“Just put it over there.” Amelia worked to steady her hand.
She pointed to the dark corner of the parlor, a quiet space for her to sit and read. Amelia imagined it a peaceful spot, situated between a wobbly end table and her favorite bookshelf. She breathed deep.
Her uncle and his youngest boy carried in the chair and set it atop the creaky wood floor. “Sounds like you’ve got a loose board there.” Her uncle eyed her.
She clasped her hands behind her back, squeezing until her fingers felt ready to pop. “All houses have them. Won’t you stay for tea?”
An overwhelming rush of saliva filled her mouth. She swished it over her tongue and in between her teeth, the way she did back at the asylum.
“No thank you.” He patted his son’s back.
Amelia nodded. “Best be on your way then. It’s a bit muggy out, and only set to be worsening. But you know this countryside.”
She led them to the door and looked out at the fog. Its cloudy breath reminded her of death ─ hazed her eyes. Bright baby smiled dulled in the distance of her stare.
She shuddered. Her shaky frame stood rigid with regret. I couldn’t’ save them.
“I wish you all the best.” He uncle tipped his hat at her and nudged his son.
The boy bowed, staring at the chair.
“My condolences,” Amelia said.
Despite her own woes, her uncle had just lost a son. Now the eldest boy’s favorite chair sat within her confines, ready to send his ghost screaming through her already tainted nightmares. But he had loved her well.
His appreciation of literature and epics bonded them. If only he had known the tragedy befolding so close to him. Maybe he would have shared in my misery instead of looking for a grave dug by his own hand.
Amelia walked back to the parlor and stood in the archway. She eyed the simple armchair as if hoping William would return to reclaim it. But her hoped had never gotten very far. The loss kindled them all. From her mother’s lunatic ideas, to the loss of both her sisters, she longed for that to be her only suffering.
If only that were all. But the babies!
The babies still cried for her every night. No opium would suffocate their wailing. No drink was potent enough to satiate her need to answer their calls. They had died in her car. She was to blame.
She had been their overseer. Baby farming never seemed like a perfect enterprise, but what befell her wards… it was unspeakable.
Amelia went to William’s chair and sat with her favorite book. Faust. A tale of redemption. A German epic, but full of more love than all the rest. Not even the death of a child could kill that.
She smoothed her green skirt over tired knees. The cushions supporting her were thin but ample. Her book, as beautiful as the first read, but her attention would not follow.
Something in William’s death captured it all. The madness. The pain.
She sat back and clutched the book to her chest. Ellen’s wild eyes flashed through her memory. That dancing smile and her golden hair always won over scared girls: first time lovers, abandoned mothers. They traveled to offer up their children, looking for a better opportunity.
“We are the best,” Ellen always said. “Your daughter is safe with us.”
Her sweet tones rang in Amelia’s ears even now. Years after Ellen fled to the states, Amelia remained loyal. But her faults followed. Despite her desires to continue her work, Amelia fell into the same pattern as Ellen, the same delusions.
She thought of Jane. The first. A plump little baby with dimples like pie chimneys.
Her mother, Sarah, had suffered abuse. She was young and scared. “Please take her. Ellen promised you would. I cannot protect her.”
Amelia recalled the bruises. The dark circles. Drooping from her eyes. “Aye. I will care for her as if she were me own.”
Twenty babies later and resources were scarce. Her body grew fatigued beyond exhaustion. The weight of her eyelids slowed every muscle, confounded each midnight feeding. Diapers went unchanged. Disease, death, and royal punishment found her when she couldn’t find good help.
A six month sentence drove her to sleep. It brewed.
Amelia grasped the chair as she thought of it all. William’s handprints still marked the fabric.
She rubbed the long imprints where his fingers had rested. A laugh erupted from deep within her ribcage. Alone in her home, free once more, she let her voice carry and soiled her breeches.
“I killed him like I killed them!” Her guilt leaked out.
Unable to refuse the spark of memories past, igniting the funeral pyres within, she barred her teeth and rocked back and forth. “I killed him.”
Her jaw locked in a painful clench. But she would not relax. She couldn’t. Everything was her fault. She fixed her gaze on the crystal by the hearth, mused on the liquor within. Just released from that cold slab again, her mind rushed back to the asylum.
“If I had died, he would have lived. He never would have done it.” She convinced herself.
Her wearied thoughts dampened. Not even two bottled of laudanum had been enough to end her pain. She knew the weight of her actions.
The doctors did not believe her, but even now she wished for death. Instead, her favorite cousin was gone. What he felt for her or why he left her to rot didn’t matter anymore.
Rage raced within her veins. Her body burst with flames of hatred. Rocking harder within each memory, she moaned. Louder and louder her cries bounced off the walls.
Saliva ran down her chin. Her ears rang. Darkness filled her eyes.
A knock sounded, and she stopped. She grunted. As quickly as she was overcome, she snapped back and wiped the drool from her face.
She got up and walked to answer the visitor. Each step sounded like a cloven hoof.
When Amelia reached the door, she tucked the loose strands of her hair back into her tight bun at the base of her neck. She straightened her skirt and squared her shoulders over her bodice. Ignoring the stain below her waist, she tied her apron over it, heaved the door open, and peered out into the mist.
“Mrs. Dier, I fear I am in need of your services.” A thin mother stood before her with a basket.
“A baby farmer I ain’t no more, ma’am.” She glared.
“But I have nowhere else to go.”
Amelia’s chest grew chocked with pity. She forced out a smile. “Forgive me. Do come in. I was just about to put on some tea.”
The soft eyes of glowing youth entered before her and Amelia fought her inner hatred. Infant cried filled her head. The stench of death nearly knocked her back. She had attempted to save everyone but herself in the past; now she longed to choke the life from every baby brought to her.
She glided to the stove dreaming of the River Thames and the secrets it would hold. Visions of tossing helpless infants into the water drowned out the phantom cries in her head. Yes, she thought. I’ll let them sink to the bottom and finally be rid of everything.
“Oh thank you.” The young mother pulled back the blanket covering her cherubic baby sleeping in the basket.
Amelia breathed deep with anticipation. “Maybe it’s time I re-open my doors. I do so love little children. May I?” She gestured to pick up the little babe.
“Of course,” the mother watched her with hope. Amelia lifted the baby up and carried it to the chair, ready to drown every new life that was brought to her doorstep. After all, the accidental deaths were her fault. She had been imprisoned as if she had planned to murder them. I might as well feel their last breaths on purpose for a change.