When All That Is Left Is Hope

The woman’s eyes had glazed over at the mention of Jeremiah and she stood some distance away, brooding. She didn’t seem to see anything – or anything in the real world at least. Despite her best instincts to stay away from the old woman, Linda felt an urge somewhere in the depths of her heart to come closer. She left the comforting shadow of James’s strong body and edged slowly towards the still woman. It was as if she was in a trance, her eyes unseeing, her chest barely rising as she breathed, her crooked fingers just curled enough to hold the little wooden horse.


The wooden toy somehow seemed familiar. Perhaps she had seen it somewhere on a photo on the orphanage’s website where they’d shown their facilities. Perhaps she had so often imagined an older Jeremiah playing with his wooden horses that any wooden horse would seem familiar. She was about to ask what the woman had been doing amongst the rubble of the orphanage’s many rooms when the elder suddenly snapped out of her daze and turned a pair of fierce eyes on Linda’s worried face. An intense fire, full of hatred and energy, seemed to burn in them. Gone was the misty glaze, replaced by a completely decided determination to hurt someone.


“You,” the woman spoke, her voice gaining strength as she neared Linda and stared into the younger woman’s face. Her breath smelt of rotting teeth, while dirt and sweat greased her skin, and yet Linda could not turn away from the bright amber burning in her angry eyes. “You betrayed him – Jeremiah!” she spat, sending particles of saliva flying across the narrow gap between the women to land on Linda’s cheeks.


Linda blinked, stupefied. “I-I never!” she stuttered, stumbling over her next words as she tried to make sense of this strange creature. “I didn’t betray him. A fire burned down the orphanage! None of the children survived, or all those that did got kidnapped, and were never found!” She rushed to defend herself and explain the situation as she had always known it, but all this time, a single nerve in the back of her brain kept telling her to ask one simple question. “How do you know Jeremiah? It was I who gave him that name. It wasn’t yet official. Only I and a couple of other ladies working at the orphanage, who were in charge of Jeremiah’s adoption paperwork, knew!”


The old woman smiled ambiguously, showing a crooked line of rotting yellow teeth. Her smile wasn’t cruel, but strange all the same. Sorceress, Linda’s imagination cried. If she hadn’t been in such dire need of an answer, Linda would have stepped back, but something drew her in to press the woman for answers. She hadn’t come all this way to lose this opportunity.


She felt James come up behind and place a warm hand on her shoulder for support. It gave Linda the courage to make the one step that separated her and the angry woman, and grab a hold of her hand, the one with the wooden horse.


“This toy is from the orphanage, right? Did you work there? Did you see it burn down? Do you know what exactly happened to the children, to Jeremiah?” Her voice seemed to reach higher and higher in pitch as she let the words roll out uncontrollably.


“I was a cleaner at the orphanage,” the woman spoke thickly, and Linda could feel the restrain running through her body as she uncomfortably let her hand be held by a stranger’s. “I saw it burn. We all did. Most of the women working there lived nearby, just through the forest.” She looked around, but there was nothing to see but regrowing foliage and the damaged, blackened walls of the orphanage. “We couldn’t help. We came too late. The damage was done.” She looked away, the fire slowing to a kindling flame, the amber fading around her dark irises.


“And Jeremiah?” Linda could barely take it anymore. Her breathing had intensified and she was clutching the older woman’s hand more desperately than before.


“You are foreign. You do not belong here. Many women like you came here before Jeremiah was even born.” She said his western name with such disgust that Linda almost recoiled from her biting words. But she had to get answers. She could not go on or leave without them. “Many white women wanting children. But it was wrong, giving our children to you. A better life, many said. But these were our children, born on our land. Ought to be raised here.” The woman mumbled something in her own language. “Perhaps the fire was a sign from above that the orphanage should not trade our children for the money it received. Jeremiah, you ask. He is part of a different world now.” The woman fixed Linda with a stern look, as if waiting to judge the younger woman’s reaction.


It was as if all the breath had been knocked out of Linda in one swift motion. She stepped back, letting go of the wrinkly, crooked hand she had been holding, and turned away, falling into the ready arms of James. As sobs shook her body against his, all she could feel was the heart-wrenching pain of her body trying to destroy her from within. So it had all been true? He had died in the fire? And she hadn’t been there to save him, him or the other children. To take Jeremiah away to the better world she had promised. A sign, the woman had said. A sign of failure to provide for a child in need. Linda hated herself. In that moment, she wished the orphanage – or what remained of it – could catch fire again and demolish her in a flame of smoke and dust. She understood the old woman’s anger. It was grief. Turned to anger over many months of carrying this burden on her shoulders – the burden of knowing that help had not come soon enough, and that innocents had been killed. A burden she had every right to load onto Linda.


“You’re not responsible for the fire,” James whispered in her ear, but she did not listen.


She wanted so much to break free from his grasp and run back towards the taxi, ask the driver to race as fast as he could to the airport, where she would get onto the first plane and let it take her wherever it was flying. Just away. Away from this foreign, empty land. Where fire had scorched her heart and taken away the child that had never become her own.


“You.” She heard the familiar thick voice behind her, but did not turn around. “I see how much you care.” The woman’s voice had softened, and Linda dared to lift her head away from James’s chest to gingerly turn back to face the elderly face. The woman’s face was no longer judgment, just thoughtful, as if she was calculating her next words. As she stepped towards Linda, she placed the little wooden horse into the younger woman’s shaking hands, pressing the toy gentling into her palms until Linda’s fingers carefully wrapped around the horse’s legs and body. “Don’t you want to see Jeremiah’s new world?” the woman asked, a glint showing in her eye that had not been there previously.


And before Linda could utter a single word, she began to make her way past the broken orphanage onto a little path in the new undergrowth, which neither James nor Linda had noticed before.

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Oh my goodness, Anna this story builds in intensity and carries the reader with it. The encournter with the old lady is pitched perfectly and very easy to imagine and visualise. Yes, very good indeed. I love your description of the anger in the old lady and how that expresses itself and Linda's reaction to it. We see the internal worlds of both these people through that interaction.