My wrists, rubbed raw from the restraints and long ride, stung with each jounce of the cart. Dust from the road swirled about, irritating my eyes and nose. Even through the cloud of dust, when the road curved ahead, I could see into Thomas’ cart. Still bent over, he never looked up.
After a while, sunlight splintered through the trees, blinding me with memories of Mother. She would’ve loved the bright afternoon. Her last birthday had fallen on a day like this. She’d said to us early that morning, “Come along children, let’s save our chores for later. I want to listen to a tree today.”
“Listen to a tree?” Mason and I had said together.
“Yes, let’s go for a walk and find a tree as wide as...” She rushed over to Father and wrapped her arms around his waist. “…As wide as this.”
My father chuckled. “I beg your pardon?” He sucked in his belly and patted it several times.
We giggled as Mother kissed his cheek. “And it must have thin bark.”
After pointing out several that Mother said wouldn’t do, Mason proudly found a tree with smooth bark. Mother approved.
We each pressed an ear against its trunk, and Mother whispered, “Be very still. You’ll hear it. Give it a moment and you’ll hear the sap flow through the tree.”
Mason said first, “I hear it! I hear it!” He bounced up and down.
“I haven’t. Shhh,” I said.
Facing me, Mason leaned against the tree again. He stared at me with big, excited eyes and waited. I heard the sap right away but enjoyed my brother’s enthusiasm and the gap between his two front teeth when he smiled. When he looked as if he’d burst with anticipation and could no longer stand still, I said, “I hear it! It sounds like someone is blowing in my ear.”
“Yes, yes! It does!” Mason jumped into Father’s outstretched arms. “Did you hear it, Father?”
He smiled. “Yes, my boy. I heard it indeed. In fact, the tree whispered something quite special to me.”
Mason’s mouth opened wide before he said, “It did? What’d it say, Father? Tell me. Tell us all. Please.” He wiggled in Father’s arms.
“It said my waist was much smaller than the tree’s.”
We all laughed and stayed for a long time listening to all sides of the tree, following the sugary sweet life flowing behind the bark.
* * * *
The cart bumped over a rut, jolting me from my memory. Steadying myself, I pressed my feet firmly on the floor. I no longer wanted to look outside, let the sun touch my cheeks, see any trees, or think on just how far from home we had traveled. I lowered my head and focused on the tiny pebbles bouncing on the floorboards as the cart rolled onward. Guilt laced my thoughts, but I couldn’t help but wonder why my mother had done this. Weighted by sorrow, my body grew heavy, and if it weren’t for the restraints, I’d have crumpled onto the floor.
I had no idea how much more time passed. Shadows on the cart’s floor lengthened, nearly reaching my feet, when I heard voices trickling through trees.
Ahead, grey and weathered, the massive stone four-hundred-year-old SouthwaterBridge spanned across the icy and wild Tamse River. I quickly counted nineteen arches. Under the farthest arch, nearly the width of the bridge, a giant wheel turned slowly. It churned the water, swirling it in all directions. Waves slapped against the arched sides, staining the granite a dark grey. Boats swung wide, paddling through calmer water. Forgetting my hands were bound, I tried to reach for my jasper stone, hoping there was truth to its protective quality, suddenly afraid of crossing the bridge while tied to a cart.
The horse’s hooves changed to a rhythmic clop, as the cart rolled over the cobblestones, and based on my father’s descriptions, I guessed we were crossing the north end of the bridge.
I’d never crossed the Southwater Bridge or boated on the river. I’d never traveled this far. No reason for a girl my age to do so. Mother said I belonged at home, and we were never idle—our days were filled with chores. I pulled weeds from the herb garden and hung the linens, knowing better than to complain of the blisters on my hands from chopping kindling or the smell of the chamber pots when I emptied them each morning. For I knew, if I proved my diligence, Mother would teach me candle making and share her knowledge of herbs. A bit of her secret world.
Burke inched the cart past peddlers who sold apples and eggs from portable stalls that cluttered the narrow road and made travel across the bridge crowded and slow. People walked in all directions, purpose in their steps. Beggars slept in the shadows with dogs curled at their sides, shaded by three- and four-story buildings lining the sides of the massive bridge. Shops occupied the lower levels, people made their homes above. Crammed close together, they squeezed out the view of the river below.
A woman lifted a bucket over the ledge of her balcony and dumped it, splashing dirty water against the cobblestones and soaking the boots of a man carrying a sack of grain on his shoulder. He yelled and shook his fist at her, but she disappeared into her house without comment.
I was very far from home.