Elspeth Howell was a sinner. The thought passed over her like a shadow as she washed her face or caught her reflection in a window or disembarked from a train after months away from home. Whenever she saw a church or her husband quoted verse or she touched the simple cross around her neck while she fetched her bags, her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone. The multitude of her sinsanger, covetousness, thieverycreated a tension in her body, and all that could ease the pressure was movement, finding something to occupy her wicked hands and her tempted mind, and so she churned her legs against snow that piled in drifts to her waist.
While the miles passed, the sky over Elspeth became nothing but a gray smudge and weighty clouds released their burden. She loosened the scarf from her face and the cold invaded her lungs. As soon as a drop of sweat slid out from under a glove or down a curl of hair, it turned to ice that flickered in the last of the light.
In her pocket, she kept a list of the children's names and ages, the years crossed out two and three times, so that when she bought gifts, she forgot no one. She carried a fish scaler for Amos, fourteen, a goose caller for Caleb, twelve, a hunting knife for Jesse, ten, a fifty-inch broadcloth for Mary, fifteen, a length of purple ribbon for Emma, six, and a small vial of perfume for both girls to share. Wrapped with care against the elements, hidden at the bottom of the bag, were strawberry hard candies, gumdrops, and chewing gum. For her husband, she brought two boxes of ammunition and a new pair of sheep shears. Collectively these goods had cost her only a fraction of her four months' midwife salary. The rest resided in the toes of her boots.
The valley stretched out behind her; the tracks she'd left were already erased. When she'd stepped off the train in Deerstand midmorning, the snow had been a lazy flurry, but the closer she got to home, the deeper the snow became, and the more furiously it fell. It was as if, she thought, God wanted to keep outsiders away as much as the Howells did. "We are an Ark unto ourselves, waiting for the floodwaters to rise," her husband, Jorah, liked to say. She heard his calming voice in her ears, over the sighing wind and the whisper of wet snowflakes, and she missed him. She longed for his silken hair against her cheek at night, his soft footsteps as he left in the morning to milk, and his smellof leaves, of smoke, of outdoor air.
She'd meant to come home in October. The baby had been born before the snow covered the earth, and she went by every day to check on its well-being, to touch each of its little fingers and their pearly nails. The child grew as October gave way to November and the calendar flirted with December. The cityany cityalways had need for a midwife. Even that morning, looking out the window, warm by the fire, she couldn't bring herself to leave, and failed to get on the train before dawn had broken, revealing a clear, bright day.
Still a ways from home, something nagged at the back of her head, threatening to push forward and topple her. She hurried, but the rush made for careless steps. The path shrank, and she passed between naked oaks and shivering pines. The light emanating from the snow turned the color of a new bruise as the day died, glowing just enough to mark her way. The terrain leveled again and she broke through the woods. Elspeth knew by the rolling of the ground that she crossed the cornfields; the dead stalks cracked beneath the ice and snow. She tromped alongside the creek that brought them their water, frozen at the surface but trickling below. It was then that the fear that had been tugging at her identified itself: It was nothing. No smell of a winter fire; no whoops from the boys rounding up the sheep or herding the cows; no welcoming light.
From The Kept by James Scott Copyright © 2014 by James Scott. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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