Asylum ~ 1899 ~ Spring
MAGGIE DELITO HID in her secret place far above High Hill’s west field. The massive limbs of an old weeping willow tree easily held her twelve-year-old frame. Father knew of her secret place, and she peeked through the willow’s trailing branches to see him crossing the field toward her. With each step, he planted his walking stick into the earth and pushed it away as if driving a raft upriver. His gait was determined, his path direct. His leather boots crushed a trail in the tall grass, though he spared wild flowers if he could.
Father touched a flame to his pipe until puffs of blue smoke curled up from under the brim of his woolen hat. He tugged at the ends of his mustache, something he did when he was troubled, and twisted them upward to form a deceptive grin, masking what his purpose might be.
Twigs snapped underfoot as he neared. At last, his broad shoulders rested against the tree as he tapped his staff twice against the bark, his signal for Maggie to descend.
Eager arms and fit legs hugged the familiar limb as she eased toward the trunk. A small branch snagged the ruffle of her blue calico dress, but a sharp tug freed the cloth. Father waited below with his good ear tilted as if he listened for the sound of skirts rustling against bark. He braced himself against the trunk when she stepped onto his shoulders.
She slid to the ground and stood before him, hiding the tattered fabric. Father glanced at the dress clenched in her fist and offered a forgiving smile and an outstretched hand.
Not a word passed between them as they strolled alongside the stacked stone wall that divided the east and west fields. Father cherished the open space in the middle of the meadows. It was his secret place. He leaned his walking stick against the wall and snuffed smoldering tobacco from his pipe before setting it on the stone. With his handkerchief wrapped around his forefinger, he wiped smudges from her face. Their eyes didn’t meet until he lifted her onto his lap and snuggled his arms around her.
“You’re leaving again, aren’t you? Like last year and the year before. I don’t want you to go.” She jumped off his knee, pulled herself free, and socked his legs with her fists.
He let her.
“Business demands I leave within the week, but until then, we will spend all of our time together.” The tips of his fingers brushed her tousled hair, nudging curly auburn bangs away from her eyes. “Who is hiding under there?”
Maggie’s chin puckered and quivered.
Father angled his head. “Are you about to irrigate the fields?”
She held back a smile to punish him—and stifled her tears to please him. “Only you and me, you promise? Not Sally and not Carlotta?”
“Do you call me Antonio?”
The absurd suggestion made her giggle. “Father, I could not.”
“Then you must not call your mother, Carlotta. Even Salvatore addresses her properly.”
“I don’t care what Sally names her.”
His eyes rolled in an exaggerated and comical way. “And you must not call your brother by a woman’s name. Address people by proper Christian names.”
“He lets me call him Sally.” She paused and glanced aside. “So long as no older boys are near.”
“Carlotta did not give birth to him, yet he shows her more respect. What am I to do with you?”
When Father traveled, a carefree life had been impossible for Maggie. Carlotta claimed her stern discipline was necessary to “compensate for Father’s pampering.” Pampering! Normally, High Hill was the family’s sanctuary from the noisy, dirty streets of the booming manufacturing town of Barrows. But when he was gone, Carlotta refashioned privacy into Maggie’s prison. No tutors. No friends. No visitors. She was locked in her room at night while Carlotta visited the town or tavern. Even servants were sent away. Telling Father would surely worsen her plight. And she did not tell him Carlotta, during a berating, had admitted she had agreed to bear a child merely to satisfy his condition of marriage. As long as I mind boundaries, nothing bad can happen.
“I wish I’d been born to Sally’s mother. Carlotta hates me.”
Father made the sign of the cross as he did when anyone spoke of his first wife and greatest love. “You are my world. Had Carlotta not given birth to you, I would not have my beautiful Sunshine.” He winked. “Even with your childish pout.” With the softest touch, his finger raised her chin until their eyes met.
Maggie locked her hands on her hips and demanded, “For how long will you be abroad?”
“Four months. Perhaps six. Until Christmas, I expect.”
A long, slow shiver rattled her.
“Are you cold?” Father briskly rubbed her arms.
“Not cold. I’m … I’m …” Maggie considered the most descriptive language she could recall from her dictionary studies. “I’m fraught with worry.”
“Fraught, are you?” Father choked on his laughter, but a broad grin bared his thoughts.
“You have been reading too much of somber poets. There is no cause for concern, the servants will care for you. I have made this journey many times and will bring wonderful things when I return.”
From an inside coat pocket, he pulled his compass. He was never without it. Fashioned like a pocket watch, a photograph was tucked in its cover like a lady might keep in a locket. “I carry a portrait of you and Salvatore. Yours is the face I see when I feel lost, and I am reminded of where I must return.”
He adjusted the shell comb in her hair, a gift from his last visit to London. Since that visit, the combs had been manufactured at the Delito factory. “I will bring something special, perhaps a golden brooch or rose cameo from Florence that you can keep in your treasure chest.” The fancy jewelry box from Morocco had been carved especially for her, with a strong lock and a key that only she possessed. The chest would be a safe place to hide secret things if she had any. She clutched her father tighter.
“You are my big girl now. Do you remember the time I sailed with Nellie Bly?”
“I remember.” Father had repeated the tale many times.
“It was autumn when I left. A season of storms.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance as if even nature responded when Father spoke.
“The first night was the roughest.” He hoisted Maggie onto his knee and pitched from side to side like a rocking ship.
A sudden current rippled across the fields. Swaying grasses changed to cerulean blue and the fields became the sea. Ocean swells tore the horizon. White caps and wind. She took shelter in the warmth of Father’s woolen coat and pressed against him, listening to the steady beat of his heart, she felt safe.
“Nellie was there. The young woman exploring the world showed more courage than some who sailed, and her actions helped the weak and the poor and the ill.”
Father suggested a broader boundary when he spoke to her of Nellie. I’m not Nellie. Though she wanted to be. Nellie was a model to follow, a friend she could hold inside herself to measure her deeds and weigh their merit. She would make Father proud. Yes, he would leave and return, only to leave again. It was meant to be.
Maggie raised her head. The storm was now upon them. Rain stung her face.
“Salvatore will be joining me on this voyage.”
The cold slice of a dagger could not have hurt her more. “NO!” Abandoned and betrayed and far more than angry, a wave of fear swamped her. “Not both of you.”
“He is almost eighteen. Time for him to take his bride.”
“Sally fears the water, but I love the sea. Father, take me. I’ll bring home his bride. We’ll become friends. I can tell her what a good brother he is and what a fine husband he will be.”
Father gripped her arms and glared into her eyes. “Margaret Rosa. Salvatore will journey with me and that is my final word.”
“You can’t leave me alone with her. You don’t know what she’s like when you’re gone.”
“What do you speak of? What do you fear?”
Maggie pushed and pulled and freed herself from his hold. She slapped the top of the wall and ran as fast as the wind, fleeing his words as if the devil had spit them into her ears. Footsteps pounded so hard against the earth, they shook her bones.
Father called after her. “Who frightens you?”
Maggie glanced back over her shoulder. “Carlotta Delito.” She screamed, “CARLOTTA.”
~ end of chapter two ~