Each night we heard and obeyed Pa's telling and each morning we woke safe, forgetting the terrors of the night in the new sun's warm shine and our breakfast bread.
Then Ma sickened bad and Pa carted her to Biddy Makepeace's for a laying on of hands.
"Remember," he instructed Rory, "Be sure and lock up tight come nightfall."
"I promise faithful Pa," I heard my oldest brother say. But come the dark he was out sparking Lucy Lovedance and Sim was left in charge. And Sim paid no heed to tellings.
"Waste of time, locking every door. Sick of pissing in pee-pots, me. And double sick of cleaning them each morn."
I begged him do as our father said, but he only laughed, did Sim. So I took the bairns to bed with me, making certain sure my door was locked and the shutters firmly barred. And in the morning on rising to oven the bread I found the outer door wide open and no sight nor sign of Sim.
When Rory rolled in lazy eyed and rough I told him all and he went in search. Was still out when Pa 'rived Home at noon. I recounted Pa the tale and he heard me out grim faced, but shook his head when I asked if he was going hunting for our Sim.
"No point," he said. "Now get the dinner served."
Rory came back as we were finishing the stew. Pa cuffed him hard about the head and wouldn't let him speak or eat the portion I'd kept by. Then Pa coughed and cleared his throat, and when we looked at him he told us Ma had died with the sinking of the day. Padre Filton had her resting in the church, he said, to be dug in on the morrow. Then he handed me the ring of household keys. And Rory watched all squint eyed and pinched, knowing that by rights as eldest they should have passed to him. I held on to the keys, my two hands fighting the cold heavy weight that tried to drag them to the beaten earth. And as I clutched them so I studied them. I saw that each key large or small was welded firmly to the iron circlet. I held there in my hands the keys to every chest and every door within Pa's holding. They were my responsibility till Father relieved me of the charge. I was now the guardian, he said, seeing as I had a mind to keep the young 'uns safe and obey his words full strength, unlike some who should know better.
< 2 >At first light Pa stowed the spades and lifted the girls into the cart. May took charge of the reins while me and Pa and Rory walked holding to the sides. When we reached the graveyard me and Pa and Rory took turns to open up the flinty ground while the bairns ranged about for pretties to place inside the grave. Then Pa and Padre placed her in. Padre said the binding words, my three sisters mewling and moaning and dropping in daisy buds onto the muslin shroud. Then my brother and I filled back the gritty soil and watched Pa and Padre Filton lay the blessed ironstone slab athwart her lying place to keep her safe. And when it was all done and Pa had paid the burial toll we set out straight for Home.
This time Eve and Silence held the reins and all else walked to save the ageing mule. Once Home I warmed the stew pot and we ate. After food Pa and Rory worked the land while I, with my sisters' help, cleaned and sewed and baked. At day's end Pa watched to see how I locked the doors and shutters against the coming of the night and nodded satisfied when I had it done.
And that night with the keys hard beneath my thin flock pillow, I heard the voices clearly for the first time. They sounded loud and plain outside my shuttered window abegging me to open up and come to them. And one of the voices was my brother Sim's. Another sounded lighter, like my Ma's. But mindful of my father's words I held to the keys and kept the shutters barred. And gradually the voices drifted quiet and sleep took me down.
And ever after it was as if Ma and Sim had never been. Pa never spoke of them and turned aside all questions and he never spoke again to Rory save for yes and no. After a month of this silence Rory left to marry Lucy Makepeace and spend his strength in her father's flourmill. I watched Pa's face set harder, carven lines of wrinkles digging valley's in his leathered skin and I went outside all day to take my brother's work-share then cooked and baked all eve. My sister May took duty for the house and twins all day.
< 3 >From the very time that Rory left our Home Pa shifted all his custom to Marlin's mill. Though being over in the next valley it was a longer trek to take the grain and the mule was far from strong.
For me, most nights, the voices came; the voices Pa said were only in my head. He gave me quintain boiled in honey to make me sleep but the taste was harsh and cast a dullness over me the following day. But I pretended to drink to keep from causing strife.
And my questions grew, filling my brain to bursting point till at last I took my thoughts to Padre Filton in the secrecy of Disclosing Hour. He refused to look me in the eye and talked of devils and temptations. Then he broke the holy pact and betrayed the questions to my Pa. And Pa bound my mouth with garlic cloth and he beat me till my skin was bruised and split and snatched back the keys till I could walk again.
And with the keys in Pa's hands I found that I slept quiet, nights. I heard no sounds, quested not for dimly recognised voices, but only slept soft sleep.
When I was fit again he gave me back my guardianship of the keys and the first night I slept upon their bulk I heard scratchings at my wooden shutters and the moaning of what might have been the wind. At first light on going to the running spring to cleanse my chamber pot I walked the long way round, past my chamber window and saw score marks bit deep into the ebony-wood shutters. I felt the chill of night come on me despite the warming of the sun. But I kept my counsel and Pa had replaced the wood by noon. That night I kept the dog inside my room, putting him at the foot of my bed. And though I heard a lone voice keening and crying out my name the dog he didn't stir.
The weeks turned and I learned to sleep with stopping in my ears. May and the bairns cast off their childhood with frightening speed and Pa rarely spoke outside the meeting house and took to reading sermon books. But I would not go to meetings any more and Pa ignored my backsliding. As long as I did my work and kept safety on my mind he seemed satisfied.
< 4 >Then Widow Range took sick. She and her daughter lived a scant two fields away from us and Tildy asked my help to nurse her and Pa said I was to go. So I gave him back the keys and went to sit with Tildy. But like my Ma the widow sank fast and died swift as the sun did sink. Tildy begged for me to go to church with her and stand vigil till the morn and I went with her and Padre Filton into the church as night fell down upon us. That long night passed in dull-dead numbing coldness. I heard no outside sounds, no moans no skirl of wind but only the praying padre thanking his god for the ironwood and ironstone that kept us safe from harm.
We buried Widow Range, like Ma, soon as we could when the sun had risen above the mountains. Me and Tildy did the digging but it took all three of us to drag the heavy holding stone across the grave. Padre wore his leather gauntlets but me and Tildy had to do without, and sore rough bleeding work it was. But still he took the full toll into his strong-gloved hands when the burial was done.
He then took us in his wagon and dropped us to our Homes as he went on his praying rounds. And that night with the keys once again beneath my head I heard voices calling in the dark and the loudest one sounded like the Widow Range.
I took care to go to Meeting with Pa and the bairns the next meeting morn but left the service before time, pleading my bowels. I walked then to Widow Range's grave and saw her capping stone was out of line. I'd helped lay it and knew full well it was not the same.
And now, tonight, I sit and wait the voices. My shutters are opened wide, my bedroom door unlocked, my binding keys thrown deep within the spring. The house is open to what may come and I am also ready. I will heed this call. I will leave the confines of my father's house and join that which waits outside. And as I go I call to the bairns, my sisters, to come and join the free.
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