I thought it would be a relief to escape, to finally be free; free from the accusing eyes, the whispered comments, the scornful stares. And for me, it was. It was glorious freedom. I relished the human interaction that was suddenly possible. I was free to be me without being accused of being a witch or a devil’s child. But for mother it seemed to be a punishment, to be void of punishment. This puzzled me; indeed I was hard to understand my mother’s plight, why she spurned the friendly people of Austria, always polite and a willing confidant, but never inviting friendship. After a while the reason became apparent; it was the embroidered patch on her dress that still set her apart, not because others spurned her, but because mother chose to keep that scarlet token as a wall between herself and the Old World.
The Scarlett Letter had become a part of her. So when she fled to Austria with me—still watching over her shoulder for the absent chill that had stalked our family for so long—she was reluctant to be parted with the handiwork fastened upon her bosom.
But it was too perfect, that A—too beautiful, too exquisite to escape notice. For years that token had been one of shame, one that had been a burden, a constant reminder of her sin. And though it was heavy, she felt she deserved the pain it gave her. She hoped—secretly hoped—that the pain she endured now would entitle her to some degree of happiness in the next life. That by paying her debt here she could ransom her lost love above.
But in the Old World, with no one to give witness to her crime, her letter was admired. People asked her why she wore it, and if she would be so kind as to create one for them. She never said why she wore it, and turned down offers to recreate her jewel, although she did create many wonders with her nimble fingers, to better support us in this foreign land. But the public approval of her letter cut her deep and filled her with guilt—guilt that her punishment brought her so much admiration.
That her punishment had become a reward, created a guilt was far worse than the scorn she endured on that first day, when she had held me close up on that scaffold.
It grew too much, and for a time she cast off her burden—hid it away, tucked under a blue coverlet in a corner of her cedar chest. But she was empty without it. It was much too late for separation. While fastened upon her the Scarlett Letter had grown roots, deep roots, and when removed the roots held strong, tearing a hole within the tapestry that was her soul. Her mind was forever trapped in a swirling tempest. She would try to stay afloat—stubbornly clinging to the letter whose weight was forever dragging her down—but after a time she would give up, letting the letter sink as she was washed up on shore. But the relief was fleeting, the guilt of abandoning that part of her was too much; and so she always returned to pick up her burden once more, and struggle to stay aloft.
What motivated her, helped her through her time in Austria, was me. She wanted better for me than the little I would have been granted in America. With the land I had been bequeathed, and the earnings from my mother’s cloth work, we lived extravagantly. Or rather, I did so, while my mother clung to the frugal ways of the Puritans. Once old enough, we traveled the countryside, scouring it for a well-bred man who could stand up to my lofty expectations, and withstand my fiery temper. And when I found him, mother stayed only long enough to see us forever joined—her simple black dress standing out among a crowd of elegant gentry; truly the only part of her that seemed to belong was that Scarlett Letter she had chosen to wear—but then she slipped away, with a short explanation of her final destination that mystified me. But she had made her choice, to finish the penance that she had been given and had chosen to forever keep upon herself.