Star Cursed - Page 1/73

Chapter 1


I stand with Alice Auclair and Mei Zhang in a narrow tenement hallway that stinks of boiled beef and cabbage. We are all dressed alike: black woolen cloaks covering stiff black bombazine dresses, heeled black boots peeping out beneath floor-length skirts, hair pulled back simply and neatly. This is the uniform of the Sisterhood, and while none of us are full members yet, we are on a Sisterly mission of charity. We carry baskets of bread baked in the convent kitchen and vegetables from the convent cellar. We keep our eyes low, our voices quiet.

No one must ever suspect us for what we really are.

Alice knocks. Fine onyx earbobs swing from her seashell ears. Even on a mission to feed the poor, she finds a way to flaunt her family’s status. Someday her pride will be her undoing.

I half relish the thought.

Mrs. Anderson opens the door. She’s a widow of twenty-three with blond hair a shade lighter than my own and a perpetually harried expression. She ushers us inside, her hands fluttering like pale moths in the November gloom. “Sisters, thank you so much for coming.”

“There’s no need to thank us. Helping the less fortunate is part of our mission,” Alice says, grimacing at the cramped two-room flat.

“I’m grateful.” Mrs. Anderson presses my hand between her icy palms. She still wears her gold wedding band, though her husband has been dead three months now. “My Frank was a good provider. We always made ends meet. I don’t like to depend on charity.”

“Of course not.” I give her an uneven smile as I pull away. In the face of our deception, her gratitude makes me squirm.

“You’ve had hard luck. You’ll be back on your feet soon,” Mei assures her. The fever that tore through the city in August claimed Mr. Anderson and their eldest boy, leaving Mrs. Anderson to fend for the two surviving children.

“It’s not an easy thing, to be a woman alone in the world. I’d take on more hours at the shop if I could.” Mrs. Anderson slides the jug of milk into the icebox. “But it gets dark so early now, I don’t like to walk home alone.”

“It isn’t safe for a woman to be out at night.” Mei is stocky and short; she has to stand on tiptoe to put a jar of apple butter on the shelf next to the canned vegetables.

“So many foreigners in this part of the city. Most of them can’t even speak proper English.” Alice’s hood falls back, revealing golden hair that waves prettily away from her pale forehead. Looking at her, you’d never guess what a harpy she is. “Who knows what kind of people they are?”

Mei flushes. Her parents immigrated from Indo-China before she was born, but they still speak Chinese at home. She’s the only Chinese girl at the convent and conscious of it. I daresay Alice knows that; she has a talent for poking at people’s bruises.

The old Cate Cahill would have taken Alice to task, but Sister Catherine only helps Mei unpack sweet potatoes and butternut squash onto the scratched wooden table. Sisters do not have the luxury of losing their tempers—at least not outside the convent walls. In public, we must be models of ladylike decorum.

I loathe these visits.

It’s not that I lack compassion for the poor. I have plenty of compassion. I just can’t help wondering how they would feel about us if they knew the truth.

The Sisters pose as an order of women devoting their lives to charitable service for the Lord. We deliver food to the poor and nurse the sick. That is the truth—but it’s also true that we are witches, all of us, hiding in plain sight. If people learned what we really are, their gratitude would turn to fear. They would think us sinful, wanton, and dangerous, and they would have us locked up in the madhouse—or worse.

It’s not their fault. That’s what the Brothers preach at church every Sunday. Few would risk going against them, and these poor people already have less than most.

No matter how kind Mrs. Anderson may seem, she’d give us up. She’d have to, in order to protect her children. They all would.

“Sister Cath’rine! You’re back!” A small boy runs out of the bedroom, his hands full of jacks, his mouth smeared with the blackberry jam we brought last week from Sister Sophia’s cellar. Alice shies away from his sticky fingers.

“Good day, Henry.” This is my third visit to the Andersons’ flat, and Henry and I have become fast friends. He’s lonely, I think. Now that his mother goes out to work, he and his baby sister are left with an elderly neighbor all day. It can’t be much fun for him.

“Henry, leave Sister Catherine alone,” his mother scolds.

“It’s all right. He’s not bothering me.” I take the final item—a jar of juicy red tomatoes, seeds floating in the pulp—from my basket. As I kneel, my eyes fall past Henry to the pallets stuffed with straw ticking. The first time we came, they had a nice mahogany sleigh bed, a matching trundle for Henry, and an armoire, but Lavinia’s had to sell them. Now her pretty blue wedding quilt is tucked neatly over her pallet and their clothes are stacked in cardboard boxes.

Henry sits, scattering jacks across the floor and giving me a gap-toothed grin. I’m out of practice, but I was a champion at jacks in my day. A memory flashes through me: Paul McLeod squatting across from me on the cobblestone walk in my garden, the hot summer sun beating down, the smell of freshly cut grass all around us.

Once upon a time, memories of my childhood friend would have made me smile—but not anymore. I treated Paul poorly, and I’ll never be able to apologize.

He’s not even the one I hurt most. The thoughts hammer at me, relentless.

“I been practicing,” Henry announces, tugging at the grimy white shirtsleeves that end halfway up his skinny forearms. “Got up to ninesies yesterday. Bet I can beat you now.”

“We’ll see about that.” I settle across from him while Alice and Mei and Mrs. Anderson cram together on the stained, lumpy brown sofa, clasping hands and bowing their heads in prayer. I ought to join them, but my relationship with the Lord is fragile these days. I’m in good health and safe from the Brothers’ meddling eyes, but it’s hard to feel thankful when everyone I love is at home in Chatham and I’m here in New London alone.

I miss my sisters. I miss Finn. Loneliness carves a hollow in my stomach.

Henry and I are up to sevensies when there’s a furious pounding on the door. I freeze at the sound, the red rubber ball bouncing right past my outstretched hands.

The baby stirs in her wooden cradle. Mrs. Anderson leans over her for a moment on the way to the door. “Shhh, Eleni,” she says, and the tenderness in her voice makes me miss my own mother.

Mrs. Anderson opens the door to a nightmare of black cloaks and stern faces. Two Brothers push past her into the flat.

My heart stops. What did we do? How did we give ourselves away?

Alice and Mei are already on their feet. I scramble across the room to join them, and Henry rushes to his mother’s side.

A short, bald Brother with a long face and piercing blue eyes steps forward. “Lavinia Anderson? I am Brother O’Shea of the New London council. This is Brother Helmsley,” he says, indicating an enormous red-bearded man. “We have received a report of impropriety.”

It’s not us, then.

Relief courses through me, followed closely by guilt. Lavinia Anderson is a good woman, a good mother, kind and hardworking. She doesn’t deserve trouble from the Brothers.