Bay stood with her face to the wind, her eyes closed. In her imagination, she could picture the scene well enough. She was facing out across the marshes – muddy tussocks of reeds and marsh grass ranged out in shades of sourness and and earth, interspersed with brackish pools, sluggish streams and boggy peat. Beyond lay the shoreline with its muddy beach and then the ocean itself. From there she could pick up the scent of salt and the dampness of an incoming squall all carried inland by the strong breeze.
From her earliest moments, Bay could remember her mother describing this view. Over and over, different seasons, different details. Telling her with words and guided touches what each part of the marsh felt like and smelled. Teaching her until she knew all of its dangers and wonders. It was, as her mother had liked to say, a place that knew how to kill you a thousand different ways if you didn’t treat it was the respect it was due but it was also a place of beauty and could reward a thousand different ways, too.
Bay sighed and opened her eyes again. Her imaginings faded to the reality of dark shadows against an even darker background. For once, what she saw matched her mood.
Her mother was dead.
She’d come out here to try and and forget, but, even in the solitude of the marshes, forgetting was the one thing Bay couldn’t achieve.
“Bay!” The voice didn’t sound panicky, quite, but there was definite concern. “Come away from there!”
Bay sighed again but made no effort to move. She recognised the speaker, her uncle Corrie, and knew his arrival likely presaged yet another lecture on the dangers of the marsh. She knew she ought to be grateful to her aunt and uncle for taking her in, but in the week she’d been with them, they’d been inclined to treat her as feeble.
Since she hadn’t moved, her uncle had clearly decided to come to her. She could hear his faltering, hesitant steps as he attempted the goat track she’d followed. Bay closed her eyes again to better concentrate. His first two steps were fine, but the third had a soft, barely there, squash to it.
“Step more to your left,” she called.
“Step more to your left or–” This time it was a definite splash. “Or you’ll be in the marsh,” she finished wryly. She turned in his direction and offered an apologetic smile.
She heard her uncle huff with disgust as he pulled his foot free of the bog. “More to the left, you say?”
“For five paces, then a fraction right.” She continued to listen to his steps as they got closer. One step wasn’t as firm as it ought to have been, but there were no further troubles.
“You know you shouldn’t be out here alone,” Corrie began.
“Because it’s dangerous?” And for the life of her, Bay couldn’t quite keep the scorn from her voice as she turned back to face the distant ocean.
Her uncle snorted. He sounded more amused than annoyed. “I know you know that. Your mother taught you, like she taught me.” He sighed. “I meant more because no-one knew where you were.”
“You mean Aunt Brook.”
For a few moments there was nothing but the sound of the breeze making the nearby rushes dance and sway. “She means well, Bay.”
“It’s only been a week. Give her time.”
It was Bay’s turn to snort, but she said nothing further. As her uncle had said, it had only been a week – a fraught and difficult week. Perhaps, her aunt would come to trust her. Perhaps.
“So how did you know where my foot was going to land?”
“I heard it.”
“Heard it?” He sounded sceptical. “Really?”
For answer, Bay stamped her foot. “The path is hard, it almost rings when you step there. As soon as the ringing stops you know you’ve trouble ahead.”
“What about what’s in front of you?”
“There’s rushes – I can hear the wind in them. And either a pool with maybe a trapped eel or maybe it’s a stream – I haven’t quite decided.”
“It’s a stream,” said Corrie. His voice had taken on a contemplative tone. “Not a fast one, though. It looks almost silted in.”
“That explains it.” Bay nodded. “We should turn for home.”
Bay turned back towards her uncle and smiled faintly. “Two reasons. There’s a squall coming in – don’t want to be out here when the rain starts.”
“I can see the clouds coming in, how can you tell?”
“Smell. There’s no marshy sourness – the wind’s cleaned it out and brought damp with it.”
“And the second reason?”
Bay smiled faintly. “I can hear Aunt Brook on the yell for you and me both.”
At that, her uncle snorted. “I know your ears are fit to hear the grass grow, but Brook’s back at the house at the far end of the village.”
Bay’s smile turned sardonic as she stepped up to her uncle. “Are you going to risk me being wrong?”
“Cheeky madam,” he muttered, with no heat to the words. “Better you lead. Seems the safest way.”
That made Bay pause. “You’re trusting me to lead?”
“Shouldn’t I? You’ve just proved you know this marsh better than I do,” said Corrie, his tone reasonable. “And I’ve lived here nearly forty years.”
“But the marsh is different every day.”
“And you hear that difference far better than I see it, Bay. So lead on – if Brook really is on the yell, we’ll both be for it.”
Bay felt the first fat spots of rain on her face and realised it was stupid to prolong the argument, just to salve her sense of confusion. Instead, she moved quickly towards the path out of the marsh and trusted that Corrie would follow as he’d said. She knew that for all its hardness, it wouldn’t take the rain long to obliterate the path, but running was out of the question. She needed to concentrate on what she could hear and on how many steps she’d taken. It had been forty steps in so forty steps and they’d more or less be back on the track that skirted the marsh’s edge. At twenty-five steps, the rain turned heavier and the path stopped its comforting ring. At thirty steps, between the noise of the rain and the rapidly softening path, she faltered.
Was that path? Or was that bog? She remembered there’d been a very soft bog not far from the track. Was she about to walk straight into that, or was it simply the path was too slick with rain and mud to give her a reliable steer?
A hand came down on her shoulder and Bay startled like a rabbit.
“It’s okay – you’re still on the path,” said Corrie, his tone carrying just a hint of apology. “I can see the bog to your right and there’s a pool to your left, but the next five yards or so slope up towards the track.”
Bay tried to take a step, but she found her nerve was gone.
“It’s okay.” Corrie squeezed her shoulder and then his hand moved from shoulder to elbow. “You almost got us there – let me.”
Humiliation and tears welled up as Corrie guided her over those last ten steps. And then again, as Corrie chose to sweep her up into his arms to carry her home. While the rain meant he couldn’t see her tears, she knew he had to feel her sobs – but if he did notice, he chose to say nothing about them. Instead, he just tucked her head more securely against his shoulder and made sure she was safely held until they reached the village.
“Well, honestly!” Brook’s words were tart but for the first time Bay could hear a thread of genuine concern in her aunt’s voice. “She’s soaked through and I can hear her teeth chattering! What were you thinking, Corrie? No,” she added. “Not a word. Take her upstairs; I’ll be behind you.”
The next few minutes were a confusing blur. The aunt, who Bay had assumed to hate her, undressed her and towelled her off with as much gentleness and care as she might have used on her own child. Then Bay found herself being bundled up into a stiff woollen blanket and laid down in the bed she’d been given and covered with a counterpane that smelled of lavender and cedar. Familiar scents that reminded her of her mother but that soothed more than they saddened her.
Not long after, someone returned. From what she could hear, she thought it was Brook and that was born out when her aunt said, “I’ve brought you a mug of chicken broth; if I help you to sit up, do you think you can manage?”
Bay nodded, and found Brook’s hands gently easing her into a sitting position before the older woman guided a heavy, earthenware mug into her grasp. Bay sniffed the mug’s contents and smiled. She recognised her mother’s broth recipe from the tang of tarragon mingling with the chicken. She took a sip and relished the warmth and familiarity on her tongue.
“I know,” said Brook hesitantly, taking up a seat on the edge of the bed, “this last week has not been easy. None of us knew how ill your mother was and though I know it hurts you much more, her death was just as sudden to us. It will take some little while for us to find how to work together and I can’t promise you and I won’t have more words in the coming weeks, but I will try and be honest in that.”
Bay smiled in return. “I will try too.”
“Then we’ll both try and succeed.” From the sound of Brook’s voice, she was smiling too. “When you’ve finished your broth, you’d best try and get some sleep. Today’s been a long day and who knows what tomorrow will bring.” Brook got to her feet. “May it be better.”
And with that, she departed.
Bay sipped her soup and considered the whole interlude. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one struggling. Perhaps she and Brook could come to a détente after all. Perhaps–
Perhaps Brook was right and she should get some sleep.
Bay set the now empty mug down carefully on the bedside table and snuggled down. For the first time in a week, she felt safe and loved. She still missed her mother, likely always would, but somehow she felt less raw about it than even that morning.
Perhaps this would be okay.