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I follow her through the woods, a well-worn path I’ve seen a thousand times. Ferns, lady-slipper, and thistle, the mysterious red flowers dotting the path. Five petals, perfectly formed, like they were made just for us. One petal for the grace year girls, one petal for the wives, one for the laborers, one for the women of the outskirts, and one for her.
The girl looks back at me over her shoulder, giving me that confident grin. She reminds me of someone, but I can’t place the name or the face. Maybe something from a long-forgotten memory, a past life, perhaps a younger sister I never knew. Heart-shaped face, a small red strawberry mark under her right eye. Delicate features, like mine, but there’s nothing delicate about this girl. There’s a fierceness in her steel-gray eyes. Her dark hair is shorn close to her scalp. A punishment or a rebellion, I cannot say. I don’t know her, but strangely enough, I know that I love her. It’s not a love like my father has for my mother, it’s protective and pure, the same way I felt about those robins I cared for last winter.
We reach the clearing, where women from all walks of life have gathered—the tiny red flower pinned above their hearts. There’s no bickering or murderous glares; everyone has come together in peace. In unity. We are sisters, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, standing together for a common need, greater than ourselves.
“We are the weaker sex, weaker no more,” the girl says.
The women answer with a primal roar.
But I’m not afraid. I only feel a sense of pride. The girl is the one. She’s the one who will change everything, and somehow, I’m a part of all this.
“This path has been paved with blood, the blood of our own, but it was not in vain. Tonight, the grace year comes to an end.”
As I expel the air from my lungs, I find myself not in the woods, not with the girl, but here, in this stifling room, in my bed, my sisters glaring down at me.
“What did she say?” my older sister Ivy asks, her cheeks ablaze.
“Nothing,” June replies, squeezing Ivy’s wrist. “We heard nothing.”
As my mother enters the room, my little sisters, Clara and Penny, poke me out of bed. I look to June to thank her for quelling the situation, but she won’t meet my gaze. She won’t or she can’t. I’m not sure what’s worse.
We’re not allowed to dream. The men believe it’s a way we can hide our magic. Having the dreams would be enough to get me punished, but if anyone ever found out what the dreams were about, it would mean the gallows.
My sisters lead me to the sewing room, fluttering around me like a knot of bickering sparrows. Pushing. Pulling.
“Ease up,” I gasp as Clara and Penny yank on the corset strings with a little too much glee. They think this is all fun and games. They don’t realize that in a few short years, it will be their turn. I swat at them. “Don’t you have anyone else to torture?”
“Stop your fussing,” my mother says, taking out her frustration on my scalp as she finishes my braid. “Your father has let you get away with murder all these years, with your mud-stained frocks, dirt under your nails. For once, you’re going to know what it feels like to be a lady.”
“Why bother?” Ivy flaunts her growing belly in the looking glass for all of us to see. “No one in their right mind would give a veil to Tierney.”
“So be it,” my mother says as she grabs the corset strings and pulls even tighter. “But she owes me this.”
I was a willful child, too curious for my own good, head in the clouds, lacking propriety … among other things. And I will be the first girl in our family to go into her grace year without receiving a veil.
My mother doesn’t need to say it. Every time she looks at me I feel her resentment. Her quiet rage.
“Here it is.” My oldest sister, June, slips back into the room, carrying a deep-blue raw-silk dress with river-clam pearls adorning the shawl neckline. It’s the same dress she wore on her veiling day four years ago. It smells of lilac and fear. White lilac was the flower her suitor chose for her—the symbol of early love, innocence. It’s kind of her to let me borrow it, but that’s June. Not even the grace year could take that away from her.
All the other girls in my year will be wearing new dresses today with frills and embroidery, the latest style, but my parents knew better than to waste their resources on me. I have no prospects. I made damn sure of that.
There are twelve eligible boys in Garner County this year—boys born into families that have standing and position. And there are thirty-three girls.
Today, we’re expected to parade around town, giving the boys one last viewing before they join the men in the main barn to trade and barter our fates like cattle, which isn’t that far off considering we’re branded at birth on the bottom of our foot with our father’s sigil. When all the claims have been made, our fathers will deliver the veils to the awaiting girls at the church, silently placing the gauzy monstrosities on the chosen ones’ heads. And tomorrow morning, when we’re all lined up in the square to leave for our grace year, each boy will lift the veil of the girl of his choosing, as a promise of marriage, while the rest of us will be completely dispensable.
“I knew you had a figure under there.” My mother purses her lips, causing the fine lines around her mouth to settle into deep grooves. She’d stop doing it if she knew how old it made her look. The only thing worse than being old in Garner County is being barren. “For the life of me I’ll never understand why you squandered your beauty, squandered your chance to run your own house,” she says as she eases the dress over my head.
My arm gets stuck and I start pulling.
“Stop fighting or it’s going to—”
The sound of ripping fabric causes a visible heat to creep up my mother’s neck, settling into her jaw. “Needle and thread,” she barks at my sisters, and they hop to.
I try to hold it in, but the harder I try, the worse it gets, until I burst out laughing. I can’t even put on a dress right.
“Go ahead, laugh all you want, but you won’t think it’s so funny when no one gives you a veil and you come back from the grace year only to be sent straight to one of the labor houses, working your fingers to the bone.”
“Better than being someone’s wife,” I mutter.
“Never say that.” She grabs my face in her hands, and my sisters scatter. “Do you want them to think you’re a usurper? To be cast out? The poachers would love to get their hands on you.” She lowers her voice. “You cannot bring shame on this family.”
“What’s this about?” My father tucks his pipe into his breast pocket as he makes a rare appearance in the sewing room. Mother quickly composes herself and mends the tear.
“No shame in hard work,” he says as he ducks under the eave, kissing my mother on the cheek, reeking of iodine and sweet tobacco. “She can work in the dairy or the mill when she returns. That’s entirely respectable. You know our Tierney’s always been a free spirit,” he says with a conspiratorial wink.
I look away, pretending to be fascinated by the dots of hazy light seeping in through the eyelet curtains. My father and I used to be thick as winter wool. People said he had a certain twinkle in his eye when he spoke of me. With five daughters, I guess I was the closest thing to a coveted son he’d ever get. On the sly, he taught me how to fish, how to handle a knife, how to take care of myself, but everything’s different now. I can’t look at him the same way after the night I caught him at the apothecary, doing the unspeakable. Clearly, he’s still trying for a prized son, but I always thought he was better than that. As it turns out, he’s just like the rest of them.
“Look at you…,” my father says in an attempt to draw my attention. “Maybe you’ll get a veil after all.”
I keep my mouth clamped shut, but inside, I want to scream. Being married off isn’t a privilege to me. There’s no freedom in comfort. They’re padded shackles, to be sure, but shackles nonetheless. At least in the labor house my life will still belong to me. My body will belong to me. But those kinds of thoughts get me in trouble, even when I don’t say them out loud. When I was small, every thought showed on my face. I’ve learned to hide behind a pleasant smile, but sometimes when I catch my reflection in the glass, I see the intensity burning in my eyes. The closer I get to my grace year, the hotter the fire burns. Sometimes I feel like my eyes are going to sear right out of my skull.
As my mother reaches for the red silk to tie off my braid, I feel a twinge of panic. This is it. The moment I’ll be marked with the color of warning … of sin.
All the women in Garner County have to wear their hair the same way, pulled back from the face, plaited down the back. In doing so, the men believe, the women won’t be able to hide anything from them—a snide expression, a wandering eye, or a flash of magic. White ribbons for the young girls, red for the grace year girls, and black for the wives.
Innocence. Blood. Death.
“Perfect,” my mother says as she puts the final touches on the bow.
Even though I can’t see the red strand, I feel the weight of it, and everything it implies, like an anchor holding me to this world.
“Can I go now?” I ask as I pull away from her fidgeting hands.
“Without an escort?”
“I don’t need an escort,” I say as I cram my sturdy feet into the fine black leather slippers. “I can handle myself.”
“And what of the fur trappers from the territory, can you handle them as well?”
“That was one girl and it was ages ago.” I let out a sigh.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. Anna Berglund,” my mother says, her eyes glazing over. “It was our veiling day. She was walking through town and he just snatched her up, flung her over his horse, and took off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.”
It’s odd, what I remember most about that story is that even though she was seen screaming and crying all through town, the men declared she didn’t fight hard enough and punished her younger sister in her stead by casting her to the outskirts, for a life of prostitution. That’s the part of the story no one ever speaks of.
“Let her go. It’s her last day,” my father pleads, pretending to give my mother the final say. “She’s accustomed to being on her own. Besides, I’d like to spend the day with my beautiful wife. Just the two of us.”
For all intents and purposes, they appear to be in love. The past few years, my father has spent more and more time in the outskirts, but it’s given me a fair amount of freedom, and for that, I should be grateful.
My mother smiles up at him. “I suppose it’ll be all right … as long as Tierney’s not planning on skulking off into the woods to meet Michael Welk.”
I try to play it off, but my throat goes bone dry. I had no idea she knew about that.
She tugs down on the bodice of my dress, trying to get it to sit right. “Tomorrow, when he lifts Kiersten Jenkins’s veil, you’re going to realize how foolish you’ve been.”
“That’s not wha … that’s not why … we’re just friends,” I sputter.
A hint of a smile slips into the corner of her mouth. “Well, since you’re so eager to be out and about, you can fetch some berries for the gathering tonight.”
She knows I hate going to the market, especially on veiling day when all of Garner County will be out on full display, but I think that’s the whole point. She’s going to make the most out of this.
As she takes off her thimble to fetch a coin from her deerskin pouch, I catch a glimpse of the missing tip of her thumb. She’s never said as much, but I know it’s a memento from her grace year. She catches my gaze and shoves the thimble back on.
“Forgive me,” I say as I look down at the worn wood grain beneath my feet. “I’ll get the berries.” I’d agree to anything to get out of this room.
As if sensing my desperation, Father gives a slight nod toward the door, and I take off like a shot.
“Don’t stray from town,” my mother calls after me.
Dodging stacks of books, stockings drying on the banister, my father’s medicine bag, and a basket full of unfinished knitting, I rush down the three flights of stairs, past the disapproving clucks of the maids, bursting out of our row house into the open air, but the sharp autumn breeze feels alien against my bare skin—my neck, my collarbone, my chest, my calves, the bottom half of my knees. It’s just a little skin, I tell myself. Nothing they haven’t seen before. But I feel exposed … vulnerable.
A girl from my year, Gertrude Fenton, passes with her mother. I can’t help but look at her hands; they’re covered in dainty white lace gloves. It almost makes me forget about what happened to her. Almost. Despite her misfortune, even Gertie seems to still be hoping for a veil, to run a house of her own, to be blessed with sons.
I wish I wanted those things. I wish it were that simple.
“Happy Veiling Day.” Mrs. Barton regards me as she clings to her husband’s arm a little tighter.
“Who’s that?” Mr. Barton asks.
“The James girl,” she replies through gritted teeth. “The middle one.”
His gaze rakes over my skin. “I see her magic has finally come in.”
“Or she’s been hiding it.” Her eyes narrow on me with the focus of a vulture pecking away at a carcass.
All I want to do is cover up, but I’m not going back inside that house.
I have to remind myself: the dresses, the red ribbons, the veils, the ceremonies—they’re all just distractions to keep our minds off the real issue at hand. The grace year.
My chin begins to quiver when I think of the year ahead, the unknown, but I plaster on a vacant smile, as if I’m happy to play my part, so I might return and marry and breed and die.
But not all of us will make it home … not in one piece.
Copyright © 2019 by Kim Liggett.