Chapter 1 – Dying
The fever would soon kill me. At least, that is what the doctor said. Funny, mother always claimed that my hot head would be the death of me. While I am sure that is not what she meant, one must pause to appreciate the irony of one’s situation when it becomes evident that one does not have a great deal time left to appreciate much of anything at all anymore. Isn’t is just the silliest thing? Unfortunately, the doctor could not specify precisely when I was expected to die. Only that the fever was worsening, there was nothing he could do to heal me and to “please stop wailing this moment” as it was giving him a headache. I wasn’t upset at all, and I fear my laughter might have worsened the poor man’s ailment. Reader, it just struck me as funny! For all of my wild antics — climbing on the barn roof to make a fort in the oak tree, attempting to tame a wild stallion bareback in the middle of the night, tying stones to my feet so I could stay underwater longer and collect river rocks, not to mention a thousand other near-death excursions — I was to die of natural causes! How utterly disappointing.
Have you heard the saying that misfortune has a way of falling upon a person when they least expect it? I am sure I can say I did not expect to fall ill so suddenly. Not at my young age. Hardly seventeen and already woefully bedridden with illness. Horrid really, (but would make a stupendous tragedy should anyone ever deign to write of me.) I was pondering those things in my bed one day, waiting ever so patiently for my lungs to stop breathing when I was disturbed from my thoughts by the sound of my mother placing yet another bowl of milk outside my door. Sighing, I lay back against my pillow and muttered to myself (as I had every morning for weeks.)
“Three... Two... One...”
I was, irritatingly, about two seconds off. There, fashionably late, was the muffled thump of small feet as they scurried through the walls. The feet belonged to the Brownies; the Brownies being the “friendly” house faeries that lived with us. I shuddered to myself as I listened to the invisible creatures behind my bedroom door slurping down the milk. Foolishly, my mother was convinced that with enough coaxing, the ordinary house and garden faeries could be persuaded to chase away my illness. This was argued passionately by Father, who insisted that the faeries had extremely limited power, and only God held power over Life and Death. His point was proved the longer I remained sick despite my mothers efforts (not to my surprise.) Leaving bowls of
milk outside my bedroom door, and hanging lavender and hollyhock from my window so far was pointless. Mother tended to be full of wisdom and insight on most matters, but on this one, she was unbelievably naive and optimistic. Besides, regardless of their magical ability or lack thereof, there is no such thing as friendly faeries.
Dying slowly, sick in bed, is arguably the most miserable thing one can experience. Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and I’m sure my experience hasn’t really been the most unpleasant to ever plague a body. I can imagine a few situations to rival the misery of mine, but most would agree that their lack of life-threatening severity disqualifies them from the competition. As I was saying, dying does have its upsides. I had plenty of time to think. To consider my life choices, to come to terms with my mistakes, and to accept my fate with grace—to welcome death with open arms! How mature of me. In reality, I only wished to be able to stand on my own so that I could yell at my friends for my lack of sympathy offerings. There I was on my deathbed, on my own, with an unforgivable lack of sweets. You understand, Reader, how wronged I felt. The behavior of my so-called friends was simply shameful, but I managed.
Once, a long time ago, when we were merely children, Peter, Mary, and I promised each other that if ever one of us was sick, we would sneak each other sweets. Me best friends and I agreed that one cannot be expected to heal from an illness without sweets. I had not seen my closest friends once since I fell ill, but I fear I was more upset about my ailing sweet tooth than my lonesomeness. You see, though I did my best to be mature and graceful in my finale moments, my heart of hearts rebelled.
Sitting up, I leaned forward to peer out of my bedroom window. From my position, lying on my bed, I could just barely see out into the field behind my house. Partially covered by trees, the moon beckoned me. There was nothing I wanted more than to be able to wander outside again. With trembling hands, I lifted the blankets from my legs. So many weeks I had been bedridden; I looked so frail. A few strands of my hair fell into my eyes, and I regarded them with distaste. Once strawberry blonde, now a pale, soft silver in the moonlight. How hateful is death, dear Reader, to steal away everything you value before blowing out your flame? But I stubbornly refused to be moved by emotion. What did I care how I looked anyway? It wasn’t as if, on my deathbed, I was trying to impress anyone. I had no sweetheart or even anybody remotely interested in filling that position in my life. I was too wild, my mother said.
How strange it felt to finally be forced to be tame, and still no suitors. It only went to prove that it wasn’t my fault at all the men took no interest.
My family whispered, not knowing I could hear them, that I was burning with fever, that I looked glassy-eyed and half-mad with sickness. Which was odd because, aside from my strength having vanished so quickly, I felt no pain. Perhaps that was the only small bit of magic the faeries would spend on my behalf. Despite myself, I laughed at the idea. I was not delirious, not sore, and, aside from the chills, I was merely bored. At this hour so late at night, the rest of my family was asleep. I was only awake because I had slept most of the day, for lack of anything better to do while holed up in my room like a fox cornered by hounds. Once again, I leaned over to peer out the window. If I listened very hard, I could hear the distant sound of water in the river, far out of sight behind the tree line. It was difficult to concentrate on the river with the Brownies, however, as they were making so much noise in the walls and under the floorboards. Not to mention the muffled sounds from the faerie circle outside, and the lights dancing on my ceiling from their glow. Perfect. There would be a forest of mushrooms growing in our garden the next day. What a nuisance—not that I cared anymore, Reader, damned as I was to die. I refused to give lady death the satisfaction of my tears. Angrily, I reached up and pulled the curtain down over my window, blocking the light from the revels, and hiding the moon from my sight. There was hardly a point in gazing longingly at what could never again be enjoyed. I slept restlessly.
I wasn’t woken the next morning by the sound of a bowl being placed outside my door. Nor was I greeted with the sight of fresh lavender hanging from my window. How strange, that mother would neglect her superstitious chore. Perhaps she had given up. I shook the unsettling thought away. Blinking in the dusty sunlight, I turned my head to the door, wondering at the lack of sound in the house. Generally, my younger brothers and sister could be heard singing songs, and the sound of my father’s ax or plow sounded from the field outside my bedroom window. That day there was no sound. Worry writhed in my gut refusing to be smothered by my willpower alone. I needed assurance. Slowly sitting up I called out, my words sounding muffled and weak in the consuming silence of early morning.
I wondered how long it had been since I had sung. Not that I cared, except that now my lungs had no strength to call out. Wincing at the scratchy sound of my unused voice I strained my ears for any sign of life in the house. When no answering “good
morning” met mine, I lay back in bed. It wasn’t unusual for my family to take the horse and wagon for a trip into the village early in the morning before the sun fully rose, and the heat became stifling. However, one would assume that they would take the time to say goodbye to their dying daughter or to leave someone behind to care for her. How was I supposed to eat with them gone? Again, the worry in me gnawed for attention, refusing to heed my inner chant. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. Those words kept me sane. Lifting my head, I surveyed my almost empty room. The sunlight drifting through my window touched the wooden boards of my walls and revealed where the dust had settled in the cracks. Reader, do you think that is what heaven must be like? Perhaps when you first die, you don’t realize it. Perhaps you wake up in a peaceful, quiet world just like your own, except stiller.
Reluctantly, I cast my gaze towards the crutches leaning against the foot of my bed. If I were dead, I would have no need for them. The doctor had left them behind, saying I was free to attempt to walk, though I would hardly get far, and the effort would be exhausting. Thus far, I had not bothered to try, but today I might be forced to use them. How humiliating. I don’t care. After a moment’s hesitation, I sighed and leaned forward, twisting my legs awkwardly underneath me, so that I could lean forward and grasp the nearest crutch. Positioning it beside my bed so that I could lean on it when I stood, I pushed my quilt aside and stared dubiously at my delicate-looking members. Lightweight though I was at that point in my illness, they appeared to be woefully unsuited to their task of supporting me. Poor things. Again, I turned my gaze towards my crutches and shook my head. The simple wooden pieces hardly seemed a fit tool to use in aiding me in my exploit out of my bedroom. I barely had a choice though.
I shifted my weight on my bed and allowed my legs to fall limply off the edge, hanging down so that my toes barely brushed the thin, blue, rug I had owned since I was a small child. Dried paint stains from a long-ago spill, were now so unfamiliar to my bare feet. Gritting my teeth and clutching one crutch tightly, I pulled myself upright so that my trembling legs were correctly positioned on the floor. I leaned heavily on the crutch, and my arms were already sore and tired from the effort of standing, balanced precariously on the stick of wood. I much rather would have lain in bed, but — curse the worried worm in my stomach. As I moved to reach for the other crutch, my breath caught in my throat. The few inches from my hand seemed like miles. I feared if I leaned forward much further, I would lose my balance and fall to the floor. There I would remain until my family came home to find me, broken beside my bed. Reader,
my dignity simply would not withstand a blow so powerful as that. There was nothing to do but to press forward. Hissing in frustration, I moved ever so slightly, inching forward until my fingers could grasp the rough wood of the other crutch. Slowly, painfully, with the wood digging into my underarm, I left my bedroom for the first time in weeks. There was no one there to cheer me on.
As I suspected, the house was empty. The only sounds were the quiet mutterings of the Brownies in the walls, whispering to themselves in their strange language. Probably complaining about their lack of milk. The soft sound of my bare feet on the floor seemed impossibly loud in my barren home; but the sharp tap tap tap of my crutches on the wooden floor was ever louder and resounded in my ears after each step. Looking around me, I could see that the house had been cleaned and swept, everything put in order before my family had left. The stillness was unnerving, and I wished I had not left my bed. However, I had already gone that far, and I was beginning to grow hungry. All I really wanted was some bread, maybe some cheese. I had long since stopped caring about watching what I ate for the sake of my health and physical attractiveness. It was slow work, moving to the cupboard where we stored our food. I made my way determinedly, dragging my useless feet behind me and relying mostly on the crutches. I missed running. I was nearly startled out of my skin when a voice spoke sharply from the chair in the corner.
“What are you doing out of bed, child?”
With a yelp I dropped a crutch and nearly toppled over, hardly managing to grab the back of a chair to continue supporting myself. I would have whirled around quickly to confront the sharp voice in the corner, but I was limited in my abilities. I therefore resolved merely to settle myself in the chair and glare at the intruder. Sitting as quickly as I could, I lifted my eyes and groaned inwardly. The pinched wrinkled face, tight, painful-looking bun, and black eyes pinning me to my chair, belonged to Eileen Morana. Our, unfortunately, closest neighbor.
“What are you doing here?” Despite having known her for most of my life, our neighbor always made me uneasy. Perhaps it was the way she looked at the people around her, with such a knowing gaze, or maybe it was the odd sadness that seemed to surround her. Others in our village had no fear or distrust of her at all, but for whatever reason, I always found it hard to interact with her and she always seemed to dislike me
as well. She stared at me as if she knew my thoughts and disapproved. Languidly, she lifted her head and gave me a long look, studying my crutches and I with a calm, lazy sort of interest.
“Your family requested that I stay with you while they are away.”
My previous fright and anger had, by this time, abated, and I was left with a sullen sort acceptance. However, I was still full of questions that pounded against the walls of my “I don’t care” mindset.
“Where have they gone?” I wondered.
“They’ve gone into town,” Mrs. Morana answered, in that quiet, spiritless tone that she had. I found myself restless in her presence, but I was too confused to attempt to escape the conversation just then.
“For what?” I asked. I was mortified to find my voice shaking. Shut up! I thought. There went my dignity, blowing away in the wind like feathers from a plucked chicken.
She didn’t answer. And perhaps she honestly didn’t know... but I guessed why they’d left. Surely it must have been to make preparations for my funeral. That was the only thing that made sense to me. They will not want me lying around for days after I have gone, while they try to get things sorted out. They’ll want me safely put away as soon as possible.“After I have left?” “Safely put away?” Can you see, Reader, how I have made my imminent death sound so quaint, as if my family were out and about simply getting ready for a tea party? A morbid tea party indeed. The truth of the situation hit me like a stone on my chest, heavy, immovable, and crushing the breath from my lungs. I was still alive! They had left me whilst I was still alive. While I was still breathing and my heart still pounding, they were ready for me to die. I had to assume that by neglecting me in this way they were prepared in a way that, under all my maturity and carelessness, I was not.
Before I knew what was happening, Mrs. Morana had somehow come to stand beside my chair and was wrapping her arms around me in an attempt to be comforting. She frightened me, this woman that I knew yet seemed to be like the most mysterious and unsettling of strangers.
“It is alright, dear,” she said softly while I shook with terror and shock and quite possibly fever. “They’ll be back soon.” She placed her cool hand upon my left cheek gently. “There, there. You are burning with fever.”
Damn my fever! It would all be over soon wouldn’t it, and my family was ready! They must be preparing in the hearts and souls to never lay eyes on me again. A bowl of milk wouldn’t change that, and neither would the dry lavender in my window, nor the pointless debates regarding the validity of those hopeful efforts. No one could help me, and no one could save me, and no one would try anymore. Shrugging off Mrs. Morana’s unfamiliar embrace, I gripped my crutches tightly and hauled my defeated body to its feet. Then, without another word, I painstakingly limped to the door, and left my home, leaving the stifling feeling of imprisonment and sickness behind.
My family and friends might have already given up hope, but I was not as weak as I might have appeared. If I could go to the forest, just one more time, I convinced myself that perhaps I could defeat death. No, not just defeat it. I would drive it away, and it would never touch me again. I would struggle and therefore live. Let them burn the coffin they had chosen to “put me away” into. I was still strong enough to fight my sickness. I would not bend, and I would not bow to the miserable demon that plagued me. Glancing over my shoulder, I looked behind me, to my home that had so suddenly changed to become a prison. A tomb. Looking through the window, I could see Mrs. Morana watching me shuffle forward, a strange smile touching her lips as she stared. She was witnessing my struggle and smiling. With a shudder, I looked ahead and set my gaze towards the tree-line. I would make it. I knew I would make it. Already I thought I could feel death’s cold fingers losing their grip on me.
The warm air stroked my hair, and the dry wind pushed me forward. Shrill snickering sounds followed the dull thump thump of my crutches striking the ground. Faeries. Little monsters with their magic-giving hope to those who are too weak to fight, and then refusing to share their gifts with the broken who need it most. Monsters. Devils. Though some called them God’s servants, I refused to believe it. Well, I did not need their help, nor their magic. I was strong enough to live on my own. Reader, I was determined to shove their smug, gloating snickers down their throats personally.
With grim resolve I moved faster, wobbling uncertainty while my crutches threatened to give way beneath my weight. Hurrying forward as quickly as I dared, one
weak step after the other, I made my way to the tree-line. As my arms trembled from supporting myself on the thin, brittle pieces of wood, I leaned forward to the trees, towards that sound of water. Hopefully, my heart beat faster begging to live. I would live, Reader. I had to.
With a snap, a crutch broke, and I fell to the ground. Splinters dug mercilessly into the bare skin of my arms and my legs twisted underneath me. Sharp stones on the ground gouged deep cuts into my knees. It wasn’t until I lifted my head that I realized I was crying. Warm, salty, tears blurred my vision, and I angrily pounded the unforgiving ground underneath me. I wasn’t merely sick. Nor was I simply dying. I was crippled at my core. This was where my effort and hope had brought me. I should have stayed in bed. I trapped in a body that was beyond repair. I was such a sorry creature that I was no longer worth the time of day it would take to place a bowl of milk outside my door. Or even hang hollyhock from my window. Or to visit and bring sweets. The emotions I had refused to feel welled up inside me as truths made themselves evident. I was a dirty, thin, dying girl on the ground, kneeling before the forest, with a broken crutch. So far from the untamable, laughing girl I had been once: all wild, and touched by sunshine and happiness. She was gone. She had already suffered and passed away. And I did care! My heart broke for her.