My mother's face slipped out of my head quickly.
I was out in our field, hunched over with a hoe in hand. I dropped the hoe edge down into the dry dirt as deeply as I could and twisted it upwards over and over again. I was desperately hoping for something rich, brown and moist. The hoe was heavier and longer than I was, so it just took one row before my forearms were burning and my palms felt raw.
It hadn't rained in weeks and Daddy had neglected our modest field to sit vigil. At first, Mama just had a cough. Then it got worse. Her lips turned pale and her breathing grew shallow. The doctor told her to rest and drink tea. She drank and she rested. But before long, she couldn't lift her cup. One day, she couldn't get out of bed and stopped talking.
Daddy and I traded off sitting by her bedside. I clasped her hand and willed her to say something - some final words, something profound and comforting. But she said nothing. I wanted her to get up and she refused. I couldn't help it, I felt betrayed.
During the final few days, Daddy didn't leave her side. His sorrow was all-consuming and at the moment of her passing, he collapsed.
I headed out to the field to be useful. If I could get a row or two turned by the end of the day, perhaps we could seed the potatoes. If God could see how hard I was working, he would realize I wasn't going to be broken. If I could keep working and trying despite what he'd taken from me, maybe he'd reward my spirit by opening up the sky and sending buckets of rain.
I was not the kind of girl to cry or still still and wallow. I was going to make something happen.
After two hours, I had only come up with dust.
Sweat dripped down my forehead into my eyes. My breath came in halting gasps so I sank to my knees to rest.
"Porty-sweets, when you're done there, come in. There's more to do." I heard her, clear as a bell on Sunday. But when I twisted around to find her, I saw nothing. Just waves of heat coming off the field and our humble bricked house beyond it.
But I heard her. Porty-sweets... a nickname she'd called me a million times. A nickname I'd asked her to stop using since I turned ten and felt it was too childish. Couldn't she call me Portia like everybody else? She had refused.
Even though, I knew she was dead, I heard her voice right behind me. I peered into the field; trying to find her shape, her outline, something to indicate she was nearby.
But there was nothing. My brain scrambled to create her face, to imagine her visage right in front of me but I faltered. I couldn't remember what she'd looked like. How could that be? She'd just died. I couldn't already be forgetting her face...
Suddenly, my whole body ached. Not from the exertion of digging, but from the pain of a broken-heart. I cried, there on my knees. The sweat poured down my forehead, mixing with my tears. I let it all fall down my chin, into the creases of my neck, onto the dirt-stained apron in my lap, onto my blistered hands.
And I knew then.
The field would not produce. Our crops would fail this season and the next. Daddy would be broken and unable to make good decisions. And with my sixteenth birthday approaching, he would have to make a decision about me.
I cried harder knowing that if Mama had lived, then Daddy would be spared the pain of losing both of us.
Over my sobs, I heard her again. Clear as a bell on Sunday, "When you're done there, Porty-sweets, there's more to do." I might not have been able to conjure Mama's face, but her voice was right there. If I held on to that, maybe not all was lost.
I cried a few minutes longer.
And while I cried, I made plans.
Belmont was my mother's family farm, which was the first problem. It's customary throughout Speare, that property passed through the male heirs but Venetian was more progressive than many other counties. We had a higher and healthier female population which resulted in much of the farmland being passed down through widows to their only children, who were often only daughters.
The empowered women of Venetian hired strong-backed men to work the land. They came from all across Speare; many from the capital or Titania and the Malvolio Woods but some traveled from as far away as Montague Hills. This influx of new, strange and charming men led to affairs, that led to marriages based on lust and love instead of tradition and convenience.
That was how Mama and Daddy came to live here. At least, that is the story they told me.
Venetian was my home; vibrant and charming. The county spread out around a small but bustling town nestled in the south, midway between the mountains and the waterfront. A flat, green patch that was perfect for farmland and crops - as long as it rained. The rains had diminished over the last two years during growing seasons, leaving everything dry and parched. Harsh winters and fruitless springs had followed.
I was young during those seasons and took a long time to grow into an awareness that Mama and Daddy were concerned. That their hushed conversations by the firelight were filled with tense plotting. That the words I overheard like 'debt-lender' and 'interest' were troublesome.
They did their best to protect me. Every time I approached, the worry lines on Mama's forehead smoothed and Daddy pulled me onto his giant lap for a warm snuggle.
Perhaps we could have managed, Daddy and I. We could have waited out another season of poor potatoes and limp squash and carrots while accumulating a larger loan against the land. Perhaps the tide would have turned at some point before I came of age and could have travelled to the capital to earn money as a tutor to a child of a wealthy family or an assistant to a doctor. Enough money to pay off the loan and keep up our farm. Daddy told me I could do almost anything that I wanted - if I was patient enough to wait until I was older.
But in the end, patience didn't matter. I didn't grow up quick enough.
A neighbour brought two of his farm hands over to help Daddy dig into the raw earth by the hyssop trees for Mama's burial spot. They were her favourite plants on our property. She'd sit by them for hours, breathing in their lavender scent and staring up at the sky. Without rain, their purple flowers were faded.
By the time the digging was done, everyone was sticky with sweat and pale from the heat.
The neighbour read a verse that Daddy had chosen between two he'd offered. I suppose it was meant to be comforting.
It was almost too much to bear, burying Mama on such an unpleasant day, her favourite flowers so ragged and diminished.
Daddy didn't get out of bed the morning after the burial. After a few silent hours, I gently knocked on the bedroom door and brought him tea and a biscuit. He rolled up to sit and I noticed he was still wearing the wrinkled button-up shirt and pants he'd worn to the funeral.
He said he would be up soon to bathe. I left him and didn't see him again until nightfall, when he came out to drink a bowl of soup I'd put out. He promised to be up early the next morning to work the fields.
But he stayed in bed the whole next day. I heard him coughing, muttering and weeping through the door. I brought him more tea and biscuits and he promised to get up.
On the third day of Daddy's bereavement, there was a knock at the front door. Sharp, business-like, determined. My heart thudded in my chest and I immediately felt foolish. It was only a knock on our threshold. Probably a friendly neighbour dropping by, with another pie or soup. There was no movement from my parent's bedroom.
The knock repeated, echoing off the interior brick of the kitchen and into the cold fireplace.
I was the only one willing to answer.
YOU ARE READING
When troubled Ophelia is found dead, four of her classmates are accused. With conviction and punishment a foregone conclusion, the girls - Portia, Beatrice, Viola and Desdemona - plot a daring escape in order to unravel the conspiracy behind the mur...