Excerpt

Mid­day on a Tues­day after­noon, in the hall­way of a weath­ered clap­board farm­house, a man called Uncle waited out­side a heavy wooden bed­room door. He did not lean against the door­frame or slouch. Instead, his shoul­ders were square, jaw clenched, shoed feet amply spaced on a braided rug lying askew on the floor. Uncle had been stand­ing there for nearly two hours, had missed his morn­ing tea and soon would miss his lunch. As the heat in the house climbed, he noticed the odour of left­over salt fish and pota­toes, the dish of diced onions that had been aban­doned on the kitchen counter. His belly rum­bled, though he could not con­sider eat­ing. He was much too pre­oc­cu­pied with the ten­sion that had set­tled in the mus­cles around his skull.

Uncle turned his head to look out of the win­dow at the end of the hall. Beyond the smudged glass, he could see Eldred Wood, hold­ing the smooth han­dle of a hoe, trench­ing up a row of young potato plants. He was wear­ing a pale cot­ton shirt, and Uncle knew it would be but­toned up to the neck, cuffs snug around his wrists. The sun was strong today, likely burn­ing the back of his bent head, his thin neck. Uncle had told him not to work dur­ing noon hour, but this was the only time Eldred would ven­ture out­side when the weather was fine. He was pan­icky over his shadow, claimed it fol­lowed him relent­lessly. “Well, yes,” Uncle’s wife had once joked as she folded her arms across the cush­ion of her chest. “They do tend to do that.” Eldred Wood never smiled.

If they had spo­ken of it, both Uncle and his wife might admit it had been a mis­take bring­ing Eldred to live with them so many years ago. They might admit that fact even more read­ily today, at this hour. Though no good came from dwelling on it. Eldred was a man, after all. “And he did what men do best,” Uncle’s wife repeated fre­quently. When­ever Uncle reflected on this, he always felt a slight dis­gust, a slight shame.

The door­knob turned, and Uncle’s head snapped around. Through a crack, he saw the faded eye of his wife, peer­ing towards him, skep­ti­cally. She squeezed her round body out of the room, open­ing the door no more than nec­es­sary, and click­ing it shut just as quickly. In that moment when the door was ajar, Uncle saw a naked leg, stubby and smooth, dan­gling over the edge of the bed. Damp earthy warmth taunted his face.

What! You’re still here?” Her words were clipped, like sharp slaps to Uncle’s ears.

When she stood before him, he smelled the layer of tainted air that had wrapped itself around her, caught in her hair, her clothes. Slaugh­ter came to mind, the scent that rose up when he was rins­ing away the blood, stub­born bits stuck to the hard floor of his barn. For the sec­ond time today, he resented his sen­si­tive nose, wish­ing its capa­bil­i­ties had dimin­ished in turn with his soggy sight, his chalky mouth.

He tried to shrug, but he had stiff­ened. A shrug would have been insignif­i­cant any­way. How could he tell her what raced around inside his head? Wor­ried that the worst might still hap­pen. Angry that, likely, it already had. How could he tell her that he had grown old and com­pla­cent? That this was his fault, his fault. And more hor­ri­ble than any­thing else, in a dark fold of his mind, he firmly believed he had planned it all. He had brought that woman here, intro­duced the two of them, in hopes that this very thing might happen.

Go,” she com­manded. “Do some­thing.” Her hands were behind her, still grip­ping the doorknob.

Uncle stared at his wife. Her dull hair was disheveled, skin on her plump face shiny. An extra but­ton on the front of her dress was undone. He noticed a trace of red cur­rant jam at the cor­ner of her mouth, still lin­ger­ing from a rushed break­fast. As if she had read his mind, her tongue darted out, swabbed the sticky spot, and then retreated. She looked indig­nant. They had been mar­ried fifty-­three years.

You’ve noth­ing to do? Imag­ine that. A farm to run, and noth­ing to do.”

Her cheeks flushed, and he hoped she would regret chid­ing him. Though that was unlikely. Regret involved sen­ti­ment, and any notion of that had dried up, with­ered ages ago. For the most part, she hardly seemed to notice him any­more. He had become a nudge in the morn­ing, a white plate oppo­site her own, a steam­ing cup of milky tea perched on the wide arm of a chair. She had been liv­ing around him for so long now. So, so long.

He remem­bered her whistling when she was a young girl. High and shrill, it was like the rau­cous screech of a sailor who was happy to be on solid ground. The first time he heard it, he was walk­ing down the lane beside the Gill sis­ters’ house, and spied a young girl, a cousin he’d guessed, work­ing in the gar­den. She glanced over at him, smiled, then pursed her lips and resumed her work – and her whistling. She was pretty, in a homely way, but it was the whistling that caught him. He adored it. Went so far as to sup­pose he was charmed by it. Maybe cursed by it, for all he knew. It caused him to break solid promises he had already made.

How funny, his remem­ber­ing this now, though the rec­ol­lec­tion sparked noth­ing within him, no desire to reclaim her, even touch her. Liv­ing together, mix­ing air and breath, that seemed per­sonal enough.

Go, then. Watch for Miss Cooke. She should’ve been here an hour ago.”

Ah yes, Miss Cooke. Was he try­ing to trick him­self into think­ing he had forgotten?

When his wife reen­tered the room, he could hear moan­ing fol­lowed by a never-ending string of “Lord Jeesus, Lord Jeesus, Lord Jeesus.” The occa­sional “Mother Mary” thrown in for good measure.

Uncle’s ears burned, and he felt an unpleas­ant twinge move through his body. As he exhaled, his empty stom­ach rolled over again, and he pushed his fist up under­neath his ribs to calm it. Then, shuf­fling his feet, he man­aged to move away from the bed­room door and make his way to the back of the house.

On the painted stoop, he reached for the rails, gripped them. No sign of her. Miss Cooke. She would come through the wooden gate at the top of his prop­erty, wind her way down through the shiv­er­ing field of tall grass. Her gait would be pur­pose­ful, a no non­sense sort of stride, and he imag­ined the grass shy­ing away from her slen­der body. Uncle knew she would be wear­ing her week­day dress – the yel­low one, a smat­ter­ing of some­thing blue, maybe flow­ers, gath­ered at the waist.

A breeze came around the cor­ner of the house, and his throat asked for a cold drink of water from his well. He con­sid­ered offer­ing one to Eldred. Did the man know what was hap­pen­ing? Or did his thoughts end at the bot­tom of his hoe, where metal touched soil? Uncle felt a pang of jeal­ousy for that sim­plic­ity. His mind was slip­ping too, no doubt, though not in the ways he had antic­i­pated. He had always been some­thing of a dour man, but had recently grown prone to folly. Prone to dreaded introspec­tion. He should stop, but could not. Appre­hen­sion had over­taken him, and he spent valu­able hours every day stand­ing stone still, try­ing to undo the con­sid­er­able mis­take he had made decades ago.

While he waited, he watched a trap­-skiff out in the har­bour, laden with bar­rels of flour for the gen­eral store. Mov­ing swiftly across the water, it was deci­sive, doing the job it was meant to do. Then Miss Cooke appeared on the hill, his hill – he knew she was there before he saw her. In her arms, she held a clutch of fab­ric tied up in a knot. His hand sur­prised him, when it lifted, waved slightly to her like a friend might. He was not offended when she did not return the gesture.

Before he could com­mit her to mem­ory, she was beside him. Time had been kind to her, even though her nose and ear­lobes were sig­nif­i­cantly larger, the fine skin on her chin now loose. Her hair was shiny white, and if she had faced him directly (which she didn’t), he might have said she had a wel­com­ing lean. No doubt, she had grown into a beau­ti­ful old woman. An hon­est spin­ster. Uncle could not deny that any other state of union for Miss Cooke might have killed him.

Though her body had aged, her voice was just the same. He heard it only for an instant when she said his Chris­t­ian name. As quickly as she spoke, he locked those two syl­la­bles away. Knew he would replay them time after time when he was still, when he was silent. He thought she wavered when their old eyes met, and he con­sid­ered that she was build­ing up to their meet­ing as well. How long had it been? An easy num­ber to rec­ol­lect. Fifty-­three years.

Once she was well inside his home, Uncle’s knees buck­led, and he col­lapsed against the sun-­warmed door. He was light-­headed, over­whelmed by the weight of emo­tion within him. Joy and sor­row. Loop­ing, weav­ing. Mend­ing. Tear­ing apart. Many, many strands of both. And these strands had noth­ing to do with the fact that right now, in the home where he had lived his entire life, a child was being born.

 

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