When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home. Married her to Cousin Kenneth, that is. Tessie, draped in one of her father’s law robes cinched with an incongruous red ribbon, played the priest. Faffy the snaphound was the flower girl (Tessie had cleverly given him a bouquet of snapdragons). It was past midsummer, and the plum tree was dropping fruit onto the bricked walkways, little plummy bombs that fermented in the sun and got the bees drunk. They buzzed in slow orbits, the worst sort of wedding guest, and terrified the groom. Tessie led the wedding party to the bee-free apex of the garden, where the green-man fountain, forever choking on leaves, glugged and fussed and spit water at intervals. Father Tessie—she was a clergyman, after all—clambered onto the low fountain wall and turned toward the happy couple, wrestling her expression into solemnity as she leafed through the weighty tome she carried, just like the priest at Aunt Jenny’s wedding the week before. Unlike the priest at St. Munn’s, Father Tessie’s book was not the Compendium of Rites but The Adventures of the Porphyrian Pirate Dozerius and His Valorous Crew, Vol. 1. She flipped pages until the story “Dozerius and the Gargantuan Hedgehog of Balbolia” lay open before her, and then she said, “Let us pray.” Faffy shook his bouquet like it was a squirrel. Petals flew everywhere. Jeanne bowed her golden head, crowned with white carnations and pink mother-may-I.
She clutched a bunch of yellow daylilies to the bodice of her nicest gown, the pale blue velvet with silver buttons that she’d worn to Aunt Jenny’s wedding. (Tessie, dark-haired, had worn the same dress in green, and then torn the skirt climbing the wisteria trellis at Count Julian’s, exactly as she’d been told a thousand times not to do.) Kenneth, who hadn’t been warned beforehand that he was getting married today, had been hastily clad in one of Papa’s more festive doublets, a wine-colored silk; he was nine, and bigger than the twins, but still it hung to his knees. Docile as a cow, he’d let Tessie festoon his strawberry curls with sprigs of baby’s breath, which made him look rather like he’d crawled in from under a shrub. “Bow your head, Kenneth,” Tessie stage-whispered to her cousin, who was gaping into space. “And you’re supposed to hold her hand.” “I don’t wanna hold her hand,” said Kenneth, wrinkling his freckled pug nose. He was usually so biddable that this resistance took Tessie by surprise. “You have to,” she scolded. “The ceremony doesn’t work without it.
” Kenneth rolled his eyes and grabbed Jeanne’s hand in one of his grubby paws. Jeanne flushed pink, which Tessie chose to interpret as happiness and not embarrassment. These two were less enthusiastic about getting married than she’d anticipated. This boded ill for her grand experiment unless she could turn things around. She flipped a page and plowed ahead with the service, administering their vows. They mumbled their answers, but Tessie had a fierce capacity for wishful thinking and decided Heaven could hear them even if she could not. At last she uttered the final blessing, words of celestial power she’d memorized during Aunt Jenny’s service: “By the authority entrusted to me by Heaven and Allsaints, let these two be joined in marriage. Let two hearts be as one heart, two lives as one life. What Heaven joins together, no earthly power may rend asunder. Blessed be every enterprise undertaken together and”—here was the important point, Tessie’s entire purpose—“fruitful be thine issue.
Under the eye of Heaven, so let it be.” Tessie beamed down upon her sister and cousin. They stared back, eyes enormous, as if they’d gleaned what she was about. Issue was code for babies, and Tessie, forever curious, was relying upon Kenneth and Jeanne for proof. Mama had given birth two months before, and Tessie had been immoderately obsessed with how this had come to pass. The only hint Mama would give her had been the cryptic statement “You can’t have a baby unless you’re married.” Tessie had pondered these weighty words upon a block of ice in the cold store, sore from the spanking she’d also received. She couldn’t make it add up. If babies came from inside your body (and Mama’s belly, now diminished, was evidence of this), how did your body know that you were married? If Tess pretended she was married hard enough, could she fool herself into having a baby? She had pretended very hard; indeed, no one could pretend like Tess. When she rose in the morning, she’d said, “Ah, how blessed am I to face another lovely day of being married!” She’d served imaginary dinner and scoldings to her imaginary husband, and said, “Good night, you old prune,” to him every night as she drifted off to sleep.
It all came to naught, though. Her belly didn’t swell, and she eventually grew weary of her imagined spouse—he was such a trial to her, Saints give her patience. Unlike her mother, Tess could abandon the old prune whenever she wished and return to her first love, piracy. That’s exactly what she did. However, Aunt Jenny’s wedding had rekindled her interest in the mystical origins of babies. There were clues embedded in the service itself, hints of what had been missing from her original experiment. First was the priest’s blessing, “fruitful be thine issue.” Maybe the Saints needed to be given fair warning that someone was ready for babies now. Second was what had come after the wedding, the so-called wedding night. She understood this only hazily.
Aunt Jenny and newly minted Uncle Malagrigio (a Ninysh wine merchant) had gone off to some specially decorated bedchamber while the Belgioso cousins, aunts, and uncles laughed and winked, calling out bad advice and giving them lusty slaps on their backsides as they went upstairs. Mama hadn’t participated in the merriment but had turned pale and pinched-looking and gone off to nurse baby Nedward in a quiet corner downstairs. Tessie and Jeanne had exchanged a quick look that meant, Mama’s sad, whose turn is it? It had been Tessie’s turn, to her regret. Her great-grandfather Count Julian had just ordered another round of desserts to be brought out; she was going to miss the marchpane. Tessie dutifully sat by Mama, ready to absorb whatever pain her mother radiated. Mama patted her head absently, as if Tess were her faithful dog, and muttered in Ninysh to Great-Aunt Elise on her other side: “Of course I’m happy. I’m happy I don’t have to worry about my little sister anymore, or how we’d cope if she bore a bastard.” “You’re so sour we could pickle beets in you,” Aunt Elise muttered back. “What do you want, Samsamese-style scrutiny, flying the bloody sheets in the breeze like a flag of victory?” Tessie’s ears pricked up at “bloody sheets.” That sounded piratical.
“What I want,” said Mama, her voice sharp and hurt, “is accountability. I want the wicked punished for their sins. Is that too much to ask?” And then she had appeared, like a spirit summoned to Mama’s anger: Seraphina, Tessie’s half sister. She slouched into the room, sullenly picking at her dessert plate. She always looked bored at Belgioso gatherings. They weren’t her family, after all; Seraphina had a different mother, a terrible dragon mother. Tessie and Jeanne had found out at midwinter and weren’t allowed to tell anyone, which was a misery. That first marriage was Papa’s unpunished sin, Tessie knew. Seraphina was like a thorn in Mama’s toe, reminding her all the time what kind of man he was. It was awful enough that he’d married a saarantras, a dragon in human form, and then covered his tracks; now that his wife and daughters knew, they were bound to keep his sordid secret, or there could be dire consequences for all of them.
That was the wellspring of Mama’s bitterness; it had driven her toward a pair of crankier, more vindictive Saints, Abaster and Vitt, who offered balm for her suffering, and suffering for the wicked who’d wronged her. Tessie made soothing, sympathetic noises even as her mind began to wander in other directions. Two more insights had struck, and she had to ponder them. First, contrary to what Mama had told her, Aunt Jenny might have had a baby before marriage. A bastard, she’d called it; Tessie had heard the word but never understood it. Second, Seraphina was not entirely dragon. Papa had been involved in the making of her, which meant that it was very naive indeed to go around pretending you were married in order to fall pregnant. The male of the species (such as Papa, or one of Aunt Jenny’s previous boyfriends, the ne’erdo-wells Mama had refused to have in her house) must be involved somehow. Tessie knew who would know: Seraphina. She was eleven and always knew everything.
Tessie asked the very next day, but she picked a bad time. She wasn’t so foolish as to interrupt music practice, when Seraphina might have literally bitten her head off, but she asked while Seraphina was reading. Of course, Seraphina was always reading, so it wasn’t like there were a lot of other options. Tessie eased open Seraphina’s door to check that she was there, and then crept up on her in the window seat. “You could knock, gargoyle-face,” said Seraphina, not looking up. “It’s rude not to.” Tessie worried the laces of her bodice, almost too nervous to ask. But she’d come this far. She said in a barely audible voice, “Where do babies come from?” Seraphina, long-suffering, sighed heavily. “Anne-Marie just had one.
” Seraphina never called Mama Mama. “It came from inside her, or did you fail to notice?” Tessie chafed; she wasn’t stupid. That wasn’t the sort of argument to make to Seraphina, however, who could demonstrate in under a minute that yes, you were stupid, check and mate. “Like that quigutl we found in the basement last month, laying eggs,” Tessie offered, trying to sound intelligent. Seraphina shuddered. “Distressingly like. No silver blood, though, and no eggshells.” “Yes, but…but how did the baby get inside her in the first place?” asked Tessie, fretting. “Papa put it there,” said Seraphina, turning a page. “Like planting a seed in a garden.
” This was it. This was the answer, though incomplete. Tessie pressed a little further. “But how? How do you plant a seed inside another person?” “Saints’ bones, you are six. You don’t need to know all that,” cried Seraphina, her patience abruptly exhausted. Tessie had stepped on the dragon’s tail without knowing how. “This is why you’re such a spank magnet, you know, because you never shut up. You’re the cat curiosity is going to kill.” “I only wanted—” Tessie began. “I wanted to read, but am I allowed ten minutes’ peace? Indeed, I am not,” said Seraphina, leaping to her feet, ready to push Tessie out of the room if she had to.
There was no need for that kind of thing; Tessie scurried toward the door under her own power. “Knock next time,” Seraphina called. “Or I’ll tell Anne-Marie what kind of questions you’ve been asking.” “She’ll just spank me,” said Tessie bitterly from the doorway. “Because you’re a spank magnet!” shouted her sister, and Tessie dared linger no longer. So this was Tess’s grand, misguided notion on Jeanne’s first wedding day: she’d bless the happy couple and then lead them upstairs to the big bed Mama and Papa used to share (Mama slept in another room these days, with baby Ned). Once there, they’d play it by ear. She believed there must be kissing involved, because Mama had always been scandalized if Aunt Jenny was seen kissing in public. Tess led the docile pair upstairs, where she had festooned the bed with roses—well, four roses. Not quite a full festoon, but that was as many as she thought she could take from Mama’s white climber without their being missed.
Faffy followed them up, that naughty hound; he leaped onto the bed ahead of everyone, getting grimy footprints on the sheets, and wormed his skinny body between the pillows. Jeanne, who was terrified of Faffy at close range, shrieked while Tessie chased her dog out of the room, crying, “Bad boy! Stop scaring Jeanne!” With the ruckus resolved and restorative hugs given to her sister, Tessie finally directed Kenneth and Jeanne into the bed. The newlyweds began looking uncomfortable, especially Kenneth, who was nine and may have known more about all this than he was letting on. He said, “Tess, we don’t have to play this part. I’d rather go on to the pretending-we’remarried part. Jeanne could make me dinner.” Jeanne nodded eagerly at this suggestion. “We’re playing wedding,” said Tessie authoritatively, “not marriage, and the wedding night is the most important part, after the priest.” “Then you should take a turn being bride,” said Jeanne, who instinctively let Tessie play all the most important parts. “No,” said Tessie, exasperation mounting.
“I’m the priest, telling you what to do. Now kiss!” But the two of them seemed suddenly to become a pair of magnets with like poles turned toward each other: they’d get no closer, repulsed by some invisible field. Kenneth protested that it was wrong to kiss Jeanne because he was not her cousin but her uncle. (This was true: he was Anne-Marie’s youngest brother, whom Tessie had declared an honorary cousin.) “Really, you shouldn’t marry your uncle,” he said sensibly. Jeanne, for her part, whined about Kenneth’s breath. He had a distressing habit of eating onions like apples. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Tess cried at last. “You’re both a pair of babies.” And then she dived onto the bed herself, crawled after Kenneth like a crocodile, and planted a big kiss right on his stupid mouth.
Jeanne had been right about his breath, which was astonishing, but Tessie grabbed his ears like Dozerius clinging to the mast of his shattered ship and hung on for dear life. Inevitably, that was when Mama burst in. The spanking, even for a girl dubbed “spank magnet,” was one for the ages. Tessie, over years of corporal punishment, had learned to absent herself during these events to make them hurt less; she’d be sailing the wine-blue seas with Dozerius, and the chafing on her buttocks was due to the splintery wooden benches of his ship, or (if it was particularly bad) to the piping-hot Throne of Embers that she’d sat upon to save him from injury. This one, though, recalled her most unpleasantly back to the here and now, not because it was so severe but because Mama cried the entire time. Indeed, her fury flagged sooner than usual; her arm dropped to her side and her chest heaved with sobs. Tess threw her arms around her mother to comfort her, as if it were Mama who had just received a beating. “Don’t cry,” said Tessie, patting Mama’s cheek as tender tears welled up in her own eyes. “Whatever has made you so sad, I won’t do it again. I promise.
” “You are never to climb into a boy’s bed or kiss him until you’re married, Tessie,” said Mama when her breathing had stilled enough to let her speak. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” said Tessie weepily, which was a lie. Mama put her hands on Tessie’s shoulders and looked her in the eye. “You must understand, boys and men are afflicted with bodily lusts. They will try to coax and cajole you into bed, but you must resist. ‘If you won’t renounce temptation, O woman, there is no saving you. The Infernum burns hottest for the unrepentant harlot,’ says St. Vitt, Heaven hold him.” Tess, who’d failed to understand most of that admonishment, nodded gravely. She would learn those words; she would understand what Mama wanted and live up to it, if only Mama would stop being sad.
“I won’t go near any boys,” she said. “Only Kenneth is my uncle, so…” Mama rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to Kenneth. Of course you may still play together— you’re family!—but there is to be no kissing. No…explorations.” No explorations seemed a bit harsh. What was Dozerius if not an explorer? Still, Tessie agreed to it—she’d have agreed to almost anything to see Mama smile—although a mote of bitterness niggled at her, the knowledge that Kenneth would not be spanked for his part in this. Then again, he hadn’t wanted to play along. She’d done all the kissing. Mama had not laid it out explicitly, but she didn’t have to, not when years of spankings had done the work for her: there was something particularly bad about Tess.
She was singularly and spectacularly flawed, subject to sins a normal girl should never have been prone to. It was going to take far more work for her to get into Heaven than someone like Jeanne, whose goodness seemed to flow effortlessly from some deep inner well of virtue. Tess was determined to make it, though. Jeanne wouldn’t want to go without her. The twins were in the habit of creeping into each other’s beds for what they called their “midnight conference.” The night after the faux wedding and epic spanking, Tessie wept in her sister’s arms. “W-why is she never happy, Nee?” Tess sobbed. “W-why do I always make it worse?” “We’ll find the way to help her,” said Jeanne, stroking Tessie’s dark hair. “I think she’s unfair to you sometimes. She’s mad at Papa, but it’s easier to take it out on you.
” This only made Tessie cry the harder. Jeanne held her sister’s face in her hands and said, “You’ve got me, Sisi. We’ve got each other. It’s us against the world.” “Us against the world,” Tess repeated in a sopping sob voice. But there was strength in those words and in Jeanne’s hands. She felt it. Little by little she calmed, until she found the road toward sleep, whereupon she dreamed of pirates and woke refreshed and ready to get in trouble all over again.