They used to call her “Mother.” Respect on their tongues, fear in their eyes. Offerings laid on the stone step at her door. A delicately carved horseshoe, a handful of acorns.
“Will you help me, Mother?” Young girls studied the lines in their hands, desperate, but afraid to meet her eyes.
Anger, sometimes. Heavy knocks against the old door, always sighing as it gave beneath their fists. Again. The smell of smoke, the taste of it.
Fire burnt you whole again.
People used to understand these things. Life follows death, spring after winter. But now they pump her full of poison to keep her alive.
“Will you hold still for me, Margaret?” Firm hands pressing her back into a soft seat. Her name is not Margaret. She is Mother, and she remembers when the fields were open, the thickets deep, and the air thrilled with magic. Now it is only the drone of traffic on the A2 that fills her ears.
She longs to escape the bungalow. She chokes on the smell of antiseptic and synthetic lemons. Vast stretches of her life had been spent outside. Each time they tried to kill her, she left for a while, trekked the roughshod roads. Allowed herself to be young again. Took time to grow old. Slept on the soft ground, with only the wavering branches of trees for shelter.
She’d always returned, though. Home was home. And given enough time, men would die, children would grow, and the faded memory of the day they’d burned the witch would be little more than a scary story told on cold nights.
“I want to go for a walk,” she tells Cynthia, the health visitor. She’s busy with the lunch things, an unappetizing meal of grey beef on thin slices of grey bread, and doesn’t respond. Maybe she hasn’t heard. Maybe Mother hasn’t spoken at all.
Cynthia tells her, quite cheerfully, that she is the only one who is willing to come. Mother takes grim satisfaction in having scared away the others, though she is disgusted at how little it took. Her powers depleted, she’d had to rely on the vindictive potential of her own body: baring her teeth, scraping nails along tender flesh, emptying her bowels with deliberate effort as she stared them in the eyes. Not a single harvest had failed, no babies had gradually sickened and died. No backbone, this generation.
“No backbone,” she leers at Cynthia.
The days linger. It is not yet summer but the days already have that certain heaviness that threatens both oppressive heat and sudden downpours. She herself feels weighed down, each step causing her bones to grind together. It is over a year since they found her in the old cottage. The village was all but abandoned. The land bought and sold, bought and sold. They were going to build something… She can’t remember. The land was needed. And so, unfit for human habitation, they said. Had to enter her into the system. Anxiety disorders, hoarding disorders, dementia, they said.
“Do you have any family, Margaret?”
She is referred on, and on.
She confines herself to the pale green sofa, staring at the TV. Chat shows, cooking shows, property shows. The minutiae of living lovingly parceled out in thirty minute doses. She takes pleasure in the smell of her piss seeping into the sofa.
Cynthia says, “You did this on purpose.”
Cynthia doesn’t talk to her like she’s a child. Doesn’t say things like did we have a little accident as if they share responsibility for the incontinence. Mother stares up into her hazel eyes, and smiles.
“It’s not the mess, Margaret,” Cynthia says. She shuffles into the tiny galley kitchen and begins to fill a pail of warm soapy water. “You know it’s not that.”
She grimaces slightly as she lifts Mother out of the warm pool, supporting her weight as she half carries her to the armchair. Something in her shoulder bothering her, Mother thinks. She would have recommended Arnica, if asked.
Cynthia pulls on the rubber gloves and begins to scrub at fabric of the seat cushion. It darkens to forest green, but the shape of the stain like the contour of a lake is still visible.
“The point is,” Cynthia said, a little breathless as she scrubs, “You can look after yourself. And you choose not to.”
“I want to go for a walk,” Mother says.
“What you need is a bath,” Cynthia says. She looks up from her task. “Come on. This’ll have to be dry cleaned. Might as well get you sorted out.”
Cynthia’s hands brushing over her skin. Deft and professional. Never lingering, never pausing long enough impart comfort.
“I’ll be right outside,” she says once Mother has been safely lowered into the adapted bathtub. It is circled by shining metal bars to cling onto. “Call me when you’re ready to get out.”
Mother slides under the water. Drowning. Only once, and she hadn’t cared for it. She awoke without the usual sense of clarity, but coughing, her chest tight. Had a cold for weeks, which was no way to enjoy your rebirth. Still. It is an option. Bubbles bloom from her open mouth, until she splutters, coughs, and rises reluctantly above the surface.
She drifts to sleep at odd hours of the day. She dreams of the fields beyond her cottage. Fat bees humming in the grass. The grunting of men breaking their backs, the steady swish swish swish of the scythes. Her own little garden. Cowslips, dandelions, yarrow. She stoops to scoop up a handful the rich black soil, inhales the sweet freshness.
She wakes feeling frayed, like yarn that is unravelling at the ends. Rooms are never dark, now, the light from the streetlamps reaching greedily through every window. She sleeps often but not well. The night used to be her time. Hushed, holy. You heard such things in the silence. Now, everything is drowned out by noise, the cars whispering along the streets, a door slamming, a dog barking and called for.
She lays in what passes for dark and remembers her last burning. They built the pyre in those very fields. She did not see it coming; she did not resist when they tied her feet and hands with coarse rope. She remembers the red flushed face of Giles Wilder as he called her a witch and a whore. He stank of stale sweat and ale. They’d all been drinking. They always did. They held her in the cellar of the Farrow family cottage while they built the pyre.
Mother wets her lips as she remembers the how quick and bright the ash wood burned, the crackle of her skin as it puckered and burst, how she clung on until the very last moment, relishing the poker hot clarity of pain, before allowing her spirit to rush up and away, her greatest trick the one that would always remain hidden.
She should have let the burning take her when she had the chance. Others had looked to the future and made that choice; had muttered grimly about fates worse than death. Oh, but Mother, she always was an optimist.
Still human enough to cling to whatever scraps of life she could find.
“I want to go for a walk.”
Cynthia is in the middle of loading the dishwasher. She straightens up and peers into Mother’s eyes, trying to figure out what kind of trick Mother might be playing.
“We’ve talked about this,” she says.
“Fresh air, just what the doctor ordered.”
Cynthia frowns at her, “It isn’t, actually.” But Mother can see she is a believer. There’s no one the length of this land who doesn’t secretly suspect that life’s troubles can be scrubbed away by a windblown walk. Some things stay the same. “I suppose we could take a quick stroll down the street…” she begins, but Mother cuts her off.
“No. Somewhere with fields, and trees. Somewhere I can breathe.”
The suburban town rolls past them, rows and rows of identical houses, little gardens in which nothing grows. It occurs to Mother that since she was brought here she has scarcely bothered to learn about the place. She presses her head against the cool of the window, stares at the people walking past. A young mum with ratty hair is wrestling a toddler into a buggy; an older guy jogging his back curving desperately as he pants for breath; a trio of girls huddled and giggling in a bus stop. Who are these people? She used to know the names and secrets of everyone in her village but they are all dead now.
“I’m breaking all kinds of rules, doing this,” Cynthia says as she drives. “There’s forms, you know. Clearances.”
The town begins to fade, the houses on its edges are older, stragglers, remnants of an age closer to Mother’s own. Many have boarded up fronts, are daubed with graffiti. The landscape becomes less deliberate, grass banks edging the narrowing road threatening to recover this narrow trench of tarmac. Beyond the hedgerows Mother spies dark tendrils of smoke reaching into the air. A farmer having a bonfire, perhaps.
They pull into an abandoned car park. Beyond the fence runs a meadow and in the distance a dense line of trees promises shelter. Mother struggles out of the car to get a better look.
“I bring the dogs here sometimes,” Cynthia explains. “Bit of a trek but it’s quiet and they love it.”
“It’s perfect,” Mother says, taking a deep breath.
They walk towards the trees, Mother leaning heavily into Cynthia. Beneath her light jacket her arms are strong and lithe. Mother’s chest heaves. Her feet are uncertain against the rough ground.
Cynthia is still talking. Small talk, little stories about her own mother, her sister who is getting married, the red satin dress she will be forced to wear.
The land is tired and tramped and worn, but so beautiful. Ragged weeds wave in the breeze. Birds calling from the trees. And still, the faint rush of a passing car.
Mother blinks hard, stumbles.
“… your family, Margaret?”
She shakes her head at the question. She doesn’t like being asked about her family.
A room, recently and hastily abandoned. A pot hanging over an open flame.
She shakes her head. Something is wrong. The light too bright, the colours bleeding into one another. There have been too many lifetimes. She has lost her grasp on the past, can’t remember the faces of the people she has loved. (She must have loved). Can’t remember the way they smiled, the sound of their voices. There is nothing left but an aching blank. Her brightest memories are of burning and only because these moments are the closest she has ever come to death.
The talcum powder sweet scent of Cynthia’s skin. The world sways a little, then rights itself. Cynthia kneels before her, her warm hands against her cheeks.
“Margaret, can you hear me?”
“I want to die,” Mother whispers. A little louder: “I want to die.”
She is folded into Cynthia’s arms, and for the first time in decades she cries. Sobs. Her whole body shaking, each breath pounding and rattling against her ribs like an unwelcome guest. Cynthia doesn’t respond, and Mother knows there is no escape.
The smell of deep woods. The sound wind rustling the leaves. The faint, unmistakable, acrid tang of smoke and bone. Mother looks up into Cynthia’s face. It is young and old, humble and proud. Cynthia is a stranger and her closest kin and Mother clings to her as the light fades.
Ailsa Bristow is British writer now living and working in Toronto. Her work has previously appeared in publications including (parenthetical), untethered, and Cadaverine Magazine. She can be found online at ailsabristow.com