You buried me in the cold, hard ground. The March wind was blowing, sharp as a slaughter knife, bringing the scent of snow from the mountains over the sea. You dug a shallow grave among the gnarled roots of an olive tree. My sheep bleated in distress as you laid me down, they cried Murder! Murder! from their innocent throats. You covered me with earth and stones, first my body, then my face, my eyes wide open and staring into the brilliant winter stars above us.
You erased me, telling everyone I had run away. You tried to unexist me.
But I was still there.
I knew you were trouble the moment you took my hand. Another harsh winter day, the Feast of Saint Anthony. Frost on the ground, white-crested waves crashing on the cliffs, bitter wind driving sheep-like clouds across the sky. The church was packed, but the people crammed together did not make it warmer, just damper, filled with the odour of wet wool and unwashed bodies. Cold seeped through the thin soles of my shoes until I couldn’t feel my toes and all I could think about was my empty stomach. My eyes rested on the crude, badly painted faces of the wooden saints while the priest prattled on, dressed in silks, plump like a Christmas goose. Father dozed beside me, trying to be invisible, lest someone mention his debts.
After the Mass, tables laden with food were set on the square. It was our tradition to feed the poor on that day. Father tore away from me to join a group of men pouring red wine into wooden cups and I followed the smell of strong cheese and cured meat to a table where young men laughed and teased a pretty, rosy-cheeked girl. I slipped behind them quietly and reached for the cheese, when your hand caught mine. I don’t think I know your name.
You smiled, wholesome as a fresh apple in you clean white shirt and black vest, with a red cap in your dark curls. A rich man’s son, who’d never before paid attention to a poor herb picker. The wind blew through my threadbare cloak and I shivered as I shook your hand off, immune to your handsome boy’s games. Ten paces away, Father was on his third cup.
Wait, what’s your name?
I did not answer. The rosy-cheeked girl giggled, eyeing you. All I could think about was food, the sharpness of sheep milk cheese on my tongue. You stood so close I could feel the warmth of your body, radiating like a bonfire in the cold. Talk to me.
A fight broke out, first the raised voices and spilled wine, then the blows. I saw my father stagger and fall, his cheek bloody, his lip cut. I ran to him, but he pushed me away, swinging his fist at me, drunk and furious. All eyes on us, the paupers, the unworthy poor. Humiliation burnt my cheeks like hot iron, as I blinked away the tears, wishing to be anywhere but on that windswept square.
You ran to us and picked up the drunk old man. He tried to kick you, but you were too strong for him. Show me where you live.
Eyes filled with derision followed us as we left and I had no idea why you decided to help us. No one had ever done it before. Brawling old drunk and his ill-bred daughter, we were worse than stray dogs.
I took you to our cottage at the end of the village—one room, one window, shuttered against the cold. We laid my father on the narrow bed, to sleep off his drunkenness and I thanked you for your kindness, wishing you to disappear and leave me to my misery. The Feast of Saint Anthony, and I haven’t even managed to fill my belly.
I turned my back to you and stirred the fire. When you touched my shoulder, I stubbornly stared at the flames. It smells strange in here. You wrapped your hands around my body, bringing warmth. Bundles of dried immortelle hung from the rafters, swaying gently in the draft.
I had known you since we were children, but your father owned a fishing boat, your mother was a former village belle, and you and your brothers lived in a big, freshly whitewashed house beside the church. My father was a drunk, my mother long dead, and I raised sheep and picked immortelle for the local distillery. My clothes smelled of greasy wool, my hands reeked of pungent herbs. I was no rosy-cheeked girl a young man like you would set his heart on. There were less than five hundred souls in our village, but we all knew our place.
You should leave now.
You didn’t move. I watch you in church every Sunday. You’re the most beautiful girl in the village.
Beauty was cheap, words even cheaper. But I was hungry and cold and humiliated. Wind howled outside, my father snored in drunken stupor and I felt desperate and lonely. Your lips were soft and sweet like summer and your touch was the first gentle caress I had known in my life.
I lay on the earthen floor and let you lift my skirt. A moment of gentleness in a life as hard as stone, as harsh as winter.
Only after you left did I notice two silver coins on the table.
I never thought about you afterwards. I avoided going to the village, eschewed the church. It was the lambing season and I spent my days with my flock, walking through the labyrinth of dry stone walls, among the ancient olive trees, under the vast winter sky.
I never thought about you until I missed my monthly bleeding and, holding a newborn lamb in my arms, it dawned on me what kind of trouble I got myself into.
The snow lashed the stony landscape and my sheep huddled together while I shivered and tried to warm my hands in their thick wool. Maybe I’m just ill. I was like the land I knelt on, hard and salty and barren. What life could grow in me? Go away, you’re not welcome here.
The moon waxed and waned and still my blood did not come. I lay in my narrow bed at night, staring at the beams, breathing in the sharp scent of immortelle, my thoughts racing in desperate circles.
In the end, there was nothing to do but go and see you. A shadow behind the stone walls, a cat skulking down the narrow streets, I followed you for days before catching you alone in an empty courtyard. You recognized me when I stepped out from my hiding place, but your eyes remained indifferent and wary.
I carry your child.
What did I expect? Some of that kindness you showed me on Saint Anthony’s Day, perhaps. But that kindness was a hollow, deceitful thing, I realized, as you blinked slowly and shrugged. What is it to me?
The world was the same as it had always been: a hostile, unjust place. Your words did not surprise me, but the pain did: a sharp stab through my ribs straight to my heart. For one brief moment, I had trusted you; for one act of gentleness, I had let down my guard—and look how that worked out.
I turned on my heel and walked into the darkness, determined I would not let it go so easily.
I went to see the priest, warm and safe in his rectory. He let me wait for hours before he invited me to step into a room filled with books and ledgers, with silver-framed pictures of saints adorning the walls. I told him of the wrong you had done to me. His small, shiny eyes studied my hollow cheeks, my callused hands and the rags I was wrapped in. I asked for justice: a man who got an innocent girl with child had to marry her or give her a dowry to marry another.
He listened to me in silence, his interlocked fingers resting on his round stomach. When I finished, he slowly nodded, arranging his face in an expression of worried regret.
He told me he paid you for the deed. A shameful transaction, but a transaction nevertheless.
You turned me into a harlot with your pieces of silver. There was no denying I took them. The priest shook his head and shrugged, feigning powerlessness, and then reached into his desk and took two coins. He laid them on the desk. I believe this is the price?
I ran out of the rectory, the northern wind freezing the tears that ran down my cheeks.
I told my father what you’d done. It had been years since he’d been fast enough to hit me, but this time I let him. His fists punched my face, my ribs, my stomach. When I fell to the floor, his feet kicked me until I was nothing but a sobbing bag of bones. I hoped this would solve my problem. It did not.
The Sunday after that, Father put on his only decent shirt and grabbed my arm. Come on. My lip was cut and swollen, my eye black and closed; I wrapped a scarf around my head and pulled it to hide my face. He dragged me to your father’s house like a skittish sheep. He stood in the yard, hands on his hips, and called for your father to come out. His face appeared in the window, dark eyes and grey moustache, looking down in silence. The house loomed above us, beautiful and imposing. Smooth, whitewashed walls, red tiles on the roof, a proper chimney and two floors with glazed windows. I had never set foot in such a rich home.
Your brothers came out, two strapping lads, cheerful malevolence gleaming in their eyes. They grabbed my father and threw him out in the street. When he got up yelling, they beat him worse than he had beaten me. People watched from their windows, but nobody came to our aid. I half-dragged, half-carried him home by myself.
After that, my father stopped speaking to me. He would have kicked me out if there had been someone else to cook his dinner and wash his clothes, but since I was the only family he had, he only pretended I was invisible. I spent more time with my sheep, hiding from the wind behind the dry stone walls, crying into their rough wool, than I did in our cottage.
On Palm Sunday, which fell early that year, the priest announced after Mass that you were betrothed to the rosy-cheeked girl. That night, I went to your beautiful house and threw a stone at a window. The glass shattered and light appeared inside.
Liar! I screamed. Coward! You can hide from me, but I’ll tell everyone what you did!
Lights appeared in other houses. The good people who lived in our village loved to hear their neighbours’ dirty secrets, especially when shouted in the street in the middle of the night.
You ran out of the house in your nightshirt, grabbed my shoulders and shook me so hard I bit my tongue. Stop it! Stop it!
My mouth was full of blood; I spat it at your bare feet. I had no words left for you, so I stood there and looked in your eyes. They were filled with panic and anger and shame.
Around us, the windows glowed yellow and warm like the lights of Bethlehem. The wind tugged at your dark curls. You shivered.
All right, I’ll come to see you. Give me a few days.
I stood among my sheep as the sun sank behind the snowy mountains across the sea. It was Good Friday, the day of suffering and death, and I should have known nothing good could have come out of a meeting held on such a day.
You climbed the stony path that led to the hill where my sheep grazed. You wore your fisherman’s clothes that smelt of salt and fish. Your feet, used to the rhythm of the waves, were unsteady on the sharp stones and the thorny bushes that grew amidst them.
There was no love between us, but once we had shared a moment of gentleness and, standing in front of you under a darkening sky, I looked for its traces in your eyes. There was no one to hear us but my sheep; you could have been kind. But you weren’t.
I’ll pay you to go away and never return.
You pushed a small leather pouch into my hands. I untied the string and spilled its contents onto my palm. Thirty treacherous pieces of silver, give or take a few. Your father made that much money in a week. I let them slip through my fingers and trickle to the ground like silver droplets, glimmering in the light of the moon that appeared on the horizon.
You slapped me. Pick them up.
I laughed. You’d paid for my innocence with hardly enough money to buy a decent meal, I wasn’t going to let you to erase your child with a handful of silver. I slapped you back.
You stumbled backwards, not because the slap was hard, but because it surprised you.
I curse you, I said. May you never have another child.
The wind picked up my words and blew them across the sea, into the sky. You stood very still in the moonlight and then something dark spread over your face, like a mask of black rage. The whites of your eyes showed as your features twisted.
Your hands flew to my neck and squeezed it in an iron grip. I opened my mouth but it was too late for crying and no sound came out. I clawed at your arms, kicked you with my legs, all in vain. Sensing my distress, my sheep bleated in hopeless panic.
When I stopped struggling, you let my body fall to the ground. Using my shepherd’s crook and a sharp stone, you dug a shallow grave and laid me there without a prayer for my soul.
You wiped your hands on your trousers and left the windswept hill without turning.
You killed me, yet I wasn’t dead.
The Moon sailed in her silver boat above my head, constellations moved and seasons turned. I felt the sheep walking over me, their tongues licking the salt from the stones that covered my head. I heard the bones of the earth grating, the old olive tree stretching towards the spring sunshine. Like immortelle, whose oil permeated my skin, whose scent filled my nostrils, I could not be killed. If you crushed me, I only grew stronger.
The little seed inside me grew as well; I felt it moving like a hungry pea inside its pod. Life among the stones, bleached by the sun, dried by the wind, hard and unyielding.
On Michaelmas, I rose out of my grave like our Saviour, though no angels hailed me, no heavenly light beckoned, and welcomed your son into this world. He was a tiny creature, born out of lust and misery and death, suckling the milk of a corpse, but he was as strong as the bushes of immortelle growing around me. I picked their flowers and wove them in my hair to fend off the smell of the grave, I stuffed my pockets with their fragrant leaves. My clothes were decayed and torn and stained with earth, my shoes were nothing but broken straps of leather, but still I stood straight. I felt no hunger or thirst and the sunshine did not warm my pale, mottled skin.
As I walked the stony path to the village, I heard the distant bells. Sunday Mass on Saint Michael’s Day. The day of your wedding. I saw the doors of the parish church: the laurel wreath and ribbons, the children gathering, waiting for sugared almonds. The smell of roast meat and lamb stew wafted in the air together with the screeching sound of the bagpipes.
The baby was restless in my arms and I reached into my torn dress and offered him my breast.
Cheering and music echoed in the air as the wedding party appeared at the church door. It was a short walk from where I stood in the shadow. You stepped into the sunshine, holding the hand of your rosy-cheeked bride, smiling in the blizzard of petals the children threw at you. Every soul in that square was filled with hope and joy on that glorious day. Every soul but one.
It was time for you to meet your child.