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The Ravelling
a short story by Sarah Singleton

Foreword

"The Ravelling" was first published by QWF magazine, which features women writers. The story draws on my interest in the Victorians, particularly Hardy, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins.

The Ravelling

"He that would live for aye,
Must eat Sage in May"
(English proverb)

Mayday - unfurling a trail of green and white. Hawthorns, bent and dry as hags, blossomed soft and cream, like brides. Flowering stems trembled upon the fingertips of horsechestnuts, swollen with new leaves - and beneath the hedgerows, the pale, gauzy curls of dog parsley.

In the shadow of the apple tree, Crimsa twisted her hands. Her sister and three old women from the village stood on the other side of the grave, like shabby black crows. The priest murmured gracelessly, a sepia blotch staining the front of his surplice. The wind blew, wet and fragrant, and a scattering of petals fell upon her bonnet, and the shoulders of her dress, faded black silk, an odd metallic green at the seams.

The priest finished. The old women threw stones into the grave. Stooped with her show of grief, Arvensis picked up a wreath of silvery sage, and dropped it on the roof of the little coffin. Crimsa, empty-handed, stared into the grave's mouth.

"You'll be back at the end of the month for your sister's wedding."

Crimsa turned to the broken church. Arvensis wept bitterly, and insincerely. The crows offered consolation.

"And where will you go then?" the priest asked. He smelt of earth, and must, and old incense. "When Arvensis is married, life may be difficult."

"The cottage will still be mine."

The priest's hands were dirty from the grave. Dried blood lodged in his fingernails and the seams of his palms.

"I may have a place for you," he said gently. "I need a housekeeper."

Her blood stilled for a moment, a pallor rising in her face.

"No," she said abruptly. "I'll stay at the house."

The priest shook his head.

Crimsa regarded the wreath upon the coffin. Arvensis, the elder of the two, had twisted the ring of grey and green. Sage for eternal life. And under the sage, the lumps of stone.

"You think she'll come back?" For the first time, Crimsa looked into the priest's face. His hair, red-brown like a fox, hung untrimmed to the unwashed white of the surplice. Beneath the vestments, his body was heavy. The last priest, silvery and soft-spoken, had spent his lonely years in the vicarage studying. The present incumbent butchered livestock in the stone yard. Like a prophet - a new Elijah - cutting the cattle to pieces.

"It doesn't always work," he said, gesturing to the coffin.

Crimsa bit her lip. From the front of her bonnet, a slim strand of black hair slipped free.

"I didn't think you were a superstitious man."

The priest, with his fox hair and bloodstains, shook his head.

"If you reconsider," he said, "the housekeeper's post will still be open."

Beyond the casement, Crimsa watched the labourers turning the new hay in the meadow. Old men, with rakes and pitchforks. The sun beat down, copper and gold, and beyond the toiling men, the restless woods shimmered jade and emerald. The staccatto patter of hooves broke the silence, syrupy like the heat. Crimsa drew back from the window into the shadows. The horse clattered into the yard behind the house. Through the door she could hear her sister's voice, excited and childish,

"He mustn't see me. Not till tomorrow. Send him away!"

Since their mother's burial, Crimsa and Arvensis had resided with the future parents-in-law. Their former home stood vacant at the edge of the wood, doors and windows unlocked. After the wake, according to custom, the sisters had opened the cupboards, drawers, boxes and jars. Every button was unfastened, every lace undone. Nothing could be tied or bound up. The souls of the dead could linger, still wanting the comforts of their earthly homes. For the length of a month, the house was a conduit, so the soul should not be shackled.

At Southrop House, the atmosphere was strained. Arvensis, the darling, was caught up in wedding plans but Crimsa had little to do. When the wedding was over, Crimsa had no intention of staying with her sister, however much Arvensis protested. But propriety would not allow her to live alone, young and unmarried, in her mother's cottage. She could seek a post as a teacher or governess. Or she could move to the city, a twilight of smoke and soot, to the great mills and the manufactories. Times had changed, she heard, and the industrialists disregarded the old religion. The priest's offer hung over her still, often reconsidered but unacceptable just the same. What should she do?

When Arvensis was married, the burial plot in the churchyard was fresh and brown, still moist. The flowers on the grave had rotted, but the posy in the bride's hand was crisp and white, May blossom and the first pearly roses. Crimsa, in her best dress, attended Arvensis. The priest had cleaned his hands. Above, in the gaping roof, pigeons nested on the beams. Carvings of angels and hares decorated the ends of the warped pews.

As the priest intoned, Crimsa day-dreamed. The last weeks she had endured in a mental half-sleep. The death, the sojourn in the other house, the hasty, unsatisfactory wedding. The entire episode had the illogic and unreality of a dream. Perhaps she would wake up, and this unpleasant interval would come to an end. Arvensis was expecting Whitely's child, a calculated seduction, Crimsa had presumed. Whitely, stout and dull, offered an escape from a mother Arvensis couldn't abide. A wasted effort, since Mother had succumbed to pneumonia. Crimsa studied the back of her hand, and her wrist. The skin drew tight over the narrow bones underneath. She had become very thin. The veins ran thick and purple in her wrist. Her mother's silver ring was loose on her middle finger. She had no appetite. She couldn't eat. How hard it was to think clearly, to follow an argument - to decide. What should she do? The insubstantial present, choked with grief, offered no sign post, no clues.

An elbow dug into her ribs. Arvensis, triumphant, took the posy Crimsa had held for her during the ceremony. Arvensis walked through the church on Whitely's arm, as the organ played a few sour notes and the pigeons cooed in the rafters.

Crimsa was seated by Whitely during the wedding breakfast. She ate little, though the bridegroom picked her the choicest slices of cold meat and fruit. He fussed over her wineglass, and cut her a delicate sliver of wedding cake, encrusted with snowy icing.

"Now you're my sister," he said, his sallow face proprietorial. "What good times we shall have together, we three." And she felt the pressure of his arm, warm and insistent, pushing against her as they ate. None of this escaped Arvensis, sharp-faced, flushed with wine.

When the breakfast was over, the wedding party divided. The ladies retired to the garden, where seats were arranged beneath the fading apple blossom. The men remained at the table, still drinking. Crimsa wandered through the little orchard to the kitchen garden. Gooseberry and currant bushes grew in tailored ranks from the rich soil. Peach and apricot trees were pruned and pinioned in a glass house beside the wall, though the panes were furred with green. Much of the garden was rank and overgrown.

"Arvensis tells me you intend to leave the village." Whitely had followed her. He was smoking, perhaps a little drunk. In his stock and best coat, leather boots and whiskers, he fancied himself a rake, a villain from a novel. But his waist had thickened and his clothes were a decade out of date.

"Everyone leaves," he said. "Look at this place. I can't get the staff."

"I haven't decided. I haven't made up my mind at all."

"Of course we want you to stay," Whitely volunteered. "You must stay. Where else can you go?"

"I may live in our mother's house. She left it to me."

"Yes, so she did. But it wouldn't be right - you living alone."

"I'm not worried about that." Crimsa tried to pass him, to return to the orchard, and the women. Whitely stepped in her path.

"Please stay," he said. "Consider your position. And your sister's. It would reflect badly on us too."

"I do consider my sister," she said. "Please, let me past."

Slowly, reluctantly, Whitely retreated. Crimsa hurried away, back to the house. She told Arvensis she had a headache, and shut herself in her room.

Crimsa returned to her place at the casement. Her mind fell vacant. The sun peaked and declined. In the cool of the long evening, she heard, dimly, the wedding guests depart. Within a week, Arvensis and Whitely would leave for a tour of France, taking the phaeton to town, and then, the long journey on the train to the coast. Unexplored vistas. A new life plotted out, unfolding and revealing itself. And what of Crimsa?

Twilight muted the violent green of the woods. The meadow, shorn and depleted, still sprouted here and there a buttercup, a flash of clover missed by the scythe. After the rain, the grass would spring up again, irrepressible.

Crimsa drew her little case from under the bed, and packed the few possessions she had brought from her mother's house. She undressed, exchanged her best frock for the faded silk she had worn to the funeral, and slipped downstairs. She could hear conversation in the drawing room, but the rest of the house was quiet. The servants had already gone to bed. She hurried through the kitchen, and out of the back door, unseen.

The grass hissed against her boots. Above the trees, tatters of cloud burned pink and primrose in the wake of the departing sun. The moon rose, bone and pearl, in a sky the colour of plums. She joined the old road, dusty dry, and strode on to the cottage crouched beneath the trees.

The front door was wedged open with a stone. Darkness soaked into the house, through the holes of open windows. Leaves shifted and whispered.

Crimsa lit an oil lamp, a flood of yellow that filled the house with shadows. She fastened the windows, and shut the doors. After the weeks, the century, in Southrop House, the cottage was cold and strange. She slept in her mother's bed, rejecting the room she had shared with Arvensis in a childhood now so far behind.

A breath upon her face - a perfume of roses, and bread. Crimsa turned on the pillow, soothed, and troubled.

A dead bird rested on the doorstep, beads of crimson leaking in a chain from its neck.

A blackbird, still warm, a few feathers scattered on the pathway, and more blood, darkening the stone as it dried.

Crimsa lifted the soft body, and placed it in the apple tree, in the crook of the boughs. Only two nights - and this - gift? Token? She had woken in the night, hearing footsteps. In the kitchen, drawers were pulled out and crockery rearranged. The door stood ajar.

Crimsa tidied up, returning plates and cups to their places.

For the next three mornings, the pattern repeated itself. She found a dead mistlethrush, a robin, and three shattered pigeon's eggs, chicks unfeathered and incomplete amongst the shells. Pale, like pastry, the unborn chicks trembled before they died. Inside the cottage, linen fell from the cupboards, a barrel of flour upended and dropped its load on the kitchen floor. Anxiety mixed uneasily with hope, tender as a bruise. Then, on the sixth day, the disturbance ceased. The priest came to call.

He hammered on the door, with the assurance of the righteous. Crimsa stood in the doorway, regarding him. The priest had donned a frock coat of unadorned fawn. His thighs bulged thick and muscular in his breeches. He was looking at the congregation of birds, stiff and mutilated, lined up in the apple tree, a parody of fruit.

"Crimsa," he said. "May I come in?"

Crimsa stepped back into the cottage. The priest followed her, avoiding the irregular patch on the doorstep. He seated himself in the kitchen though his face, she thought, had paled.

"Your sister is worried about you," he said."She thought you would be here. She's leaving for France tomorrow."

"Why doesn't she speak with me herself?"

"She said she was afraid."

"Afraid?"

"The custom not observed - you breaking the wake of the house."

Crimsa coloured. Her sister was a liar. Arvensis belonged to the world.

"Arvensis isn't faithful," she said. "She doesn't believe in the dead."

The priest gestured to the garden.

"The trophies," he said. "You killed them?"

"No," Crimsa said. "I found them. A little gift."

Did the priest believe her? Crimsa couldn't be sure.

"Here I am, as you see," she said. "Is there anything else?"

The priest stood up.

"Leave here," he said. "Come with me. Leave the village if you must."

"Why? What can I do? I want to stay."

"No. This place. The people in the village are talking. Maybe one of the villagers left the dead birds, to frighten you. You're in a vulnerable position, here on your own."

Crimsa understood the threat at once. She stilled a sigh, twisting her cold hands.

"I won't leave," she said. But the words caught in her throat.

A cow 's milk stopped. Its udder blew up, and the teats dripped a thin yellow pus. Three lambs were lost, their throats bitten. Sturdy lambs, well-grown, too big to fall to a fox, surely. At the end of the village, a labourer's girl, half-witted, miscarried a child with six fingers on each hand.

Crimsa heard the tales of disorder from the boy who delivered bread, milk and eggs. She met him by the road, as he wouldn't approach the cottage. The boy was afraid of her, glancing curiously into her face as he recounted the stories, and finally, he didn't come at all. Crimsa picked salad vegetables from the garden, and eeked out the small, stale stores still remaining in the cottage. Her flesh dissolved, exposing the lines of her bones, the knots of joints. No other dead birds appeared on the doorstep and the furniture remained placidly in place. And yet... At night, Crimsa waited in the dark kitchen, door wide open, and she listened. She strained her ears for the spectral sound, footsteps, whispers, a once-familiar song. She sensed a thread of perfume, a movement on the stairs, a soothing voice that didn't speak. Her body ached with the effort.

Each long day, she lay on her mother's bed.

Let me go, the voice said.

Crimsa, untie me. Let me go.

Crimsa woke with a start. What had she done? Had her breaking of the wake of the house disturbed her mother's progress to heaven? No, no. Something more venomous, surely, the cords that tied her to the house, to the past. So Crimsa searched the house for the ravelling that bound the soul to its earthy home. When she found nothing, Crimsa loosed her hair from its pins. She discarded her black dress, the boddice with its laces, and wore a white shift, unfastened. Now she couldn't leave till her mother was free. In the mansions of her mind, the shadows were waiting.

The priest returned. The dead birds on the tree exposed bones, dry feathers, ants busy as words in their beaks.

He opened the door without knocking, and made his way to the bedroom, where Crimsa was curled on the bed.

Crimsa woke in a shock, to see him standing beside her. He took in the mess, the decay. He looked at Crimsa, in her white shift, her hair thin and disordered.

"Come with me now," he said, taking hold of her elbow.

"No," she squealed, snatching away from him.

"Arvensis has arranged for you to be taken away. The sanatorium."

"She's back?" Crimsa was shocked. Arvensis. A name from another world.

"They came back early - because of you. Your illness."

"I'm not ill. I'm waiting. My mother. She's still here. I've got to let her go. Then I'll leave."

"Your mother's not here. She's dead, Crimsa. The birds were a prank. Come with me now." But Crimsa rose to her feet, and shrieked. In a storm of anger, she kicked and pushed and scratched the priest, driving him from the house.

In the cool of the day, Crimsa searched the house again. She emptied the cupboards, jars, drawers. She climbed up into the attic, where a family of bats were roosting, and waited as they stirred around her, wingbeats soft on the air. She lifted up a candle, and crawled in the cobwebs and skeins of dust, looking for the binding yet to be loosed. When the search was fruitless, she prowled in the house, pulling up floorboards, feeling in the dim spaces beneath. And there, beneath her mother's bed, she found it at last.

A piece of wood, bulbous, with two shoots roughly corresponding to arms. Dry bark crumbled as she raised it to the light. The body of the wooden piece was fat and soft. String, ribbon, lace and wool - tied, wrapped, ravelled and knotted.

Arvensis. Her sister's final act of hate. And Arvensis leaving the birds, too? Crimsa sat in a pool of candlelight, and began to unwind the doll.

The candle guttered and died in the first threads of morning sunlight. And Crimsa rested, her task at an end.

She moved to the window. The clouds coloured turquoise, low and muted above the forest in a dawn twilight. The leaves stilled. Snails crept, like gems, upon the trunks of trees.

She breathed the scent of soil, and rain, and mould. And a sharp fleshy aroma, the broken leaves of sage. Drops of water pooled in nasturtium leaves like mercury.

A sense of stillness stole over her. Peace, and release.

Outside, in the fruit tree, the dead birds rose to their feet and began to sing. Tiny larvae jewelled their eyes. The shabby feathers glinted.

Downstairs, soft footsteps in the kitchen. The window slammed shut, then open, and glass panes cracked, one after another. The rafters moaned, and shifted.

"Mother!" Crimsa called. She left the bedroom and ran down the stairs. Beneath her feet, the staircase seemed to slip, and she clutched the banister. A cloud of flies alighted on her face, bestowing with their feet the mother's soft kisses of gratitude and farewell.

"Mother, wait!"

In the orchard, blossom swelled to fruit and rotted on the bough. A marigold furled its petals and folded back into a seed upon the ground. Stalks of wheat fattened in the old flour barrel.

Crimsa stood in the kitchen, but her mother had already gone. The task was accomplished. She felt a lightness of heart, a confirmation. Now she was free to go.

Arvensis waited at the gate with a carriage, the dour priest standing beside her. Crimsa left the cottage, a bag in her hand. She locked the door.

"It's all done," she said. "I found the doll."

Arvensis smiled benignly, innocently.

"Yes, dear," she said gently, as she helped Crimsa into the carriage.


© Sarah Singleton 1998, 2002.
This story first appeared in QWF magazine in 1998.

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