I haven’t told you Hyacinth’s story.
Once upon a time, in the town of Ashton, North Carolina, there was a sweet old woman named Mrs. Randolph. She had gray hair pulled back into a tidy bun, and she went to the Methodist church every Sunday. Her husband had died about ten years before, and every Sunday, after church, she would go to his grave and leave flowers or autumn leaves, whatever was growing that season. She knitted hats for the children of her poorer neighbors, and brought cakes and pies to church functions.
On weekdays, she was a mad scientist.
Her husband had been a lawyer, and while he was alive, she had been an ordinary wife, taking care of the house and helping, in whatever way she could, to run his law office. After he died of a heart attack at a relatively young age (for which we should not blame her cakes and pies, for he was hopelessly addicted to tobacco), she began to wonder what she should do with herself. And then she remembered what had most interested her as a girl: science, but specifically botany.
Mrs. Randolph sold the large house she had shared with her husband and purchased a much smaller one at the edge of town. Although it was smaller, her new house had a large garden. And that was where she started to grow plants. All sorts of plants, common garden plants, rare plants that she collected from the fields and forests, from beside streams. But all of her plants had something in common: medicinal properties. Of course, the medicine is the dose, and some of the plants she grew were quite poisonous.
So, if you were living in the 1870s or so, and you happened to pass through Ashton, North Carolina, you might see a sweet old woman working in her garden, with a straw hat on her head and a wool shawl around her shoulders. It would be Mrs. Randolph gathering nightshade and henbane.
As her knowledge increased and her experiments became more ambitious, she converted most of the kitchen into a laboratory. Plants hung, drying, from the rafters. On a long marble table, she would grind up her dried plants and turn them into powders. Many of those she shipped to places where such things were in demand, earning herself a small income. (For instance, in the 1870s and 80s Miss Lavender’s School had a standing order for a number of substances useful for chemistry classes.) When the postmaster asked her, smiling, what she was sending to Boston and New York and even faraway places like San Francisco, she would smile back and tell him that she was sending cookies and her famous pound cake to relatives.
(It is suspected that she supplied the pharmacy from which an English gentleman, a Dr. Jekyll, purchased certain chemical powders in the late 1870s, but I have been unable to confirm that possibility. The pharmacy ceased ordering from her for a period of several months, thinking that it could obtain its powders more cheaply from a supplier in Prague, but began ordering from her again when it was found that the powders from Prague were merely barley sugar.)
She was very good at what she did, and she offered refunds if her products were not completely satisfactory, which was unusual in those days. So she was very busy. That’s why she finally decided that she needed an assistant. It never occurred to her to ask one of the young women in Ashton to help with her chemical experiments. No, it would never do for anyone to know that the respectable Mrs. Randolph was practicing mad science. So, in what is perhaps her greatest scientific feat, she created an assistant: Hyacinth.
How strange it must have been, to wake up on Mrs. Randolph’s marble table. There you were, growing peacefully in the soil, a pleasantly scented but otherwise unremarkable Hyacinthus Albus, and then there you were, a girl. Hyacinth still smells very nice, without any perfume. I’ve told her that if I could bottle her, I wouldn’t need to check my bank account before I buy a new winter coat. I could buy as many winter coats as I wanted!
She was a very good assistant, and Mrs. Randolph soon came to treat her, and think of her, as a daughter. But human beings die, and for all her mad science (which did keep her both living and looking remarkably young long past the century mark), Mrs. Randolph eventually succumbed to old age, as all of us do in the Shadowlands. Unless we are magical creatures, like Hyacinth. After Mrs. Randolph’s death, Hyacinth wrote to Mrs. Moth, informing her of what had happened. The next day, Miss Gray stepped through the front door (although, a minute ago, she had not been on the other side). She said, “Hyacinth, I’m so sorry for your loss. Mrs. Moth would like to offer you a position as her assistant.” And that’s what Hyacinth became. That’s what she was when I met her, at Miss Lavender’s School, although she also taught chemistry classes.
It’s been a while since I graduated, but she still looks the same: slender, as though she were seventeen or eighteen, with short, curling blond hair, skin of an almost translucent pallor, and green eyes. If you look closely, you’ll notice that her veins, beneath the skin, are also green.
And she’s really very nice. She’s the one who always helped us when we couldn’t figure out our schedules, or when we had boy problems, or when we really desperately needed to get off campus to save the world or something. (Can you imagine talking to Miss Gray about boy problems? As if.)