They brought my bed down into the parlour and put it just a little way from the fire. It feels like winter-black meltwater from the cows’ trough running through my veins, though it’s as fine a June as any of the sixteen I’ve been granted. They moved Grandpa’s bed last year, so I knew what was coming.
“You’re a calamity, John Truslove,” my mother says, wiping my face with a handkerchief and then kissing my forehead. I try to speak, but she hushes me. Usually she smells of soap and coal but tonight she’s having one of her evenings with Dad, so she smells of violets instead. I hear the snap of the little brass tin of beeswax she keeps for smoothing her hair.
“Are you sure we should leave him?” It’s Dad’s voice, soft like he’s trying not to wake the baby. Dad smells of the farm. Like the old carthorse, Soldier. All straw and droppings and bran mash. Even when he and Mum are having one of their evenings it’s the same, but with the scorch of his shirt gone over with the flat iron too.
“Annie’s coming to sit with him,” she says.
They’ll take a turn around the village as they always do and then go to Old Joe’s Saloon (which is really just a back room in Joe’s house where he sells a bit of grog). Mum will have two glasses of stout that’ll leave her with a rosehip blush and breath like liquorice. They’ll come home along the lane, Mum’s arm linked through Dad’s, laughing like they’re courting. Though maybe not tonight.
“Your dad was there when you were born,” Mum said one night while he was out helping with a calving, and we were sitting together keeping the fire warm for him. “The midwife couldn’t come because another lady was on the way with hers too. Your dad just rolled up his sleeves. Can’t be much different from a cow, he said. And I suppose he was right, really. All just hot slippery things coming out of the dark in the end, but he still got a thump for it.”
I drift in and out. Sometimes I’m here in the parlour and can smell potatoes baking in the oven. My milky little sister comes close and knits Mum’s spare lengths of wool. It ends in a tangle, but she stays beside me to unpick it, talking about the donkey over in the far field. It’s not our donkey. Not sure whose it is. Sometimes Dad goes over with a bucket of steaming mash on cold days, like he does for Soldier. It’s got big eyes, that donkey, like it’s looking at something far away. But not far away like in the next field. Far away in another place entirely. Dad put me on his back once and I smoothed those big grey ears.
“Used to little ‘uns like you,” he said. “Your grandad used to put me on his back too.”
I’d visit him and give him the bits of hay I’d found along the lane or the windfallen apples from the old orchard. I’d look in his eyes and wonder what he wanted to say; he always seemed on the verge of saying something. Once or twice a season you’ll see someone being carried along the path that runs through his field. I don’t know what the donkey thinks. Maybe he likes seeing folk, even if they are wrapped in a shroud and going off to meet their maker.
Sometimes I’m far away. High up. I can’t hear or smell anything. It’s white-grey, like a sky in late spring when the sun won’t come out properly. I think if I could just manage to turn over, I’d be able to see it like one great painting or a traveller’s map. The wind of the river and the cross on the donkey’s withers. I know it’s my turn to make the journey along the old track through the donkey’s field. I know it’s up to my dad and my uncle and some chaps from the farms to carry me to the church. I know. But I’m not ready yet. My milky sister and the rest of the noisy lot. My violets and coal mother. My bran mash and sweat father. I’m not ready to let them go. Not yet.
I expect I smell of sickness. I remember it when Grandad was dying. There was a tang in the air, like metal. Like when the farrier does Soldier’s shoes at the forge. I could be at the smithy right now what with the heat in this place. I could be a piece of iron ready to be pushed into the coals, then struck and hammered and stretched then thrust into black water. Turned into something different.
A few weeks back, when I was fitter than I am now, I went down the Old Village with a sack to see what I could find. Sometimes I’ll pick up things that the bargemen have thrown on the towpath, but mostly I go to fetch kindling that’s blown down out the hedgerows. I usually come back home with bundles of wands tied in twine but that day I found a lump of coal. It was as big as a ram’s head and with ribbons of hot orange twisting through it. I couldn’t tell where it’d fallen from. Like a burning rock from the sky, it was. I managed to put it in the sack and plunged the whole lot into the canal where it bubbled for a moment. The sack was useless when I got back but the coal was a shiny treasure. Dad squeezed the back of my neck and told me I was a good lad. We put the thing on the table and stared at it for an afternoon, marvelling at its size.
“It’s millions of years old, that lump of coal, John, can you believe it?” said Dad before Mum took it outside and walloped it with a hatchet and piled the pieces into a scuttle.
The sheets are soft around me. I feel like I’m already wrapped up in my shroud, though it’s folded on the little stool by the range in the kitchen. She’ll bring it through later and sew the white silk ribbons from her wedding dress along the edges of my fine linen blanket for my final bed. It’s the best thing she owns, her wedding dress, and I watched her all last week unpicking. She got my Christening gown out too. It was all of ours, of course, but there’d be no more babies now, she said, and carefully took the blanket-stitched cross from the bodice to put over my heart.
I’m not dead yet. I heard Granny say that stitching too soon would hasten my time, but they all know it’s going to happen. They come over and shush me when my breathing gets noisy, though I can’t hear it. Sometimes Dad will turn me on my side a little to make me more comfortable, but I can’t feel that either. I’m not in there now. I’m getting ready to go along the path through the field.
I’ve walked the paths and roads in the village so many times that I know every stone. I know every ankle-turn and stumble. I know where the hares make their forms. I know the farms – Manor, Gate, Green and Leam; I know where to stand to see the sun rise above the elm by Leam. I divined the way to the Roman Well using sticks and spoke with the guardian there after dark. And I know the dark path used by uncommon folk. I’ve lifted coins from the earth and pulled gleaming treasures from the hedgerows before Michael’s Day. And I know the corpse way; I know the bridge where the bargemen cross themselves lest their corpse should cross next.
From our house it’s about a mile and a half to the Old Village if you go over the fields. The ground gets lumpy and peculiar with the same texture as Mum’s toad-in-the-hole. There’s not much left of the place, only the church. There’ve always been grumblings about it being so far away, especially when the weather’s wet and we all end up with soggy feet for the service. Dad joined a committee once. Bill Tew had the idea of moving every last stone of the old building and re-erecting it in Sawbridge.
“It makes sense,” Dad insisted, and for six weeks of Thursday evening meetings he met with Bill and half a dozen others to form a grand plan.
“And you really think it’d make that heathen crew get to a service more than once in a turn round the sun?” Mum said. She’s seen through plenty of Dad’s schemes over the years, but to be fair to him, they’re not really his schemes. “He’s easily led,” she would say.
“And you led him up that aisle,” would be Grandma’s response, earning herself a gentle shove. I spent a lot of time in the house with Grandma on account of my weak heart, especially when the weather took a turn and even when it didn’t.
I don’t think the church would like to be uprooted anyway. It’s a strange, sunken place that looks like it’s grown out of the earth or been pushed up by the feet of giants slumbering beneath. I can hear it speaking when I go. Not matins or evensong. Not the sounds of choirs and the harmonium or the whisper of damp prayer book pages being turned. It’s more like a drumbeat. Or a heartbeat. And if you separate the body from the heart, neither can live. Maybe, when I’ve gone, when they’ve placed me beneath the earth there, I’ll grow into one of the stones in the graveyard and my faulty heart will beat in time for once.
“Your health won’t take it,” said Mum, when all the other lads went out in late summer for harvest. I heard her and Dad arguing about it.
“You’ll turn him soft. He needs to be out there, not laundering,” Dad said, when he’d come home to find me folding clothes. They didn’t speak for a day or two after until they went out on one of their evenings and returned, all trace of starch and stiffness gone.
I found my own way in the end. I became a gatherer. A collector. Everything the fields and tracks had to offer I’d put in my pockets. Leftovers and afters that others didn’t think worth bending down for, I’d fetch home. Sloe, bramble, apple, and mushroom. Nettle and cleaver. Wool from the hedge and sacks of droppings from the beasts of the field. Seeds and stones, sticks for fires and worms for birds. Elder and oak, blackthorn, and May. Sprats and eels. Long horsetail hairs. I know a secret patch of sweet thyme and where to find the cress that flourishes in the stream. I’d collect them all and give them to Mum or whoever might give me thruppence for my trouble.
“My nut-brown boy,” said Mum, as I placed a bag of hazels in her hand last autumn. “You always find what others miss.”
Everything can be harvested. Everything has a use. Even me.
The doctor came earlier, but I didn’t want him touching or administering. I wanted my father and my mother and my milky little sister and her knots of knitting. I’m not afraid. I just want the sound of the wooden spoon clanking around the iron pot. The smell of vegetables cooking and the chickens squawking in the yard. I want the sound of my Grandma sweeping out the hearth with a brush she made from a stock and bristles I found on one of my walks.
They must have come back from their turn around the village, Mum and Dad. I didn’t hear the latch go or Annie leaving. And I can’t smell Mum’s violets anymore. Dad must be out locking up the hens so the fox doesn’t come calling, or else going over to Bill Tew’s for something. I heard him say he had to, but I forget what for. It’s dark and my sister will be in her bed and I in mine soon enough. Not this bed though with its sheets like a shroud. The one across the donkey’s field, over the lumpen, sunken village to the church that looks like a ship risen from the deep.
“Look, John, the donkey,” she says. It’s my little sister. But she’s asleep in bed and it’s just me and Mum now.
“It’s millions of years old, that piece of coal, John,” says my dad who’s half a mile away over at Bill Tew’s, cooking up a scheme. And the coal is burning clean and hot on the fire. Hot enough to forge swords.
“Now then, John Truslove,” says Mum. It’s just me and her now. I can feel her stroking my hair. At least I think I can. Maybe I’m just remembering. It’s what she always does when one of us is fretful. She nurses me now like I was just born.
It’s like being on a boat when I go at last across the corpse path through the donkey’s field. They carry me, my Dad, my uncle, and the chaps from the farms. It’s like lying back in a boat on the canal and looking up at the white-grey sky on a day when the sun won’t come out. They stop for a while and rest me on the ground in the field. I can hear the donkey. Or at least I think I can. I know it’s near and it comes up close to thank for me for windfallen apples and cartfallen hay. I reach out and smooth its big, daft grey ears and hope that Dad will remember to bring him his bucket of warm fodder on cold days. Dad doesn’t forget. Neither does the donkey, I shouldn’t think.
They pick me up again, those packhorse men, shouldering my box like it’s bales of hay. We cross the bridge and a half dozen bargemen cross their chests. I can hear the beating beneath the church as we get closer. It makes me think of that day it rained so hard that I could hear a whole Roman legion marching over the barn roof up at Leam. I sheltered under there so long that I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of soldiers and swords far beyond the lay of the Old Village and further still than the length of the river or the straight-sided canal. I’ll sleep again now, and my heart will beat with the sound of the legion’s feet marching and the deep drumming beneath the church’s stones and the slow clop of Soldier’s hooves as he returns from the forge with his bright new shoes.
Elin Heron is a writer, musician and teacher of Welsh and the tarot. She lives in Derbyshire and recently completed an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University. Her work deals with magic, the dead, landscape and high-strangeness and is at the centre of her magical praxis.