Family By Mark Cowling

I could remember well the last time I had seen this place – the centuries old farmhouse with its still peeling paint and a roof that now seemed more moss than slate. I had been seventeen years old, my meagre possessions in the trunk of a long forgotten boyfriend’s car, tears and badly applied makeup running down my cheeks, and an ironclad determination to never again set eye on any member of my family.

I must have sat there at the foot of the drive for several minutes with the engine idling and my two year old daughter, Emily, gently snoring. Before me was a property any estate agent would be happy to sell: an old farmhouse full of character, a hodgepodge construction added to over the centuries by the owners. The owners for as far back as anyone knew being the one family: my family.

For me, though, the farmhouse simply brought back the dark spectre of my childhood. At best my mother treated me with her own brand of cold, passive-aggressiveness. At its worst, there were the beatings.

After a deep nerve-steeling breath, I approached my old home. I wouldn’t be here long. The family members I had any contact with had begged me. Come back for the weekend, they said. Just this one time before it’s too late. These could be the last few months for her, they pleaded.

Apparently my mother simply wanted to make amends before the rest of her lungs were consumed by the cancer.

*

It seemed like I was watching someone else’s hand reach out and knock on that familiar oak door. I had prepared myself to face this moment with strength, ready to make a scene and stride out of the building at the first catty comment or false allegation, like one of those terrible women you see on every single episode of The Real Housewives. But I felt weak as I stood there with a still drowsy Emily leaning against my leg. It was as if this building still held some power over me.

In the weeks before my visit I had played out the next few minutes countless times in my mind. I had constructed the perfect answers to any challenge I might face. In my fantasies I had always handled the situation perfectly, summoning my inner Meryl Streep to confront my former abuser and do so with dignity and aloofness.

I was immediately caught off-guard by the door-opener’s bright smile and warm embrace. Shaken and confused, I was hugging one long forgotten relative and meeting a new member of the extended family every few seconds. God knows if I managed any kind of semi-coherent answers to their slew of questions.

I watched as Emily was passed around one beaming new relative after another, yawning loudly in their faces and showing not the smallest bit of interest, as young children often do and adults wished they could.

And then I saw my mother. Or a frail old woman imitating my mother. She was smiling broadly as she leant against one of those steel canes. She was a pitiful sight with her thin, sagging skin and bent posture, like the caricature of an old person you see on those road signs. The years had robbed her of any power her presence once held over me.

After my mother had hugged me softly and greeted me as if I had just returned from an unusually long holiday, I managed to snap out of my daze. “I think we need to have a talk later. Just you and me.”

A little startled, she nodded. Meryl would have been proud.

*

After a cup of weak tea and an hour of awkward chat, I was finally able to make my excuses and head outside. With Emily napping, I took the opportunity to get out of the house and gather my thoughts.

I felt my whole body relax as I left the building (just about resisting the temptation to run). It was as if I had spent the last hour on the world’s biggest roller-coaster, climbing and climbing ever higher, knowing that any minute there would be a moment of weightlessness and then I’d be hurtling towards the ground.

The old house was set in almost two hundred acres of farm land. It used to be more like twice the size, but family incompetence and a series of unfortunate circumstances had changed that. But most of what I had known still remained. I strolled past the still largely unchanged landscape towards my favourite place. A place I’d spent many a lazy afternoon during my childhood. A place I could always escape to.

As I passed through some patchy woodland that still bore the scars of Victorian coppicing, I caught sight of my destination. The stooping beech tree stood as it always had in its lonely spot, but all that was left of the swing was a piece of frayed blue rope.

I would spend countless hours here as a child, wondering what I’d done crime I’d committed. Did my mother blame me for my father leaving us? Why was it that my younger brothers could do no wrong, yet I was a constant disappointment?

Several figures were gathered around the tree, sipping from cans of lager. Shielding my eyes against the sun, I could make out two uncles and what I guessed were my now grown-up cousins. But before I could speak, another of the men spotted me and came running my way.

“Claire, I think you’re needed back in the house,” he said without any kind of introduction.

“What are you doing over there?”

A man I recognised as my Uncle John then joined us and spun me around. “I was hoping we’d get a chance to catch up.” He was smiling broadly as he escorted me back to the farmhouse.

*

The women were all busy preparing a traditional carb-fest Sunday roast and rebuffed my every offer of assistance. Had they not heard of my legendary carrot slicing skills? So I made my way back into the sitting room were I found Natalie.

Natalie could have been me aged seven, with her blue eyes, straw hair, and thin pale arms. Except her limbs weren’t mottled with blue-grey bruises.

I sat with her for a while and she quickly became comfortable in my presence. Soon she was involving me in her play and laughing freely.

It is often the case that small children pick up on things adults think they have kept well hidden. Without prompting, Natalie offered small bits of news, such as the farm’s uncertain future and a string of unfortunate events that had hit the family.

After a while Natalie’s demeanour changed. Her smile vanished and the free flow of conversation all but ceased. She then suddenly looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“Aren’t you scared?” She said.

“Scared… What do you mean?”

She thought of speaking but stopped.

“Why would I be scared?”

“I don’t know,” Natalie went back to her play and I thought it best not to probe any further.

*

There were too many of us to sit at one table, so the youngsters were in the kitchen being supervised by the older children. My estranged family were still making every effort to please me, but I longed to be in that other room. My mother paid special attention to me, filling my glass if it ever dropped below half-full.

I was only able to pay scant attention to the conversation, adding as little as possible needed for politeness. My mother, who used to dominate discussions at our family meals, was being even more silent. I had assumed this was in no small part a result of her illness but she suddenly cleared her throat.

The lively chatter died away and all eyes were drawn to our family’s matriarch. She turned to me.

“Claire, thank you for coming here,” she said. “Your presence today means more to me than you could ever know. To all of us.”

I knew then that it would be impossible to remain silent. I could not let this woman pretend those years of misery had not happened. Pretend that she did not inflict all that pain upon me.

“You may know something of the problems this family now face,” she continued. “Not just my illness and our financial difficulties. There are dark years ahead…”

I’d had enough. I went to stand, but couldn’t. It was as if some unseen man was holding me down in the chair.

“But for all the darkness, there is also light. This family has faced numerous obstacles before and we shall overcome them now as we did then.”

There were murmurs of approval around the table.

I could hear my heartbeat thumping in my ears. I lifted my hand to my head, but it took all my effort to do so. I was struggling to stay focused on my mother’s words.

“Claire, there is much you do not know. Things that have been kept from you, for the good of the family. Lies that were necessary. We never told you of your father’s sacrifice or that of his mother before him.”

What was she saying? Nothing made sense. My head flopped from side to side, like some impossible weight my body couldn’t balance.

My mother stood slowly and raised her arms, “We feed you, Mother Earth, so that you may feed us.”

Every member of the room stood and raised their arms in response, “We feed you, Mother Earth, so that you may feed us.”

*

I became aware of the cold before anything else.

Then shapes moving in the darkness. And noises. People talking, but also other sounds.

The trees sighing in the wind.

I was outside.

Gradually my senses returned to me. I was lying somewhere. Surrounded by rocks and earth.

“She awakes,” said a voice. My mother’s voice.

I could see now figures standing over me: men, women, and children. And a tree. A tree with a single piece of frayed blue rope.

“I don’t expect you to understand. None of us fully understand, but we know that your sacrifice is needed.”

A dark figure threw a shovel full of earth down onto me.

“Emily…” I managed to say.

“We will care for the child. She may forget your face, as you have forgotten your father’s. But she will be cared for.”

Another dark figure approached the pit and threw down earth. The moonlight briefly illuminated the face of my cousin. She smiled down at me with no trace of malice in her expression.

“Please, don’t hurt me.”

“Your life has great meaning, Claire,” said my mother. “This earth has supported our family for centuries. But there is a price to be paid by the first born. After thirty summers, the first born must return to the earth.”

“We feed you, Mother Earth, so that you may feed us,” came the response in many voices.

“It has now been thirty four years and the family has already paid a severe price for neglecting the earth.”

A small figure approached the edge of the pit and dropped down a handful of earth.

“Thank you, Auntie Claire,” said Natalie.

My eyes had become accustomed to the darkness. I could see now that the jagged rocks on which I was laying were white and smooth.

“Please… You can’t take my daughter from me.”

“I promise, she will join you again one day.”

I tried to move but the mounting pile of earth was pressing me down. My pleas were ignored and then barely audible as my lungs struggled to fight against the weight of earth and my mouth filled with dirt.

“We feed you, Mother Earth, so that you may feed us.”

*

Bio: Mark Cowling lives in Essex, England, and is mostly a writer of fiction and unproduced screenplays. He has also written sketches for BBC radio.

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