The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
A Good Girl
by Nikki Blakely
Dawn had just begun to paint the morning sky when I stepped from the cottage, the sweet smell of rain and woodsmoke hung heavy in the air, and a fine mist shrouded the grounds like a half-forgotten dream. I shook my head. My right ear was ringing where Mrs. Bartle had cuffed me upside the head and I could still feel the sharp sting of her palm against my cheek.
“Stupid, lazy, dull-witted, girl!” She’d waved the hot poker she’d used to stir the fire with at me before dropping it to the hearth and coming towards me with her raised hand. “If it wasn’t for the promise I made to your Ma on her deathbed, I’d have thrown you out on your arse long ago.”
Only it was the other way around, wasn’t it? I wanted to tell her. It was Ma who’d made the promise to you, wasn’t it? Before she went and followed Pa to the grave. I’d only been pretending to be asleep that night, the thick wool blanket pulled up tight over my head, and Ma, sick and weak with fever, her voice barely a whisper, was the one that had promised you. “Take care of my Addy,” she’d said. “You can have the house, the animals, you can have it all, as long as you take care of her. She’ll be a good girl, I promise.”
And it was her promise I stood by. But I wasn’t a wee lass any more, and I no longer needed taking care of. And maybe I wasn’t such a good girl anymore, either.
I’d just finished the milking and was on my way to start the churning when Mr. Bartle’s hefty frame appeared in the narrow doorway of the barn, blocking my path. Of late, I’d noticed his glances lingering on me longer than they should, and I knew it best that I tried to be wherever he wasn’t.
“C’mere love. Give us a little peck. It wouldn’t kill ya to show some ‘preciation.” He grabbed my shoulders and pulled me towards him, and I could smell the strong stink of whiskey on his hot breath. I turned my head sharply and his lips landed clumsily near my smarting ear.
“Too good for me, are ya? Well you’ll change yer mind if you know what’s good for ya.” He spun me around and pushed me out into the yard, and I stumbled, milk sloshing over the lip of the pail onto the ground.
The early morning mist had mostly dissipated, but a vestige still clung to the tight grouping of trees that dotted the edge of the wood just past the clearing. As I looked, I saw what appeared to be a spectral figure bathed in white light step forward, beckon, and then retreat back into the thicket. I reckoned Mrs. Bartle had hit me harder than I thought, but then the figure came again, floating a few feet into the clearing, crooking a finger, then disappearing back into the wood.
I looked back to the barn where Mr. Bartle stood appraising me from the doorway, and then to the front of the cottage where Mrs. Bartle’s pinched face scowled at me from the window. Both of them seemed oblivious to the figure.
I dropped the pail of milk,, lifted my skirts to my ankles and ran towards the wood.
It occurred to me it had been some years since I’d ventured into the wood, not since Ma had been alive, and I was a bit hesitant to enter, but when I once again saw the misty figure moving deeper into the trees, I followed.
The thin afternoon light filtering through the canopy grew weaker with each step, until at last, having lost sight of the figure, I found myself submerged in darkness. I felt a cold draft swirl around me, and above me a cluster of leaves rustled, then parted, and a thin shaft of light shone down and illuminated a single white mushroom. A deathcap.
I don’t know how long I stared at the mushroom before I plucked it and tucked it into my front pocket, but by the time I found my way out of the wood, guided by unseen hands, night had already descended.
“It’s about time you showed up!” Mrs. Bartle scolded.”Now be a good girl and fetch us a spot of tea before you make supper.”
A smile crept to the corners of my lips as I filled the kettle.