Helena sat down on a smooth rock to dip her toes into the lazy creek. The croaking frogs enticed her to crouch down at the water’s edge.
“Helena!” cried a shrill voice.
Her older sister, Gladyssa, was calling for her to continue on the path to a place neither of them wanted to go. Helena stretched in annoyance, taking her time to leave.
“Do you realize that I almost slipped and killed myself while trying to find you down here?” cried Gladyssa.
“Why don’t we just stay out here?” asked Helena. “We don’t have to go in there! There has to be other jobs we could do.”
Her sister’s angry face appeared above the tall weeds.
“Yes we do! We will be late for work if you don’t hurry!”
“That’s the idea.”
“Well, I am not waiting for you anymore. I’ll be on my way down the road and you’ll have to catch up.”
Rolling here eyes, Helena scrambled to get her shoes back on and then ran up to the road to catch up with Gladyssa. She should have been studying literature or history in the comfort of home instead going to work with ruffians at some dirty old mine. If her father were still alive, she would have been able to stay by the water a little longer, because a young lady’s studies always started later in the day than a commoner’s workday. How quickly things changed.
Papa passed away a little over a month ago and everyone was already pushing her to act like it never happened. Though her grief seemed to deepen every day, the well holding her tears had dried up. The less she cried, the worse she felt. Life felt hollow without her father’s easy laugh and strong spirit. It was still difficult for her to believe that he was gone. Forever. How could someone exist one day, be filled with so much love and purpose, only to suddenly be devoid of all life?
Mother could no longer afford to pay property taxes or buy food from the market without Papa’s income. The orchard he worked for could not afford to compensate Mother with the economic crash. Helena had no idea how his life savings dwindled so quickly, but continuing her education was out of the question. She and Gladyssa were the last unmarried daughters living at home, so it was their responsibility to provide for their mother. Everyone told her that it was simply the way of life no matter how unfair it was. The strong survived in hardship while the weak perished. That was the cold reality of life.
Black smoke rose to the overcast sky, giving the already dark canvas a sinister appearance. Helena wrinkled her nose as she anticipated how awful the mines would smell once she was right inside of them.
“Try not to act so ungrateful all the time,” scolded Gladyssa.
“You got to finish school,” said Helena. “I may never be able to.”
Being five years Helena’s senior, Gladyssa was given the chance to slowly ease into adulthood. She got to experience being a girl while she was still a girl.
“If you won’t go to work with me, Mother and I will lock you in your room and feed you bread and loaf ends until you do!”
Helena shuddered, too choked up to reply.
“It hasn’t always been so easy for me, you know,” said Gladyssa with a sigh.
Helena fought the urge to fall onto the road and throw a tantrum, but instead mimicked her taller older sister’s composed gait. She would play the part of a grown woman if she had to. It was her only option if she wanted to keep some semblance of peace in her family, to survive.
“Stop grimacing. No one likes indignant little girls.”
Helena’s cheeks felt as though they had been cast aflame. She was trying so hard to adjust to a new life without Papa, but all everyone did was scold her.
“This is a sad new world indeed,” she sighed.
“You will know the way in which the world works soon enough, little sister.”
“I seem to have a good enough understanding already.”
Gladyssa huffed and looked away. “You’re impossible.”
Helena was careful not to say anything that might provoke her sister further. Neither of them wanted to be at the mine. How she longed to be far away from home, from the mine, to see the far side of the realm where different people thrived in beautiful places. Dipping her feet in the creek as the cool rapids rushed over her clammy skin would have been enough, but her family couldn’t even allow her to do that.
Lost in her head again, she trailed behind her sister.
“Stop dawdling,” snapped Gladyssa.
“I’m not as tall as you!” cried Helena. “I can’t walk that fast.”
“You’ll learn to. You will need to perform every task at the mine exactly as they tell you to. Maybe they will promote you one day. That is your only option if you hope to be self-sufficient. Understand?”
The sisters arrived at the mine and stepped inside the high-walled cave. Unsmiling faces that were covered in soot turned their way then they resumed their task of hacking at the mine’s walls. No one cared that they recently lost their father. By the looks of things, they all lost someone or something dear to them. Helena wanted to hate them all for adding to her misery.
A big man even filthier than the others waved the two sisters over.
“This is the supervisor who we answer to,” whispered Gladyssa. “Do everything he tells you.”
Helena nodded warily and followed her. The prison sentence had begun.
The supervisor gave each of them a one-piece suit to wear over their homespun dresses then he pointed to a section of rock that hadn’t been destroyed by picks yet. Helena walked over to the stack of unused tools and searched for the smallest one.
“Think, girl!” cried Gladyssa. “We need to change into our mine clothes before we can start working.”
She stepped behind her flustered sister, amazed that someone in her family could be so cruel to her during such a difficult time. The two of them marched through the dim looking for a nook where they could put on their work suits. The world was becoming darker and there was no one she could turn to. A few of the men close by stopped what they were doing to watch them. Gladyssa already warned her not to make eye contact for too long with anyone who worked there. Helena had an inkling that it was going to be the longest day of her life.
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