The Sea Tower | Chapter 20

The School of Hard Knocks

A clamorous din, beset by some forty-odd people, greeted Treena and the girls at the schoolhouse gates. For an island with a population numbering in the hundreds, it was quite the turnout. Men and women shouted to be heard over one another, struggling to rise above the relentless wailing of screaming children whilst shoving past each other to reach the front of the queue. The building, no larger than a modest chapel, struggled to contain the throng threatening to overwhelm its doorstep; the crowd, panicked, buzzed with a volatile air.

“Calm yourselves! Calm down, dammit!” Shouted a bespectacled nun clad in blue vestments. Dalia immediately recognized her drab as belonging to the order which presided over the schoolhouse, though the coloring was unfamiliar. The woman’s features were sharp and dour, her voice shrill while radiating authority. “Let me make myself clear: only the wounded, and children, and their mothers are entering the school. I will remind you—that is what this is: a school, not a shelter. We simply do not have the room to house everybody. So, calm the hell down already, the lot of you. There are children here. So, you can all start by setting a good example. Honestly!”

Surprisingly, the appearance of someone keeping a level head did wonders for restoring order. Or, perhaps, the crowd simply didn’t know how to react in the face of the unorthodox. Though mutinous rumblings still stirred, the melting pot no longer threatened to boil over.

“We can’t spare medi-pots for minor wounds. They’re in short supply at the moment.” The nun warned, referring to the healing potions which they kept on-hand for emergencies. “But there’s aliments and bandages to go around. Treat your own wounds, and gather your strength. It’s the best thing that can be done at the moment. That is all.”

She left without further to-do, ignoring the protests launched at her back from all sides. Dalia wasn’t sure why everyone was demanding so much from the woman, as it was clear that she was just a nun; but the way she gracefully strode away while bearing the weight of so much expectation without faltering, was astounding.

Without preamble, another, stouter woman took the first’s place. This nun wore green vestments, and began issuing instructions that were reticently followed, surprisingly, with only minor complaint. Yet, though she couldn’t place her finger on why, Dalia imagined that if this particular nun had been the first to address the crowd, in the worked-up state they were in beforehand, the woman’s words might’ve been fallen on deaf ears.

To Dalia’s surprise, she came to recognize the newest speaker. It was Sister Errol, one of Millie’s former teachers. The revelation came shortly after garnering a close enough inspection to be sure; the proximity of which lay completely out of her hands, for she, along with her mother and sister, were being, unwittingly, herded along with the throng. In their attempt to avoid the teeming bodies of others, they yielded, unceremoniously, to the crowd’s greater influence, like flotsam adrift at sea.

Before she knew it, Dalia was looking up at Sister Errol, waiting to be sorted. There were still loud voices of dissent cropping up behind them which, despite the ruckus, was proving impossible to ignore. There were pleas for clemency and sanctuary, decrials of abuse and faithlessness, and begging. The sound of begging—grown men begging—somehow managed to inspire more fear in her young bones than the thought of those same men, in their desperation, turning violent. However, true rebellion was quickly stymied before it could be allowed to grow, as many bystanders found their voices rising in the defense of women, children, and the wounded.

Sister Errol dismissed the group ahead and Treena ushered Dalia and Minnie forward without relinquishing the firm hold she kept on their shoulders. The nun looked them over, and Dalia was surprised to see the woman’s eyes widen in recognition. She hadn’t thought that the woman would recognize her at all, given that Dalia hadn’t even been one of her students, nor had the two traded more than passing eye contact at any time prior. Sister Errol opened her mouth to speak, but a loud curse in the back of the queue drew her attention. When the nun’s eyes returned to their group, she visibly bit back whatever words were converging on the tip of her tongue. Instead, she adopting a serious mien, and once again donned the air of an all-business toller. 

“Are any of you hurt?” She asked Treena while eyeing the girls askance. Though she, mercifully, made no comment about the cloak.

“No, fortunately.” Treena answered quickly, voice raspy, eager to avoid a closer inspection.

Sister Errol nodded, and her eyes softened. “That’s good. In that case, then go on in, dears, and get yourselves situated.” The nun waved Treena through, turning her eyes over to the next group without waiting to see if her instructions were being followed.

Obedience had become second nature to the girls, and they followed their mother unerringly. The brisque walk into the schoolhouse resembled a lovely stroll through a meadow when compared to the grueling pace Treena had set them on before. A tap here, a nudge there, or reproving pinch had become their language. Mutely, they meandered through the bodies filling the vestibule, past the wounded being tended in an auditorium, before they were stopped by another nun. The woman appeared comely, foreign, and with a stalwart physique. An immigrant, perhaps?

“You three can come with me. Altogether, then? No stragglers?”

“Yes. I mean, it’s just us.” Treena said.

The broad-shouldered nun led them into a repurposed classroom which, at the time, housed two other families, and twice as many children, none of whom looked related to one another.

“Have a seat.” The nun turned and left, not even offering a parting glance.

The three sat down at an empty bench, on the opposite side of a pair of hugging children. A straw haired girl, no older than Dalia, glared about the room defiantly while shielding a younger, smaller boy behind her own diminutive frame. The boy clung to the girl’s side as if clutching a lifeline, which likely wasn’t far from the truth. Though silent and still, the signs of having shed many tears persisted on both their features. The boy’s dirty face, which had once been handsome, had become sorrowful to gaze upon. Dalia looked away when the girl caught her staring.

The tables in the room were long, the sort used for banquets or feasts. Here, they were used for matriculation, resembling those from Dalia’s own school as well. She could already spy the hidden compartments lurking beneath the table’s flat surface, where the children kept their books and other school supplies. They peeked beneath shadows, offering glimpses of their contents. Her own cupboard housed many items she had grown immensely attached to, including a pewter scribing quill that her father had gifted her for her birthday the year before. Now, it was simply gone.

“Mama…” Minnie whispered, tugging on Treena’s sleeve.

For her part, Treena looked like death warmed over, but offered a mechanical smile in response nonetheless, just a tugging of the lips really. “Yes, baby?”

“My feet hurt.” Minnie said petulantly. It almost sounded like a question, except the words were affected by the whining tone the girl was known for abusing to get her way. “Oh, and I’m tired.” She added as an afterthought. “Can I take my shoes off? Please?”

Treena frowned while considering the requestion. An oddity, because usually the woman frowned after weighing a consideration. However, Dalia immediately recognized her mother’s conflicted expression for what it truly was; it was the look she donned when their father impetuously allowed his daughter’s the run of something he shouldn’t have agreed to, but which their mother was reluctant to take away now that the girls had acquired. Dalia had never been able to determine, not one way or the other, whether their mother would veto their father whenever the woman adopted that expression.

“You can put your feet up on the bench, but I want you to keep your shoes on for now.”

Minnie pouted, visibly deflated. Raising her legs up onto the bench regardless, she heeded her mother wordlessly. It seemed that only Dalia managed to infer her mother’s vested reasoning, keep your shoes on in case we need to run again. Silently, she agreed. Raising her own feet onto the bench while crossing her legs, Dalia determined to recuperate what strength she could be afforded before they undertook another unknown stretch of road. They would all have to be ready for whatever lay ahead.

Over the next few minutes, Treena wrung her hands while worrying her lip, casting searching gazes left and right. What she sought to discover remained unclear; though, Dalia noted, the nuns had yet to make a reappearance, despite the earlier promise of aliments and bandages. Worse, the clamoring outside had grown louder, more disruptive, directly correlating to the increased number of explosions they could hear occurring in the distance. The nun whose voice they’d first heard upon their arrival had made another resurgence, to which the crowd seemed less responsive than before.

Ultimately, Treena sighed. She cast an appraising look over her daughters for the umpteenth time, and seemed on the verge of reaching a decision, when the hurried cadence of clacking heels resounded in the hallway, growing louder. The door opened to reveal the stalwart nun from before. She placed a pitcher of water on the table with two cups. Immediately, there was a clamor, but the woman’s harsh words quelled the onrush.

“Stop that! You are not animals. You will take turns. Little children first. You, there.” She said, pointing at the boy. “And you.” She gestured towards Minnie, who looked up owlishly.

The boy extricated himself from his sister’s side. Minnie made to copy his actions, when Treena pointedly fixed Soya’s cloak in place to prevent her from leaving its folds. Subtly, she reproved her youngest. The look might’ve gone past the others’ heads, but the girls were well used to their mothers’ mannerisms by now, enough to know what her expressions meant, backwards and forwards.

“I’ll pour a cup for my daughters.” Treena said, eyeing the nun with a sincere expression. When the woman didn’t comment, Treena made a move towards the pitcher. Quickly filling the second cup, she handed it to Minnie before turning to the other woman again, who looked satisfied with the gesture. “Thank you for your hospitality, Sister.” The woman nodded, and made to leave, but Treena wasn’t finished. “Excuse me. I don’t mean to impose, but I believe I might’ve heard tale of aliments earlier.” She said, inflecting her question. “For the children, of course.”

The nun donned a hard gaze, which she pinned onto Treena reproachfully. The look was one that Dalia struggled to hold, even if indirectly. As she took a turn sipping water from the cup, the girl furtively spied her mother askance. Treena appeared to be equally matching the woman’s taciturn eyes with her own unflinching resolve. Dalia had always known her mother to be strong willed, often more so than her own father, but she was only beginning to realize just how strong her mother really was in that moment. Treena’s face, while placid, sported a genial quirk of the lips and cinching of the eyes, which might’ve passed as cordial affectation in another place and time—a smile—but was now muted from weariness and fatigue.

Surprisingly, the nun broke eye contact first, huffing like a bull afterwards. “Come with me then.” She said brusquely.

This time, Treena really did smile. It was small and a wisp of a thing, but lifted Dalia’s spirits to see, nonetheless. It prompted her own delicate equivalent.

“Thank you, sister.” Treena said before turning to her daughters. “You girls stay here. And… Dalia, remember what we talked about.”

Dalia felt her friable smile crumbling under the weight of her mother’s mention, and nodded.

As soon as Treena departed after the nun, Dalia found the watering cup being snatched from her hands by an older woman. “You’ve had enough.” She said sharply.

Taken by surprise, Dalia blanched while hurriedly mumbling out an apology.

“Hey!” Minnie protested loudly. “She wasn’t done with that, you bully.”

“She’s had it long enough. There’s other people in here too, you know.”

“Minnie, it’s fine.” Dalia tried to whisper to her sister.

“The sister-lady said that kids go first.” Minnie said, undeterred.

“I have kids.” The woman gestured to three similar looking children, each older than Minnie and Dalia. A teenage boy smirked down at them. “Besides, the lady isn’t here. Now, is she? And neither is your mommy.” She taunted. “So, keep that in mind.”

Dalia was steadily getting angrier the longer this woman kept talking down to them—to her sister, especially. However, she recalcitrantly pacified herself with the knowledge that the woman was right in at least one regard: their mother wasn’t here to fight their battles for them. So, with that in mind, it would be prudent to avoid conflict altogether. Because that knowledge, combined with the responsibilities attached to the promise she made her mother, left her feeling vulnerable and insecure. In the end, she bit her tongue while pointedly shaking her head at Minnie, nonverbally asking her to discontinue.

“You’re mean.” Minnie said lowly to the woman in a final repartee.

The woman scoffed, picking up the cup to drink her own fill. “Whatever.” She muttered.

Minnie huffed, puffing her cheeks out poutingly to show that she was put out. It was a tactic she employed often with their father and, to a lesser degree, their mother. It had even, occasionally, been used against Dalia herself. However, the stranger took it in stride with only a soft snort of derision to show for Minnie’s concerted efforts.

The singular act of petulance was almost enough to bring a smile to Dalia’s face, despite still fuming from the cause herself. Instead, she settled for affectionally patting her sister’s head, which she knew the girl both loved and hated. Minnie adored the attention, but felt she was too big to be treated like a child, a misconception which Dalia nor her parents bothered to correct. They derived too much amusement from the girls dithering reactions as, despite the occasional rejection, Minnie would, more often than not, permit the doting. However, Dalia was quickly brushed off.

Switching tactics with a practiced ease, she took to soothingly rubbing her sister’s back, like their mother was oft to do for them both. This, the girl begrudgingly allowed. Amusement tugged at the corners of Dalia’s lips, which she pressed together into a fine line. Minnie could behave like a big cat sometimes and, while Dalia knew better than to consider her younger sister as a pet, the comparison could be rather hard to ignore. Especially when…

Minnie began humming softly, which Dalia imagined sounded somewhat akin to purring. The proverbial dam broke, and a true smile to bloomed across her face for the first time since the attack had commenced.

So cute, she thought, not for the first time. Her sister had always been adorable. Even when the younger girl tried to pull off bitterness, she could never quite succeed.

Dalia let her mind wander in the novelty of feeling content. Sure, she was still struggling to stay afloat of the suffocating emotions that threatened to overwhelm her frazzled state of mind—to swallow her whole, drag her down to the depths, and drown her under the sheer immensity of it all—but there was something else present there now that hadn’t been before: a life preserver. So, she clung to it with a desperate ferocity.

Allowing her mind to drift during the trek to school hadn’t been an option she could afford to entertain. Though, she knew that she must’ve—unwittingly, of course—at some point.

She wasn’t safe now, either. No, she wasn’t naïve enough to believe it for a minute. Especially not with the constant reminders of ruin and unrest erupting from outside. But the walls of the schoolhouse, the seclusion from the outside world and, most of all, her sister’s content humming, was enough to sell her on the illusion of security. One by which she deeply yearned to be fooled.

For a string of uncounted reprieves, merely moments, Dalia allowed the world around her to bleed away. Sounds cease to matter, and the walls holding the world at bay were no longer as important. Only she and Minnie existed anymore. Ensconced within an illusory cocoon, they were pocketed away from the rest of the world. The lie tasted delightful.

A soft slam from nearby suddenly reminded Dalia of her surroundings. She ruefully blinked back the fog in her mind, and gathered her wits.

Before them, stood the awful woman from before, the one who’d insulted them. She’d apparently returned the communal cup to the table. Surprisingly, the pitcher hadn’t yet been emptied, though it was close. The woman was in the middle of pouring out another—the final—serving. To Dalia’s astonishment, the cup was unkindly shoved in her general direction.

“Here.” the woman said unpleasantly, as if she were beleaguered by the effort. “It’s the last of it. So, be grateful, girl. And don’t dawdle so much next time, or else you’ll find yourself wanting.”

“Oh, uh…” Dalia stared. The cup was half-filled. She looked up to find the woman staring directly at her, which she took as a sign to mean she were the intended recipient. “Thanks.” She managed to murmur out.

Dalia withdrew the cup, tucking it close to her chest while awkwardly scanning the room. Spotting several faces, many of them not bothering to return her gaze, she wondered if they’d all had their share. Though, she reasoned that they must’ve, because no one contested her second turn, nor did any of those same faces express noticeable misgivings.

Minnie eyed the woman with narrowed eyes as she returned to her family, slinking off to the corner of the room which they’d claimed for themselves. She wordlessly plopped down next to her children, sparing no more attention to Minnie and Dalia. But the young girl kept staring, unsure of what to make of the encounter.

Glancing at her sister askance, Dalia wondered at Minnie’s expression for a moment. She could see a word of gratitude hanging on the young girl’s lips, but it seemed to be at odds with her sister’s first impression of the woman (and her repellant nature). Eventually, Dalia’s lips quirked, recognizing the internal struggle playing out for what it was. After all, the same look of confusion had spread across Minnie’s face one summer when the neighbor’s boy had gone on to impulsively insult the girl one day only to spare her a shy compliment the next. To a young child’s mind, who saw the world in absolutes, the concepts of all that lay in-between must seem foreign and strange; but Dalia was growing older, finding herself firmly braving this new alien world of contradictions when all she had known before were dichotomies. 

Looking up to find her sister’s warm eyes shining down at her querily, Minnie seemingly came to a decision and beamed brightly up at Dalia, who’s own shifting countenance settled on a similar change, returning the smile.

Hmm. Maybe the irascible woman wasn’t so bad after all, Dalia thought. However off-putting she may come across, perhaps the woman had a soft side yet unexplored; she was a mother, after all. I should save some for Minnie, she thought while raising the drink to her lips.

“Don’t drink it.” The words were spoken softly, loud enough to carry to Dalia’s ears and no further. For the first time since they’d entered the room, the girl across the table had bothered to speak.

Dalia blinked, uncertainty coloring her face. “Uh, what?” She said, giving the girl her full attention.

The girl stared back. Her visage remained unchanged from the cautionary glare she reserved for the room’s other occupants, but Dalia noted that her eyes were piercing, nonetheless. It made Dalia feel exposed in a way that only Madam Soya had ever succeeded in doing before. Then Dalia blinked, and the feeling was gone. The girl was looking elsewhere, down at the table.

“The water.” She clarified, flitting her eyes across to the cup Dalia still held. The one from which she had been about to drink. “You shouldn’t drink it.” Then, as if she hadn’t said anything curious at all, the girl’s attention left Dalia, returning to her previous task of observing the room in a silent vigil.

“Uh…” Minnie eloquently summed up Dalia’s thoughts to a tee, having observed the interaction. Dalia agreed, though refrained from uttering a reiteration.

A subtle glance to the far end of the room revealed that the crabby woman wasn’t paying their group any attention, too engrossed with scolding her kids for a transgression of some sort. Dalia noiselessly set the cup down table in front of her, keeping it nestled in-between her arms which she laid down as well.

“Um, excuse me.” Dalia prodded the other girl from across the table, keeping her voice to hushed tones. “But why… shouldn’t I drink it?”

The girl didn’t immediately respond, and Dalia almost thought that she hadn’t been heard or that the girl wouldn’t answer. Her question had been meekly proffered, and either was possible. Instead, the other girl seemed to champion a stoic silence, the same she’d cultivated so far. Dalia nearly decided that was the case when the girl began speaking again.

“I don’t trust her.” She said, though refrained from looking at Dalia. “You shouldn’t either.”

“What?” Minnie queried.

“Why not?” Dalia asked tentatively.

The other girl spared a glance, shrugged, then turned, and that was it. The nonchalant finality of her actions seemed to signal an end to her participation.

“You’re being weird. Talking to us, then ignoring us, like that.” Minnie began prodding while raising her voice beyond the hushed tones of the others. “Why don’t you just say what you mean, instead of yanking our chain?”

The girl ignored Minnie’s outburst, studiously refusing to acknowledge she’d heard anything at all. Her taciturn demeanor left no room to doubt that her participation in the conversation had reached an end.

“Hey, don’t just ignore us! Don’t you know, it’s rude to—”

Dalia cut her sister off, not wanting to draw further attention from the others. A few heads had turned their way but, thankfully, none lingered, and Dalia was engladdened to see that the acerbic woman they’d been discussing was not among those individuals. “Minnie. I think that’s enough.” She chided. Though, admittedly she, too, was curious of the girl’s motivation. Why had she broken her silence to deliver such cryptic warnings?

“But…” Minnie whined.

Dalia gave her sister the best impression she could muster of their mother’s ‘that’s enough’ face. After a moment in which Minnie looked scandalized to see her sister wearing that expression, and more so to see it directed at her, the ploy seemed to work.

“Ugh. Fine.” Minnie said with a huff. “My feet hurt too much to care, anyway.” She muttered bitterly. It was adorable.

Dalia soundlessly placed the half-filled cup back on the tray. Eying its liquid contents, she teetered on forgoing the girl’s advice altogether, already feeling parched, before deciding that no harm could come from heeding it, whereas the opposite couldn’t be said to be true. After staring longingly an extra moment, Dalia determinedly put the entire thing out of her mind.

Turning to Minnie, she stroked the girl’s hair while trying to catch her attention. A few strategic smiles and goofy faces saw the girl devolve from bullishly recalcitrant to a giggling mess in short order. It was an abuse of her power as an elder sibling, but Dalia figured that she was too young to be entrusted with absolute responsibility.

Dalia preferred to see her sister carefree and gay. The juxtaposition from the severe countenance that had been ruling the young girl’s features in lieu of her normal visage was an unwelcome change. If it were up to her, Minnie would never have a reason to do anything else but laugh and smile.

Therefore, it felt cruel to address the elephant in the room, even by proxy. Sighing, Dalia reminded herself that daydreaming was for babes—like Minnie. Her mother had entrusted her and, while the woman was still nearby, she had too much on her plate already. The least Dalia could do is shoulder a bit of the weight.

“Minnie, let me see your feet.” Dalia said softly, infusing her words with a lighthearted tone.

The effect was immediate. As if reminded if an unpleasantness, Minnie winced grimacingly. Although the reversive mien was unwelcome, this time it wasn’t unexpected.

Dalia shifted on the bench until she sat cross legged facing her sister. “Here.” She patted her cloaked lap. “Let me see.”

Although they could see just as well underneath the cover of Soya’s cloak due to its transparent properties, Dalia understood that drawing any amount of unwanted scrutiny at this point wound counterintuitively.

Minnie bit her lip, face contemplative, before loosing a soft grunt, presumably one of acquiescence, because she, too, turned to face her sister. Tucking her knees up to her chest, both feet found purchase atop Dalia’s lap while the rest of her body kept within close enough proximity to remain covered.

Dalia smiled supportively, trying to get her sister to reciprocate the action more than offer assurances, though that, too, was given. However, Minnie didn’t smile back. Instead, her eyes remained firmly rooted on her buckled shoes. They were dreadfully scuffed and dirty, whereas once they’d been new and fetching. Having once been lacquered and polished to a shine, they shone like beatific rubies in the cobbler’s shop when new. Minnie had pestered their mother nonstop for weeks, incessant until the pair had finally come into her possession. Minnie, who’d always flaunted such vibrant red hair, became the envy of all her friends when she lauded her fetching new shoes as well. Dalia could see the tumultuous emotions carving deep grooves on her sister’s troubled face; she could read the girl clearly as if she were poring over words that were printed on parchment.

Sighing in resignation, Dalia conceded that the moment had been soured, and it would be best to hurry it along until it passed. She made deft work of unbuckling the , but met with resistance when she tried to pry one off. Minnie hissed and quickly retracted her foot, nearly kneeing Dalia in the face in the process.

“Minnie!” Dalia scolded. “You almost hit me.”

“Sorry.” Minnie said, murmuring a half-hearted apology. Her foot came down again and, this time, Dalia could visibly see the girl steeling herself. For something…

Worrying her brow, Dalia pondered the extreme reaction. “I’ll try to be gentle.” She assured, wondering but hoping against the possibility that Minnie had twisted her ankle at some point during their flight.

Minnie nodded, keeping uncharacteristically quiet.

Dalia made quick work of the shoe, but chided herself for every wince she elicited from Minnie. And when the shoe came off, it was Dalia’s turn to hiss. “Oh, my… Gods.” She whispered. The foot was red, blistered and, in some places, bleeding sluggishly.

As if waiting for permission to express her suffering, Minnie broke down in a fit of sobs. She’d been sobbing all day, it seemed to her, but this time, for the first time all day, she sobbed solely for herself.

My feet hurt. The words ran through Dalia’s head, repeating themselves like a grotesque mantra. This whole time… Minnie… she was suffering. And I… I let her.

“I’m sorry.” Dalia muttered. This was all her fault, wasn’t it? While her mother was charged with finding them refuge, it was she who’d been tasked with watching over her sister. Why hadn’t she seen this?

My feet hurt.

But hadn’t she, though? Dalia felt her throat constrict, unsure if it were tears or bile that she was holding at bay. “Gods, Minnie. I’m so sorry.”

Dalia looked around for a cloth or the promised bandages, but saw none; neither had they aroused anyone’s attention. In the small classroom they inhabited, their side of the bench faced the wall abutting the corridor. Should the nun or their mother return, either could turn their heads and see the damage. Maybe one of them would know what to do, or maybe they would return with bandages. Is that why their mother had left? Dalia was drawing a blank.

In the following seconds, neither Treena nor the stalwart nun returned, no matter how imploringly or beseechingly she watched the door. Her silent urging went unanswered as those figures refused to walk through the threshold, despite how searchingly her gaze quested. In the end, it was for naught. Dalia remembered that it was she who was tasked with watching over her sister. This time, it was Dalia’s turn to steel herself.

I need you to take care of your sister. Treena’s pleas resounded in her mind, each word felt weighty and sharp. She felt struck by them. I need you to promise me.

I promise, mama.

The blows kept coming. How could she promise that? Why had she said it? She couldn’t possibly keep a promise that heavy. I can’t. I can’t… I’m just a kid. Dalia’s head shook in denial.

But she had promised, and their mother wasn’t here any longer.

Minnie’s feet wouldn’t stop bleeding, no matter how much Dalia’s terrified gaze lingered. Though, her eyes dared not linger for very long.

Minnie murmured something that Dalia couldn’t make out. The words were soft-spoken, but even if they weren’t, Dalia doubted she would’ve understood them. However, when Minnie tried to retract her feet, she murmured again, and the sentiment finally broke through Dalia’s overwhelmed fugue.

“I’m sorry.” Minnie whispered meekly, almost as if she were being scolded after having been caught doing something wrong. It was the final blow which pierced her naïve façade.

Dalia was not their mother. In a hundred years, she didn’t think she could be, but right now, she had to be, and that thought scared her.

Yet her baby sister needed her, and that scared her even more. No, I’m sorry, Minnie.

Dalia pulled Minnie’s feet back, and forced herself to look. They were still bleeding, but some details stood out moreso than they had. There was dirt and small stones clinging to the fabric of Minnie’s stockings.

I can’t do this. I can’t. I can’t.

Minnie whimpered and tried apoloziging again.

I must.

Dalia removed the stones and tried to brush away as much of the dirt as she could. She knew that dirt was dirty, it was in the name, even though she’d heard some of the adults advising each other to ‘put some dirt on it.’ Her mother had never allowed dirt to enter the household, and their father had never allowed it to enter his kitchen, so she figured that the advice didn’t apply to everyone or, possibly, everything under the sun.

Afterwards, Minnie’s feet were still bleeding. Dalia remembered that cuts in the kitchen were more common than dirt. She’d have to thank their father later for the knowledge she didn’t realize she knew.

“Sorry, Minnie.” Dalia whispered. She ripped the frills off the top of Minnie’s stockings, silently cringing at the sound of tearing which cut through the room. Dalia was sure many people noticed but, thankfully, no one commented.

“S’alright.” Minnie said affably. Though this time, when she winced, it wasn’t because anything hurt.

Dalia reached for the cup of water she had put away. It might not be serviceable to drink, but it should be fine for cleaning. The worst thing the woman might’ve done is spit in it, but Dalia had seen her daddy lick a wound more than once. So, she figured it would be fine if that were the case. Although, admittedly, the thought disgusted her. Therefore, she decided that Minnie probably didn’t need to be aware of her suspicions, especially if they were true.

Luckily, there was still water in the cup. And no spit, she hoped. Dalia dabbed the bunched up frills into the water. They were lacy and not very absorbent, but managed to soak enough to pass as a serviceable sponge. Dalia began dabbing at Minnie’s feet.

Minnie hissed lowly, but Dalia recognized the importance of good hygiene. Frowning and only mutely apologetic, she swabbed away at her sister’s feet, cleaning away the blood and muck. Afterwards, the remaining water was dark and ruddy with dirt and blood, but Minnie’s feet were bare once again. Now, how to keep them that way? She pondered.

Dalia stuffed the frills into the ruined cup, and huffed. She had no clue. All she knew was that her sister’s stockings were ruined while her own were… then it clicked.

Dalia made quick work of divesting herself of her own stockings before gingerly slipping them onto Minnie’s feet. They were without lace, and Minnie had even once called them boring, but they were knitted and fit. After they were on, Dalia could only smile on proudly.

“But…” Minnie began.

“Hmm?” Dalia looked up to her sister’s questioning gaze.

“But your feet…”

Dalia looked down, and saw that her own feet had suffered as well. Superficial scratches raked the exposed flesh of her ankle, which sat above the leather binding, while the onset of bruises were beginning to appear around the entire circumference of her foot, mottling her fair skin even further. The heel of her foot had even been rubbed raw. It looked bad and, by looking, one wouldn’t expect it to last long unprotected.

Her feet were ruined. How had she missed that? How…

Should she take her stockings back? Minnie’s pair were ragged, but still mostly intact. If she turned them around, they might yet hold together. Her sister must’ve caught her looking, because Minnie’s tows curled as if recoiling in shame.

Dalia remembered the state of her sister’s feet, which had nearly driven them both into a panic. She vowed to never see her sister’s feet become like that again, even if she were forced to bear the brunt of the punishment from now on. It was a price she would gladly pay.

Adopting a feigned smile, Dalia patted her sister’s knee congenially, and shrugged.

Dalia picked up a shoe, eager to hide her exposed feet from view. She patted her sore foot free from any lingering traces of dirt, then blew into the shoe to do the same. She was glad she bothered after some came out. Dalia slipped the shoe back over her foot. She did the same with the other.

“All better.” She said cheerily. Internally, she cringed at how forced her words were spoken. But truthfully, she was worried, for Minnie and herself, and it was the best she could muster.

Dalia remembered to blow into Minnie’s shoes before slipping them gingerly back over her feet.

“Thank you.” Minnie said softly. The girl sounded close to tears.

Dalia held her sister’s hand, and lay her head over hers. She hummed a soft tune into Minnie’s ear as they waited for their mother to return.

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