Historical Fiction

Meditation

The clomp of Victoria’s heels on the stone floor filled the church. Her back burned with the glares of the gossipy hens in the pews, but for once, she paid the tittle-tattlers no mind. True, ladies weren’t supposed to walk like men. But young wives weren’t supposed to lose their husbands, either.

She stepped into the church garden and hesitated, her fingers groping for the reticule at her waist. Assured of its presence, she straightened and smoothed her skirts. She took a calming breath and approached the labyrinth with forced deliberation. This had been their special place. She and Roger courted here, its twists and turns giving them opportunities for private conversations and stolen kisses. Three years ago that was, but it felt a decade. Maybe more. If only the war had ended by Christmas like they’d promised . . .

Victoria took another deep breath and stepped into the hedge-lined maze. She heard nothing but the click of her boots on the paving stones. Only hers, though, and for that she was grateful.

Photo by Wolfgang Kaiser/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Wolfgang Kaiser/iStock / Getty Images

The path turned right. If the war had been over by that first Christmas, Roger would never have enlisted. He wouldn’t be hurt or missing or dead or whatever he was now, wherever he was. He would be here with her, setting up housekeeping, starting a family. Now she was alone. At 21, a widow. How could that be?

“Stop, young lady.” The left turn introduced Victoria’s mother’s voice, loudly enough that Victoria turned to make sure she was still alone. “You don’t know you’re a widow. One mustn’t jump to conclusions.”

Right turn. “You’re strong, Tori,” Roger told her the night before his deployment. “It’s one of the things I love about you. It’s how I know you’ll be fine while I’m gone.”

While I’m gone. Roger had every intention of coming back. So where was he? His Pals Battalion were trickling home, most missing a limb or an eye or their wits. But they were alive, and they were here. Not one could tell her what happened to Roger.

They’d gone over the top together, Jasper finally admitted, and then lost each other in the chaos that followed. He wouldn’t give her details, said they weren’t fit for man nor beast and especially not a woman. He thought he saw Roger carried away on a litter.

Jasper had been on a litter too. It’s how he got to the field hospital. Same for the boys Victoria read to here in the relief hospital. But none of the hospitals Victoria contacted could find any record of Roger. Which left only one logical conclusion.

Victoria stopped and turned circles. How far had she gone? Why did all the hedges and turns have to look the same? Why did it feel like she was stuck in the same place?

She scanned the rooflines beyond the church walls. They were all so flat. Then she pinpointed the lettered crenellations of the Wharton’s Tobacconist building. Almost there. Two more turns.

She laid her hand on her reticule and moved forward, fingering the edges of Roger’s letters through the silk. So many letters, one for every week he’d been away, until . . .

Until last July, when the fighting at the Somme began. For months, that battle raged. Every day, names of the dead and wounded and missing filled the newspapers. Every day, Victoria studied those lists with her magnifying glass, even after Roger’s name appeared on the roll of the missing. She kept up the practice for more than a year, both hoping for and dreading Roger’s reassignment to one of the other lists.

She stopped at the hedge that marked the middle of the labyrinth and pulled open her bag. Sorting through the envelopes, she found Roger’s last missive.

Victoria unfolded the page, scanning it until she found the words that brought her here. I left something for you, Tori, in our usual place.

Now she was here—where Roger kissed her the first time, where he proposed, where he told her of his enlistment. What had he left her, other than alone?

The topiary held nothing but leaves and branches. She brushed the dirt with the toe of her boot. Nothing but soil. But wait. The corner of the paver looked less weathered than the rest of the square. Her fingers made out shallow grooves in the stone. On her knees, she peered closer but couldn’t decipher the shape.

She slid out her magnifying glass. The intertwined letters V and R were scratched into the slab. To any other citizen of the realm, it would look like a memorial to the beloved Victoria Regina. Clever Roger.

Victoria fell back, landing hard on her skirts. She felt the pain in her heart, not her behind, and for the first time since she’d heard the word Somme, she gave in to it. The sobs came slowly at first, her quiet sniffs gathering speed and intensity until her whole body shook.

Minutes later she was spent, little more than a bag of bones collapsed on the ground. She crawled to the path’s edge and leaned against a hedge for support.

Her mother’s voice returned to her. “You were named for Britain’s greatest queen. She lost her husband, too, and she carried on. You will do the same.”

What other choice did she have?

Taking a few unsteady breaths, Victoria blinked away the last of her tears. She found the letter and the magnifying glass and slid them back into her bag. She pushed herself to her feet. Brushing her skirts, she recited, “I will carry on, just like the queen.” She repeated the refrain as she continued through the second half of the labyrinth.

She stopped short of the final turn in the maze. A new life awaited her outside the labyrinth. A life without Roger. A life of carrying on.

She stepped back.

No, there was no going backward in a labyrinth. Or life.

She made the final turn.

 

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A World Turned Upside Down

Prudence smoothed the scrap of muslin on her lap and studied the uneven lines of irregular stitches. Practice was supposed to improve her skills, but each successive row looked worse than the one before.

With a sigh, she slid the needle off the thread and began using it to pull out her handiwork. Where in the Good Book did it say that women must stitch every day?, she wondered.

Then, yanking a stitch to punctuate every word, “Surely God would not be disappointed that Prudence Fayreweather of tiny New Eden, New Hampshire, cannot stitch.”

Oh, no. Had she spoken aloud?

She sat churchly still. Papa and Jeremiah had taken the cows to graze on the common. They would not return until dinner. But Mama? Prudence closed her eyes and listened. She could just hear the faint clacking of the butter churn.

Her exhale of relief was quickly followed by a sideways glance at the back door. What were the chickens doing? Surely they had something more interesting to do than stitch.

She shifted her glance toward the front of the house. Mama would be busy churning for a while. She would never notice if her daughter took a short break to play with her feathered friends.

Prudence stuck the needle in the cloth and shoved the muslin off her lap before hopping off the chair. She paused at the door to listen one more time for her mother. Then she pushed the door open and darted outside

and stopped.

The sky in the near distance was yellow.

Prudence blinked. She squinted. She rubbed her eyes. The sky was still yellow. And the yellow was spreading, toward her, toward the village.

“MAMA!” Prudence ran to the front of the house.  “Mama! Come look!”

Mama stood, wiping her hands on her apron. “Prudence Fayreweather! Running wildly is not suitable for a young Christian woman.”

“But Mama—“

Mrs. Fayreweather set her hands on her hips. “How many times have we discussed this?” She shook her head before continuing. “Please go back to the corner of the house, walk to me calmly, and explain why you are not practicing your stitching.”

“Bu—“

Mama pointed over Prudence’s shoulder.

Gritting her teeth, Prudence turned and hurried to the corner and back. “My stitches were getting sloppy,” she explained upon rejoining her mother. “I went outside to calm my mind, but then I saw the sky turning yellow.”

Mrs. Fayreweather sighed. “You have a fanciful imagination. I wish I knew what to do with it.”

“’Tis not—“ Prudence grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her to the side of the house. She pointed at the sky. “It is not my imagination.”

Mama caught her breath. “My word.”

“What is it?”

“I have no idea. It looks like

“Like what?”

Mama shook her head. “Nothing. That would be mindless speculation. Now,” Mama clapped her hands. “Let us get back to our chores. They won’t do themselves, no matter what color the sky is.”  She put her hand on Prudence’s shoulder and guided the girl to the front of the house, but not before Prudence saw her mother glance worriedly back over her shoulder. 

Prudence let herself be led into the house and then scurried to the window by the rear door. No matter what Mama said, something was very wrong.

She watched the sky grow darker and darker.

 

The sky was grayish-brown when Papa and Jeremiah returned. Prudence stood with Mama in the yard, watching as they guided the cows toward the barn. Judging by the moos and lows, the cows were as worried and confused as Prudence.

Movement to her right caught Pru’s attention. “Mama, look.” She pointed at the chickens, who were lining up to get back into the coop, something they only did at night.

“They’re probably confused by the darkening sky,” Mama said. “‘Tis nothing to worry about.” Mama rubbed her collarbone that certain way, and Prudence knew her mother’s words were a lie.

Once the animals were put to bed, the family followed Papa into the house. Mama lit the candles in the kitchen, and everyone took their places around the table: Papa at the head, Mama opposite him, Jeremiah on Papa’s right, Prudence on Papa’s left. No one looked out the windows, but their thoughts remained on the growing darkness.

Jeremiah turned to his father. “What is it, Pa? Could it be the war?”

Mr. Fayreweather shook his head. “I don’t think so. The last I heard, the fighting was all down by New York and in the Carolinas. Unless…”

Prudence peered at her father. “Unless what?”

Papa shared a look with Mama and then sighed before answering. “Unless we are being punished by the Lord.”

“For what?” Jeremiah cried. “We have every right to rebel against the king. He denied and trampled on our God-given rights. If anything, the Lord should be punishing him, not us.”

 “Calm down, young man.” Papa’s voice was stern but gentle. “I’m not saying you’re wrong. You know I support independence. But there are many reasons the Lord could visit his wrath upon us. The war is the least of them. After all, the Bible tells us we are beings of sin. Perhaps we have not atoned enough for our transgressions.”

“Darkness was one of the plagues of Egypt,” Prudence chimed in.

“Yes, it was,” Jeremiah agreed. “Sent to persuade pharaoh to set the Hebrews free. Maybe this darkness is a plague on the British, to persuade the king to set us free.”

“But shouldn’t the darkness fall on London, then, instead of New Eden?” Prudence asked. 

 “I suppose,” Jeremiah sighed. “Maybe we are being punished after all.”

The family fell silent. Prudence felt a knot form in her belly. This was her fault. She had broken the sixth commandment. She had disobeyed her mother. She had believed that God would not give a thought to Prudence Fayreweather’s frivolity. She was wrong. She folded her hands together, closed her eyes, and whispered the Lord’s Prayer. She hoped that would be enough. 

Papa waited until she was finished before setting his hands palm-down on the table and announcing he was hungry. “It is midday. Let’s have dinner.” He nodded at Mama. While she made her way to the sideboard, Papa turned to Prudence. “Perhaps you could help your mother by setting out the plates?”

Prudence nodded before getting up and sliding behind her father to the cabinet.

Papa then looked at Jeremiah. “And perhaps you can fetch more candles. I suspect these will not be enough to last us through the night.”

Prudence glanced out the window as her brother walked passed it. It did look like night outside, except no stars were visible. She reminded herself it was the middle of the day, not the middle of the night. If it was this dark now, what would it be like later? What if the sun never shone again? Prudence knew they did not have enough candles to survive that. No one did.

 

By the time Jeremiah returned with the half-dozen candles that normally resided in other rooms of the house, Mama had laid out the midday meal: bread, cheese, and pickles.  Jeremiah set the candles on the sideboard before sliding back into his seat. At Papa’s nod, they all bowed their heads and said grace. For once, Jeremiah did not lunge for the bread at the final syllable in amen, waiting instead for Papa to take the first portion.

“Well?” Papa glanced around the table. “The food won’t eat itself. Best help yourself.”

At this cue, the rest of the Fayreweathers slowly filled their plates.

The first bite of bread felt dry in Prudence’s mouth and like a pebble going down her throat. Every bite grew worse, until she felt like she was choking down stones.

She watched each family member take their next bite and then looked down at her own plate. “It’s my fault.”

“What was that?” Mama asked. “Speak louder if you wish to be heard.”

Prudence pushed her plate away. “I said, it’s my fault.”

“What’s your fault?” Jeremiah asked through stuffed cheeks.

Mama slapped his arm. “Do not speak with your mouth full, young man.” She turned to Prudence. “But he asked an appropriate question. What is your fault?”

“This. The darkness. The Lord sent it to punish me.”

Mama gave Papa a pointed stare.

“Why would He punish you?” he asked.

“Because….because I broke the commandments. I cannot stitch. I disobeyed Mama. I envied the chickens

Jeremiah guffawed. Papa bit his cheek. Mama sent Papa a look of disapproval and gave Jeremiah another slap on the arm. Prudence let her tears flow.

After a nod from Mama, Papa grabbed one of the candles and pushed another toward his daughter. “Prudence, help me check on the animals.”

With a sniffle, Prudence pushed back her chair, took the candle, and followed her father out the back door. Papa stopped when they were clear of the building. “You are most certainly a headstrong young woman, but I do not believe the Lord did all this,” he said, waving his free hand toward the sky, “because of you. You are one of many.”

“But God sent disasters to punish individuals all the time in the Old Testament. Look what happened to Dathan, Abiram, and Korach.”

“Those men rebelled against Moses. You are not rebelling against anyone, except maybe your mother.”

Prudence wiped her cheeks with her sleeve, hiding a small smile.

“Beside,” Papa continued, “the Old Testament is full of strong women. What about Miriam, Ruth, and Esther?”

Prudence answered with a shrug and then walked with Papa to the barn, where almost half the cows were lying down.  Two that Prudence checked on seemed to have fallen asleep, if their breathing was any indication.

Assured that the animals, at least, were taking the strange darkness in stride, the two Fayreweathers walked back to the house. They found Mama and Jeremiah in the sitting room, Mama reading the Bible by candlelight, Jeremiah on the floor by her feet. Prudence sat next to Jeremiah, and Papa took his chair. While Mama read Luke’s account of the Last Supper, Prudence drifted into a light, restless sleep.

She woke in darkness, to a dull pain in her legs.

Jeremiah gave her another kick and then spoke in a loud whisper, pointing at the window. “Look!”

Prudence walked on her knees to the pane. She gasped at the sight. There were stars in the sky! The Lord had restored the natural order.

She stood, kissed her mother on the cheek, and made her way to her own bedroom, where she kneeled by her bed and prayed her most fervent thanks. The next morning, she reached for her stitching without complaint.

 

Click here to read the story behind "A World Turned Upside Down."