Hey guys! I’m so excited to share this short story with you all!
Trigger warning: This story contains abuse (physical and emotional), murder, and suicide attempts.
I was born with blood on my hands. It still stains my skin now, no matter how hard I try to rid myself of it.
I shove my hands into my ragged pockets and hunch my shoulders against the rain. The graveyard is full of clusters of people, but I am not one of them. I stand off to the side, just in view of the open grave, yet far enough away no one will be bothered by my presence.
There are fewer people than I expected, with Midwife Sasha being such “an outstanding member of the community” as Mahala said. I suppose with the fever going around, everyone wants to avoid close contact with the first casualty. Though there are plenty of people who just wanted to gather and gossip.
The minister finished speaking several minutes ago and now talks with Mahala and her husband, my new guardians. They’re too engrossed in their conversation to notice when I slip away.
I melt into the trees around the graveyard. As soon as I’m out of sight, I relax. Without the judgmental stares and whispered conversations, I almost feel safe. The trees don’t care who I am. Squirrels and rabbits run from everyone, not just me.
I sit on the ground, my back to a tree and pull my knees to my chest. What will happen to me now that Midwife Sasha is dead? I don’t think I can stand to live with Mahala, but I don’t really have a choice. No one would take me in. Not with my curse.
Alone, I finally let myself cry for the only person who really cared about me. I stare at the grass at my feet. The minister read something from his black book about green pastures and heaven. I don’t know if there is a God, but if there is, I hope he put Midwife Sasha in green pastures. When the village boys threw stones at me, she would wrap me in her ample arms until I stopped crying. She always made sure I had something to eat and sewed me clothes when I outgrew or tore my previous ones.
“Jared?” says a soft voice and I flinch until I realize who it is. The tailor’s daughter, Sarah, stands in front of me, her gloved hands clasped. I didn’t get the traditional funeral gloves like everyone else. Perhaps they felt I needed another reminder that I didn’t belong.
She wears a dark blue dress I remember seeing her in one of the last Sundays Midwife Sasha took me to church. I don’t know why anyone would enjoy going to church. All the minister ever talks about is judgment, his face flushed red and spit flying from his mouth. Most of the time, I think he’s speaking to me. Thankfully, Midwife Sasha only went to church on occasion, usually when a baby died.
“Are you alright?” Sarah asks. Her petticoat sticks out beneath her dress. It’s muddy.
I look up at her and shrug. The rough, wet bark of the tree scrapes my shoulders. “I’m fine.”
“You were crying.” She offers me her white handkerchief, but I don’t take it. Such a pretty thing should not be soiled by my hands. After a minute, she puts it back in her pocket. “Why are you out here?”
I don’t answer. We both know why. No one wants me around. It’s better for everyone if I’m not there.
She looks at the ground, then drops a dinner roll into my lap. “I wasn’t sure if you had eaten anything lately.”
I want to give it back, to say I don’t accept charity, but Sarah just wants to help and none of the other village children would even dare to speak with me. So I thank her.
For a minute, we stare at each other awkwardly, then she says, “I should be going before Father comes looking for me.”
Just as she turns to leave, Mahala’s harsh voice yells my name. Sarah and I flinch. I scramble to my feet and stuff the roll in my pocket. Sarah runs in the opposite direction. Even she is afraid to be seen with me.
“Jared, come here. Now.”
I want to remain here in the solitude provided by the trees. The shouting gets louder and finally Mahala’s hulk of a husband, Boswell, crashes through undergrowth and stands above me. He scowls. “Get up.”
Before I have a chance to even move, he jerks me to my feet by my arm. I fight him, but he’s too strong and drags me back to the graveyard.
Only a few people linger, all of them visiting other graves and depositing small bouquets of flowers beside the headstones. Mahala stands next to the now filled in grave. I wonder how long I was crying in the woods. I should have run away while I had the chance.
Mahala joins us and Boswell practically drags me back Midwife Sasha’s tiny one-room cabin. I struggle to keep up, my feet leaving ruts in the muddy streets. I try to wiggle out of his grasp, but his grip only tightens.
No one we pass even glances my way. They don’t care about me or my predicament. I want the puddles to swallow me up. I want to twist out of Boswell’s grasp and run back to the forest. I want to be alone. I want to be anywhere but where Mahala and Boswell are.
When we finally arrive, Mahala goes in first, then Boswell and me. He slams the door shut and slides the bolt. He completely ignores me and pours himself a cup of coffee from the blackened pot over the hearth.
“Good riddance.” Mahala shakes her cloak out. Tiny raindrops splatter on the floor, the only tears Midwife Sasha’s daughter will shed for her. “I wondered when she’d finally shrivel up and die.”
Boswell laughs and downs his coffee in two large gulps. “Aye.”
“I suppose we have Jared to thank for that. He and his curse were finally useful.” Mahala fixes me with a piercing glare. “Take your coat and shoes off. You’re making a mess.”
“Yes, Mahala,” I say and start to take my muddy boots off.
Before I can get the first one completely off, Mahala strides across the room and delivers a firm smack to my cheek. I pull back. She’s hit me before when Midwife Sasha wasn’t around, but never as hard as this. “I’ve had enough of your disrespect, boy. From now on, you will address me as ma’am or Midwife Mahala. You will do exactly as I say, as soon as I say it. If you don’t…” She leaves her sentence unfinished, giving an intentional look to Boswell.
Boswell owns the butcher’s shop in town. Once, when Midwife Sasha sent me there to fetch meat for supper, I saw him tear apart a pig’s carcass with his bare hands. I barely nod.
She slaps me again and tears spring to my eyes. “Say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
I don’t look at Mahala when I mumble, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good.” She walks away, but Boswell stares at me for a long moment before joining her at the rickety table.
When he sits, the chair creaks under his weight. “You want anything from this place?” He motions to the cabin.
Mahala laughs. “Besides any quilts or herbs, no. There’s nothing of value here.”
I leave my boots by the door and slip into Midwife Sasha’s old bedroom. There might be nothing Mahala wants, but this place is my home. I curl up on the pallet at the foot of Midwife Sasha’s bed where I normally slept. The bedroom still reeks of sickness, so I pull the quilt she made for me up to my nose and breathe in the faint scent of her tobacco. It’s barely discernable.
While Mahala and Boswell argue and bang the two chairs around, I stifle my sobs with the blanket.
Boswell finds me a few hours later and yanks the quilt from my arms. I try to scramble out of the room, but he catches me and drags me over to Mahala. “Look what I found sniveling on our quilts.”
She eyes me, shoving a handful of herbs hanging from the rafters into her pocket. “I want nothing to do with raising the cursed child of a prostitute. The only reason you are not on the streets, boy, is because someone has to keep an eye on you, so you don’t kill anyone else. Mother always had too tender of a heart for her own good, but you will find I do not.”
“Foolish old biddy,” Boswell adds.
I wipe my nose with the back of my hand. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Stop your whining.” Boswell says. He and Mahala gather up the two other quilts and the remainder of the herbs while I quietly put my boots back on. If I don’t do it now, they’ll leave whether or not I have shoes.
In a matter of minutes, Boswell is marching me out the door again and into the town. Mahala follows behind, carrying everything she plundered from the old cabin. They don’t even bother to shut the door. I want to cry again, but Boswell’s nearness frightens me too much.
The town is small, with only a few shops and houses. Midwife Sasha lived on the outskirts, near enough to go wherever she was needed, but far enough away for privacy. We pass the tailor’s shop and I think I see Sarah dusting the windowsill. The setting sun reflects off the window, so I don’t know if it’s her for sure.
Two buildings down, on the right side of the road is the butcher shop. We go into the small house attached to the shop. The whole structure is bigger than Midwife Sasha’s home, but the scent of blood lingers in the air.
Once inside, Mahala sets about serving up stew from a pot on the hearth. It barely steams as she ladles it into two bowls. My mouth waters.
It takes me a moment to work up the courage. “Can I have some?” For good measure, I add, “Ma’am.”
She gives me a long hard look. “No.”
Boswell takes a seat at the table and chews loudly, slurping broth off the tarnished spoon.
“Please?” I haven’t had anything except for a tiny breakfast today.
“She said no.” Boswell gets up and drags me over to the pantry. He yanks the door open and throws me in. I land hard on my elbow.
He shuts the door, plunging me into darkness except for the sliver of light slipping under the door. Something grates against the floor and thuds against the door. The light disappears.
If I die in here, no one will know. No one would care.
I grope around and find a lumpy bag of potatoes. I want to eat one, but who knows what Boswell will do if he found out. I hug my knees to my chest and find the roll Sarah gave me in my pocket. I eat it slowly. It practically melts on my tongue. I should save some of it, but I finish it before I think better of it.
After the kitchen grows quiet, I realize they aren’t intending to let me out.
The village boys told me that thirteen was too old to cry. But their lives hadn’t been broken and all the light extinguished.
Five years later
For a few months, I had held on to the hope that Mahala would soften towards me. She never did, though she eventually tired of hitting me over every infraction. I still sleep in the pantry every night, though I barely have enough space to lie down anymore.
Now, I’m standing on the hearth, cutting vegetables for stew with a knife so dull the blade couldn’t cut through butter. She says it’s so I can’t kill anyone with it. Everyone seems to think I have a fondness for murder, but I’ve never hurt anyone. I used to see death as a curse and a taint on the world. Now it seems to me like those who have died have escaped a greater curse. The curse of living.
On the other side of the kitchen, Mahala talks with one of the village women. Their voices are low and they keep glancing at me. I know exactly what they are talking about. It’s the latest gossip Mahala has been spreading. She’s been trying to have a baby for years now. She blames me and my curse for the miscarriages and the stillborn baby last year. A few months ago, she realized she’s pregnant again and the rumors began.
The knife slips and I nick my finger. Blood pools up and mingles with the crimson birthmarks that cover my hands. I quickly stick my finger in my mouth, the tangy taste of blood making me gag.
“Have you ever thought about disposing of him?” the village woman asks. Her beady eyes flick over to me.
“Of course.” Mahala rests a hand on her barely visible stomach. She lowers her voice. “Someone told me if he were to be killed ‘unjustly,’ his curse would transfer to my baby. There always has to be a bearer of the curse.”
I wipe my finger on my breeches and resume cutting the potato. Though I’ve heard these sentiments many times, they still sting. I quickly finish the remaining root vegetables, blocking out the hum of the gossip with the thunk of the knife against the wooden cutting block. I drop the cut pieces into the stew, give it a quick stir and slip past the women to join Boswell in the butcher shop below. Mahala barely glances at me, but the other woman recoils.
I take the small staircase hidden behind a door in the upstairs and hope Boswell doesn’t notice I’m late. While he certainly isn’t the kindest, he at least tolerates me when he’s sober. After a few drinks, there’s no telling what he’ll do.
“You’re late,” he says gruffly. “There’s some chickens that need plucking in the back. I already scalded them.”
I nod and weave my way between the huge cutting boards and step over a pile of bones people buy for their dogs. I grab my grimy apron from a hook and tie it on. I hate the weight of the dead chicken in my lap, but I hold it there anyway, stripping the bird of its feathers.
As I work, I finalize the plans I’ve been making during the nights when I can’t sleep. There’s no future for me here, not with everyone believing I’m cursed. But if I run away, I might be able to find a place where I can disappear. Somewhere no one would even give me a second glance. It’s a long way to Boston, but with the food I’ve been saving, I might be able to make it.
After a few hours, the birds are mostly plucked and I move to one of the cutting boards to cut away the skin and remaining pinfeathers. Boswell reluctantly hands me a small knife.
“Morning, Boswell,” the tailor says, stomping snow from his boots. Sarah stands behind him, wrapped in a dark blue cloak.
“Morning, Jacob.” Boswell wipes his hands on his bloody apron. “What can I help you with?”
“I want to sell my cow. Will you come look at her?”
Boswell steps around the counter and follows the tailor outside. Sarah remains inside, glancing over at me.
I peel the remaining skin off the last chicken and throw it in the scrap pile. I wipe the knife on my apron. With a quick glance at the door, I go over where Sarah cannot see me and slice a small chunk of ham from the back of the largest hunk hanging from the ceiling. I slip it in my pocket.
When I come out from behind the ham, Sarah is looking out the window. She rubs her sleeve over the frosted glass, clearing a small patch to peer through.
“I’m leaving tonight,” I say. We don’t really know each other, but ever since the day of Midwife Sasha’s funeral, I’ve felt a connection with Sarah. Occasionally, I’ll find a dinner roll on top of the woodpile and know it’s from her. She’s the only thing that has kept me from ending my miserable existence.
She turns. “I’ll be going to visit my cousin this afternoon,” she says. “I haven’t seen him in ages.”
I frown and begin to ask what she means, when the door opens and Boswell and the tailor stomp in, bringing a small flurry of snow into the shop. They leave little puddles of dirty water on the floor. I’ll have to wipe those up later.
The tailor thanks Boswell and he and Sarah leave before I can tell her thank you for all her kindness.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully as I do the various tasks Boswell directs me to.
Just after closing, Boswell counts the money, while I wipe off the cutting tables with a bloody rag. I rinse the cloth in a bucket and the crimson stains wash away. The splotchy birthmarks on the backs of my hands remain.
Boswell grunts and I hear him start counting the money again. A few coins bounce to the floor and I pick them up and put them on the table. He snatches them back.
I sweep the chicken feathers out the back door, then lean the broom against the wall. I turn to find Boswell glaring at me.
“Give it to me.”
I reach for the broom. I don’t see anything I missed.
“No. The money you stole.”
I stop. “I didn’t take any money.”
“Then where is it? I left you here alone while I looked at Jacob’s cow. Give me the money you took.”
“I didn’t take anything, honest.” I hold my empty hands up.
Boswell reaches into my pocket and extracts the chunk of ham. “Didn’t take anything, honest. Apparently you need a lesson on what happens to thieves who lie about stealing.”
He drags me up the stairs and into the kitchen where Mahala ladles stew into three bowls. Boswell sweeps one off the table and it crashes to the floor, flinging stew and sharp shards of the bowl across the floor.
“What happened?” Mahala asks, scowling at the shattered bowl. “Why did you do that?”
Boswell doesn’t answer, he shoves me into the pantry and slams the door. He slides the bolt he installed when I first arrived.
Mahala repeats her question. I can barely hear her muffled voice.
“He stole from me then said he hadn’t. I found part of the ham in his pocket.”
“Did he take anything else?”
“Almost half of what I got today.”
Mahala gasps. Her voice lowers a notch and I have to press my ear against the splintery wood to hear her next words. “I don’t want my child growing up around that boy.”
“Our child, Mahala.”
“Whatever. What will we do about him?”
“I intend to teach him a lesson he won’t soon forget. Then you can deal with him for once.”
I don’t want to listen to them anymore, talking about me like I’m an unruly dog. I retreat to the back of the pantry and sit on a barrel of apples. To be honest, whatever Boswell is intending on doing will be better than what Mahala is most likely concocting.
Boswell comes into the pantry after dinner. He swears at me, being sure to inform me that I will “rot in the deepest pit of hell with the devil himself,” then grabs his flask of whiskey and returns to the kitchen, leaving the pantry door cracked open.
Soon the light beneath the door fades to gray as Mahala extinguishes the candles around the kitchen. “Night, Boswell,” she says, then her footsteps fade into the bedroom.
At least an hour later, Boswell hasn’t come to get me yet. I creep toward the door and push it open. The hinges creak, but the form at the table doesn’t move.
Boswell snores, an empty glass next to him. Assuming he doesn’t wake up, this is the perfect time to make my escape. I return to the pantry and grab my collected food from its hiding place.
When I return to the kitchen, the musket above the fireplace calls to me. I used to be a decent shot and it might come in useful. Midwife Sasha taught me how to use it in case I ever needed to defend the home. I lift it from the nails where it hangs. I don’t think it’s loaded, but I think I remember how to ram the cartridge down into the barrel. I’ll be sure once I get away from the town.
I grab the pouch of ammunition from the mantle and head for the stairs. The butt of the musket smacks into the table with a sharp crack.
I freeze as Boswell stirs. Our eyes lock for a minute, then I swing the barrel of the musket between us. Even though it’s not loaded, it still looks threatening.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?” His words slur together as he rises.
I cock it with a click. “Don’t come any closer. Just let me go and I will never bother you and Mahala again.”
“And let you rob us blind?” Boswell lunges for me.
On reflex, I pull the trigger. It doesn’t click like it should.
Instead, the musket fires.
Boswell’s body falls onto the table. Mahala flings the door to the bedroom open and stares at her husband, then at me. I drop the musket and it clatters to the floor. Without thinking, I touch Boswell’s body and my hand comes away sticky with blood. He’s dead.
“No.” My hands shake and I clench them into fists. “No.”
Mahala gapes at me with bloodshot eyes. Her face is unreadable. Then it hardens and she screams, “Murderer! Help! Murderer on the loose!” She runs to the window in the bedroom and flings it open, repeating her scream.
Answering shouts come from the neighboring homes and shops.
I scramble to the staircase and stumble down and out the back of the shop. The first snow of the year crunches under my boots and the cold bites into my skin through my thin clothes.
I don’t know where I’m going. All I know is if they catch me, there will be no trial. There will be no time in prison. No second chance. Only a noose waits for me now.
Candles flicker to life in the houses I pass. Voices shout behind me and when I look back, a slew of men with muskets and torches are on my tail. I veer to the left and head out of town and to the river. I might be able to lose them in the forest surrounding the waterway.
I crash through the underbrush and thin branches slap my face as if they are reprimanding me for my actions. A patch of briars snag my pants and I rip away, tearing my breeches beyond repair. I stumble onto the riverbank and catch myself on a tree root before I fall.
Two yards below me, the river rushes by. I watch the water and gasp for breath, the gravity of what I’ve done catching up to me.
“There he is!”
I look over my shoulder and see the blacksmith’s son waving his torch wildly. “He’s over here!”
The men of the village thunder through the trees and howl for my blood. I feel like I might be sick.
I clamp my hands over my ears. The metallic scent of Boswell’s blood floods into my nostrils and nearly chokes me. I pull my hands away and notice for the first time the tears on my face.
“We found ‘im!”
“String ‘im up!”
I cover my ears again, ignoring the blood. I squeeze my eyes shut and rock back and forth. If there is a God, this is surely His judgment on me. If all He wanted to do was make me suffer, why did He even allow me to live? Why couldn’t He have let me die instead of my mother?
I open my eyes and watch the river again. To fall into the raging water means certain death. Escape. No more curse. A moment of peace from the catcalls of the mob. An end to a horrible story.
With a deep breath, I throw myself into the water. My blood will be the last on my hands.
Part two coming February 29th!