by Stephanie Hogan
I used to think it was some kind of cruel rouse when my brother told me that I was bought on the street corner. I assumed it was all in jest; the way siblings will taunt one another, but it said with just the right amount of cruelty that I was always left with a lingering doubt in the back of my mind. I remember the first time I asked Vin why my hair was black and my skin the skin the color of cream while he, my mother and father were all toe headed with bodies the color of spun grain. He could have told me that it was a mystery, or that maybe I looked like our great grandmother, or some other distant long since past, but he didn’t. I was but six and small and vulnerable; he was eighteen and broad and strapping and that’s all it would have taken to calm my fears.
Instead, he told me with a straight face and a stern voice that our parents had bought me, or traded for me really, two of the family’s best mares and a barrel of oil. The memory of our conversation comes back to me often. I can still feel the dirt floor under my toes as I drug my feet through the dry soil, making patterns again and again before wiping them away. A single tear rolled down my full, child’s cheek and landed on the parched earth. I should have run to my mother and told her what he had said and insisted she punish him for frightening me, but I didn’t. Something kept me from questioning her, or my father, who would surely take to my brother’s hide with the whipping sick. I didn’t believe his words to be true. Not then. But they filled me with just enough suspicion to not question any further for the fear that I might find out something I didn’t truly want to know.
That wasn’t the only time I heard the lineage of my blood mentioned.
Later that same year, when I was supposed to be sleeping up in the loft, I overheard a conversation between my brother and father. “She will get us out of this,” Papa insisted, his voice low, but not low enough.
“A few more years, just a few son, and we will take her to the auction. Present them with the best they’ve ever seen.”
I was supposed to be sleeping. I should have been sleeping. All little girls are supposed to rest for at least nine hours at night, but I am not good at sitting still, even then. I slid down off my down-filled mattress, hunching down to my knees. Leaning my face over the edge of wood beam I peered out into the glow of the oil lamp that perched in the center of our wooden table.
“I pray her line is all you’re hoping for father, because so far I am unimpressed,” My brother Vin hissed, his coal black eyes illuminated in the glow of the flames. “She is no more than average father, by anyone’s standards. Even yours.” The two men sitting side by side were mirror images of each other, only one had been touched roughly by the hands of time, his faced wrinkled and worn from hours spent working in the sun.
“If she turns out to be but average, we will still get more that what we could have without her. You’ll see son. You’ll see.” My father’s words echoed into the night as he kneaded his creased forehead with his hand. “But now we must focus on getting you your bride, and how much we will lose in that bidding.”
Their voices hung heavily on my heart as my eyelids began to droop. I struggled to stay awake and hear more, but again I was afraid of the knowledge I was gaining, so I crawled quietly back to bed and found sleep cloaked in comfort of my blankets.
When I was a few years older, and my brother was gone and out of the house, my mother allowed me to accompany her to one of these biddings I had heard so much about. We sat in the center of town hall dressed in our finest clothes, me in a long cream colored smock my mother had made and a coat from my father’s finest pelt. My mother dressed in similar attire, only her smock was died blue to match her eyes. She had spent hours twisting my hair and tying it up with rags the night before and now it hung in glorious raven coils down my back. “One day soon, that will be you up there,” she said, gesturing to a line of seven women, girls really, standing on the lift before us. Each girl was dressed in her finest, hair curled and pinned, cheeks rouged for color. They were all lovely, but I still didn’t understand what was going on.
“What are they doing, Mama?” I asked, twisting a strand of soft dark hair around my small finger.
“Well, they are here to meet the man they will marry, sweetheart. Isn’t it exciting?” My mother’s faced beamed with pride as she took my hand in hers and together we watched my father climb the stairs and begin the bidding war for the first girl. A beautiful girl of maybe sixteen with deep auburn hair and a plain, sweet face was awarded to her soon to be husband after only three bids. I could tell by the way her eyes never lifted from the ground that she was embarrassed, but she held her head high as her hand was placed in his. After two more girls had been awarded, I tugged on my mother’s sleeve. “Is this how you married Papa? I whispered, confident that she would tell me no. I was baffled by the actions before me; women prancing on stage before a cheering crowd. Bids called out and the prize awarded to one with the most pouring out of his pocket. This was the same way Papa bought Luna, my horse, when I turned eight. It could not be the way two people became a pair.
But the next words my mother spoke sealed my fate. “Of course dear,” she told me, her voice patent and serene. “The same will happen with you. Girls can go up for bidding as early as sixteen, but must walk before their eighteenth birthday.”
“But why?” I asked, my eyes flicking between her and the stage as the crowd around us clapped and cheered. For another match had been made.
My mother didn’t answer me then; instead she waited until we were back in our house, my father still working at the town hall. “Ada, I believe I have done you wrong,” she said placing a cup of steaming liquid in front of me and setting down in at our table’s other empty chair. “I have kept you much too sheltered of the workings of our world. You need to understand things like auctions and bidding,” she continued, running her fingers through her pale hair. As I watched her sitting before me, I wondered just how much my father had bid for her in her day. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, but in the time I had been allowed to spend in town, I had seen others that were much less so. “Have you noticed there are many more men in our town than women?”
“Of course,” I told her, that much I already knew.
She went on to explain a part of our history that I knew very little about; the time before the settling of our village; the time of the great flood. Water once covered most of this land, until air started to dry out and the heat allowed parts of the world to resurface. Nearly all of the people and animals perished. “Hundreds years ago, this world we live in took on great change. The waters rose up and swallowed the lands; most people and animals died out, and the resources depleted. The few that did survive were nearly all male. Men fought and killed over the love of the few women left.” I listened as my mother continued on with her tale, very little emotion present in her voice, her eyes continuing to survey my face with each new detail revealed.
“Since that time, it is written that the love of a woman is earned by the highest bidder, because what do men value most? Love and money. And above all, they fear losing both,” she told me at the commencement of her speech. I only shook my head, acknowledging that I understood what she had told me. I could not find the words to comment on such things. I was nine years old the day I attended my first auction, and I refuse to go another, much to the dismay of my father, the auctioneer, until the day I would be forced to attend my own. I have at least seven years left, I told myself after I left my mother at the table and tried to make myself sleep that night. Maybe a little more if I am lucky.
Unfortunately, my luck was not all I had hoped it would be.
Two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, our world was struck by a plague of disasters once again. This time, the center of our village seemed to make it by mostly unscathed. Only small mountainous ranges on the outskirts of town, like the area in which I lived and the road that connected our town to the next, were affected. Already surrounded by cliffs and rock, the vicinity around our home and farm appeared to sink down even further into the surface and the mountains that encompassed us to rise higher into the clouds. The cracking and shifting of the earth had caused many rock slides resulting in several casualties. My mother and father among them.
I was in our small home preparing dinner when a dark figure blocked the light that streamed in from the back door. I turned away from my task to check on the interference. “Hello dear sister,” Vin said coolly, leaning against our door frame, his arms crossed over his chest. It had been over six months since we had last spoken, although he worked every day with my father in the fields and again two Saturdays each month at the auction house. Whatever his reason for coming to see me, it could not be good.
“Hello Vin,” I answered, turning my back to him. I was expecting my parents home by nightfall from the small journey they had taken, and I wanted to have supper waiting.
“I’m afraid I have some rather bad news,” he informed me, stalking into the kitchen and hovering over my shoulder.
“Well, get on about telling me then,” I said, letting my agitation show. My brother and I had never been close, but in the years since his marriage and my development into a lady our relationship had grown even more strained. Vin moved back and took a seat at the small wooden table that had been in the center of our home for as long as I could remember. He motioned for me to join him, so I left the vegetables and knife on the cutting board and sat down across from him. I could tell he was struggling with whatever information it was that he had to share, so I decided to push back our animosity and listen to my brother.“Mama and Papa will not be returning from the flatlands before nightfall,” he said slowly, holding me still with his stare.
“Will they be taking some extra time?” I asked, not quite understanding his intensity. It would not be the first time their travels have taken longer than expected.
“No Ada, they will not be returning at all. I have gotten word that they were caught in one of the rockslides on the other side of the mountain.”
Fear and confusion clouded my mind. Although I could understand the implications of what he was saying, the true meaning of my brother’s words refused to sink in. Vin took a deep breath and blew it out in a puff that that ruffled the golden hair hanging over his eyes. “Ada, they didn’t make it out. I’m sorry, but they’re gone.”
I sat at the table in stunned silence. There was no kindness in my brother’s voice. No sorrow, no fear. His words were thick and hard, slamming into me as a hammer does to a nail As my new reality took form in my mind, my blood picked up its pace in my veins, pumping through me with such a rush that the sound of its flow raged in my ears. I wanted to cry out, I wanted to scream and fight and then be held close and comforted by brother, the only family I had left in the world. But, I knew that would not happen. Instead, I bottled up my emotions and tucked them away down deep inside a hallow pit in my mind. Standing up, I made my way over to the door of the house that I would now live in alone.
“Thank you, Vin, for coming to tell me.” I whispered, and gestured for him to go. His deed was done; his presence here was no longer needed by me. Vin, did indeed stand and make his way into the light, but before leaving he stopped, his face callous and just inches away from mine.
“I’ll give you tonight to mourn, as I will do as well, but tomorrow, dear sister, I will return with my wife. As the oldest heir to our father’s estate, this house now belongs to me. Along with everything in it. Including you.” With his cold words still hanging harshly in the air between us, my brother pressed a rough kiss into my forehead and slipped out into the crisp evening air.
The night was a sleepless one and the light morning came all too soon. My room was still in the loft, just as it had been since I could climb the ladder, so I often heard things before anyone realized I was around to hear them. I rose from my bed and dressed, making no attempt to quiet my movements and then climbed down ready to face whatever torture my brother had in store. My body relaxed slightly and the tension in my neck that had kept me tossing and turning most of the night eased when I saw that only Rebekah, Vin’s wife, waited for me in the common room.
“Good morning,” she said lifting her eyes from the counter top where I had left last night’s meal untouched. Rebekah and I had not spent much time together, as Vin did not visit often since their marriage, but in what little time we had, she had gained my approval. Rebekah, much like Vin had been blessed with appealing features, but I hoped it was not that that drew him to her, I hoped it was her kind heart. When the two wed, I prayed that her gentle and loving nature would soften my brother. In that task she had yet to succeed.
“Good morning Rebekah,” I answered, joining her near the hearth. She looked me over carefully, before wrapping her arms softly around my shoulders. “I am sorry about your parents. They always treated me well,” she said, her voice sweet and gentle. A hint of the sadness I was fighting so hard not to show threatened to bubble up as she held me close, but I swallowed it down along with my words and stepped out of her embrace, nodding my gratitude. Rebekah continued slicing the vegetables in front of her and when she spoke to me again, her words came out quickly and hushed. “But I what I am mostly sorry about Ada, is what you are about to endure.”
I didn’t have time to ask her what she meant before our time alone was ended. Vin strolled in, his arms filled with flour sacks from the barn. “Hello ladies, good to see the two of you getting reacquainted,” he said, beaming. “How lucky am I to be in possession of a household with not only one, but two striking women. Ada, has my wife been filling you in on the training she will provide for you in the next two weeks?”
I looked back and forth between the two of them as I waited for further explanation. Rebekah would not meet my eyes as she continued to make her hands busy, but my brother, a smile still plastered on his face, was waiting for the light in my mind to switch on. Two weeks. My birthday. Now that my parents are dead and I being not yet married or having reached the age of 18, my guardianship falls back to the oldest male in the family. Vin. He didn’t have to say if for me to understand his plan. He will have me put up for bidding in two weeks, the day I turn sixteen.
I could not hold my emotions in any longer. The fear and rage festered inside me, clouding my vision and making me dizzy. I had done well not to show him how I felt about his taking over my home on the eve of my parents death, but now he is out to have me wed the highest bidder just as soon as I am able. All for his profit. I shoved past him and out of the house without a word and broke into a run. I ran down the stoned trail and past the fields of grain on our land. I ran until my lungs burned and my legs ached. When I looked up again I was at the base of the mountain that surrounds our village, its walls surrounding me, imprisoning me to whatever fate that Vin had planned. But on the other side of the mountain, freedom was promised by the unknown.
Timidly at first, I reached up to grab a hold of a broken rock jutting out from the side. Very slowly, I pulled myself up until my foot fold hold in a narrow break. Gaining confidence with each step, I continued to hoist myself higher; one hand and then one leg and then repeat the pattern until I come to a landing at the base of a steep opening. From up here, so far away and removed, the place I have just escaped from seems almost quaint and peaceful. I look out over the expanse of land dotted with fields and farms and cottages much like my own and I wonder what the families inside are doing. Are they together? Are they happy the way I was just a few short hours ago?
Soon my legs become weak and can no longer hold me up. They are shaky and tired from my climb and from standing stiffly for so long. I looked around, surveying the small sparse trees and loose crumbling boulders that jutted out in all directions until I found a flat surface and take a seat. Closing my eyes, I drew in a few deep breaths of thin air and when I open my eyes again, I am faced with the most breathtaking sight. Below the ledge on which I sit, there is a large pool of crystal clear water. Several falls from the side of the mountain are feeding into the pool, spluttering slowly down; down until it splashes against the smooth glass surface. If I crane my neck and listen closely, I can hear the rush of water gurgling up from beneath me. As if by magnetic force, I am pulled toward the water. My legs, sore and drained, call out with aches and pains and beg me to stay seated. A piercing pain stabs my side as I now take in deep gulps of air, but something inside me tells me I must forward. Carefully, I sat down at the base of the cliff, sliding down the small slope. My dress catches on an outstretched branch tearing its fabric, but I am unfazed. I keep going.
Stumbling my way down with my near useless body, I walk first and then move on my knees until I am close enough to watch a few stray pebbles cascade away from the mountain’s lip and plunge into the waters below. It is more appealing than anything I have ever laid my eyes on before. I could do it, I tell myself. It would be so easy to throw myself over the edge and submerge into the cleansing pool. It may be the best option I have now, my only option. I cannot, will not return home to have Vin and Rebekah prepare me for bidding. I can’t stand up before the men, the boys pretending to be men, at the auction house two weeks from now. I can’t become a wife to whomever my looks and breeding please the most. I just can’t. Tears fill my eyes and spill over cheeks as my heart yearns to hear my mother’s voice one last time.
I drag my weary limbs into a standing position at the mountains edge, my lips calling out a quiet goodbye, but just as I am ready to jump, I hear a voice behind me. At first, I don’t care enough to look back; the voice couldn’t possibly be meant for me and difference could it possibly make if it was? None. My toes inched their way out as I am now teetering back and forth on the balls of my feet. I hear the voice again and he is persistent, whoever he might be. He is calling for me to stop, to move back, get away from the edge. Begrudgingly, I turn around and see him. He is young, maybe a few years older than I, with dark hair and a bare muscular chest and he is racing towards me. I stare at him blankly as he climbs the jagged rocks with fluid grace. When he is only but a few feet away from me face, close enough I can hear his breath ragged in his lungs, as he calls out to me again. “Please don’t.”
He reaches out his hand to me, and I look away, it is a struggle to focus on his face when the waters below beckon me so intently. “Leave me alone,” I tell him, my eyes fixed on a break in the pool below.
“I will not,” he says, but this time, the urgency in his voice is gone, but replaced with humor.
My blood begins to boil in my veins. Not only is he here, where no one should be, when I need nothing more than to be alone, but he is mocking me in my time of desperation. Without thinking, I turn to face him quickly, spinning on my heels. As I do, my right foot catches on a loose vine and my balance is lost. My arms flail at my sides reaching for something to steady myself, but my hands grasp only air. My decisions along with scenes from my life swirl through my mind in a blink of an eye. My mother and father. My home. Running away. The way my body would have looked as it careened down to the waters below. I can’t bring myself to regret any of the decisions I have made, but now, in less than a second, I have changed my mind. I no longer want to give in. I refuse to throw it all into the falls. There must be another option.
I feel my feet slipping, my back tilting toward the openness behind me. My arms continue to search for something; anything, griping only the empty air. And then I feel him. I make contact with his hand, and he yanks me forward, slamming my body into his as we are both propelled to the ground. Scrambling, I shift my body to the side and roll back onto the inflexible ground. Lying still, I try to gather my thoughts, but the persistently loud breathing of my rescuer is far too distracting. I prop myself up and look over at him. He is laying back, hid hands resting behind his head. He looks comfortable. Casual. The exact opposite of how I feel.
Before I can open my mouth, he is smiling, his dark gray eyes penetrating me. I look him over again, appraising his appearance more closely. He is maybe seventeen, but strong and muscled, probably from years of physical labor. His bare chest is tan, his hair dark, and his look is kind and handsome but muddled with sarcasm.
“Are you unhappy that I did not leave you alone as you requested?” he asks, sitting up to face me.
“No, I am pleased. Thank you,” I whisper, my voice thick with emotion. I clear my throat and try to stand, but my feet fail me and I am sent again to the ground.
“You’re welcome,” he replied before standing and assisting me to do the same.
“I’m Rhys, and now that you are safe, I need to go. My father will be angry that I am late.” He turned to leave, moving swiftly away from me with easing back down among the rocks and trees. Something inside me began to stir as I watched his form fade into the scenery.
“Rhys, wait! Where are you going?” I called trying to follow, but unable to keep his pace.
“Please, take me with you!”
I brushed the dirt off my dress and pulled the stray leaves and twigs from my hair. Slowly, my body still angry from my travels of the day, I made my way back down the mountain trying my best to catch up to my rescuer. Wherever he was headed it was not from where I came. Today, even though my sixteenth birthday has yet to pass, I became a woman. A woman that is as unsure of her future as she is of her past. A woman that takes charge of her own fate. I may not know what lies before me, but I now know that I will never give up again. I will take charge of my life. I will not be sold.
Stephanie Hogan is the author of several short stories and is now attempting her first full length novel. She is a member of Reader’s Carnival, YA Lit Chat and The Black Owls Writing Society in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. As a lover of all things Young Adult, she devours at least one new book a week in her time away from the computer and her busy life as a wife, mother and elementary school tutor.