The keening wind whistled through the swaying trees, capturing leaves and whisking them away to the outside world. She silently watched the leaves dance elegantly with the breeze, envying their freedom. She felt the wind tug at her, and she desperately yearned to join it, to drift up over the towering wall and fly away. Ordinarily, such a thought would have depressed her, but now a smile played delicately upon her lips. For the first time in twelve long years, she had been given hope. Beautiful, beautiful hope. Happiness flushed her cheeks and lent a sparkle to her dark eyes. Her pace gradually quickened to a lively skip, and a joyful laugh tore from her lips. Her brown hair loosened from its tight bun and fell in wisps around her face, softening her features and making her look younger than her forty-one years.
Soon, she could be free - if not to leave the compound, then to live in blissful luxury. Her days would no longer be a bleak haze of isolation and poverty, but would be vibrant and pleasurable. She would have good food and fancy clothes, card games and fine art. She would be the Leader’s mother-in-law and become respected in the community, regardless of the fact he was fifteen years her senior. All that was needed now was for her daughter to accept his proposal and relinquish that frivolous book, which she should have long outgrown.
As she neared her house, she began to calm herself down. She ran her hands through her untidy hair, quickly pulling it back into a neat up-do, before smoothing down her dress and fanning at her flushed face. After composing herself with a few deep breaths, she opened the door and came face to face with her eldest daughter.
‘Oh...’ Her daughter gasped, and fell back a few paces.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ She frowned at the girl, who met her gaze defiantly.
‘For a walk, Sister.’ She stood to one side as her mother passed her in the hall, then followed her into the kitchen. ‘How was tonight?’
Her mother was silent for a few moments as she reached for a glass and turned on the sink tap. ‘Oh, damn it,’ she murmured, shaking the faucet. ‘Broken again?’ She slammed the glass down on the counter, cursing under her breath. Calm down, she thought to herself. It’s only a matter of time. A small bubble of happiness swelled within her, and she smiled before turning back to her daughter. ‘It was good.’
‘That’s good, Sister.’ Her daughter looked bemused as she brushed past her to get to the dining room. A sudden thought flashed through her mind, she hasn’t seen me smile since she was five.
Most of the time, she could deal with her emotional estrangement from her daughter; but other times, it cut her like a knife.
‘Come here,’ she called out, seating herself at the table. ‘I have something to discuss.’
‘Yes, Sister?’ Her daughter seated herself opposite, her flaxen hair spilling over her shoulders as she drew the chair closer to the table.
‘Tonight, the Leader made an interesting offer. One that you might be interested in.’ Not that you have a choice.
She cleared her throat, suddenly nervous. ‘In exchange for your hand in marriage and your book of fairytales, the Leader will give us luxury, comfort and immense wealth.’
‘You heard me.’
‘I hate that man.’
‘He wants you, that’s all that matters.’
‘He can’t have my book, no one can have my book.’ She gripped the table, her voice shaking with panic. ‘It’s my book.’
‘If you don’t do what he wants, he could destroy you.’
‘Death is a preferable fate to becoming his bride.’
‘DAMN IT.’ She slammed her fists down on the table, her hopes of happiness fading faster by the second. Her daughter watched in silent shock as tears began to flood her mother’s eyes, threatening to spill down her cheeks. ‘You selfish, heartless girl!’ She buried her head in her hands, weeping openly now, choking out words between sobs. ‘How dare you take away my one chance of happiness?’
‘I owe you nothing.’ Her daughter’s voice was uncommonly cold. She narrowed her eyes, staring coolly at her bawling mother. ‘You destroyed my every chance of happiness when you brought me here.’
Her mother looked up at her with red eyes. ‘Do you really think,’ her voice quavered, ‘that I wanted to come?’
A cacophony of bright sound spilled from the living room, a swirling mix of energetic music and a child’s laughter. She smiled slightly as she stirred the cake mixture, gazing at her young daughter as she watched television. She envied the young. They were so easily amused, and so blissfully unaware of life’s many pressures, of mortgages, of careers, of marriages held together by the finest of threads.
She sighed as she scraped the mixture into the tin, then ran her finger around the inside of the bowl and licked it quickly, doing what she was forever telling her daughter not to. She snuck a glance at the five year old, who was still happily transfixed to the television, and laughed at her own guilt.
When the tin was placed in the oven, and the rich chocolate aroma floated throughout the house, she sat herself down at the dining room table and waited for him to come home. Her fingers tapped out an agitated tattoo on the table top as she stared at the clock, watching the seconds slowly bleed into each other. Six-thirty. Half an hour since he should have been home. Excuses flooded her mind. He has a lot of work to finish. He’s stuck in traffic. There’s been an accident. He’s with another woman. A tight knot of tears formed at the base of her throat, and she pushed away the unwelcome thoughts and went to check on her cake.
She had just opened the oven door when she heard the familiar rumble of his car pulling into the driveway. Immediately she forgot about the cake, and went to the front door to greet him. He stood in the hallway, unbuttoning his coat and taking off his shoes. He saw her and smiled. ‘Hey.’
‘I know. Traffic.’ He brushed past her, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. ‘Smells good.’
‘Thanks.’ She watched him kneel down and peer into the oven with a child-like impatience. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be done soon.’
He grinned. ‘Yum.’ He leant against the kitchen sink, looking around the kitchen. ‘Is there anything else for dinner?’
‘No. Just cake.’
‘I’m glad that you’re instilling our daughter with healthy eating habits at such a young age.’
‘Well, I try my best.’ They both smiled at each other, then quickly dropped eye contact, falling into an awkward silence.
Suddenly, the tears returned with renewed force, and she pressed her hand against her mouth, choking back sobs. In her mind’s eye she saw him with the other woman, the flame-headed beauty with whom she had caught him cheating. She doubled over, crippled by the pain that still rubbed so raw.
‘Look, I...’ He turned away, unable to bear the sight of her grief. ‘I’m so sorry...’
She could have kicked him out of the house then and there, and she nearly had. But she loved him too much to let him go.
He was standing in front of her now, holding out a thin booklet as though it was a peace offering. ‘I want to make it up to you so badly, babe. And I think this is a way that I can.’
She took it from him, distrusting. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s a society of Christians who seek to serve their God by living simply and peacefully, and devoting their lives to the good of others.’ She looked down and saw he had quoted straight out of the pamphlet.
He coloured slightly. ‘A group of them were handing out pamphlets at the mall today.’
‘I didn’t know you were religious.’
‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me.’
She looked away. You’re right. I thought you loved me enough to be faithful. I was wrong.
‘So, what do you think?’
‘Do you seriously expect me to say yes?’
He took her hand. ‘No, but I expect you to seriously consider the future of this family. I know I’ve made mistakes, and I can’t apologise enough. But this is our chance to mend our relationship, to provide stability for our daughter.’
‘How? Tell me, how do you think this will mend anything? At best it’ll be like a Band-Aid stuck on a gaping wound – merely hiding the fact that something is terribly wrong.’ She let go of his hand, and gave back the pamphlet. ‘No religious fad will change the fact that you cheated on me.’
‘But I can change, babe. Give me a chance. Maybe religion will straighten me out.’ He pleaded with her, his voice desperate. ‘Maybe we need a change of lifestyle to keep our family together.’
‘I really don’t think it’s a good idea.’
‘Please. If you don’t come with me, I’ll go myself. And you don’t want our daughter to grow up without a father.’
She froze, remembering her own father-less childhood. Even though she was angry at his subtle blackmail, she found herself relenting. She turned to look at her daughter, who deserved so much more.
‘Ok. I’ll do it.’