Chapter Ninety-Three: Moonlight

 moonlight and clouds 
I grasped the rusted latch and pushed gently. The door did not give. I pushed harder but it still did not budge. Finally, I drove my shoulder into the door and shoved hard, wincing as the warped wood scraped across the rough hewn floor. 

Oh, God!

I froze, heart pounding. Standing still in the dark, I did not dare to even breath. I listened carefully for any movement from inside.

No stirring, only the faint sound of snoring, punctuated now and then by a snort.

My courage returned. 

I must be fast. In and out.

The door was cracked open just enough now to allow me to slip inside and so I did.

Red coals burned in the fire grate, illuminating a shadowy path across the room. Mr. Greer’s thinning hair was visible combed over a balding head as it peeked up over the back of his worn chair. He was the source of the snoring. There was no sign of his wife.

I had practiced walking soundlessly in my shoes for hours. Step. Feel for loose floorboards. Step. Feel again. I made my way carefully across the room behind him.

There were two doors off of this room. I picked the one on the right, the one Anne had been carried off through when I had visited before.

There were six infants in boxes lining the floor and there were four more toddlers sleeping fitfully on mats. 

Now it was clear what was not said before. This was a baby farm. The bare room smelled sour, of vomit and feces. I shuddered.

Quickly, I located Anne in one of the boxes and picked her up, threadbare blankets and all. She felt lighter, even after all this time. She opened her eyes for a moment when she saw me, smiled faintly, then drifted back to sleep. Another child whimpered in the corner, stirring. I slipped out of the room, making my way quickly out of the door. 

As I left, pulling the door shut, I could hear a wailing cry start up. I turned and ran as hard as I could across the yard.

Maybe she would not be missed?

I knew that was impossible. I ran harder, through the gate. My fleeing steps jolted Anne awake but she kept silent. I could see in the moonlight that her eyes were sunken and glazed over. She was listless and malnourished. No wonder she was so quiet. 

Feed them as little food as possible, pocket the money you save…

Those other children were starving, too. A sob caught in my chest. 

You cannot save them all.

I knew there was a carriage waiting for me at the end of the lane. The night was chill but sweat still stung my eyes as I ran toward the soft sound of nickering horses. Their black outline took shape as the moon moved out from behind a cloud again. A dark, shadowy form rose up as I neared, opening the door, strong hands helped me inside. 

I held Anne close against my chest as the carriage lurched forward. 

Safe.

For now.

Chapter Ninety-Two: Brewing


The warm bitterness of the coffee matched my mood. I took it black now. Black like the darkness looming outside, ominous and harsh. I had missed it terribly. Tea had always seemed weak and patronizing, even more so now that the world had shifted.

I sat down the cup on the small lace covered table beside me. My hands shook a fair bit and there was a slight rattle as the cup came to rest again on the saucer.

A letter lay on my lap. It had arrived the day before, forwarded to the boarding house that was my home for the time being.

I smoothed out the paper again and stared at the flowering script, letting the effect of the coffee and the words wash over me.

The instructions were detailed. I was to meet Mrs. Brierly at the New Calton burial ground in Edinburgh in a fortnight exactly at sunrise. There was an arched gravestone in the far northeast corner where she would be waiting. Bring no one. Tell no one. Wear black, full mourning, complete with veil.

My mind raced.

I would have to wait to purchase the clothing as I got closer to Edinburgh. There was no way to do that here without arousing suspicion. I was too well known. The train tickets to Scotland. Should I purchase early to guarantee passage? Or wait until the last minute to minimize the risk of being found out?

And Anne. 

There was the matter of Anne that must be addressed.

Timing was key. I would not be able to take her with me, at least not yet, but I also could not leave her here in that awful place with the Greers.

I had gone there, begging to see my daughter. The farmhouse was in frightening condition. The red faced woman, rotund woman who answered the door looked puzzled until it dawned on her who I was. I caught a glimpse of Anne being dragged to a back room before the door was slammed shut. There was recognition in her sad eyes. I could hear her screams for me from the other side of the warped wood. Shouting. A slap. Silence.

How could one feel this much hate and not be consumed by it?

No. She would not stay there much longer. I would see just how much love was willing to compromise and sacrifice for the sake of love.

Chapter Ninety-One: Another Light

 Gas lit street lamp. 
“You cannot have her.” The ancient man with the gravely voice scribbled something in a ledger. The well organized rows of curls on his powdered white wig rested on his shoulders, standing sentry. 

“What do you mean I cannot have her?” I struggled to keep my voice even. I had quickly learned that any show of emotion was inevitably ascribed to my perceived insanity and affected my credibility.

He continued scribbling, dipping staccato-like into the black ink pot, then scribbling some more.

He looked up finally when he realized I was not leaving, sighed loudly, then closed the heavy leather bound ledger with a deafening slam that caused me to start involuntarily.

“You are an unfit, unwed mother.” He enunciated carefully, as if he were explaining to an imbecile.

“I was wrongly imprisoned and I am widowed.” I spoke through my teeth to keep from screaming at him. “Those are not crimes!”

“Nooooo…. They are not. Wrongly is up for interpretation, but they are enough to keep you from getting your daughter back.” He held me in his stoney gaze, unmoved. “Furthermore, you will be required to pay an allowance to Mrs. Greer towards the care of your daughter.”

“Please.” The lump forming in my throat made it difficult to speak. I blinked, my eyes burning with the promise of tears still left unshed. “She is all I have left in this world.”

“No. She is a ward of the crown and will remain so.” He stood, the wooden chair scraping on the stone floor as it was pushed back. “Now leave.”

I was frozen in place, panic rising.

What else can I do? Fall to my hands and knees to beg? Offer up my body?

My body. It was used up, spent. Nothing to be desired anymore. There were scars that ran deeper than what the eyes could see. Things had been done…

My mind stopped there. It could go no further, think no other thought than that I was lost. 

Anne was lost.

How to get her back? Kidnap her? Would that even be possible? Maybe…

A hand appeared on my shoulder and pulled me away. I turned to look at the owner and recoiled reflexively in spite of myself at the pock marked and scarred face. His right eye was opaque, unseeing. It still caught me off guard from time to time.

Heaven had turned its back on us all it seemed.

“Come.” He spoke firmly.

We walked outside the courts, onto the streets.

No solicitor would take my case. A woman shamed. No one believed that I should have my child back.

I could not give up!

He paused to a stop by a lamp post. The sky was gloomy and overcast and the flames had already been lit. I pulled the wrap around my shoulders tighter against the chill that suddenly passed through me.

“I have a question,” he said softly, taking my free hand.

Oh, please. No. Please don’t ask me anything. Not today.

“I do not know if it will help matters but I offer myself to you as a husband.” There was earnestness, kindness showing in his one good eye. 

I could barely hold his gaze. I felt ashamed. I was relying upon him heavily to help me navigate the courts. Using him.

I do not love you.

Maybe I had once. 

Yes. I had. 

What had changed?

I was used up, spent. An empty shell. 

To refuse him would be to alienate my one remaining friend. To accept would be to lie to him. I had no intention of ever following through with marrying anyone, not until I could put the ghost of my past to rest. Edinburgh was far away but any promise of that pulled too strongly now. I was haunted and it was a terrifying, unrelenting obsession. The name, Nathaniel Brierly, repeated day and night in my head, invading even my panicked thoughts of Anne.

A woman in deep red silk brushed past and my heart skipped a beat until I realized it was no one I knew. The gait was wrong, the waist was wider, the hair a different shade…

One month until that letter was to arrive. One month to stall him. One month to plan stealing back my Anne. 

Lies. I would need many, many lies. I had plenty of room for them now, inside the empty shell that had once been me. 

We were two broken shadow people standing in the street, beneath a gas lamp. 

“Oh.” I smiled at him gratefully. “Of course… Thank you.”

He squeezed my hand, smiled, relieved that he had not been rebuffed.

A yes without saying yes. I could call it a misunderstanding later.

Yes, a misunderstanding. I took his arm and we walked onward together.

Chapter Ninety: Setting Sail

  
“Pssst! Hedwig!” 

I heard the coarse whisper. It registered somewhere in my head but I was too numb to process it properly. I did not move in the darkness. 

Why bother?

There was impatient tapping of a fingertip on the heavy metal door. “Are you in there, Hedwig?” Knuckles rapping, louder. “It’s me, Zenobia. You have a visitor!”

A key turned in the lock and the door creaked open slowly, banging against the wall. I started.

Too bright!

I shielded my face from the light of the two oil lamps.

“Evelyn?” The voice. I knew the voice. A man. 

Oh, God. 

A man.

Who?

The Reverend. 

No! Not like this!

My shift was stained with urine and feces. My hair had been cut short to combat the lice and what was left was matted about my head. I reeked of foul pestilence. I could hear his steps inching forward tentatively only to stop suddenly a few feet away. I could feel him recoil.

“Oh, God!” 

I had seen no light for…. how long? Days? Weeks? Assigned again to the “tank” for some minor infraction I could no longer remember. The dark had become a comforting companion, a warm blanket of sorts. Now they were taking it away.

No, no light! Please…

My eyes hurt. I squinted through the pain and looked up at his face. Only, it was not his face that I saw. It was horribly disfigured, unrecognizable. 

Who was this man?!?!

Surely, it was another hallucination. The moorings of my mind had been set loose and I was not sure that I had ever been completely sane.

He spoke again, more softly as he squatted down beside me. “Evelyn…” It was indeed the Reverend. 

The smallpox!

I hazarded a glimpse again at his face. Scars. He must have suffered terribly.

More footsteps advancing in the hallway, raised voices saying angry words that I could not quite make out.

“How dare you!” Dr. Jenkins shouted as he entered the cell. “Explain yourself.” I whimpered at the sound of his voice.

The Reverend stood.

“Who are you?” The Reverend demanded.

“I am the director of this asylum, Dr. Stuart Jenkins. Who are you?” He replied, haughtily.

“The Reverend Drummond. I am here to collect Mrs. Aspern.”

“She is a patient here and as such, is under my jurisdiction.”

“She is no longer yours to torment.” Papers rustling. “Here. This is an order from the magistrate. I am to assume custody.”

The papers changed hands. 

Someone knelt beside me again, took my hand. Only it was not Reverend Drummond’s hand. It was that other hand. The hand that caused all of this pain. The burns. The lashings. The slaps. All of the pain that hand had delivered with impunity. 

I recoiled and tried to pull away but the grip was too tight.

There was a foul breath hot on my cheek. “We are not done, you and I,” the doctor snarled. I could not see but I spit at him anyway.

“Enough!” The Reverend bellowed in his Sunday morning pulpit voice. He commanded attention. 

I felt my body lifted and carried out into the bright sunlight. I shielded my face from the sun against the rough fabric of his coat. Every movement and shift seemed to bring up new terrible odors and served to deepen my shame.

I was free? 

“Anne..,” I whispered. 

“Shhhh. Not now. Soon.”

Chapter Eighty-Nine: History

 Black and white clouds over mountains and a lake. 
“What happened to you?” 

The woman’s eyes darted fearfully from the trees in the distance, then to my face, then back to the trees again.

Yet she remained silent.

I tried again.

“Why are you here?”

She grimaced, wrinkling her forehead, but never acknowledged my question.

Her brown hair frizzed out about her ears, the bits that had slipped out from the large braid that ran down her back. 

She seemed terribly normal. 

She fed herself. She didn’t make odd noises or weep and wail incessantly. She groomed herself as much as was allowed here, brushing her hair every morning and evening. I had watched her walking from one woman to the next, whispering God knows what into each ear, patting shoulders, offering encouraging smiles.

“What is you name?”

She sighed a great sigh, then closed her eyes.

“Zenobia,” she spoke softly.

“Zenobia? That is your name?” 

What an odd name.

She nodded slowly. 

It was quiet except for the birds in the trees.

Her eyes opened suddenly. “I gave myself the name. She was an ancient Persian queen.” The woman fixed me with a piercing gaze, waiting expectantly. 

My mind wandered, imagining her in rich Persian regalia, riding a great white horse, commanding vast armies. When I did not answer, she coughed, bringing me back to the asylum. “Well? You are…?”

“Oh!” My cheeks reddened. “I am Evelyn.” 

“That isn’t made up, is it? It’s rather plain.”

“No.” I shook my head. 

“You need a new name…” Her voice trailed off as the orderly came back through looking even more sour.

It was hot outside on the porch, but after several weeks here I knew that it was preferable to the suffocating wards and spent as much time out of doors as I was allowed.

I decided to try again. “Why are you here?” I asked tentatively.

She gazed at me suspiciously. 

“Why do you care?”

“I don’t think you are insane…”

She smiled sadly, pushing back a bit of hair from her damp forehead. 

“Depends on who you ask,” she replied, laughing.

We fell silent as a dour female orderly with a pinched face strode purposefully past, shoes clacking on the wooden veranda.

“How long have you been here?” I ventured once the orderly was out of earshot.

“Six years.”

My heart sank.

Six years?

“Why?”

Zenobia took a deep breath. “Because I would not give my husband what he wanted.”

“What did he want?” I pressed.

“A son.” 

She pointed to a stooped young woman with golden hair and vacant eyes. “She has been here three years. We call her Theodora. She sank into a deep melancholy after the birth of her first baby. Her husband took a mistress. She was placed here to keep her out of the way. Now another woman, her rival, is raising her child in her family home.” Zenobia shrugged. “She will never leave. Over there by the doorway, that one is Hippolyta. She had several lovers. The wife of one grew jealous and made a report. In the process she was deemed mentally deficient and imprisoned here two years ago. She had no family that would take her. She will also probably never leave.”

She paused to look around.

“That one, Hatshepsut,” she nodded her head to an elderly, wraithlike figure, “Refused to marry an earl. Her family had her committed decades ago.”

She turned back to me. “How did you get here?”

“I am not entirely sure. But Dr. Jenkins and I have…. we have a history.” I told her about Edinburgh, about the Crimea, about my daughter, about the surgery here. “Did… Did that happen to you?” 

“It happened to all of us, one by one, since that man arrived…” She spoke softly, her eyes darting around, watchful and guarded again. 

Zenobia rose from her seat. “Excuse me. I must go.” She started to walk away but stopped short suddenly and turned, smiling. “Hedwig.”

“I beg your pardon?”  I was confused.

“Your name. Hedwig. The Polish queen who crowned herself the King of Poland. That will do nicely for you, I think.” She paused. “We are not normal. We are exceptional. All of us.”

And then she was gone.

Chapter Eighty-Eight: Crumbling

IMG_2314

I wept bitterly that night and every night after…

The days were spent in a stained jacket of sorts that wrapped my arms around the torso and held them tight. I was placed in a chair and then tied down, only to be wheeled out to the veranda to take in the air twice a day. I was fed by the orderlies as apparently I could not be trusted with utensils. 

They were probably right.

Time passed slowly. 

I thought about all of the ways I could hurt that man with a spoon: evisceration would be difficult but if he held still long enough maybe with some chloroform or ether, I could ram the handle up a nostril and do some damage to his brain, I could scoop out each eyeball or maybe even his testicles, I could shove the handle into each ear and render him deaf, I could use that same handle at his jugular and maybe make him bleed to death….

I asked everyone I came across about my daughter but was only met with blank stares or shrugs. I begged for answers, news, any bit of information. 

None came.

Dr. Jenkins himself was a specter, flitting in and out around my periphery. How lucky he must have felt when I fell into his lap here. Had it been orchestrated, his little charade? Or purely chance? What were the odds anyway? 

I had no uterus. No ovaries. No child. He had robbed me of everything I had left.

Everything but my hate.

It was not a strong enough word, really…

After a week I was pinned down for an exam by him, my legs spread wide and held in place by two male orderlies as he painfully probed with his fingers. All the while he watched my face with a grin, clearly enjoying himself.

I held his gaze until he looked away.

If I could only kick him.

But I could not. I had already tried. 

Hence the male orderlies.

They leaned heavily on my legs, forcing them still. I could no longer feel my feet, the circulation had been disrupted for so long.

I wiped away all outward emotion. I resolved that I would not give him the satisfaction of having control of me in that way any longer. There were places in my mind where he could not touch me. I escaped there until he was done. 

A female attendant stood silently to my right, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. She had little to do besides serve as an observer, a witness to my humiliation. I wondered what she must be thinking. Whenever I looked at her she looked away.

He moved up to my abdomen and removed the sutures. They had been terribly itchy. Restrained all day and all night, I could not reach the area to scratch. That fact alone was enough to drive me mad…

He was rough but the removal was a kindness, after all. My quality of life would be vastly improved. I hated him all the more for making me feel even this small amount of gratitude toward him.

Soon enough it was all over. 

I should have killed you when I had the chance, you bastard.

My legs were released as he stepped back, my chemise pulled back down to my ankles. The blood rushed back into my toes, a wave of prickly pain that excruciatingly crescendoed and then died away. He walked up to the basin and pitcher placed on the table next to the head of the bed. He washed. 

As he dried off his hands and rolled his sleeves back down he leaned in close to my ear and spoke softly. “I hear your daughter will be adopted out by a nice family. They needed extra hands to labor around the farm. They have adopted six other children from other unfit mothers already. I hope the girl does not mind cow shit…”

I closed my eyes and let the hate wash through me. I could feel it in every hair of my body, every pore, every fiber.

For now hate was my hope.

Chapter Eighty-Seven: Tethered

  

There were voices: a man and a woman, speaking in hushed tones. I tried to focus, to listen to their conversation through the fog in my head.

“The incision seems to be healing well now, Doctor.” The woman, whispered.

A man’s voice responded, softly, “Excellent. Maybe now she will not endanger herself by moving around.” 

“Shall we remove the restraints?” 

Were they referring to me?

“No. Not yet.”

I could hear the nod of the crisply starched cap, even though I could not see it.

Did I dare open my eyes?

It was then that I realized they were moving away. My opportunity to ask questions…

“Where am I?” I blurted out, looking about.

The man had turned away and was walking toward the bed across the ward, his back to me.

“You are at The Royal Asylum For Women.” The nurse spoke kindly, brushing hair back from my forehead.

“Why?”

“You had an acute attack of abdominal dropsy brought on by a neurosis.”

“Where is my daughter?” 

“Safe.”

“What does that mean?” I demanded.

“She is being cared for elsewhere.”

“By whom?” 

“I do not know.”

“Bring her to me!” Anger crept into my voice.

“I cannot. You are not able to care for her in your condition,” she said sternly.

“My condition.” Fear suddenly replaced anger. “What is my condition?”

“You have had a surgery.”

“What kind of surgery?”

“Dr. Jenkins performed a hysterectomy.” She looked at me pityingly. 

Oh, God.

Surely not. Why? And not the Dr. Jenkins I had known from another life… Stuart Jenkins? Surely there were plenty of other Dr. Jenkins in this world. 

Please… 

At the sound of his name the man turned around and began to walk back to my bedside.

His face.

It WAS him!

He smiled pleasantly as he approached.

My mouth filled with bile.

“Ah, Mrs. Aspern. Awake are we?”

“You had no right!” I screamed at him. Others in the ward shifted in their beds uncomfortably, taking notice. I tried to sit up but my arms were tied down to the bed. I jerked at the leather wrist restraints so hard that the bed frame rattled. 

“Oh, yes, I did. I have every right as your treating physician.”

“You hack!”

“I have removed hundreds of uteri in my career. In fact, every woman in this ward right now, has had this same procedure by me. I think I am able to judge well enough when one is causing problems.” He stared down at me haughtily. “And yours most certainly was causing all manner of infirmary.”

He reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out the old pessary, dropping it onto my abdomen. It hurt greatly as the heavy, metallic weight hit the incision. The padding from the bandages was not enough to break the fall.

I winced.

“It was probably simply pinching the vaginal mucosa, causing your pain, but it was easy to see that your uterus and ovaries were sitting too low in your pelvis, causing you fits of hysteria. You should feel much better from now on.” Another smile spread across his face.

“You did not ask my opinion!” I hissed through clenched teeth. 

It was rape. It was worse than rape. This man had had his hands inside of me, stolen from me without my consent.

A glint appeared in his eye as he leaned in close to my ear. He whispered slowly, threateningly, “The feeble minded are never able to make their own decisions.” 

Chapter Eighty-Six: Out

 

My eyelids felt weighted with lead, heavy. I willed them to open but they would not. I decided to focus on my other senses. 

There was an odor. That smell. I knew it from somewhere…

From where?

The Crimea! I was back in the Crimea.

Footsteps faded away to the left, echoing off of hard, antiseptic surfaces. 

I tried again on the eyelids, this time they opened a bit, revealing a long crack in the stained plaster overhead. It was a rusty red, like blood. My heart shot out of my chest, racing into my throat. This was not the Crimea.

Panic dragged me awake and I bolted upright.

Where was I?

Pain slammed through me, suddenly, and I cried out, falling back onto the bed.

Pain? From where?

I moved a hand down to my abdomen and pelvis. There was a large bandage there.

Oh, God! What did they do?

The walls of the long room were an odd greenish gray. I could not tell if that was because of the fading light filtering through the dirty windows or from some terrifying paint job. I looked around. There were other beds, other women.

A hospital ward.

“Psst!”

The woman to my right stared unseeingly at the ceiling, unresponsive. She was almost translucent. Her gray hair was thin and carefully arranged about her head, combed out over the pillow.

Was she dead?

I wanted to touch her waxen skin but that was impossible from where I lay.

Hello?” I ventured, a bit louder. No movement. Not even a blink. I gave up on her and turned to my other side.

“Pssst!”

The woman to my right had bright orange hair. She stirred, looking over at me, but her eyes were glassy and vacant. 

This was not going well. 

A moan escaped from somewhere. It echoed off of the bare walls and floor. I went back to examining the crack in the plaster overhead. Surely someone would be through soon?

Anne! Where was she?!?!!?

I swung one leg and then the other over the side of the bed, doing my best to ignore the pain that seared through my pelvis. Standing, my legs felt unsteady. I took a tentative step forward only to have the knees buckle and I tumbled to the floor. 

Think!

Try as I might, I could not pull myself back up. I felt warmth gushing from between my legs as redness soaked through my white shift and pooled around me on the cold floor. Short shallow breaths were all that I could manage. Colorful bursts of light flashed into my line of sight then closed off into a lengthening tunnel of dark gray.

Get up, damn it!

Thoughts grew fuzzy then faded away. 

Blackness overtook me again.

Chapter Eighty-Five: Retribution

 Antique hospital bed reflected in an apothecary's window. 

Where was he?

I waited at the window for hours with Anne playing in the floor beside me. 

“Don’t pull on the drapery, darling…” I tugged gently at the dark silk but she did not turn loose. Instead she giggled and yanked hard back. “This is not a game!” Edginess showed in my voice.

She smiled up at me but did not release her grip, pulling hard again.

I knelt and unfurled the fingers of her good hand from the fabric. She was strong when she wanted to be. The curtain was quickly draped carefully over the chair back out of her reach. 

Anne pulled herself up on the chair, still smiling. Reaching. Standing on bare tip toes she balanced with the one arm, reaching with the other. Unsuccessful, she switched hands. Realizing she could not reach it, I was quickly met with wails of frustration. 

Still, he had not come.

Darkness descended, empty and foreign.

What did it mean?

My mind explored all possible scenarios: A carriage accident? He had finally come to his senses about me? He was ill? Someone else was ill? The diocese had called a meeting about his suspect activities on these Sunday afternoons? 

Sleep was fitful, punctuated by fear filled dreams of blood and fever.

Monday passed without word from him as did Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday. Hurt. Desperation. Anger. Relief. My emotions ran the gamut. 

There was no one I could ask and pride prevented me from sending a letter of inquiry directly to him. I was not sure I wanted to know the answer, quite frankly. As long as it was possible that there had been an accident, I was spared the inevitable rejection.

Another Sunday passed at the window, alone. 

Finally, I was done with it. I would not care. I settled in the flickering shadows after putting Anne down for the night and burned his letters in the fire one by one. 

All except one. My favorite. 

“I hold you in the highest regard and pray for your wellbeing nightly…”

I would keep it as a token, a reminder of my folly. The dangers of hope. The flattery of attention, being led astray…

I traced the letters over and over again, then refolded the paper, returning it to the envelope.

Great wracking sobs came. I mourned. For myself, the loneliness. For Anne. For Nathaniel. For hoping for something better than what I had, better than this miserable existance in its perpetual state of uncertainty…

Mid morning on Wednesday, still with no word, I swung Anne up onto my hip and set out, intending to get bread but instead walking past the bakery. 

We walked on and on, the dappled sunlight filtering through the occasional trees.

There was the beginning of a strange, dull ache and I shifted Anne to the other hip. She rested her head on my shoulder and dozed off a bit, lulled by the movement.

I did not stop.

People crossed to the other side of the street as we approached, fear recognizable in their eyes even from that distance. I was used to anger and loathing. Fear was new and puzzling.

There it was. 

The modest gray stone building in traditional Georgian construct, the rectory. 

I halted at the bottom of the front steps.

There on the heavy wooden door hung my answer. Acid crept up the back of my throat as understanding set in.

Small pox.

A sharp pain suddenly broke through the dull ache in the base of my pelvis. Severe. Crippling. 

Oh, God.

Something was wrong. Very wrong.

Chapter Eighty-Four: Shadowed

IMG_2643

Make love to me first with words.

He had done that, and then some. I had stacks of his letters in my dresser drawer, written since I had asked him to give me words. I would take them out and reread them each night by lamplight. 

Sometimes certain phrases or even the simple curve of a letter would send my fingertips tingling. 

I looked down at the hand holding mine, the fingers that had written those powerful words of apology and devotion. There was a charge there that raced from his hand to my fingerstips to my lower spine. I had almost forgotten how intoxicating that sensation was.

He leaned forward tentatively. 

I closed my eyes in anticipation, awaiting the feel of his rough beard against my face. I could smell his soap.

Just as his lips touched mine for the first time, there was a cry from Anne in the other room. Not her sleepy whimpering wake up cry. It was a full on, angry sob as if she knew that I was betraying her father’s memory at that very instant. He kissed in earnest until it was clear that she would not settle down.

He moved away, amusement playing on his lips. A half smile hung suspended there.

“I will get her,” I sighed. 

“No, I will go.” He applied gentle pressure to my shoulder indicating I was to sit down and wait for his return. 

I eased myself down onto the sofa and folded my hands onto my lap to wait.

He knew nothing of changing diapers or feeding or soothing a child. It would not be long.

As expected. Anne would have nothing of it, of this man. The wailing creacendoed as she refused to calm down. 

Two minutes later he returned with a red faced, tear stained Anne who turned silent as soon as she saw me. 

He placed her on my lap, apologetically.

“It’s alright. Shhhhh,” I murmured.

I held her close. She rested her warm, damp head on my shoulder, fuzzy hair tickling my chin. A quiet hiccup, then a contented sigh as she drifted off to sleep again.

“I will go,” he whispered. He bent down and kissed my forehead, then the top of Anne’s head. “Until next week…”

I watched him grab his hat and let himself out.

Tonight I would not need his words. My lips felt raw from his earlier kiss. Love lingered there.