Ann Stewart Hendry
Two days ago she had picked up the phone, shaking with fear, only to listen to the distant voice of the official from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farming telling her that, yes, their animals, their farm, their life was now condemned. Eight hundred sheep and probably their fifteen head of prize Limousin cattle would have to be slaughtered on suspicion, a “contiguous cull” they called it, a necessary precaution, since they shared a boundary fence with the neighboring Dixon Farm, whose pigs had tested positive for foot-and-mouth disease. “And I must inform you, Mrs. Scott, that you can’t leave the farm until you receive further notice.”
When she put the phone down, her terrible, paralyzing fear that the disease was moving closer had gone. She felt anger, sorrow, but mostly relief, because after weeks of worry, the worst that could possibly happen had happened. The waiting, the futile trips to Carlisle and back for disinfectant, and the mornings spent listening to the radio or talking on the phone for hours, trying to get news of new outbreaks, were all over. There was nothing more she could do. After weeks of speculation, one thing was now certain: she knew that she was going to lose everything.
Foot-and-mouth, it was an almost comical name for such desperation. The words used to remind her of some primitive medieval plague. Now they make her think of the white smoke drifting over decomposing carcasses with swelling bellies and rigid tongues that she had passed when she had taken her three daughters to the train station in Carlisle. Last night she dreamt of a dead cow suspended over a bonfire by one leg. It was an image she had seen in the newspaper, one that refused to leave her mind. She had been trying to free the animal, which had suddenly come back to life and begun squealing like a banshee, when she was slapped awake by the stench coming from the burning pyre on the Dixon’s farm. She and Matt were next and there was nothing she could do that would stop the inevitable. She had gotten out of bed, shut herself in the bathroom with the light on, and waited, shivering, praying for morning to come and eat up the darkness, just as she had done when she was fourteen and her mother died suddenly while they were all asleep.
Ruth boils up the kettle for tea and moves Matt’s spare pair of muddy Wellingtons away from the door, tossing them into the laundry room where they land on the floor with a rubbery thud. Why can her husband never put anything away in its proper place? It is a continual bone of contention between them, his untidiness versus her need for order. Only five tea bags are left in the box. Supplies are running low now that she is a prisoner, surrounded by hills on three sides and by disease on the other.
She paces the kitchen, eight steps long and five across, pausing to glance out of the window. She doesn’t know what to do with herself now that the children are gone. The snowstorm, promised by the BBC weather service, is already moving over the distant stony tops of the empty hills. These storms blow in quickly, covering everything, from the highest peaks to the lowest levels of the creeping bog, with a pristine covering of wall to wall snow. Ruth can tell a tale or two about the coldness here, of people and animals disappearing forever into the whirling flurries, of trying to hold body and soul together and making ends meet. She is not as brave as she looks, especially when she sees the low clouds, growing heavier and grayer by the minute, lose altitude over the treeless moorland that lies between her and the mountains, so that they obscure completely the pale, watery light of the March dawn. Her view of the horizon is already shrinking.
The scones are burning. She scorches her hand pulling the little smoking pyres of flour and butter from the red hot center of the Aga stove. Well, she never has been much of a cook. Her sponge cakes cave in the middle, her Christmas cake could sink a battleship, and her fairy cakes rise into weird little peaks with rounded bumps on the top that look like nipples. Her Uncle Des, when he has drunk himself rat arsed on Christmas day, likes to suck on them suggestively. “Ooooh, ‘ettie. Remind you of owt?” he will smirk at his wife, Auntie Hettie, who erupts into a hot flush, red and painful as sunburn. Ruth’s lack of culinary skills, a definite downside in the world of rural institutes and summer fetes, is a source of amusement to Des. “Not a cook like ‘er mother is she, Abraham?” Des will joke. Every year is the same. Des’s brightly colored party hat will slip farther and farther down his forehead and he will fall into this faithful reminiscing, while Ruth’s father, a weather beaten shepherd with no sense of humor, pours himself more cider and withdraws. “Remember when you were chasing Old Mogs the cat and you fell into the pig manure, eh, Ruthie? Fermenting for months, it was. By Christ, you stunk to high heaven, you did, and bugger me, we never did find those shoes of yours. Disintegrated I shouldn’t wonder.” On and on he will go about how her mother lifted her out of the mess by her tiny shoulders, how she laughed as she stripped Ruth of her clothes right there and then and wrapped her in a blanket. How she’d joked, “Nowt for these but burning,” and thrown them at Des.
Ruth does not recognize her mother in the stories. All she remembers is a domesticated skivvy who ran herself ragged attend-ing to her husband’s every whim.
A painting, The Cornfield by John Constable, hangs in Ruth’s own kitchen. It is all that remains of her dead mother. And it isn’t even a painting, really, it is a canvas print of a landscape, ironed down onto a heavy slice of blackened wood that her mum bought for two shillings at the Carlisle indoor market one month before Ruth was born. Her father had not shared her mother’s delight in the object, complaining that she had been duped into paying a prince’s ransom, for what he considered to be the most useless piece of junk he had ever seen. It was immediately and thereafter banished to the hallway of their small farm cottage, where it hung above the phone table for twenty years. The fact that it had survived so long was due, in no small part, to its ability to disappear into the fern patterns of the wallpaper.
Ruth often wondered what it was about the stiff little print that had attracted her mother’s eye on that day so long ago, for it was a dull reproduction, and quite ugly, really. There was something mesmerizing about it though, and whenever Ruth had had a spare moment when she was a child from all the tasks her father found to “keep her out of mischief,” she would lie on the carpet staring up at it. She didn’t know why she had stared; there was nothing special about the painting, and yet it had taken her breath away.
Now that the painting hangs directly above her stove, Ruth is forced to look at it a hundred times a day, a constant reminder that there is no place in farming for the romantic imagination.
The Aga doesn’t keep the kitchen warm once the fierce weather moves in, and this storm has sharp teeth. It is not an all-out blustering gale, but more of a stalking, insistent wind that is all ice. The two-hundred year old farmhouse groans and buckles at the slightest hint of bad weather. The house is riddled with cold, and inside the thick stone walls it is always freezing, even in summer-time. She pulls a fleece jacket on top of the two woolen cardigans she is already wearing. Outside, the first flurries of snow drift slowly to the ground: soft flakes stuck to the little square window-panes. Ruth thinks of the Weaver of Snow, a storybook character from childhood, high up in the clouds, emptying the shimmering pearls in her lap onto the world.
She is still at the window when Matt and the vet emerge from the barn where they wintered the Limousin cattle. The vet has been examining the herd they acquired only three years ago. The ten original calves cost them every last penny they had. She let Matt’s enthusiasm sway her, even though she knew full well that their land was unsuitable for such an undertaking. She loved when he was enthusiastic. It made him brave. For a while, after coming up with some new idea, he walked around the farm with a bold, surefooted confidence that Ruth found thrilling. It usually came in the summer and was short lived, tempered by long periods of intensive worrying, when he would retreat into a cell of silent reflection that she had never been able to enter. However, Matt had undertaken the Limousin’s breeding plan with a quiet, thoughtful, sustained passion that had surprised her.
She searches for a jar of coffee, thinking that her husband and the vet will need a heat, but instead of coming to the house, they walk away from her, through the falling snow, wind whipping at their long, identical Barbour coats. They are going to the field where the sheep are penned. Matt hasn’t been inside since he rose at four this morning. She knows that he is finding it impossible to leave the animals, as though he believes that if he keeps an eye on them, they won’t disappear.
Ruth and Matt had been up till one in the morning, herding the wilder sheep down from the hills and into the lower field. They had moved around each other in wide circles of silence. She knew that Matt watched her in the darkness, but she was afraid to look back at him, afraid of the desperation that had moved into his eyes. She occupied her mind, worrying about what she would tell the children when they returned from her mother in law’s in Kent. She had sent them away when they began to line up their own toy animals and tiny tractors and play at farm sales. That night, moving through the frosty blackness, she hadn’t asked Matt what he was thinking, what he was feeling. She knew he wouldn’t tell her the truth anyway.
The vet is struggling against the wind to light up a cigarette, and she can tell by the way Matt’s body is slumped against the fence that the news is all bad. The cows, she guesses, can’t be saved. Everything has to go. There is no use holding on to irrational hopes. She had resigned herself to the cull and to the fact that they would now, most likely, lose their home, even before she lowered the phone on her conversation with the man from the Ministry. Matt, she knows, finds it harder to give up on his dreams, to face defeat. There are times when Ruth fears that his disappointments will swallow him whole.
Recently, there have been so many disappointments. Losing the baby was the worst of it, she supposes. She doesn’t know how Matt really feels about it. He grew up in a family where any discussion of emotion denoted a weakness that could hardly be tolerated. She knows that she can never tell him that, for her, the miscarriage, although it had plunged her into a depression at the time, was something of a relief. She can barely manage with the three children she already has, and now with the confirmation that the disease has indeed reached their farm, their resources are stretched beyond the limit.
Perhaps it is exhaustion that makes her return to the tranquility of the painting. Sleep is becoming almost impossible, almost un-thinkable. She forces her tired eyes along the familiar path that leads into the heart of the composition. She always enters the painting from the left, her gaze rolling down the slope where tall ferns and wildflowers spill down towards the banks of the tiny stream, where the shepherd boy in the bright red waistcoat has stopped to drink. Behind the boy is a path, lined with tall dark trees, and a black and white dog, much like the bad-tempered collies her father bred, herds a small group of sheep. Finally she reaches the broken gate leading into the field, where a flaxen carpet of corn stretches out into the distance under a sky of colossal, savage-looking cumulus clouds. She doesn’t let her eyes wander into the field. They remain fixed and focused on the dusky shade of the trees.
When she was very young, she had loved the field best of all. It seemed to be infused with magic; for although in daylight it appeared to be a gutless, dour yellow color like her mother’s cream of chicken soup, in the evening, under the directed glow of her pocket torch, the tall strands of grain took on a gentle, golden luminescence that set her hairs on end. As she grew into puberty, Ruth stopped entering the field. Her attention moved from the brightest, prettiest feature of the landscape to the darkest, most exciting. Her eyes stopped moving at the end of the path as they got lost in the obscure shadows created by the trees. If she stared hard enough, she could almost imagine some swarthy rustic gypsy in the manner of Heathcliff, emerging from the cool, leafy shadows, dark and dangerous, beckoning her to follow him, and she, of course, dutifully following.
Ruth knows she should go outside. She knows what time it is. She should be actively supportive, standing around shivering and wringing her hands and looking suitably woeful. She throws on her anorak and fiddles with the handle on the back door, but the blustering wind feels so frostbitten as it forces its way through the keyhole and slips between the gaps between the door and the frame. She is already so cold that misery cannot entice her to go into the snow. Ruth knows she should go outside, but instead she throws the burnt scones in the bin and sets about making a fresh batch. Surely Heathcliff would never have expected her to bake scones.
She looks up from her mixing bowl at the sound of her father’s ancient mud-splattered Volvo Estate rattling into the yard. Her father springs out of the car, pipe in mouth, flat cap perched at a jaunty angle, and puffs out his chest. He is ready for business. The auctioneer, who will value the stock, emerges more slowly from the passenger side. She wishes to God that her father hadn’t taken it upon himself to come. He is an inept consoler. She knows from bitter experience. When she was at her lowest ebb after the miscarriage, staring into space, losing hours at a time, he’d come over to “sort her out,” as he put it. “No time for moping around, lass. Too much needs doing on a farm to be crying over spilt milk. Come on, Ruthie, got to get on with things, nothing else for it.”
Matt will imagine his father in law has come to gloat. The two have never gotten on, clashing over every major decision Matt has ever made. It has been like that from the beginning.
When Ruth met Matt at agricultural college, she was studying horticulture, he farm management. When she told her father, who had little to show for his life but a rented cottage, rheumatic knees, and a good strain of dogs, that she was bringing Matt to tea, he was over the moon at the idea of her achieving his dream of owning a farm. When she introduced them, Matt failed to remove his hat. Matt probably didn’t even think about it, but she knew to her father, a man always alert to the social signals affiliated with Northern notions of class and respect, neglecting to remove one’s hat to an elder was a classic example of the type of bad manners that had reached epidemic proportions among “Shandy-swilling Southerners that think the’s are summut.”
The rest of the evening was a painful exchange of miscom-munication. Neither man could follow the accent of the other. Matt tried to ingratiate himself by discussing new French farming methods, never guessing that her father despised the French almost as much as he despised anyone from south of the Watford Gap. Her father wasn’t listening, Ruth saw. He was watching the way Matt held his cup, pinky up like a prissy, and how he waved his arms around theatrically when he got enthused. Is ‘e some kind a bloody poof or what? Her father never spoke the words but they ran across his face a thousand times.
“Your dad’s a bit of a dour specimen,” Matt had commented as she walked him to his Land Rover at the end of the awful evening.
Ruth, for some reason, defended her dad. “He might seem hard to you, but it takes a certain type of person to survive working their whole lives out on the hills.”
The snow has stopped for now. The light covering of white in the courtyard is already soiled with a confusion of foot and paw prints. She pops the scones in the oven and wipes her hands. The men don’t come into the house but stand in a huddle near the barn where, inside, she can hear the cattle fretting from the cold and the fact they haven’t eaten today. Matt is signing the auctioneer’s papers. The vet is lighting up another cigarette and her father is shaking his head in a gesture more cutting than words. A gesture that she knows will indicate to Matt that he has vastly overestimated his abilities, and not for the first time. She knows what her father is thinking. He is thinking about money and debt and how he warned them not to buy what they couldn’t pay for in cash.
It had always been Ruth’s dream to move down south to the warmer climate, take over the management of a farm and grow crops: wheat, oats, grain, barley; the idea of cultivating mushrooms once crossed her mind. It had been Matt’s idea of a challenge to stay here and buy this hill farm, made up of rocky little outcrops of boggy moorland covered with heather and rough tufts of grass. “Fit for nowt but Blackies,” her father remarked, referring to Scottish Blackfaced sheep that could survive on the highest, harshest and wettest parts of the Cumbrian landscape. “And the’ knows nowt about sheep.”
This was true. Matt came from a family of dairy farmers, but good grazing land was expensive, and his elder brother would inherit. “I can learn about sheep,” Matt said. “I went to college for Christ’s sake.”
Her father snorted. “College! Nowt in the’s fancy books will help the’ with hill farming. It’s in’t blood, that is.”
Of course, he was right. He always was.
The executioners arrive at ten. Eight of them in an old white Mercedes van with sliding doors, which open up to reveal an interior filled with guns, cartridges, rubber gloves, and all the other essentials they require to carry out mass murder. The five slaughtermen who are already changing into their white decontamination suits look so young and clear eyed. The other three are older, beefier, experienced enough to trade jokes while they douse each other in brown disinfectant. To Ruth’s eyes, they seem anxious to get started. They don’t like this dealing with the public. Their profession is usually undertaken behind closed doors, in controlled environments, where there are no tears, and no chance of anyone suddenly cracking up. They have promised to do this quickly.
Everything will be dead by three.
The slaughtermen exchange handshakes and nods with the vet, her father, and the auctioneer. Matt has disappeared and she knows that he is going against her father’s advice and indulging the cows a meal of silage. He will justify it later by saying that he, for one, lacks the brutality to look into twenty pairs of hungry eyes and deny them the comforting routine of one last feed. Her father will tell him that his actions are sentimental, an unhealthy avoidance of the truth. After all, the cows are bred for slaughter, and at a time like this, sentimentality and misplaced tenderness is a flimsy mask to place on the face of inevitable brutality.
Matt shouldn’t have fed the animals for he has given them a false sense of normality, and Ruth knows that the slaughtermen are going to start in the barn with the cattle. Now, with full bellies, they will shit everywhere. One of the young men comes to the door, a black hat on top of his fair hair, a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips.
“Any chance of a glass of water, missus?” Disinfectant drips from his suit onto the tiled floor.
The reek of it almost makes her gag. “Yes, of course.” Ruth watches as he empties the glass in one gulp. “Can I ask you, do they know? The animals, do they know?”
The man sets the glass down in the sink. His hair is soft and pale, like a baby’s, and leaves no shadow where it hangs over his forehead, pink with cold. He stares at her as though she were stupid. “Of course they know.”
She washes out the glass in the sink. The first muffled gunshot makes her jump. The glass slips out of her fingers and smashes. Thud, thud, thud. She covers her ears and is glad that the children are gone. Thinking of the children sends her into the living room where she closes the curtains and switches on the video. She turns up the volume on The Lion King full blast, but she can’t drown out the shots it takes to silence the screaming calves.
The barn door creaks open and they emerge, blood-splattered and silent, not sharing any jokes now. The group of men, loaded down with the equipment of their trade, head towards the sheep that are already bleating and whimpering pitifully. They, like Ruth, are panicked and distressed by the commotion in the cowshed. She knows that she should go out there now. She bites the nail on her thumb down into the quick. Matt needs her, and she needs to see the face of her father, stoic and unsentimental as winter.
Crossing the cobbled courtyard towards the barn, she curses as she slips on the mud-colored slush covering the uneven stones. To think that this ancient cobbled courtyard had been, for her, the main selling point of the farm. It certainly wasn’t the large drafty rooms that she has never been able to heat. It is strange how they, all five of them, have never been able to fill the house.
She stops forty feet away from the gate leading into the field. The sheep have never been fenced in before and they want to return to their own part of the farm, which consists of the high frozen peaks of the fells. They are “hefted,” undomesticated, bought with the farm. They have been walking up these hills for hundreds of years and know their boundaries well. The knowledge is passed from ewe to lamb. Very soon it will all mean nothing, except to Ruth, perhaps. She finds herself stuck at this point, forty feet away, where she can see everything but is unable to move her feet forward. The wind’s icy teeth bite into her ears and forehead. The snow-covered field is open to all the elements. There is no cover, no rock formations pushing out of the short rough grass to brace against, no wide overhangs clinging to the side of steep cliff faces to shelter under.
She recognizes the young man who has the ram’s wide circular horns in his large red hands. He is the one who asked for water. He is the one who pushes the gun into its head, just above the black eye bulging in terror at the terrible information received from its panoramic vision. The ram thrashes and kicks. The rest of the flock race backward and forward across the field in spasms, hysterical. Her father barks at the boy that he isn’t doing it right, then takes hold of the horns himself and holds the animal steady. The boy fires. Bright red blood sprays over the surface of the shimmering powdery snow.
The shot disturbs the crows nesting in the single row of trees lining the lower pasture, and they fly out of the high branches like a legion of lost souls escaping from the underworld. Circling the field of reapers once, they caw like some unholy choir, before heading off towards the peace and, now, deathly quiet of the higher peaks surrounding the farm. They will return later, Ruth knows, to peck the eyes and tongues from the dead.
Ruth is rooted to the ground and watches like a somnambulist, thinking about nothing other than this moment. Time and again the sheep smack hard against the wire fence. The blanket of pearly snow reverts to a muddy mess. Mothers huddle together in small groups at the far edges of the pen, trying to protect the lambs that have pushed their tiny bodies closer into their mothers’ thick coats than they ever have before, hoping they might become invisible. The bleating as they try to evade the intruders hurts Ruth’s ears. The sky picks this moment to release a fresh flurry of snowflakes. Now there is something both terrible and beautiful, as the soft powdery flakes land on the bodies of the dead and spin madly around the still living.
Amidst the chaos, she spots the little black lamb that her youngest daughter, Sammy, helped her to deliver only nine days ago. The little girl had been so proud. At four this was the first year she was old enough to help. They had named him Thor because he had a throaty bleat that hit the ears like a hammer. He was the first lamb of spring.
Sammy claimed Thor as hers as soon as his tiny legs hit the cold earth of the snow of the lower pasture. When she asked if he could be her pet, Ruth had stupidly said yes. Her own father didn’t approve of making pets of the lambs. He said it was “Nowt but foolishness to mollycoddle livestock.” Now Ruth understands some of his reasoning, but it’s hard to be reasonable at five o’clock in the morning, faced with a four year old child and a tiny lamb, standing on shaky feet, staring at you with an expectant air as though this were only the beginning instead of the end. In the dimly lit delivery shed with the chilly air of dawn swirling around them, their breath all came together, humans and sheep.
Matt stands alone at the far end of the field wiping imaginary sweat from his brow, a habit that is turning into more of a reflex with each passing day. His shoulders are rising and falling and she suspects that he is weeping. He should go away. He really isn’t being much help to anybody. She knows that he needs her, but instead of moving forward, Ruth turns and walks very deliberately back the way she came, back across the courtyard. She is afraid of his need for her. She discovered this fear a few days ago and she doesn’t know what to do with it. She always has to be the strong one, the organizer. She was the one who had spoken to the Ministry and arranged the executions. She was the one who had carried three healthy children to term and had sat by herself at the kitchen table while another child lost its grip on her womb and flooded out of her onto the cold tiles. She has done as much as she can. Now it is his turn. He is the man, after all. There is only one place that she wants to go to now, and that is her greenhouse. The wind blows hard and freezing. Ruth is glad of the wind because it numbs her face against the tears.
The greenhouse is warm and humid. Rivulets of water run down the windows, blocking out the world. Lush bunches of leaves and tall arching spikes push against the glass. After the cutting cold, she is glad of the stifling heat that the orchids need in order to live. There are so many plants, shoved up against the steamy glass and hanging from the ceiling, that it has gotten to where she can barely move in the small space. Like a blind woman, she walks right into the huge pot suspended above her head overflowing with tiny yellow flowers like a swarm of golden bees on a honeycomb. Rubbing her head hard, Ruth turns the radio on to the classical station, turning up Vivaldi as loud as she can. Gunshots punctuate the music at odd intervals and beads of sweat rise on her temple as she breathes in the perfumed warmth of the orchids and tries to imagine herself as a lost inhabitant of the rain forest, rather than a lost inhabitant of the fells. In order to supplement their income, she has, for many years, been creating new flowers, hybrid orchids. She has a talent for it. A talent for creating.
During her time in college, an instructor told her that to grow orchids was to gain mastery over Nature. Her first plant, a lady’s slipper, withered before it had begun to bloom. Matt had laughed at her “queer fancy.” He didn’t like her doing things that took time away from helping him and from raising the girls. She left the sad little plant sitting on the windowsill in defiance of his scorn. Miraculously, a few months later, a new shoot formed, and with it her obsession with keeping the fragile plant alive. She nursed it like a baby, and, in return, it presented her with a beautiful scarlet flower.
She hides out in the greenhouse, very still and very quiet, until the light begins to fade and snow drifts up against the windows. Her father comes looking for her. “It’s over, Ruthie.” His voice is soft with an unfamiliar catch in it. She looks him straight in the eyes, ready for him to tell her she should have been out there, supporting her husband, standing by his side. But he doesn’t. Instead he sits down heavily in the green wooden chair across from her, seemingly stunned by what he has just witnessed. She wants to go over and hug him, but she can’t. She, like him, has never learned how to comfort. Any attempt now will embarrass them both and the closeness of the moment will be broken.
“I’m glad you’re here.” Her voice doesn’t sound like her own.
“They shou’dna kill them like owt, not in’t sight of each other. It’s criminal. All this killing, t’world’s gan mad, Ruthie. Good strong, healthy animals them, good and strong. In’t all my days, I never saw such a wanton waste of healthy animals.”
“I couldn’t watch, Daddy.”
“You have to keep the’s head, lass, when all around are losing theirs.”
“Please, don’t start quoting poetry, Dad. I couldn’t stand it.”
He shakes his head and rises stiffly from the chair. He seems to have aged, and she wonders why she has never noticed this onset of old age sooner. “Come on inside and give t’men a strong cup o’ tea. There’s a good lass.”
She follows him out into the blizzard, wanting to hold onto his hand like a child.
The kettle takes forever to boil. The killers lounge around her kitchen. Stripped of their suits, they seem almost ordinary. Her father sets an odd collection of glasses down on the table and fills them with the expensive bottle of whisky she gave Matt for Christmas. Her husband hasn’t come in yet; he insists on staying outside with the vet, dousing the carcasses with disinfectant. More men will return tomorrow to drag the cows out of the barn and add them to the lopsided pyre. To continue working so late in the afternoon is a pointless task, since it will be dark soon and, anyway, they won’t be able to start a good fire until the snow stops falling and the wind stops howling. Ruth’s heart sinks at the knowledge that she will look out of her window tomorrow morning and hundreds of pairs of blank frozen eyes will stare back at her.
As she throws the last of the tea bags into the teapot, the room is plunged into darkness. The storm has knocked out the electricity and Ruth has to rummage around in the cupboard under the sink for candles. All she can find are the red ones left over from the Christmas dinner table. Closing her ears to the men’s stilted conversation about government policy and how you could drive for miles without seeing anything with four legs except dogs and cats, Ruth carefully places the thick festive candles around the room, putting one on top of the stove, illuminating the painting. It is taunting her, and she knows that tonight she will have to take it down and store it in the attic.
On their honeymoon, she and Matt visited the Stour Valley in Suffolk that had inspired Constable. The corn poppies didn’t grow anymore and nobody drank from streams. The world captured on this ratty piece of canvas was gone forever. A rural way of life engulfed in the fog of the Industrial Revolution.
She imagines the artist painting the picture today and wonders if he would paint the mountain of slaughtered animals that lies in the field beyond her farmhouse. Where exactly would Constable place that pyre so that it didn’t interfere with the symmetry of the painting?
The back door opens and the vet is blown into the kitchen by a strong gust. “Well, your farm is now disease free,” he pronounces.
She almost laughs at the absurdity of it all.
“Where’s Matt?” She is getting worried. He needs to come in to the heat.
Her father stands by her side. “Shall I go fetch ’im?”
“No, I’ll go. I should talk to him.”
The vet hands her a torch and she follows the path that the beam cuts across the courtyard. The men are packing up, leaving. They want to get home before the road freezes over. She thinks about what she will say to Matt. She has always been a woman of few words. Long ago, on that one never-ending night, while she lay on the cold tiles covering the bathroom floor in the house of her parents, Ruth had inadvertently buried her voice in the same coffin that held her fears. When she loved something too much, it died. It happened to her mother, to the sheep, and it is happening now in the greenhouse. She can feel it and can’t bear to look as she passes by, preferring to follow only the light of the torch. What good does it do to look? The power cut has killed the elaborate heating system. She doesn’t have to see the long fingers of frost moving up the inside of the windows, stroking the feathery tips of the vibrant blooms until they turn black. She already knows the orchids will be dead by morning.
She stands outside the barn shivering and biting the dry, chapped skin off her lip, holding herself tall and steady as an oak tree as the wind wraps itself around her, refusing to let it all destroy her. To open the barn door, she must lean her whole weight against it. On nights like this the metal hinges stick with frost and they crackle like breaking glass as Ruth’s action dislodges tiny splinters of glittering ice. It is a sound she should not be able to hear, but in the silence, everything reverberates and echoes. She shines the torch back and forth around the walls, avoiding the cattle that lie stiff and spread-eagled on the clean straw at the back of the barn. Even in this poor light she can see that they are splattered with blood, so much blood. “Matt, I’m here.”
Matt doesn’t hear and she knows that he is probably sitting in the loft tugging on his earlobe and smoking a cigarette. She sniffs the air but the reek of panic induced shit drowns out everything else. Each one of the ten stairs that lead to the loft creaks loudly as she stands on them. With each step, she feels she is going to burst apart like a dropped egg. At the top of the stairs, something hits against her head. A bat! Why did she never see these things in time? While Ruth, instinctively and frantically, raises her hands to her hair to dislodge the rodent, the torch beam lunges crazily across the wooden rafters and Ruth stops moving because the thing on top of her head is not a bat. It is a pair of size ten, mud-encrusted Welling-ton boots. For a moment she dumbly wonders why Matt’s boots are never where they are supposed to be. Then she knows and all of her breath spills out of her at once, escaping into the frigid air, her own exhalation suspended for a moment in the darkness like a single tendril of white smoke.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro