“Wake up Maddie, we’re making relish today.”
Maddie groaned and glared at her stepmother. She dragged herself out of bed to begin a long day of chopping, grinding, and stirring, then pouring the mixtures into hot jars. How much relish do we need? Maddie pushed her long, damp hair out of her face.
Before the relish had been pickles; before that had been jams. Since my father vanished, I’ve become a slave to the mad queen of preserves.
“I think we are done for the day,” her stepmother said, “I would like….” but Maddie had grabbed her cloak; one of the the last things she had of her mother and run from the house before her stepmother could ask yet more work of her.
The sun was out, but the air was cool enough to make her glad of the cloak. She wandered down to the market. She had no money, but liked the busy atmosphere. Then there were the young men standing around as well. She’d got to know them a little. Jonas, a muscular blond, was the obvious leader. He smiled and flattered her. He even bought her a treat when her stomach growled. Over the last few weeks whenever she could escape she had run to the market and to walk with Jonas and the others, wishing she had her own money to spend..
If Mom were alive, if Father hadn’t married a stranger, then left; if life was fair… But life wasn’t fair, She understood that now; life was sharing home and anger with her stepmother, but no understanding
Maddie decided to go to the Midnight Clock with her aching heart. She would wish for Jonas to carry her away from her miserable life. She lit the match with the first strike. The warm glow of her lamp showed the clock peeking through the vines on the wall. It was one minute to midnight on the full moon – magic time. The minute hand moved and she touched the face of the clock to make her wish. But all the carefully prepared words deserted her, leaving an inchoate longing in their place. The hand moved again. It was done. She climbed down the ladder and walked home.
The next day she went to the market and laughed and talked with Jonas. Something was different, she thought, he was paying much more attention to her. She flirted with him, laughing and teasing. They would fall in love, get married and live in a house with no jars to fill. At noon they walked over to the food side of the market to buy a snack. Maddie’s stepmother was there in a tiny booth with jars lining the walls.
“No,” Maddie whispered, “You’re selling them? All that work just so you could make money?”
“Maddie, wait,” her stepmother called, but Maddie had already fled, running through the streets until she was completely lost.
Evening came and the streets had emptied. Tired and hungry, Maddie tried to find her way home. Jonas and his friends leaned against a wall. He’ll save me. Jonas smiled at her and her heart thumped. Not until he pulled her into an alley did she recognize it as fear. The other boys followed licking their lips.
“Just a poor market brat,” Jonas sneered. “There’s only one thing you’re good for. If you behave I may even pay you for it.”
Maddie twisted and pulled, but the heavy cloth of her cloak had become a trap. He pushed her against the wall and fumbled at her dress. In rage and panic Maddie stomped on the top of his foot. Jonas yelled and let go of her to strike her. Maddie stepped close and kneed him. His yell became a gurgle as he fell to the ground.
She glared at the others until they hung their heads and melted into the shadows. Maddie walked out of the alley. She knew where she was now. Time to visit her mother. The almost full moon lit the graveyard, but Maddie borrowed a small lantern to read the letter that was the only other thing her mother had given her. She read it through as she had so many times – her mother’s promise that all would be well, that her mother would always look after her, that she would always love Maddie.
“You lied to me,” Maddie cried as the clock struck twelve, “There is no love, no hope.”
“She didn’t lie, Maddie.” Her stepmother walked across the grass to kneel beside Maddie.
Maddie turned to look at her stepmother ready to scream her anger, but tears flowed down the woman’s face.
“But promises are like wishes, they change shape as we hold them.” Her step-mother sighed and put her arm around Maddie. “I thought I would find you here.”
“What do you know about it?”
“I married your father so I would have someone to take care of me. Instead I’m alone trying to be a mother to a girl who hates me.”
“I’m scared,” Maddie admitted as much to herself as her step-mother.
“So am I.”
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. We will have to find out together,” her stepmother handed her some coins. “Your share of the sales today.”
“People liked our relish?”
Her stepmother smiled, “It was the best seller.”
Maddie handed the coins back to her stepmother, “Maybe you could hold on to these for me.” She picked up her mother’s letter. “I’ll help you at the booth tomorrow.”
“Let’s go home.” They stood, and Maddie touched her mother’s tombstone.
“She isn’t you,” Maddie said to her mother. “But I think she will be a good friend.”