ALI142426 Interior with a figure (oil on canvas) by Cecioni, Adriano (1838-66) oil on canvas Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, Italy Alinari Italian, out of copyright
“Ssh, Annetta, shh! he will find us if you don’t stop making that noise!”
I could hear my sister coughing under the bedclothes, her whooping cough consuming her in the tiny pocket of hot air under the blankets. I wanted to feel sorry for her, almost more than anything – almost. After all, I knew only too well how the paroxysms felt. My chest was still weak, I was still exhausted after my own sickness.
I held my own breath as the stairs creaked like the ageing tall ships that shuddered into the harbour down below, exhausted and depleted from their travails on the high seas.
If only he had been on Defiance, which despite its name had been swallowed by waves as tall as mountains. But no. He was a charmed man. He had returned, like a bad penny, pickled in brandy and stinking of the harlots he had visited in every nasty, fetid port along the way.
“Olivia! Olivia damn you! Where’s my food? Why is the table not laid? I’ll skin your hides, you and that miserable runt of a changeling. I swear she ain’t mine…”
The same old, same old refrain. I crouched behind the bed, hating my sister for alerting him to our presence with her chest-rattling cough and the whoop as she tried to suck in more air. For God’s sake, Annetta!
I reached up, felt the profile of her forehead, her nose, her mouth gaping like a hungry bird’s underneath the covers. I pressed down, trying to smother her noise, to just shut her up for a moment, just one, blessed moment. Perhaps he would get tired once he reached the second floor, perhaps he wouldn’t bother with the servants’ quarters if we were quiet as church mice…?
His footfall stopped, I heard a thud as the final door on the landing below was slammed open, I could picture him straining to pick up on the slightest noise from us, his most definitely unloved daughters.
I held my breath. Thankfully, Annetta had managed to stifle her noise too. I heard Father trudge unsteadily down the stairs. He would fall into a drunken slumber soon enough. I exhaled slowly as I heard him kick the kitchen door shut behind him, far below. We were safe for now. I released my clamp of a hand from Annetta’s mouth and shook her gently.
“It’s safe, sweetheart, you can come out now,” I whispered, peeling back the blankets, ready to hug my little sister, to reassure her once more.
I knew, as soon as I saw her. She would never need comfort from me again.
Father had killed her, with my own, death-grip hand.
Sweet dreams, little one. Sweet dreams.
Here’s my latest entry into Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge, where this week, she asks us to write in response to the picture above. Wow, it evoked something dark in me (not so surprising to anyone who has read my blog for a while…). I found this painting truly unsettling, as you can tell.
Please do head on over to Jane’s blog to see how others have responded. No two entries will be the same, I’m sure.
Thank you Jane, for the inspiration!