Caught by the River

All Among the Barley

Melissa Harrison | 3rd August 2018

An extract from Melissa Harrison‘s new novel, published later this month by Bloomsbury, and our Book of the Month for August. 

It was sometime near midnight when I awoke with the sense of something vast and obscure having fallen into place. I had slept enough, I knew straight away; and I also knew that I must go to the pond in Greenleaze. Connie had not gone into the water – I had stopped her – but now I must, for the sake of the farm. It was very simple, and I felt relieved, for I had not known what to do; but now I understood that each thing would become clear when I came to it, and that all I had to do was trust. I got up and pulled a cardigan that had once been Frank’s over my nightdress, crept down the creaking stairs and put on my boots.

The yard was quiet, its cobbles, the barn and dung-heap lit by a bright, full moon. The parish lantern, Grandfather sometimes called her, while Granfer and Grandma said her name was Phoebe. I was glad of her now.

On each stable door hung a holed stone on a loop of wire and a rusty iron nail, and now I took one down and gently eased the nail from the wood, hoping that the horses wouldn’t startle and wake John. Then I took the nail, raised my nightdress and traced a witch-mark gently with the point of it on my belly’s pale, fine skin. I drew no blood, for I didn’t need it to last more than an hour or two.

One of the horses blew and stamped as I eased the old nail back into the wood, making my heart thump and sweat prickle under my arms. But above the stable, John did not stir. Only a couple of the farm cats saw me cross the moonlit yard and walk into the darkness under the elms.

Father had scythed the margins of Greenleaze, and late in the afternoon, before she went to sit with Doble, Mother had sheaved and stooked the corn he had cut. In the moonlight it looked a little like the painting Miss Carter had shown us at school.

I knew that Father would have had to walk through standing wheat to cut around the horse-pond, so I looked for his line and followed it. The crop around me was full of little movements, and I imagined all the harvest mice and hares that were doubtless watching me walk through its tall stalks and wondering why I had come. Ahead lay the black clump of alders that huddled around the water, the inky night sky, strewn with bright stars, beyond it and above.

At the edge of the trees I called softly for Edmund, and he came immediately, appearing quietly at my feet. I picked him up and cradled him against my chest for a moment, and I couldn’t help the tears from starting to my eyes, because I knew by his attendance on me there that everything I had suspected was all true – all true. I felt like a child all of a sudden, I felt so small and desolate – which is strange, as surely I should have felt at my most powerful then. I pressed my wet face into the bird’s soft feathers and felt his heart beating in my palm and I made myself think of the farm, and of Mother and Grandma; of all that I loved, and that might yet be lost.

“I’m ready now, Edmund,” I whispered at last, and set him down in the stubble where he roused his feathers briefly and began to preen. And then I took off Frank’s cardigan, folded it up neatly, and ducked under the alders to the weeds and flag irises at the margin of the pond.

The water was chill at first, but by the time it was around my thighs it felt blood-warm; the pond might have been shady, but the weather had been hot for weeks. With each step my unlaced boots sunk into the depthless mud beneath me and at last I flung out my arms for balance, water arcing from them, so that I wouldn’t fall. I had expected ducks or moorhens to explode from the margins, as they would have had I gone into the pond by the house, but it seemed that no wildfowl made this pond their home.

When the dark water was at my shoulders I stopped and pushed my palely billowing nightdress down into the water, and waited for the ripples to subside. I felt so clean all of a sudden; cleaner than I had since the fete. And it was worth it just for that.

I felt my breathing slow with the fading ripples and let my awareness of the cornfield around me, and the night sky, return. At last, I breathed out all the air I could from my lungs, took two tip-toeing steps forward, closed my eyes – and let go.


All Among the Barley is published on 23 August, and is available to pre-order here, priced £16.99.