The thoughts of the men who came to my father’s door were hazed with red and lust. The lust was nothing new. Men’s thoughts were often dominated with it. I had learned that the hard way when I was only ten years old.
The only good thing about my uncle Bartlett was his job. As a merchant, he often traveled. And—when he visited—Gran had, while she was alive, always been home.
Except for one time.
Oh—he’d had his dark thoughts about me from my earliest memories of him. But the first time I had been alone with him, he had acted upon them. Gran had been delivering baked goods to an ill friend when he had come.
Like a rabid dog, Bartlett had wasted no time in taking what he wanted from me. I fought him, but what could I do? If I would have told others of his thoughts and plans for me—or of what he had been doing to my cousin, Hadley—I would have faced the priest’s whip again.
Indeed, the only lesson I knew more than my own powerlessness was to keep my mind-reading ability a secret. When I was a very young child, I had not understood. I had spoken aloud or answered the thoughts of others. Eventually, I came to learn that my ability to read minds was not shared by those around me. And I learned that responding to thoughts would spur beatings from both my father and the parish priest, who—by the way—was the one who was truly a child of the devil, for he enjoyed beating young children.
I just thanked the good Lord that I was a girl, for Priest Newlin’s most twisted proclivities were restricted to the young boys he helped “purge” of their sins. I knew that some of the boys’ “redemptions” included being drugged and raped by Newlin. At least they did not remember, and the pain of the rapes was covered up by the pain of the whippings Newlin had given to them.
On the contrary, I remembered well the day my uncle had forced me to take his ugly member into my mouth. I remembered well how much it hurt when he put his fingers into my body. I remembered the blood. I remembered him laughing at my useless struggles and my tears. I remembered him telling me that his actions were all my fault, for I was too pretty to resist. As I heard my uncle thinking that it would be safe to fill me with his seed—since I was yet a child—Gran returned, and my father was with her.
Though Gran initially believed me when I cried that Bartlett had done me wrong, my father did not. Thus, to the church, I was dragged by the hair. Given the priest’s baser habits, it was no surprise that he immediately denounced me as being a child of the devil. My uncle, on the other hand, was labeled the harlot’s victim—my victim. And, a true child of God herself, my good grandmother reluctantly believed the parish priest. Why would she not believe a man who was supposed to be an agent of God on earth?
Hearing Gran’s prayers that I be cured of my dark sins hurt me as much as the beatings. I was whipped each day for many weeks, but I also knew that Priest Newlin would not accept my confession as valid if I made it “too soon,” so I listened to his thoughts so that I would know the right time. It took twenty-eight days—twenty-seven beatings—before I knew he would believe me. During those days pain-filled days and nights, I had prayed to God to take my life. But that prayer was not answered. I lived, and eventually my wounds healed to scars, which would always remain on my back—no matter how much Gran had tried with natural remedies and kind attention to heal them.
To me, the scars did not matter. What mattered was that my uncle had seen them as Gran was dressing them one day. They had disgusted him, so he had decided—at least for several years—to look elsewhere for his sick pleasures.
I had much guilt that I could not help my cousin or the others he victimized. Of course, had I spoken out, I would have been labeled as demon-possessed again. And I had just enough self-preservation to know that I could not survive another purging at the hands of Priest Newlin.
After that, I also had the self-preservation instincts to cover any beauty that might be seen by men. I kept myself clean, but I made sure I covered my hair and my body as much as possible. I kept my eyes trained on the floor whenever possible. I wore the plainest clothing possible. However, not long after Gran died, Bartlett made another visit. Thankfully, my father was home, but that did not stop my uncle’s thoughts. He had gotten Hadley pregnant, and the “treatment” that he arranged for—one designed to kill the child before it even showed in her body—had killed her too. That is why he asked my father for my “service” when he moved to Italy. He had planned to take poor Hadley.
Of course, Newlin lauded Bartlett for his forgiveness. And, of course, my father considered “being rid of me” for many weeks. I was not surprised. After all, my father’s thoughts about me held no affection. He blamed me for killing his beloved wife. He blamed me for my lost virginity. He blamed me for the burden I would always be to him. But my father was also a practical man. He was forever figuring the cost of one thing or the other—whether it be for his business or his household. In fact, from his brain, I had learned mathematics.
I had learned how to calculate cost versus benefit. I also knew that my brother and father were not prepared to keep the house or cook for themselves, though my father felt that hiring someone unused to the “luxuries” I received would be cheaper than keeping me. Making calculations of my own, I found a way to make my own cost to my father shrink to almost nothing. From the brain of the local tavern master, I learned that the mutton bones and scraps left after his customers’ meals were thrown to his dogs just before dawn every morning. A few times a week—I would use my skill to secretly navigate my way to the alleyway behind the tavern. There I would wait in the shadows until the bones were tossed carelessly outside.
The dogs were—thankfully—not too violent, and there were plenty of bones and scraps to go around, especially on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so I was able to steal enough from the canines. I cleaned the dirt off of my prizes and used them to make simple food for myself, thus cutting out most of my father’s cost to feed me. When my dress became tattered beyond mending, I “heard” from a grave digger that the blankets used to cover the bodies of those too poor to afford a coffin on their way to the cemetery were thrown into a pile, which was periodically burned. Living close to the parish cemetery, I was able to secure a discarded blanket easily.
From it, I made a simple dress, which had the added benefit of being rough and formless. It covered the curves that were growing onto my body in a way that the last dress Gran had made for me did not. The material was coarse at first, but—from a woman at church—I “heard” that such fabric could be softened by rubbing a stone over it many times. Of course, the woman did not tell me this information out loud. Indeed, she initially felt pity for me when she saw my dress, but then she remembered that I was “crazy Sookie,” the “devil’s child.”
The woman had neither the courage nor the motivation to engage me in a conversation long enough to tell me how to be more comfortable. In fact, no one other than my brother and father ever spoke with me anymore—unless the priest was counted. To keep up the appearance of repentance for sins I had not committed, I walked to the church daily in order to confess to being a burden to my poor father and beg for God to forgive me for my past “wrongdoings. ” Every day, I also asked the priest to protect me from the voice of Satan. Newlin’s “protection” was to strike me on the palms with a rod after each confession.
He enjoyed it, and I became numb to it.
As the weeks of my father’s consideration of Bartlett’s “charitable offer” went by, I prayed to God every moment that I was awake. I prayed that my father would notice that I was no longer costing him anything, other than the price of a few carrots, potatoes, and onions, which I put in my soups so that I would have some vegetables. However, I was the one who tended to the small family garden that provided these things. It was just the seeds that were provided by my father, and I had already been taking only the vegetables of least quality for myself. After all, Gran had taught me that it was a woman’s duty to offer the best to the men she took care of.
Eventually my father noticed that I was wearing a “new” frock and asked me about it. I explained that I found a discarded blanket and had crafted the shift from it in order to lighten the burden I was on him. The next day, my father noticed the pot of simple soup I had made for myself. Of course, my father never saw the mutton bones and meat scraps. I would put them into the soup only while my brother and father were at the mill. And I always returned the “used” bones back to the dogs after I’d gotten all the use I could from them. After all, they might eventually be discovered if I buried them in the garden.
In addition to cutting my cost in my father’s eyes, I also attempted to raise my benefit. The house had never sparkled so much as it did in the weeks when he was considering giving me to my uncle.
And, eventually, my prayers were answered when he turned down my uncle since even a part-time housekeeper/cook would have cost more than I did. Still, there was a niggling in my father’s thoughts, and every time he noticed me for more than a few seconds, he wondered if he had made a mistake in not giving me away. He wondered if he might find a wife if I were gone from the household. He even began writing a letter to my uncle telling him that he had changed his mind and that he could still have me if he wanted—though he had also decided to ask my uncle for some money in exchange. It was this point that made my father pause. He could not decide how much to ask for.
With his delay, I made a last effort to save myself from Bartlett. I stole two more blankets from the graveyard. Not sleeping for three nights, I wore skin from my hands using a stone to soften them, and then I used a technique I had once “heard” about from an old woman in the church who had once made gambesons, which were quilted garments worn under soldiers’ armor. I used feathers and straw to act as my quilting agent. Even softened, the fabric of the blankets was still thick, so my finished product was soft and warm. I presented it to my father, who enjoyed it.
Unfortunately, my father did not do what I had hoped he would by bragging on my handiwork when he became drunk at the tavern. I knew from his thoughts that he was a horrible braggart. But he did not think to brag about my small accomplishment. Thankfully, my brother’s intellect was a dim one, so when he demanded that I make a blanket for him, I was also able to introduce the thought that such things might bring a profit to the family. My brother told my father “his” idea, and—in turn—my father told his drinking mates “his” idea.
The letter to my uncle was burned in the fire that night as my father began making calculations and asked me questions about how long it took to make the blankets. Since he actually invested in some materials for me, the time spent was lessened, but I always made sure I came in “under budget” by continuing to steal as many blankets as I thought I could get away with from the graveyard between burnings. Luckily, the grave diggers were drunkards who did not care about their work anymore than my father and brother cared about me.
But that did not matter. Compared with many girls, I felt lucky. I had a home to live in and food to eat. I had security as long as I “paid for myself” and had use to my father. And I was completely unsought by men who would add child production and sexual servitude onto my other household duties.
I thanked God every day for my life—and for the gift that had been a curse to me as a child, but had become my means of survival.
I should have known that God had no care for me either.
But I did learn this harsh lesson when the men with the red-tinged thoughts came to my father’s home. Though their thoughts were harder for me to “read,” I still recognized their desire for me right away. They did not care about my formless garment. They cared only that I smelled appetizing to them. They wondered if I really was a fairy. And their thoughts told me what they were as well—men who could shift into animals! Years of fear and discipline had made not reacting to thoughts my automatic response, but despite that, I had a difficult time holding in my reaction.
Oh—it was not my shock over learning about the supernatural that had almost caused my lapse. No—it was discovering God’s cruel sense of humor where I was concerned. Apparently, the same bragging that had made others pay me for my work so that my father wouldn’t sell me had also been my doom.
One of the men—the one who could shift into any animal he wanted—had heard my father bragging at the tavern that his daughter could spin straw into gold! And the king, who knew about the supernatural elements of the world, believed him.
Of course, God’s greatest trick was that it would be a king who would be the man that would bring about my doom—instead of a priest or a member of my own family.
Only “the best” suffering for me, apparently!
That thought almost caused me to laugh out loud several times as the shifter and the Were-tiger escorted my father and me to the king’s castle.