FLASH FICTION - Legacy

Despite coming off the ocean, the wind was hot. It was baked like challa and it twisted through the oven of concrete and tilted brick buildings. It bounced over the wretched pile of rocks and earth that comprised the town square after the earthquake. Nobody had the fortitude to clean it up. Squalid children played in the mudholes (there had been no rain for weeks, and thus only the very worst of possibilities as to whence the mud had come.) Dogs as dirty and thin as the children wafted in and out and over the rockpile, like physical manifestations of the devil-breathed wind.

America stepped carefully between the loose bricks of the street, as though she would be able to preserve the sheen on her freshly-polished shoes.  In defiance of the heat she was fully dressed - splendidly so - in pitch black: from her patent leather shoes to her stockings to her tight-fitting dress and the hat with a blackbird sleeping on it. She did not wipe the beads of sweat that gathered under the hat, but blinked several times fiercely to keep them from rolling into her eyes.  America would not lack grace today. Her eyes would not betray her on this day.

She knew what people said about her aunt. She knew the first America's reputation for being a heartless old schoolmarm who threw rocks at raucous boys shouting in the alley. She knew her aunt was mocked for her sailor's walk and her sailor's vocabulary, suggesting the spinster was really a man. They said she was wealthy, and cheap, and probably living off a pirate's treasure hoarded from her years on the high seas.

America knew what they said about her, too; she received her share of remarks and side-glances just for having the name.  They said she was the next generation of soulless, lovelorn freak, only seen out of the house on Sundays to buy more soap for washing. They said she killed chickens in the night, so as not to be seen, with her bare hands and teeth - the way her aunt had taught her.

She felt their eyes upon her back and their tongues against each other's ears, comments as black as her dress as she walked carefully to the church, trying to stir up no more dust than was her own. She didn't want to give even a speck of dirt to their shoddy lives.  They didn't know America, not either America, not really.

They didn't know that the harsh old woman America had taught three generations of her family, and furtive curious servants, to read and write. They didn't know that while America's aunt was secreted away from prying eyes, growing her own food and spinning her own cloth the way her parents had taught her, she was sending away care packages in the knapsacks of people who came to her door  to pay rent or ask for work. Each tenant was under strict orders to never divulge the amount paid, and they were so afraid of Aunt America's harshness that the younger America was certain that nobody ever would, even now.

America's aunt was harsh, it was true. America the younger  bore the scars on her back from her aunt's whipping-stick, and scars on her knees from crawling about cleaning floors  - sometimes for punishment, sometimes for spending money - since she was five years old. America the elder had learned to conserve because her village had also been ravaged by earthquake and disease. She learned to keep herself to herself, and taught her deceased brother's daughter the same, because the foolish and the lazy will come easily to take from those who work hard. But to be fearsome: in this way one could preserve the reward of one's efforts and thus be able to live.

"Never forget to live," she told her young niece as she put the child to task on the floors. "If you forget to live you will surely die." Young America heard the words still in her ears as she neared the church.

The old woman had died in the square, under the hot sun, in front of everyone. They said she was digging for a penny that glinted between the rocks, that her cheapness killed her in the end. As America entered the church, blinking a new pathway for the sweat and tears to cross her face, she quietly calculated how to ensure that those who relied on her aunt would still get her gifts: vegetables and dried fish wrapped in paper; cotton handkerchiefs; carefully drawn passages from the Bible.

She would make sure they got to live their dirty lives and not die.

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