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Shadow Among Sheaves
Both women were starving.
After nearly three weeks in Abbotsville, Rena's shoulder blades now cut against her skin like she was made of paper. Head pounding, she lay beside Nell in a stable which smelled of manure, desperate for any way to escape the unbreakable claws of poverty.
The sun was beginning to show through the dawn-filled haze, but Rena was too angry to look at the sky. In India she had loved watching the sun and stars unfold at the start and end of each day. She often pressed against the rail of her father's balcony, lifted up, captured by the endlessness of it all. Now everything was different. She, a Brahmin, was forced to sleep in the hay like an animal. The humiliation was nearly unbearable. Her father's home was filled with sacred, ancient texts and priceless artifacts. He was a valuable asset to the British troops stationed there. Even Rena herself had once been described as a prize.
And who was she now?
She yanked a few strands of straw from her hair — a trespasser, lying amid filthy cattle while Nell slept soundly beside her. To such concerns as starvation and poverty, Nell merely replied that all problems had their solutions. She was a sturdy woman with no intention of moping. But Rena was not convinced, even by such practiced bravado.
Many years ago, Nell had lived nearby, in a suburb of Liverpool, well before she met and married Sir Alistair. A few of her cousins were still scattered in various estates throughout the area, and Nell had written to them several months ago, shortly after Alistair had died, to announce that she was returning to England and would be much indebted if she could stay with one of their families until things were sorted.
"Of course," they had all responded. "With pleasure. You are always most welcome."
They'd made arrangements to stay with a Lady Harriet, who lived the closest to Abbotsville. All was quite settled ahead of time. But then Nell had arrived in England with an unexpected surprise — Rena.
"There must be some mistake," Lady Harriet had stammered, stunned to find an Indian girl waiting beside Nell at her gate. "We did not expect you so soon. We haven't enough room for two houseguests...."
Rena had counted at least two dozen windows from her place beneath the gate. Two dozen windows in Lady Harriet's home, and yet not a bed for two widows to share. Nell had made her way down her list of cousins and second cousins, but all had given the same answer with varying degrees of shock and disgust as they stared at Rena in her plain widow's dress.
Rena rolled onto her side and studied the careful way Nell now slept in the hay, with not a single hair out of place. Nell had come from one of the most estimable families in northern England. She didn't belong here, sleeping like a vagrant with a foreign castaway. But even those sorrows paled in the face of another — before Nell had fallen asleep that night, she'd mentioned the workhouse.
"It is always best to consider all options," Nell had said bracingly, but Rena also read the terror thinly masked in the woman's eyes.
Restless, Rena pushed herself up from the ground, burying her face between her hands. Several times she had passed the Liverpool workhouse during her daily search for work. Cramped and full of sickness, it was a glorified prison for the hapless, desperate souls who needed it. If Rena and Nell were even admitted, they would be forced to turn over their own clothes, to bathe supervised, to work their way through a system dead set on breaking them.
No. Rena climbed to her feet. She could not let that happen. She would not.
With one last anxious look at Nell, Rena left the stable and marched straight into town. People were already beginning to gather on their way to the fields, and they watched her steady approach with alarm. Rena wanted to spit on them. When she and Nell had knocked on every door in town, no one had looked either of them in the eyes. When they had slept in doorways, alleys, and barns, the people of Abbotsville had pretended not to see them, not to notice. But now they watched Rena, their gazes pinned and direct.
As she turned the corner at the edge of town, three field hands jumped quickly to the side to avoid running into her. Rena fisted her hands. She was so hungry. So tired. She wanted to tell those men her family belonged to the highest caste in India, that her father was far more eloquent and learned than any of them would ever be. But Rena knew, even if they believed her, they would not care. They would still leave her and Nell to starve in gutters. All the money in the world would not make them look at her with any less disgust.
And why should they? The Indian Mutiny was painfully fresh in everyone's mind, only a few years past. When Edric left England in pursuit of colonization, no one could have expected him to marry an Indian woman. That she had returned in the wake of his death was an unspeakable scandal.
When the English looked at Rena, they saw a tapestry of evil: Indian soldiers rising up and shooting their British officers, British women and children hacked to pieces in defiance of westernization, Christian converts hunted down and murdered at Delhi for forsaking the Hindu faith.
It did not matter that Sawai Ram Singh, the Maharaja of Jaipur, had sent nearly all of his troops to aid the British. Or that he had housed the wife and children of Major Eden in the Badal Mahal, refusing to hand them over to the demanding rebels who had then marched onto Delhi. The people in Abbotsville only knew that Rena was Indian. She had lived in the north where the mutinies had raged the hardest. She could never be trusted.
In times of weakness, Rena still considered sneaking off in the night so Nell might live with her own family in comfort. But Rena loved Nell too much to abandon her in such a way, and she knew Nell would never allow them to separate. An even weaker part of Rena was too afraid to starve to death alone.
She came at last to the door she was searching for and froze on the threshold, feeling herself approaching a precipice from which she could never draw back. At Nell's warning, this was the only door she had not visited in her relentless search for lodging. "Edric." She whispered her husband's name, just to hear it spoken. Then she shoved through the weathered door and stepped inside.
She had heard many rumors of the Gilded Crown, an establishment well known for thievery and prostitution, though it masqueraded as a common roadside inn. Splintered tables and benches were scattered about the dining hall, half the tables still not cleared from the previous night's revelries. A dingy portrait of a rather severe-looking Victoria loomed above the sooty stone fireplace — as if the queen herself actually cared to know what went on in such a place.
The dining hall was mostly vacant, save for a few passing travelers who ate breakfast in the corner and a scattering of women who lounged on benches along the farthest wall with bored, waiting expressions. Rena tried not to look at the women, but she could not help noticing as one of them stood abruptly and stepped across the room to lean against the bar. The woman wore a gaudy dress, wrinkled and slightly too big for her slender frame. The heavy smear of bright rouge on her cheeks made her appear perpetually tired but no less pretty. To Rena she looked like a butterfly wing someone had accidentally stepped on.
Rena froze as the woman met her eyes. She was the first person to have really looked at Rena since she'd arrived in Abbotsville, and an unspoken understanding hummed between them. Rena wondered if this woman had been homeless too. Cast off by relatives, or perhaps born illegitimate.
"Who is loitering there?"
Rena stepped back at the nasty voice but turned her eyes toward the staircase, where a woman with a stack of faded blankets was descending the stairs. This woman was much older than any of the other women there. Her graying hair was tied tightly at the back of her head, and she had the beady eyes of a badger, dark and unusually close together.
Rena's voice came out in a painfully fragile thread. "I came to see if you have a room." The words flooded her with shame. She wondered what Edric would have said if he had seen her in such a place, practically begging for crumbs.
The older woman shook her head. "No," she answered in a clipped voice, then stabbed a thumb at the door. "Leave."
Half-relieved to be cast out from such a dismal place, Rena turned toward the door but stopped as she remembered the stable where Nell was still sleeping like those in India who were born too unclean to merit a caste at all. From the highest to the lowest was a dizzying fall, and Rena still couldn't feel the ground beneath her own feet. Could they plummet lower still? She thought of how it might be if she and Nell faced winter without a home. What might happen if the chill in the air journeyed to their bones and then to their lungs?
"My mother-in-law is starving," Rena managed, half turning back to the woman. "We both are. We have nothing. We are desperate."
The woman looked at Rena the way Nell's family had looked at her, as if the whole of the Indian mutinies were carried out at her behest. "Put the Indian chit back on a boat," one cousin had whispered to Nell when he thought Rena was out of earshot. "Send her home at once."
"Even we have standards," the woman said scornfully. "You must find lodging elsewhere."
But Rena had already been everywhere. Nearly delirious from sparse food and even sparser sleep, she felt unbearably thin beneath the woman's gaze. "Wife!" growled a voice, and the woman winced. Rena turned and watched as a thin man with a dirtied apron crossed through the kitchen door. "See to the storage room," he ordered, jerking his head toward the back. "Make it ready."
The woman hissed then spun around and disappeared through the back hall. As soon as she was gone, the man folded his arms in front of his chest and gave Rena a dubious look. Hard work had given his skin a blotchy appearance, but his eyes were clear. Scraggly white whiskers hung in a long, wiry tangle along his jaw. Rena had once heard them called Piccadilly weepers by British soldiers who had worn the style with a bit more class.
"Have you not heard of what happens in our upstairs rooms?" the man challenged. "Or is that why you're here?"
Rena's humiliation climbed, undercut by a stab of raw fear. "I have no interest in what goes on in any of your rooms," she responded. "I left my mother-in-law, Lady Hawley, sleeping in a stable. All I am looking for is a roof to put over her head."
At her stiff reply, his face softened, as if discomfort was something he didn't often see in his line of work. He measured her anew, the corners of his mouth pinching as he glimpsed her black mourning gown and trembling hands. With a slight wince, he asked her, "This mother-in-law of yours. Can she wash dishes?"
Half-breathless with hope, Rena jumped to answer, "We both can."
"My wife will never let you in her kitchen." He shook his head with an embittered frown. "But if your mother-in-law can wash dishes and floors, if she can sweep and clean tables, then you can stay in our storeroom."
Rena was too stunned to answer immediately. With the looming threat of the workhouse, she was certain Nell would accept the arrangement, though it still smarted to imagine her mother-in-law scrubbing floors in such a place. "I am ... indebted to you, sir."
"It's not exactly posh lodging — a drafty produce closet with a narrow bench."
"We've slept in gutters," she answered, steadily meeting his eyes.
He quirked a bushy eyebrow then nodded. "And the men? The ones hereabouts who drink too much, they might take an interest in you."
She hesitated, glancing back at the pretty, albeit rumpled, woman who still watched her with unease. Was this their silent understanding, then? Was Rena looking at her future, or was this poor woman remembering her own naive past?
"I am not to be touched," Rena insisted, mortified to have to set such a stipulation, regardless of whether it would be followed. She turned back to the innkeeper and lifted her chin. "If you can promise me that, then we will gladly accept your offer."
"Ah, so here you are setting our terms now." He nodded his approval then extended a veiny hand. "I am Mr. Bagley, and I accept your terms. It's only fair warning to you, though, that my wife does not and likely will never like you."
If such was the least of Rena's worries, she might actually sleep through the night for the first time in nearly two years. "I am growing rather used to being unliked," she confessed. "And I would rather sleep among humans who despise me than horses who don't."
* * *
Oats, barley, wheat.
Rena ran her fingers with wonder along the sheaves as she followed the main road out of town, passing foreign fields and grand estates as she journeyed. So much food, she thought bleakly, and yet she and Nell were both starving.
It certainly wasn't for lack of trying. For four weeks, Nell had scrubbed dishes and floors to pay for their place in the shabby storeroom at the Gilded Crown. But money was scarce, barely enough for a loaf of bread and some watered-down milk every few days. And while the Bagleys had allowed them to stay in their produce closet for practically nothing, they were not about to feed them as well. To Rena generosity was becoming a land with uncomfortably tight borders.
Hunting for work of her own, she had knocked on enough doors to scab her knuckles a hundred times over. No work was beneath her, she vowed, no prospect too small. But all doors closed as if on phantom hinges, blotting out her desperate pleas.
Since Edric had died, Rena wondered if she was being punished for something she had done. For marrying a foreigner, perhaps. For leaving her family behind so she could look after Nell. For watching Nell starve and finding herself too weak to find an answer. Karma. The word unfolded like a flower in her mind, whispered in her mother's careful, instructive voice. As a child, Rena had learned that her actions had the power to haunt or reward her, to shape who she would become, possibly even in future lives. And Rena felt haunted in many, many ways.
She pressed deeper inland, hoping to come upon a farm willing to pay half price for a milkmaid. With fewer buildings and trees left to block the wind, she pulled her gray shawl tighter around her shoulders and tried to brace herself against a shiver. It was only August, and Nell often said the country air would become crisper after the harvest was gleaned, then turn bitter. Though Jaipur certainly had its colder evenings in the winter months, Rena had spent much of them indoors. She was still too used to the heavy air, the kind of heat she felt deep in her throat every time she swallowed. Abbotsville's leaves were dazzling in their own way, the fields a lovely shade of burnt sunlight, but the shivers still jumped along her skin and made her wish for a warmer, more inviting place.
"You think your desert sands are everything, Rena, but there is a whole world beyond this heat. Someday I will take you to England. We'll pluck apples from the trees and lie in the grass all evening while we eat them. And then I'll whisper in your ear all the ways I love you."
Rena gripped the front of her threadbare dress, feeling the press of Edric's ring from beneath the fabric. He had spoken those words to her three days after their wedding, and it sickened her to hear his voice now, in a strange, foreign place where stalks of wheat stood sentinel over her aching heart. She shut her eyes, no longer wanting to see the lush leaves and yellow harvest. "Oh Edric," she sighed to the empty road. "This place is yours. I wish you could share it with me."
As if hearing her somber plea, distant voices began singing deep in the field beside her, the echoes lifting up a sorrowful dirge which matched the caws of crows as they soared overhead.
As if their voices could sense her hunger.
As if they were giving it a voice all its own.
Rena turned toward the field, closing her eyes once more as she listened. From a distance, she couldn't make out any of the words, but the vague sound gave the song a certain beauty. She took several steps toward the field, then parted the stalks, her feet crunching the ground as she pressed forward. The fields were empty.