Read an Excerpt
Little Tulip Orphanage
Q Rules for Baby Abandonment W
Rule One: The baby should be wrapped in a cotton blanket.
Rule Two: The baby should be placed in a wicker basket.
Rule Three: The baby should be deposited on the topmost step.
In all the years that Elinora Gassbeek had been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once had the Rules for Baby Abandonment been broken. Until the summer of 1880. Five babies were abandoned in the months that followed and, despite the Rules being clearly displayed on the orphanage’s front door, not one of these babies was abandoned sensibly
.The first baby arrived on a bright morning at the end of August, as dew glistened on the city’s cobblestone streets.Swaddled in a pink cotton blanket and placed on the appropriate step was a baby with cocoa-bean eyes and blond fuzz on its head. However, the way in which Rule Two had been disregarded left no room for forgiveness. The child was snuggled inside a tin toolbox, which had been wrapped with emerald-green ribbon, as if it were a present.“Ugh!” Elinora Gassbeek squawked, looking down at the toolbox baby in disgust. She signaled a nearby orphan to retrieve it. “Put it upstairs.”The orphan nodded. “What name shall I put on the cot, Matron?”The matron curled her lip. Naming children was tedious, but necessary.“She’s got a lotta fingers, Matron!”The baby was sucking its thumb, making loud slurping noises that sent ants crawling up the matron’s spine. She counted the child’s fingers. Sure enough, it had an extra digit on each hand.“Name it . . . Lotta.”The second baby arrived on a blustery evening in September, as a mischievous wind rattled the orphanage’s many wooden shutters.An orphan walked into the dining hall, cradling a coal bucket as if it were a bouquet of flowers. Something was whimpering
inside the bucket. Peering in, the matron was displeased to find a raven-haired infant, wrapped in a soot-stained shawl, blinking up at her.“Poor thing was abandoned beside the coal bunker,” the orphan said.“Disgraceful!” Gassbeek screeched, referring to the breaking of Rule Two and
Rule Three. “Take it away.”“A name for him, Matron?” the orphan asked nervously.Elinora Gassbeek took another reluctant look at the coal-bucket baby, its charcoal-blackened nose, and the shabby shawl wrapped snugly around it. The cotton shawl looked like it had, possibly, been brightly colored once. Now, however, it was a mottled shade of gray, with a barely discernible pattern of darker-gray ovals. Like rotten eggs, the matron thought.“Name it . . . Egbert.”The third baby arrived on an unusually warm afternoon in October, as ladies with parasols paraded on the sun-warmed street.Sitting on a bench outside, in her finest puffed-sleeve dress, Elinora Gassbeek opened her picnic hamper and found a wriggling baby, wedged in amongst the cheese sandwiches and almond cake. It had a shock of curly red hair on its head and was babbling incessantly.No blanket. No basket. Not on the front step.The matron screeched, shrill and loud like a boiling kettle. The picnic-hamper baby immediately fell quiet, its eyebrows squeezing together in a frightened frown. Up and down the street, curious faces appeared in the windows of the tall, narrow brick houses, and the strolling ladies came to a halt. Elinora Gassbeek gathered her wits and forced a smile for her neighbors. An orphan wove through the throng toward her.“She wasn’t in there a minute ago,” the girl insisted, picking the baby up delicately.“Take it away,” Elinora Gassbeek said through gritted teeth.“Yes, Matron. But . . . a name?”The orphan rocked the now-silent baby, gently brushing fennel seeds from its hair. The matron shuddered.“Name it . . . Fenna.”The fourth baby arrived on a gloomy morning in November, as a blanket of fog curled over the canal behind the house.The delivery bell on the second floor jangled, rung from a boat on the canal below. Using the pulley system attached outside the window, an orphan hoisted the bucket winch up. As it emerged from the fog, Elinora Gassbeek’s eye began to twitch. Inside the bucket was a baby, wearing a wheat sack and a sad frown. Two holes had been cut in the bottom of the sack, to allow its unusually long legs to poke through.The matron hauled the wheat-sack child inside, cursing the madness that had befallen her orphanage.“Put some clothes on it,” she cawed at the orphan hovering beside her.She looked at the baby’s wonky ears, its gangly limbs, and the wheat-colored hair that stuck out from its head at the unruliest of angles. Printed on the wheat sack were the words semolina flour. The matron groaned.“Name it . . . Sem.”The fifth and final baby arrived under a full moon in December, as the constellations shone brightly above Amsterdam’s skyline.Elinora Gassbeek had sent an orphan out onto the orphanage’s roof to investigate a strange noise. Wedged behind the chimney stack, inside a coffin-shaped basket, was a baby, cooing contentedly up at the starry night sky. It had hair as dark as midnight and eyes that were almost black.Gingerly, the orphan brought the coffin-basket baby inside, where it immediately began to wail. Careful not to touch the infant, the matron reached down and pulled a toy from its clutches: a cat puppet, made from the softest Amsterdam cotton and dressed in fine Antwerp silk. A faint ticking noise emanated from the toy, but the matron was tutting too loudly to hear it.“Ridiculous!”She tossed the puppet back in the basket, on top of the black velvet blanket in which the baby was swaddled. On the corner of the blanket, embroidered in white thread, was a name:Milou.