It was a long way from there to here. Sometimes she wondered if this place was real or if one day she would wake up back on the farm in the bedroom above the eaves. From that window she had been able to look out at the Cleddau Estuary, see the men fishing in their small boats, hear the lowing of the cows yearning to be milked.
Sometimes, in the half-light, she could almost imagine herself back there, with reflections of water on the bedroom ceiling, and the cry of a gull in a grey sky. She could almost taste it, but then the alien gobbling of the turkey would make her eyes open wider so that she saw the sky through the wooden slats of the roof and all those miles of ocean would come between her and her childhood memories.
She had trusted Saul when he had painted a picture in her mind of a new country where land was free. She was eighteen and eager for adventure and he was older at 30 with experience of the sea. She had believed in his dream. She had been spellbound by his stories, and it was hard to believe that on first seeing him she had been frightened by his dark eyes and short, stocky bulk which took up all the light in her parent’s kitchen that first time he had visited. She had not wanted to marry some local and live a hundred yards from where she was born. But, after the service in Minwear Church, when they had got back to the farm, he had not been able to do anything with her. He had been so drunk and eaten so much food that he had given up and fallen into a deep sleep. His snoring kept her awake. Lying there wide awake, she had wondered at herself in putting such trust in this stranger.
They had travelled across the ocean on a ship that, at first, made her stomach heave, and later she become inert and beyond caring. Then they had travelled across the land which seemed occupied to her by people who were friendly enough, but had not welcomed them into their communities.
Initially, she had feared being with child. On the ship. On the journey. But now that they had built a cabin on the fringes of what was known, she worried that she was as barren as the crop which Saul planted with seed from home that first year. It had rotted in the water-logged fields when the snow melted. The frost cut the land to the bone and the summers baked it dry as parchment.
Mostly, they were alone, trying to make the rough cottage into a home. Originally, there had only been one long room in which they ate and slept, but they had managed to divide the space so that they slept in a separate area with a rough wall between the kitchen and their bed roll. Occasionally, a trapper would stop by and they would welcome him with a meal and allow him to sleep on their porch, although Saul would bolt the door on the inside so as to make sure that the threshold was safe. She rarely saw another woman, although Sara Pugh and her husband Reuben lived five miles to the west with their brood of five children, and Rachel, Joseph Lewis’ child bride and her twins lived eight miles to the west. To see any of them was a rare occurrence.
There were Indians in the neighbourhood, with their long houses twenty miles from the homestead, but they rarely bothered them. When they did appear, Saul made them welcome and shared some rations. They could ill afford to be generous, and Saul kept his gun just inside the door. They made her nervous, but they knew Saul and tolerated them living on their borders. Sometimes at night hearing the cries of strange creatures, or in the daytime when Saul was not in sight, she felt a little ripple of fear. She could not say of what, but just beyond the clearing there were trees that stood close together like soldiers allowing no one to pass.
Once, telling herself her fears were groundless, and her a country girl born and bred, she had ventured through the trees into the woodland and stood for a moment. These trees, twisted in shape, tall as towers and closely ranked, seemed to bar her way. This was not Slebech wood. This was unsettling. She felt a slight panic thinking how this wood could swallow you up so that you were forever lost. Then, a bird flew up from a thicket and scared her so that she strode quickly back the way she came, hoping she was going to retrace her steps and find an opening. She tried not to show panic or to hurry too quickly, as if the trees themselves were watching with sinister malice. She stumbled out into the clearing further along than she had expected. She was not surprised to see that her arm had been cut by plants as she passed by. Saul saw her emerge and chided her for wandering alone. He could have spared his breath for she had an intense horror of those emerging trees.
‘What trees are they?’ she had asked Saul.
‘Willow, Buckeye…’ he suggested
‘They don’t look like any Willow I know, and why Buckeye…?’
‘The fruit looks like a buck’s eye, I suppose,’ he said, not interested.
The thought of the trees having brown eyes watching her disquieted her thoughts, and she determined to shun the company of trees.
After a while, she began to long for parties and the rustle of dresses, relatives visiting, fiddles playing under the moon. That would make the tree retreat, she thought. Noises of people instead of Saul’s silence and she began to sing and hum snatches of old songs, like magic charms. She woke sometimes, thinking there were faces at the window, regarding her jealously but when she lit the lamp, sitting up shivering, the fugitive faces had vanished. Saul would trap rabbits for the pot, but she came to hate the scraping of skin and the skinned creature like a newborn spread on the table. As she hummed through the day, she found herself longing for a mandolin or fiddle to scrape its chords and make the sounds that start the heart and tap the foot in riotous regard. She remembered home when Saul’s smile had felt like a comfort, but now he rarely smiled, exhausted by work and morose with the effort of living. But, he loved the rough shack, he had built, and the land he owned.
She found herself singing of meetings on the road, or maidens forsaken by a river. Occasionally, she ventured to the Whetstone River, which was too wide and made her feel spied on. When she looked at her reflection she could not recognise the girl from Minwear farm. She never stayed there long. Saul did not like her to wander. He liked the cabin to be as spotless as she could make it through hard work. After each meal, he liked things to be cleaned and put away. So did she. But sometimes she wished she could just leave things for a day and find time to sit and daydream.
At last, she fell with child but labour came early. After a prolonged struggle, a boy emerged. Saul would not let her see him and said he had been blue, strangled by his own cord. It reminded her of a calf on her father’s farm, but her father had put in his hand and untwisted the noose. The calf had lived. She wished that she had held him. In her mind she called the boy Caleb. Saul had taken the body and buried it in the wood. She had remonstrated with him, saying she wanted a proper grave and a stone for his head, but Saul said it was not a person for it never lived. That had hurt and angered her heart. She did not wish to be close to Saul after that, but sometimes in the long winter Saul would nuzzle into her and not take her no as an answer.
Twice more she lost babies early and once again her baby died before he could live. And so, they stumbled on for six years without much success in taming the land and no success in creating their own dynasty. Saul was philosophical, saying they were doing well without children. She was not so contented. Her mind returned to her childhood home. She looked at the trees beyond the corral and could have sworn that they were encroaching once again on the clearing they had made for their home. After one of the miscarriages, Saul spent much of the time on the porch, before going to sleep, whittling wood with his sharp knife. He had been carving a figure before the baby died so she thought nothing of it. Distressed and unhappy, she was glad to fall asleep alone, unfettered by his heavy arms.
Then, she was sitting on the grass at the back of the house on a rickety chair brought from inside, making repairs on his ripped shirt. He came up and placed a carving in the grass at her feet. Glancing down, she saw despite its rough features that it was a human form. It had the makings of two figures, a fiddler like her father with no facial features but the fiddle under the chin told its own musical story. She saw that it was meant to be a fiddler before making out the woman, wrapped like a pioneer, whose shape and tilt of head she fancied was like her own. She thanked him, acting as if it was a thing of beauty, and he was just a grateful, proud boy. She could not tell him that in the figure she saw herself, trapped in a wooden form, when all her senses wanted footsore dancing and laughing companionship. Instead she placed the carving on the window frame in case the sun could find a way to break the spell that kept her frozen in the searing heat of a late summer’s day.
The trees were just turning to Autumn when she saw the man approaching. For a moment she had looked out through the open door and there was just an empty path and then he had appeared. From a distance she thought he was an Indian with his long buckskin shirt and long dark hair. He had a rifle slung over his back, and a hat with a feather. She had looked over her shoulder to where the spare gun was propped. She did not think it was loaded but she looked to it for security. She wished, at that moment, that she had paid more attention to where Saul was this morning. The stranger came right up to the cabin but paused just twelve yards away.
‘It’s a lovely morning,’ he greeted her. It was a strange voice, coming from the back of the throat. She could hear that he was from these parts, but there was a trace she fancied of the old land, Irish perhaps. He was burnt brown from the sun but his eyes were blue and there were streaks of red in his long dark hair under the sun’s close observation.
‘We don’t see many people in these parts,’ she began and then trailed off. She was so unused to speaking. They stood for a few moments saying nothing as if different creatures unexpectedly meeting out on the trail.
‘I was hoping for some water, and a place to sleep,’ he said. ‘My horse went lame. I had to shoot her. I have been walking for days.’
‘And where are you headed?’ Saul had come out of the wood so soundlessly that even she was surprised. The stranger started. Saul stood with his gun under his arm. She realised that he must seem an imposing figure to the stranger, with his burly bulk, unshaven face and dark eyes. The fellow seemed unabashed ‘I thought you were there,’ he said. ‘I am Ethan. I am on my way further west to join my brother who is travelling on, but darn it, my horse broke his leg and here I am just crawling along.’ Saul looked across at our two horses in the corral as if he thought the man had come for them.
‘You are welcome to water and to rest,’ Saul said. ‘We don’t have much. We don’t often see strangers.’ He paused and gave Ethan a stony gaze, but the young man, weather-beaten and wiry was not easily disconcerted.
‘Thank you kindly,’ was all he said.
Saul continued his work through the afternoon, shooting rabbits in the wood for the supper pot. The stranger just lay on the porch, a hat over his eyes as if dozing. She almost forgot that he was there and hummed a tune to herself. It was a novelty of late to have another being around the place. Trappers had been scarce and even the Indians had stayed away. Saul came back with two rabbits for her to skin, and went to see to the animals before the stranger pushed back his hat and sat up.
‘I slept too long,’ he said. ‘I had best be on my way.’ Saul looked over and said, ‘You had better have supper and sleep on the porch tonight or you will not go very far as the dark comes down quickly in these parts.’
Ethan did not argue but helped Saul stack logs under the cabin. It was pleasant to have such an impressive looking man at her table. He made Saul look bloated, and she realised her husband was getting older. The thought startled her for it signified life, her own life slipping away in this solitary place.
‘I don’t suppose my brother passed this way? He looked something like me but shorter and stockier. His clothes are more like yours,’ he nodded towards Saul who sat in a shirt and waistcoat. Saul sucked on his pipe as if thinking.
‘We see only trappers and occasional neighbours,’ she said. Then added, ‘I think we would remember someone like you.’
‘I am that unusual?’ he teased. ‘He is very good with a knife. He carved figures for a church they built back home. He can build anything can Francis.’
‘We see no one here,’ Saul sighed.
‘Are you bothered by Indians at all? I passed their encampment on my way here. I spoke to some of the braves.’ Ethan enjoyed talking unaware the hosts usually sat in silence
‘Not bothered,’ Saul said. ‘Sometimes they come for drink or food but not so often.’
‘They have not been for a long while,’ she added.
‘They said that there was a beautiful woman here with golden hair,’ Ethan paused biting at the rabbit bones and smiled at her. It made her blush.
‘I am sure they did not,’ she said, glancing surreptitiously at Saul’s reaction, but his face remained impassive.
‘They said you were an enchantress.’ He added without any hint of teasing.
‘Indians are superstitious,’ Saul said dismissively.
‘Not just Indians.’ Ethan ate his dinner with great relish. ‘I see you can carve things too.’ He pointed his knife at the carving on the window sill. ‘But, you haven’t finished it yet.’
‘It is the best I can do,’ Saul asserted and pushed his plate away with a loud burp.
That night Ethan slept on the porch and Saul drew the big latch to keep him and anything else on the outside. He had wanted her that night, but she had pushed him off, feeling self-conscious and awkward with the younger man sleeping so near, and able to discern noise and movement. For not the first time, Saul sated by dinner and moonshine had rolled over and snored loudly enough to shake the stars.
Ethan did not leave the next morning. He asked Saul if he could spare him one of the horses. They only had two. He offered an IOU until he reached his destination. It seemed an unlikely pact, but Saul whispered that if they did not find an agreement, he was worried that Ethan might just take the horse and disappear. So it was agreed that Ethan would help dig drainage for their top field. He would help on the homestead in return for a horse at the end of the schedule. She was not completely happy that the horse would go. It put strain on their other horse to pull ploughs, carts and carry two people in an emergency. Saul seemed less worried saying, he would take the remaining horse to the Pugh homestead and get their stallion to cover their mare in the spring.
She got used to having two men around the place and she enjoyed Ethan’s company. Sometimes he would take out his mouth organ and play tunes, wild and carefree, or other times sad and mournful as a coyote. One late Sunday afternoon when Saul was checking his fences, Ethan sat against the cabin wall and said, ‘There are no children here. Mostly when you stop at farms there are children.’
She had turned her head away. ‘There have been children,’ she said at last, ‘but none of them have lived.’
‘I am sorry,’ he said, his voice husky with gentleness. ‘That is very hard.’ Then he added, ‘Where are they buried? I have not seen any markers.’
She paused before answering, ‘Saul has taken them to the woods. He says they did not live and therefore should have no names.’
At that moment, Saul rode up and they changed the conversation, but not before she had seen a shocked and pained look cross his face. That look changed the world for her. It spoke of her own repressed and angry feelings. Having another human being look at her situation made it real for her.
A few days later, in the middle of the day, Ethan came into the kitchen.
‘Where is Saul?’ he whispered. She could not help but be drawn in to his conspiratorial tone.
‘Out in the top field.’
‘Come with me,’ he said and grabbed her hand. At the wood, she resisted a little, still feeling its power to unnerve her. She almost shut her eyes as he pulled her through the trees to a space where the leaves above parted, and where earth beneath looked as if it had been turned over.
‘I think they are buried here,’ Ethan said. ’Would you like to say some words or at least name them?’
She looked at him then almost with contempt. ‘Of course I have named them,’ she said. ‘Caleb, Hester, Rachel, and Adam.’ He looked shaken by her anger. He had not expected it. He was even more shaken when she fell to her knees and started digging with her bare hands, pawing at the earth in a kind of frenzy. He caught her hands to try to stop her but she looked at him in the eye and said, ‘I must be sure my darlings are here.’
He nodded then and got a stick and they set to it, not speaking but digging intently. They found a small blue and green hand first, and both recoiled in horror. She started to retch and turned away revolted and grief-stricken all over. She put her hand to her mouth to stop an involuntary scream. Ethan hushed her, looking in the hole they had made. He saw a piece of cloth, which looked like a red flannel blanket or part of one, and he pulled at it. It was heavy and when he brought it out it disintegrated to reveal three beautiful carvings of what looked like saints. Now it was his turn to hold his stomach and suppress cries, which rose up in him like birds bursting from a thicket.
‘What is it?’ she cried. ‘What does it mean?’
‘The Indian spoke the truth,’ he said as if to himself.
‘What? What?’ she cried.
‘Your children are buried here.’ Ethan said carefully. ‘You had a right to know that.’
‘But the carvings?’
‘I don’t know whether I should tell you. Go back now and wash your hands. Don’t let him know you know this. He is a dangerous man. I will finish up here.’ He pushed her towards the homestead, and once out in the autumn sun, she ran to the pump, washed herself and was inside before Saul ducked his head under the threshold. Once dinner was on the table, Ethan had arrived back, but there was little conversation. Ethan took refuge in playing on his mouth organ a sad, sad tune before they turned in for the night.
The next morning, she could not wait for the men to start work. Saul had decided to go hunting and he set Ethan to finish building a ditch in the far field. As soon as Saul disappeared, she almost ran to the furthest pasture and confronted Ethan.
‘What are you not telling me?’ she demanded.
‘Dangerous things,’ he said. ‘It is not just your children who are buried there but my brother also, and his beautiful carvings. That is his unfinished carving on your window sill.’
‘You knew that from the first,’ she said. ‘Is that why you came?’
‘I was looking for him,’ Ethan admitted. ‘I went to the Shawnee camp. I have friends from that nation and I speak the language. They told me my brother passed this way. They said they had heard voices in the wood. They saw my brother struggle with a man who was carrying a child. You won’t like this but they said the baby was crying…’
‘No,’ she said, sinking to her knees in the meadow. ‘No, my baby was dead.’
‘I can only tell you what they said.’ Ethan went on with a pained face. ‘They said the men argued because a hole had already been dug, and my brother wanted to save the baby. But, he lost the struggle and the man smothered the child. He buried them both with the carvings but took one back to his house. I suppose the others looked too good for him to have whittled.’’
‘I don’t believe it. They lied to you.’ she sobbed. But somewhere in her mind, she wondered at the fact that Saul had never once let her see the babies.
Ethan sank to his knees and tried to comfort her. He smelt of pine needles and earth. She resisted at first, but soon she responded to his kisses, and when he entered her, she understood the joy of coupling for the first time, as her body relaxed and the grass and sky and the wind were all part of her. They lay there appalled and delighted by their actions.
‘They were right, you are an enchantress.’
‘I will kill him,’ she said. ‘I cannot think why he has done such things.’
‘Maybe the farm has made him mad,’ Ethan suggested.
‘It is the trees,’ she corrected him.
He looked perplexed.
‘We should leave. Do you know what you want to take with you? I am not frightened of him but it would be better to go before he comes back.’
‘I want nothing of his,’ she said.
Once they were back on the porch, Ethan was more doubtful. ‘I have nothing to offer you, but the hope of a new life,’ he said. ‘Would it be better for me to go ahead and send for you?’
She looked at him askance. ‘Is that you telling me that I would be a hindrance to you?’
Ethan looked embarrassed. ‘I do not want to leave you here with that brute, but I am worried about what we may encounter on the road. I am only one man and I would always try to protect you but…’
‘The world is a dangerous place especially for women,’ she finished.
‘Then, you must go before he returns.’ She walked inside took the carving from the sill and gave it to him. ‘To remember me and your brother.’
He slung his gun over his shoulder, and wrapped bread in a kerchief. ‘I will send for you,’ he said.
‘No, you won’t. Take care of yourself in this barren world.’
She stood, watching him go into the trees and he was gone. Her heart felt cold, round and hard like a stone worked by the swirlings of the Whetstone River.
Saul returned, pleased with himself. In the spring, he said, his mare would have foals.
‘Will they live?’ she asked. ‘Does anything live in this insect-ridden place?’
‘We can hope so,’ he said. He had hardly remarked on Ethan’s departure except to say, ‘He didn’t take the horse.’
‘He thought I might need it. If I am with child again, I am going to take the cart to the Lewis homestead. I have lost too many children here.’
‘Do you think you will be?’ he said looking at her steadily.
‘Oh yes,’ she said, meeting his eye. ‘I feel it in my bones.’ Then emboldened she added, ‘Did you not want children, Saul?’ He looked as if he did not know what to answer. He paused and then said, ‘Only if they were perfect. My brother had a cleft palate, and I have a horror of that. I could not bear to look at him. And anyway, maybe it is better for you not to have children to take up your time and age you.’
‘No one is perfect,’ she said, keeping her eyes on his. ‘I am aging anyways. Did Caleb and Joseph have cleft palates? Is that why I couldn’t see them?’’
‘You could not make a perfect baby,’ he said scornfully. ‘You let me down, but I spared you their imperfections. Better for them to be dead.’
‘Better a cleft palate than a cleft soul,’ she said, stonily.
He sighed and picked up his pipe from the window sill. ‘Where is my carving?’ He knew it was not there.
‘Well, it is not really your carving is it?’
‘No, it is yours I gave it to you.’
‘If it is mine, then I can do what I wish with it. I gave it to Ethan.’
He struck her for the first time with the back of his hand and she knew he was frightened as she tasted blood on her lips. She was not scared. There was nothing he could do to hurt her that he hadn’t already done.
‘They were your children too,’ she hissed.
‘Well, mine to do as I wish with then and do not think I do not know about you and that young savage.’ He was breathing in her face and she realised that this could be the end of all pretences. He pushed her down. Her head jerked back and hit the floor. She was angry. The thought of her baby crying in the woods gave her such strength that she wriggled free. They both struggled to their feet and she saw the glint of a knife in his hand. She was so sure that she had a new baby inside her that she refused to be cowed, and dragging the gun from behind the door, she lifted it and pulled the trigger. He went down like a felled tree, grappling for her but missing as he clutched at air. Then he lay very still. She sat down with a bump and heard her name being called as if from a distance. Ethan burst into the cabin.
‘Oh my God,’ he said. ‘I should have been nearer.’ He had not left. He could not leave he said. Instead he had camped in the woods in an attempt to keep watch over her.
Ethan buried the body in the clearing with all the others and they placed the carvings on the branch of a nearby tree to stand sentinel. Winter came on. Ethan cut swathes of earth and placed them on the roof. It kept out the sky, but also repulsed the snow. They burnt wood to keep warm and slept contentedly in the cabin with the bolt firmly closed. Not that they needed to fear. Ethan befriended the Indians, spoke their language and respected their ways. Sometimes they hunted together. When the snow melted, they visited their neighbours, telling them that Saul had died of a fever, and a minister rode over from Clearwell to marry her and Ethan. Joseph Lewis brought out his fiddle and they danced until she was out of breath. Then, Ethan played tunes on his harmonica late into the night. Sitting on the Lewis’ porch, she felt as if she was awakened from a bad dream to find the world beautiful beyond expectation.
By Summer, she had a baby boy with blue eyes and red in his dark hair. He had a birthmark on his left cheek, but they did not care. Ethan said it was lucky. They called him Silas. They decided to stay on the homestead. Over the years, Ethan cleared back the trees so that they no longer encroached on the cabin, and extended the building to accommodate their four children, Silas, Mary, Sarah, and Gideon. He kept a corpse of trees where family were buried, noting that salix nigra was said to make a man forget, but here the trees marked out their own boundary. Wild hyacinth grew there in abundance, but neither of them spent time in that boneyard. She never came to terms with the trees and dreamt of her childhood when the woods at Slebech had been welcoming. Sometimes, standing on her porch, hearing the cries of wild dogs, she shivered to see crows fly back and forth through the dark, roosting among the arrows of the jealous wood.
About the Author
Jude Brigley has been a teacher, a coach, an editor and a performance poet. She is now writing more for the page. She has been published in various magazines, edited two books of poetry and her own chapbook, Labours was published in 2014.