For the wicked crime of witchcraft or adultery or whatever it was, the villagers tied her to a wooden post planted hard and fast into the wet mud, off in the outskirts where decent folk wouldn’t have to lay eyes on her. But when the flood of deep orange sunlight had receded behind the horizon, another woman, Agnes, approached her and set right her leaning wooden tower.
“Oh,” the foreign woman said. “So you’re brave enough to speak to me?”
“I suppose,” Agnes said. “I didn’t think it was too right what they did to you.”
“Doesn’t matter. I didn’t do it, so it wasn’t too right either way.”
Agnes ran her hands down her apron, which was wrapped tight around her plump frame, the straps digging into her skin.
“I don’t assume you’re going to whisk me away from this tyranny like all those heroes do in those old stories?”
Agnes chuckled. “No, I’m too simple for that. And I value my life.”
The woman sat up and twisted around in her place in the mud, as if trying to escape the tight grip the rope had around her hands. The more she struggled the filthier her thin white dress became. She couldn’t try to escape with the post still attached to her, since pieces of rope attached the post to a dry well and the handle of an outhouse only the most desperate still used. The post was only a formality.
“Okay,” she said. “That should be all then, wouldn’t it?”
Agnes coughed twice into her fist and gazed at her for a long while before leaving.
All throughout the next day, the woman watched as the occasional villager passed by. She had no friends or family and was surely not a person of significant wealth, not much given up, or much taken, and thus as an outcast, she had no special connection to anyone here, so if she wept, she would weep for herself. She wouldn’t weep.
As the sun set in darkness, bringing irrelevant gloom, with the rain-filled clouds hovering with some natural malice, threatening to dump all their contents onto her exposed head, Agnes came carrying a large bucket by the handle. It swished back and forth, rhythmically releasing its water at each sway in drops onto the grass until they fell onto the mud of the woman’s lonely area.
“Oh, you didn’t have to bring that,” the woman said. “The rain’s going to fall soon. I can open my mouth.”
Agnes lay the bucket on the ground, the mud spreading out to circle it under its weight.
“I can’t tell whether you’re joking or not,” the woman said.
“What do you think?”
Agnes giggled. She plunged a wooden cup into the bucket and let the woman have from it what she would, so her lips would no longer be cracked and stained brown from the dust of two days’ exposure.
“How’s your family?” the woman asked when she refused more water.
“Fine, I suppose,” Agnes said. “As they usually are. Where’s yours? I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before, and I’d like to think I know everyone.”
“It’s because you haven’t,” she said and hacked and spat into the mud where the aftermath bubbled white upwards then ebbed into the brown. “I’m not from around here, else I wouldn’t be here, strapped here. Where I’m from doesn’t concern you at all because it doesn’t much concern me.”
“Alright, nowhere woman…let’s talk. You’ve at least heard about those performances that travelling group of actors and musicians and singers and what-have-yous are going around doing? Word reached these parts a while back, but they still haven’t come.”
“I heard myself. Saw it too once, but it got rained out so we all didn’t really get to see much of it, but we got the general gist of it.”
“Oh, really? What was it like?”
“Nothing too special, I suppose. Just like any other one of those kinds of things they have going around.”
“Well, you say that like you’ve seen all of them.”
“I’ve seen my share. I’ve been around.”
Agnes ran her hand through her dark hair, weaving her fingers straight through the collected strands to the other side. “All this time I’ve been asking you all these questions, and you haven’t asked me a single thing.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “Okay, what-”
Agnes giggled. “It was a joke you know. I wouldn’t really want you to do that in your state.”
“Maybe, but I’m interested anyway.”
“Okay, what do you want to know then?”
“Hm…how’s your family? Like, really. Details now. Home all right? Been so long since I’ve been in anything like a home.”
Agnes exhaled, her cheeks puffed out, and smoothed her humble blue dress. Her eyes shot to the sky, her light brown irises almost fighting to disappear behind her eyelids. She looked back at the woman.
“Well…” She smoothed her dress again. “I don’t know. It’s a bit hard to explain. Never was much for talking about these things, but…fine, I suppose. Usual. Hugo comes home sometimes, sometimes he’s drunk or something and I calm him down sometimes, but other times…whew, isn’t so easy, you know?”
The woman sat up, her back pressed straight against the post. “Isn’t so easy? You mean you don’t have any luck with it? Aren’t successful, I mean? What happens?”
“Flails around a bit, talks some nonsense about how he’s going to pack up and leave us, how we’re a burden and what-not. Sometimes it takes a violent turn and…”
“Sometimes? How often?”
“Not too often…Not as often as it could be if his problem, or condition if you want to call it that, were a bit worse.”
“Maybe around…” She shook her head, her eyes staring blankly past the woman. “It’s just…I don’t think the kind of thing you talk about or give details about around here, you know?”
The woman let out a high whistle and shifted her legs so her knees were pointed to the right. “Sounds bad…ever thought about leaving?”
“Leaving? And do what with my children? I have them to think about, you know. I can’t just leave.” Agnes chuckled and snorted.
“Go just a bit from here and you’ll find a place willing to take a woman like you for some kind of domestic work. You look capable enough to do it.”
“No, it’s just…” Agnes shook her head. “There’s a lot going on for me here, and-”
“Why does that matter? You’re trying to get out of a bad situation here.”
“Oh please,” Agnes said, picking up the bucket with the cup floating on the remaining water. “It isn’t near as bad as you’re making out to be.”
“I think I’m going to be heading back now. See you when I can again.”
She didn’t come back for 5 days. Agnes found the woman in the dead of day leaning on nothing, hanging by her hands to the right of the post, her skin pale and her eyelids drooping over nearly perpetually gazing eyes. She stank of her excrement, and her torn dress was damp and coloured in the relevant areas, though it was coated in mud anyway.
Agnes put her hand on the woman’s freezing face and ran her thumb down her cheek that was somehow damp without sweat. The woman coughed long and hard, all her air leaving her, the first sign of life she had displayed since Agnes arrived.
“The prodigal daughter returns,” the woman almost whispered, her voice a wisp.
Agnes face contorted into a tense frown, her lips pursed, her mouth continuously wrinkling. “I wanted to get out but…you’d be surprised just how difficult it is, especially…trying to make sure no one can see you.”
The woman let another one of those coughs, moans of death. “You killed that husband yet?”
Chuckling, Agnes shook her head, looked behind her and shook her head again. “I’m never going to kill him.”
“That’s…too bad.” Her lips upturned for a second before she glanced at the outhouse. “You know, the real torture…doesn’t even come from being trapped here. It’s having the outhouse right within reach. Oh…how did I even get trapped here for so long? I thought…for certain I’d…break free or something, but…”
“Stop,” Agnes said. “You’re using up all your energy.” She looked behind her again. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t bring anything to help. Hugo last time found out I’d come here and really let me have it, so…really, around here getting caught doing this kind of thing, talking to you I mean, isn’t good, but helping the person is even worse. Last time I did it, it really was a big risk for me, and I guess I really wasn’t thinking of the consequences too much either.” Agnes looked behind her again, then looked back at the woman. “Plus, this kind of state there’s not much I can do for you now anyway, if it’s okay to say.”
Noticing the bruise on Agnes’ arm red with dried blood and hidden by her dress sleeve, the woman let out another strained groaning cough that pushed her ribs wide open and remained for longer than it was welcome for. “Well…you already said it. And I can take harsh truths.”
The woman’s eyes drifted to the sky, where it was dark enough to portend rain but not dark enough for it to be a certainty. The wind was not at hand, though they didn’t notice with the cold blanketing them. “It’ll rain,” the woman said.
“How do you know?”
The woman glanced at Agnes and smiled. “I know.”
The alpenglow shone in the distance when they buried her, inescapable, unshakable but spectacular, the effect never lessened after each subsequent day from the inception of the settlement. The elders permitted her burial only to be held early in the morning, when no children could see. Agnes attended, but only under Hugo’s watch, as some delusion of infidelity had grown in him, which he would vigorously express on certain nights.
The wind never stopped blowing Agnes’ hair in front of her face while they shovelled the dirt back into the hole, and it only got stronger after the small crowd dispersed.
That night, Agnes kneeled on her bed, staring out the window at Sweeny, the family horse, her thoughts racing, trying to reconcile her actions, trying to make herself believe she wasn’t responsible for the woman’s death. She hadn’t even gotten her name. But perhaps she could make it a bit better.
Agnes called her son’s name, and his soft voice echoed down from his room. In silence, Agnes made her way through the dark hallways of her house and entered her son’s room to embrace him by his lower back and feel his soft fragile body in her arms and tell him to come with her, they’d be leaving and wouldn’t come back for a while.
Her son’s hand was trembling when she led him out, both of them carrying potato sacks full of clothes and supplies. She made sure not to touch his upper back to not aggravate the cuts. He kept asking her what was wrong, why they were leaving, why they weren’t taking father, where father was, but she couldn’t answer any of those questions. She didn’t know the answers herself.
By the time Agnes hoisted her son up onto Sweeny’s back, he was shivering. She hadn’t noticed the cold, and she refused to notice it now. She put the sacks in front of him and unhitched Sweeny and mounted him before he got excited. Sweeny looked around and whinnied. Agnes rubbed the top of his head and glanced at the sky, where dark clouds were cutting through the moon.
Hugo might come after her or send out word for people to look for her or maybe even see her before she left, and whatever terrible consequences that could arise would arise. Nowhere near would even welcome her, as far as she knew. She was trembling, and she hoped her son couldn’t feel it as his arms squeezed her abdomen. It was cold, she realised. It might rain.
“Giddy up now,” she said, and was off.
Matthew Martin is a writer and student living in Jamaica. Most of the stories and poems Martin writes try to maintain a nuanced view on conflict. When not writing, Martin is reading or watching movies. Martin's works have appeared in Danse Macabre.