Friday, 5 February 2016

I Am Not Afraid by Erika Woods

Two nudges. She knows exactly how far - just wide enough for a slender body to slip through. The kitchen door sighs. Shhh. No one must know. No one must ever find out. This is secret. Her secret.

A clock marks time. Tick Tock. Tick Tock. Her time. There’s not much left. From beneath a heavy cloud moonlight strikes the window, piercing the night’s blackness.

“I am not afraid,” she says over and over. ‘I am not afraid.’

I am on the brink.  I shuffle in and out of infirmity.  My life hangs by a thread.
And I am not afraid. I am not afraid.

Are they watching?
What do they see?

An old woman taunted by delusion; shrivelled with waiting? No? What then?
A child?  A mother’s love overflowing?  Dark days, dark moods?  The father’s disapproval that moulds itself around infant innocence?  The unknown sin heavy upon my fledgling shoulders?

What have I done? My eyes send the silent question to my mother. What have I done? She turns away. I watch. Her very being droops. I see she bears the same heavy mantle as mine. Each time she turns away its weight bows her a little more.

In old age she stoops almost double, with sidelong glances swiping at her adult child - the reminder of her inadequacy and guilt?

The light is dazzling. He is dead! His disapproval evaporates with his withered soul. On high, I weep for him. On high, I shout joyously. On high, the scars remain embedded, streaked tears encoded through the years. My transgression never to be revealed.  My eight year old eyes stare at his still, sickly, waxen-yellow features. What did I do? What did I do?  His eyes snap open. I scream and run from the room.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

I am an island, marooned in a swaying sea of clustered cowslip yellow. Above, a haze of heat is swaddled in a never-ending blue. Happiness, a light breathe in the breeze. Am I happy? Was I happy? What is happy? This moment when only colour touches me? This moment when his eyes close forever. How will I know? 

Are they watching?
What do they see?

Do they see the child with golden plaits that match ripened corn? As she runs barefooted through meadow and forest? As she splashes in streams? As she delights in dappled, silver-flashing fingers that spread, sprawl, dance and fall, cold and fresh from the mountain’s womb?

Do they see the young maiden, with soft, newly swollen breasts pushing into the world, as she welcomes the day unhindered by clothes. No carnal knowledge shackles her natural immodesty. She does not feel the stranger’s presence. His inquisitive eyes penetrating. His desire feeding on her nakedness. Nor his madness.

It is over. Swiftly.

Blood, mud, semen smear across whimpered protests. I lay tangled. A trembling mess of mauve-bruised limbs. Sobs lie, lead ingots, weighted inside me. Wetness trickles shame between my thighs. Putrid breathe stinks in my nostrils; the foulness of his tongue lingers on mine; the rabid touch embedded in skin - my skin.

They find me naked. My hands tear at my rancid flesh. They halt the mutilation, gently binding my strident scratchings. They cover my nakedness. They bathe my body. Blood, mud, semen pool away as if nothing has happened. 

But the putrid breathe remains, as does the foulness of tongue and the rabid touch. A lifetime suppuration. Scabbing superficially, only to be picked instantly raw. A word, a gesture, a sour, unwashed odour or a roughness of hand.

Sobs remain festering lumps plugged within my breast. If I cry I may never stop. So I do not. They question me. I cannot answer.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

The wind whips at oaks, hazel and hawthorn, alder and ash. Browbeating branches. Snatching at leaves. Hurling them groundward. I stride through rustling fear and clamber onto the jagged coldness of ice-scoured rocks.  Below in the valley, one by one, lights flare. Snaking - a flickering necklace slung beneath lofty star-bright shadows.

I am here.
I am not afraid.

I know they are watching.
Is this what they see?

A young woman, hunched into her winter coat? Beside her, a man, a few years older, scatters rusted leafy heaps as they walk. She does not smile as he talks, or respond. Her voice was left behind long ago.

He is sweet- breathed, gentle of touch. He longs to kiss the pale pink fullness of her lips. To bring light to the dullness of her eyes. The Valley has grown up with her horror. So he knows that he cannot - must not if he is to win her. And all the time she watches, elegant, long necked; a gazelle, alert, ready to flee. 

In time I am won over by his patience. ‘Will you marry me?’ he says. And still he has not kissed me, or offered a lover’s embrace, or even held my hand.

Something strange, strong and new surges within me. Unspilt sobs hold still. My voice traces word patterns to my mouth. I shape a silent yes.

‘Hurrah!’ He shouts, ‘Hurrah,’ and flings his arms around me.

I struggle, panic beating fists against his chest.

‘Hush.’ His warm whisper tousles my hair. ‘Hush, Cariad, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.’

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

Away, away, I soar, with buzzard, hawk, kestrel and kite. I bask on the thermals and rainbow prisms of light. Away. Away. I cannot be caught.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

But I’m not here. I am there. There in his arms. I am afraid. Slowly he releases me. I am poised for flight. But my legs are wilful and stubborn. They disobey. Go, I urge, go, run like the wind, down to the valley, back to the farm, to the safety of my mother’s arms.

My mother. Where was she? When I needed her most?

My vows knot and snag at the base of my tongue as I sign to him, marvelling at his kindness, his love. ‘I do, I will,’ his voice rings strong and true across the pews where the valley has come to witness my rebirth.

The ancient chapel stone resonates with hymns of praise to a merciful God. A good God. A fair God. A God who has released my despoiler for good behaviour. Absolved, exonerated. But I know. The deed cannot be undone. Consequences are timeless.

I am resolved not to let my day be sullied. I wear white. A simple cotton gown that curves about my body.  For you are pure, say the Valley women, pure in heart and soul. Virtuous. It is the first time I have seen myself as such, but it is true. The lustrous young woman in the mirror tells me so. I go gladly to my wedding day.

I am there and I am not afraid.

We are to stay in the Valley. My mother is too old to continue working the farm. She is grateful for this virile masculine blood that relieves her of responsibilities: the farm, me. Especially she is grateful that the defiled daughter has been taken from her. She is ready for the fireside and remembrances. We do not abandon her to the sombre sanctuary of St Bernard’s Nursing home, some miles away. She is kept within our reach, within our care. Often she turns her eyes aside so they do not meet mine.

He cradles my rigid body. Kisses play softly on my skin…

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

I am by the lake. Melynllyn, scooped high above the Valley between stark Carneddau peaks. My clothes lay abandoned. I slip between sun-dropped diamonds dancing on the water. And, with the breeze, stir a cauldron of gentle ripples. That caress. Seeking the secrets of my body.

Fingers stroke. Touch. Face, lips, eyes, neck, breasts, thighs. Imprint upon imprint. Where other fingers, thick and demanding, cruelly invaded, his loving touch issues unction until, unbidden, my body acquiesces. Silently I give myself up to an unimagined and unknown pleasure. It is done and he is welcome for all the next times we have.

I am with child! It stirs within my belly. It’s making a joyous thing. Music overflows from me. I hum as I go about my day. Another beginning.

I am there. I am there and I am not afraid.

A life forces itself free. A daughter. Sky. There are no boundaries to joy. We delight as the produce of our loins transforms. Chrysalis to butterfly. A miracle.

The seasons ebb and flow. Farming shifts. Livings are no longer made by such. We labour on. Diversify. A farm shop. Bed and breakfast offered to all who visit the Valley and its guardians.

Over the years speech bubbles and is swallowed to rest in the hollow of my throat. There is no release.

I feel them. Their eyes watching.
What do they see? What do they see?

Do they see the middle-aged figures fold into old age, as the family disperses? One to the grave, no longer needing to avert her life-weary eyes; another, blithely, to unknown adventures. The figures cleave. Uncertain.

Another winter ends. I watch my husband. Our goodbye. His breath extinguishes.  How will I be without him?  This man who healed me. How can I bear to live on? Sky - beautiful, confident, concerned, returns for a while. But life calls and she must follow.

The farm is for sale. A young couple throw open doors and windows, poke and pry, examining, exclaiming. They purchase my world without wonder or care of its history.

The farm is hollow, empty of furniture, empty of living. I go to the back garden. Rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, marjoram share a bittersweet farewell. I gather the last of my tools. And turn.

A shadow stands before me. I recognise the rancid odour.

Blood and mud smears. The earth runs crimson. The axe hacks hatred at his flesh. My arms still strong from years of toil. Our screams crescendo. A schism in the heavy heat-hung summer.

‘You!’ I say, ‘You!’ Words spring.  Released at last. ‘You!’  My alien voice, a frenzied rasping gurgle. ‘You! You! You!’ Tears, snot, spittle hang revulsion on every utterance.  A frenzied, rasping gurgle. My alien voice.

I am possessed. From the barn I fetch a spade. In the far corner I clear compost and dig, and dig. Deep, deep. Harsh sobs rip from within. Panting, I throw slabs of still-warm flesh into the cavity I have made.  I heave the mangled remains, amazed -shocked at my capacity and strength . I look at my hands. Veins, threading pulse blue beneath the blood-scrawled skin that sheathes them. My hands. They have waited seventy three years. They have never forgotten.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

I fly with the bees on their pollen seeking journey. To the Valley flecked gold with broom and coconut-fragrant gorse.  Between heather-strewn purples and wild rhododendron pink. Beyond age-groaned dry stone walls and narrow dirt- drift tracks.

I look down. Earth upon earth. Water dilutes crimson into opaqueness. An arid thirsty ground absorbs the pale liquid sacrifice. In a while there is no trace.

I am found squatting, naked by flames that engulf my blood-sodden clothes. My voice has retreated. They halt my strident scratchings, binding gently. And cover my trembling flesh. I do not move.

They may salvage my skeletal body and carry it down rocky paths, bones jostling painfully to the unsteady rhythm. They can scold, enfold me in wool-made blankets that scratch warmth onto my parchment skin. They can spill hot broth over my thin lips. My body is theirs to do as they please.

I am not there.
I am here.
I am not afraid.

The valleys are below, cocooned in mist, undulating phantom shapes - cattle, wild horses, sheep, emerge and submerge, as it swells and recedes - a spectral ocean with high tides that wash the edges of summer. 

Farmsteads hollowed out in smoky outlines hide shyly within the folds of the early morning.  

I am in time to surprise the sun; her soft golden tongues make ready to lap layers of wynn-skirted grey from the land. A light silent skirmish as the mist succumbs, dissipates and the wanton lands exposed. I follow heaven-stretched  Pines, marking their journey with soft shadowy indents over moist, dew-laden moss.
I am here.

I am not afraid.

The home that evaded my mother now holds me. I learn its secrets so that I can seek and attend to mine. The polished curve of banisters. The knot just before the turn. The creak of the final tread. How far to push the kitchen door to its protest - so a slender body can slip through. The tick-tock as time steals time.

 Along the path, slippers slap, slap. An unsteady crunch across frozen grassy spikes. The farm is in darkness. I edge towards the decay. I inhale its fetidness. Satisfaction warms me. No one will ever know.

I weary and sink to the ground. A hoar frost nestles on my closed eyelids.

Do they still watch?
Ah yes, ever vigilant.
What do they see now?

It matters not.
I am not there.
I am here.
In my valley where ashes scatter and dust meets dust.
A smile settles.
Peace.
I am here and I am not afraid.

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