Cold panic hastened nervous fingers belonging to the hesitant creature crouched aside a dark doorway. With so much riding on each moment’s fate, she was terrified to remain, terrified to run and terrified her plans could crumble. Should this escape fail, there was no hope.
Booted feet yearned to fly and leave a cruel man behind, but a locked door was a proper door, and so she, ever so quiet thank you, turned the chilly brass key until the tumbler clicked. Blue morning cloaked the oak door but did not muffle the one soft groan the wood made before it came silent. In trepidation, the girl gave away an anxious gulp of precious air, and watched as her breath mist rose heavenward then disappeared without a trace. There is a good girl, she complimented herself then tested the door with an open hand as one might thank an old horse. Her hand comforted the many nicks and stains, but now was not the time for remorse, it was the time for flight as the morning train would not wait at the station for one poor soul, and the ocean ship would sail from that distant quay afore noon. Now was the time for freedom.
Despite her urgent road to independence, the brave girl with the small bundle wavered for half a breath to brood over the many company homes. Though some with painted sills and here a potted plant and there a wheelbarrow, the comparable house rows came out all much the same, and therefore incompatible with her dream. After glancing again to be certain, she donned her bonnet, wrapped her scarf and steeled her resolve. On trembling legs attached to wobbly ankles, she turned to stroll as if to market, calm and pretty as you please. But, fly she must, hard heels making naught but a tamp upon the damp cobbled stone, and fly she did, but with a poise befitting Sunday stroll to chapel.
So dark, her road led up the tall hill past the black colliery where filth belched to heaven every day before blanketing the ground with foul mood at night. Now and then, late lanterns and early lamps shafted yellow pools. The air filled constant with soot.
She cut her flight, placed her small fortune down beside and using calloused fingers, more worn than the ancient lock she had just turned, the strong girl tightened the lacing on her button-up boots, one pair for market and for chapel, then tested the laces with both hands. Despite the dark of night, the worn boots shone polished and neat, and she admired her work with the aid of the night-sentinel light, which shown from atop the colliery while deep below her booted feet men toiled at coal seams and dreamt of the light of day. Nervous fingers tested stout lace a second time, lingering, hopeful that the knots were good and willing to hold for miles. There and now, it was time for the miles and many needed lest his cruelty find her. She hurried.
At the top of the hill, where three streets converged, she turned, keeping to the shadows and out of the light and stopped then held her breath. She was near to the entrance of the ugly colliery, close to the place where above ground men ceased to be and became something else again down there in those dark shafts. Such it was in many small villages across the valleys of Wales, hers being not so much different from others. Yes, streams wended different paths with roads leading in and out, some for the iron, some for the coal, but each village as different as they were the same, all for the good of England.
The now frightened girl heard voices. But with her heart pounding, please be soft and quiet, do not betray me, she could not tell from which road the voices carried. These shadowed streets held ghosts from those never recovered after the earth gave way but while the coal-crushed bodies remained below the spirits rose to haunt above. She leaned into a shadow and waited, afraid.
The voices became clear, not ghost voices thank you very much but human, and she knew them both. The two boys were her age and worked clearing slag. With her old wool coat hunched up around her vigilant ears, she held tight and listened.
“The day will come and we will beat them, beat them at there own game.” The voice carried trill in the early air and belonged Bevan Dawes. Bevan was an undersized lad, but fleet afoot and taken with sudden bursts.
“One day,” said Awstin Jones. This was much more than Awstin would speak in a week. He was the age of his companion with the thickness and width of a coal pony and, despite his tender years, would soon be underground to work his life away in the dark tunnels.
Bevan looked about then stared up at the sentinel light, which helped them find their way to the tall hill and then down to the growing heap of slag. “One day the waste will cover all those downhill homes, I’ll wager,” he said. “Plenty of work for us.”
From Awstin there was no reply and the boys entered into the colliery following the lighted path to their job beyond.
Later in the night than her preparation allowed, the soon to be missing girl hurried from her shadow, swift and careful down the cobbled stone as a hint of the approaching day began as a slight seam to the east. This coming day held everything, all of it new, all of it exciting, but there was still the one stop she had to make.
The cold wrought iron squeaked a complaint yet the graveyard gate yielded to her careful open hand. All around were the sounds of an awakening: a cock crowed, a maid emptied a bucket and as always, two rough men engaged in drunken singing. Now she thought of her own duties left undone, who will care for my poor dishes, and despair nearly took her but she glanced down to see dew form water droplets on her black boots, and the sight of something new and clean appearing against something old and dark encouraged her.
As the night turned morning from a blue hue to a white mist, she curved into a familiar row and knelt between the familiar markers. On her left was her father’s grave and on her right, the eternal resting place for her dear mother. She placed her small tidy package, her fortune, upon the damp green grass and opened the bundle with care then removed her bonnet and scarf and drew a cloth napkin from her bundle. The napkin was white like a fresh spring cloud, and she used it to wipe the coal soot from the grave markers. Even here, in this special place, the effects of the discharge from the chimney that loomed above like an evil tower in a witch’s tale ruined the hallowed ground. She wiped her father’s marker first then her mothers and then tugged a bit of grass from the border of her mother’s marker. Not knowing what to do with the greenery, she placed it on her bundle.
From her folds, she produced two yellow roses. Unbeknownst to her master, she had walked a long road to a distant village and back in one day just to have these two fine roses for this special morn. Now, cold hands placed one rose on each cold grave.
“I am sorry. I cannot tell when I might come again.”
Moisture welled in the corner of an eye.
“Oh, I miss you both so, it is terrible hard to be leaving you.”
A single tear dropped from a ruddy cheek and landed upon a button-up boot.
“There will be none left to tend you.”
A sad breath escaped her thin lips.
“Mother, only your good sister, Meinwen, has answered my pleas. She helped me fashion a plan to break from this place, this life. Oh, I do not wish to leave you here unattended.”
The caring girl touched a drop of dew on one boot, studied the teardrop on the other and moved to brush them away but thought better of it and then did not.
“I am down to Cardiff and a meeting with Meinwen. With her help, I sail for Y Wladfa, the colony in far Patagonia this very day. Meinwen and her husband have been at Y Wladfa now these fifteen years, and she tells me I will love it. I cannot stay a day longer in service with that man. I tried so very hard, but master needs more than a housemaid and such duties are not for me. I need my own life, and I shall not ever find it here.”
“Oh, I wish I were as strong as you father.”
Her soft voice scattered across the solemn burial ground like dry leaves influenced by an autumn breeze.
“This is so very bitter. I cannot stay and I cannot take you with me. I will always love you both and promise to pray for you each Sunday at chapel.”
Alarmed, the distressed girl stood and glanced about but there was no one to hear. Just then, a dowdy crow winged to land at the wrought iron gate. Go away, she thought, and to her surprise, the black crow flapped north toward the colliery.
After studying several neglected markers, tears flowed free from both eyes.
“Weeds will creep in and I am sorry for this. With no one to mind the keeper, his laziness will allow disarray. I wish it were not so, but what can I do?”
She knelt again to her bundle, this time wrapping it tight and including the bit of border grass. In a thought, using a finger, she brought up soil from each grave and with a few blades of grass from her father’s resting place, she added to her fortune. “There, I can take you with me,” she said to comfort herself.
Sudden, she cocked her head, faithful ears please be mistaken, I cannot be found, but the rhythm came again and she admitted to the footfalls, someone was coming and coming quick. She glanced about with haste and need; a short distance was a larger marker and she dove for it. She cowered behind the slab of etched granite that marked an unknown life and held her breath. She dropped her head but her eyes spied her mistake. Oh, no, I am lost. Between her parent’s markers were her belongings, her fortune, and no one walking the graveyard could miss it and anyone questioning the package would discover the run away owner. Now, the heavy footsteps came on at good pace, turning from the road, straight through the iron gate and right onto her hiding place.