They arrived late in the night, at a time when even the moon had wearied of casting a glow. They knocked sharply at the back door, their feet making rough scraping sounds in the dirt and gravel outside. She opened the door quietly and they handed her the coarse-hewn wooden box without ceremony. She took it with trembling hands and set it down just inside the door, closing them outside without a word of farewell. Her knees began to buckle under her and she slipped to the ground, a weight descending all around her like a leaden cloak. She wrapped her arms about the box and the tears flowed, swiftly moving to wracking sobs that convulsed through her body. She slowly pulled herself up and forced herself to breath in some calm and will herself to open the box and pay witness to what lay there.
The shreds of what was once a dress met her fingers first. She remembered this dress, remembered the time she had stitched it together so many years ago. Its color now faded and stained, its form beaten and shredded, in pieces many too small to even yield a proper cleaning rag. Within the folds of the fabric, a couple of articles of jewelry met her fingertips. A ring that had been in the family for as long as could be remembered. She closed her hand about it and summoned the image of the first time she had seen this ring, on her grandmother’s hand when she was but a small child. How it had sparkled in the sun, dazzling her eyes and drawing her close to her grandmother’s sleeping side. And when she saw that the ring had slipped from her grandmother’s hand in her passing and onto her mother’s, she began to yearn that one day it might pass to her. She remembered the anger she felt the day it finally slipped from her mother’s hand and was not hers. She covered her face with her hands, the ring making a deep indent in her forehead from how hard she pressed it against her skin as she cried. It was hers now, with a passing as weighty as the loss.
She picked up the other item, a simple gold cross on a leather cord. She remembered the day it was hung around her neck, in front of the whole town. She remembered her form laid out in her long white gown, her arms outstretched and it felt as if she would never move. She had become a bride that day, a bride with no husband who would keep her bed warm at night or plant in her children to love. But, she glowed when she turned to look at them after rising and the cross was placed about her neck. Her mother had let the ring slip from her hand that day and given it to her even though it was against the rules and unlike what the others wore. But they allowed her it, or at least chose not to say nay. Both of these tokens, she pocketed to later put in her treasure box.
Gently, she lifted the shreds of the dress from the box and buried her face in them, breathing in her smell, her fears, her courage, her memory. Then slowly, she set it down at her side, tucking stray edges and softly patting it down.
She looked again into the box. There was a smaller box in the corner and she lifted it out. A deep wash of fear hit her as she held it before her. She didn’t want to learn what was inside, but she had made a promise and a promise must be kept. So, she took a deep breath and lifted the top. A bloodied kerchief lay folded inside. She touched the edges with shaking fingers, parting it open. A small nest of scorched human hair lay within. The sobs began again and she dropped the box, sending its contents tumbling into the larger box. Underneath, as the last of the contents fell, a small pile of papers cascaded down. She gasped softly as she recognized the hand that had penned the writing on them. Carefully she gathered them up and looked at them and knew the entire tale was there. She folded them gently and placed them in her waistband and closed everything else back in the box.
Tomorrow, she would give the remains the burial they had refused her. Tomorrow, she would be ready to speak what must be said.
She pulled herself wearily to her feet and headed to her room. Tonight though, she must read the rest of the tale.