By Carmelita McGrath Honourable mention for the Cuffer Prize 2013
Two weeks after her husband died, Mrs. Anastasia began her walks to the graveyard. I saw her from my grandparents’ meadow. Julie and I had been up on the hill trying to spy on couples grassing but it was time to go. Night was deepening, off to the west the sky a fire going out. I could make out my grandmother among the pale columbine in the garden, deadheading. “Nannie!” I called, waving, but then I froze.
Three-Minute Egg. — Image by thinkstock.com
Mrs. Anastasia’s house was just across the back meadow from Nan’s. Since Mr. Byrne had keeled over dead in their kitchen on a bright sunny morning, I had only seen the old woman at the funeral and, once, in the shop. But now here she was. And that would not be a strange thing if it hadn’t been for what she was wearing. I’d seen lots of black dresses — widows wore their weeds for a year back then — but what Mrs. Anastasia had on was not like anything I’d seen before. Her dress swept to the ground. She had on a wide-brimmed hat and from it hung a veil, so that her face could only be made out as a greyish lump behind it. And, queerest of all, she was taking a side lane along a deep ditch where she’d be out of sight in the tall grass. You could break your ankles on that lane.
“Come on down then, Francie,” Nan called. “What are you staring at?”
We did abide by the old customs in those days. When a death took one of us, we kept our blinds down even on hot summer days with the sun clawing to get in. Black was mourning. But this was different.
I made myself unstuck and raced down the yard.
“Oh, you look right cold,” Nan said. “Out without a sweater, you’ll catch your death. Tea and a few biscuits for you, now.”
In the kitchen, I was dying to go to the back window and look out but Nan would want to know what I was gawking at, and I wouldn’t know how to say. Nan and I watched a bit of television. But over the screen lay an image that I couldn’t get out of my head. It was like a bad interference. We had strange things happen on our televisions back then. The one that came to mind was the one called “reflecting ghosts.”
I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Anastasia every evening. I was drawn to see her up close. I schemed to stay out later in the evenings. It wasn’t easy. Someone was always watching. Then on a Sunday I said I was going to Bingo. Out of sight of the house, I slunk off for the ditch and hunkered down in the weeds with a bag of spearmint leaves.
She came at sunset. Hands folded, a rosary hanging from them. She carried a prayer book, when a flashlight might have been a better notion. And it was the way she walked. Watching there, watching her as she kind of glided. Was she a ghost herself and not alive at all?
I thought I might ask my cousin Deanne about this when we played Life up in the woodpile. We had an assortment of old crockery for this, some knives and spoons, retrieved after being hove out with the dishwater.
“Now,” Deanne said, “The men’ll be in from fishing soon. Have you got the supper ready?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And what’ll you be feeding your man this evening?”
“Fish and potatoes and drawn butter.”
“Oh, that’s nice. I’m only doing a cold supper. Too hot to cook, oh my. But now my John don’t mind — it’s after supper he likes.” She winked.
I knew this had something to do with the things that went on between men and women. I had the feeling that Deanne would be doing things like that soon. She was nearly 13 and had a wicked crush on her John, 16 and already out of school and in a boat. My husband in Life was only “your man.” I was eight and Deanne said I could pick a name later when I picked the fella to go with it.
“Yes, be good to your man and he’ll be good to you. Though there’s some that are just bad anyway.”
“Oh, there’s things not to be talked about. Ask me no more.” And she took off and left me to tidy up the cubby.
I didn’t go back to the ditch again. Though every evening around the same time I would think of the old woman. Catch more glimpses. And because no one ever talked about this strange nightly occurrence, I began to have fears about my mind.
Then, in October, when the gales blew in, Mrs. Anastasia caught pneumonia. Her daughter, Catherine, was driving out to fetch her.
I heard about this from the pantry where I’d been sent to tidy the shelves. Our neighbour, Mrs. Treece, was in the kitchen.
Mrs. Treece said, “Someone should tell Catherine.”
“That’s what they shouldn’t,” my mother said firmly. “What good would that do anyone, Treece?”
And I only heard the rest of it years later when my Uncle Rupe had fallen into dementia. I’d go visit him. He had no one of his own and he used to make me whistles. In the strange intersections of his stories, past and present collided and he’d say odd things.
“You could get away with murder, then,” he said. “Oh, yes you could. Though, should you call it murder? That poor woman. And he was a right bastard to her, too.”
“That old shagger, Byrne. Sure, everyone knew. Every morning, eight o’clock, she had to make him a three-minute egg. Not four. Not five. Three. And if she didn’t get it just right, by God, he’d fire it at her, splatter it on the wall and tell her to go clean it up. Years of it. And then that morning he died, well, there was an empty eggshell in the cup. Oh, I daresay she got the egg right that morning.” He paused. “There’s stuff I’m afraid to tell, but it runs right out of me. But I was there that morning to deal with the body. So I knows.”
What did she use? Monkshood? Foxglove? Hoarded medicine? So easy in the end if the day came when you could take no more of it. But she had to plan, too. So were her nightly walks a penance? She would not have been able to hold back in confession.
The third priest I asked about this was as cagey as the others. How, I suppose, could any of them say that yes, a shepherd and his flock might cover up a crime, and think of it instead as justice? But he did say he would never violate the secrecy of the confessional, and that many matters were between a person, the priest and God alone. And then he said, “Look, leave this alone. What good would it do anyone, digging it up?” The echo of my mother long ago, slamming a secret shut.
Carmelita McGrath is the author of several works of fiction, poetry and children’s
literature. Her latest book is the
poetry collection, “Escape Velocity.”
Next week: Wanda Nolan’s “Providence”