She had wanted children so badly.
It had been the only thing she had looked forward to in the courting phase, she imagined little girls with long hair to braid and little boys with scraped knees, had imagined her belly growing round and feeling life inside. Had dreamed of watching them grow up and get married, wanted the experience of giving life. Had wanted someone to depend on her.
She had been eighteen and on the rise and then he showed up at their front door courting card and all. He sat with her Papa and Mother in the drawing room for weeks, had asked her older brother to accompany them as they walked,a chaperone for a man she had no desire for in any way, but it was granted. He had courted her along the river. She would watch her shoes sink into the dark soil between the cobble stone of the path winding between the trees as she demurely followed a step behind, hesitant to even cross arms with him. He never did ask to actually promenade with her anyways. Still the calling card. It had always seemed a little strange, a little…
Well a little old fashion if you asked her.
Still she had wanted a baby even if she didn’t want a marriage. She wanted someone to care for, to depend on her, someone to teach everything she knew to. Something small and bright and oh so happy. She wanted that, a little bundle of joy, a child. Her parents on the other hand wanted the marriage, wanted the prestige and honor a married daughter brought. They didn’t think her odd, certainly many young women didn’t marry till they were in their twenties. Her parents liked the looks of him, the way he commanded a room, his sharp northern accent that reminded them of home. Aleta did not care much for him or his accent, or his plans to move west, but she had a duty to her family, a social expectation and she wanted a child so badly.
He promised her that.
Instead he leaves her empty.
The long road west leaves her tired. She doesn’t even remember the trip from Maine to Virginia. Only dimly remembers her older sister Catherine and her pretty blue bonnet with the small daisy pattern she had liked so much. Catherine never made it past twelve, her mother hadn’t been devastated and only had more children. She doesn’t think it would compare to this kind of travel anyways even if she remembered with startling clarity.
Still she is leaving behind everything that she knows for Ashley, almost everything except for what was in her dowery and what she had amassed as her own which was in fact very little outside of a few dresses, bonnets, small trinkets and her diaries. Anything much bigger she had been forced to leave behind like the chest that her dowery had been saved in that should have rested at the end of her marriage bed.
Traveling is long and hard she discovers. The smell of unwashed bodies and sweaty animals repugnant and Ashley hadn’t thought to warn her that majority of her clothes would be unfit for the road. She seethes at the fact especially as he had left her to travel with a group of his companions and her own maid. He said that he was going ahead to set up her room. Well she thought it had better be an amazing room.
She didn’t know that the room would be its own wedge.
She longed for a baby, a child any age she didn't care. At first she begged and pleaded with God, then she wept and in the end when she realized. She ragged at his inability. The ladies in town whisper. They didn't know the cause of her pain, how deeply she yearned for a child. They didn’t know that it wasn’t her fault, didn’t know that it was Ashley and not her. So they called her infertial, cursed, a wretch despite the red blood curling down her thigh. Very few called her lucky and those that did were the Saloon girls or like poor little Rosie on the next farm over whose wrists bore her husband’s fingerprints.
In the end they take in children, they come west on the trains and later when it is dark she weeps with joy. She has someone to care for, to love unconditionally, someone to teach. It’s not the way she wanted children, but they’re theirs. She loves them so much two boys and a thin slip of a girl.
They get AnnaMae first. She’s thin, skin and bones and wary of Aleta and Ashley. Aleta tries so hard to get the girl to warm up to her, takes her out to town to pick fabric for their dresses, asked about her favorite foods, games. She’s twelve and scared, and all alone and all Aleta wants is for her to feel comfortable. She tries not to think about Catherine and her blue flower bonnet, its the only fabric she steers Anna Mae away from everytime they enter. The print made her think about the saying of children dressed in similar garments to those past will bring the past back to haunt you. Aleta’s Momma didn’t fear the death of a child but she did, she had been so scared of losing Anna Mae.
Getting AnnaMae is a blessing and it’s almost as if Ashley thinks that more is better and soon there’s two more children in the house filling it with sound. Real sound and not just the odd sounds at night she hears when Ashley’s gone to town and she’s alone.
The youngest boy, Walter, is enthusiastic, always asking questions Aleta finds hard to answer. She begs Ashley to let him attend school full time, she promises she’ll more than make up for the loss of work. He grins and her eyes become downcast.
Two months later he attends school. Her hands are red and bloody from field work, but it’s worth it. She doesn’t think about the cello in the attic anymore, or the violin by the mantel.
They get Joey last. He’s the middle child, but the oldest boy. His voice is beautiful and Aleta is always happy when she walks through the house and hears him humming. She is delighted the day she walks into a room where he’s singing and he doesn’t immediately stop. He just smiles and continues on. The farm is larger now and they’ve hired hands to maintain it, Ashley is more of an overseer than a worker. Joey doesn’t work on the farm like Walter had too or AnnaMae. He tells her he’s gonna be a preacher, that he wants to save everyone’s soul and sing in a big city choir. She doesn’t tell him not to put his faith in God.
She feels at home for once and the women no longer whisper when she walks by holding AnnaMae’s hand, Walter and Joey walking a step behind giggling about a frog or something that had happened that day. She’s picked her instruments back up, pulled the cello down from the attic.
Their family is finally coming together.
Ashley spends more time in town and for a while she doesn’t think anything about it until the other women start whispering at church and she starts thinking. Women talk, and they say that Ashley visits the Saloon and the Madam there. Rosie says she’s seen him go into backrooms there with men from outta town when her husband drags her to town. Scarlet says the same. She starts thinking about everything else she pushes away. The late nights, wide hats, thick clothing in summer. The way that sometimes the workers look dazed and confused at dinner or in the morning, and Aleta slips them extra glasses of water. She didn’t wonder about it, assumed it was just the heat but she knows it’s something else, the palest ones get sick the fastest. They get fevers and sweats and call out. They talk about fangs and blood and a dark shape twisting above them.
She wonders if they’ve built their home somewhere they shouldn’t.
She remembers Maine sometimes, remembers more when she hears a thin voice calling out in the night the sound of a worker who’s fallen ill. Dredges up a memory so old she doesn’t remember where to slot it in her time only that she was a child. She remembers that it had been winter, remembers that no one left the house before dusk hit until the sun was well into the sky the next day. Vaguely remembers a boy. And the sicking sound of bones breaking and the way that the next night his sweet bell voice had rung out around the town and their house begging for help, asking for food, saying just how terrified he was. The howling wind never did swallow his voice the way it should have. The Arcadia forest had been so large.
The next day the worker is dead. It's the boy from the North, from Washington that had taken to calling her Missus Ali. Who would sometimes tell Anna Mae stories when she came out to help around the farm or to bring the men their dinners with Aleta. He has a little notebook clutched in his hand that she gently pries out of his still fingers. They’re cold to the touch and remind her of her husband’s to some degree.
The homestead is burning.
Smoke is curling into her lungs and causes her to stir. Anna Mae is curled up beside her, small hand gripping her nightshirt tight and all she can smell is smoke. She shakes Anna until the girl starts to move on her own and then she’s hustling the girl out of the room and down the stairs.
The homestead is burning.
There’s shouting outside and she can hear crying and her boys! Oh her boys. She pushes Anna out the front door with a shout about the boys and Aleta is heading back for her boys. Coughing and inhaling smoke as fire licks at the wooden building and brick building she carries on staggering as she calls for them.
She makes it to their room and calls for them until a small weak over here has her hauling them out and dragging them after.
The house is so hot and her sons are so small but this she can do. It does not matter the heat of the flames she will persevere. They make it out of the house but before she can even think they’re being ripped out of her grasp. Her boys. Gone just as soon as they were there in the pitch dark and she’s shoved to the ground.
Somehow while she was in the house the shouting had stopped. It'd be quiet if not for the heat at her back and the crackle of shifting burning buildings. Someone kicks her and she hears an aborted shout. Those above her talk about a leech and land rights and a wyrm they call corrupted. They argue and fingers feel around her neck and wrists, a blooded hand pressed against her lips and kicks to her back and abdomen.
She hears gunshots in the distance and then something rakes across her back tearing it open in a wave of agony she is sure she’s never going to have life to experience a second time round.
Aleta wakes up to the soft chatter of women conversing. She doesn’t recognize the voices until the fiery red hair of the brothel is leaning over her and saying something.
She blinks. A dark skinned woman with tight curls is sitting in her view with a glass of wine. She’s dressed in white and repairing a stocking.
She blinks and her husband is taking her hand.
He’s smiling. He never smiles, not since they’ve left the sight of her mother and father truly. There’s something odd about his smile this time though. It looks sharp and wild. She closes her eyes to rest.
She lurks into awareness, worry at the forefront of her mind. Her babies! Where are her babies? She presses a hand to her chest sure her heart is racing a mile a minute and yet… nothing. Not even a soft thump. The dark skinned woman is sitting there watching her dark heady eyes with blown pupils taking in her every movement.
“Miss Tilly!” She yells and then moves forward. She smells sweet Aleta notes distantly, like sugar and rose water. “Be easy sister, I know the beast must be lingering close” she whispers and tilts a ceramic cup to lips and she’s right Aleta realizes. She’s not just thirsty she’s starving, whatever is wrong with her chest and her heart can wait!
The liquid that hits her lips isn’t water she realizes. It’s syrupy and the tang of iron leaves notes like it’s sat in an iron pail for too long. As the cup is pulled away she realizes with horror exactly what it is.
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