Her breath came in sharp snatches. Ragged and shallow. The weight of the haversack on her back nearly toppled her. But she couldn’t stop. She scrambled up the steep slope keeping the sun in her right eye and the Barren Tops just visible over her left shoulder. She had hope for the first time in years. Hope had lodged itself into her feet. It drove them—the way the water drove the paddles on the mill wheel. Hope refused to let her stop.
The clotpole still thought it was his voice that impelled her. He was wrong. Once she’d got hold of her fear and slowed her racing heart and stilled the rush of blood pounding in her ears, she’d understood it was him—not a fiend from hell. She’d felt foolish; she should have known—his voice had derided her for all her misery-years. She had yet to hear a demon speak.
But struggling up the slope, she admitted to herself, she’d been hoodwinked because she had believed the devil was perched upon her shoulders. Hissing at her whenever she tried to stop and rest. Screeching that he could see everything, that he could hear everything. Terror had gripped her throat; had nearly frozen the blood in her veins.
Then, when next she’d heard the voice, she’d listened more closely. The words had conjured-up the fat priest at Sunday mass: God sees all; God hears all; God knows all. Was it then the priest’s god who rode on her shoulders hissing in her ears? But the priest’s god wouldn’t ride pig-a-back? Everything she’d heard about him told her he’d never leave the comfort of his heaven. He’d send an angel to smite her for being a bad woman—an angel to beat her black and blue as punishment, the way the clotpole did. She’d stopped then, to ponder, why, after all she’d suffered, was she the bad one. Then and there, the voice had come from behind her again, and she’d stood still and listened, and suddenly, something about it reminded her … and she’d known: itwas the clotpole. That was at sunrise, two days ago.
Wearily trudging forward, she recalled his insults; one for each step: a bad woman, a wagtail, a scut, a wicked trollop, a scab, a blaggard bint, a tripe-visaged clay-brain, a gob-shit, a spit-appraising harpy—it fuelled a fire in her.She imagined the taunts and scoffs catching flame—turning into fatty ash-flakes. The clotpole had ruled her life with large fists, a short temper and a foul mouth. Controlled her every move. She’d tried to change him. As a young wife she’d coaxed and mollycoddled him; she’d roused his desire. Hoping that when he was spent he’d be calmer—or at least he’d be still and sleep. She’d creep away in summer and bathe in the mill-creek and sit on the sun-warmed stones until he called her back. Furious that she’d wasted good time loafing about when she could have been working. She’d tried to ply him with his favourite foods. She’d complained once or twice that he could show a little gratitude—he’d told her that he had no need to be thankful for something that was his due. Cooking was her duty and he owned the food she cooked for him; if she wanted to keep eating it she’d better learn to hold her tongue. The night she’d refused his rough fumblings, the beatings started.
She could see the bridge now. It was still a way off. Her lungs burned and the muscled in her thighs felt as if they were fraying. She slowed and felt him stirring. Readying himself to play at being Satan, to hiss and mutter: I see all, I hear all. Without missing a stride she shifted the pack on her back and picked up her pace. She should have known it wasn’t Satan from the start. He would have elated in her running away as he didn’t approve of dutifully married women. The fat priest had said so himself, when she’d gone to beg him to help her. Dutifully women were beyond the devil’s reach, he’d said, slurping soup. Devoted to serving their husbands and caring for his offspring kept them busy and safe from Satan’s temptations. Women were easily tempted, the priest had warned her, while selecting a juicy shank. To defy her husband would be nothing short of pride—a deadly sin. It would leave her open to the lecherous, sinful approaches of lusty men and worse still … he’d let his voice trail off implying she might already have some experience. Remember Eve, the priest had said, when she’d complained about the clotpole’s cruelty. Eve is the downfall of man, he’d said slurping his wine. God would reward her forbearance in the afterlife if she showed humility. Misery is woman lot, the priest said, sucking the marrow from a bone; it wasn’t for her to question it. The fat priest was a man. So was his god. So was the clotpole.
The path met the Broadway; she could travel with greater ease now. She’d been frightened of falling while the track was narrow and roughly laid with stones that tilted and rolled beneath the hastily set foot. She’d stumbled in her rush and weariness nearly tumbling arse over tip a way back.
She’d nearly gone over when she’d first heard the voice. And then again—soon after she’d realised that it was the clotpoledriving her on without rest or food—she’d near swooned with fright. Surely, he would beat her to death—but she’d felt him tense when she’d lurched and staggered—the way a mother feels the movements of her unborn—she’d felt him coiling with the fear of falling. It had felt good to her.
He’d let her starve; he’d filled his belly with the food she’d cooked and forbade her to sit at the table. He’d made he eat with the dogs; he’d throw her the scarps—half-chewed gristle, potato skins, globs of cold gruel, crusts, and bones with not a skint of meat left on them—and laughed when the dogs were quicker.
The winters were the hardest to endure. The short pale-light days cooped up inside with the clotpole. When the millrun froze solid in deep-winter, there was no work … Boredom set in; he’d drink and torment her; his cruelty knew no limits in winter.
It fell upon her to split and fetch wood; he’d forbade her to stack it under the eaves, so she had to trek through thigh-deep snow to a shed behind the mill-house and carry it back in her arms. It meant fetching wood at night. The huge stove had an appetite like his. So did the wolves that prowled by the house, lured closer by the baited-traps he’d set for them.
One night, this past winter, she’d refused to go. The wind screamed with eerie blood-chilling sounds and piled snow in drifts—deep enough to swallow a man—and the wolves … so close. They mirrored the lamplight with their eyes. He’d thrown her off the stove. She’d fallen hard on the flagstones and called him a brute—it was the first time she’d stood up to him in years—he’d thrashed her with the bread paddle and dragged her out of the house. The cold had near killed her. She’d cowered in the mill, amidst the empty sacks and the scrabbling mice, awakened from winter’s long-sleep by her whimpering and the icy touch of her frozen feet. Hatred had saved her life that night. Hatred and defiance kept her warm. She’d refused death; she’d refused to succumb to his malice. All though that dread-filled night she nurtured her rebelliousness like a small fire. She’d plotted her escape.
It took longer than she’d hoped. He’d broken her arm and old bones healed slowly. He’d locked her in for weeks. Not wanting others to see the blackened, swollen face, the broken teeth, split lips and limping gait.
She’d reached the bridge. It spanned a mighty river bloated with spring thaw. She walked until she was halfway, and stood. He stirred in the bag on her back. He’d thought it was so cleaver to take away her food and clothing, and slip inside, instead. He thought he could terrify her with his voice until she gave up and turned around and ran home. Or had he thought she’d collapse into a weeping quivering mess, and he, triumphant, would crawl from the bag and punish her, beating her, while she grovelled before him begging his forgiveness.
He called out, I see everything, I hear everything.
Without lifting the bag from her back she reach behind her head and doubled-tired the draw-string.
No you don’t, you old fool, she bellowed back, you don’t see everything. What am I looking at now, eh? Tell me then, what do I see before me?
Slowly she climbed up onto the stone abutment and swung her legs over the edge. In the icy river far below, ice-floes collided and ground against each other. Bursting and breaking into sharp chunks. It sounded like thunder. She felt him wriggling, trying to shove his head free. Trying to get out. He’d thought it would be so easy. She dragged the sack around, pulling it to the front. You can’t look out, but you can hear, she yelled. Do you hear that crushing sound? Eh? It’s the snowmelt. The floes are breaking.
Shoving the bag ahead, she rucked further forward. You told me, she screamed above the crashing and blowing, they used to throw witches into the river—off this bridge. He was struggling wildly now. She chuckled with delight and hollered; you said if they sank they were innocent. If they floated they were evil. I wonder, what will you do? She screeched with laughter and slipped out of the shoulder straps. He was yelling. The haversack bulged and buckled wildly. She imagined him blubbering. She could hear him … swearing he would kill her … promising he would never hurt her again … whining … threatening to let him out or else …
She flung the shoulder straps forward and, with both legs, shoved the sack off the abutment. She walked away. Walking forward was so much easier without the burden on her back.
It was a day or so later that the farmer and his son crossed the bridge. The young man saw the haversack suspended over the rushing melt waters, hanging from the great wrought-iron-hook that jutted from the stonework. Something was moved about within it. Curious, the men pulled it up. A fouls stench of faeces stung their nostrils. The old farmer looked worried—no goodly creature would stink so. The young one was about to untie the haversack when a voice screeched, So you’ve come have you. I’ll kill you with my bare hands; I’ll tear you limb from limb. Seized with terror of the fiendish, cursing thing that lurked concealed within the sack, the men dropped it into the water.