The Family Lineage
The Family Lineage
Somehow, he beat her home. There he was, sitting unflustered and nonchalant as ever, at her kitchen table. Jane was well aware that she must have looked like a wild woman by the time she arrived, damp and covered in leaves and thick black mud from where she had tripped. His presence did nothing to improve her mood.
“Just once I’d like you to come home in the same state you went out,” her mother said, shaking her head despairingly. Jane felt her cheeks flush. She shot a wicked look at Isaac and ran up the stairs like a whirlwind, down the corridor where she barged past Oliver who yelped at the attack and then up the spiral staircase into her bedroom in the attic.
By the time Jane was born, the fourth and final child of the Shepherd family, they had run out of places to put new babies and the attic was the only place left available. But she had grown to love her nest with its low ceilings and splintered walls that were stacked with books and paintings of birds and clouds that looked like sheep. She had hung ornaments of different coloured glass in the window that lit up in the sunlight and cast rainbows darting around the room in the afternoon rays. They illuminated the pile of holiday homework on her desk that lay forgotten.
She slammed the door behind her and pulled a chest of drawers in front of it to prevent intruders. It only took a few minutes for the onslaught to begin.
“Jane! Come downstairs please!” called her mother.
“Jane! Come downstairs now!” shouted her father.
“Jane! Love!” begged her mother.
“Jane! Now!” bellowed her father.
This continued for the next few hours, her father had stood outside her door for a long time shouting curses at her. She simply buried her head under the covers and thought up ways of getting back at Isaac. She did not care that they were upset, she did not care that Isaac had once again proved himself to be arrogant and self important. She did care however, that her hiding place had been ruined forever and that the magic would have disappeared when she went back. It appeared that nothing could be sacred anymore. She confined herself to her bedroom for the rest of the evening and tried to ignore the smell of baking ham that was wafting up the stairs.
Late during the night Jane could ignore her grumbling stomach no longer and she decided to risk it. She swept out of bed and down the staircase lighter than a breath. There was a dim light coming from the kitchen as she headed down the last stretch of stairs. This was strange. Her mother was very specific about making sure the house was invisible at night time. “All the better to go unnoticed,” she would say, tipping water on the fire which would be extinguished with a hiss. But then descending into the kitchen, she found it was not empty. Jane jumped at the sight of her father. He was sat with his legs stretched out before him, his feet crossed in the old rocking chair by the fire place.
“You are more predictable than you think you are, Jane,” he chuckled to himself.
“I needed something to eat,” she snapped.
“As I knew you would,” he laughed again. She pulled the lid noisily from the bread bin and sliced herself two pieces from the loaf her mother made that afternoon, snatched them up and darted back towards the stairs, having no intention of spending any more time with her father than necessary.
“Sit,” he demanded. Jane was afraid of few things. Her father when he used that voice was one of them. She sat.
He cleared his throat, scratched thoughtfully at the grey stubble on his chin and began.
“You will never know how your mother and I felt when we thought we were losing you. Until you have your own child and they are dying in your arms, you can have no idea how it feels. Our youngest child and our only daughter and there was nothing we could do for you. One of the worst things was knowing that you had done it to yourself. You jumped in voluntarily. As you withered, we withered,” he kept his voice steady through the speech but he could not meet her eyes.
“Isaac saved your life then. Whether you like it or not, and he has saved your life again today. I won't forbid you from going down to the river because I know forbidding it will just make it all the more appealing. But, Jane, if The Crookeds found you down there, you would not survive. They would torture you and they would kill you. And they would take pleasure in doing so. They are monsters, Jane. Their only motive is to kill and to rid the world of The Hopefuls. We are filth in their eyes, a disease that needs to be exterminated. And, I may as well be honest, they are winning this battle; our numbers get smaller every day. We perish in bucket loads every day. Just because the fight is happening on the other side of The Kingdom for now does not mean that we are excused from participating. They have cunning and power that we know not and until they are here we will have no idea that they are coming,” he paused, shaking his head in resignation. Jane noticed how tired he looked; the firelight illuminated the deep crevasses underneath his eyes.
“Do you know who you are? Who your ancestors are? Have you never guessed? We have kept the truth from you for a very good reason, hidden it from you all your life for which I am so sorry. We thought it best you didn’t know until you were old enough to understand,” he said, reaching out to put a rough hand on her knee.
“I think after today, it is imperative you know. Isaac believes it to be a matter of life and death. You must know,” Frank cleared his throat and began to speak again, very slowly, in his special way that told Jane just how important his words are.
“The Shepherd family’s lineage goes back right to The Great Divide. It began with Evelyn. The Saviour of The Hopefuls. Do you understand? She saved us all. She was the reason the war ended the last time. She built this very village. She and her family lived in this house we sit in now,” he said.
Jane took a moment to gather up the impossibility of it all. The woman whose statue stood proudly in the town square, the woman whose story is told so frequently that everyone in The Hopefuls world knew it like the skin on the back of their hands. The woman to whom every Hopeful owed their lives could not possibly be related to Jane.
“The Evelyn?” Jane asked. “The one from the stories?”
“They aren’t stories. They are facts. So do you see? Where you came from? Why you are the way you are? You were always destined to be a strong, forceful girl because that was who she was. She was a warrior.”
“Incidentally and importantly, you are also the first female to be born into this family since Evelyn. I can’t believe you have never noticed the likeness. When the villagers see you, they see hope for the future. They see her back from the dead. I'm surprised you haven't spotted the way they act around you. It doesn't matter who is named as the Protectors of this village, they will always look to you for their hope. So do not ask me to apologise for trying to keep you safe. I will always fight for you, as Evelyn's father died saving her.”
Tears were glistening on his cheeks, his voice shaking with emotion. It was quite disturbing; this was something she had never seen her father do.
“If we lost you, there would be no consoling the village or any Hopeful anywhere for that matter. You are somewhat of a legend, without even knowing it. You're the only reason why we are still fighting this war. Why any Hopeful in any corner of this Kingdom dares to believe they might come out of this alive. So I implore you, do a better job of looking after yourself. You will always be a free spirit and I love that part of you but you must remember who you are. Always remember who you are,” he stood up and placed a crinkly kiss on her forehead and started to climb the stairs slowly and heavily.
“I might also ask you to take it a little bit easier on Isaac. He really does just want to help,” he said with a timid smile before disappearing.
That night Jane dreamt of fire and smoke rising high into the sky, a cold, bitter laugh and the panicked faces of thirteen children surrounding her.
Jane remembered the day very well. She remembered that they had all been so excited, they were all thirteen years old and the day that every thirteen year old Hopeful had waited for was finally upon them. It was the day that they were going to be given ‘The Talk’. It couldn’t have come soon enough. They might have been young but they would have to have been deaf not to have heard the terrified conversations that were occurring more and more frequently, always concerning The Crookeds. The war had not yet reached their side of The Kingdom but it would eventually and when it did, they all wanted to be ready.
They were anxiously queuing up outside the assembly room door at school. Jane was clinging to Lilia’s hand, Lilia had said she didn’t want to know, she didn’t want to hear about it. She had asked Miss Anderson, their headmistress, if she could be excused and Miss Anderson had replied, “Are you Hopeful?”
“Yes,” Lilia had replied.
“Then you must know.” It was compulsory. The time had come where they could no longer rely on ignorance being bliss.
She remembered everyone chatting frantically; it came back to her in a fast forward flash. Their voices were high pitched and blurry. She couldn’t remember what they had said exactly, but the general sentiment had been, “Once we know, we can help. We can fight.”
Martin had grasped her shoulders briefly and said excitedly, “It’s all about to change.”
Lilia had squeezed her hand harder.
They filed into the assembly room; the large space felt very bare once you tried to fill it with twenty thirteen year olds. The chatter dissipated immediately, the smirks were wiped from faces. Miss Anderson was stood; hands clasped together, looking very grim, at the end of the hall and next to her had sat a man. From a distance you could see nothing out of the ordinary but as they got closer you could see that there was something not quite right. Jane first noticed that there was only one trouser leg descending from the chair that the man was uncomfortably balancing upon. Then she noticed that there were no fingers poking out from his shirt cuffs. And then she noticed that he only had half of a face. The rest had sunken away back into itself, leaving only taut, bleached skin scraped indelicately over bone.
A few people emitted quiet shrieks. Lilia had tried to run but Jane grasped harder onto her hand.
“Sit down please,” Miss Anderson had begun. “Mr Marshland has come to tell you about how this happened to him.”
Mr Marshland began to speak, his words were slurred because of his half, distorted mouth but even in spite of that you could not have mistaken the words he said, even if you had wanted to. Of course, it had been The Crookeds who were at the centre of it all. Mr Marshland, it appeared, was one of the lucky ones. It was rare that anybody escaped alive.
Up until that point The Crookeds had been spoken about in hushed tones, especially around the children. It was decided there was no point in telling them the whole truth until they absolutely needed to know. And so The Crookeds were things mentioned in passing. They were myths that children heard their parents talking about with their ears pressed up against key holes in the dead of night. And now, all of a sudden, they were real, they were brutal; they were more frightening than any of their worst imaginings. And The Kingdom was at war after all, even after the children had dared to believe otherwise.
They were told about the birds, how the birds would know if an attack was about to happen and would raise the alarm, they were told to trust The Protectors, they were told again about Evelyn and if she had been able to send The Crookeds running for the hills, then somebody else would figure out a way to do so this time too. Jane supposed Miss Anderson had said that to give them just a bit of hope to walk away with.
“Now, I want you to understand something. You have not been educated about The Crookeds because we think that you are ready for a fight. You have been educated so that you are not blind, so that if something should happen you are not confused. You have been educated in the hope that you do not suffer a fate similar to Mr Marshland’s,” Miss Anderson said. Mr Marshland had nodded sadly in reciprocation.
She had dismissed them then. They had left the room in silence and then they left the school in silence, even Martin and his friends finding it impossible to crack a joke about anything that had passed.
Lilia had peeled her hand from Jane’s at some point and disappeared from her side. She remembered that Isaac had promised to wait for her after school. He had known what day it was and what she would learn so he had known she would need him, to be there to catch her if she would let him. He smiled cautiously when he saw her.
“You knew,” she had said, with her voice barely managing a whisper.
“Of course I knew. I’ve seen it happen.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jane asked.
“Would you have thanked me for telling you?”
“It could have saved my life, if I had known. I could have been better prepared,” Jane said, her voice rising.
“We’re not supposed to tell, you’re supposed to find out about it together. It wouldn’t have done you any good knowing the truth, do you feel any different now that you know?” he asked, a gentle smile playing on his mouth, trying to calm her. But he could see a tantrum coming on and nothing would prevent it from happening now.
“I feel…hopeless,” she sighed, resigned. She turned away and trudged off up the track to her house, slower and older than she had ever felt in her life. Weighed down by a secret she had been agonizing to hear and now wished she could forget.
Now, three years later with another secret sitting on top of her shoulders, she recalled some words Miss Anderson had said that day.
“Please keep in mind that Evelyn ended this all. She brought The Atrocities to an end. In my bones I am sure that there is someone out there who will be able to do the same thing this time around,” she had said, smiling.
Jane now had a horrible feeling that the person whom she had been referring to that day was supposed to be her.