Mrs Moray looks about the room her husband died in, nose wrinkled against the stench of fried fish and rotting wood. A pull-out bed lies along one wall; in the opposite corner sits an off-white stove, spattered with grease streaks yellow and brown and dusted with black char. The girl busies herself there, heating milk for the child. He lies in frayed blue swaddling close to the table, mewling in a wicker basket. A brat in a bassinet, Mrs Moray thinks to herself, and smiles.
The girl is slack-jawed and drags one foot a little. She listens with the bowed head of a beaten dog. If she dares offer a smile – more in hope than humour, a pleading, fawning hope – she smiles with one side of her face only. It was snowing when Mrs Moray found her on Main Street, but as they made their way back through the alleys it turned to sleet; the girl’s lame foot scattered the grey-black snow like ashes as she hopped along, leading the older woman to her room on the outskirts of town. The sleet falls thickly against the window and casts shifting patterns against the walls.
When the girl has the brat settled, she begins to talk. She takes a long time starting, and when she finally stumbles into a sentence her voice, thick and warbling, is marred by stammers and cracks. Now and then she raises her eyes – big, doleful cow’s eyes – to her listener. When she does, Mrs Moray takes care to give no gesture of pity nor encouragement to set her at ease.
“I knew he was sick,” the girl murmurs. “Sometimes he’d go pale and need to rest. He’d say, ‘I’m dying, Alice, but I don’t fear that which destroys my body, I fear that which would destroy my immortal soul.’ He didn’t say no more and I never pushed him to talk about things he didn’t want to. He was so nice to me that I only ever wanted to be nice back.”
“Did you know about me?” Mrs Moray asks. The girl flushes red.
Mrs Moray can’t tell if the girl is lying but decides it doesn’t matter. Though she prides herself on the ability to love her neighbour – a love shown in the homeless shelter kitchen twice monthly – she knew there would be no loving nor forgiving this lame girl with her cow’s eyes. This was no Jimmy Curl, whom she forgave with great grace for his brick through her window last Easter, after he stood and said sorry in church; no Lisa Turnbuck from ninth grade, whom she forgave anew with well wishes each time she saw her (though the state of Lisa’s clothes and the rumours about her husband certainly make forgiving all the easier). She could even find it in her to pray for unseen murderers, the faceless Cains, and all the reprobates that she knows must populate her country and her world. But she also knows she would never be able to pray for this girl in her dank little room. She had hated her when she saw her first, speckled with snow in the street; hated her even before, when she and her brat were nothing more than a formless sin, an address in a ledger locked away in a drawer.
“He’d regret it,” the girl is saying, with the air of an apology. “Sometimes he’d go all quiet after, and hunch over his knees. Once or twice, he cried. He’d say he was damned. Sometimes he’d say something about a… a waste of shame. That his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. He might come three or four days before he got sad. One time he came every day for two straight weeks. But sooner or later, he got sad, and after his mood turned he’d disappear for a while. Wouldn’t see nor hear from him, and ‘course I didn’t have any way of reaching him myself.”
“No number? No address?” Mrs Moray asks.
“Nome. I didn’t even know his last name.” She sits back thoughtfully. “Sometimes, though, he’d stop being sad. He’d get a funny turn come on him and he’d change.”
“He’d get all excited-like, and his eyes’d shine.” She smiles to herself. “He’d kneel in front of me on the bed and grab my hands. Oh, Miss, he’d get so excited. Babbling on, saying it weren’t too late for him, and it weren’t too late for me, neither. One time he got so carried away with it all, he started crying, but they was happy tears, and he said, ‘Alice,’ he said, ‘we’re going right this minute, you and me, and we’re getting our sins washed clean.’ He took me and I went with him, since I was crying myself then, thinking of things and people and places I ain’t thought of for such a long time, so beautifully he spoke.”
The girl’s mouth curls wistfully.
“He marched me four blocks down to Saint Joseph’s, right then and there in the middle of the night. He started banging away, and laughing, he was so giddy with it all, and Father Gabe damn near called the police on us. But Daniel, he stood up grinning and said, now Father Gabe, you’re here to minister to the sick, not the healthy, and you got a divine mandate that I’m calling on now. You can’t turn away two sinners looking for confession, least of all two sinners sick and needy as us. And Father Gabe, he let us in, and he heard our confessions all bleary-eyed in his nightclothes, and I tell you, Miss, I cried the whole way through and sobbed into Daniel’s arms a long time after. And they was happy tears, too, just like his.” Her half-smile fades. “Every time he’d tell me he was never coming back, that he was gonna be good, gonna be saved, and we weren’t gonna sin together no more. Sure, he’d go vanish for a while – sometimes three days, sometimes three weeks – but he always came back, in the end.”
They sit in silence. The sleet has ceased but the wind keeps up, rattling the murky window in its pane and sending groans through the walls. It does not rouse the brat, who sleeps soundly in his basket. Mrs Moray feels no great emotion as she listens to the girl speak of her husband’s antics, save mild surprise; the man she knew was at best a lapsed Baptist, with little time for church save Christmas and Easter. So, what if he had turned papist? There is little doubt in her mind as to the whereabouts of his soul. It was not for her husband that she came here today.
The girl is frowning down at the table, her hands flat upon the mottled wood.
“He was laughing while we ate,” she murmurs. “Laughing at me, for… well, never mind. Then after we was done – we used to eat on the bed – after we was done, I put the plates away. Then all of a sudden, he said, ‘Alice, something is not quite right with me.’ He said those words exactly. I thought it was another joke of his, but then I saw his face and I knew it weren’t no joke. I got a little shy, thinking maybe I done something wrong, or that I weren’t doing enough right. But he just stayed there, with this puzzled look, and his face got redder and redder.”
The girl’s face begins to work.
“Then all of a sudden, his eyes, they went so big and looked so scared that I turned cold. I could barely speak. He was begging me with whatever breath he had to call a priest for him. Said he’s dying, dying in a state of sin, and he’s afraid of hell. Even when I was calling for an ambulance, he was begging me for a priest. So, I called Father Gabe right after, but he weren’t picking up. I tried and tried, and each time it rang out Daniel looked even more scared. But just when I was about to give up, I heard his voice on the phone, Father Gabe’s voice, and I was in pieces but I got the message across to him and he said he was on his way. So, I said thank you, and went to tell Daniel the priest was coming just like he asked, and the doctor, too, but I saw…”
Her voice finally breaks and she hides her face in her hands. She starts to sob, a harsh, gasping sound. It wakes the brat and he joins his own cries to his mother’s.
The wails baffle Mrs Moray. She wonders what her late husband could possibly have done to inspire them. To her surprise an image of him begins to rise in her mind, slowly, as though it is a living thing wary of the noise. He is lying in the shade, resting his head at the base of a bull bay. His hair is close cropped, and still blonde; the sturdiness has not yet left the frame that fills out the shoulders and the sleeves of his shirt. Sunlight filters through the leaves and dapples his face, which is frowning slightly, set toward a book propped up on his chest. Prudence, he asks her, do you believe in witches? She tells him she does not. Well, King James believed in them, it says so right here in this book, and that’s why they were put in the play. Bunkum, she says. Witches ain’t biblical. His eyes light up and he smiles at her in triumph. Are too, he says, are too biblical, there was a witch done called up the ghost of the prophet Samuel.
The girl is hunched over the brat in the crib. “Sorry,” she is telling him, her crooked face streaked with spittle and tears, “I’m sorry. Hush up, now.” Mrs Moray still does not believe in witches, but if witches did exist, she thinks they would surely look like this pitiful bowed creature with her bovine eyes and lame leg. She decides that her husband had simply lost his mind, and that the strains of his insanity had perhaps been present long before she recognized them for what they were. Poetry and theatrics drew one away from God; that was Augustine. She never took to it herself, discouraged it whenever she could, but really ought to have known better from the start. It hurts her pride to admit an error of judgment, but in doing so she is able to mentally categorize her husband as an invalid, and thereby excuse with relief the lingering pity that rears, sapping her rage, whenever she thinks of him. It would be wrong to feel only bad things towards an invalid. The girl was no invalid – lame, yes, but pert, that was plain to see – and therefore Mrs Moray feels no guilt at hating her exclusively.
A witch in a shadowy room – and what a stench! Wrinkling her nose again, she finds herself remembering how the smell of honeysuckle covered over the dank scent of the stagnant ponds that sat, in shades of rotting green, at the bottom of the pasture where she and her late husband used to walk. But no sooner does she think it than the same image rises again: him reclining beneath the bull bay. It was the day of the dance, and after the dance he had asked her to marry him. She thought herself something of a catch, then; yes, she was a catch; and Mrs Moray sinks slowly into a tumult of impressions she had thought herself long inured to, yet now transformed, as though seen through a lens, with the bittersweet pall of an elegy. She recalls how he had approached her sitting at a table, having found some place to stash his book in the hours since their encounter by the tree. When he asked her to dance, she had cast a sidelong glance at her mother and her aunts, all straight-backed, pious women, the women she long strove to emulate in thought and word and deed. She saw that they beheld the boy’s wide smile with faint alarm. Yet her mother, with pursed lips, gave a nod, almost imperceptible; and then came a wave of panic as she yielded herself to the grinning boy in public. Then, too, rose other grins: he grinned at her that same way before the altar, six months later; grinned through bitter tears, the night he balled up his letter from college admissions and threw it into the darkness, shaking his head; and there was another, a venal, slanting grin, one she glimpsed later on from doorways, through windows and across crowded rooms, which surfaced in the company of women who disgraced themselves with panstick, garish rouge.
He led her onto the dance floor and took her body in his arms, guiding her movements with the hard bulk of his form. She could still recall the way his breath caressed the crook of her neck and called up gooseflesh on her arms. As he turned her, she sensed she was treading not merely upon the sticky wooden boards but also at the threshold of a land strange and indistinct. For the first time in her life a thick passion had pooled within her, a brutal dark heat that slickened her hidden tongue and trickled, with dull throbs, beneath her thighs and face. She remembers the spasms of her body; but now these were not spasms of pleasure, but of heartbreak; her face was buried in her mother’s lap as she struggled in shame to stifle her sobs. Her mother remained impassive. Give him a child, she said, do your duty and bear him a child, and mark me, girl, things will improve. Then stains, glimpsed by lamplight in the dark: wet roses blooming on alabaster sheets, shades of red she thought suffused with an evil glee. Ever after she considered red a diabolical colour, knew well, too well, why humanity chose scarlet for the devil’s dress. For days and weeks, she lay facing the wall and gave no sign of recognition to the careful pleading of her husband’s touch.
Lost in recollection, Mrs Moray doesn’t notice the girl’s hand advancing across the table until it comes within inches of her own. She blinks, uncomprehending, as the pale fingers brush against her wrist; the girl’s eyes, still glistening with tears, regard her with a tentative sympathy. All at once it feels as though a gulf has opened up somewhere deep within her; for a moment she senses that she is in danger of being swept away by the current of an unseen power, one that draws people together and binds them to one another, and she balks in terror. She snatches her hand away and stands up with enough force to send the little wooden chair clattering to the ground, wiping her eyes furiously. The girl’s hand retracts in an instant and vanishes beneath the table. Mrs Moray feels that she has been deceived, though in what manner or by what means she could not rightly say; yet a righteous indignation scorches her from within.
“You trash,” she whispers, “oh, you worthless piece of trash. You say you didn’t know about me? Well, that’s just fine. But I knew about you. Oh, I knew all about you, Missy, I knew you even before you knew about him. I was unwell – I had an ailment. I understood what that meant for him. Do you know what I told him? I told him that if he needs the touch of a woman, he’s to find himself a darkie or a cripple. I told him if he can’t rightly love his wife without a bit of senseless friction, then he’s to find himself a beast of a woman, just an extension of his hand, so I know there’s no chance of any real betrayal. I told him,’ she says, raising her voice, “to find you.”
The girl mouths wordlessly, her eyes wide.
“Oh, yes,” Mrs Moray goes on, wanting to build on the lie, to make it palatable, “what did you think, that he chose you? That he saw something in you worth liking?”
“But Miss – oh, he said he liked me the way I was! Said when he was a kid, he liked picking out fruit with a bruise, that he couldn’t stand the thought they’d get left out while the other pieces of fruit got chose. Said he saw… saw beauty…”
“Good gracious,” Mrs Moray says again, shaking her head with a smile. The strange moments of reflection, the terror that had confounded her, have given way to an ancient spite from which she draws strength. “And you know where he is now, don’t you? Too bad you didn’t get him his priest.” She jerks a thumb toward a rough wooden crucifix nailed above the bed. “That trinket there won’t make a bit of difference.”
The girl’s head droops. Mrs Moray breathes deep and lets it out in a long, shaking sigh. The pain her lie has caused brings immense satisfaction. The damp smell of the room is joined by a sour odour wafting from the brat’s basket. He’s screaming again, his cheeks red and his little fists flailing in the air, but the girl doesn’t seem to notice. Mrs Moray decides that things have gone on quite long enough.
“You have something that belongs to me,” she says.
Outside, the chill briefly stalls Mrs Moray on the ramshackle steps leading down to the street. Flecks of ice-salt carried on the wind sting her eyes. The brat is shocked into silence by the cold, his face pinched and turning pink. Mrs Moray nestles him gently in the crook of her arm, packed in his frayed blue swaddling.
As she makes her way along the road, picturing the route that will bring her back to Main Street and the station, she hears a shout. Behind her the girl stumbles out through the doorway, clumsily wiping the blood from her nose.
“Wait!” she bellows. She hops down the steps and falls into her pitiful gait, frantically dragging the lame leg through the snow behind her. Mrs Moray turns and quickens her pace along the road.
The girl shouts the same word over and over. She cannot keep up; her cries devolve into screams, terrified, inarticulate. The wind soon snatches them away.
About The Author
J. H. Whitcutt is a writer based in the United Kingdom.
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