I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stocks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.
There was something in her that could not, or would not, see the distinctions that the world wished to make between weak and strong, between women and men, laborer and lord
Why would I marry? I’m not made to be any man’s chattel. I have my work, which I love. I have my home…but more than these, I have something that very few women can claim: my freedom. I will not lightly surrender it.
Dark and light, dark and light…that was how I had been taught to view the world. The Puritans who had ministered to us here had held that all actions and thoughts could be only one of two natures: godly and right, or Satanic and evil. But Anys Gowdie confounded such thinking. There was no doubt that she did good: in many ways, the well-being of our village rested more on her works, and those of her aunt, than on the works of the rectory’s occupant. And yet, her fornication and her blasphemy branded her a sinner in the reckoning of our religion.
“The man who sent it is a well-esteemed physician, and he says it is a remedy much thought of among the Florentine doctors…”
“But what is it?” I asked again.
“It contains a dried toad,” she said. I wept then, even though I knew her intentions were all of the best.
“I have lain with him. Yes! I have lain with the Devil, and he is mighty and cold as ice to the touch. His seed, too, is cold and abundant as a river running between our thighs. For I have not lain with him alone! No! I tell you now, I have seen your wives lie with him! Yours, Brad Hamilton, and yours, John Gordon, and yours too, Martin Highfield!”
That man was a ship’s barber; he pulled teeth and amputated limbs. He knew nothing of women’s bodies. But you do know. You can do this, Anna. Use your mother-hands.
For Mr. Stanley had commenced to attend Mr. Mompellion’s services….and in the weeks since the Billings family and some others from among the nonconformists had begun to come as well. They did not join in all the hymns, nor did they follow the words of the Book of Common Prayer, but that they gathered with us at all was a wonder.
I did not go, and for that I will forever reproach myself. Because out of our negligence and her loneliness came much rage. Much rage and some madness – and a surfeit of grief.
I saw that she had fashioned, instead, a figure that looked like a manikin. This she lay atop the cairn. I commenced to say the Lord’s Prayer, and I thought she was saying it with me in a low, deep-throated murmur. But when I said amen, her muttering continued, and the sign she made at the end of it did not resemble the sign of the cross.
By gathering and sorting my own feelings so, I was finally able to fashion a scale on which I could weigh my father’s nature and find a balance between my disgust for him and an understanding of him; my guilt in the matter of his death against the debt he owed me for the manner of my life.
Why, I wondered, did we, all of us, both the rector in his pulpit and simple Lottie in her croft, seek to put the Plague in unseen hands? Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world? One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition. But perhaps each was false, equally.
For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about the grand celestial design that had to be contemplated before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints.
But fear, as I have said, was working strange changes in all of us, corroding our ability for clear thought. Within a sennight, Martin Miller had girt his family in sack cloth and fashioned a scourge. Randoll Daniel did likewise, though thankfully he did not ask it of his wife and babe. Together, Randoll and the Millers went about the village exhorting others to join them in their bloody self-chastisement.
I was jealous of them both at once. Of him, because Elinor loved him, and I hungered for a greater share of her love than I could ever hope for. And yet I was jealous of her, too; jealous that she was loved by a man as a woman is meant to be loved.
To me, she had become so many things. So many things a servant has no right or reason to imagine that the person they serve will be. Because of her, I had known the warmth of a motherly concern – the concern that my own mother had not lived to show me. Because of her, I had a teacher and was not ignorant and unlettered still.
To be sure, our stocks were nothing so fearful as the Bakewell pillory. In that market town, where people came and went without deep ties to another, to be pilloried was to be a target of rotten fruit or fish heads or any noisome thing the mob could lay a hand to. […] Even Reverend Stanley seldom called for sinners to be stocked, and Mr. Mompellion had actively discouraged it.
She plunged and leapt, barking out a nonsense chant that rose in pitch to a piercing cry: “Arataly, rataly, ataly, taly, aly, ly…..” She darted then toward the fire, seizing out the ends of an iron that had lain in the blaze, and placed them on the earthen floor so as to form an X. She prostrated herself four times, in each notch of the figure, and then reached up her arms as if in supplication.
His wife had been hacked down in front of him. My olive shoots had been blighted. Why? His unasked question roared in my head. Just such a why had nagged at my unquiet mined through too many sleepless nights. But that he, too, should be asking it…Let her speak direct to God to ask forgiveness…but I fear she may find Him a poor listener, as many of us here have done. Could he really have come to believe that all our sacrifice, all our pain and misery, had been for nothing?
We live, we live, we live, said the hoofbeats, and the drumming of my pulse answered them. I was alive, and I was young, and I would go on until I found some reason for it. As I rode that morning, smelling the scent of the hoofcrushed heather, feeling the wind needle my face until it tingled, I understood that where Michael Mompellion had been broken by our shared ordeal, in equal measure I had been tempered and made strong.
“I thought I spoke for God. Fool. My whole life, all I have done, all I have said, all I have felt, has been based upon a lie. Untrue in everything. So now,” he said, “I have learned at last to do as I please!”
In lying with him, I had sought to bring her closer to me. I had tried to become her, in every way that I could. Instead, in taking my pleasure from his body, I had stolen from her – stolen what should have been hers, her wedding night.
Why, I wondered, had the surgeon abandoned this case as hopeless? Had he persevered here he could easily have done what I was about to attempt. It came to me then that he must have arrived under instruction to be negligent.
This little girl seemed to me, at that moment, answer enough to all my questions. To have saved this small, singular one – this alone seemed reason enough that I lived. I knew then that this was how I was meant to go on: away from death and toward life, from birth to birth, from seed to blossom, living my life amongst wonders.
As hard as I willed it, I could not draw up anything to follow: no formal supplication, no Bible verse, no scrap of liturgy. All of the texts and Psalms and orisons I had by rote were gone from me, erased, as surely as hard-learned words written with painful effort onto a slate can be licked away with the lazy swipe of a dampened rag.
We have spoken much since then about faith: the adamantine one by which the doctor measures every moment of his day, and that flimsy, tattered thing that is the remnant of my own belief. I see it like the faded threads of a banner on a battlement, shot-shredded, and if it once bore a device, none could now say what it might have been. I have told Ahmed Bey that I cannot say that I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps. We have agreed that it will do, for now.