Deep I starved all winter, dreaming of how my belly would be in spring. Not just that I’d use careful hands to pull the flesh from stinging nettles, then. Not just the snip of kitchen shears at the neck of a fiddlehead. Nor merely a wild turkey snared in the bramble. It was that I’d fill my belly and my mother’s and my sister’s once I could delve into the softened earth. I would get deep enough to find Father. Disturb his eternal rest for a moment, only long enough to pry the gold ring off the remnants of his finger. Our beloved father.
I made a terrible mistake the day of his funeral. A mistake so bad that it proved I was truly his daughter. That day, I was blinded by grief. I hadn’t eaten because I was numbed to food. I drank wine and refused all else. Wine does not yield sustenance, though it is the color of blood. The perfect sorrowful thing to swallow: a liquid that dehydrates, that unsettles the stomach and sends its contents coming up.
My mistake began when the undertaker touched my shoulder. I was unnerved by the feel of his chapped and chilly hands. I thought of him scrubbing his hands with lye soap several times each day, and thought of what he must scrub off. He spoke to me because I was the least visibly tormented of Father’s close relatives. No weeping into a monogrammed handkerchief like my sister. No fainting to the floor like Mother. A disdainful aunt shoved a purple satin pillow beneath Mother’s disheveled hair.
“Would you like his wedding ring as a momento?” asked the undertaker. He’d leaned in close enough that I could feel his breath, that obscure source of life. My father had stopped breathing in the evening, as he sat with his nightly snifter of port. After dinner, he sometimes bade my sister and I to play the pianoforte. He smiled at our middling renditions. But often, like on the night he died, he wanted to watch the fireplace in contemplative silence. That night, he didn’t acknowledge me, though I sat near him embroidering more tablecloths, though we had but one table. The last thing he saw before he died was that fire. That flickering lighting up this face. I wonder what he thought. I wondered why I’d never asked what he was thinking. Not once in all those nights we sat together.
When the undertaker asked me about the ring, I looked at my mother. She moaned for God to take her so she and Father could be together. I couldn’t take the ring then. I couldn’t remove that symbol of their connection from his hand. I felt that it would jeopardize their chances of being reunited in heaven. I believed in heaven then. So I said no.
The first week after the funeral was filled with visits from neighbors. They brought pies and cakes, casseroles and stews. We were wasteful with all we were brought. I didn’t know hunger, so I did not fear it.
My father was often seen bent over his account books, made a point to tell us that all was going well as he sat down with his sifter. The tenants, the farm, the coal from our land loaded onto a river barge to be burned far away, all moved ahead on a path of gold. Once a month he rode a fat white horse into town for business at the bank. We assumed that he had a vault filled with banknotes and coins. That in the event of his passing, we could hire a young man of honest countenance to handle the tenants and the farm and ensure the coal was properly loaded into a river barge to be burned far away. But we were wrong. At the bank he begged for extensions for payments on his tremendous debt. Why he’d become indebted, we’d never know. His account books were filled with sketches of birds. I read all his letters, which dripped with cheerful drivel. I burned them all, watching the bird wings shrivel and crumble in the flames.
All we had for savings were gold coins from my mother’s hope chest. It had been a source of pride that my father had never touched them. They ran out within a month. The pianoforte was pawned for very little because pianos had fallen out of fashion in favor of claviers. My sister’s sewing lessons brought us a little money, but soon she had to give it up because her pupils’ mothers realized she sewed very ill. I lacked skills and hadn’t the charm to sell a lie. All the while mother kept to her room and ate nothing but watery cabbage soup, even when we could still afford meat.
I visited Father’s grave every Sunday, leaving what beauty I could. Wildflowers, or at least interesting leaves. At first, I mourned the man. But soon hunger fuzzied my memory. His face became indistinct; I forgot the sound of his laugh. Soon, my mind fixated on the bill for his headstone. $300. My mother paid it with her gold coins. I divided that number incessantly. Divising the equivalent in flour sacks, tins of coffee, yards of wool, bowls of sugar, pounds of ham.
I began to curse Father. I kicked his tombstone every Sunday until my shoes fell to pieces and I had to live my life barefoot. Then I hurled dirt clods at the stone, even better if the clod contained a wriggling red worm that could slither over where it read “Beloved Father”.
Only winter stopped my Sunday cursings. I spent the dark months in bed, wearing all my clothes at once and lying beneath a mountain of blankets. It still wasn’t enough to ward away the cold. Life was a constant state of defeat. My only source of hope was the ring. My determination to get it kept my heart beating. Its perfect golden surface. Its gleam in the light. Its market value. At least a couple hundred dollars buried beneath the earth.
I dreamed of slipping that gold ring into the palm of Mr. Thatcher, the village jeweler. His fat left fist closing around it and his right handing me cash. This was my good dream. In my bad dream, I held out my hand to Mr. Thatcher in expectation of payment. Instead, he produced a cast iron cauldron and poured molten gold over my hand, mangling it to gilded bones. Or worse, sometimes I dreamed he tried to marry me, proposing with my dead father’s ring.
Marrying was my most achievable, and therefore most likely, escape route. Despite my poverty, I was still quite eligible. I was pretty, even more now that the excess weight had been eaten off my body. I had all my teeth and my family remained acceptable. Most importantly, there’d been a war. While the men were off committing acts of valor, heroism, and murder, we women fell victim to an outbreak of sweating sickness. Terror spread and shutters closed. All cotillions were cancelled. The debutantes did not debut.
The sickness spread regardless. There were no doctors to help us because all the doctors were men and all the men had gone to war. Our family was not spared. For two weeks I laid in bed unable to move. The sweat soaked my sheets. I tasted the salt of my own skin upon my chapped lips. I avoided death by dehydration only because it rained and the rainwater filled a teacup I’d carelessly left on my windowsill. Shakily, I leaned over and sipped from it, not trusting my hands, but sipping from it like a cat sips from its bowl.
Eventually I recovered. So did Mother and my elder sister. Forsythia, the baby of the family, died. None of us knew exactly when. We were all weak and alone in separate beds. By the time I was strong enough to rise and wipe the sweat from my sunken cheeks, she’d already grown cold. We buried her with nothing valuable. Just a cloth doll we found nestled next to her in her deathbed.
Though I was pretty and had all my teeth and marriage could’ve rescued me from poverty, I could not bear getting pregnant. To carry life in me seemed abominable. I hated life. I wouldn’t wish life on my worst enemy. Much less on a being that brain chemicals would make me love. I felt, at times, that I was incapable of carrying life. That even if I conceived, only death would grow inside me.
During that terrible winter, I suppose there must have been life somewhere yet in me, because I spent my days obsessed with trying to live, convinced that the ring would break the cycle of my family’s misfortune. The problem was the earth: It was covered in three feet of snow and beneath that was frozen solid. I tore strips of wallpaper from the unused upstairs sitting room and drew plans on its white interior. I schemed to pour boiling water onto Father’s grave. I schemed to steal a neighbors’ horse and plow, running the plow over the same spot for several hours. I considered writing to the local vampire hunting society and putting up with their garlic odor and boorish paranoia long enough for them to dig up Father and do whatever they would do to settle down his soul’s torments.
Yet it became apparent that all these plans required too much exertion and luck. The most sensical action was to wait until spring and do the shoveling by hand. Night digging was the logical choice. I settled on the night of the planting moon – the first full moon in May. A time to sow what would be reaped.
Of course, I realized that the financial yield from my endeavour wouldn’t be infinite. But the bills from Mr. Thatcher’s hand would be more than ample to launch the next level of my plan to never go hungry again. I would purchase a third-class train ticket to the city. There, I would apply for factory work. I imagined I would rise to the rank of forewoman with unusual speed. Unlike many of my competitors for this position, I was American born. Also, I was a protestant. Though I did have a great fondness for the Papist faith, with its heavy incense and blood. Once I was a foreman, I would send a portion of my wages home. Hopefully by then Mother would’ve gotten out of bed. Perhaps she’d become a professional mourner, now that she’d had so much practice wailing. Perhaps all those hours my sister spent locked in her room had been in service of bettering her sewing. I didn’t know. I hoped. And I would do my best for them.
The planting moon hung heavy in the sky like a woman full of child, her water ready to burst forth. I stepped on a patch of wild violets and felt sorry for it. I remembered my dead sister, named after a flower. I remembered how many full moons now separated me from the last moon we’d share together. We were tired from a day baking apple pies. But happy, looking forward to an autumn festival we would never attend. Smelling a pie that would rot as we lay shaking in our sickbeds.
I stood in front of Father’s marble headstone. Then I dug. The ground was wet and filled with bugs I couldn’t see but felt on my skin. Spindly legs or a slugging crawling of its whole body along. At last, the coffin. My arms ached and my shoulders screamed. But pain no longer mattered. I breathed the air, hoping to gauge the level of rotting I’d find inside. Hoped I’d find a clean skeleton within, something I could pretend had never been Father.
All winter I imagined maniacally kicking open his coffin, stepping on the sagging remains of his face. Enraged that he got a peaceful death and in doing so denied me a peaceful life. For months I’d only thought of him with rage. Angry at all the trifles he’d bought me, the books and spyglasses and busts of Roman emperors he brought home from trips to the city. All that money that could’ve been put toward debts. Only now I remembered how he’d shown me how to hold a spyglass, helped me use it to find the shimmering of a far-off lake and see a deer grazing in a flowering field. His grave read “Beloved Father.”
I pried the coffin open gently. There he lay. Waxen, but not at all decomposed. His eyes opened. They were fully white. He coughed, clearing a beetle from his throat.
“Father! Let me get you out of here!” I shouted. I moved to hoist him up, caring not if my shoulder gave way, caring not if I heard the crunch and bared the pain of dislocation.
“There is no point,” he said. “I died a minute early so I could have a minute with you now. But I have a minute only. I knew you’d come. That you’d forget the ring and then remember it. You can have it. Feel no guilt for whatever you do.”
“I died early so I could tell you: Don’t delay. Whatever you want to do, don’t delay. I spent my life delaying and hiding from my problems. It’s my deepest regret, daughter. So go on, follow your will.”
I did not delay. I pawned the ring at dawn and took the noon train to the city. I sat in third-class, rail straight on a bench with no back. Thirteen hours of bumpy riding ahead of me. But I was happy. A young woman in black sat next to me and fell asleep. Her head cuddled into my shoulder, nuzzling like a kitten. I knew nothing would deliver us from pain. But I knew that my labor could earn me a little money, stave off a little suffering, save me enough so that I could have a home with a garden where I’d grow forsythia and baby’s breath.
Meagan Masterman is a queer writer from Maine, living in Massachusetts. Read her work in Ghost City, Funhouse, and Maudlin House. Check out the journal she helps edit at realityhands.com. Find her on Twitter at @MeaganMasterman Image: The Ring, John William Godward, 1898