Isabel's Hearts

Maleen woke to hear of her sister's engagement. It was one of the first days of spring and the air was cool and fresh. The snow had given way to frozen grass and the narrow path leading to the house had been cleared for the first time in months. It was this that had allowed Proteus, her sister's eloquent suitor, to make the one hour journey from the village to the mountains.

"I'm going to be a bride," exulted Isabel as she waltzed in the room in a long lavender gown, unseasonable flowers adorning her light hair.

Maleen sat up on her frail bed, "What are you talking about?"

Isabel smiled as she ran over to the side of her, "Proteus proposed. He came here this morning, in horse, with a bouquet of flowers and, best of all, this," she said extending her slender little wrist for Maleen to inspect. Among her pearly, white skin there was a glittering bracelet of silver with a cluster of sparking diamonds.

Maleen felt her breath escape her. "It's gorgeous. Where did he get it?"

The older girl smiled, "His grandmother left it to him in her will." She took a deep self-satisfied breath and leaned closer to her sister. "I am so lucky. He love me so much and his family is so wealthy and respectable. We'll get married in the summer, right before the rainy season. That's my favorite time of the year," she laughed like a woodland fairy before leaping out of bed and twirling around the luminous room, her arms stretching like white branches.

Her sister however was quiet, her eyes still fixed on the silver bracelet. She watched the diamonds sparkle as Isabel continued exulting with joy. She had always thought Isabel deserved far finer things than she had, being so pretty and charming, but she didn't think that was a good enough reason for her to marry Proteus. It wasn't like there was anything wrong with him. He was know for being young and agreeable; but Maleen had never seen any sign of Isabel having feelings for him. It was this that made her asked the one question her sister dreaded among all else. "But what about Tom?"

She stopped dancing and her body seemed to go momentarily limp. "That's not important any more."

Her dark brown eyes observed her sister's defensive reactions, "But I thought you loved him."

Isabel's lips tightened, "I can't love him, it's not right."

"That's not a very good reason to marry Proteus."

Isabel's eyes sparkled aggressively as she moved back towards her sister and said in a deadly serious voice, "Be quite, you don't have a right to your own opinion. Now go downstair, mom needs you to start working on my wedding veil."

Maleen scuffled out of bed but did not leave. "Aren't you going to talk about it, even to me?"

"There's nothing to talk about. Now go down stairs and get to work."

Maleen stared at her. She had never before realized to what lengths Isabel would go to avoid discussing her problems. "Fine," she mutter crossing her arms over her chest.

"And remember," said Isabel before she could walk away. "Don't tell anybody."


Weeks passed. The house was filled with flowers and love letters that came and went like morning doves while the whole family worked to give Isabel her perfect wedding. Macro, the girls' father would lead their three brothers in to the woods for hunting. They would come back to the house in the dark, carrying with them the animals they had shot down. Ava, their mama would cook the meat, while the boys put the skins to dry. Later they would stash them among flower petals in Isabel's matrimonial trunk, which consequently became the center of their family life.

While her brothers hunted, Maleen would spend ten hours a day, sitting by the windows with her mother, sewing her sister's wedding veil. Their tasks quickly took up all of their time, so much so that the only member of the house that seemed to have nothing to do was the bride herself. While her family worked to make her happy, Isabel would spend her days picking flowers and wondering the nearby hills. She was dreamy and out of focus, which the family attributed to her being so in love with Proteus, but Maleen knew better.

As the wedding came closer and closer, everybody started commenting on how stunning she looked, as if the proximity of her marriage increased her sheer loveliness. The only real task Isabel had was to greet the visitors that came up to congratulate her. They were friends and distant relatives from the village that carried with them gifts and sound advice.

Eleanor, Macro's older sister, came with a little music box. While Ava was putting it away in the trunk Eleanor leaned in close to her niece and said: "Remember, you're lucky he chose you". Isabel didn't have time to be indignant since her mother shuffled back in to the room second later but she understood from her Aunt's stare that she knew everything, and that she judged her for it.

In the weeks that followed, dozens of people came up to give them gifts, and the family was pleased to accept them all. Until one day, of no particular importance when Tom showed up in worn-out brown shoes, carrying one of his children.

Maleen was the one who saw them, as she coveted the light for her embroidery. Her face, usually honey-toned, paled and instinctively she felt the urge to run out and tell the man that Isabel had gone to the village. But she stayed in her place watching him walk up the steep hill, his young son on top of his shoulders. She put her work aside and took a deep breath. Her father and brothers were out in the hunt, and her mother had taken one of the horses and gone to fetch silver thread at the village.

When she heard the single knock on the door she rose from her seat by the window and walked over to her sister's lover. She opened the door with a false smile and said with as much kindness as she could, "Hello Tom, how are you?" As she held strongly to her facade her eyes couldn't help looking at his wedding ring.

He grinned with a worn face, as he put the little boy down next to him and tried to look past her head and into the hall. "I'm very well Mal, I'm just here to congratulate the bride. She found herself a very good man." Maleen lowered her eyes. He had a way of speaking that always sounded entirely sincere and well meaning, even though experience had taught her he was usually neither.

"Come in, I'll call her down," she said swinging the door wide enough for them to enter. The boy immediately ran passed her and into the hallway where he bumped up against Isabel.

Her face was whiter than her newly purchased wedding gown, and eyes were deep and sad, like neither Tom nor Maleen had ever seen them before.

She bowed her head. "Hello Tom." Maleen was amazed at her sister's composure as she stood, her head held high and her voice strong and steady. "It's lovely to see you, and Teddy of course," she said ruffling the red hair of the little boy, who then ran back to his father.

"You look very beautiful."

She smiled but her eyes looked miserable, "Thank you, it's because I'm so happy."

Tom chuckled, "I'm glad. Proteus choose very well. I hope he appreciates just how lovely you are," he smiled with that same boyish sincerity that Maleen had learned to be cautious of and then he put his hand in the pocket of his work-jacket and pulled out a small, hand made box. "From my family, to your wedding trunk."

Isabel did not move or speak but Maleen's whole body cringed and she felt a new wave of hatred for him. Had he really needed to mention that word? Isabel was starring at the little boy now, but Tom's hand was still extended, the box smooth against his sun-beaten skin. Maleen sighed, and snatched it from his hands like a burning coal. He smiled at her, and she had to refrain herself from spitting in his face from disgust. "Have a great marriage Isabel," he said in an almost mocking tone as he pulled his son by sleeve and turned back towards the door.

Both girls watched him leave in silence. And then Maleen opened the box and looked down at the small hand-crafted wooden pendant he had given them. It had no useful value but she had to admit it was heartfelt. "Do you want to see it?"

"Yes, give it to me and go hide the box," she said extending her hand with uncharacteristic frailty. Carefully Maleen pulled the pendant out of the box and handed it over to her. Isabel held it, then she glared at her younger sister. "What are you still doing here? Get rid of the box before mother comes home."

Following her instruction Maleen ran out to the woods with the little box in her hands. She hesitated as she looked around the trees, and then making up her mind to bury it, she grabbed one of her brother's shovels and walked in to the forest. She dug a hole right at the bottom of the a large Ash tree and placed the box inside before covering it up with dirt and leaves. When she was finished part of her felt she had buried her sister's heart.


The morning of the marriage Maleen woke up before Isabel. It was almost dawn, and the windows of Aunt Eleanor's guest room were covered in layers and layers of curtains so that it was impossible to look outside. Maleen crawled out of her bed and pulled them aside, staring with admiration at the beautiful day that stretched through to the horizon. Her sister had been right; this was the best time of the year.

"Isabel," she said softly as she hurried to her bed. "Isabel, wake up, you're getting married."

Her sister opened her eyes for a moment and then shut them again, "Let me sleep a bit more. I'm tired."

Maleen smiled, "Come on sleepy-head, it's your wedding. It's the happiest day of your life."

"No, it isn't," she said defiantly as she turned away from her and pulled her face in to the pillow.

Maleen felt stunned as she stood hovering over Isabel's bed. They had all worked so hard to make the day everything she had dreamed of and, in the end, she seemed completely ambivalent to it. "I don't get it. I thought this was what you wanted."

Isabel didn't say anything. Instead she stretched towards her sister and grabbed her hand. "It's all wrong," she whispered.

"Well, you don't have to go through with it if you don't want to."

"I have to, there's nothing else."

Maleen was silent, she had never seen her like this. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," she closed her eyes.

Hours later, when she was dressed and back to her old self, Isabel would pull the pendant out of a drawer and hand it to her sister. "Burn it," she would say before putting on a gracious smile and walking out of the room in her white dress and a handmade veil.