Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Week(s) (02/10/11)
TITLE: The Half-penny Secret
By Ann Grover
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Second Sunday. Second Sunday. Her head pounded, a monotonous throbbing keeping time with her trudging boots. Today, speak today.
The gate to the churchyard moaned as Dolly pushed it open. Everything was sodden, the moss-shrouded headstones, the rain-beaten flowers limply adorning the graves, a despondent pigeon hunched miserably in the dripping branches of the hazel tree.
Even the atmosphere in the church was bleak and forbidding; the congregation was silent and grim, droplets beading hat brims and collars. The opening hymn was tuneless, a slow and dismal psalm.
When Dolly was summoned in the middle of the night, it was raining. She wrapped her shawl tightly around her head and snatched up her small bag. She rode in the cart, the man silent beside her; the pony plodded through slick mud, water streaming from its steamy hide.
The vicar’s voice droned through the homily, until he came to the moment Dolly had been dreading. His words were light, jubilant.
“I publish the banns of marriage between Jonathan Kindersley and Sarah Boggs. This is the second time of asking. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it.”
Now, say it now, exploded Dolly’s heart. The congregation cast about tentative smiles of gladness and curiosity. A marriage was a joyous occasion, but not to be taken lightly.
The moment passed. Dolly slumped. She was a coward.
She escaped without shaking the vicar’s hand, without exclaiming over tiny Mary Burton’s new tooth, without admiring Hiram Smith’s new buggy. Back she went through the village, along the hedgerow to the muddy path leading to her cottage. She stirred up cold ashes on her hearth, but there was no spark, no welcoming wisp of smoke.
“Serves me right,” Dolly murmured. “Not deserving of comforts. No fire or drop of tea for me.”
She sat in the cold, motionless, still as death.
Through the downpour, to a lonely cottage in the forest. A single candle burned, and the damp air smelled sourly of blood and fear and shame. Dolly laid out soft cloths, requested hot water.
By morning, the countryside glistened in dazzling sunlight, diamonds studding every leaf and blade, even rough stones lustrous. Dolly poked at the fire again, adding twigs and sticks until the kettle sputtered merrily.
“One more week for the banns to be read.”
She set to scouring her table, sand and lye soap blistering her hands. Churning with a stick until her arms ached, she boiled sheets in the wash tub, then hung them over shrubs to dry. Deliberately, methodically, she kept busy, exhausting herself.
The baby girl glistened in the candlelight. Thrust from the womb, to be thrust away again. The man gave Dolly a rough, dirty shawl for the baby, and then they were in the buggy again slipping in the muck, soaked with icy rain, Dolly clutching the mewling child.
The week passed quickly as Dolly cleaned and scrubbed and polished. Nothing in the cottage escaped her calloused hands. Hands that had always brought life.
Now she’d cause pain, grievous pain that would be a sword run through the heart, two hearts. Only Dolly knew.
The baby cried weakly as Dolly laid her on the vicar’s doorstep. She knocked once, then slipped away into the inky rain. The man in the buggy had left her at the vicarage after a few curt words and a half-penny tumbled into Dolly’s numb fingers.
Then, another half-penny for silence.
Dolly trembled through the hymn, the prayer, the brief homily. Again the moment arrived, swiftly, after an eternity.
“I publish the banns of marriage between Jonathan Kindersley and Sarah Boggs. This is the third time of asking. If any of you know . . . ye are to declare it.”
I do know, dear God, I do know. Sarah is Jonathan’s sister. Got on a young girl by Jonathan’s own father, and now them both long cold in the ground.
Dolly made to rise, but she collapsed back into the pew, darkness enfolding her. Concerned hands clutched at her skirt, her shawl. Vicar Boggs peered into her face.
“Dolly,” he whispered.
“Sarah, Sarah.” Dolly’s words were slurred, garbled, and she tried to lift her heavy, useless hands.
But, it was too late. A week, a day, a breath too late.
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