Violet left her mother’s body in a ditch soft with autumn leaves. The trees about her moaned when she did not and shed paper-thin offerings in place of her dried tears. At the last sight of her, the deep green of her velvet dress was already patch-worked by deadfall.
She dragged heavy legs to a clearing before she collapsed, her hair spilling over her shoulders as they slumped. She tried to look from under brows crinkled in confusion and lined with loss. The effort it took to lift her head made her weary and her red-rimmed eyes wanted only to close.
Her mother had told her of grief but she had never thought to feel it so keenly. She meant to laugh but it was a strangled whimper that escaped her slack lips. She had been too young when her father had died, had been told she had cried but could not remember the tangled knot of feelings that must have gone with it. She wished it could be like that now but she knew this moment would haunt her forever. She felt the truth of it course through her body in her blood. Her heart hammered it into her; it would never let her forget.
She lifted a hand as if to reach for those memories but they would always be out of reach, she had long since given up trying to recall her birth mother who had died to give her life. The woman behind her had more than filled the roll. The last memento she had given laid in her other hand, heavy, cold and hard. She hated it. As her fingers curled around it she squeezed hoping it would break. It didn’t and she felt anger heat her cheeks. The last images of her mother—weak arms barely able to lift the odd slipper as she held it out to her; sad eyes fixed on hers, hopeful, begging—came back to her once again and her throat closed off any further attempt at either laugh or cry. A weight had knotted itself and lodged just underneath her ribcage.
Violet wondered if the sudden bursts of memories that washed over her would ever go away. They were small things: the tilt of her head; the fall of her loose curls; the way her lips pursed whenever Violet had skipped her chores to pick flowers, dance with the milkmaids or throw pebbles at the butcher’s boy. She had received those looks more often of late, even when there were more pressing things to worry about.
Mother—her step-mother, she reminded herself—had continued to chide her, for wanting to hold on to what little joy she could find in the world when they had to carry in all on their shoulders. Evicted from their home they had been forced onto the thin dirt road. They passed villages and homesteads where they sought refuge but the shadow of the spurned steward stretched far over the country and they had been refused board. They leant their services in menial chores, enough to earn a bowl of broth and a crust of day old bread then were sent on their way.
It was with a time-worn fondness that she remembered the hill behind her home…her old home. Her mother had sent her up it most days, in blazing heat or bitter winds with heavy pail in hand, to fetch water from the well. She remembered the heat in her legs at the effort to climb to where the rock had been split by her father’s pick, to the stone lined shaft that widened the way to the hidden spring. She had enjoyed the view of the village and the folds in the land beyond as she had hauled up crisp cold water. She would always take the first drink for herself before making her way carefully back down, keen to be foot-sure since the time she had tripped and torn through her skirts to her skin.
In the first village they came to the children called her a churl and threw stones at her while she trudged through the mud to take pail after pail to the stewards house. There, each time, she had to remove her shoes and hoist her stained skirts clear of the floor before taking the pail to his daughter’s rooms. To the tall tub stood waiting like a bride with a veil of flower-wreathed silks hung above it. The daughter waited, poised and indignant, for her to fill it and shrieked at the cold bite when she was done. She lashed out and struck Violet as if she somehow had the power to heat the water as she had carried it yet had failed to do so.
Her mother had had to work just as hard to soothe the screeching girl with a wash of herbs steeped in hot water. She fussed over the girl with a steaming sponge and soothing words with such tenderness it made Violet bitter that they were not saved for her. The pouting girl was soon placated while Violet was sent back to well, to the mud, for water for the steward’s tub.
Mother, why did you leave me?
Though the leaves sought to hide her Violet still felt her at her back, where she would always be from now on. She wanted to be gone, far away and yet longed to brush aside the deadfall to stare at her forever.
She will not stay the same, not now. If I look will I see your hair dried like soiled rush mats, worms burrow through your eyes or beetles bite your lips?
She stared into the memento; the light flickering through it took her back to the suppertime fire and the music of bedtime stories.
Her mother was gone and Violet knew that what was left could never be what she once was. In the same way the rabbits in the fields were fey and elusive as they ran and leapt and loped, but when they hung from the beams they were just another chore as Mother prepared them for the pot.
Violet recalled that she flat out refused to help gut the creatures caught in their snares or brought down by slingshot. Her Mother made her sit there and watch all the same. At first she squirmed and moaned and made sure to voice her complaints to tire the woman into letting her go. She never did get a reprieve. Her Mother would ask Violet for a knife or a bowl or to stoke the fires so the water boiled just in time. She would duck and weave about the kitchen to do what she must but always she avoided touching even the discarded furs. Only when they were sufficiently cleaned and bundled in cloth would she dare take them to the tanner to trade. In the brief moments between fetching utensils and stoking the fire all Violet could do was watch her mother’s deft hands as she held the knife loosely in her long graceful fingers. She hummed as she worked, her eyes heavy lidded as she lost herself to the work. It was like watching a painter but in this case the canvas was the sturdy, worn wooden table and she painted in flesh and blood.
The more Violet watched the more she saw that each time the painting was the same and the deft cuts and slices of the knife became like movements in a dance. She often wandered what memories came to her Mother when she worked. Often she hummed the same tune over and over and often Violet felt like she was intruding on a private moment locked behind that time-lost look in her eyes.
Violet had never understood what she meant when she was roused from her memories and would laugh softly, apologetically and say she were just visiting a time and place where the world had fallen away and anything was possible.
Clearly her Mother was mad if she could smile and hum while her hands were drenched with blood and buried in offal. And yet in those moments Violet felt she had caught a glimpse of the women her Mother truly was and whispers of the bedtime stories she told; of spells and wishes, kisses and dances, laughed at her from her memories and mocked her that maybe they had all been true.
In the second village they had come to they were preparing a feast. Everyone was working hard except the unwed girls who practised their dancing, barefoot in the grass. The fires of the bakery roared day and night and spits and stoves burned low and long. Violet and her mother were bustled from building to building to stoke the fires and turn the spits, to knead the dough and prick the pies. They polished apples to a mirror shine and wedged them in the open mouths of stuffed hogs. They glazed hams and sliced meats into curls they arranged on silver platters in loops and swirls of warm colour. They hoisted baskets of plump loaves onto carts and packed sticky cakes into wicker baskets. All the time they were told, never take a single bite; never eat what wasn’t meant for you and all the time their stomachs growled.
In the end Violet had not been able to resist and wedged three fat grapes into one cheek before they burst between her teeth. She drank their juice before she swallowed but even before that was done a scrawny boy covered in soot wiped his snotty nose on his sleeve and pointed her out.
He had laughed and jeered at her while the villagers hollered their outrage and cried for her blood. Her Mother had tried to appease them before she picked the time to flee, stomach growling like the baying of hounds.
Oh Mother, you worked yourself too hard, to death! And for what?
Violet clutched the memento to her where grief had lodged itself inside her ribcage and wouldn’t shift. The glass had warmed underneath her fingers but it sat cold against the skin of her breast. It was a frivolous thing; no use to anyone even if it had its partner. It had been her Mother’s, from a time before she had met and married her father. She got that time-lost look in her eyes when she looked at it and though it was pretty Violet had never thought much of it at all. It had no point so she ignored it. It was glass which was rare and valuable enough but unless it could turn itself into a pane to plug the windows and keep out the draft no one would truly want to buy it.
She cursed the thing again as she lifted herself on legs crawling with pins and needles and stiff with cold. How long she had sat there she couldn’t tell. She felt her hunger as a distant need that her body demanded to be sated while the weight lodged in her ribcage made eating sickening to think of. It felt as though the thing inside her was trying to get out and it squirmed and pulsed. It grew. Even so she took the last of the spiced bread from her Mother’s cloth bag and forced herself to eat. It felt like the hardest thing in the world to do at that moment, to chew through the hard crust. It dried her mouth. Only the deep core was still soft and she let brush it against her lips for a lingering moment before she swallowed it down.
Violet sobbed. With the last of her food gone she forced herself to stumble on through the trees. The presence of her mother’s corpse still followed her and often she found her head beginning to turn, her eyes straining to catch sight of her following but fearing what they might see.
She had always felt plain compared to her mother, thought her own hair limp and lifeless next to her loose curls that bounced and bobbed with a life of their own. She had stared into pail after pail of water to see if her own eyes glinted like hers but her frown of concentration darkened them. When she tested out her smile it felt flat and forced and there wasn’t a playful pinch in the corners like her mothers, the kind that that let everyone know just how much love she had to give.
Mother was adored by everyone in the village and they often spoke of how many suitors had tried to win her heart before she had chosen Violet’s father. She couldn’t imagine anyone could love her as much as her father had and scoffed at the thought that she could have chosen anyone else. She shrugged and said it made no sense at all while her Mother hugged her tight and lavished her with fierce kisses. She would try to push her away for being silly but always ended up giggling and hugging back.
When their house was darkened by his passing her mother withdrew for a time, those time-lost looks grew more frequent, but always there were smiles pinched with love that let Violet feel safe and warm despite the sadness.
In the years that followed Violet often wondered why, though many of those past suitors as well as new ones sought her out, she never accepted. Time after time she would shake her head and set her curls dancing and turn away with a sad smile by way of apology. The playful pinch eased their rejection and they left, disappointed but not down-hearted.
Just the two of them, day after day full of chores for year upon year and Violet grew frustrated and confused. She questioned each rejection more and more and thought her mother a fool each time. Often she found herself thinking that if her Mother were not so selfish and put more thought into her decision then maybe they would not have to work so hard to live in the dirt.
When the steward called she dared to dream. Short of the Lord of the Land himself there was no one with more power or riches to offer. Violet had clamped her hands together until her knuckles were white and her teeth left marks on the insides of her lips when she bit them tight shut.
How different her life would have been if Mother had nodded, eyes glinting instead of that same shake of her curls and small smile. The steward had not taken the rejection like the others. Too set on getting what he wanted and angry at being denied he forced them from his village. Violet had wondered if he thought it would change Mother’s mind. Guiltily, she thought, it had been her hope too. And it had been cut from her as they had fled and she had bitterly learnt that while her life had not been all she had wanted it was not all that bad.
The last village they had been to, when Mother was weakening, they had taken up residence with a spinster who herself was old and frail. Violet had helped, as always, with the chores as Mother had tended her before she passed. She whispered soft comforts and listened intently as the old woman spat out the stories of her life. Violet wondered why she bothered as she had not seemed pleased that someone was even there to hear them. In short time though the spinster went with grace and in peace.
While Violet had thought it was a good death she couldn’t understand why her Mother, though she nodded in agreement, still seemed sad. A personal choice to seek or spurn companionship, Mother had said. Such a shame she chose to spurn others when the only reason was spite.
Violet could not see much difference between the spinster and Mother. When she had suggested that with the old woman dead and heirless they take her home—since no one was using it, it seemed a shame to waste—her Mother had once more shaken her curls and smiled her apology, this time at Violet herself.
How she had raged as her Mother fled to the woods and she had followed. All she understood was that she had been, pushed from place to place by the shadow of the spurned steward and far beyond, dragged over hard roads through trial after trial in every village. Food was fought for, shelter hard won and they shared little more than warm hugs when it got dark.
Whatever Mother hoped to find on their travels, Violet hadn’t thought it was worth huddling in the dark under a rocky overhang when it was wet and they could not light a fire. She hadn’t thought it was worth walking roads barefoot when their shoes were torn to shreds. She had not thought it was worth eating nothing but tough shelled acorns and the heads of wild flowers when the villagers refused their service.
Oh Mother, you promised you would always be there to protect me.
But Mother was dead in a ditch and shrouded with leaves, a heavy presence still behind her as she tripped over tree roots and tumbled into dips and hollows. The howl of distant wolves made her pause, hand a grand oak and she pressed herself to its rough bark. How she wanted to climb its boughs and nest like a bird there, safe. But she recoiled and stood, still alone. She would be snared there, stuck in the branches should the wolves scent her and they would circle until she grew weak and fell to them.
Her own howl was stuck in her throat and weighed her down. Often she stumbled as she strained to discern the meaning behind each scuff and scuttle in the deadfall and the things in the wood, always remained just out of sight.
She thought she recognised a clutch of trees, heard them whisper as they leant together. She feared that she had been turned around somehow and was even now heading back the way she had come. Her heart hammered at the thought of the yawning chasm of the ditch where her mother lay. She saw her pointless journey stretched before her, saw herself trip and just before landing saw the horror that would be etched on her face when she realised her mother lay beneath her waiting to embrace her one last time.
She wanted to lash out, to feel something crumple under her fists or scream until she couldn’t breathe but always the trees watched and she was afraid of what hid behind them or what nestled beneath their seeking roots. They clung to dry earth and rock and when Violet looked closely she thought, perhaps they were different rocks and she headed straight after all. She struggled on though the further she went the more she wondered if the trees hoisted their moss-trimmed bark skirts and slithered over the dips and hollows, rocks and rises to follow her.
Ahead were sweeping boughs like crooked arms of men who offered to lead her to dance, she swept them and their distraction aside. She ran; ducked and dodged passed watching trees that whispered and moaned. She put up her hands to ward off scratching limbs that whipped her face and snagged her hair. She fought with a pine that tried to take her ragged satchel but she was desperate to cling on to the last remains of her sorry life. Hot tears finally broke free and blurred her vision and all the while the weight in her chest threatened to pull her down and root her to the ground.
She did not see what tripped her just that suddenly she struggled to keep her balance over moss-clad roots and hidden, sharp-edged rocks. Her ankle twisted and in a hot panic she slumped, hands clawing at the ground, chest heaving. Still the weight was there and tightening. It rose from her ribcage to the base of her throat and she drew in thin wheezing gasps that made her dizzy. With one hand she explored her neck but couldn’t find what was causing such a pressure. In her other hand the cold glass of her mother’s memento sparkled, she had not realised she still clung to it.
She hung her head while she wheezed and through tears saw her useless clutching hand at her chest as if it belonged to someone else. The weight lodged in her throat pulsed and she choked, felt darkness creep in around her.
How could you leave me?
She felt the blind confusion of despair wipe everything that she was from her mind and left her with few words to think.
You said you would protect me.
Around and around in her mind they whirled, confused her further and consumed her.
The weight broke free.
And suddenly the darkness was not creeping from all around but right there in front of her.
It hissed from the base of her throat passed her fingers. It clung to her like boiled fat for tallow and let off an oily smoke that thickened as it drifted into the deadfall. She felt it pull from her in waves that wracked her body and she sobbed and gasped. Her tears dried and pulled her cheeks tight and while her lids were raw she could not rip her gaze from the darkness coalescing before her.
It thrashed with oily tendrils at the leaves and whipped up a storm as it grew. It towered above her and kept her low. At its crown a curtain of loose curls swished and bobbed. Beneath this dark, fathomless eyes bore into hers. They were greedy and sucked in light, a night sky without the twinkle of a single star. Violet let out a final weak sob as the darkness leaned closer. Beneath the pit of its eyes was the shadow of a smile that curled in mockery with no sign of a playful pinch of reassurance.
Though Violet had birthed the thing before her it felt wrong, wrong, wrong.
As it reached for her with Mother’s arms all Violet could think was that she was weak with hunger, exhausted with grief, torn from her flight through the trees. Her ankle throbbed. Yet she pushed herself up from the deadfall and tried to stand; one foot firm, cold and hard as rock; the other pulsing with heat and pain reminding her that her heart still beat.
The darkness hissed and broiled but her chest was light and free and with a whirl of wisp-like hair she fled. She felt the darkness pursue her and though she limped and stumbled all the more, she kept on going.
When she thought she could go no further she put her head out to steady herself on a tall rocky crag. It was wet and glistening, dark beneath her fingers. She craned her neck to see its source and her mind raced back to her home, the hill, the well. The darkness seemed far behind her and she dared to hope. She climbed the rocky crag and in a cleft much like the one into which she often lowered her pail, she heard a rhythmic chime. Throwing herself down, she plunged her hand in and brought up crisp sparkling water. She drank her fill and cooled her ankle before fear seeped back into her bones like the cold of winter and she felt the darkness near. With tendrils lashing at her heels she fled once more.
Bolstered by the water she drew ahead, put distance between herself but still the darkness followed and she feared she would run forever. Such thoughts distracted her so she did not see the willow that whipped her and snared her and held her fast. She worked fast to free her tangled hair as the darkness closed the gap but soon she was free and ready to run.
But the thin shoots of the willow put her in mind of the snares she had set, back home, a chore among many. She cut some free and as she fled she fashioned them into loops that she hid among the trees and undergrowth when she stopped once more to regain her breath.
With hope she waited while the sun shone. She looked up to a tapestry of fire, the gold light dazzled her and sparks danced in her vision long after. She was rewarded with a cut-short squeal and while the lights in her vision swooped and bobbed she put her knife—loose in her long fingers—to the squirrel and found her hands danced as Mother’s had. She was clumsy at first but her hesitation peeled away like the skin from her feast. She knew the parts to eat, the parts to keep, the parts to leave. She cooked the flesh, made needles from small bones and what she couldn’t use she buried beneath an oak laden with acorns.
Sated for now she felt a knot of worry that churned alongside her meal. The darkness closed in as she gathered her un-sprung snares and wondered if they would ever close around another meal. She pressed on deeper into the woods.
When she came across the carriage it jarred her to a sudden halt so out of place it seemed. The driver looked sullen and impatient, didn’t batter an eyelid at the ragged girl who crossed his path. A light and cheerful giggling drifted to her and she came upon two girls in gleaming dresses hopping on dainty shoes about a flowering glade. They twirled and glided and bowed to the flowers as they plucked them loose and wove them into each other’s hair amid filigree and pearls. When they caught sight of her they beckoned her over and still giggling looked her up and down.
Dear sister, dear sister, they both proclaimed, a ragged maid in a flower filled glade.
They plucked at her torn clothes and sighed at the limpness of her dishevelled hair.
How wretched she, how dazzling we, what a sight we make, all three.
With sparkling eyes and playful smiles they curled dainty fingers at her and beckoned her to pick flowers with them. They laughed as she stumbled and sniggered as she combed out her sorry tangles. They made hurt and injured faces that were washed clear and smiling by their own imagined benevolence as they gave her a ribbon to tie back her mane. They were carefree and giggling and the sorrow Violet had felt melted away as she threaded colourful flowers into her hair.
The sisters whispered and giggled and beckoned her near, they leant close and whispered close to her ear. They promised her food and fire, a life free from mud but from that she would sweep from the step to their house. They whispered her promises if she would obey, oh please they said, please won’t you come stay.
You’ll live with us always, they said with a smile, we’ll protect you and feed you if you’ll be servile.
You’re lost and you’re lonely among silent trees, come with us now if you’ll do as we please.
Though she had served others as she had travelled and it seemed no different from her chores back home, suddenly the light and laughter of the two girls seemed as cold and sneering as the darkness and they seemed wrong, wrong, wrong. Their smiles were wicked, their promises a veil. Their cruel intent glinted in their mocking gaze.
She wondered if her Mother had felt likewise when each suitor had come to call. And so she ducked her head and shook it, the ribbon-tamed mane of her hair swishing at her back. Her eyes glinted with surety as she smiled; a playful pinch a silent thanks for the music of their laughter and the brightness of the flowers.
Their smiles fell away as they sneered and jeered. They cried out scathing insults as she strode away through the trees.
You’re scrawny and drab and not very tall, it’s us who leave you we’re away to the ball.
She didn’t pay much attention to the sound of the creaking carriage pulling away or the clip clop of the horse’s hooves as it went. She found a new clearing bright green with ferns and soft with moss, with a rocky overhang nearby that would serve for a roof. She set her snares and trusted they would bite. She waited for the darkness as she felt it creep near.
She cradled Mother’s glass memento until with a swish of dark tendrils and the light sucking stare, the darkness sneered at her with a cold smile and prowled like a wolf towards her.
But Violet was now sure that she was not like the single useless slipper in her hand. She smashed it on a rock, cleaved the sides away and the clearing rang with the sound of tinkling glass. The darkness hesitated as she chipped away at the toe and heel until all that was left was the hewn sole, chipped and jagged.
Violet faced the darkness, brandishing a newly forged glass dagger and saw her reflection in the blade. She was not surprised to find that she did not recognise herself.
The dagger in her hand was as light as the wind but she put all the strength that she had gained from carrying pail after pail of water behind each strike. She was foot-sure as she ducked and dodged, her hand moved as if on its own to carve away at the darkness. Even when it fought back and grazed her with its attacks, with heart-fluttering waves she remembered her.
Mother fought on no matter how hard. She sought after love and made it true, never compromised.
She struck as if it were the steward who stood before her.
How dare he think Mother’s love could have been bought! How it would have tainted her if she had lived a lie.
Violet plunged the glass dagger deep into its chest, losing her unacquainted reflection as it sank in up to her fist.
How would I recognise myself when I am only beginning to discover who I am!
The darkness thrashed and writhed and was pierced by light that shone through the glass, now focused, now fractured as Violet pushed it deeper. It was shredded to nothing with the force of her blow and Violet found herself alone but unafraid in the clearing.
She remembered Mother’s time-lost look and forged her own. It would visit her again when she thought back to the moment when she’d faced her Doubt and realised all along her Mother would never leave her. She had been shown how to live; now it was time to love to do so.
And the world fell away and anything was possible.
“And that is the first known story of a Doubt,” the man said to his son who had stared goggle-eyed all through the telling. “Born when a Promise is broken and hope is lost.”
“You say that like it was real Da,” Son giggled.
“Of course not!”
“How can you be so sure?”
The boy was silent, lips twitching as he sought the words to form his thoughts.
“All stories carry some truth to them.”
“But Doubts aren’t real. They don’t ooze out of you or chase you or try to kill you.” He mimicked a dagger thrust into his chest and choked until he lay still as he mock-died. Da revealed the sham with a gentle knuckle-niggle to his ribs and the boy lurched into a waiting bear-hug.
Son fell silent for a spell. “Or do they?”
“Perhaps one day I’ll tell you the story of my own Doubt. Maybe then you’ll believe me?”
Son’s eyes shone with wonder. “Will you? And tell me how you beat it?”
“I won’t Promise anything. But as always I’ll do my very best. For you.
“But for now, bed, that’s a story for another time.”