The Beech Forest – Martha Higgins

Jean opens her eyes and quickly scrunches them tight. Gingerly she opens them again shielding them with her right hand. Tall trees surround her with strong sunlight filtering through the branches and leaves. It must be high summer, the air is warm, the trees are in full leaf and the air is laden with the scent of July days when the whole world is lush and verdant. In this green world the floor is brown and looks spongy with years of fallen beech leaves forming a path.

She fleetingly remembers walking through the Pyrenees through the spongey floor of another beech forest with filtered sunlight and it felt like walking on air. Her body grew lighter with each step and she emerged to the tinkling sound of cowbells and a herd of wild horses looking curiously at her as she laughed out loud with joy.

Jumbled memories vie for her attention and she tries to separate and order them. She thinks of going to the well for water with her Aunt Mags and both of them carrying the warm tin buckets on other July days with the sun on their shoulders. Aunt Mags wears her wrap around navy apron with the tiny pink rosebuds and has her hair in rollers. She doesn’t give a fig what anyone thinks about her and Jean always feels so safe with her.

Scything the edges of the hayfield, her father’s rhythmic movement is soporific, it looks so easy, but she knows it is not because she has tried to lift the scythe and could hardly carry it one step. He smooths the cocks of hay until they are a perfect fit for a Constable painting. Her grandmother makes potato cakes and cooks them over the coals in a warm pot and she and her sister Eva eat them with butter dripping down their fingers and they are so delicious.

Then there is the year of the early harvest; the warmth rushes up from the grass and everyone is so languid, it seems like their bones are molten. Jean’s sister Eva sits under the cherry tree and is transformed by her first love. Nothing impinges on her, she either talks incessantly about him, or wanders about dreamily with a smile of beatification on her face. Jean envies her, she doesn’t know what this feeling is like.

It is time to bring home the turf, and she hears the grating call of the corncrake as frightened by the noise they begin their short erratic flight alighting to run through the long grass and they are as commonplace as the turf itself. In the evening her father builds a strong wall of turf and she throws in all the new turf behind it and then he builds the wall a little higher, he is very skilful.

There is no television in July, her father says no work will be done and the television must go back to the shop at the end of May and can be taken out again in mid – September. Jean and Eva are always bereft when the television goes and every year they lament and prevail on their mother to prevail on their father already knowing the futility of it. They soon adjust to outdoor life again and when September comes welcome the television back like an old friend, anticipating the arrival for days in advance and planning what they will watch if they are allowed.

Uncle Jack is home from America and Jean is sublimely happy now, nothing bad can happen when he is here; he is utterly serene and happy to sit and tell stories all day. Jean loves to sit beside him; he smells of America, so fresh and clean and impossibly different and unreachable. His voice is soft, his drawl setting him completely apart, his hands are gentle, his nails are scrupulously clean, Jean loves that they show no evidence of any farming.

Jean and Eva coax the cows from the sweet meadow grass and bring them home for milking. Tempted by wildflowers they graze along the road; the milk will take on the hue of buttercups tomorrow. They chat desultorily and kick the pebbles with their canvas shoes that they were so proud of two months ago. This hour before milking brings a lull, the day’s work is done, and it feels like there is all the time in the world.

As her mother arrives in the cow shed with the buckets Jeans pulls up the three-legged stool to sit beside her. Her mother strokes and pats the cows, and they respond to her gentleness as the buckets fill with luscious warm milk. The shed door is wide open, the warmth of the cows adding to the warmth of the evening, the cats run in to lick up any traces of the warm milk on the floor. They chat amicably and comfortably, never safer together in their whole lives.

Later the moon shines silver mysterious light over the whole world and the familiar colourful shapes of the day change to black and white. Jean’s walks under the stars with Uncle Jack, and they are both stowing away this summer. These nights are not for sleeping.

Then Jean is getting married and Aunt Mags makes her wedding dress. It is pretty and pure white, but she knows this is not the right thing for her. She stands there in the bedroom grasping the pearls she is wearing around her neck and she can’t seem to focus on any thought at all, but she knows that she will walk up and down that aisle today. she doesn’t know any way to get off this path now

She considers the luxurious bed she is lying in with a deep, deep mattress, the good linen, the brass ends, the gold throw over her feet. She is wearing a very pretty dress, and struggles to remember it; ah yes, it is the dress she wore to her daughter’s wedding,

cornflower blue and silky. The sleeves of the dress are short, and her arms look thin and pale which is odd as she always did take a nice bit of sun. She throws back the cover and examines her legs, they too are white and thin, she is not wearing any tights and she always wear tights now for occasions, her days of bare legs at weddings are behind her.

She touches her head to feel the blue flower she wore in her hair that day, but it is not there, and her hair which was always so thick and full is now a light soft down, she is bewildered and frightened and begins to tremble.

Through the trees now she sees a procession approaching, the first person to emerge is her beloved grandmother Sarah, her grey hair still neatly tied in a bun at the back of her head, her body slight and regal. She is wearing a beautiful dress that she never wore when Jean knew her, as she always wore widow’s dark colours. Now she is resplendent in a long white and yellow gown.

Aunt Mags is behind her still wearing those rollers like she is getting ready for a big dance this evening. She laughs delightedly and claps her hands

“Well now, here you are and what kept you”!

Her grandmother smiles softly at her, “Welcome” she says as she holds out her hands and Jean swings her feet firmly onto the spongy forest floor, her fragility forgotten as she walks firmly towards her.

 

 

Image by andreas N from Pixabay

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