Oct 7th 2022
Alice watched the man ride off and shuddered in disgust. Not at him, he had been decent enough in his way, but at herself. What she had done made her feel unclean, so unclean she needed to bathe without delay. Although she waited, as the old witch had recommended. If the seed didn’t take, her betrayal would be for nothing.
After counting a long, shameful minute under the midday sun, she nodded. Yes. A bath. It would wash away her sweat, and the thick cologne the departing visitor had worn.
But first, she stripped the bed sheets. Heading back to their meagre cottage, pushing strands of her sweat laden, golden hair out of her face. Her Phil deserved better than to sleep on the sheets she had betrayed him with, and the last thing she wanted was for him to return to evidence of her adultery.
Even if it was to provide him with a child. She focused on that as she shoved the washing into the hot water she’d boiled before her guest arrived. Working her frustrations out on the linen until her hands felt red raw.
And then she kept going, pounding and scrubbing as if she could wash away the guilt itself. Annis, the witch in the next village, had told her she wasn’t barren. That it was Phil who couldn’t provide what she needed. Alice loved Phil in every way imaginable. The kindest, most thoughtful man she had ever met. But there was one thing he just couldn’t give her, despite five years of trying.
Alice wanted to burn the sheets. Instead she hung them on the washing line, next to one of Phil’s shirts, and her dresses, fluttering in the wind of their little garden. All she dreamed of was a small shirt or dress, next to it. She had pictured it so long she could see the cut, the colour and even the grass stains she would jokingly chide her for.
It would be worthwhile. It wasn’t the first time she had sent Phil for strawberries, or even the second time. The witch had advised her to send him for them out of season, a quest he couldn’t fulfil. While the ten passing visitors had been happy to help fulfil her need.
At least she wouldn’t need to again, Annis has said ten times to be sure. Which was good, with the seasons turning she would have needed a new excuse before long.
Alice almost sobbed as she thought how Phil had believed her need for strawberries, as she stood in the vegetable patch he so lovingly tended. Each time accepting the unreasonable request, that she just had a craving. Why wouldn’t he? She had never lied to him before. And, she vowed, never would again. No matter how long the guilt stayed with her.
Footsteps sounded behind her, tumbling her from her thoughts. She turned to see Phil running into the garden, his face bright red beneath his blonde hair. Sweat pouring from his trim frame, with both hands clutched tightly together.
Panic filled Alice, she could feel sweat pooling in her feet. Had he seen the departing guest? Did he know? “Phil?”
Phil moved around the hanging laundry, opening his hands. Two hands full of strawberries almost bursting with ripeness.
Alice laughed, more from relief than joy. It was far too early for strawberries. She knew that, but she took them and stared. Entranced by the plumpness, she took a bite and let the sweet juice explode into her mouth with the taste of summer. Only then, did she ask, “How?”
“They were from Annis’s garden.”
The sweetness turned to ashes in Alice’s mouth. “What? Why?”
“I had to promise her something, our first-born child.” Phil grimaced for a second, but recovered quickly with a smile. “It felt like a good trade given we can’t have any. And she said we can go back for as many as we want.”
The ash taste continued in Alice’s mouth, she’d never eat another strawberry again. As if on cue, nausea hit her like a wave. She staggered to her feet and stumbled away from Phil. Nausea raking her harshly, she clutched her stomach and vomited, red chunks of strawberry staining the grass.
Phil’s hands softly patted Alice’s back. “I just really wanted to give you the strawberries. You seemed so excited by them.”
Alice turned to stare, she had a horrible feeling that it wasn’t the strawberries. She put a hand over her womb and cried.
“What?” Phil opened and closed his mouth, searching for words and finding nothing there. “I thought we couldn’t?”
“I know.” Alice turned, she couldn’t look at him. She had to focus on something else. The bedsheets filled her gaze. “We must have been blessed.”
Author Bio: Rick Danforth lives in in Yorkshire, and works as a Systems Architect to fund his writing habit. He has had several short stories published in a variety of venues including Etherea and Translunar Traveler’s Lounge.
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