I stared out into the pouring rain. My hands gripped the door frame of the small thatched cottage where I lived with my mother at the edge of Hawthorne Village. I watched the eddies of water swirl in the mud outside the door. If I squinted, I could just make out the next closest cottage in the village through the branches overhanging the footpath. My mother Melindea was leery of people and preferred to keep to herself: thus our cottage nestled right against the edge of the forest. Even though our cottage was out of the way, the people of the village sought out Mother for her gift of healing.
Just this morning, Mother had left me behind again as she headed down one of the twisting trails through the dark forest. I begged to go with her, and yet again, Melindea found a reason to leave me behind. “It’s pouring rain today, and you have no cloak,” she said. “Besides, if someone from the village needs help, you can care for them until my return. You know nearly as much as I now.” I grudgingly agreed to stay home—again.
I stamped my foot as I remembered the morning’s conversation. My pleas had fallen on deaf ears. I had never seen any of the larger world and rarely left the cottage and surrounding yard. My furthest journey was to the village, and that was only with Mother’s company. My mother didn’t wonder at my impatience to escape. She just didn’t see it in her own strong desire to shrink from the world. II didn’t know what made her so fearful because she never talked of her past. I looked back into the forest one last time for any glimpse of Mother’s return. I wasn’t surprised to see nothing but the rain and mist through the trees. When Mother left to gather her healing herbs in the forest, she usually didn’t come home until dusk or even later. The woods offered Melindea her only escape from the ghosts of her past.
I turned from the door and surveyed the single room I shared with Mother. To my left a low fire smoldered and hissed in the great stone fireplace that filled half the wall. Unlike most of the village cottages, this fireplace didn’t crowd the center of the wall, but hunkered to one corner closest to the door. In the back corner, drying herbs and roots hung from the rafters. Low shelves below stored a mortar and pestle, various bowls, and jars of lard and other fats for making ointments. A long wooden table was pushed against the back wall. It could be pulled out to make room for guests to eat dinner, a rare occurrence, or for an examination table to treat patients. Two beds filled the back corner, covered with the brilliant colors of Mother’s latest patchwork quilts. I let me eyes drift to the last corner, the corner where shadows hid the padlocked trunk. Iron hinges and a stout clasp held the lid tightly against the box. Thick leather straps wrapped the oak planks in a tight embrace.
For as long as I could remember, I had wondered what secrets the trunk held. As a small child, the trunk had drawn me to the fancies of imagination. I had ridden countless miles on a prancing stallion as I sat astride the trunk. On other days, the trunk became my sailing ship, taking me to tropical islands I had only heard about in my mother’s stories, or a fort to hide from dragons and the equally terrifying WolfRiders. I shivered as she remembered stories told in the village about the WolfRiders. People whispered that they roamed the country, hidden behind masks and black hooded cloaks, searching for young girls to provide an infant to sacrifice. As I grew older, I dreamed of what lay within the box. Was Mother hiding piles of colorful jewels, maps leading to buried treasure, gowns of silk and damask for my dowry? As I grew older still, I wondered what clues to my mother’s past the trunk held. Did it hold keepsakes from her childhood—a lock of hair or a scrap of cloth from a favorite dress? Mother refused to answer any questions about the contents of the trunk or her past, saying only that none of it mattered any more. If it didn’t matter, why didn’t she open it or get rid of it, I wondered.
As I stared at the trunk, I fingered the key hidden under my apron. I had found it during Mother’s last trip through the forest. Since couldn’t explore the forest outside, I had taken to exploring the nooks and crannies of the cottage during Mother’s absences. I had climbed up into the rafters to clean out the old herbs. The wet spring had caused many of the herbs Mother had collected to rot. The key had been hanging from the rafters behind the rosemary and sorrel. I had found it from above; I never would have seen it from below. In fact, I hadn’t seen it all. As I reached for a rotting clump of mint, I heard the metallic clunk as it banged against one of the nails holding braids of herbs. I could tell from the rust covering it that it had not been used in a long time. Forgetting the rotting herbs, I climbed down the ladder grasping the key in one hand. I scrubbed the rust off with sand and oiled it with grease for the lamps. I tied it snuggly under the skirts behind my apron and scurried to finish cleaning out the rotten plants before Mother’s return. Ever since it had burned against my skin underneath my skirts as I waited for her mother’s next trip to gather leaves.
Now I held the key against the weak sunlight seeping through the open door. I suspected it opened the lock to the trunk. Did I have the courage to see what was inside now that I had the opportunity? Did I have the courage to cross Mother? I wasn’t really crossing her. She never said I couldn’t open it. She just wouldn’t tell me what’s in it. Before I could talk myself out of it, I crossed into the shadows and knelt before the trunk. I stretched out my arm, inserted the key into the lock, and twisted my wrist. To my surprise the key turned easily and silently. Mother must have oiled the lock more than the hidden key. The hinges creaked as I lifted the lid and the scent of mint and sorrel wafted out.
I breathed in the scent and wondered at the combination. Her mother had warned her never to mix these two herbs because most people couldn’t tell them apart by looking at them. Since one was valuable for its healing properties and the other was not, only fools through the two kinds of leaves together.. Why were they stored together in the trunk? Mother was no fool when it came to healing. I lifted the heavy canvas that lay in wrinkled folds across the top. Underneath I saw a torn and mud-stained dress. I held it against my shoulders. It had been made for a much larger woman. Who had worn it? Surely not her mother—at least not any time recently. At fourteen, I was already taller and heavier than my petite mother. I lay the dress aside and peered at the object lying at the bottom of the trunk. I gasped as I recognized the fine leather of a saddle, bridle, bit and reins. Few people in the village had horses and none had saddles. They rode bareback or with just a wool blanket. I stroked the smooth grain and felt something soft underneath. Tugging it out from under the saddle, I pulled out a saddle bag. My fingers trembled as I struggled with the buckle. The pounding of my heart sped up. Somehow I knew that the contents of this bag would change my life.
I pulled out a red cloak. Its folds caught the flickering light from the fire across the room and seemed to glow. Unlike the dress, the fabric was not marred by any tears or stains. I spread it out and guessed it had been made for a large man. It looked like the cloaks worn by the WolfRiders, complete with hood and a leather clasp—except theirs were black. Even knowing that the cloak would be much too big, I couldn’t resist trying it on. It swirled around my ankles as I fastened the clasp across my chest. I pulled the hood over my head and spun. To my surprise I did not trip over the hem—it just barely swept the ground above my toes. It almost seemed that the cloak grew around me until it was a perfect fit. I stepped over the cottage threshold and out into the rain. The cloak shed the rain better than the thickly thatched roof over our cottage..
I turned toward the path to the village from habit, but paused before I stepped out of the yard. I knew my way around the village, but so. Too, did everyone in the village know me. Surely, someone would mention seeing such a bright red cloak to Mother on their next visit. I circled slowly, eying each of the paths that snaked through the undergrowth and disappeared into the forest. Which one had Mother taken this morning? I couldn’t remember. No matter. What sunlight fought its way through the clouds seemed to focus on one path to the east of the cottage. That path seemed to call to me. “Come see where I lead,” it whispered to my heart. I walked across the muddy clearing, ready to answer the call when Mother’s voice broke through the spell.
“What are you wearing?” she demanded as she strode out of the woods behind me.
I turned and faced Mother. My bare feet stuck in the mud and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Mother’s usual pale face now had a greenish pallor that reflected the sprigs of mint she grasped in her fist. Red splotches appeared on her cheeks as she stared at me.
“Where did you get that cloak, Rosa?” Melindea demanded. “Who has been here while I was gone?”
I shook my head. “No one else has been here,” I answered. I stared down at my toe digging into the muddy ground, looking for the courage to answer Mother. “I found the cloak…when I opened the trunk.”
Mother let out a sharp breath and turned to enter the cottage. I followed behind her, each foot clinging as tightly to the mud now as they had danced lightly across it just a few moments ago. I paused after crossing the threshold and fumbled with the clasp holding on my cloak. I did think of it as my cloak, even though I had worn it for only a few minutes. I hated to let it hide again in the darkness of the trunk when it fit me so perfectly. Instead of stashing it back in the trunk, I hung it on the hook next to mother’s patched and faded cloak. The water dripped into puddles on the floor and the red cloth seemed to glow in the dusky light of the cottage.
I sat beside her at the table where she was emptying her basket and sorting the leaves. Rain glistened on each sprig, causing each one to glow with an eerie beauty that would lead to rot of left untended. I knew it was crucial to dry the leaves immediately so as not to lose any of their properties. Whatever storm was coming from Mother over my transgression would have to wait until this job was done. I picked up a clean rag and carefully blotted the excess water off each sprig before tying them together and hanging them on the rack before the fire. Usually, mother told me the story of each herb as I hung it—its uses and where she found it in the woods. Even though I rarely left the cottage yard except for brief visits to the village, I felt I knew my way through the forest paths from her detailed descriptions. Today, however, we worked in silence.
I glanced at mother with her chin cupped in her hands. She ignored the open trunk with its contents scattered across the floor and peered into the flames. Whatever answer she was looking for, she must have found. She rose and crossed the room to stand before the cloak hanging from the hook. She fingered its soft folds. “It’s already dry,” she said. “You may wear the cloak sometimes, though I wish it weren’t so bright. It calls for more attention than I wish.”
I moved to stand next to Mother and reached for the cloak. It was indeed dry already, though Mother’s cloak hanging beside it was still damp through and through. “Where did it come from?” I asked.
“Never mind, Rosa. It’s better that you don’t know its history or its secrets.
I burned with curiosity, but knew from past experience that I would learn no more. Grateful for the use of this cloak, I began picking up the things scattered on the floor. I held up the dress again and looked at Mother. Her face was as blank as one of the smooth river stones. I folded it and placed it on top of the saddle bag. I turned to the canvas next. I struggled to spread it smooth before folding it again. Mother grabbed the other end and together we folded it and placed it on top of the trunk’s contents. Mother gently closed the lid, tucking in the stray folds of canvas. She fastened the clasp and replaced the lock. It clicked with a certain finality, still holding its secrets of my mother’s past. Rather than finding answers to my questions, I was left with even more mysteries to ponder about my mother’s past—about my own history.
Mother turned sharply and gripped my shoulders. “You must never mention what you saw in this trunk—not to anyone in the village or to any stranger who might seek our assistance. I will hide the key again, not because I don’t trust you, but for your own safety. No one can pry secrets out of you that you don’t possess.” She gave me a hard shake. “Do you understand, Rosa?”
I nodded meekly, surprised at this unexpected ferocity from my mother.
She shook me again and stared into my eyes. “Promise me you will not look for it again. Be happy with the cloak and hope it does not betray you.”
“I promise, I won’t look for the key,” I whispered. Even though I looked away first, frightened myself by the intensity of fear I saw in her eyes, I vowed not to let her fear of her past keep me trapped in this cottage forever.