HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

A Pebble From

A PEBBLE FROM THE RIVER FOR ANNIE by DOUGLAS BRUTON

Annie walking with a limp, creeping creeping, through the night-dark street, the village sleeping and Annie silent as thought, but slow as grass. Sneaking past the windows of houses, not looking in, and the curtains drawn against her even if she did. Past the shops with glass fronts shiny like still water, or glinting-black like the eyes of dead birds, and all along the whole street-lamp length of the street. Not going to the church tonight, the far-end church and its shut door, not this time. Instead, to the river. And finding a memory there, of another night, like this one, something like, and in her arms then a weight that never lifted even when her arms were empty again, and empty ever after.
Annie kneeling at the river’s edge, like before, though years added to years since then, so many, and her hair silver now even without the moon. And she is speaking; to no one, it looks like - praying, it could be. Maybe something is listening, something in that black night, no face, just spark-eyes and pricked ears; and there are words heard in that near-dark, words falling into the river, and tumbling tumbling, edges smoothed away in the movement of water, Annie, just sticks and rags, always, dirt on the dew-lapped hem of her skirt and moths caught there sometimes, and her face – if it could be seen – a map of all weathers, and the backs of her hands also. Annie born to no one, ages past, in a field beside sheep or cows, and carried to the barn where she was left and found wrapped in paper. After, brought up a farmer’s lass, though she wasn’t. And to school, some days, when it was time. Annie not knowing at first. Never told till they said; and they did say, boys mean with words but every word weighted, and girls, too, and nick-names for Annie that were spite-sharp as glass or hard as thrown stones. Then Annie knew.
‘There, there. Take no heed, girl,’ and a mother that she thought a new-found lie, brushing the tangles from her hair and saying she is beautiful, even when Annie knows she is not, has to pick her own posy of daisies when no one else will, and sets them in a glass of green water, by the window where she can see them, telling herself then that it does not matter. There will come a day, she thinks, and something then, like singing in church heard through glass or wood, or laughter not seen, just the sound. And what Annie expects from that one-day-sometime, she does not shape into words, just thoughts, of better than is, could be.

Work needs doing, and that fills all the days that were or are or will be. Mornings in the still dark barn where early cows stand in clouds of their own steam, and wait for her warm hands, wait for milk-teats, pink and pulled, and squeezing, and milk making quick music in a metal bucket and the froth like old lace. And some days the sheep brought down from the hill, and whistle-dog nipped and tucked into stone pens for Tam and his sprung shears to make big sheep small again; and other days lambs to tug new into the world and she feels like skipping, too, just to see them. But always there is the garden, heavy as last straws, turned over sometimes, must be, and seeds stitched into the soil or small green things planted, roots like loose threads pushed and pressed into the crumbled earth. Then wishing for rain, till another day comes, a day for pulling surprise potatoes and carrots and onions from the black-hat earth, and it feels like magic, something like. And back to the barn, and the day never-ending, every day, and fond cows listening to Annie singing, udders milk-heavy, and buckets scrubbed like mirrors, and full again soon, and yellow light from smoking oil lamps reflected in a cow’s wet eyes as Annie moves from one stall to the next. No time left for books, even if she wanted, or school-learning, but Annie never idle, and time passing in the round, coming back to the start when the year ends.

Then a day, at last, like the one day waited for, and such a day. Annie’s hopes lifted, her soul in the sky, like the skylark high-hovering when someone steps near the nest, and the door-hinge squeak of its call, played over and over, and Annie thinking this might be, must be. Because Calum come to the barn, Calum a man, maybe, on the threshold, his hair like new-mined coal and skin smelling of Sundays, and her name in his mouth, like a song. Like syrup or honey, she thinks, and she does not know he is there for a small-silver bet is all. She does not know. And what he says tastes of something she thinks is sweet-truth, and she believes, even after, when kisses are cold and her skirts never lifted again, not by boy or by man. And Calum saying he will be back is something she isn’t sure he said, so she waits, is used to waiting, and she looks for him most days and most days.
Then comes a night, like tonight only brighter, and Annie in the shadows, then as now, a shadow herself it seems, shoes off, and slipping barefoot through the moon-radiant street. All the way that night, to the church with its windows blank and the door a hard black space, looks open but isn’t. Annie with a soft-mewling babe cradled in her arms and her own small fist making little noise on the cold hard wood.
No answer.
And she calls, for someone. But the whole world is sleeping.
Annie then, cross with the minister, cross with god, cross with all men, and should be, turning her back and finding herself kneeling at the river’s edge, kneeling in the dew-damp grass, the webs of spiders like tattered scraps of lace on her skirt. ‘She must have a name, she must have a name,’ said again and again, to the babe in Annie’s arms, the child she delivered herself in the gagged dark of the cow-barn. She knew what to do; after all, she’d seen lambs Spring-born to ewes, and calves to frighted heifers. The child, her child, wrapped in a torn sheet marked with the blood of its birthing, must have a name. Annie kneeling, leaning, forward and reaching, cupping her hand and scooping water from the river, sharp and soft, and wetting the baby’s head, as she’d seen the minister do at the stone font in the church, and Annie calling her child Judith.
Annie kneeling at the river’s edge, all those years back, her black hair like a veil, muttering prayers and songs that never were heard in any church, and her child, Judith, face tight closed in sleep, tight closed like a fist with silver in its grasp. And the witness-moon in a cloudless sky, and a pebble taken from the river for Annie.
Annie back through the village that night and finding the bakehouse lit up like the sun slept there. And the ovens already hot and the smell leaking out onto the street where Annie is, the smell of newborn bread. The door open and someone inside singing, a man’s voice that she recognises, and his soon-to-be-wife laughing somewhere in the back. Annie has written in mud on the torn sheet, written her child’s name, Judith. Annie, then, kissing her this-night-baby, and laying her down inside the door where it is warm, and one more kiss, and one last.
At the far reach of the village that night Annie finding her shoes where she left them, putting a pebble in one, hard and round, and ever after limping as she goes.
At the river again, now, and her arms cradling that memory and kissing nothing, but kissing anyway. And singing, songs she once knew, the music not the words. And counting off the months and years, some good and some not, but all the days the same, mostly. Every year the first bee of Spring plucked from the air and kept in her purse as a charm against the temptation of spending, until there was enough saved, and a small gift then, wrapped in old cloth and bound with the rough-braids of straw and left where a girl called Judith could find it and not know who gave it.
Judith growing growing, through the quickening years, and singing in church sometimes, like her make-believe father, only Judith singing sweeter than syrup or honey, and truer; and Judith heard laughing by the river once, like her pretend mother; but not like Annie, nothing like, except that her hair is dark, glossy-black like the wings of crows. Like a veil.
Comes a day, so soon, another day, a special day, and announcements in the village, weeks before, and Annie hears, somehow. A day it is for brides and mothers. From the fields she hears the bells of the church ringing, ringing different that day, and Annie hurries, fast as limping can, for she knows, can see in her head the picture of a man, hair like coal maybe, and his arm hooked in Judith’s, and Annie hears him say that he takes her for better for worse. Annie not seen or noticed, at the open door, open a chink-crack, straining to hear, to see, and her face holding a smile like a polished sixpence that day, and tears like silver or glass on her cheeks. But she cannot stay, does not. Leaves before, and limps back to the cows and sheep waiting for her on the hill.
Now, long years after, and many, and all turned to ash, bitter in the mouth, bitter as the chewed cud and hard to swallow, and Annie back to kneeling by cold water, the night so dark she can touch it, taste it on her lips, and maybe it’s not night but something else she tastes. Annie kneeling by the river, spiders weaving lace into her skirts once more, and Annie knowing she won’t ever get up again, in her bones she knows, and never been wrong before. And from her shoe she takes a pebble, the same pebble, and lays it gentle in the water. Almost floats it seems, for a moment, almost, and then slips slow to the place it was before and no moon-witness to the blind-dark end of things.