“Wake up, Megan!” A gentle shake woke me out of my dreams. Groggily, I opened my eyes, only to see my mother’s face in pain.
“It’s time,” mother breathed. “Go! Run and get Elena!” Realizing the urgency in her voice, I vaulted out of my bed, grabbed my heavy winter clothing and boots, dressed on my way to the door, and ran outside. It was early morning and freezing cold, but I barely noticed it. I sank down to my knees into the snow and fell several times as I fought my way through the white masses. Stupidly, I had forgotten to grab the snowshoes as well. Fortunately, Elena Etrigan, the midwife, lived nearby. When I reached her home, I banged with my fists against her door, shouting her name. Her son Raphael opened the door for me, asking me to come inside. I couldn’t stand still and hopped from one foot onto the other while I waited for Elena to get dressed and take her bag.
Within a bell, we arrived back at my home. I could hear mother screaming before I opened the door. If it hadn’t been so cold outside, I’d have run into the woods. I wanted to be as far away from my home as possible, knowing fully well what mother was going through at this point. Instead I hid in my bed under my blankets, covering my ears with my hands. My mother had made it clear earlier that she only wanted father and Elena in the room. I felt totally useless and was worried about mother at the same time. Twice before mother had miscarried, and last time the baby, a perfect little boy, had been stillborn. I had been in the room with her then, helping Elena.
Father had been so angry about his son’s death; he hadn’t spoken to mother or me for a full month. Instead he’d taken to drinking, spending evening after evening at the inn, coming home inebriated and combative. I had the misfortune to get in his way one night. Accusing me of being lazy and worthless, he also told me it’d been my fault his son was stillborn. I’d yelled back at him that it wasn’t my fault and that I’d wanted my brother to be alive just as much as he did. He’d struck me so hard, I’d ended up with a black eye and bloody nose. The next morning he’d apologized, but I couldn’t forgive.
The man I called “father” was mother’s second husband. At first he’d been really nice and I’d been proud to have him as a dad. I would look up at him and he’d smile at me, pat me on the head, give me pet names, and I loved him for it. He did all the things I had imagined my real father would have done.
Two years after their marriage, a fire destroyed most of the harvest and part of our house. My stepfather started drinking and when he came home, he’d have nothing but harsh words for mother and me. All my attempts to please him had been ignored and left me confused. I despised him for that and wished we could leave. I wanted to go back to Riverrun, the village of my early childhood. I’d been happy there. Simona, my twin and best friend, had been there with me. I longed for her. In my heart, I knew that one day my twin sister would reappear. It saddened me to no end that mother thought differently.
Mother screamed again and then I heard a baby’s cry. I breathed a sigh of relief. The baby was alive!
“It’s a girl, Anna.” I heard Elena call out. A shiver ran down my spine. “What would father say about a girl?” I thought, remembering his reaction when my brother was stillborn. I contemplated this notion until I heard his voice.
“Get in here, Megan,” he summoned me. “Come and see your sister.” Unenthusiastically, I crawled out from under my covers and stepped into my parents’ bedroom. My stepfather’s face was quite red and he breathed heavily. He handed me my baby sister, wrapped in a blanket, and left the room. A draft of cold air indicated he’d stepped all the way outside.
“She’s so small, Mama,” I commented and touched my sister’s little hand. I was now full of admiration for this tiny person who looked at me as if she knew who I was.
“Megan?” mother sounded reluctant.
“Your father had his heart set on a son and didn’t pick a name for a girl. You were born on the same day as your sister, so you get to name her.” I looked at my mother in surprise. I’d forgotten that today was the anniversary of my birth. I was fifteen years old. So far this day had only a sad memory. My own father, Sarim, had died in a hunting accident the day I was born. Mother had answered my sister’s and my inquiry with this simple fact. Something in her demeanor had stopped us from asking more questions. Several years ago, when I found courage to ask her about my father again, something I hadn’t done since my early childhood, mother had told me how they’d met and about their journey to Tench. She’d met my father’s parents there. She told me she’d never wanted to see them again. I gave her a puzzled look, not understanding why. For the first and only time, mother had told me a story about our family. She talked about one ancestress who’d gotten cursed by a mage for marrying another man.
According to mother, the curse had been a simple one, saying that our ancestress’ husband would die if she had a baby, and if the baby was a girl, our ancestress would die as well. Since then, the women in our family had been affected by this curse. Mother said that the girls in the family either died in accidents, got very ill and died, or passed the curse on. She also told me that my father hadn’t believed in this curse and said it was all just coincidences.
After my initial shock of finding out a family secret, mother had asked me not to tell anyone else. It was difficult to abide by my mother’s wish. I wanted nothing more than to discuss this curse with my friends. I felt the burden of knowledge not to be shared with others and sought solitude. During the summer months I would run into the woods and during the long winter nights I hid in my room where I thought about the curse. Finally, I decided that my father was probably right. After all, my mother was still alive. Yet, when my family history crossed my mind I trembled, feeling uneasy and very much alone.
“Megan?” Mother’s voice pulled me out of my daydream. “What do you think we should call your baby sister?”
I glanced at her for a moment and then I said with hesitation: “I want to call her Mona; she has the same dark hair and blue eyes.” Mother looked at me for a long time before she spoke up.
“You still miss her, don’t you?” I only nodded. I missed my twin sister more than I would ever admit to my mother. Long ago I had stopped telling her when I had a dream about Simona. It just made mother sad and upset with me at the same time.
“We will call her Mona then,” mother agreed. I smiled at my baby sister, touching her face. Little Mona gave a brief squeak. She was opening and closing her mouth, sticking out her tongue in the process.
“She wants to eat.”
I jumped slightly. I’d forgotten Elena was still in the room and her words had caught me by surprise. I placed Mona into our mother’s arms, watched for a mene or two as she nursed, then left the room to be by myself for a while. As I sat on my bed, legs pulled up to my chest and my arms wrapped around them, I recalled the day, almost eight years back, when I had last seen my sister Simona. I remembered it as if it happened yesterday.
“Mama! Mama! Megan got sick again!” Simona yelled, running towards our house, her long black hair fluttering in the wind. I felt sick to my stomach and had just rid myself of breakfast. Mother came to my aid mere moments later, picked me up, and carried me back to my bed.
“My tummy hurts,” I complained, vomiting again, using a bucket next to my bed.
“I know, Megan,” mother said soothingly. “I sent Simona to get more herbs for you. She’ll be back shortly. You know how fast she can run.”
I answered with a brief smile, and then used the bucket one more time. I must have fallen asleep, because the next time I woke up, mother was at my bedside with a cup, asking me to drink its contents. Not only did it smell bad, it tasted horrid as well. Mother had added some honey to make it more palatable, but it didn’t make much of a difference.
“You’ll be feeling better soon, Megan,” mother said after I had finished the brew.
“I sent her to buy some eggs for supper. The peddlers are back –”
“I want to see the peddlers!” I interrupted her.
“Maybe tomorrow, if you’re feeling better,” mother replied.
“Tomorrow!” mother insisted. “Now, lay back down and rest. When Simona comes back she can tell you all about them.”
“Yes, Mama,” I said and closed my eyes dutifully, but I didn’t want to go to sleep. I lay on my bed, playing with our rag doll, waiting for Simona to come home.
Even though Simona and I were twins, we didn’t look alike. My hair was red like mother’s, while Mona’s was black like father’s. She had blue eyes where mine were green. Mona could run like the wind, but I, on the other hand, stumbled over my own feet. I was sick quite often, whereas my sister rarely got ill. In a way I envied her, wanted to do what she was doing, but whenever I was sick, Mona spent her time with me, making me feel better.
I must have fallen asleep regardless of my efforts to stay awake. The sound of a door slamming shut woke me.
“Mona!” I called out and my sister rushed to my side. “Tell me about the peddlers!” Mona jumped onto the bed and cuddled beside me.
“Oh, Megan, you should have seen their wagons! They have so many different things. Lots of fabric in wonderful colors, and kettles so big you and I could hide in them.” Simona’s arms stretched out as far as she could get them. She was giggling and her eyes looked like sparkling stars.
“And one of the peddlers had puppets on strings. And he made them dance.” Simona picked up our rag doll and demonstrated the dance. It looked funny and made me laugh.
“Simona, time to eat,” mother called. Mona gave me a big hug and kiss, then slid off the bed and skipped out of the room. A moment later mother entered with a cup of her brew and a bowl of soup. She made me drink more of the brew before she let me have the soup. I made a face of disgust at the brown liquid, but didn’t argue. When I didn’t finish my meal, mother gave me a worried look.
“I’m not hungry, Mama.” She stroked my hair and took the bowl with her. Simona and I shared a room, which could only be entered by walking through the room mother slept in. Our father had created that room when he built the house. Simona and I loved it. We could hide in it and no one but mother would know we were there. We had done that on occasion. For some reason, mother never told anyone about this extra room. Her room looked like the three of us shared it. I doubt even Zarit and Jerel, my mother’s parents, knew about it.
Simona and I often wondered what it would be like to have a father around and wished we could have one like Jerel. We had learned long ago not to ask about our father. Mother would only tell us that Simona looked a lot like him, and that he had died when we were born. Afterwards, mother would send us outside to play. I knew she’d cry because I could see how red and swollen her eyes were when we returned. Then I’d give her a big hug and kiss to make her feel better and mother would reward me with a smile.
I didn’t find out until much later that Zarit and Jerel had raised our mother after she had been orphaned. I always thought of them as my grandparents. As for my father’s relatives, I never met any of them. Well, not face to face that is. However, the evening before Simona’s disappearance, we had a visitor: Father’s brother.
“Mona, tell me again about the puppet,” I called out impatiently from the confines of my bed, hoping my sister had eaten.
“Simona has chores to do. She can tell you afterwards,” mother answered.
“Mama?” I asked, hoping mother would alleviate my boredom.
“Megan, be a good girl and let me clean up here. Simona will be back shortly.”
“Straight,” I answered, giving in, knowing fully well that arguing wouldn’t get me anywhere. I picked up the rag doll and made it dance like Mona had done before, but it wasn’t the same. Someone knocked on the door. For a moment I was all excited and then I remembered, when I was in our room, I had to remain silent when we had visitors. I wasn’t too happy about that rule, but I complied. Instead of asking who had come to visit, I tried to hear who was there, but the voices were low and I couldn’t make out much until mother raised her voice.
“… that did not seem of much concern to you before,” I heard mother say. She sounded angry. I could hear the door open again.
“Simona, this is your Uncle Ezra. He is your father’s brother. He was just about to leave,” Mother said, still speaking with a raised voice and a bitter tone.
“Hello,” she greeted him.
“Hello Simona,” I heard him reply. He, too, spoke louder than before. “We already met. She was very interested in my puppets earlier.” There was a long pause and then I heard his voice again. “It’s time for me to go. Think about my proposal.” I wondered what he had wanted from mother and was curious to meet this uncle of mine. I heard the door close and then it was silent once more. I wanted mother and Mona to come into the room and tell me what happened, but I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I found myself alone in bed.
“Mama! Can I get up now?” I yelled of the top of my lungs. “I feel much better!”
“You’ll have to wait ’til I see for myself. And Megan …” mother said as she briefly looked in on me.
“Yes, Mama?” I sat up straight in my bed, wondering what would come next.
“No yelling in the house, straight?”
“Straight,” I repeated sullenly, slumping back into my pillow, disappointed. I don’t know what I had expected, but that hadn’t been it. “Where’s Mona?”
“Probably outside, doing her chores,” mother replied.
“I want to get up,” I pouted.
“A little patience, Megan,” mother said, unimpressed with my mood swing.
“I need to use the outhouse, Mama,” I called out only moments later.
“Use the pot next to your bed.”
“Megan?” Mother had a way of saying my name that told me instantly I was in trouble if I was fibbing.
“It’s really full!”
Mother came into my room, a stern look on her face. She lifted the lid off the pot, and then replaced it. It was full! Touching my forehead, she sat on the edge of my bed. “How’s your tummy?”
“Fine.” I smiled at her and mother kissed me on the forehead.
“Then you may get up. And when you’re done, tell Simona her breakfast is ready.”
“Why can’t I yell in the house?” I asked, feeling the urge to rebel. Much to my surprise I got an explanation rather than a stern look and a warning for being cheeky.
“Because your uncle is in town and I don’t want him to know there are two of you. It’s bad enough he’s seen Simona. He came here last night to make me move to Tench and live at your grandparents’ house. I told him no. So in case he comes back, you’ll be in your room, and no yelling in the house, straight?”
“I also want you inside until the peddlers are gone, just in case.” Mother must have noticed the disappointed look on my face because she ruffled my hair and added, “It’s just for another day and I’m sure a different group of peddlers will show up before long.”
I sighed and then dressed quickly to go to the outhouse. Afterwards, I looked for Simona, but didn’t see her.
“Mona?” I walked behind the house where my sister and I had a little hideout in the bushes. She wasn’t there either. “Mona!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, forgetting mother’s earlier warning. “Mama said breakfast is ready!” That usually brought my sister running towards the house, but today I didn’t even get an answer. Puzzled and worried, I went back inside.
“Is Simona coming?”
“I can’t find her, Mama,” I said, trembling. “I looked all over.” Now I was scared. My sister had never before failed to answer me.
“Sit down and eat your breakfast. I’ll go find her,” mother replied impatiently and stepped outside. I ate what mother had put on my plate and even drank the broth she had prepared with Rebecca’s herbs. When mother returned she had a worried look on her face.
“Megan, I want you to go to your room and stay there until I get back. Don’t leave the house and don’t answer if anyone calls. Straight?”
“Straight,” I replied, nodding my head. “Where’s Mona?” I inquired, as I slid off my chair.
“I don’t know, Megan, but we’ll find her. I’m going to Jerel and ask for his help.”
“Can’t I go with you and stay with grandma Zarit? Please?” I begged. I was afraid to be in the house by myself and hoped mother would give in. After a few moments, she agreed and we left together, holding hands all the way.
I spent almost three days with grandma Zarit while mother, grandpa Jerel, and half the people in the village searched for my sister. I was worried sick and had many arguments with grandma to let me go and help look for Simona. Grandma, however, wouldn’t let me leave the house, not even to go to the outhouse. Nothing I did would change her mind. Time passed slowly. On the evening of the second day, one of the villagers returned with Simona’s torn and bloodstained dress. I’ll never forget the look on mother’s face. She stared at it in disbelief, ran the torn cloth through her fingers and then left the room. Grandma Zarit followed her, while grandpa Jerel drew me close and held me tight. I could hear mother scream.
“Is Mona coming back?” I asked, not quite understanding what had happened. “Do you think Mama can fix her dress? Is that why she left?”
Grandpa Jerel looked straight at me, tears in his eyes. “No, Megan, Mona isn’t coming back.”
“Why? Where did she go?”
“I’m not quite sure. I think she wasn’t careful the other morning and went into the forest.”
“But Mama said we couldn’t go there because of wolves and bears. Mona knows that, and she always tells me I can’t go there when I forget.”
“Straight, you’re not supposed to go there. But we found Mona’s dress in the forest. She must have forgotten about your mother’s warning.”
“Did a wolf eat her?” I asked, horrified by the idea.
“I don’t know, Megan, but it is possible,” grandpa Jerel said slowly. I buried my face on his shoulder and cried myself to sleep.
Not long after Simona’s disappearance, I started dreaming about Simona. In these nightly visions I saw my sister in a place unfamiliar to me. I was certain that Simona was scared and calling out for me.
“Simona!” The sound of my own voice woke me. I was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. Within moments mother was at my bedside, shaking me gently.
“Megan, what’s wrong?” she asked, looking concerned.
“I –” I stammered, trying to catch my breath. “I saw Simona. We have to go and find her!” My mother’s face went ashen; it couldn’t have turned whiter if I’d told her I’d seen a ghost.
“Megan,” mother’s voice was stern. She held my head so I’d have to look her in the eye. “Your sister is dead. She won’t come back, ever. Do you understand?”
“But I saw her!”
“It was a dream, Megan, nothing but a dream. You have to forget about her and go on with your life. You have to learn to take care of yourself. Simona won’t come back and take care of you.”
I choked back tears and nodded. I tried not to let mother see just how much she’d hurt me with her words. In my heart, I knew my sister was alive. After a while, I stopped telling mother about my dreams even though I would have liked to share them with her. Not even grandma Zarit, who usually had an open ear for me, would listen to my dreams. I felt left alone with my fears and the pain of losing my sister. Three winters later my grandparents passed away and mother decided to move to Dargon.
Mother had arranged for a caravan to take us along. A hand wagon contained all our belongings and we usually pulled it together. When I got too tired, mother let me ride on the wagon. During this voyage to Dargon, mother found a new love and instead of staying in this big town near the sea, we traveled back again and on to a place called Hawksbridge high up in the Darst Range. I found a new home here and made friends with some of the children. A boy named Raphael became a close acquaintance. His mother was the midwife who now took care of my mother and baby sister.
I had a baby sister! A baby sister born on my birthday! Excited, I jumped off my bed and straightened my dress. “I will take good care of her,” I promised myself. For a moment, I closed my eyes and for the first time the image of my sister Simona appeared in my mind while I was awake. She looked like she’d been crying. “Today is her birthday, too,” I thought. “And she is alone.” With the back of my hand I wiped a tear away.
In my mother’s room little Mona was crying. I returned to my mother to see if I could be of any help to her. Elena greeted me with a smile and handed me my sister. I pulled her close and muttered: “Little Mona.”
“I’m leaving now,” Elena remarked and put on her coat. “You can pay me when I come back this afternoon. I’ll bring some stew and herbs to get your milk flowing.”
“Thank you, Elena,” my mother answered sleepily.
“Thank you, Elena,” I chimed in. “And I’ll take good care of mother and Mona.” Elena ran her fingers through my hair and smiled.
“Raphael might want to see your sister as well,” Elena commented with a grin. I felt heat rise in my cheeks and remained silent. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Elena knew about the liking I had taken to her son; nothing escaped her notice. She opened the door and took a step outside, but then halted in her path.
“Megan, hand your sister over to your mother and help me!” she said with an urgency that demanded immediate attention. I did as I was told and followed her outside. There in the snow, only steps away from the door lay my father. For a moment, I just stood there not believing my eyes. Then I dropped to my knees and shook him.
“Get up!” I yelled. “Get up!”
Elena’s hand touched my shoulder. “We need to bring him inside, Megan. Help me.”
Her calm voice gave me the courage to do as she asked. I swallowed hard and helped Elena pull my stepfather’s body inside. All our efforts to revive him were in vain. I was crying hard when Elena told me that there was nothing else she could do. I don’t know how long she held me, stroking my head and back. When I finally looked up, I saw my mother standing in the room, cuddling my sister. Her face was wet from the tears that kept running down her cheeks. I rushed to her side and hugged her tight. With the help of Elena, I tucked mother back in bed. I snuggled beside her for comfort and heard her muttering as she drifted off to sleep, “Not again, not again.”