I, Miriam
Agnes, Age 16, GuangZhou, GuangDong, China

My heart thumped. My booted feet flew across the ground, weaving and leaping over the tree roots. Under the cloak of midnight darkness I ran, on and on until earth and sky dissolved into a dizzy blur. My temples throbbed furiously, but still I stumbled onwards, groping my way through the woods.

Icy breaths of air burned in my throat, and gusts of wind seeped through the folds of my cloak. A girl all by herself in the lonely woods – a curious sight in the dead of the night.

I, Miriam, was running away.

Fifteen years ago, someone had abandoned me on the doorstep of the Wimbley Mansion, left with only a name. Agatha Wimbley, the wealthy widow of the house had brought me up as her daughter—that is, one who dusted and cleaned and followed every whim of her three overgrown brothers. Aunt Agatha, as I was to call her, commanded the household with her temper, a fierce mane of red hair, and sharp, pointy features.
For fifteen years—seven days a week and twelve months a year—Aunt Agatha gripped me tightly in her claws. I knew only a life that included endless cleaning and bullying from the three Wimbley boys.

But where else could I go? What could I do?

The chances of survival in the world outside always seemed too slim, too risky. I locked the idea away in the depths of my heart. One day, I promised myself, one day.

Meanwhile, I found ways to entertain myself in the dreary house. Though Aunt Agatha had never considered it necessary to educate the “charity child,” the boys required repeating lessons so often I easily learned by peeking in through the window. As I gradually unlocked the door to language, the Wimbleys' well-stocked library became my own secret garden. Every Sunday, when Aunt Agatha brought her sons to town and the servants enjoyed a day of leave, I had an entire day to pore over page after page of wonderful stories, a world with loving families, chivalrous knights, and exotic jungles. I always did so watchfully, however, careful to hide my ability to read from the Wimbleys.

On one particular Sunday, I had been so submerged in a book that my ears did not pick up the horses’ faint clip-clopping up the path. When I finally became alert to their presence, it was too late to run—footsteps were already treading up the staircase and entering into the corridor, sealing off my exit route. Aunt Agatha’s shrill voice sounded through the door. “In the library, Edith,” she called, “We can talk freely in here.” My reflexes took over without hesitation. Leaping to my feet, I raced past the rows of bookshelves and crammed myself behind a desk.

Not a second too soon, I exhaled gratefully as I heard the doorknob squeak open and heels click on the floorboards, followed by the firm shutting of the door. “Sit down, sit down,” Aunt Agatha’s voice floated from across the room, and the plush seats of the velvet couch let out a soft groan. I peered through a crack in the boards and barely made out two figures across the room, lit ablaze in frippery. “Edith” referred to one of Aunt Agatha’s most intimate friends, Mrs. Edith Thornish, who lived nearby on a large estate. Their “friendship” amused me; the two of them stayed the best of friends while constantly striving to outdo each other. If Aunt Agatha “modestly” spoke of her new antique tea set, Edith Thornish would surely flaunt her expensive oriental tealeaves. If Mrs. Thornish mentioned a new afternoon dress, Aunt Agatha would immediately order an addition to her wardrobe, complete with French lace. Despite this, however, the two often met to gossip about the latest news and scandals about town.

“Now, Edith,” I heard Aunt Agatha voice, “What did you mention about Alfred?” Few people have actually seen Alfred Thornish, Mrs. Thornish’s only son, supposedly because of illnesses that often confined him to bed.

“Oh, Agatha—you know Alfred’s condition and how difficult it has been to find a wife for him,” Mrs. Thornish gushed. “But he is quite of age to be betrothed, and the despicable rumours around worries me dreadfully.” Mrs. Thornish’s voice rose indignantly. “How dare they suggest our Alfred is mentally ill? He’s just very delicate, that’s all!”

Aunt Agatha clucked in sympathy, and Mrs. Thornish continued with an infuriated brandish of her fan. “So the sooner we get a wife for Alfie, the better.” She snapped her fan shut and patted Aunt Agatha’s gloved hand. “You are like the sister I never had, Agatha dear, and young Miriam seems perfect for him.”

Perfect for him? My mind reeled in bewilderment.

“After all, you say she has reached the age to marry?”

Marry? My heart sunk in realization as my stunned mind replayed Mrs. Thornish’s words. Aunt Agatha nodded slowly, “Miriam has reached her fifteenth birthday, but…” She faltered.

I held my breath. To my great shock, I heard a tearful crack in Aunt Agatha’s voice as she said, “Ever since the day I found Miriam, I have raised the girl up like my own daughter. The very idea of taking her away from me…”

“Of course, I know how dear your Miriam must be to you,” Mrs. Thornish hastily added, “and we will arrange the financial matters, dear Agatha, which is the least my family can do.” She paused and lowered her voice to a soft murmur, and I gave up trying to catch bits and pieces of the conversation. Instead, I tried to straighten the whirling thoughts in my own head. A betrothal? I imagined myself married: perching primly at the breakfast table with a sickly lad next to me and seeing the same pallid face greeting me morning after morning – the scenes filled me with a growing dread.
Surely my life could have more meaning than that— did I spend fifteen years in this cage only to be sent to another prison for life? What about families and adventures and… Another voice cried in my head. What about freedom?

Compared to life at another mansion, the frightening aspect of escape almost seemed pleasant. Would I be able to make a living for myself? It mattered not—I could not sit here and simply watch as my final door to freedom closed shut. I could hear my heart struggling for release, yearning to fly. Here stood my last chance, my only chance.

I made up my mind to take it.

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