My mother died before I was born. It sounds odd, saying that, but I can’t find any other way of explaining.
She was fifteen when I was born, the first in a long line of unwelcome daughters. A year later, my mother had Beth. The following autumn brought the twins, and then with each year came all the rest. The one boy that Mother bore brightened our father’s life for only a few days. We buried him in the men’s graveyard, my father grieving more for this untouched soul than he ever did for his other living, suffering daughters.
Women lived hard in the Valley. Married at twelve, first childbed by thirteen, they were bent-backed grandmothers by the time they were twenty-six. My mother must have been despaired of when no baby appeared those first years of marriage. Father could have divorced her, on grounds of barrenness. He was nearly thirty then, home from warring, and ready to start a family. But in the Valley, a family meant sons. Daughters were of no importance, except to grow up to breed and rear sons. Those like my mother, who failed to do even that, were truly worthless. As I grew, she turned from dead to a ghost.
I played in the grass one morning, after the twins were born, while my mother drew a stained shirt up and down the washboard. A butterfly lifted from a flower and I laughed, clapping my hands, turning to see if she had noticed. Her dead eyes were still as stone, frightening me. I knew one day those would be my eyes. Their emptiness would be just the same.
By the time I was eight, her hair was white and broken, with spots of scalp shining through like scattered coins. Her head withered into the stalk of her neck, her bloodless arms sunk to bony hands. The pale blue of her eyes had leached away, until they looked as white as her hair. She was an apparition that wisped and disappeared when I turned to see. Rarely speaking, never smiling, never scolding. In our tiny living room full of noisy little girls, she simply vanished.
I looked at my father, tanned from the sun, robust at his work, and yet he was so much older than my mother. One day, I stood up from my child’s game and began helping. Not as much as I could have or should have, but some. If I had expected her to express thanks, I would have been disappointed. It was Father who approved.
“Maybe you’ll be a proper woman yet,” he said once, watching me sweep the floor as he downed ale.
Something dark and evil within me rankled at his praise. For I had made a promise, that day in the grass with my mother washing. I did not know how, but my life would be different. Her eyes would never be mine.
Chapter One – Going Home
I’m twelve past a quarter and already an old maid. The thought made me giggle, though at this vast age, I knew I should be beyond childish laughter. San and Teff looked shocked, their insult falling flat beneath my snickering. Beth elbowed my side.
“It’s not funny!” she said prissily, fussing over the pleats in her skirt. “Look at you, Shannon! A few more months and you really will be an old maid.”
I mussed her thin hair with my free hand. “Better that than a wife, eh, boys?”
Teff’s mouth fell open as San stiffened and moved back from the fence they were leaning on. I hefted the market basket up to my shoulder.
“Well, we’re off!” I said too loudly, pulling Beth along the road. “Why should I bring a husband’s children into the world to starve, when there’s not enough food to keep my father’s from hunger?” I smiled in satisfaction at the sound of three throats choking.
“I can’t believe you said that!” Beth hissed while San and Teff muttered behind us.
“You’re not natural, Shannon Wrightsdaughter!” one shouted. The wet sound of spitting followed.
“What if someone heard you?” Beth flinched away from me and tried to fix her hair.
“Spinsters’ cursed empty womb, brings lonely life from home to tomb!” the boys called as we neared the end of the Trel farm fence.
I rustled around in the basket. “Think I could peg Teff with an apple from here?”
“No!” Beth said, slapping my hand away.
“It’d be a waste of an apple,” I said sagely. “Pity their wives one day. But then who’d marry those cracked brains? I wouldn’t.”
“Well, you have to marry someone,” Beth said.
I started to retort, but she had already begun to wheeze. Children born in the Dark Winter never fared well. Beth and then the boy, both Dark Winter children. And irony of ironies, Beth, the too-early hard birthed baby, translucent-skinned and kitten-weak, had lived. The full-born, rose-colored boy born eight years later had not. Father, the odd time he looked at any of us, made sure to let his eyes skip over Beth. Had she been healthier, more of his rage would have poured down upon her. As it was, his anger was thoughtfully doled out in equal parcels to me, our mother, Beth, the twins, and the others.
Beth tried to even her breathing. I slowed and pretended not to notice her rasp. The sun was setting over the Valley, turning the crop fields a fiery gold against the flame red of the sky. Threads of darkness spread like talons behind us. The road was pale yellow beneath our feet, and the colors of land and sky together were as lovely as Jadan Trelson’s paintings before he had gone to war.
“Marriage,” I grumbled, hoping to draw Beth into conversation. It wasn’t thoughtful, with her trying to breathe and all, but I couldn’t bear the silence.
“What else are you going to do?” Beth said with a shrug, sounding exactly like Old Mother Nhilde in the market. “Cut off your braid and take up a plow?”
“Oh, don’t be tiresome,” I said. “I just don’t want to marry, that’s all. I mean, honestly, do you want to?”
Her voice was tired. “Of course I do. It’s not a question of wanting to, anyway. It’s a matter of doing what we should.”
“Goat drops to that! I’ll do what I please!”
“And that’s why your life will be so much harder than mine,” she said. I made a horrible face at her and shifted the basket to my other shoulder. We’d gone to market that afternoon and were late returning.
“We’re really late.” Beth said. I nodded, judging a mile or so left. I loved going to market, the bustle in the square and commotion from the stores, haggling down prices as Beth tugged on my sleeve in embarrassment. Her face would get redder still when some charitable man with many sons gave us a coin for our poor, unlucky father. Poor Father, naught but daughters. Poor Father, unable to plant all his fields with no sons to help. If Father ever found out we had accepted the money, would his fists fly! I always smiled my gratitude to the giver and pocketed the coin. I had one hidden in my dress right now. Taking it out, I watched the deep blue coin flash and sparkle in the last of the afternoon sun. I went to flash the light in Beth’s eyes, but thought better of it. I stroked its smooth surface instead and slipped it back into my pocket. A full twenty-pence piece, compliments of San and Teff’s father himself.
The road wound south. Suddenly, a rabbit skittered over the yellow gravel and vanished into a patch of thick grass. Beth grabbed my arm before I could give it chase.
“You’re no fun,” I scolded. “I wouldn’t have done it, really.”
“Yes, you would have,” Beth said. The catch in her voice made me look back. Her face was deathly pale, and beads of sweat trickled down her cheeks to drop onto her dampened collar. Her brown eyes slid around sickly, going in and out of focus when they tried to steady on me. She clutched at me to keep herself from falling. Ignoring her protests, I made her sit down along the side of the road.
The Dark Winter came with a vengeance every eight years, with icy winds scrabbling at the cabin walls and the Valley in near blackness for months at a time. Candles and fires gave the only light while thin blankets gave too little warmth. The oldest and youngest quickly died of lung illness and, by the time spring rolled in, the hale and healthy were near death themselves. I had been too young to remember the winter Beth was born, but I could remember the next one with crystal clarity. Father’s mother, Old Luol, sat in the rocker, going back and forth, back and forth through the days and nights. I could not tell one from the other. Firelight flickered on her lumped fingers twisted over the armrests. The only sound but for the shrieking wind was her voice, mumbling stories to us about the beasts in the Beyond. I had been nine, Beth eight, and the boy child lived to see his third day before dying. Had there been some light, Father no doubt would have gone to the tavern. But he had to remain in our cramped, tiny cabin until travel was possible. Beth and I huddled with the twins in a cold corner to avoid his rampaging about, while the rest of our sisters shivered along the other wall. Mother was still bed-ridden in our parents’ room.
“Dead! Dead! Dead!” he screamed. “Look at my son! What have you done to my son?” He held the bundled body to his chest, poking at it now and then, as if to make sure. I had only caught a glimpse and gotten slapped for my trouble, the boy’s whitish face eerily still in its swathe of wool blanket.
Dark Winters were long and hard. Had they come about more than once every eight years, I would probably go mad. That first spring day, when the sun gave the earth no more than a late evening’s dimness, we all spilled outside and would not go back in until nightfall.“Don’t worry, Shannon,” Beth said. I jumped at her voice. “I don’t think San and Teff will tell anyone what you said. They know it was just foolishness.” I stared at her in confusion.
“I wasn’t thinking . . .” I began to protest, but realized she didn’t need to know what I was really thinking. I helped her to her feet.
“I’m better now. Do you want me to carry the basket?” she asked.
“No, I’m all right,” I said as her chin got a stubborn set to it. “Maybe you could carry one or two of the loaves, that would lighten it some.”
She took three and started off. We went the rest of the way in silence. She shouldn’t have come with me to market, as fast as she tired, but it was better than being home.
We turned off the road and walked down the dirt path to the cabin. No cook fire came from the chimney.
“What do you. . .” Beth stopped as two of the Nameless ran for us. After Roaninblue were born, Father had forbidden us to waste even names on other useless baggage. I had names for them, but only when Father wasn’t around.
I looked over their heads at the cabin. The door was ajar. Father started shouting.
“Come on,” I said. “We’ll go into the barn and play games.” I gestured to the other Nameless, huddled on the porch. They clambered to their feet. All of them ducked when a particularly loud shout cut the air around us.
“Hurry, hurry,” I said as I ushered them into the barn, glancing at the cabin. It wasn’t much, uneven boards and cracked glass windows that never seemed to get clean. Old Luol’s rocker lay in a heap in the front yard. I pulled the barn door shut and counted . . . seven, eight, nine. Everyone was here. Roaninblue each took a hand of another sister and tried to pull them into a half-hearted ring game. Roan or Blue gave up, and then the other twin followed suit. Father never called either one by the same name, so they became Roaninblue, like a single identity.
“Come on, let’s play hide-and-seek!” I said loudly to cover the sounds from the cabin. “I’m it!”
Beth took the basket from my shoulder. I had forgotten it was there. I ran to the barn door and pressed my face against it, counting noisily. The three youngest shrieked and footsteps pounded away. Beth chuckled. I heard her sit down with an exhausted sigh.
“Twelve!” I called out. Two giggles came from the horse’s stall. Greda and Keluu, probably. They always hid together. The twins’ voices whispered behind me.
I opened my eyes and looked out a crack between the boards. For a moment, Mother’s face was barely visible through the gray glass of the cabin window.
“Why doesn’t she just hit him back?” I had demanded of her, when I was Greda’s age.
My mother looked out over the market. One of the Trelson boys had slapped his mother and ripped a coin from her palm.
“Thirteen!” I shouted, looking at my mother’s eyes. Her face disappeared. I turned back to the musty barn.“Ready, steady, on I come!” I ran blindly into the dust motes.
The Trelson mother had pressed her hand to her stained cheek. She looked down at the ground. Mother didn’t do anything for a moment. Everyone had paused at the ring of that slap, and then they were in motion again around us, slightly faster than before, to make up for the time they had lost.
I ran, not caring if I tripped, keeping my hands in front of me to push off posts and sagging doors and bales of hay. Why had the other girls been so pleased when it was time to put our hair in braids? Who wanted to be a Valley’s woman?
I stumbled over a loose board and fell, skinning my knees and tearing my dress. I scrambled to my feet. This time when I ran, like a foolish little child, my eyes were closed.
Author Kerrigan Valentine was born in Wisconsin and grew up in California, where she lives today with her partner. She has a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies. After graduating from college, she worked for several years in education with mildly to severely disabled children, and now divides her time between writing, occasional teaching and seasonal viticulture positions, and learning how to cook with limited success.