ONE YEAR EARLIER
CORBETT STACKHOUSE POV
My father had been a poor miller, though he’d been—ironically enough—named “Earl” Stackhouse. And I was only slightly better off. My wife, who’d once been an incredible seamstress—and who had made quite a healthy supplemental income for us because of her gift—had taken ill when she had been heavy with our second child, and she had died trying to birth her.
Our first, a boy named Jason, had followed in my footsteps and had become a miller.
The child who had killed my wife was called Sookie because Jason had not been able to say Susanna when he was a little boy.
I sometimes wished that I were a good or wise enough man to forgive my daughter for taking my wife from me, but—ever since Michelle had died—I had become harder. I often needed to work from dusk until dawn in order to support my family. And, with the droughts during the last several years, profits had become difficult to make. I had always dreamed of leaving my son more than my own father had left for me, but I now feared that might not happen.
My only outlet was the occasional trip to the tavern to drown my sorrows in mead.
Still, I could never totally drown away my memory of the error that had led to my heartbreak. I had once been lax about pulling out of Michelle’s body before my seed flowed into her. And that laxity had brought about the girl-child.
As for Sookie herself? Part of me wished that I had left her to die with my wife’s corpse. Surely, she would have starved quickly. But my own mother, a woman who’d had too soft of a heart, had convinced me that the girl could have some use.
In truth, I was a little frightened of Sookie. All of her life, she had been different—devil-touched. Almost from the first day that she could speak, she seemed to know things that she ought not to know. And, as she gained vocabulary, she would speak out the thoughts of those around her. Luckily, the priest of our parish, Steven Newlin, was a great man. He had known how to deal with such issues, and the devil was beaten from the child until she no longer spoke out the words of others.
By the time Sookie was ten years old, she had seemed meek, barely speaking even to my mother—not that many tried to speak with her often. Having beautiful blond hair and eyes the color of a sparkling sea, she had looked a lot like her mother. Sadly, unlike my sweet Michelle, Sookie’s very soul was corrupted; thus, the devil revisited her—obviously trying to reclaim his own. One afternoon, Sookie had attempted to seduce my own God-fearing uncle. Thankfully, they had been discovered before he tainted himself by entering her with his manhood, but his thick fingers had already pierced her, and her maidenhead had been broken.
The damage was done.
Again, Priest Newlin had come to our aid. Uncle Bartlett was quickly rescued from the child’s spell, for Bartlett’s heart was pure. He repented immediately. The girl’s repentance had to be fought for much more vigorously.
Showing that the devil’s aim was to ruin the good reputation of Bartlett, Sookie had, at first, claimed that the situation had been instigated by him. She had, therefore, needed to be beaten for her lies as well as for her other transgressions. The brightness that had been in her eyes had obviously been devil-sent, for it dimmed with every beating she was given until it was finally purged. And with that gone, Priest Newlin had been certain that God had won and freed Sookie from the devil’s voice in her head. After that, the girl had confessed and repented. It was only her young age and the family’s desire to protect my uncle’s reputation that had prevented me from killing her myself after that episode—just to protect her from being taken over again.
It was clear to us all that she was especially weak when it came to resisting the devil.
In fact, the priest made clear that—if Sookie were ever taken over again—he would not be able to help her. I will admit that part of me wanted that to happen—so that I could turn her out and be done with her.
However—for the eight years since her confession—she had been the picture of modesty and humility. Instructed by the priest, she had taken to wearing shapeless clothing and covering her hair. Even now, she attended confession once a day in order to ask God to keep the devil from her and to beg for forgiveness for being a burden to her family.
And she was a burden! Even if she had not been “spoiled” by the loss of her maidenhead, she would have had no allure for the men in the parish. There were too many rumors left over from the past—whispers that she was a witch, anecdotes about her mind-reading as a child, or simply the general consensus that she was a little crazy. Thus, the burden of feeding and clothing her would always fall upon me. And—given the gossip—it was not as if I would draw another wife to me. So the girl had burdened me to be a perpetual widower as well.
For these reasons, I had almost accepted Bartlett’s offer to take Sookie off of my hands a few years before. A merchant of goods from the East, Bartlett had decided to move to Italy where he would have more opportunity. He had the means to provide for Sookie, and he needed someone to keep his house. All who knew of the situation years before had found his level of forgiveness to be remarkable, for Sookie had once carried the demon who had tried to ruin Bartlett.
My uncle had gone ahead to Venice to secure an appropriate dwelling; thus, I had three months to contemplate my decision. In the end, however, it was Sookie’s own behavior that had convinced me to keep her—well, that and my cost versus benefit analysis of the situation.
Oddly enough, Sookie seemed to favor simple food to meat, so she began making separate meals for herself, mostly unseasoned vegetable broths. The practice added to her strangeness, but it lifted part of the burden she caused me as well. Also, instead of asking for cloth when her dress became worn, she made a shift from an old coarse blanket that she had found discarded on the street. Moreover, my own saintly mother had died the year before I had to make my decision about Bartlett. Thus, Jason and I needed someone who would keep house for us. Once Sookie unburdened me of much of her cost of upkeep, I knew that I would not be able to find someone to do her work for less of a price. Therefore, though my feelings had still been mixed on the matter, I had turned down Bartlett’s kind offer.
Indeed, in the subsequent years, Sookie had proven to be a good housekeeper for Jason and myself. Of course, my own mother had taught her to cook, launder clothing, and clean by the time the girl-child was five years old, so she was used to the crafts involved in keeping up a home. But she was nothing like my Michelle! Michelle was a seamstress who could spin mere wool into the finest silks—figuratively, of course. My mother had been less gifted with needle and thread, but had taught my child what she knew of textile making. Still, Sookie could only mend clothing—or make the most rudimentary of things, like her formless, plain shift. Her specialty—if it could be called that—was in the making of quilted blankets. She had a talent for weaving things together to create warmth, but there was very little beauty in anything she did. Still, I had bragged about the first of her creations at the local tavern, and soon Sookie was adding small contributions to the family’s coffers by making similar blankets to sell.
It was something—at least.
But it was not as if she could spin straw into gold!
Though I liked to joke that she could when I was at the tavern.