Well, however long ago it was, it feels even longer. It was the year that your father was on sabbatical. One of his collaborators, affiliated with Saint Hilda’s, had put together a grant to work on a Rameau opera, Castor and Pollux. It had long been your father’s dream to do something like this as Rameau was out of favor in the U.S., if he’d ever been in favor, and no one seemed to care about the Baroque. He found us a house — actually part of a refurbished barn — that he selected on account of its high ceilings and also because it came with a piano, and moved us all to Oxfordshire. I was already five months pregnant, so I felt that I knew you in a way. And absolutely thrilled to spend the final months of my pregnancy unemployed and out of reach of my mother, who had already warned me that she thought I’d find motherhood “challenging,” that she feared that I wasn’t a “natural mother.”
The house was just outside of Oxford City proper in a town called Nuneham Courtenay. We were at the end of a paved lane off the Reading Road. Close by was the Ring Road — torn along by screaming cars or stunned with traffic — and just beyond that the austere circus of the University itself, but where we were seemed straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel: fields shocked to a Van Gogh yellow by blooming rapeseed, or stitched over with pink fritillaries, or somberly productive with the nodding, knee high wheat of late spring. The Thames was just beyond the fields and if you were standing on the rail fence that bordered our yard, you could just make out the shimmer of water, although the land dropped in such a way as to make it not quite clear. There were cows along the banks and one saw the cows and knew, at least, that the cows were seeing the river.
Our time in Oxford as one of my happiest. That’s where you were born, and Castor and Pollux, when it was finally rolled out, was a triumph. When it wasn’t raining, I would sit with you on a blanket in the soft English sun reading novels. And even the rain seemed a benediction to me. I felt as shielded by it as the deer who showed up to nibble at the hedges. It was ideal. It was. And even now I wonder if the one afternoon that clouds it was but a shudder of the mind, a glitch, because it seemed so impossible. Although the disproving of it, ultimately, presented more impossibilities than its believing.
We’d been in the house just over a month and I had taken to rambling around the fields. Sanford-on-Thames was a short walk across a meadow and if you headed south along the Thames you would reach Nuneham House, with its gardens and lawns and peacocks.
Across the river there was Radley College that announced itself with a daily regatta of rowing boys madly trying to outpace each other up and down the Thames. My regular path to the river started behind the garages into a stretch of woodland. Beneath a tree — some sort of beech as its great branches reached out close to the ground, elbowing the earth in spots — a sort of cave had been created by the low limbs, trunk, and leaves. In its shelter, someone had set a table and chairs — child-sized. One of the chairs had a rabbit drawn on its back in chipping paint. I had not noticed any children in the nearby houses. The barn seemed to favor the older Dons, one’s whose sons and daughters had already headed to university. I wondered if the table and chairs, the setting for a mad little tea party, belonged to an earlier time, or if I had yet to see the child or children responsible for its upkeep.
I was close to thirty and very nearly a mother, but something in the area awakened my imagination, a sense of wonder, and gave each natural thing — the sun, a rainbow, a rabbit sniffing the air — a weighted, gorgeous significance.
That afternoon I was tidying the kitchen, having let the breakfast dishes and my lunch plate pile up, when I looked out the window and saw a flash of color — a shock of blue. I ran through the living room to the other side of the house, where I imagined this blue had gone and there, stalking about the rail fence, was a peacock. I rushed outside in my bare feet, and was quite delightedly following the thing when the wind picked up and a loud slam, which sent the peacock on its way, announced to me that I had locked myself out. The weather changed very quickly at that time of year and as I wasted a half hour jiggling at the locks and peering into the empty homes of my immediate neighbors as the wind — now gusting in fits — pulled at my hair, I began to think that I would spend the rest of that bleak afternoon cowering in the doorway. I hoped your father would come home at a reasonable hour. A handful of raindrops clattered across the footpath that led to the door.
I was in a thin shirt and getting cold, the rain already dampening my jeans, and the discomfort of my situation dilating time in such a way that each minute was already taking forever, when I saw a woman cross the style at the edge of the garden. She did not head across the front of the barn, which would have meant that she was the one neighbor I had yet to meet, but took the break between the hedges and proceeded down the single-lane road that led to the carriageway. The woman moved at a good clip, understandable as the rain was picking up and, although she was wearing a Barbour jacket, her head was bare. I hadn’t yet wandered up that way because the fields were so appealing, as was the village, and this direction seemed to offer little if one were on foot. I might have called out, but I felt too ridiculous, so I just followed her to the little brick house set where the road curved to the left, a house hidden by a wall of greenery that I’d only passed in the car.
She was shielded by the hedge as she entered the house. When I reached the door, it was open a crack. I called out into the dark hallway and not having the sort of nerves that some do, was about to leave, when she appeared suddenly beside me.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m afraid you can,” I said. “I’m living at South Barn and I’ve locked myself out. Can I use your phone to call my husband?”
The woman was tall, blond, and possibly my age or a few years older. She had long-fingered, exquisite hands, what my husband called pianist hands. Her face was oval-shaped like a Modigliani and she tilted it, looking at me as she sighed. “I’m afraid my phone is out of service.” I saw her eyes descending, first past my pregnant middle, and then to my bare, wet feet.
“I saw a peacock.” This was supposed to explain my appearance in her house.
“No doubt escaped from Nuneham House,” she said. She sighed again, resigned. “If we sit in the kitchen, you’ll be able to see when your husband returns.”
“Or one of my neighbors. I hate to impose.”
“On what?” she said. I followed her down the hallway, mostly decorated with unimaginative prints of Oxford landmarks — Christ Church, the Sheldonian — excepting a portrait of my host in orange chalk on blue paper. She, who had yet to introduce herself, saw me looking at it and said, “My honeymoon. That was done in Montmartre.”
This was when I should have introduced myself, but the moment passed, and she continued through the doorway. We sat in the kitchen on opposite sides of a small table. I could have used some tea, but she didn’t offer any. The house was so silent that one understood how quiet and still could be synonyms, how timelessness projected itself without sound to mark progressing instants. Outside, the rain had found its force and was flogging itself against the panes in sheets of water. The obvious conversation points — who I was, why I was in Oxford — seemed not to interest her. I looked around the room as she watched the water coursing over the glass, her chin now resting delicately on the heel of her hand, her elbow planted on the back of another chair. There was a pinch pot set on windowsill above the sink with a crude figure of a rabbit head drawn on it and I wondered if she had children.
“When is your baby due?” she asked suddenly.
“September,” I said. A moment passed. “My husband and I are very excited.” I added, because that’s what people say and I couldn’t think of anything else.
“Children,” she smiled. “This is a great area for children. You know that Lewis Carroll used to go boating up and down this stretch of Thames. It’s true. The bit in Alice in Wonderland where she and the mouse are swimming in a pool of tears was written after he was caught in a rainstorm this side of Sanford Lock.
“I hadn’t heard. How interesting.”
“Not far from here they found the remains of a Roman kiln. The Pitt Rivers is full of stuff they’ve dug up around here, as is the Ashmolean — they have a small statue of Diana. So, Roman gods, but there are also the barrows of the Celts and whatever is preserved in muck lying just beneath the surface, either waiting to be dug up or hoping that time will slowly erase all memory of it, all need for it, all interest. At Nuneham House, they still believe in the old Celtic ways.”
“Really? I thought it was owned by the University.”
“Yes. And leased. Perhaps the University doesn’t know what the house is used for. Once, there was a bonfire that you could see burning way up on the hill. And a deer was found in the eastern field with twelve stone blades driven into it, a ritual, but it failed to kill the creature, which at least died free.”
The woman fixed me with a somber gaze. “You think you know how you’ll manage your child. You’ll feed her and clothe her, teach her to walk, to read, send her to school. Lena was an early reader. She was sounding out words at four, reading at five. Once, we were playing hide and seek, and I could not find her. I was just starting to panic when she appeared at the back door. I was very angry and told her that she was not allowed to go outside alone, and she said, ‘But Mummy, I wasn’t alone. I was with the Mad Hatter.’ Clever little girl. I couldn’t be angry at that, even though we were reading Alice together and hadn’t reached the bit about the Hatter yet, and I knew she’d been looking ahead. I told myself there was no reason to be concerned, but then I saw him.”
“A man at the far edge of the field. I was hanging out the laundry in the early morning and there was still blanket of haze on the fields, nothing but birdsong really. But then I saw him. The wheat was waist high and he stood completely still in the nodding grain. He was a distance away, so I could not make out his face, but he was wearing a strange tall hat. I wondered how long he’d been watching me. I called to my husband to come, but he didn’t hear, so I went in to get him. But by the time we were outside, the man had disappeared. I wanted to call the police, but my husband pointed out that there was no law against standing in a field, that children made things up.”
“But I started noticing a change in Lena. She had been such a cheerful girl, but with the appearance of the man, she seemed more withdrawn. When I’d asked her to describe him, she wouldn’t. She was angry with me for not letting her play outside alone anymore, but what could I do? Of course, it was worse after she had to leave school, after the Parson boy died.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t’ understand.”
“Timothy Parson. He stepped in front of a bus when on an excursion. It was in all the papers.”
“I didn’t hear about it. I just moved here.” I wasn’t sure if the woman wanted me to ask questions, or expressly did not. An insistent wind was rattling the casements. “What did that have to do with your daughter?”
“Lena was a classmate. The boy was bully, and she’d complained about him. After he died, the other children wouldn’t play with her. The teachers thought she might be traumatized and suggested she finish the year out at home. So it was just the two of us then. She used to beg to go outside, but how could I let her out? Nuneham House was just across the fields. But we went for walks, went to Sanford Lock to feed the ducks. The summer was drawing to a close.
“My husband and I argued over Lena’s returning to school. I thought she should stay at home another year. But her father didn’t want her slipping further behind. I could see that he was acting in Lena’s best interests, but I knew he was wrong. Still, you have to obey your husband.” Here she laughed, and it was chilling. “Lena said she hated school. She said the children were mean to her, and she was right. Lena said she hated us both, kicked and screamed, said she’d never go back. We couldn’t make her. It took some time to calm her, but she finally settled down. She grew strangely quiet. Her father said he’d take her for a walk, out across the fields, to the village for an ice cream. My husband never came home again.”
I waited for her to explain, listening to the steady thrumming of the gutter, exercised by rain.
“I didn’t understand until several weeks later. Lena and I were at Sanford Lock, feeding the ducks. There’s a plaque up for the two boys who drowned. I saw Lena reading the plaque and as I’d heard the story, I told her what I knew. Of how it had happened long ago, of how the boy had gotten stuck in the current, and that the other boy had drowned trying to save him.”
“Lena was the most beautiful child, doll-like, with an impish smile that made most everyone laugh. When she smiled, she would sometimes look at me out of the corner of her eye with a sort of knowing at odds with someone that age. And she looked that way then and said, ‘Mummy, you are telling the story all wrong.’”
“I suppose you’re wondering what happened to my husband. Well, he and Lena were coming back across the fields and something spooked the cows. They can be quite aggressive in the spring. My husband must have tripped while trying to run away. He was trampled and suffered terribly in the hospital for two days before he finally died. Lena was untouched. When I asked what had happened, she wasn’t sure. She said the cows had just run around her. And when I asked her what she’d done, she said she’d done nothing. I wanted to believe her. We want to believe our children. But that day on Sanford Lock, when I was telling Lena about the two poor boys who had drowned, she said that I had it all wrong. She said, ‘Mummy, what about the third boy?’ and I said, ‘What third boy?’ and she replied, ‘the one that made them do it.’ And I said, ‘Made them do what?’ and she said, ‘Made them go in the water, because he didn’t like them.’”
I must say that at that point of my visit, had she offered me a cup of tea, I would have refused. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”
“Isn’t that it? Isn’t it truth that we none of us can understand? How can a child achieve such power? And once she has it, how can she be so cruel? She did not want to go back to school. My husband knew to avoid that field at this time of year. Can’t you see? Can’t you see?” The woman had reached her beautiful hands across the table, as if begging me for something. “I didn’t want to be responsible, but when you’re a mother…I wanted to protect Lena, but didn’t know how.”
I struggled for a response, but everything seemed inadequate. I asked, “How old is Lena now?”
“Lena? She’s dead, drowned in the lock.”
I was getting ready to make my excuses and take my chances with the rain-soaked doorway when the woman got up suddenly and went out of the room. I sat at the little table for what must have been five minutes, then, without making my goodbyes, went back down the hallway. I could hear her upstairs sobbing pathetically, and was relieved that she was so emotional as it freed me from a frivolous politeness.
It was still drizzling when I broke through the hedge and began, still in my bare feet, to walk back to the barn, when a car pulled up behind me. I was very happy to see Pandora, my neighbor and someone who was to become a close friend, leaning out of the window of her Mini. She asked, “Why are you wandering about in your bare feet?”
A short while later, I was sitting her living room in a pair of her wooly socks in front of the fire, enjoying a cup of strong black tea.
“You look quite worn out,” she said.
“I am. It’s so sad about that woman.”
“Up the lane, about her daughter drowning, and her husband being trampled by cows. I didn’t even know that happened. So horrible and tragic.”
“Yes, it was really. Apparently, it was the talk of the town when it happened. She was convicted, you know, for drowning her child. She pushed the little girl in, who I think was only six at the time, and couldn’t swim. She kept calling out for her mother to get her, but the woman didn’t move. Sometimes the little girl shows up. Boaters think she’s swimming up at them, or in the lane — ‚.”
“What do you mean she was convicted?”
“The mother? Convicted and hanged. I don’t think that would happen now. We’d call it mental illness. One of Bob’s colleagues actually wrote a paper on it, something to do with neo-pagan rituals and group hysteria. She tied it in the with the Salem Witch Trials. My goodness, you’ve gone all pale. Are you all right?”
Of course I went straight to the house, still in the socks, and yes, it was overgrown. It seemed as if no one had been in there in years. I crept around the back to peer in the window to the kitchen, not knowing if it would be more terrifying to see my host or to discover that she had never been there. The kitchen was empty and looked as if it had not been occupied for some time. The pinch pot, still above the stove, was knitted to the wall with cobwebs.
That evening your father came home. The rain had picked up and he was soaking wet. “You have to call the police,” he said. I’d never seen him so frightened. He had been driving home when a little girl appeared right in front of the car. The water was streaming off of her and she looked quite blue with cold, her eyes wide with what looked to him — in that instant — anger. He hit the brakes, but he was convinced he must have struck her. He’d been searching around, calling out, and this had drawn the vicar from his house across the way. He’d told your father to just go home. To not worry about it. He was sure that no girl had been hit. The rain and light — refraction and all that — played tricks on one’s eyes. Your father was surprised at the vicar’s lack of surprise. If anything, he seemed oddly resigned in his demeanor. A policeman did come and take a statement, but even he seemed perfunctory in his manner.
Of course, your father went and checked out the house himself, dug up the paper written by the neighbor’s colleague, and there really had been some sort of pagan cult set up in the manor house all those years ago. But there’s something silly about paganism, about singing at the moon and dressing up in robes and dancing around with antlers on your head, so it was hard to be fearful of it. I did think I saw a man once standing in the yard, but I turned for just a second to see that you were still asleep on the blanket, and when I looked back, the man had vanished and there was nothing to confirm he’d ever been there, just wavering wheat stalks and the hiss of wind across the field, the patter of bird song, a nodding daffodil, a yellow sun.