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Thou Shalt Not Suffer, Page 1

Joey W. Hill


  By Joey W. Hill

  Miriam had expected the mattress in the corner, but the star design quilt surprised her. So did the orange and yellow chrysanthemum petals scattered over the dirt floor.

  She had been tortured here. The roughly hewn oak table, now covered with a white knitted cloth, had a knothole in the upper right corner. They had bound her body to the wood in the vulnerable spread eagle position, favored by torturers for centuries. She had had no room to squirm to change the knothole’s position, just enough slack to grind it into her shoulder when her body convulsed in pain.

  A crisscrossing of rafters held up the thatched roof. Strands of cut ivy now twined around them prettily, but she had stared at the bare beams for hours while her jaw muscles screamed for release from the unrelenting pressure of a steel bit jammed against the hinges of her mouth. As the hours passed, the rafters became bars of a cage that would never open. Palmetto bugs scampering in and out of the thatching taunted her with freedom won by insignificance.

  She had stood on the dirt floor, where the petals lay now. They strung her arms over her head and tied her to those rafters so that they could poke pins in every place, their avid, lecherous eyes crawling over her body. Sweat had poured off her skin, turning the dirt floor to mud.

  They finally found the numb place they sought, over her heart. By that time, she was numb everywhere. Miriam thought she should have died hours ago from the utter horror of it all. Perhaps she had already died, and these were the minions of Hell assigned to torment her soul for eternity.

  The bucket they had forced her to use in front of them - it was that or soil herself – was still in the room. She saw the wooden curve of it behind a blanket curtain now strung in the corner. That surprised her, too. The bucket had been cleaned well; she did not smell it at all.

  There were other changes, new details. Four pillar candles stood on an upside down crate next to the mattress. The aroma of the dried lavender mixed in the wax mingled with the smell of fresh bread and cheese sitting on a bread board next to them.

  Grady watched her take it all in. In size, he was what she expected of a jailer. His farming life made him a strong, solid man. His linen shirt was clean, as were his trousers, and he had shaved since she had seen him this morning.

  He had brought her breakfast without a hint of their plan, giving away nothing that would excite the suspicion of the day guard, a self important miller’s son who watched over her with gawky brutishness. He liked to brandish his rusted flint at her when she took her daily turn outside. Miriam didn’t fool herself that the judges intended compassion with the daily exercise. It was a warning to the giggling children and tight-lipped women who watched her shuffle about in the heavy irons. Do not go outside the flock, for the wolves will get you.

  Of course, the judges were the wolves. They just laid the blame on Satan. No wonder that horned gentleman was always depicted in a foul mood. Miriam was in no fine spirit herself, being blamed for the ill that befell others because of their own vices.

  “I wish it could be elsewhere, Mistress,” Grady murmured, “But I thought the changes might help you think of it differently.”

  “So I’d act differently?” she asked, more sharply than she intended.

  “No.” He shook his head and went to the fireplace to stoke the fire. When he was done, he looked at her over his shoulder, a long searching look that seemed to want to ask something. Grady was approaching forty. He had a big nose, callused by a hot forge. He served as the town blacksmith when he wasn’t farming his land. He had made the irons she wore now.

  He wasn’t given to wearing a hat, she remembered, which explained the bronze tips of his brown hair, showing streaks of silver. The ends were uneven, suggesting he had attempted the job of cutting it himself. His thick eyebrows sloped down to the outer corner of his eyes, giving him a constantly kind, somewhat sad look. Simple, strong features. He had a nice mouth, the lips slightly curved, the chin cut well. Curly brown hair covered his forearms, revealed by the rolled up sleeves of the linen shirt. There was a sweat stain on his back, but it was a cool night. He was nervous.

  Grady rose, went to what Miriam had assumed was another bench, and pulled the burlap covering away. The trough beneath released a cloud of steam. A stool drawn up next to the trough held a cake of soap, several cloths cut from old clothes, and a brush.

  So he wanted her clean, then. Fair enough. She hadn’t expected a common man to be particular about the cleanliness of a woman he intended to bed, but then the past fortnight had given her a broadened education on men. Their physical needs were as unpredictable as women’s emotional ones.

  Miriam tightened her chin. Suffering was a purge; it stripped everything from one’s mind except brutal honesty. She could be bitter, but her eyes still clung to the bath greedily. Two nights ago, she had sobbed in her cell, a palm tightly clapped over her mouth so no one could hear. She wept not because she might be sentenced to hang, but because she would die filthy.

  Whatever the morrow brought, she would face it clean. The judges preferred it the opposite way; filthy on the outside, as they believed a woman to be on the inside. By giving her the gift of this bath, Grady risked much, and he was not a stupid man.

  Her bitterness ebbed and Miriam remembered how they had come to this moment. Her sentence read, the sun setting on the first of the three days she had left to live. The voice coming out of the darkness, his voice. Grady whispered that if she claimed herself to be with child, they would spare her life until they were sure the conception was truth, and if it was, then she could carry it full term.

  “And as time passes,” his quiet, gravel voice rumbled through the darkness, “There’s a chance they might let ye live, give ye pardon. One day, after that, they’ll stop watchin’ ye, and ye kin go away from here.”

  His dark form squatted down against her prison wall. He worked something in his hands. ‘Idle hands do the devil’s handiwork’ flashed ludicrously through Miriam’s mind. He turned his head and the almost full moon glinted off his steady gaze. She had blocked him out before that; just another dumb lackey doing their bidding. Now she remembered him.

  Grady Cole, the blacksmith farmer whose wife had passed on this last winter from a lung disease. Miriam had brought the poor woman an herbal remedy for her lungs and instructed Grady on how to prepare it, how to hold his wife’s weak head over a basin to breathe the vapors.

  He had not stood with the others in the court, accusing her of bringing the devil into his house in the form of those vapors, and causing his wife’s death. But he had been her jailer, which up until that moment in the dark seemed to represent his feelings well enough.

  “Why would you help me?” she had whispered.

  “I’ve my reasons. ‘Tis your decision to make,” he said. “It won’t be easy on ye, Mistress Miriam, but I know ye to be strong. Tell me your answer in t’morn. I leave ye this. Leave it whole if ‘tis yer wish to do this thing; if not, tear off the petals.”

  The barely opened damp petals of the chrysanthemum had stayed pressed in her hand all night. In the morning Miriam had laid the flower, crushed but intact, on the dirt floor where he could see it.

  She had been certain her death was meant to be, was not sure if she had the strength to change her thinking on it. But extraordinary things were usually the hand of Fate, and Grady’s plan, offered free from anything but risk to himself and his standing in the community, was extraordinary. Also, despite the horror of the past few weeks, Miriam remembered the warmth of a sunrise, the soft press of rich soil in her fingers, the icy cold creek water in her throat, and the wind billowing her skirt before her. Those were extraordinary things as well, and she didn’t want to lose them.

  She assumed Grady’s offer came from lust. Watching as they stripped her again and again to torture her and probe her, supposedly for the grace of God but really for the frustrated seeking of their own desires, Grady had been driven to a fever pitch of carnal desire. And what risk was there to him, really? He need only say she had bewitched him if he was caught.

  But the effort expended to make this room tidy, more to a woman’s liking and less of a reminder of the horrors she had endured here, did not fit the base motive. A man’s lust did not take into account any of the woman’s feelings on the matter. Hadn’t Miriam known that very soon after she was bedded by her husband, a husband whose death had started the chain of events that led to her trial? A young widow, knowledgeable in healing and herb lore, who preferred solitude, whose husband’s heart exploded in his breast as he worked his fields.

  They had been sympathetic at his burial. Mistress Goodson put her arms around her while Miriam stared blindly at the corpse. Two months later, Mistress Goodson raked her fingernails down Miriam’s face in court, when she accused Miriam of seducing her husband.

  Thomas Goodson had needed no seducing. Miriam stopped his late night attempts to slip into her home by blowing a hole in the barn with the shotgun, missing his head by inches. She wrung her hands and claimed she thought he was a fox trying to get uninvited into the henhouse. Point taken, and so she ended up here, convicted and condemned.

  “You’re thinkin’ too much,” Grady said softly. He came to her. He was a head taller and twice as wide, with shoulders that could block foul weather. They had, Miriam remembered, thinking how often he had conveniently covered her back when he guided her from the courtroom, taking the brunt of the spitting and thrown punches.

  He knelt and removed her irons, his big hands gentle on her ankles. Grady slid them, clanking, under the table, out of sight beneath the draped cloth.

  “Would you like your bath before food?”

  “Shouldn’t we just go ahead and do it?” she cleared the words over her swollen tongue. “They’ll find you.”

  “No,” he shook his head. “I’ve taken care of all that. We won’t be disturbed until dawn. Come…come bathe. I put oil in the bath, that oil to soothe the skin. Remember, ye told me it would help…my wife, when her muscles ached from the coughing.”

  Muscles aching from lungs struggling for air were different from those bruised from being beaten or crushed, but his eyes were so earnest, his expression so kind, Miriam didn’t have the strength to put him off. Besides which, putting him off was the last thing she was here to do.

  “Did you put in rosemary?” she managed.

  “Aye,” he said. “I had some left. Can I help ye to undress?”

  Miriam stared at her hands, nodded. Grady turned her away from him and unhooked the torn and bloody rags that used to be a respectable dress, her Meeting dress. His fingers did not hurry, nor did they fumble.

  “You’ve capable hands,” she managed, staring at a crack in the wall.

  “You’re a tiny woman,” he remarked, just as irrelevantly, pausing briefly to sit his hands at her waist. The intimate contact snapped her spine rigid, like a brittle twig, but he only continued to remove the dress, as if he noticed nothing.

  But Grady felt her tension. Aye, she was tiny, a thin slip of woman with a face drawn in tense lines, only a shadow behind her husband Arthur. She had straight brown hair as fine as seaweed floating beneath the surface of water. Her mouth was wide, and though he’d never seen her smile, he suspected she’d done it once, a lot. Her eyes met a man’s straight on, dark and sad, but intelligent. A long, narrow face, high cheeks. Hard work, worry and fear had creased her face with a decade more years than she had.

  He hesitated, then pushed the dress off her shoulders. When the judges first stripped her, Grady had seen the cattle brand on her back. Now, when he was closer than the doorway, which was as far as the judges had allowed him, he saw all the other bruises and scars, the work of a dead man. The judges’ strikes would settle into scars over them, like layers of fossils in the earth, marking the eras of one woman’s life.

  Grady looked at her, because he was a man and he could not help but notice the bare hips, the small breasts, the frost of hair between her legs, but he saw the whole woman, whose bare flesh and bare soul struck him hard. Many things had led to this unusual situation. The world was much more than he had thought it to be. He had opened himself up to this moment, and now Grady accepted its horror and its wonder, its privilege and its finiteness.

  “Do not be worrit,” he warned her. He turned her slightly, directed her by guiding her arm slowly up and over his neck, then he bent, slid a hand beneath her knees and under her back, and raised her off her feet.

  The weights they had piled on her legs to force her confession would make it hard for her to lift her legs over the trough edge, just as the thumbscrews that had crushed her fingers made it almost impossible for her to unfasten her own dress. Indeed, what they were here to do would most likely cause her more pain; Grady wanted to make it as gentle as possible. It would go easier for her if she were as relaxed as he could coax her to be.

  Miriam curled four fingers around his neck and his hair covered her knuckles. His skin beneath the collar of the shirt was hot. Mistress Cole had been so cold those last few weeks; the heat of this man probably kept her warm, if Grady had kept to her bed until the end. Somehow Miriam knew he had. She suspected Mistress Cole died in her husband’s arms. He had been there, close enough to feel the soul’s departure like a kiss against the cheek. She had been close enough to feel Arthur. Miriam shuddered.

  Grady lowered her into the steaming water of the tub and the shudder eased into a shiver of pleasure. Her breath went out in a throaty hum as the hot water embraced her body. Every muscle sighed in release, every nerve ending wept with joy.

  “I’m going under,” she said as he drew his hands away. He only had a moment to react as she allowed herself to slip fully beneath the surface. That wondrous silence closed in, that noiselessness that held the key to Paradise. Spirits of water, I welcome you. Be with me tonight.

  When they had dropped her into the pond to see if she would float, Miriam had thought about staying under, binding her wrists in the long strands of marsh grass and drowning in that quiet. But air called to her at last, the need to survive goading her to ignore the consequences of emerging from the peaceful promise death offered.

  Miriam opened her eyes and looked at Grady through the wavy screen of water.

  Grady threaded his fingers through her hair, loosening the dirt and freeing the tangles below the water’s surface. The hair felt like warm silk against her cheeks and chin, the ends brushing her lips like the whisper touch of angel fingers.

  She clutched at his arms and Grady eased her up into the necessity of air.

  “Here then,” he rolled up a blanket and put it behind her back, low in the water. “Lean against this and I’ll wash your hair.”

  The firelight flickered against the wall, creating shadows that sculpted the planes of his face differently from moment to moment, but the intent kindness of his expression was a canvas that never changed.

  Spirits of fire, I welcome you. Be with me tonight.

  Miriam raised her hand out of the tub and let the water trickle out of her palm to the earth floor, mixing the two elements.

  Spirits of earth, I welcome you. Be with me tonight.

  Grady leaned over her and rubbed the soap in her hair, lathering, stroking, scrubbing. Miriam closed her eyes. “’Tis funny, you know.”

  “What’s that, Mistress?”

  “It’s like how bread tastes when you are very, very hungry. I don’t think anything has ever felt so good to me as this bath.”

  Genuine pleasure filled his voice. “I’m glad to hear you feel that way. I’d hoped…”

  Miriam opened her eyes when he did not continue, and saw a troubled shadow on his face. "What?”

  Grady lifted his shoulder, quick, embarr
assed and jerky. “I was going t’say I wanted to make this night so ye felt like that about the other, but it did not sound as it should.”

  That was the worrisome part. Miriam knew how the rest of tonight would work. Grady had made the thought of it easier to bear, so far, but the one thing she must do to make the magic work was the thing Miriam saw no magic in at all.

  “Now I’ve got you worrying again,” he rumbled quietly.

  “Am I, then?” Miriam closed her eyes, pressed her lips together. “Grady, I killed him, you know.”

  He stopped, hands buried in her hair. “I know that,” he said. “He deserved to die.”

  “The judges would say that was God’s decision.”

  “Well,” he wrung a rag over her head and the water ran over her closed lids. “He’s a very busy God, I’d say. Sometimes He can use a hand.”

  Grady cupped her face briefly with fingers as gentle as a mother’s and surprised her into opening her eyes.

  “Ye did what we men should ha’ done the first time Arthur brought ye t’Meeting with a bloody nose,” he said quietly. “I watched ye sit there and try to wipe it, watched yer fingers get bloodier and bloodier. I knew one day it would be his blood on your hands, because your blood splashed to the floor of our church and no one offered you anything, not even a kerchief. The stains are still there, like an unforgiven sin we all carry. You had to pay for it.”

  “You don’t talk like a man angry with God, Grady,” she looked down at her hands. “I thought maybe that might be one of the reasons you were doing this. To get even with God for taking your wife.”

  Miriam expected him to react defensively, but he shrugged and began to sponge her shoulders. His eyes followed the course of the water over her breasts. “I am angry at God,” he replied. “But I’m no’ so sure anymore that life and death are something God decides for us. Arthur deserved to die, but you had to kill him. My wife didn’t deserve to die, but she did. You did everything you could to save her. So did I.” Grady sat back and looked at her, those big, soap covered hands loose, dangling between his knees, dripping more water to the floor.