Updated: Mar 8
Learn more about some of my favorite secondary characters from Hope for Charity, my upcoming novel set in 18th century England, in this series, The Backstory.
Sissy: Virtue/Part 1
by Sandy Kay Slawson
Cecilia Lowell, Sissy, flipped toward her little sister, Aida, and smoothed the hair away from her face. The fifteen-year-old wished she might let the poor girl sleep but feared the consequences if she did. Mum, a midwife, left in the middle of the night and hadn’t returned, which meant she and Aida had to make breakfast.
“Aida, time to awake, love.”
Aida twisted to her other side. “Five more minutes, please, Sissy. I’m so tired.”
“You don’t want Da to come in and see you still abed, do ya?” Sissy whispered as she arose from their straw mattress and pulled the covers off Aida.
The eleven-year-old sat upright with worry etched between her young brows. Mousy, brown braids mussed with flyaway hairs everywhere made her appear much younger. Sissy grinned as Aida swiped at the hair that clung to her cheek. "Here, dearie, I'll get it for you." Sissy tucked the wayward strand behind Aida's ear.
“Has he stirred yet?” said Aida.
“Not that I’ve heard. Let’s hurry before he does. I’ll start the fire if you fetch the water for the mush,” said Sissy.
Aida rose from the pallet, and the two girls straightened the covers together. Behind a screen, they changed into wool dresses, boots, aprons, and mob caps before they separated to tend to the chores.
By the time Aida returned with the water, Sissy had the fire built, and the cornmeal and salt set out to make the mush. Once she brought the salted water to a boil, she added the cornmeal and let it cook until it thickened. After it reached the right consistency, she used a large hook to pull the pot further from the fire.
“I wish we had milk to cook it in. ’Tis much better that way,” said Aida in her soft voice.
“And a bit of syrup to sweeten it —.” A cough came from the one bedroom in the apartment. Sissy poured the rest of the water into the teapot and placed it over the fire for tea. Aida hurried to set the table with four wooden bowls and spoons. The one porcelain tea cup went by mum’s bowl, and the three tin mugs by the other places.
A tap on the door sent Aida to open it for mum, who hurried into the cramped kitchen and set a basket in her rocker. “Ahh, ’tis glad I am to see you girls about your duties. Has your Da awoken?”
“We’ve not seen him,” said Sissy.
“Did someone have a babe, Mum?” Aida said.
“Mrs. Murphy. The way her husband pounded on the door, you’d think she’d never bore a child before, but this one made the fifth,” said Mum.
“Are Mrs. Murphy and the babe well?” Aida said.
“Both hearty they are, but ’tis another girl. A shame when they have four already.”
“Can’t a man rest in his own ‘ome?” Da said as he entered the kitchen with his hair mussed and clothes in disarray.
Sissy turned to finish the tea. They’d lived in this apartment long before he came around. Her and Aida’s stepfather took far more than he gave, but the wretch’s brutal temper kept them silent as usual.
As they ate their meager breakfast, Da said, “Did Murphy pay for your trouble?”
Mum rose and retrieved a crock covered with a piece of cloth tied with twine from her basket. “He gave us a crock of butter.”
“May we have some for our —?” Aida clamped her mouth shut when Da glared in her direction.
“Butter? What good is butter? Never thee mind. I’ll sell it. No one touch a dollop. I’ll find a buyer somewhere,” said Da.
“Sell it? But we’ve not had butter in ages.” Sissy realized her mistake as soon as she spoke the words. Before she could jump out of reach, Da grabbed her braid at the nape of her neck.
“Don’t hurt her… Cecilia is right, and I wanted to give the girls this treat,” said Mum.
“Good thing I’m ‘ere or you’d spoil any usefulness out o’ them.” Da tilted Sissy’s head back a bit more, then leaned close and whispered, “Don’t defy me, lass, or I’ll take ye over me knee.”
With her hair in Da’s grip, Sissy couldn’t turn away from his foul breath and spittle or the gleam that threatened a worse fate.
“Sell the butter then. Just let Cecilia be,” said mum. Da released Sissy after one more harsh tug. Mum offered her an apologetic frown, then addressed Da again. “Whatever you earn from the sale can go to other necessities or perhaps the rent. Bring me the coins and I’ll manage it,” said Mum as she rose from her chair.
“Me own wife doesn’t trust me. Why am I cursed with a ‘ouse full of ungrateful, heavy baggage?” Da leaned back and folded his beefy arms. “I’ll take the butter and spend the money ‘ow I please.”
After Da left with the crock, no one spoke out loud about their concerns. Bitter resentment burned within Sissy at mum’s impotence. This man she burdened the household with two years hence had been naught but trouble. Everyone knew they’d never see the money, and he wouldn’t return until every half penny went to buy liquor.
“Why don’t you hide your earnings to keep his grubby paws off of it?” Sissy said a couple of hours later after mum awoke from a nap.
Mum rubbed her forehead and sank onto a stool by the fire. “I do when I’m paid in coins, but if they give me a crock of butter or some other type of payment, there’s not much to be done about it except hope your Da is in a benevolent mood.”
“He’s not my father, and I wish you’d never married him,” said Sissy with a huff, then grabbed a large woven basket and went outside to collect the laundry off the line.
Later that afternoon, Sissy stirred a pot of cabbage soup and wished she’d been able to go with her mother and Aida, who left to purchase day-old bread from the Inn at the town center. Regret at the anger she directed at mum earlier that day made her castigate herself every time she remembered the morn’s disappointment.
Why did she blame mum for that man’s unacceptable behavior? He had fooled each of them with his supposed charm for the first several months. They all believed his lies. There’s no work to be had… I’ve hurt me back and must heal before I try to find a job… A robber accosted me on the street and stole the money… After a while, he stopped with the tales and excuses and did what he wanted, heedless of the turmoil and misery he caused the family.
When the latch clicked, and the door opened, she spun to greet mum with an apology, but her stepfather stumbled in instead.
“Wife?” Da's bellow reverberated throughout the tiny apartment.
“She’s gone to buy bread,” Sissy said and resumed her work at the hearth. Every muscle tightened, and she jumped at his slightest movements.
“Come ‘ere. Help me take off these boots,” Da said with a pronounced slur.
Please come home, Mum.
When Sissy glanced toward Da, his bloodshot lure made fear bubble in her chest. The changes over the last year from child to young woman caused Da’s attention on Sissy to switch from the physical maltreatment alone to something more licentious and far from fatherly. Lord, please, let them come home. Please let them come home.
“I s-said come ‘ere.” Da near growled the words and leaned closer. He licked cracked lips and rubbed meaty hands together. With a heavy-lidded, lustful stare, he dared her to disobey.
“One m-minute. I-I must…” Think. Think. If she got within arm’s reach with no one around, he might... he would... “stir the soup and pull it further from the flames or it might boil out.” Sissy worked slow but not too slow lest her subterfuge became obvious. She scanned the area around the hearth for some form of protection. Anything to protect her virtue. Yes. The knife she cut the cabbage with lay nearby. As she grabbed the wooden handle to the steel blade and spun to confront Da, the outside door swung ajar.
“We found a grand loaf for our—.” Mother’s voice faded as her line of sight fell on the blade in Sissy’s white-knuckled fist. “What’s going on here?”
Da arose from his chair, pulled mum and Aida the rest of the way into the tenement, then closed the door. He strode toward Sissy and took the knife out of her grip with minimal effort. “Cecilia just said she couldn’t wait to slice our bread for supper. Isn’t that right, Sissy?”
Tell the truth. Tell the truth, Sissy's mind’s voice shouted, but she held no illusions. If she did… he’d kill them. He’d kill them all.