The community needed someone to adopt me. There wasn’t enough room for someone of my age anymore. If there wasn’t a family interested, then I would have been sent to go live in foster care. I wouldn’t forget the day that he decided to adopt me. They were a couple, but it was him that decided to take me.
I'm not even sure why they wanted to adopt anymore kids. After they brought me home I found out that they already had twelve children – all of which were theirs. They were just as shocked as I was when I was introduced to them. I didn’t know if any of the children had any protests of me being there – none spoke out of line. They had seven daughters and five sons from ages three to seventeen. They all had the same blond hair and bright blue eyes.
The eldest, Mary, was already engaged, ready to be married as soon as she turned eighteen. Her soon-to-be husband, Nathanial, thought highly of her father and agreed to move into the house next door on their farm. The farm that he, John, owned was over 75 acres of farmland. Currently, it only ten acres was used for actual farming, while the rest was untouched. The actual house that I stayed in was surrounded by a thick forest, deep inside the property. By car, it took a good fifteen to twenty minutes to reach the main road.
Most of the children were too young to do much of the work around the farm, so John decided that he either needed to hire a worker or find other arrangements. After the news of my parents dying, John’s wife was so stricken with worry over me, that they came to a mutual agreement to adopt me. I was 15 at the time and perfect for farm work. Most of his daughters were focused on their studies, which were taught at home. When they weren’t studying, they were milking the cows, feeding the chickens, or cleaning the house – fairly menial work.
John’s two oldest sons, Peter and James, who were only fourteen and twelve at the time, tried their best to help around the farm. They helped their father plant, maintain, and harvest the assortment of crops that they grew. This year, John decided that he wanted to use another acre of his land to expand his farming operation and thus needed the extra help.
It was difficult being around so many children at once. Even though John had made a house that more than accommodating for fifteen people, I often found myself bumping into people. Sherry makes fun of me, saying it’s just because I’m clumsy. She’s only thirteen, but she’s quite the character. She’s very smart and can perform more of the strenuous labour on the farm compared to her sisters.
“If you want to survive at our house, you can’t let everyone push you around.” She sneers, tying her soft blue head cap onto her braided hair, “Wait here a moment, I have to grab something.”
I wait awkwardly on the wooden staircase; I’m not allowed a foot inside any of the girl’s rooms – no matter how hold they are. John had made it clear from day one that since I am not related to any of his daughters, that if I am caught spending too much time with them or in their personal space, I will be punished accordingly. That was a few weeks ago, and even though I feel more comfortable around the family, I won’t dare cross that line. I keep to my space on the third floor.
Sherry returns, holding a small basket, “Ok ready!” she races down the stairs and out the door. The sky was already clear, the sun just peaking over the hills. It was bound to be hot today which is unfortunate. The work on the farm tends to work up quite the sweat, especially when you’re required to wear jeans and a long sleeved, button up shirt. Sherry and I walk down the beaten path to the barn. She often feeds the horses first thing in the morning and then tends to the other animals. She believes the horses are the most important animal on the farm – they do all the work ploughing the land and are the only source of transportation other than the truck.
She waves me goodbye and I continue to walk past the barn and to the edge of the corn rows. The plants were growing quite high and the corn just barely beginning to form. The other two staples – wheat and barely were growing quite well. I could see my two new brothers waiting on a wagon for me.
“Josh, father said that we had to water the crops today.” Peter its on the old wagon. I climb onto the seat next to him and look over the vast crops ahead of us. Toward the end of the property is a water wheel. While the family used it primarily to make flour, it is useful to open small flood gates that lead to the ridge and furrows along the field. It isn’t hard work.
Once we arrive at the rickety wooden water wheel, I jump off the small wagon and made my way up to the building attached to it. If it was damaged, the family would be caused much grief. Not only did it make it easier to control the irrigation system, it allowed the family to be self reliant on its crops. The cost of bread had risen recently and feeding a household of fifteen people would be expensive.
I open the door to the building. Gears attached to the waterwheel on the outside turn constantly. The three floors above me are not well lighten unless someone opens the shutters. Normally the building was used during the end of the harvest so it was normal for the windows to be closed. Constant grinding of all the connecting gears was a good indication that there weren’t any issues with the mill. I grab the level to open up the building and heard the water immediately reroute.
“We’ll be back when the water almost reaches the end of the furrows!” James shouts and the clip clop of hooves begin. Deciding to check out the rest of the mill, I climb the wooden staircase in the corner of the building until the second floor. Everything is kept in pristine shape, although you never know when any part of the building could be in need of repair. I continue up the stairs to the top floor. It’s dark up here so I open up one of the wooden shutters. Something shuffled in the corner of the room. Damn rats. Some of those kittens should brought over here.
I turn to look out of the window – it’s facing away from the river and onto the crop with the house in the distance. I can see Peter and James almost halfway to the end of the rows now. They are good brothers, they don’t poke fun of each other (much) and listen to their parents. After their morning chores, they often join their sisters for a daily school lesson and then gather wood for John’s wife, Anna. The days are quite consistent, and so far, fairly normal.
Other than the farm work, the other activity in which I am not used to are the biweekly church gatherings. John is a religious man. He believes in bringing his entire family to church twice a week and attend community events. Mary was able to be matched with Nathaniel after John noticed the man’s participation in their community. The family man also plans to do the same with all of his children. I’m not sure what he has in store for me, but I continue to just listen and not ask questions for obvious reasons.
James and Peter arrive back at the watermill, waving to me. I quickly close the wooden shutters and on my way to join back with them, pull the level to stop the waterflow. I jump into my seat beside Peter and notice an odd silence. James isn’t facing the front. He is sitting with his back turned to me, “What’s going on?”
Peter gives me a small smile, “Nothing, James accidently broke the barn’s door. We temporarily fixed it for the moment. He wanted to drive the wagon so, really, it’s my fault.”
“How did that happen?” I enquire.
Peter lets out a small chuckle, “We needed to back it up so I could load in some axes for this afternoon.”
Suddenly James is behind me, holding onto the backrest for dear life, his face completely pale, “Peter, Father is going to kill-”
“You’ll be ok brother.” Peter assures, “We’ll fix it after our studies with mother, you’ll see.”
The boy does not pay attention to his studies and expresses concern to his mother over and over and over again. I thought that it was quite odd that he was so concerned over how John would react. He normally did not give them too much of a hard time. Then again, I didn’t see them do anything particularly naughty.
“Mother, I think you should let me go out and fix it, before father gets home.” James urges. Small beads of sweat formed on his brow.
“James, you have to finish your studies first. The door can wait.” She strictly instructs.
“Please mother, I don’t want to end up in the-”
“You’ll be fine.” Mary cut him off, “Your father will not return until nearly evening.”
“Mother.” James urges one more time, “Father hasn’t done anything since Josh-”
“Enough.” Anna sits him back into his seat along the kitchen table, “You are to finish your
exercises and then you can go out and fix the door.” I look at James questioningly. He gives me a quick glance and realizes that he made a terrible mistake – whatever that was. Is he afraid that John would beat him?
The table was oddly quiet after that. Even the smaller children could sense that something was off. There must be something that I don’t know about John, that they were hiding from me until now. I didn’t press the matter, everyone seemed to be stressed out about the thought of John becoming angry.
After studies, James and Peter chopped wood quietly with the occasional grunt. I notice their slow pace. Usually they were quite motivated to ensure that they bundled enough wood for a few days, but now they had more pressing matters to be concerned about.
The door to the barn is in worse condition than Peter made it out to be. The hinge had bent inward as the door had been pushed in an angle it did not normally move. A piece of wood had snapped partially from the metal hinge and left a mess of splinters around the door. To boot, they hadn’t noticed the damage on the wagon – the back had been partially pushed inward, making the wood fragile to carry anything in the back.
I put in more effort to get the job done, with good cause, as both Peter and James looked sicklier than before. I try to get their minds off whatever they were worried about, “So what do you suppose is for supper?”
James looks at me angrily, “It doesn’t matter. I’m not hungry.”
Peter elbows him in the side and shakes his head. We load up the second, undamaged wagon and return home.
The sun had begun setting and the food from the kitchen smelt tantalizing. Mary had been simmering a stew all day and it was almost ready. Each of the girls had set the table and finished up the final bit of their chores for the day.
Peter and James never did fix the barn door.
The entire family stiffens up as soon as John arrives home, and that’s not even into the house. As soon as the old truck could be heard rumbling down the road, the entire family hushes and takes their places at the table. I take one out of respect and wait for John to arrive. The door creaks open and is followed by a tired and heavy sigh. The tall man comes into the kitchen and takes a seat immediately. Mary smiles at her husband, but I know that John can tell something is off. The man looks around the table slowly, at each of his children, and then reaches out to either side.
The two at the end, James and Isabelle, take his hands.
“Almighty Father, we thank you for this food we are about to eat,” John spoke, “and allowing us to be blessed with another sustaining day.” He immediately releases his children’s hands and takes a hold of his utensils.
“How was work dear?” Anna inquires, that smile never failing to leave her lips. I am beginning to suspect that it might be forced or at least a reflex. John works with the King on the days he isn’t needed at the farm. He was one of the few people who is highly educated, or at least higher than most people. What he did for the King is not known.
“Oh the usual.” John says in-between bites. John is your typical family man. He is the bread winner; he takes care of his wife to the best of his ability. He is strong, he towers over myself, well over six feet, built like a bull. He never shaves his bristly stubble on his robust jaw. Around the family, he doesn’t say too much, usually because he is exhausted after working all day.
The family continues to eat in silence, and if I didn’t know any better, I would have said this was normal. I think John could sense it because he slowly lets his gaze circle around the table. Peter and James kept their attention on the food.
“What’s the matter with you two?” his rough voice asks.
“Oh John.” Anna assures, her mask starting to slip, “They just had a little bit of an accident today.”
“What kind of accident?” John set his fork and knife back onto the table, keeping his eyes locked on the two boys.
“I backed the wagon into the barn door.” James blurts out, “I’m sorry Father, I didn’t mean to.”
“You what?” John’s eyes narrow, his fists slowly turning into fists, “What were you doing driving the wagon?”
“It’s my fault.” Peter attempts to look his Father in the eyes but backs down. He focuses back onto his uneaten meal, “I was the one who thought it was a good idea to teach him how to drive.”
Suddenly, John picks his utensils up again and begins finishing his meal. I slowly let out the breath I had no idea I was holding. The look of annoyance on John’s face is enough to not only scare me, but the rest of the family. Along with the rest of my new family, I begin to eat, watching John from the corner of my eye.
“After dinner, I expect you to wait by the basement door Peter.” His son stops eating and looks at his father with wide eyes. He opens and then closes his mouth, deciding that nodding was the safest option.
Basement? The first day John brought me home, Anna showed me around the house. The first floor held the kitchen, family room, and dining room. The second floor had the girls’ rooms and of course Anna and John’s room. The top floor was where all the boys slept. There is an attic, but Anna said it was only used for storage and there’s not much up there beside dust and old clothes. I remember Anna was going to give me a tour of the farm, but I noticed a heavy wooden door as I took the final two steps down staircase.
There was a small hallway that led probably no more than a few feet away from the base of the staircase. The small crevasse was so dark, I barely noticed that there was anything down there. When I first followed Anna up the stairs, I thought it might had been a mistake in the design of the house. The door was tightly fitted to the frame. There was barely a quarter of an inch between the floor and the bottom of the door. The large crass doorknob had a large cross etched into the metal, with a keyhole in the intersection. Two padlocks locks from the outside shone dully in the hallway – the only reason I saw the door in the first place. Each lock hugged the doorframe tightly and securely.
“What’s in there?” I asked her.
“Nothing.” Anna’s smile wavered slightly, “You won’t need to go in there. Hopefully.”
I remember barely being able to hear her mutter the final word under hear breath. I wanted to question it at the time, but she changed the topic so quickly that it was onto the farm tour.
I glance up from the table. Anna is wiping off a bit of food from the corner of Conner’s face. She doesn’t seem to be upset with John’s words. Conner is too young to understand, as well as Zaharias, Jacob, and Hannah. They are whispering to each other and trying to keep their giggles down. The twins, Olivia and Sophia hold hands under the table and both watch Peter out of the corner of their eyes.
I exchange glances with Sherry, but the moment we do, she quickly evades the gaze. James stopped eating a while ago, looking pale. Anna must have noticed because she asks him if he’s feeling alright and he shakes his head. Anna takes him upstairs to his room. Mary and the second oldest, Rachel, say nothing but continue to eat albeit faster than normal.
Peter eats slowly and John doesn’t say anything more. They both don’t leave, even after everyone else has.
In the middle of the night I wake. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was having a nightmare, but I can’t remember. I sit up and look around the room. The moon’s soft light shines through the window onto the wooden floor beside my bed. As usual, Jacob’s nasally, chocked inhales fill the room, an unbearably noisy sound that would keep you up all night if it weren’t for the hard labour tiring you out at the end of the day.
I decide I’m thirsty and make my way downstairs, but at the bottom I stop. There’s very faint light shining from the bottom of the basement door. It would have been impossible to see during the day, but since the corner of this house is so dark, it’s visible. I can’t seem to move from my spot. I strain to hear anything from my position but there’s no sounds other than the whistling wind outside.
I shake my head and decide someone must have left the light on. I quietly move from my spot and enter the kitchen. I open one of the cupboards and grab a small glass. In the pantry, there are ten bottles of water and I take one of them to fill my glass with the water Peter and I filled a few days ago from the well. It tastes like copper, but it satisfies the thirst.
I wash my cup with the leftover water from Anna’s basin and put it back. On my way back to my room, I stop to look at myself in the small mirror Anna placed before the hall. A set of hazel eyes look back at me and I push my brunette bangs from my face.
I recall on the second day since my arrival that John made some snide comments about my hair being too long. I suppose it is a lot longer than any of his boys, but certainly not as long as the girls’. My hair certainly is long at the front, I have to brush my hair away from my eyes, but the back is short, barely touching my neck. He didn’t say it to my face surprisingly but mentioned it to Anna. I wasn’t in the room at the time, but from the top of the stairs, I heard John making a bit of a fuss.
“He looks like a girl. I didn’t adopt a girl. I adopted a boy.” His voice bellowed.
“Oh, John dear, he works very hard and he’s doing a very good job so far. Please give him a chance.” Anna softly persuaded.
“He better be workin’ hard. I didn’t choose him for slackin’.” John mumbled, but loud enough to echo through the house.
“Besides, he’s almost an adult, if not already. He knows how to dress and take care of himself.” Anna pushed again. I remember her voice wavering.
“If he really knew that, he wouldn’t present himself as a fuckin’ fairy.” John raised his voice slightly. The accusation stung, especially since I already had the impression that John didn’t really want me in the first place.
The memory of Anna’s sad voice made me want to go back to bed, “He’s been alone for so long, please just let him have this one thing.”
From the day forth, every time John would pass him on the farm, through the hallways, or at church, he would eye his whole body up and down twice. His facial expression didn’t change, but I always assumed inside he battled criticizing me.
Suddenly I hear the creak of a door opening. I pear around the corner and immediately pull myself back against the kitchen wall. John and Peter were in the process of leaving the basement. That’s right, Peter never returned to bed that night.
“I want you to go to bed.” John whispers, but his voice still carries down the hallway, “I don’t want you talkin’ to any of your siblings about what happened, especially not Josh. Is that clear?”
“Yes Sir.” Peter’s voice comes out small and raspy.
“Good. Now off you go.” The basement door closes, and the three locks are put in place. Then, I hear Peter’s light set of footsteps tip toe up the stairs followed by John’s heavy ones. I peak around the corner just in time to see them disappearing onto the second floor.
I’m wide awake now. My heart is thudding in my chest. I step forward, touching the banister, trying to see if John is still in the hallway. I hear a door click shut and I make my way as silently as I can to the top of the stairs. I double check the hallway and relax when I notice that John’s door is indeed closed. I make my way up to the third floor and sneak into my bed before even Peter notices.
I hear Peter’s sniffling for a few minutes but it soon turned into solid, deep breathing. I want to check up on him but I remember John’s warning. Why doesn’t John want me to know what goes on down there? It doesn’t make any sense.
I didn’t sleep that night.