Larkspur in Eden
"...they come to us, these restless dead,
Shrouds woven from the words of men,
With trumpets sounding overhead
(The walls of hope have grown so thin
And all our vaunted innocence
Has withered in this endless frost)
That promise little recompense
For all we risk, for all we've lost..."
― Mira Grant, Feed
"Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history."
― Aldous Huxley
The venom in the woman's voice was thicker than usual as she hissed, "Listen up Useless, you make trouble at the Buy 'n Sell and you'll wish you'd never fallen outta yer dam to draw yer first breath."
Translation: Either I keep my mouth shut and act as I'm told or I'll wish I had never been born. The threat carries little weight as I already feel that way on most days, especially now when there is nothing left to hold me to this rotten life that I lead. The angels have carried him off the same as they had come for all of the others, leaving me behind yet again to suffer on, only this time well and truly alone with no purpose.
How my gentle mother and that nightmare in a leather brassiere could be sisters is a mystery I no longer bother to wonder at. I know my grandmother, for all her airs and old ways and insistence on living in the past, had adored my very roughhewn Granpap who was her polar opposite and would never have played him false. Aunt Gisele is simply one of those people born with a twisted heart that will forever value possessions more than people. I was told by Papa during one of his rare, loquacious turns that she hid it well until after her first husband and only two children were killed by a plague and she found out the man's wealth was never hers to claim as it returned to his family at his death without a male heir. Mam and I should have died in that same plague but Papa carted us to the old church altar and prayed over us 'til God showed Mercy and revealed that it wasn't our time to mount the stairway to Above.
That very day Papa – already raised in the church orphanage and grown to willingly serve the Sisters and Brothers that cared for the church and those that attended it – dedicated his life to being a Protector, a man who provided security for those that worked in the church to serve the community, to care for the small but treasured library of books used to teach the children of the orphanage and community. The Brothers rechristened Papa, Mam, and I with new names and it is that name that I have always known though Aunt has chosen to twist it since I came to be in her so-called care.
I should have been paying attention instead of getting lost in my memories. My head suddenly rocked back with a roundhouse punch that sent me tip over tail into the still hot cinders of the cook fire. I rolled out of the fire ring and brushed the burning bits off as quickly as I could but I still wound up a bit singed as well as bloodied.
"Why you traitorous little dragtail," she wheezed angrily. "You did that on purpose. I won't get half for you now that you're marked up in the face."
Experience had taught me well to stay silent despite the pain I felt and the illogic of the accusation. She hit me, yet it is somehow my fault, like I had drawn her fist back over her protests and sent it flying with great strength against me by my will alone. Soon enough she'd be on about witchery or some other complaint from her long list of what she held against me or suspected me of.
For once luck, or the devil depending on who should say it, was with me. The man who was my aunt's latest husband stepped into the cook tent, took one look at my face, and then delivered to her what she had just given me. "She don't fotch enough and I'll put yer ter work on yer back in the tavern 'til it be raw ter pay fer yer keep this winter."
His dead eyes looked at me and I tried not to shudder in disgust. He'd tried but the once to take me but once was enough; thankfully he'd been too drunk. The next morning Old Annie taught me my next lesson which was about the yarbs that took away a man's ability to bed a woman in all but his mind, and some yarbs take even that away. Old Annie had been my grandmother's friend and my Mam's wet nurse for a spell of time and at the deaths of my family felt it her duty to teach me more of the yarbing ways though no one knew the true depth and breadth of the knowledge she imparted to me before her own death from snakebite a few months back. I was forced to bury her body along a road that was far from our birthplace. I now secretly carry the book that held my lessons she'd given me as well as some she hadn't gotten to yet. Knowledge is power and I have sense enough to keep it hidden from prying eyes at all times or risk it being stolen from me as well as the other things taken since I came into Aunt's so-called guardianship.
Wash had a dead voice to match his gaze. "Use some wet from the barrel to clean the blood from yer face then get in the wagon Useless. Gizzy here and I need ter have a business talk."
If I hadn't known my aunt was strong as a bull – and built like one too – and could give at least as good as she got, I would have been tempted to feel some sympathy for the woman. She'd thought she'd finally found a way to rise up out of the ashes her life continually seemed to sink into when she'd married herself to a tavern keeper. Unfortunately she found out too late that the tavern was little more than a wagon and canopy that followed the salvage routes with the suttlers and traders, and that Wash cared more for the whores he hired to bring in customers than he did a wife even if she did hold enough coin in her own name to have a wagon and household of her own.
I ignored the marks on both of their faces when they climbed into the wagon. Wash asked, "I need ter tie yer ter make yer obey?"
Quietly, suppressing the fear that wanted to eat me alive I told him, "No sir."
He snorted. "Yer best save that fancy speech and respect fer the man what buys yer. Mayhap it'll work on him to soften yer lot some though given how dim yer be I doubt it." With that he flicked the reins and we were off.
I continued to look down submissively and hold my tongue though I was all but screaming inside. I would have given a lot to tell them that I wasn't dim, that I was smart enough to hide that fact from the both of them, to play act for years and let them think the fever that had carried most of my family off had curdled my brain. I held my tongue on the fact that I could have killed them all in their beds a hundred times over and nearly had after my brother had died after being pushed out of the wagon by one of the slop bucket boys. His skull had been cracked open by a shard of granite. Ol' Annie tried to comfort me by saying he probably hadn't felt a thing as it had happened so fast. Probably hadn't even had time to feel any fear. Probably.
Devils. Both of them. I don't care if I am blood related to her, she laughed and said that it … no, can't dwell on her words; they hurt too much. My baby brother wasn't but four; small for his age even amongst the population of destitute road orphans we were often thought to be members of. I'd taken him from my mother's dead body, cut him out myself the way she told me to do after she had drawn her last breath, raised him as my own using goat's milk I had to sneak when Aunt had turned his wet nurse out for drawing the attention of the rich old pervert she had been married to at the time. Many times my hands shook over their meals and it was sometimes only Old Annie's words that stopped me. She made me promise not to do such a thing as murder was a mortal sin I would carry the stain of for the rest of my life. She promised that if I left it in God's hands that He'd make them pay better and more than I ever could. I want to believe that; believing that is all I have left, but has been so hard to remember too often lately.
I've read the Good Book. Sometimes I wonder that if the thought is as good as the deed why I should deny myself the satisfaction of the act of murder if I'm already guilty of it in my dreams. I know that if I don't get away I will cave to that temptation; it is only a matter of a season or two, maybe not even that, before I'll turn my hand to it.
As an exercise to while away the moments to our destination I went through my mental herbal. First comes aconite, so poisonous it requires only a small amount to kill a full grown horse; but that is too swift an end for them. Belladonna, also called deadly nightshade, also kills too quickly; you'll know it is coming within fifteen minutes of ingesting it. Next comes bloodroot that will burn your insides and make you vomit them up but might not kill you if you purge it soon enough. Foxglove is painful and would look like a heart attack but I am pretty sure I want everyone to know that someone had finally had the courage to end their reign of terror; I certainly wanted them to know who had helped them on their way to hell. Next in line is helbore; now there is an herb for painful murder. Taken internally it will torture your body and your mind and then you finally die in torment as your heart gives out. Hemlock, jimsonweed, lobelia, mandrake … so many to choose from.
I shook myself as I realized that I was losing my grip on the here and now. This only proved to me that I had to conquer my fears and accept the last chance I was likely to have to escape. Whatever man that bought me, no matter his looks or his type, regardless whether he spit or smelled or drank or was a drug sucker or anything else, I would serve him if for no other reason than gratitude that the purchase took me away from what would have soon been a hell of my own making, a stain on my soul that would rot me from the inside out.
The wagon jerked to a stop and Wash said needlessly, "We're here."
Despite showing no resistance, I was flanked by Wash and my aunt and marched to the center plaza of the Buy 'n Sell. A high, rough-hewn platform was built to display special things being offered and rose above several holding pins built beneath it. There were a lot of women and girls there ahead of me being separated out into three groups. Since this wasn't the first Buy n' Sell I'd been to I'd seen it all before. It held no surprise, only disgust and a certain amount of acceptance.
Young, virginal females were separated out into a special group that got to be inspected by a White Sister – a cross between a high-class whore and a nurse-midwife who dressed herself to mimic something she definitely was not. If the girls passed the physical exam they received a special colored ribbon tied around their neck. There was more than one color ribbon; the girls were graded and classed like animals on display at a fair or like cows sent to market. This auction there weren't very many in that cage as most families of any means had had no problems arranging marriages for their daughters much earlier in the season.
The next group had in its number women with an exceptional skill or craft such as cooking for the wealthy or weaving strong and durable cloth for a tradesman. There were also women that might not be young and virginal but they were healthy and handsome. There were the women of learning who could read and cipher, fit to teach children or be a wife to a scribe or legal man. Basically the women in that cage had value beyond their physical looks.
The third group was the most numerous. It was comprised of all the rest, those only fit to be wives to poor men who had to take what they could afford to get. There were those females that could be indentured and put in the field or in the taproom or warehouse to work for their keep and eventual freedom. Some of the women were pretty or handsome but they might have a deformity some other place; crippled, a withered hand, bad eyes that left them unfit for work, a hair lip, burn scars, defects from time spent too near the corrupted lands while in the womb, or anything that marred them like the stain of a large birthmark. Others were trouble makers or thieves or whores or any number of things that simply made them less desirable to the majority of buyers. And such as my life had gone that it is the third group I was sent into.
That didn't go over well with Aunt who had wanted me in the first or second group to make the bigger profit. "All she did was fall out of the wagon," my aunt snarled. "You'd see us cheated for that?!"
The auction master looked at my aunt and said, "If she was truly worth anything you would have given her time to heal instead of rushing her to sale. And I know you're business and in seasons past have seen her working the bar so don't tell me she's fit to see a White Sister. There must be something wrong with her, it's plain as the fat bosom you be showing off to try and catch my fancy." He snorted in disgust at her obvious ploy. "Instead of running yer yap yer better pray I don't hide her in the pens just to cause yer grief. As it is there be too many womens; the day's prices er gonna run low."
"Then give her back. We'll take her to another sale where they'll listen to reason."
The auction master smiled grimly. "Last one o' the season you buxom behemoth. All those further ahead have already closed up shop for the harvest time too. All the signs are pointing to an early winter." The smile slid from his face and cankered steel took its place. 'Sides woman, no take backs onct you let the piece walk into the cue lessen yer want ter join her for breaking contract, and if you don't know that yer man Wash certainly do." The cue was merely a polite euphemism for the area where the men could get a better, closer look at the women enclosed within. We had to walk the perimeter of the fence until we were pulled out for either a closer inspection or an outright purchase.
I walked for hours; morning turned to mid-day and mid-day to the supper bell. No food, no water. The longer it took to sell, the worse off you had it in retribution. I didn't dare take out what I had hidden on my person – some dried berries and herbs and my water skin – or I'd be set upon by the other women. I'd seen it happen several times in the early hours of the sale and finally everyone had learned their lesson and simply kept moving and not thinking about what we lacked.
Men came and went. The smell of them was nauseating. The words they threw were just as bad if not worse. The only thing we didn't have to suffer was hands as the pen guards would lop off anything that got stuck through the fence, no matter if it was an appendage or not.
If I had had any innocence left it would surely have been washed away by the tide of bawdy onlookers that stood at the fence of the cages and made comments as the females passed by. Slowly the number of women in the cages dropped. The first to empty was of course those the White Sisters had inspected and graded; they were the fewest in number and had the greatest value. Next was the second group though I heard rumblings from those that ran the auction that not nearly as quickly as had been expected; and, for significantly lower pricing than was aimed for. Coins were tight as it had been a bad few years of drought in this area, hindering harvests and draining coffers of wealth and barter.
Slowly I noticed that even the numbers in my group had been whittled down. Not all of them for sure, but there were fewer in the endless circle we walked. But as the day wore on fewer and fewer were tapped to go to a buyer. Part of me was feeling desperate. I prayed and prayed that God would tell me if I was to escape or if I was meant to be a murderess; if I didn't get picked that was my sign that He had turned His face from me leaving me to sip from the bitter cup. As time wore on and no one even asked to get a better look at me I calmed and set myself to accept my fate; into the wilderness like Cain or the hangman's noose.
Then the big gong sounded the end of the auction and even over the noise of the crowd I heard my aunt screech in rage. I nodded my head thinking over my herbal inventory. I was tapped with one of the baton's used to shift the crowd of women this way and that, then directed out of the cage.
"Girl, what's your name?"
For the first time I looked up and around. My aunt and Wash were nowhere to be seen. In a daze I asked, "Ex … excuse me?"
Three men stood there off to the side though it had grown so dark I couldn't see their faces very well. What I could see was one nudge one of the others when he said, "See, she is dim. Rethink this madness."
The man that had been nudged said, "Your name girl, what is it? It is needed for the paper."
I looked and saw another man with a black vest and badge … a legal man. "I … I've been … bought?"
The legal man looked at me and then nodded. "Aye. Ye have. Do ye have reason to object?"
I shook my head. "No sir, I'm … I'm just surprised." Shocked was more the truth; relieved followed it. "My name is Yulee … Yulee Guardsdaughter."