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.