Loretta took the withered chrysanthemums from the old bottle on the windowsill and replaced them with a few fresh flowers. She dropped the dead ones into the round bin at the side of the Maura’s bed. Maura watched her as she did so, motionless but for her eyes and the slight rise and fall of her chest as she continued to take breath after breath, in defiance of the doctor’s declaration a month ago that she wouldn’t last another week. Loretta was sure that it was sheer stubbornness keeping Maura going, for she would not ever give an inch in life, and certainly she would never do it in dying either.
Loretta put the back of her hand against Maura’s forehead. Her skin was leathery, folded and cracked like an elephant’s knee, and hot as summer sidewalks. Her tongue darted out and traced a dry line across her pale thin lips. Loretta dipped a washcloth into the basin on the bedside table and used it to drip water into Maura’s open mouth.
Loretta leaned in, putting her own red plump lips up close to Maura’s ear, and she whispered, “I’d let you die of thirst if I thought I could get away with it.”
Maura said nothing. She couldn’t. It was far past that point by now.
Loretta went to the window and looked out into the backyard below. The tire swing twisted from the oak tree in the slight breeze that whispered in from across the lake. There were no children in the household to play there currently, of course. It had been three months since the last group had resided there, and their bones had long since been burned in the kiln beside the flower garden, their ashes spread to help fertilize the very chrysanthemums that were now in the bottle on the windowsill. But there would be a new batch of children soon, and these wouldn’t feed Maura’s endless appetite.
“They’ll be mine,” Loretta said to the blurred reflection of herself in the window glass, and she licked her lips in spite of herself. Two hundred years as servant to the bitch, and all that would soon be cast aside as though it were a bad memory. She would be the mistress of the household shortly, with her own bed to sleep in instead of a threadbare blanket on the floor, with a servant of her own to command and the choicest meats to choose from instead of scraps thrown under the table at meal’s end. And the bath, of course. The bath and the blood.
“I’ll have you burned in the kiln,” she said softly, not looking away from the window. “And your ashes baked into bread for my table.”
Behind her, Maura’s chest continued to stubbornly rise and fall, and rise and fall again.
Nothing in this world, Loretta knew, came about easily.