Chapter 4 - 1914: Helen
Helen woke in the predawn light. Her head spun as the rooster crowed. Normally, she would close her eyes and sleep until her mother called for her, but she couldn’t go back to sleep even if she wanted. With a groan, she pushed herself up in bed. Something warm and wet gushed between her legs. She looked at the sheet and gasped when she saw a large spot of blood.
And a young woman is what you’re becoming, Helen. Her father’s words came at her like daggers. With a sob, she stood and searched for something to quell the bleeding. She pulled on a pair of bloomers and stuffed a rag in them, then stared at the sheet. She would be washing laundry until her arms fell off.
Her legs ached. As she pulled off her nightgown, she tried to ignore the bruises on her abdomen and chest. They stopped at her neck. So long as they were covered, she could be clean, unblemished.
Her father spoke of her marrying one day, but Helen knew no man would want her, not if he knew the truth. She pushed the thought from her mind and dressed, then stripped the bed and took the sheets downstairs.
Her mother was outside feeding the chickens and collecting eggs. She came in with an apronful and set them on the table. “Good, you’re up.”
“Good morning, Mother.” How did you sleep? She glared at her mother’s back, willing her to express an ounce of sympathy.
“Yes, good morning, Helen. Now, help me with breakfast. Your father intends to be up early as well. He has several sick parishioners to visit today and then must put the finishing touches on his sermon.”
Helen nodded and set some water to boil for coffee. She pulled bacon out of the ice box.
Her father entered ten minutes later. “Smells wonderful.”
Helen poured his coffee as he sat, then went to the front door to retrieve the paper and placed it in front of him. He picked it up and read it, coffee in hand. His presence alone brought a darkness that even the rising sun couldn’t quell. The gas lamp over the table burned as bright as always, but in his black garb, Pastor Hawkins was a raven, ever-watching her with his beady eyes.
Helen helped get breakfast on the table and ate mechanically. Silence hung in the humid air like a firecracker waiting to explode. An imaginary rope tightened little by little around Helen’s neck as she forced down the food. The newspaper rustled every time her father flipped the page. She quivered with each page turn. While her father reset his grip on the paper and stilled it, her body continued to shiver, despite the heat. Sweat dripped from the base of her hairline under her braid and pooled along her collar.
The newspaper crinkled as her father closed it and set it on the table. His coffee cup clunked down next. He stood, the chair squealing over the floor.
“Well, good day to you. I’ll be back late.”
“Have a good day, William.” Her mother stood and pecked her husband’s cheek.
Helen’s father grabbed his hat and briefcase, then left through the back door. Every muscle relaxed with the shutting of that door. Helen released a long breath and slumped her shoulders.
“Whatever is the matter with you?” her mother asked as she grabbed empty dishes off the table and took them to the sink. “You’ve barely touched your food.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Nonsense, Helen. You have a busy day. Now, you have five minutes to finish your breakfast.”
“Yes, Mother.” Helen raised her gaze off a half-eaten piece of bacon and met her mother’s eyes.
“You could at least sound grateful you have something to eat. Some people aren’t so fortunate. Your father works hard to provide and helps those in town who don’t have the means to pay for food. He’s a good man.”
“Who are you trying to convince?” The words were out before Helen realized what she’d said. She covered her mouth, as if that would reel the words in.
The line between her mother’s eyebrows deepened. The wrinkle became more pronounced on two occasions: when her mother knitted and when she was displeased. “Excuse me, young lady?”
Helen swallowed and gripped the edge of the table, her back rigid. “You heard me, or did you turn off your ears like you do every time he does that to me?”
Helen didn’t cry out as her mother’s hand made contact with her cheek. The sting clung to her skin as she lifted her hand and stared at her mother with a challenge, with betrayal.
“You won’t talk about your father that way. He’s a good man, holy, doing the Good Lord’s work.”
“Only God is holy.”
“Your father had to pull himself up by his bootstraps from a young age, what with being raised by those hillbillies and a father who drank and beat his children. Be glad you have a roof over your head, a meal on the table three times a day, a father with a stable job, and a mother who is willing to cover for you when you are unappreciative and lazy.”
“Cover for me? You lie to protect him. I’m your daughter.” Helen stood as rage fueled her. She fisted her hands at her sides.
“You will hold your tongue, young lady. You will keep your silence, like a woman should. And you would do well to remember that.” Her mother raised the wooden spoon, her blue eyes flashing.
“Of course.” Helen forced her fingers to relax, and she turned, leaving the kitchen.
She went to the scullery at the back of the house. She filled the copper basin with water and soap powder and collected the laundry. Working with cold water, she tossed the sheets into the basin and used the metal plunger to push them up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Water splashed over the sides with her frenetic motions.
The stain faded, but with every up and down jerk, the stain in her mind grew. A flash of his opened pants, his face leering down, the pull on her skirt and undergarments, the thrusts that tore her apart… Tears leaked out as she worked.
The stain disappeared on the sheet, but still Helen washed. She worked until she wore through the fabric. With a sound somewhere between a growl and a cry, she released the plunger. She withdrew the sheets and ran them through the wringer. Grabbing the sheets, she dashed outside to hang them. Once in the yard, she turned in circles. The world spun: her house, the forest, the barn, her house again. Trapped. Trapped like an abused animal in a cage with no escape. The sheets dropped, forgotten.
She glanced back at the house for any sign of her mother, but the house with the flaking white paint rested as still as a corpse. A curtain fluttered in the gentle breeze, as if beckoning her to return. She ignored it and turned her eyes to the forest. She picked up her foot and took a step in that direction. One foot in front of the other, she started walking, then jogging, then tore off into the sanctuary of the woods.
After ten minutes, she stopped to catch her breath. Panting, she leaned forward, resting her hands on her thighs. Now she wished she had eaten more, for she was lightheaded and disoriented. She sat, closed her eyes, and willed herself to be someone else, to be anywhere but here, to live another life and leave this hell behind.
When she opened her eyes, the trees were her only companions.
“No,” she groaned. Her vision blurred as tears fell in a torrent. The green above and below mixed until she couldn’t discern up from down.
She closed her eyes again, covered her face with her hands, and buried her head in her skirt. Rocking, she muttered, “It has to work. It must. Come on, God. Where are You? I need this… Why? Why do You let this happen?”
Her words slurred together, lost in sobs. When she regained her composure, she glared at the sunlight filtering between the leaves. No answer came. No miracle appeared.
She flopped into the embrace of wildflowers. Her thoughts faded. The scent of damp earth and the sweet fragrance of the flowers soothed. Darkness greeted.
When Helen woke, she forgot where she was and panicked. Disappointment settled in her core. She imagined a cesspool of flies hovering over rotten food. Their buzz filled her ears. The smell of festering meat hung in her mouth and she gagged.
“No dreams. No escape.” Pain shot through her cracked, dry lips.
Her mother called in the distance, but she gave her no heed. Helen stood with the aid of a tree trunk and got her bearings. With a sigh, she turned for home.
I could be like that woman in my dream and run away. Then again, she chose to stay and wait, but she had someone. She wasn’t alone. She was loved. I almost...felt it, what it was to be loved, to be wanted.
With every step, Helen’s heart broke a little more. She stopped at the threshold of the forest and stared at the looming house. Her mother opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, then scanned the yard.
“Helen!” she called. “Where are you?”
Helen’s heart sped up. She withdrew into the woods and hid behind a tree.
The girl waited. Her mom shook her head and entered the house, the door slamming behind her.
If I go back, she’ll tell Father I didn’t finish my chores and ran off. She shuddered, trying to force the nightmares away.
But where can I go?
She glanced upward, as if willing God to hear her silent plea.
The branches swayed in the breeze. A pair of birds chirped as they flew overhead.
“This is a joke.” She clenched her teeth. “Nothing but a lie. You mock me with glimpses of freedom but withhold the reward.”
Tears flowed down her cheeks as Helen crossed the yard and stepped onto the porch. Her mother must have heard her, for she was upon her as the door clattered open and hit the siding.
“Where on earth have you been?”
“Nowhere.” Helen wouldn’t, couldn’t meet her mother’s gaze.
A rough grip around Helen’s upper arm and a tug into the house. “You will clean up the mess you left outside with the washing and then clean yourself up before your father gets home. Then you’re going to get it.”
Blood gushed between Helen’s legs. The whole time she’d walked through the woods, the mark of her womanhood hid with her. Now it was just another punishment, another joke on her. A drop hit the floor.
They looked at the spot.
“You will clean that up and make yourself decent.” Her mother left and returned with a bundle of rags. “Here, put these to good use. I shouldn’t have to explain what to do with them.” She left.
Helen held the rags with trembling hands. She went upstairs, every step an effort to keep moving. Now the blood seemed insistent on pouring from her. She went into the bathroom.
When she emerged five minutes later, she felt a little better, if only because she was cleaner. She took the dirty rag outside and set to cleaning up the laundry and hanging it. She left the rag to soak in the copper basin, then entered the house and scrubbed the floor.
“You will clean up every spot. You had better hope you’re finished before your father returns. What you’ve done is disgusting. A woman doesn’t allow herself to leave such a mess.”
Helen bowed her head as she worked. She could almost feel the lashing on her back--and worse--that would come in a couple of hours, but she refused to cry. She finished cleaning the floor and took the remainder of the dirty rags outside to wash. When she returned to the house, her mother called for her.
She entered the kitchen. Her mother’s back was turned to her as she cooked.
“Set the table, would you?”
“Yes, Mother.” Helen went to the cabinet to withdraw the plates. Her eyes rested on a paring knife on the table as she put the plates out. Her gaze drifted back to her mother. She shook her head.
Silence hung in tension as mother and daughter worked for the next hour. When the back door clanked open and her father entered, Helen jumped. The bowl of potatoes in her hands nearly dropped. She recovered herself and set it on the table.
“Good evening.” Her father’s eyes shifted from his wife to Helen.
“Good evening, William. Welcome home. I trust you had a good day?” Her mother took his hat and briefcase out of the kitchen and returned. She kissed him on the cheek.
“Yes, Mary. I believe I am ready for Sunday.”
“What are you preaching on?”
“Proverbs 13, most specifically verse twenty-four.” His eyes remained on his daughter.
He approached the table and gripped the back of his chair. Helen’s mother and she took the cue and sat, as did her father.
“That’s the verse about discipline, isn’t it?” her mother asked.
“It is. ‘He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.’”
Helen shifted her weight from one side to the other. Her stomach roiled as the smell of the young rooster her mother had cooked filled her nose.
“That’s quite interesting.” Her mother’s face implored her. “Helen, do you care to enlighten your father on your wanderings today, or shall I?”
Helen’s stomach tightened. “It was… I’m sorry, Father.” She tried to meet his eyes, but she stared at her empty plate.
“What has been going on in my absence?” her father demanded. He glanced from his wife to their daughter. “Well?” He pounded the table.
Mother and daughter leapt in their seats.
“She was supposed to be doing the laundry,” her mother blurted. “When I looked outside, she was gone. She went into the woods.”
“Is this true?”
Helen nodded, barely moving. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. I just--” Just what? Hate you? Wanted to escape? She stared at the knife next to her father’s plate. Her eyes moved to his clerical collar. She imagined blood pooling around the black and tainting the white square, the collar tightening around her father’s neck like a noose.
“I think you had best go upstairs and wait until I’ve finished my dinner.”
“Now!” His long, pallid finger pointed to the door.
Helen stood and pushed her chair in, moving with as much speed as she could without running. She bolted up the stairs as tears streamed down her face. Entering her room, she resisted slamming the door because she knew it would make her punishment worse. She dropped to the floor in the corner farthest from the bed and sobbed into her hands.
Exhausted from crying, she raised her head and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Dying sunlight filtered in through the window. A shudder ran through her. Helen forced herself to stand. Blood gushed and dripped down her legs. With a soft cry, she went to the bathroom and cleaned herself and changed the rag, trying to keep quiet.
Her parents were silent. The occasional clatter of a fork or the shifting of a chair were all that reached her.
She finished in the bathroom and stowed the old rag, now rinsed off, under her bed. She pried away the loose floorboard and removed the box of animal crackers. Her stomach growled, so she stuffed a few crackers into her mouth and returned the box to its secret place. Her mouth went dry, so she tiptoed to the bathroom and drank from the faucet.
Indoor plumbing was the one luxury their house afforded. The old outhouse still stood on the property, but for the first time, Helen appreciated having running water.
It’s a small blessing, but hardly a reason to be happy. Why can’t I be Susan and run away with my beau? Or why can’t I be Matilda and have a big house and everything I’ve always wanted?
Tears started again. She stared at her reflection in the mirror over the sink. Dark circles haloing her eyes stood out against the pallor of her blotchy face. Brown hair escaped from the braid down her back, encircling her head like a dismal wreath.
“But who would want me?” she asked her reflection.
Thump! A footstep on the stairs.
Helen grabbed the edge of the sink and froze.
Thud! Another step.
Her body tensed. She dashed away the tears and flitted to her bedroom as another resounding thump echoed up the stairs and down the hallway. She sat at her desk and pretended to read.
Her father finished ascending the stairs, and his dragging gait crossed through the hallway. Helen imagined an angry spirit with chains, like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, that sense of impending doom growing with each step. But this tale was no fictional story, no nightmare she could pinch herself awake from. This tale was her life--her broken, bruised life--and Helen wondered what the point was of anything anymore. She lifted her eyes from the book to the sky, silently cursing the god that her father worshipped.
The steps stopped.
Her shoulders drew up to her ears. She leaned forward as if already struck.
“What you did today was inexcusable, and because of that, it is with regret that I must do this.”
The soft clink of unfastening his belt and the swoosh of the leather over his pants slithered across the room, up Helen’s back, and into her ears. Images of him undoing his fly followed, but instead, he said, “Come to the bed.”
The bed. She stood and turned. He perched on the edge like some solemn statue. He patted his lap.
“You know what you must do. Don’t resist. You will only make this harder for both of us.”
Helen fisted her hands at her sides. Her glassy eyes glared at her aggressor. Her lips quivered. “No.”
“Excuse me?” His voice kept its polite manner he used at church.
“You h-heard me. I said no. I w-won’t do it anymore. You c-can’t touch me anymore. I won’t let you.”
His eyes flashed as he reached for her. Helen tried to pull her arm away, but he was faster.
“You’re h-hurting me.” She tried to keep her voice even, hating the shaking undercurrent.
He yanked her down and over his upper legs. He moved his hand to her back and held her. Before she could react, the belt made contact with her backside. She flinched with every blow as it wracked her body. Pain shot up her spine and down her legs, yet she didn’t cry out. Tears escaped her closed eyes.
Please, let me leave. Just...please.
Blackness enveloped her like a warm blanket. The agony of the lashing stopped. She opened her eyes and gazed upon a bent figure of...herself.
She gasped, dropping the belt from her limp hand...her father’s hand.
The girl beneath her lay prone. Then she turned her head and stared at Helen in horror. The girl fell, hitting the floor with a thud.
“You… What have you done?” Helen’s voice asked. “What trickery is this? You...you’re a demon!”
The brief shock of being in her father’s body evaporated as Helen stood over him.
If this was power, it was happiness. It surged through her veins, giving her more life than she’d ever experienced. A prayer had been answered. She jumped on the inside, rejoicing like some of the evangelicals in the next town.
She smiled down at him. “How does it feel, Father, to be me?” I’ll finish what you’ve started. She blinked.
Darkness tore at her this time, snatching her away from her dream. When she opened her eyes, she sat on the floor, gazing up at her father. Terror clutched her heart and shredded it, then mangled the rest of her insides.
Her father’s face was blank, as if in a trance. Then he recovered. His mouth twisted into a snarl, and he was upon her like a wolf attacking a rabbit. He pinned her.
Helen wondered why her mother didn’t come, why she never did. She had to hear the struggle upstairs, had to know. Helen glowered at her father and spat in his face.
“You little bitch,” he growled like a rabid dog, wiping the saliva from his cheek. “I’ll banish the evil out of you yet. If you thought your little trick would scare me, think again. You’re mine.”
Helen pinched her eyes shut and willed herself to be him again, but when she opened them, her father’s ugly face glared down. She closed them.
What followed she tried to forget, but never could.