When Siobhan was seven, she watched people for a long time before talking. This wasn’t a lack of confidence–she was plenty confident. She was popular with her friends, and most adults in the village bowed to her, keen to satisfy her needs before she’d even expressed them. When she did say something, it was often uncannily true and revealed something previously unseen, or at least that’s how it felt like to the people Siobhan was talking to. Such as the time she told her mother “Your laugh sounds louder when you’re talking with your friends than when you’re talking with daddy or me.” Or the time she told her friend Briony “You would look real pretty with pink hair.” (Spoiler: Briony pleaded with her mum for pink hair, and yes, she did look real pretty). Or the time she told her father “You buy me presents when you miss my ballet rehearsals, but I don’t really care for presents.” He never missed another ballet rehearsal. I think he kept buying her presents though.
When Siobhan’s mum and dad had another baby, a little boy, Siobhan took her time before deciding she was unimpressed. She sat her parents down, a few weeks after her mother returned from the hospital, both of them on the couch and her on the armchair, and she said, “I don’t want a brother.” The parents’ first inclination was to appease her, to promise to get rid of the newborn at first chance, but of course they couldn’t do this. They found themselves in the awkward position of having to argue with their daughter about why they had to keep the baby boy, simultaneously suspecting she was in the right and they were somehow in the wrong. “You can keep him,” Siobhan said after she’d listened to all they had to say, “but I don’t want to talk to him.”
The parents worked hard to keep Siobhan and her brother separate from each other. Different mealtimes, different bath times, different play times. Whichever parent Siobhan wanted at any given moment would stay with her, and the other would look after the boy. Quickly this came to feel perfectly normal, which quelled any misgivings the parents may have had about the situation. Some of Siobhan’s friends had younger brothers too, and Siobhan explained to them all why they should avoid the young boys as much as possible. She had no problem with sisters. Siobhan’s friends were not entirely able to bend their own parents to Siobhan’s will, but a definite change fell across the whole village. Unconsciously, everyone treated young boys differently. Expecting families wished for daughters.
I knew Siobhan at this time, and one moment I remember perfectly came when I invited her to my house for a play date. I was as in awe of her as anybody else, but my dad worked abroad mostly, so he didn’t know as much about her spell. Though he had heard that she didn’t like her young brother. That afternoon he brought us cake, a rich chocolate cake, the kind adults normally keep for themselves, and served it to us while we were playing vets. He waited until we’d both taken a bite, then he told Siobhan that the cake was made from the dead body of her little brother. It was supposed to be a joke. I don’t remember exactly how he phrased it, but it sounded teasing, not horrific. Nevertheless, Siobhan dropped the plate holding the cake–it landed perfectly on the floor without spilling a crumb–and she screamed. She stood still as she screamed, the way kids do when they’re playing at screaming, except she wasn’t playing, I don’t think. She was very loud, unflagging. She didn’t stop until my dad explained (in an extremely panicky way most unlike him) that it had been a joke, a stupid joke. Siobhan picked up the cake from the floor and handed it back to my dad, and we went back to playing vets. My dad never joked like that again.
Siobhan died a few years later and I don’t remember why or how–some kind of disease, I think, not an accident. The village went back to normal at some point, boys being given special treatment over girls like anywhere else. But what I do know is that the boys who were born in those few years before Siobhan died grew up to be the nicest men in the world. If we find out someone we know has married one of those boys, we say to each other, oh, she got a good one there.