What follows is the second chapter of my novel The College of the Crones.
Seated in the front row, Erin looked over her shoulder, watching the somber villagers file into the council chamber. She smoothed down her long black dress elegantly trimmed with black crocheted lace and pearl buttons. Her ageless face was hidden behind a veil that cascaded over the brim of a black feather-trimmed hat. She adjusted the hat so that it sat correctly on top of her dark braided hair. She pressed her dress smartly down over her knees and crossed her hands in her lap to ensure no one could see them shaking.
I can’t believe I’m here. She closed her eyes with a sigh, and then opened them expecting to see her husband enter the room, rushing over to comfort her. I can’t believe he’s really gone. When Michael had first disappeared, she clung to the hope that he would be found somewhere in the hills, injured but still alive. She left early that night from the prince’s ball, with some of their friends. Michael told her he needed to finish up some business at the castle and would return the next day. He had kissed her hastily, neither imagining this would be their last kiss.
But it was their last kiss, as well as their last embrace, last glance, last smile together. Even now she dared not gaze at his face in her memories. The sharp knives of loss waited in ambush. Instead she took a deep breath and smoothed her dress again. She must remain poised and beautiful, despite her grief. After a few moments, her discipline failed, and her mind returned to that day.
Frantically she had appealed to the prince concerning her husband. The prince and his agents swore they sent Michael home the next morning on one of the royal stable’s finest horses, but the animal returned to the castle riderless that evening. In response to Erin’s plea, their ruler had sent out his best trackers to scour the surrounding countryside.
No trace of her husband was ever found.
Six months later, she realized that her identity had disappeared on that horse as well. After thirty years of being “Michael the blacksmith’s beautiful wife,” she wasn’t sure who she was now. Not a mother-her children didn’t need her anymore. Tom and Katherine were grown up and married with families of their own. Michael was different from most of the men in Beautiful. He truly loved her for who she was, regardless of her beauty. Best friends from the start, they did everything together. Memories of him forced their way to the front of her mind: dancing at the balls, playing as a team at the croquet tournament, holding baby Tommy in his arms. The searing pain stabbed her without mercy. Without Michael, she was a delicate crystal goblet after a party. Stunning but empty.
Even though his body was never found, Michael was declared dead, in accordance with the law in Beautiful. Because of Michael’s great service to their village, the mayor wanted to make sure the blacksmith had a proper memorial. It would also serve as the public declaration that Erin’s period of mourning was over and the time for courting had begun. Her training told her she needed to remarry soon so that she could maintain access to the tonic. Time was running out for her beauty. Every morning she checked her face in the mirror for wrinkles. But Erin knew that a new husband and beauty tonic that came with him would never cover the ugly pain in her heart.
Some of the wives came forward to offer their condolences and admire her fine mourning clothes. Michael would have loved this dress. It contrasts perfectly with my pale skin and pink lips. Her neighbor Madeline approached her with hugs and kisses, wishing her good fortune in seeking her next mate. Adele, already a veteran of six marriages, tried to introduce her to a potential suitor, one of her distant relatives. How can they be so cold? My husband of thirty years is suddenly gone, and they choose this moment, his memorial, to begin the matchmaking.
Michael was Erin’s first husband. Will I ever bond with another mate only to lose him as I did Michael? He carried my heart away with him that night. I have nothing left for another. In a culture where arranged marriages and third and fourth husbands were the norm, it seemed love was a luxury few women enjoyed. But for Erin, life would forever be divided into two parts: life with Michael and life without him. Her loss was a fortress surrounding her, separating her from the kindness of others. She refused to be comforted, preferring instead to remain captive in sorrow.
After some crone singers opened with a solemn song, the mayor began the memorial, saying many fine things about her husband. He praised Michael’s every accomplishment, from the shoeing of the prince’s famous steeds to the construction of the elegant village clock. After he was finished, the prince’s representative delivered a stirring eulogy praising the marvelous weapons Michael had forged. Erin’s children and grandchildren sat dabbing their eyes and sniffing. She sat apart from them, trying not to get caught up in their grief, having too much of it herself to take on more.
Next was their son, Tom, who shared his memories of working by his father’s side. Michael had been a craftsman concerned with every detail, from heating the forge to shaping a nail. This eye for detail ebbed into his parenting duties as well as he spent many hours teaching his son to adopt standards of excellence. “Hot forge, cool head, steady hand, stout heart,” he’d always said.
Tom had taken over the blacksmith business after Michael disappeared, making his father’s shop his own. He’d even chosen an apprentice, and when his little Tommy was old enough, he’d teach the boy his grandfather’s trade as well.
Erin watched her boy, brimming with pride. But her face and body betrayed no emotion at all. She knew if she allowed any feelings to show she would lose all control. It was hard enough to keep the knives quiet in her heart without allowing tears to seep through. She had not cried since she was a young girl. Crying made her eyes look puffy. She kept her eyes on their son. He has grown into a fine man. Michael would have been so proud to see how his son is handling the pressure.
After all the words were shared, songs sung, tears wept, and family members hugged, the crones took the children home to bed while the rest headed over to the pub. After assuring her daughter that she would soon join them, Erin allowed herself to relax in the empty room. As difficult as it was to attend her husband’s memorial, somehow now some of the crushing weight was gone.
But now it was time for her decision. She couldn’t put it off much longer. All week long, gentlemen had left their calling cards at her house. The cards sat in a silver bowl in the entry hall where the crone had collected them. Erin had ignored them like unpaid debts. Her friends all advised her that it was time to move on, but she just couldn’t picture herself as another man’s wife. She twisted the large diamond ring on her finger, unwilling to remove it.
But what was the alternative? She feared the day when her green eyes would turn back to their natural brown color. Then the transformation would begin as she aged rapidly over the next two years until she was a wrinkled, hunchbacked monster. Could she face her reflection each day as she twisted up her hair? She imagined one of the house crone’s wrinkled faces in the place of her lovely one. Nightmares on top of nightmares, and I’m not even asleep!
Without a husband, where would she live? According to their laws, the son inherited the shop and blacksmith trade. Her home would be sold to pay the prince’s death tax. Although she could move in with one of her children, they would be forced to hide her because of her hideousness. Forced to disappear from all social life, she would wander as a wraith through the corridors of the house until she perished in her ugliness.
Am I seriously considering becoming a crone? A shiver ran through her as she realized she was contemplating remaining unmarried. She wasn’t a rebel. Her entire life obediently followed the traditions of her people. But her pain gave her courage she had never known. Courage to honor Michael by allowing her beauty to follow him in death.
If she chose this path, there was another place for her. The College.
She had heard that some widows went there and learned to support themselves. They didn’t need husbands to survive. Erin had always admired the crone healers who came to the village to treat the sick and injured. If she studied to be a healer, she could have a meaningful occupation. Maybe her pain could be buried in her studies so that she could feel like herself again. Her children would not miss her as they rushed to keep up with their social lives. Seeing her would prolong their grief, as she was a reminder of what they had lost.
With a sigh, Erin stood up and walked stiffly toward the door. Even as she argued with herself she knew her mind was set. The memorial service made Michael’s death a reality and it set for her a starting point—or a jumping off point, she thought—to begin anew. It was time to leave her locked tower of grief. She would make an appearance at the wake and graciously thank all of her neighbors and friends. After all, they meant well. Then she would return home for the last time. A few items needed to be packed. She would say her farewell to her children and grandchild. At one time she had loved them deeply, but her heart was lost with Michael. Emptiness drove her to action. She could remain in Riversedge as a shade, but she felt the slightest flutter of hope. It was time to follow it.