‘Claudette, it’s lesson time! Come on, now.’
I stifled my laughter and tucked my toes in. Miss Lucy would never find me here but if she did, I would be in trouble.
Father’s study had bookshelves for walls and marble heads on stands that looked real but were cold and hard. Opposite the desk I hid under, was a book stand with a leather-bound book the height of my torso. Father’s fireplace was the biggest and grandest in the whole house, guarded by an arc of mosaic cherubs with wheaten hair and sweet smiles. I caught the eye of one and put a finger to my lips.
‘Claudette!’ Miss Lucy’s call met the air with silence and her heels clicked dully on the rug as she descended the corridor.
Unfolding my legs, I induced a cloud of dust. I held my nose so I wouldn’t give myself away by sneezing and slowly exhaled. Miss Lucy would be back once she had checked the garden. Silly Miss Lucy. Her lessons were boring and I didn’t need a governess anyway. I knew lots of things already and the library or my parents could teach me everything else I needed to know. Besides, Miss Lucy was so boring when she read aloud. She was peppy and inspiring until she opened the Latin Proverbs. Her tone dropped three octaves and took on the fluctuation of the chapel’s one-thousand-year-old Sunday preacher.
Latin proverbs could wait. Miss Lucy would continue her search until I suddenly appeared in the upstairs room, claiming I had been waiting for her.
Dusting my skirts with the vigor of a servant plumping pillows, I rose and approached the book on the stand. The title was embossed on the cover in gold lettering. ‘Grimorium’. The suffix was Latin but it wasn’t a word covered in the Proverbs as far as I knew.
I opened it to a random page. The spine bent easily but the paper was perfectly crisp with not a single corner frayed or folded. At the top of the page was a title in extravagant calligraphy: ‘Resilio’. It meant ‘to reduce’.
‘Non alta giant,’ I stammered quietly, ‘Parva et minima quasi mus.’ Something about a small mouse. Father’s books were weird. ‘Resilio deorsum.’ I stopped there. Boring.
A thud resounded against the floorboards. I spun around. The room was empty, except for myself and the furniture. What was that noise? It sounded like something had fallen. I rubbed a thumb to my suddenly throbbing temple. Miss Lucy hadn’t been gone for long. I had time to sit down for just a moment.
Father had a green leather armchair with polished mahogany-wood legs. It creaked as I lowered myself into it and the strong smell of tobacco wafted through the air. When I was little, I used to bury my face in Father’s shoulder and inhale that smell, now for some reason it fogged my mind and made my limbs weigh like lead and feel like jelly at the same time. The desk – which was overflowing with books, parchment documents and Father’s fountain pen collection – started growing. It grew from a piece of normal-sized furniture, to an obstacle larger than I imagined Mont Blanc seemed to the Frenchmen who climbed it in 1786. Michel-Gabriel Paccard and… someone else.
Something was happening to me, something so strange that I couldn’t sanely comprehend it. I held my hands in front of my face and inspected them. They were still normal size. It was everything else that wasn’t. The desk was gargantuan. Father’s green armchair stretched as high as Virgin Mary’s statue in the chapel which was about four times my height.
My face grew long and the blood drained from it. Everything was giant and I was comparably small. Either I had fallen asleep listening to Miss Lucy’s Latin proverbs or ‘Grimorium’ was a very dangerous book.
I hadn’t finished reading the page. There might have been a warning beneath it or some sort of reversal spell – what was this if not magic? How silly I was. Father had taught me better.
Because the book was so massive, the lettering was also large. Perhaps if I could climb onto the desk, I could read it? My hands trembled. This nightmare will be over soon, I reassured myself.
The only way to reach the desk was by walking along the left arm of the chair and taking a leap. Being naturally right handed had never caused me so much anxiety as I propelled myself onto the chair arm and looped my leg over it. I made the mistake of looking down. The floor was devastatingly far. I wanted to burn ‘Grimorium’.
Inhaling and exhaling deeply, I crawled the length of the arm. Now I was nearer the desk, the leap looked a lot scarier. I adjusted into a crouching position. Just jump.
Jacques Balmat. That was the name of the other Frenchmen who climbed Mont Blanc. He did it. He kept his eyes focused on his destination. He didn’t look down, he just went for it.
One moment I was flailing in the air like an insect brushed suddenly off the window pane, the next my knees skidded against the hard but reassuring surface of Father’s desk.
‘Agh!’ My right hand landed in an undried inkblot. It spread out through the lines of my palm like blood chasing veins. I smeared it on a clear corner of paper but the damage had been done. It would stain and Mother would scold me at suppertime.
The ‘Grimorium’ was in sight. I could see the words already and formed their pronunciations in my mind. Butterflies beat my chest with their anxious wings.
‘Claudette!’ Miss Lucy’s weary voice rang out with a note of frustration. I’d left her a lot longer than I’d intended.
‘Ego non parvum.’ I am not small! ‘Longus et fortis sum.’ I am strong and tall!
‘What do you think you’re doing here?’ Father appeared in the doorway, cane in hand, boots perfectly polished and dress coat immaculately pressed as always. His moustache curved downwards with his lips.
I clasped my hands behind my back to hide the ink stain and hung my head shamefully. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll never, ever come in here again. I promise.’
Wholeheartedly, I meant it.
His eyes darted from the open book on the stand to my face, back to the book stand and finally settled on me. He rapped his cane and Miss Lucy materialised in his shadow, lips pinched and wisps of red hair escaping her bonnet.
‘Miss Lucy,’ he addressed her.
‘Unbeknownst to you it seems, Claudette has been playing hide and seek,’ he spoke to Miss Lucy but surveyed me with his gaze.
‘This area is forbidden.’ He lowered his chin to his chest.
My vision blurred with tears, transforming the room into a prism of colour. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘You will return to the library,’ he instructed, tone softening, ‘and practise Latin declensions.’
‘Yes’sir,’ agreed Miss Lucy with a stiff nod.
‘Not with your pocket book of Latin proverbs.’
‘No, sir?’ She arched her eyebrows.
‘Take the book on that stand there. It is time Claudette learned something of the real world now that she’s nearly eleven years of age.’
My heart thumped in my chest.
‘I…’ Miss Lucy began, eyes widening. She stroked the front of her pinafore sensibly. ‘Yes’sir.’
Deborah Rose Green is Contributing Editor for Hey Young Writer! She is also the author of Dragon Pearls (2019) and Crown My Heart (2020). You can follow her on Instagram at @authordeborahrose or visit her website, deborahrosegreen.co.uk!