Munro waits at the rear of the chapel, chafing slightly at Claira's lateness and the stiffness of his collar. He peers through the finely bubbled glass. Heavy rain clouds gather and the light is failing, but still she does not come.
Beside him, the minister catches his eye, don't worry, she'll be here.
Munro purses his lips. He runs his mind over the arrangements, as if they might somehow be assembled at the wrong time. Absurd. The chapel's full. Practically the whole village has turned out and his brother, come down from Truro. Everyone here but Claira. His life feels suddenly out of kilter. He thinks of the yard at Trethenna, empty of him; thinks of the cow gone off her feed, of the wind rising and the clouds that gather. He twitches his coat. It will be dark at least an hour before time and, besides the ceremony, there's the gathering to be had. And, dear God, let her be here soon.
Drawn, inexorably, to stand next to Munro, Mary Bellham sees his face in profile, set. He moves and his elbow catches hers and the energy of his unrest jumps across at the contact so that he stumbles out apologies for his clumsiness and, unable to hold his eye, she must turn away, tilting her face, birdlike to the window, then to the timepiece at her waist, daring to allow herself the small thought, perhaps she will not come. Her hands fly to one another. Knuckles squeeze white. It's not just her. Others have had such thoughts. She heard the women, on the way in, talking of it. How the thing is bound to end badly. Assuming it ever gets started. How it's too close to Christmastime for a wedding. And then, such an unlikely match, what with the girl's family and her being so much younger than him -- almost sixteen years younger -- and him so well-to-do he could have had his pick. For weeks now there's been talk of it. Whisperings of which Mary Bellham has heard snippets and quashed with a stare, but now, in these last minutes, she can no longer subdue the thought.
Perhaps at last he will see sense. Really, perhaps she will not come.
Munro peers again through the glass. Where in Heaven's name is she? Yesterday he'd felt so sure of this marriage. Driving the horses to plow over stubble, his feet had been firm in the furrow; at each step willing the next day nearer.
Returning from the fields, Jed had been there, ruefully displaying wet clothing as silent protest against the newfangled pump. Munro had shown him again how to work the thing -- so much faster to use than the well. And in that moment, easing good water from the good earth, Munro had felt his body primed and strong. By his design the pump was there, by thought and sweat he'd brought the little miracle about. Though hushed air hung heavy under a gunmetal sky and the chickens hunched together against the weather, Munro felt himself quick and vital. With the guidance of God and his own steady hand, he seemed a fulcrum around which his life was turning. Excitement had surged and -- as he crossed to take the harness from the horses -- his lips had formed their countering prayer, the plea, again, for humility and calm.
Perhaps that's it, he thinks, turning from the window to pace the chapel floor: he has not been sufficiently humble. How can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? He feels the sour churning of his stomach.
"Here we are," the minister says and Munro looks up to see. At last, through the blurring glass there is movement. The carriages make silhouettes, black against thunderous gray. Figures descend and Munro feels his pulse quicken at the sight of his soon-to-be wife, borne slowly towards him like some pale flower head on the foliage of her family, who circle behind her in a dark wreath.
It is then he senses something is wrong.
He glances quickly round the Wesleyan chapel, drawing reassurance from its familiarity, the warm light of the lamps, the roundness of those heads yet bent in prayer, the expectation in others' glances; then he looks back out to the advancing party. It's too much of monochrome. There seems something almost funereal in their approach.
Munro goes to move towards them, but the minister's face registers nothing wrong and then Mary Bellham is before him, holding his eye now, willing him to understand something he does not.
"I will play for you then," she says in answer to his frown.
"Thank you, Mary," he manages and she turns to take her place at the harmonium, even as a single figure detaches itself from the bridal group and hurries towards the chapel, black coat billowing in the rising wind. Munro recognizes Claira's neighbor and opens the door to admit him.
"What is it, Jack?"
He looks to the ground. "Her father, at last."
Munro catches his breath. "Not dead?"
The man nods. "Scarcely an hour since."
Those in the chapel, aware of some disturbance, begin themselves to stir.
"Then we can't go on here."
"She won't hear of stoppin'. Says her father would want as much."
"Why ever was no word sent?"
"There's been no time. I'm here as soon as I could be."
As Munro nods his understanding, the chapel door opens and the bride's family are among them. Notes are struck upon the harmonium, stumbling at first, then stronger.
Munro has never seen her so pale. The color has drained completely, even from her lips, so that her wanness matches the stuff of her dress and he is reminded of the white waxen roses of Christmastime. Numbed, her family move past him and on into the chapel, the mother pausing, silently, to greet Munro. Then Claira stands before him and -- even in this paleness -- her beauty takes his breath. God, that such a creature will be his; save that her eyes, today, don't seem to see and he tumbles into their deep vacancy; dark wells in the pallor of her face. She reaches out and he takes her hand so icy in his hotness and it is she who seems dead, a specter in his grasp and won't she stop, won't she warm herself he wants to ask, can he not comfort her, but no words come and they walk together down the center aisle and he cannot be sure how it is she moves.
And so they wed.
Throughout the ceremony she remains remote. Remote too through the sad celebration, the wedding wake at Trethenna, where the guests drain quickly away as the news spreads and darkness gathers. At last, when they have all gone, she speaks, the first Munro has heard from her that day apart from the words required by ceremony. No, she cannot eat, nor rest, can think only of seeing her father. So Munro takes her, bundled in the jingle, through the wildness of the night, to her village six miles hence.
Claira stands at the foot of small, steep stairs. She has lived here all her life and yet she does not know these stairs, sees them as if for the first time. She places a hand on the banister, knowing she must ascend to her father, her dead father, who lies above. Her husband stands at her side. She thinks he is a kind man, although she does not know him. If she turns round, she will see her family, Beattie, Samuel, Jethro, Hannah, William and their mother, in black, round the fire. Liquid dazed eyes. If she turns round she will see herself at the foot of the stairs. Sickness, dizziness. She does not turn round. She does not climb the stairs. She floats them. She floats up the stairs and into the dark room where two candles burn by the mirror and her dead father lies on the bed. There is a noise of footsteps on the wooden floor. They are her footsteps, so she cannot be floating. She nears the bed, wedding gown shroud-white. There he is: beautiful and gone; his face so like and empty of him. She kisses his cheekbone. It is colder even than hers. And hard. There is a rocking. It is her body. There is a low moaning. It comes from her body though she does not ask it to. She feels a movement of the floor. Her mother is there, bringing something. From a distance Claira hears her, but cannot make out the words. She tries very hard, concentrating on her mother's mouth. This is yours now, Claira. He wanted you to have it. Her mother presses something into her hands. It is his fiddle and the horsehair bow. She cradles them. They are warm to her touch.
Munro takes her home, through the darkness, to Trethenna. By the time they arrive Claira is shivering and Munro begins to fear for her, she seems so inert.
"Best get to bed," he says to her unfathomable eyes, then realizes she doesn't know where to go. Her trunk is in the hall still. He watches while she takes her night things from it, then he leads her up the stairs. They pause on the landing at the door of Munro's room. His big bed is visible, but he cannot think of her there tonight.
"Mrs. Jago made up a bed in the attic for John Trehearne, only he went home when...he went home after all. You had best get to bed up there. I'll bring a hot water bottle."
He opens the door to steeper attic stairs and watching her ascend, is reminded of seeing his brother's children go up to bed. Her wedding garb, bedraggled now, seems suddenly a nightgown; the fiddle, still clutched in one hand, a child's beloved doll. He wonders if she can be trusted with the lamp.
A few minutes later he brings the bottle. The attic room is dark. He has left his lamp below thinking hers would still be burning, but she has doused it. In the low light he stands, straining his senses towards the area of darkness he guesses she occupies. He listens for her breathing, but cannot hear for the wind against the side of the house. He steps nearer. Dimly he makes out the shape of her, curled tightly in the bed, and a darker patch, her hair, and surely the fiddle, yes, the fiddle too on the pillow. Softly he moves closer. With care he stands the bottle at his feet, hesitates, then reaches out to move the instrument, only to find she's holding it still. What's he to do? Halting his breathing, he begins to release her fingers from their grip on the fiddle's neck. Fine-boned fingers he uncurls one by one. Carefully he lifts her hand, warmer now, the wrist so narrow in his handling. Sliding the instrument away, he moves to put it aside. With a clunk it locates the washstand next to the bed and he draws sharp breath in fear of waking her. And will she not hear the thumping of his heart? She does not stir and he lets the fiddle rest on the slate surface and begins to breathe again. Just her wrist now to place down without her waking. In the dark he feels her hand's weight and the knuckles rounded against his palm, smooth against the roughness of his skin: her own dead calm held in his strange unsteadiness. The room and the sound of the wind are lost to him. Disembodied, he becomes this touching of hands. Like the carrying of eggs -- new-lain warm -- or the weight of a stillborn lamb's head; limp: the hand of his new wife in his.
She stirs and draws deep breath and he holds his own; heart pounding again to think she might wake. Moving her hand to the pillow, softly he releases it there. Another moment's hesitation, then he lifts the covers and places the bottle beside her, near enough to warm, not near enough to burn. Gently, he tucks her in.
For a minute longer he watches, then, like the shock of unexpected lightning, a flicker of annoyance darts round the room. His thoughts reach out to catch its meaning, to glimpse what's revealed in the flare. What exactly, his crossness demands to know, is he doing? Taken a wife to wait on her, has he? To stand at her bedside, as if moonstruck or mazed; lovesick in the darkness while she sleeps. He wants to protest, but the barb hits its mark and he straightens and turns and strides from the room, clattering down the dark stairs.
In the kitchen, he jettisons a cat from the table and turns the lamp up bright. Loosening his collar, Munro sees Mrs. Jago has left supper heating through. The table is laid for two. One place for him, another for his bride. Aunt Eadie will have eaten hers already and then taken herself off to bed. He hasn't checked. Has he? He hasn't looked into Eadie's room to check she is all right. What is it makes a man so forget his duty? Swiftly he walks down the passage, opens her door and, seeing the elderly woman well settled, crosses to the bedside and turns out her lamp.
Pacing back to the kitchen, he prods the turf on the fire. The old lady has not had much of a day of it. He places furze on the flame to blaze, then lowers the pot nearer the heat. Not much of a day for any of them, come to that. And as for his wife's mother. He thinks of the strain on her face tonight. A day that's seen her daughter married and her husband dead. Not unexpected, of course, his death. A merciful release, the state he was in. And foul this one. No matter how much the linen had been washed and the boards scrubbed, their cottage had been thick with the reek of him; sickening under the camphor and cloves. They'll surely bury him as soon as may be. A funeral then. At the chapel by dint of his widow's attendance. Munro sighs, wondering however such a man could hope to rest with his Maker.
Checking the contents of the pot, he burns his fingers.
The hot lid crashes.
Going to the larder, he scoops a pat of butter and smears it on the burn. He sees the dirt-ingrained cracked skin and pauses, thinking of her hand; how, curled in sleep, it nested in his.
Crossing back to the hearth, he swings the pot away from the heat.
He doesn't much feel like food.
Tugging on boots, he goes out into the night. The wind's backed westerly. There'll be more rain before dawn. The lantern splutters as he treks to the byre.
There's a sick cow needs tending.
Copyright © 2002 by Hayden Gabriel