By Angela Teagardner
This Story Was an Honorable Mention in Our Contest
I wake in filth, the reek of moth-eaten wool and straw-tick bedding invading my mouth and nose. Days and nights of sweat sit slick upon my skin, and I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve felt the warmth of sunshine.
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine myself at home, pretending the scratch of rats to be Mother stirring beyond the bedroom wall. Memory recreates the soft music of her voice as she murmurs a greeting to the cat. The fantasy fleeting—that home is no more. Mother is gone, buried in the churchyard for nearly two years.
The scrape of a turning lock grounds me more completely. I peer through the semi-darkness of my cell, breath quickening. I blink, an attempt to quell sudden tears. They shame me. Not once have I cried before my captors, but fear triggers the bitter flow. For weeks I’ve longed for this day, longed to know my fate, for good or ill. Now that it has come, I find I am not so eager.
I curl into my filthy blanket, shaking.
The door opens, the light of almost-morning transforming the black walls into soft gray. Instead of my gaoler, a girl crosses the threshold carrying a reed basket.
“Martha Forrey,” she says, her tone formal, “the magistrate has ordered your fast broken.”
My visitor is Catherine Woerner, the magistrate’s only daughter.
We are the same age, but friendship was never permitted between us. Still, I know this girl. I have watched her. I’ve seen her watch me. It’s shameful to have her witness me here, caged like an animal. I scrub my tears and sit up on the pallet.
She sets the basket on the earthen floor next to the unsteady stool that serves as my table. “I’ve brought a change of clothes, as well,” she explains, her voice brisk. “He wants you presentable for your trial.”
“I am not a witch.” My voice is an otherworldly croak. A dangerous omen. Thirst and fear combine to betray me. I try again. “I have done nothing. None of what they accuse.”
Catherine does not meet my eye. “’Tis not for me to say.”
I’m guilty only of trying. Trying to continue as Mother had, as a healer and midwife. As a helpful neighbor. But an unmarried girl is not the same as a kindly widow, I learned.
I expect Catherine to go at once, but she lingers, taking the time to lay a homespun cloth over the stool and unpack an apple and the end of a coarse-grained baguette. My breath catches, so different is this from the barley pottage I’d eaten twice a day for months.
The speckled green of the fruit’s skin recalls another apple, long ago, pressed into my hand by those same fingers. She had been crying then, crouched beneath a tree and cradling one hand. I saw the welt before she could hide it, angry and purpling, its edges raised in likeness of the switch that had been used to beat her.
Wordlessly, I’d soaked my handkerchief in the cistern and applied it as gently as I knew how, cooling the fire of her damaged palm. A poultice—my mother’s—from the tin I carried in my pocket weakened the sting. Her tears gradually slowed. In payment or thanks, she’d given me an apple from her family’s orchard—small and green, its pale skin dusted with gold.
The fruit was the sweetest I’d ever eaten.
Now my hunger is sharp, overcoming wariness. I reach for the bread. The scents of yeast and oats seep into the hollow places deep inside me, as though I’m standing in my mother’s kitchen once more. My teeth tear the chewy bread. “Thank you,” I mumble.
Even before, when I still had Mother, we’d rarely eaten bread so fine, and here is Catherine Woerner, giving it away without a thought. Sharp pricks behind my eyes warn me that I’m about to cry again. I take another savage bite, determined to subvert my tears.
Catherine smooths her apron, her expression thoughtful. “Uriah Shepherd carts his wool to London this morn,” she says, as if her visit were a social call. “He takes the road just beyond the wood.” She leans out the door, peering through the violet pre-dawn gloom, into the trees behind the gaol. “The forest is narrow here. I don’t think it takes but a quarter-hour to cross. Some take less.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. Her words are nonsensical to my speech-starved brain.
She looks up sharply, her gaze canny as she meets my eyes for the first time. “I’m meant to fetch your bathwater,” she says, each word deliberate. “The bucket shall be heavy. It will take time to carry it back all this way.”
One of her hands is on the door latch before I realize what she might be saying. What she appears to be offering. Hope gnaws at the heavy straps that have bound my soul. It hurts. I’m afraid to embrace it.
“Why?” I’d forgotten the sweet ache of kindness, it came to me so rarely anymore. “Why help me?”
“Who says I am?” she asks, and I think I misunderstood. But then she shrugs one shoulder and smiles faintly. “I’m to be wed soon, Martha. Father can’t beat me anymore.”
For so many years, we’d been silently connected, yet this is the first time it had been spoken aloud. Tears shine in her eyes, and for one last moment, we understand one another.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Catherine steps away, swinging the heavy door closed behind her. I’m cast into darkness, but for a narrow stripe of light. I climb onto unsteady legs and step to the door. The press of my palms confirms the impossible. The door, unbolted and unlatched, gives easily.
There is no time for wonder, nor for fear. My fate could not be worse, especially if I am discovered, but hope is irresistible. I grab the apple, the basket, and I flee.