written by: Kate Aranda Nye
The soft earthy smell of moisture hung in the air as she made her way through the wood. The rain had drifted away in the day, but the grey, wispy cloud still hung low, penetrating into the green canopy of the mossy trees, weaving between damp branches, wrapping itself around glistening trunks that rose to meet it as they reached to touch the leaden sky.
The young girl carefully picked her way along the rough track that followed the creek as it skipped and bubbled its way through the woodland. Hanging roots twisted above the dancing waters, eddies swirled at the edges of polished rocks and the tumbling splash carried the occasional bird call with it into the distance, towards the calmer waters of the lake. She was not yet of an age when her skirts would be long enough to carry to prevent them dragging in the dirt, though no amount of scrubbing would restore the hem of her petticoat. She kept her gaze fixed on her rough boots for fear of slipping in the soft mud of the path. Her gently curled hair fell forward over her shoulders, veiling her youthful face, not yet coloured by the sun of the summer to come.
She emerged from the treeline at the back of the summer meadow, tucking her hands under her arms against the cool breeze that came in over the lake. To her right she could see where the trail that led to Hyde’s Farm came into sight behind a rocky outcrop that pushed out into the dull waters of Wolfe Lake, reflecting the iron-grey sky that hung heavy overhead. She drew a deep breath in as she paused to look out from the shoreline to the rising hills beyond, before turning away towards the town and the task that she’d been given.
Dr. Evert looked over at her as he stood beside his preparation bench. The room was small, and on brighter days would dance with coloured light that reflected through the bottles and jars that lined its walls. Today the light in the room was muted and dull, echoing the weather outside and the mood of the girl as she hovered just inside the doorway. He turned back as he tied the oiled cloth over the earth-ware pot that held the camphor grease.
“So, how’s he doing, your father?” His voice was deep and resonated with authority, but carried a warmth that she found reassuring.
“’Bout the same I suppose.” Ruth tucked a ragged strand of hair behind an ear, an act of habit more than nervousness. The doctor began wrapping items in the cloth she’d bought.
“It’s not that long since I sent up more laudanum for him.” Ruth was unsure how to answer. She bit lightly at the corner of her mouth, glancing down at the dusty floorboards beneath her feet. Sensing her discomfort, he hurried the conversation along.
“Well now, not to worry. I’ll talk with your mother the next time I see her.” He peered at the drops of water snaking their way down the dusty panes of glass in the window; it had started to rain again. “Will you look at that weather! Town will be nothing more than a pit of mud if this rain keeps up!” He smiled down at her as he held out the carefully wrapped package. His hands were large and soft, an ink stain visible on the indent of his right index finger where he held his pen. The cuff of his shirt sleeve was just beginning to fray.
“Thank you,” she said, hugging the parcel to her. She held out a coin, tentative, embarrassed. It wasn’t enough, but he didn’t say anything, placing it quietly into his jacket pocket.
“And that brother of yours?” he enquired, attempting an air of joviality for the girl’s sake. She glanced down again, searching for words.
“Coughing some, in bed these last two days.” Her voice held steady.
“Ummm. That will be this damp, I expect. A little warmth will bring him along just fine!” Silence filled the room; only the soft fall of rain could be heard. “You’re a good girl, Ruth.” She raised her face to him, innocent, unchallenging and turned to leave.
Even in the rain, the town of Wolfe Lake had a gentle, unassuming beauty about it. Buildings of varying shapes and sizes fanned out on either side of the main street, which itself led down towards the church and the summer meadow and the lake from which the community took its name. It was a small town. Small enough so that you might know most of your neighbours by sight, but large enough not to have the need of knowing all their names. Despite the uninviting nature of the day, necessity still brought people out. As Ruth made her way towards the meadow, she watched as people hurried along, seeking cover where they could, collars turned up, jumping back to avoid the splash of a cart as it passed. She cut through behind the grey boarded tobacconist, skipping over puddles that had been strewn about in the mud. Head down and purposeful, she turned the corner and ran straight into the backs of a group of older boys passing the time by the old smokehouse, under the shelter of the small archway the marked out the door.
“What’s chasing you then?” asked one in an amused tone.
Ruth bit back her embarrassment, “Nothin’,” she said, looking up into familiar faces, “sorry.”
She picked up the package that had tumbled out of its wrapping onto the damp ground. Anxious fingers wiped at the contents as an image of her father rose before her in unnerving clarity. What would he say if she came home without his needs? Chastising herself under her breath as she hastily examined her cargo for damage, only allowing herself to draw air once she was assured that all was intact, if now a little muddy.
“Here.” She looked up at Jeremiah Hyde as he handed her the cloth she had been using to carry things in, now damp and mud stained.
“Everythin’ alright?” he asked.
“Yes, fine,” she replied, taking the cloth and wiping the pot and small bottle before using it to wrap them up again. “Thank you.” Feeling awkward, she pushed through them with her shoulder.
“You need to watch where you’re going, young Ruth Taylor!” one of the boys called out loudly, in an obvious attempt to tease. She moved on with determination, shoulders back, head held high.
“Don’t go falling in the lake, y’hear!”
She walked ahead along the shore. The rain fell in a soft curtain which gently billowed in the light breeze coming off the lake. Ruth stopped and gazed out across the water, the tree line to her right darkening as it stretched out along the edge of the lake. The occasional clearing punctuated the green wall, the lake path visible where it wove its way out of the woods. In the distance the trees gave way to an open stretch that reached back away from the lake towards the hills. Hyde Farm, she knew, was there, though too far for her to see. She looked back towards the town and saw that Jeremiah Hyde was now making his way along the meadow, heading to the path through Taylor’s Wood.
She turned away from the water to the trees that led home at the back of the meadow, anxious not to have to talk to Jeremiah again. Though he had been kinder to her than his friends, she coloured remembering the moment she had slipped and dropped the small bundle she was carrying, feeling once more the fear of her father’s temper if she were to return empty handed, leaving his comfort and oblivion seeping into the dark, trampled mud of the meadow. A last glance saw Jeramiah, his collar turned up, his hands thrust stiffly in his pockets, head bowed in his purposeful stride. Ruth stepped into the shelter of the woods, back into its calming, cool canopy and home.
The farm, such as it was, was a sorrowful affair. The barn was long past the need for repair and sagged in defeat of its want of something to lean on. Open on one side, it was half dressed with a patchwork of rough shingles that gave scant protection when the weather turned for the worst. A scraggy goat was tethered to the side, hunched up against the rough planks of silvered wood. It let out a piteous bleat as Ruth picked her way through the growing mire to the steps at the front of the house. She shook out her skirts in the shelter of the porch, before pushing down on the latch and letting herself into the house.
Inside was dark and unwelcoming. A sharp muskiness mingled with the smell of wood which struggled to burn in the dampness of the broad chimney. The window shutters were closed to the weather and what little light that had courage enough to push through the ill-fitting coverings, made a sorrowful impression on the interior of the cabin.
The main room was dominated by a large scrubbed table of sturdy wood which stood proud over an array of mismatched chairs and stools. The pitted surface now smoothed by use, each mark and discolouration a testament to the lives that had been lived around it. A dark, heavy curtain hung across the room on the far left as a means of affording a measure of privacy and warmth for herself and her brother and sister in the bed that they shared. Sarah, at 8, was a year younger than her. Fair and slight, she would move about without much notice. Her brother, Seth, not long turned 6, would squirm and sigh like a restless pup nesting in the covers until he finally settled into sleep. Her parents had a small room to themselves at the rear of the cabin, an afterthought added on in the recent past.
Ruth moved with care into the cabin, the boards protesting each guarded step she took with a discord of jarring betrayal. The misshapen mass of quilt that was bundled in the old rocker by the chimney stirred. The phlegmy cough of her father emanated from under the comforter as he twisted himself round to peer at her with hooded, bloodshot eyes. His thick, course hair, matted by neglect and grease, lay flat against his skull, save for a small tuft that stood out, incongruously, at the back where his head had lain so long on the back of the chair. His once open features were pinched and drawn, his sallow skin cowering behind an untidy growth of beard.
Ruth stopped short at the corner of the table, the bundle in her hand hovering as she paused in the act of placing it down, holding her breath as she looked at her father.
“You bring back what you s’posed to?” he questioned in a voice slurred more than by just recent sleep.
Ruth hesitated in her answer, trying to gauge the mood of the man hunched over in the chair. He leaned on his left hand and shuffled himself round some more, the covers dropping away to reveal his soiled, unchanged undershirt that smelt of sweat and liquor and a man resigned to defeat.
“Well?” he coughed. Ruth rounded the table and placed before him the cloth that swaddled her errand. He frowned as he clumsily unwrapped the length of mud-stained cotton. “What kinda mess you get yourself into?” he growled as he anxiously fingered the small dark bottle, his shoulders relaxing as he assured himself it was intact. “Pour me something!” He jabbed his chin in the direction of a half-filled bottle and rough beaker close beside him on the table. He watched intently as the golden liquid flowed and then waved his hand over the small brown vessel, wordlessly indicating that he wanted it opened. She pulled out the stopper and placed it beside him. He reached over and tremulously let four drops of dark brown oblivion fall into the whiskey which he then downed in one mouthful before screwing up his eyes and sucking on his teeth as he slumped back into his chair. He drew in a long, deep breath through his nostrils, holding onto it for a moment longer than was comfortable, then let it tumble out again through his mouth. He half opened his eyes, observing Ruth as she stood in front of him, droplets of water still clinging to the curls of her hair.
“Still rainin’?” he mumbled in a calmer tone. His stale, sour breath hung like a persistent smog in the air around him.
“Yes, Sir. Been coming through most of the week now.”
“Hmm.” Caleb Taylor hitched himself up a little, pulling his right arm out from under the quilt, his left hand protectively reaching to cover the space where his right hand used to be. The bullet hadn’t taken the hand as such, but it had caused enough of a mess to necessitate its removal along with a good portion of his lower arm. He was lucky enough, considering what he saw befall others who fought alongside him.
There was a soundless movement from the left and a slight figure pushed its way through the hanging drapes, making its measured way towards them. Stooped with trouble and care, the woman’s once bright face was framed by a fall of walnut curls that escaped from the faded cloth employed to contain them. She greeted her daughter with a colourless smile, not for lack of love. It was the hope that had long seeped from her, that left her despair showing just beneath the surface, like the bones of a starved animal as they defined themselves beneath the skin.
“You’ll catch a chill, all wet like that,” tutted her mother. “There’s a linen on the wash stand; go see to yourself. Last thing I need is more sickness in this house! But no noise mind. Your brother’s just settled and I don’t want you waking him.”
“Is he still bad then?” asked Ruth, keeping her voice low.
“The damp’s not helping,” replied her mother, “the rain takes a toll on his breathing. A little bit of sun to help bring the spring on and we could have him out on the porch and running around in no time. He’ll be just fine!” She glanced over at the heap of her husband; the slow rise of his breathing didn’t fool her. “It’s a blessing that Sarah’s gone over to my cousin for a spell; don’t want her fretting more than she needs. She’ll be useful there with James gone this month and Lord knows that Martha could use a distraction for Margaret; poor child has little enough of nothing as it is! Well, go on then,” she sighed, “you’ll make a puddle standing there as you are!”
Ruth made her way to the far side of the room, turning at the curtain to see her mother bent over her father, adjusting the blanket around him and then reaching down to place more wood on the smoking fire.
“Shall I rub Seth’s chest when he wakes?” Her mother looked back at her, straightening herself with one hand pressed into the small of her back.
“That’ll be a kindness, Ruth. Maybe you could count with him when he does his exercises too – that always helps him a lot.”
The curtain fell in to place as the girl passed through and Rebecca drew in a deep, mournful breath as she looked down at Caleb Taylor. The man that had once been her husband bore fleeting resemblance to the husk that she saw before her. She had long given up any hope of ever finding him now, lost in his drops and bottles and the far-off horrors that had called him away in the name of honour, duty and pride. She picked up the mud-streaked pot of camphor grease and untied the string that held the oiled cloth in place on top. Luckily, none of the dirt had found its way in, though the grease had sloughed to one side from where it had dropped to the ground and she had to scrape off the excess that had stuck to the oiled cloth as a result of the fall.
“There ain’t nothing wrong with my son!” There was a growl of menace in his voice and she didn’t look round as she replied.
“There’s nothing much right with him presently. Best you think on that, if you’re able that is!” The bitterness in her voice rose as she turned to face him. He looked at her with dead eyes; she squared her shoulders back in defiance. “You know what Dr Evert says. You would’ve believed him before you went off to soldier. Can’t see anything different that should make you not believe him now.”
He held up the puckered stump of his right arm. Rebecca picked up the camphor, perched herself on the edge of the table and began to massage the grease into the blunt end of his arm. Caleb closed his eyes as she ran her thumbs in opposing circles over the taut ridges of damaged skin and then along his arm to his elbow: quiet, rhythmic and soothing. The only sound was the hiss of the damp wood on the fire and the muffled movement of Ruth behind the curtain on the other side of the room. Rebecca placed his arm under the blanket and looked for a moment into the ashen mask of his face.
“We’re still here, Caleb, your family,” she whispered. “We’re still waiting for you to come home.”
A soft light greeted Ruth when she woke the next morning. Seth had passed a restless night and his tossing and squirming had meant that her sleep had been light and much disturbed. Their small space behind the curtain felt overly warm and stuffy. She knelt up to push back the wooden shutter and open the window a crack. She lent her forehead against the rough wooden frame and closed her eyes, breathing in the fresh, sweet air, still heavy with the lush, green scent of the previous rain that was being drawn out by the gentle heat of the rising spring sun. A nearby cardinal perched on a low branch, bold red against the bright young greens of the canopy, chirped and whistled as it welcomed the day. On Wolfe Lake, hidden from view, a gentle mist was rising from the surface of the water, disparate and transient. She sat back and looked over at her brother as he slept with his back to her. His breathing was shallow. She leaned over him and listened intently for the audible wheeze as he laboured in his sleep. A pink flush pinched his cheek and she rested a gentle hand on his forehead, hot and damp to the touch.
Sliding off the bed, she pushed through the curtain with as much stealth as she could muster. The room beyond held the lingering sharp smell of camphor. The hearth was cold and lifeless, the chair beside it empty. Ruth knelt down on the rough boards to begin the task of clearing the ash from the blackened stone and laying a new fire. It took a while to catch, but it had a better draw today and soon a bright yellow flame danced in front of her. She fed it patiently with smaller twigs and branches before she was confident enough to place a larger piece of wood in its glowing heart and leave it to its own purpose. Slipping her bare feet into her mud-stained boots, she stepped out to the back of the cabin and the stream that ran behind it. The early morning sun caught in her eyes as it glanced through the young green leaves of the emerging spring. Yesterday’s rain still hung on the foliage and a gentle drip, drip, drip accompanied the bird song that was heralding the day. The water ran cold and clear from higher ground and Ruth allowed herself a moment to peer into the gentle current as it flowed onwards, trailing delicate weeds that clung to the stones in its bed. She caught a glimpse of herself in its rippled mirror, momentarily transfixed by the reflection of the young girl that stared back at her before plunging her hands into its icy freshness and splashing its wakeful tonic over her pale, tired face.
Ruth was standing by the table soaking strips of cloth in the cool water of the small pail she had brought in with her when her mother came out of the back room, a rough shawl drawn close around her thin shoulders, hair loose down her back in dark waves.
“Seth’s got a fever,” Ruth said as she continued her task. Her mother stopped and looked over to the curtain at the side of the room before coming over to gather up the cool damp cloths.
“Is he awake?” she asked her daughter. Ruth shook her head as she wrung out the last piece of material. The laboured cough of the small boy could be heard from behind the curtain. “Let’s take these through,” suggested Rebecca, “maybe open the window some. Looks like the sun is finally showing itself today and that’s sure to do Seth good. Maybe you could make up a little buttermilk?” She disappeared through the curtain as Ruth set about her task.
They spent the day between the boy’s bed and the chores that needed doing. They saw nothing of Caleb Taylor and neither of them made comment on it. The days were still quite short and so it was late in the afternoon that the first tallow candle was lit and the two, mother and daughter, sat in quiet company by the glowing fire. The large rocking chair remained empty and Ruth was glad of her father’s absence. She had taken him in his supper, but he had not thanked her for it. She remembered little of the kind, open, affectionate father she was told he’d once been. She recalled only his absence during an indeterminable time and that on his return she had learnt to speak more quietly, tread more carefully and to silently watch as the father she knew she must have once loved (and perhaps still did) slowly, painfully disappeared.
Seth began to cough and wheeze from the other side of the room. The bed groaned as he moved restlessly, a small sigh escaping his dry, chapped lips. Rebecca rose to place a fresh cloth on his forehead, spending a few moments whispering to her son as she stroked his hair. She returned to the hearth with a tired smile as her daughter looked on with concern. She picked up the pot of camphor grease, wiping away a smudge of dirt from its side before gesturing with the pot at Ruth and asking, “What happened?”
Ruth told of her collision by the smokehouse and how the boys had teased her, though she gave Jeremiah Hyde his due.
“Just boys growing into themselves,” said her mother. “Nothing to pay much mind to.” She settled back in her chair as best she could and arranged her skirt with calloused hands that told the story of the hard existence she led. She looked over at Ruth. She had one foot tucked under her as she sat on a low stool before the fire. The russet glow of the quivering flames gave her pale complexion the look of summer, her hair falling forward over the stocking she was trying to mend.
“I think I’ve known the Hyde family my whole life,” Rebecca began, drawing in a long, drowsy breath. “Probably lived on Wolfe Lake longer than the Taylor’s, though it’s us the wood’s named for, that’s what I’ve always been told.” Her eyes looked into some distant memory where she lost herself for a moment. “Good people, the Hydes, Jenny especially.” Ruth looked up at her mother and watched as her soft eyes darted around in thought, the corners of her mouth turning up into a gentle, relaxed smile of remembrance. “Did you know,” she turned to face her daughter, a prick of light glistening in her eyes, “that Amos had a sister?” Ruth let her mending fall into her lap, creasing her brow as she chased her memory before making the connection between Jeramiah Hyde and his father. “And, oh, she was beautiful!” Rebecca drew the last word out in a long, wishful sigh. “I must have been close to your age when she married. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it! The whole town must have been there! The little church as full as you could imagine it could be! It was warm, oh yes, and the sun shone down on Wolfe Lake and the water was as bright and clear that day as I’ve ever seen it!” The smile had blossomed in her face, which was opening up like a bloom in the summer sun. “Her hair was the colour of the golden grass on the summer meadow and as straight as straight can be! And we all danced and laughed and Rachel, that was her name, Rachel seemed to me to float like soft down on the breeze!”
Ruth leaned forward, entranced by the animation she had never before seen in her mother. The tallow spat and smoked unnoticed, the lengthening shadows dawdling in the weakening light, as if they too were captivated by the unexpected moment of happiness.
“She carried a small bouquet,” she continued, “which smelt of spring! It had apple blossoms from the orchard at Hyde farm. And at the end of the day, just as she was leaving, she took a sprig of that blossom and she bent down and put it in my hair!” Rebecca paused, gazing over the head of her daughter to some unseen moment in her past. And for an instant, the whole cabin seemed suspended, caught up in the summer meadow on that bright spring day. “They left soon after.” Rebecca’s shoulders began to drop. “Moved away…” She paused, looking into the hearth, the glowing embers fading as the dusky evening reclaimed its rightful place and the moment drifted away. The strained cough and wheeze of Seth bought them back to the room and Rebecca retreated behind her mask of weary resignation and concern. “I’ll sleep in with you and Seth tonight.”
Ruth woke the next morning, much as she had the day before, the gentle light of the spring sun growing in confidence as it rose in the sky. She lay still for a moment, aware that she’d slept an undisturbed sleep and hoping that her brother had too. The lazy hum of an insect as it bumbled against the curtain that was drawn against the rest of the room caught her attention, before the cardinal chirped its morning greeting and claimed its rank. She lent up on her elbow and glimpsed a streak of crimson red as it flashed between the branches outside the window. She turned, aware that her mother was perched awkwardly on the edge of the bed next to Seth. His face was drawn and pale save the scarlet flush of his cheeks, bright and urgent. The comfort left Ruth in an instant as she registered the look of approaching fear on her mother’s wretched face. The air seemed to rush from the room leaving behind a stale silence hanging in the small, confined space. Leaning over, Ruth pulled back the cover and placed her hand under her brother’s clothes; the skin on his chest felt rough and dry. Hurriedly she lifted the shirt, revealing the angry, red rash of scarlatina peppered across his blanched, pale skin. The contrast held her eye as her mind raced. The cardinal began to sing once more.
The days and night began to blur as mother and daughter cared for little Seth. Ruth had run down to Wolfe Lake that first morning to beg a visit from Dr Evert. He had returned with her and spent a short time examining Seth, before drawing her mother to one side in quiet, earnest conversation. The harsh click of a door latch had drawn their attention and they had both looked up as the dishevelled form of Caleb shuffled in from the back room. A short blanket had trailed from one shoulder and he had coughed and spluttered, running his hand through his greased and matted hair. He had moved but a few paces before he had sensed the eyes of others on him. He had glanced from one to the other. His wife had looked back with desperation and fear, the doctor with stern disapproval. Caleb, if briefly, had worn a look as close to shame as he could muster. He had turned away, pausing briefly, before hunching his shoulders and bowing his head and returning to the back room, closing the door behind him.
Ruth had been out on the porch when the doctor had left and he had smiled at her, a sad look of resignation catching in the corners of his eyes.
“Scarlet fever,” he began, holding his hat in his hands, turning it absently as he searched for words. “You and your sister passed this a few years back now, so you can stay and help your mother. It will be hard on Seth …” His words trailed off and he gazed out across the tops of the trees as they dropped away towards Wolfe Lake, which glistened in the light of the fresh spring morning. Ruth had looked up at him with tearful eyes, her anxious breath sharp and shallow in the quick rise and fall of her chest.
“You’re a good girl, Ruth” he had said, as he’d placed the hat on his head and set off in the direction of the lake and town.
It was three days since the doctor had been. They had tried to draw the heat out of Seth’s skin by sponging him with cool water. He had had little to eat or drink save a drop or two of buttermilk and he had shown no interest in the broth his mother had prepared. They had drawn back the curtain that concealed the bed and thrown open the shutters to let in light and air. Even so, the house was wrapped in an air of melancholy and neglect. They had heard, rather than seen Caleb, who only stole out from his hiding place when he thought it safe to do so – like a spider that creeps out of the shadows with tentative, undulating steps, only to dart back in again in a scurry of self-preservation.
Ruth was sweeping out the hearth when there was a sharp knock at the door. She looked over her shoulder to her mother, who wearily pushed herself up from the chair she had placed beside the sick bed and went to open the door.
Jenny Hyde stood on the porch. Her son, Jeremiah, hung back at the bottom of the steps, a covered basket in his hands. The older woman reached over and took Rebecca’s hands in her own in a tight grip of reassurance and held the younger woman’s gaze. Tears began to fall down Rebecca’s cheeks, an undammed torrent of despair. They remained in the threshold. Not a word was spoken; the only sound, the choking sobs of a mother powerless to save her child.
Rebecca allowed herself to be led to the rocking chair by the chimney. She gazed with unseeing eyes at the soot-stained stones of the hearth, gasping in air like a landed fish on the lake shore. Her rough fingers worried at the corner of her stained apron, picking at it with torn nails, distracted, absent, lost.
Ruth stood to one side of the hearth, brush in hand, watching the shadow of her mother rock and shake. Her young eyes, dull and hollow for want of sleep, unsure and scared. The knuckles of her hand turned white as she tightened her grip on the brush, and when she spoke her, voice seemed to come from far away.
Jenny Hyde looked over from the end of the table where she had been busying herself with the basket she had brought.
“Your mother needs to rest and you need sun and air.” Her voice was gruff, though not unkind.
Ruth glanced at Jenny, to her mother’s defeated form and back at Jenny again. She watched in bewilderment as the older woman moved with efficiency around the space. Ruth crossed the room and stood beside her brother’s bed. His face still pale against the rough covers, his breathing shallow and laboured. His lips, dried and cracked, parted to reveal a swollen, red tongue that had begun to peel. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead, warm and damp. There was a musky smell that seemed to cling to him.
“Go on now,” came Jenny’s voice from behind her, “I’ll stay here and watch things a spell. Your Ma will be well enough. Go on now. Jeremiah will keep you company, if you’ve a mind for it.”
Jenny Hyde had watched from the door as Ruth had listlessly trailed the young boy to the path that led through the woods and the lake below. She turned back into the dull interior of the cabin. Rebecca had fallen silent, and seemed at last to be sleeping. Placing an old quilt over her, Jenny took to sweeping and scrubbing before putting together a meal for the bewildered, bedraggled family.
The door at the back of the room opened with more force than was necessary and Caleb Taylor lurched into view. He hesitated when he saw Jenny at the table, taking an unbalanced step backwards, leaning a shoulder to the frame. She held his gaze as if appraising the sorrowful state that he presented, before acknowledging him with a begrudging “Caleb,” and returning to the task which occupied her, looking over occasionally with a watchful, measured glance.
Caleb moved unsteadily into the room. The ties of his boots were unfastened and made a sharp slap as he tramped across the rough, wooden boards. His pants hung loose; his soiled shirt untucked. The growth of beard on his face was rough and unkempt, his eyes red and hooded. He had the gait and smell of a drunkard, and more besides. He paused at his son’s bed, swaying as he looked down at the crumpled child. A long moment passed. He turned to move on, too quickly, and caught one of the stray laces underfoot. He lost his balance and fell awkwardly onto the end of the bed. Seth moaned and turned in his fevered sleep. Caleb coughed into the sleeve of his shortened arm, righting himself with a curse, his son seemingly forgotten. At the door, he reached up for his hat that hung on an old nail, revealing the heel of a revolver hidden amongst his pitiful attire. Jenny watched as he stumbled down the steps of the porch and turned towards the back of the house. She heard the slosh of water as he crossed the stream there, before his steps faded into the sounds of the landscape beyond.
The walk down to Wolfe Lake was solemn and silent. The unspeaking girl at his side made Jeremiah feel awkward and he judged it best to leave her with her thoughts. The spring sun had risen proud over the lake and he shaded his eyes as they stepped onto the summer meadow from the soft, dappled light of the woods. The water was cool and lapped gently at the soft edges of the beach. The white-boarded church of the town stood purposefully in the distance, watching over both lake and town and the people within. Jeremiah looked over his shoulder and saw that Ruth had stopped a little way back, staring out across the water. He retraced his steps to stand beside her, thrusting his hands in his pockets, following her gaze across the mirror of water that shimmered in the warming light.
“I’m sorry ‘bout your brother,” he ventured. The water washed gently before them. A small flight of geese crossed noisily overhead, landing with a swooshing, gliding splash nearby. Ruth lowered her head, poking aimlessly with the toe of her boot in the sand for what seemed like an endless passing of time.
“Scarlet Fever,” she eventually offered in a small voice.
“I know,” he replied, wishing immediately he’d said nothing. He looked away towards the town and let her be in her thoughts for a while. Eventually, he asked, “You wanna walk into town?” Ruth contemplated a while.
“No, I think I’ll head back now,” she replied, finally raising her tired eyes to look at him. He nodded and they turned to leave.
The loud, sharp crack of a single shot rang out from Taylor’s Wood. The geese on the lake launched in a flurry of gaggling noise across the water. A crescendo of twittering chatter rose up from the trees and rushed towards them. For a moment the air seemed thick and heavy, before an awful silence wrapped them in its chilling blanket.
A lazy summer haze hung over Wolfe Lake, rippling into the distant ribbons of greens that threaded around the shoreline and into the hills beyond. Insects danced over the water and the gentle hum of life in the town ebbed and flowed on the summer breeze that drifted in over the lake. Ruth walked in the warm shallows, the water tickling her ankles, the silty sand oozing between her toes with each step she took. The sun of the past months had coloured her pale face with a healthy glow, dusting her cheeks with soft freckles, but it had been unable to draw out the sadness from her eyes. She walked with slow purpose towards the church and the small collection of graves that sheltered close by, each with a view across the vista of lake and woods, each with the comforting embrace of the town’s community at its back. She held a small bunch of Black-eyed Susan in her hand that she had gathered from the edge of the summer meadow. Its bold yellows and golds reflecting the bright rays of the late summer sun, a last euphoric shout before the autumn appeared with its own palate of russets and browns. A darting flash of red caught her eye as a cardinal dipped and soared near the water’s edge before wheeling up and across the meadow into the wood. She smiled a sad smile as she watched it go, drawing in a deep slow breath, filled with the scents of the meadow grass and the memories of summers gone by. Ruth closed her eyes and tilted her head back to the warmth of the sun and the caress of the breeze, before turning to the town, the church, and the two that lay silently waiting in the soft warm earth of Wolfe Lake.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Set in 1871, this is the first in a series of five short stories collectively titled “Wolfe Lake”. The second and third stories are Jenny Hyde and The Silence of Snow.
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