In this Southern city, far from all my family and friends, I am anonymous, known simply to my neighbours as Widow Smith, or sometimes just the Washerwoman. I spend my days scrubbing grimy linen and stained finery, taking pleasure in the simple art of restoring tired old garments into crisp, fresh smelling ones. As I work I talk and sing with Alice, who plays at my feet, constantly making discoveries – the noise that can be made by banging a spoon on a washboard, the fun that can be had messing with the drops of water that fall onto the dust of our small yard, or by slapping a hand into the greasy bubbles of the soapsuds.
She is a happy child, often laughing with satisfaction or surprise, and turning towards me to share her latest delight. She has Alec’s eyes.
* * *
When the soldiers arrived, on that evening four years ago, to conscript my husband and the other young men of our village, it was no surprise. There had been omens all day. The butter had curdled in the churn, the bread had burnt, and when I left the house to take one of the sorry looking loaves to old Mistress Hawkins there was a dead crow on our doorstep, its wings spread wide as if crucified. I was queasy with the early weeks of pregnancy, and stepped over it, leaving it for Alec to deal with when he returned from the fields. Perhaps that was a mistake.
Our farewells were necessarily hurried. We were unprepared, and it wasn’t until after he’d gone that I wished I’d taken a lock of his hair. He embraced my aunt, and asked my uncle to take good care of me. We hugged tightly, and I couldn’t bear to let go of him. When we finally broke apart he knelt and kissed my stomach. Looking up at me he said, ‘Don’t worry Maria, I will be back in time to greet our child.’ His confident tone was betrayed by the anxious slant of his eyes, and the tears that made them glint like peridot gems.
Then he left, stumbling from the village with the other men, mounted soldiers in front and behind to deal with any last minute changes of mind. I stood with the remaining women, children, old and infirm of our village, and watched them go. Watched until we could no longer see the bobbing hoods of the marching squad, watched until we could no longer hear their boots on the road, watched until long after the dust they stirred had resettled, until we could no longer sense their presence, only the bleakness of their absence.
That night my nausea subsided, and three days later I lost our baby.
There was no time to grieve properly. Like the other women of my village I was trying to keep up with my husband’s work as well as my own, and my days were physically demanding, keeping my mind in check. But for many long nights, as I lay alone, wrapped in the bed linen that had formed most of my dowry a few months beforehand, searching for the last remaining traces of his smell, I sobbed and screamed for Alec, and that now missing part of me that had connected us.
‘There will be more children for you and Alec,’ said Janey Hawkins, as we trudged to market together.
It was dawn, and the clouds above the silhouetted forest were striped with orange and purple. I shivered, despite my woollen cloak.
‘Just you wait,’ said Janey’s sister Ruth. ‘I can remember praying every night for a baby, and now I have seven I pray for some peace and quiet!’
This roused much laughter and agreement amongst the women, until Susannah Small, who could always be relied on to kill a good mood, said, ‘Anyhow, nothing can happen until the men get home. And that could be a long time off.’
In the silence she added, ‘If they come back at all, that is.’
It is proof of how worried we all were that no one bothered trying to contradict her.
Most of the men returned a few weeks later, exhausted, filthy, wounded, but victorious. They came back along the same road they had left, this time unescorted. The village children ran alongside them, shrieking with glee as they recognised their fathers, brothers or uncles.
I scanned the crowd for Alec, but couldn’t see him. My aunt put a supportive arm around my back as we waited. John Small was hugging Susannah, and from the way his face dropped as he caught my eye I knew the worst possible thing I had feared had happened.
I was ill for several weeks. My aunt nursed me throughout, and was terrified of losing me, knowing that I had nothing left to live for. When I finally left my sickbed I rebuilt my health and stamina by tending our vegetables, and taking in other villagers’ laundry.
When I was fully recovered I travelled to Thornhill House, where I had been summoned to see Alec’s Commander. It was a few hours’ walk, so I rose early, and set out as the sun was rising. My uncle kindly offered to escort me, but I knew his tired old knees would struggle with the journey, so I told him I would prefer to go alone. My aunt lent me her best cambric pocket, filled with bread and gooseberries to sustain me along the way.
The Commander’s house was the largest building I had ever seen, even more imposing than the tall, broad church of our nearest market town. I was kept waiting for a long time on an uncomfortable settle in a cavernous hallway. I felt shabby next to the servant who finally showed me to the Commander’s chamber, where the man himself looked down imperiously at me from behind his enormous high oak table.
He asked my name, and searched through a large leather-bound ledger, following the closely inked lines with the tip of a long white finger.
‘Ah yes,’ he said, and cleared his throat. ‘Your husband fought bravely. If it weren’t for men like him this land would still be a place of unrest and danger. I am told he was buried where he fell. You must understand that in the circumstances there was no alternative.’
I felt horribly faint, but I kept my head bowed and bit the inside of my lips, trying to concentrate all my energy on standing still.
‘This is for you. A small pension to compensate for your loss.’
He handed me a small drawstring pouch of sovereigns. I murmured some words of thanks and put the pouch in my pocket with the remaining gooseberries.
‘You may go,’ he said, picking up his quill and waving it in the general direction of the door. I turned and walked away, knowing that once I had left his room it was unlikely that Alec and I, and the wreckage of the life we’d had, would ever cross his mind again.
I would have enjoyed the walk back home in earlier carefree times. It was the finest kind of June afternoon. The hedgerows were lush and colourful, and busy with birds and small scurrying things. Crickets and bees sounded their presence, and I spotted new green fruits forming on the apple and hazelnut trees. I was reminded of the gooseberries in my pocket, and took the last few out to finish. I put one in my mouth, and winced at its juicy sourness. The next to hand was half rotten, so I tossed it over the hedgerow, and was shocked to hear a gruff exclamation in response.
I crept cautiously into the field through a break in the hedge, and saw what looked at first glance like a heap of filthy rags, but then it twitched and coughed, and I realised it was an old woman. She was wrinkled and dirty, and only half my height, but as wide as she was tall, wrapped in a number of dirty shawls and blankets.
‘I do beg your pardon,’ I said. ‘I hope I didn’t hit you with that gooseberry. I really wouldn’t have thrown it if I’d known there was someone there!’
‘Fear not, child,’ she replied hoarsely, banging at her chest with a muddy fist, as if hoping to dislodge the phlegm that was rattling there. ‘It was delicious, the best thing I’ve eaten for a long time. Why, I wish more folk would throw their unwanted vittles over my hedge.’
‘You live here?’
‘Yes, child. I live here in the hedgerow, amongst the mice and the bindweed.’
‘Here,’ I said, and handed her my remaining gooseberries. ‘It’s all I have left, but please take them. You need them more than I do.’
She took them gratefully and stuffed them into her toothless mouth. I noticed with surprise that although she looked awful she did not smell bad. In fact, there was a strange aroma of cowslips and honey in the air. I looked at her miserable hedgerow shelter, and thought of the money in my pocket.
‘I’d like you to have this as well,’ I added, handing her the pouch of sovereigns. ‘Get yourself some proper food, some new clothes and somewhere to stay.’
She looked inside the pouch, and gasped. ‘My dear, I can’t take this!’
‘Please do. It’s no use to me. It can’t buy me the only thing I want in this world.’
I thought of Alec’s deep green eyes, and his rough hands gently touching me. Tears prickled my eyes, and I turned to walk away.
‘Wait!’ the old woman said. A tear had rolled down her cheek too, cutting a clear path through the grime. She fumbled inside her robes, and produced a small rolled parchment, and something twisted into a scrap of muslin and tied with twine. She pressed them into my hands and said, ‘In return for your kindness let me give you these. If you use them they will be worth far more to you than this money ever could have been.’
My head began to spin, and the scent of honey and flowers overwhelmed me. I stumbled backwards, and half turned to break my fall. When I looked back in front of me I was alone, and the hollow in the hedgerow was empty, but I was still holding the scroll and the small parcel.
There was no sign of the old woman in either direction along the track. I leaned against a tree and unrolled the parchment. It was a rudimentary map, showing my village, Thornhill House, and the fields, heath and woodlands in between. There was a cross marked next to the track through the wood. All that was in the twist of muslin was a large seed – it looked like an apple pip, but was the size of a small acorn.
I was confused, and as I continued to walk home my doubts began to grow about the old woman. Was she some kind of trickster? How had she disappeared so fast? I had no regrets about having helped someone who was genuinely in more need than I was, but I wondered what my aunt and uncle would say when I told them I had given away my widow’s pension.
A few weeks later, curiosity got the better of me, and despite telling my aunt (who was still aggrieved about the money) that I was going to market, I took the map and headed into the woods. The map was easy to follow, and led me to a small circular clearing, surrounded by overhanging trees which obscured all but a tiny patch of sunlight in the centre. I didn’t know what I was expecting to find, so I sat on a fallen tree trunk and looked around.
The ground was uneven, and covered in stones, weeds, and patches of grass and moss. Small mushrooms grew at the roots of the trees, and ivy trailed from tree to tree, creating the effect of being inside a circular room. Something glinted and caught my eye, and I leant forward to examine it closer. It was a worn nail in the sole of a boot, a boot on the end of a leg which was poking out of the ground.
I wondered if I had stumbled upon one of the wartime casualties, roughly buried, but I didn’t think any of the fighting had taken place so close by. I thought of Alec, and how this abandoned body was probably someone’s husband, so I found a flat stone, and begin to heap more earth over the boot.
Then I saw fingers reaching out of the soil, dirty but strangely intact. Thick with square tips. I knew them. Alec’s fingers.
My head was whirling, I lost all rationality, all I knew was that I had to help him. I scraped furiously at the soil, and somehow managed to uncover him. He was cold, grey, dead… but utterly pliable and incorrupt, like the body of a saint. His clothes and skin were stained with blood and soil. With difficulty I hauled his body to the nearest tree, and propped him there, kissed him on the cheek and promised to return.
I planned to get assistance from the village, men to help me carry him home for a proper funeral, but as I got further away from Alec and closer to home, I found myself less and less able to believe what I had just seen and done.
When I got back to him, with a shovel and one of the dried carnations I had kept from our wedding day, he was still as perfectly preserved as when I had left him. Somehow I found the strength to dig a deeper hole than the one he had been in. I positioned it right in the centre of the clearing, where the patch of sunlight fell, and buried him holding the carnation and a lock of my hair. I took a lock of his hair in return. I made a square frame of rocks to delineate his grave, and heaped wild flowers over it.
Again, once I had returned home I found myself unable to believe what had just happened, despite the evidence of the brown curl I had cut from his head, and the streaks of mud on my skirts. I had to go back, to see the grave again with my own eyes, and yes, it was real. I returned there every day for months, tending the grave, planting flowers to grow over Alec’s body. I even planted the strange seed the old woman had given me.
The clearing itself was flourishing and becoming more beautiful by the day. Wild roses and honeysuckle were twining themselves around the trees, and there were lilies, daffodils, bluebells, poppies… all strangely out of season, and only in this one part of the forest.
A shoot had sprouted up in the sunshine, from the seed I had planted, and every day it grew slightly taller, and furled out more leaves. I noticed a bud was appearing at the top, and wondered what the flower would be like. Every day as I walked to the grave I wondered if the strange plant had flowered yet, but for months it remained tightly shut, just a little bigger and rounder than the day before.
On the day it finally bloomed, enormous cream and pink petals rolled back, revealing the flower to the shaft of sunlight. I leant over it to look inside, and nestled in the centre was a tiny baby girl, who blinked large green eyes at me, and waved her soft dimpled fist in the air. I lifted her out, and she curled so comfortably into my arms that I knew she was mine.