Blood is women’s currency. A red coin spent in tribute to the tides, the toll at the gateway into life…and sometimes, the fare for crossing the river of the dead.
My mother, remote and mysterious as any pagan goddess, lived in solitude amidst her family. The farm had been my idea, and much against the wishes of my stepfather. The nearest neighbor was a mile away, hidden from view by a shaggy, forested hump of wilderness. The farm was a lush, vicious patch of labor. A ring of Hell.
I wished for it, with the fervor of a displaced five year old, just as I had wished that my mother’s second child, born that year, would be a girl. My longing for a sister, voiced aloud in the presence of my stepfather, earned me a look of unadulterated disgust.
“The baby’s going to be a boy. Wish for a brother.” His black brows drew together. At six feet four inches, he was a looming nightmare.
I wouldn’t change my wish. Mother intervened before the confrontation escalated. When my sister was born, the deep-rooted dislike my stepfather nurtured toward me bloomed into a vigorous vine of hatred.
“I want to live on a farm.”
The innocent words enraged him. His dark gaze swung toward me, and my heart stuttered and dropped from its perch within my ribs. I knew the power of words. They were flown and beyond recall, leaving me to face the storm. His lips opened, but his wrath was stalled by my mother. Her back to us, preparing dinner, she was oblivious of the averted catastrophe.
“That would be fun. I grew up on a farm, you know. It was a wonderful place.” She paused in her stirring of the soup pot. Turning to my stepfather, she said, “Dan, why don’t we look for something in the country. A farm would be a good place for the girls, healthy and safe.” She sighed at the thought of escaping the grey mining town, where we lived in the rumbling shadow of the railroad tracks.
“I don’t know anything about running a farm.” He scowled, not understanding the matter was already settled. My words had winged their way to my mother’s imagination and spawned a desire for fresh air and new-mown hay. For the second time, I had robbed him of his will. I was a witch.
For my mother, the farm was awash with danger. Nature plotted against her. She was thrown from the horse, bought for my seventh birthday. A hornet poisoned her, sentencing her to bed for three days with a swollen face and nausea. The stove used for canning took a menacing step forward and tilted a pot of boiling water onto her bare leg. The barn cats were hostile and clawed like demons.
Worst of all, the farm was a place of numbing isolation. Dan worked double shifts and most weekends. He rebelled against farm life by his absence. When the farm work could no longer be ignored, he went about it in a silent rage, dragging me along as punishment for my evil wish.
It was cold in the barn. My breath smoked out and hung before me like a ghost. My hands were numb, gripping the handle of the broom. I pushed dust and straw about the worn floorboards with an industriousness I didn’t feel. He was watching, straddling the open hay trap and forking the crisp golden stuff down to the cattle stalls.
Anything, I thought. I’d do anything to get away from him. Being in his presence was painful, a swim through charged and heavy atmosphere. I wished for freedom from my task, that I could escape back to the house. I wished he would go away.
His boot came down on the insubstantial hay. The timber he had balanced on wasn’t under it. One long leg went through the hay trap. Surprise registered on his face and he leaned back in a mighty heave that saved him from plummeting to the concrete floor below. But now he was stuck, having fallen into the hay trap, suspended by one boot heel and his arms. The hay slithered under him as he pawed at the floor, trying to find a solid grip on something. It was a long drop to the cold stalls. A long, bone-smashing drop. His eyes met mine.
For an eternity of seconds, I stared at him. His shoulders strained and his breath came in explosive little huffs. He couldn’t get out, wouldn’t be able to hold himself there much longer. I was frozen, more terrified of him in his extremity than when he had stood firmly on the smooth timbers. The fingers of his left hand scrabbled for the handle of the pitchfork that lay just beyond their reach. Slipping further, his palm slapped the floor in a desperate bid for purchase.
“Jesus, my back”, he panted. Still I stood, my broom gripped in nerveless fingers, my silence unbroken. I held my breath. The world slowed to a stop. Anger, pain and fear contorted his face. “Go get your mother!” he bellowed.
The spell broken, I ran. Back to the house. Away from him.
My mother’s bedroom, shared with my enemy, was frigid in winter. The heavy draperies hung in stiff folds, velvet frozen in burgundy opulence. Frost rimed the window panes. With Dan working the night shift, Mother closed her bedroom door and took to the sofa bed in the living room.
My bedroom was above her, the heating vent in the floor positioned conveniently over the television. I lay gazing down at the fuzzy black and white screen in the dark hours when sleep would not come. My insomnia was a point of contention in our household. Dan found it disturbing to look into my room at night and find my eyes open and pinned to the door, glittering in the dim hallway light. He felt this was a purposeful and malevolent violation of the natural order. Worse, I was prone to sleepwalking. My stealthy creeping about in the dark stirred some primal fear in him.
A week before Christmas, as my mother rolled out the sofa bed and turned off the television, I lay awake, spying through the floor vent. I noted the glossy top of her head, the slim bow of her back as she bent to pluck some toy from the floor. The light coming up from the room below was golden and warm as melted butter. Snow hissed against the windows, a pale swarming on woolen black. There were no stars visible, and I felt wrapped in the contentment of the night. I felt sleepy.
Early morning. Still full dark, and the house cold. A heaving, racking animal noise rose from the room below me. Puzzled, I listened in silence until I identified it as Dan’s voice. I had never heard such a raw, horrible sound. He sobbed and moaned like a man in the clutches of a nightmare. A numbing calm crept over me. I waited.
“Your mother is dead.” His words were scoured of emotion. His weight on the side of my bed pinned the quilt around me in a great swaddling. I looked into his eyes. We both knew we were strangers forever, now. I cried without pain.
The house was alive with policemen and the squawk of their radios. The blue and red lights of the patrol cars threw a holiday glow onto the grey snow. My sister and I waited in my room, dressed and packed. At four a.m., we were shepherded down the narrow stairs, our eyes averted from the long bundle, wrapped in a blanket and lying on the blond wood floor. The tang of cordite hung in the air, and the telephone receiver dangled against the wall, useless as a snapped anchor chain. The house gun, meant to offer us protection, lay where Mother had dropped it. We left through the back door, the same door through which I had entered on my first day at the farm.
(This story was published in the Vol. 2/No. 2/2002 edition of PHASE Literary Magazine.)