SIMON WAS IN A BLACK mood, the kind that even after thirteen years of marriage brought terror to my heart and made me want to flee. I had almost run away a year ago, but I couldn’t do that now because of Hannah. I couldn’t risk her.
I could feel him coming, imagined slights and impotent frustration clinging to him like sticky gray cobwebs. I felt the darkness as if I could see into his mind, as if I were a part of him.
He was late and dinner had long since cooled, despite my moving it on and off the heat for the past two hours. I hurried to stoke the dying fire, swinging the kettle back over the flames, praying it would reheat quickly. Simon had never been content with the customary cold leftovers from the larger afternoon meal but required all his food served hot. Though I’d originally made the roast in the oven built inside the fireplace, today I had reheated the meat in the kettle, nearly burning it when he didn’t appear on time.
Stepping to the other side of the hearth, I peered out the window of our three-bedroom house—a house larger than those of our neighbors. Solid on the outside but reeking putrefaction on the inside. Sure enough, Simon was coming up the dirt road that led to our main fields, riding Old Bob. Simon’s face was his normal red, and his thick, aging, slouch-shouldered body didn’t appear any more tense than usual, yet the dark emotion remained lodged in my heart. Clearly, his planned discussion with our neighbor about our troublesome cow hadn’t gone well.
Around his body was a glow I had been seeing around everyone since before Hannah’s birth. Always the same white color—like twenty candles framing the body. I didn’t know what it was, but every living thing had it, even animals and insects, except these were muted compared with the brighter human auras. It could be quite distracting at town council or in a church meeting, but for the most part I found it comforting, especially with Hannah. There was no glow around the deceased.
A sound stilled my heart. “Oh, no,” I whispered. “Let me get him taken care of first.” Because three-month-old Hannah knew nothing about our world and how it worked. Nothing about her father.
“Shush, my sweet.” I scooped up the baby, thinking hard. I could take her to the woodshed, where her cries wouldn’t be heard. I’d done it before, rescuing her as soon as possible, her face red and her fists clenched in indignation at being ignored. I would pay the price for not being in the house when he came home, but that would be preferable to his noticing Hannah.
Desperation clogged my throat. I’d lost too many babies. The first had been a boy, in my womb less than five months. Simon had cried real tears that day, his worn face sorrowful. I’d been eighteen and I’d believed the tears. Almost, I’d forgiven him.
The second baby I miscarried six months into the pregnancy, a little girl. Simon hadn’t wept over her small corpse or apologized for hitting me, and that was when I began to suspect the depths of his depravation. The third baby I lost at two months after Simon kicked me in the stomach, and the fourth at five after he slammed me into the wall and locked me up for three days without food. Afterwards, Simon had been angry because I had lost another boy. He’d raped me that very evening in the effort to start another.
But that was it. No more babies. Not for me. No more victims for Simon. As the years went on, I was just Ava O’Hare Brumbaugh, the barren woman with the poor, hard-working husband, who really couldn’t be blamed for stepping out at the brothel given his hardships.
Not that his attempt at showing his manhood protected me from his advances. Because he still wanted a son. I was just as determined not to give him one, so I took the herbs that women only talked about behind closed doors when their husbands and children couldn’t hear. Just in case my body decided to heal.
Last year, at thirty, I discovered I was expecting again despite the prevention. Given the low life expectancy in Virginia and my volatile relationship with Simon, I was surprised I’d lived that long.
Hannah had fallen back to sleep, turning her lips toward my breast and making sucking motions, her bottom lip disappearing inside her mouth as she nursed in her dream. “Good girl,” I murmured. “Please stay asleep.” I stroked her soft cheek. Just once and only briefly. She was due for a feeding soon, but I couldn’t have her awaken now, not with Simon in that foul mood. Unfortunately, Hannah was a fussy baby, and though I had ample milk, every day it was an increasing effort to keep her quiet.
To deepen her slumber, I held her as long as I dared. As Simon’s boots sounded against the steps, I slipped her into the little cradle that lay inside the large corner cupboard where I had once kept cooking supplies.
Untucking my skirt from my underclothes where I’d put it to prevent it from catching fire, I hurried back to the fireplace.
I wasn’t fast enough.
Simon’s eyes pinned me as I bent to check the food, then strayed toward the cupboard, his eyes narrowing with the jealousy he showed toward anything that took my attention from him. Fury emanated from his body as prominently as the stench of his sweat.
I forced my jaw to unclench. “Good evening, Simon. How was your day? Dinner’s hot and ready.” This last was a lie, or maybe a desperate hope.
His eyes left the cupboard, and I nearly gave a sigh of relief, the knot in my stomach lessening slightly. “Rotten,” he muttered. “Imbeciles. Barker and the rest. He had three of the others there to witness his demands for payment. It ain’t my fault his old fences can’t keep out my livestock. He even had the gall to ask me to fix his fence.”
He looked at me expectantly, so I shook my head in commiseration. “What did you tell him?”
The potatoes and carrots were ready, and the new butter and the freshly baked bread I had struggled over all day would please him, but the meat wouldn’t be as hot as he liked. I should have kept it warm, no matter his complaints about the wasted fuel. He could afford it, despite the setbacks he’d experienced lately with the crops.
Simon pulled out a chair and sat at the table, cursing under his breath as he removed his boots and tossed them by the door where I’d have to remove the caked mud later. “I told him he owes me for treating the cow for bloating.”
I suspected that Simon had let our cow into Barker’s field, or at least starved her into desperation so she would break through the fence. She was older and after the summer would become our meat for the winter. Fattening her up on Barker’s grain would mean better eating for us.
Or for Simon. These days I had no appetite—a good thing because Simon seemed to begrudge anything that went into my mouth. That I hadn’t lost weight or felt weak, I chalked up to a miracle.
Maybe I can find a way to leave with Hannah. He might not find us. I’d been saving every bit of money I could, but it wasn’t enough to get us very far. Not yet. Simon was careful with what he gave me, and the only money I had was what I earned from my needlework for Mrs. Adamson. That tiny nest egg and the hope it represented—and sweet Hannah, of course—were the only things keeping me alive.
Because if we didn’t go far enough, I knew he would find me. And he’d have help. Simon was a contributing member of our society, if not a friendly one, and most of our neighbors and acquaintances would work together to return a runaway wife. I belonged to him like the chickens or the cows.
He was proud of me in his own way. My face maintained much of my youthful beauty, my blond hair was long and lustrous, and I didn’t carry extra pounds. The scars he’d given me over the years had disappeared, and even the deep bruises he now gave me faded overnight. I worked hard and needed little sleep. As long as I didn’t linger too long with any of the local farmers or their sons, he was willing to take me out to church or other town functions and show me off. He even endured Hannah’s presence during the outings because she represented his prowess of fathering a child.
No, the only way Simon would let me leave was in a pine box.
Like his first wife.
Until Hannah arrived, I had begun to think of the first Mistress Brumbaugh as the lucky one.
“Well?” Simon looked at me expectantly.
I swept up a plate, but instead of going to the stove, I approached him, my mind scrabbling to find a delay so the meat could heat thoroughly. “Maybe we can go for a walk this evening. Would you like that?”
He studied me, his face turning a deeper shade of red. Simon wasn’t an ugly man, but there was nothing remarkable about him. His height was average, or perhaps slightly less so. He was wide and his arms thick, but his strength was also average by comparison. He looked no more or less worn than any of the other wrinkled, leather-faced men who spent their entire lives toiling under the sun.
Simon’s very averageness might have fueled his ever-present anger. Maybe if he’d been taller, he would have been more confident and not so quick to take offense. If he’d been stronger, he might not have needed to prove his domination over me. If his eyes had been more compelling or his face less red, perhaps he wouldn’t regard my every interaction with other men as flirting. If he’d been wealthy, instead of just slightly better off than the rest of our neighbors, or if we lived in one of the big, fancy houses in town and he was a doctor or politician instead of a farmer, maybe everything would have been different.
I didn’t really believe that.
His hands fisted on the table. “Someone you want to see?” His muddy eyes felt like the cigars he’d once burned into my skin. Scars that had also disappeared—at least on the outside.
“No. You had a hard day. A stroll might help you relax, that’s all.”
“I’m tired. I just want my dinner. Bring it.”
No more delay. Praying the flames had done their job, I glided to the fireplace, my movements seemingly unreal, a dream. I cut the bread on the hearth first, as slowly as I dared, and then filled his plate.
As I set it down on the table in front of him, his hand whipped out and gripped my breast. The knot in my stomach quadrupled in that instant. “I know what you can do to relax me,” he said, squeezing tighter.
I wanted to vomit. I wanted to jerk away or tell him he was hurting me, but I knew from experience that would only make it worse.
His hand moved down to my stomach and back up again, rubbing and squeezing. “You like that, don’t ya? Yeah, you live for it. I know you do.” He chuckled and released me, his hand going for the knife. He sliced off a chunk of meat. “I got a few new things in mind tonight. To relax me, as you say.” He chuckled as if we shared some kind of special joke. “I got more of that tranquility potion. Remember the one from a couple years back? You’ll take it after you clean up dinner.”
For a man who had never shown an ounce of creativity in other areas, he knew all sorts of depravity in the bedroom—or living room, or kitchen, or barn—things that I had never dreamed existed in my girlish fantasies of married life. The idea of taking his potion, bought from some traveling snake oil salesman, frightened me beyond belief. It brought complete immobility, made me an observer to whatever indignities he would subject me to. And it would last for hours. What if Hannah needed me?
Simon had been forty when we married, just weeks short of my eighteenth birthday. At the time, I was nearly a spinster in the eyes of my parents, who had given me away like a foal to a new master. After the first year of being sadistically raped by Simon, I’d stopped talking to my parents. They should have been able to see behind the face he showed the world, the life he kept just for me in the privacy of our home. I knew it was a man’s right to keep his woman in place, but that wasn’t the relationship I’d dreamed about. Or planned with my first and only love, Gabriel, who at sixteen had been too young and penniless to prevent my fate as Mrs. Brumbaugh.
Maybe it was my double black eyes or the choke marks around my throat, but after losing baby number four, my widowed father had finally taken my side, realizing far too late what he had condemned me to. For my father, it was no longer the broken arm, the black eyes, or the bruises that could be explained as a man keeping his spirited young wife under control, but the slaughter of his posterity—the future.
I didn’t let myself believe it stemmed from love. That was too dangerous.
He’d confronted Simon, and they’d fought. A year later my father was dead, still suffering from the leg injury he’d earned that day. His farm passed to Simon. I didn’t mourn my father. I was nothing more than a corpse myself, unable to feel anything but fear. Until Hannah.
Simon took a bite of food and grunted with enjoyment. I moved to get myself a plate with a thin slice of meat and only two small pieces of potatoes. He liked my company so he could brag about the day, and he would be angry if I didn’t eat or if I ate too much.
“I’m planting the south field next week,” he said. “You’ll bring out our food. I’m hiring Wilson’s boys to help.”
A rustling from the cupboard clogged my response in my throat, but there was no cry, so Hannah was probably just moving in her sleep.
I still didn’t know how she’d happened, but the moment I’d realized I was expecting, I’d talked nonstop about the son Simon would have and what people would say. How he’d have someone to bestow his legacy upon. I’d made sure plenty of witnesses were at the birth, and when it was a daughter—after the fear subsided—I was fiercely glad. A daughter I might be able to protect from his anger. A daughter wouldn’t follow in her father’s footsteps.
But whenever he had to hire other men’s sons, he remembered that Hannah wasn’t the heir I’d promised. He’d never forgiven me for what he thought of as my betrayal.
“I’ll do that,” I said. It’d actually be nice to cook for someone who might appreciate the effort.
Simon took a second bite of meat, and this time his face furrowed. He swallowed and took another mouthful. This one he spat out, half chewed, onto the floor. “The middle is cold, and the bottom’s burnt.”
“You were late,” I said, reaching for the plate. “I only just started reheating it. Let me fix it for you. The rest will be hotter now.”
He swept the plate from my grasp. The rare porcelain hit the wood floor and shattered, sending meat, gravy, and chunks of potatoes and carrots flying.
I jumped to my feet, my heart pounding against my rib cage.
“So it’s my fault?” he shouted, spittle flying from his mouth. “My fault? I give you everything. A roof over your stupid head. Food for yer lyin’ trap. Clothes for yer skinny little frame. Even porcelain dinnerware.” He was on his feet now, his anger making him seem tall.
I heard Hannah’s faint cry. Don’t let him hear her. From the corner of my eye, I could see the steady glow of her life, even through the mostly closed door of the cupboard.
“Maybe you don’t deserve anything I give you!” He grabbed the neck of my dress and tugged, but the fabric didn’t give. Instead, I was propelled forward, my head connecting with his chest. He shoved me back into the table, and it skidded several feet across the floor. The cups and utensils clattered to the ground. The sliced bread teetered on the edge.
Hannah let out a wail.
I bolted forward, thinking to somehow grab her and get outside, maybe leave her with a neighbor until Simon calmed down, but he was faster. Catching my hair in his fist, he pulled me back and yanked me around. I slid across the floor to slam my head against the solid oak door.
Hannah’s cry grew louder.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Simon screamed. His footsteps to the cupboard were heavy and determined.
Hannah cried harder.
Panic fueled me as I launched myself toward Simon. I reached him as he opened the cupboard door. Little Hannah was in her cradle, her face red and her mouth open. I saw two of her, my head still fuzzy from the blow. She took a breath and let out another scream.
“I said shut up,” he growled.
I reached for him, but I was too late. His fist came down on Hannah.
The crying stopped.
His hand was ready for another punch, but I lashed out at him. Anything to stop him from hurting Hannah further. Maybe she was just stunned. Maybe I was imagining that the light around her had gone completely out.
“You leave her alone!” I screamed. “Or I’ll tell! I’ll tell everyone about the monster you are! And they’ll believe me. Hannah hasn’t been sick a day in her life. They’ll know you’re a murderer.” It wasn’t true. So many took ill and died. No one would think twice about Hannah.
“Whore!” Simon hit me on the side of the head. His next punch took me in the stomach with a blow that was all too familiar. Then I was on the floor and he was on top of me, fists pumping. I felt my teeth cave inward. Blood filled my mouth.
“You won’t tell anyone nuthin’. Not ever again!” His hands went around my throat, blocking all the air. “I’ve seen you making eyes at Barker and even the pastor. Maybe you wonder what it’d be like to be with them. Maybe Hannah belongs to one of them. Eh? She certainly ain’t mine.”
I tried to shake my head, but his grip was too strong. My sight was foggy on the edges, a sure sign that I would soon pass out. I couldn’t let that happen. There might be a chance for Hannah. Maybe the darkness I saw from the cupboard came only because of my own injuries.
Except that Simon’s own body glow was so bright I could see it with my eyes closed. I could feel his rage, his sense of betrayal. I also saw an image of the farmer who had just come from England and was working the land two homesteads over. He had a twenty-year-old daughter with silky black hair. Simon was already planning my replacement.
My sight darkened. Before I passed out completely, the pressure on my throat eased. I tried to move, but my body refused to obey. Everything hurt. Worse than anything I’d ever known. When I finally pried my eyes open, I saw Simon, his pants around his knees, felt him pushing up my dress. My underclothes ripped. His weight pressed down on me.
His face was close to mine. He was breathing heavy, not with exertion now, but with arousal. “Just one thing left I’ve been wanting to try,” he grated. A knife glinted next to my cheek. “Once, I almost . . . but I didn’t. Don’t need no potion for this.”
He had prepared for this moment. Maybe not exactly like this, but he’d planned my murder. Maybe because he’d decided he didn’t want me anymore, or because that new farmer’s daughter might give him sons. He slid the knife down, and in a single motion, swiped it across my throat, cutting deeply. I gasped for breath, but none came. The blood welled.
Simon gave a deep laugh that sounded demented. His body trembled against me.
I felt strangely disconnected. I didn’t care, not for me. Not with Hannah gone. I couldn’t even feel or care about what he was doing.
Maybe I’d finally found my luck like the first Mrs. Brumbaugh.
Except it wasn’t the end but only the beginning.