Some folks said that my grandmother, on my father’s side, had a sixth sense. Don’t know if this was true, I hardly have memory of her now. All I recall is of holding her hand walking through tall grass, warm air all around us, and hiding in her dark, rough skirts that smelt of sweat and work and dust from the road.
I only have the five senses, though even those have left me this day. It’s morning, this I do know. The light hurts my eyes and I half close them and hang my head. I don’t see well. Don’t want to. Afraid of what’s there to be seen in front of me. That if I focus, it will hurt me more than the salt that has turned the edges of my eyes red and makes them smart. But I won’t rub them.
I know it’s salt ‘cos I can taste it. It’s all I can taste, have tasted these past days. Haven’t eaten though. Haven’t wanted to. They’ve all had at me about it, especially Ruth. She means well, always does, but food just doesn’t seem important right now. Got no taste, except for the salt. Can’t say that I’d enjoy anything, don’t know if I will again. Thirsty though. My mouth is as dry as the dust that I remember on my grandmother’s skirt.
Someone is talking in a slow, deep voice. It comes from somewhere far off and I don’t know quite what it’s saying. When I was younger I would bathe in the lake on warm days. If I was brave I would duck my head under the water, and everything would change. It was like thick molasses had been poured over the world, forcing the sounds to ooze in deep, muffled waves towards me. Gone were the clear, sharp shouts and cries of others on the banks. The birds ceased calling, the bulrush no longer rustled and whispered at the waters edge. Like today, sound became distant, formless.
Once, I stayed down for too long and I could not hear my mother’s frantic cries at what she thought was her drowning child. Weighed down by her skirts, she had clumsily begun pushing her way through the water towards me. All that I was aware of were deep pulses that rippled towards my hiding place, and as I broke surface, I was struck by the rushing in of the sounds of nature – the calls and songs, whispers and shouts, the breeze as it passed – and the desperate, guttural way my name tore from my mother’s mouth.
Today I am still under water, still wrapped in the blanket of oozing silence, don’t want to come up for air. I know who the voice belongs to. Even from where I am hiding among the wafting weeds on the silted bottom of my burrow. From this murky distance it seems even deeper than I recall it being on Sundays. He’s probably talking about Amos. I know he’s talking about God. He’s good at that though. And everyone else who’s here seems to be listening, even if I’m not, ‘cos once in a while they agree as one with something he says, their chorus pushing in on me, “Amen”.
He calls himself our shepherd, which makes folks here his flock. They follow well, content to be led and he stands straight and tall. Particular though, likes things just so, does the Reverend Stanford, and I suppose there’s not much wrong in that. Every Sunday he’ll stand, watching and waiting as the bell rings us all in, solemn in greeting, though never cold – a serious man for the serious business of God.
That deep voice of his filled up the small space of washed out boards and dusty panes, his eyes always fixed on the door at the back as he showed us the path we ought to take. Never knew if he was seeing if anyone would dare leave early or if he was just waiting, hoping for one last lost lamb to come home.
You could rely on the Reverend, set your life by what he spoke most Sundays. Seemed to have things on rotation like a good root crop and corn. Every week, in its proper order, something from each book, sometimes two – even I know that 66 books don’t sit well in 52 weeks without a little squeezing here and there. Until that time near Christmas when he realised it wasn’t going so smooth. Could see the panic in his eyes the day he knew it wouldn’t work out and then sudden as you like Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah and Malachi just dropped and Matthew jumped right in.
You could tell he wasn’t comfortable with it. Tried to hide it best he could, but he put his finger to his collar too many times that Sunday to fool me – and a few others as it turned out. Talk of the town…. more because we never have much new to talk about than anything else! He made up for it the next year though, became truly zealous in the autumn and by the time the advent season came round and the snows had begun in earnest, Matthew slipped in just as he should.
But you can tell he’s a good man. It radiates from him like the smell of sweat comes off you in the summer. Strong voice, strong heart, strong soul. All good men here, it’s what makes the bad ones stand out.
A muffled voice breaks though as I feel a gentle squeeze on my shoulder and a rough hand takes mine. The day lashes out at me and thumps me hard in my chest. A warm trickle follows a well warn path over my cheek and I’m offered a neat piece of white cotton, embroidered with a delicate R and smelling of lavender and old oak draws.
I look into her sorrowful eyes and am confused by the concern I find there. She suddenly makes me feel like a child.
I pull my hand from hers and twist the cotton square, wringing it out, clenching my jaw, furious. I feel my shoulders sag under the weight of her concerned stare, so I retreat to myself, though I lift my chin a little. They don’t need to know and I’m not one that would tell. Best left, best hidden, best buried.
It occurs to me that the embroidered letter is the only delicate thing about Ruth. She’s solid and strong to look at, dependable most would say. Jeramiah chose right with her, she’ll keep him straight, lead him through. The baby that’s coming has taken its toll though. She’s carrying high and her hair hangs lank. She’s lost her bloom and her face is drawn and pinched with the weight she bares. What a pair we must look today!
Won’t be long now ‘til the boy arrives. And it will be a boy. I’m not one of those who feels how the child lies or watches what the mother hankers after. I just looked into her eyes and saw it there, saw what she wanted. Maybe I’m more like my grandmother than I thought.
I heard them talking last night, Ruth and Jeremiah. It’s not just the light and dust that falls between the sides of the rough boards of their room. Hopes and dreams I’ve heard, and more besides – well, it’s how the World keeps turning, nothing to fret about. If it’s a boy (Ha! if!) they’ve agreed he should be “Amos”, that it was right, respectful. They talked about me too – I wish they wouldn’t, can’t bare to be spoken of, would much rather I was spoken to. Always been that way, to the point. Saves confusion, I think. Not everyone agrees, but then I’m not for everyone – never was, never will be. It laid well with Amos, though.
They hadn’t agreed on a girl’s name, just as well as they won’t be needing it.
A good name is important though. Names have always been important in Amos’ family. Good, Bible people and they wore it with pride. There were lots of them, cousins and uncles, daughters and mothers, each with a purpose, each with a name. Amos had three brothers, Samuel, Isaiah and Job. All worked hard, all worked the land here and about, though the farm had come to Amos when Samuel had passed and not wed. The one sister, Rachel, had married in the town and had left when her husband had picked up and taken his trade where he thought it would be more needed. Amos was not a man to weep, but he’d shed tears when his sister had gone, more than twenty years passed now.
You could always find their names in the Good Book, though they weren’t always good people and some names were a burden, for all their good intentions. There was a Nehemiah who found life hard and struggled to find a right place in it. He worked too little and drank too much and when the family could stand him no longer, took up a place in the corner of a tavern, where he remained until they carried him out in a pine box that smelt of the whisky that had pickled him from the inside out. Ezekiel had lived four miles over, not far enough for many, though he was family just the same. He was the seventh of twelve, God save his poor mother. The connection was distant, but that didn’t reduce the shame when he turned a gun on three of his brothers and swung the next day. And little Obadiah, who had lasted no longer than it had taken to read the two pages that made up his book in the Old Testament. He took his mother with him when he went, who had laboured to her death and left her husband to choose again, so easily replaced.
All his family. Colourful, plentiful. Amos and I had only managed one, and late at that – Jeremiah. Always wanted more, but they never came. Couldn’t say why. Maybe ‘He’ will tell me one day. No matter. Jeremiah grew tall and strong. Worked hard and respected who he should. Never a boy to fuss, he’s made good choices. A credit to his father and made me proud. Shan’t tell him though. Wouldn’t help him none, wouldn’t change who he’s become.
He’s standing with me now. Tall, silent. Jeramiah and Ruth, two pillars in case I need them.
Rain’s coming in, not heavy, just a mist kinda driftin’ in from the lake. It’s so light that it doesn’t soak in none, just sits on the earth and waits. Clouds must be low as I can’t even see Taylor’s Wood, but maybe that’s just me, with my sight as it is today! I know which way I should wander though, if I want to loose myself somewhere where the sounds and sights all mix and merge. Dancing light and rustles and whistles, soft touches and sharp clear scents – lets your thoughts trick you into places you could disappear, lay down, be silent. Like Amos, laid down, disappeared, silent.
The mound at my feet is starting to bleed the scent of fresh turned earth. The mist all around brings to mind wash day in winter; there’s a rising tang of course, rough cloth jumbled with the bitter smell of hard work. I reach out to brush off the wet blanket that sits weightlessly on my shoulders, got enough to carry already today.
Amos was a big man – wouldn’t know it from the sorry hump of damp ground I’m made to stand at. A big man in his small world of seasons and family, farm and town, right and wrong. Big enough for him though, big enough for the both of us together, and that’s what made it vast. Amos was a man who was born to provide, it’s what he knew, what he did. From when he woke to when he slept, he would drive on, no matter. He knew his place, knew his God and when Samuel passed, found his time. Found me too, in the rain as it happens, two Sundays after Easter trying to keep my skirts out of the muck on my way round the back of town taking what lacked to some folks had more need than others; plenty here ‘bouts, different people, same need.
Never was one for show and fancy; stood straight, talked straight, left the rest to those that cared. Like pebbles at the water’s edge that gently rock and tumble, all smooth and moulded – nothing to offend – glistening in the shallows, catching the warm light, ready to be carried away in someone’s pocket. Me, I never could be that. Rough edged and unyielding, a hard, jagged rock in the cold water; said he knew it was his match. Didn’t let him down on that score. He called it honest and honest was strong, and that is what he liked – he had no time for comfortable ways. Took his big hands, rough from working and wasn’t afraid to grab hold. Two rough edges rubbing together, ‘til, with time, wore a groove where we fit.
They’ve taken me home and sat me at table, mumbling kindness and waiting for words. But what’s there to say to fill up the silence? Got no use for words today. I glance around at familiar objects, all lined up and ready. Nothing changed but everything different, nothing moved but all out of place. The heat from the fire dragging steam from our misted clothes, tugging on the chill deep inside.
This business of dying can be a drawn-out thing – lingering, mocking. Hope I don’t last long when it’s time. Want to go sudden. Got no use for patient sitters to watch me out. Where’s the sense in that? Me waiting for death, them waiting to get on with life again. Want it to be like Amos, here – then not. Still we don’t always get what we want.
Thursday, it was, came in as always, smelling of earth and work and Man. Sat at the table, same as me now, boots in the doorway, his coat on the peg. Said he was thirsty, weren’t nothing in that, the weather was turning and he was working hard to keep up. I saw him reach for the water as I went on with my mending, then Hell came crashing in. Funny what stays with you, the things you remember, a smell, a touch, a sound. The water pooled out across the table, seeping onto the floor. A drip, drip, drip and a smashing glass and Amos still as you like, head hanging down, eyes wide open, just gone. Someone was screaming, sobbing, shaking, like a pitiful animal in pain. Turns out that someone was me.
He’s here by the hearth, saw him the moment I walked in, ain’t no-one more surprised than me! It’s a strange thing to mourn a man, tear out your insides, fold in on yourself, to look up and find he’s still there. He’s not all that clear and I don’t know I’m certain, so I sit and wait and stare. I know that they notice, suppose that they’re worried. They’re talking again of shock and grief. I get up and walk over to the hearth. Can smell the soot, last night’s supper, but not the man. I go to the door, all restless and jumpy, and glance over my shoulder – still there, still standing. So, I leave the room and then turn right back in, Ruth asking what I’d lost or was looking for. Not lost nor looking, I see where he is. Probably best they don’t know.
When I woke this morning, tired, yearning, the day ahead seemed muffled and shrouded, I didn’t want to leave the farm at all. Couldn’t bare the thought of giving him back, to return him to the earth he loved so well. Needn’t have fretted, seems he found the door open. My Grandmother would have been pleased.
Think I’ll sit a while, maybe eat some. Got time.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Set in 1887, “Jenny Hyde” is the second in a series of five short stories collectively called “Wolfe Lake” which take place over a period of 50 years between 1870 and 1920, and touches the lives of three generations of the same family in a small rural community. The series grew from the story The Silence of Snow which although was the first to be written, is the third in the series. This story in turn was inspired by the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a beautiful poem which has stayed with me since I first studied it in school.
Kate Aranda Nye is a British writer of short stories and poetry. Growing up in Gloucestershire (UK) with her two brothers and an array of pets, she was often found in a comfy corner with her head in a book, and would now describe reading as one of her greatest pleasures. After achieving a degree in English Literature, she spent many years living and working in France and Spain before returning to the UK with her family, and is now settled in the beautiful Lake District in the north west of the country. Much of her work is inspired by the landscapes around her. She often collaborates with her older brother, the composer Richard Nye to produce scored audio versions of her stories and poetry. Her work has appeared in "Writers' Forum" magazine (UK) - "Jenny Hyde" from the "Wolfe Lake" series of short stories - and she has collaborated on winning entries for "15 Minutes of Fame" and the "Kernow Awards" with her poems "John Marrack" and "The Bal Maiden". Most recently her short story "The Corpse Road" was the winning entry in a Christmas Ghost story competition, the audio version of which was published on Facebook.