Keeping Your Head by Suzy Stewart Dubot

As Flora descended the steps and entered the cellar, her mother welcomed her into the hovel with a quick kiss to her chilled cheek. Flora’s older sister, Fanny, was huddled in a corner with blankets around her shoulders. She veered from shivering chills to hot flushes which made her sweat. The lit stub of a candle revealed that her eyes were bright with a fever. The folded paper packet in Flora’s care held a powder that was meant to reduce her temperature and relieve her aches. If it didn’t work, they had no alternative remedy or recourse. The uncontrolled furore that was rampant in the city, accompanied by its horrors, had left them doubting that even God was capable of coming to their succour. There was no one else they could ask.
With a shaking hand, Fanny took the cup of water with the dissolved powder. She gulped it down greedily while the bread her mother had encouraged her to eat lay on a wooden trencher on the floor next to her. She had no appetite.
Flora scanned her mother’s face for signs of hope, but the feeble light from what was left of the candle masked her face in shadows. Only tomorrow would tell if the powder had been effective.
The pallet of rags was the bed the three of them shared.
This cellar with its pitiful contents was a refuge they had not dared to refuse. Not only was it far from their own home, but it was in the poorest part of the city where few would think to look for them. Those in the vicinity in similar conditions would suppose they were of the same ilk; the scum of the city living from thieving or prostitution.
Flora dreaded to think what would become of them if something happened to Claude. He brought them the bread and hard cheese that sustained them. It was he who had got them the cellar, which belonged to his aged, witless uncle.
Perhaps she would have to resort to thieving or prostitution to save them if things did not improve. It would be unfair to expect Claude to support them indefinitely when he toiled long hours for a meagre living. She was not a naïve child anymore, and she knew that neither her mother nor Fanny were capable of surviving on their own. Funny to think that at fourteen, she had emerged as the strongest of the trio.
The three of them curled together on the pallet for the night. In this miserable existence that had been forced upon them, there was still comfort to be had. Her mother’s arms around her brought a cynical smile to her lips as it warmed her heart. In their old life, there had never been any physical contact with her parents. It had needed the ‘Reign of Terror’ for her mother to show her affection.
She wondered who was comforting who?
Did it matter?

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