Saturday, February 18, 2017

Heart's desire

The coming here was hard. He said it will be worth it, Mary. Don’t fret on it. Because what was there behind us? Nothing, he said. Just rocks and land that don’t belong to us. And I would add, under my breath, nothing but home. Nothing but our families. Nothing but our hearts.

When our youngest girl died of dysentery on the way over, I learned that I’d brought pieces of my heart with me from Scotland. And I would be strewing them along my path to this new land. Like the children in the story do to mark their path to home.

The first year was hard. The lord’s big words amounted to not much. We did not come to a utopia. We got the land he promised. But what of it? What wasn’t marsh was full of trees we had to clear ourselves. Our first months were spent in tents and then shivering in log huts when the winter came. So many died. I would look to the east and think of home, all through that long winter. Perhaps it wasn’t Christian of me to sorrow so. But I did.

He said, Mary, don’t take on so. This is our home now. Our children will be free. They won’t see their labour go to fill a lord’s pockets, to be wasted on sport and women. And that was true. But it wasn’t enough for me.

He said, Mary, you should be happy with the new bairn. She is the spit of her sister, the one we lost. She was beautiful and so like her sister. So very like, indeed.

I never said much in reply. The women in our settlement thought I was a bit unfriendly, but I never turned a stranger from our door. Nor did I refuse a neighbour any help. It was just the pieces of my heart were in the way of my voice. If I spoke, my anguish threatened to come out and I would never get it back inside again.

Life got better. Everyone worked together to clear the trees, drain the marsh, plant the crops. Our house grew a little more comfortable with every harvest. My children, the ones who survived the coming and the ones born here, thought of this place as home. He said, look at these fine Canadians we’re raising. And they were so fine. They were strong and handsome and smart.

My husband brought me seeds from the city. For flowers, he said. So I could have something beautiful of my own. My daughters and I sowed the seeds so that in the summer, I would see flowers from my kitchen window. He said, they are to gladden your heart. Tell me how to gladden your heart. But I couldn’t say, take me home because that would be impossible. He loved it here as did my children.

The flowers were lovely. When another of my babies died, the flowers looked beautiful in his coffin. A piece of my heart went into this Canadian ground with him.

Still, I liked my flowers. The flowers of home mixed with the flowers of here mixed with the flowers that fine ladies would grow. The colours cheered me and the girls pressed them so that we could enjoy them through the long, dark winters.

The old woman from the cottage down the lane would come begging for a few flowers every summer. I never asked what she did with them. They were poor, her family. The boys, men, really did not work as hard as other men here. And she was a strange one, always muttering to herself. It was said she walked into the long woods to talk to the Devil.

One day, she looked at me with her one sharp eye. The other eye was white and blinded. But her sharp eye was young and like a bird’s eye, always roving, dark and glittering.

She said, I can get you what you desire most. My tattered heart stopped in my chest. But what is the cost? I asked her. Because I knew, under that dark eye, the stories were true and she did have powers and secrets.

She said, it would only cost your husband’s joy. And one of your fair daughters. I said, yes. Even though I had thought she meant to kill one of my daughters. She laughed at my firm yes and she said, I only mean for one of my sons to marry one of your daughters. She said, you were ready to give one up entirely. I replied, I have already given two. One to the sea. One to this land. What is another?

My husband’s trials began that very day. Indeed, our whole family was bedeviled.

Bullets came through the windows at all times. Yet none ever pierced a person. Still, my eldest daughter said, I cannot live here, always waiting to be killed. When the old lady’s son came and asked to marry her, my daughter said yes and was gone.

Soon after, the fires started. Little fires everywhere. He said, we need to leave this cursed place. My heart leapt. But he only meant to go to another home. My eldest son married and left us to our troubles.

The fires followed us. Tables jumped, dishes flew, animals died. But my husband had enough of moving. And he stayed. Although our barn burned. Then our house so that we were reduced to tents.

The old woman would see me on my way to prayer meetings and she would wink and tap her nose. Soon, she would whisper to me as she handed me a basket of eggs or fruit. Soon, you will have your heart’s desire.

Men, though, love to solve a problem when the best solution would be to leave, to quit. No. They want to stay. They want to win. So the men of the settlement put their brains to it. Although we were shivering in tents and only the littlest children remained with us because they could not marry or work in other households.

First came the schoolmaster. He nailed up a sign asking evil to be gone from our place. He had read it in a book, he said. The minister did not like it, nor did the law. A magistrate came down from the city and arrested the schoolmaster for taking pay to hunt witches. After several months in jail, he was set free because my son wrote to say the schoolmaster had done it on his own, for no money. The sign caught fire in the night.

The fires burned through the summer. Every time my husband attempted to rebuild, a fire would consume his work. He said, we must have done something to earn God’s wrath. I would say nothing.

Then the French sent their priest to us. He said words in Latin and wrestled mightily with something, but to no purpose. Stones still fell from the sky behind my children, bullets ripped through the tents, although there was no gun and the fires yet burned.

Be patient, the old woman said. You will get your desire.

Then a doctor said he knew of a girl who could see into the next world. My husband agreed to go with him. He said, I will be back soon. I don’t want to deal with witches, but something must be done or we will have to leave this place. I said nothing, but I smiled as he walked away.

He was gone a week. In my dreams, I saw him in the woods, beset by wolves. He was devoured by them, ripped apart. And when I woke, I said, if he doesn’t return, I will go home.
He returned.

He said, I need a silver bullet. Have you not seen the great dark bird that watches us? The children see it. I said, this is foolishness. A silver bullet. How will you get such a thing?

He took my silver cup and had the blacksmith melt it down and form it into a ball. The cup had been my mother’s and it had belonged to her mother and so on back through the years. It was to have been my oldest daughter’s.

When he left with his gun, a great fire came and took our tent and our cart and our fields. All but my flowers were devoured.

Pain ripped through my chest. I have shot it, he said. Come see, he cried. Come see the great bird I’ve shot. Right through the breast, he cried. But I stood in our neighbour’s home, bleeding onto the floor, a great red puddle spreading around my feet, soaking the hem of my dress.

Come see, he said, rushing through the door as if he were a young man again. He stopped in the doorway, his face white. He dropped the gun, little caring if it should fire by accident. What happened, he said.

I’m going home, I said to him. I laughed and laughed. I had never told the witch what I had wanted. I thought I had wanted to go home. But then I knew. I had wanted my heart to stop being ripped away piece by piece. So she made it that my heart would go all at once.

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