I sat in that place I favoured so well, letting the memories wash over me. Leaves swirled and danced on the floor and the wind teased my thick long hair, as it carried the sad overtures of what had once been. It covered my face as I turned my head a little to look at the door. A cracked mirror leant against the weatherboard wall and I caught a glimpse of myself. There were a few I had known that had said I was slim and pretty, but what did they know, I had been locked away forever and a day with her, never leaving the house, except to take Withering to the shed.
The trouble with living in a small town was that everyone knew your business. It troubled me that my grandmother was able to keep our business a secret. Were we safe because of the empty, outreaching fields and the rolling hills beyond that, as they bled away into endless stretches of colour? I didn’t know, nor did I really care. This town had skeletons roaming its dusty streets and no one seemed to give it a second thought that they crowded up against our place.
So many had died by Pollard’s hand and there, among the leaves, hidden under the hessian bag I used to cover my nakedness sat more tears. Shaped and hardened into coloured marbles. They were full of sin and other things. Some held disbelief and anger, while the pale yellow balls, catching the sunlight in my lap, shimmered with pain. It was easy to hurt, easier than forgetting.
“Justice, stop your moping and help me with the old man. Your grandfather’s been seen walking. Pollard’s name is on everyone’s lips this morning, so grab yourself an umbrella and get me to the shed.” Withering’s voice was as gnarly as the body she walked in. Long earrings hung from stretched earlobes and the many rings on her fingers clacked their impatience.
The old crone‘s eyes were milky, fading to a cloud of blindness, but her mind was still sharp, just like the conviction she carried for Pollards confinement. Her husband’s prison was ongoing and for the sake of fear never talked about. Only they knew of the murders. Each grisly act was as mad as the rest, each one bloodier than the last.
A dog in a neighboring yard began to bark and my grandmother stopped. She tipped her head, listening and I lifted my face up to the sun. It was the only light I had left in my days. A crow answered the dog back, Caw, Caw… It took flight, a black feather drifted lazily on the warm air.
“Keep up girl.” Withering was brusque, a callous old thing. Her heart had turned to stone on Pollards first killing, but she had married him for good or ill and the binding of those words held fast. A spring bride to his roaming eye! The General Store still held a board with clippings, boasting the marriage of city lass to a country farmer’s son. So much joy! So long ago!
Past the clothesline, a stubborn old plank holding up strands of rusting wire. Pollard’s dungeon swung back and forth like a dead, headless, empty man. Around the water tank, I couldn’t help but lag behind. Eyeing her with dread as I would have to look at him again. My grandfather, the man I hated to love. Past the stables, with our one pig and two goats inside, the old woman kept a fast pace.
Withering launched into a patch of red, trampling poppies underfoot as if they were the enemy. I did my best to avoid hurting their petals. They were a favorite flower and one of the few bright things in my dark life. Now I felt angry. Damn the old woman. Pollard was wicked, how could she not see, the Devil loved him and again my memory floated back to another day. The last day of my life. Hadn’t I cried a tear to remember it all by, a single black marble marking the memory, I kept it hidden even from Withering, for if she knew – it would be my end.
It had been a bright day, full of summer and hot winds. It has been my birthday and Pollard, crazy to the core, decided that I was to be his. Leaving Withering without a word, he set out to bring me home. Grandfather stood at arms -length of the front gate, watching with glazed eyes as the house burned. I raced down the street towards the inferno, clutching Tulip’s necklace in my hand.
Tugging at his faded brown coat, I cried; “Where is mum and dad? Shouldn’t they be here?” The flames licked at the walls. Acrid, black smoke wafted from the windows and doors, curling up towards the clouds, blocking out the sun, and making a hot day all that much hotter.
“They’re sleeping.” He was transfixed, serenely content.
“No they’re not.” My voice shook, “I’ve only been gone a bit. I had to get Tulip’s present.”
It seemed I had broken the dream. He spat, a mixture of saliva and tobacco splattered the pavement at my feet, “A crack on the head will do it to you every time Justice, and didn’t you know that. What the hell have they been teaching you?” He leant over me, just a little but it was enough, “stop that damn yanking, you filthy no good for nothing, I’ll belt you lifeless if you keep pushing.” His grey eyes were dull, “and quit your sniveling – we’re going home.” It was said with such finality, that any protest I might have had died in those crackling flames.
A tear pushed itself forward, slid from my eye as a bright, shining yellow ball. It shattered onto the pavement with a loud crack. Pollard laughed, grabbed at my hand and dragged me along. That had been my first tear, my first ball of pain.
Withering’s clawed hand scraped at my shoulder, “Justice? Wake up child. Pay attention.” I felt another tear coming.
It would solidify and fall to the ground if I were to let it slide. Would she lock me up too in my bare room, with just my marbles for company? Grandmother hated them all. I can’t stand to look at them Justice. My boys all dead and buried, along with my heart. Your grandfather, rot his soul. But, how could I help what I was.
From the folds of a layered skirt, Withering’s wrinkled hands produced a key. It hung on a beaded chain. Who would have thought that something, so small could hide away such a dark secret? With a quick click the strong-planked door unlocked.
“Open it child! Open it and then strike the flint. Don’t enter until we have some light Justice. You know what he is capable of.” This time the crone’s voice was almost gentle. Perhaps, she too was remembering the son who was killed by his father’s hand.
“But you said he would be sleeping. You put enough Widowsroot in his porridge to put two men to sleep.” I couldn’t help the fear creeping along the words. She knew what he was, and still she kept him safe.
“Do you think I would allow them to have him? To take the last man in my life so they could burn him for his crimes?” Withering hissed the words into my face, such was her anger, “he is my husband, and I have been with him for sixty years child. They were my boys that he killed Justice! Flesh of my flesh. Flesh of his flesh.”
I should have hissed my own words back, but she was all that I had. I wanted to say, One of those son’s was my father. For the love of all that is holy grandmother, can you not see that it was my grandfather, who killed my father, my mother?
A sudden calm fell upon Withering as I struck the flint and a bright flame gave life to the wick in my old lamp. It flickered as I held it out front. The old crone pushed me aside and stepped into the gloom. I hurried after her; not wishing to be alone, even in the safety of the outdoors memories followed me everywhere. They hung with the cobwebs in the shadows. They even rode the whisperings of the wind and late at night, when the barking owl screeched outside my window, I had to remind myself that my grandfather was locked tight under Withering’s key.
Grandmother lifted her husband’s head, the bristled chin sat in her wrinkled hand as she surveyed her handiwork. “This will do, now go fetch the rope. That lump of coil over in the corner Justice. We need to tie him tight. He can never leave this shed. I’ve heard talk and none of it is any good.”
The rope was heavy, but I tugged and pulled it across the floor and together we worked the rope around my grandfather’s body. Looping it in knots, we bound man and chair in the flickering light. My heart raced and my loathing thickened at the sight of him.
The crone kept her eyes tightly on the sleeping man, “He’s dead inside child, as black as a night without a moon. There is nothing left for him to cling to and I fear if he gets loose again, I will not be able to stop him.”
We tied off the knots as tight as we were able, but his snoring gave me little comfort. She locked the door, and together we made our way slowly back to the small house. We were on our own, for good or bad.
The sound of snapping wood jolted me back. I was in my room again and the sunlight floated dust motes before my eyes. Was it all a dream? I looked down at the marbles spread out before me and the leaves that danced across the floor in the shifting breeze. I had left the window open.
A piercing scream sounded and I recognized it as Withering’s. I pushed myself off the floor and looked out the window. From the second floor, I could see the shed and the door hung open, awkwardly on its old hinges. It swung like a waving hand to me.
‘Withering!’ I couldn’t help it, but I screamed the words and the sound of pounding feet echoed on the floorboards downstairs. I gathered up my hessian bag, held it close to my skin as I wrapped it about my cold body. Down the steps, and then into the hallway I crept. Behind me, a door slammed. Swallowing down the horror, I had a thought, Could anything else shock me. Truly, I am doomed.
I walked toward the sound of the bang until I reached the kitchen doorway. It was an outhouse, added on as an afterthought. Withering’s legs stuck out in plain view. I noticed the holes in her thick stockings and the stout faded, black shoes on her feet.
“Withering are you alright?” After all, what else was there to say?
Her eyes stared at me. Milky white now, as blind in death as they had been in life. Jagged tears racked her skinny body, the fabric of her flowered shirt stuck fast to the blood. Of her killer, there was no sign. But, I knew who it was. The door from the window had waved me on.
I bent and rifled the old crone’s pocket. The little key slipped into the palm of my hand. I left Withering where she was, on the kitchen floor, dead and bloody. The wind had picked up and I gathered the hessian bag closer. I could hear the sound of the shed door banging. A trail of blood pulled me on, scud marks scratched on the stone blocks.
Through the patch of poppies, thick furrows raked my beautiful poppies – they lay ripped and torn, like my heart. I placed a hand on the door to hold me up and there in the gloom, with Withering’s blood dripping onto his shoes sat Pollard. The rope laid on the floor, our knots broken and the axe he had used to kill his wife, sat back in its place against the wall.
“Shut the door Justice.” His eyes had that faraway look in them.
As I closed it gently, I peeked for the last time. Pollard’s head was thrown back; a silent scream stretched his mouth wide.
“I’m next” I whispered into the wooden planks. I turned the key and heard the lock click into place. The wind had picked up, it whistled overhead and the house without a soul called to me. After all, what else was I to do – my marbles were waiting.
Ellen Mae Franklin (Carol Bond)