Contest #146 shortlist ⭐️

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Historical Fiction Drama Romance

I fear I am unwell.

My startling outburst last evening must have confirmed this for you, and it will come as no surprise to anyone if you choose to put me away. I heard the viscount committed his own wife for a much lesser offense; the poor woman allegedly exhibited a fit of rage over tangled embroidery thread. Describing her behavior as “unnerving and volatile,” his assessment was damning enough to secure her future behind a stone-walled asylum. Though I dare never mention where my loyalties lie in the matter, I feel quite sympathetic toward the woman; needlework can be such a maddening affair.

You have assured me you’d never betray me in such a fashion, that you understand the nature of my weaker sex to be prone to fits of temperamental neuroticism, but I fear even you would be alarmed by the increasing pervasiveness of such fits into my well-being. I strain from the effort of concealing them from you, as I cannot bear the thought of you looking upon me with disdain or detachment. If you knew the depth of my unsettled mind, you would cast me away like a thorny weed. But I am, and shall ever be, your sweet smelling rose, the pride of your garden. And so, I quell my agitation and stomp it into submission on this sandy shore. 

It was you who first suggested I make these daily walks to the seaside, to calm my nerves and quiet my disposition, but today, these fathomless waters have a rather un-soothing effect on me. I close my eyes and see myself, as you must have last night, breathless, sobbing, unraveling—all in front of our dinner party of society’s finest. I cannot express my humiliation or explain my behavior, as I do not quite understand it myself—though I am certain the viscount would attribute my distemper to possession of a demon and have me locked away indefinitely. I cannot make sense of the strangulating wave of fear and angst that came upon me so suddenly, and it so often does in moments of discomfort and stress, but I deeply regret ruining such an important evening for you—for everyone.

I will try not to ruminate over what they must be saying about me now; that I’ve grown mad, that I am a burden to you. I must be still and silence those thoughts; but the shrill squawking of seagulls reminds me of that gibfaced baroness’s squeals and dashes any chance of me bridling my racing thoughts into docility. I am truly sorry that, in my episode of distress, I toppled her wineglass, but I am sure she will never forgive me for soiling her custom Parisian gown—though we might both agree it was a rather unflattering style.

Nevertheless, that haughty baroness will not consume my thoughts.

If you were here, you would find me in the remotest corner of this beach, my little sanctuary, where I’ve spread a quilt—a faithful companion on my worst days. I’ve secured my hat against the wind and high sun, but a gust whips at the blanket and lifts my skirts before I can tuck them under me. I adjust a wayward corner of the quilt, but the wind sends it back with a spray of white sand. Such insubordination from the elements today.

I sit here with eyes shut, breathing deeply and listen to the sea. I wish it was as easy to speak frankly with you as it is to order my thoughts and unburden my heart to these waters.

Though I hope it is evident, that is, my undying devotion to you and our beloved children, I am becoming more desperate for these moments of respite from the bustling commotion of our estate. Some days, the thrill of being charged with the responsibilities of managing the household turns sour when I consider the likeliness of my failure—of making misguided decisions and plunging us into ruin or besmirching your good name. I am acutely aware of how my every action is weighed and judged, and above anything, I dread your disappointment in me. That weight looms like a heavy cloud.

The crashing of waves matches the rhythm of my chest, rising and falling. I taste salt in the air.

I am restless today.

More than my own fate, I worry about the futures of our children. Little George—his lingering cough has become a sound as commonplace as the grandfather clock striking each hour. I think of our eldest daughter, in the tempest of adolescence—a child who once believed I hung the moon now scoffs at my attention and turns away from my touch. The twins are ever their jovial selves, unfettered by anything but their Latin lessons. But the wee babe; she is the only one who truly needs me, but whose cries pierce my constitution and wrack my restless slumber. I lay awake each night, waiting for her ragged wails to shatter the quiet. I lay awake, and I think of you. I dream of that endless summer when we were young and caught up in the throes of romance. You would meet me at the seaside with your boyish smile and a spray of roses bursting from your arms. Always white, like our Queen’s wedding bouquet, though I doubt you’d remember.

My heart races as guilt trickles in. I’ve been away too long.

But I am not ready to return home to face you. I beg for strength from the air and the sea, but the sea is antagonizing me today.

I must compose myself.

I shall plant myself here until I’ve grown blissfully peaceful, too calm to consider my doubts and shortcomings or your disapproval. I won’t think of our children, how they fill me with joy and exasperate me all within a single breath, how helpless I am when they are ill, how small I feel when they despise me. I will not succumb to exhaustion. I won’t reflect on my duties as mistress, how the servants mock and disregard me. In the shadow of your steadfast strength, they see my weakness and insecurity, and the halls hiss with their whispers.

I have forgotten my steadied breathing and am now bent, plucking sand off the quilt, one glassy grain at a time. Though I recognize the futility of my actions, the effort soothes me. The sand settles into the seams of the thin, worn fabric. This quilt was once an impressive work of someone’s painstaking craftmanship—whose, I can’t remember, but I’ve always been fond of it. Triangles and oblong shapes in all manner of color and pattern fan out to form one magnificent starburst, an explosion of geometric jewel tones.

You would certainly laugh at me if you were here. I am lying on my stomach, letting my eyes roll over each shape, analyzing it for repetition. But each patch appears laid at random; there’s one of emerald green, another with deep maroon flowers, and a blue patch with embroidered waves of golden wheat. The longer I stare, the more it appears the stalks are rising and falling, like they too are blowing in the wind. I blink away the illusion and exhale.

Be still.

This would be simple for you, or rather, you wouldn’t find yourself with any need to be here at all. Thoughtful stillness requires no effort from you—you, crafted of elements utterly distinct from those which comprise me. So earthly, concrete, so quantifiable. You are guided by the laws of logic; your mind heeds your control. You would have never allowed yourself to exhibit such a public and undignified display of emotion.

I sit up, once again reliving the embarrassing scene. Cold perspiration gathers at my temples and my heart quickens at the remembrance.

I once attempted to disclose details of my turbulent nature to you.

“Racing thoughts, what a notion,” you’d said, genuinely humored by the imagery. But that humor has dissolved into fear behind your steely eyes, fear of the woman you’ve bound yourself to. And heavier than the weight of your disappointment is the thought that you might come to fear me. I will not hear of it. And so, I have come to accept that the landscape of my mind, so wild and untamed with its erratic weather and perpetual storms, is a place I must traverse alone.

A crab skuttles by, unperturbed by my inner turmoil. I watch curiously as he wiggles himself down into the sand, nearly disappearing. It strikes me how envious I am of this little crustacean, free to come and go as he pleases, or to simply vanish all together. Angry tears fall, unbidden.

Why am I so weak? How long until you realize my fragile dam has crumbled? ‘Till you see how unsound I am and put me away? To shield your children from the mad woman they call “mama”?

I unfasten my shoes in a rush, stride toward the shoreline, and heave one into the water.

A deluge of panic—what have I done?

You’ll certainly know how unwound I am if I limp home wearing only one boot. What a stupid, stupid girl I am.

The waves accept my offering, and my rash decision is irrevocable. Sobs wrack me as I scream into the endless blue. I feel suffocated, my sobriety impaired by the chaos of my mind. Better the ocean take me and drag me to its depths where no one can be hurt by my madness.

I step into the cold, frothy edges when I hear a noise—a voice. Is it the sea? Does she welcome me with her watery embrace?

But the voice is behind me. Icy water licks at ankles as I turn to the grassy hill beyond the sandy shore, where someone stands.

You, with your boyish smile and a spray of roses bursting from your arms. White roses. You call to me with arms outstretched. There is warmth in your expression.

Hope.










May 21, 2022 01:28

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30 comments

Riel Rosehill
16:26 May 22, 2022

Another beautifully written story, Aeris! I loved reading this, the part of history where women could be prosecuted for "hysteria" is fascinating to me. I adored the detail of how her husband promised not to betray her and turned up with a bunch of roses at the end, just like in the beginning of their relationship. That was such a wholesome touch to this story, and just a beautiful way to end this. Love an ending filled with hope! Great work and thanks for sharing this. X

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Aeris Walker
19:26 May 22, 2022

I truly appreciate you reading it, thank you 😊 Yes, it fascinates me too! In my research I stumbled over so many interesting articles and accounts of late 19th century women who were put into asylums for issues like menopausal related hormone imbalances, or overly religious behavior, which is just crazy! Mental health issues are as real today as they were in a time where they were highly misunderstood, but I’d like to believe there were husbands like the one in this story who stayed patient and supportive, no matter how much their wives st...

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Riel Rosehill
14:14 May 29, 2022

Aeris, belated congrats for making it onto the shortlist! Well deserved recognition for this story.

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Aeris Walker
20:59 May 29, 2022

Hey! Thanks so much 😊😊

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L. Maddison
18:24 May 27, 2022

Aeris, this is a delight. The way the sand settles into the seams of the fabric, the spray of white roses echoed in the cold frothy waves, the cough like a grandfather click portending doom. Congratulations on shortlisting- it is so well deserved.

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Aeris Walker
19:25 May 27, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind comment, and for reading my story 😊

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Zack Powell
02:49 May 25, 2022

The diction really sold the Historical Fiction side of the story (ashamed to say that I didn't know what a "viscount" was until just now). Totally gave me Kate Chopin "The Awakening" vibes. Really impressive that you managed to write it so consistently. I appreciate how this story looks on the page, visually speaking. There are a lot of longish paragraphs throughout, but they'll occasionally be separated by one that's only a sentence or two long. It gives a nice gravitas to those small one-line paragraphs, makes us pay more attention because...

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Aeris Walker
09:01 May 25, 2022

Zack, I sincerely appreciate your thoughts and am in no way bothered by constructive criticism! After writing and rewriting and rewording and reworking a story, I think we get so close to it at the end that it’s difficult to see it objectively from the reader’s perspective, so I am grateful to hear how you received it! I can see what you’re saying for sure, how it would have been nice for her to find some strength within herself to help her pick herself up and carry on. (And thank you for the reading suggestion!) Though I believe sometimes,...

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Zack Powell
19:54 May 25, 2022

Thanks for the wonderful reply. It's always a toss-up trying to guess how people will respond to constructive criticism, so I'm relieved I didn't offend you. Totally agree with your thoughts, too. I think my problem is that I'm looking at this story from a contemporary lens, when the way that you've written it is much more realistic to the time period in which it's set. I get what you were going for now, and the ending makes a lot more sense (to me - it always made sense, I just had to get a different perspective). Thanks again for sharing t...

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Aeris Walker
00:26 May 26, 2022

Yes, be relieved! Worse than realizing I’m a bad writer, would be for me to float through life falsely believing I’m a good one. So your critique is always welcome ;)

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Zack Powell
15:17 May 27, 2022

You did get two in a row! Congrats, Aeris. This story definitely earned it.

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Aeris Walker
15:27 May 27, 2022

Thanks SO much Zack 😊😊

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Michał Przywara
18:12 May 23, 2022

Fantastic :) I love the voice here, it (politely and collectedly) screams repressed Victorian. And it's so tragic too. Her every statement is a struggle between who she is, and who she believes she should be. I suspect a part of her also wishes she was that cold, collected woman that society deems is proper. It's tragic because what she is, is a woman with emotions, which of course isn't a particularly weird thing. It's also tragic that she feels trapped, that she doesn't have an outlet to express herself, feels shame, and is driven almost...

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Aeris Walker
14:55 May 24, 2022

You definitely received the story how it was intended! Thank you so much for your feedback. “Politely and collectedly screams repressed Victorian” yup. Nailed it.

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Michał Przywara
16:24 May 28, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!

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Aeris Walker
17:04 May 28, 2022

Thank you!!

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06:02 May 21, 2022

Wow. This story is incredibly well-written. Your tone and wording is gorgeous, the rhythm and your uses of writing tools are just *chef’s kiss. You did so well with this one, you should be super proud! I love historical romances so much, and this one is so amazingly beautiful, thank you for writing it!

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Aeris Walker
11:26 May 21, 2022

Well, I think I will just be riding on the high of your comment all day, thank you, Ella! I’m so glad you feel that way about it ;) and thank you for reading, it truly means so much.

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Rachel Smith
06:11 Jun 02, 2022

Wonderful prose. Really immersive writing style. Loved the comparison with the crab. Clever. And yey, happy ending. (it could have easily gone the other way!) 🙂 Congrats on the shortlist!

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Aeris Walker
11:02 Jun 02, 2022

Thank you so much!

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Kevin Broccoli
16:27 May 30, 2022

As someone who loves work like "The Yellow Wallpaper," I was instantly taken in by the story. Such gorgeous language and real attention to detail. Well done.

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Aeris Walker
17:04 May 30, 2022

Oh, what high praise, thank you, Kevin! I'm honored you took the time to read and comment and I look forward to reading some of your winning stories and learning more from all you great writers. Thanks again ;)

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17:41 May 29, 2022

So beautifully written, Aeris. It reminds me loosely of Jane Austen's writing. Rich and embroidered, with long, almost victorian sentences. I loved the somber tone, your MC self-awareness, how she regarded her affliction, "the nature of my weaker sex." I enjoyed your vivid descriptions - I felt as though I could SEE her on the beach in her long-sleeved dress and hat, sitting on her colorful quilt with such intricate pattern. I felt sad when she walked into the ocean and, in the same time, I felt relieved that she would be free of all the ...

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Aeris Walker
18:49 May 29, 2022

Gosh, thank you SO much for reading my story and leaving such kind remarks! I appreciate that each comment reveals how closely your read and how well you understood the story and that means a lot to this writer ;) I look forward to reading some of your writing! Thanks again ;)

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C.B Lannon
11:36 May 26, 2022

"my sobriety impaired by the chaos of my mind" Just one of the few lines I loved in this story. Brilliant defamiliarization too with some of the descriptions. Really eloquently written.

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Aeris Walker
12:24 May 26, 2022

Thanks, C.B, I appreciate you reading it :)

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Rebecca Miles
15:37 May 24, 2022

You have just the right level of syntatical complexity here because of the slightly antiquated lexis. It really helped position me in the context of the story and the whole atmosphere of repression. I wonder if the husband could have had a tad more complexity? Some of your phrasing encouraged me to believe he might have had a role in tipping her towards mental over exertion/ breakdown. Some of the lines led me to believe that perhaps he had some hold over her; but perhaps I was just hoping that was where the story might go. For me personally...

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Aeris Walker
16:20 May 24, 2022

No, I absolutely appreciate this feedback! And I have never read Virginia Woolf, but it sounds like I absolutely need to. Your developmental suggestions are really spot on to what I also felt was lacking in the story, and keeping it from ending with a punch. I felt like the best way to really communicate the story was through first person, and I wanted to hold onto that sort of letter format of her speaking to him, even if in her mind, but that made it very difficult to move plot along. And the deliberate, intentionality required in crafti...

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Kendall Defoe
04:01 May 21, 2022

A rather beautiful tale here. Please write and write and write!

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Aeris Walker
11:27 May 21, 2022

Thank you so much Kendall!! :)

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