(A/N): This story of mine was privileged to win a Judge's Pick SKOW award in the Happily Ever After category in round 8 of the awards in 2009, so I'm pleased to announce that. Also, this story has received a short editing session in honor of that, because I haven't touched it in years, just to fix some of the typos and make the flow better.
Jack and Jill
Love's innocence lost to harsh reality…
"Jack and Jill go up the hill
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack's a handsome preacher's son
And Jill's a drunkard's daughter…"
The day was dreary to Jill. Life in a black and white world, devoid of all color, was the norm. This was her personal atmosphere, the way she viewed it daily. Her outlook couldn't have been any bleaker, expecting nothing from the life that she wasn't so sure was even hers to live. Her pale, thin fingers reach up to her delicate face to push a rebel strand of dark hair away from her eyes. The other hand tightened its grip on the thick piece of rope that bound the wooden pail.
This was Jill.
Today was a new day, no more significant than the last. The bruises she bore were lingering from a week ago, fresh ones from yesterday were adding their violet pigment to her pale back and limbs. Her father's markings had been placed, and would not soon cease to grace her frail body.
She remembered the barking of the dogs, and the squawking of the chickens on the street. She'd gotten the beating there, and everyone had seen. She wouldn't have been able to say whether or not it had been embarrassing, except it must have been to her mother, who'd watched the scene. Her father had been drinking again, but Jill supposed that even if he hadn't been she would have received his blows. So her family was once again the town's scandal, but despite whose fault it had truly been, it was Jill who'd paid the price.
If only that damned child would have been quiet!
She'd lost her temper yesterday, and she was wrong for it; she knew that now. Her smallest brother, Timothy, now only two years old, had been squalling for some reason or another, Jill wasn't sure why, but the high pitched sound was hurting her ears. She'd tried to ignore it, but the sound festered inside her head until she could no longer take it. A voice inside her screamed to make it stop. She'd yelled out horrible words, not proper for a young lady, though she couldn't even recall what those curses had been been.
Then she'd struck the child. She'd been holding his hand in one of hers, yet the other rose on its own and connected with the soft skin of the young boy's cheek. She remembered the stinging sensation on the back of her hand after the blow was delivered, and the tingle of satisfaction it had sent through her to give it. She remembered the feeling of dread as the rough grip of a hardworking hand closed around her arm.
She was jerked around to stare into the face of the man she knew too well. The look of his face was always the same when he was this close to her. His eyes, normally a cheery blue, were struck with red lightning. His breath was sour, his step uneven. The rest was mostly a slur of words and blows, but she only remembered the pain. In the end, she was left in the dirt. Everyone staring, no one moving to help her, thinking that the wicked girl had gotten what she'd deserved.
This was Jill's life.
Today, she had nothing to comfort her but the cloudy sky above. She often wondered how the world could be so backward. What had she done that was so horrible besides hit the baby that one time? The truth was that no one had come to her aid yesterday because everyone felt the same way about her: she had deserved it. She was a strange girl, undeserving of normal treatment, and for that, she was looked down on, even hated.
Jill was sometimes called a witch, and though the time of spontaneous lynching had passed, there were still whispers. One some days, she though that being hung would be less painful than hearing what was said about her. They speculated in their gossip that she was a child of Satan, placed upon the earth to curse God's people. It was funny to her: she didn't recall ever speaking with the devil, but she sometimes wondered that if she had, would she hear him out? Or turn him away? She always found that the answer was uncertain.
Of all the people in the entire town, there was no one outside her family who would associate with her. That was, no one except Jack.
Jack was the son of Minister Hilton and was the most worshipped young bachelor in town. He was a man of twenty by now, as good of heart as he was of appearance. He looked so strange following Jill around. His blond hair of sunshine and light blue eyes contrasted with her raven locks and brooding green orbs of emptiness. Jack and Jill never said too much to each other, but he followed her with dedication. It was quite like a baby-sitting: Jill was a sixteen-year-old girl in need of guidance, and Jack was a man of the cloth with Christian morals and, what seemed to Jill, a dark secret. But she never asked him what that was, and he never told her.
Despite what most people believed Jack was talking to Jill about, he never actually mentioned to her. He had never said anything to Jill in the name of God, which was what he had been recruited by his father to do. Perhaps he was just like everyone else and didn't believe that it would make a bit of difference on her. Words of redemption were wasted on the inevitably damned.
Jill also thought it humorous how everyone in town thought that Jack was such a noble young lad by walking with her when no one else would and was trying to get her poor lost soul back on track. She was grateful that he had not tried to introduce any of those religious ideas to her, even though she was sure that was what men of God were supposed to do. She had nothing against God or religion; she just wished people would stop acting as though she was the devil herself!
Jill never tried too hard to figure Jack out – identify his motives or feelings – but sometimes ideas about him crossed her, and just when she thought she had something nailed, his actions would make her think she was wrong again. Just when she would think that he was actually sincere in his kindness towards her, she would hear him talking with the pretty, town-girls. Everything vanished then.
Those pretty girls…always giggling and shielding their mouths with hands dressed in silk gloves, whispering as Jill passed. Jack would sometimes stop to chat with them, or Jill would find him standing with them in the square while he waited for her to join him. He seemed so happy with the pretty girls, always laughing and smiling contently, but when he would see Jill, his smile would fall and he would stare straight into her, his eyes filled with something she never saw except when he looked at her. She would stare back, trying to figure out just what he was gazing at her for. Was that sympathy? Perhaps it was just distaste… The pretty girls around him would gather closer.
"I have to go now," Jack would say, just as one girl would grab his arm.
"Must you leave us?" one would ask, batting her curled lashes.
"You'd rather talk with her than us?" another would say.
Jack would smile and lower his eyes.
"It's just…something I should do," Jill would hear him say with the same pause in his speech every time he said it.
The pretty girls would step back, putting on their most understanding expressions for show.
"We understand. We know she is sick. Hurry up and make her better, alright Jack?"
"Yes. Then you can follow us around for a while!"
Then came the laughter: the sick God-awful laughter that echoed inside Jill's head. It always made her angry to hear them laugh. But Jack never laughed. He would only smile to their humor. Jill would have her back to them, her fists clenched, her teeth grinding.
Inside Jill's front dress pocket, she kept the remnants of one of her father's broken liquor bottles. Tiny pieces of crushed glass waited there for her whenever she needed them. They lingered for the moments like these: the moments when Jill's angry thoughts reared like a wild horse and she feared she couldn't control them. These were the times that her rational self told her she needed punishment.
On the verge of tears, one hand would reach into the pocket, feeling for a small shard of glass. The sharp piece would come out of her pocket and press against her palm. Her heart speeding, her breath coming quicker, she dug the sharp end into the soft flesh of her hand, drawing blood from a gash about an inch long. She'd stare at the rising blood for a moment, the color so red and rich that it always made her gasp and remember why the liquid had to surface. This was her punishment for the bad thoughts.
The empty wooden pale would fall and clatter to the ground as she winced in pain from her accident. Sometimes she couldn't remember whether her accidents were really that or whether they came from intentional harm. She wondered if she ever consciously controlled her hand at all.
Jack would hear her shriek. He would hurry to her side, to see if she had done anything severe, while the pretty girls would scoff and whisper and shake their heads about how she only wanted Jack's attention, but he would not pay any mind to them. Then, he would wipe the blood from her with his own perfect hand and give her his own handkerchief to tie around it. His eyes would never meet hers, and he would never say a word. Then, after he was done, he would reach down and pick up the pail, take her arm, and they would walk the long distance up Miller Hill to the well to draw water. Jack accompanied her to the well everyday, no matter what the weather. Of course, he accompanied her elsewhere as well, but Jill found no trip as interesting as the one up to the well.
When they'd first started this errand, Jack had made it clear that they should always go to the well alone and wait until no one else was drawing water. She was not opposed to this, but rather liked it that way. She didn't like the stares. They would walk up the hill, his hand always around her arm, guiding her over the uneven ground. When they would reach the top, Jack would give Jill the pail and she would lower the well bucket in order to fill her own. Drawing water always took a while, because the pulleys were old and Jill had to tug violently to get it right. Then, sometimes, water would never even get into the bucket and she would have to lower again.
Through all of this, Jack never became impatient or asked her to hurry. He just stood calm, propped up against the single tree that was on the hilltop, staring out over the small town below. He never made any comments about what he was thinking, though she often wondered, but she never asked. Sometimes she would watch him and wonder what he was really doing there with her, why he was so kind without saying a word. She supposed she would never really know. No sense pondering it.
On this day, nothing was different. She'd had to cut her hand when she'd seen him talking to the girls as he'd waited for her, just like usual. They'd trudged up the hill where she had finally managed to get the bucket to the top and sloshed it into her own, her large eyes keeping watch on Jack as he looked down the hill, his arms crossed before his chest, his leg propped up on a rock. What is he looking at? She picked up the bucket and walked across in front of him to claim his attention. Slowly, he raised his eyes to her, snapping out of whatever strange trance he had been in. Then, without words, he pushed himself away from the tree, took the pail and walked back down the hill with her.
On the way down on particular days, her mind would wander and she would try to imagine what he had been thinking about on the hill. Sometimes she thought maybe he was thinking the same thing everyday, but some days it would seem the opposite; that there was something new going through his mind as like some great theorist would think. Maybe he was just imagining being somewhere else. Maybe he wished he was anywhere else, with anyone else but her. These thoughts made her angry, but he walked beside her and she didn't want to cut herself in front of him to flee, so her feelings of malice would slowly fade before they reached town again.
After the errand was done and the sun was setting gently, Jack would walk her home. He would walk her to her front gate, hand her the water-filled pail, and ask her the same three questions everyday:
"Is that all that needs to be done for today?"
She would only nod, as though she couldn't speak.
"Can you make it in alright?"
By this, Jill took him to mean, "Are your parents home to make sure you don't hurt yourself?", though she never was sure what he meant. She would nod again, her eyes lowered reverently.
He would then stare at her for a minute, examining her face, and then he would sigh.
"Are you sure there's nothing else I can do?" he would ask last.
She would be silent at this question, her mind racing. She could never ask for help, but there were so many things! You want to help? Deliver me from this place! Take me far away where no one knows who I am and where I can be happy! No more beatings! No more blame! End my suffering! His kind words only kindled thoughts of rage inside her. He wasn't capable of the things she wanted to ask for. That wasn't what he'd meant. She would calmly shake her head no.
"Well, you know where I am," he would say. Then he would open the gate for her and leave, walking down the road to his own house, never looking back.
Jill would usually watch him until he disappeared along the road before going to her own porch. She dreaded the moment she must open her own door and go inside. Perhaps maybe, tomorrow, she would escape. Perhaps she would finally open her mouth and ask for his help. When would she finally be brave enough? She couldn't say. But until that day came, she could do nothing but rot.