words are stressing Isabel out.
Isabel’s anxiety is made clearer as she begins to sway, trying to find comfort in the patterns on the floor, shifting her weight from side to side. A thousand thoughts flash through Isabel’s mind, confusing her, unable to make sense of any of them. Her thoughts turn against her and she comes to her conclusion.
“It’s because you like them more than me. Isn’t it?! I didn’t ask you to be my friend. I... I don’t even like you, nope, never did.” Isabel turns her back on Thirzah and clenches her fists with rage.
Thirzah remains quiet, knowing that Isabel will calm down and that she doesn’t mean these things. Even with that thought planted in Thirzah’s mind, the comments still hurt. Isabel paces over to the dead body, roughly soaks her hand in blood and returns to her painting. There is an empty silence that hangs in the air as she begins to calm down, but Thirzah waits for Isabel to speak first. She doesn’t have to wait long.
“I’ll be alright anyway.” Isabel continues with her back to Thirzah while still painting. “My sisters will take care of me. Just you see. I always liked Beatrice more than you anyway.” She then whispers to herself and smiles. “We could be best friends.”
“You know the opinion of the Sisterhood. Please don’t trick yourself into believing otherwise.” Thirzah says wishing that her level-headed tone will make Isabel understand. “I know you would never leave London, your heart is here, and asking you to process the thought of leaving is out of your realm for comfort, I know that, but for my own selfish satisfaction, I needed to ask you to come with me. Aside from kidnapping, I’ve done all I can to help you. You have to take care of yourself now.” She watches Isabel stop her frustrated painting, as her words start to take hold, realising that this is goodbye. “I’ll talk to Beatrice for you, I’m sure Olivia could help, but you need to stop all this, for good this time, you know it doesn’t go unnoticed. Remember to keep watch for the Ravens, without me around...” Thirzah stops in the hope that she doesn’t have to imagine the end of that sentence. She steps forward to the music box, picks it up and tucks a folded piece of paper into the wooden lid. “I’ll leave this here so you’ll remember to read it. On the paper are a few secrets about our fellow Sisters. Be careful with them, they’re valuable. Only use them if you really need help from them. You don’t have to look at me, but please nod if you understand what I mean by this.” Isabel quickly nods.
Thirzah closes the lid to the music box and begins to slowly wind the brass key. Isabel steps towards her with sadness filling her heart and her eyes on the music box. Thirzah passes the small wooden box to Isabel, kisses her forehead and brushes a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Goodbye, my busy little bee. Keep safe.” She softly whispers to her and opens the music box as she slowly steps away.
The tune bursts from the small box and fills every corner of the dark echoing warehouse. A soft half-smile appears on Isabel’s face as she waits for the happy tune to lift her spirits. But the moment doesn’t come. She looks up to see that Thirzah has left her standing alone. Isabel sinks to the floor and lets the first tear break through to the surface.
Isabel stares into the shadows hoping Thirzah is still watching, just like she always has, but in the calm of the darkness, Isabel realises her best friend has gone.