DON'T HATE THE SUN
Portland (Oregon, June 1870)
The wedding dress on the bed is so white its brightness blinds me only to look at it. My mother can’t stop admiring it, touching it. She’s elated, her hands tremble slightly as she caresses it.
I understand her excitement, even though I don’t share the sentiment. Unlike me, she married for love, and had to fight for the right to marry my father. An Irish woman marrying an Englishman was even rarer then than it is now.
She turns to look at me, her eyes bright with tears. “Come on, Ailin, try it on. We have to see if it needs taking in again.”
I nod, submissive and obedient. The two maids are hovering round me, trying to be helpful. I look at them and they are like two excited little girls, perhaps even a little envious.
Slowly I undress and glance at my reflection in the mirror. My pale, scrawny body looks like an unripe fruit, still too immature to welcome a new life to its womb, and yet it’s something I have to prepare myself for. As a good wife, it will be my duty to provide Ethan Mills, ward of the Collins household, with an heir.
I slip the wedding dress on and notice the disappointment in my mother’s face.
“Oh, Ailin!” she gasps. “I can’t believe it. You’ve lost even more weight!”
She lifts my skirts and looks at my legs. I have one foot resting on top of the other and I'm nervously twiddling a lock of hair. I have bright red hair, typical of my Irish roots, but lately I'm so pale, that the colour of my hair accentuates my much - hated complexion even more.
My mother tugs my dress down, but her scolding is softened by the sweetness of her expression. "Don't stand like that, it makes you look funny," she says, patting my cheek. "Stand up straight. You're the daughter of an English baronet and you should always behave accordingly."
"I promise I'll start eating like a man and build myself up for the wedding."
She strokes my face, affectionate as always. "Do it for Mr. Mills. Always be pleasant and affectionate. Never take a man's love for granted, because, once you've disappointed him, it won't be long before he turns his affections elsewhere."
She orders the maid to take the dress away and, reading my expression as only a mother knows how, she walks over and raises my chin with her fingers. "My darling, I know why you're so sad and I imagine that’s why you’ve lost so much weight."
I lower my face to hide the tear that runs down my cheek. I've tried so hard not to worry her, to not worsen an already complicated situation.
"Oh, Mama. I miss her so much. My life is so empty without her."
She hugs me and kisses the back of my neck and for a moment I feel loved and protected. I've been lucky, and this makes me feel less guilty.
"Everything will work out just fine, darling. Ethan is doing his best to find her. That boy has been a Godsend for our family, you couldn't ask for better." She pats my cheek one last time, then leaves the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
I throw myself down on the bed, my hands behind my head, and for a moment a smile touches my lips.
My mind goes back to my beloved Ireland, how in the mornings when I woke I'd lean out of my bedroom window and breathe in the cool, crisp air, the fields a boundless expanse, spreading out as far as the eye could see. If I stretch out my hand I can almost touch that green velvet carpet and I imagine the soft grass between my fingers.
In the distance, the rocky peaks of the mountains were so pointy, like the sharp teeth of a ferocious beast, that as a child they scared me. A river ran near the house, the colour of the water reflecting the colour of the sky. It flowed past calmly, deceptively, and majestic rows of cypresses rose up from its banks.
My eyes will never see such harmonious nature again, or perhaps they have become blind to the beauty that also exists here. After all, it was in America that I lost my cousin.
Things took a turn for the worse when my father, suffocated by his debts, found himself in danger of losing the family home and the few acres of land that were left. It was Ethan who advised him to sell up and follow him to America, the promised land. I'd met him at one of the many balls my father dragged me to in the hope of finding a suitor who could ease my family’s disastrous financial situation.
At the ball that evening, Ethan Mills had all the women eating out of his hand, so much so that the huge ballroom echoed with the sound of their ridiculous giggles.
He really was strikingly handsome. Alongside the other men, his height, his athletic build and polite manners, placed him instantly at the centre of attention.
He approached me, scrutinising me with blue eyes that were so pale they looked like ice, swept a lock of blond hair behind one ear and winked. I immediately looked away in embarrassment, concentrating on the dance floor.
"May I?" He attracted my attention once more with an impudent smile that showed a row of white, regular shaped teeth, his lips so full they were almost feminine. I accepted out of good manners and as soon as we began to whirl around the room, the elegance of his posture and his dancing skills became obvious.
I still remember what he said because it struck me so much, it remains engraved in my memory: "I think such a charming woman deserves a better dress."
With just one line he had woefully reminded me just why I was there: to remedy the poverty that would soon strike my family.
Such irreverence annoyed me, or perhaps what really annoyed me was the fact that I needed rich men like him.
My cousin Brigida couldn't stand him and was furious when he showed up at my home: my father had invited him as soon as he sensed his interest in me.
I was torn, I still am. Despite my misgivings, I gave in to his charm, just like those silly, cackling women at the ball. I was flattered that a man like him found me beautiful and wanted me for himself. However, I'm still daunted by what Brigida thought. She was always convinced that Ethan wasn't the right man for me because he seemed so devious.
My father was adamant, however, and organised the engagement in a flash, already anticipating the end of his debts while Ethan Mills was set to gain a noble title to increase the prestige of his rich American family.
But now the shadow of that cursed day when my father called me into his study looms over us. I remember how my heart skipped a beat when I saw my sweet mother sobbing uncontrollably, her eyes red and swollen.
I couldn’t move, unable to speak for the lump in my throat. Even breathing was difficult.
My father, who seemed to be the only one who hadn't lost his head, was the first to speak. "My dear, we have to leave Ireland. Your uncle and aunt were killed this evening during a reprisal. They have paid with their lives for daring to rebel against the hunger their landlord had driven them to. We're also in danger, you know yourself that I supported the rebellion. Ethan is going to take us to America."
Trembling, my strength failing me, I collapsed onto the nearest chair. Still, I plucked up the courage to ask, "Is Brigida dead?"
"No. She’s safe, she managed to hide. She's here now, resting. She's quite shaken, however, her nerves are shattered."
My mother sobbed again, "I've lost my beloved brother. My God, why all this?"
I went over to her and held her tightly. "Mother, dear, try to remain calm. Our family will always be united and now we have Mr. Mills on our side."
There, I'd said it and I was more than a little surprised myself. I only knew that I couldn't risk causing further sorrow to my parents. Ethan Mills was our last hope and he was going to help us.