Submission Details

The Seventh Simian
The Seventh Simian
Gary Kurylo
Fantasy
Yes - full manuscript is available


When a young woman arrives in Autumn, without a name or any memory of her past, Edith takes her in knowing that the two of them are about to embark on a journey into the perilous realm of dreams. Sarah, the young woman, is pregnant and only Edith’s skill and lore passed down from her grandmother can keep her safe from the hunters who stalk her, the child she bears and the seventh Simian to mankind.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1
The last of the cyclists were vanishing down the country lane when the first drops of rain began to fall. At first only a few chilly drops splashed across her forearms and face and then the sky, which had been steadily darkening all afternoon, opened up.
Edith looked up, startled by the sudden downpour. She had bent down at the sight of a glow worm in the grass, still unlit, but full of potential. It had been years since she had seen one all aglow. As a little girl she remembered walking with her father in the twilight along an arm of the Great Western Railway line and seeing the twinkling lights appear, as if the soul of the natural world was being revealed to her.
The line had still run then and the glow worms were not an uncommon sight. But the railway had given way to a cycling route and the glow worms had fallen prey to modern pesticides. She looked down again, water running through her silver-grey hair, and the worm was gone.
“She has more sense than you do,” Edith muttered to herself. She rose stiffly, twinges travelling through her knees and elbows. “More sense than to allow herself to be caught by the rain.”
As swiftly as she could, she made her way up the slight incline to the cottage, which appeared as a grey blur in the rainy haze. Two summers ago a sudden downpour had ended with the manifestation of a mini tornado that flung roof tiles into gardens and knocked down some fences in the village. It had been the talk of everyone she met for the next month and a reminder to her of why she avoided people.
“Why talk of the weather?” she thought, as a distant rumbling growl rose above the fields like a wolf in the heavens. “Weather is lived. It is around us and in our bodies. Glow worms and women both.”
The twin willows before her cottage flung their green tresses into the rain like wild women shaking out their hair. The wind caught her own hair and she felt, rather than saw, the lightning flash somewhere behind her like liquid electricity in her bones. She stumbled against one of the trees that had given The Willows, her cottage, its name, and then her hands were on the painted wooden door, groping blindly with water and wet hair in her eyes, until she found the latch, and pushed down and inward.
On the threshold with the door still open, she looked back at the fields caught in the storm and a part of her did not wish to close the door, but to leave it open to whatever might come. But instead she shut it tight as a boom of thunder rattled her bones.
Oscar sat in the hall, his golden feline eyes unblinkingly regarding her as if to say that cats knew enough to come out of the rain.
Edith pulled off her wellingtons, still dirty from her brief stop at the chicken coop, and hung up her jacket on one of the pegs. The others were empty aside from a thick scarf sent to her long ago by a distant relative. She was glad she had put on that little jacket against the cool breeze of the day. It had saved her from the rain.
Her vision blurred for a moment and she imagined a child’s coat hanging on the empty peg and a pair of bright yellow top-boots drying by the door. Then the vision of what could have been passed, and she followed Oscar into the living room.
The cat crouched by the fireplace and looked at it and then back at her.
“Very well, Oscar,” Edith said to him. “We do need a fire in this weather. But it was bright and sunny only moments ago.”
Halfway to the fireplace, she stopped to wonder how long ago those moments had really been. When had she made her latest futile pass at weeding the garden and when had she gone to scatter feed for the chickens? Had it been in the morning or the afternoon? Once again she had completely lost track of time. Sometimes it was hours and sometimes even days.
“Time, Oscar,” she said. “What earthly use is it anyway?”
Her cat made no reply. If he knew what good time was, he kept it to himself.
“Feeding time, that’s the only part of the clock you have a use for.”
With her knees twingeing a bit from the damp, she bent down to light the wood set on the grate. The fire grew bright and blazed, and soon began to warm the living room.
The furnishings in the room were outdated, but well cared for. There was hardly an item of furniture in the room aged less than four decades and the heaters were the most modern element there. There was no telephone or television. Nothing was allowed in that would intrude on her privacy.
Edith knew that down in the village, many families would be staring at a television screen. But she studied the leaping flames of the firelight instead. She had no need for hours of programmed entertainment. Not when she had her dreams.
The old-fashioned golden locket she wore around her neck glinted as the delicately engraved flowers on the front of it caught the firelight. It was hinged on one side and when the tiny snap was opened revealed photos of her mother and father, one on each side, facing each other, just as Edith preferred to remember them.
But she rarely opened the locket. These were the only two photos in the house and even they were kept out of sight. Knowing they were there was enough. Seeing them would have been too much. In times of worry, it was not unusual for her to hold the locket in her hand, as if it helped her to think. Or as if the illusion of a peaceful family within helped her to forget.
Though the locket was light, it weighed heavily around her neck now. The weight came not from the metal, but the burden of illusions within it. The amulet that sustained the memories she created for herself even in her dreams. And when she fell into dreams of remembrance, it was with the cool locket in her hand drawing warmth from her body and feeding it into a dream of happy times that had never been.
On most nights, her dreams were premeditated. She went on holiday in them, the way that others flew to Majorca, selecting her destination, and what she would see and do when she arrived. Her routes were carefully chosen, with unpleasant memories blurred out of sight. Like all tourists, she wanted only the comfortable and the pleasant.
And if her dreams sometimes became safaris, revealing hidden jungles and dangerous truths lurking within, that made her all the more determined to stay on the itinerary that she had set for herself, and visit the memories of the happy childhood that never was.
The past was the foreign country to which she always sought to belong, only to find that she was a tourist in a place she had never truly known. It was not the locket that shaped her dreams, that was a skill she had carried since childhood - a gift of the blood. But it was a gift that she used to escape the truth.
It was still early and even after sitting for an hour by the fireplace, she did not feel weary. Had she felt the faintest touch of sleep creeping over her, she would have fought it off, unwilling to open herself to unexpected dreams. Instead she thought that she could sit here for another hour or two. That was her last thought before falling asleep. Her next to last thought was a mental chuckle over how wet the cyclists were going to be. And then she was fast asleep.
The thunder echoed distantly in her dream. German bombers, came the thought, one of them had gone off course. But it was too early or too late. And then it was gone and all was perfectly still.
The gentle touch of sunlight came through her window and she lay there lost in the largeness of the bed. It was a child’s bed, but she was small for her age and had yet to grow into it.
A warm presence hovered over her, and she savoured the feeling of comfort it brought. The sense that no harm could come to her so long as it was here.
“My name is Edith and I am nine years old,” she thought. “There are glow worms by the tracks where the train still runs. The atomic bomb has not been invented yet.”
The presence drew closer and she opened her eyes to see her father leaning over the bed. His face was touched with intent seriousness and the first lines were beginning to etch his youthful face. There was so much there that she had not seen with a child’s eyes. So much that she wanted to see, but was afraid to at the same time.
“Goodbye, Princess.” His lips touched her forehead and her eyes fluttered shut.
Then the presence lifted up and the heavy sound of his footsteps echoed in the room. The footsteps stopped, as if waiting for something. And she smiled. He was waiting for her.
“Goodbye, Daddy,” she said, her eyes opening as wide as they could to try to catch a last glimpse of him. Light pouring through the window blurred his form.
She could see his blue eyes sparkle above the brown of his uniform. And then he was gone and there was only an empty place where he had stood.
“Wait,” she called out to him. “I forgot. Daddy, wait.”
She got up from her bed to follow him, but he was gone. And then she was standing in the living room with no memory of having gone down the stairs.
The garden outside was rich with blossoming plants and manicured hedges. Beds of flowers of every hue gave the air a fresh and summery scent. A young willow bent as if to sip water from the little garden pond.
The fragrance was so heady, so lovely that it made Edith light headed for a moment as a rush of memory came with it. The willow had aged and fallen in a storm long ago, but she had planted two others in front of the house after their deaths - one for her mother and another for her grandmother.
Mummy was talking quickly and angrily to Grandmother. “Mother, you are encouraging her. Always encouraging these fantastic notions and I won’t have it any more. I grew up with this, and I won’t have it now again. I am nothing like that and I won’t have Edith be that way either. She will be raised as a good Christian child, Mother. Do you understand me?”
But Edith was like her grandmother in every way and both grandmother and grandchild knew it was the truth.
Edith thought, “Don’t let it be this way, Mummy. Don’t say those things.”
“Mary, please be reasonable,” Grandmother urged. “Edith has gifts, imagination and talents. Do not hold her back; don’t put out the fire in her heart. It may well destroy you both if you do.”
Edith remembered Grandmother protecting her all those years, standing between her and her mother’s anger. Was this why she felt so incompetent, so unloved, and so worthless?
Then the touch of the cold flagstones on her feet broke the rush of memory. She sensed that the chill beneath her feet was not real. It was the memory of her child self running with bare feet on the stones that even in summer held within them some of the winter’s chill. But was it the stones that were cold or the memories they carried?
She pushed herself back from the coldness and the child she had been, as her child self ran through her and out towards the garden. And she stood there watching the child she had been run towards them.
Heedless of the cold stones, her child self dashed through the French doors and into the garden. The scene blurred and within the distortion she saw the image of a mother kneeling to hug her daughter. But the blur ran like summer ice revealing the true scene.
“Not now, Edith, go inside,” Mother said sharply, as the little girl ran into the garden. “It’s too early.”
Edith glanced down at her own hands. The smooth skin was gone and in its place were seams of age and rivers of veins flowing beneath the surface. Usually she exercised better control over her dreams. But her ability was faltering.
The child interrupted their arguing. “Mummy, Father was just in my room!”
“Not now!”
Her child self had left her behind, and she hurried to keep up. She could see Grandmother with her hands in the dirt and she saw her child self rising on her toes, but her own gaze instead fastened on her mother’s blue eyes, the eerie blue-grey colour of a troubled sky, and the colour of all three generations of women in the family. Fury stirred beneath those blue-grey clouds and something turned over inside Edith and she wanted to retreat from her journey through these memories. She didn’t care why now. She only wanted it to end.
The blurred haze flowed back into her mind. The eyes were the same but were the two of them the same?
Her mother sat on the log in the garden as if she were sitting in a church pew on Sunday, her back unyielding and her head held straight. Once again her child self ran through her and towards the woman on the log. Their eyes met, blue flashing against blue, and the woman who had been her mother rose, a piece of blurred paper falling from her fingers.
Edith’s eyes followed the blurring paper, but as it touched the earth it rippled like water and mother and child wavered and, as a wave falls back to rejoin the river leaving no trace behind, were gone. And she found herself standing alone beneath an empty blue sky.
Around her lay the garden in its profusion of bright coloured blossoms, manicured hedging and expanse of lawn. The beds along the fence were a riot of sizes and colours with scents that drew butterflies and bees of all varieties. There were hollyhocks for height, verbena for scent, and bluebells for colour. Her grandmother had pottered in the garden daily bringing green things to life and coaxing glorious blooms from the most delicate of roses. The bowers of roses that hung from the fence often attracted compliments in the village. They spread round the house front and back and graced the trellis that stood at the door front welcoming visitors with their delicate scents.
For Edith in those days, it was a haven of warmth and sun and joyful feelings. She could always find solace in that wonderful garden. Her eyes lingered by the pond just there. A gazing ball on its stand caught the sun and reflected it back on the water where fish darted among lilies.
But as she looked more closely at the gazing ball, big and round, she saw black clouds approaching nearer and nearer. Like a glimpse of something to come in a gypsy’s crystal ball.
The black clouds roiled in the sky like a bubbling cauldron and her footing changed. Where there had been a familiar warm pebbled path, now dark shale lay beneath her feet and rain was beginning to dot its surface - a chilled rain that left her shivering.
She had walked in dreams as a child and, though she could not remember how she had come by the knowledge, she had always known that the ground you walk on is the fabric of the dream. When the ground falls away beneath your feet, your life changes if you are awake, and your dream changes if you are asleep. And Edith was not used to losing her dream footing.
Gusts of wind began to drive the garden away, taking the last of the summer of 1940 with it. Slowly at first, then by huge bits, the garden was obscured with damp and dark and cold and a driving rain that whipped her hair about her face like a punishment or a penance.
She sensed it in the wind. Something else is here. A lonely presence filled with darkness and loss.
Gone were the warmth of the garden and the blue of the sky. Blue like the eyes that looked back at her in the mirror and from the memories of her family. Now all was dark and black, and the driving rain pelted against her viciously until all she could do was shiver like a willow caught in a downpour.
Emotions rang through her like the pealing of cathedral bells. A terrible loneliness followed by great fear and loss. These passions and sorrows seemed strong enough to shake worlds.
She remembered dreams like these as a child. They had been able to drain the warmth and light even from her summers. The shadow they carried was still fixed in her memories like the gnomon of a sundial.
At that moment she wanted more than anything to bolt and run, but she was fixed like the gazing ball on its pedestal to that cold dark scene.
Where her grandmother’s garden had bloomed, stern lifeless trees now stood, branches stripped of green by a relentless wind. They arched over a dead wilderness that filled Edith with dread.
“Let me run,” she pleaded with the sky. “Oh, let me go.”
Beneath the noise of the storm, she could hear the beating of her own heart growing louder and louder. The cold was no longer a memory. It was now the truth. The house was gone and the garden had blown away on the wind. She was no longer an onlooker in the garden of her memories, but a woman standing in the wild wood of a future coming towards her.
A crack of thunder boomed, the sound echoing through the woods around her. And then another and still another, quickly together.
“That isn’t thunder,” she thought. “Those are branches. Or entire trees. It is tearing apart the wood as it comes.”
The assault of emotions intensified with the noise, as if they were joined together. Beneath the loneliness and loss, she sensed a fear of some unknown failure lingering like the scent of wood smoke in the hot summer night. Tinder buried under kindling that would flare and torch entire forests in its wake.
Lightning came as a bright flash that lit up the black sticks of the forest, and filled her full of afterimages. The light lit her grey hair to bright silver and the gleaming electricity of it seemed to flow into her veins until she hummed as if her blood were turned to quicksilver. Another part of her was waking, and she did not know if she should permit it to rise to the surface.
Two beams appeared in the wood, like the headlights of some massive lorry. Their glow was not the cool light of bulbs, but the heat of coal fired lamps. The passion radiating from them alone seemed ready to set the dead wood aflame.
Edith recoiled as they shot towards her. A year after her father had gone, she had sneaked away to try and walk the tracks alone, as if he were there, when an unscheduled train had suddenly come barrelling towards her. The sight of it had pinned her there as surely as the pins she had stuck into beetles as a child. Now she stood there pinned again. She thought of what the beetles saw in their last moments, the pin coming down from above, a long vast shape filling their sky.
The beast’s eyes devoured her from afar, as its body devoured the distance to her. Branches and entire trees rose into the air, flying away into splinters as it came. It wanted her and, more than anything else, it needed to reach her.
From deep within the quicksilver blood racing through her, she found the strength to lift one hand. And then another. The beast leaped, the floating orbs of its eyes, giving way to the massive body that was revealed as it rose into the air. The shadow of that body occluded the light of its own eyes.
“No!” Edith cried out, and the forest fell away, like a landscape seen from an aircraft rising into the air.
The beast roared from the depths of the diminishing forest, but it was a passing sound like the noise of a train going in the other direction.
“I do not understand what you want from me,” Edith called to it.
Another roar came, this time fainter, a protest from a faraway land. The rain stilled, its absence leaving her shivering and soaked to the skin.
She tried to speak again, but could manage only a whisper. “I feel your hand reaching for me, but I must turn away as such things bring with them suffering.”
The garden had returned, but it was faint, like a photo album faded by the sun. The yellow became grey and then the white of a new day shining behind her curtains.
Beneath her, the armchair where she had fallen asleep was wet. Her first thought was that it was blood, but it was only moisture on the red fabric of the armchair. And then she realised that she was still soaking wet. She had left behind the wood, the beast and the garden, but had brought with her the rain.
The fireplace was dead ashes. Black as the forest had been. And beside it her cat rested wakefully keeping watch on his mistress.
She yawned. “A moment, Oscar.”
Every movement brought with it a stifled groan. It had been years since she had slept all night in a chair. The discomfort and aches and pains were usually enough to wake her if she drowsed off. But the dream had been too powerful and intense for even the cramping in her back to tear through the veil to the world of dreams.
Edith stood up and Oscar rose with her. The cat trailed his mistress as she climbed the stairs to the bedroom.
“Troubled night,” she said. Oscar did not disagree. “The evening and the night passed, the morning is here and I feel as tired as if I had spent all night awake and working in the garden.”
Oscar yawned in sympathy, canine teeth lifting to reveal a pink tongue.
“Exactly that,” Edith said. “Tired. So ridiculously tired. Sometimes dreams can be telephones to the soul. And then you wake having spent hours chatting with someone you never meant to speak to in the first place.”
Though Oscar was getting on in years, he was there at the top of the stairs before her.
“I am bedraggled,” she said, smiling faintly at old memories of her grandmother once saying someone looked like something the cat dragged in. “Bedraggled but not dragged, Oscar.”
Oscar patted the door to her bedroom and she opened it for him. He walked slowly through the path of a sunbeam, savouring the warmth, and then leaped up onto her bed, wriggling among the blankets until he found a comfortable resting place that suited him.
“A cat can sleep anywhere, but not a person. A person needs a bed and a home,” Edith said, looking out through the window as if she could see herself in the glass lit by the morning light. Outside the green fields showed no sign of last night’s downpour, but her hair was still plastered to her forehead and her clothes were as damp as if she had never come out of the rain.
Standing in the sunbeam, she began to change. The heat of the sun warm against her skin. “Something is trying to reach out to me. A call from the beyond. But dare I answer it? And dare I not?”
Thankful she had not caught a nasty chill from the damp clothing, she pulled a navy cotton skirt from the wardrobe and fetched a neatly folded cotton jumper from the shelf. Damp clothing laid aside, she felt renewed as the dry, soft clothing fell against her skin.
“There are woods beyond this world and gardens too. Places so thin the dawn light never shines and so thick that it hangs there like a sunbeam passing through a glass as thick as worlds.”
Oscar turned over on his back, the sunlight dappling over his fur.
“For cats their war is in cellars and gardens. And for us, the men go off to war in their uniforms, kiss their women on the forehead and walk out into the woods to fight and die. And we women, where do we go? Where is our war?”
The cat on the bed closed his eyes, drowsing in the warm light. A paw reached up into the air to grasp at unseen things.
“We are both old, aren’t we? Too old for this. Too old to hunt mice and enlist in wars between worlds.” Edith sat down on the bed beside him. Her hand absently stroked his fur.
“Perhaps I am going mad, but there is a duty upon me. And if I neglect it, then what? Talk to PC Gilkes, if he hasn’t retired yet, or to whomever they’ve got down in Keynsham now.”
She rose from the bed and began to brush her hair with firm decisive strokes. “No, that won’t do. Never had much use for Gilkes, always was a gossip. Whatever you told him today, everyone would hear about tomorrow. Whatever lads they’ve got now are bound to be worse. At least you could talk to Gilkes. Talk to them and they are more likely to section me.”
The brush passed before her eyes, a few hairs on it gleaming faintly. “As if the police could do anything. It must be me. Me or no one. Stars falling from the sky. A drop of river water gathered by the full moon. A wood where no one has set foot since the first city rose from the ground. And a tunnel that goes through the earth and earths that might have been.”
Oscar woke startled and slipped catlike off the bed, weaving round her feet.
“Yes, yes. I am getting ahead of myself. Something is calling me and it may be my task to answer and aid it.” Edith opened the window to air the room out, tossed the wet clothes in the laundry basket and left the door open.
She regarded the cat sadly. “But Oscar, perhaps I do need to be sectioned.”
Light poured through the windows of The Willows, but she was too weary to be revived by it. She remembered how her grandmother had applied herself to every task without ever becoming wearied by it or uttering a word of complaint. The memory of the garden still lingered in her thoughts. It compared poorly to what she had made of it.
“Madness,” she muttered, cleaning off the boots. “But at least no one will find me sitting in a room with a knife plotting to become immortal by stabbing a dozen people on the bus the way some do.” The dirt caked off under her hands onto a pile of old newspapers. “Dreams are dreams. Harmless things. Mother was right though. Dangerous to believe they might be real. To do things about them. Next thing you know, you really are riding a bus with knife in hand.”
She paused with one boot on her hand. “But something did call me. It wants me. There is a thing that must be done. A hard thing but it needs doing. And who else is left in this house to do it?”
The memory of her grandmother at work in the garden struck her with a force of terrible poignancy. If only she were here to take the burden from her.
For a moment, it seemed as if she were there in the house with her. About to put one hand on her shoulder and tell her what she was to do next. But when she turned her head, it was Oscar, swishing his tail back and forth.
Edith stood up. “Tea, Oscar.”
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Chapter 2

Chapter 2
It was in the vegetable garden when Edith thought of the dream again. For two days she had done her best to put it out of her mind with the routine tasks of and around the house.
She had polished her silver twice, and when the thoughts began to crowd her mind again, she rearranged the china cabinet and the books on the shelf. She had mended sheets, repaired a china cup whose handle had fallen off and swept the porch countless times all in an effort to keep her mind occupied.
Oscar had followed her around the house like a faithful dog, watching her curiously, and napping when he could. But his cat naps were never long enough as Edith was on the go these past two days. She was in a flurry of activity.
At times like these she almost regretted the lack of human contact, not for their conversational qualities, but for their ability to distract a mind from its own thoughts.
Chew Magna was the greenest and gossipiest village in England. Edith had never been at home there even before her life had marked her as odd, different and strange - making her a topic of idle jokes. She had gone beyond Chew Magna, but whether it was Bath or London, cities seemed to her like overgrown villages, and across the Channel or the ocean it would be the same thing again.
There was the crowd of those who prided themselves on their alikeness, and found a sense of community in their knowledge of each other’s personal affairs. And then there were the outcasts like her, men and women who chose to walk their own path and to allow no one into their lives who had not earned their trust.
Edith did not define herself by geography and the village life was not her life. She had stopped responding to their overtures and they had filed her away as a strange soul going mad by herself in her cottage. Cut off from the larger world of wars and world cup matches, and the smaller world of knowing whose husband had been caught behind the Pony & Trap with whose wife.
Her reluctance was not a matter of the two mile drive down the road and back again, but of breathing the stale and stifling air of a village where she would have to speak to a dozen people, answer their questions and listen to their gossip, or be considered a rude person.
Grocery deliveries had ended her last remaining need to set foot in the village. Her other affairs were handled by John Lawson, the senior partner of Lawson, Barnes and Jones, her solicitor and former school mate. John was also the only one of the village crowd who surfaced in her thoughts from time to time.
No, the village might have its conveniences, the grocer and the butcher, the doctor and the bank - but they were not enough to drive her into that stifling hothouse atmosphere. Not if there were any other choice.
Even her happier childhood memories were not of the village, but of the River Chew. She had adored watching boys sail model boats, seeing fisherman cast their lines, and children splashing one another in the shallow water at the edges of the lake. She could still hear the echo of her own giggles in the murmuring water sometimes, before she had changed and become such a prematurely serious child.
She looked up at the green fields, but the sudden memory of the dark forest of decadent trees rising up where the garden had been made her avert her eyes. There was a message there, but the message was perilously close to madness.
“And I’m not mad yet. I’m not,” she murmured to herself, and bent down to see to her garden.
The downpour had not done much damage, but there was little there to damage. The thriving garden of her grandmother’s day was mostly overgrown. Edith still grew some vegetables and herbs there, and she set herself to weeding the vegetable garden. It was hard work bending and straightening over and over as she went through the rows, first hacking with a hoe, then bending to pick up the dislodged weeds and toss them into a pile.
She really had let the garden go too long, she thought. The overgrown garden reminded her of her life. Grown wild without purpose and its sunlight shadowed by regrets she could not name. Plants bring forth more of their kind. But that was the one thing she had never done.
Edith’s garden labours were wearying and she had to stop and arch her back to relieve the strain. She mopped her brow again and looked around, relieved that her first thought this time had not been of the dream. The lonely fear that pervaded it had stayed with her. It still lurked in the back of her mind like a beast in a cage of flesh waiting to break free and run rampant through her thoughts.
The daylight was some defence. Even the wildness of the countryside had been tamed here. It was difficult to feel terror at the sight of all those acres of greenness. Impossible to believe that the world could shift beneath one’s feet in an instant.
There was no one in sight to see her. The old farmhouse down the road, where the Hutchinsons had lived, was empty now. The last time she had passed it by a new sign askew in the front yard proclaimed it was for sale.
Edith had known the Hutchinsons, an old couple who lived there for many years. They were good neighbours too, which to Edith meant minding their own business.
Generations of Hutchinsons had lived in that farmhouse, but the son had gone off to university and then to a job in finance somewhere. She was sure that the entire village knew all the details, but she had avoided learning them as much as she could. The daughter had married a medical student and moved to Leeds. Now the property was for sale.
That old farmhouse had tradition, as did the land it was on. The older folk had called the front portion of it Keyne’s Acre, though no one remembered why any more. But she feared that the buyers would want to knock it down, and put up a subdivision of those ugly block houses that were beginning to make their presence felt even in Chew Magna. Then there would be supermarkets and constant traffic on the road, and her privacy would be under siege.
She had no great affection for the village but, so long as she avoided it, then she was able to live alone. A privilege that would not be afforded her in the denser parts of the country, where there was no escape from the busybody or the official and there would be no space between her and her neighbours.
There was life here in these green fields that could not be found in a city or down in the village proper - the life of the land. The sight of fields turning to golden crops of wheat was less ordinary now, but the natural turning of the seasons was visible here, without a need for any of the church rituals that accompanied it.
Her grandmother had remembered an older way of life. Walking to school on foot, seeing the reapers give way to harvesting machines and watching the railway and the motor car expand the world around her from a village to a nation, and then an entire world.
Grandmother had seen generations go off, vanishing into the vastness of that world, perishing in wars and emigrating to distant shores where they were lost among the continents. And now Edith was witnessing it as well. The last daughter. She knew the time would come when she was gone and The Willows would be sold off to some newcomers commuting to work, while enjoying what they imagined was the country life.
She stifled that last thought. “No one stays put any more, Oscar. What will satisfy this new wandering generation? Memories, so many memories being lost. Does anyone care?”
Thoughts of the dream were beginning to creep into her mind yet again, so she put away her gardening tools and went to feed the chickens.
Edith’s mind was elsewhere as she threw the feed in clumps to the ground. Even the chickens were confused by her actions. Her head looked first this way, then that way as she flung the feed around the chicken yard. The chickens ran this way, then that way trying to follow the erratic feed.
Oscar wandered back to the porch. Her nerves were too much even for him. Edith reached back into the pan for another handful of feed and saw it was empty.
“Oh, oh, feed, didn’t I fill this?” she said nervously. But looking around she saw that there was fresh feed flung about in all directions. “Oh, I fed them? Did I? Oh my, I suppose I must have.”
She placed the feed pan on the fence post, haphazardly rather than in its place and pushed open the gate to the chicken yard. She was almost at the cottage when she saw Oscar frozen in an intent pose that he only adopted when closely following movement.
“What is it, what is it?” Edith asked, perturbed by the cat’s stance.
She looked over her shoulder to see the chickens running loose all over the garden.
“The chickens!” she cried, as she ran to herd them back towards the enclosure. Her mind was so scattered and she was so full of nerves that she had forgotten to close them in again.
After half an hour she had them rounded up and back in the coop, but the process had made her more nervous than before, and she walked quickly back to the cottage to change her clothes.
“Shame to run the washer without a full load,” Edith thought to herself, gathering a load of things, some that she had washed already, and padded to the washing machine. She threw the clothing in quickly and turned the dial to wash.
“Oh, I need a cup of tea. This has just worn me to a frazzle.”
Putting the kettle on the fire had suddenly become an elaborate affair as she could not seem to fill the kettle enough, or filled it too much and kept re-adjusting the level in the kettle. Finally in desperation she placed it roughly on the fire. It was full enough to slop out of the spout a bit and hiss loudly.
The washer made a clunk. “Oh, no,” she thought, “is it broken again?” The repairman had been out a month before and he had promised her that it was fixed this time. She opened the top and sighed deeply as she saw that once again she had forgotten to add powder.
There was nothing to do but let it finish its cycle now and then rewash. She hoped she would remember the wash was even in the machine as she went back to tend to her tea.
The furrows on her forehead had not relaxed in these two days. A worried frown was becoming the norm. She fiddled with the tea pot, losing more tea to the counter top than into the pot, then forgetting how many spoonfuls of tea she had placed in the pot and, trying to recall, she gave up and took her chances.
She set out her strainer and the china cup with the dainty violets all around, placed a spoon in the saucer and turned around to see if there were any more biscuits in the tin. She fumbled with the lid until it flew off and the biscuits nearly fell to the floor.
Edith was close to tears as she finally poured the boiling water into the teapot. It couldn’t have steeped nearly enough, but she had put so much tea into the pot that it would have been too bitter if she had.
“Oh, finally, a good bracing cup of tea. That will be just right. Yes, tea, always appropriate, Oscar.”
Sitting down at the table by the window, she took a small sip of the tea and closed her eyes, sighing. She could feel the pressure release ever so slightly and was grateful. “Yes, this was what I needed.”
Edith drained the cup and poured herself another. She took a small bite of a biscuit, but had a hard time swallowing it. The tea was beginning to relax her a bit, when a sound resembling a knock at the door startled her so badly that she slopped tea into the saucer.
She stood up quickly enough to knock the chair over backwards onto the floor and was half way to the door when she noticed it was not the door at all, but Oscar having knocked over the broom she had forgotten to put away after sweeping the floor for the umpteenth time. It had been left leaning precariously and Oscar could not help but eventually knock into it.
Edith stood stock still for a few moments staring at the scene without a thought in her head. She stood that way until she noticed that things had overwhelmed her completely.
Then she sank down slowly into her chair and reached unconsciously for her tea cup. She drank it down in a gulp as if it were a shot of whiskey. She was coming unglued and it worried her now. There was only so much she could do with her hands, and when her hands were at rest, the thoughts began to enter her mind.
Edith looked at the biscuit tin lid lying to one side, several biscuits lying on the counter, one in the sink. She saw the tea leaves scattered along the counter and down on the floor.
She had made a mess and was almost grateful to have to clean it up now. Bending down to retrieve the fallen broom, she began to sweep up the tea on the floor. Then she brushed the rest off of the counter into the dust pan and, throwing them into the dustbin, she set herself to cleaning up the biscuits.
Oscar hopped up onto a chair as he watched her scurry around the kitchen. He had never seen her this way and it was unsettling to him. He circled round and round until he found just the right spot.
Edith contemplated what to do next. She had exhausted nearly every option that could keep a mind busy and occupied and was wearying herself with the exercise of it all.
“Tea is still the answer. Tea is like a medicine, a tonic. Yes, always settles one down better than anything else I can think of. I will make a fresh pot, yes, tea, tea is the answer for my nerves.”
Spinning around the kitchen as swiftly as her aging body would allow, she looked about for the teapot which she had now managed to misplace and finally found it in the sink, along with her cup and saucer ready to be washed up and refilled. It was the last place she looked and she had no recollection of having placed them there.
That was the way it had been for the last couple of days. She did things, but nothing seemed to sink in, to settle down or make a difference. Everything was not enough and had to be replaced by something else to keep the unwanted things out.
“Unwanted things,” she mused, as she once again spooned tea into the pot and waited for the kettle to begin its song.
Soon the singing kettle was signalling respite for Edith and, pouring the water into the pot, she took a deep breath and sat down to let it steep.
The sound of the teacup filling with the fragrant tea was comforting. Stirring in the sugar and some milk brought her closer to relaxation than she had been in days.
Picking up the freshly brewed cup of tea, she padded off softly to her armchair. Perhaps now she could rest and find some peace of mind. She settled in and let out a sigh of relief, willing herself to let her shoulders go, to let the tea do its magic.
Her anticlockwise stirring of the tea drew her mind into the cup and out of the dream that haunted her thoughts. Sipping the hot liquid gingerly, she felt the warmth flow through her body, giving her a gentle glow of wellbeing.
“Oh, Oscar, that was good!” she said dreamily. The old cat swished his tail around and peeked at her through half lidded eyes and then, closing them completely, fell into a deep sleep.
Edith, exhausted now, tried to do the same, but her mind would not let her rest. Instead her whirling thoughts were submerged by her exhaustion and the comfort of the tea, leaving her mind free to wander.
Small sounds and sensations caught her attention - the soft whisper of the curtains swishing in the breeze, floral odours drifting through the window and the sound of her own heart like a faint ticking clock.
A beetle crawled along the window sill. There seemed to be a mechanical quality to its movements, as if it were not a real creature, but only a clever toy.
And then the mechanism failed. The curtains blew in with a sudden gust and the beetle tumbled over. Its legs kicked futilely in the air, with no purchase to gain and no surface to push against that would allow it to turn over.
The daydream was beginning. She could sense it creeping up on her, but not do anything to prevent it. Nights had become times of terror and doubt for her, but she had thought that during the day her waking mind could keep her safe. But now in her exhaustion it had failed her.
Her vision narrowed. The larger adult world was gone and in its place was the sharp focus of a child on the small things surrounding her.
To a child even these small things seem large and the old yellowed tobacco jar with a three-masted sailing ship on it seemed positively huge to her. When open it was a mouth. When closed it could hold everything she could imagine.
The bedroom floor that she sat on seemed immeasurable too. She did not know why her mother sometimes complained about the smallness of the cottage. To her it too was an entire world.
But there was something else now, besides the floor and the jar. Her childish hand held it up. Unlike the jar and the floor, it was a small and tiny thing even to the child. The small dark red mottled shape of a struggling beetle trying to escape.
“Why do you bring me here?” Edith tried to say, but she was a child now and her lips were guided by the memory of what she had said. By the indisputable fact of what she had done.
“I’m sorry, Mr Beetle.” The child held up the beetle as gently as she could as her other hand fumbled for a fallen pin lying on the floor.
The beetle’s legs flung out frantically as if it could sense the small death she held in her hand. And then the pin was through him and it was over.
The sewing pin with the beetle on it slid neatly into a thick piece of cardboard, side by side with the other beetles already pinned there in neat orderly rows - green and gold, yellow-striped and red, long and narrow and fat and stubby.
The dark mouth of the jar swallowed her hand and came up again clutching more dead beetles. The lid went back on the jar with exaggerated care as if there were precious treasures inside. And then running swiftly to the top of the stairs, she stopped to listen for movement in the house.
In the armchair, Edith tried to move, but the daydream had pinned her too. And as the curtains blew back, they lit up the same mischievous grin on her face, which was there on the face of the child she had been, waiting with one hand cupped to her ear.
The house was silent. Like a runner at the start of a race, Edith dashed into the next bedroom, her hand tightly clutching its prizes. Her mother’s wardrobe opened with a long creak. She reached for her mother’s best blouse, but as her hand passed through her field of vision, the skin rippled. What had been soft and unmarked was suddenly seamed and leathered with age.
Her focus was lost. What had been a vast house was suddenly a small garden. Her feet sank into the pebbles, and their warmth turned cold as the welcoming texture changed into sharp shale underfoot.
The remnant of her waking mind struggled against the daydream. As a child, she had already known how to walk in dreams and shape them to her own needs. But the daydream was a less pliable thing. Not a creature of the sleeping mind, which believed that all the possible fancies of this world and every world were true. The daydream was an accident of the waking mind, which had far less faith in the impossible.
“Edith,” the call came. It did not sound as if it had come from a human mouth. The wind carried her name and she woke to its call.
The disorder in the kitchen and in her home had been cleaned up, but it had done nothing to arrange the disorder in her thoughts.
“Too much,” Edith gasped out. She could not bear the house now. Any of its rooms could hold traps of memory and snares to lure her into dreams. Thoughts she could not give voice to. There were eyes on her. Or one eye in particular.
Her house had only one mirror in plain sight. There were no photo albums or memories lying around anywhere she could come across them, only the twin photographs of her mother and father, safely locked away in the locket around her neck. Even in dreams the past was blurred into illusion. The feelings of hideous guilt and pain coloured into happier scenes that like desert mirages vanished when examined closely. But the walls she had built against the past were now breaking.
The road offered an escape. She ran between the willows, her front door left open, looking around nervously as if expecting a dream to snatch her out of the air. Then with nowhere to go but the country road, she ran back to the stone barn where her Land Rover waited.
She opened the hand that had held the beetles in her daydream, half expecting to still see them there, but in their place were her keys. And she did not pause to consider that it was as if she had been meant to take them.
The Rover had seen better days, but it could navigate through mud and snow, and take her where she needed to go. Now she needed to be gone, and badly. Edith opened its door and slid into the driver’s seat. Nerves made her fumble with the keys and then the car whined as she tried to start it.
Without thinking she ground the engine by turning the key too far and the loud whine made her wince, but the car started and she spun off, wheels flinging gravel in all directions as she pulled onto the driveway and headed towards the gate.
A momentary stop as she had no idea where she was headed, and then she decided right seemed good enough. The Rover’s tyres squealed as she roared onto the road, narrowly missing an oncoming car whose driver honked and shook a fist at her as she nearly ran him off the side of the road.
The gathering speed of the Land Rover seemed to match the speed of her mind as she pressed down on the accelerator. Faster, faster around the twists and turns of the road heading away. Just away, that was all she thought to herself. Just to get away.
Edith passed farms but barely noticed. It was a lovely day, but she had no knowledge of it, no recognition. She was just moving at a good clip, moving and going away from the house. Away from the thoughts that were making her mind restless.
The Rover sped under canopies of trees arching over the road, sunlight dappling on her hands with their fierce grip on the wheel. She held on tight as if fearing she might lose her escape vehicle.
She had no idea what she was escaping from or where she was escaping to. But the scenery was changing and the car slowed as it climbed up a steeper incline.
Had she been going faster she might have missed the cemetery on her right. As it was she was already a short way past the cemetery gate when she realised what it was. But suddenly the sight intruded into Edith’s thoughts and she braked hard, her head flying forward over the steering wheel from the force of the stop.
Edith barely noticed that either as she flung open the car door and fairly flew in the direction of the cemetery entrance. The gate allowed a view of the head stones scattered over a few acres inside. Some green with moss and time, some half sunken into the ground, some visited and tended, others long forgotten.
“Eternal peace and rest,” the stone words read, but Edith paid them no mind. She had no rest or peace for herself.
Instead she walked the winding pathways between the rows of graves until, finding her mother and grandmother’s graves side by side in eternity, she fell sobbing to her knees. They were together forever, Edith was alone. Always alone.“Oh, Mother. Did you hate me so much? Why, why did you? I was only a child, what could I possibly have done to make you hate me so? I’ve spent my life loathing myself as much as you rejected me. Am I going insane? I can hardly stand the feelings of it now. Why, Mother, why?”
The sobs choked her and took her breath away. She felt as if her lungs would burst. Her eyes stung with tears and her throat was raw from it, but she could not contain the years of sorrow that welled up and spilled over now.
The feelings of sadness and loneliness passed in her mind in a jumble of scenes. The more she saw the harder she cried.
Blue eyes looking up at the blue sky, she cried until there were no more tears left, and only exhaustion and physical pain were left from the wracking sobs.
Edith could hardly see, but she whispered, and then cried out, “Give me a sign. Is that too much to ask?”
But the sky remained empty and not a noise was heard in the peaceful silence of the cemetery, only the difficult breathing of a woman kneeling beside two graves. “Help me understand, please.”
The realisation that no sign was forthcoming slowly came over her and she rose from the ground and stood surveying the final resting places of her mother and grandmother. Each headstone had a graceful willow engraved on it. But under Mother’s willow was a cross, for she was a Christian. Grandmother’s bore just a willow tree. The plain and simple willow.Edith turned slowly to begin her walk back to the car when a large black bird flew across her line of sight. She turned to see a large raven perching on Grandmother’s grave, its head cocked to one side, eyeing her. Its beak tapped on the grave, one, twice and then three times.
“Shoo... get away,” she said, waving her hands and taking several steps forward at the bird. With a rush of wing, he took flight, one black feather falling silently to the grave.
Edith bent down to pick it up, her eyes level with the words on her grandmother’s grave. “To have faith in one’s self is better than no faith at all,” she read slowly.
The feather was cool in her hand. She lifted it up and it seemed to point like an arrow to a peaceful place in her mind. She did not know what she meant to do, but a sense of purpose flowed into her from the feather. She had lived a long and lonely life troubled by strange terrors and lost memories. But now there was the promise of an answer to the question she had never dared ask. A purpose to her existence.She walked back slowly to the Rover through the last of the afternoon sunshine. And her mind was as peaceful and calm as the grass of the garden of the dead.
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Chapter 3

Chapter 3
The drive home was slower, more relaxed. She eased the car into the stone barn and walked into the cottage.
Oscar was waiting for her on the rug in the centre of the floor. Waiting meant sleeping soundly. Edith reached for the kettle and placed it under the tap to fill it with water.
“A cup of tea is what the doctor ordered,” she mused. Tea was a ritual to Edith. Some of it was conscious, and some of it unconscious.
Scooping a teaspoon of sugar into her cup, she stirred it anticlockwise three times - exactly three, no more and no less. She just had taken to doing so after her mother’s passing.
“Oscar,” she said to the slumbering cat. “There was a raven on Grandmother’s grave and it left a feather for me. I think for me. Could it be a message, a sign, do you think? Maybe whatever this is needs something from me... my help. Or even more than that. I only hope that the cost will not be too high. Not more than I can bear.”
She had noticed the willows out front were in need of a little pruning as she had driven up the drive and, wanting more busy work, she headed outside to tend to them.
Oscar stayed behind, busy with his slumber.
The thought of sleep as Oscar’s work almost made Edith laugh. Pruning was relaxing. It kept you busy because you have to think what you are doing when you prune branches. You must know which to take and which to leave alone. Suckers must come off as must any branches that compete with the leader branch. Grandmother had shown her how.
Edith was used to pruning thoughts for her dreams. Snipping and censoring here and there to make them better looking, more tailored to her liking. As of late her dreams had grown wild, but now she was beginning to think that there might be a place for wildness too.
The snipping continued until she had gathered a little pile at her feet. Laying the snippers behind, she had gathered up the branches to take them to the barn when she heard the approach of a van in the driveway.
The van was painted white, but there was always something dingy about it even from a distance. An impression that only became more definite on contact with its owner. The radio was on in the van, filling the air with the noise of some pop song, inane noise of the sort that Edith usually avoided.
As always Brian parked haphazardly, the van rear tilted away from her, as if to hide the other deliveries from her view. He needn’t have bothered. Unlike some in the village, she did not care who was ordering what.
But she knew that the mere sight of a product being purchased could stir up rumours in the village.
“Is she pregnant then or anxious? He’s been buying the cheaper fare lately. Work must not be coming in the way it once did. She doesn’t feed her family anything but those sugary cereals. Unfit mother if I ever saw one.”
She had witnessed conversations such as these blossom from nothing more than the contents of a shopping basket. And it was one reason why she relied on Brian for her deliveries.
Not that she had anything to hide from them, but there was something stifling about the atmosphere of curiosity in the village and their constant hunger for trivial bits to be transmuted into gossip and rumour. The people were not many, but after the broad spaces of the fields around her, they seemed all crowded together. The less often she ventured into the village, the more of a curiosity she became and the more attention she received when she did make a shopping trip there. The process continued until she began spacing her trips as widely as possible. And then Brian had informed her that he would be making deliveries from the village shop.
Most of the demand for this service came from new residents of the village, who worked in Bristol or Bath, and had little time for doing things at the slower pace of village life. They had come here for a quieter place to live and raise their children, but they were startled to find out how far they had to drive to the nearest supermarket.
Some of the more elderly residents living outside the village also made use of the service. A category in which Edith suspected he included her - though she was nowhere near the age of the Colonel, a 98-year-old veteran of two world wars and several smaller conflicts, or 103-year-old Margaret Plumpton, who was famous for her age and for a book on the Neolithic past of the Chew Valley.
Edith did not care to know much of this, but even after having cut almost all ties to the village, Brian’s visits still carried along with them the trail of gossip that stretched out to even the most distant portions of his delivery route.
“Good morning, Mrs S,” Brian called, hopping out. He had a bag tucked under one arm and dried food stains marking his white shirt, where it was mostly covered by his dark cardigan. Mostly, but not entirely.“It is the afternoon and it is Miss Simmons to you,” Edith said. It is what she always said, but this time it lacked spirit. The last several days had drained her and there was no energy left for more than the formalities of life.
“When the summer days are long, then afternoons are as good as mornings,” Brian said cheerfully, leaving the bag by the tyre and returning with two more unloaded from the rear of the van. Followed by a basket.“Please, let’s get on with it. And turn off the radio,” Edith said.
Brian cocked one ear, a puzzled expression crossing his moon face. “You don’t care for Cher, Mrs S?”
“Portable noise machines are what I don’t care for.”
The delivery man shrugged and then grinned to show that he didn’t mind. His gold tooth lit up, giving him a piratical air. She suspected that it was the reason he grinned so often, to show it off.
Not that Brian wasn’t a pirate. He was, but an extraordinarily miserable one. The first apple he brought out had a prominent dark spot. The next few were better, but still unappealing. The peppers were an improvement over his last delivery, but would not last long.
“This bread is stale,” Edith said, handling the loaf he had brought. “I asked you to mind that the bread was fresh.”
Brian snapped his fingers and grinned again, but she was having none of it. “Fresh bread isn’t good for you. All the doctors say that.”
“My health is my own concern. You are a delivery man, not a doctor, and not a very good one at that,” Edith said.
Brian cocked his head to study her, and for a moment she was reminded of the raven. “You don’t look right, Mrs S. Something keeping you up nights? It’s nice and quiet here. Now my brother, he has the worst neighbours.”
Edith held up one hand, though she knew it was futile to try and stop him now.
“After a few nights of this, he goes to the landlord, and asks him to talk to the people on the other side of the wall. But do you know what the landlord tells him. There isn’t anyone on the other side. Not on this side of the other side of the wall, if you see what he was saying.”
“No, I am afraid that I do not,” Edith said, realising too late that this would be taken as prompting, rather than discouragement.
“The other side,” Brian said, enthusiastically. “Ghosts.”“Foolishness,” Edith said. There were no ghosts lurking behind walls. All the ghosts were in her mind.
“But I’m only mentioning it because you look like you’ve seen one. A ghost. All deathly pale looking.”“Oscar’s food. Have you brought it?” Edith said, more sharply than she had intended.
Brian put on his befuddled expression again. “Gentlemen callers coming over, are they?”
“You know quite well that Oscar is my cat.”
“A cat can be a gentleman too,” Brian said, hauling out a smaller bag. It was a garish yellow, and a cheaper brand of cat food than Oscar was used to.
“I could take a short drive and find better for less,” Edith said.
Brian rubbed the stubble on his face. “It’s the personal service that you pay for.”
Edith looked steadfastly at him, and he reached into another of the bags and handed her a copy of the Chew Valley Digest. “Gratis, that’s French for...”
“It’s Latin,” Edith said. “And when does anything at all come free of charge from you.”
“A fortunate accident for you,” Brian said. “Had a little trouble with the van yesterday and they were never put out. Have to give them away or toss them to the crows.”
Edith turned the paper over in her hands and read the date. “July 24th. This is yesterday’s newspaper. But at least it is fresher than the bread.”
Brian’s face took on an injured expression. “Come now, at least it’s ’91. The year is right, isn’t it? And the news is still the news. The folk festival still went off well. Mendacious Millie still took first prize at the sheep races. What’s changed in a day?”
Edith thought that quite a lot had, but that wasn’t for him to know. While she stood there with yesterday’s newspaper in her hand, he walked back to the rear of the van. Knowing what he was about, she followed him. But he was already too quick for her.
Weighing scales had already been set up and, with the deftness of a juggler, his thick hands quickly tossed on the potatoes, and even more quickly dropped them into a plastic carrier bag.
Dusty soil rose into the air, coating his hands and a nearby basket of peppers. He waved it away and it settled on three heads of lettuce. But it was not the dirt that disgusted her, it was the dishonesty.
He had been careful not to let her see the actual weight. She could weigh it herself and complain, but that would do no good. He always had a defence and an excuse for everything. Last time it was that the potatoes had shrunk in the hot air.
“And now for les poulets,” Brian said, gesturing grandly, as if he were bringing her a king’s ransom. “That’s French for...”
“A sack,” Edith said, “I asked you to bring a sack so I can keep it in my barn, without worrying what I will feed my chickens if your van breaks down again.”
The last time his van had broken down, she had been forced to go into the village on her own. It had been a miserable experience. The longer she stayed away, the more unpleasant a trip there became. As if she was losing all tolerance for the company of others.
Those few weeks had reminded her of why she allowed Brian his petty thievery, though he would no doubt rather call it piracy. Even with his penny pinching and garrulousness, his visits were brief and required less of her. And if he spread rumours about her, then at least she was not there in person to see the curious stares and hear the unwanted questions. The hints that there must be something not right with her if she chose to avoid other people. That if she did not come to church on Sunday or participate in whatever charity was being touted this week, then she must be mad.
Edith admitted to herself that she might be mad, but not mad enough to do what so many others did, go along with it out of fear of what others might think.
“Now that you’ve reminded me, next time it will be a sack,” Brian assured her.
That was what he said every time. She was angry, but beneath that anger was a species of pity. He deprived her and Oscar of food to gain a little more money, and he had become a twisted little man by doing it. They had every right to resent him and despise him, but what he had done to himself was far worse.
As he drove away, leaving her alone, she wondered if this was her condition as well. If she had trapped her life in the net of her own habits, leaving her unable to change, repeating the same lies to herself until she believed them.
“Can I do what will be needed of me?” she asked herself.
Oscar stayed reassuringly close to her, as she lugged the groceries back. The door squeaked as she released it, remaining ajar to admit a broad wedge of sunlight into the kitchen.
“Do you think I can or do you only want to be fed?” she asked him.
The cat thumped his tail on the floor and sat down expectantly. Edith sighed and opened the bag of dry cat food, and poured some into the bowl.
“Here,” she said. “Perhaps next week we will both eat better. For now it is to be dry food for both of us.”
Edith reached for the stale bread, weighing it in her hand. In her mind there was more than bread on the scales. Was this the life she had chosen, or had it chosen her? Mother had warned her that she could never have a normal life if she went on this way. That one day she would be an old woman going mad in a cottage. Had her mother been right? Could she have raised children and lived in a home alive with the noise and clamour of small footsteps and cheerful shouts, rather than the silence of empty rooms.
A fork in the road was coming. If her abilities and dreams were nothing but madness, then by pursuing them she would fall into the insanity her mother had warned her of. But if not, then to ignore them would be the true madness.
The stale bread felt heavy in her hand. Soon it would be time for her to decide. “What shall I do?”
As if to answer her, a deep clucking sound came at her back, intruding forcefully on her thoughts.
Edith’s hand opened and the bread slid out. Behind her stood Marianne, one of her own hens that she had fed by hand for years.
But now something had taken hold of the hen. Her movements were quick and defensive as if taking unwilling sanctuary in the house. Her red eyes peered at Edith, the head jerking from side to side as if she was investigating her and deciding whether she could be trusted.
Edith would have been afraid yesterday, panicked to flight by any more messages and visitations, but now a new feeling of expectation came over her as she recalled her grandmother’s words, “Hen in the house, a visitor will arrive.”
She wedged the back door fully open and stepped away, waiting to see if the hen would leave. But though the way was open, the hen remained where she was.
Oscar had heard the cluck and circled the chicken. Marianne crouched low to the ground, the red amber irises of her eyes almost pulsing, as she shivered in fear, but she did not flee.
“Whoever is coming will be afraid,” Edith said, as she surveyed the scene. “A fearful guest in need of sanctuary.”The fear in the dream made sense now. But it was not her own fear any more. It was the fear of the one who would come.
Instead of fearing what she was seeing, Edith studied the hen, intent on learning everything that her visit could mean. But as if her task was done now that the message had been received, Marianne walked back through the open door. Behind her lay a single feather.
Edith picked it up, her fingers running down the little white feather as she mulled over its meaning in her head. “I am beginning to believe again, Oscar. I am not crazy, these are signs and I am meant to see them and listen to what they are telling me.”
With the feather in her hand, and heavier thoughts in her head, Edith stepped outside and watched as the messenger from another realm returned to the more common habits of pecking at the dirt in the coop.
She closed the coop door soundly this time and, turning over the feather in her stiff fingers, her thoughts quickened. Back in the cottage, she blew softly on the feather and opened an enamelled box on the mantelpiece. Inside were the feathers of dozens of birds and some that seemed not to belong to any ordinary birds at all.
The raven’s feather joined the hen’s feather in her hand. White and black. Together they went into the box. And though she had endured difficult days, she walked up the stairs as lightly as if she were being carried up them on feathered wings.
*****
Edith shook out a nightgown and laid it at the foot of her bed. She had a feeling that the one she was wearing now would not remain dry for long. Some explorers into distant lands brought pith helmets and spades. But into the land of the spirit and the hidden continent of dreams, she brought a nightgown. The armour of the sleeper for the realm of sleep.There would be storms there, she expected, perhaps even raging rivers and other terrors. But nothing of any worth is discovered without some danger or difficulty.
There had been nights when she feared sleep, struggled and warred against it. Kept watch against it warily from armchairs and uncomfortable postures. But tonight she embraced it as a friend, opening herself to the revelations and insights it would bring.
Her eyes closed unwarily against the world. And as the two portals shut, a door opened. And she stepped through it.
The bed was suddenly large again and she was a child laying at ease in the summer sunshine. She was in the country of the past again, and she lay there for a moment with her eyes closed. And a faint smile on her face.
“Goodbye, Princess.” Her father’s kiss touched her forehead again.
She remembered that day anew, the man who went off to war and the little girl who ran after him to give him a message of terrible importance. A message that had been lost in time.No matter how many times she had come here, that had not changed. The child always ran on, with the words unspoken. But this time, though, she opened her eyes wide. “I love you, Daddy.”
He smiled broadly and opened his arms to her and Edith grabbed tight and held on. “I love you, Daddy,” she said again.
“I love you too, Princess,” he answered. Tears gathered in Edith’s eyes as she felt the emotion of that moment, mingled sorrow and joy.
“I have to go now, Edith,” he said, and turned and walked out of the door.
Ahead lay dark days. The worst of the war was yet to come and the passage of his feet was carrying him not only over the threshold of the cottage, but over the threshold of life.
The past could not be changed, but the future could be. If the cycle could be broken, as she had broken the cycle of that lost goodbye, then her future and that of the world could change.
Edith descended the stairs, feeling almost as if she were floating, rather than walking. The child she had been ran through her, but this time she felt no loss from her passage. She had been the child. Now she was the woman.
Like an iron filing drawn to a magnet, she let the dream take her down the stairs and into the living room. And her body with its aches and pains no longer weighed on her.
A fire roared on the hearth like a summer lion. It seemed as if at any moment it could leap forward and spread across the entire room. As bright as the fire burned, it gave off no heat. Instead she sensed another kind of energy in the room. The intruder was here with her in the dream.
Edith looked over at the chair she favoured. The chair she had spent long sleepless hours worrying in. Nothing was changed there; it was still a haven for weary bones. She shivered and, sensing that another shift had happened, turned back towards the fire.
The fire was gone, replaced by cinders and dark charred remnants of wood. Where a lit fire had spun its wreaths of burning hair, there was a cold, dead aftermath now and nothing more. It had held no warmth and now, with no life in it, it was gone.
The shrill whistle of the kettle broke in on her thoughts. “Here, into the kitchen now,” she thought.
The kettle shrieked as if in pain. She reached out her right hand to grasp the kettle’s handle, but felt its hot weight in her left hand instead.
Startled but not afraid, she turned to open the cupboard. The shelves were empty.
“It isn’t there,” she thought. “Nothing is.”
She turned back to the table, with a teaspoon in her right hand. And then on that same table, which had been empty when last she looked, sat a cup. And as she reached to put the teaspoon in, she saw that there in the cup was a teaspoon too.
“All done,” she said out loud.
She put down the teaspoon and the kettle, and saw that the tea was already in the cup. It swirled gently as if an unseen hand had just finished stirring it.
“I don’t understand what you are trying to show me,” she said, as the clear tea slowly stopped swirling.
In the living room, the sun was streaming through the windows in waves of light. Though the room usually saw only muted sunlight, now a glowing haze hung across it. Motes of dust danced like golden dandelion fluff in the sunlight. And a child’s laughter rang out somewhere behind the light. Her own laughter.The child ran and the beams of light began to fade, shadows lengthening across the floor. Edith followed the fading laughter outside into a darkened world.
The sun rose slowly, sending an explosion of colour across the sky. Red streaked the clouds like warning flags. Burning drifts of cloud tore and fell away in its wake like scraps of notepaper set on fire and tossed aside by a careless child.
“Red sky in the morning is the shepherd’s warning,” she murmured.
Beneath her feet, the pebbles turned to dark shale, but this time she was ready. Still the chill of the wind caught her by surprise, and she couldn’t help shivering.
In the neighbouring fields, the magpies took up their cry. “One for sorrow, and two for joy. Three for a girl.” She waited, shivering in the cool wind, listening. A fourth magpie fluttered down. “Four for a boy.”Or was it? Was the fourth magpie to be included with the first three, or was it to be counted separately from the rest?
“I will be your shepherd, but am I to guide a girl or a boy... I’m unsure?”
She listened intently, but the magpies had fallen silent. The garden was lit with the unearthly fire of the rising sun. And there on the log at the end of the garden, her hair a corona of flame, sat her mother. There was a smile on her face, but it was a blur like the tattooed mouths of Ainu women. The blur fell away and the familiar scowl returned in its place.
“Not now, Edith. It’s too early.”
But Edith shook her head. “No, Mother, you are wrong. It may even be too late.”
A thousand old aches and agonies flew at her. So much love and hate mingled within the container of her heart, urging her to speak. But she forced her eyes to look deeper. To be more than the child she had been. And with that her mother faded like an old photograph and in her place a tree began to sprout through a break in the wall at the end of the garden.
The tree’s first leaves dropped and fell away. Its trunk twisted around and its branches drooped bare to the ground. In and around themselves the branches twisted, growing into a gnarled dead tangle. A geometrical impossibility constricted into a shape that could not be.
Edith felt for a moment as if she were that tree. The cold wind bit into her skin above as the shale tore at her feet below. But she knew that she was not the tree. Here was suffering greater than hers.
Despite the pain, she took a step forward. And then another. The shale came apart under her like black ice. She stood on a crevasse of pain and still she reached for it. “If I am to shepherd you
I must know your animus of protection.”
The dream was falling away from her. She could sense it. It had been madness to even try. But it would have been a greater madness not to. If the entity slipped away, her sense of purpose would go with it.
Edith struggled to remain tethered here through the pain, but she could feel it slipping through her fingers, as easily as a feather in a child’s hand.
The raven rose from the gravestone again. The hen’s frightened eyes looked into hers. And Edith’s fear and anxiety slid away. Beneath it lay a trust she had never known herself capable of.
“Edith... help me.” The whisper was feminine, and she could not help but see a flash of red amber irises.
Somewhere she found the focus that had eluded her since childhood. That lost ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else. Her eyes locked onto the tree and the strength of her entire being poured into her voice and her straightened fingers. “Show me the animus!”
Her head pounded and her vision blurred until the tree was only a dim shape and blood trickled down from one nostril. “Give me the strength I need to carry out your will.”
With a dry crackling sound, a branch cracked and hung limp before sliding down the tree in the rippling form of a snake.
Edith fell to her knees. “Oh sacred serpent.”
The garden and the tree dissolved into the rain. Droplets the size of coins splattered down over her. The clouds shot away at a terrific speed, but she could not be certain if the clouds were moving away from her or she was falling away from them.
She stood now on a plain like nothing she had ever seen before. It was a landscape alien to her senses. High dark grasses, their tops shaped like small spearlets, brushed against her shoulders and tickled her chin. The grass lay in all directions as far as she could see.
Lifting her eyes she saw a light green haze in the distance. Her first thought was of a green sun, but the distance was playing tricks with her eyes. The green light shone from the side of a mountain, pulsing and weakening.
Beyond the aura of light was only a muted greyness, a fog that blocked out any other light. She would find no warmth to dry her wet clothes here.
Hoping against hope that she had retained the energy and vigour of only moments ago, she began to run towards it. But at her first step, a rock caught her feet. She stumbled and recovered, only to see another rock rise beside it. And then another. The rocks hung in the air, as if held by unseen hands, and then began to form a small pile as if to support something, but she could not see what.
A long ragged growl came from behind her. Its atavistic terror shuddered through her, telling her that she was prey. Understanding fled her mind leaving only fear. And she ran.
The grass blocked her way, but she shot through it, racing as she had not done even as a child. Her pace was heedless and mindless, with no thought for anything but escape. The fear had filled her again and there was no room for anything else.
Spearlets tore away as she raced through them, her feet leaping wildly through the grass. There was an impossible power in her movements, the grace of an athlete matched with the desperation of a hunted animal.
The force that left a trampled path of grass behind was no longer the old Edith. It was a creature of fear with no equal, but for the thing at its back whose hot breath blew like a desert wind.
But Edith had eyes only for the green light ahead, the beacon in the endless grasslands - a light of hope.
The ground shook as if a herd of wild elephants were stampeding behind her. Even in the windless grassland she could smell its sharp odour and hear its harsh breathing. And if she had allowed herself to look back, she would have seen that it was gaining on her.
A snarl filled the air, deep and resonant, like a vicious horn. She could feel the sound travelling under her feet and filling the air around her - a long terrible noise that never seemed to end. And when it did, the beating of her own heart filled the silence.
The pace she kept was impossible and she would not have been surprised if her heart had burst. But the sound of it only filled her ears as the noises behind her drove her on. She was already running faster than any man or woman alive. And it still wasn’t enough.
“Never look back,” her grandmother had once told her. It was good advice for more occasions than only running for one’s life. But it was good advice here too.
Still Edith looked back and saw it, bounding through the grass with the clumsy speed of a monstrous bear. Its back legs propelled it through the air and over the grass. Ropes of saliva dangled from the jaws of its massive head, a great rock of flesh four times her size.
It snarled again, a noise that blotted out even the sound of her heart. The muscular back legs pushed away and the beast rose. Its leap took it into the air and over the grasslands. It was a soundless shadow now with razor sharp claws falling towards her at terrible speed.
This time it was she who screamed, a great cry that tore a hole through the dream and left her sitting awake in her own bedroom. Her nightgown was soaking wet, as were her bed sheets. Her finger touched the dampness and came away with spots of blood. More drops fell from her nose.
Oscar crawled over to her, digging his head into her side. She stroked his fur softly. “Oh, Oscar. I believe that we are to have a visitor coming... soon, but we must prepare immediately.”
Edith’s eyes turned distant as, beneath her hand, the cat purred like a motor slowly coming to life.
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