By Kaitlynn McShea
Sara-Jane’s earliest memories comprised of long, stuffy summers at her grandmother’s house. Lights off, windows open. The front door was perpetually left ajar—only the screen door saved them from a barrage of mosquitos and gnats. Its metal frame jostled with every footstep that traversed upon the wooden front porch. The people of the town of Williamsburg frequented it to ask for the sage advice of her grandmother, the town matriarch. Now, when Sara-Jane closed her eyes, she could still hear the metal frame shuddering in the blistering summer heat.
As a child, Sara-Jane wanted nothing more than to play in the abandoned lot at the end of her grandmother’s street. However, it was forbidden, unladylike. Not only was she not allowed to leave the house, but she was also forbidden from sitting in on the conversations between her grandmother and her visitors. So, Sara-Jane was trapped inside the stuffy old house with only her grandmother’s porcelain dolls for company.
She wasn’t allowed to touch them, but that didn’t stop her from looking. Blondes and brunettes with blushed cheeks and long eyelashes stood on every free mantle in the house. Their sizes ranged from a hand’s width to the size of a toddler. In Sara-Jane’s mind, they lived boisterous lives. As a primary student, Sara-Jane imagined them going to sleepovers and sneaking out to the ice cream shop. When she was pre-pubescent, she imagined the dolls going to the theatre and seeing operas. And when she was a teenager, they gossiped and had romances. It was then that she discovered Jane Austen. She read more than she breathed that summer. She started writing down her stories. She fell in love with writing that summer, too. It was better than any romance she could imagine. In that moment, she envisioned her future as an apple tree: blossoming, productive, full.
And so she passed her summers, only to be broken by long semesters at a finishing school three towns over. There, she embroidered, read, and learned how to be a young lady of repute.
During the summer of her seventeenth birthday, Sara-Jane came home to a house full of suitors. It’s time for you to get a husband and settle down, her grandmother had said. Sara-Jane nodded and smiled the whole evening, as young man after young man tried to impress her with talk of tractors and livestock. But inside, she shattered. A small part of Sara-Jane had hoped that finishing school was to get her out of that town. Instead, it had been training her to be a suitable wife the whole time. Before, she had seen her grandmother as a powerful matriarch and a respected woman. Now, she saw her as she truly was: an old town gossip unwilling to let the old ways die with her.
Sara-Jane continued to smile and blush and embroider when her grandmother was looking. When she wasn’t looking, Sara-Jane oversalted the dinners for her suitors and poked holes into the soles of their shoes.
One night, her grandmother cornered her with a cup of ice cold sweet tea. This is unacceptable, she had said. It is time to invite some gentleman from the next town over. Mr. Hammond will be staying this weekend. You will need to start cooking for his arrival at this very instance.
Sara-Jane balked but didn’t despair. She would continue to oversalt the food and poke holes in the soles of shoes. If she needed a few more strategies over the coming weekend, she would discover and implement them.
When Mr. Hammond arrived, his excitement was palpable. He sweated through his shirts and talked nonstop. His hands were sweaty and his breath was foul. His dimples could not make up for these repulsive facts. He even excessively complimented her salty food, revealing his desperation.
After Sara-Jane retired for the evening, she heard voices in the kitchen. They floated up through the wooden floorboards, and Sara-Jane could hear them as if she, too, was in the kitchen.
I would love for you to marry my granddaughter, Mr. Hammond.
Well, I’ll be, he replied. I’ll propose to her tomorrow.
Sara-Jane couldn’t bring herself to listen anymore. She slammed herself back into her pillows and sobbed into her hands. She grieved her possible future. In her mind’s eye, her apple tree wilted and the fruits blackened. One by one, she envisioned them falling onto the ground to rot. The tears carried her to sleep. There, a nightmare overtook her. Hundreds of her grandmother’s porcelain dolls lined her bedroom, watching her as she slept. Your future is ours, they seemed to say. She woke in a sweat just as the sun crested the treeline outside her window. Her fear quickly subsided to be replaced with a plan.
At breakfast, she served Mr. Hammond with lowered eyes. After a round of eggs and bacon, he took her hand in his clammy ones.
I’ve enjoyed our weekend greatly, he said. If you oblige, I’d love to make you my wife.
With a pounding heart, she accepted. Her grandmother nodded to herself before striding away, giving the happy couple a few moments to themselves. In that time, Sara-Jane truly clutched his hands. Will you stay one more night, my betrothed?
Seeing her eagerness, he agreed.
The day passed with more embroidery and tea. That night, Mr. Hammond went to the local pub to celebrate his coming nuptials. Her grandmother retired early, leaving Sara-Jane to her plan. When Mr. Hammond returned, his stumbling footsteps confirmed her hopes.
He was drunk. Very drunk.
She waited until he was passed out in bed. Slipping out of her room in only her nightclothes, Sara-Jane crept through the house. Throughout the day, grief had been replaced with anger. That anger blossomed behind her eyes, and she felt dizzy from its all-encompassing nature. She put a hand out to steady herself, but the dizziness wouldn’t clear.
She stayed that way, reeling and letting the anger eat at her until she had enough gumption to start her task.
Sara-Jane picked up a basket and went to the nearest porcelain doll. With a quiet sorry, she loaded it into the wicker container, undoubtedly creasing its dress and hair. One by one, she loaded them up, after a while not caring about shattered porcelain. After her basket was full, she crept into the guest room housing Mr. Hammond and placed the dolls on the dresser, the floor, and the shelves. Emboldened by his snoring, she made two more trips. She only stopped because she was sure to trip over the dolls now lining his room like soldiers.
She crept back into bed. As she pulled the covers underneath her chin, the cicadas started their screaming again.
And the next morning, Mr. Hammond added his own screams to their cacophony.