Miss said he bled through seven bandages before the doctor came. I can still hear him shrieking, a nasty sound, the sound of a cat with its tail on fire. I still hear the laughter. Mrs R’s crone cackle, and her with bits of her brother’s flesh still stuck between her teeth. No shame at all. I imagine that’s the best thing about going mad; no longer feeling sorry for anything. Mr Mason should have known better. He knows how she gets. But he would go leaning over her, his shoulder just above her nose—‘Oh, my poor sister, my poor dear sister!’—so busy blubbering he never noticed her baring her teeth.
That was last night. They’ve all gone now, thank Heaven—Mr Mason, the doctor, Mr Rochester and Miss Eyre. It’s morning, and they’ve all gone back to the sunlit parts of the house. I’m feeding Mrs R her porridge. She’s sitting up in bed, calm as you please, opening her mouth like a good girl. She is very good sometimes, though no one ever sees that but me. I’m thinking I might try to trim her hair today. It’s always a risk, coming near her with the scissors. But she’s quite relaxed today; a taste of human meat does seem to pacify her. I’d like to get her hair out of her eyes, neaten the line in the back.
Breakfast over, I pile our dishes on a tray for one of the maids to collect. I turn and stoke the fire. Its heat on my skin is welcome; our attic rooms are so chilly and dim. My eyes stray to the mirror above the dressing table. ‘Just as I thought,’ I say to Mrs R. ‘Mine’s nearly as bad as yours. Haircuts all around, then.’ She makes a funny groan, like wind in a chimney. That’s her way.
I am singing to myself as I unlock the bottom dresser drawer and lift out the soft parcel. Rock of Ages, cleft for me— I fold back the protecting cloth. That familiar cold glint. Let me hide myself in thee—They have waited for me. My mother’s sewing scissors, heavy now in my hands. The finger grips like open mouths. The shank like a woman, arms above her head, balancing on tiptoe. Her bosom, her legs tapering to two sharp points. I’ve left off singing. The silence hammers against my ears as I reassure myself the blades are clean. No wiry hairs, no gristle, no stains. I do this every time. And when I’m sure there’s nothing I always have to blink, and rub my temple, and remind myself where I am now. How much time has passed. And I’m never sure if I’m glad or sorry that there is no evidence left.
Too much quiet; I start singing again. Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed… I shake my head and the terrible pictures fade. I see instead Mrs R in the bed, her lips twisted into what I think is a smile. This is her favourite hymn. And mine. Be of sin the double cure—and I smile back at her, my fingers tight around steel. Save from wrath. And make me pure.
My mother called me Grace because she saw God’s grace shining like a soft light from my features. Our mothers see things in us no one else can. She was a mild, sickly woman, my mother, and I know that God sent me to look after her. I know that He gave me these strong shoulders and this stout heart so I could be of help to her and all the seven children she bore after me. I know He made me ugly so no man would take me from her.
But Grace is a soft whisper of a name, and as a girl I always seemed to be arriving just behind it, lumbering and flushed, with the thundering stride of some beast of the fields let into the house by mistake. A plain, earthy name would’ve suited me better. I hated being Grace, because I could never be Grace, however hard I tried.
‘Never mind,’ my mother would say. I would rest my cheek on her knee, and she’d put down her sewing and stroke my tangled ginger curls.
No one’s touched me with such tenderness since.
‘Never mind,’ she’d say. ‘You are Grace, whether you see it or not. Think you that God makes angels’ wings out of faith alone? Silly girl! Not only faith, but ferociousness is needed, if one is to fly. And fly you will, my angel. Mark me, you will. Because you, Grace, are ferocious!’
‘But I don’t want to be ferocious. I want to be soft and kind, like you.’
She would lift up the sewing scissors then. ‘Sheffield steel,’ she would say with pride. Mother’s kin were from Sheffield. I had a sort of an idea of the place—bustling and loud, dim with factory smoke. Far from our small seaside parish. I had a child’s notion, from Mother’s stories, that Sheffield was peopled with noisy, red haired giants. ‘These are made of Sheffield steel, and so are you,’ she would whisper, putting the scissors down and tapping me on the nose. ‘Be glad of it. Providence has His plans, Grace; but the longer I live the more I feel that the good Lord helps those who are willing to help themselves.’
I was nineteen when Mother died. I missed her so much. It was an ache that followed me through my day. I lost myself in work; feeding the little ones, bathing them, getting them to sleep. When they cried for her I cuddled them, and cried too, our sobs coming together like one sound. There was nothing just mine anymore.
When work was done I used to go on rambles, just myself, with only God and the sea for company. No pastors to tell me I must speak softer, tread lighter. No Aunties spitting on their hankies and scrubbing at my face. No father calling me Horse, Dog, Witch and banging me about. I would hear God’s voice in the rumble and hiss of the waves. Telling me that He alone loved me.
Late at night, the children and I would hear him stumbling into the cottage. I’d lie awake in the dark and listen to his thumps and scratches and muttered curses in the next room. The same way you’d listen to rats, scurrying behind walls, and know that the infestation is growing. Know that soon you’ll have a river of rats underfoot, squealing and biting. Like that, I lay awake listening to the broken sounds and knowing. And what could I do? What poison could stop a rat that big?
Nothing just mine anymore. He took it, all of it, one night while God and the world were sleeping. Even the voice I pleaded with didn’t sound like mine. Hair, arms, mouth, breath, womb, belly, tears, breasts, feet, fingers, blood. When he left me I was a speck of self inside a white stranger’s body. And he came back the next night.
Horse. Dog. Witch. Each morning I hurried to hide the signs from my brothers and sisters. I put a damp cloth between my legs. I stood straight, though it hurt to do it, and clothed over the bruises. I shivered with the cold that closed over me like water. I realised I was dead.
The scissors make hungry baby bird sounds and straight, soft black hairs drift in clumps to the floor. Mrs R sits straight in her chair. She hasn’t much choice, as I’ve tied her to it. No sense taking risks. She bucked like a stallion when she felt the rope against her arms. But I held on.
‘Sheffield steel,’ I tell her, pointing to myself. ‘Descended from a race of ginger giants. You’ve no chance against me.’
She has her chin on her chest now. She’s breathing deeply and noisily through her nose. I’m doing the back first. Comb and snip, comb and snip. Both of us soothed by the sounds, the touch. Our breath coming together now. Comb and in and snip and out.
Of course I’m only teasing her when I say she has no chance. She has every chance, for she is mad, and has a monstrous strength. She will best me one day, I have no doubt, kill me… it makes me laugh to think of it. It’s not that I wish to die, especially. It is that we are, both of us, dead already—good as, anyway—kept away from ‘gentle folk’ by a set of stairs and a locked door. For ones who live as we do, what is it to die?
Important, though, that it not happen yet. I need another year. One more year, at this wage—and it’s a good wage, mind; so it should be! After that, God can do what He likes with me. My duty will be done.
I move to the front of Mrs R. She closes her eyes, peaceful. I bring the scissors to her brow and feel her flinch at the cold blades. She is quite still, but there is tension in it now, a tautness of muscle and nerve. Then she opens her eyes. They are large and brown and now we are eye to eye, two killers, sharing a cage.
I trim the hair away from her eyes, blow softly on her face to remove strays. She purrs at me. I chuckle. And now we are mother and daughter.
Mother. I remember the sky hanging heavy and white on that last day. Days like that are remembering days, so my mother used to say. So I walked and I remembered her. And the sky was thick with souls like hers, waiting to ascend into Heaven. The path curved so I could see the sea, the only thing moving. So I went to it. I remembered all the times God had spoken to me in the waves. But God had nothing to say now. And I wondered why He had nothing to say to a girl who just wanted her mother.
I took off my shoes and my dress. I don’t know how I felt. Cold. Relieved, I suppose. It would be over soon.
I’d gone about it all wrong, of course. I realised, as I waded in, that a fully dressed person would sink faster. As well as that, I was a strong swimmer, and had trouble telling my limbs to be still when they twitched with desire to carry me through the water. I tried, anyway—kept ducking my foolish head under the green waves, the cold a shock on my scalp, my hair spreading like rays around my face… only to cling miserably to my cheeks when I surfaced again, gasping, spitting, furious. Alive. Each dunking a baptism, bringing me back to life. I screeched like a gull.
God was not through with me yet. I peeled off my shift and swam as fast as I could. Heat returned to my fingers and toes. I was half-mad, an animal, thrashing and kicking and rising and falling. I don’t know how to say what happened next. I felt a sort of joy; it came like a big sun, melting me. Suddenly I was thinking, MY body, MINE. And it was. It belonged to me again. Was it God that made that happen? Or was it Grace?
I swam and swam until my mind was quiet. I had not realised how much noise there was inside my head. I let the water hold me; my eyes were full of grey-white sky. I could feel my heart pounding, hear my own breath. I asked myself, why am I still here? Give me a reason, I begged of God. My lips fell open, my fingers too, my hands floated palms up waiting to receive the gift He would bestow. A purpose, a shining purpose. If He had continued silent, what pain! Without a plan, life is only suffering. I could not die, yet could not have lived. Hell is the in-between, the on and on no end in sight, no idea what it’s all for. I tell you, I could not bear it.
But just as I felt lost, God found His tongue. Or did I find my ears? Salvation came in a whisper, heard both outside and inside my head. Six words lifted me, brought me safely back to shore.
Go home. The children need you.
Need me! I tugged my dress on, scraped wet hair from my face, strode barefoot up the hill. How often I had taken this path at this hour, thinking to wake Annie, the baby, from her nap and start the evening meal. That routine, that person seemed far from me now. Under the heavy sky the grass and tangled shrubs were blue. The cottage waited beyond the bend. But it was different too. The fire was out; no wisps of smoke from the chimney. No children playing outside. Every stone, every pane of glass in the windows looked cold and secretive. This was no home. I could not make it one.
My thoughts, if you could call them thoughts, danced wild as naked flames. I hurried inside. And there was the most ordinary sight. Peter and John, playing with blocks on the floor, while under the window sat Lucy. She was mending our father’s breeches, a frown of concentration on her face. Lucy was fifteen then, and the image of our mother, for whom she was named; small and pale, with shining black hair. She’s handy with a needle, always was, not like me with my thick clumsy fingers.
She looked up at me. ‘Fire’s gone out.’
I nodded dumbly.
‘Why is your hair all wet?’
‘Gracie, I’m hungry,’ said Peter. ‘John too.’
‘Stop annoying her when she’s only in the door! Make yourself useful, can’t you?’
Lucy laid her mending down and got to her feet. ‘Find James. Get that coal bucket filled. Take Snivelly Drawers with you.’
Snivelly Drawers, Christian name John, let out a wail. Peter kicked him in the shin, and the howl got louder.
‘OUT!’ shouted Lucy. Peter obeyed, dragging John and bucket behind him. In the next room Annie woke with a cry.
‘See what they’ve done! I’ll get her.’ And Lucy rushed into the back room.
I stood there with my mouth open like a right silly cow. Couldn’t get my head around it—the way everything was the same. Me having thoughts of death and God and what-is-the-purpose, and here they were sewing and fetching coal and walloping each other like it was any other day. It just goes on, life, doesn’t it? Like a well wound clock. It ticks on, not caring what we think of it.
And I was standing there, thinking about life, and I heard Lucy clucking at Annie and Annie’s crying ceased. And then I heard another voice say, ‘You’re so like your mother.’
He said it softly, like he was musing on it, and she gave a nervous laugh. Then I heard the creak of his chair, and I knew he had stood. There was a long moment, during which I could not move, and then there was another sound. A sudden intake of breath. And I knew. I knew before I got to the doorway, my legs finding strength again. I knew before I saw them, I knew it as well as if it was my breast he was cupping, my breath trapped in my throat, my eyes big and staring into his and seeing… seeing.
And I understood then that life does tick on, that if I wasn’t there the same things would happen, but they would happen instead to Lucy. And after Lucy, May. And after May, Ruth. And after Ruth, Annie. It wouldn’t stop. My death wouldn’t stop it. Only one death could.
The children need you.
I took the sewing scissors off the bench where Lucy’d left them. He turned as I came up to them, turned his pathetic face to me with his hands still on my sister. ‘Grace?’ he said. And his eyes were full of me then. I remember it with a sort of pride. Because he did not say ‘Horse’, ‘Dog’, ‘Witch’. He called me by my name. It was the first time, I think, he really saw me.
‘Yes, Father,’ I said. And I stuck the scissors into his thick yellow neck.
I am looking for the sea.
I can just make it out, if I stand here by the easternmost window and crane my neck and squint. There it is. That low slice of sky that moves, flashes silver. Sometimes I just need to know it’s still there.
Mrs R in her chair gives a long sigh, and it’s like she is sighing for both of us. I turn quickly and put the scissors away. Then I untie her. She sits, her eyes down. ‘Go on,’ I tell her. ‘You’re free.’ But she stays sitting.
‘Go on, silly! I’ve untied you. See?’ I hold the rope out but she doesn’t look. She doesn’t move. Just sits there, all droopy. I perch on the end of the bed. The clock downstairs strikes eleven.
Annie will be wed next year. It doesn’t seem possible. He’s a ferrety little man, not much to say for himself, but she is soppy over him. He has prospects, so she will be provided for. Please God, she will be happy.
The dress I wore to Ruth’s should do for Annie’s as well. It’s not like anyone will be looking at me, anyway. Our brother James will give her away, May and Ruth will attend her, I will be—a shadow. The grey-faced old maid who keeps her own counsel, who stands at the back and watches to see how her money has been spent. The only one who knows the true cost of everything.
Once you have done murder, it is as if a pane of glass comes down between yourself and everyone else. You are different; somewhere between God and mortals, with a terrible power in your ordinary hands. I sometimes think that God Himself must feel terribly lonely. No one who understands Him, and all those prayers to answer. I think about that every time I go home. Watch all their eyes avoid the sad patch of earth under which James and I planted our father. Oh, they know— everyone knows. Even the Parish Constable knew, and all he said to me was, ‘Godspeed, Grace Poole.’
In other words, go. We won’t waste a tear on the old bastard, but we’d rather not look on you, either. I make good people uncomfortable. Not the coins I earn, they are comfortable enough with those. But me. Grace was always different, they say. And God bless us, perhaps it had to be done, but had she to do it like that? Yes, surely she is not the same as us.
Grace is ferocious.
Forgot my own haircut! Got caught up, didn’t I. Those scissors. The sight of them always sends me off. They’re the only thing of Mother’s I brought with me. And maybe I should be sorry, the way that memories of her always get tangled with memories of that other thing. But I don’t think I am sorry. I don’t think I mind a bit. Because I think Mother understands, and I think she might even be proud of me. I am proud of me. I have to feel some way, so I have decided on proud.
We sit here, Mrs R and me, and on the other side of the glass the world goes on. Seasons change, men build walls and tend fields, women marry and have babies, and all of it, time, it’s moving through my open hands like water.
She will kill me. I see it sometimes, just before I fall asleep. See her finally free, and knowing she is free, and coming for me. A vision of Hell, some would say, but to me it is no more than natural, the way things go. Nothing can stay chained forever. Hurt always floats back up to the surface. When it does, it makes monsters of us all.