Over on Terrible Minds, I’m taking part in building a collaborative 4-part story. Each week, I choose a story to continue. This week, I chose “The Fortune.”
The first part was by Jwrapa and can be found over at the blog phrasework. I’ll also include both parts below for ease of reading.
The second part was completed by John Freeter.
So here we go.
Margaret drew the curtain back slowly, taking care not to pull too hard on the thin, slightly musty fabric. The worn beading crinkled beneath her fingers and she took a step inside the tent. She paused a moment for her sight to adjust, blinking back the bright specks of the sundrenched day still lingering in her eyes. Behind her the buzzing of the hurdy-gurdy man she had passed just moments ago mixed with the sharp squeals of a group of children as they ran towards the games of chance on the far midway. She brushed a patch of dust from her skirt as she glanced nervously around the space, taking in the threadbare rugs that lined the floor, their oriental patterns clashing garishly with the many tapestries that hung around the small tent. Margaret took another step towards the lone wicker chair set up in the center of the room and looked around her.
“A fortune for the lass?”
The voice was quiet and lilting, and she jumped a bit as a man slipped his slim frame into the room from behind one of the larger tapestries. He smiled at her and gestured with a gloved hand towards the chair.
“Uh, yes,” she said quickly, looking back and forth once again. “But isn’t there….”
The man laughed softly, opening his arms to encompass the room as he followed her gaze. “Yes, I know. Not quite what you were expecting.”
He began to pull one gray glove off, finger by finger. “I don’t work with those tricks you’ve read about. No crystals or smoke and nonsense needed.” He moved on to the second glove. “And I am no old gypsy woman, either, sorry to say.”
She laughed nervously, for indeed she had expected it to be like in a book. This man was perfectly average. Middle height, thin, with a brown beard and hair of all one short-trimmed length. He wore a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles that seemed to be slightly off-center. If she had passed him in town that day, she would never have glanced twice.
He had finished removing his gloves and tucked them into a pocket on his waist coat. He gestured to the chair again, and she noted his now bare hands were worn thin and speckled with age spots, his nails brittle and yellow.
“I have only these to work with,” he said. “And if you are still willing, we can begin.”
Margaret paused, meeting his gaze. He had a gentle openness about his face, and she took no fear in it. After a moment, she gathered her skirts and sat on the chair.
He stepped forward to stand behind her. “I will touch your temples, and nothing more. Don’t be afraid, now. It will help if you close your eyes.”
She nodded, resting her hands in her lap and letting her eyes fall shut. His fingers touched her temples lightly, just barely brushing against her skin. She could feel the warmth of them as his coarse skin pressed closer to her head. She stifled another nervous laugh and a thought flitted past. This is nonsense, really.
“Quiet now, luv.” His voice was barely more than a whisper, and it seemed to come from right behind her ears.
She tried to push the thoughts away and breathed in deeply and silently through her nose. As she began to exhale a wave of dizziness passed over her, beginning from points on her temples where he held her and moving swiftly down to deep within her chest. Suddenly her bodice felt tight, a great crush of fabric, and even her sleeves and bootlaces seemed to constrict upon her limbs. She tried to breathe in again but it stuck in her throat and her eyes flew open in panic. She felt as if the air itself was strangling her, pinning her down where she sat.
Just as suddenly, the press was gone. She slumped forward with a loud huff of breath as the man released his grip, falling to her knees from the chair. An anger rose in her as she turned back to the man, ready to rail at him for his poor treatment. But just as she moved she saw that he, too, had fallen to the ground. The rage died in her as quickly as it had appeared. The man was shaking as if with palsy, his hands curled in to themselves as he clutched them to his chest.
“I did not know,” he whispered raggedly, his face turned down to where he gripped his own hands together. “I’m so sorry luv, I never would have…”
At that he finally looked up, and the look of sorrow upon his face seemed to sink into her belly.
“What?” she said. She realized she was whispering as well, so she repeated it louder. “What was that?”
He shook his head, avoiding her gaze. “No, no.”
She got up on her knees and reached for him, grabbing his dusty coat by the shoulders. She was angry again, if only to fight the fear that was beginning to grow inside her.
“What did you see?!”
He flinched away from her shout and seemed to gather himself. His trembling slowed and she let go of his coat. “Please tell me.”
He met her eyes once more, the same sorrow still filled his gaze. He reached up to touch her again but pulled his hand back just before her cheek.
“It was your death, luv.” his voice was gentle, calm.
“No,” she said with a shudder. “This is all too silly. You’re just a con man, then, scaring women!” She rose, brushing off her skirts and turned to leave.
“Meg, wait.” He stood as well, reaching towards her.
She stopped, stunned. She had never told him her name.
“Tell me,” he said softly. “How long have you been dead?”
Meg held onto the tent’s worn curtain, her legs buckling under her. Dead… dead? No. She couldn’t be dead. Meg felt her heart hammering against her chest. The loose strands of long black hair dangling over her face bounced in synch with her heavy breathing. The sunlight bathing her neck warmed her chilled skin. She couldn’t be dead.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” Meg said, brushing back her hair, “but if you think you can take me for a fool, then you’re sadly mistaken.”
The man took a step towards her. “It’s all right, luv. I can help you.” He reached out to her with his thin, speckled hands. “Now close your eyes, and try to remem—”
“No!” Meg swatted his hands away. Upon touching them, her chest tightened and she staggered back, overcome by a new wave of dizziness. “Get away from me, you… you charlatan!”
She spun away from him and fled from the tent, back to the bustling fairground. The noise of laughter and conversation aggravated her dizziness. Her vision turned into a swirl of colors, and Meg tripped on her skirts. She threw her arms in front of her as she plunged face-first into the ground, breaking the fall with her palms. Pain shot through her body as she scraped her skin and banged her knees. She knelt on the ground, rubbing her reddened palms. Tears welled in her eyes. She gagged, and barely had time to push her hair away when a thick stream of hot, salty vomit poured from her mouth, drenching her skirts.
Meg wiped her mouth with the back of her trembling hand. She slowly raised her eyes, dreading the looks of confusion and disgust from the people around her, but no one paid her any mind. Couples strolled by without as much as a glance, and children ran squealing around her as if she was invisible… as if she was ghost.
“Please, for the love of God, someone help me!” Everyone went on their merry way, oblivious to her cries. Meg got to her feet, cold sweat streaming down her face, the taste of salty vomit saturating her mouth. She dashed towards a plump lady in a bright yellow dress, who was shielding herself from the sun with a frilly parasol. Meg grabbed her hands. “Please, madam, you must help me! I… I…”
The woman shivered and closed her parasol. She blinked a few times, touching her temples. The color drained from her skin, becoming as pale as Meg’s hands. An older gentleman walking by gently placed his hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“Are you alright, ma’am?” He asked, his brow furrowed with concern. “You seem a bit peaky.”
“Oh, yes. Thank you. Must’ve been an errant draft.” A reddish hue tinged the woman’s cheeks. “I feel quite better now.”
“Is that so?” the gentleman asked. “Still, I believe something sweet will do you a world of good.” He offered the woman his hand, which she took gladly, and they both strolled away towards one the many vendors dotting the fairground.
Meg looked at her hands. Had they always been so pale? She couldn’t recall. Warm tears fell upon her palms. It can’t be. It can’t. A gloved hand took the tip of her fingers. She slowly turned her eyes towards the fortune teller, regarding her with his honest yet sorrowful expression.
“Come on, Margareth. Let’s go.”
Sitting back in the shade of the fortune teller’s tent, Meg sipped on a hot cup of sweet tea. The awful salty taste in her mouth was gone and her trembling had abated. Even her dizziness melted away as the tea’s warmth spread through her body.
“So, luv. How long have you been dead?” The fortune teller twisted the end of his lips into a grin, but his eyes—dark and soulful—remained fixed on her.
“I… I don’t know.” Meg looked down at her teacup, unable to hold eye contact with the fortune teller. “I remember my childhood, growing up in Croydon, quite clearly. Everything else is something of a blur. I don’t understand. It’s all so strange.”
“Yes, I see… it happens sometimes,” the fortune teller said, pacing the room.
Meg set down the tea cup on the carpet. “Sometimes? You mean it’s not the first time you’ve met a… someone like me?”
“Oh, it’s not an everyday occurrence, but a few errant souls have made their way to my humble establishment.” The fortune teller looked at his hands. “Comes with the territory, I guess.”
“What’s your name anyway?” Meg got off her chair and took a few timid steps towards him. “Who are you?”
“The name’s Oliver, and I’m… well, I’m a fortune teller.” Oliver took off his gloves and raised his thin, aged-speckled hands towards her. “I’ll help you, luv. I promise.”
Meg closed her eyes as Oliver laid his bony fingers on her temples. Her chest tightened. Her throat tightened. She couldn’t breathe.
“It’s all right, Meg. Just a little longer.”
Oliver’s voice failed to soothe the dreadful feeling. Meg opened her eyes. It was no use. All she could see where thin dots of sunlight, as if through sackcloth. She soon realized she actually was inside a sack as the rough fabric scratched her hands and cheeks. She flailed her arms and legs to free herself, but they’d been bound together. Meg tried to scream, but only managed to gurgle—saltwater pouring into her throat. Her clothes became heavy, drenched with water.
“Just a little more, luv.”
Meg squeezed her eyes shut. The drowning sensation receded. She was sitting down now, but the seat trembled beneath her. She opened her eyes. The tent was gone, and the sun’s rays fell upon her. She rode on a carriage, Dover’s white cliffs to her right, the endless ocean spreading further ahead. A man rode next to her, but it wasn’t Oliver. He was a tall, blond man. She knew that man.
It was her fiancée.
“George?” she whispered. The man turned towards her. A broad smile spread across his face.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it, luv?”
Her thoughts swirled, and she heard the fortune teller’s voice swimming in her mind, “Stay there. There you will find answers.”
The castle rose up before her, and peasants ran alongside the carriage. George swept his hand knocking them out of the way, even as their shouts for just a sixpence reached Meg’s ears. They passed the castle, where she was sure they were going, and the road twisted to the right.
The carriage stopped in front of a church, and as she walked arm and arm with George she realized she was attending her own wedding—something that had happened in the past, a window to what her world had once been.
“Meg, baby, peace be with you forever,” a bearded man said to her, and he kissed her forehead.
Father, the word resonated within her, even though she was not sure how she knew.
A woman with a sweeping skirt and a dirty apron grabbed her hand. She could see the fortune teller’s eyes staring back at her. She shivered as the woman’s claw-like hand tightened her grip.
“Run, far away girl. There is no happiness for you here. Only fear and DEATH. He is the devil,” she said, pointing a bony finger at George.
She stared at George, his smile filled up his whole face, as he held out his hand for her to join him. Meg broke away from the tight grip of the woman, but her shouts filled her ears.
“DEATH, I say. Horror. Drowning. He—” But the woman’s words were cut off, as someone dragged her away, placing their hand over the woman’s mouth to prevent her screams. Meg stared back at the church scene, and it suddenly swirled away from her, a dream of the past, not something she could change.
She was on a bed in an ornate room. A clocked ticked away on the mantel. Her stomach seized up with pains. She looked down to see she was pregnant and in labor. Women rushed in and out of the room. There was too much blood, she could see it seeping from underneath her staining the mattress. The pain filled her own body, and she thought maybe this would be how she died. She fought to escape the pain but the fortune teller’s voice filled her ears, “Stay there,” his words echoed in her head. The pain in her stomach was overwhelming.
The midwife came to check her, shaking her head as she lay a hand on her stomach.
“This one is gone too.”
“That makes three,” the woman dressed in a green emerald dress spat. George’s mother.
The pains gripped her again and the midwife told Meg to push. She did, the feeling making her shudder, and soon she felt the head emerging. When they pulled the baby out he was completely blue, no life left in him, and she let out a howl of anguish, intense grief filling her soul.
“Boy or girl?” George’s mother asked.
“Boy, number three. The bleeding is heavier this time,” the midwife said. “If I can’t stop it she may never bear another child.”
“Does it matter? She only births dead boys anyway. I will go tell the Duke. He will not be happy. Get this mess cleaned up, Ursula.” George’s mother left the room, slamming the door behind her.
Ursula pressed against Meg’s stomach, trying to stop the bleeding.
She grabbed Ursula’s hand and said, “The old woman at the wedding was right.”
“You’ve lost too much blood. You’re delirious,” she said.
“No—the old woman was right. He’ll kill me Ursula, if I don’t give him a child. It’s all he wants, someone to follow in his footsteps. But my womb,” Meg said, hitting her stomach with her fist and clenching against the pain as a red clot escaped from her traitorous body. “My womb is cursed against me. A black flower, dying and decaying, and it will only issue death not life.”
“It’s silly talk. You will see. You will have a live birth. It will happen,” Ursula said, as she kneaded Meg’s stomach and the blood, an endless river of red, flowed from between Meg’s legs.
At the dinner table, time had passed. Silence permeated the grand room. Candle lights flickered. Meg looked down, and her stomach was big with child again, but there was no movement. The baby has already died, and she knew it but she was keeping it from him. The sound of the forks and knives clattered against the plates in the tomb-like room.
A page came in, and whispered something to George. He slammed his fist down against the wooden table, the plates clattered too loud in Meg’s ears: the sound of her dead child within her womb screaming to be freed from its watery grave.
George’s eyes were dark and full of anger, and she thinks of the hopes and wants of the man who walked down the aisle with her. She placed a hand on her stomach willing the decaying child in her womb to live, an impossible feat. She knows in just a few days or hours her stomach will seize up with contractions and the baby will be expelled. George will be angry. He will come to her room and shout at her, curse her to God and the devil, and he will tell Meg she is a good for nothing wife, one who cannot even produce a child, an heir for him.
As the midwife wrapped up the slight body, died in the womb so long ago that the skin had started sloughing from her tiny body, George burst into the room.
“Another dead baby.” He cackled. His voice was too high pitched. “And to think…I had loved you.”
He slammed the door and walked from the room. His words, “I had loved you,” reverberating in her head reminding her of a time not yet arrived when there is too much water in her mouth, and she is drowning. And the last thing she hears before everything goes black are his words, “I had loved you.”