Over the next week, my parents kept me locked in my room. After many nights of weeping over having lost my sight, I became used to the darkness. Father visited me for what felt like many hours a day, leaving Mother to run Mystoria. He read to me every day, but I didn’t want him in my room. He scared me because of how he’d hurt Uncle Garrad.
‘I might be going away,’ he blurted in the middle of reading a tale from the northern country of Ruxdor.
I didn’t know if he’d try to hurt me too. I turned my head to hear his words clearer; I didn’t want to miss anything. ‘Why?’
‘Do you remember when Uncle Garrad and I had that fight?’
‘You mean when you killed him,’ I said, angry that he was trying to lessen the badness of what he’d done.
‘Yes.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Well, I shouldn’t have done that. A lot of people didn’t like that we fought. And they don’t want me to fight again, so I have to go.’
‘They hang people. I’ve seen the bodies from my window. The hangings outside that big building. Are they going to hang you, Papa?’
I’d asked Mother about the large building, why it was always surrounded by soldiers and guards. She said it was the council building where powerful men, like the mayor, dealt with complaints of the people, crimes, and approved building and farming, and collected taxes.
‘Promise me you’ll take care of your mama. You promise?’
I nodded, but it took all my might to not wrap my arms around him and hold him forever. My cheeks were wet with tears, and I heard Father sniffle.
‘Now. Mama is going to miss me. But you don’t let her dwell. Don’t ever let her spend too long thinking about what could have been.’ He patted my head.
I jumped up to grab him but stopped. Instead, I screamed, ‘You can’t go! You can’t. Don’t leave me. It’s not your fault. It’s my fault!’
He put his hands on my shoulders and shook me a little. ‘It’s no one’s fault. Blame is a sure way to suffering. Accept, Adenine. Let go.’
He let go of me and walked away. I tried to follow, but he spun me around so I was disoriented. I put out my hands, searching for him, and found only a cobweb in the corner of my room. I gave a little yelp, imagining the spiders it held, and heard the door to my bedroom close. The lock turned.
I ran in the direction of Father’s fading footsteps, found the bedroom door, and kicked and banged on it. ‘Father! Father!’
Later that day, a chanting began outside our house. ‘Murdered, murderer, murderer…’ The voices blended into an unearthly chorus.
About five years before, I heard the same chanting, but I’d been too small to see through my window. I had built a rickety mound of toys and boxes to stand on so I could look at the commons. I’d only seen the legs dangling in the distance, but even then, I knew that was what they did with bad people. I asked Mrs. Moferberry about it, and she said bad people did bad things, and they were sent to the next life earlier than most. The next life was where people went after they died. Really bad people like Father didn’t go there, though. But he wasn’t bad because he’d protected me from my Uncle Garrad.
I heard some banging and shouting.
Mother cried, ‘No! Please, no!’
I rushed to my door, trying not to trip or stumble. Father had said people didn’t like that he’d fought with Uncle Garrad and that they wanted to punish him for it. I pressed my ear to the door, and the sounds deep inside the house seemed to get louder. I heard the shuffle of footsteps against our stone floor, the clearing of throats, and the desperate voices of my parents.
‘He was protecting Adenine, our daughter,’ Mother said.
‘Quiet, Capacia!’ Father snapped.
‘What daughter, Capacia?’ a man asked.
Mother didn’t respond.
The stranger continued, ‘Have you gone crazy? Did you give birth during the night?’ A few men broke into laughter. ‘I’m sorry. Murder is murder. We have to take him.’
‘It’ll be all right, my love. Look after her.’ Those were the last words that I ever heard my father say. At the time, I hadn’t known who he meant.
The voices quieted, and the fading footsteps told me the men were leaving. Mother’s sobs replaced the silence, echoing off the stone walls and making it sound as if the house itself were weeping. Outside, people began to chant. I ran to my attic window and pressed my ear against the icy glass.
‘Murdered, murderer, murderer…’ The cries grew louder and louder, then the crowd hushed.
A man spoke. ‘By decree of King Erageo and Captain Festral, we hereby charge Ardonian of Mystoria with the murder of his brother, Garrad. Ardonian will be hanged at midday on this day.’
Father was going to be killed. Had he washed before leaving me earlier? There were many people who could die out there. I couldn’t lose him. I couldn’t hurt everyone.
‘No!’ I screamed and banged against the window. ‘No. No. No.’ But then I stopped, knowing that if anyone heard me, if anyone discovered me, they might take me away. And if they touched me they’d fall ill, and I’d be responsible for the death of someone else. Not just one person, but the plague would spread and kill thousands of people like before. I couldn’t do that, but the knowledge that I couldn’t help Father made me feel small and useless.
I collapsed on the floor and curled my legs against my chest. Father would stand before the judging eyes of Borrelia’s townspeople. I remembered Mrs. Moferberry describing what happened when a grown man was hanged. Thinking about that made me stand up again and resume my shouting.
‘No,’ I said one last time and slumped to the floor again. I held my breath, waiting, because I knew what happened next.
‘Release!’ the man yelled at last.
A gasp from the crowd was followed by an eerie silence. I crawled towards my bed, pulled myself onto the linen sheets, and wept.
The next day I awoke to the town crier giving the midday news.
‘Hear ye! Hear ye! Ardonian, patriarch of Mystoria, has been hung for committing the crime of murder on his brother, Garrad of Borrelia.’
The days blurred, and the nights were freezing as winter set in. I could almost feel the snow falling outside, and the icy winds seeped between the cracks of the walls around my window. A week after Father’s death, I turned eleven, but there was no celebration. Mother visited only to bring me food and to light my small bedroom hearth.
‘Mama,’ I said. ‘Mama, don’t go.’
She didn’t seem to hear me. I tried to get out of the room, but she was always too quick to catch me. My stupid blind eyes made me helpless. One day, I almost got out, but she pushed me back in the room and squashed my hand in the door.
‘I’m sorry, Adenine. I’m sorry. I can’t let them take you too,’ she cried.
Nursing my injured fingers, I said, ‘Mama, don’t leave me alone.’
But she had already gone back downstairs. And then I realised that Mother blamed me for Father’s death. She was angry at me. And she was right to be so. I was a bad person, an evil person, and it was my fault Father and Uncle Garrad were dead. If my uncle had not loved me so much, if I had not been born, my father and uncle would be alive. My parents’ kindness had protected me, but I was their mistake, not their daughter. I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping, and I stopped crying.
Mother began to visit more often. She would read me stories and put food into my mouth, but the darkness of my mind became a shield that I hid behind, protecting her from me. I had to protect people. I couldn’t let them love me anymore.
I knew that Mrs. Moferbury would no longer come. I was glad about that. She wouldn’t be hurt by me either.
Mother seemed to grow sadder and angrier. She’d pull me into her arms and onto her lap screaming, ‘Forgive me! Forgive me. I love you. Come back, Adenine.’
It was strange how at the beginning, I had needed Mother to say those very words. But I had discovered that silence was best.
Winter passed. I ate enough to live. I obeyed many of Mother’s instructions: stand, undress, bathe, drink. But I never spoke and was always happy to get back to my bed, to get back to imagining myself in a world far away.
One night, Mother brought me the usual evening dinner, but instead of turning to leave, she shouted and punched the bed. It scared me a little, and I wondered if she would start hurting me like Uncle Garrad had. I deserved nothing less.
‘If you do not live, Adenine, I will die. I will kill myself for I cannot go on without you.’ Her voice seemed miles away, somewhere beyond where I could be reached, somewhere that didn’t matter to me anymore.
Die? The word soaked into the thick nothing inside me. No, I can’t let her die. Father. He had told me to care for her, to look after her, and I wasn’t doing that. It was my fault he was gone, and I wouldn’t disappoint him by disobeying.
The smell of the hot wheat bread and spiced stew wafting up from the food tray alerted me to my hunger. My stomach ached, and my mouth was as dry as salt. As I surfaced from the depths of my mind, my thoughts swirled and raced. But one of those thoughts was steady and sure, and its glow put the others into shadow.
Mother wants me to live.
Her happiness was more important than my life or death. She had loved me, embraced me, and taken care of me, and all I had done was hurt her. I was no more precious than a piece of waste rotting in the streets, swarmed by flies and looked upon with disgust.
I moved my head in her direction. The bedclothes her face was buried in muffled her sobs, and I reached out and felt her plaited hair.
Her head jerked. ‘Adenine. Adenine. Talk to me.’
‘Mama,’ I tried to say, but the word cracked on my lips.
She gasped, scrambled up onto the bed, and scooped me into her arms.