Clover ring

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The heartbreaking struggle between a girl's love for her mother and love for the boy she lost

Submitted: April 17, 2012

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Submitted: April 17, 2012

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Some women have emotions permanently chiseled onto their faces. For one woman, it is happiness and the remnants of a recent laugh that has not quite faded from her visage. For another it is constant worry, as though two invisible strings are ever tugging upwards on the inner corners of her brows. But for my mother, it is disappointment that is stubbornly etched onto her aging face.

I have often wondered how this came to be. And after much reflection, I have come to the conclusion that there was not merely one cataclysmic event that damned her to a life of perpetual distaste. I believe it was many infinitesimal instances in which I let her down. Yet these negligibly insignificant moments have somehow added up.

“Sing, Birdie,” I whisper glumly, staring at the tiny little creature in its cage. The bird has not uttered a sound for as long as I can remember, but I never give up hope that it might. I know it is useless, but I murmur once again, “Please sing.”

The little thing seems agitated for a moment and I do not understand why. Then I hear the distinctive click of heels on the hardwood, and turn to face Mother, who is clearly upset. Her hands are placed firmly on her hips, and I notice that her big, ridiculous hat is off center. Not that I look much better, lounging in my day clothes on the eve of my wedding.

“Good afternoon, Mother,” I begin embarrassedly, rising quickly to my feet from where I had laid on the parlor sofa, staring into the tiny iron cage. “I am sorry that I am not ready for dinner. You see, I got distracted.”

“Indeed,” she answers stoically, pursing her lips. She is not the most outspoken woman, but she does not need to be. She conveys so much through so little that it is almost frightening at times. Her efficiency of language is enviable.

“I suppose I ought to change into my dinner gown before the festivities tonight,” I state quietly, avoiding eye contact in my shame. Rather, I stare at the carpet and trace its intricate patterns with my glance.

“I suppose so,” she repeats back to me, raising her eyebrows. “Seeing as it is your impending marriage we are celebrating tomorrow, it would be fitting that you attend your own wedding dinner tonight.”

“Yes, of course,” I say meekly, heading for the door through which she just entered. Just as I reach for the doorknob of polished brass, I throw a glance back over my shoulder and request, “Mother, may I let Birdie fly around the parlor later? I will close all of the doors, I promise.” I could tell immediately from Mother’s expression that the answer was “Definitely not,” so I hastily compromised, “Or at the very least could we get him a bigger cage? He is sad, Mother.”

She scoffs and leers, “He is a bird. Birds do not feel anything. And besides, he is a rare specimen, indeed, and I will not have him being lost or otherwise hurt. And just as importantly, I would not want him to dirty the room with droppings.”

And suddenly, I imagine little Birdie’s business dropping right on Mother’s big, ridiculous hat, and I have to stifle a laugh. She seems to notice my giggle and stares poisonously at me, so I hurry up to my room to change.

The dress for tonight is purple satin, and I wait as long as I possibly can to don it. I do not need another reminder of my wedding, thank you very much. And besides, the purple dress for dinner tonight reminds me too much of the other one: the white dress that I will wear tomorrow.

When I can stall no longer, I finally slip into the lilac gown and sit on the little white stool in front of my mirror. In the reflection, I see my door open and I watch Mother and the hired hairdresser come in. Mother stares at me for a while before she sighs and declares, “You will look pretty when Brigitte is done with you.” 

“Yes,” I solemnly agree. The hairdresser, Brigitte, is old and plump, but her hands are gentle and soothing on my scalp. She could not contrast more with mother, whose hands are stiff and awkward despite her relative youth. Whenever my mother tried to brush through my golden waves when I was a child, the comb would rob half the follicles on my head of their hair.

I doubt that Brigitte speaks English, but Mother tries earnestly to communicate with her. It is almost humorous to watch them struggle. At one point, Mother produces a sketch from her pocket of a woman’s hair pinned precariously upon her head.

“This is what Adelaide wants,” Mother says to the confused woman. I am now sure she does not understand Mother’s words, but she is able to comprehend the sketch, so she sets to work.

“Mother, you might have consulted with me before deciding every detail of my wedding,” I state nervously, throwing an unhappy glance at the sketch.

“Why on earth would I do that?” Mother asks, genuinely confused.

“Because you are forcing me to walk down the aisle with a man I do not love,” I answer temperedly. “At least some aspect of it should be mine. Honestly at this rate, you might as well marry Phillip yourself!”

Mother considers it for a moment before replying, “I might have, were he my age and you not so desperate for a husband.”

I nearly point out that she is the one desperate on my behalf, but I hold my tongue. Instead I reply, “I wish you had married him. That way I would not have to do so.”

“Hmm, he would be like your father then,” Mother answered discouragingly, heading towards my closet. I know that she is opening it to look at my wedding gown again, to admire it, to judge its flaws, just as she does with everything. I see it in the mirror and force myself not to look in that direction.

“Phillip as my father?” I repeat, digesting the odd thought. “Well that is a vile idea indeed. Why it is almost as vile as the thought of him being my husband, and that is saying something.”

The doors slam shut, and my mother turns around. We make eye contact through the mirror, and she scowls dangerously. “You ought to be so grateful,” she says in little more than a whisper that carries like a bell. “Without my help in finding a husband, where would you be?”

I dare not say the real answer, which is, “happy.” Instead, I murmur, “lost.”

“That is right,” Mother answers, calming down a bit. She adjusts her big, ridiculous hat, which was literally hanging on hinges when she was flustered. She takes a seat beside me and grabs my chin in one of her hands. I feel her appraising stare as she muses, “You have changed from the little girl I loved.”

“I suppose so,” I answer carefully. She tilts her head back until she is just peering at me from the very bottoms of her eyes. “You used to be so obedient,” she continues. I breathe deeply and try to extinguish the anger that burns in me. “You used to be so charming.”

I do not answer this time, for if I were to, I know that I would regret every word of it. Instead, I force myself to remain silent and hold her gaze in the reflection. I doubt if I even blink. Mother finally releases my chin and leaves to her own boudoir to prepare for dinner.

I cannot cry yet, lest my makeup smudge and betray me. As I bite on my own lip, I happen to catch Brigitte’s eye. It is only for a moment, so ephemeral, so fleeting, but so much is said in this silence. I know that she does not speak a word of English, but I get the sense that she knows precisely what had occurred between Mother and me. And I get the distinct impression that she cares.

The dinner is being held at a lovely restaurant that is located within one of the prettiest gardens in the country. The pathways to the tables are lined with flowers in bloom and fountains that trickle as you eat. It is perfectly charming, and it happens to be one of the only facets of my wedding that was truly mine.

“Oh, Addie!” my dearest friend, Charlene exclaims upon seeing me across the garden. She rushes forward to embrace me, and then takes a step back to admire me in my gown. “Oh, twirl for me, Addie!”

I compliantly spin, and the purple satin fans out around me like one of the violets in the garden. Charlene applauds giddily and babbles, “Oh, I can only imagine how you will look tomorrow! Has Phillip seen your dress?”

“No, neither of them,” I answer, trying to look excited, but feeling the weight of my anxiety crushing my spirits.

 For about the millionth time, I show Charlene the diamond ring, and her reaction is the same as always: utter elation. The diamond is cut in a perfect circle, but oddly, the diamond itself is not the most distinctive part of the ring. Encircling the diamond and wrapping around the body of the band are two microscopic golden olive branches. I hate it based on principle since I cannot hate it based on aesthetics.

Other friends arrive– Martha, Jane, Jennifer, Alice, and then Harriet –and we take our place at one of the smallish tables near the section of the garden where the butterflies are. Coincidentally (though I am sure it is not at all coincidental), Mother and her company choose a table in extreme proximity to ours.

A few hundred guests arrive, many of whom I do not even know, and find a seat. I see Phillip’s parents, and greet them respectfully. His father kisses my hand and his mother kisses both of my cheeks. “You look beautiful,” she says.

I like Phillip’s mother. Her cheeks are rosy and her eyes are big. She always wears hats; however, hers are far less big and ridiculous than Mother’s. And her husband is acceptable, too, from what I can tell. However, their presence usually means…

Phillip, who strolls in right on cue (that is, twenty minutes late). His hair is combed back and his suit is nicely pressed. I try not to let my annoyance show but it is practically impossible.

“Nice of you to decide to show up,” I say with barbs in my voice. “Dear,” I add, as if that nullifies my crossness.

“I would not miss it for the world,” he answers obliviously, planting a kiss on my cheek. I struggle against my instinct to immediately wipe it off. “So what is on the menu for tonight?”

“Oh, the menu is quite extensive,” Jennifer offers with a pleasing smile. “I am sure you will find something you like.” Phillip smiles back and I think I see a wink.

I scowl. Although I could not care less for the man, he is going to be my husband, and I do expect him to knock off his boyish flirting at some point. Why, he will bat his eyes at anyone or anything with a heartbeat.

The waiter brings our food, and the sun begins to set. I begin to cut my chicken, but I realize that I have no appetite whatsoever, and then push it forward. Phillip, meanwhile, is having no trouble entertaining my friends. They collectively laugh at his jokes, and I purposely join in occasionally so they will not worry what troubles me.

“Ladies, I have a question for you. What are there plenty of in this garden?” Phillip asks, with a devilish charm glinting in his eyes. However, it makes me uncomfortable. That is the way that I used to be exclusively looked at by…

No. I close my eyes and push the old memories, the impossible wishes out of my mind. I often struggle to keep the past separate from the present, particularly when I remember that summer. That summer in the meadow…

“There are plenty of daisies!” Charlene guesses.

There were plenty of daisies in that meadow, and there was clover and sunshine by the ton. There were clouds that drifted over the hillocks and trees. And there was him.

“No,” Phillip answers. “Try again.”

“There are several lights strung over the garden,” Jane points out.

There were countless lights over the meadow at night: a billion stars that rose and fell with the moon, then seemingly clumped together and reappeared in the daytime as the sun. And there was him.

“No again,” Phillip contradicts. “Anymore guesses?”

“Butterflies!” Harriet exclaims.

“Precisely!” Phillip responds, happy that someone has solved his riddle. “Would you like to see one more?”

“What?” my friends ask in collective confusion.

Phillip takes the butter knife and removes a good chunk of butter from the block of it on our table. With one swift flick of his wrist, he sends the butter flying through the air. It lands squarely on his steaming potato, and he declares, “Butter fly!”

My friends squeal and clap and laugh, and all I can do is pray that my irritation is not blindingly obvious. I put on a winning smile, and slowly tune out everyone at my table. And in the absence of the sound of their voices, I hear another.

Mother is ranting, “And of course, scarred by those days. I understand that, I do. But it is time for her to forget the trauma of his death and move on. Sometimes, I look at her and see the fifteen year old girl she was when her father died. That was the summer she stopped being so compliant.”

“Death can do that, you know,” one of Mother’s snobbish friends says expertly. “I had a niece who lost a father and went haywire! She married a cowboy in America and her mother has not seen her since! An utter disgrace, I tell you.”

“Well, I have no doubt that were it not for my guidance, Adelaide would choose just as disgraceful a path,” Mother confides in a whisper just loud enough for me to hear. I have no doubt that she is slightly tipsy at this point.

“You do not mean that!” another woman scolds, failing to hide her curiosity. “How do you mean that, Helen?”

I begin cutting my chicken more violently now, stabbing it with my fork and sawing it mercilessly with my knife.

Mother continues, “Well, as I say, it all started the summer she was fifteen. Her father died and I was busy sorting through things, taking care of what needed to be done following the death. I was only looking out for us– for her, really –by securing the money. I was simply ensuring our financial future.”

Her justification makes me sick, but her friends all agree with her and say comforting things like, “Of course, Helen,” and “You did the right thing.” My foot begins to shake, and I feel the same anger I felt earlier threatening to show.

“Anyways,” Mother continues, “I blame myself for the way she turned out sometimes. I try to remind myself it is not my fault, but this little part of me believes it is. Anyhow, I am doing everything I can to help fix her.”

Oh no, I cannot cry; not here! Not with so many people here. I feel tears rising inside me and I begin struggling furiously to suppress them.

“Are you alright, Addie?” Charlene asks. “You seem a bit off.”

“Fine,” I choke. I clear my throat and say, “Wonderful salad, if you ask me. Simply wonderful.” The girls all chirp their agreements.

Mother pauses for a moment before saying very confidentially, “It was the boy that started her rebelliousness.”

“Oh, Helen!” a woman breathed in a hushed voice. “You cannot mean Phillip!”

“Heavens no!” Mother scoffs. “He was a farmer’s son; nasty thing, he was. He wore overalls and sneakers and brought Adelaide strawberries from his garden. He changed her. One day she was wearing satin and silk, and the next day, she was wearing cotton dresses and running in after thunderstorms, laughing. I even took her to the doctor because I thought she had gone mad. She kept on insisting, ‘Not mad, Mother, happy!’ But I knew something was not right.”

“Helen, you must have been so worried! I can only imagine. If my daughter did that, she would be in boarding school by the morning,” a sympathetic voice says. “But I admire your patience.”

“Yes, well, it was not easy,” Mother complains. “She swore that he was only her friend, nothing more. I was foolish enough to believe it – not like it, mind you, but believe it. And then one day, it was getting dark particularly early and it began raining for the first time in months. I began to worry, so I went out to find her. There was a meadow between our estate and the farm, and I knew she fancied it and that I would find them there. Ho, and found them, I did! And do you know what they were doing? They were kissing, right there in the open!”

Someone clinks his utensil against his glass, the universally recognized request for the bride and groom to kiss. It jerks my attention away from Mother’s story, which wickedly warps the wonderful truth.

Phillip stares expectantly at me and I lean forward against my will. I hate his lips, which are cold and hard and loathsome. Kissing, right there in the open! Do you know what they were doing? Kissing, right there in the open!

I realize with a pang that these are the lips I will have to kiss for the rest of my life. When we break away, Phillip smiles smugly and there is a smattering of applause and cheering. Kissing right there in the open, and with Phillip it is considered entertaining, not blasphemous.

“Naturally, I forbade her to ever see the farm boy again,” Mother resumes. “She cried so hard, and that is when it really hit me how much he had changed her. He had made a sentimental monster out of the proper lady I had worked so hard to shape! It was far worse than I imagined. She actually believed she was in love with the boy!”

I feel a tear escape my eye, but I quickly wipe it away before anyone notices.

“I knew the farmer boy was dangerous. Which is why, as morbid as it seems…”

Another tear, another quick dab with a napkin and it is gone.

“…When I got word that the boy was killed in an accident a month later…”

I fight back the silent sobs that begin wracking my body. My friends and fiancé begin to notice, but I take no notice of them. One tear after another rolls down my cheek, and my nose begins to drip.

“…I was actually glad of it.”

I drive my steak knife into my potato and stand so quickly I upset my chair. I pivot on my heel at a breakneck speed, and glare at my mother with all the hatred and contempt I have repressed for so long. The garden is silent at this point. Every eye is staring at me and my soaking face, terrible glare, and heaving chest. Even the waiter stops to watch.

“Adelaide,” Mother warns pleasantly, “you ought to take a seat. You are making a scene at your own wedding dinner.”

I wait for a long time, before I silently stoop down, right my chair, and add it to their table. For the most part, the attention shifts away from me in the garden, but everyone at this table stares at me as though I am a dying orphan: a pitiable, broken soul.

“What exactly are we discussing, ladies?” I demand.

“I was telling Genesis and Lois about your lovely dress for tomorrow,” Mother lies so easily. “Did I mention it has a fur-lined collar? Though, you never know, I would not put it past the seamstresses to use faux lining instead. If that turns out to be the case I will have to turn them into furs; they certainly have enough hair for it!”

The women guffaw as though nothing could be funnier. “You are lying to me,” I state as calmly as I can to Mother. The women fall quiet and clear their throats awkwardly.

“Oh, tell her, Helen, she knows what happened to him, surely,” Genesis dismisses. “It cannot do her any harm to know how you feel about his death.” She took a sip of her tea, as if she was discussing nothing more controversial that the weather.

“Well, dear Adelaide, we were merely discussing your peculiar taste in men,” Mother answers benignly. What an astounding euphemism that woman produced! She proceeds to say, “In particular, we were discussing the boy that died four years ago; that dreadful farm boy you fancied.”

“Use his name, Mother,” I request boldly. I doubt I have ever spoken so presumptuously to my mother (or anyone) before, let alone in public. “Or do you not know it?

“I hardly see how it is relevant,” Mother snapped. “Richard or Ronald, David or Donald, what difference is it? The point is, he ruined you.” She then hissed exclusively to my ears, “And you better be grateful that I am helping to fix the problem, as we discussed earlier this afternoon…”

“Eli,” I interrupt hotly. I am surprised by the sound of his name coming out of my own mouth. Why, that is a name I have thought of every day, but not heard of in four years. “His name was Eli, Mother, and you know it!”

Lois, a mousy, nervous woman states, “That is dangerous of you to mention another boy’s name on the eve of your wedding!”

I fall silent. I have been rude, I know, and I am aware that I will pay for that tonight. But I am so angry that I can hardly force myself to care. “I-I need some air,” I lie quickly, standing up and pushing my chair in behind me. I am so desperate to get away that it almost hurts. I cannot breathe.

“Air? We are in a garden, Adelaide!” Genesis protests.

“The restroom, then,” I mutter, already running. I stumble over my ridiculous heels, so I take them off and fling them into the bushes. I continue to flee the terror of those women, putting as much distance as possible between us.

I hug the path that leads away from the butterfly portion of the garden and keep running until I reach a tiny, secluded courtyard that is partially hidden by ivy. I quickly dart into it and pray that nobody is watching. Or, even if they see me, I pray they will have the good sense not to follow me.

There is a fountain in the courtyard to which I pace. I test the temperature of the water with my fingers and proceed to splash it onto my face. It is too dark out now for me to see my reflection, but I stare for a while, trying to find it. I finally have to accept that it simply is not there. Exhausted from crying and anxious about everything, I collapse on the nearest bench.

I close my eyes, and feel the old familiar thoughts slipping back into my consciousness, and for the first time in a while, I am too weary to fight them.

“Hello, I am Eli,” the boy said the first time I ever met him.

“Adelaide,” I replied. He kissed my hand and I blushed.

“My father said to bring you these strawberries,” he explained, holding out the carton of ripe red fruits. “You see, he heard about your father and was sympathetic.”

“Well that was very kind of him,” I replied graciously, observing his unruly blond hair, freckles, and deep blue eyes. He sported a sympathetic smile with dimples, and I could not help but feel enchanted. “And it was very kind of you,” I added, “To bring them.”

“I do not mind,” he answered with a laugh. “To be honest, it was a nice break from my work, walking over here. And I would say now that it was worth the walk.”

I stared at him, entranced by the foreign species he must represent. He was so different than any of the boys I was used to, with their slicked-back hair and their clean suits. Eli was wearing denim, which was not a material I was very accustomed to seeing. He was so inviting and warming with his very smile that I could not help but fall in love with him.

And for whatever reason, he seemed genuinely interested in me too. “Let me put these inside,” I said, retreating from the patio to the kitchen under the pretext of storing the berries. In reality I was trying to compose myself; to remind myself that he was just a boy, like any other that I knew.

But it became immediately clear that he was not. When I returned to the patio, he was admiring the sofas there, looking about him. “This couch is soft,” he mused. “Do you use it often?”

“What, the sofa?” I asked. “Well, no, not particularly. It is just for looks.”

He snorted and smiled, his dimples even more pronounced now. He ran his fingers through his golden, wild hair and said, “I do not understand that. But I guess when you have the money, why not?”

And that was as close as either of us ever came to addressing our different economic positions. Neither of us felt inferior or superior to each other for either our money or working experience. We were utterly equal in every way, and I loved it.

“Well, you can use the sofa any time you like, how about that?” I reply with a grin playing at the corners of my mouth. “At least then it will not have been a complete waste.”

Eli chuckled, and it immediately became clear that his laugh was every bit as devastatingly winning as his smile. “And how would your mother feel about that, young lady? A stranger on her patio?”

“She would be horrified,” I answered with a giggle. “And that is something I would secretly love to see. Not even Father’s death aroused anything more than a frown from her.”

“Everything just seems so untouchable here, you know?” he asked. “At my house, we use everything we have. There is this old stool that we sometimes sit on in front of the fire in January, and in the summer there is an old guitar that my father likes to play. I can sing, you know…”

And as he began to tell me about himself, I fell so deeply into his eyes and voice and laugh that I allowed myself to love him. And he visited me nearly every day, and as we sat on the patio, we exchanged everything from jokes to secrets to tears. And it was just this beautiful, cathartic thing that I had never experienced before.

“Eli!” I laughed a week later, when he tapped on my bedroom window one night. “How in heaven’s name did you get up here?” I saw at once that he was on a sturdy limb of the giant oak outside my window.

“Stairs are overrated,” he replied with a grin. “I want to show you something.”

It was no earlier than midnight, yet the air was temperate and balmy. I threw a glance over my shoulder down the hallway to Mother’s boudoir. Certainly she was asleep and would never be any the wiser…

It was tempting, and I knew that I could get away with it. But I had never so much as said one word against Mother, let alone sneak out of her house at midnight. “I do not know about this, Eli,” I said hesitantly.

Suddenly, the wind shifted and I heard the distinct sound of breaking branches. The limb Eli was on was not severed, but he looked panicked for a second. When he regained his composure, he said, “Better make up your mind soon, Addie, or the wind will decide for you.”

“Oh, very well,” I answered, just as I knew all along that I would. Eli smiled and helped me climb out of my window and down the tree. When both of our feet hit the ground, he smoothed my hair away from my face, which was slightly scraped from tree branches and twigs.

“You look beautiful,” he whispered. I beamed, and he took my hand, leading me to some mysterious destination. When we got close, he covered my eyes and insisted that I did not peek. “Ready?” he asked. When he felt me nod, he uncovered my eyes and I gasped.

He had led me to a picturesque meadow with clover and flowers, and a little dry creek that ran down the center. There was a full moon that night and a thousand stars smiling down on us.

“Would you like to dance, Adelaide?” Eli asked, extending his hand to me.

“Oh, but there is no music,” I protested, taking his hand anyways.

“I told you I can sing,” he reminded me, placing his other hand on my waist. We began to sway and he opened his mouth. The most beautiful music I had ever heard poured out, as though angels resided upon his tongue, plucking their harps with every note he sang. He sang the same song to me that whole summer, and I never tired of it. I remember every word, every note, every singular inflection of his voice. It felt manifested in me, as though it was a song that I had always known, in some deep, inaccessible part of my soul.

And that song went:

 Though I can wipe away

 The tears upon your face,

The sadness in your heart

Is so much harder to erase;

So let me liberate you,

And if it is not me,

I pray you find salvation

Or at the very least, die free.

When he walked me back to my house that night, he paused for a moment at the base of the great tree, which was parched from the summer’s heat and lack of rain. “What is it?” I asked, concerned. “Is something troubling you, Eli?”

“Only that when school starts in the fall, we will not be able to do this much anymore,” he answered, clearly upset.

“Eli, that is a long way away yet,” I replied. “Right now, in this very moment, it is summertime, and so if I were you, I would take advantage of it.” Before I knew what was happening, I felt his lips against mine, and his hands on my waist, pulling me gently against him. His lips were so warm and so soft, like the feathers of some dove, and his hands were so strong yet gentle.

When he finally broke away, he grinned sheepishly and said, “Goodnight, Adelaide.”

So many days that summer, we snuck off to the meadow to frolic in the sunshine or dance in the summer breeze. One time, we even ran through a thunderstorm, hearts pounding from fright and excitement. But the thunder offered no rain that summer, and the ground thirsted. By July’s first day, the ground was so parched it began cracking in places, like a giant, thirsty tongue, as Eli so brilliantly equated it.  

I remember so clearly the last time I ever saw him. It was evening time, and I told Mother I was simply going on a walk. It took a great deal of convincing for her to believe that we were nothing more than friends (perhaps the greatest lie I have ever told).

I met Eli by the gate to my estate, and he led me out to our usual spot in the meadow. “Addie, what do you think you will be doing in ten years?” he asked, playing with my hair as I rested my head on his lap.

“I do not know, really,” I answered. “Raising a family, I suppose. I am fifteen, after all, and ten years from now I will probably have a baby or two.”

He was silent for a moment before saying, “I think you will make an excellent mother, down the road.”

“Of course, I doubt I will be very happy,” I stated glumly. “You see, my mother will probably marry me off to some real idiot.”

This troubled him greatly. Eli’s usually cheerful brow was furrowed, and he asked, “Well, why do you not stand up to her? I mean, is it not your own life?”

“Well, yes, but she demands obedience at all times,” I answered. “She constantly reminds me of how grateful I ought to be that she has provided so much for me. She tells me that she works from dawn till dusk making sure we keep every last cent of Father’s money that we can. And I am grateful, but….well…”

“You do not care about money, Addie,” Eli said, almost laughing. “If you did, you would not fancy me. But that aside, would it not be worth upsetting your Mother to avoid an unhappy marriage?”

“I suppose it would be worth it,” I pondered. “Why?”

Eli looked deep in thought for a moment, before reaching into the clover near us and plucking a few flowers. He easily wove them into a little loop then draped it over my left ring finger. I gasped, “Oh my…. Oh, Eli, a-are you proposing?”

Seeing my shock, he quickly amended, “Not exactly. I mean, we are too young now, but… this is my promise that when we are old enough, if you will let me, I will marry you.”

For a minute, I waited to see if he would laugh or say he was only joking, but that never happened. I looked back down at the clover loop and realized how easily he had gained my trust, just like everyone else in my life. The difference of course, was that Eli would not betray my trust. He would follow through with everything he promised.

Or at least, he would have.

I smiled at said, “I will. I will marry you.” Just then, there was a rumbling in the clouds and I felt a raindrop on the very tip of my nose. Eli and I both looked up, and it began to sprinkle. Before we knew it, it began to shower heavily, and for the first time in months, we found ourselves in a rainstorm.

The land drank up every drop of it. The green grass seemed to grow greener in front of our eyes, and at the very transformation of the world around us, we laughed a happy laugh. In the middle of the storm, Eli began kissing me.

Our spot in the meadow was atop a gentle, sloping hill, and at some point, Eli and I toppled over, kissing and laughing in the pouring rain. My cotton dress was soaked along with my hair and face, and I could not have cared less. We began rolling, tumbling together down the tiny slope, and when we reached the bottom, we just stayed that way, hands intertwined, and the rest of us so close together.

The rain roared, but I became faintly aware of another sound: my name being screeched above the din. I ignored it at first, since I thought I must be imagining it. But it was very real.

“Adelaide!” Mother shrieked in disgust. To this day, I am not sure whether she was disgusted by my actions or by Eli’s existence. I think there is a fair chance that it was a little bit of both.

“Mother!” I exclaimed in surprise, hurrying to my feet. “Mother, what are you doing? It is pouring out here!”

“Well, I could say the same to you!” she hurled back at me. She eyed Eli with such contempt that I almost thought her glare alone might kill him. “And who is this?” she demanded, though she knew exactly who he was.

“Mother, this is Eli,” I quickly explained. Eli, who was now on his feet, extended his hand to my mother, but she only stared at it like it was a venomous snake.

I begged, “We… I mean… Mother, please do not be angry with him. It was not his fault. It was all mine!”

 He nearly interrupted me when he said, “Your daughter is noble, Miss. But she is lying. I initiated this and I deserve full responsibility.”

“Indeed,” Mother replied poisonously. I now stared at her as though she was the snake; she was lethal and every bit as despicable as one. I did not recognize her. My mother, the one I remembered, would not hate this poor boy in front of her, but this new woman did. My mother would not condemn me for spending time with this boy, but this new woman did. My mother would not withdraw from the world and abandon her daughter when the girl’s father died, but this new woman did. I could not connect the two in my mind.

“Adelaide, go home,” she whispered. The wind carried her voice to me over the rain’s roar.

I stepped backwards and blocked Eli by extending my arms outward. Mother raised her eyebrows and repeated, “Go home.” 

I looked behind me and Eli simply stood there. But he was not afraid. He was standing tall and his shoulders were back and he looked me straight in the eye when he said, “I will be okay.”

Skeptically, I turned back to face my mother, who now looked so angry she just might scream. Terrified of what might happen to Eli in my absence, I began the lonely walk back to the estate.

I considered walking up to my room and changing like I should. Instead, I flopped down on the patio couch, which Eli had called soft but a terrible waste. Just like me. I was pretty, smart, and rich, but for what? Why should I be any of those things at all if I was not allowed to love someone?

“You are never to see him again!” Mother declared as she practically dragged me up the stairs to my bedroom.

“But why?” I wailed, as she deposited me on my bed. “You do not know him mother!”

“Neither do you, Adelaide!” she countered. “He comes from a shameful family–”

“Shame has nothing to do with money!” I retorted. “It comes from your behavior; your choices. That in mind, if I were you, I would be pretty ashamed of myself.”

Mother looked as though I had spit in her face. After my defiance registered, she growled, “He could have hurt you, or raped you, or done a thousand dreadful things to you!”

“Oh, listen to yourself!” I answered senselessly. “If I were with Robert or Phillip or any of those boys from money, would you accuse them of such things? Mother, you have done me more harm than Eli ever has!”

“I resent that!” she snarled. “You are so naïve, Adelaide! You have no idea how cruel the world has been to me. First it stole my husband–” I discretely slipped the clover ring into my pocket “– then it gave me this newfound rebellion to squash out of you! Honestly, the only way I know to succeed is to have power over circumstance. And money is power; why are you so blind, Adelaide? Oh, I have raised a fool!”

“I have been raised by one!” I returned.

She stormed out, and I sobbed into my pillow, wondering how on earth the happiest night had turned into the saddest. Once again, Mother was disappointed in me, and I would have to compromise my heart to amend that.

A few weeks later, when the tears had finally dried but the sadness was far from gone, there was a knock on the door. I gasped, and ran in my euphoria to answer it. I could smell the sweet strawberries before I even opened the door, so when I flung it open, I exclaimed, “Eli, I have missed y–”

But it was not Eli. It looked so much like him, though, that it was almost terrifying. The man was older and grayer, but his eyes and hair and freckles were Eli’s. It was immediately clear that this was his father.

“Oh,” I said. “Oh, hello, Sir. Would you like to come in?”

He warily eyed the fine carpets and then cast his eyes downward at his muddy boots. He mumbled, “I would prefer not to. Er… strawberries?”

“Yes, of course!” I accepted, gladly taking them from him. “I have just grown so accustomed to Eli delivering them that I am surprised to see a new face. Though, if I am honest, it seems like the very same face.”

“Uncanny, I have been told,” he answered with a weak smile. “Yes, he looked very much like me.”

“Looked?” I repeated, unblinking. “What do you mean by that?”

“Eli is dead, Adelaide.”

How preposterous, I thought to myself, that a boy as good as Eli should have been raised by such a liar. He is telling me lies. Eli is not dead. Eli is at the farm, on the little white stool, playing the guitar and singing the song he always sang to me.

“With all due respect, sir, I do not believe you,” I found myself saying.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” the man said. For a minute, I thought he might cry. His voice quivered and his eyes looked glazed with the distinctive gloss of teary grief. “He got caught under a moving plow, and by the time I got to him, he was… Miss, I would not lie to you about this. He was bleeding badly. I tried, but…but he was gone.”

At this point, his voice cracked entirely, and I realized that my eyes had become so blurry with tears that I could no longer see his face. Soon enough, the tears spilled over, and I began to sob. The realization sunk in, but then I convinced myself against it. I had to remind myself ten times in the course of a minute that Eli was really gone. Even before it really registered – before I even believed it – I was practically choking, drowning, dying on my own tears.

It was odd that Eli’s father should have to comfort me when it was his son that died. Still, he asked about a million times: “Are you okay, Adelaide? Are you okay Adelaide?”

I hear it now, too, but the voice is different. It is a woman’s voice, and the smell of strawberries is gone. In its place is the smell of ivy and fertilizer and a garden full of people who I do not care about.

“Are you okay, Adelaide?” Charlene asks, pulling me to a sitting position on the bench.

“No,” I whisper in response.

“Oh, Addie, I understand,” she sooths, though it is a lie. “Weddings can be so stressful. But thank goodness your mother is helping out so much. And Phillip is charming!”

“Not to me,” I mumble. “This whole evening, he has not stopped trying to impress you and the other girls. What evidence do I have that suggests he will change his ways when we are married, hmm? Honestly, he did not even pursue me to see what the matter was!”

“He feared you would be angry if he intruded,” Charlene tries to explain rationally. And it is very true. I would be furious either way.

“My mother will be angry with me,” I whisper. “I have not been so rude to her in four years.”

“She will forgive you,” Charlene assures me. “In fact, I think she will forget all about it when she sees you in that gown tomorrow.”

But not a second before that. The whole way home, Mother lectures me on my behavior at dinner. It is a tirade that I am so sick of hearing that I nearly vomit. She scolds, I apologize, she screams, I apologize, she hisses something cruel, and I pretend it does not hurt. But it does, because as much as my mother and I conflict, some part of me cares about her.

I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, then shift my gaze over to my clock. Eleven fifty-four. Six minutes until my wedding day. For four years, I have tried to silence the war raging inside of me, but tonight, I cannot do it. I let it stampede to the forefront of my brain: Mother or heart, Mother or heart, Mother or heart!

The war spreads from my brain into my veins, until it reaches every inch of my body. The war engulfs me, encircling me and swallowing me whole. I cannot fight it. It consumes everything I am.

I slip the diamond, olive branch ring off of my finger and hold it close to my face. “Mother!” it screams, rooting cruelly for the side that I hope loses. “Mother! Mother! Mother!” The ring chants it, so I try to cover my ears to block out the noise. That does not work. Its battle cry permeates every square inch of my being.

So I silence it the only way I know how. I step out of bed and open the bottommost drawer of my dresser, and shift its contents around until I find what I am looking for. When I do, I hold it up just as close to my face.

“Heart,” it whispers, overtaking the other ring’s chant. Indeed, the clover ring’s call is quiet, but every bit as powerful. “Heart! Heart! Heart!” it crescendos.

I slip both rings into my pockets. The war no longer simply engulfs me. I become the war. I lose my own identity as Adelaide and become this cruel battle. The ring in my right pocket screams and the ring in my left pocket begs and pleads and cries. They amplify me –the battle, that is – and lift their cries up and up until the racket is deafening.

I tiptoe down the stairs and to the parlor, trying to keep from crying out or keeling over from the intensity of the battle. I force myself to take steps, and when I reach the birdcage in the corner, I have to force my shaking hands to undo the lock. I am quivering as I reach in and allow Birdie to step onto my finger.

I wonder, briefly, if he can tell what I have become. Can he hear the battle cries? Does he see that I am about to force one side to surrender?

As I prepare to reach into my pocket, the sheer magnitude of the war reaches a terrifying climax. And then suddenly, it falls silent, waiting with bated breath as if it knows it cannot sway me now. I have made my decision, and their screams will not change it.

I reach into my left pocket and retrieve the ring of clover. I drape it over Birdie’s head, and for some reason that I cannot fathom, he lets me. He is so trusting, so childlike, so much like me, that he does not resist the clover ring at all. It rests on him like a pitiful lei.

I open the parlor window and extend my hand out into the cold night air. Birdie seems shocked by the cold, but he quickly adjusts. With tremors in my voice and hand, I whisper, “Though I can wipe away the tears upon your face…”

Birdie does not acknowledge my song. He faces the world and extends his wings.

“…the sadness in your heart is so much harder to erase…”

He seems to lean forward on the very tips of his little feet, and the wind ruffles his tiny yellow feathers. The clover flowers are kissed by the breeze as well.

“…so let me liberate you, and if it is not me…”

Birdie takes off and soars. He is unsteady at first, but when he finds his balance, he is truly magnificent. He is graceful and somehow powerful despite his size.

I barely am able to choke out, “…I hope you find salvation, or at the very least die free…”

I stare out the window for a long time, until the bird and the ring are out of sight. When I can no longer see that tiny dot in the distance, I reach into my right pocket and pull out the diamond olive branch ring. Its chants of “Mother” have subsided, because it knows it has won.

I slide it onto my left ring finger and take a deep, staggered breath. I return to my bedroom in a far more peaceful manner than I left it. Even if I have made the wrong choice, at least I have made one. It is better than wondering, than waiting, than pretending I was not being slowly destroyed by that battle. And now, right or wrong, I have silenced it.

Mother may be disappointed in me. She may even have given up on me. But I have not and refuse to give up on her. I will pursue her favor and her approval until I earn it, which may be never. In some ways, I regret ever meeting Eli and falling in love with him. What good did it do? It broke my heart and destroyed my relationship with Mother. In other ways I do not regret it at all.

But since I cannot have Eli now, I choose to fix the one relationship that I believe I can repair. I choose to make amends with the one person I still love, whether or not she still loves me. And I believe that marrying Phillip is the first step in erasing the disappointment from Mother’s face. Marrying Phillip might just be what I need to smooth over the wrinkles of distaste on her expression. I do not love him, but I love her. She claims that she sacrificed a lot to give me the standard of living that I am used to, so despite our conflicting personalities, I think it is my turn to sacrifice something for her.

And when I think about that clover ring, I cannot help but wonder if this is what Eli would have wanted for me, too.

 


© Copyright 2019 Katlyn Nicole. All rights reserved.

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