It is 1649. King Charles has been beheaded for treason. Amid civil war, Cromwell’s army is running the country. The Levellers, a small faction of political agitators, are calling for rights for the people. And a new law targeting unwed mothers and “lewd women” presumes anyone who conceals the death of her illegitimate child is guilty of murder.
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Two guards took Rachel into the hold for condemned prisoners, a small structure of limestone adjacent to the main prison. Inside, she slipped on a carpet of excrement. One of the guards lit a torch and hooked it into the wall. The other attached her leg irons to one of six rings bolted into the stone. The first guard, a young fellow whose helmet seemed too large for his head, advised Rachel to bribe the warden to move up her execution date. “To escape the stench,” he explained, gesturing apologetically at the floor as he left.
Rachel tried curling up on the end of a low wooden bench. She could hear rain against the roof. For a while she pretended to talk to her brother, but she could not hear him, could not imagine what he would say.
She did not pretend to talk to the child.
She would not even think the word child. She would push around it, leaving a wide berth; she would sweep all such thoughts in the corner. She would step over anything, avoid any obstacle, before she would think that word. Yet there it was. Every time she tried to dodge it, misery would whisper the word for her, and a clean whistling breath rushed through her. The emptiness hiccupped and gabbled at her, slid her crosswise. She wondered what her mother would say to her now. Probably Martha Lockyer would tell her daughter to confess, which made sense if one had a list of things to repent. But what if a person did not know for certain? She shifted around on the bench. She would force her brother to talk to her. She would conjure him up to calm herself.
She succeeded—too well. As soon as Robert appeared he was chastising her; he showed up midreprimand. He was saying: That’s not the point. Whether you think you are guilty or not isn’t the point.
It is, she replied.
No. The point is what kind of God do you have.
I don’t have God, Rachel said. God has me. God has me in His cooking pot. I am being carried into the kitchen as we speak.
It was her father’s God to whom she referred.
Robert was not having any of this. He never did permit his sister an ounce of self-pity, never showed her any sympathy. When Rachel’s arms used to ache from cutting hides, he would tell her to count her blessings she had arms in the first place—he had seen men without limbs in the army, and they never lived. When her head used to pound from the fumes of the freshly dyed gloves, he would urge her to pray. Pray for God to ease my headache? she would say. No, Sister, he would reply. Pray for God to help you stop complaining. A woman who feels sorry for herself is a dead woman. Don’t you give up. He’d delivered that last line on the morning of his execution, when Rachel had ducked into his tent a few minutes before Captain Savage and his men took him into the churchyard. Robert was too thin for the cloak they had thrown over his shoulders. He grinned when he saw his sister, kept grinning even as she threw her arms around him, even as the tent flap opened again and the light streamed in, and, following the light, the soldiers. “Don’t you blame God for this,” he had shouted to her as they pulled him away. “God has not got time to be the busybody most people make Him out to be. Don’t you blame Him.”
Excerpted with permission from the novel Accidents of Providence, by Stacia M. Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.