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The Lies of Bracken Hollow

A girl finds refuge from an abusive cult.

By April CopePublished 7 months ago Updated 5 months ago 10 min read
Runner-Up in Next Great [American] Novel Challenge
3
The Lies of Bracken Hollow
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

“Sexpot,” Alice whispered, raising her blond eyebrows. The half-sisters took their places on a braided rug that smelled faintly of cat pee. But Harriet wasn’t trying to be a sexpot. What was a sexpot anyway? Was it someone who tried to be like Madonna or Cindi Lauper? The Bracken Hollow Elysians would have none of that kind of music. Harriet had to listen secretly on her Walkman in the small room she shared with Alice while her mother listened to Bulgarian choral music in the kitchen.

After Alice struck the tuning fork on the edge of an armchair, the girls opened their throats and began to sing Morning Has Broken to the gathering in the Wilsons’ cramped living room. Harriet could smell something buttery and sweet baking in the kitchen down the narrow hall. But it smelled more like carob than chocolate, a realization that made her sadder than it should. She missed the glass bowls of chocolate kisses her mother used to leave on the piano before they joined the Elysians.

Her stomach chirped with hunger as she sang to the families in long cotton dresses and red flannel shirts. They sat silently in the fold-out metal chairs the boys had brought up from the basement. Harriet could tell something was wrong. Was it her costume?

She wore the polyester zebra-print garment she had found in the rummage shack earlier that day. "It's called a negligee," Alice had said. The word sounded fancy. Harriet found it buried under a box of damp t-shirts and pilly toddler coats, the whole bundle reeking of mildew. It was anything but Alysian, which made it even more exciting.

But how had it gotten there, she had wondered? Such garments were too tempting and potentially sinful to be lurking in a Bracken Hollow dresser drawer. Was it too much for the performance? She wasn’t sure at the time. But still fairly bold and fearless, she swooped on it like a seagull to a dropped ice cream cone. A famous singer might wear something like it on stage, she thought.

But now she felt silly and naked before the rows of agitated scarecrows. Through the window, the unforgiving mid-day light illuminated her long, pale legs.

That was Harriet’s problem, Alice always said. She was “too big for her britches,” if not too small for Alice’s hand-me-down clothes. Harriet’s grand ideas, Alice continuously reminded her, proved her hopeless idiocy. Before the small crowd, Harriet tried hard to shake off the usual shame and lift her head to meet their disapproval.

Driven by the determination to be better at something than Alice, she sang her part with brazen confidence as the wood stove crackled in the corner. The Faraway’s tweens covered their mouths in muffled amusement. Harriet pretended to ignore them.

“Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird,” she sang, letting the notes pour from her mouth. They turned to easy, lapping waves at the ends. Her mother called this “vibrato.” Harriet knew Alice envied her for the technique that came so easily to her.

Singing had become one of the only powers Harriet could wield against the mean, manipulative Alice. Indeed, the choice of the used negligee was, though ill-conceived in retrospect, another of Harriet’s attempts to stand up to Alice, show her she was a force to be reckoned with. At first, Harriet loved how the strange garment made her slight 10-year-old body feel. Like a jewelry box ballerina let loose from her peg, she had spun around the cluttered shed, knocking over boxes of old hiking boots and faded sweatshirts from the 70s. And when she realized it incensed Alice to see her wearing it, all light and willowy and contrary to Alysian moral constraint, it felt even better, somehow. Like, Alice might not have total power over her. But, as Alice watched her dance, she smirked the way she sometimes did with the slight eye roll that immediately put everyone in their place.

“Yeah. You should wear that,” she had said and left, leaving Harreit to her pirouettes.

Now Harriet knew why Alice wanted her to wear it. To laugh at her. To watch everyone else laugh at her. Her half-sister loved nothing more than to watch her make a fool of herself before others. How could she have fallen for the trick again?

The stoic, makeup-less Alysians stared at Harriet’s bony clavicles. Her legs shifted beneath the spidery ruffles. Noticing enough wrinkled brows to rival an audience of Chinese Shar Peis, Harriet knew something was wrong. It dawned on her they must not interpret the negligee as a mere theatrical stage prop as she had upon finding it. With their thin, twisted frowns, hands folded neatly on their laps, their eyes swelled in barely veiled disapproval. Except for her mother. Her beautiful mother, with her dark hair pulled back and spilling out the opening of a yellow bandana. She smiled warmly at Harriet. She nodded and tapped her foot to the song’s waltzing rhythm as the girls sang. And Bernard smiled, too. But his smile was different, almost hungry, his eyes roaming her body, his pointy beard rising and falling against his oily neck.

When the sisters finished their song, the Bracken Hollow Alysians clapped and smiled with false praise. Little kids spluttered their brief, hyperactive ridicule before running out the back door. Harriet bowed. Then, she looked up at the ceiling with its hundreds of round plaster swirls. Desperate to escape Bernard's gaze, she let herself be swept into the tiny whirlpools above. But, out of the tail of her eye, she could see him folding his chair and approaching her. Most of the grownups made for the table in the foyer, laden with deviled eggs, zucchini bread, and slabs of baked tofu congealing in pools of gravy.

“That was a lovely rendition of Morning Has Broken,” Bernard said as Harriet shrank from his bulk, her back pressed against an itchy macrame wall hanging.

“Thanks,” Harriet said, eyeing her oversized sweatshirt on a nearby chair. She could feel her nipples pressing against the thin nylon, her skin prickly with goosebumps. “We’ve been practicing, but I messed up a little.”

Bernard’s smile erupted like a pink sea anemone through his dark facial hair, his perfectly straight teeth clinging to receding gums. “We didn’t notice,” he said in a theatrical baritone, reaching to pat her shoulder. “But we did notice your choice of costume. What made you choose it?”

Harriet blushed and looked at her toes. “I don’t know. I thought it was pretty,” she said, burning with shame.

“Harriet,” he said. His tone was a kindergarten teacher's as he took her reluctant chin in garlicky fingers. He shifted her face toward him. She had no choice but to stare into his pond-colored eyes. “We all want to be noticed sometimes," he said. "We all want to be touched.”

Harriet smelled his lagoonish scent, patchouli. She hated this smell that lingered in the air whenever he was around, mingling with sweat and firewood. Some other smells rose from the folds of his flannel shirt: cinnamon, beeswax, and something masculine. His breath coated her face in a goat milk film as he trapped her against the wall.

She stood rigid, craning her neck toward the window. She could see the redbuds peeking out from behind her stepfather’s pickup. A bright swath of Forsythia waved by the shed, the dark forest beckoning beyond. Lifting her arm to his thick torso, she balanced her fingertips on a ridge of the red flannel. She was expected to hug him back, she knew. It would alarm people to see her struggle.

At Bracken Hollow, you had to hug back, even if it made your skin crawl with a thousand ants. And she felt them crawling over her now as his fingers skimmed the fine blond hairs on her arms. Edging sideways against his grasp, she tried to free herself, her revulsion rising like peanut butter stuck in her throat.

It struck Harriet that he held onto her as one holds a shovel or garden tool. As if he intended to use her for something practical but wasn’t sure where to begin. Slowly, his hand slid down her bony back, down the slippery zebra-print nylon to the small bone above her buttocks.

She couldn’t breathe. Then, hearing a mother's high-pitched laugh from the kitchen, she wanted to cry out. But nothing came from her throat. Out by the crabapple, she heard Clyde, the Wilsons’ German shepherd, bark at a passing car on Route 60. The sound reminded her of her own voice. Bernard’s hand slipped further into the ravine at the back of her body, his fingers exploring the contours of this private space.

“I, I’ve got to go,” she barked, tugging away, tears aching behind her eyes.

Then, as if nothing had happened, the Bracken Hollow founder straightened his back and shook her cheerfully. “Fine job singing, Harriet! Fine job.” He turned and walked toward the food, a self-satisfied smile sagging at the corner.

Harriet dove for her sweatshirt and rocketed her arms into the sleeves to hide herself. The soft garment swaddled her like a mother’s embrace. She wedged her feet into her worn-out Chuck Taylors by the door and bolted, slamming the screen door behind her. As she ran, the chatter of the grownups grew fainter like afternoon chickens.

Stopping briefly to stroke Clyde’s face, she dove into the March afternoon. The sun frosted her with gentle dollops like buttercream on a store-bought cake. She ran through the narrow, red-clay pathways of the Wilsons' garden, where sprouts of lettuce and peas dotted the soil with pale green stitches. She ran by the fence where Bella the cow chewed her cud, looking at Harriet like a powerless friend. Harriet wanted to get as far away from Bernard as she could, away from the eyes of men, from Alice's ridicule and spite, so she ran through the tall pines until she could run no more.

As she caught her breath, she stood panting in the languid air, noticing the gnarled roots of an oak tree. Their furrow made a perfect bed for a lost bear cub who might chance to wander by, she thought. Wilting into it, she curled herself into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest. Tears came easily as she pulled the soft cotton around her body until neither bird nor tree could catch a glimpse of her skin.

The forest whispered around her, buzzing with insects, hushing her sobs with familiar smells and sounds. She imagined she could feel the rotting oak leaves turning to rich soil beneath her. As the shadows lengthened, she summoned the spring peepers as if by her own strength of will. And like magic, they came, signing their ancient fairy songs of loss.

She closed her eyes, watching the dark red suns on the backs of her eyelids until she heard the bup-bup-bup and trill of a wood thrush. Her mother had taught her how to identify this noble bird. The honeysuckle wind crooned through the branches as a whole village of birds called to one another. Chickadee-dee-dee. Chip-churrupp-chip. Then, a mad tangle of birdsong in rattles and swoops.

Just as she opened her eyes, a red squirrel bounded past and froze on the branch. Clinging with its hind legs, it swung to the ground, peering back at her as if keeping a secret. She breathed in the ache and spawn of plants left behind by winter, hints of sassafras, sweet birch, and wild carrot. Rubbing the skin of her thigh across the rough bark, she watched tiny beads of blood form like red dew over her skin. She needed this pain. It helped her push back the shame.

As she pressed her thigh deeper into the bark, she heard a tiny sound coming from a clump of dog-toothed violets. A baby crow hopped toward her as if she, once again, had summoned it with her own will. The bird was just big enough to be wearing a rumpled vest of black feathers, otherwise be-fuzzed as if a pillow had burst while it slept.

“Come here, little thing,” Harriet whispered.

The bird was eager to make friends. It stared it at Harriet, its beak parted in comical expectation. It wanted to ask her something, Harriet thought. She imagined it had some purpose with her, some plea for shelter in a world it had discovered to be dangerous and confusing. She wiped the tears, leaned against the trunk, and laughed. Then, she put out her hand and willed it to come closer, to trust her.

Psychological
3

About the Creator

April Cope

April is a writer and musician with music on most streaming platforms like Pandora and Spotify. She lives in Asheville NC and works as a copywriter, is a mother of 2 boys and is writing a mystery.

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Comments (3)

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  • April Cope (Author)6 months ago

    Thank you, Scott. I appreciate your ideas and encouragement. I’m thinking I might edit out the “Quaker” reference because most Quakers are not cultish. I grew up in a wonderful Quaker community, but have known others who were involved in a Quaker-oriented cult.

  • Scott Christenson6 months ago

    Very well written. The narrator's voice sounds right for that age. "you had to hug back, even if it made your skin crawl with a thousand ants...." I can see a long winding novel after this using the background you've developed for her character in this chapter. I hadn't realized the quakers were a cult, but understand they have some very different practices. Maybe its just this one particular branch is very extreme.

  • Donna Renee6 months ago

    Congratulations! This was beautifully written but man, a tough read...I really hope that she does get out of that cult!!

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