A secret in the woods....
One Day in September.
Agnes always thought of the stiles first whenever she remembered the woods in the country. She wasn’t exactly sure why but thought that maybe it was something to do with stepping over into somewhere completely different, somewhere to escape from the madness that had been her life.
As she walked down the lane towards the stiles now, she relished in the fact that her life was so different at this moment. She could fully appreciate the beauty in what lay around her. She found it in everything, even the brambles that thrust wildly into the sky and out over the lane. After all, they produced their own beauty in the fat, ripe blackberries that tasted of hot lazy days.
She had first walked down this lane fifty years ago. Twenty years old and with wet, hot, fearful eyes, she’d wanted somewhere quiet to pull herself together, to quell the sobs that were fighting to explode out of her. That had been the very first time Bill had hit her. They had been married six months. New husband, new house in the country. Everything shiny, rosy and new but then hairline cracks had surfaced. They must always have been there she reckoned, just waiting to appear, bubbling under the surface of her seemingly perfect life. It had been such a shock though to see his hard, angry eyes; his twisted face; a stranger’s face, then his granite fists on her fragrant flesh.
She had fled the house in tears, walking and running until she had found herself on this lane and then there had been the stiles. It had been May and the sun was just beginning to heat up, the bushes and hedges decorated with bluebells and pinks, humming with new life. Her tears had burned her eyes and she had wiped them with the hem of her floral skirt. It was ripped where he had pulled it in the ensuing fight and she’d poked a finger through the tear, the sobs wrenching at her heart.
She had walked for what had seemed a long time when in reality it had been minutes and she had come to a fork in the lane and the styles in the hedge. She had headed for it and had climbed over it, enjoying the feel of her leg muscles stretching, like now, only now of course, she was older and not quite so fit, not so fit at all.
Agnes stopped for a minute now to catch her breath, her eyes taking in the view. Green fields meeting blue skies was the scene before her. She smiled and her blue eyes crinkled, her once firm and youthful skin now thin and papery. The fields were dotted with cow pats; smelly landmines of the country. She stepped down from the stile hearing her knees click. Over in the far corner stood a herd of cows. They watched her mournfully as she walked by them, their heads dipping, mouths slowly chewing the grass.
She stopped again for another breather and recalled the second time she had come down here. It had been after another row, another beating. This place had become her refuge in the end, somewhere to shed her other life, for a while. She remembered running through the fields from the lane, the wind catching her hair, ripping her breath out of her lungs so that she gulped and sobbed, her feet tripping over clumpy grass and thistles, skimming the cow pats and startling the cows.
She continued on her journey now, walking to the next stile, pulling herself up and over, minding the brambles then stepping down into the next field which was as green as the first. It gently sloped down, giving her the feeling it would drop off into nothing and she’d be falling like she’d felt on those days she used to come here. She rounded the slope and could see the tops of the trees that signalled the start of the woods. Not far to go now, over one more stile and down into muddy ground churned by countless cows hooves. She glanced at her own feet and realised she was barefoot; her skin was muddy and scratched. No matter. She was almost there. Down the crest of the hill, feet slipping slightly, more scratches, more dirt and then there were the woods, lined with the fence, more cows standing around. Nothing had changed much, except for her.
She saw herself then as she’d been all those years ago, running into the woods, slipping on the mud, grabbing the fence for support and she followed her past now, through the gap in the fence and she immediately heard it then. The sound of the stream as it wound its way through the trees at the bottom of the incline. Back then she had run down the slope and right into the water, barely noticing the coldness as it splashed up onto her face and chest, soaking her top and filling her open mouth. She could almost taste the silt in her mouth, the metallic tang of the water. She used to sit on the bank and cry painful tears until she had been empty.
Now, she gingerly made her way down to the bank, using tree trunks for balance, the bark crumbling off onto her fingers, under her nails. When she’d come down here on those days and sat on the bank, she had thought long and hard about her marriage. She had loved him deeply but in her wounded, broken heart, she had known that it would never be enough so she had begun to plan her escape, her naiveté blinding her to the truth of how hard it would actually be. She had imagined she could pack a bag and walk out. Easy. Not so.
Agnes lowered herself now onto the bank and dipped her aching feet into the water. Oh, how delicious that felt to her poor arthritic joints. She made claws of her toes and pushed them into the cool mud and sighed with pleasure. For a while, she watched the minnows rush past. Nearby, a dragonfly buzzed, hovering over the water. She admired its grace. She used to have grace once, and beauty. She supposed if she looked hard enough she could still see traces of it caught in her blue eyes and her greying yet still thick hair.
She had stayed with Bill for another twenty years. Escaping had been the hardest thing she had ever had to do and the years spent with him had been lived within a fog of existence and fear; dreading when he came to bed and trying not to cringe from his hypocritical touch; cleaning up the smashed dinner plate; wiping the food from the walls; avoiding her eyes in the mirror because she hadn’t been able to bear to see the shame and cowardice in them. She’d been a strong, proud woman once, before him and she had never been able to understand how he’d cowed her, shaped her like a piece of clay into how he wanted her to be. That had been her shame and the reason she had lied to everyone; why she had made excuses for him all the time, wanting people to see that she was still the strong, independent woman that they were used to. Towards the end, she’d become a shell; a walking, talking doll, nothing more.
Then she’d met Tom.
Agnes traced a pattern in the mud with her fingers. She had first met Tom at the newsagents in the village near the woods. He’d made her laugh out loud, had sparked something in her that had been long buried. Things had developed over the months with him, until like the woods, he had become her escape too. It had been like touching her dreams with him. She had begun to walk down the lane for another reason then, to meet him. She’d pick flowers on the way to put in her hair and she always took her shoes off before the fields to avoid getting them dirty. She’d turn up and he’d be sitting on the bank or on a rock and her heart would start to beat faster and her skin would tingle and she’d feel alive. They would sit and talk and her other life was far away.
Until one day, it caught up to meet her.
She sighed now, suddenly feeling the aches and pains in her body. Her feet were cold. She took them out of the water and dried them on her skirt. She closed her eyes now and lay back onto the prickly grass behind her. The sun’s rays filtered through the trees and danced on the backs of her eyelids. She remembered that day. That day that had violently changed her life.
It had been September. The sun was beginning to lose its heat and the days were growing longer. She and Tom had been secretly seeing each other for three months. They had spoken of her leaving Bill, of course they had and they had been biding their time, thinking of ways to do it with as little pain and aggravation as possible. They had been sitting by the stream again, a car blanket under them as they ate a picnic that Tom had bought. She had been laughing at something he had said, her head thrown back, hair trailing over her shoulder and caught with flowers, when suddenly, Tom had gone very quiet. When she had looked at him, he’d been staring over her shoulder, his face pale. Agnes had known the reason immediately and she’d nearly fainted, the adrenalin rush being so powerful. She’d turned round slowly and she remembered hearing someone moan and realised it was her, her fear escaping.
Bill had been standing there right behind them. He’d been so still, like a sculpture, the late sun catching the beads of sweat on his sharp cheekbones. His eyes had been like black marbles.
Agnes remembered every word of that day. How could she not? That day was etched on her memory as certain as her birth date.
“Bill,” she had said, her voice brittle.
“You…bitch,” he had hissed.
She had begun to back up, scrabbling into the water and Tom had touched her arm. His hand had been cold. It was then she had noticed the hammer in Bill’s right hand.
Agnes opened her eyes now and sat up, her breathing slightly ragged. There was a pain in her chest. Oh no, not yet, she thought. Just a while longer. She sat still and concentrated on her breathing and the pain subsided. She lay back down and closed her eyes again. She felt so damn tired.
Her mind drifted back fifty years to that September day.
Tom had moved in front of her. He had put one of his hands up.
“Bill, you don’t want to do this,” he had said.
She had begun to hyperventilate, barely feeling the water soaking her skirt and legs. Her hands had been behind her, fingers rigid and curling in the mud. Her left hand had found a jagged rock and her fingers had curled around it.
“I’ll kill the both of you!” Bill had screamed.
He had rushed at them, hammer over his head and rage in his eyes.
Tom had yelled, “No!!”
He had thrown himself over her and she had fallen backwards into the stream, water rushing into her open screaming mouth and into her ears and eyes and up her nose. She had thought she was going to drown. Her death caused, ironically, not by her violent husband but by her lover. Tom’s weight had shifted though and she had pushed herself up, wiping water from her eyes, spitting it out of her mouth. She had looked at Bill. He’d been panting with rage and the effort of trying to kill them. Tom had been lying on the bank, cradling his right arm where Bill had hit it with the hammer. Bill’s eyes had met hers and she knew he meant to kill her. She wasn’t going to escape her fate.
“Bill, please,” she had said.
He had stridden towards her. Tom had tried to stop him but Bill hit him again, the other arm, breaking his wrist. Bill had raised the hammer, intending to bring it down on her skull. That was when she had swung the rock she’d been holding, swung it up and around. Her arm had been powered by panic and terror and she had hit him square on the right temple.
Agnes’s breathing was increasing again, the pain returning but she ignored it, too caught up in the memory. The hammer Bill had been wielding had never reached her because the rock she had hit him with had crushed his temple, killing him almost instantly. Almost.
She sat up now, one hand on her chest then she pushed herself to her feet and walked unsteadily downstream. She turned to her right and headed towards a little clearing scattered with tree stumps where her and Tom used to sit sometimes, where they confessed their love and discussed their future.
Where they had buried Bill.
Bill hadn’t died right away. He had fallen heavily to the muddy bank, his eyes rolled back in his head, blood gushing from his head. Agnes remembered the sound of her screams. It hadn’t sounded like her and it had shocked it, the raw animal shriek that had burst out of her. She had knelt over him after he had fallen and continued to hit him, over and over, obliterating his face, shrieking that awful scream, until Tom shouted at her to stop. Twenty years of hate had reduced her husband to a bloody pulp.
Agnes sat down on one of the stumps and gazed at his grave, covered now with years worth of fallen leaves that had been turned into mulch and worm food by the gallons of rain. She had no idea how they had gotten away with it but they had. She’d told people that Bill had left her and moved abroad somewhere. The years of her convincing lies that had covered up his violence had proved to be useful when it came to covering up his death.
So, she sat on the tree stump and waited again now. Waited for Tom. The pain in her chest was worse and she knew it wouldn’t be too much longer. The cancer that had ravaged and wasted her body had almost completed its cycle of poisonous destruction. The doctors had wanted to put her in a hospice but she wanted to die at home and home was these woods. Where life ended and life began and ended again. She and Tom had enjoyed thirty years together before he had succumbed to a heart attack last year. They had never had any children. Bill had seen to that with his beatings but what they never had they had never missed. Each other had been enough.
Agnes leant back against the crumbling trunk and closed her eyes again, feeling the weak sun bathing her lined face. The pain was intense and her breathing shallow. She was so tired. It was time, she thought. Time to go home.
She opened her eyes and suddenly, like a warm welcome, there was her Tom; handsome and proud and holding out his hand. Agnes looked down at herself. Her feet were straight and pretty, her legs tanned and strong. She stood up and felt as light as a daisy. With a smile, she danced towards Tom. He was holding out a flower. She took it and slipped it through her hair then she took his hand.
They walked away then, the sun on their heads, up through the woods, the fields and up over the stiles, stepping over into somewhere very different.
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|Reviewed by D Johnson
|Great story from beginning to the end...good work!
|Reviewed by Regis Auffray
|What a story, Theresa. Thouroughly engaging and compelling. I am caught up in it. Thank you. Love and blessings to you,