In these opening lines of Web of Tyranny, a young girl named Margaret dreams of happy days.
For the first few seconds of every day, before reality hit, she felt her body floating in a cloudy tangle as she came up from her dreams. Beautiful dreams of sunny days filled with music, ice cream and lots of laughter. She could still remember a time when her days had been like that; she’d been much younger then, granted the indulgences of early childhood. Those moments usually happened in the warm, cozy rooms at Grandma’s house, when she’d had a feeling that everything would work out somehow.
But she was not at Grandma’s today, and as she tossed aside the heavy tangle of sheets and blankets, she knew she wouldn’t be going to Grandma’s again any time soon. Father had other plans for her. Her summer days would be full of farm chores, beginning in the early hours of the day and ending only when the last box of fruit had been emptied and the last peach had been cut and placed on the trays. In the shed, with its overhang that shielded from the hot summer sun, the smell of ripening fruit made her gag, but she had to stifle the urge. Otherwise, she could end up with a far worse punishment than cutting fruit all day.
Margaret shuddered as she recalled some of those punishments.
At least when she worked in the shed, she was surrounded by the friendly faces of aunts and cousins. Living within five miles of each other, the Graham relatives, especially the women, rallied around one another during harvest season. As she worked, she pretended to be a fly on the wall, listening to the adult’s conversations; they hardly noticed her and when they talked in those hushed tones, her ears perked up.
That was how she learned about Aunt Noreen’s heart condition and Aunt Molly’s foster child, the one who was expecting…When Aunt Molly’s voice fell into that whispery tone, Margaret knew that secrets were being revealed. Lola’s pregnancy and the dilemma about what would become of Lola’s baby after the birth.
Of all the aunts, Aunt Molly could tell a simple story and make it fascinating. Every day of her life sounded like melodrama. Even her physical ailments seemed like something out of a storybook. No matter what else was happening with her though, Aunt Molly always had a friendly word for the younger members of the family. She and Uncle Chester had only one child of their own; Charles was an oddly quiet boy who seemed misplaced in that family.
Before Aunt Molly had started taking in foster children, Margaret recalled summer nights when she had been allowed a sleepover at her house. In the tiny little cottage next to the meandering canal, Aunt Molly made up a bed for Margaret in the sleeping porch. While she lay there, Margaret would study the walls of the tiny room, her eyes following the pattern of the knotty pine; wide awake, she reflected on Aunt Molly’s warning words as she tucked her in. She’d spoken of the evils in the world and how Margaret had to be very careful to stay away from the field workers who roamed their farms during the summer. Because the men who worked the fields had evil intentions where young girls were concerned.
Aunt Molly’s warnings introduced fear into her life, like opening a door onto a dark netherworld. But in the mornings, all the blackness disappeared as Aunt Molly cheerfully served breakfast in the tiny little nook that looked just like a booth in a diner.
So in the summer of her tenth year, Margaret Elaine Graham paid attention to all the melodrama swirling around her and made up stories of her own to add to the mix.
She imagined that Cousin Lucy, who had turned fifteen that year, must have more excitement in her life than she could handle. Eldest daughter of Aunt Noreen and Uncle Joe, she sashayed into the shed every morning dressed like she was going out on a date. Today she had on tight Capri pants and a little white shirt with a Peter Pan collar; it seemed just a little too snug for the occasion, so Margaret knew that she must have a secret lover. She probably met him during lunch break. They would rendezvous down by the barn, behind the bales of hay; or maybe, they would meet down the hot country road at the next farm, behind the rows of grapes. Down where the packing boxes could be pressed into service as couches or chairs. He was probably one of the fruit pickers’ kids. Maybe that boy with the mysterious and brooding expression, the one whose jeans were too tight. Or maybe he was an outsider, a city boy working on a farm for the summer.
Margaret sometimes wandered down behind the grapevines, hiding in the foliage, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lucy kissing her boyfriend. But no matter how hard she tried, Margaret never caught her in the act. She sometimes wondered if Lucy’s boyfriend was something that she’d made up in her head. But then she remembered hearing Vernon and Lucy whispering their secrets and laughing. No, she wasn’t imagining things.
Sitting on the empty packing boxes one day, Margaret flashed back to a time when she and Vernon, three years older, had made trains out of them. Lining them all in a row, turning them right side up, they could sit inside the boxes, pretending they were train cars.
Now Vernon was too old to hang out with the likes of a ten-year-old. He followed Lucy, or even Charles, and they would disappear behind the barn. Probably smoking cigarettes.
Left to her own devices, Margaret listened, spun fantasies in her head, and tried not to be noticed. Sometimes, if she was really lucky, she could sneak off during lunch break and read a couple of chapters in her library book. She had to be very careful, because Father wouldn’t tolerate her reading those books. They were just adventure books, or sometimes love stories. But Father thought the books were frivolous and ungodly. If he saw them, he would toss them out in the incinerator. Margaret knew this because it had happened just last year.
She still shuddered at the memory of her father’s face as he’d shouted condemnation and lit the match to the blaze that had engulfed the trash, consuming her precious book. She had a hard time putting this new version of her father together with the daddy he had been, because once upon a time, Vincent Graham had been her hero. Sometimes Margaret could almost see traces of that daddy in his face; in the evenings, when he sat there reading his newspaper, all the sharp lines in his face disappeared. Or when he sat back in his big chair, falling asleep after dinner, she recalled how she had once trailed along after him when he took the milk cans out to the road. He would lift her up and put her on the cart; she could feel the breeze in her hair, smell the heavenly aroma of the countryside, and feel safe. Back then she’d still called him Daddy.
When had it all changed? Her memories blurred. One minute she was childlike and carefree, with Daddy tossing her in the air; then he was this stern Father with the gruff exterior and the harsh tones to his voice.
In the background were the blurry images of her mother Mary. The mother who did nothing to soften Father’s tone, but who did allow Margaret to tag along to town on shopping day, and even let her go to the library to check out books. Books she warned Margaret to keep out of sight.
Margaret loved the smell of the library. In the little village, the library shared quarters with the post office. From the main door, the post office portion veered off to the left. But to the right, the wonderful library beckoned with its shelves and shelves of unread books. Margaret felt immediately drawn to the shelves containing her favorites. Sometimes she just wandered up and down the aisles, taking books down and examining them. Feeling the spines of the books and inhaling the scent of the ancient pages.
And then she would sigh with the sheer ecstasy of being a part of something so magical.