If Only

Would that I could travel back in time. Would that I could undo what has been done. I did the best I could but it wasn’t good enough to save her. Or him.

It started the same as every other day.

I was standing in the main kitchen, early in the morning, alone, the way I like it best, planning the day’s menu when the master staggered in through the door. There was blood gushing from a wound in his head and his hand looked like it had been crushed to pieces.

As the blood flowed freely down his shirt, I felt my own blood draining from my face even as I reached out to steady the master and guide him to the nearest stool.

“Here. Sit. Let me get you a cloth. Don’t move.” I said to him. The words were an incantation to myself as much as they were instructions for the wounded man. My mind was reeling, the world tilting on its axis as I imagined the worst possible scenario. Could Master have stumbled on Anika? Frightening her? Please, Dear Lord, don’t let that be the case. Not after all this time.

A sharp groan from the master managed to focus my thoughts as I ran to find a cloth to staunch the blood from his head wound. I pressed the cloth to the jagged gash on his head. The skin looked as if it had exploded from some blunt force impact. It wasn’t a clean cut, but a mess of mashed flesh, I even fancied I could see the white bone behind the flesh.

I looked around the room, wondering how I could lay the master down before he fell down and hurt himself even more. I was afraid to let up the pressure on his wound, but I needed to get a message to the doctor. “Oh thank god!!! Harriet, come and help me! The master has been hurt!” I shouted as poor young Harriet sleepily wandered into the kitchen. Harriet was sweet, but not known to be very quick-witted and the sight of the blood and my shouting, very nearly caused her to run out of the kitchen.
Her eyes turned as wide as silver pieces, as she turned to my voice, more out of habit than comprehension, “Cook! What has happened?” she squawked in a cracked voice.

“Harriet, get your cloak and run to the village doctor. Hurry! Tell him Master is hurt. He has a head wound and something is wrong with his hand. Go!” For once, Harriet didn’t ask ten questions to clarify the instructions, but bundled up and was out the door before I could even think to ask her a second time.

By now, the blood was not flowing so freely and I asked Master if he would like me to help him to his bedroom. He looked at me as if he had no idea what my words meant. His eyes were wild and unfocused, the black pupils so large you couldn’t see the color around them. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no sounds came out. After a long moment, he simply closed his eyes and slumped forward on the stool.
I tried to make him more comfortable with my shawl thrown across his shoulders, although I had no idea if this was any help at all. I pushed the table under his body so that he could slouch there and not fall over and that was about all I could do.
When I reached down to place his injured hand on the table he started moaning again. And no wonder, it looked as if all the fingers were busted as if someone had stomped on his hand with all their strength. I know how to take things apart and cook them, but putting them back together was not a skill I possessed. Master was going to have to wait for the doctor to see if his hand could be saved.
Now that I had a moment to think, my fear rushed back inside me like a cold wind. Was this Anika? Did Anika do this? How could she, after all this time?
Anika has lived in the back shed for the past twenty-odd years. She hasn’t seen anyone but me in all that time. Could Master have wandered back there? He’s never been in the back of the servants living quarters in all the many years I’ve been the cook. And I’ve been here since Master was a little boy.
The old master was a nasty, evil man with a taste for young girls. Especially servant girls who had no choice but to submit to his assaults. What could one of us do? Not only would he turn us out on the street, but he would make sure that no one else would hire us. He had his way with me when I was young. I can still smell his rancid breath in my nightmares. I can still feel his oh-so-soft hands, hands that never did a day’s hard work, pawing at my skin. After awhile, he moved on from me and took to stalking Anika.
He loved this part. When he would sit and stare and you’d know that you were his next prey, but you didn’t know when he would strike. He loved the fear in your eyes.
But, he didn’t know Anika like we did. She was fierce. She came from the hill backcountry, where the people had to be hard and mean to simply survive. Coal miners are a tough breed and when the mine collapsed Anika came to the manor looking for work. She was a tiny thing, with dirty hair shoved up under her miner’s cap, and filthy overalls, but with a sweet, kind face. I’m not sure why I did it, but I hired her on the spot. I figured she wouldn’t be afraid of doing some of the more messy work around the kitchen.

The problems started almost immediately. As soon we cleaned her up, we saw she was a true beauty. Saucer blue eyes, soft brown hair, but it was the way she moved that captivated. She moved like she could hear a song in her head, one that only she heard. I asked her about it once and she said she used to sing to herself in the mine. They’d send the kids down there – into some of the tight spots- and haul out the coal. She’d sing so she wouldn’t be afraid.

One night, Anika. old Emma and I were in the kitchen, shutting everything down for the night when the old master walked in. He stunk like a whiskey barrel and was none too steady on his feet. I motioned to Anika to make herself scarce, but I wasn’t quick enough.
He grabbed her hard by the shoulders and pushed her out the door to the back courtyard and slammed the door in our faces.
We could hear Anika screaming curses – that girl had a mouth on her that would make the devil blush – and then we heard the wild shriek of the old master. When I looked over at the butcher block by the door, I saw the cleaver was missing. Anika must have grabbed it on her way out. We pushed open the door and there was that old geezer, with his pants down around his ankles and blood running down his legs. Seems Anika had gone after his private parts with the cleaver. Anika turned to run away, but she ran straight into the ash pots we had set up for soap making. The lye was floating on top and as she stumbled the acid spilled onto her face and body. It was a horrible thing to see, Anika screaming in pain as the acid burned away at her. The old master stumbled back to the house, but we never even noticed. We were too busy pouring fresh water on Anika, hoping to wash the lye from her body. But, there was too much of it and the burns were horrible. Her eyes were blinded by the acid, those beautiful eyes were now white, unseeing saucers.
Anika lived,and her burns were scarred over, but her mind was gone. It was almost as if she became an animal. She would curl up on the floor and growl when she was hungry, she’d pee anywhere, and she was known to fling her shit at you for no reason at all.

The old master wasn’t as lucky. Not only had Anika severed the man’s penis, she had severed that big vein in his leg. He bled out and that was the end of him. The young master, who was only ten when his daddy died, was now the Master.
We hid the story from him. Told him his daddy died in a hunting accident. The boy probably thought his father got drunk and fell down somewhere. The boy wasn’t stupid, but he didn’t know the ways of men yet.

That’s when we put Anika in the shed. It was just me and Old Emma that knew she was back there. No one else ever went there. It was falling down and had stinging nettles growing all around it. God, I hate stinging nettles.
Old Emma passed away about twelve years ago, so it was only me that would go back there. Anika still knew me and she’d let me clean the shed and bring fresh blankets and food. The other servants knew something strange lived back there and I let them tell each other ghost stories so they’d stay away.
That worked for a long time, but I guess my luck ran out.

I heard noises outside and saw the doctor coming up the path. Relieved, I ran out to him so he’d know where the Master was. By now, the rest of the servants were down in the kitchen, and Joey and young Eddy helped the master out of the kitchen and up to his room.

It wasn’t my place to go upstairs, so I had to wait for news of the master, just like the others. Seems he never got his wits back. He started screaming and talking about a horrible, filthy animal that had attacked him in the back servant’s quarters. He said it looked like a woman, with breasts, great white eyes, and horrible scars covering her almost naked body. People made up all kinds of stories after that, everyone seemed to think they knew what the master had said or done or seen. But none of us really knew, did we?
The master slipped into a sleeping coma after a day, and he never woke up.

I still take care of Anika, but I don’t think she’ll be with us much longer. She’s not eating much and mostly lays in the corner. But, I did take away that big shovel she used to keep in the shed. She liked to bang it on rocks. I think she took out some of her anger on that shovel.

Maybe things could have been different. I don’t know what else I could have done, then again, none of us know when one little thing will change the whole course of our lives, do we?

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