Alice French Whitaker
Daughter, Sister, Wife
He keeps saying it, over and over, like a prayer or a promise. “I didn’t kill her,” he says, even when no one asks. They assume his guilt now. They stand back and whisper as he walks unsteadily through town. Talking to himself. Speaking of murder and innocence. It’s as if he’s hearing the voices of the dead, and possibly he is. Possibly he’s hearing me now, after nearly a decade of ignoring my every word, my every need. I hope he can’t stop hearing me.
“You killed me, Edgar.” I hiss in his ear, and he flinches.
* * *
My name is Alice. It’s an unremarkable name, but it suited me. I was never an attractive girl, cursed with a nose too long for a face too round. My mother, with her finite capacity to comfort, referred to the protrusion as “aquiline.” In reality it was just big, bullying its way into the limited space between my eyes and my mouth from the time I was twelve. It grew with the same relentless aggression as my limbs, resulting in a gangly creature with skin and hair so white some folks in Riverton assumed me to be albino. I resembled a snowy egret, without the grace or beauty.
My father, Dr. Wilfred French, with no sons to treasure, doted on my younger sister Julia. I could never blame him for his appreciation of her. It was as if she had been sculpted by a God hoping to compensate for his earlier artless error. That pride my father felt for Julia transitioned abruptly when his heavily-browed eyes fell on me. No academic accomplishment—and I had enjoyed many in our tiny school—could change that. Despite the recommendations of Principal Newel, Father refused to invest in my higher education. He believed there could be only two options for daughters: we would either be married, or we would be a burden. There was little question as to which of those futures Julia would enjoy, if only our father could find someone suitable. I, however, was destined for the latter.
But Father underestimated the desperation that can exist in a lonely man’s soul. Sometimes, all a man needs are the warmth of a woman’s parts and someone to feed him thrice daily. Even I was well-equipped to handle those joyless tasks. Shortly before my twenty-fourth birthday, a spinster by local standards, my father was approached by Edgar.
Edgar Arthur Whitaker, a twenty-nine-year-old farmer from Madison, had tried unsuccessfully for the hand of Julia. He had been scouring the surrounding towns for months seeking a sturdy girl to marry, take home, and put to work. But Edgar put aside those requirements when he laid eyes on the sixteen-year-old beauty. He was quick to appreciate those large blue orbs, her hair the color of autumn oak leaves, and skin that seemed to generate its own soft light. But as lovely as Julia was, a farmer’s wife she would never be. It was ridiculous that a man more than a decade older, with nothing to show for those years of labor except a bit of tanned muscle, would think he could abscond with my father’s only prize. Even Mother, a woman who was disinclined to openly belittle others, was amused by Edgar’s stumbling advances.
It was a year later that Edgar, even more desperate now, turned his attentions to me. When he arrived at our door, I assumed he had returned to craft a better case for Julia’s hand. But my sister was giddy with the news that Edgar was vying for mine. She grabbed my arm and guided me out to the front porch where we could sneak peeks into the sitting room. There my parents and Edgar sat, civilly chatting over cups of tea. I was taken aback, considering how they had reacted to him the first time. I’ve never blamed Mother for her passive acceptance of Father’s decisions. She was a woman whose story had been written for her, and therefore must have assumed mine needed authorship as well. However, I was surprised and even saddened that she considered Edgar an appropriate penman. Whereas I had accepted Father’s displeasures with me, I had always thought Mother to be more embracing of my less visible attributes.
“He has a certain charm,” Julia said as we stole peeks through the curtains. Edgar struggled there with a saucer balanced on one knee as he sipped from a cup that looked ridiculous in his massive paw. “This is just like that book you love so much, the one by that woman.”
I was surprised that she would reference a novel, since reading was not her pleasure.
“You know, that one about pride. The romantic one.”
I laughed. “You’ve never even read Pride and Prejudice.”
“I haven’t, but you’ve talked so much about it I have no need to.”
I squinted through the curtains, trying to grasp what Julia must be seeing in the disquieting scenario that I could not. “I think you need to read more, Julia. In no way does this resemble the beginnings of a romantic novel. From the looks of it, I’m inclined to compare it to a comedy, or most likely one of Poe’s horrific tales if it goes on much longer.”
Julia rolled her eyes as if it were she who understood the world more fully. “You’re too cynical, Alice. This could be your future if you would be open to it. Mr. Whitaker is a fine, hardworking man. He has his own farm, and he’s not so unpleasant to look at.”
“Really? Didn’t you all laugh at him the first time?”
She picked at a cluster of invisible lint on her gloves. It was her nervous habit when she was dissatisfied with the conversation. “You obviously misunderstood.”
“I think not. You did it openly.”
“No, Alice. We were laughing at me, not Edgar. We were laughing at the image of me amongst pigs and chickens. Could you imagine?” She giggled too ambitiously. “You must admit it’s an amusing thought considering how I am.”
“But you could imagine me there? Surrounded by pigs and chickens and all of whatever that entails?”
“Yes, I could. You’re good with animals, always taking in the strays. And you’re a far more resilient person than I. Whereas I would be overwhelmed by the challenges, you’ll rise to them. You’re strong and adaptable and so smart. I’m sure there’s a lot to learn, but you’ll take to it quickly. And Edgar couldn’t ask for a better companion. You might even be happy there. Anyone can tell that you’re not now.”
She turned that lovely face toward me with so much sincerity and humiliation—whether it was real or feigned—that I loved her more in those seconds than I had ever loved her before. I glanced back at the scene that appeared to be developing into what could be my future. Mother’s smile was static as she listened to Edgar’s story. Her eyes widened at some distasteful detail.
“But look at him, Julia. He’s like an ape at a tea party.”
She joined me at the window and burst into giggles before hiding her face in a pillow. “You shouldn’t make fun of him while he sits right there. He may be your husband soon.”
The reality hit me then. Husband. The word felt foreign, like a jagged bone in a bowl of stew. Julia lowered the pillow and took both of my hands in hers. The gloves’ fabric was cool against my sweating palms.
“You’ll be good for Edgar. He’ll take care of you, and you’ll help him to become a better man.” She looked down at our conjoined hands and smiled. It was an amusing assemblage: mine like long white anglers entwining the shorter and thicker clusters of hers. “I will miss you, but this is your best option. There may not be others.”
Julia had a point, although I doubted it was hers. She, and my parents by proxy, was probably right. There was little chance of exiting my limited life in Riverton or even improving upon it. I could plainly see the road that lay before me if I stayed there in Father’s house. I would grow old with my parents. I would take care of them at the end, and I would do nothing of significance beyond that. I would be Auntie Alice, a sad and pitiable woman. It seemed that a life with Edgar offered, at the very least, a possibility of the uncertain.
“You could make him smile, Alice.” She was doggedly enthusiastic, as if her future depended on the settling of mine. I suppose it did, in some way. Julia was approaching the marrying age herself, and possibly it had been planted in her mind that an older, unmarried, and unattractive sister would not make an acceptable impression for suitors and their families. It occurred to me then that she bore a responsibility I had never understood. Her burden was to marry well, while I was allowed a modicum of choice.
“He has a lovely smile, but he doesn’t show it nearly enough,” Julia said. “You could help him with that.” As if by cue, a smile did curl at the edges of Edgar’s mouth. But the reason for it was not lovely. Father had just extended an envelope to him, and Edgar’s lips parted into a crooked grin as he counted its contents.
There was no courtship. Edgar had little time or patience. The arrangements had been made, and the dowry had been accepted. My departure from my “certain” life was quick and with little pomp. The wedding, if one could call it that, was at home in the parlor, attended only by my parents and my sister. Julia was as lovely as always in a pale green dress with matching accessories. I could not be similarly described in mother’s starkly white wedding gown. She had insisted that I wear it, despite the differences in our shapes, and there was no time for alterations. It rose well above my ankles and drooped in places that called attention to my lack of womanly growth. But the whiteness was its most disturbing effect. Julia gasped when she saw me.
“It’s so…white,” she said, as if I hadn't noticed. “You look like a ghost.” And she was right. The dress’s pallor matched mine perfectly, as if we had been cut from the same sterile cloth.
What a grim couple we made. Edgar, having come directly from the fields, did not dress for the occasion. He was outfitted in a tattered shirt, faded overalls, and boots that seemed to have collected a great deal of organic matter over the years. He did not arrive with a smile nor did he adopt one. As I approached him on what should have been our happy day, I could see his horror. He had clung to an unrealistic hope that on this one day I might be closer to acceptable. When the pastor suggested that we kiss, signifying the loving bond into which we were entering, Edgar was still. He was like a child who had not received the gift he had been promised. I felt sad for him, but only briefly. I leaned in and put my lips to his. They were colder and stiffer than I had expected, and they seemed to harden beneath mine. It was to be the only kiss we would ever share. For that I am grateful.