Eva wakes up at six; or rather six is the hour she gives up on trying to sleep. The sun is up, and as the day dawns on her, a tightness curls around her chest. She slips out of bed; her skin is hot and relishes its freedom from the duvet.
Everything is laid out ready and waiting on her dresser. Eva picks up a little velvet purse, tilts it sideways and the pair of silver earrings slide out. They’re so delicate they barely make a noise as they land on the wood.
She picks one up and holds it in front of her face, sees a brown and pinky smudge of herself reflected in its curve. It’s probably too early in the day to put them on, but she’s been waiting months to wear them. She watches herself in the mirror, slotting them into her ears. Two perfect, elegant, silver teardrops. Something inside tells her she should be smiling, but her face is blank, and her eyes stare back coldly as if they don’t recognise her. She looks down, picks up a box and snaps it open. Inside sits the necklace he bought for her years ago. She remembers forcing a smile when he gave it to her. It wasn’t the one she’d liked best; it’s clunky, and she’s not worn it much since then. She puts it back on the dresser and stands.
It’s early still, one of those electric summer mornings, the world outside already teeming with birdsong and bees whilst all the people doze on inside. It’s sunny, warmth filling her room through the thin white curtains. Her dress is hanging beside the full-length mirror; she slides it off the hanger and lifts it over her head, skin tingling as the cool fabric falls over it. Her eyes glide over the reflection of the dress in the mirror, and she trembles at the simplicity of it. The perfection of it, the completeness, frightens her.
She looks away quickly. It’s suddenly too hot in her room and she feels the need to move and think. She tiptoes to the patio doors, twists a key in a lock and pulls herself away from the house. The patio stones are cool under her toes, shiny with dew. She grabs her old garden sandals and tucks them under her arm as she walks away from the house.
She passes through the gate, holds out her hand to stop it from swinging into itself and banging. She slips the sandals on before stepping onto the gravel lane, and then wanders past the post box and cuts across to the path that leads behind the big house and up the slope towards the fells. As she walks, Eva thinks of clay pots of nasturtiums lining the edge of a converted barn, and a string of paper lanterns hanging against an old brick wall. She pushes her hair back, away from her face, and twists it into a low bundle at the nape of her neck. As she does so, she forces the brick barn to melt into something else. The earth beneath her feet, perhaps.
At the top of the first incline she stops and turns, drags air into her lungs, pretends she’s standing here for the scenery. But soon enough, her eyes land on the barn. Its red roof, dappled with the brown of aging tiles, the occasional bright spot where it’s been given a new lease of life. It’s all dressed up today; strangers will walk past and comment on how beautiful it looks, how lovely.
But each paper lantern bears the weight of a stone. And every stone is a different memory weighing on her heart today. She squints at the barn, and even from here she can see it; the way the lanterns have been rearranged. No longer zig-zagging like bunting against the garden wall, but in a straight line parallel with the roof. Apoplectic, she takes a step forward, back towards the village, but something twists in her gut. The anger crumples inside, turns to hopelessness as she realises the redundancy of even attempting to rearrange them. Rooted to the spot, Eva snatches a few more ragged breaths and turns her back on the village. It’s easier to not think of things you cannot see. She walks on, furious at him for dictating everything.
Beyond the gap in the old shepherd’s wall there’s a fork in the path. She knows the way left, it loops through the woods, over the top of the lake and back down into the village. It’s the route they always took as kids when they came up here stomping in their wellies.
The path to the right is a touch too serious for Eva’s strappy sandals, but she takes it anyway. It twists her up and away from the village, through lines of trees the sun hasn’t permeated yet, and up, up onto a wide open fell-side. She pauses at the edge, catching sight of dozens of tiny mushrooms glinting in a golden circle. She studies the ring. It is broken. It doesn’t form a loop after all, but branches off in two different directions––one towards the trees, the other to the wide open hills. The field is full of such circles, all different sizes, spreading out into the distance. She’s tempted to kick one of the little sprouts to see how it’ll react, but a squirrel scuffles along the branch overhead, and Eva remembers her resolve to keep walking.
The higher she climbs, the more she wishes she was wearing something more suited to rambling; the dress catches on brambles and twigs, and she tugs it away. The white snagged hem is already smudged with earth and green.
The village is a speck behind her now, and this goads her on. Her pace picks up, and she gets into a good stride. The secrecy of early morning is wearing off, and hunger starts to gnaw at her stomach. She ignores it, wishing she’d had the foresight to bring water. But she doesn’t feel like turning back now. When she reaches the top of the fell, she doesn’t stop: she wants to see what’s on the other side, so she begins the descent. Putting the mountain behind her feels safe. It shields her from home.
What about when they start looking?
They will start looking. This she knows.
Pangs of guilt stab across her body. There’s one in her chest, that’s for letting mum down. The thought of her coming in to wake her up, tea in one hand and a beam of excitement lighting up her face.
Then there’s one in her gut for everyone who’s gone out of their way to make this day. The time, the money, the travel, the expectation.
Eva sighs loudly, giving a breath to the wind.
Strangely, there are no stabs for him. There’s a whole waft of nothingness when she thinks of him. A kind of weightlessness, as if she’s been tethered to the ground with steel rods, tied to one spot like a cow with a hoop through its nose, and she’s transcended that body. Didn’t even break the shackles, just cut her soul straight out of it like a circle from the middle of a sheet of white paper. The relief at being liberated from the square, even if she was part of it, is breathless.
Eva keeps walking towards midday and the sun changes its mind and hides behind a cloud. Others come to join the first innocent white puff, each one bolder than the one before, so layers build upon layers and she watches the sky turn grey and heavy. It’s still hot, clammy, but now there’s a tingling in the air, the expectation of a storm. In the next field along, wise cows gather under an oak, tuck their legs under themselves and reenact the old wives’ tale.
“I like the rain,” Eva whispers aloud as if trying to convince them she’s not at all bothered. It maddens her when people run to hide from it. It’s only water. You’re made of it, you drink it, wash in it. A god above cracks his whip and splits open the swollen clouds. Big, fat drops land on her head and run down her cheeks, and after minutes of pushing through, Eva can no longer see where she is or where she’s going, and the urge to keep walking is replaced by the necessity for a warm, dry place to sit and eat something.
She sees the building before it sees her. It’s some kind of old barn or shepherd’s hut, a little twisted by years of wind and rain, slate tiled roof bowing in the middle. Her dad would probably say it’s not “structurally sound”, but it’s as good a place as any to shelter from summer’s freak storm. She trudges towards it, sandals sticking in the mud, dress soaked through, doubtless now a medley of colours.
There’s a worn door which swings opens after a push with the weight of her shoulder, and she’s inside. The rain patters on the roof and Eva sighes, lets her breath catch up whilst she swipes rain away from her forehead with the back of her hand. It’s scant inside, a few tiny remnants of an old fire black in the hearth, a small wooden table sits by a window darkened with cobwebs, and a thick layer of dust lies across the surfaces. The flagstone floor is muddy and strewn with hay.
She walks around the room slowly, listening to the swish of her wet hem against the floor, taking in the bareness of it, the void of activity. There is a basket beside the hearth holding a few neglected logs and scraps of kindling. She kneels down beside it, tiny beads of her dress pressing into her knees against the hard floor, and begins to assemble twigs into pyramids, twist crinkly newspaper and slot it in between. There’s an ancient box of Cook’s matches hidden beneath sheets of old news, and she slides it open to find a lonesome match rolling around inside. She takes a deep breath, tells herself everything will be fine if this doesn’t work, and picks the match up between two cold, slightly trembling fingers. She strikes it against the edge of the box, watches the orange glow flare up and holds it to the paper. It catches.
Slowly, she moves it to the other side, lights another piece, and another, before the heat strokes her finger and she pushes the remains of the match into the middle of her kindling stack. The paper curls upwards in the flames, and sticks catch the light. She lets out a sigh of relief, and gently blows on the flames, watching them jump from one twig to another. They crackle and grow, and Eva feels a kind of triumph, the first of her very own in longer than she can remember. She builds the fire up and leans back to watch it grow. The warmth feels so nice against her wet skin, and she shivers, hating the soggy fabric clinging to her.
The fire has illuminated the room a little now, and she sees just how forgotten it is. She begins to wonder what dreams someone once had for this place, and if there was a time when it was filled with candles and warmth, and company. It could have been a place to paint, the door propped open to sunny pastures. It could have been a place where people gathered to take shelter on a cold night and share a meal. But it had been abandoned, discarded, left to gather cobwebs, dust, forgotten memories and lost souls.
She stands, eases her swollen feet out of the sandals and breathes a sigh of relief that the walking is over. Alone in the room, the thought of what to do next arises. She knows it is too late now, the damage done. She can almost feel his hatred and anger seething towards her across the fells. She is glad of it; it is easier if he hates her, if he turns and leaves, and never looks back. Funny that, when she’d always thought he’d be the one to run.
But he’s never loved her. How could he when, day after day, he crushes her voice and her dreams and her ideas and her love? Crushes them like bugs with his incessant need to be right, to be in control. And all this time––foolishly––she’s let him! Let him squash her into a box, all the while gloating about how happy she was when she couldn’t even breathe! But why…
For a ring, to tick a box, to make others believe she’s just like them. And nothing like herself.
In the dim, a voice whispers somewhere far off in her own mind. It sounds like a child’s whimper, but the words are clear as day. Why don’t you love me?
Tears sting her eyes and little sobs jump out of her throat, morph into wails and howls and noises she couldn’t imagine that rise up from some wounded place inside.
She doesn’t know what she’s feeling, but she goes ahead and feels it anyway. If it was a colour, it’d be an intense blue, with grey smudging its edges. A blue so deep the rain couldn’t wash it away. She lifts her face to the roof and lets the sky have her anger and sadness.
Then, after a while, the beat of the rain on the roof stops, and Eva looks up to see sunlight trying to pierce through the thick layers of cobwebs that coat the window. Her own heaving subsides, the wails die down, and the tears cease.
When her breath levels, she looks around and suddenly feels very pathetic and, for the first time, ashamed by the thought of anyone finding her here in this state. Nothing to wipe her face with, no mirror to see how much she’s messed up. No clock to tell the time. No water or food, and no way of really knowing where she is. She pushes herself up from the floor, tired, dirty hands pressing against the callous muddy stone, and lugs her body across to the window. There’s an old rag on the table and she picks it up and shakes it out, sending dust motes dancing across the still air. She sweeps the rag across the window, watching it capture the crumbling remains of ancient spider webs, and slings it to the ground.
There’s a world out there, of green and yellow, with a blue sky clearing above it. She thanks god for long summer days and realises––for the first time this day––that she can go back. If she wants to. It won’t be the same, but this doesn’t have to be the end of her life.
Then there’s a bang as the door swings open and slams across the wall.
A woman looms in the doorway, well-worn wellies, waterproof trousers and old waxed jacket. Grey hair clings to her wrinkled forehead as she frowns at Eva. “What do you think you’re doing in my grandfather’s bothy?” her accent’s broad, and the look across her face is one of confusion mingled with a hint of annoyance. “Saw the smoke going and heard some mighty howling in the rain. I thought we had a wolf in the hills. I bought my shotgun in the car, but then when I saw the smoke coming out of here I thought maybe it was squatters. You don’t look like a squatter.” She peers at Eva, takes a few steps closer and inspects her attire.
Eva wants to defend herself, but her throat feels tiny, like it’s closed up from all the crying and lack of water.
“Well, what are you doing in here?”
Eva cowers and lets a teeny shrug fall off her shoulders.
“Is that a wedding dress?”
She touches the skirt but says nothing. Trails of beads hang off it now and Eva feels bad for the seamstress who painstakingly sewed them all on. For the hours worked to afford such a dress.
The old woman sighs as if she’s disappointed, and rubs her forehead with her palm. “Heard there was a runaway bride from Lowerscroft. That you?” She doesn’t wait for Eva to confirm before she says she’ll take her back to town in her Land Rover.
“I don’t want to go back,” Eva manages, her voice coming out like a mouse’s squeak.
“Tough. You can’t stay here. You can walk back or I’ll take you. I’ve got a blanket in the car. You’re shivering.”
Eva frowns, tempted by the thought of a hot shower and dinner.
“Flask of tea, too. All yours if you get out of my bothy right now.” She trudges over to the fire and stomps out its remains. Eva picks up her sandals, lifts her skirt and steps outdoors, squinting into the evening sun. It’s getting late; the rain has cleared, and the sky is layers of pastel all smudging into one another. A green Land Rover sits down the field and seeing it, Eva trembles. She turns back just as the old woman emerges from the bothy and closes the door behind herself.
“Perhaps I should walk home.”
“It’s at least ten miles. Did you walk all that way here?”
Eva nods. The soles of her feet complain.
The woman shakes her head. “It’ll be dark before you’re even half way.” And then she steps right up to Eva and looks her square in the eye. Past their red rims and crows feet, her eyes are all green and flecky in the sunlight. “I reckon you don’t want to go back down there and see what’s waiting for you. Now, I don’t know what that’ll be, but I do know that you can’t keep running. First off, you’re in a wedding dress and, by the looks of it, you’ve got nothing else with you.”
Eva shivers; evening is setting in and cooling the world.
The woman goes on. “Practicalities aside, I don’t know you, but I will tell you one thing.” With this, she pauses, and Eva holds her breath. Something in the woman’s face softens, and her voice comes out quieter, almost reassuring. “You don’t have to marry him if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do anything you’re not sure about. Nobody’s going to make you.”
“But I promised him I would.”
“It doesn’t matter. Things change. Maybe you did want to when he asked you. Maybe you don’t want to now.”
“Perhaps I was just scared this morning. Maybe if I go back, explain…maybe he’ll forgive me.”
“Is that really what you want, or are you just scared of being alone?” She narrows her eyes, as if she’s looking right through my bullshit. “Cold feet don’t make you walk ten miles in the opposite direction.”
Eva sighs. “If I don’t marry him, what am I going to do? Where will I live? Will I ever marry anyone? I don’t want to be alone.”
At this, the crone howls with laughter. “Forgive me for being bold, but it’s plain as day. I think—seeing as how you ran from your wedding to hide out in an dilapidated old hut all by yourself—you do want to be alone.”
Eva steps back and looks at herself from a new distance, seeing the sense in the woman’s words. She chose to be alone.
“If I’ve come to learn anything––and I’ve been kicking around much longer than you have––it’s that life’s less about doing what you think you should do and more about doing what you know you should do. Think about that in the car, and if you still don’t want to go back by the time we get to Lowerscroft, why then, that’s your choice.” She claps Eva on the shoulder and starts bumbling towards her car, as if she already knows that she will follow.
Eva watches her walk away, her power entirely her own. The old woman calls a greeting to the sheep across the gate as she passes, swings her arms when she walks. She’s got to be at least seventy. Up here alone, whistling to the wind and trees. Eva wonders where she lives, if she has a husband, a family.
The sun is starting to sink, and the breeze picks up again, but now it’s got a freshness about it that makes Eva feel alive. She races after the woman and clambers up into the mud-spattered vintage Land Rover. It smells like wet dog and hay inside.
The crone starts the engine and grins at Eva wistfully, as if she’s thinking of something funny, a joke the younger woman is not yet sharing in. “Put your seatbelt on and drink your tea,” she says. “You’ve got some way to go yet.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kat Rowan is passionate about healing, consciousness, the lives of women, and the planet. When she is not working or writing, she loves traveling, being in nature, and reading. She is currently writing her first novel.