“Remember the Ladies”
Abigail Adams to John Adams while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence

  
PART ONE:
1861

Amelia opened her eyes and found herself on a riverbank; smears of mud ruined the new skirt Mother had bought her for the big family trip. Staying clean during the carriage ride meant a molasses square when they reached home. Now she wouldn’t get a treat. Tears slid down her cheeks as she saw the empty road above and, below, the carriage wheels spinning midair like windmills. Amelia pushed herself upright until she sat with her legs stretched out in front of her and blinked against the moonlight. “A bright night with a full moon—good for traveling,” Mother had said, but Amelia didn’t see her parents. The top of the carriage sank into the edge of the black jagged water, glare from the whitecaps like eyes watching her. She didn’t see her mother and scrambled to her feet. Pain seared through her ankle and she cried out a shrill harmony to the Montana wind, the kind of gusts her father called “widow makers.”

Amelia shouted for her father that she didn’t want to play hide and seek. She wasn’t supposed to go near the water because river currents carried away small children. A thud made her jump and she turned to find a log lodged against a massive rock. Amelia rubbed her eyes. Not a rock. Her narrow body trembled before her mind settled on what she already knew. Amelia slapped her hands over her face and shook her head. She wanted to tuck herself under her mother’s arms and feel her father’s dry kiss on her forehead. Amelia bit her bottom lip and pulled her hands from her eyes. Daisy rested on her side, still tethered to the front of the carriage, motionless like the rattlers
Father hit with his shovel. Dead. Amelia screamed for her mother and ran toward the water.

“For the last time, hold your tongue, child.”

The woman wore a black cape over her head and wouldn’t say where Amelia’s parents had gone. A man in work pants had carried Amelia up the riverbank, wrapped her in a thick, wool blanket, and set her in the back of a hay wagon. Then the caped woman appeared and wrapped bandages around her wet, swollen ankle with calloused, gnarled hands, the backs a web of blue veins. Amelia imagined her mother’s soft, gentle hands and asked again. 

“We’re taking you to your parents. Stop your blubbering,” the lady said. The man patted Amelia’s shoulder.

Amelia hadn’t meant to fall asleep but awoke with a start when the wagon stopped. In the dim moonlight she saw a flat, pale building that glowed at the edges and watched fallen leaves swirl around bare trees, then huddle together at the base of a short stairway. She wished to see purple flowers like the ones she had at home.

“Hurry up, child.”

The lady dragged her by the elbow to a wooden door with strips of pitted metal pressed across the front. She knocked, careful not to touch the dirty metal, and while they waited the lady licked her fingers and ran her moist hand across Amelia’s wavy hairline. Amelia flinched, repulsed by the stranger’s touch on her face. Then the door opened and Amelia smiled. A fairy in white stood in the doorway, the features of her face blurred to a serene mask by the glow from a slim candle in her hand. The fairy motioned for them to come forward, then knelt down so Amelia saw her wide-set, pale eyes. “I’m Mistress Lucy,” she said. “How old are you?”

Amelia held up four fingers just as her mother taught her. Then the fairy nodded and stood. Amelia couldn’t wait to tell her mother how well she’d done. Mother always kissed her on both cheeks when she acted like a proper lady. 

The caped woman left and the fairy closed the door. “You must come with me now,” she said.

Amelia followed the halo of light through the night corridor. Darkness circled around them and she felt puny and isolated against the pleading moans and a rhythmic thump that leaked through the walls. Amelia shuddered and stopped, but the fairy nudged her to keep her moving.

“I want my mother,” Amelia said, tears spilling onto the bare cement floors.

“Tomorrow.”

The fairy lifted the light and pointed to where Amelia could sleep for the night. She had never seen a bed with a roof.

“Can you change yourself?”

Amelia nodded.

“Then do so. A gown is there.” She hovered the candle over the foot of the bed. “We will go over the rules in the morning.”

The fairy turned to walk away but Amelia grabbed her knees and held tight. “Aren’t you going to read me a story?”

Amelia felt her pause as her mother did when considering a request for an extra cookie or more time to play with her dolls. “We don’t do that here,” the woman said. She removed Amelia’s hands with gentle force and left.

The room went dim and pulsed with the sounds of coughing and squeaking metal. Amelia sensed there were many others, felt the moist air from each of their deep exhales, and then, when she bumped her sore ankle on the frame and cried out, someone shouted for her to be quiet. Amelia scooted into the bed, the nightgown forgotten. Metal coils pressed through the pad, and the blanket, not any thicker than the rags her mother used to dry dishes, felt coarse and smelled of mildew.

Amelia closed her eyes to wish herself home, imagined the field behind their house where Mother hummed as she hung clothes on the line. She couldn’t picture her mother or her house; Daisy’s body lay in the water, her jaw agape in permanent disobedience against the metal bit. Amelia pressed her forearm against her mouth to muffle her sobs. She didn’t want the people of the darkness to yell at her again and pulled the blanket over her head. The caped lady hadn’t taken her to her mother and the woman in white, Mistress Lucy, had no magical powers. Real fairies read stories and rocked little girls to sleep when they were frightened. Amelia ached for her mother, a pain seared against her heart far worse than the sting in her ankle. If she stayed quiet and out of trouble, then her parents would find her. Tomorrow, the woman said. Tomorrow she’d see her parents and they’d take her home. Read More

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