It was a scorcher of a summer the year Missy was born. Mammy had been running around like a headless chicken cleaning this and scrubbing that. She wasn’t fit for the farm work so Liddy and I collected the banty eggs. Daddy did the milking on top of the other work. We hardly saw him–just when he came in for his meals. Sometimes he took a piece to the fields for lunch, and on market day he went into the town and came back beery with a pocketful of sweets and some flowers. Mammy smiled and kissed him. It was only once a week he had a beer.
The day Missy was born, Liddy and I found Mammy hunched up over a chair with blood running down her legs. She told us to get Mrs. Black and we ran the lane like the bull was after us.
She was tiny. Millicent May, they called her. But I couldn’t say Millicent, so she became Missy. I held her once, but she cried and frightened me so I gave her back double quick. Liddy was better at that sort of thing. Liddy helped change and bathe Missy and get her away to sleep–until Mammy was herself again.
Liddy and I were left to our own devices in those long, summer weeks. The cat always preceded us into the shed, to get the indignant hens out, before we dared go in and collect their eggs. I’d clean the couple of dozen with a soft cloth and layer them up with newspaper in a basket. They were smooth, matt and all different shades from cream to brown. I always picked out the one I was going to eat for my lunch, but Liddy thought that was childish so I stopped telling her which I’d chosen.
Four years older than me, Liddy seemed to know what needed to be done and I followed her round as if she were a grown-up. We braved the sweltering mile walk to the post office every day to get the mail and odds and ends written on a note, and took eggs and milk for the woman there. Mammy seemed constantly busy with Missy and chores. I wanted to sit on her knee like before but she said I was a big girl now.
Thunder, according to Daddy, was the inevitable outcome of any prolonged spell of good weather. He’d welcome it, he said. The crops were in sore need of rain and the animals were all but cooking on the hoof. Mammy said she could feel something hanging in the air.
The cat was nowhere to be seen so we had to chase the hens out ourselves. They came straight at us, all claws and feathers flying. There were fewer than a dozen eggs.
“The thunder has stopped them laying,” explained Liddy.
When we got back to the house Mammy was clutching Missy, rocking and sobbing. Liddy went over to see.
“Get Mrs. Black!” she yelled.
I turned and ran. The rain fell in diamond-hard drops. In my plastic sandals and little cotton dress, I burst straight into Mrs. Black’s kitchen without knocking and stood there panting and dripping onto the concrete floor.
“Good God, child!” said Mrs. Black, putting her coat on and throwing me a blanket from the couch.
Daddy never mentioned Missy after the funeral. Downpours continued into harvest time turning the fields to thick gunge and the peat bog was sodden, making a back-breaking job heartbreaking too–if a heart could be more broken.
I started school. The teacher offered biscuits as prizes for good work. I’d run up the lane all excitement to tell Mammy, just as I’d seen Liddy do–for a hug. “I got a biscuit today.”
“Did you? That’s nice. Now away and wash your hands.”
She never looked up.
Daddy always had things to finish up in the shed. On Wednesdays he came home with sweets, flowers and chocolates. Mammy accepted them without comment.
One frosty morning, I found the cat lying in the ditch. With a litter of kittens–all dead but one; and so was she. I picked them up one by one, and they each dangled limp in my hand. The last one moved and gave a weak ‘miaow’, so I brought it in by the fire.
“What’s that you’ve got, girl?” asked Daddy.
“A kitten,” said I. “The rest are dead–like Missy.”
Everything stopped. Mammy sat heavily on a kitchen chair with one hand across her mouth. Liddy scowled.
“Robert,” pleaded Mammy, “Robert, get her out of here. Get them both out of here!”
Daddy took the kitten. “Come on, girls.”
Daddy had always said death is part of life on a farm so we hadn’t to get upset when cattle went to slaughter or a lamb died, or we’d be upset all the time. Mammy seemed upset all the time.
Liddy was reluctant.
“Now, Lydia!” When she heard her given name, she knew he meant it.
Things were never the same after Missy’s summer. The hens kept laying, the work went on, but at lambing time Mammy went away. Every time she went away after that, it was for a bit longer. I wanted to ask where she went but Liddy shushed me. I knew if you upset people they go away, so I didn’t ask anyone if it was all my fault–not even Liddy.
When I held my daughter for the first time I thought only of Mammy but the doctors said it would do more harm than good. She was too far away now.
The day that Missy died, a crack opened up in my mother’s heart leaving us all on the other side: a fissure that grew deeper and wider with time, a chasm that could never be spanned. It left each of us on the brink.
Oonah V Joslin lives in Northumberland, England. Winner of the Micro Horror Troph 2007. Most read in EDF, Jan 2008. Guest judge in the Shine Journal 2008 Poetry Competition. She has had work published in Bewildering Stories, Twisted Tongue 8 & 9, Static Movement, and 13 Human Souls. She has work coming up in The Linnet’s Wings, The Ranfurly Review and Boston Literary Magazine. You can link to work, follow updates and contact Oonah at www.writewords.org.uk/oonah/.