Events came to an acerbic head early the morning of her Presentation Day
A Short Story by Gale Peterson
Never in all the flighty world of Muse has the rich and powerful Haste family earned more criticism and distrust than with the strange practice of devouring lemons; peeled yellow skins, curled dry in mini-mounds adding their tangy scent to the air which flowed through the stylish corridors of Haste House.
The orchard of knarled trunks with glossy-green crowns produced the sour fruit in abundance. Year after year, protected by the high walls and fed by seepage from the household spring, the home-cooked food of Haste House was dominated by the taste and smell of lemon. So much so, that the residents and servants of Haste House had lost their sensitivity, claiming the fruit had become colorless and bland. The rest of the town called it, “Going sour.”
Events came to an acerbic head early the morning of June 21st on the once in a lifetime Presentation Day, created to announce the birthday and adulthood of young Topaz Mayhew-Haste, thereby throwing Haste House, and most of the town, into a chaos of preparations. Master Hector Haste left Mistress Mayhew-Haste in charge, for Master Haste never involved himself in the day-to-day details of managing the massive household. He had a booming business in lemon wine, lemon tarts, and a new undertaking that scared the townspeople to death. Master Haste wanted to revitalize the streets and roads with a lemon tree planted in the front of every business and home.
Preparations were well underway in the children’s wing, as ebony colored curls, held in check by silvered-combs, preceded the exquisite young face emerging from the lace-edged collar of the presentation gown, held by her two elderly, personal servants. “Hold it still, Manderlee. You’re trembling so much, I can’t find the sleeve.”
“Sorry Miss. There, now you’ve found it,” Manderlee encouraged, as the thirteen-year-old’s hand slipped through the heavily ruffled cuff.
“Miss Topaz, you are a glorious sight!” Sanderlee exclaimed proudly using her sister servant’s arm for support to kneel down and rearrange the over-lapping layers of rainbow colored lace. “With the heels of her new shoes, It will be just the right length,” Sanderlee said happily.
Whirling around the room with little squeals of delight, Topaz paused only long enough to hug her devoted servants, wrapping the voluminous sleeves around them--an excited crush of pale pink, yellow, blue, and violet.
“It’s perfect! I almost feel grown up.”
“That’ll come soon enough, Miss,” Manderlee said with a touch of sadness.
Sanderlee, struggling back to her feet said, “Now that we know it fits, we have to call your mother to approve the gown.”
The smile faded, and Topaz walked to stand in the bright sunlight flooding through the tall windows. The colors of the rainbow gown shimmered. “Let’s get it over with” she said gloomily. “I’ll wait right here. Without the shoes, I know she’ll hate it.”
“The shoemaker will deliver this afternoon,” Manderlee said.
“It will be all right, Miss Topaz!” Sanderlee comforted.
Manderlee and Sanderlee bustled out of the bedroom, waiting until the door was closed to whisper excitedly to each other.
“She’s going to be all right, I’m sure of it!” Manderlee said.
“But did you see how her spirit died when we said we had to call her mother?”
“Sanderlee, you worry too much. The girl will be fine. She knows how to deal with the Mistress.”
“I hope you’re right. I’d hate to see that beautiful child beaten down like everyone else in this miserable household,” Sanderlee muttered as they stirred lemon-scented air hurrying down the polished marble hallway toward the private rooms of the Mistress of Haste House.
Far across town the preparations for Presentation Day were also underway.
Unfortunately, a touch of forgetfulness resulted in the disintegration of Madame Toutou’s kitchen when a slurpy, bubbling mass overcame the edges of the large cast-iron caldron, spilling onto the stove top and down the white-enamel front to spread in a great, simmering pool that covered half of the kitchen floor.
Happily pruning her roses in the lower garden, Madame Toutou clipped and hummed to herself, content that her small corner of the world was totally under control and nearly perfect, since they’d sent a request from Haste House for an extra large batch of her Candied Carrot Glaze to frost the presentation cake for Miss Topaz Mayhew-Haste.
Her faded-yellow gardening shoes were nearly halfway across the kitchen before the quickly congealing goop on the floor seized them with a firm, sticky grip. Looking down, Madame Toutou was horrified to see that the pot of Candied Carrot Glaze had transformed her immaculate kitchen floor into something resembling a giant version of flypaper, and she was the one caught in the trap. The caldron on the stove was still bubbling itself into a smoldering burn with little wisps of smoke beginning to show around the edges. The smell wafting across the room reminded the distraught homemaker of something that the wallpaper hanger would produce when he boiled water-buffalo hides to make his glue paste.
The pitiful cries of Madame Toutou finally attracted the attention of Old Moss, the shoemaker, on his way to deliver the new shoes for Miss Mayhew-Haste. Heroically he rushed into the evil-smelling kitchen.
“Oh thank goodness!” Madame Toutou exclaimed. “You’ve got to turn off the stove!”
Old Moss, seeing the smoking pot, did not hesitate. His momentum carried him close enough to reach the valve, and he had the offending burner turned off before he realized that his feet had been totally immobilized by the sticky goo that covered the floor. The package he held under one arm slipped from his grasp, and the carefully folded tissue paper burst open, spilling the delicate, iridescent shoes with just the perfect heel, out onto the Candied Carrot Glaze.
“Oh no!” Old Moss wailed, as he watched the best footwear he had ever made, settle into the viscous jelly.
And there they stood for quite some time; while at Haste House, the Mistress raged about the missing shoes, and the horrible fact that the beautiful rainbow gown dragged just a bit on the floor. The kitchen staff avoided telling her that the magnificent, eight-tiered cake could not be frosted due to a missing delivery of Candied Carrot Glaze. In desperation the cooks poured some thickened lemon sauce over it and decorated it with scallops of lemon slices joined by curled rinds. “Maybe she won’t notice,” they hoped against hope as they finished setting the serving tables.
Master Hector Haste returned home late in the afternoon after spending the day meeting with his less-than-enthusiastic staff. Their sales of lemon tarts appeared to be threatened by something called Apple Turnovers. One of the workers called the tarts “Pucker Biscuits,” which left him in a dark mood, only to turn blacker when young Topaz met him in the entrance hall.
Through snuffling tears, she managed to sob out, “Look at my feet!” The rainbow lace lifted to show large, sturdy, flat-bottomed yellow sandals. “Everything’s ruined! I might as well go barefoot!”
Unable to understand the significance of new shoes with heels, Hector sent his daughter to her room. “And not one more tear, do you understand me! We’re doing this to please your mother! Just get on with it!”
And when he asked for his wife, Manderlee announced, “The Mistress has locked herself in her room and will not be coming out until time for the ceremony.”
“Now what’s wrong?” roared Master Haste, knowing it was only going to get worse.
“You’ll have to ask the cooks,” Manderlee said, hurrying up the marble stairs after the whimpering rainbow. “It’s something about a great sacrifice she wanted to make to pacify the town folk’s aversion to lemons…that now is not going to happen!”
One hour later the townspeople in their best suits and long dresses gathered in the elegant ballroom to nibble on lemon cake, carefully avoiding the mouth-curdling sauce, while sipping lemon wine or, for a few brave souls, the extra foamy lemon beer. The presentation ceremony went off perfectly. A prayer was read, the small orchestra bravely played the Presentation March, and a rather serious, but extremely attractive, thirteen-year-old, Topaz Mayhew-Haste, made the traditional walk into adulthood.
The shocker came when Topaz reached the halfway point in the center of the checkered marble dance floor. Twirling around, she lifted her rainbow-tiered lace to reveal bare feet. The hateful look the young girl shot at her stone-faced mother, followed by the brilliant smile she flashed upon the onlookers, became the talk of the town for weeks to follow. “Barefoot and mad as a sour lemon,” they whispered, “but the girl has promise!”
They didn’t find the missing Madame Toutou and Old Moss until the next morning. After spending most of the day and all night together, it seemed that they had become quite enamored of one another other. They announced their engagement less than two weeks later.
The servants of Haste House secretly rejoiced in the surprising independence expressed by the young heiress on her Presentation Day. To honor Madame Toutou’s unknowing contribution, Topaz Mayhew-Haste clandestinely planted an entire bed of carrots under the last row of lemon trees in the Haste family orchard.