Short Story: “Bitter Hope” by Leah Burt

Summary

Bitter Hope explores the choices of a young woman’s life as she deals with deception and its ramifications. Her life is turned upside down and as she confronts her experiences, choosing to be consumed with bitterness and anger, reaping consequences she doesn’t seem able to accept. Yet, there is still hope as she turns her life into an encouragement for others.

Sitting up, she breathed in the sweet air of the summer morning. She rose out of bed and routine took control of her movements, as she prepared for the day ahead.

Her motions displayed a confidence and satisfaction in the work before her.

People moved about at ease and smiles passed between neighbor and family as each dwelt in harmony; a harmony beautiful in its innocence.

The day rose and with it peace. She smiled through her work and delighted in the rays of life-giving sun. Her attention turned to a tree just beyond her home. She had before no need to venture beyond. All her needs were met. All her desires cared for and her talents requested among the people. Yet, there lived inside her a curiosity which grew beyond the confines of the village. It had urged her to explore and experience potentially dangerous things before; the scars on her body and the memory of the following punishments told of each instance. This curiosity, in the right context, was a blessing. In others, it was perhaps her greatest struggle. She knew of other places and people beyond their village. She was not forbidden to leave yet neither was she encouraged. She wanted to see the world, yet lacked the needed bravery.

As she gazed, a dark figure seemed to emerge from the bark. It stood silent and solitary, all at once frightening and compelling. Its eyes gleamed and flashed with a confidence foreign to her. Slowly it beckoned with a wiry hand,eerily inviting her to an unknown beyond the outskirts of the village, beyond the light.

Her mind whirled with a mixture of dread and burning desire to be close to this dark stranger.

Her feet began to move, step by ever larger step, until she was boldly walking across the field into the edges of the darkness. Perhaps this figure would lend her the courage, guide her, in the world beyond the village.

The figure, laced with shadowy tendrils and flashing images continued to draw her closer. As each step brought her nearer, so the sky began to dim and the birds to quiet. The figure calmly twisted its mouth into a mockery of a smile. Images began to flash into her mind as it stretched its emaciated arm towards her; glimpses of what could beif she turned her back on the joy of village life to join it in the recesses of the dark forest. Her feet stopped just inches away. The smile continued.

Shadows swirled around her: beckoning, urging and filled with promises of adventure, prestige, and desire. The future that lay before her dripped with secrets to be explored and captured. In turn, her lips curled upwards and her eyes flashed. She stretched her hand forward to grasp that of the hooded figure. Their fingers met and the decision made.

The dark figure breathed a foul breath and as it passed over her, her heart was pierced, forever altering its course. It relinquished its touch from her fingertips and its dark, it’s now empty eyes betrayed its hollowness as it retreated into the shadows of the forest, leaving in its wake memories of the broken dreams and corrupted futures of those who had gone before.

Her eyes widened. Panic struck and she called out with no response. She had been betrayed. The hope for a future filled with adventure and perhaps even fame vanished as she sat alone. The fear did not end with her dashed hopes, rather, it began with the images seen from the figure; the dreams and desires of countless others whose lives were torn apart as they committed terrible things in their search for what lay beyond the goodness of their homes. The images seared into her mind. No longer was the outside a kind and beautiful fantasy. Rather her hopes and dreams had been stolen. This was the great despair, the pointlessness of hope and the loss of an innocent curiosity.

She fell to her knees and grasped her chest as a piercing pain racked her body. As it subsided, she slowly raised her head. Her eyes no longer held the confidence of one embarking on an adventure, but of one whose heart had been twisted by treachery. The die had been cast and the seed sown.

She rose to her feet and, with shoulders thrust back and head held high, walked towards the village. The dark forest was forbidden, and those who ventured there surely disciplined. It was necessary to act normal, innocent of whatever crime others considered her actions. So manipulation entered her heart, and deceit earned a foothold. Their admittance posed a dual threat for both the present and far in the future, like ripples from a stone cast into the waters of time.

Night neared, and with it the darkness of peace and community as the village gathered around the fires of their hearths, sharing their stories and lives together. For her, this common occurrence held a vibrant irregularity as she harbored a festering secret which isolated her.

Her sleep was fraught with visions of the hooded figure, mockingly inviting her nearer and nearer. The shadows flew from him and swirled around her in flashing waves, their edges sharp and their winds bitingly cold. No words came from his lifeless lips, just pain.

She awoke in a sweat, and shivered at the memory. She angrily brushed the tears from her eyes, thrusting the blankets away from her legs, determined to forget the experiences of the past day and continue her life in the harmony she once felt.

Yet, her heart held fast to the anger with which she woke. She slammed the door as she left the house. Freezing as she beheld the village life surrounding her, fear stabbed in to her as she imagined each face, so full of acceptance, darken with hate at what she had done. Guilt sunk deep into her chest and she clenched her teeth as her eyes welled with tears. Futile in its ineffectiveness, the tears seemed a balm to her hurting and she wiped them with a calmer hand, turning to face the day.

Working alongside her friends, she kept quiet, unlike her normal energetic self. They in turn refrained from commenting yet a mutual recognition of unasked and unanswered questions left the air charged. They glanced at her with concern and whispered amongst each other, unaware that their shared desire to help was interpreted as malicious gossip.

She narrowed her eyes in anger. How dare they judge her? As she stood to gather supplies, a neighbor’s dog, drenched from an enthusiastic adventure in the lake, shook its coat inches away. The sudden water shocked and startled her. Without hesitation, she lashed out, both in tongue and body, and the dog, tail tucked, ran from the kick it had received.

A terrible silence surrounded her as faces turned and eyes widened at such a shocking display of violence. They seemed frozen in their thoughts as she stood breathing heavily, fearful of what lay ahead and knowing that there was no hope for a renewal of the life she had known. A hand gently touched her shoulder, and she quickly spun inches away from the face of the village master. He spoke gently soothing words, and led her away from the town center.

He had encountered such rash and unexpected actions before in his own life and he felt pity for this young woman whom he was responsible for. Together they walked far from prying eyes and as they did, he encouraged her in the ways of the village, living with the cares of others in mind and pursing peace. She knew he truly desired to help, yet could not move beyond what had happened to her.

Whilst conversing with the village master, she was struck by an idea. What if she was not in the wrong? She had been tricked. She had been betrayed. She had been wronged. What she was experiencing, this form of isolation was the sole responsibility of he who had betrayed her. This brought a superficial form of peace, one which carried with it bitterness and hate at its root, waiting for the moment to bloom into a consuming drive which directs the heart and mind of those who welcome it. Its embers fanned into flame by these questions and, along with it, deceit grew into a burning necessity. She forced a smile on her face and nodded pleasantly, affirming the village master all the while anger began to simmer beneath.

As the days turned to weeks and the seasons changed, life continued within the village; the community, the harmony, and the joy they found in each other flourished for all but one. She lived a dual life, working and participating in silence as she raged within.

It began slowly, the outward manifestations of her inner battles. Her face, once marked by its smile full of hope was now marred by a continual snarl, unwilling to relinquish the hurt of her past. Her voice was filled with sharpness and her words bit with a scalding ache. Her work was done with little pride or expertise. To a knowing eye, her actions expressed a deep rooted malcontent and a potentially dangerous suppression of emotions.

The village master kept a close eye on her, yet he knew not how to confront nor correct her accelerating downward spiral into a darkness from which few escape.

Small grievances surrounded her, in a way acting as both a shelter and a cage. As desired, she remained isolated within the crowd of the village, and cut all ties and connections with those she hadpreviously, and occasionally still, thought of as friends.

She began to feel trapped. She felt as if all were against her. She longed to be free. Her anger became less controlled and more outwardly apparent. She saw grievances hidden in the actions and words of those around her. She felt as if she were a walking volcano, primed to erupt without warning. Yet still, this was not who she desired to be.

One morning, the sun shining brilliantly with birds in the air and the water of the river nearby crystal clear, it began. She woke, just as that fateful day upon which her life changed forever. A child, as all children do, cried in the home nearby, echoing and grating against her now self-consumed ears. Her brow creased in irritation, for more reasons than one. It was the anniversary of her abuse, of her betrayal, of her torment. Of all days, this caused the most hurt. Heightened by the cries of the child, the significance of the day, and the labor looming ahead of her, her patience was threadbare and her tongue barbed.

She emerged from her home and began her work. The laughter of the children, the smiles of the women, and the comradery of the men were nearly physical blows as she considered all she had lost. The day continued in this fashion until that fateful moment, when a boy ran past her in a hurry to be home in time for his evening meal. The basket full of her day’s work fell as it connected with the boy’s elbow. Lightning flashed in her eyes. The boy, fearful of the consequences of having upset such a woman, hastily gathered the scattered contents of the basket and, head hanging held it out to her. She snatched it from him and threw it again on the floor. Her words thrashed, condemned, and wounded the boy. Tears sprang into his eyes and as the words continued,and flowed down his cheeks. She commanded him to stop. Finding him unable, her hand flew through the air and lashed across his cheek.

Time seemed to stand still. The boy, hand on his face, barely breathed. She, eyes trained on her own hand, breathed not at all. Never before had she physically hit a single person, let alone a child. She was instantly filled with a paralyzing shame. The boy turned and ran. She sunk to the floor.

Members of the village council came to find her. She had not moved and willingly went with them to the hearing of which she already knew the outcome. The sentence: exile, complete isolation in all manners of the word to the dark forest.

The village master anguished, longing to give her an opportunity to change. However, the laws were set to protect the village, particularly the children. Had it been an adult, the sentence would have been less severe. As they handed her a small travel bundle and began to escort her from the premises, he stopped them and asked her if, long ago, she had met the shadow figure in the woods. She nodded with a blank face. His eyes filled with tears of pity and pain. He told her, choking on the words, that they would have never punished her for what had happened. Rather they would have held her with open arms and comforted her with the love of a family. However, this they could not forgive. She nodded with understanding and meekly followed as she was led to her future.

Days later, sitting beside the embers of a fire, she shivered and considered her life: the pain, the consequences, and now the prolonged agony of punishment. No one was to blame but herself. A single tear coursed down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand and with it, the memory of the young boy flashed across her mind. She tightly shut her eyes and shook her head. There was no use, she was plagued by the memory. The shame of what she had done masked even the bitterness she felt towards life.

A stream gurgled nearby, its beauty and peace seemed to comfort her in a way that little had done for much too long. She considered how time flows as a river and as creatures in its waters, so memories are its essence. Each sparked by a single decision, a single commitment, a single action, however conscious or natural. Her breathe caught in her throat. She had done this. Even before the boy, all her pain, all her hatred, all her anger, was cast upon the wrong person. She had chosen, in that moment to seek things beyond her understanding for contentment. She had sought a world that she had created in her mind’s eye, and discovered a very real one in response. Her reaction, she understood with a terrible ache in her heart, was no one’s fault but her own. The shadowy figure who lured her and then betrayed her, whose actions she had as much control over as a bird did the winds. What she did control was her reaction, her response, which, if she was truly honest with herself, was selfish and unnecessary. She had had a community of people who cared deeply for all, including her.

As this realization struck her broken heart, brittle and battered from years of emotional abuse, the tears coursed freely. As they had once, they soothed her aching heart and cleansed her broken spirit. All those years, wasted in bitterness, left her as she accepted her fate and her punishment. She no longer hated the world nor those who had sent her alone to the forest. Rather, she resolved to change.

~~~~~~

As the young boy walked towards the trees, he felt excitement as well as fear. The figure waved its thin and wiry arm, calling him further from the light of the village and deeper into the darkness. It enticed him with tales of fame and glory and adventure. He quickened his pace.

Suddenly, a second figure appeared just feet away from the hooded one. She covered her face with a long strand of fabric, and her eyes sparkled underneath. She shook her head. He stopped abruptly. He turned to the shadow figure and caught a glimpse of possibilities beyond his imagination. He took another few steps forward. The woman again caught his eye, and with it, he could imagine the possibilities within the life he already lead. There was hope, there was joy, there was love. The shadow promised chance, she promised hope. Her presence agitated the shadowy figure and with his movements, memories fell from his cloak; memories of past people and broken dreams, including that of the woman before him. His eyes widened as he understood her warnings. She nodded to him and disappeared into the trees. The shadowy figure held out a hand in triumph, yet the boy, with now confident step, turned and walked towards his future.

Leah Burt is a second year student at John Brown University in Arkansas, USA studying English Education with an emphasis in Literature. Contact: BurtL@jbu.edu

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