Excerpt 1 - The Portrait of Isabella Simmons
The Portrait of Isabella Simmons
Chapter 1 – Part 1
1924 Western Connemara, Ireland
The white linen twists, dancing with the southerly breeze, its repetitive flapping sounds comforting to her ears. Ever since turning twelve four years earlier, fear has taken control of her body, cowering each time she hears or sights her father. It was like he suddenly emerged in her life from a dark pit. As a child, he was often absent, working locally as a labourer; but then he stopped, and his days were spent in her home. Johanna soon discovered his nature and his moods.
This morning is no exception. Her hands tremble while holding the white pillow case between her fingers. The outline of the blood stain still visible in the morning sun from another beating her mother received at his cold and callous hands. The flapping of the sheets returns her attention to the clothes lines once more as she pegs the pillow case allowing it to join its comrades in a dance with the wind.
Raising her eyes to the blue sky dotted with only a few specs of white clouds, Johanna inhales the morning freshness. She loves her home, but not the man that rests within it. Her recent memories of her father are ones of fear. His body is large, a stocky man with thick arms and legs. His shouts are like howls to her ears. She would watch as her mother cowers under his commands.
Moving her gaze to her little home, a small cottage with a low roof and single chimney, Johanna focuses on the smoke rising upwards, caught in the morning breeze, disappearing and vanishing before her eyes. Her home is situated on a crest of a low hill facing a valley with mountains rising majestically behind it. Connemara is a place of beauty to her eyes, wild and free. At times, it can be lonely, not having her brother Tim with her anymore. They would joke and laugh when they shared their carefree moments as young children. Her brother ran from home three years earlier, joining a travelling repair man as he journeyed on the roads throughout the county. Tim is good with his hands and can create anything out of steel or iron. She blames her brother for abandoning her, leaving her alone with the monster.
It’s the space she enjoys the most about the wild hills of her homeland, freeing her from the confines and restrictive life inside. Two small sheds stand close by, encircled by a few low trees. This is all that her family has in its name. She longs for more, but what could she ever hope to achieve? Her life is destined to follow her mother and remain under the power of a man in this little house or one like it on the next hill. It is the way of life in the countryside unless you were born into money. Johanna once heard of a girl two years older than her who lived two miles away having been sent to work as a servant girl in a big house owned by a wealthy landlord near Galway city. It’s a possibility for her to achieve this, but she believes her father would never allow it, and she would never dare ask him. Hardly anyone visits her home on the hill; so who would know she even exists?
Reaching for the empty clothes basket, she catches a movement from the front door of the house. Her mother stumbles outwards, with dishevelled hair hanging loosely around her torn dress exposing her naked shoulders. Fear exudes from her eyes, wide, in a panic stricken face.
“Johanna, Johanna!” her mother calls as she attempts to run towards her. A harsh voice booms from within the house, inaudible, but its tone frightens her. Johanna drops the basket, running to her mother, clasping her in her arms.
“Run my child. Run! Get out of here!”
“Momma?” Johanna questions, unsure of what she should do. Fear rides within her, weakening her limbs.
“Johanna!” her name echoes from the front door of the house. “Get inside now!”
Panic pushes her forward towards the man at the door. Her mother grabs her arm.
“If you don’t run, you’ll become just like me. I can’t protect you anymore. Don’t let this happen! Please, my child!” her mother begs, her cheeks tear stained.
Pushed forward by the fear of her father’s call, Johanna moves to the door and follows her father inside. The door slams shut darkening the little kitchen. She screams within her caged body for her mother’s help. She hits the floor from her father’s strike. Her jaw sends pain through her head. Strong hands encircle her body, turning her over onto the stone floor. The heat of the nearby open fire flushes her face. His hands unzip her dress, tearing it open and exposing her back to his rough touch. The blue sky speckled with puffy white clouds fills her vision. The fresh air ignites her lungs and the hills spread out before her onto the valley below. Freedom is before her. The vision disperses and her eyes rest on the low wooden beams of the kitchen ceiling unaware he has turned her body over to face him as he pulls her close exposing her breasts to his wild eyes.
A voice within her awakens. Unsure of what it is, the urge to resist rises up. His body is heavy and his arms are strong. Reaching out in the low kitchen light, her hand falls on the poker placed in the hearth of the fire. If she allows her father to do this, she will become no different than her mother, and Johanna knows her life will never be hers to enjoy. With all her strength, she lifts the poker from its place and shoves it into her father’s open mouth ready to enjoy the pleasure of her body. The sound he emits terrifies her and she strikes again with her weapon against his right eye, knocking his body onto the floor next to her, howling in agony and cursing her with all the sinful words he knows of.
She crawls to her feet, her eyes fixed on his withering body. Power surges through her body at the sight before her. Her limbs turn to action, and using both her hands, she lays the blows fixed and steady onto his head, neck and upper body. With only one eye, his arms flail around awkwardly protecting his body. Anger explodes through her arms with unknown strength as she strikes down onto his neck, the end of the poker tearing the skin. Her blows continue fast and heavy without realising that his terrifying howls have fallen silent. She stands breathlessly in her underwear, staring at the lifeless body. A scream escapes her lips, releasing the build of emotion as she collapses to her knees. The kitchen door opens, illuminating the room once more with her mother standing in the doorway. Her mother’s arms wrap around Johanna’s trembling body having lost all strength in her limbs; she cradles the touch.
“Don’t you worry my child. This isn’t wrong. You had to do this and now you’re free,” her mother reassures her, taking Johanna’s face in her hands. “Listen to me. Now you must leave. You must go from here. No one can ever know what you did. Do you hear me? No one must ever know of this! I can protect you from this incident, but can offer you no more.”
“Momma,” Johanna whimpers. “Where will I go?”
“Away from here my child. Head east for the city of Galway, there you’ll find work. I’ll give you plenty of food. Stay off the main roads and hide if you feel in danger. It will be a long walk, but you’ll get there.”
Johanna embraces her mother, at a loss of what will become of her.
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