The Orphanmaster—An Orphaned Chapter

[What follows is a passage edited out of The Orphanmaster manuscript at an early stage. I always liked the idea of an interior monologue of a New Amsterdam orphan, but somehow, this particular one just didn’t fit. What does Faulkner say? Kill your darlings? Here is an example, a darling left dead and discarded along the way, risen to new life like a zombie, staggering onto this website for your reading pleasure.]


Speak now.

I, William.

I am not William.

I, Jan.

I am not Jan.

Day is not night. Day is night. I am a boy. I am not a boy.

The attic could not be Jan’s hiding place forever. They were too good at skivvying him out and setting him at new chores. Water, tote. Carrots and potatoes, scrape. Mud on the floorboards, scrub off.

His task now (speak now), to police the attic.

Three creatures. The mouse, the fly, the pigeon. If he see a mouse, he should kill it. If he see a fly, he should swat it. If he see a pigeon, he should roust it.

And if he saw a rat, he should call them. Speak now.

The attic, the family warehouse. Heavy oak rafters and warm plank floors, with gaps between the boards, so Jan-not-William could see down into the great room of the main floor.

Where had the first William gone? He had run away, run away, they told him, and he would never come back. He had disappeared into the maw of the woods.

The attic embraced Jan, and comforted him. It was like being inside a tree. The English king escaped death by hiding in the great oak at Boscobel. So told Jan his mum and da (not his mum and da).

Passing through, the great column of brick chimney warmed the attic, towered to the roof and slipped through the shingles to the sky.

William-not-William had not liked the attic at all at first. He thought it a bad place, since he was sent up there as punishment.

You are bad, now go to the attic. Whomp! The Bible was filled with stories. As big as a pewter trencher, with a soft leather binding.

The girls, Anne and Mary, beat some sense into him with the Bible. They launched it at his back, his chest, his head. They liked doing it with the good book, because it never showed a mark. They could beat him with it and beat him with it, and still his skin stayed white and smooth. Without a single bruise.

Some blood, sometimes, when they loosened his teeth. But it stopped before anyone saw.

Mother and father (not father and not mother) beat Anne and Mary. Anne and Mary beat him. Pass it on. Who had he to beat?

Anne said, the attic is for bad children. For children who might tell. Ergo, the attic is bad. Q.E.D.

William-not-William, you will conjugate the Latin verb “loqui,” to speak.

Loqui, locutum locutura.”

Jan-not-Jan came to like the attic. It became his refuge, the place he could still be himself, what he remembered of himself. He could twirl and twirl, and his fingers never touch the walls around him. It made him forget the aches all over his body. The bruises that no one could see.

Jan searched among the crates and boxes for mousey and fly. Boxes packed with straw, where mice could make a home. Crockery and tubs. Apples dried to wizened heads. Sugar hams hanging still and mute (speak now). Wicker baskets, some filled with onions, others with napkins and tablecloths. Ropes of papery garlic.

The storehouse of the Godbolt treasures.

George Godbolt. Father. Who was not his father. Rebecca Godbolt. Mother. Who was not his mother.

Don’t even think that way.

The Godbolts bought him for a pair of old, broken-down harness horses and a cask of false seawan, blue glass beads from Amsterdam. The Goldbolts fed him and clothed him and kept him warm from the goodliness of their good godly hearts.

His new mother and father took him from the painted indians after his old mother and father had fallen dead (in their streaming red blood) to the ground. When he lost his words.

“You must always be grateful, William, for God has given you to us in his fathomless mercy. Be grateful for what you are given.”

Be grateful, and always remember, not-William, that your name is William.

Whomp! Quoth the Bible. You are William!

Call thyself Jan, and thou will be birched with the paddle that hangs in the kitchen and sent to the attic to catch flies. We will bring you back to the redskins.

He had one name too many, and still they called him by a third.


The children often snickered as they said it. Georgie and Charles, Mary and Anne and the baby Dolly (who yet did not speak).

“Tiptoe, you scared me!” Anne, would say, pretending to be surprised by his presence, even though he had been at her side in the great room for an hour. A big pinch of arm-flesh, for which he was grateful (thank you, Anne, thank you, Mary) in comparison with the Bible thrashings out behind the house, by the stone well, where no one could see them.

Jan set the table alongside Georgie and Charles and Anne and Mary and Dolly (who did not set table) as though he were in fact William. He polished father George’s shoes as though he were in fact William.

He was William. I am William!

Otherwise, he was doomed.

He made his way around the rooms of the house so softly, quietly, as if he might at any moment jump out and spook the members of the family. Jan’s voice was soft, too, and high, a voice that contrasted with William’s. William would never be called “Tiptoe.” William would be nicknamed something like “the Lumberer.”

But Tiptoe could not manage to change his voice or his tread, no matter how much the Godbolts wished him to.

Lying on his back in the attic dust, Jan looked up and saw hanging above him three heavy venison sausages. His stomach contracted. He had been afraid to partake of the meats of the table in this house in the four weeks he had been here. He had been that nervous. His gut growled and he silenced it, feeling the eyes of Anne penetrate him.

William was six. (“I am seven,” Jan knew.) The Godbolts thought him just old enough to be taught by Adolph Roeletsen at the schoolhouse up on the Ditch. This fall, they took him there in William’s place, with Master Roeletsen none the wiser.

The school had been let out for the long summer. Roeletsen had not seen his students for months. There were new faces and absent old ones. He never noticed them too closely, anyway.

Still, it was odd to have the schoolmaster look into your eyes, open his schoolmaster mouth, and say, “Speak thee now, William.” Tell your tables. Conjugate the Latin phrase “to become a ghost.”

Didn’t he see? Didn’t the man realize? The William here was not the same as last year’s William. Was the whole world walking around in a fog, that they failed to comprehend such a simple thing as an orphan boy’s identity?

Letters and figures. The other students looked at him oddly. They knew William-who-was would have been able to accomplish these tasks. Had he suddenly been struck dumb over the summer?

They knew he was not William. They could smell it. But yet they called him “William.” “Come here, Billy, and let us practice our sums.” No one saw the bruises.

Once, one of them, Miep Fredericz, tried to draw him out.

“You’re different from before,” she said. “I know your secret.”

Would he have to go to the attic? Back to the indians? No, no, he was William. He held his hand over his stomach to calm the cramping. He always resisted the Lie becoming Truth, just as his Godbolt not-parents always insisted he should.

Jan rose to his feet, grasped a sausage with both hands and sank his teeth into the thick, spicy meat. Another bite, and another. Until the sausage hung half-eaten and Jan fell back, sated.

Life might confuse him, but sausage every boy understood. William or Jan, it didn’t matter to the meat. He was, for a brief moment, happy.

The skitter of a mouse in the eaves.

Jan crept forward on the hunt.

From below, a voice calling. “William!”

Who was calling a boy called William? This is not my name, this is not my house, this is not my hideaway attic.


A squeak, a movement, a flash of his hand, and Jan had the mouse in his fist.

Mousey, mousey

In the house-y

Where will you go to hide?

Jan reared back and threw the creature full force against the bricks of the chimney.


Speak now.