Chapter 6 - 1914 & 1918: Helen
Helen lay awake long after her father tore her apart, her body shivering, despite the warm, humid air. Turning to her side, she pulled the thin blanket up higher and closed her eyes. She tried to ignore the throbbing pain in her groin that migrated down her legs and up her back. Every time she twitched a tiny muscle, the vivid memory of his thrusts came back. The lashings licked at her raw backside to almost the point of numbness.
A single tear escaped. Her lids snapped open, and in the darkness, she longed to find her light. Her hope. Her salvation. If only I could be numb. Not care, because that’s all I’ve ever known from them. My parents.
Helen tuned her ears for any sign her parents were awake, but the house rested as silent as a tomb. She was sealed in, buried in Hell.
Sitting up, she pounded her fists into the mattress. “No.” Her voice came as a harsh whisper, a prayer to an unknown deity. “Never again.” She dashed the tears away.
I’ve got to escape. Somehow, this has to end.
She screwed her eyes shut and tried to be someone, anyone else. Matilda with her big house and two porcelain dolls and parents who loved her. Susan with her lover who wanted to run away. Even her father...as she had been for a few brilliant seconds earlier that night.
Darkness greeted Helen when her eyes opened, snatching away hope.
And if I run away, where would I go? Who would want me?
* * *
Her father left her alone for the next week. Whenever they were in the same room, Pastor Hawkins spoke only with his wife. The arrangement worked well for Helen, and she hoped she might have scared him away.
Maybe I did win that night. Maybe it was a war, not a battle, and he’s running the other way like a dog with its tail between its legs.
But that night after dinner was done and Helen pretended to read her Bible in her room, she heard it--the sound of her father’s footsteps, the slow, deliberate steps that meant only one thing. He halted outside her closed door. His belt buckle jingled. Fly unzipped. The knob jiggled, then the door creaked open.
Helen straightened in her chair but refused to turn. Bible held deftly in both hands, she kept her eyes glued to the blurred words, then allowed them to slide shut.
“Come to the bed.”
Eyes still closed, Helen imagined being her father. Standing where he stood. Seeing her long braid down her back. Feeling what he did--not the act itself, but the power. The lust for control.
Yesss. Her mind’s voice held out the word like a hissing snake. The serpent coiled through her thoughts, chuckling. Yes. See it. Be it. Become it. Embrace it.
“--to the bed,” finished Helen’s voice.
Helen stared at the braid down the petite girl’s back, then down at the hands--hands that belonged to him but were now hers. She clasped them, rubbed them together, then took a step toward the girl.
The girl jumped up from the chair. It fell. She gazed at her, frozen. “What’s the meaning of this? What do you think you’re doing, you monster?” Raising a trembling finger, she pointed it at Helen. “You-- you stay away from me.”
“And if I don’t?” Helen took another step, hands in fists at her sides.
“That won’t do any good. It never did before. She doesn’t care.” Another step.
“What are you going to do to me?”
Helen stopped in front of the girl--her father. Her arms raised, hands inches from the girl’s neck. “You don’t deserve to live. I should--”
“--kill you,” her high-pitched voice finished. She brought her small hands up in disbelief and dropped against the desk. “N-no.” Closing her eyes, she willed every part of her to reverse their roles, but as her father grabbed her shoulders and threw her to the bed, she died a little more.
“I’ll teach you who is in control here, you little demon.” A growl. An inhuman voice. A monster she wanted to be rather than helpless prey.
* * *
In the following weeks, Helen gravitated toward one goal--to escape into her father’s body. But failure upon failure mounted a wall of impossibility that she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, succeed. She grasped at fleeting moments, tasted power on the tip of her tongue, but nothing more. All those times she thought she was dreaming of being somebody else, what if they were as real as when she went into her father’s body? She occasionally drifted into other minds while asleep, but she had little control over her ability, despite her efforts.
Although her father stopped again for a little while after her second successful foray into his body, he kept on as her predator. She was threatened, beaten, and raped. This cycle repeated every time she glimpsed the world through his eyes. Only sleep seemed to bring the possibility of inhabiting another’s body, and she couldn’t very well drift off into dreamland when at her father’s mercy.
As the weeks blurred into months, Helen held onto hope that one day she would be free. She kept her head down and her mouth shut. As much as she dreamed, however, fear of her father transformed into pure hatred. A blackness festered inside young Helen. Maybe her father was right to think she was a demon, or at least possessed by one.
Fear is weakness. Tears are pathetic. Helen was dry of tears, rigid against trembling, numb to her father’s actions.
She blossomed into a young woman as the months turned into years. She grew taller than her mother and her once-unremarkable face chiseled into the visage of a Greek beauty. Her milky skin stood out in the community. Her desire for a curvaceous body was granted, and whenever she strolled into town to run errands, she turned heads.
Helen was now sixteen. She had no desire to find a young man, despite how often they asked her on dates.
She was everything her father despised. For that, she was glad.
Over the years, Matilda Forkins had become a favorite to visit when Helen slept. She watched the other girl become a young woman and envied her. Her life seemed perfect. Her parents were kind. She had the best of everything, and whenever Helen was in Matilda’s mind, she reveled in those precious moments.
If only I could gain control of my ability, she thought whenever she woke from her life as Matilda. She never understood why she couldn’t become her father again, no matter how hard she tried. If it was meant to be a cruel joke for him to understand what she went through, it hadn’t worked.
On a late summer day, Helen walked through downtown Hurston. She sent a telegram to her aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania, updating them on her mother’s health. Her mother hadn’t been well since coming down with a severe case of pneumonia in the winter. She spent most of her time lying down these days, easily fatigued from her chores. Helen picked up the slack where she could around the house. Through all this, Helen’s feelings for her mother remained conflicted. To witness her mother wasting away day after day sent a strange pang through Helen. Regret--that was all Helen could figure. Regret that they weren’t cose. Regret that her life was what it was. Regret that the foremost feeling she had for her mother was loathing. As much as Helen’s mother might have given glimpses of kindness over the years--Helen thought of the animal crackers--abandonment dug deeper than any other emotion.
As Helen stepped out of the general store, she bumped into someone. The contact was enough to cause the other person to drop whatever she was carrying.
“Pardon me.” Helen bent down to help the other woman pick up her bundle. Her fingers brushed against the woman’s. When the woman looked up, Helen’s heart sped. “Oh, it’s you.”
Matilda Forkins smiled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry.”
Helen picked up a blackberry. “I’m sorry, too. It looks like these are ruined.”
Matilda shrugged. “It’s not a problem. There are plenty more where these came from. My parents have loads of bushes behind their house. I was bringing some to share with Mr. Horner.”
“Yes, I know.”
Matilda stopped mid-reach and furrowed her brow. “You know?”
Helen realized her slip. “I mean, I assumed that’s what you were doing with such a large bundle of berries.” She half-smiled, sweat beading along her forehead.
A man stepped up behind them.
“Um, maybe we’d better step aside and let him pass?” Helen asked.
Matilda glanced behind her and blushed, shooting to her feet. “I apologize, sir.” She stepped aside, as did Helen.
After the man passed, they picked up the rest of the berries.
“Well, thanks for your help,” Matilda said. “I suppose I ought to return home and get a new bundle if I want to get them to Mr. Horner before he closes shop for the day.” She made to leave, then stopped. “By the way, I don’t believe we’ve ever been formally introduced. I’m Matilda Forkins.” She held out her hand.
Helen shook it. “It’s nice to meet you properly, Miss Forkins. I’m Helen Hawkins.”
Matilda studied her. “You’re the minister’s daughter.”
Helen stiffened. “Yes, that is correct.”
“I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?” Her brow furrowed.
“No, it’s nothing. I just… I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’m guessing we’re about the same age, but we never talked.”
A small frown line appeared between Matilda’s perfect eyebrows. “I’ve always been curious, and I apologize if I’m speaking out of turn--Mother says I don’t know when to stop--but why doesn’t your family live next to the church?”
Helen wanted to tell Matilda how grateful she was that her father had some distance between the church and the house, that it gave her more time away from him. Instead, she said, “The house belongs to my mother’s family. She grew up in Hurston. The Wilkins family farmed here for the past sixty or seventy years.” Helen went on about her family for sometime, then blushed. Surprised how much she’d shared with Matilda and how easy it was to talk to her, Helen laughed. “Look, you’ve got me prattling.”
Matilda joined in the laughter. “Say, would you like to get a cup of tea and perhaps some cakes at Ethel’s Teahouse? I can return tomorrow with the berries.”
Every muscle in Helen’s body relaxed as the first genuine smile she’d known in a long time graced her face. “That would be lovely. Thank you.”
A few minutes later, the two young women sat at a small round table inside the teahouse. Ethel Cook owned the teahouse for fifty years. Floral wallpaper and brass sconces adorned the walls of the tiny room. Ethel kept candles in the sconces, although the ceiling lamps were gas. Sunlight filtered in windows with lace curtains that flanked the front door. A vase of roses sat in the middle of each doily-covered table.
“I don’t know the last time I was here.” Helen took a sip of tea.
“Really?” Matilda nibbled on a biscuit like a proper lady and set it on her plate. She held her teacup, pinky finger extended.
“It’s not the sort of place my family would visit, I’m afraid.”
Matilda sipped her tea. The cup gently clinked as she set it on the saucer. “Pardon me if I’m speaking out of turn, but your mention of your family seems to allude to...unhappiness.” She shook her head.
Helen sighed. “My mother is chronically ill, you see.” She explained her mother’s bout of pneumonia. “I stopped attending school to take care of her and the house. She isn’t well enough these days to tend to things.”
“I’m so sorry to hear it. That must be quite the challenge. And you have no sisters or brothers to help?”
“I’m afraid not. My parents wanted more children, but according to my mother, it wasn’t in God’s plan. My father wanted a son. He works a lot and isn’t around much, so it’s just my mother and me most of the time.” A shiver coursed through Helen.
“I have two sisters.” A small laugh escaped Matilda’s lips. “I’m sure my father wouldn’t have minded a son or two.” She went quiet, then said, “Please call me Matilda. I feel like we should have become acquainted years ago, but it’s never too late to remedy that.”
“I would like that very much. And please call me Helen. I’m not one for formalities.”
Matilda giggled. “Me neither. So, you left school?”
“Yes. I don’t suppose I would have finished anyway. Few girls even attend as far as I did. I thought maybe I’d become a teacher one day. That way, I wouldn’t have to marry if I didn’t wish.”
“You don’t want to marry? You’re a beautiful girl, Helen.”
Helen’s face hardened. “I’d rather not talk about it if it’s all the same.”
“Of course.” After an awkward silence and several sips of tea, Matilda said, “The reason you never saw me at school is because I attend a private school. I have one year left.”
“Of course.” I knew that. I know more than you realize, Matilda, and that’s why I can talk to you. I’ve liked you, known you, longer than you can imagine. “What are your plans after that?”
“To marry, of course.”
“Ah, we’re back to that.” Already knowing the answer, Helen pressed on. “You don’t attend the Lutheran church. Are you Catholic?”
“Yes. Is that a problem, I mean, with your family?” A blush crossed Matilda’s cheeks.
Helen’s hands twitched in her lap. How she longed to reach across the short distance and take the other woman’s hands in hers! “It’s not a problem for me.” She smiled slowly and gazed intently at Matilda.
Matilda stared back. The clock on the wall ticked away the seconds. The murmur of a few customers faded into the background.
Matilda giggled, withdrawing her gaze. “I’m sorry. It’s so odd, but it feels like I know you.”
“Trust me. I know the feeling.” Helen couldn’t believe what she was saying, but it was like the words formed of their own volition and released themselves from their cages after a long captivity.
Matilda’s smile widened. “Do you believe certain people share a connection? Like they were meant to meet, to become friends?”
“I believe there are a lot of things we don’t understand or can’t explain.” Like my mind-switching ability.
“It’s like God Himself put all the pieces in place and intended it. My parents have been married for twenty-five years and have always believed they were destined for each other.”
Helen’s stomach tightened. “And what about people who don’t have such happy marriages? Does God intend that, too?”
Matilda sighed into her cup, then met Helen’s eyes. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t presume to understand the will of God. What mortal can?”
“You sound like my father.” Disdain dripped from Helen’s words. “I’m not sure if I believe in fate. I’m not even sure if there’s a god.”
Matilda released a little gasp. “You-- you don’t believe in God?
“If you’re willing to share, but please don’t feel inclined to speak of anything that causes you pain. You sound so distressed, Helen. I sound like a parrot repeating itself when I say it again and again, but I apologize. I do like you, and it’s certainly not my intention to cause you further strain.”
I cannot tell you the whole truth, but I can give you enough. She held up a hand to quell Matilda. “It’s fine. Well, I suppose it really isn’t fine, but the truth is, I’ve had religion shoved on me since I was a child. With my father being a minister, he loves to bring it up at every turn. He isn’t a kind or warm man. He doesn’t give hugs or kisses but is rather harsh.” That’s putting it mildly. “He is stern. His only affections for my mother are pecks on the cheek or lips. While I realize it isn’t proper to display affection openly in public, in the home, my understanding is it ought to be another matter. If a man and a woman are in love, shouldn’t they hold hands, embrace each other, comfort each other, share in meaningful conversation, even in the presence of their children at times?”
Matilda took Helen’s hand in hers. Helen’s sweaty palm grew rigid for a moment, then softened.
“I’m sorry you have had that experience, and it only reinforces what I said earlier when I wish we had gotten to know each other sooner. You are right, of course, about couples and affection. My parents would look at each other with something akin to adoration when they thought my sisters and I weren’t looking. We used to be horribly embarrassed by it, but as I’ve grown older and come to understand something of the way of falling in love, I find it wonderful.”
Helen searched her mind for any memories of Matilda involving a young man. Her glimpses into the other woman’s life added up to enough for her to know the type of person Matilda was, what her home life was like, and some of her background, but she didn’t have every tiny detail. Helen wondered what it would be like to be Matilda, actually be her, to live in her body and hold Matilda’s memories as her own. She stared across the short distance at the other young woman. Of all her longings to escape, never had one tugged at her heartstrings like this one.
Helen finished her tea and biscuit. “What do you say to a walk tomorrow morning? I will be back in town to post some letters. Say, ten o’clock?”
“That would be delightful. Why, I would very much like to see more of you, get to know you better.”
“Then it’s a date.” Indeed, it is a date.