Jenny Going Home by Bob Cram Jr.
“Who is the lamb and who is the knife?”
-Rabbit Heart, Florence and the Machine
-Rabbit Heart, Florence and the Machine
Barefoot on the dirt, pounding the rhythm of her heart, boom boom boom SPLASH into the pools sitting in potholes, the water cold enough to make her heart skip a beat. The fire keeps pace to her left and right, flying overhead in sparks and cracks where the trees overhang.
Jenny, twelve, but tall like fourteen, runs to the water where her mother drowned only days ago. She tops the hill and the grass falls away down to the river, overflowing the hilltop like spilled flour, like water over stones, with the road a black racer whipping through it down to the trees that hide the shore.
The fire rushes around her, past her, eating up the grass, eating up the very sky. A greedy feeder, it snatches at her nightdress, sinks its teeth in her hair, and she flees down the road with smoke streaming from her locks like a scream in winter.
The trees are already aflame as she runs between them, sharing embers amongst their branches like pieces of gossip. Past the trees the stone bridge waits, and her thoughts are a tumble as she races across. She thinks: how long will the river hold back the flames? She thinks: the bridge will probably survive, though the fire may crack and blacken its stones. She thinks: how often did my mother stand and stare into the dark water as it rushed beneath the bridge?
And she wonders, as she has many times over the past few days, what it feels like to stand in a river with stones in your pockets.
Ahead, the town seems to rise out of the top of the next hill, spearheaded by the church steeple. Once she thought of the church with ‘s’ words, like sanctuary, safety, sharing, and silence. Now it’s all ‘d’s’ - words like doubt, denied, degraded, and daughter. The shadow of the steeple stretches towards her and if it crosses her heart as she runs it is only briefly, and she takes no notice of it at all.
Behind her the fire pauses at the river’s edge, gathers in the trees, piling up higher and higher. Embers float across the stream like dandelion seeds, seeking a foothold… and then the fire is across. It moves through the grass and trees towards the town, slower now, as if to give her time.
Jenny, twelve, but with the dark, haggard eyes of an aged crone, runs through the streets of town and where her feet touch the cobbles she leaves black marks that smoke in the early morning air.
She finds him in the market, walking with an easy smile and pockets empty of stones. Around her the crowd parts, all forked fingers and hasty crosses. She touches his sleeve. He turns and his smile fades away like frost in the morning sun. “I told you,” he says, “to never speak to me again!”
How does he not see the marks on her? The smoke still streaming from her hair? How does he not see, with his priest’s eyes, what she’s done with bell, book and candle? And she knows it’s because he doesn’t really see her, he sees only what he thinks of her, sees only the pain and the shame of her. His words are hot and tight and spittle hits her face as he speaks, his hand hurting her arm, hurting her for the last time. She blinks, and there are flecks of ash on her lashes that leave streaks on her cheek.
“NOT YOUR DAUGHTER!” She screams it, a voice so loud and bright and bitter that windows shatter all along the street. The priest claps his hands to his ears; his mouth opens in a wide ‘o’ shape. The crowd seems to screech with one voice, and they wheel and turn and flee like a flock of birds with a cat set amongst them.
“There are fathers,” she says, stepping closer, “and there are fathers. When a child is rejected by one, who can blame her if she finds another? ” The priest tries to take a step back, but she clutches his sleeve. She hears the sound of the fire as it finally reaches the town, roaring as it takes the first few buildings.
“You FELL,” she screams, “and my mother jumped, but I was the one who landed, and it was so, so far down.”
She lets him go, and as the buildings behind her come alive with flame she raises her arms and closes her eyes, as if waiting for an embrace or a benediction.
The priest takes a step back, turning to run, but the fire has moved too fast and there is nowhere to go. “Oh my Lord,” he says, but he’s wrong, oh so wrong. The flames eat up the sky and the last thing he sees is an enormous shape behind it, all wings and horns. Over the crackle of the flames he can hear gigantic hooves stamping in the dirt like thunder, Jenny’s father, come to take her home.