Harriet Hastings pushed open the door to her family’s little cottage and stepped inside, grievously aware how empty it was.
How permanently empty it would be from now on.
Moving as slowly as a figure in a dream, she closed the door against the evening chill and untied her black bonnet with shaky fingers.
It was just her now.
She alone was all that remained of the happy little Hastings family.
The thought would have been enough to make her cry, if she’d had any tears left. But all the weeping of the past few days had wrung her heart dry. As she slumped down onto her father’s fireside armchair, her mother’s vacant rocking chair loomed in front of her.
Harriet leaned her head back, wishing the fabric of the chair’s headrest was still imbued with her father’s comforting scent. But four months of living had removed every trace. Only in her memory did it — and his image — remain.
Her lower lip trembled as she remembered staring through misty eyes at the pale wooden box heaped over with crumbled dirt. As she’d stood beside her mother in the cold, gloomy cemetery, each fresh sifting of earth scattered atop the coffin had reinforced the divide that’d ruptured their family — Harriet and her mother on one side, her now-deceased father on the other.
It had happened so suddenly. Had taken Harriet so unawares.
Her chest tightened as she remembered the neighbours and strangers from their little market town huddled mournfully around the graveside, their sobs and caresses of sympathy surrounding Harriet and her mother.
Nothing else bad will happen — that’s what Mamma had said.
We’ll make it somehow.
And, for a while, they did, scraping together just enough money to survive.
The cottage was never the same, though. It hadn’t seemed like home without her father there.
Instead of housing a small family of humble means, it contained only two penniless ladies, shuffling through the days with weary muscles and enervated hearts.
As the weeks passed, Harriet and her mother did what they could to carry on, but the affectionate conversation and gentle laughter that’d once filled their home had been all but silenced. The only sounds echoing against the cottage walls had been their many sighs.
Then, the coughs.
It’d been clear that her mother was tired — they both were. But as the colour in her cheeks had grown paler each passing day, and as her coughing kept Harriet awake longer each night, Harriet had known.
Mamma couldn’t keep her promise.
And, only a few days ago, she’d broken it forever.
Harriet had trudged home from the mill, her stomach growling for food. She’d slipped inside the house, trying not to disturb the nap her mother needed around that time of day.
Only that day, her mother wasn’t napping.
That day, Harriet had entered the kitchen to find her mother slumped on the floor, still and pale, and frightfully cold.
Harriet’s eyes squeezed shut as the ghastly memories tore through her heart.
Earlier today, strangers and neighbours had squeezed her hands at the snow-dusted cemetery as she’d stared at the side-by-side mounds of earth that’d swallowed up both her parents.
As the hot tears had spilled down her freezing face, she’d wished she had never believed her mother’s promise.
And she’d prayed that God would help her never to be so naïve again.