The Anglic Gene

An orphan girl unsure of who she is or why a man wants her dead carries a secret. She will experience humanity.

Are you ready?

Join Sophia in a heart thumping adventure across England set in the 1870’s, exploring faith, doubt, love and fear. A story, quoted by the editor as “really something special”, you’ll continue to contemplate long after the journey unfolds

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16. Willow Tree

Refreshed from a deep sleep, a question reverberated in Sophia’s mind as she mounted her stately horse Solitaire: Should I tell Anne? The subject plagued her as she trailed Michael and Anne through the underground tunnel. Several scenes replayed in her mind: the sight of Mephis shouting, “Sophia, Sophia, Sophia. You’re one of the last,” followed by Sister Mary placing the silver cross around her neck and telling her that she needed to go, leave the orphanage, and not return. Only as an afterthought had Mary asked her to take Anne. Then there was the dream in which Diniel had told her to find Jeremial of The Order of Esdras and made no mention of Anne. Finally, she recalled the scene when Mendel referred to Anne as The One’s companion and gave her the bracelet.

“Are you okay, Sophia?” Michael asked. “You are awfully quiet.”

“Yes,” she said, gazing towards Anne. “Just thinking.”

“Anything I can help you with?”

“No,” Sophia replied, shaking her head, pausing a moment before continuing. “I’m beginning to think some things are better left unsaid.”

“Indeed they are,” he agreed.

She switched her focus to Michael, straightened her posture and sat upright, stiff as a pole. “Why do you say that, Michael?”

“Sometimes knowledge can make us vulnerable or provide our enemies with information they may not have otherwise known.”

“Oh,” she said, her voice softened and shoulders relaxed as his words resonated with her own thoughts.

“I don’t like secrets,” Anne said. “I struggle to keep them.”

Truly, Sophia thought, recalling how on more than one occasion over the years Anne had almost let slip the time she had healed her broken leg. The most recent being with Mendel. One time, after she had fallen off a swing in the playground, her knees grazed, holding back tears with a brave smile, she had let slip, “At least you won't have to heal me this time, Sophia.” Sister Margaret overhearing had asked, “By what do you mean, Anne?” Before Anne could reply, Sophia interrupted, “Sometimes we play doctors and nurses,” which was enough to satisfy Sister Margaret’s incurable curiosity.

In the distance, the warm golden radiance of the early-morning sun peeked through the exit of the tunnel, growing brighter as they approached. Before leaving the passageway, they stopped and gazed in wonderment at the beauty of the landscape before them. Acres of multi-hued green pastures sparsely occupied with varied wildlife. Teams of horses in a plethora of colors grazed in harmony with the songbirds. The swallows fed on horse flies as rarely seen Cattle Egrets hunted insects stirred from their hiding in the grass. By the side of a slow-running creek, a herd of cows chewed on vibrant green grass. As Sophia left the tunnel she reckoned the change in scenery was like stepping into paradise. She had never seen, in person at least, anything as picturesque as the natural beauty around her. While the forest she frequented at the back of the orphanage was pleasing, there was an eerie sense of foreboding about it. Here, the immense openness gave a sense of freedom. She glanced behind her and saw that the exit to the tunnel had become virtually invisible, camouflaged by secluding oak trees.

Anne pointed to the cows. “Look! A manure factory!” She giggled. The sort of chuckle that causes others to laugh even if the joke is not funny.

“Now, Anne,” Sophia replied in a mock-stern tone that reminded her of Sister Catherine. She smiled, then turned to Michael and asked, “Where are we headed?”

“To see an old friend of Mendel’s who will aid us on our journey.” He gave Lancelot a tender kiss with his heels, encouraging the stallion to a canter. In a louder voice, over the sound of the horses’ hooves thumping the grassland, he shouted, “It’s a full day’s ride.”

Across the fields they raced, the stiff wind splaying the girls’ hair almost horizontal. A broad smile dawned on Sophia’s face, the sensation of the ride—magical. In some moments, when all four of Solitaire’s hooves left the ground, a breathtaking feeling of weightlessness, almost as if she was flying, swept through her body—thrilling.

A few hours later, in the shade of a copse of buoyant willow trees weeping beside a slow-running creek they dismounted. Sophia rubbed her bottom. “They should really make comfier saddles.”

“You’ll toughen up in time,” Michael replied as he scouted the scrub.

“What you looking for?” Sophia asked with a hint of curiosity.

“A piece of wood to make a weapon,” he said as he picked up a fallen branch as big around as his calf. “This will do.”

“What can we do?”

“Collect some dead branches for a fire.”

“Okay.”

Under the willow, Michael withdrew a knife from his haversack and carved the branch into an oblong, six inches in length and one inch thick, with rounded ends. By the time he finished the girls had collected an armload each of assorted branches. Dash, as helpful as ever, lugged a stick between her jaws, tail wagging with pride.

Sophia dropped the make-do firewood. “How are we going to start the fire?” Sophia asked.

“I have some flint in my haversack,” Michael said. He fetched it and within a few minutes had a healthy campfire going. Their morale lifted as the warmth from the golden flames touched their skin. “Can you keep this fire going, Sophia?” Michael asked as he rose.

Sophia nodded. “I sure can. Where are you going?”

“To hunt for some lunch.”

“Great,” Anne said. “I’m famished.”

“You’re always hungry, Anne,” Sophia replied, though her stomach agreed with Anne.

“Would you like to join me on the hunt, Anne?”

She leapt to her feet. “Sure would.”

Dash attempted to follow before Sophia called her back, tempting her by throwing a stick.

* * *

Anne and Michael shadowed the creek bed towards some low-lying grassy hills. “What are we hunting for?” she asked.

“Quiet now,” Michael whispered. “We are close.” Crouching, he continued forward, tenderly setting down each foot on the clayish creek bank. The soft dirt helped muffle his footsteps.

Anne gazed around trying to find what Michael was tracking. Then, in the distance, she spotted two large grey furry ears poking up in the grass. “There’s a rabbit!” she shouted.

Michael laughed as the rabbit ran away. “Yes, Anne,” he said, shaking his head. “That is what we are hunting.”

“Oh.” Her face turned a pale shade of red. “I think I scared it.”

“Likely,” he said, smiling. “No matter. We will find another.” Before long, Michael sighted another pair of ears protruding above the long grass. He readied his aim and then with all his might launched the makeshift weapon. The chunk of wood spun through the air before clipping the tips of the rabbit’s ears. “Missed,” he whispered, screwing up his nose as the rabbit scuttled away.

“Can I have a go?” Anne asked.

Michael cut his eyes around, shrugged. “Can you throw?”

“I sure can. I’m darned good with rocks.”

“Okay, then.” He passed the weapon to Anne. “Give it your best shot.”

Together they moved stealthily through the scrub, hunting for another target.

* * *

With a thin branch, Sophia stoked the fire and watched the small golden sparks take their brief flight, like dancing fireflies, before extinguishing. Dash, panting from fetching sticks, rested by her side. Ten throws and returns seemed about enough for her. After the last throw, Dash hesitated, then instead of running, walked to the stick and returned with the branch in her jaw as if to say “enough.” Sophia rummaged through her haversack, withdrew The Order of Esdras and flipped through the pages. Her eyes widened as she came to a new story.

* * *

1862 The Nursery

Cold, wet, hungry, rain pelting his black trench coat, Jack trudged up the street one labored step after the other. The broad brim of his hat served as a gutter to pool the rain before releasing it to cascade over the side. He did not care. His mood was bleak after Mephis tore him apart over his failure. The newspaper headline, ‘Miracle baby survives after father and mother die’ told Mephis everything he needed to know. He did not even bother to read the story. Instead, Mephis used the paper, after rolling it up like a baton, to beat Jack until he crumpled to the floor writhing in pain. Then he threw the rolled-up paper at Jack and said two commanding words: “Fix it.”

At such times Jack pondered why he even wanted to extend his miserable existence. A painting by Michelangelo he had once seen in the Sistine Chapel during a trip to Italy was seared in his memory The Last Judgement. The scene depicted in the fresco created within him a sense of profound dread. The image of naked people being cast off a boat in fear only to end up in the grip of a snake haunted him. He feared death. His motivation was to keep the grim reaper who he sensed stalked his shadow at arm’s length.

While wiping his shoes on the straw mattress outside St Thomas Hospital’s main entrance, Jack swept the rain off the front and sleeves of his coat. He removed his hat, gave it a quick flick, sending a wash of water to the ground. He gazed at the broad rim, allowing his vision to blur while thinking of the past. A decade had passed since the last time he had entered a hospital. Only the last time he was an acting highly-skilled senior surgeon who was there to save lives not take them. He placed the hat back on his head, turned it slightly left and right until he found the comfortable sweet spot. He opened his coat to expose his doctor’s garb underneath, along with a stethoscope dangling around his neck, and passed through the entrance.

Inside, he tipped his hat to the nurse behind the reception desk who acknowledged his presence with a smile. The cursory greeting assured him that the hospital staff did not personally know all the resident doctors on duty. He scanned the signs on the wall and located the one pointing to the maternity ward. His failed attempt two weeks earlier had brought him here to the very hallway he was now pacing towards the nursery. A single nurse on duty who was busy working at a desk was all that stood between him and a room full of baby cots. Jack glanced at the round dial of the fusee clock on the wall: 4:55 a.m. On time, he thought, the pre-dawn hush prior to breakfast. He had planned it this way so all he would have to contend with was a skeleton shift.

His eyes were fixated momentarily on the second hand of the clock, hypnotized by how the thin needle jerked with each passing instant, knowing that with each quiver he was one tick closer to death. He shook his head to clear his mind and then moved out of sight. Jack opened his black leather doctor’s bag and retrieved a white cloth pre-laced with chloroform. He took a few silent steps to move into position. He placed one arm around the nurse’s waist and pressed the other over her nose and mouth and let the chloroform do its work. A little struggle, a few muffled screams, and then she went limp. He released his grip, allowing the body to slip from his grasp to the shadows under the desk. She would awaken in due time. No need to kill her. He needed only to do what he had to. I am not a monster.

* * *

Sophia glanced away from the text and took a few deep breaths to help calm her restless stomach. The thought of Jack, her parents’ murderer, being so close to her when she was a baby filled her with an urge to scream. Calmer, she continued reading, her curiosity getting the best of her anxiety.

* * *

Four sleeping babies now an arm’s length away, he smiled, not at the little ones’ peaceful beauty as a proud father would do but at his sense of imminent accomplishment. The news report had provided him with the names of his prey, Anne and Sophia. Mephis, in his haste, had presumed there was only one baby. Jack had avoided correcting him for fear of further punishment. On the end of each cot he read: Richard, James, Sophia, Sarah. No Anne. Surely they haven’t separated them, Jack thought. His eyes narrowed as he reread the nametags. He returned to the nurse’s desk and searched the drawer for the birth reports file. He scanned down the page until he found what he was looking for:

Sophia – In nursery awaiting adoption.

Anne – In the temporary custody of Nurse Angela who will proceed to adopt if no relative is found.

Angela. He cursed silently on the way back inside the nursery. On seeing the sleeping child Sophia, Jack was unable to quench a stirring sense of admiration. So beautiful. So peaceful. He longed to feel the peace he saw in Sophia’s tranquil state. With gentle hands he lifted the infant swaddled in a woolen blanket from her cot. A fatherly instinct urged him to protect the defenseless child. Scared the sensation would manifest, he hastily placed her in a wicker carry basket. She stirred a little. Outside the nursery, he searched for the closest emergency exit. A short walk past a few nurses too busy with their chores to notice him passing by with the basketed baby in hand, he came to a one-way exit typically used only as a fire escape. A quick look around showed no one in sight. He made his departure.

The rain had given way to light snow. Jack stuck to the dark alleys and lonesome backstreets on his way to the place where he planned to dispose Sophia. He could not bring himself to kill an innocent child directly. Therefore, he devised a plan to prevent the harassment of his conscience. When he arrived at his destination, he began to execute that plan. Under the shelter of a wooden bridge that crossed a narrow stretch of river, he held the basket over the water. All I have to do is set her afloat. As it drifts downstream, the basket will take on water and slowly sink, and the icy waters will claim her. Easy enough. But it wasn’t. His hands started to tremble, as the image of the child asleep in such a peaceful state stabbed deep into his core. She is sinless. He fought with his conscience, attempting to justify his task. Her or me. The selfish reason he had used to legitimize the killing of the child’s mother did not convince him. The doctor in him, the one who had sworn a sacred oath and used to save lives instead of destroy them, was winning this debate. He propped himself up against the wingwall of the bridge and set the basket on the ground beside him.

After several minutes of contemplation, he formulated a new plan. He knew of an orphanage not far away, Saint Juliana of Pavilly Orphanage. Daylight breaking, he made haste. On approach to the orphanage, careful not to leave a trail, he stepped only in places the snow had spared. He set the child on the front doorstep, rapped loudly on the wood, and then quickly retreated out of sight and waited, before leaving, to ensure someone came to the door.

Mephis needn’t know,” he mumbled as he made the long, tiresome journey back to his Whitechapel home. “How would he ever know if she lived or died?”

* * *

“He couldn’t do it,” Sophia murmured, taking a break from reading. “He couldn’t bear to kill me.” After a moment of contemplation, she resumed reading.

* * *

“Sophia’s gone,” Angela told Dr. Gregory. “We have found no trace of her, doctor. Should we call the police?”

“I’m not sure what we would tell them.” Dr. Gregory rubbed his chin. “Sophia needed a home. Let’s hope whoever took her provides her with one. The authorities have been looking for a reason to shut this hospital down. If we involve the police, this incident may give them just the excuse they need to do so.”

Angela nodded. “If it’s okay with you, Doctor, I’ll do my own private searching.”

“By all means, Angela. But, please, be careful. We wouldn’t want you to put yourself in harm’s way or get into any kind of trouble.”

Four years later, Angela received a letter under the door of her home on a dark, rainy night with instructions on where to meet for information about Sophia. The letter was signed “Jack.”

* * *

The text ended. Sophia closed the The Order Of Esdras and then reopened to where she had left off. As expected, the pages were blank. She sighed. How does this help me? Why is the book telling me these things? And how?

“We’re back,” Anne said, holding a rabbit by the ears. “Look what I caught.”

Sophia’s voice raised in pitch simultaneously with her eyebrows, said, “You?

Michael took the rabbit from Anne. “She has quite a throwing arm.”

Sophia nodded, thinking back to the incident with the Bobbies in town. “That she does.”

Michael took out his knife and began preparing their lunch.

“That’s gross,” Anne said, watching Michael skin the rabbit.

“Gross, yes,” Sophia said, “but it will make quite the meal.”

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