Rumpus Exclusive: “Sisters”

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Keeping Alice by her turned out to be easy. Each day, Alice moved forward in the schoolroom until she sat at the same desk as Cora right in front of Mr. Bowyer. No one seemed to think it odd.

As Cora wrote on the blackboard, she developed a habit of glancing over her shoulder after every three chalk loops. Alice’s encouraging smile was always there. Mr. Bowyer seemed a little irritated by this new habit and asked Cora more than once what in heaven she was doing but he never gave her much of a telling off. She knew too many of his secrets.

In the dining hall, Cora always saved a narrow place on her bench for Alice. When it was Cora’s turn to give out bread and dripping, Alice always got the freshest slice. That summer in the workroom, when all the girls were learning to knit socks, Alice seemed to get away with just holding Cora’s wool. Together, Cora and Alice chanted the stitches out loud almost in one voice until their overseer Millie Leggatt, a girl of fifteen who could knit as fast as a loom, told Cora to shut her mouth.

The other girls, click-clacking with their steel needles, sneered but weren’t bold enough say anything. They were jealous because Cora and Alice had become as close as sisters. Cora patted Alice’s hand and smiled at her sweetly, ignoring the puzzled looks and the giggles. The others no longer mattered.

As the year went by and the air in the dormitory turned from damp to stuffy, the two girls’ need to speak when the others were around seemed to evaporate. Language became not words but a glance or the turn of a head. When the other girls came close, Cora and Alice would both scowl. Alice learned quickly how to make even the biggest girls back off with the stamp of her foot. Cora started to dare Alice to be bolder; to rub a muddy finger down Emma Jeake’s clean pinny or spit in Mary Smith’s water cup. Alice never refused a dare and Cora burned with pride as her friend became stronger and more fearless. The thrill of mischief bound them closer. They would entwine their fingers and press their bodies together, standing on tiptoes and beaming, delirious with the triumph of getting away with it.

Soon, in order to preserve the excitement, the dares had to become riskier. On a rainy day in May they hung back in the corridor by the schoolroom as the others filed in a crocodile toward the dining hall. Cora pulled at Alice’s sleeve and asked her if she needed the privy.

“I’ll wait,” Alice replied.

“But could you go, if you had to?”

Alice’s eyes widened. “What are you on about, Cora?”

But Cora could see by Alice’s furtive smile that she knew. As Alice lifted up her skirt to squat down right there in the corridor, Cora pressed both hands over her mouth to stop herself screaming with laughter. She almost laughed herself into a faint.

Alice was giggling uncontrollably too by the time she’d finished and wiped herself on her petticoat. The classroom door was shut but Mr. Bowyer was still in there and might have come out at any moment. The girls clasped each others’ hands as they ran squealing to the back of the dining hall queue.

No one owned up to the mess in the corridor. So Molly Pearce who was known as a habitual bed-wetter got the blame. Mr. Bowyer gave her six raps of the ruler on her palm and made her stand, sniveling at the front of the class for the rest of the afternoon.

As summer began to steam, Cora and Alice pulled themselves further away from the other girls. They liked to loiter on their own at the far end of the schoolyard especially when the infants were still out at play. Cora would tell Alice about what she could remember about being in the infants’ quarters herself. None of the girls from that time were still in the Union house. A couple of the boys she recognized at chapel, but they never made any sign from their pews that they remembered Cora.

On a July morning that made the asphalt sparkle, Cora and Alice stood with their faces pressed into the railings of the infants’ yard. They could almost touch the toddling, pinafored figures on the other side who prodded each other and sucked snotty thumbs. One of them, an ugly ginger thing, tried to pick up a stone and fell backward, his brown skirt flying up to expose his tiny parts. He righted himself clumsily and burst into retching sobs.

Alice giggled. “I thought that one was a girl. Why do they all wear the same? You can’t tell lads from lasses.”

“It’s always like that, isn’t it, with little ones?”

“Not in our house! Ma always put Arthur in a little red flannel waistcoat. He had to have skirts on account of getting caught short, but it didn’t seem right to put him in frilly pinnies as well.”

Cora looked away not wanting Alice to see her confusion. Was everything, even the way that small children were dressed, entirely different beyond the Union house walls? A huddle of shaven-headed toddlers in clumpy ankle boots and rumpled stockings surrounded the screaming boy who was ignored entirely by the two bent old women in workhouse bonnets who sat on a nearby bench.

Then the asphalt by Cora’s feet began to squeak. A baby bird, quite large but featherless, was slumped on its bloated belly, a tiny blue heart beating under translucent skin.

“Alice, look.”

But in a swirl of air, the sole of Alice’s boot ground down on to the gasping bird. Cora stared at the fledgling’s lifeless hooded eyes.

“Oh, Alice! I thought we’d look after it and feed it scraps until it could fly.”

Alice picked up the dead thing by its claw. “Da always said it was kindest to kill them quicker than a cat would.”

Tears pricked at the top of Cora’s nose. She would never know as much about the world as Alice already did. Then a cold finger touched Cora’s cheek.

“Don’t fret, Cora. I’ve killed all sorts. Pigeons, hens. A rabbit once. As soon as you’ve done it, you feel so brave and strong that you get a lovely tingle all over.” Alice’s eyes glistened. “I bet you could do it too, Cora, as long as the thing wasn’t too big.”

Cora swallowed. “Like a cat?”

“They’re too scratchy. Best try on something that can’t fight you off.”

“A lamb?”

“Where would you find a lamb around here, you ninny?”

Alice’s gaze had drifted to the smallest children on the other side of the railings and Cora felt an ache of unease.

“Do you mean… a baby? But that would be wicked.”

Alice giggled. “You are wicked though, aren’t you, Cora?”

The shiver that went through Cora was electric. “Am I?”

“Well, you won’t know for sure whether you are or you’re not until you try. Maybe try…” Alice nodded toward the crying boy, “…on that one who just tripped over and showed us his fella.”

Alice began to laugh. Then she took hold of Cora’s hands and their fingers locked together, excitement fizzing between them. And, as the dreadful course they had set became suddenly inevitable, Cora laughed too, harder and harder, until trickles of hot tears squeezed out of her eyes and creased her cheeks with salt.

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Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.

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Excerpted from The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby. Copyright © 2019 by Carolyn Kirby. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Dzanc Books.


Originally from the northeast of England, Carolyn Kirby studied history at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, before working in public housing and then as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Her novel The Conviction of Cora Burns, begun in 2013 during a writing course at Faber Academy in London, won the inaugural Bluepencilagency Award and was a runner-up for the DGA First Novel Prize and the Mslexia Novel Competition. Carolyn has two grown daughters and lives with her husband in rural Oxfordshire. More from this author →