by Sandra Arnold 

Some people say there is no such thing as coincidence. Until my encounter with Mary Splayfoot, I hadn’t given the matter much thought. When I phoned the owner of the cottage he said none of his other tenants had ever mentioned anything similar to what I described and no there was no story of that kind in the area and yes there was a caretaker, but her name was Florence Fickett and she was in Ireland visiting her son.

Of course, everyone has a theory about what happened. However, when one of the nurses pressed a lump of amethyst into my hand today and told me to sleep with it taped to my crown chakra to transmute negative energies, I had to wonder which one of us needed to be in here.

Not that I have the answer either, but I do know that it was nothing to do with post-natal depression, because even though I chuck the pills down the loo every day, everyone keeps telling me it’s obvious they are doing me good. What is doing me good is that gradually I’m remembering Mary’s face. I’ve drawn about fifty sketches of her so far, but her complete face still eludes me. Or rather, it keeps changing, as if she has an endless number of faces she can put on when it suits her. Like masks, Gwen? Dr Pirtle (call me Claude) asked. While I tried to explain that no, not like masks, he started going on about fragments of the self. At which point I stopped listening. What I know is that when I can draw Mary’s face I’ll know who she is and why she came after me.

So, back to coincidences. Was it coincidence that Holiday Houses and Beaches in the South Island fell open at the West Coast section? Or was that because Peter had been thumbing through the book before I got to it? Was it coincidence that six months after Aurora’s birth I discovered I wasn’t superwoman and told my boss I would quit if he wouldn’t give me a few weeks leave? How coincidental was it that the blue skies, green bush, translucent waterfalls and deserted beach that I had in mind for my retreat were staring at me from the open pages?

It took a while to convince Peter and my GP that it was not post-natal depression that was causing my difficulties in bonding with Aurora. The only person who believed I had died while she was being born was the young registrar and that was after I told him I’d heard him say, “Shit, we’re losing her.” He replied yes he did remember something of the sort, but I couldn’t possibly have heard. I told him I’d been hovering over him near the ceiling at the time and his words had given me such a fright I’d dived straight back into my body. He went pale and said yes well strange things did happen sometimes, but it was best not to make an issue of it and just concentrate on getting well so I could go home with my beautiful little daughter. Only my beautiful little daughter wouldn’t breastfeed so I had to put her on the bottle. When I asked my GP if it was normal for women to feel the wrong babies had been born to them he sat back in his chair and asked me in a gentle tone if I had ever felt like hitting her. I said no but that I felt like hitting him for asking such a question.

It was after his lengthy phone call to Peter that Peter changed his tune about my going straight back to work and agreed to hire a nanny. Naturally his whole family felt free to stick their oar in about that. I tried to explain to his mother that at least at work I did not feel like a complete failure, only it came out all wrong and I said the only thing that truly terrified me was being stuck at home all day on my own with a baby. This did nothing to endear me to my mother-in-law and she took to dropping in every day to check on the nanny I’d chosen.

It was her remark about the nanny’s competence and Aurora’s attachment to her that was the catalyst for my decision to take a delayed maternity leave and spend a few weeks on the West Coast on my own with Aurora. I tried to make Peter understand, but he plucked his ear unhappily as I packed Aurora into the car and he repeated more times than was necessary that he would join us as soon as he could get away.

Aurora slept soundly during the three-hour drive to the little West Coast township and stayed asleep when I stopped at a dairy to ask directions to the cottage. While the shop assistant gave them to me the other three customers stood back and scrutinised me with expressions that would frizzle a fly at ten paces.

The directions were clear and I followed a dirt track up the hill, on top of which squatted the little wooden cottage. I got out of the car into the cool clean wind. The beach curved into the distance, apparently without an end. Unlike the blue silky ribbons of sea in the brochure, however, this one was uncompromising steel. Predatory waves grabbed at the rocks, and finding them stolid and indifferent, retreated, spitting and hissing with disappointment. I was a strong swimmer, but I’d think twice before venturing into that surf. I turned away and saw a seagull sitting on the roof of the cottage, looking out to sea. As the last rays of the sun struck its white feathers the bird soared into the air like a streak of liquid light.

The cottage was clean and comfortable and I fed Aurora and put her to bed. After unpacking our things I picked up my sketchbook and went outside. I walked around the cottage, drawing it from different angles. Aurora began wailing. I hurried inside and picked her up. By the time she fell asleep I was too tired to do any more drawing so I went to bed myself.

Aurora grizzled throughout the night. I brought her into bed with me, but that seemed to make her worse. I tried singing to her, walking around the room, dancing with her in my arms, but nothing worked. I couldn’t feel any signs of a tooth coming through, nor did she have a fever. I changed her nappy and heated up some milk, which she refused. Finally I put her back in her portacot, tucked her blankets firmly around her to keep her warm, shut her door and went back to bed and stuffed my fingers in my ears. I woke up next morning feeling worse than when I’d gone to bed and wondered what on earth I was doing here.

As I was giving Aurora her breakfast a soft knock at the door made me jump and I stared at it in surprise before opening it. A tall slim girl stood there. She had long mousy hair and wide hazel eyes in a pale face. She introduced herself as Mary Splayfoot and said she was the caretaker.

I reached out my hand and took hers, thinking that if I’d been landed with such a name I’d’ve changed it by deed poll. “Hi, I’m Gwen. Come on in.”

She stood in the doorway, looking down at Aurora. “I just came to check that everything was all right,” she said. “I cleaned the cottage before you arrived and left you some firewood. It sometimes gets cold here in the evenings. And if you need anything brought from the village, or want a babysitter, I’ll be glad to help.”

I glanced at my sketchbooks lying on the table. “Well…”

Mary arrived promptly at 9.00 o’clock every morning. I walked for miles on the beach, collecting shells and pieces of driftwood. I filled page after page of my sketchbooks with them, and with seabirds and rocks and clouds. My guilt at leaving Aurora every day with a complete stranger was alleviated by the fact that Mary obviously enjoyed looking after her and judging by Aurora’s smiles, the feeling was mutual. I told myself that a relaxed mother was better for her in any case and when I was completely rested I would take over her care. By the time Peter joined us he would be pleasantly surprised by my ability to cope.

Over the following weeks I tried to draw Mary out by asking questions about where she was from, where her family lived, how long she had been caretaker here, and whether she ever got lonely in such an isolated spot. She answered politely, but gave no more information than she had to.

One evening she stayed behind to bathe Aurora and I wanted to catch her expression as she watched Aurora giggling and splashing. I picked up a sketchpad and pencil and asked Mary how she had got to be such an expert in handling babies. She started telling me that she had taken care of her six young brothers and sisters after her mother had died. When she saw I was drawing her she quickly turned her face away. Surprised, I asked her why she had done that. Without answering she plucked Aurora out of her bath and carried her over to the table to dry her. The desolate look on her face warned me not to ask the question again.

The next day I took my usual stroll along the beach, but I couldn’t settle to draw anything. I kept turning the pages to look at the sketch I’d begun of Mary. I tried to fill in the details from memory, but ended up with a face that didn’t look anything like hers. Frustrated, I gave up and decided to head back to the cottage.

Mary was sitting under a tree with Aurora on her knee, singing. Her voice was sweet and soft. I felt a pang of envy. I’d often wished I could sing. As I stood listening Mary looked up. I saw, in the split second before she rearranged her features into their usual bland expression, unmistakable resentment in her eyes. It was gone just as swiftly and I told myself she’d just been startled by my sudden appearance.

In the days that followed, whenever I picked Aurora up she would squirm and whimper then Mary would take her from me and she would immediately settle. My anxiety increased as I realised I had set up exactly the same pattern that had made me run away in the first place. I don’t deserve a child, I thought, each time I handed her over to Mary; I have no right to be a mother.

The following week Peter was due to arrive. So much for assuring him of my maternal competence, I thought miserably. The thing to do was simply tell Mary I no longer needed her, but the words just tied themselves up in knots.

The day Peter was due I went into the village for some groceries. On my return I was lifting boxes out of the car when I saw Mary walking towards me with Aurora in her arms. I smiled and reached out to take Aurora. Mary ignored my outstretched arms and this annoyed me so much I blurted, “Peter’s arriving later today, so I won’t be needing you anymore.”

She stared at me like a little lost girl and said, “Are you going to have more children?”

I was so taken aback I replied, “No. I almost died when Aurora was born.”

“Well, it’s better for the mother to die than the baby,” she murmured.

“What on earth do you mean?” I asked.

She kissed Aurora on the nose. “There’s a story in the village about a girl who gave birth to a healthy daughter. At the same time, her neighbour had a stillborn son. This neighbour got it into her head that her husband had fathered the girl’s child and that the girl had stolen her baby’s breath to make sure her own wee one would live.”

“Well, grief can do strange things to people,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

She went on as if I hadn’t spoken: “Early one morning, while it was still dark, the girl and her infant were taken from their bed and tied down over there on the rocks. Those who did it watched while the tide came in.”

Her words clung to my skin like the smell of old empty rooms. Like the smell of mice and damp earth. But now she was standing on the edge of the hill and looking down at the sea. And then I was beside her, trying to prise Aurora from her arms.

Above the wind I heard someone calling my name. Mary heard it too and looked over her shoulder. In that split second I seized Aurora. Then Peter was beside us, his face white, his eyes wide with disbelief. I thrust Aurora into his arms and collapsed on the ground, barely able to breathe. I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

When I lifted my head Mary was gone. There was nowhere she could have gone except over the edge and onto the rocks. But there was only a seagull circling the shush-shushing sea. As Peter helped me to my feet it rose into the air, crying its long, lonely cry. Then without warning it dropped again, and vanished in the spume of a wave.                    

Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her flash fiction and short stories appear in numerous journals including the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour. Her work is forthcoming in Flash: The International Short-Short Story MagazineNew Flash Fiction ReviewConnotation Press and The Airgonaut.  Four of her previously published stories have been selected for display at the Creative Process.

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