This story originally appeared on January 23rd in the Piltdown Review.
Across the valley sat a small house made of earth. From my front door I could see the thick, shallowly sloped, sunbaked roof and squat chimney, pale between the pines. No smoke ever rose—the house had been abandoned for twenty years. When I was younger, a woman had lived there alone. Smoke rose then, and sounds of chopping wood if the wind and weather were right.
The woman had disappeared the day my mother died. Two old women, unalike. My mother soft and thin, muscle wasted away to leave old skin behind. The other woman tall and hard and thick from what I could tell, impressions gathered from glimpses across the stream that divided our little valley. By the time I was old enough to wonder why we didn’t visit her or know her, I had forgotten why I wasn’t allowed to ask.
My mother had died slowly but not painfully, vanishing bit by bit from our shared life until one day all she had left me was her slight body, barely indenting the bed in the corner of the great room. She spoke to me the day before she died. Spoke to me about the woman across the valley.
“Tenner,” she said, for that was my name. “Tenner,” she whispered.
“Mama. I’m here.”
“Tenner, the woman.”
I was confused. “The woman?”
“Yes, the woman in the earth house.”
“Watch out.” My mother paused and took a breath. A simple breath. “Look out for her.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed, felt the fresh straw poking through the thick cover. My mother’s mind was weak but she had not made up any stories or mistaken me for anyone else, as she had told me might happen. “It’s all right, Mama, I’m here.”
“I know, Ten. I know.” My mother took another simple breath. “I know.”
She died that night without fuss or noise. I woke in the morning to find her body cooling under the linen sheet I had pulled over her thin shoulders hours earlier. I washed her body, feeling bones and tendons through dough-soft skin. The ligature on which she had been molded. I washed her hair and wrapped her naked in her bedsheets, knowing I’d not be able to sleep in them again.
It took me a full day to pull her on our winter sled over snowless ground to the cave she had chosen for this purpose. Around our little valley stood the bare rock faces of our mountains. We both loved the valley and our guardians, as we’d called them. We had hiked frequently before my mother started to wither, and she had told me where she wanted her body to be placed. It was not our favorite cave. She knew that would have been painful for me. It was a deep little nook we had found when I was quite small, one we had jokingly called “the coffin.”
I pulled her up the gentle valley into the steeper scree below the cliff faces and then lifted my mother’s body onto my shoulders for the remainder of the hike to the cave. I could not decide whether to place her head in first or her feet, so I finally sat her body upright in the opening of the coffin, propped with some rocks. Her body would rot and be eaten by animals and all the while she would have the most magnificent view.
The sun set behind the western wall of the valley. I sat with my mother until the sky purpled, then became blue. I watched the Milky Way appear, sitting next to my dead mother, her body cold as air next to mine.
That was twenty years ago.
I visited the coffin often. Some bones remained, those that hadn’t been carried away, now marrowless and quite hard. I still sat in the entrance of the cave where her body had sat and I looked at the valley below and talked to her.
Several times over the next twenty years I visited the other woman’s low earthen house, always remembering my mother’s words. The woman had disappeared the night my mother died. I never saw her or her smoke or heard her axe.
The low house was dark and warm, the walls as thick as the roof, all made from earth cut from the valley floor. The window sills were deep and the windows small, letting in little light. The steep mountain walls made for short days in our valley—my mother and I had taken the roof from our porch to let more sunlight into the great room, especially in the winter, and we had a wooden house with much thinner walls. This thickset earthen house would have needed a candle on every surface.
Over time, animals made the house their home. I once disturbed a mother bear and her cubs sleeping in the front room. Our mutual terror kept me safe, but for one moment I thought the largest shape was the woman, back from wherever she had gone.
Our valley ran south-north. A small stream trotted down from the high peaks at the southern end to the mouth of the valley in the north. Our house—my house—sat on the eastern slope of the valley, facing west, and the woman’s house on the western slope, facing east. The stream between was fresh and cold, flowing from higher and more jagged mountains than ours, and it flooded in the spring, making the valley floor rich and loamy. I gathered my food and hunted for game, keeping no animals and only the poorest excuse for a garden. Potatoes and tomatoes and onions and greens. Wild apples and plums grew along the edge of the small, grassy floodplain.
Once each year I took the long hike north to the small village several days along the stream, past where it turned into a river. At the village, I traded fur and tanned leather for salt and alum and perhaps for cheese or cloth or a new axe-head and some nails or a bit of glass for a window.
Conversation in the town was brief and painful, even still. My mother had left the town fifty years before, pregnant with me and driving a stolen cart full of stolen goods that had previously belonged to the man who had been my father.
He also was gone. No memories remained, but sentiment, ill or no, lingers.
Now, I saw smoke rising across the valley. Smoke from the fat old chimney. Pale grey wood smoke from a hearth fire. A thin thread of smoke that spoke of someone controlling its source.
I had been in the woods deep behind our house, walking our trap line for most of the morning. It was late summer—animals were fat and lazy and sleepy. The traps were nearly full, as were my arms and my pack when I returned to the house for lunch. And saw the smoke.
It wasn’t fear I felt. No, it had been too long for fear, but my mother’s words bobbed to the surface of my thoughts, pulling with them a line of loss and grief.
Not fear, but something in my stomach, where fear lives. Something near fear.
Sometimes I spoke to my mother, usually when doing chores or sitting in the coffin, just idle narration that would have been to myself if I hadn’t spent the first thirty years in endless dialog with her. I had spoken to her yesterday.
“Mama, I think the woman is back. The woman in the earth house. I think she’s back and I don’t know why and I guess that’s fine but I wish I knew.” I tossed the rabbit skins and pheasants on the porch. “She’s here and if she’s here that means she knows I’m here.” I put three dressed rabbits right on the big kitchen table. My mother would have snapped at me for that. “Well, if the smoke’s not her, which it might not be, that means it’s someone else and I gotta go meet them.”
I took a piece of dried meat, two boiled eggs from the doves in the cliffs, a huge tomato so ripe it was bursting from its skin, and a threadbare towel and went back to the porch to sit on the step. My hands were bloody from dressing the rabbits. “If it’s not her but somebody else, I gotta meet them and meet them soon ’cause if they don’t know I’m here now they’ll find out soon enough and better it be on my terms, right, Mama?” I sat on the step, watching the smoke, eating my lunch.
That afternoon I dressed the two pheasants and hung them in the fireplace for the night, along with two of the rabbits. The third I chopped for stew. I needed to wash the rabbit hides. Washing hides meant going to the stream; I saved the water from our little well for drinking and cooking. I hadn’t spent a whole summer fifteen years ago redigging it to use its meager flow on hides. “Mama, I’ll be honest with myself, I don’t want to go to the stream.” That not-fear sat in my belly, right next to the little boiled dove’s eggs. The not-fear was hard as a rock, slippery as a skinned rabbit.
I was not a young woman. I was grown. Grown enough to sleep well at night. Grown enough to do my work.
I needed that water. I needed to wash those skins. Then I needed to soak them, which meant more water. Soak them several times.
A hawk floated above the valley. The sky was dark blue and cloudless. Cicada drone thickened the air. It was hot.
When I was ten, my mother told me my father had raped her. Told me that they were betrothed and she had loved him. He was handsome, she said, tall as me and broad. You look like him, she said without weight. Some months before the wedding, she told me, he decided he didn’t want to wait any longer and he took her down to one of the wheat fields. She got pregnant with me and, instead of marrying my father and making the best of it as she saw so many women in the village do, she went to his family’s house, took one of his horses, hitched it to one of his wagons, walked inside the house, gathered up as much as she could in her arms with his mother and father screaming in her face, loaded it in the wagon, and did that again and again until she had enough food, she figured, to last at least one winter without either of us starving. And enough seed to maybe grow food for the year after.
My mother drove through town with her head held high while my father and his family chased after her, screaming and threatening to kill her and me. But they hadn’t dared. I was their kin, too, Mama said. They let us go, me tucked up safe inside her. She rode for some days up river, then upstream, and found our valley.
I hated my mother in that moment, when I was ten. I hated our valley, its silence, its darkness. I hated the selfish choice my mother had made. Choosing her own happiness over mine. Forcing me into hardship over ease. I lay awake that night in the loft, and many nights after that, dreaming of running away. Running back to the town. Seeing my father and flying into his arms and hearing him whisper “Tenner, I’ve missed you. I’ve been waiting.”
We went to town that year, like every year. And for the first time I understood the stares and the whispers, and they stung like wasps. My body prickled all over and blood rushed to the surface of my skin. I dared not ask my mother who my father was. Each man her age I looked boldly in the face and I could tell they knew I’d been told. Each man turned away from my gaze. And turned back to watch us walk by.
The woman still lived in the earthen house in the valley, back then. Had lived there since my earliest memories. There is no memory of the valley without her until my mother died.
That year, when I was ten, I became very aware of the woman. I dreamed about her, too. Dreamed about her life. Had she run away, like my mother had? Was she very old? Was she very young? My mother had no answers to give. I stopped asking. And as the years went by, I stopped dreaming.
After my mother’s death, I thought often about that year. That awful year. I never forgave my mother for her choice. I had been a selfish child and became a selfish woman. It’s easy to be selfish when you’re alone.
I understood her better over time. When she died, I was already older than she had been when she left the town.
As I brought her body to the caves, I tried to imagine who I was. Who I was now that she had died. Was I a woman, myself? I struggled to place myself among the women I knew. My mother, light across my shoulders. The women in town, faceless, frowning, dusty-dressed things. The woman across the valley, formless. Those women weren’t me.
Was I a daughter, then, with no mother? With no father? No one had answered my questions.
For some months after my mother’s death, I lived dangerously. Without the endless routine of our shared life, I reveled in disobedience. And I sank into disastrous loneliness. I lost our small corn plot to the birds before I could harvest it. One late fall evening I fell asleep in front of the fireplace and woke hours later choking on smoke and fumes. I hadn’t cleared the chimney in months.
That winter was sickeningly awful. I didn’t care to eat and didn’t have much anyway. By March my shirts hung so loose that I could easily wear the three or four I needed to stay warm in the house after I burned all the firewood.
It took me many years to create my own routines. I couldn’t pickle or preserve like my mother, and I had broken so many jars that I stopped trying. I dried almost all my fruits and vegetables, living on stew all winter. In early spring, I starved, even twenty years later. I never put away enough. I couldn’t put away enough.
According to the notches cut into the mantle over the fireplace, I was now as old as my mother when she died: fifty years old. I was not soft like she had been. I was hard and thickened, skin and hair brown going grey. I was concentrated, sucked dry every winter, worked hard every summer. I was essence. I was not sharp, like an old stick. No, I was pliable and tough, like dried meat. Bendy and strong.
My mother had caught a sickness and wasted away. I hadn’t been sick in years and did not think that would be my fate. But age was catching up. Two summers earlier I had twisted my ankle very badly in a rabbit burrow and had fallen heavily on my right side. My right hip ached when it was cold or wet. I had a new headache, right behind my ear, when I was overtired. A sharp headache that pushed its way into my skull, insistent. My eyes were good outside, but it was becoming difficult to see in firelight to darn socks or mend shirts. I did not know how to read—my mother had grabbed no books in her exodus—and for that I was grateful. My fading eyesight meant the marks on the receipts given to me by shopkeepers in town no longer taunted me with their sharp signals.
The day after I saw smoke rising across the valley, I needed to go to the river to wash the rabbit hides.
It took me several hours to convince myself. Finally, the sun tipped over the meridian and the shadow of the western mountains crept towards the woman’s house, then towards the stream. I had waited too long. I grabbed the hides and stalked through the pines and across small valley to the water. The hides were stiff with blood and uncomfortable to hold. I hated them. I hated my mother. Heat rose in my cheeks and under my hair and I turned back twice only to turn around again. My ankle throbbed. My shirt chafed. The not-fear turned to fear and I had to stand still for a moment to let my stomach settle.
I reached the stream a half hour before the shadow of the mountain and threw the first hide in. I knelt on the hot sharp grass of the streambank.
Then, across the water, through the high reeds, beyond the bright grassy valley, walking just along the edge of the trees where the shadow of the mountains crept closer still, came a tall figure. Its image wavered like the air above a fire, like the mirages that shimmered on the rock scree below the mountain caves.
The image wavered and I felt the familiar tightness behind my right ear. The tightness sharpened into a pinch, a gentle slice. I closed my eyes and put my hands into the stream, put my palms all the way on to the smooth stones that lined the bank on my side. The water pushed against my forearms, lapped at my elbows. Between the stones, little water plants with long flat leaves touched my fingers and the backs of my hands. Touch touch touch touch all over, like soft grass in a breeze.
I opened my eyes. The water was opaque and bright. I couldn’t see my hands, just my arms, cut off tenderly at the elbow, living but not living in the stream below. Whose hands were those being touched so lightly by little water weeds? Whose palms against the smooth cool stones?
The pinch behind my ear came back, sharper and pointier, insistent. Not thinking, I touched the back of my right ear with my right hand. I was still bent over, kneeling on the grassy bank. Droplets from my hand fell into the stream but made no impression on the running water. No ripples.
I knelt with one arm in the water, one dripping hand against my head. I looked up, squinting against the sun’s reflection in the water. Too blurry, too vague. I couldn’t see if she was there, if anyone was there.
Why didn’t I stand? The pain behind my ear grew and grew until I was blind. Blind and deaf and I could only feel myself tilt forward, slowly, and then the cold rush of the water on my face, then dull pain in my nose and forehead, then nothing.
I woke to the chill of the mountains’ shadow. My body was wet; I felt my shirt sticking to the skin on my shoulders, my chest. I lifted my arms and they moved as if by themselves, hands floating towards the still blue sky. A head moved between me and the blue. A thick body. A face.
She didn’t speak, only looked at me carefully, checking my eyes for something. A bad fall. A memory.
I let my arms drift down, felt grass under my bare wrists and the edge of a rabbit skin, wet and slippery.
She let me lie there for some time, checking on me every few minutes, her head moving like the moon across the sky. My eyes closed and I felt ready to sleep when she shook me roughly and spoke for the first time.
“No sleep, please. It’s not good to sleep after a head bump.”
Her voice was rich and full. It sounded like soil, like loam, like leaf mulch on the forest floor, like the underside of a fallen log, like the deep wet insides of the mountain caves.
Sometime later water splashed my face.
Sometime after that it was very bumpy and I could see dry dirt and dead grass between someone’s wet feet—not mine—below me.
Later, my bed and someone poking my ribs firmly. “Please, Tenner. Please please. Just a little longer, then you can sleep. Here, eat this.” A spoon touched my lips and I tasted egg. Then my tin mug and cool water. I drank.
A fire, warm.
Someone humming, deep and slow.
My name, in a song sung low by a figure crouched by the fire in my house, poking the logs.
One for me and ten for Tenner.
Two for you and ten for Tenner.
Three for her and ten for Tenner.
Four for him and ten for Tenner.
My mother had sung that song to me. Had sung me to sleep.
Five for the cow and ten for Tenner.
Six for the sheep and ten for Tenner.
Seven for the bluebird, ten for Tenner.
Eight for the earthworm, ten for Tenner.
I whispered along with the last lines.
Nine for us and ten for Tenner.
Ten for ever and ever for Tenner.
The woman’s body shifted.
“You’re awake,” she said, without looking.
“Yes,” I said.
“How does your head feel?” she asked.
I touched my forehead. There was a lump the size of a dove’s egg. It was tender and rough where the skin had broken. “Sore,” I said.
She pressed her hands against her thighs and stood. I could see her profile in the firelight: strong legs and shoulders, a flat chest, grey shaggy hair over her ears and a nose that sloped and stopped short, as if it wasn’t finished being a nose. As if someone had nipped it with scissors. My mother had always called mine my almost nose. “Your no—,” she would say, running her fingertip down the slope and stopping short, running out of word and nose at the same time.
The woman took the candle from the mantle and bent to light it at the fire. As she leaned over, she steadied herself against the mantle with her left hand, something I had done a dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times. The room moved gently around me.
I must have made a noise because the woman turned and stepped quickly to the bed. She raised the candle near my face and, without asking, pressed her thumb under each of my eyebrows to look into my eyes. The candlelight was bright.
“Are you dizzy? Do you need to throw up?”
“No,” I said, untruthfully.
The woman set the candle on the small table next to the bed and sat at the edge of the mattress. My body felt very aware of the worn cover, and of the stale straw inside. The woman’s pants were damp.
“Tenner,” the woman said easily, as if we were continuing a conversation from earlier in the day. “Do you know how you got your name?” I didn’t. I had asked my mother when I was young, but she pretended not to hear me, so I learned not to ask.
“No,” I said. My head was full to bursting. I could feel the warmth of the fire, separate from the warmth of the woman’s body near mine. I stared at the ceiling, at the flickering orange light, at the beams running the length of the room. Of the house. Suddenly I wondered who had built this house.
“It was my sister’s name,” said the woman. “She died before you were born. Your mother loved her so much.”
Who built this house? I thought. My mother had once told me the house was here when she found the valley, and that was the end of the discussion, did I understand. I had understood, then.
“Tenner, the first Tenner, she was so wild and small. Not much like you at all.” The woman was still talking. I couldn’t focus on her words. Where had the lumber come from? There were certainly tall trees in the valley, but enough to build a solid, two-story house? A house made of beams and studs and shingles, not just logs or earth?
“When she was very little, Tenner climbed a tall tree on the edge of the farm, far from the house. She climbed so far that she couldn’t get down. We didn’t even know she was gone until she didn’t show up for suppertime. We called and called her name, and then your mother, who lived in the next farm over, heard us calling, and also heard little Tenner, high in the tree, calling back. ‘I’m here! I’m here in the tree!’ Your mother ran to our house and told us. That was the first time I really saw your mother. Saw saw. She was small, like Tenner. Not so wild.”
I closed my eyes to stop the room from spinning.
I felt so small, like the first Tenner. Like my mother. Like a little girl who learned that her father had raped her mother and her mother had taken a horse and a wagon and a year of supplies and ridden south until she found a hidden valley.
The straw inside the mattress itched terribly in a way I had never felt before.
The woman kept speaking. I could feel her looking away from me, at the fire.
“Tenner died that year.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. I felt so small. So small. I was five again and it was winter and my mother had let me sleep downstairs in her bed, this bed, and she was tucking me in, but the weight was all wrong. Everything was too heavy.
“She was running. She always ran. She was running and she must have slipped on a wet rock by the stream because she didn’t come home for supper that night again. She didn’t come home and she didn’t come when we called and your mother didn’t hear her and then the next morning we found her. We found her in the stream, water running all over her body. She was so cold. I remember how cold she was.”
Everything was wrong.
The woman shifted her body. Stood. Bent to lay another log on the fire. The fire hissed.
“You have—” My voice choked and I coughed to clear away my fear. “You have my nose,” I said.
The woman laughed: hah! “You have my nose,” she said.
I sat up in bed and vomited on my shirt and onto the sheet. Egg and not much else. Bile burned my throat. I wiped my mouth with my shirtsleeve.
“Who built this house?” I asked. My voice was so small. Like a child’s.
“I did,” the woman said. She sat back on the edge of the bed and gave me my tin cup. I sipped the water, room-warm and metallic.
“I built it,” she continued, “when your mother first came up. I couldn’t stay in town, you know.” She cleared her throat. “Not after what my father did. He’s your father, too, I supppose.” She paused. “Your mother didn’t want me here, that’s for certain.”
I lay back down, vomit wet in my lap. My head was throbbing.
“I built the house,” she said. “Took two years. Built mine, too.” She peered at me. “Do you remember staying in my house one fall right before we finished this house?” She shook her head. “No, you were too small. It was a rainy fall and I hadn’t finished shingling the roof. Your mother didn’t want to be in my house anymore, but you had a cough something terrible, and she knew she had to keep you out of the rain.”
“The rain,” I said.
“Aye, it was a rainy fall. But your mother.” The woman shook her head, smiling softly. “As soon as the roof was done, she carried you back here bundled all up like a big round ball, built the fire big, put you in front of it, and never came back.”
“You were gone,” I said.
The woman turned.
“You left,” I said. My face was hot and my ears were full with a deafening, silent roar.
The woman turned back to the fire. She was silent.
“You left and I starved,” I said.
“My name is Orr,” said the woman. “My name is Orr and my sister’s name was Tenner, and my father’s name—your father, too—was Lou.” A noise slipped out of my mouth and Orr turned to me, startled. Something she saw in her face made her walk away. She walked to the door and looked out over the valley.
“It’s odd seeing it from this side,” she said. “After Tenner died, your mother and I. Well, your mother and I held her memory together. We kept little Tenner alive just between the two of us. With stories, you see?”
My eyes were closed.
“We became close,” the woman said. “We were very close,” she said.
The woman paused.
“My father was an angry man. He blamed your mother and me for Tenner’s death. He didn’t like how close we were. Fifty years ago, my father took your mother into a wheat field and then your mother ran away. She ran away with nothing and so I followed her. I followed her here with a wagon and spent the first months driving back and forth with supplies. But she never spoke to me again. Never after that, except the day you were born. Born on the floor of this house, with no roof and no fireplace. Born screaming. Your mother looked at me and said, ‘Tenner,’ and I knew I would do anything for you.
“When your mother died I watched you carry her body to the caves. I wanted more than anything in my entire life to help you. But I am a coward, dear girl.” Something inside of her released, and she turned to face me. “I am a coward and I ran. I ran away from you because you didn’t know me. Because you didn’t know me and I didn’t know you and she was dead. Just like Tenner was dead.”
Get out, I said in my head. Get out, I screamed. You don’t know me, I screamed. You don’t know my mother. You left me to die.
I wanted to hit her.
I missed her weight on the bed.
She walked to the table.
I felt the vomit on my stomach and lap. I saw nothing. I was not grown. Grown people didn’t feel like this. Sore. Sick. Small. Unsure.
Orr was talking. “Tenner.”
I turned on the bed, turned toward the wall, cradling a mess of vomit, a nest of stink.
I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.
“Tenner, I’m sorry.” The weight on the bed returned. A hand on the small of my back. The loamy voice. “Tenner. Tenner. Tenner. I’m right here.”