Phoebe was dying. With no money for food, doctor or medicine, Charlotte had done her best. She had tucked Phoebe's little three year old body on her own mattress on the floor, placed their father's cross around her neck, put a mug of clean water beside her and left. She couldn't watch Phoebe die. Charlotte sat beside the road outside their house. No tears would fall. Here a whole world was busily conducting the daily business it always had, while inside her sister, Phoebe, was breathing her last. Traders pulled wagons overloaded with wares on their way to the morning markets. The wheels left great clefts in the mud. The fishmonger's wife was busily gutting the morning's haul on an upturned keg opposite and emptying the dross into a makeshift gutter.
Like a great tidal wave, the emotion of it simply overtook her. She raised herself slowly from the mud, stared into the faces of all before her, clenched her fists in tight balls and screamed: "Stop! ST -O- O- OP! My sister is dying! My sister is dying!" Such a strange sound it was from such a strangely little and yet grown up girl. The sound was more animal than human. It started low, quiet, as if from the very depths of her and then, spiralled up and outwards like a drowning, breathless cat. The fishmonger's wife paused momentarily before sadly continuing her bloody task. The oldest villagers also stopped as if in silent acknowledgement of a pain they also knew; but these too continued on their way, guilty with relief that at least for today, her lot was not their's. The younger of those amongst them did not stop; only picked up speed having been reminded why they must keep struggling in the daily survival grind to keep head above water.
Father Simmons was unlucky enough to have chosen this very hour to visit Mrs Pembly, one of his sick parishioners who lived on the outskirts of the village. He was witness to the sad spectacle but reminded himself that this girl was a stranger, not of his flock and someone else's responsibility. Lord knew he had enough of the sick and dying from amongst his own congregation to attend to without adding a stray to the collection. And so it was that the good priest found himself as surprised as anyone to find his legs paying his mind no heed, the mud on the hem of soutane heavy, as he slowly made his way toward the girl.
"Here lass", he half sang softly as he motioned to her. "Here lassie, here, come here." She was too tall and bony to be easily embraced: to tell truth, too old as well. The priest did not feel comfortable placing his arms around half girl, half woman; it was not something he could remember ever having done in fact, in his life. Unfortunately for him, Charlotte didn't care at all about his sensibilities and at the moment of kindness being offered by this stranger, she had completely broken down. The keening had stopped. In its place, Charlotte hurled herself against his form, near knocking the Vicar of Christ to the muddy slop that passed for the road and in great racking sobs, released the terrible burden that had settled on her heart.
Now, she glared urgently at him and screamed, "Do something! Do something!"
"Do what lassie? Have ye lost your sanity girl?" He peered anxiously into her eyes for some hint of madness, although what that might look like beyond the sheer terror he could see now, he had no idea.
"Stop! Not me!" she yelled at him. "Her. . . ". She turned her head and nodded toward the hovel nearby. "Inside. . ", more quietly and breathlessly now, "my sister. . . dying. . . Help her. . . Please." Her eyes were consumed by a darkness and terror the priest knew all too well, for it lived within his deepest soul still and leapt in response to the girl's pain. With an involuntary shudder that passed through his body like a slithering serpent, Father Simmons released the girl's arms from his grip and turned to the dilapidated house beside him. He knocked the wooden gate which had been hanging from one hinge completely off, as he loped, soutane flying now, toward the house.
The front door was open, but the stench of sick and human waste was upon him before he crossed the threshold. It was morning, but the house was in complete darkness. It took precious seconds for his eyes to focus on the shadows in the room, but he heard her before he could see her form. Each breath cost her so much pain. God forgive him, but he wished she would die now, immediately, before another breath could tear its path from her fluid filled lungs to her blue lips. He dipped his fingers in the water beside her mattress and put them on her lips. She was still conscious. "God have mercy", he prayed silently, "please take her". Her eyes were open, but unseeing. He took her hot, tiny hand in his. She moved her lips soundlessly. He bent his head till his ear touched her mouth.
"Charlotte?" she whispered.
"Yes", he lied, "it's me. Everything will be okay now. Go to sleep sweetheart. I love you." It stopped then. She stopped. Father Simmons realised he was holding his breath. His breath broke from his chest in a sob as he made the sign of the cross on her forehead and administered the last rites of his faith.
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Charlotte TrueHistorical Fiction
Inspired by the non-fictional, historical lives of Sir Joseph Banks, Nicolas Baudin, Captain William Bligh, Matthew Flinders and John Macarthur, this 'coming of age' story is set at the dawn of the nineteenth century. It describes Charlotte, an Eng...