Note: This is the eighth of several installments from my latest work-in-progress, The Circle. If I knew how to make the copyright symbol on a MacBook keyboard, this is where you would find it. Don't steal my shit, man.
Diana was striking, with fiery orange hair, full lips and an ample figure. At sixteen, she was too much for the boys her age in that dank little Irish village. Diana's father promised her to the village blacksmith, a widower who gladly signed over the few rocky acres he tilled behind his forge. Dreading the thought of giving her body and the rest of her life to such a calloused, filthy old man, she ran.
Diana found the witches in the woods to the north. She grew up hearing terrible stories of these "tree dwellers" who performed human sacrifices and communed with the Devil. But hunger soon overcame whatever fears she may have harbored. Sitting by their fires, these pagans regaled her with stories of Mother Earth, that all things were connected and reliant upon one another. The notion of Sin was foreign, more or less, to them, and before long, it became a distant memory for her. They danced and sang, sometimes working into such furies that they - Diana included - fell into big piles of flesh and unbridled sexuality.
In time, Diana took a stranger's offer to "cook" at a work camp in someplace called Indiana. On the boat, she and the other girls were fed opium, which was then withheld when they refused to whore for the sailors. Diana had lain with enough men to have no problem with it, but the other girls cried incessantly in their bunks, clutching their Rosaries, and begging the Blessed Mother to deliver them from that awful boat. From New York, the girls were carted off to some place called Pittsburgh, then herded onto barges and delivered west on the Ohio River to New Albany. From there, it was a four-day hike to Waverly, a settlement not much bigger than the little village she came from. Waiting for them there were dozens of boys - Irish, German, Scots, escaped slaves - all anxious to spend their wages on whiskey and a few moments alone with the girls.
The boys were digging a canal to connect the capital city, Indianapolis, with the same river that helped deliver her to her new home in America. The canal path ran alongside the White River, which was too shallow for ship or barge traffic. The boys worked from dawn to dusk. When the girls weren't whoring, they cooked and washed for the boys. The girls had to pay for room (decrepit shacks hastily arranged along the river bank), food (the scraps leftover from the workers), and the whiskey and opium that numbed them to that inescapable feeling that the Blessed Mother, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had all abandoned them.
Diana watched those beautiful young cherubs wither away into filthy, broken down whores in a matter of months. She was determined to save at least one of them, a shy young thing named Lilly. Not more than 12 or 13 years old, Lilly was sold into service by her father to pay the back rent he owed on the little plot he farmed for some well-to-do merchant in Dublin. In the wee hours of the night, she visited Lilly after the boys staggered off to their bunks up the hill from the river. At first, they talked about Ireland, their families, anything to get their minds off where they were and what they had become. In time, they were inseparable. They cooked and washed together, ate together, and serviced the boys together, pooling their meager resources to make an eventual escape.
While some of the boys relished seeing the girls touching and kissing one another, the foreman was appalled. He burst into their shack late one night to find them kissing and embracing, oblivious to him and everything else. Diana was moved up to the workers' camp. A traveling priest who happened to come through the camp in search of a meal warned her to never do such "sinful things" again. She laughed and told him she was more worried about "The Mother" than "The Father."
Diana sent Lilly a note a week or so later, telling her:
"I long for your sweet embrace. I need to have you wholly and completely. Our day is coming soon..."
Lilly was illiterate, however, and asked one of the other girls to read it to her. Word of the note quickly spread around both camps. By the time the story reached the foreman, Diana had been branded a witch. The foreman hadn't paid anyone in a month and some of the men were running up large credit bills to him. He was hoping his partner in Indianapolis would find some money to keep them going, but it was starting to look bleak. Those men, already anxious about their pay, might have panicked and formed a lynch mob if they believed there was a witch in their camp. Once they killed her, the foreman knew he could be next.
To prove Diana was not a witch (and deflect attention away from the pay issue), he ordered Lilly to whip her lover in front of everyone. The young girl's stroke was light on her first lash, so the foreman had one of his men whip her to show her the proper form and intensity. Diana looked up and Lilly and nodded ever so slightly; the girl fought back her tears and resolved to save herself. Diana was covered in welts and stooped over with pain, but she never made a sound.
The foreman bragged that if Diana were a witch, then fire and pestilence should have been raining down on him. There was no fire, however, and he appeared as healthy after the beating as he had been before.
As two of the workers dragged Diana past the foreman, she looked up. He clutched the Rosary stashed in his pocket and painted a sneer on his face. She smiled eerily at him and said, "Christ will be no help to you."
Lilly, desperate for Diana and enraged with the foreman, rebuffed one of the workers that night. The foreman, unnerved by Diana's last words to him and frustrated with those "troublesome whores," dragged her out onto the riverbank and, in full view of the other girls and his men, beat Lilly about the head and face with an axe handle.
The other girls tried desperately to stop Lilly's bleeding, but she died just as the sun rose over the wooded bluffs above the camps. The girls were ordered to clean up what was left of Lilly and get back to work.
That night, an awful howl came from the foreman's cabin. The workers awoke with a start. Almost in unison, they all remembered Diana's words and grew white with fear. One of the men, nominated by the others, grabbed the old musket he used to shoot rabbit and deer and proceeded carefully to the foreman's cabin. He threw the door and stuck his gun inside. Lying there, in his bunk, was the foreman. His eyes were wide open and there was a painful, but dead silent, cry painted on his face. There was also a big hole in the center of his chest, where his heart used to be.
The workers began breaking camp that instant. Pay was no longer their concern; finding a way to get away from there was. The girls followed. A few days later, that same priest who condemned Diana to damnation for her sins rode back through on his way around his monthly circuit. All that was left were a few shacks, a horrible stench, and a badly decayed corpse.