Lucinda stands at the sink jerking the handle of the pump and cursing as she feels the spigot for the icy coldness that warns of water on the way. She has the window closed and locked but she can still hear the meltwater through its single pane. It has been two months since they spent the night in the Second Street Mission. From her small curtain separated corner of the shack they’ve moved into, Molly lets out a series of small barking coughs.
Lucinda’s arms ache. Her fingers cramp into claws when she lets go of the pump. The spigot shudders in place before a splash of water belches from its mouth. Lucinda places a stray strand of hair underneath a bobby pin and clips it tight to her scalp.
Outside she can hear the steady drip of meltwater and hopes idly that it runs away from the shack, but the reek of mildew discourages this thought. She moves the iron kettle within range of the spigot’s mouth and begins pumping again, finally rewarded with a steady stream of water that gets mostly into the kettle.
She places it on the cooktop and stokes the fire of the already raging wood stove. The sleeves of her dress clung like a second skin. She felt sweat roll down her back and slicken her petticoat that was already soaked. A new fit over takes Molly and her wracking coughs get progressively worse. She grasps Anastasia tightly to her chest as the coughs bring her to a sitting position. When she falls back into the pillows her face is flushed. Lucinda felt her forehead with one clammy wrist and touched a cheek that’s almost as hot as the woodfire she just stepped away from.
“Keep strong little girl.” Lucinda breaths. Molly wriggled into her embrace and closed her eyes. She relaxes into the pillows and Lucinda mutters softly “stay strong for momma.”
She walks to the stove where she can hear the boil starting in the kettle. It's a deep and ominous sound that sneaks up on her. She hears the bubbles roiling on top of one another, fighting like dogs to get to the top of the pile only to burst when they do. She imagined them trapped in their container, trying in vain to escape their doomed container. Trapped beneath the rolling waves and black water, sucked down to a realm of creatures that strip flesh from bone. Lucinda sees Robert, his handsome face obscured by pale flesh, his jawline obliterated by feeding fish. He sinks slowly to the bottom with an outstretched arm, fingers never clutching anything except the endless deep. Empty promises spewing from his lifeless lips
I will find you.
Lucinda thinks of it more as a threat now, when once it was endearing. The sound of rushing water fills her ears and even as she covers them she can still hear the kettle’s scream. It’s a sound like a deckman’s whistle, a sound that signals death. The scream grows from the bowels of the kettle. She presses her fingers into her ears further before giving up and squeezing her head between her two palms trying to block out the noise.
It isn’t until she opens her eyes and see’s Molly’s tears that Lucinda realizes she is the one screaming.
She stops and walks to her child’s bedside. Molly shrinks from her and Lucinda’s heart breaks in half. She hears the jeers from the city children who throw soiled eggs against the stonework of the cottage. She hears the collective chant they take up
Pelt the Witch!
Lucinda seems to collapses into herself as she kneels to give Molly the bowl of hot broth and a mug of strong tea. She went to town that morning but the doctor was still out of antibiotics. She pleaded with him, trying to offer what littel she had, but the charity she’d amasses had been used on the move, and she had nothing.
She finally resorted to begging, all but hanging on to dresses and coat tails of the men and women walking by. Some of them tossed coins in disgust, most pretended she didn’t exist.
She cried. She pleaded. After two hours she took what had been cast down to her and bought the tea and bouillon.
She watched Molly drink the last of the broth. Her stomach seeming to twist in on itself in hunger. Lucinda heard the rasping click of her daughter’s breath heaving in her chest, the wet hack of her cough as she choked on the broth. Lucinda tried to tell herself it was getting better. She tried to sound convincing. She held Molly until she fell asleep, listening to the crickets in the tall grass and marking time by the water’s drip and the snap of the wood stove.
Molly passes in July. In the heat of the summer when children are supposed to be picking wild flowers and playing in the hydrants Lucinda buries her little girl in the presence of an indifferent pastor and a stray dog winding its way amongst thewooden crosses. The pastor wouldn’t keep eye contact, as if acknowledging Lucinda for too long would somehow bestow her fate onto him.
Lucinda did not hear his words. She did not drop her gaze. Her world was aflame inside of her as the last heat of love’s embrace left with her daughter.
Her child lay unmarked in the ground. Her husband cast unknown in the sea. She looked to the sky and contemplated ascension. What God would do this? What curse had she brought upon herself? The words the children pelt at her echo in her mind like a savage incantation.
Pelt the Witch.