Ailsa the shell-trader's daughter would sit as close as she dared to her father, in the evenings after he came back up river carrying money and whisk ey. If she was lucky he brought a few clothes too, either hopelessly too big or already too small—but new, and she was clever and nimble-fingered and would create her own ideas of modern fashion in moments between her endless chores.
If the fire she had built was acceptable she sat patiently, prompting gently, trying to make him talk about her mother. She did this after her father had drunk a little of the whiskey, but before it took control. If she timed it wrong he growled and set her to work, or pushed her away with reminders not to forget herself—reminders that took a week or so to fade.
If she was gentle and quiet and if her timing was right, he might start to speak, softly, talking as if to himself—whatever version of himself he saw in the whiskey glass.
Ailsa curled up to listen, not even breathing. She watched her father's firelight shadow on the wall. It bent over him, still the giant she remembered from her first memories, hugely powerful. She remembered the iron hook he used to haul sacks of shell out of a shallow-draft boat before shouldering them. Then, his back bent, he would give a rattlesnake shudder with every step as he hauled the bundles to the storehouse.
In the light of the fire she hoped, always, to learn something more about her mother, something new—but her father had nothing new to remember. If he started to talk, it was a low murmur.
She came from the river. Everything came from the river, their drinking water, the fish they ate, the shells which paid for everything else. Ailsa never learned whether her mother was traded for or if he just found her stranded in a pool one day, bundled her up and brought her home.
However it happened he did bring her home and cared for her, provided for her and loved her, because—
"She was beautiful." He looked at Ailsa when he said this, looked at her as if he despised her, and Ailsa wished she could be beautiful like her mother.
The trade in shell went well and Ailsa's father paid for boats and hired help and added on to the house. He took on one new thing, too. He started to buy pearls, the curiously shaped and colored stones the fishermen sometimes found in their mussel catch. He brought these home to his young wife in a little leather bag. She laughed as she opened it, and running the pearls between her fingers looked at him, eyes sparkling.
Then he would pick her up—she was light, nothing in his arms after the weight of the sacks of shell—and carry her off to their bedroom.
She often cried, later, knowing he would soon be off on the long trip down river to sell to the button makers. On the last day, when he was ready to leave, he would ask if there was anything else he could get her.
"Bring me back something pretty", she'd say, giving him back the bag with most of the pearls still inside. He sold those pearls and bought pictures and silks and dresses from Europe.
The clothes were shut away now, inside the bedroom, kept locked while Ailsa's father was away. Only when he was home did she clean in there and see the clothes and wonder what it would be like to be pretty enough to wear them.
One time he came back from down river and Ailsa's mother did not meet him at the jetty. He found her doubled up, white with pain, holding her stomach. She tried to apologize. He took a single white pearl from the bag, slipped it onto her tongue and told her to swallow it. Right away the cramps subsided. He took her up in his arms.
With that pearl it seemed they seeded something. Everything started to change, and a few months later Ailsa came into the world—but she came too early, when only her father, unprepared, was home.
She was torn from the shell of her mother and the tearing killed her.
Her father could not help. His wife lay broken and empty and Ailsa curled pale and silent for moment after moment. Finally he hit her. She breathed and wailed and it was right she cried for what she had taken from him.
Later, when he softened and went to wipe her face, he found it wasn't wet, just covered with a delicate dust.
When her father reached this point in the telling, staring into a dying fire, his shadow shrunk down into him, Ailsa slipped away to her room. She knew the rest of the story.
Ailsa grew and her father hit her for being too slow, for being too loud, for forgetting her numbers or her letters. He beat her for being lazy and slovenly, for letting the house get grimy, for the cobwebs out of her reach. In winter he beat her for letting the fire die. Always he beat her for being alive while her mother was dead.
He beat her and she cried but what she cried was not tears. The pale dust of her infancy turned into beads of seed pearls. Time passed and Ailsa grew stronger and cried less, but as the pearls grew fewer they grew larger.
She grew and changed and her father changed too. As well as being quick with the hand and the belt he became hard with his tongue, ridiculing her. He scorned her changing body, told her ducklings grew up to be ducks, told her she could never be what her mother was. His taunts brought back the tears, larger than ever. Among them now were pearls of all shades from delicate pastels to the red of a spindle-prick of blood.
Soon after, Ailsa put on one of her mother's dresses for the first time.
At first she told herself she was shaking the dust off it. Then she held it in front of her, looking in the framed mirror, wondering—then slipped it on, over her day clothes, and looked again and tried to see—but only for a moment, until she thought she heard a sound and rushed to put the dress safely away.
It was a week before she dared try again. More days passed and she got bolder, no longer trying to pull the dresses over her house clothes. She developed a ritual, looking at herself in her patched day clothes, then her underclothes, then one of the dresses. She saw three different people in the mirror. Not her mother, though. She tried to imagine her mother's body, how it had swelled and filled the cloth which hung straight and loose on her own body.
Ailsa relaxed, knowing her father was always busy outside. One fall day she stood there in a cool, translucent linen dress when some stillness, some change of shadow told her she was not alone. She turned and her father moved to her, lifting one hand towards the side of her head, as if to cup it. Ailsa tilted her head, smiling and closing her eyes. The open hand struck her temple and she crumpled to the floor.
A few seconds later she reopened her eyes and looked up. She was alone.
The bedroom stayed locked after that day.
Her father would be away on business for days, sometimes weeks. Ailsa had peace but no rest. She feared leaving duties unfinished, imperfect. She worked until nearly dusk but in the last of the light she made her way to the highest parts of their home to clear gutters or clean windows to let in the sun. For a few moments she would sit in the dying light and look out over the woods and long for something to change.
Then she would go down to her bed and close her eyes tight against her tears. They would force themselves out though, large as cherry stones but pure white, and in the morning she would gather them and place them in a leather bag. She hid the bag in her mattress, where her father would never find it.
Spring meant the last snow on the mountains and the river running high and clear. Her father would not return up the rough road in the dark, so Ailsa sat and watched to see that she was free for another night. Her heart sank when she saw kicked-up dust moving closer and she started to steel herself, but the figure that came into view was slight and the horse he rode was small with a quick gait. It could not be her father, and any man who knew her father would not dare visit in his absence.
She went and stood on the porch as the stranger rode up. She did not speak, suddenly aware of the shabbiness of her make-do clothing, mismatched and layered against the chill air. The stranger smiled. He seemed sure of himself in his road-grimed clothes, but his face was smooth, without her father's coarse black stubble. He spoke without dismounting.
"It's true. Really is a place up here. Your Daddy home? Your Ma?" Ailsa shook her head.
"I need to leave a message with someone reliable. Would that be you?" He leaned down, smiled at her. "Important business. Your folks'll need to know. Say, can I come in, get something to drink?"
When he was inside she drew him a cup of water.
"My mother's dead. Father will be back soon, any time now."
He drank, spilling water from a corner of his mouth.
"Listen—could I stay somewhere? I mean, I don't want to impose, but it's getting dark to ride and I've got a lot more ground to cover tomorrow. Gotta find a bunch of people strung out around here. Even a barn or something."
"You can stay."
She made a supper of bread and smoked fish. While he ate he told her why he was there. He told her his name, George; told her he worked for the newly incorporated Dawsonville Dam Company, and told her that in summer, when the river was low, they were going to start construction. He told her that the river two miles below the house was going to be stopped up to supply water for people in a town she'd never seen. All the while he spoke Ailsa sat close, barely hearing but inhaling the stranger. He smelt of life where her father smelt of decay. She felt a strange heat off him, like if she brushed against him it might burn her skin.
"You need to tell your Daddy that if he's got anything to say he'll have to come down to Dawsonville and talk to the Company. You understand?" She nodded. He realized this was all the conversation they were going to have. He stretched. "I've ridden a lot of miles. Could you show me where I can sleep?"
There were only two beds in the house and Ailsa's father's room was locked. She took a lantern and led the stranger to her own room, barely wider than the bed it enclosed. She faced him as she had faced her mother's mirror, looked into his eyes to see what was reflected there. Then she slid off her clothes and climbed into the bed. She lay with her eyes closed waiting for the touch that would consume her.
Ailsa had never known what it was like to wake anywhere other than this room, this bed. Nevertheless she woke to a different world. At first she did not know why. She stretched across the bed and it was empty. Her new skin was cold and goose-pimpled, though the sun was high. Too high—this was later than she ever slept.
Ailsa dressed and ran out of the open doors. George's horse was gone, but looking along the road, down near the jetty, she saw it. Her father's horse stood near it. A little closer were the two figures, the larger one grasping the other by a handful of shirt, holding him almost off the ground. His free hand grabbed a brown shape from inside the shirt. A shower of white fell to the dirt, followed by the bag. Now the hand moved in a clubbing arc. It struck George on the side of his head. He slumped to his knees.
Then her father was moving, dragging the youth like a sack behind him, out towards the jetty. Ailsa started to run but they were too far away from her. As she hit the first board she saw the river turn the limp bundle twice around. Then it was gone.
Ailsa grabbed up the iron sack hook and kept on running, holding it two-handed above her head. It would have hit her father shoulder-high if he stood upright, but he was still bent, watching the foaming river. She swung with a convulsion of her whole body. The iron point sank into the base of his skull.
Ailsa's father straightened and turned, a look of surprise on his face. His normal sure-footedness deserted him. He moved one way, staggered back. Then he managed two long paces towards her. He looked at Ailsa with recognition, and she knelt and covered her head as he raised that massive arm. The movement was too much. No blow came.
Ailsa waited. She stood and looked around. Nothing except the rush of water and the horses and the house.
Ailsa cried with a pain like knives in her eyes. She felt something run down her face, warm and moist. When she wiped her cheek, her hand came away red. In the blood, sticking to her fingers, were bright gemstones like slivers of ice.
She went over and picked up the leather bag. She put the jewels in there, then scrabbled for the pearls and put those away also. She knew she would have to keep them safe. She was never going to cry again.
Ailsa washed herself, then sorted through her father's gear. She packed what she needed on the two horses, and put the leather bag under her clothing, close to her heart. When she was ready she set off leading the horses, walking the path that followed the river, winding downstream.
About the author
Tony Murfin grew up in rural Yorkshire. He has worked (too) many years in the chemical industry, three of them in North Carolina, and now lives with his wife (Professor Beverly) on the Wirral. He has had one story published in Edge Words (the Cheshire Prize anthology) and is currently studying for an MA by distance learning at Lancaster University.