Trigger warning: This story contains abuse (physical and emotional), murder, and suicide attempts.
When I wake on the riverbank, I curse the God who just won’t let me die. I curse the sun creeping over the horizon like a skulking cat. I curse the crusted blood beneath my fingernails.
“Why can’t I just die!” I scream up at the sky. I lay on my back, watching the purplish clouds scuttle across the lightening sky. God doesn’t answer.
I’m used to it. No matter how many bedtime prayers Midwife Sasha made me repeat, I never believed God could actually hear me. And if He could, He surely had more important things to do than listening to a cursed child’s mumblings.
The sunrise is entirely gone by the time I push myself to my feet and trudge along the riverbank. The trees that grow along the waterway are barren. Their branches snap and crack in the chilly breeze. Though the sun is warm enough to melt the frost, I’m still freezing. Apparently God wanted me to die of exposure instead of by drowning.
I keep walking to stay as warm as I can, but I don’t know where I’m going. I follow the river, knowing it flows away from the village and the men hunting me. I wonder if they gave up when I jumped or if they are looking for my body just to be sure I am good and dead.
I don’t particularly want to think about it, so I try to block out the memories of the night before. But each step echoes with Neesha’s screams and Boswell’s curses.
I walk faster, trying to leave the voices behind. They keep pace with me and drown out my footsteps until I fall to my knees beside the river. I rock back and forth, hands over my ears. “Stop,” I whisper. “Stop.”
I hear the crack of the musket I was sure wasn’t loaded. I smell the tang of blood, gunpowder, and whiskey. I feel the slick blood on my hands.
You’ll rot in the deepest pit of hell with the devil ‘imself.
I huddle against the rough bark of a tree, hoping a posse from the village comes by and puts me out of my misery. I don’t care how they do it. Anything is preferable to this.
It’s late afternoon when I hear voices. Not just the accusing ones in my mind, but real voices.
“I can’t believe you are finally getting married,” says a woman. “And to such a beautiful woman too.”
A man sighs good-naturedly. “That’s not why I’m marrying her.”
“Then tell me, dear cousin, why.”
Their voices are getting louder. I crouch and peer around the tree trunk I had been leaning against. I don’t see anyone until the man laughs loudly and I spot a flash of a soft blue cloak and a dark brown waistcoat.
I pull back. Who knows how far the news of Boswell’s death has spread. Even if they haven’t heard of it, a raggedy boy hiding in the woods is certainly enough to raise suspicion.
They stop on the other side of my tree. I can see the hem of the woman’s cloak. It’s speckled with mud.
“So…” she prompts. Her voice is vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it.
“It’s hard to explain.”
“That’s what you say.”
“Just let it go, Sarah.” He laughs, but I barely register the sound.
Sarah. That’s why her voice was familiar. She left the village before last night. She wouldn’t know about the murder. But there’s no good way to ask her for help.
I remain crouched behind the tree, debating what to do. They continue their conversation. Sarah teases her cousin, Edmund, about his fiancée and then they start discussing what they will eat for dinner. Just the sound of roast duck and fresh bread makes my mouth water.
My legs are very stiff from remaining in this position for so long. When I go to move, I slip and land on my back on the dead leaves. I wince, more because of the loud noise than landing on my elbow.
“What was that?” Edmund comes around one side of the tree and Sarah does the other.
We all stare at each other for a minute. I’m still on my back on the ground, propped up with my hands.
Sarah breaks the silence. “Jared? What are you doing here?”
“You know him?” Edmund asks her, his brown eyebrows going up. He has a small mustache and goatee.
“He lives with the butcher and his family. I’ve known him since we were children.”
“Well then,” he turns to me, “any friend of Sarah’s is a friend of mine.” He offers his hand to help me up, but I ignore it. Better to keep my bloodstained hands hidden.
I get to my feet and brush the dirt from my breeches. It only smears into the damp fabric.
“Why are you wet?” Sarah asks.
“I fell into the river this morning.” I’ve found over the years that keeping the lie as close to the truth as possible is safer than purely making something up.
“Well,” Edmund says, “I’m sure my mother would be happy to find you some dry clothes.”
“Actually, I need to keep going.”
“Where are you going?” Sarah tugs her cloak tighter around her shoulders.
I shrug. “Boston, maybe.”
Edmund whistles. “That’s quite the trip. Why don’t you stop by the house and Mother will get you some food and a coat?”
I take a step back. “I really need to leave.” If they are still searching for me and they find me with Sarah, they might accuse her of helping me escape. I don’t want her to get hurt. “I don’t want you to get into trouble on my account.”
“Let me help you,” Sarah says, but I hear the unspoken words clearer. Let me help you one more time.
I hesitate. I don’t know how much of a head start I have on the village men, though I wasted it by sleeping by the tree. For all I know, they might be just behind me. But perhaps they waited for daybreak before setting off to find me.
The thought of one bite of roasted duck is enough to convince me. “Just for a moment. Then I have to leave.” And I tell myself that I will leave.
“This way,” Sarah says, taking her cousin’s arm. They lead me down a worn path in the woods to a small cabin nestled between a few pines. Directly across from the front door is the road.
I want to return to the safety offered by the trees, but Edmund has already opened the door. Sarah goes in first, cheerily greeting whoever is inside. Edmund motions me forward.
There is only one big room inside of the cabin. It smells of cooking meat and herbs. An elderly woman bends over the hearth, but straightens when she sees us. Her graying hair is pulled back away from her face in a loose bun.
She envelops Sarah in a hug, then smiles at me. No one has ever smiled at me like that before. It’s entirely genuine and unguarded.
That’s because she doesn’t know who you are, Murderer. You killed a man last night.
I swallow and force the voice to the back of my mind. I try to return her smile, but I think it comes out more of a grimace.
“Who is this, dear?” The woman pats Sarah’s arm.
“This is Jared,” Sarah says. “He lives with the butcher back home.”
Edmund clears his throat. “I need to get back to the church. Don’t eat all the duck without me.” He leaves and shuts the door behind him.
“What brings you this far down the river?” the woman asks.
Sarah glances at me. I shift my boots on the dirt floor. “I’m on my way to Boston. To train with a master butcher who lives there.” Sarah knows that is a lie, but there’s no reason this woman needs to know.
“That’s quite a long journey.”
Sarah jumps in. “That’s what Edmund and I said. We thought you might be able to give him some food and maybe one of Uncle Paul’s old coats.”
“I can certainly do that.” The woman hobbles over to the cot in one corner of the room and kneels beside a chest. She lifts the latch and opens it. “I’m Martha by the way, but everyone calls me Aunt Martha.”
I don’t know how to respond, so I don’t. Martha and Sarah don’t notice, they’re too busy digging through the chest.
Sarah giggles and holds up a tiny baby outfit. “Why do you still have these?”
Martha takes it from her, stares at it for a minute, then carefully folds it. “I’m saving them for the next person who needs them.”
“Maybe you should give them to Edmund and Marian when they get married.”
“I’m not getting my hopes up.” Martha laughs, then pulls a stack of clothing from the bottom of the chest. “Here you go, Jared. These belonged to my late husband. I hope they fit.” She hands them to me. “Sarah and I will go outside while you change.”
I should refuse the clothes, but I don’t. I just hold them as the two women walk outside and shut the door. Alone in this cabin, I’ve never felt more out of place. Back at Mahala’s house, I knew where I belonged, who I was. But here I’m not sure.
Before I can change my mind, I pull off my nearly threadbare clothes and put on the new ones. They are a little baggy and worn, but they are nicer than most other things that I have ever owned. There’s even a pair of thick stockings. They are deliciously warm and protect my feet from the dampness still present in my boots. Finally I put on the brown coat. The sleeves are a little long, but I don’t mind. All the better to hide my hands.
I linger by the fire for a minute before I go outside to find Martha and Sarah. “Thank you,” I say simply, keeping my hands in my pockets.
Martha just beams. “I’m so glad you can use them. Sarah told me you want to get moving as soon as you can, but could I persuade you to stay for dinner?”
I think of the duck roasting over the fire. There are only a few hours of daylight left and I don’t want to fall any more behind than I already have.
“Please?” Sarah asks. “You can leave first thing tomorrow morning.”
“I guess.” I hope this isn’t the wrong choice.
Martha and Sarah both smile. We go back inside and the two women begin working on making bread and chopping vegetables. I just stand to the side and watch until Sarah waves me over and shows me how to cut an onion.
After a few minutes, my eyes are watering and I’ve barely peeled one onion. When Sarah takes it from me to demonstrate the process again, all I can see are the differences between our hands. Hers are perfectly smooth and white and her fingernails are neat. My hands are covered in blood-red birthmarks and my nails are ragged from sleepless nights.
She finally gives up on the onion and gives me a beet with instructions to peel, then chop it. The knife she gives me is duller than the butcher’s knives, but sharper than the one Mahala has me use. The purple-red juice of the beet covers my hands within seconds, melding with my birthmarks and almost rendering them invisible.
Martha finishes her bread and puts it a pan to bake, then turns the spit where the duck is roasting. The drippings from the meat drop into the fire with a hiss.
I’m so distracted by the rotating hunk of meat I don’t notice what I’m doing. The knife slips from the beet and slices into my thumb. I suck in a breath as deep red blood pools on my finger and splatters onto the tabletop.
Martha looks over at me and notices the blood at once. “Clumsy boy,” she scolds gently, coming over and leading me to a bucket of water in the corner. She dips a cloth in the water and uses it to wipe away the blood. “It’s not deep, just a little nick. Looks worse than it actually is.”
Sarah watches us concerned from the table.
I can’t think of anything except that she is touching my hands. My blood is dripping into her palm as she presses the cloth against the cut. Any second, she will see my birthmarks and know my curse. The edges of my vision are going blurry.
Martha guides me to a chair at the table and commands me to sit. She leaves me for a second, then returns with a strip of white fabric. She kneels beside the chair and wraps it around my finger tightly and ties it off neatly. “There.” She rinses the now bloody cloth, wrings it out, then cleans the remaining blood and beet juice from both my hands. After she finishes, she sits back on her heels. “Is that really why you are running away?” Her eyes are on my birthmarks.
“Yes,” I whisper, hardly believing I’m answering her.
Martha takes my hands in her gnarled ones. “Did they call you cursed?”
Her thumbs rub circles over the backs of my hands. “My baby sister had a mark on her cheek. They called it the Devil’s mark. When she was twelve, they drowned her as a witch.” Her voice chokes up. “I tell you, she was the sweetest creature that ever lived.” She takes a deep breath. “Don’t ever let them tell you you’re cursed. The good Lord made you just the way He wanted to.”
But she doesn’t know who I am. She doesn’t know what I’ve done. Her sister didn’t deserve to die. I do. I killed my mother when I was born. I couldn’t save Midwife Sasha when she got sick. I pulled the trigger on Boswell.
“You just stay there awhile, Sarah and I’ll finish with dinner.” She quickly cleans my blood from the table, discards the soiled vegetable, and cuts the remaining vegetables with Sarah’s help. The thud of the knife on the board echoes the familiar words.
Part three coming March 14th!
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