I’d been witness to my mother’s lifeless corpse two years prior, seen her vacant face the moment life had escaped her pale lips. That cold, unmoving hollowness in an empty, human shell I didn’t care to see again, even if it was my father they were carting to the grave. He was finally with mother, where he’d ached to be for so many lonely nights. In truth, it was surprising to me he’d lasted so long in this life without her. Two cold winters. Twenty miserable, guilt-ridden months.
“Michelle,” a solemn voice uttered above me, “Miss Mercier.” I understood the man’s desire to have my attention, but I didn’t care to give it to him. My hazel eyes stared without blinking, steadfast on the hazy horizon. I watched a crimson stain deepen in color as it choked the last rays of sunlight from the sky.
The man cleared his throat before letting me know that father’s cremation would be handled by their local undertaker. We couldn’t afford a proper burial. Forget any memorial service. We’d no real friends or family anyway.
I remembered my mother’s passing. She’d succumbed to a fast-progressing case of consumption. In those final days father had held her constantly, combing his fingers through her chocolate waves in compassionate, repetitive strokes. When beads of sweat had formed on her ivory skin, he’d wiped it away. She’d remained in his greedy arms until the end, struggling to suck in each and every dying gasp of air. My father had blamed himself for her demise. More for the horrible suffering she’d had to endure prior to those final moments.
He’d been unable to provide for us by his sole means, and had sent her to work in the laundresses; humid, moldy, musty underground environments. Physical labor wasn’t something mother was accustomed to, but she’d cheerfully agreed to the temporary job, assuring him we’d survive this difficult period of life so long as we clung together as a family. They always talked of returning home, to our real home far away in France. A place that sounded by their tones and descriptions as alluring and enchanting as some romantic fairytale. But for the present, we were to remain in England, shacked up in a poor, drafty hovel too small to serve as a decent cattle shed.
I’d never understood exactly why we’d left a life I vaguely recall as being more comfortable than the meager existence we now endured. We’d been six years in England, that I knew. It was always a temporary stay in my parents’ conversations. Our safety was father’s greatest concern, the reason he kept us in England. From what danger we’d fled, he would never say.
Mother worked in the laundress for two months. The moist, mildewed conditions overwhelmed her delicate constitution and caused her to develop a cough. She refused to quit work when my father had suggested it, convincing him that her health was satisfactory and the need for money greater. With a smile she’d assured him her cough would improve, ‘quick as a lark’, as she loved to say. But it didn’t.
The cough advanced into a constant hacking. Mother quit work, but the illness had already taken hold in her lungs. It progressed rapidly, literally asphyxiating her over a period of three agonizing weeks. Doctors failed to provide any remedy or even a simple alleviation of her painful symptoms. Father had begged for more knowledgeable help, but the elite minds of medicine simply refused to come see her, turning up their pompous noses at our impoverished state.
The very hour mother died I could tell a portion of my father died with her. He turned cold after that; quiet, forlorn, and distant. He didn’t shirk in his responsibility toward me, his only child, continuing to rise and faithfully drag himself to the fields each day. But at night, after making his way home on foot, he’d sit motionless by firelight, staring at a cavity of bluish flames with such longing in his eyes I feared at times he’d rise and step straight into the blaze, desiring to be engulfed by it.
I’d ceased attempts at conversation early on, though there were those rare times he’d awaken from his grieving trance and look at me. Actually see me with his soft brown eyes unglossed and focused.
“Ma belle, Mee~chelle,” he’d call me, pronouncing my name in an adoring exaggeration of each syllable, “I should take you home where you belong. We’ll travel back, you and I. Your mother would want you to go back, to return home again. Yes, she would want that. You remind me so much of her, my dear. Your lovely hazel eyes. Your dark waves. Your milky skin. I should never have taken either of you away…...let her down…..let you both down…..” Then his eyes would get lost in that faraway place; sad and beyond reach.
A hand fell on my shoulder, the touch gentle and light. It remained just long enough to pull my conscious awareness back to the present. My gaze never left the horizon; a darkening smear of charcoals. “Michelle, we’re finished here, child. Will you be alright?”
My lips curled into an unfitting smile. I realized it was amusement that made me chuckle so low and inappropriately. What a silly question. I’d lost everything in the world. Did anyone really believe I’d be alright?
I could hear the woman swallow before huffing out a resigned exhale. “Well, um, don’t catch your death of cold. There’s a fire in the hearth, keep it burning. My boys can come by tomorrow and split some logs for you.”
Somehow I managed a whispered thank you.
She sighed again, patting my shoulder stiffly. “Very well, then.”
I watched her follow three men down a hard, dirt path that led away from the empty shack I dwelt in, at least for now. I had no idea how long I’d be allowed to stay without a means to pay for the drafty shelter.
The woman turned to face me at a distance, her features blotched by dark shadows. “You might stop by Henry and Lillian’s inn. They often require a bit of extra help with the chores there.”
My eyes flickered in her direction, surprised by her momentary act of concern. I think I nodded. Vaguely. She turned her back on me in a hurry, hustling to catch a waiting wagon. The horses clomped their hooves at a verbalized command, but my gaze was already fixed on the horizon again, barely aware of the eerie shadows that passed by and faded in the distance.
My thoughts returned to father. He’d never prepared a trip home, unable to break away from his gloom long enough to plan a journey for us. Not that I really recalled home being any place other than my present station in Plymouth, England. I realized then that the knowledge of my origin, somewhere in France, had just died with my father. His death buried the secrets of my birth. He’d tried to carry on for me, but his grief-stricken heart had finally succumbed to the torment, shattering irreparably, unable to bear my mother’s loss any longer. That’s how I see it. They tell me it was actually dropsy that took his life. I beg to know the difference.
Either way, his passing left me alone; orphaned at the age of fourteen. Not quite a girl. Not quite a woman. And as poor as any pauper who now faced the challenge of surviving off her wits and the charity of rare goodhearted English citizens.
Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich