“You were up late again last night,” she said into the morning quiet. “I don’t recall hearing you come in.”
Alissa cringed. Ashes, she thought. Her mother hadn’t heard her come in because she had fallen asleep in the garden. Again. “I was out on the rock watching the night,” she admitted, trying to sound as if it meant nothing. “The big one in the squash patch.”
Standing before the sink, her mother sighed, gazing out the window as she continued to clean the pumpkin seeds she had put to soak last night.
“I wasn’t alone,” Alissa protested weakly. “Talon was with me.”
Her mother’s shoulders drooped, but she said nothing. Alissa knew her mother’s opinion wasn’t very high when it came to her one and only pet. That Talon flew at night only made it worse. Kestrels generally didn’t, but no one had told Talon that, and the small oddity was easily overlooked. At least, Alissa thought, she could overlook it.
Alissa’s mouth twisted as she scraped her knife across her toast, rubbing off the burnt parts with a stoic acceptance. It had been toasted only on one side. At least half of it was edible. She glanced up as her mother slumped at the harsh, repetitive sounds. Breakfast was invariably well-done. Alissa had taken over the kitchen in self-defense years ago, but her mother refused to let go of their morning meal.
It didn’t matter how much she scraped at it, Alissa thought. Burnt is burnt. And she pushed the plate with its crusty, black char away with an all too familiar resignation. Slouching on her stool, she stretched until her boots reached the patch of sun that made it into the kitchen. The sound of dripping water slowed. Her mother’s shadow lay long behind her. A frown stole over Alissa as she realized it wasn’t moving. She looked up, straightening in unease. Her mother was still washing the same handful of seeds as when Alissa had come in. Something was up.
“So, what are your plans this morning?” her mother asked, her gaze never shifting as the water dripped unnoticed from her fingers.
“Um,” Alissa grunted, forcing herself to be casual. “I thought the side vegetable patch. The beans are about done. I was going to clear them out, give what’s left to the sheep. Oh! That reminds me,” she blurted, glad to have some bad news that couldn’t possibly be her fault. “I think a dog is about. The sheep have gotten skittish. Even Nanny won’t let me touch her.”
“M-m-m,” was the distant answer, worrying Alissa all the more. Her mother stared out the window, her gaze seeming to go all the way to the unseen plains. The silence grew uneasy. Alissa watched her mother take her eyes from the hills, turning to her hair ribbon draped on its hook next to the sink.
Oh, no! Alissa thought with a tight stab of alarm. Her mother only tied her hair back when she was planning something strenuous like a spring-cleaning, or meeting out punishment. And Alissa hadn’t done anything wrong lately—she thought. Alissa’s eyes widened as the pumpkin seeds fell back into the slop her mother had been rinsing them free of and she absently dried her fingers on her skirt. “Don’t do it,” Alissa breathed, but her mother’s fingers twitched, and reached, and grasped the thin, coppery band of fabric. With a determined abruptness, she gathered her long, dark hair.
Alissa took a shaky breath. She was still all right. If her mother wrapped it about her hair once, she was all right. Once is no problem, twice is lots of work, three, and she was in trouble.
Alissa swallowed hard as her mother wrapped it four times, tying it with a severity Alissa had never seen before. “I should have locked her door,” her mother said to herself as her fingers worked. “I should have shuttered her windows.” Without another word her mother turned, strode into Alissa’s room, and shut the door.
“I’m pig slop,” Alissa whispered. “That’s it. I’m pig slop.” Breakfast forgotten, she tip-toed to the door and put an ear to it. The sharp sounds of cupboards opening and shutting met her. There was an annoyed squawk, followed by a muffled, “Then get out of my way!” and Talon joined her, having flown out the bedroom window and back in through the kitchen’s.
Chittering wildly, the small bird landed upon Alissa’s shoulder. “I don’t know,” she said. Talon cocked her head at the closed door. With a slight gasp, Alissa flung herself back to the table trying to look nonchalant. Her mother didn’t seem to notice Alissa’s artful disinterest as she blew out of her daughter’s room and into her own, a bundle of cloth in her arms, a determined look on her face. The door crashed shut. Alissa’s ear was against it almost before it hit.
“No,” Alissa heard her mutter. “She won’t need that. Yes. Most definitely yes. That would be nice, but it won’t last a week.”
“Oh, Ashes,” Alissa whispered, and feeling decidedly ill, she sank down on her stool at the table. It had been her spot ever since she could pull herself into a chair. She had a bad feeling it wasn’t her spot anymore. [. . .]