Tue 20 Dec, 2005 05:05 am
Leda Victoria Castleton had killed her first fox when she was ten years old. Its head, paws and tail still hung, mounted on a piece of wood, on the wall of the saddle room in the stone farm house she had inhabited for close to sixty-five years. And though she was now an old woman of ninety-four, her brown eyes filmy with cataracts which dimmed her sight so that she could no longer read the words printed on the plaque that held the remains, she could still remember the frenzied excitement she had felt that day, almost exactly eighty- four years in the past.
She often spent the evening in her favorite tufted velvet chair in the front parlor, a glass of sherry in her hand and a comforting fire burning in the hearth, reliving those moments. And on those evenings, she'd be in the woods again, the frigid November air rushing past her face, eyes streaming with tears from the cold, nearly obliterating the sight of the small, terrified animal running just ahead of the dogs. In her ears she'd hear the baying of the hounds as they pursued the russet flash tearing ahead of them in its last desperate but doomed attempt at survival. Her ninety-four year old mouth would replicate the satisfied smile that had broken unbidden across her smooth and blameless ten year old face that day in l922 when she had recognized the fox's growing exhaustion and knew the victory would soon be hers. It was as if she was watching for the first time the dogs tearing into fur and flesh with merciless and lustful efficiency and skill that was nothing short of awe-inspiring. And again, she'd relive how warm the fox's blood had felt as it ran over her head, into her eyes and down the back of her neck under her red, wool coat that day; crimson and sticky and hot on her hands as she wiped them across her forehead and cheeks to clear her vision and complete the blooding. But what remained most vividly clear to her, even after eighty-four years, was the smell of that blood: strong and metallic, as solid and unyielding as iron. She'd replay that scene again and again, until, finally spent, she'd drift to sleep as the fire burned down to rapidly cooling gray ash, her sherry glass lying empty on its side on the carpet beside her chair.
Leda Castleton was not a soft, old woman. Her life had been a mixture of privilege and deprivation that had yielded material comfort and emotional poverty in equal measure. Her mother had died giving birth to her, and her father, heartbroken at losing his wife, had had no idea of how, or even inclination to, love this small, alien being that had been placed in his arms in his wife's stead. So he had promptly boarded a ferry and transported Leda across the Irish Sea to live in the manor house his wife had grown up in with her two elder sisters who still occupied the cold, rambling and slowly crumbling abode. The day after arriving in Ireland and having placed Leda's blanketed bulk into her maternal Aunt Catherine's reluctantly outstretched arms, Edward Castleton willfully ignored the confused and even perturbed silence that had replaced any words of farewell from his sisters-in-law, re-boarded the ferry, and resumed his life in London alone. Leda's maternal aunts, Margaret and Catherine, were not naturally nurturing women. Lean and spare, they had become resigned, in fact committed, to their unmarried and childless state. Both in their mid-thirties at the time of Leda's birth, and having rejected the lure of marriage and motherhood (in the absence of its option, if truth be told) they proved immune to any charm Leda possessed as well. In fact, it seemed to Leda that there was no human being in her immediate surroundings who was enamored of her, or even particularly interested in her. There were no fond nicknames, or soft gazes, or comforting words directed to her by her aunts who simply allowed her to sleep in their drafty house and made sure she had enough to eat.
Similarly, she remained an unremarkable stranger to the various women or "help" who lived above the carriage house by night and strode purposefully, if not also anonymously, through the halls and parlors and stone-floored sculleries of the house. Their work dusting the massive wood furnishings and polishing the brass, as well as the silver tea services and cutlery, seemed tedious and without purpose to her. It seemed to her that they simply repeated the same tasks endlessly day after day. As they slopped water onto the cold stone floors and proceeded to swab it up with huge and unwieldy mops of folded rags on long, heavy sticks of ash, or as they hung the coarse wool rugs on the outside line and beat them mercilessly with brooms until clouds of dust filled the air and rivers of sweat dampened their thin cotton dresses, Leda silently watched. What manner of low birth, unfortunate marriage or lack of ambition had brought these women to the status of servant that would define their entire being as one who worked and not as one for whom one worked? She was not sure, as she was not yet sure of anything, except that they were below her, people who needed to be told what to do as well as how to do it, and as such, completely uninteresting to her. So it was that Leda developed into a strangely watchful, independent and self-sufficient little girl, tending to be as silent as stone, and apparently needing or wanting no one.
Leda might have grown into adulthood never giving or receiving love, if it had not happened that on the occasion of her seventh birthday and her first conscious meeting with the man she had been told was her father, she rode her first pony. His name was David and he was as pale and stolid and dependable as Leda herself. Her father had lifted her onto the pony's broad back, and had instructed her to hold tight to his mane as he led the pony around the paddock. And it was there that Leda was struck by what would become her first memory of belonging somewhere, there on the strangely shifting back of this large (to her) animal. She could feel his every breath and she unconsciously adjusted her own to coincide with the rise and fall of his flanks beneath her short legs. For the first time in her life, she felt at home, confident and secure on her precarious perch, looking down on the neck and shoulders of her father.
"Are you afraid, Leda?" he had asked her gently.
"No father" she had answered and from that moment on it was as if her father and her aunts and the unremitting stream of servants ceased to exist for her. She instinctively knew that the pony David, or those like him, were the only beings capable of teaching her how to move, how to breathe, how to live. And she gave herself over.
The aunts (as she and her father called Catherine and Margaret) were not horsewomen and would have had no interest in providing Leda with the means to pursue that passion. But Colonel Edward Castleton was a military man, indeed he had ridden in His Majesty's Calvary during the First World War, and seeing the spark of pleasure in his daughter's eye, he had recognized a spirit similar to his own while on the back of a horse. For the first time he felt a small twinge of familiarity and kinship toward the strange, silent little girl. He also felt a slightly baffling and unfamiliar spark of desire. He realized that he desired to give Leda something, or to do something for her that might make her happy. So, though he had not planned to spend the time or expend the effort or money, (in fact the matter of Leda's education had never before crossed his mind), he found himself enrolling her in a boarding school run by the nuns of St. Agatha in a convent outside of Limerick. He arranged boarding at a nearby stable, determined that there would be paddocks and woods and meadows for Leda to ride in, and by the end of his visit, had gifted Leda with her first horse. He was an unremarkable grey gelding with a white forelock and mane, but Leda was enthralled.
"What shall you name him?" her father inquired.
"Flint," Leda replied simply.
"Yes, he is gray as flint - that is a good name for him Leda," her father responded.
Leda only nodded, but it was not the horse's color to which she was referring by giving him the name. Her very favorite book was a book of children's poetry called Sing-Song by Christina Rossetti. Her favorite poem in this book was a simple verse called Flint:
An emerald is as green as grass
A ruby red as blood
A sapphire is as blue as heaven;
A flint lies in the mud.
A diamond is a brilliant stone,
To catch the world's desire;
An opal holds a fiery spark;
But a flint holds fire.
And that is how Leda had arrived at her first love's name.
Eighty- seven years later, Leda awoke one cold morning in November muttering his name. "Flint," she repeated in confusion, "now where had that come from," she wondered. She had not thought of Flint, her first horse, in years. There had been many that had come after him, some of whom she had loved better and more passionately. What had made her think of Flint? Oh well, no matter, she thought as she threw back the duvet and cover sheet and struggled to rise into a sitting position. Her eyes sought the bedside clock. Seven thirty. Sunday. No girl to come and help her with the animals today. She felt tired. She'd fallen asleep in the chair again, waking only when the chill of the fireless parlor had invaded her dreams and spurred her upstairs and into her warm bed, but her fatigue would make no difference to the animals who were awaiting their breakfast. She had better get started. Her knees protested as she rose to her feet and walked across the hall to the bathroom. She switched on the electric heater and waited for the tub to fill with warm water. She climbed in with difficulty and lay back with a sigh. Her eyes, dim as they were, could still discern her veined and pendulous breasts and the sagging skin of her stomach above the wispy white patch of pubic hair. Pathetic, she thought, splashing water over the pale skin and closing her eyes. She could remember when her body had been firm and beautiful, her legs muscled from riding and her hips slim. Her hands splashed water over her breasts. Today, she felt nothing, but when she concentrated sometimes, she could still remember how it felt to desire someone. She had no need to dredge her memory for the name she associated with that-it was Rachel. That name never left her thoughts. She ran more hot water into the tub, rested her head on the porcelain rim, sank deeper into the warm and enveloping water, and her hands resting lightly on her breasts, remembered.
Having delivered Leda and her horse to the school, Edward Castleton promptly disappeared again. Leda had not been bothered by this, in fact she had felt relieved. Her father's nervous and watchful gaze and painfully awkward attempts at conversation were trials that she mutely endured and silently prayed would quickly be over. She had little idea of how to communicate with him, and even less desire to do so. She, quite simply, did not see the point. She had Flint to talk to as they rode through the brilliant foliage of the autumn countryside, Flint to caress and stroke as they stopped beside the singing rivers from which he drank, Flint to brush and murmur softly to as she braided his mane and tail to ready him for bed at night. She endured her lessons and the chapel services and hymns with the nuns, as well as meals and bedtimes with the other girls in silence, literally almost never uttering a word that was not absolutely necessary for the first eight years she spent at the school. She went about her duties quietly and competently and asked for little except to be left alone. And the nuns who ran the school, admiring Leda's stoic countenance, complied, as did the other students who saw little in her to spark their interest. And then Rachel had arrived at the school.
It had been late in the afternoon one day in August, as summer was edging toward autumn. Leda and Flint were returning across the lawns, Leda having ridden Flint hard through the forest. The sun had just begun to set as they crossed the grass toward the stables. Leda noticed the dust swirling on the drive and saw a car racing, its top down, and its motor thrumming loudly. In the back seat next to a dark-haired woman, she saw a stream of flaming auburn hair attached to a small, white blur of a face. "Silly girl should be wearing a hat," Leda thought and proceeded to the stable with Flint. She filled his water bucket in the corner, emptied his supper bag of hay into the trough and gave him a handful of oats. She would not have time to brush him if she wanted to be on time for tea, so she closed and bolted the lower door of his stall and with a promise to come back later, left.
The front hall was abuzz as she entered. The ginger-haired girl from the car was standing with a woman Leda presumed to be her mother, amid a sea of trunks. Sister Mary Joseph was fluttering impotently around them, her hands nervously swatting the air and her voice warbling, "Ah, what shall we do? I just don't know which room to put you in, my dear. I'm not sure that we have one big enough. No other girl has ever arrived with so many
. possessions," she finished, her words dying out as she gazed at the large trunks helplessly. Hearing the heavy, wooden door slam shut, Sister Mary Joseph turned, her face a mask of consternation. As if the sight of Leda had somehow offered her a solution, her frown turned into a slow smile. "Leda, how fortuitous that you have arrived at just this moment, my dear. You have the large corner room on the second floor, if I'm not mistaken."
Leda had only nodded. She'd lived in that room for eight years and now the silly nun was asking her if it was a fact or not. As if she didn't know.
"I know your father had made arrangements for you to have that room, our largest, and I realize you treasure your privacy and solitude, but as you have so few things here with you, would it not make more sense for you to move to a smaller room and allow Rachel to move her things into the large room?" She smiled ingratiatingly at Rachel's mother. "Forgive me, my dear Leda, this is Miss Rachel Dunham," Sister Mary Joseph indicated the girl with a wave of her hand.
Leda, nodded silently at the girl.
"She has arrived only this very moment to attend school with us. Leda, what I have proposed is only a suggestion, my dear, and of course we would reimburse your father for any and all of the funds that would be due him if we were to make such a change," she continued, bobbing her head reassuringly, "but it would be so helpful if you would find it in your heart to comply."
With three sets of eyes fastened firmly on her, Leda hesitated.
"I don't want to take her room," the ginger-haired girl broke in before Leda could compose an answer. "In fact, I don't need a private room," her voice was soft and soothing. "I would be perfectly happy to share with someone," she continued, her eyes like two pieces of sky in her face as they looked directly into Leda's brown ones. "Mother, I told you I did not need to bring all of these
. things," she said looking at the dark-haired woman. "Maybe you and James can take some of it back in the car with you, if there is not the room for me to have it here," she finished.
Sister Mary Joseph was utterly charmed by the girl, Leda could tell. Leda discovered that she herself was charmed and confounded herself by saying, "Well, if you don't mind sharing, and since I do have the largest room, you can share with me." Expecting to regret her rash and hasty words, she was surprised that she felt only excitement at the prospect.
Sister Mary Joseph barely contained her surprise as she transferred her gaze from the flame-haired girl to Leda. "Yes, well, how lovely," she said simply. "What a selfless and Christian attitude to take Leda-you have solved all of our problems," she continued as she motioned for the girl and her mother to follow her up the stairs to Leda's room. "Now Leda, you must hurry if you are to have your tea and I will get Rachel settled."
Leda watched as they ascended the stairs.
It was hours later, after she had eaten her tea and had seen to Flint, that Leda returned to her room. Rachel sat on the bed that had been hurriedly moved into the far corner, already clad in a white cotton nightgown and brushing her hair.
"You've already had your bath," Leda said, and realizing that she was stating the obvious, flushed. "Did you not want some tea?" she asked, as her eyes searched for other changes in the room. Where had all the trunks gone? Where had their contents been hidden? Leda could see no evidence of change except for the addition of the bed and a bureau and the soft-voiced girl who sat brushing her thick auburn hair that hung like a curtain of flame down her back.
"No, we stopped for tea on the way here," Rachel answered. She smiled at Leda's confused expression. "You're wondering where the trunks and all that was in them have disappeared to, aren't you?" she teased. Leda nodded. "I unpacked the clothes I needed and sent mother home with the rest. I told her, she had vastly over packed for me. Why would I need more than a few skirts and jumpers and a couple of pairs of trousers and boots when we will be wearing uniforms everyday?" Rachel asked dismissively. Having cleared that up, she asked, "Was that you that I saw riding the gray horse across the lawn as we arrived?" she asked.
"Yes," Leda smiled. "That was me on Flint. Do you ride?"
Rachel smiled "A little, but not as much as I would like to. I don't have my own horse. He, Flint, I mean, is so large and majestic. You look regal on his back. You look much smaller standing here." She smiled, "No offense."
Leda smiled back, "I'm not offended at all. In fact, the truth of the matter is that when I'm not on Flint's back, I'm not even sure I exist," and she gathered her towel and cake of soap and walked down the hall to the bathroom.
Leda thought Rachel was beautiful. Many times, she watched covertly as Rachel emerged from her bath, rising from the water like a goddess, smooth as a shell, her skin glowing and translucent. Next to Rachel, Leda felt colorless and pale. She was inches shorter, and she had brown hair and brown eyes. Despite their obvious differences, she and Rachel began spending all of their time together, and though she saw the envious and admiring glances the other girls threw her way, she was smart enough to know that though she was Rachel's constant companion, their envy and admiration did not extend to her. She waited tensely for the day when Rachel would find someone more beautiful and witty to befriend, someone more worthy of her attention and interesting to be with. She waited for Rachel to abandon her and convinced herself that she would be eager to resume her solitary rides on Flint and silent meals alone at the end of a table full of girls. She knew that it was inevitable. But it had never happened.
Incredibly, Rachel seemed only to have eyes and ears for Leda. She began accompanying Leda and Flint on their rides astride Amber, the companion pony that Leda's father had provided for Flint. Being strong and athletic, Rachel quickly proved herself to be a confident and skillful rider. Three months after she had arrived at the school, she had participated in her first hunt. Leda had accompanied her into town to be fitted for boots and the scarlet wool coat and white jodhpurs that were the uniform for hunters. When the riding costume was nearly finished and the seamstress asked them to return for the final fitting, Leda could only stand open-mouthed, transfixed at Rachel's transformation from school girl to noble huntress.
And the day of the hunt, that clear blue November day, Leda rode behind Rachel as they raced through the autumn woods, saw her hair flying behind her, like a flag or a banner, the same color as the maple and sumac leave that warmed the cold, brown, dying forests. She watched Rachel's strong arms pulling the reins, guiding Amber through the trees even as her heels kicked at her sides, urging the horse faster and yet faster still. And she watched Rachel's eyes take in the kill, alight with excitement, and Leda knew that Rachel's heart was beating with the same fast and frenzied rhythm as her own. They had dismounted quickly and Leda put her hands in the warm, red blood of the fox and wiped it over Rachel's white cheeks. "You have killed your first fox. You have to be blooded, as I was myself, when I killed my first fox." And she knew in that moment that Rachel was of the woods. She knew that Rachel belonged on the back of a horse, hooves beating like a drum as they raced over the earth. She knew quite simply that Rachel belonged with her.
Later that evening, after Leda had helped Rachel scrub the blood from her face and they had both had their baths, they had turned out the light and settled themselves for sleep. Leda whispered Rachel's name into the dark. She had thought that Rachel was asleep, but Rachel had answered her quietly, "Yes, Leda."
"You will never leave me, will you Rachel?" Leda again whispered as if she did not want even the walls to hear.
The darkness felt solid with expectation, waiting for the answer as desperately as she was.
"I could never leave you Leda," Rachel answered quietly. "Now go to sleep."
I'm ommitting the middle part of the story as per Carlotta's advice I consulted an editor who did say that if you are working on a writing project, it is fine to post parts of that work on the internet for feedback, but not advisable to post the entire thing.
"Well, and what had it all meant?" Leda muttered to herself as she stood stiffly and wrapped herself in a towel. She pulled the rubber plug attached to the chain and watched as the water ran down the drain. "Nothing, absolutely nothing," Leda whispered. She stepped out of the bathtub, shuffled across the hall to her bedroom and dressed quickly in the clothes she had worn the day before. No reason to get another set of clothes dirty, she reasoned. Not bothering to glance in the mirror, she carefully descended the stairs, her hands clutching the old wooden banister. She stopped briefly in the kitchen, pulled on her hat and waxed jacket, grabbed the bucket of food scraps that she had collected from last night's dinner, and proceeded out the door.
"There you are, Peggy," she greeted the cat who lay in the sun on the stone step that led into the barn. "I hope you caught your breakfast- I see that some rats have been in the feed bags." Peggy lay prone, dreaming in the sun, the only sign of life a small twitch of her tail at various intervals. "Well, no matter. We shall have to set some traps," Leda continued. She felt for the rope bags that were tied in slip knots to nails in the barn wall. The girl had left four bags to get her through the week-end, as she only came to help with the chores on the week days. Leda hefted the nearest bag and thought that it felt too heavy. That girl- what was her name? Leda could never remember. Whoever she was,
she always made the bags too heavy. Leda had told her over and over again to use the scale, weigh the bags, six pounds in the dinner bag and three pounds in the breakfast bag, but nonetheless they were always stuffed almost full to bursting- a waste of good feed. "Can't she do anything right?" Leda scoffed aloud. She hefted the smaller bag off the nail, and carried it from the barn and across the yard to the stable. She unbolted the stable door and Jasper turned to greet her. "Jasper, my darling, did you have a good night?" Leda asked as she stroked his back. The horse snuffled as he shoved his nose into Leda's pocket. "Yes, yes, I have your peppermint. You are such an angel, here is your sweet," she spoke as she flattened her hand in front of his mouth. He licked the peppermint from her hand. Leda pulled the feed from the bag and put it in the dry sink in the corner of the stable. She pulled the blanket from the hook on the wall and struggled to throw the heavy garment over the back of the horse, then bent stiffly to fasten the buckles under his belly. "There you are, my beauty," she said, leading him out of the stable, "all ready for another day in the sunshine." She gave him another peppermint and led him down the path and into the fenced paddock.
Closing the wooden gate behind her, she shuffled back down to the barn to collect the bucket of food scraps, and walked to the chicken coop. She opened the door, shooed the chickens into a small fenced enclosure and dumped the contents of the bucket on the ground. Turning to shut the gate, she counted the chickens and realized one was missing. "Sarah, where is your sister?" she directed her question toward the largest, burgundy hen. "Is she still poorly?" she asked as she shuffled back toward the coop. She bent to look in the door and could barely discern the stiff shape of the last chicken lying on a bed of straw in the laying box. "Ah, I was afraid it was your time," Leda whispered to the hen. "You were not looking too well yesterday. You stay there while I muck out the stall, and I will be back to get you," Leda whispered into the shadowed coop.
Returning to the yard, Leda filled a bucket with water from the rain barrel and carried it into the stall. She gasped as it splashed on her trouser leg and realized she had spilled fully half of it. She continued into the stall, poured the remaining water in the bucket into the horse's pail and felt around its rim to see how full it was. Almost full- Jasper was not drinking as much as he should. She carried the empty water bucket back outside, placed it beside the water tank and returning with another empty bucket into the stall, fell to her knees and patting with her hands, began searching the sawdust on the floor of the stall for the horse's dumps.
"Mother, whatever are you doing down on your knees in the stall?" the imperious voice of her younger daughter, Isobel inquired. Leda looked up to see her standing at the iron gate to the stable's enclosure. "Please do not tell me that you are planning to pick up manure with your hands. At least use gloves, even the girl does that much," Isobel continued, holding out a pair of yellow rubber gloves she had found lying on the window sill of the stable.
Leda ignored the gloves and continued patting the sawdust. "I don't need gloves. Don't watch if it makes you squeamish."
Isobel watched her mother in silent disgust as Leda dug into the sawdust beneath the manure with her hands and managed to transport it to the bucket without soiling them.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Leda asked.
"It is your birthday mother. I came to see if you had changed your mind about lunch."
"The question is, have you changed your mind?" Leda asked her daughter, not bothering to look up from her toil.
"No, I haven't," Isobel answered her firmly. "He is my son. He is your grandson. If he is not welcome in your home, I will not consider myself welcome either."
"You are always welcome, Isobel, but I will not have a queer seated at my table, or anywhere at all in my house, for that matter."
"Mother, do you realize how bigoted and absolutely hateful you sound?" Isobel asked, her blue eyes pale and watery. "You have always loved Peter. How could who he sleeps with change that?"
"It isn't anything I will discuss with you. You may find it acceptable. I most certainly do not, and I will not pretend to tolerate such abhorrent behavior."
Leda continued patting the sawdust. Having satisfied herself that she had gathered all the dumps, she rose stiffly to her feet and Isobel watched her as she lifted the bucket, walked through the chicken yard and emptied it onto the compost heap.
When Leda returned, Isobel shook her hair from her eyes, and voice shaking with anger said simply, "I am leaving now, Mother. I want you to know this is not how I would like your birthday or your life to be. Peter would still help you with the animals, if you would speak to him. We are your family and we would like to spend your birthday with you, but I can't collude with you in inflicting pain on my son." She stared into her mother's almost sightless eyes, "You are making a mistake that I know you will come to regret." Isobel touched her mother on the arm and kissed her cheek before she turned and walked toward her car.
Leda pulled on the gloves and turned to enter the chicken coop.
At the opening she hesitated and called over her shoulder, "You tell Peter that as soon as he decides to behave like a proper man, I will be most happy to see him again," and she ducked into the coop to retrieve the lifeless hen.
"It's the bonfire for you, I'm afraid," Leda whispered to the stiff body that hung heavy from her hands. "What an utter shame. At least I got to you before the rats did."
Leda sighed heavily. This meant that she would have to make the long walk all the way through the paddock to the back corner where the brush and rubbish had been piled and enclosed in a circle of chicken wire waiting to be burned. This was not a walk that Leda had prepared herself to take. She was wearing her soft felt slippers with the rubber bottoms instead of her boots. "Oh well, there's nothing for it but to get to it," she told herself. She could not leave the hen's body in the farmyard to attract predators and disease. She walked up the path through the vegetable garden. Her eyes vaguely discerned small purple humps rising periodically from the soil- "Cabbages rotting in the ground in all this damp. I will need to get out here and pick them," she told herself. She opened the gate in the yew hedge that provided entrance into the paddock. The small clearing at the gate was a muddy swamp that had been formed into furrows by Jasper's hooves. She would have to get the man to shovel it to the sides. So many chores to be done, it was never ending. Leda walked across the grass, still slick from the night's rain and the morning's dew. She dimly perceived Jasper's outline beneath the apple trees that edged the slight rise that had once been a tennis court. "You will make yourself sick, Jasper," she called to him. He raised his head briefly before returning to his meal. He was eating the windfalls that were rotting in the grass beneath the trees. Another task she'd have to get the man to do. There might be good apples she could use for cooking rotting in the long grass beneath the trees. Either way they needed to be collected; they could not be left there for Jasper to gorge on.
"Finally," Leda sighed as she approached the bonfire. It had been so wet this autumn, the pile had grown and grown without ever having been burned down. Leda flung the hen's body onto the pile. It hit the top and rolled down the side, coming to rest on its back, legs stiff in the air, opaque and milky eyes blank and open to the sky.
"Ashes to ashes," Leda whispered as she turned to walk back.
Leda pursed her lips in annoyance when she saw that Jasper remained under the trees eating the rotting apples that made a slick russet sheen on the grass. She came up behind him and swatted his neck gently with her hand, "Jasper, I told you, you need to stop. You will make yourself sick."
Intent on his feast, the horse had not noticed Leda's arrival. At the touch of her hand and sound of her voice, he started, and stepped back onto Leda's foot. She cried out in pain and surprise and struggling to free herself, slid on the slippery rotting apples and lost her balance. She fell heavily to the wet ground beneath the horse.
Later, opening her eyes, Leda found herself staring into a blue and vacant sky. The sun was much lower on the horizon and she felt moisture saturating her back. Her feet were cold, and she realized they were bare. She had lost her slippers somewhere. She could smell apples and slowly became aware of the sound of Jasper's jaws and teeth somewhere behind her, crunching methodically. She thought, "So there were some apples that hadn't yet rotted."
"Oh, how extraordinarily stupid," Leda grunted as she lay still gathering her strength to shift her weight onto her side to try to roll over onto her hands and knees. Her hands and the back of her neck were stinging and numb. She was lying in a patch of nettles. She had told the man to mow the paddock. He obviously hadn't as she was lying smack in the middle of nettles that rose two feet on either side of her. Every time she moved her hands, she was stung again. "Worthless help-they never do what they are told, but are always happy to take my money," she grumbled. Anger and frustration impelled her to try to shift her weight. Placing pressure on her hip, she was immediately bathed in sweat and cried out in pain. She turned her head to the side and vomited.
When she next opened her eyes, it was dark. Leda was no longer cold. She had been dreaming. She had dreamt of her mother whose life had been traded for her own, to the regret of so many. She had dreamt of Robert, with his insistent hands and harsh, barking laugh. She hadn't wanted to marry, but had in the end. What was it Rachel had said? "It was what girls like her did." It had turned out alright. He had found his own loves and left her to find hers before he had died- quieter, diminished- literally shriveled from cancer- leaving her to blessed solitude. And she had dreamt of her children: two beautiful, blond haired daughters who had pushed their way into her world, screaming as if possessed. She hadn't really wanted them- had been terrified in fact to have them. Courting disaster, was how she saw it. All of that blood and pain and then years of grasping hands and hearts that she hadn't ever known how to fill. And where were they now, when she needed them?
Ah well, there was nothing to be done about it. It was what it was, and couldn't be changed. She was so tired. She had endured so many days and nights of nothing more or less than time passing. Ninety four years of the smell of apples and dirt and leaves. Ninety four perfect, blue autumns. She could hear Jasper snuffling in the dark somewhere. She closed her eyes and smiled. It had been enough.
I've posted this story today in a gesture to congratulate my two friends (CF and CL) on their newly won and justly recognized right to commit their lives to each other.