‘The River’, a short story*

short story * with thanks to Bruce Springsteen

Mary stood on tiptoes to see over the mossy stone wall of Barsteeple Bridge, watching the murky brown water speed out of sight beneath her feet, through the middle arch and away to the sea 10 miles away. Oh how she wanted to be swept up in it, swirling in its current, sped away to another world. But her feet were heavy on the ground. She rested a hand on the swell of her stomach and felt a kick inside. She turned away. Of course she couldn’t leave, her feet were rooted here as solidly as the foundations of the bridge. She didn’t know anywhere else, had never left the village. She’d grown up here and got with child here. Tomorrow she would become an adult here. The whole village knew that tomorrow, Sunday, Mary Struthers was to marry Johnnie Dart. Tomorrow they would right the wrong of one night’s fumbling and prodding in a dusty corner of the churchyard.

Tonight was the last night of her childhood.

The bells rang for evening service, calling her back to reality. She turned from the bridge, from its promise of escape, sub-consciously smoothing the fabric of her skirt stretched tight against her bursting belly. Some days she loved its curve, she loved the way it made her feel. Other days, she hated it: when the button on the waistband refused to fit through the loop, when she was breathless, when her dinner of brown Brussels sprout tops and watery stew gathered at the back of her throat and made her gag. Mary’s mother was grateful for the yellowing vegetable leaves and roots her daughter picked off the floor of the workshop, considered unworthy of sale. Every day Mary packed carrots and cabbages and turnips into crates bound for market at Wanstable, a half day’s drive by cart. Mary had never been to Wanstable.

Five months ago, when she could hide her condition no longer, her mother had hit her. Mary had expected that from her father, but the animal screams that emitted from her tiny mother were sexless in their anger.

“Bitch. Slut. Trollop,” her mother shouted, spitting with anger, her face red, her eyes white.

And Mary stood there, four months pregnant, in silence.

“Layin’ with that boy. Well you’ll pay, young lady, for liftin’ your skirts.”

Mary was silent. She knew her mother was right. She had failed, as her mother had failed before her when she was 16. And now the sin of her mother was being reproduced in Mary’s belly.

Johnnie’d had a hiding from his father and nursed his wounds.

“Johnnie, what’ll we do?”

“No choice. We muss’n do nuthin’ but what they say.” When Mary when wanted to rub soothing ointment into his bruised face, he flinched from her touch and she flinched at his withdrawal.

Why can’t he behave like a man, like a grown up, she thought. Why doesn’t he take charge, like the father of a child should? Instead he pokes fun at my shape, the shape he’s given me, and runs away when he sees me coming down the street.

She spat into the dust, at a loss how to change him and knowing change was impossible.

Every night Mary stood on the bridge in the dark, watching the water run away. As her swell grew bigger, Mary left the house only at night to avoid the daily whispers. She liked the nice when the voices were silent.

“Look, that’s Struther’s young ‘un. She’s in bother.”

“Keep walkin’, chil’run. Dun’ look at that wrong ‘un.”

Only at night did Mary feel safe. By day she worked with the vegetables, avoiding Johnnie who said little and never touched her. Every night she breathed in the river’s damp smell of inconceivable things – of life and death, copulation and battle, of bloated animals upstream and emptied chamber pots.

The old villagers said the river was 20 feet deep in places. Old Man Woolley told a yarn about a trout 3ft long. He was right about the trout, but wrong about its size. Some days when her father felt lucky, he sneaked a dead fish into the house and her mother would cook it with the windows closed to hide the smell from the neighbours.

Now, on the eve of her wedding Mary looked at the river fascinated by the other world hidden beneath a surface that looked solid enough to walk upon, just as Jesus had walked on the lake, according to the vicar. Mary believed only what she could see, and she could see the hidden world of the river. Of comings and goings, of trout and eels and frogs. Of currents and eddies. Of reeds and weeds. Of things being born and rotting, side by side. Of water always on the move, escaping down stream away from Barsteeple Bridge.

As the sun climbed into the sky and the morning bile rose to her throat, Mary turned for home. To meet what the new day brought. She’d only parted her legs for Johnnie the once. He’d told her every girl did it, she was the only one who was afraid, she was the only girl in the village not to have done it. So she’d let him do what he had to do. She might have enjoyed it if he’d kissed her or stroked her, but he’d pushed her to the ground and she’d turned her head away as he pushed again. Then her bleeding had stopped and her waist had thickened, but she told no-one, hiding her changing shape as long as possible.

Then five months ago, Mary’s mother recognised herself in her daughter and shouted, “Bitch. Slut. Trollop.” She held Mary tightly by the roots of her hair and twisted her like a rabbit caught in one of her father’s traps. Mary cried at each blow and cried again in the evening when her father expressed his displeasure in the only way he knew how. She turned her head from his pungent ale-old breath.

Next morning the neighbours nodded at Mary as she left for work.

“Mornin’ now Mary.”

And though she folded her hands in front of her, their eyes drifted to her swell like metal filings to a magnet.

She knew Bert Crest, the grocer, saw her that night walking away from the churchyard at dusk with Fred Dart’s youngest son. But she didn’t know that Bert understood what had happened, he’d been 16 once, he’d taken Fred Dart’s sister to the churchyard. Four months later as her condition had shown itself he’d married her without smiling, without hymns or wedding tea, just a marriage certificate to prove the child wasn’t a bastard. Oh yes, Bert Crest understood alright. Everyone understood. It was the way of Barsteeple. Mary had waited many times outside the church gate to watch the hasty weddings of older girls righting the wrong of their fornication with marriage vows. Afterwards the new wife, officially now a woman, was accepted again by the village. Afterwards, everyone got on with their lives until 16 years later the pattern repeated as sons and daughters followed the example of mothers and fathers. For Mary and her family, the Darts and the Crests, this intermingling of blood, co-joining of genes, and grafting of roots was part of the natural process of the village. There was only one alternative. Sam Dart, Johnnie’s eldest brother, had run away to sea rather than marry his one-night conquest. Johnnie’s nephew ran around the village, ignored by the Dart family. The sea was the only alternative.

So on Saturday night, on the eve of her wedding, Mary stood on Barsteeple Bridge and tried to picture what the sea looked like. She imagined a river so wide she couldn’t see the other side, was this was how the sea was? She’d seen a map book in the schoolroom once that showed the earth covered by sea, much more blue sea than brown land.

The river had been Mary’s friend since she took her first steps. In the summer she dived in and felt its water slap her white body like a cold fish. In the winter she walked by its side, crooned to it, talked to it, entrusted her secrets to it. It was her place to be herself.

Five months ago it was a bitter cold morning that her secret came out. Mary dressed beneath the bed clothes, trying not to let the cold spill under the covers, staying as long as possible wrapped in the warm musky air of her sleep. She tied the errant button and loop of her skirt with a piece of string, pulled her blouse loosely over her budding waist and breasts. Downstairs she gave thanks her father was on early shift at the mine, then spooned oatmeal into a pot and added a spoon of salt. Her mother was talking outside. With eyes still drowsy with sleep, Mary saw Bert Crest nod towards the kitchen then up the hill towards the churchyard.

Mary abandoned her bowl, turned for the door. But she was too tardy.

“Bitch. Slut. Trollop.” Her mother caught her at the bottom of the stair.

Mary didn’t go to work that day. She ran to the river and walked until she was miles from anyone’s sight, her head dizzy and her legs wobbly, a foot-shaped bump stuck out of her belly. She daren’t touch it in case it moved. She sat by the water, nursing her bruises, watching purple flushes the colour of ripe plums rise to the surface of her skin: tattoos of her mother’s anger. Only when the sun feel did she turn for home where she found Johnnie standing by the kitchen table, his cap in hand. She thought he looked like a boy sent by his father to do a man’s job.

They had no ring, there were to be no flowers in the church tomorrow or new dress for Mary. She would gain two dependants: a child-like husband and a baby. Soon it would come; its head was turned in the right direction, dropping low.

“Tomorrow,” Johnnie said, “you mu’n stand before the altar with your knees pressed together.”

“More’s the pity she didn’t do that nine months ago,” was her mother’s reply.

On the last night of her childhood, Mary stood again on Barsteeple Bridge, alone, watching the river flow away, constant, steady, and reliable.

Then she dived in.

© Sandra Danby

If you like this, try these short stories:-
Whiteout
Magic and Mischief
Useless

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE RIVER a #shortstory by @SandraDanby about doomed love http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1d

Comments

  1. What a powerful story! And it doesn’t shy away from the difficult issues, namely that the main character feels that continuing the cycle of her ancestors by being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love is a fate worse than death. The scene where Mary’s mother flew into a rage at her daughter was heartbreaking to read. Excellent story here, Sandra.

    • Thx Miranda. I was interested in the cycle of mistakes which are so easily made, from one generation to the next. I can hear Springsteen’s haunting voice now as he sings this track! SD