January 18, 2016
The children began to arrive soon after Engel came to the house. It was Engel who found the first one, an infant girl, in a basket, with a bundle of neatly folded, freshly washed clothes. The basket had been left on the steps leading up from the kitchen into the garden. Whoever had put it there must have known the way the house worked, because days might have passed before any of the other doors were opened; left anywhere else, the child would probably have died. As it was, no more than an hour or two had gone by but already the creature was blue with cold. Engel picked her up and held her, the small soft body pressed to her bosom, the small wrinkled face in the warm crook of her neck, for she didn’t know how long; a living daylight was how she described it to Morgan when she brought the baby up to him in his study. Looking across from his reading with amusement, Morgan explained that the living daylights were always plural and that they were supposed to be the part of the human soul most susceptible to fear. She nodded, fervently, that’s exactly right, it just goes on and on. That’s exactly how it was, she said, with the child’s small heart barely beating and the breath like a short hot knife blade on the skin of Engel’s neck. Engel lifted the baby away from her body and held her out to Morgan, who shook his head. She said they should tell someone perhaps, someone would know what to do with her, but Morgan disagreed. Left to himself he might have been tempted, what use did he have for a child, after all? But he could hear that Engel’s heart wasn’t in it. Just look at you both, he said. What could be better than this? Don’t you know how to deal with her as well as anyone? Let her stay here with us, where she will be clothed and fed, and kept out of this wicked weather. At least for a while. Perhaps, he thought, the child’s presence would encourage Engel not to go.
He held her later, when she’d been given milk and changed into fresh clothes from the bundle she’d arrived with; decent hand-sewn clothes, laundered and ironed, made of white cotton. He stroked the soft hair from the fine blue veins of her forehead, the first child he’d ever taken in his arms, and examined his feelings to see if they were altered in any way. He wanted to see if this child would change him; more than anything he wanted that. But what he felt seemed familiar to him; he had felt it before with small animals, kittens, a hamster he’d once been given, the little stagger of a newborn lamb; even with plants, those plants that flowered and had scent, that had touched his heart for a moment before they died. It will take time, he said to himself, only slightly disappointed. Miracles will take time. At least, in the meantime, the child might begin to love him. They called her Moira, which Morgan told Engel meant fate. At which information, Engel sniffed.
Engel watched the two of them, that morning, standing in the center of the kitchen with a bowl of cream in her hand, which she was going to beat and pour on bread pudding for lunch. No waste was allowed in Engel’s world; even week-old bread had its uses. The cream, the color of old lace, came from one of the black-and-white cows that Morgan could see from his room at the top of the house, herds of cows grazing beyond the wall that encircled his own land, as far as the city itself, where his sister ran the factory.
Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages. Moira remained the youngest. According to Engel, who seemed to know, she couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old when she was left. The oldest among them was a fair-haired boy who walked into the house one day with a cardboard tag—the kind used for parcels— attached to his wrist, on which the name David had been written in a childish hand. Taken immediately to Morgan, he stood up like a little soldier before his desk, stared straight ahead, and announced, in a solemn yet singsong voice, that he was five years old and had no mother or father and would behave well if he was treated well. The ages of the others ranged between these two, Moira and David, whom Morgan regarded as the most precious, perhaps because they were the most easily distinguished; Moira, the first and youngest, and David, with his tag, the eldest.
Some of them came to the house in other ways. One morning, shortly after breakfast, Morgan was standing by the drawing room window and gazing out into the garden when a square of air above the lawn seemed to ripple as though it were silk and a knife had been drawn across it, and a child appeared on the lawn and began to walk towards the house, perfectly confident, it seemed, that she would be received. As she was. Later that day, when no one was likely to see him, Morgan went into the garden to try to find the place, standing on the lawn and testing the air with his hand for some point where its resistance might be weak, until he felt foolish and gave up. Walking back across the lawn, he saw that he had been watched by David, who was standing at the window directly above the drawing room. He waved, and was pleased to see David wave back. Like David, the new girl had a cardboard tag attached to her wrist, which told them her name was Melissa. She looked around the main hall of the house with a contented expression, smiling at David when he came to take her hand and show her the house, although she smiled at Moira in much the same way, and at the other children too; she smiled at everyone as though she had known and loved them all her life. When she saw Morgan for the first time, as he hurried through from the drawing room to greet her, calling to Engel as he did so, she ran across and hugged his knees.
Each day, Morgan would watch them eat, while Engel doled out food into their bowls. David and the second eldest, a girl with sad blue eyes and a missing milk tooth at the front of her mouth, whose name—because Engel had insisted—was Daisy, sat near the fireplace at a small wooden table Morgan had never seen before, which must have been acquired by Engel in the town and been delivered when he was in another part of the house, or still asleep one morning. So much went on in the house of which he was unaware. The running of the place, he often thought, was blessedly arranged behind his back. The others were seated in a semicircle of high chairs, also new. Melissa and David and Jack and Moira and Daisy and Christopher and Ruth, each one as like and unlike the others as children always are. Morgan was proud to see his kitchen busy with these small, contentedly eating creatures, with Engel filling their bowls and spooning the food into the younger ones’ mouths.
One day, in an effort to belong more intimately, Morgan dipped his finger into a bowl and licked off the pap, a sort of puree, as far as he could tell, of meat and cabbage. He was surprised to find it so good. I should like some of this, he said to Engel, who growled at him and shook her head. This is no food for you, she said. You’re a big enough baby as it is. Later that day, standing in his bedroom, he couldn’t explain to himself how deeply the manner of this refusal had touched him. He found himself weeping for the first time since the accident. Later still that same day, when he had thought he was alone in his room, he opened his eyes and saw two children, a boy and a girl, standing before him, dressed identically in striped smocks that came almost to their feet and thin white shoes, as soft and defenseless as slippers. They spoke together. Our names are Georgie and Georgina, they said. Hello, Georgie and Georgina, Morgan said, with some difficulty, the soft gs clinging to the surface of his tongue. Hello, Morgan, they said. So they’d already been told his name.
Mealtime with the children became a fixed point in his day. He would steal small tastes of the food that Engel prepared whenever she turned her back, which she may have done on purpose; his finger was constantly wet to the touch, and warm. The children had learned that when Morgan was there they should be quiet and eat their food, although no child was ever punished, certainly not in front of him. At times he wondered if Engel chastised them when he was somewhere else. He didn’t think so. Did it occur to him that a child that never needed to be chastised was hardly a child at all, but a sort of living doll, or automaton? Of course it did. He knew there was a mystery about these children, and not only in the nature of their arrival, but he pushed the thought aside. In any case, the notion that Engel might do more than raise her voice, might use some sort of violence against them, could not be conceived.
The room in which Morgan passed the better part of his days was lined with darkly polished wooden shelves, and had no natural light. Each shelf was tightly packed with stacks of books of all shapes and sizes, reaching to the high paneled ceiling. The entrance was concealed behind a small hinged bookcase filled with dummy books, one of which—a collection of essays by an eighteenth-century cleric—acted as a hidden clasp. Even the two long windows that had once overlooked the lawns had been sealed to make more room for shelves, thought Morgan, absurd as this was in a house with dozens of empty rooms that might have held any number of books. What he didn’t say—perhaps because no one had ever asked him— was that in rooms without access to natural light, there could be no day or night. In this room, known as the book room to distinguish it from the house’s true library, which was downstairs, time was an uninflected, unending ribbon, an ouroboros. Morgan had arranged for a desk to be placed in the center and, behind it, the swivel chair his father had used when he worked as a lawyer in the city. This was the room in which he read and, sometimes, before the children arrived and for some time after, wrote. The children were only permitted to enter accompanied, although they were always there for him in a way. He would feel their presence whatever he was doing.
CHARLES LAMBERT is the author of many novels, short stories, and the memoir, With a Zero at its Heart, which was named one of The Guardian’s Ten Best Books of the Year in 2014. In 2007, he won an O. Henry Award for his short story, “The Scent of Cinnamon.” He has been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Lichfield Prize, and the Willesden Short Story Prize. He was born in Lichfield, England, and currently lives near Rome, Italy.
Adapted from The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert, Copyright © 2016 by Charles Lambert. With the permission of the publisher, Simon and Schuster.