During the summer in Duncanny, her song spoke to my heart. The days were slow, sometimes so slow they stayed in place. These were the days you spread. Like butter. You churned them in spring, and then you spread them over in summer. They always tasted the same.
And yet something changed last summer. It happened so slowly and unobtrusively no one saw it coming. Perhaps it was the heat that lulled our minds to sleep. Folks ambled around as if their legs were made of hay. Kids sat on the wheat sheaves and watched the sun set and fade each day. The air was so stiff you had to carve through it, and the grass so green it put you to sleep.
Out of all things, the bugs were probably the worst. They crawled onto every surface, atop every living and unliving thing. It seemed like they would eventually crawl into our mouths if we didn’t whisk them away. The buzz of nectar-drunk bumblebees was the drone to which our days unfolded. It wasn’t the time to work.
The only thing marking the passage of time was the arrival of the milk cart. It was driven by a lean and unremarkable man. He had a straight nose, lips closed in a line, and small brown eyes that seemed to skip past your homestead and already be on their way to the next one. I’d never spoken to this man. He wasn’t from around here, and the sign ONE BOTTLE – ONE SHULLY made any verbal exchange unnecessary.
Every Monday the man toured Duncanny and the neighboring villages. Sometimes he brought rumors from the eastern baronies, sometimes he did not. Every Monday he asked the same money for the same quality of milk. One shully was a good price, and the milk was decent, too. I’d be tempted to call it great, but then perhaps it was the summertime that made it better. Drinking that fresh, chilly milk in the mornings was the high point of my days.
Jessie used to buy a bottle whenever the cart stopped by. She’d walk up to the man, put one shully in his calloused hand, and more often than not she’d smile. Richard would’ve already been working the field by then, but he’d come to the porch and nod to the man, and the man would nod back. Then the cart would roll out into the distance and the clanking of milk bottles would slowly fade away.
Soon Jessie would spend her mornings rocking herself on the porch, waiting for the milk cart to arrive. It was her little ritual.
It makes breakfast so much better, she told me with a smile.
She had a beautiful smile.
I wish I had talked to her more back then. Sure, sometimes she would play with kids, sometimes she would gossip with the village’s circle of cronies, but mostly she just kept her own company.
Hey frisky day, she used to sing. Blue as a jay, fly frisky day, hey.
Over the years, her laughter quietened. Her passion was a losing stream, and rocks started showing underneath the surface. The strings with which she knitted herself so effortlessly into the web of Duncanny began to green with mildew. She had something the other folks couldn’t have, you see, and worth such as this attracts unwanted attention, particularly as it can’t be measured in a number of pigs.
She’ll get used to the way things are, humble Smacky said, not long after Jessie had first arrived. He’d not say it to her face, of course – who could? But he was right. Jessie got used to it.
Rich thought that kids might help, and she must’ve been thinking it too. But one night, after a depressing amount of booze, Rich told me this couldn’t be. I didn’t ask questions. I simply sat with an empty bottle in hand. We opened another. That might’ve explained why Jessie liked playing with kids. It might explain why her smile often felt misplaced, too.
Either way, while the summer was hard on all of us, it must’ve been the hardest for her. Instead of dancing in the sun, after a time she barely got up from her chair. The folks I met at the village market all but forgot about her, and I don’t blame them; in this heat your thoughts simply rolled over and died.
And so, the days crawled on. Slow, easy days, in which it was as much of a bother to live as it was to stay inside your mind.
Of course, this one extra centiff didn’t really change anything. A hundred centiffs made one shully, so no one would get poor from that. But one extra shully for each hundred bottles sold wouldn’t make this feller a lord, either. So the question was – why bother? To piss us off? We were a tight community, you know, and we didn’t like provocations. But that inconspicuous man just tightened the line of his lips and kept at the price, no matter how much folks bugged him to stop being an ass. He was awful strict about it, too – if you didn’t have a centiff to spare, tough luck kitten, no milk for you today.
We grumbled, but in the end we still bought the milk; if we were lucky in spare coinage that was. It was still fair trade, and given the merciless sun I suppose even two whole shullies for one bottle would be fair for us, too – after all, we were all going quietly crazy. Some folks thought it must’ve got to the feller as well, baking the lid of his skull and burning a few strings inside.
The price change stirred rumors, but after some sizzling it all went quiet again.
Then the unbelievable happened: the price of milk rose again. ONE BOTTLE – ONE SHULLY, and two centiffs hand-written below.
There was something off about it. Folks of Duncanny could smell change as well as they could sniff the rot in meat, and this particular change seemed foul, insidious, an intrusion upon our sleepy lives. Gertrude was talking about how it must’ve been the barony that sent the outsider on us. Old woman Harriot claimed that the milk-feller would put her into an early grave, and even humble Smacky voiced curses nobody thought he’d known. Rich saw it for nothing more than a pain in the rear.
Out of all people, only Jessie didn’t seem disturbed by the price change. On the contrary, she was in such good spirits she didn’t buy one bottle, but two. A woman has her appetite, she told him as the next Monday came around.
The following week, the price rose to one shully and three.
The gobbersmack’s playin’ ye, old woman Harriot told them, more hag-like than ever, playin’ ye how he pleases. But there was no helping it. No homesteads had a cow at their disposal – Jonas’s family had had one, but they killed it the previous winter for food. Most of us had chickens and pigs, but no matter how hard you cranked them, they didn’t give milk. Not any you’d want to drink.
So the milk-seller carried on, his prices high, unpunished much like a lord. The fear of further inflation hung above the village like a dark cloud on an empty sky.
Everywhere but over Jessie.
How about we take six bottles today? she asked Rich. Let’s make these mornings a bit sweeter.
Rich tried to reason with her, but she hadn’t been this set on something for months. Sure, Jessie had her whims, but to such degree? He demands three centiffs, she buys six bottles? Even humble Smacky wouldn’t have doubled down on a raise like that.
But Jessie insisted, so Rich ordered her to wait on the porch while he dealt with the man. He paid his six shullies, plus eighteen centiffs he dug from the pocket of his last-year work-pants. The milk-bottles were large; it was difficult to carry two in one hand. So the milk-seller helped carry the first batch of four bottles, and then Rich took the last two on his own, though he couldn’t shake the feeling that the man was staring at his back, the feeling so strong it was like a horsefly gnawing through his shirt.
When Rich relayed the details to me and asked me what I made of it all, I could do nothing but shrug. I was happy for Jessie, though. She took upon herself doing something more absurd than the man had accomplished with his price changes. It seemed the humor was getting back to her.
One day I visited their household while Rich was working in the fields. On my way I picked some gillyflowers and wrapped them in a bouquet. They were rich-pink inside and creamy-pale near the edges. I didn’t care what Rich would think – Jessie was my friend, and a man could gift his friend some flowers.
She was on the porch, watching the slow sway of wheat. I said the gillyflowers reminded me of the way she’d blushed when she was playing with the kids. She smiled at that, but the smile was greasy, like butter spread on her face. It was the smile of honey-fat lords from her old puppet shows, indifferent to the world around them.
We talked, about the price of milk, the aggravating flies, Gertude’s sour moods… but the words felt sticky, as if jumbling them into a sentence of any importance required a terrible amount of effort, and Jessie clearly wasn’t in the mood for helping. Soon enough I left and went back to my homestead.
I never saw her again.
As the news reached other homesteads, Duncanny exploded. There was a hasty gathering at the market square, where some suggested establishing a group of good-doers to persuade the greedy feller to change his ways with the prodding of pitchforks.
Who are we to be treated like this? cried Rich. Twelve centiffs, twenty centiffs, and then what? It seemed as if a steel tiger wandered out from one of Jessie’s stories and found its way into his flesh. We, good folk, pay hard coin to this dog, and for what? To be mocked? To be laughed at? He swept the crowd with his gaze. I don’t want to hear of buying that robber’s milk from any one of you. We’ll hold firm until the price goes down!
It seemed all of Duncanny shouted back, We’ll hold!
Me? I didn’t shout. Call me a pessimist but I knew this lot, I’ve smelled their sweat for the better part of my life. What of old woman Harriot, who knew that her days were a’coming? What of humble Smacky, who got addicted to whatever fell into his dirty hands? What of every poor sod in the village who wished for nothing more but to make the days a bit more bearable? I knew how it would end, and so it did. As the long, sticky-hot week dragged on and the milk-seller’s return drew slowly nearer, the talk of holding firm hushed down. They’d take his milk, they all would. So would I.
Only Rich held firm.
Jessie had disappeared.
Rich looked for her all over Duncanny, and even checked in the neighboring villages: he took Sudbury to the east, and he sent me north to Craydon. Not a sign of her, nor any hint of where she might’ve gone.
Tired and weary after a long day of searching, Rich returned home as the sun was beginning to set. He saw something then, something he hadn’t spotted before in his hurry, and all at once the last of his strength left him.
Lined up in the shadow of the porch, twenty-four bottles of milk waited for him. Still warm to the touch, and long since soured.
The milk cart didn’t show up around Duncanny again.
A terrible shame, doing him like that. Rich was a good friend, and to the best of my knowledge a decent husband. He never drank at home. Never gave her an evil eye when she was around the other men. I still can’t grasp why she did what she did.
I would go back to that summer, if I could. The heat, after all, was tolerable. We somehow took it for granted that the days would be the same. I miss the fresh milk and Jessie’s singing. I miss Richard, too. He blew off his head last winter.
I wish I could say that got the same commotion as when Jessie disappeared, but it wouldn’t be true. I think folks wanted done with that year, so they took his memory into their hearts and let him die undisturbed. A few people talked, but not many. The icy winds outshouted whatever they wanted to say.
Alas, we survived another winter. Two pigs down, which isn’t the worst; there’s always a couple of piglets in spring. Now it’s coming up to summertime again, and these heavy, buttery days.
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