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 Eighty-Three: Pudding

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Such joyful sounds…. giggles and coos.

A man’s laugh.

I peeked around the corner, wiping my hands on the apron tied around my waist.

He was in the floor playing with Anne. She looked up at the Reverend with adoring eyes as she waited for the wooden ball to roll back to her. 

“Are you ready? Here it comes!”

He rolled again gently and she caught it between her good hand and the bad one.

She used the damaged hand as if she did not need for it to work like the other, as if she did not recognize that the hand was not normal. She did not need for it be normal, as it did what she wanted regardless. She knew nothing else.

Still, it hurt to watch. Joy and pain and sadness intermingled. Life. It was relentlessly bittersweet.

I went back to the formidable black oven. 

Cooking for myself was easy. Subsistence did not require anything fancy. Cooking for him was another matter. I would practice during the week, trying something new, then whip it out for his visits. 

Why was I trying so hard?

Truth be told, I had started looking forward to his visits, the gifts he brought. Sometimes they were for me. An ornately carved tortoise shell hair comb. Oranges and dates. Heavy stationary paper and ink. Sometimes the gifts were for Anne. A doll that was much too old for her. Or the ball today.

Each Sunday I would stand at the window and watch for him.

At times I worried that loneliness clouded my judgement. There were whispers about him around the town. Attendance at his church fell. Out and about I found the animosity toward me enhanced and magnified.

And then there was the question of where friendship ended and romance began. What did he want from me ultimately? Penance? Or a wife?

There was an easy familiarity developing between us, dangerous in its potential.

I cracked open the oven and tapped a towel wrapped hand on the dish resting in the water bath. 

Not yet set.

I closed the heavy door again. 

Why did I decide on baking an orange custard pudding? Granted it was with the oranges he had given me but it was taking much longer than I had anticipated. It would still have to cool before it would be edible. 

A throat cleared from behind, causing me to jump. It was then that I realized I was standing in the middle of the kitchen with my right hand still wrapped in the towel, unmoving, lost in thought. I must have been an odd sight.

“I am sorry! I did not intend to startle you,” he said.

The Reverend was now standing in the doorway to the kitchen, Anne perched primly on the crook of his elbow. When she saw me she opened her arms, indicating that her loyalty still lay with me, at least in so far as carrying duties went. He stepped forward and handed her off to me.

“Come to mama, baby girl…” I kissed her fat cheek. It felt cool against my lips. 

She hugged my neck tightly enough to squeeze my heart.

The room was warm and I could sense strands of hair stuck to my forehead by beads of sweat. I brushed them away with the back of my hand, suddenly self conscious.

He stared at me for a long moment. 

He was close enough to touch. In fact he reached out his hand toward my waist as if he would, but thought better of it, instead shoving the offending hand quickly into a pocket.

My heart beat harder in my chest. 

He had almost crossed into territory from which there would be no return. 

I realized that I could not decide if I wanted him to cross that point or not.

I stared back.

Edinburgh felt as if it was shrinking up, fading into the distance.

“I think I should go.” His voice sounded thick and deliberate.

I nodded. 

Yes.

Chapter Seventy-Three: Afterlife

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Instead, I took her home.

If given the choice of living as a young woman without an arm, I would choose dying.

What would my daughter wish? Would she choose life at all costs if she could speak?

I had the dubious benefit of knowledge of the world as it was. She would long to be loved but it would always remain unrequited. She would be unable to work or to support herself and how long would my fortune last? There were no relatives upon whom she could rely if something were to happen to me.

To amputate her arm would mean consigning her to utter, lifelong isolation. I could not do that.

Yet, I was not willing to give her up. If she died, I died.

We would fight, she and I.

I needed to gather the coneflowers I had seen growing in Mrs. Fenuiel’s garden. I was surprised when I recognized them, tall and pink, as I thought they only grew in America.

“Oh, those?” She shrugged when I asked about them. “The seed was a gift, sent from an old American friend years ago. I keep meaning to rip them out.” She shook her wrinkled, old head. “I hate that woman now.”

Get all of them!” I ordered, calling after the young maid as she left out the door. Mrs. Fenuiel would not mind, I was certain.

They did not grow as tall as those back home had, the more rainy climate likely did not agree with them. Still, they would serve their purpose I hoped. The pale pink flowers, stems, and roots were for an antiseptic paste I had seen used by the midwives back home as a child. Typically it was made from dried plants but we did not have that kind of time.

I set about readying what I would need.

A knife from the kitchen.

Linen torn into strips for bandages.

Hot water.

I laid Anne on blankets on the kitchen work table, exposing her red and bloated little arm. The older housekeeper held it still in case she moved. Quickly, I cut into the flesh over the site of the inoculation.

Nothing.

I wanted to finish this before the young girl returned with the flowers. She had a gentle spirit and was not cut out for such things. The housekeeper herself was looking pale.

I cut deeper, my hands shaking. Anne stirred slightly as a cloud of foul smelling purulence mixed with blood poured forth. Thankfully she did not scream.

I could not bear it if she had screamed.

I expressed as much of the pus as I could out of the small incision using my fingertips, then rinsed the area with warm water.

Once the maid returned with a large basket of the coneflowers, I rinsed several of them and ground them into a runny paste with the mortar and pestle. Scooping several spoonfuls out, I wrapped it into a wide strip of linen and laid it across her arm, binding it firmly into place, careful to not cut off the circulation.

Warm compresses were laid over that and changed out every 30 minutes as I held Anne in the rocking chair in the drawing room.

Fight like with like… heat for heat.

Every six hours I would change out the coneflower paste. Why six hours? I did not know. It felt right somehow.

In the heat of the moment I had not thought ahead. “Just pull them all!” I had said. Now as I sat waiting, hoping for my miracle, I considered how to store the flowers between paste preparations. Put them in water? Hang them from the kitchen rafters to dry? Leave them to wilt on the counter?

Hang them. Hang them all.

Even though she was not interested, I expressed milk from my aching, engorged breasts a few drops at a time into her mouth.

Two days of this.

Finally the maid could take no more and sent again for the Reverend Drummond, intending that he should give comfort in my daughter’s passing. He had been here once before two days ago, shortly after I cut open the abscess in her arm.

He had not offered peace.

He now entered the room and passed his hat and coat to the weary looking housekeeper, his boots clumping on the wooden floor loudly enough that I woke from a fitful dozing slumber.

Anne also stirred. Her eyes fluttered open and she looked up at me as if she knew that I was her mother.

Ignoring the fact that a man of God was also in the room, I bared a breast and smiled as she latched on.

My heart sang.

I looked up at the Reverend, full of joy.

He was scowling down at me, hate in his eyes.

“I.. I am sorry for exposing myself.” I stammered. But I did not mean it. My daughter came first. She needed fluids and sustenance.

“Either you brought the favor of the Lord down upon her and saved her life through a miracle or you called upon power from another, more sinister being.” The Reverend’s eyes narrowed. “I doubt your faith is such that it brought about a divine miracle.”

Truth be told, if the devil had shown up on my doorstep and asked for my soul in return for her life I would have given it for her gladly.

But he had not.

Nor had God.

I had saved her.

“Get out of my house,” I said.