The Life and Death of a Righteous Woman.
The wicked worketh a deceitful work: but to him that soweth righteousness shall be a sure reward.
May 4th, 2014
Thank you for getting in touch. It’s wonderful to have contact with our roots in the old country. I am so pleased you managed to track me down.
My grandmother was indeed Mary Ann Mackenzie, née Owen, so yes we are related. I am afraid I can’t tell you much about Gran’s life in Wales. She was a nanny here in America before she became a teacher and I think she may have been in service over there too. It may interest you to learn that my uncle Jonathan has the old Welsh family bible that was forwarded to Gran after the war. I am afraid I don’t understand the language but there are names and dates although they are not particularly legible because some entries have been blacked out. It seems there was a sizable family living in Cwmderwen, which, you tell me, is only a small cottage, though I never heard Gran speak of any of her relatives who remained in Wales except your grandfather and an aunt called Leah, who died in the First World War…
April 1st 1919
‘Here!’ The shout from John Jenkins is closer to a shriek, breaking in its intensity of excitement and alarm. The other men look up from the bloated remains of a cow, draped in seaweed from the night’s high tide and, seeing Jenkins waving his arms wildly, they race across the dark wet sands to the tufted banks and muddy creeks of the estuary’s salt marshes. Gulls and other water birds cackle alarm and rise in panicking battalions from the still swollen waters as the men spring into action.
A tree has come down on the flood. No telling how many miles the furious waters have carried it. Crashing against boulders on its journey, it has been stripped of lesser branches and roots, the larger boughs splintered and shattered. It has come to rest at last, as the flood subsided, wedged between two banks of flattened grass, its mauled stumps biting into the black mud, a dam holding back an arc of bushes and branches and other flotsam.
Entwined and impaled in its embrace is a woman.
At least it seems to be a woman, though battered beyond recognition. The eyeless face is one mangled bruise. One arm has been torn off, along with the sleeve that encased it, but the other arm still trails shreds of dark wool. Mud-soiled linen hangs about the torso. One laced boot miraculously remains in place. The other has gone, along with much of the foot that had worn it. Long strands of black hair wind themselves around the raw wounds of the tree and float on the salt water.
The men stare down at the sight, solemnly removing their caps.
‘What to do?’ asks John Jenkins, wiping his mouth. ‘Do we send for Constable Thomas?’
The others nod and mumble agreement, but no one makes a move until Dai Edwards coughs, braces himself and steps down into the squelching creak, steadying himself to ensure he doesn’t sink too deep. One hand for support on the skeletal tree, he untangles some of the black hair and eases the mutilated head away from the wood. The body is still caught fast. He eases the linen collar back from the swollen neck, sees something and leans forward to peer closer. Initials, embroidered in black. L O.
‘Yes, send for Constable Thomas,’ he says, straightening. ‘And best send word to Llanolwen too. L.O. Seems like we’ve found the woman they were looking for. An accident it must have been. Not something worse, not here, not amongst us. An accident, but no doubt, it’s Leah Owen.’
‘There’s a storm coming.’ Leah stood on the lowest bar of the gate, hanging over to gaze across the valley, while her sister Sarah fussed with a stone in her boot.
‘I wish it would.’ Sarah, squatting on the verge, was battling, red-faced, with the laces. ‘It’s hot enough. I can scarcely breathe.’ She looked plaintively at the untied boot. ‘Help me with this.’
Leah jumped down, kneeling on the grass to retie the lace. ‘Why don’t you loosen a button or two? Your frock’s too tight.’
Sarah pouted. ‘I can’t go around unbuttoned.’
‘Why not? No one will know.’ Leah, at nine, was pragmatic. Sarah, three years older, was filling out in all directions, where she should and where she shouldn’t, and seams were beginning to stain. Buttons would have to give or she’d faint. All fastenings were safely concealed beneath Sarah’s shapeless pinafore. Besides, they were past the last cottage in Llanolwen, and their brother Frank had stayed behind at school, so there was no one around to see and snigger.
Sarah pouted again and took Leah’s hand to struggle to her feet. ‘All right. Just two.’ Pinafore hoisted high, she unfastened two buttons and drew a deep breath of relief. Then she glanced over the gate into the adjoining field and saw what Leah had seen.
Above the heathery crags on the far side of the broad vale, clouds were piling up, ash and charcoal, heaving themselves into volcanic plumes, turning the late June sky to November gloom. Beneath them, distant veils of rain scythed down in biblical fury, dissolving rocks, forests, fields. Somewhere in the depths of the boiling clouds, lightning flashed. Thunder rolled, still so distant it was felt rather than heard.
Another of the sudden storms that came out of nowhere to hurtle round the countryside and it was coming their way. Their side of the valley was still in afternoon sunshine, but it was an eerie light, too vivid, trying too hard to defy the advancing onslaught. Trying in vain. Along their deserted lane, the wind was beginning to whip up. The overhanging ash trees started to shiver and shake.
‘I knew I shouldn’t have waited for you to come out of school,’ wailed Sarah. ‘I’d be home by now.’
‘We’d be home if we’d taken the chapel path.’
‘I don’t like that way. You know I don’t.’ Sarah had avoided the shortcut down through the woods ever since she had found herself stuck on one of the stiles, mocked and hooted at by passing boys. Another rumble of thunder and she shrieked. ‘I’ll be drenched!’
‘Then run and beat it,’ said Leah, setting the pace, her thin legs carrying her lightly along the rutted road, her bonnet flying in her wake. But she paused to look back, knowing that Sarah was sure to be far behind. Sarah, twice as heavy, was puffing and panting as she floundered, whining in distress.
‘You run like Fegi Fawr,’ said Leah.
Sarah was in no mood to be compared to their lopsided cow. As she caught up with her younger sister, her face began to crease again into a howl. At any moment, she was going to sit down and cry. It was Sarah’s invariable response to most difficulties.
‘Come on,’ said Leah, tugging her.
And then the outriders of the storm rolled over them, gloom engulfing them like a candle guttering, and a moment later the rain came down, not a haze or a pitter-patter but a torrent, ice-cold and stinging, its hissing so loud that Leah could only see Sarah’s wail, not hear it.
Sarah lunged for the shelter of an oak, solitary among the ash trees bordering the lane, but it offered little protection. The rain slanted like arrows through the leaves, determined to seek its prey. It pounded on the hard dry dust of the road, turning it to slurry and splashing up to soak them from beneath.
Leah saw no point in trying to hide. She was wet through, but she didn’t care. The storm was glorious, thrilling, full of energy throbbing around her. Lightning flashed and Sarah screamed, but Leah just stood, open-mouthed, counting her heartbeats, one two three, till the great crack of thunder echoed up and down the valley. The voice of God, her father said, and so it was, surely.
‘Deep calls on deep in the roar of Thy cataracts!’ She raised her arms into the rain, wanting to fly like a hawk on the wings of the storm.
‘Oh stop it,’ cried Sarah. ‘You’ll be struck by lightning!’
‘You, more likely.’ Leah shouted to make herself heard. ‘Under that tree.’
With a squeal, Sarah slithered away from the oak and stood like a shivering lamb in the full force of the rain. Only for a moment. As suddenly as it had begun, the rain began to ease. It eased as if an invisible hand were releasing the pump handle, reducing the flow to a dribble. The storm heaved itself impatiently northwards, and the sun was already creeping back in its wake, breaking through the haze of lingering drizzle to glint on the puddles engulfing the lane and the raindrops hanging like diamonds from every leaf and blade of grass.
‘Oh look at it, it’s mud everywhere!’ howled Sarah.
‘Keep to the grass then.’
‘Easy for you.’ When Sarah attempted to follow Leah onto the narrow weedy verge above the sunken ruts of the lane, she overbalanced and nearly fell flat into the mud. Her face had twisted into a whine even before she had moved, yet she never learned that her whining got her nowhere. Sarah, thought Leah with a sudden flash of understanding, was like the little fledgling in the nest who squawked loudest and most persistently for food, only to see mother bird give it to another chick. Squashed in the middle, a second daughter of three, a third child of five. One day, if she only squawked loud enough, maybe someone would notice her.
‘Here, take my hand.’ Leah led Sarah as she tottered along, whimpering at every bramble that snatched at her.
A roar of laughter nearly had Sarah unbalancing again. Behind them, striding through the mud without a care, brushing the rain from his bright red waistcoat, came Eli John, son of the quarry manager, a big, brawny lad, leering at the sight of them.
‘Fine little pigs! Can’t manage a bit of mud? You want me to carry you?’
‘Yes. No. Yes.’ said Sarah.
‘No!’ said Leah.
‘Just one of you then.’ Before Sarah could think better of it, Eli had scooped her off her grassy perch and clasped her to him, striding on and laughing still. ‘You’re a big lass. Too big for your buttons it seems.’ The saturated cotton of Sarah’s pinafore was concealing nothing now. ‘You want me to undo the rest?’
‘No! Let go. Put me down.’
‘Just one then.’ Eli was pulling the pinafore up. Sarah tried, ineffectually to slap him, but he caught her hand and wrenched it back. She may have always longed for attention, but surely not in this manner.
‘Now now, don’t play cat with me. That’s no way for a lady to repay a gentleman who’s doing her a favour.’
‘Put her down,’ said Leah. She had leaped down into the lane, armed with a loose branch that she was wielding like a spear, ready to jab in Eli’s face.
‘Ach, to hell with you, damned parish beggars.’ He sneered as he dropped Sarah into the mud. ‘Snuffle your way back to your sty on your own.’
‘We are not beggars!’ snapped back Leah. ‘Our father has land!’
‘Ha! Because you’ve been permitted to scratch around like pigs on an acre or two, you think you’re gentry?’ Making a gesture that Leah supposed to be rude, Eli turned his back and strode on, spluttering invectives.
‘Twenty-four acres, one rood and eight perches!’ Leah shouted after him, as she helped Sarah to her feet.
Sarah was bawling fit for Armageddon, as much distressed by the mud that splattered her from head to toe as by Eli John’s assault. ‘Beast! He’s a beast! Oh look at me? Oh I am covered.’
‘Never mind, we are nearly home.’ Leah relinquished her spear and encouraged her sister on. ‘Look, there’s the bend.’
Around the corner, the lane widened and in the bay between two gates lay a stone stand for milk churns. Leah sat Sarah down on it and began to mop her clean with handfuls of wet grass. ‘That’s the worst off.’
But Sarah only whimpered, ready to break into full-blown tears.
‘Stop it!’ Leah’s patience had run out. ‘You’ll not get clean and dry with tears. Come on!’
Sarah stood up, sniffing, then her face crinkled again as she looked around. The gate on the right led onto broad open Castell Mawr pasture, but their way led through the left-hand gate, onto a track overhung with trees and running with liquid mud as it spilled down into the hollow harbouring their home. Cwmderwen.
Dragging Sarah, too impatient to waste more words, Leah guided her sister from tussock to rock to tussock, till they reached the bend where the track doubled back towards their cottage and they both stopped short.
Their father was standing at a gate, his hand on their brother Tom’s shoulder, gazing out over their top field. Doubtless he had come to see what damage the brief storm had done to the two and a half acres of oats that stood green-gold, rattling themselves free of the rain. The field was sheltered and there had been little flattening. That would be a relief to him, but it wasn’t the oats that held him transfixed now. Their modest acres, spilling down a narrow cwm to the winding river on the valley’s broad floor, were framed by dark woods on either side, with a hazy backdrop of misted hills where the rain still fell. But over it all arched a vast rainbow.
It caught Leah’s breath, just as it held her father and brother mesmerised.
Sarah squirmed in her wet clothes, her boots squelching. ‘Don’t tell him about the buttons,’ she whispered. Then her voice rose as if she couldn’t resist calling attention to her state. ‘I’m wet through!’
Her words brought Tada round. Thomas Owen was a tall man, seemingly rendered more so by his lank form and upright bearing. He was incapable of bending, as if he had made a vow, in a darker past, never to bend again – or so it seemed to Leah’s fancy. His beard bristled as if he intended to brush the sky with it.
His dark eyes crinkled at sight of them. ‘You are indeed, daughter. You too, Leah. Soaked to the skin. Get yourselves home before you catch chill. Your mother will be fretting for you.’
Sarah was only too happy to be released, stumbling on down the track to the house, wringing her pinafore as she went.
Leah, knowing she would be indulged, ignored the invitation, squeezing between brother Tom and Tada to peer between bars of the gate, her eyes fixed on the translucent arc of glory as it slowly faded with the brightening sun and the receding rain.
Her father drew a great heaving breath. ‘I will remember my covenant which is between me and you.’ His voice was deep and triumphant. Like God. Sometimes Leah suspected he was God. God the Father. Or at least, God would be very like him. Stern but loving, caring, a safe refuge. Everything the Bible said.
Sixteen-year-old Tom took Leah’s hand and squeezed it, so they were all linked, her father’s hand on his shoulder, his hand around hers. This was the way it should be. And God set his rainbow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant between Himself and the earth. Their earth.
‘Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries,’ said her father, with the roll of thunder in the words. How many times had she heard him say them, gazing out across his fields, clinging to the Biblical promise like a warrior to his sword? ‘Twenty-four acres, one rood, eight perches. Generation upon generation my forefathers held acres in Whitechurch, but they were snatched away so that my father received nothing, reduced to unjust penury. The sweat of his brow earned only profit for others. Such was my lot from the moment I could earn a crust, but God’s hand is upon the righteous, and he brought me here, to hold this land, and to pass it, when my days are numbered, to you, my son. Owen land. Remember that. Owen land. We shall never again let it slip from our grasp.’
‘No, Tada,’ said Tom reverently.