PASTORALE No. 2: THE MILL • by Gerald Warfield

Through a window of the mill Kayla saw a figure approaching on the path by the river. Dried blood caked one side of his face and streaked his homespun shirt. Looking down, he stepped hesitantly as if unsure of his balance. When he reached the sluice gate that diverted a swift channel to the mill he grabbed hold of one of the upright posts to steady himself.

Kayla backed into the shadows of the room. She had failed to stop him. Defiantly, she yanked on the bow beneath her chin, loosening her white, starched cap and tossing it onto the wooden table.

Around her the room vibrated to the great wheel that turned beyond the wall. Inside, only the axle moved, but the millstone did not. The knobby gear wheel that drove the connecting shaft had been disengaged, pulled back by a wooden lever on the side. Several sacks of millet and barley corn rested against the wall waiting their turn beneath the stone.

When the figure reached the porch Kayla heard the squeak of boards yielding to his weight even above the low rumble of the wheel. He passed the window without looking in and lifted the bar latch. The door squeaked as he pushed it open.

“Hello, Able,” she said.

The man, stocky and strong, jerked his head up when he saw her, his eyes wide.

“I can’t say I’m glad to see you.” She folded her arms.

He steadied himself, one hand on the wall, and took a deep breath. “Is that any way to greet your brother?”

“Adopted brother,” Kayla said.

“I guess there’s no point in trying to make you see reason, now,” he said.

“This mill has been in my family for more than a hundred years,” she said.

He looked about the room as if seeing it for the first time. Powder from years of grinding chalked every crack between the weathered boards. Scoops, shovels and brushes covered one wall. The millstones, worn from long use, still bore dust from the last grinding. “Stephens will be here this evening for his barley flour,” he said, absently.

“How could you do this to me?”

“Kayla, from the day Father adopted me and brought me here I sensed your obsession with me, and at first I was grateful, it made me feel — wanted.”

“Evidently, father wanted you more than he wanted me.”

Able wiped some of the blood from his eyebrow and then his hand on his trousers. “Father told you himself, he thought that running a mill was a man’s job.”

“Why? I run it as well as you do.”

Able nodded. “You do, but we both expected you to marry, to move to another household before he died. Even after he died, I would have provided you a dowry.”

“I could never leave the mill. Besides, without it who would take notice of me?

“You are fiercely loyal and a hard worker. Any man would be proud to have you.”

“But not you?” And then in a shrill voice she asked the question she had never spoken aloud. “Why wouldn’t you marry me?”

The wheel stopped.

The mill shuddered and the axle groaned. Silence fell as if the mill held its breath in the wake of Kayla’s question. Tears of anger and frustration came to her eyes.

Able looked past her at the stilled axle. “We have to block the sluice before the wheel loses a fin.”

Kayla turned and looked out the window toward the sluice gate.

“I’ll do it.”

He went back through the open door, and Kayla followed. They walked along the path, weeds high on either side, sunlight glittering from the surface of the river.

At the sluice, Able untied the rope that lowered the gate but had to reach up and shake the wide plank before it slid down in the grooves and blocked the water. Immediately, the level in the mill race began to drop. Rivulets from around the edge of the sluice seeped through but the trickle could not keep up with the flow toward the wheel.

“I saw you putting the stones in your apron.” He smiled grimly. The blood on his face belied the pity in his eyes.

“Able, it’s not too late.”

He looked at her in astonishment. “No, it is too late,” he said with sudden resolution and started back down the path. “Come, I think I know what’s clogged the wheel.”

“You must forgive me. It was the shock of hearing that you would marry Catherine.”

They reached the point where the mill race dipped to the bottom of the wheel. There, wedged in the undershot, lay a pale, white body, her grey, homespun dress obscenely washed around her arms and head.

“Do you know what that is?” he said, turning to Kayla.

Her eyes were wide. “I couldn’t live without you, without the mill,” she gasped.

“When I came to, I saw you. I crawled to the bank, but I couldn’t stand, much less swim. If you’d have only looked back you’d have seen me.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered. I couldn’t have struck you again. You don’t know how hard it was — the first time.”

“There is some justice in that you drowned yourself with your own murder weapon. Now I need to go down and pull your body out, and it will be over.” He sat, hung his legs over the edge, and then lowered himself into the narrow channel, his feet splashing in the shallow water.

“We could have had a good life here on the river,” she said with a plaintive cry, “just the two of us.”

“But Kayla, you should be pleased.” He looked up at her, the oak trees along the bank visible through her shadowy body. “This way we both get what we want. I’ll marry Catherine and sell the mill; we’ll go to London and set up a shop. But you — now you can stay here as long as you like.”

Gerald Warfield’s short story, “The Poly Islands,” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the nationally syndicated Grammar Girl short story contest. “Spores of the Volcano” appeared in NewMyths and the Campbellian 2014 Anthology. “Return of the Mayflower” is scheduled to appear in Perihelion. Several of his flash pieces have previously appeared in Every Day Fiction. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.

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