A Southern Gothic Tale by Liùsaidh
Draw the flesh off of the frame, earth and worm both have a claim. — ‘O Death,’ trad. Appalachian Folksong
Emily Rile picked her way along behind the hearse, hollow inside. She didn’t feel anything at all. Should she weep? She was empty as a clean pot. All emotion scoured out.
She gazed down at her bootblack sleeves, and tugged them over her wrists. The fingermarks from a dead man could still be seen. No one had said anything. In Martinville it might have been considered low to beat your dog, your horse, your servant or your wife, but it would be unthinkable to interfere with a man exercising his right to do so. Besides. What else to do with the spirited and the headstrong girl?
Everyone agreed she’d not been raised quite right — too much time on the hills with Old Mary. Fortunately, her uncle had taken Emily down from the mountains before the girl grew beyond recall. He’d seen she had a proper education for a good Christian wife. Then Jeb came courting — the roses he brought her running, over time, from yellow through to deep red, the language of flowers indicating his growing affections. She’d happily married such a charming and handsome man, believing herself to be in love.
And what wildness that remained? Jeb had known his duties as head of his home. Everyone agreed Emily was much more biddable. Docile even, a mere two years into her marriage. Church ladies agreed they’d never seen such an improvement in a girl’s disposition.
The distant toll of the bell in little white church indicated the place where they’d bury poor Jeb. In her gloved hands she held a posy of wildflowers.
There was no one left now to whom she could go. The farm would be foreclosed if she couldn’t handle the work. And the vultures were a-gathering. She didn’t like the way the deputy was looking at her, his hooded gaze a cattle-brand in her back.
She drew on the voice. The woman who raised her, half-wild, in the mountains. Old Mary had stepped off a boat in harbour and headed up to the mountains. She’d never come back down. The hills and glens of this new world reminded Mary of the land she’d been cleared from by struck potatoes and the laird. How Old Mary had hated the lairds. Mary was three years in the ground by the time Emily had married. But her voice, cracked with age and the Scots of the Eastern Highlands, always came back to Emily when she needed the strength.
“Jimson Weed,” the voice of her grandmother cautioned. “A nightshade. They also call it Devil’s Snare. The soldiers put it their stew, and wandered lost for eleven days. Bad. You can tell it here. And here. By the leaves. By the pretty petals, runnin’ snow white to gentle violet. They think its a delicate flower, and they stagger by in madness. ‘Twill void the womb, in the right dosage.”
The sound of spades striking the earth — a sound you’d hear every day in summer on a farm — have a different sound when you’re digging a grave. Each powdery strike to the dry earth had a finality you didn’t get when you were planting potatoes and not husbands. The shovel of red dirt. Dirt on iron. Iron on earth.
“An’ here be hemlock. One o’ the dark herbs, dearie. It looks like what we’d call hogweed in the old country. Hogweed or cow parsley. But it isnae. And you have tae look closely tae tell the difference. Learn what it looks like when it doesnae flower. Grooves on the stem, here. Do you ken who Socrates was? That’s how they executed him. Aye. That’s it. Haud the pestle just so. It’s the bruisin’ that brings the strength. You’ve the kennin’ o’ the ways, lass.”
A muttered voice, hushed in mourning from the back. ’That poor thing. Widowed so young. Jeb Rile was a good and godly man. Didn’t even leave her a child to remember him by.”
Children. She couldn’t have babies. She’d sat, last month, sewing, as the doctor delivered that news in her little parlour. His face had been grim. At the time, she’d been so shocked, she’d kept darting the cloth with the needle. Eventually, she stopped, and reached for the scissors, snipped the thread and tied it off.
“You mean there’ll be no children? Ever?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs Rile. Your husband — he couldn’t have known you were with child.”
Jeb had known. A tear splashed.
Sweet Mrs Cole, the pastor’s wife, handed her a lace-edged handkerchief. Snowy white against the black twill of Emily’s dress.
“He was called to the Lord too soon. Cry as you need to Ms. Emily.”
The casket lowered. The preacher nodded to the mountain girl with the bruises at her wrists. She tossed the little posey onto the wood. Then a handful of that red, red earth.
And with that, they planted and dug in Jebadiah Rile.
If you knew the dark herbs you’d read Widow Rile’s farewell in that bouquet of tossed weeds, writ large in the language of flowers.
Liùsaidh is a poet and author from the West of Scotland. Writing from a crack-ridden council estate, the poems are always strange. You can find them online and in print, most recently in Unlost Journal and The Ghazal Page.