The Woman in the Barn

Jaclyn Gilbert

Joseph and I are soon to be hitched in my sister’s house with white sideboards and purple geraniums sprawling from black pots.

     Joseph didn’t give me any kind of engagement ring. He gave me a wooden clock. I told him, Joseph, let’s be more like the English and go for carats, our value in carats, with a thirteen grand baseline.

     But he said: Lydia, our people bequeath clocks and china and tools, family tokens and borrowed things, useful things.

     There’s a woman outside—she’s still locked up in Joseph’s family barn like a cow.

     I’ve only seen her once, caught a glimpse through a crack while I waited for Joseph to finish his plowing. It was April, just before our fourth courting walk. The woman’s hair was flying wild from her mull cap as if someone went and took all her bobby pins, and she was screaming something about Martyrs Mirror:

     I am but dust and ash approach thee, she said.

     Usually, in church, we see it as our sacred privilege to recite, O my savior and redeemer, those defenseless lambs, who were sacrificed by water fire sword and wild beasts.

     The woman kept asking for chalk, a board, something to write on.

     Listen, my hands are dry as flint. I had to tell her.

     Later during our walk, I asked Joseph:

     Is she a wild beast? The kind of woman who’d scrape out her own eyes, knock out her own teeth? Like a rabid dog I once saw my father shoot when it stole chicken eggs from the coop because there was no mercy, God had no tolerance for that!

     But Joseph answered me, Lydia, she can’t be any of those things. The devil Himself has possessed her. She’s not fit to marry or bear any kind of child. We can’t trust her hands for needlework.

     Our winter seasons for sewing have always been long like a slumber while the men dry tobacco the little boys speared. They work the cows too hard in the barn milking up the light of day. Dusk at four and dinner at five. We go to bed early. We pray before we sleep.

     Dark blue, they tell us to wear on our wedding day. O be humble before God. Like a bruise. And dark colors to absorb the light. We will have to keep the lights dim for the ceremony.

     There was something like dust in the woman. The way her dry lips cracked. Screeching out words like chalk scraped over hard dark black. That chalk she kept asking me for, to write out symbols and things about God’s consuming flames.

     She said to me: Here’s rue for you, some for me….I would give you some violets!

     Violet, whose violet? Violet the color of my eye when Joseph hits. He started when I wondered, pressed him, whether the barn woman truly deserved this. Sometime not long after, he asked for my hand, and I gave it.

     Next to the Bible, Martyrs Mirror is our most sacred book. I’ve begun pressing fresh lilac between some of the pages.

     Luke said, Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh.

     I am waiting for the flowers to dry.

     I’ve seen a picture of an English wedding. In the house of a family I clean for every week. On Thursdays I scrub for twenty an hour this English house, but don’t I dare touch a current of spark. No vacuum or washer and dryer either. No electric iron.

     In the picture, the bride, she’s let her hair down: lilac-strewn. I’d like that too. Some flowers in my hair to scatter after all’s been said and done.

     I am seventeen and Joseph is twenty. We don’t go by legal age, more by what our family thinks is a good fit and these weeks of courting we took. Long walks barefoot by the far creek holding hands and hiccupping words like chimes. The soft sound bells make I used to mistake for laughter.

     The woman in the barn did smile at me, said she too had wanted more than china, more than a clock. Perhaps she asked for chalk so she could write out a different story.

     Mankind: the essential thing, the useful thing, she said. But it isn’t always! she howled.

     Joseph noticed me during volleyball practice one Sunday after Church, after choir. I have never liked running much. He used to watch me slap my hands wildly. I would giggle, but during our first walk in the woods Joseph told me to stop that. He told me I wasn’t very intelligent.

     My mother has asked about my eye. I said wedding china fell down from the hutch when I was getting the new house ready.

     She told me to be more careful. This is your sacred life beginning, Lydia, she said. Your house with Joseph will be under God.

     At first bruises are purple, like broken moonlight. I’ve started counting the nighttime stars. Someone’s missing teeth, I think. More sweet lilacs pressed next to the words of Timothy:

      If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him.

     The creek where Joseph and I took our first courting walks glittered with shadows from the spring tree leaves. Against the water there was a sallow color like ripening corn, white to greenish gray and yellow. Joseph once kissed me there. I tasted sunlight and the fields and plough wheels turning around the soft dead dirt.

     I’ve practiced twisting lipstick tops when cleaning the English family’s bathroom. Stole the matron’s rouge into my apron pocket and caught myself doing it in the mirror.

     I had stared at the barn woman’s face that day and wondered about violets and lilies and hundreds of colors bleeding into flowers and how different each petal looks depending on which way you turn it under the sun.

     Eye bruises, they must take a long time to heal. We aren’t allowed to watch our reflections in this community.

     I started coating the tender rings round my eye with flour dust. I tell my sisters and brothers it is leftover from so much pie baking these final days before the wedding.

     In school they taught us to write out Sorry in chalk. Our Father Our Creator we had to write. I’m Sorry we wrote it one hundred times over on the blackboard: I will not talk when someone else is talking.

     The barn woman approached me when I told her. Then she licked my wrist.

     Devil’s tongue, it gets us into trouble! she screamed, We are full of sin! She lay down in the hay then, laughing.

     I am pressing more lilac next to Samuel who said:

     Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes.

     The English have lace underwear. I found some in that matron’s vanity drawer while cleaning. The word is lingerie, but I would never say it out loud:

     Joseph, would you love me in lingerie?

     The woman in the barn was small like early daisies. She wrapped herself around rafters with arms like frail stems, skin like pollen dust. Sunlight leaked through the sideboard cracks, got caught in her eye: a fire like the sharp dots English tools make. Electric saws splitting wood. She stared into me.

     What if I go blind, the bruises leak to my eye, my brain? I want to go back and ask the barn woman. I would tell her I clean houses to pay for prescriptions, fancy ointments and stark white swathes.

     It’s been weeks since Joseph last hit me by the far creek. My bruises faded shadow blue, like pearls. Joseph says he’s giving me this short time to heal before the wedding.

     Stray straw fell out into the barn as the woman howled among the rafters. She touched her face like it hurt, like it was mine.

     Maybe I’ll bring her more than chalk if I go back. I’ll bring her dry corn fodder and tobacco leaves, cow grease, swine oil, saddles, harnesses, ropes, discs, and wheels. I’ll bring her eyehooks and nails and twine. Some truss board too. I’ll bring her water from the river.

     I want to believe the sun is enough to tell the time, that Joseph and I won’t need a clock beside our bed after we marry.

     The creek water drips into a river that winds long away from the community. It gurgles under the highway, grows murky from black underthings and inky spiders. It laps and eddies around sediment making clay. We could build things, I cried to Joseph when he last struck me, we could, if we let our hair go and wandered past the perimeter.

     But Joseph’s hand continued down, and he said he had no urge. To follow the flickering silver tail of the river out of our farm. The water tastes like metal, or has the blood finally dried into my mouth like black clay ebony?

     I want to believe cold sunlight in the morning and fire at night for warmth are of the same piece. That the quake of lightning shooting sparks along the English lines chattering during storms are needful, natural wants.

     Joseph doesn’t believe in fear. He doesn’t believe lightning can kill. The second time he hit me in the woods he told me to thank the rain. To kneel before it.

     I wonder if the woman in the barn ever touched an electric hand-mixer, power drill, reciprocating saw, immersion blender, dishwasher, fuel rotary hammer, pressure cooker, or automatic rifle. Joseph says it’s violence. Technology, electricity, all of it Godless and violent.

     Daniel was cast into a den of lions, to be torn by them, but God protected him. The dried lilacs crackle beside his name where I’m moving them, the dust of purple faint by black words the woman in the barn would like scratched into chalk white light.

     The woman in the barn said there were more than four seasons. Hundreds more than that. Millions, because light is all tiny particles exploding at different speeds and pulses. She said she wanted to read Physics and History and Biology. Evil subjects of war and vanity, she wants to know more than God, but how can we know that?

     The last time Joseph hit me he said that fear and love were not the same, especially false love, idol love, which is wanting things, and I am not supposed to want any more than exactly what I have.

     Black sparrows and ravens have a sheen of violet satin in their feathers, as if they’d been hiding them all along. The light brings it out in them: lavender silver and gold as natural things more than any useful thing that flutters my pulse, a batting of my eye and quiver in my mouth like that first kiss I blew for Joseph during volleyball.

     He would hit me with a pitchfork in the hayloft if I said lin-ger-ie, puncturing each syllable, and hearing the song of it with my sweet lavender voice.

     Did she sit at a wedding table, alone, the woman in the barn? Did she shield her face with her hand as we do against the sunlight? Her eyes crossed and dizzied by the closeness of a corner, where she sat and stared and waited?

     She was watching me as she ate chaff in the barn, her mouth frothing white from it: this leftover dust we feed to the cows. I wish I had recited out words like lilac lingerie and black lace spiders and daisy lips and cordless drill through the barn door wall.

     Joseph took back my stolen lipstick. He hit me and said I’d burn in hell.

     I’ll burn for it, this sin, he told me—until I am but nothing but dry spark and dust and ash. A feeble flame hobbling from his hands rubbing together and clapping me out.

     Tomorrow they’ll prop us up blue-dressed and mull-cap-pinned like dolls.

     Joseph, with his heavy clock, black hat, and long dark beard will be waiting for me.

     I found the lipstick buried in with Joseph’s wool cutting shears. I placed it back in my apron with blackberry jam from the cellar, and carried a leather harness with swine oil and my Martyr’s Mirror to the woman in the barn. I let her choose the words she wanted. She asked for those of Samuel. Lighten mine eyes, she said.

     Together we crushed and let loose the pale dust of dried lilac.

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