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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Unsuitable

A Novel

Molly Pohlig

Henry Holt and Co.



you killed me, remember that.

yes, i remember. i remember.

you don’t remember me.

i may not remember you, but i cannot forget you. i poke my finger a little further underneath the scab and the pain radiates like the heel of your palm pressed against your closed eyelid, all starbursts and twinkles. i am dead i am dying i am dying you are dead. it throbs and pulses and my arm twitches three times and then falls still.

* * *

The way Iseult moved, it was like she was defusing a bomb all day long. If you are defusing a bomb or, say, building a house of cards that for some reason your life depends upon, you will move slowly and carefully. Every move measured. She moved to make herself seen, but only because a disaster could be imminent, and everyone needs to be accounted for in a disaster. The skin on her forehead was so paper thin that you could see the messages her brain sent to her body: Take a step with your right leg. Now the left. And the right again. Brush that lock of hair off your cheek. Smile. Stop smiling.

It was the way she moved that caught your eye, in the beginning. Each foot lifted too high and set down too precisely, and you would be forgiven for looking above her head to see whether she had strings, or peeking around her back expecting a rotating handle. The next thing you would notice would be the folds of black crepe that constituted her mourning dress, so voluminous that you wondered how many people had died to inspire such a display of lamentation. Had a fire turned her extended family to ash? Had they been poisoned by a vengeful maid? You were not to know that her clothing was merely the work of an overzealous aunt and her slavish seamstress, who drowned the poor girl’s frame in enough yards of dyed muslin to clothe the inmates of a small orphanage. And as for deaths, there was only one, years ago. One. And it resulted in all of this. The clothes, and everything that came before, and after. Just the one.

The clothes held her secrets close. She could fold her bitter hands, fingers flapping like hummingbird wings, underneath the mountain of fabric. Her sole request as far as style went had been pockets, and her aunt had noted, pleased, that when they were filled they produced the illusion of a feminine silhouette. She did not like to be touched, and lived in fear that her pocket collections would be discovered. But she lived in fear anyway. If you listened closely, you would hear a mild disturbance, the slightest jangle, as she passed by, but it was so muffled by the fabric that you reasoned you were hearing things.

The lace collar crawled to the top of her throat, and the fierce edges worked hard to press their way through the pale flesh of her pointed jaw. She strained to push her head above it, her too-tight sleeves pushed past her wrists, making her arms seem even longer than they were as her hands tried to escape the lace cuffs.

She has walked through the park all day, and if anyone had asked what she had seen she would have responded as though her tongue had been recently cut out, and she hadn’t yet figured out how to communicate this new change. But no one asked. She mounted the wide slippery stairs of her front steps as usual: One foot, two feet. One foot, two feet. One foot, two. Every movement programmed to undo the hex a little more. But the hex always came back, so it was less of an undoing and more a holding back of the tide. She lifted the brass door knocker, oiled into smug silence, and let it drop. That’s how they would know it was her, by a bang followed by its echo, smaller and smaller.

* * *

get us out of the wind, iseult. we are likely to be blown away.

we won’t blow away, mother, we would need much more wind for a thing such as that to happen wish as we might.

but your skirts iseult we could use them as a sail. you can be the ship and i will be the captain and we will sail away to where we are wanted where we make sense.

and where is that, mother?

* * *

There is no answer.

Even now she forgets her mother does not like questions. Or answers.

* * *

“Oh, there you are, dear, and bless me if you aren’t chilled to the very bone.” Mrs. Pennington always answered the door to Iseult in precisely the same way; it was a routine that was comforting to both of them. Naturally the phrasing depended on the season—“chilled to the bone / damp as a rag / wilted like a flower”—but the sentiment never varied. You poor poor lamb, poor dear poor darling. Poor motherless nobody, poor changeling with no one to look after you.

Not that Mrs. Pennington didn’t look after Iseult Wince as best she could, but Mrs. Pennington, after all, was someone else’s mother. She did the best she could.

As Iseult was coming in, her aunt Catherine was coming out. She kissed Iseult’s cheek, her face powder wafting its familiar cloying scent through the air. “Hello, dear girl, don’t you look well!”

Aunt Catherine shot Mrs. Pennington a very obvious and meaningful look and said, “You’ll remember what we discussed?”

Iseult’s heart shriveled, because she knew where those conversations led. Mrs. Pennington nodded brightly as Aunt Catherine made her way out the door. Iseult got another smothering perfumed kiss and the tiny storm was over.

Mrs. Pennington gave the heavy door a good slam, which she hoped Iseult’s father could hear from wherever he was in the house, and recognize it as a sign of her contempt for letting his daughter wander the city unchaperoned. She had been slamming the front door thus for nearly twenty years, and had never been gratified with the slightest hint that Mr. Wince took any notice.

“Now now now,” Mrs. Pennington said as she drew a woolen blanket—one of many such blankets kept in a cupboard under the stairs—around Iseult’s icy shoulders. When Iseult was younger and Mrs. Pennington let her in from her ramblings, she would shut herself into the small cupboard with the blankets and Mrs. Pennington would bring her a mug of hot milk and sugar. But it had been years since Iseult’s body could be folded into the cramped space, and these days she took her hot milk and sugar in her room. Mrs. Pennington kept up a steady hum of chatter as they slowly climbed the stairs. Iseult looked through the large window on the landing at the gray outside.

* * *

i wonder if that would be high enough.

high enough for what?

you know i know you know what.

you can tell me iseult please i don’t know.

to fall and not get up again. to see myself on the ground there outside the window, broken with you gone.

i will never leave you iseult, my little girl, never never. you can’t kill yourself and get away from me. i am tied to you in you around you you you you.

i know mother. i was just wondering if it might be high enough. i think now maybe it isn’t.

* * *

“Come on, my love, there’s no need to drag those dainty little feet!” Mrs. Pennington was a great believer in the contagion of jollity, and Iseult knew it was pointless to resist. Her eyes remained flat, but as she was hustled upstairs, Iseult pasted a very good impression of a smile on her lips. She didn’t feel like talking, she never felt like talking, but she knew how it pleased Mrs. Pennington when she put forth a little effort.

“And what are we having for supper?” Iseult said as Mrs. Pennington fussed her into the pale blue chair by the window. Mrs. Pennington’s eyes were as round and shiny as what would certainly be solid, dependable brown buttons.

“Pheasant, dear. Now, now,” she said before Iseult could interrupt, “I know it’s not your favorite but you’re going to be a good girl and eat it tonight because your father has invited that family, remember? Those … that family. That he wanted you to meet.” Mrs. Pennington, running up against what was known in the Wince household as “a subject,” quickly changed tack and began to fret at the armchair. “I keep saying we ought to move this beautiful thing out of the sunlight, the color has simply spoiled, and your mother loved it so.”

Mrs. Pennington was famous for dodging one subject only to run headlong into another. “We shall leave it where it is,” Iseult said mechanically. “It is where it needs to be, Mother says.”

“Yes of course, my dear.” Mrs. Pennington moved her fretting over to the tea tray on the desk and fretted it right over to the low table next to the chair. Iseult at once regretted mentioning her mother, as the tray was as carefully arranged as ever, with the steaming mug of milk, the silver bowl of crumbly sugar cubes, the spoon polished to a high shine, the lace-edged napkin that Iseult never touched, and the porcelain vase, delicate as a baby’s fingernail, with the tiniest spray of flowers. Mrs. Pennington’s customary reaction to Iseult’s bad behavior was to love her even more. Iseult attempted to wind her way back in time.

“Who did you say was coming, Mrs. Pennington? Who is so important that I will be required to eat pheasant?” Her voice was calm and sweet, but her hand was creeping up to her shoulder, a quiet spider, stealthy but slow.

“The Finches, my dear,” Mrs. Pennington said brightly, while firmly taking Iseult’s hand and wrapping it around the mug of milk instead. The contrast between the two women’s hands was marked, and confusing. Mrs. Pennington had the plump soft hands of an idler with never a chore more pressing than turning the pages of her light poetry, while Iseult’s wouldn’t have looked out of place on the lowest scullery maid, chafed and cracked with blood waiting just below the surface if required. “You recall your father speaking of them, I’m sure. Distant, very distant cousins, I believe. Down from Manchester.”

Iseult gripped the mug, her nibbled fingernails turning white in their red beds. “Yes, I recall. The ones with the son.”

Mrs. Pennington tried to smooth Iseult’s hair as the girl stiffened, then held herself in very close, shrinking from the mothering hand. Mrs. Pennington straightened as much as a woman of her diminutive height reasonably could, and exhaled all sorts of frustration through her nose. “Surely you’ve noticed by now, Iseult. They’ve all got sons!”

She rustled out of the room in a huff, calling over her stout shoulder, “I’ll be back in one hour, Miss Iseult, and I expect no talk of mothers, or sons, or pheasants, and keep your hands off that neck of yours for pity’s sake!”

Iseult moved her hand off her neck and back to her mug.

Copyright © 2020 by Molly Pohlig