The Trees They Grow So High
Maissie Burns was eighteen years old when her father found her a betrothed. His name was Ewan Glas, her father said, a nice boy who lived just outside the village. Boy? He’s young, her father said, so you’ll have to wait until he reaches sixteen to marry. How long was she to wait? Two years, her father said.
So he was fourteen years old. Fourteen! Maissie remembered when she was that age, just a child, still playing with dolls, still wearing feedsack dresses over pantaloons. It wasn’t until late in her fourteenth year that her first blood came, and with it long skirts that once belonged to her dead mother, as well as the expectation of marriage and children. But four years had passed since that day, and still she had not married because she had not felt ready, and her father, a soft touch for his only child’s wishes, had given in and allowed her to remain at home after she finished school at sixteen. It was helpful to have her there, after all. Then, in the spring of her eighteenth year, something bloomed inside her, and she told her father she was ready and he agreed and began searching for eligible suitors, preferably a man with at least a little money, for they had none. The men, though, began to leave when the Great War started that summer, and all through autumn they continued to leave, family after family bereft of marriageable sons, until all they were left with were young boys and old men, and Maissie had begged her father not to marry her to the old fishmonger who always stared at her with such strange eyes in the market. And so they were left with this: this young man, Ewan, from one of the few other Catholic families around their small village south of Port Glasgow, still in school and destined to take over his father’s sheep farm someday, when he was fully grown.
Maissie met him for the first time a month later, after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Maissie had been nervous the whole week leading up to the meeting, not in the way she’d heard described in love poems, not out of some desire to impress or out of any desire at all, but because she was afraid she was going to meet her husband, and he was going to be a scrawny, pimply-faced boy, uncouth, like a little brother whom she would one day have to bed. As she sat beside her father in the pew, she could not pay attention to what the priest was saying, though she knew he spoke in his homily of the boys fighting oversea. The church was even emptier than usual, so many of the young men gone. Because of this, it was easy to spot Ewan, sitting near the front with his parents and little brother. She studied him. She could see only the back of his head, thick, nut-brown hair that curled at the ends. He was not quite as tall as his father, but he was a couple inches taller than his mother, probably about the same height as Maissie. At least from this angle, he did not look so young. She could even imagine him turning around and having the face of a soldier, like some of the boys she’d known from school who’d been shipped off to war.
After church, outside in the cold, the stars sharp in the sky above them, she finally saw his face. It was not pimply, nor was there anything disagreeable about it. Their parents introduced them and they both said hello, and that was it. His voice was contralto, soft and gentle, not the high voice of a child nor the breaking timbre of a boy just entering the pains of puberty. He seemed shy, perhaps even more nervous than she, and looked up at her only twice, then quickly lowered his eyes again. She couldn’t be sure in the dark, but it looked like they were brown. She liked brown eyes. She felt her body loosen a bit.
They stood outside the church shivering while Maissie’s father spoke with Ewan’s parents. Side by side old couples bereft of their sons exited the church, women in headscarves wiping their eyes and clutching their crosses, holding on to their last prayer. Ewan’s little brother played peek-a-boo, hiding behind Ewan’s legs, peeking out at Maissie, laughing. Ewan and Maissie laughed too, looked at each other for just a few seconds longer. Soon it began to snow, small flakes falling into Ewan’s hair and settling there like nesting birds, unmelting.
Maissie did not see Ewan again until spring. She was walking home from work, trying to enjoy the fragrance of the flowering trees but finding she couldn’t. She walked with her head bent, sad at the contrast between spring’s beauty and the death she was surrounded by in the tailor shop. She had been working at her father’s shop since she left school and had grown accomplished for a girl with no real training, her mother having passed shortly after giving birth to her, her father offering instruction only in the basics. She had taught herself the finer points: how to trim lace on the edge of a veil, how to sew tiny buttons on baby clothes, how to embroider a cross on an infant’s baptismal gown. But all these tasks had been overtaken by one job that she did not enjoy at all: sewing shrouds for the dead.
She had done it before, of course, here and there. People died. There was no way around that. But since the Great War started, it felt like all she did was sew shrouds. The bodies of the young men from her village and the neighboring villages were returning one after another, their burials back to back, and Maissie was tasked with sewing shrouds for most of them, their mothers too heartbroken to do it themselves. The thought of these dead young men, many of whom she knew from school or from the village, threw a dark veil over everything, even the trees, with their frothy white blossoms like wedding dresses. Those boys would never see this, would never see another spring. She thought resentfully of a village to the east which she’d heard had lost none of their soldiers thus far. The dark veil seemed to pass over her own heart then, when she thought, ashamedly, Just wait. Just wait.
And then, as she was passing by the school yard, the sun hanging low in the sky behind it, she saw Ewan. She crossed to the other side of the road, hoping he wouldn’t see her, but there was no need. He was too involved in his game of handball, which he was playing with half a dozen other boys. She may not have even recognized him except that she remembered his hair, the way it curled at the ends and fell over his eyes. She watched him as she walked, noticed how big his hands and feet were, like puppy paws. Despite this, he moved his body with such grace through the scraggled yellow grass of the school yard that it brought tears to Maissie’s eyes. She hurriedly wiped them and interrogated herself: No, it wasn’t because she was falling in love with this boy. It was this: She wanted him to remain a boy. She didn’t want him growing up quickly just to marry her. She didn’t want to steal his youth. Too many young men were already having their youth stolen from them.
She went home, lay in her bed and cried, and when her father came home an hour later she told him: I can’t do it. Why did you have to match me with someone so young? Her father, as always, was sympathetic. He wanted her to be happy. Didn’t she want a family of her own one day? Of course he knew she did; having grown up without a mother, the one thing she wanted in life was to become a mother herself. But that life seemed unimaginable now, surrounded as they were by death and more death.
He put his arm around her. What will make you happy?
But it wasn’t about happiness anymore. There was something else. Duty. Sacrifice. Words she had known but had never fully grasped. Maybe I will be a nurse, she said. Maybe I can join the war effort.
She felt her father’s body stiffen beside her. Then he sighed, a sigh that turned into a coughing fit that lasted a full minute. Maissie turned to him, concerned. I’m fine, he said. But go see Nancy first. Go see her, and then decide.
The following week, Maissie went to visit her old friend, who had just returned after serving as a nurse since the war’s start. Nancy was a quiet girl, a good Catholic, so it made sense that she would spend her life trying to serve others rather than herself. Nancy’s mother brought them tea as they sat side-by-side on the porch steps. There was something empty and undone in her friend’s eyes that frightened Maissie, so she did not press her to speak, and they sat in silence most of the visit. But right when Maissie got up to leave, Nancy grabbed her arm. It’s not worth it, she said. There’s nothing you can do. Those men, they’re lost. They die so easily. I never knew how fragile men were! She paused, and then continued in a softer voice: The worst is their eyes, their faraway eyes. Even in the hospital, they’re still stuck in the trenches, and there’s nothing you can do to pull them out. Even if they live through the war, they all die there, in those trenches.
Maissie embraced her, but Nancy remained limp. Maissie expected her friend to cry in her arms like she had done years ago when someone hurt her feelings at school, but she simply allowed Maissie to hold her for a moment and then quickly broke away, saying she had to go help her mother with supper.
On the walk home, Maissie thought about what her friend had said. She expected Nancy’s words to wear her down, but on the contrary, they made her stronger. She was going to do it. She would leave home, become a nurse. She would not wait around to marry. Instead of sewing shrouds for young men, she would save them.
When she arrived home, she looked for her father to tell him the news but could not find him. Finally, she opened his bedroom door and found him lying in bed, burning up, delirious, his breath wheezing in and out. Father, she said. He looked through her and called her by her mother’s name, Fiona, and he continued to murmur Fiona as she took care of him that night, stroking his forehead with wet rags, holding a bowl of steaming camphor under his chin, feeding him soup and honeyed tea.
The delirium had passed by morning, and he remembered her name again, but the fever persisted, as did the ragged, labored breathing. While he was resting, Maissie ran to get the doctor, a kind-eyed acquaintance of her father, who followed her home and took stock of his condition. Pneumonia, he finally said, his face grave. Given your father’s age, this could be dangerous. You will need to be at your father’s side.
And so she was. Instead of becoming a soldier’s nurse, she played nurse to her father, administering the tincture provided by the doctor, not a cure, but something to clear his lungs. Only time will tell, the doctor said. And time passed, weeks, then a month, then two. Because the tailor shop was closed, they had very little money or food. They survived on the kindness of neighbors, a basket arriving on the doorstep every day, from whom Maissie did not know, until one day she saw two figures walking away from the door, a woman and a young man with nut-brown hair that curled at the bottoms.
Eventually, Maissie was able to help her father to his feet, and by summer he was well enough to begin working in the tailor shop again, but something about him had slowed. He needed her. And so the conversation of becoming a war nurse was never brought up again.
At summer’s end her father told her he had a surprise, and she followed him out to the front yard. He presented her with the sapling of an apple tree. He had placed it, the roots in a burlap sack, beside another tree, one that had been there the whole of Maissie’s life. Her father pointed at it. I planted that the week after you were born, he said, in honor of your mother. This apple tree, we will plant in honor of your new life, to mark the time you must wait. When the tree grows this high—he held his hand up to his heart—you will be wed.
A few inches, then. That was all. A few inches and she would be a married woman, married to a boy she hardly knew.
By next summer, the summer of 1916, the tree was chest-high, and Ewan was sixteen, but the wedding was delayed because Ewan’s father had gone off to war in spring after the British government passed the Military Service act, conscripting all eligible men in Scotland. Initially, married men had been exempt, but the rule was changed in May, so Ewan’s father was obliged to go. Maissie’s own father had been spared both because he was a widower with a child still at home and because of his age. Ewan’s father was only thirty-four, had married young in the way of the village. It was easy to blame conscription, but Ewan’s uncles had volunteered the previous year and then died in the trenches; Maissie had sewn their shrouds. Ewan’s father promised he’d make it home to his wailing wife and silent sons. But only a month later, Maissie ended up sewing his shroud too.
Ewan had left school when his father left for war, and he took over the family farm with his mother’s help. It was supposed to be temporary, but now with his father dead, Ewan was sixteen years old and in charge of thirty acres and one hundred sheep. Maissie thought with pain of her father’s illness the previous year, how scared she was to lose him, and she felt sorry for Ewan. She knew what it was like to lose a parent, though she couldn’t remember the losing, just the constant state of loss that had followed her like a shadow her whole life.
There was a funeral, which Maissie attended with her father: church service, burial, and then a reception at Ewan’s home. It was the first time she’d been there. The main farmhouse was large and time-worn white, with several cottages and outbuildings dotting the rolling hills like lost sheep. The sheep themselves were penned in a large area away from the main house, which Maissie and her father passed on their way there. Inside the house, Ewan’s mother, all in black, sat in a chair silently, staring straight ahead, not crying, beside her standing her two sons, the small one and Ewan.
How much he had changed since when she last saw him! His jaw more defined, with a hint of stubble that she could sense would one day be a full, red-brown beard. His shoulders too, filled out, broad under his black jacket. It was like seeing the ghost of his father. She could still see his youth in his eyes, in the shyness of his glance, but there was something else there now, a sadness that made him look older.
Maissie and her father approached the family and offered their condolences. Ewan’s mother tried to smile as she thanked them, but Maissie could see her lips quivering. She clutched both her sons’ hands so tightly their fingertips were blue. Suddenly she let go of Ewan’s hand. Why don’t you take Maissie for a walk? Ewan looked surprised but agreed, gesturing Maissie to follow him.
They walked out of the dim house into the bright day. It was beautiful, the blue sky brushed with cirrus clouds, the green hills draped with heather and wild thyme, the fragrance of which rolled down the hills and mingled with the scent of manure. This was the first time Maissie had been alone with Ewan, or with any boy. The silence was not uncomfortable, though; the summer day was enough. But then Maissie remembered why they were here in the first place, and she felt guilty for enjoying the sun on her skin when Ewan’s father would never see the sun again. She knew she was supposed to believe that Ewan’s father, and all those who’d died, were bathed in eternal light, but she could only imagine them buried in the trenches. Heaven seemed so unreal, while this earth with its sun was the paradise they would no longer be able to enjoy. So what kind of hope for salvation was there?
Ewan asked if she would like to see the sheep. She said she would, and he led her over to the pen. Ewan opened the gate to let Maissie go in first. The sheep, eating and sleeping and wandering, seemed not to notice their presence.
So you take care of all these sheep? she asked, and immediately regretted it. He was silent for a moment and then said, Yes. My uncle and my mother have been helping. My father just started the shearing before he left. I haven’t been able to finish yet, on my own.
I’m sorry, she started to say, but he shook his head. Don’t be, he said. I’m glad to take over. This farm’s been in my family hundreds of years. When I’m out here, I feel a connection to my kin. It’s like all those people, they’re all still living through the land. My da, too.
Maissie didn’t know what to say, but his words felt wise, much wiser than she would have imagined such a young man to be. In silence, they watched a lamb wobble over to its mother and begin suckling. There was something here, she thought, some kind of answer to her question.
It wasn’t until the following summer that they were wed, when Ewan was seventeen and Maissie twenty-one. She wore her mother’s dress, which had also once been her grandmother’s. Her father had altered it and presented it to her on the morning of her wedding, tears in his eyes. The white was yellowed slightly around the hem, but Maissie preferred it that way; it reminded her that other women had done this, had left their parents, had married men they barely knew, and sometimes they must have been happy.
It had been two months since she had last seen Ewan, and standing beside him in church she realized how tall he was, at least two heads above her now. His hair still curled at the bottom, and his beard was filling in. It was red-brown, as she had imagined it would be. When he kissed her gently at the end of the ceremony, she felt the beard tickle her chin, and she almost giggled but did not want him feel as if the kiss had been silly in some way. It wasn’t. It was the third time in her life she’d been kissed, but the first time she’d ever been kissed like that. Tenderly.
That night, she stood before him in her nightgown. I am not sure what to do, she said, laughing nervously. Me either, he said, and she could see the deep flush in his cheeks as his eyes grazed her and then landed back on the floor. We could just hold each other, she suggested.
So that’s what they did, that night and the next and for many weeks and months after, lying side by side in bed, not quite like siblings because she felt a stirring inside her that she knew was not sisterly. Still, she kept to her side of the bed because she wasn’t sure if he felt the same stirring. How tired they were, too, after a long day in the fields, so when night came sometimes sleep was the only thing they desired.
Ewan’s hands grew rough, his forearms strong and large. He was changing from something pliant to something more sturdy. She was, too. They had a sweet Christmas together, huddled around the fireplace in the main house with his mother and her father, while his younger brother played with a train set around the Christmas tree. Later, in their cottage that dotted the hills a quarter mile from the main house, Ewan presented Maissie with a shawl he had made himself from the spring wool. My mother helped, he admitted. As they held each other in the cold that night, she considered turning to him, but she was still afraid he might not want what she wanted.
The new year came and went, and then Ewan’s birthday. She surprised him with a quilt she had been working on for months, patterned with greens and blues, which she had found out from his mother were his favorite colors. She had sewn some secrets into the quilt: a scrap from the dress she had worn when she first met him; an infinity symbol sewn into one square, a heart into another. That night they huddled under the quilt and held each other close, but still she was afraid to turn to him and tell him what she wanted.
Perhaps they could not officially call themselves husband and wife because they had not yet consummated their marriage, but they were happy. And then their happiness was cut short: two weeks after his eighteenth birthday, in February of 1918, Ewan was conscripted for military service. He flinched when he found out, nothing more. Maissie cried and begged him not to go, and when he told her that he had to, there was no way around it, she ran out and went to her father’s house, who held her as she sobbed. It will be okay, he told her. The tide is turning, the war will be over soon. You have to be strong for him.
When she got back to the cottage, Ewan was sitting by the fire. He jumped up, took her hands. I was worried, he said. Are you okay? She looked in his eyes, kind and brown, and felt such warmth for this man—a man for certain now, not a boy—concerned about her when it was she who should be concerned for him.
That night, as they lay together, she couldn’t sleep. She shuddered as she breathed, and she could feel him behind her doing the same. Finally, she felt him move closer to her, rise against her, and she moved herself back to rub against him and could feel her own wetness staining her nightgown, which she lifted then, to let him slide in, and it was that simple, surprisingly easy despite the first snap of pain. And they slept after, soundly.
She spent the next day in anticipation of night, anxious to lay her body next to his again. She marveled at his gentleness. His hands were so unlike any other man she’d known, the rough hands of her great uncle who had touched her in a way she hadn’t liked when she was a child, the hands of the boy who had grabbed her jaw after graduation and stuck his tongue in her mouth. Ewan’s gentle hands were on her again that night, and the night after, and her hands were on him too, full of his hair, his beard, his broad back. So drunk was she with this new dream of love that she barely remembered Ewan was leaving for the war. But the day came, and he left, and suddenly her hands were empty again.
To fill them, Maissie sheared sheep, grabbing handfuls of wool thick as storm clouds, and she caught newborn lambs as they fell from their mothers’ bodies. She touched her own belly, wondering. But her blood came and her belly never grew, so she had to content herself with the lambs, bottle-feeding the ones rejected by the ewes.
The work of the farm was hard, but she did not have to shoulder it herself. Her father came to help some days, when work in the tailor shop was slow. Ewan’s one surviving uncle would stop by here and there, too, but he had his own farm to run. Mostly, Maissie’s help came in the form of women: her mother-in-law, the wives of Ewan’s dead uncles, and other widows from the village who had heard about Maissie’s plight. These women worked together to get the farm through spring and into early summer, shearing sheep, gathering wool, feeding the animals and cleaning their pens, mending fences, tending the garden, cradling orphaned lambs like the infants they would never again have.
Nights, Maissie spent alone in her cottage. Her mother-in-law had offered to let her stay in the main house, and her father, too, offered to let Maissie come home. But Maissie felt she had to stay in this cottage, had to continue living this life she had started. She felt herself transforming, arms ropy with muscle, skin sunburnt, hips and breasts filling out as she ate heartily each night, and something inside her was transforming too. So she stayed in the cottage, spent sleepless nights by the fire knitting a sweater for Ewan. He would come back, she promised herself. He would wear this sweater.
And the promise came true, though Ewan did not wear the sweater, because it was June when he was finally granted a short leave to return home. When he arrived, Maissie ran outside barefoot and watched him approach. At first she wasn’t sure it was him, he was so changed. Had he gotten taller in the months he’d been gone? She’d been expecting him to come back to her skeletal, but instead he had filled out. His uniform was a wan green-brown like mud after a long spring rain, and his hair was cropped short. As he got closer she saw his jaw sharply defined, the stubble clinging to it like shorn stalks, and his skin was weathered, lips chapped. His eyes, though, were the same brown, kind and shy, but carrying within them a new woundedness.
They stood in front of one another as the clouds shifted above them: sun, shadow, sun, shadow. She knew he was assessing her too, and she found herself sharp with longing that he would be pleased with what he saw. It felt as if they were meeting again for the first time. She started to say hello at the same time he did, and they both laughed, and she reached out her hand to take his, but before she could, his mother burst out the door of the main house and came running.
They spent the day in the main house with his mother and little brother and then ate dinner there together, Maissie father’s joining them too. Maissie could feel Ewan’s heat next to her at the table and it was all she could do to not touch his forearm or his thigh, the muscular spread of it on the chair next to her. She waited until they got back to the cottage, but even then, she held back. They crawled into bed and lay there, unsleeping, for a long time. Out the window, the cicadas sawed and occasionally the bleat of a lamb cut through the drone. Finally, Maissie felt Ewan’s hand tentatively circle around her, and she gripped it hard to pull him close, and he moved against her, both of their nightclothes still on. She turned around to face him and felt his chapped lips on hers, and she rubbed the sandpaper of his jaw in her hands and then moved his head to the soft between her breasts and felt the roughness there, and suddenly he was saying things to her, how he missed her, how he wanted her to undress and stand naked before him, and she found herself willing to oblige, but only on the condition that he do the same, so he swiftly tore off his nightshirt as she threw her nightgown over her head and then they were both completely naked, standing before one another on opposite sides of the bed in a darkness constellated by glimmers from the half moon.
Maissie wanted to jump across the bed but held herself back, waiting for him to come to her first, and he did, crawling across the bed to kneel before her and tenderly touch all the parts of her body with his mouth until she couldn’t take it anymore and she pushed him down on the bed and straddled him as he grabbed her hips, and for a few moments, then, time and war and death did not exist.
Ewan was home for nine more days, and those days were filled with work: tending the garden, caring for sick sheep, selling lambs to nearby farmers, delivering excess wool to the government center where it would be used to make soldiers’ uniforms. As they worked, Maissie and Ewan stole looks at each other across the sheep pen. Every night after dinner in the main house, they walked back to the cottage holding hands and immediately went to bed, even though it was still light out. They used this light to trace every scar, every line, every mark on the other’s body, the mole by his belly button, the birthmark under her left breast, right above her heart.
And then he had to leave. That morning, they did not speak. Everything they needed to tell each other was spoken through their bodies: I love you. I’ll miss you. Please don’t forget me.
The following month, Maissie found herself too sick in the morning to work. While she apologized profusely to her mother-in-law, the woman beamed and embraced her. Maissie was confused only for a moment, and then it dawned on her. She had missed her monthly blood. She was pregnant.
She wrote to Ewan. She wrote him letters each week of the pregnancy, describing the nausea, the strange dreams she was having, the slow growth of her belly, but she never heard back. Summer shifted to autumn, the crops were ready for harvest, and the sheep were ready for rutting. Maissie knew letters were often delayed, that sometimes a letter may not arrive for months. She knew this, but still she worried.
Maissie spent her days with her mother-in-law and Ewan’s widowed aunts, all working together like sisters in an abbey. More than sisters, though, they had become like mothers to her, advising her to put her feet up, massaging her back when it hurt, giving her herbs for nausea and heartburn. In bits and pieces, as they worked, they taught her about childbirth, how to squat and how to breathe, how to hold the infant if the infant isn’t latching correctly, how to swaddle and how to increase her milk. Maissie was so wrapped up in this new life about to come into the world that there were moments she almost forgot about her fears for Ewan. Almost.
And then, in early November, she received a letter from him. She was five months pregnant. She read it over and over again in her cottage, lit a fire so she could read deep into the night. He was so happy about her pregnancy he could not find the words. He thought about her and their baby every moment of every day. Nothing around him, not the darkness or drudgery or death, could steal his joy. He was walking around with a little pearl hidden in his heart, he wrote, and that’s what got him through the tough times.
The next morning, Maissie was awoken by excited cries and cheers out in the field. Ewan’s aunts were embracing and weeping with joy when she made her way out to them. The war had ended, they said. It was over. Germany had signed an armistice. The boys were coming home. Ewan was coming home.
Maissie felt a flood of relief, as if a breath she had been holding since Ewan left were finally being let out. She cried and hugged her mother-in-law, her new belly pushing against the woman, who kept thanking God, looking at the sky and the treetops as if searching for his face.
Maissie tried to wait patiently for Ewan’s return, but the days were endless. One week, then two. In her impatience she knitted a blanket for the new baby, then another, then a third. And so when she saw a soldier walking across the field one surprisingly warm November day, saw the drab green-brown of the uniform from afar, she broke from the group of women and ran to him, ran the whole length of the field without stopping.
But when she got within several yards of him, she realized it was not Ewan at all. She stopped in her tracks, breathing heavy, and found she couldn’t catch her breath. She placed a hand on her belly, looked down at the brown leaves that crunched underfoot as the soldier walked toward her. When he reached her, she was still out of breath and it took a moment to remember her name when he asked. Maissie Burns, she said at first, and then corrected herself. Maissie Glas, she said, and the words thrilled her because it was still so new, and this thrill drowned out the soldier’s voice so she had to ask him to repeat himself, and when he did, she went cold.
No, she said, shaking her head. The war is over. Ewan cannot be dead. She just received a letter from him a few weeks ago. The soldier looked at her sympathetically. He’d been in the trenches with Ewan. They were friends. He wanted to tell her personally, didn’t want her to hear from some telegram. Ewan did not suffer. He was killed by a grenade during one of the final battles. He helped them win, don’t you see?
She barely registered his words. It was a cruel joke. The war was over, how could Ewan be gone? And to have died just before the armistice? No, it must be a mistake. She let the soldier embrace her and then she watched him walk away, down the hill to where the other women were working. When she heard Ewan’s mother scream, only then did Maissie know it must be true. She fell to her knees in the grass.
Maissie gave birth in early March. The first pang hit her while she was walking back from the sheep pen to her cottage, so empty now. It felt like a knife in her side, and then a vice-like squeezing. She doubled over. When it passed, she straightened and continued walking, but then she noticed the wetness trickling down her legs. She went back to the cottage, did not want to tell anyone just yet. She paced the long floorboards as dusk settled, counting the minutes between contractions as the women had taught her. When the contractions got closer together and she was hit with the reality that the baby would be coming soon, she stood by the window of the cottage and looked at the bruise-colored sky, trying to breathe, and thought about the only two people she wanted with her in this moment, the two people who could not be with her: her mother and Ewan.
She staggered to the main house and told her mother-in-law and aunts what was happening. They exploded in joyful cries and tried to usher her to a bedroom, but she said she wanted to give birth in the cottage, so they ushered her there. Someone went to call for her father. And so it was surrounded by these women, with her father standing right outside the cottage door, that Maissie gave birth.
Near midnight, the pain had become more intense, the contractions coming quick and hard. Then came a pressure that made her want to push, and so she did, encouraged by the women, one of whom placed a cool rag on her forehead, one of whom held her arms while she squatted, and in that ring of fire, Maissie forgot everything, even herself. Even Ewan.
This forgetting remained even after the baby was placed on her chest, and though she was surrounded by half a dozen women, Maissie saw only one, her baby girl. The child opened her eyes and stared up at her, an intense blue. It was only when her mother-in-law leaned close, removed the rag from her forehead, and asked her what she was going to name the child, that Maissie remembered this child had a father, and he was dead.
Pearl, she said, remembering his last letter to her. Her name is Pearl.
Easter was late in the spring of 1919. It was the end of April, and Pearl was almost two months old. Her eyes, so blue when she was born, had changed over the last month as time rushed on like a river, rushing past Maissie’s ears so loud she forgot her grief, but now as the river quieted and the baby began to sleep and the days and nights became separate again, she thought more and more of Ewan as she saw their child’s eyes transform from blue to green to hazel and finally to a limpid amber, the color of her father’s eyes.
Maissie still found it hard to believe sometimes that she would never see those eyes again, that they were closed forever beneath the dirt of the village graveyard. She had avoided the graveyard since the day of the burial, but she passed by it now as she walked with the other villagers in the Easter Parade. The tradition, which had been discontinued during the war, started up again this year with more fanfare than usual to celebrate the boys who made it home. Those men marched in their uniforms, while the widowed women walked behind them. Following them were children decked out in frilly white dresses and hats, shiny shoes and flower crowns, and at the back of the procession the bagpipers wailed mournfully, melody keening over drone. Along the roadway, villagers lined up. The wives of the soldiers who’d returned stood in fancy dresses, their lips red, flowers pinned to their chests, fanning themselves because they were still so hot with happiness that their husbands had come back to them. These women stood by the roadside in front of the graveyard, where the grass grew long by Ewan’s grave. Maissie felt a blade of envy rip through her belly. But then Pearl squirmed in the sling, hungry, and Maissie lifted a nipple to her mouth while Pearl looked at her with those brown eyes, and the wound was healed, at least partially.
She walked on with the procession until she came to her father’s house, where he was waiting for her. His hair had transformed over the war years into the pure white of snow, as if he were taking on all the years of old age that the dead boys would never get to experience. He smiled as they approached and held out his arms. Pearl unlatched to gurgle at him, milk dribbling down her chin. He was standing by the apple tree, the one they had planted that day when they had finally decided that yes, Maissie would marry that young man from the sheep farm. In three years it had grown from heart-level to tower over their heads, the branches bearing sweet-smelling blossoms. She walked over to it, admiring the blooms with Pearl, whose outstretched hand grasped something globular on the branch. The first fruit, so small, unripened. Maissie took it from her child’s grip, held it up to her nose and inhaled. Her father examined the tree, surprised. They’d found the only fruit, so early it seemed formed by magic. He warned Maissie it was not yet ready. Maybe another year, he said, and we’ll have a whole harvest of sweet apples.
She took a bite anyway as the procession passed on. The flesh was bitter, so bitter it made tears spring to her eyes. She looked at her daughter through the blur and forced herself to swallow. She took another bite, and another, until she reached the seeds, and then she took the seeds in her mouth, felt the smooth black of them on her tongue like some sort of communion, and let them fall from her pursed lips gently into the dirt.
About the Author
Jacqueline Vogtman won the 2021 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, and her book Girl Country and Other Stories will be published in Spring 2023. Her fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Kestrel, The Literary Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Third Coast, and other journals. A graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, she is currently Associate Professor of English at Mercer County Community College. She has lived in New Jersey most of her life and currently resides in a small town surrounded by nature, which she explores with her husband, daughter, and dog. Find her on Instagram @jacquelinevogtman and online at jacquelinevogtman.com.