Today's Reading

Dreyton Abbey, Shropshire, England, 1876

According to Cecelia Teague's calculations, she approached the close of her second day in captivity.

She couldn't remember the last time her father had locked her in the cellar's green room for so long.

Perhaps he'd finally gone mad.

Would he ever unlock that door again? Would the world forget she ever existed?

The questions pecked at her in the gathering dark like carrion birds at a fresh corpse.

She'd done nothing wicked or wanton. Nothing to merit her schoolmates' violent cruelty nor her father's pious fury.

She'd merely been the first girl, at thirteen, to best everyone at the village school at calculus. Even the final-year students. When Mr. Rolland, the teacher, had accused her of cheating because of her age and sex, she'd reminded them that Maria Gaetana Agnesi had written the modern-day textbook on differential and integral calculus.

Mr. Rolland then banished her to the corner to stand until her feet ached and her skin burned with humiliation. Thomas Wingate, the butcher's son, had seized her at lunch, shoved his thin, ruddy face in hers, and called her nine kinds of foul names as he ripped her spectacles from her face and crushed them into the mud. He spat on her before shoving her on stomach over a felled tree and exposing her drawers to his entourage of lads, who all howled their mirth.

Fraught and humiliated as she was, Cecelia hadn't shed a single tear until Mr. Rolland had threatened to go straight to her father, the Vicar Josiah Teague.

The threat had been directed at the boys.

But as Cecelia had predicted, she was the one who paid the price for their sins.

For in the eyes of her father, the sin was hers.

The original sin.

She'd been born a girl.

As the Reverend Teague marched her to the green room, he hissed at her the usual litany of condemnations, ignoring her vehement protestations.

"Just like your mother, allowing any gobshite to lift your skirts. I'll see you in the grave before you become a jezebel." He'd thrust her roughly through the cellar door, causing her to stumble down the stairs and land in a heavy heap on the packed-dirt floor. His lips had pulled away from his tea-stained teeth in a grimace of unmitigated disgust. "I thought you too fat to draw the carnal notice of man."

"I didn't do anything," she cried, ignoring the grit of the earth beneath her knees as she rose to press her hands together as though in prayer. "Please believe me. I would never—"

"You are a woman now." He wiped the word away from his mouth with the back of his hand. "And there is no such creature as an innocent woman. You tempted those boys to sin, and for that, you must atone."

Her remonstrations were lost when he'd slammed the heavy door, ensconcing her in shadow.

Cecelia settled into a corner, growing accustomed to the increasingly frequent punishment. She'd her primer to keep her occupied at the very least, as she'd thrust it into her bodice before her father had stormed into the schoolyard.

The panic hadn't encroached until a day, a night, and the next day had slipped by.

When her bucket of water ran dry, she'd succumbed to a fit of histrionics.

Cecelia banged on the door until the meat of her fists throbbed. She pitted her substantial weight against it, bruising her shoulders.

She pleaded at the keyhole like a convicted man might do on the last night of his life. She vowed to be good. To behave. Promised anything she could think of to soften her father's heart, or God's. She even confessed to sins she'd not committed, hoping her perceived candor and penitence would buy her freedom.

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