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Igms issue 15, p.9

IGMS - Issue 15, page 9

 

IGMS - Issue 15
 


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  Rose laughed. She had a heavy laugh, like a man. "That's all you have is a mole?"

  "I'm afraid so."

  Rose shook her head. "No, dear, I don't recall."

  "It seemed so real . . ."

  Rose winked. "Dreams have a way of doing that, don't they?"

  I smiled, trying not to look at Rose's disgraceful hemline, which was practically up to her armpits. "I know it's foolish, but I can't shake the feeling that it really happened, that it wasn't a dream at all."

  "Then look this Sunday. If you find a match, you can put the mystery to rest."

  I nodded. Church would be a good place to look, indeed.

  I avoided the ointment for several days, dearly hoping the dreams would stop -- hoping, in fact, that the visions would stop as well. It seemed to work, for I couldn't remember my dreams after I woke each morning. I did, however, have an undefined, anxious feeling that sat at the base of my gut and stewed all day, as well as feelings of yearning and loneliness I'd never experienced before.

  I started to forget things now and again. This was to be expected, and I made up for it by writing the important things in a journal. I usually remembered where the journal was.

  Pastor David was in rare form that Sunday -- his voice was resonant, his words vengeful -- but my mind was so scattered that I couldn't focus on any of it. I kept studying the mothers around the hall, especially Jane Skolfield with her two daughters, Mary and Alice. Mary had just turned eleven; she was bouncing in the pew, praying the sermon would end so the celebration on the village green could begin. Jane, every so often, would shush Mary, but a moment later she would absently smooth her daughter's hair down.

  That simple gesture nearly made me cry.

  After prayers I attended the party. It gave me a perfect opportunity to inspect the girls' wrists. The green was actually a ring of barges around the church, each lashed to the next in the chain. Rock and soil and grass filled their interiors. Thirteen girls, ranging from five to seventeen, wove colorful ribbons around the maypole set into the barge on the backside of the church. I sat on a wooden bench, watching them. As the ribbons wound their way ever lower, a feeling of discomfort grew within me, especially when I was watching the older girls.

  I made a fool of myself going up to every girl, casually inspecting their wrists while trying to keep the conversation with their parents light. I wondered if Joseph had talked, because the mothers seemed to be choosing their words carefully, and they sent furtive glances my way when they thought I wasn't watching. But whatever Joseph had or hadn't done, none of the girls bore a mark that matched my dreams.

  I returned home to my garden, glad to be alone.

  I sat in a hanging chair Joseph had built for me, the one I used to watch the sunsets and my bees. They were active, flitting about the flax and blackberry bushes. I bid several of them to fly nearer. It was something I'd found I could do from time to time, when the feeling was right. It was a secret I'd kept from everyone, and it was immensely comforting, the fact that it had returned so soon after the taxing experience on the green.

  The summoned bees traced patterns in the air above my lap. They looked like a herd of porpoises, leaping and diving among the waves. One landed on my knee, and I placed my hand next to it, feeling bad that one of its brood mates had died in stinging me. It crawled onto the back of my hand, tickling my skin. The feeling of control, so strong a moment ago, faded like a comforting breeze that would soon be forgotten. The bee lifted from my hand and circled the air near my head before following the others back toward the blue flowers of the flax plants.

  Near sunset, over eight hours later, the piping of the unborn queen -- brrr-rap -- brought me out of my inexplicable feelings of self-loathing. I was sitting in the same chair, staring blankly at the bees. My heart sped up when it struck me how low the sun was. I stared at the bee sting, wincing as I probed the swelling around it. It was getting bad. Visions or no visions, I was coming dangerously close to losing myself to the venom.

  I returned to my home and immediately applied more of the ointment. The dreams returned that same night.

  BRIGHTEN THOSE BOOTS, MAN!

  I've tried, sir, but the shine never lasts.

  THEN GET YOU TO CARVER'S SUNDRIES!

  Fine Boot and Leather Polish Made from the Purest Beeswax

  Candles, Honey, Flax Thread, Slumgum Firestarter

  Carver's Honey & Sundries, Inner Ring, SSW

  The dreams varied wildly save for the feeling of powerlessness in all of them. Wednesday was the worst. I was in a cramped, bare room. A cockroach issued from a small hole in the floor. I crawled toward it, looking down into the darkness as another cockroach crawled out. I took a hammer and a scrap of wood and nailed it over the hole, but as I struck the third and final nail, the hammer punched through the floor, leaving a gaping wound.

  Dozens of cockroaches streamed from the darkness, skittering over the floor and up my dress. I took another, larger scrap and slammed it over the gap. The floor broke again, and again, until a river of black insects poured from the bucket-sized hole and flooded over me.

  I woke, my breath coming in great gasps. It was still the middle of the night. I refused to go back to sleep -- I doubted I could have anyway -- and it was a long, long wait until the sun finally broke the waves to the east.

  A vision of the girl reappeared that morning. I could see more of her now: a wrist, a delicate hand, a swath of beautiful strawberry blond hair. It felt like me, not some girl I'd held hands with. But the perspective was bizarre, like I was also myself, separate from this girl. The sensation struck me in the chest, in the throat, and for a time I had difficulty swallowing. It was only when I felt warm tears falling onto my hands that I realized I was crying.

  After composing myself, I went up to my garden and gratefully found Joseph already in his.

  He stood and waved when he saw me. "Morning," he called. His smile was a good sight to see.

  I returned the wave. "Morning."

  "Something wrong?"

  "Mind if I come over?" I asked.

  The concern on his face was plain as he waved his assent. I crossed the narrow wooden walkway between our homes and confessed everything. Near the end, I stopped, unable to continue under his stare. "I can see the pity in your eyes, Joseph."

  He ducked his head until the brim of his wool hat hid his eyes. "Sorry, Sue."

  "You've been hiding something from me."

  He pulled himself up straighter. When he met my eyes, he was resolute. "I think it'd be better if you remembered on your own."

  The moment he said it, a memory struck me, clear and true, one I'd been unwilling to admit to myself. The girl. That mole. That beautiful hair.

  "I had a child . . ."

  Images took shape: rubbing the soft skin of my daughter's cheek as she moaned herself to sleep; tickling her along the ribs, the only place that would produce a wholly satisfying and uncontrollable laugh; chasing her through the paths of the garden and around the bee hive; swaths of green over my daughter's cheeks as she fought her dinner of mashed peas.

  "I had a child," I said. There could be no doubt. But her name . . . Her name lay just beyond reach. Lena. Elena.

  "Where is she?" I asked.

  Joseph shook his head. "Just let it be."

  Why was Joseph being so tight-mouthed? It didn't make sense.

  But then another realization struck like a tidal wave. I must have done this to myself. I must have used one of my own candles to mask the memories of my daughter. What in the name of all that's holy could I have done that would make me think that forgetting my own daughter was the best solution?

  "Is she dead, Joseph? Did I kill her?"

  Joseph stood there, a silent mountain in faded blue overalls.

  "Damn you! Did I kill her?"

  When Joseph said nothing, the festering emotions that'd been stirring inside me since the bee sting boiled over and I slapped him full across the face. It stung my hand and I know it stung h
im.

  He recovered, his eyes angry and hot, but he remained silent as the moon, his expression more pitying.

  I stalked off, leaving him to rot in his silence.

  I returned home and applied more ointment, horror-struck with the knowledge that most of the village knew of my self-imposed infirmity. They'd conspired against me, and worse -- I'd asked them to do it. I thought back to the women on the green. They knew . . . They knew of my awakening memories and would act just like Joseph, hiding my past from me. The urge to hide, to run, was nearly overwhelming, but I couldn't, not now, not when I needed to know so much more.

  I rushed across the village to the Childress's, taking the lesser-used walkways, thankfully crossing the path of no one.

  "Please," I said after Rose had opened the door and allowed me in. "You have to tell me the truth. My daughter. What happened to her?"

  Rose's expression softened.

  My hands shook. "I don't need your pity! Tell me what happened!"

  "Susanna. Dear." Rose sat in an upholstered chair, leaning on her elbows over her knees, worrying the hem of her blue dress, exposing her slim legs all the way up to the knees. "Please listen to me," Rose said. "I'll answer your questions, because I know how you can be, but I'm going to ask you a favor -- for both our sakes -- after I'm done. All right?"

  I drew in a deep breath -- ignoring Rose's smug tone -- and released it slowly. "How did she die?"

  "She's not dead. She left twelve years ago."

  My head jerked back. I blinked. "She left?"

  Rose nodded.

  "Twelve years ago?"

  "Nearly thirteen."

  "W-why? Why would she leave?"

  "She couldn't bear it here. With you."

  Couldn't bear it? And then it struck me.

  Eleanor . . . Her name was Eleanor, and the taste of it was sweet as honey.

  Memories began to slip into place like the torn pieces of a quilt that were now being sewed anew. I remembered having these same doubts, remembered years ago Mr. Billington, the village's records keeper, recording Eleanor under the list of souls that had permanently left Crucialis.

  I sat speechless, my mind racing. "I can't believe it's been that long . . ." There was something that was bothering me, though, the way Rose and Joseph had been acting . . . They had been too accepting, too nonchalant, for this to have been the first time. "How many times have I done this?"

  "Five," Rose replied.

  I swallowed. My fingers felt cold and the brown wool carpeting lost focus for a moment. Five times? I'd done this over and over again?

  "I know this is painful," Rose continued. "But I'm hoping you'll just go home and make another candle. Unwelcome shawls and comments about my hems aside, you're really a much nicer person without Eleanor. Some of us aren't meant to have children. There's nothing wrong with that. She's gone for good anyway. Just leave her be and live out the rest of your life in peace."

  I couldn't believe my ears. My first reaction was outright anger, but I began to grow wary. Had I fought before? Had Rose and Joseph forced the issue? Had the village elders condoned it?

  I managed to lift myself up and walk toward the door as memories flooded through my mind.

  "Susanna?"

  I opened the door and ran for home, heedless of the danger of running along the uneven boardwalks. I had to be alone, had to sort through the river of thoughts pouring down my throat.

  I reached my garden as the sun slipped behind a thick bank of clouds. The piping of the queen came, much louder and clearer than it had the last time I'd heard her. She was free of her cell, and she was challenging the old, mated queen for supremacy. I stepped toward the hive, my brood, and removed the wooden lid. Their collective buzz saturated the air, infusing me with a sense of belonging I'd so often been without this last week. Bees landed on my hands, my face, my hair; they flew under the hem of my dress, tickled my ankles, my shins, my thighs. The threat of a sting was deliciously present, and I made no move to prevent it. They could sting me if they wished.

  With the sense of oneness that overtook me, memories began to play in an orderly fashion like the careful construction of a hive.

  Eleanor had grown into a fine young woman. She had been bright and beautiful, the apple of every young man's eye. I had tried to keep a tight leash, more so as Eleanor's bosom filled in and her hips spread and her eye returned the hungry glances sent her way ever more easily.

  Eleanor had asked permission to be courted, but it couldn't be allowed. She couldn't throw her virtue to the first boy that caught her eye like I had. It had ruined me, and I wasn't about to let that happen to my own daughter.

  Eleanor became willful, began slipping out from beneath my watchful eye for clandestine meetings. I locked her in. I had the leathersmith fit Eleanor for a chastity belt. Eleanor became incensed. I'd never seen my daughter so angry. But it was for her own good. She needed a strong hand, not like my own mother, who had known and done nothing.

  I caught Eleanor one more time, without her belt, with the Millers' boy, thankfully before the act had been consummated. She looked like a filthy dock whore -- hair tangled, dress undone, stockings crumpled in a heap at the foot of the bed. I beat Eleanor that night, and it was then that she had spat her promise through bloodied lips. You can't keep me from leaving, she'd said. I don't care how long it takes, how many beatings you give me. You'll never see me again, and you'll never know the joy of holding your grandchildren.

  I shivered, for I heard the resolve in her words. But I wrote it off as the bluster of youth. I would find a good young man in Crucialis that would treat her with respect, that would court her properly, that would give her a decent station in life.

  But within a fortnight, Eleanor was gone.

  More and more details came rushing back to me -- childbirth, breastfeeding, tantrums, Eleanor's voracious appetite for the satirical pamphlets that were smuggled aboard Crucialis from one source or another no matter how hard the village worked to stamp them out -- but these memories warred with the manufactured history my mind had created to replace them.

  It was disorienting, confusing, dizzying, and eventually overwhelming. I screamed, clasping my hands over my head, pleading for the memories to stop, even for a moment, so I could find myself once more. But they didn't. They came faster and stronger, and soon the towering waves of memories had driven me beneath the surf.

  The Guiding Light Hotel Awaits with Open Arms

  Private Apartments (en suite.)

  Elegantly Furnished Drawing Room

  Holy Studies Held Nightly in the Reading Room

  Outer Ring, 500 Yards CCW from the Docks

  When the chaotic, dreamlike state finally began to recede, it left me exhausted and useless, like flotsam washed upon the shore. I heard the sound of a conversation, but it seemed more like the beat of a kettledrum than a coherent string of words. I was inside my shop near the potbelly stove, my wrists tied to the arms of a rocking chair. The voices were coming from the boardwalk, somewhere beyond the door to my shop.

  Silence came, then creaking, and finally Rose swept through the shop as if she owned it and seated herself at the kitchen table. She must have thought I was still in my trance -- indeed, I could hardly keep my eyes open -- for she ignored me as she picked up three coarse flaxen threads and began forming them into a braid with clumsy, unpracticed hands.

  I noticed among the threads a single human hair, long and strawberry blond. Eleanor's. The lock of hair, still bound by the purple ribbon, sat on the table so near to me that I swear I could smell Eleanor's scent.

  On the stove was a cast iron pot with liquid wax inside. Rose was forming a candle, I vaguely realized, and when it was complete, they would light it and leave me to forget everything I had fought so hard to remember. It was that thought more than anything that helped my mind to clear.

  "Don't do this, Rose."

  Rose glanced over, the surprise in her eyes betraying her. "Relax, dear. This is for your own good."


  "Don't do this."

  "You should have seen yourself on the green. The same as when Eleanor left. Weak. Crumbling. Bordering on hysterical. Forgive me for saying so, dear, but you're a much better person without her. Perhaps you can try for another child. You're young yet, and Joseph's been waiting long enough for a son. Hopefully you can take better care this time."

  "Please."

  Rose set down the braid and met my gaze. "So you can what, go chasing after Eleanor?"

  I was wholly awake now, ready to fight for my daughter. "Yes."

  "You're a selfish woman, Sue. Eleanor's gone. Gone for good. But that's no reason the village should let you go, too. How many customers would Crucialis lose if your wax and candles were gone?"

  The wick was nearly complete.

  "She's my daughter."

  Rose looked down at Eleanor's hair. "Something you saw fit to overlook five times already. But this time will be the last." She finished the wick and stood, taking the lock of hair with her. "This time nothing will be left behind that you could stumble across." And with that she opened the door of the stove and threw the hair inside.

  "No!" I cried, the scent of scorched hair making me sick.

  The piping of the queen came to me. Brrrr, rap, rap rap.

  Rose, her face grim, hadn't heard, or perhaps she was hiding the fact that she had. She began dipping the wick into the pot of wax.

  Again the sound came, long and triumphant. The new queen had won her challenge, and by now she would have killed off not only the old queen but her brood-mates as well.

  The door jingled and in stepped Joseph, hat held tightly in one hand. He walked through the aisles of the store and entered the kitchen.

  "They've agreed?" Rose asked.

  Joseph stared into my eyes. "It doesn't sit well with Pastor David, but yes, they've agreed."

  The moment I heard Joseph's voice, the last of my memories fell into place. I had been promised to Joseph when I was fifteen, but I had railed against the decision. I had loved someone else -- a deckhand on one of the ships that came to the village often. The very night I heard the news, I had stolen away on his ship, hoping to leave Crucialis for good.

 
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