Horrifed, Maria realized she had been dozing off. “Yes, yes ma’am – right away, ma’am”, she stammered. What was she asked to do? She had no idea. She stood there for a moment, considering her next move.
“Are you stupid, girl?” rasped the old lady incredulously. “Why are still standing there? I told you to hurry up!” She snatched the jug of water that stood beside the bed, and thrusted it toward Maria. “I’m thirsty!”
Hiding her relief as best she could, Maria took the jug and practically flew downstairs. She filled the jug with fresh water. As she did so, she realized her hands were trembling. Then she realized her whole body was trembling. Then she realized that her very soul was trembling, too. Whether it was rage, fear or just exhaustion, she was unable to say; all she knew was that she was starting to fall apart. But she couldn’t fall apart. Not now; she had to keep herself together, if not for her own sake then for Betty’s sake. They had no one but each other, and it was now up to Maria to hold on and help Betty as best she could.
She heard the bell again as she climbed up the stairs. She entered the room, placed the jug in its original place next to the bed, and turned to leave. The widow suddenly clutched her arm and pulled her towards the bed.
“What’s in the jug?” She croaked. Her eyes were narrow and she was sneering slightly.
There was a pause. “Water, ma’am”, said Maria. The smell of staleness and decay coming from the old lady was suddenly so overwhelming, that it was all she could do to keep herself from covering her nose.
“So you say”, said the widow. “Nothing else?”
“No ma’am”, said Maria, utterly perplexed. “Did you want anything else?”
“Don’t play games with me, you imp!” the widow suddenly roared. “You think I don’t know what’s going on? You think I don’t know what you’re up to?”
The widow had clearly interpreted the shock on Maria’s face as a clear sign of guilt, because her expression grew almost jubilant.
“Drink the water!” she ordered. “Then we’ll see. Drink!”
Maria said nothing. She poured some water from the jug into the goblet beside it, and drank. She was suddenly seized with an almost unbearable thirst; she drank greedily. When she put the cup down, the old lady was looking at her with a strange mixture of disappointment and doubt. There was a long silence. The widow’s lip gave an involuntary twitch.
“Right,” she said. “Now leave.”
Maria turned to go.
“You are not allowed to have dinner tonight. Is that understood?”
“Yes ma’am”.It never even occurred to Maria to ask why.
TO BE CONTINUED...