Middle-aged bones on the backward slide of venerable disputed the fragmented streaks of light asserting their way through louvered blinds. Stubborn eyelids pinched shut while Mara pushed back the blanket and rose as if coming up from baptism. She felt clean and pure on this day. It took her a minute to remember why.
Mara’s body was not as present in the moment as her mind. She could almost hear the creaks in her spine as she stretched. The cat certainly heard something. As soon as Mara’s feet slid to the floor, he was slinking around her ankles and nipping at her slippers.
“Impatient little thing, aren’t you?”
Demanding and impertinent, he padded out into the kitchen to await his breakfast. Mara almost smiled. Almost. Not one to be rushed, she pulled off her nightgown, but didn’t bother folding it. Laundry was not on her list of tasks for this morning. From the closet, she took out her second best dress and her only pair of good shoes—a few scuff marks, but no one would notice.
Her adornment, a long silk slide of ebony hair with more than a few silvery threads running through it, was deftly pinned up into a neat bun. On purpose, she left a small tendril loose at the right side of her nape. In the mirror, she watched her forefinger slowly twirl that strand, remembering larger fingers doing the same.
Breakfast was a simple affair—milk for the cat, bread and cheese for Mara. The cat was shooed outdoors while the kitchen was cleaned. Otherwise, the feline liked to play splash the dishwater and Mara didn’t want to get her dress messy before today’s occasion. She was drying the knife when the soft rap came from the door. She found the Burak’s youngest daughter, Sophie, standing on the stoop, surprised and wide-eyed. Mara realized she still had the knife in her hand, which she quickly tucked into her pocket.
“Well, well, Sophie. What has brought you to my door today?”
With only a hint of blush showing her embarrassment, “Good morning, Mistress Sanson. Do you have any chores for me today?”
“Alas, I am going out today, Sophie.” Mara stepped out onto the porch, closing the door behind her. “I suppose you could come with me while I pick flowers.” Down the road, Mara eyed the dilapidated house the Burak’s called home. “Let us while away the morning in beautiful colors of pansies and blue eyes and orchids and star lilies. After that, perhaps you can play with one of the parson’s children.”
Sophie acquiesced with a nod, and solidified her place as the only child Mara knew who didn’t argue. The older woman felt a little sympathy, but she had spoken the truth—Sophie’s mother would be appalled at Mara’s intended destination this morning. Hand in hand, the young and the old walked in the direction of the church. The field nearby was a brilliant cascade of wildflowers. The pair were silent. Mara lost in thoughts of her task. And Sophie—perhaps she was dreaming of the day she would walk down the center of the church with flowers in her hand. Mara did not ask. She herself, had taken that walk once, the flowers were there, but it was not a church aisle she had traversed.
It had been a secluded glen, sunlight filtering through the white honeysuckle blooms. A romantic would have said it was exotically dreamy. Mara only remembered how the cloying scent constricted her throat until breathing had become something she must voluntarily force herself to do. The man at her side was not the one she had wanted, but he wanted her and he had money. He had called it a reverse dowry. Mara’s father had only put up a nominal contrivance. Her mother was much more reluctant, but in those days, a woman’s opinion only went as far as choosing the dinner menu and even then she was often overruled.
In a furtive moment before the clandestine ceremony, Mara’s mother had tried to explain the wedding night, but it came out sounding more like a wrestling match between wolves, and lot less than something she would enjoy. Despite her trepidation, when the ceremony was over, her new husband had smiled and she considered the possibility of a stable marriage.
She was wrong.
Although not for the usual reasons. He wasn’t a kind or gentle man. Although, their wedding night and all the other nights were not quite as canine-esque as her mother had caused her to anticipate. Overall, he had been a decent husband. They had no children, but neither seemed to mind.
At least, Mara did not mind when he was home. But he was gone much of the time. He deliberately took no work in the local area and so was forced to travel a great deal. He earned an honest wage, but most folk looked down upon headsmen. They were given legal warrants to carry out their jobs, yet that did not matter. Somehow, they were a blight, a cancerous growth, ready to pounce upon the innocent, slicing them into hell with one stroke of the blade.
Mara’s lashes snapped up at the sound of Sophie’s squeak. In her reminiscing, she had lost track of the child.
“It is but only a field mouse, Mistress Sanson. He nipped at my toe, but ran away when I squealed.”
“He probably did not like you disturbing his nap. Come. Let me see your colors.”
Sophie scampered quickly, her eyes darting along the ground, still looking for the rascally mouse. She held out her bouquet to Mara. “Will these do for you?”
“Quite well, my dear. But you ought to keep some for yourself or your mother.” Mara only took out two or three of the most wilted pansies and pressed the rest back to the girl. “Run along now. I have an errand.”
Sophie didn’t sprint away as most children would. First, she took the brightest violet out of her own bunch and gently tucked it behind Mara’s ear, smiled like an elf and skipped off.
Turning in the opposite direction, Mara took an older road out of town. Her destination was five miles outside of anything. It was, in her opinion, asinine, but so the county decreed and so shall it be.
The damp spots under her arms had grown only a little by the time she reached her destination. Providentially, there had been a cool breeze filtered by the maple leaves to keep her tidy bun from becoming disheveled. Mara was only mildly surprised to see a man in overalls raking under the lone tree as she opened the cranky gate. She had seen him once or twice before. They had never talked, but she often wondered why he cleaned up the small park. Certainly, no else did.
He pulled off his hat, made a small bow and went back to work. She nodded, and went about her business. Mara walked up and down each row, laying a flower in front of each unpolished stone. As always, she wished she knew which one was her husband’s, but the stones were uncarved on purpose—those of the damned were not allowed the simple human decency of a name, even in death.
“Tis a good thing, you do, Mistress. For all of them.”
Mara’s head jerked upright, the laborer’s words, startling her as she was laying the last of the flowers. Wary, her hand went to the pocket where she had stashed the knife earlier. Tentatively, “I do not know which is his.”
“I mean you no harm, Mistress. I come for the same reason as you. They were only doin’ what needed to be done. They didn’ know each other in life, but in death, they meet here, in this junction between now and what comes after. You be the only one I know who gives ‘em honor. They appreciates it, that they do. As do I.” He leaned the rake against the tree, bowed in true gentlemanly fashion and left.
Mara finally smiled as she watched him go.
LKT © 2015