The large stone house creaked with the sounds of people rising. Shoes thumping on the floors. A quick burst of laughter down the hall. Water splashing in basins as sleep was washed away from waking faces.
Sophie shut the wooden door to her sleeping room and made her way down the stairs, small feet clad in two layers of wool stockings under her loose wool trousers. She slipped quietly into the main kitchen of the large, multi-storied home.
Pale Terese was already there, measuring out oats into a huge pot of water at a rumbling boil on the cooker. Their little commune household had agreed on the purchase of the squat white gas cooker last autumn, and Terese was beside herself with joy.
The other households in their commune followed soon behind, once the commune cooks tested out the gas cooker. The efficiency of the tool was declared a worthy communal expense.
Terese still used the small kitchen fire to warm the room, though, and the copper tea kettle still hung on a cast iron arm over the flames. Sophie bet Terese would be happy without the fire come July.
The kitchen smelled of tea and wood fire, and the thyme, mint, and rosemary clustered in a bottle of water on the deep whitewashed frame of the multi-paned window.
And there must be bread in the oven of the cooker. Sophie could smell the baking. She patted her rumbling stomach.
The herbs were a bit early this Spring. Terese and the kitchen groupe must be happy to have them. Sophie wondered if there were enough to dry and trade with the other kitchen or cultivation groupes in the villages further north. She bet they were still waiting on herbs up near the Gael lands, especially the Highlands.
Terese smiled, showing a chipped front tooth. Her blond hair was stuffed up into a green cotton cap that matched the green wool of her long skirt. As usual, a rough white apron was tied over everything.
“There’s tea on,” she said.
“Ta for that,” Sophie said. “But I’ll wait ’til I’ve seen teh the sheep.”
Terese wiped her hands on her apron and held out her arms. “Hey. Happy birthday, Sofe.”
Sophie let herself be folded into a quick hug.
“Ta again, Terese. I’ll be back for breakfast soon enough.”
March 18th, 1915. Her nineteenth birthday. But work still needed to be done, no matter the day. Animals didn’t care what day it was. The humans traded off, giving each other a half day during busy seasons, or a full day once a week when things were slow, but there must be someone there. The animals didn’t tend themselves.
The change between the warmth of the kitchen and the stone floored mudroom heading out of doors was stark. Shivering a bit even in her wool sweater, Sophie thrust her arms into her coat and tugged a rough wool cap over her seal brown hair. She laced up the sturdy leather boots waiting at the door before stepping out. The animals were waiting, and she was part of the groupe that took care of the very sheep whose wool the weaver collectives in the mills down south used to spin the yarn for her warm sweater.
A weaver’s groupe one town over spun and wove fine shawls and the like for fancy bits, but for working sweaters, mill wool did just fine. One of Sophie’s own household, Jiayiang, was a fine weaver, but a better seamstress, so mostly she worked on sewing for the commune here, only weaving special things now and again.
Sophie shut the heavy wooden door behind her and turned to pause for a moment, like she did every day.
Sophie loved mornings the best. And she loved being out of doors.
The sun just crested the low, green hills of Northern Anglaterre. She gasped in delight at a murmuration of starlings, making their sudden, dancing shift, first north, then south, graceful black bodies backlit by the pinking sky.
Shoving her hands into coat pockets, Sophie hurried toward the long stone outbuildings where the animals lived during the colder months, and where the mother animals rested during their time of lying in.
A tall hound loped toward her. “Heyla, Digger,” she called softly. The dog bumped its narrow head against her waist. On most people, Digger would come up to their hip. He was a tall hound, and well, she was a small woman.
“There’s a good lurcher.” Digger followed her toward the long, slate roofed barns. Someone had left a hay fork leaning against the outside wall. Sophie tsked a bit at that, and grabbed the handle to bring it in and hang it up proper.
Sliding open the heavy, timbered door she smelled manure, straw, and warm animals. Four cows and two horses, and, taking up half the rest of the long building, the commune’s flock of sheep. Digger huffed at her side, then sneezed.
Soon the flock would sleep out of doors, but Robert thought it was still too cold yet. She hung the haying fork up with the other tools and scanned the stalls for her shift mate. Robert’s long wool coat hung from the pegs near the door. Sophie took a minute to shuck her coat herself.
“Hey, Robert,” she called softly, so as not to disturb the ewes.
“Here,” his voice came from the back, deep in the sheep pens. The ones near the back held warm beds for the four pregnant ewes.
“You coming, Digger?” The hound yawned and sank down onto a blanket in the corner. “Alright then, lazy, we’ll be puttin’ yeh teh work later, though.” Sophie said.
The black faced sheep munched at hay, eyes watching her as she walked by the roomy, open pens. The scent of lanolin and wool grew stronger the further back she walked.
Their creamy wool was thick and long, hanging almost to their velvet black feet. In another month or two, once the weather warmed, and well after the lambing, Sophie’s groupe would begin the hard task of shearing. The wool would be sorted and sent to the carders and combers.
Sophie would let the sheep out to the grass paddock before heading in to breakfast, but for now, it looked like they had plenty of fodder. Robert had already changed their water in the metal troughs set high on pen walls, it looked like. If you kept their water on the ground, the sheep were bound to shit in it, or stick a mucky hoof in.
Robert, black hair almost as curly as sheep’s wool, was crouched in one of the smaller pens, built with solid walls instead of slats. He bent over a sheep laying on the bed of straw. Robert’s sweater was shoved up on his dark brown forearms. His hands gently palpated one of the pregnant ewes. Her belly was huge, almost straining. Sophie couldn’t imagine anything would make the sheep comfortable.
“How is she?” Sophie asked, leaning on the wooden cross bar of the pen.
Robert looked up, smile slow and bright on his dark face. He had a small scar high up on his forehead, that was a shade paler than the rest of his skin, and shiny. Sophie had never thought to ask where it came from. It was as much a part of his face as his rounded eyes.
“She’s grand, Tatiana is. Should be another day or two. We’ll ask Thomas and Jane to keep watch tonight. Over Tatiana and Seelie both. The others look to be another week away, at least.”
The sheep breathed quietly under Robert’s touch, then moved away, trying to heave herself up to standing. Robert’s strong arms tucked themselves under her forelegs and hips to support the ewe.
“I’ll just let teh others out then, shall I?” Sophie asked.
Robert had returned to palpating the sheep’s belly now that the ewe was standing. He wanted to make sure the lamb was in its proper place. Tatiana was so large, he feared their might be two in there, and wanted to be prepared.
“Ta, Sophie. Grand.”
She started to walk away.
She turned again. He just stared at her a moment, like he was about to say something.
Then he blinked, and it was gone.
“Happy birthday,” he said.
“How long are we supposed to punish them?”
Terese’s voice rose in the kitchen, along with the scent of rashers frying and spitting on the cast iron griddle.
Sophie had washed her hands at the pump outside, and rinsed her boots as well. It wouldn’t do to bring sheep muck in the house. She dropped her boots by the door and shucked off her coat and hat, hanging them on the wooden pegs set into the stone walls.
The bread smelled like a bit of heaven to her. Bread, butter, bacon, and tea was Sophie’s all time favorite breakfast. She knew Terese had made bacon special for her birthday.
Padding into the kitchen, she heard Leonard’s voice reply.
“Forever, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Sophie rolled her eyes. This argument was trotted out every few months between those two.
What to do with the children of the time of The Exchange? Le Grande Echange had happened in Paris in 1790 –when the Commune members stormed the Bastille, freeing the prisoners and locking up the nobility in their stead. The effects rippled outward. All of the communities that had looked to Paris to see what might happen took heart, and then took matters into their own hands.
The Exchange slowly took place over the course of two years in England, from the summer of 1795 through 1798. There was minimal death in England, only a few of the most despotic nobles and merchants, mostly those in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, or the bare few who simply refused to give up their family seats. Most nobles, and the merchants who didn’t find somewhere to flee, found that acquiescing to a mob backed up with guns and steel was better than death, or the imprisonment that happened to their counterparts in France.
It took time, but slowly, the redistribution systems were in place.
Then, four years following, Anglaterre was formed. The Parliament of Communes met alternately in London and Manchester, every six months, with regional Commune meetings in between, where the small communes sent representatives to speak for their villages and towns, for the farmers, craftspeople, to settle disputes and see to decisions about the flow of trade among the larger Communes, and in other countries as well.
Every school child knew the history, but most didn’t bother to fight about it anymore.
The soft hearted believed that those who came from nobility –The Descendants– should be integrated more firmly into the smaller communes and groupes.
Those who’s ancestors had been dealt the most harshly with in the days before The Exchange believed that the Descendants could never suffer enough. The Descendants worked in groupes that held the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs. They were members of the Gray Communes, so called because their work clothing was seldom clean.
People like Terese believed those jobs should be shared out among all the groupes and communes. That the burden should not be placed on one sector.
“How are we any different than nobility, then? We make The Descendants into the servants of us all! It’s been over one hundred years! Surely they have repaid the debt they owe.”
Terese’s pale face was red from anger. She clacked the metal tongs in her right hand. Sophie just sighed and went to the fire to fill a heavy mug of tea.
“It can never be too long! We slaved for them for centuries!” Leonard shouted, banging his mug of tea on the wooden counter.
“Don’t burn the rashers!” Sophie said to Terese, who leapt and turned, flustered, and set the tongs onto the bacon rashers, flipping them from the spitting griddle and onto a waiting plate.
Stolid, stocky Louisa and her brother, Daniel, both large, ruddy-faced and muscular, entered the kitchen.
“Oh! Bacon!” Louisa squealed. It always made Sophie laugh when she did that. To see such a powerful woman squeal like a child was endearing.
Terese smacked at Louisa’s hand, which reached for one of the crisp rashers.
“You wait. Besides, Sofe gets first pick. It’s her birthday.”
Daniel gave Terese a quick kiss on the cheek and grabbed the honey pot, dripping the hoarded gold into his mug of tea, causing Leonard to wince. Leonard was very particular about his tea. He called honey “bee shite.”
“Happy birthday, Sophie,” Daniel said. “How old are you now? You’re still no taller than a gnat.”
Leonard walked through the big double doors, which always stood open, it seemed, and began setting plates and cutlery on a big farm table.
“Daniel and Louisa, can you please start bringing the food to the table?”
Sophie went to help, but was shooed away.
“You go sit down and drink your tea.”
“It’s just my birthday, I’m not an invalid,” Sophie protested. But she pulled out a wooden chair and sat, anyway.
Jiaying, dressed in a blue wool dress and red felted slippers hurried into the room with a huge smile on her narrow face. Her husband, Li, followed, in brown trousers and a cream shirt. His fingers were stained with dye, as usual.
“Happy Birthday, Sophie!”
Jiaying set a package onto the table. It was wrapped in course linen held in place with a piece of twine.
Sophie set her mug down on the long table and undid the twine bow, pulling back the linen. Beneath it was a beautiful cloth, with varied shades of blue and green woven into a long shawl. Jiaying was the best weaver in her groupe.
“You made this for me?” Sophie asked, running her hands over the cloth. It was so fine. Thick, warm wool, yet smooth as silk. Like nothing Sophie had ever owned before.
“I wove the cloth, but the others sheared, carded, and spun the wool. And Louisa dyed it from herbs Terese gathered. Li has been teaching her.”
Louisa nodded excitedly, her face filled with pride.
Robert came in, clean from the pump, and smiled when he saw Sophie with the shawl. “Do yeh like it?” he asked.
“I love it,” Sophie said, giving Jiaying a quick hug. Sophie stood then, and wrapped the shawl around her shoulders.
Robert looked at her appraisingly, and nodded, grin still on his face as Sophie swayed this way and that.
He held a brown mug of tea in his slender hands. That’s why he was so good with the ewes. His hands were long and slender, able to reach into tight spaces without hurting the laboring animals. He’d joined their commune three years ago, come from further south.
He said his parents were both dead, and he had no brothers or sisters, so no one to keep him in the place where he was born.
Sophie, born in this very building, was glad it seemed that he would stay.
“Thank you everybody!” she said, looking around the table at her friends. She had the best commune. After her parents moved south to a milder climate for her mother’s health two years ago, Sophie had stayed behind. She was glad she’d made that choice.
A clattering came from the mudroom door, and shouting. It was Boy-Boy’s voice, which was strange. Boy-Boy, though being only eleven, almost never shouted. Some folks thought him a bit simple, but Sophie didn’t see how someone as brilliant at fixing things as Boy-Boy could ever be thought so.
Daniel and Terese’s son was just a bit different in how he saw the world, Sophie figured, which is why any bit of machinery, or any tool, was soon working just right under his clever hands.
Daniel shoved back from the table, meeting Boy-Boy just inside the kitchen, He knelt, so his big head was level with Boy-Boy’s wool cap. Sandy brown hair stuck out higgledy-piggledy around Boy-Boy’s freckled face, and his green eyes were large as buckets.
“What’s teh matter, lad?” Daniel asked.
“An aeroplane!” Boy-Boy talked of aeroplanes all the time, and how much he would love to examine the mechanisms that kept them aloft, but it was rare they ever saw one, not being near a larger city, where the aeroplanes delivered mail from other countries, though most mail came by balloon or train.
“Perhaps it’s just off course a bit, from wind. But we’ll go look, all the same.”
“Hurry!” Boy-Boy said.
Chairs screeched and people shoved away from the table. Sophie draped her new shawl over a chair back, grabbed a piece of warm bread and a rasher and began to follow. She wasn’t eating cold bread and bacon on her birthday if she could still get it warm.
That’s when she noticed that Robert had stood up from the table, but wasn’t moving with the rest of them.
“You comin’ then Robert?” she asked.
He shook himself as though he’d been in a dream, and nodded. But he never said a thing, just walked toward the mudroom and his boots.
Sophie watched him go, then paused to take a bite of her breakfast, closing her eyes to savor the taste as she chewed. She took one more bite, then set the bread and bacon on the table and followed.
As she bent to tie on her boots, the sound of the aeroplane engine came closer.
Through the door, which Robert must have left ajar, came a low whirring, rumbling sound. The engine coughed before resuming the grrrrrr-grrrrr sound.
It was growing louder.
Sophie hurried into her wool coat and shoved her cap back on her head, remembering to shut the door behind her.
As she turned from the stone house, she almost ran smack into Robert’s back. He stood, stock still again, gazing at the sky where a biplane was descending toward the grazing field. It was a jaunty thing, painted white, with a big red number on the side.
Down in the grassy paddock just beyond the low stone barns, Digger barked. He raced around the black faced sheep, who baahed in confusion and lumbered toward the far fence. Daniel and Louisa walked wide armed toward the beasts, helping Digger herd the sheep away from where it looked the aeroplane might land.
Sophie should be down helping.
But Robert looked so all alone. His shoulders sloped forward, like he wanted to protect himself. Or run.
The others were just down the rise, clustered on the edge of the grassy paddock, eyes trained toward the sky.
“Robert?” Sophie said.
“You go on, Sophie.” His voice was clipped. He didn’t look at her, eyes riveted to the plane that coughed and rumbled it’s way downward. “I’ll be along.”
She stared at him for a moment, but couldn’t read the expression on his face. It wasn’t one she’d ever seen before.
“All right, then,” Sophie said, and trotted to the paddock, toward the others.
The plane dipped, slowing itself down, though the propeller still whirred. The closer Sophie got to the paddock, the louder the engine roared. It set itself down, wheels throwing up divots of earth and sod, and taxied toward the group, which moved well back, though the plane was in no danger of hitting them.
Sophie didn’t blame the communards. She would have back off, too.
By the time she arrived in the field, Boy-Boy was leaping up and down, Daniel’s big hand on his shoulder, keeping the boy from running straight at the plane.
“Da! Do you see the propeller?” he was shouting.
The plane came to a stop. They all waited. Terese and Daniel. Louisa. Jiaying and Li. Some of the rest of their little commune must have also heard the plane. More people were coming out from the barns and the stone houses on the other side of their land, wiping their hands on aprons, or holding hay rakes over their shoulders. Leonard waved at them to stay put, so they did, staring down at the paddock.
After a few minutes, the warm metal ticking in the cool morning air, a tall, thin man emerged, all spider-like, from the aeroplane. He was all wrapped up in a thick leather jacket, with large goggles over his eyes, and a cunning leather cap covered his head.
One hand reached up and swept the goggles off his face. He took the leather gloves from his hands, stuffed them in one pocket of his jacket.
Now it was Sophie’s turn to stand stock still and stare.
The man looked like Robert, only older. Salt wove its way through his dark, tight curls, and his skin was dark brown. And he had Robert’s rounded eyes.
She turned back to where Robert was still standing, in front of the big stone house. His arms were ramrod straight at his sides. Like he was frozen.
Jiaying was asking the man a question and Daniel was still trying to control Boy-Boy.
“I’m here to see Robert Cullen,” the man said. His voice was as rich as the honey Daniel loved.
“Please,” Jiaying said, “We were just about to breakfast. Will you join us?”
Sophie was about to step forward to stop her, but then stopped. She realized she didn’t know what she would say. She just knew this man shouldn’t be here. That Robert didn’t want to see him.
What she didn’t know was why.
Leonard ran off to tell the other commune members that the man was here to see Robert and they would offer a report as soon as there was news.
The rest of the group walked back up from the paddock, up the slow rise to the house where Robert still stood.
What was wrong with him?
Boy-Boy was pestering the man with questions, capering along beside him, short legs dancing to keep up with the man’s long stride.
“Shh, Boy-Boy, yeh’ll talk the man teh death,” Terese said.
“It’s fine,” the man replied. “I’ll be happy teh show yeh the aeroplane later, young man. You may ask me every question yeh like then.”
They finally reached the place where Robert stood. Sophie saw that tears ran silently down his face.
“Yeh going teh great me, boy?” the man asked, holding out a hand.
“What are yeh doin’ here?” Robert said.
The man dropped his hand.
“I came teh see my son.”
Robert shifted his feet and blinked rapidly. His long fingers tapped at the sides of his wool coat. Then he ran a hand over his close cropped hair.
“I don’t have a father,” he said. Then he stalked off, shoulders still hunched forward, to the barn.
The man –they still didn’t even know his name– stood still for a moment. Then he started to stride after Robert.
Leonard stopped him, hand on his arm. The man turned to swing at him, and Leonard punched his face. Daniel leapt forward, putting his bulk between them, and the man, panting, ran toward the barn.
Then Daniel’s heavy frame flew through the air.
Daniel’s bulk collided with the tall man’s frame, slamming them both onto the ground.
“Yeh’ll stay right here.” Daniel said.
Leonard shook out his hand. The rest of us just stood there. Even Boy-Boy.
Terese seemed to realize what was happening, rounded her son up and took him toward the house.
“He’s my son,” the man grunted out.
“That’s for him teh say, isn’t it?” Daniel replied. “We’ll just be walkin’ yeh back to yehr aeroplane.”
Leonard and Li both stepped up at that.
“Yes, I believe we shall,” Li said.
“I need more petrol. Almost out. Do yeh have some?”
Daniel kept his hands gripping the man’s heavy leather jacket, and heaved himself to his feet. Then he pulled the man up, until, stumbling, bleeding from a cut on his right cheek, the man stood.
“Leonard?” Daniel asked, still keeping one hand gripped on the jacket.
Leonard shook his head. “No. It’s not something we need to keep around. Yeh may be able to get some two communes over. They just purchased a tractor for their farm. Plan to lease it around.”
“I’ll just walk yeh to the end of the way here, set yeh the right direction,” Daniel said.
With Leonard and Daniel on either side, the man shuffled off toward the road.
He looked as defeated as Robert had. Except instead of running away, the man looked as though he couldn’t bear to leave. As though a great rope tugged him backward, toward the low stone barn.
Sophie turned toward the barn, and started walking, only to feel a hand on her arm. It was Li. He shook his head.
“Leave him. A man needs time,” he said.
Sophie dragged her own feet back to the big stone house.
There was cold bacon and bread waiting.
It was her nineteenth birthday.
Sophie’s room was freezing.
The warm bricks wrapped up at her feet kept the bed warm, at least. The temperature had dropped again. She hoped the ewes were well. The night shift would have checked on them and lit a fire in the long barn if they found it necessary.
The house was quiet around her. Just the dripping of a light rain outside, and the occasional groan of the timbers settling. Leonard was snoring down the hall.
She hoped Robert was well. When she’d gone to bring the sheep back to the barn, he was no longer there. She lingered, helping Thomas and Jane ready the animals for the night. Finally, though, she just went in to supper, and then waited up as long as she could, doing mending by the firelight in the common room with Louisa until the woman looked at her kindly and said it was time to wrap the bricks up and go to bed.
That was hours ago. There was still no sound from Robert’s room next door.
Sophie turned on her narrow bed again, and punched at her pillow. Nothing was going to make her comfortable tonight.
She heard something downstairs. The big door opening and shutting. Someone stirring up the hearth fire in the common room.
It must be Robert. Sophie slipped out of bed, her feet hitting the cold wood planks, breath coming out in a quick huff at the cold. She skittered to the little chest of drawers at the foot of her bed and pulled her wool stockings out, then took her flannel robe from the peg on the door and tied it on.
She creaked open the door and paused for a moment. It was still so cold. Taking the soft wool birthday shawl from the slat backed chair inside her room, she wrapped it around her shoulders. That was better.
Sophie made her way down the hallway toward the stairs, feeling her way along the whitewashed walls, taking care to not bump the few pictures hanging there. She could see the rose gold flickering of the fire at the bottom of the stairs.
Then she heard two men’s voices and stopped.
Robert’s voice she would recognize anywhere. The other was that man. His father.
She knew she should go back to bed, and give the men some privacy, but she just couldn’t. Moving carefully, she sat down on the top step, leaned her shoulder against the wall, and tucked her stockinged feet under her nightdress.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Robert was saying.
“Yeh know I said I get yeh if we needed yeh,” the man said.
There was a scraping sound. The poker on the hearth bricks. Then the sound of a new log being thrown on the fire.
“Well, I told you I wanted nothing to do with it. None of it.”
“We need yeh, son.”
Robert made a low sound in his throat.
“Those people you run with can rot in hell.”
Sophie had never heard Robert talk that way.
“Look at me, son.”
Sophie crept down, step by step. She had to see.
“Look at my hands,” the man continued.
She crept until the stairwell wall opened up, giving her a view of the common room. Crouching near the bannister, she just hoped neither of the men would look up.
The man grabbed at Robert’s long, slender, fingers. Robert pulled himself away.
“Look at your own hands!” the man said.
“I know well enough what I look like. That has nothing to do with your secret groupe or whatever you call yourselves. Those people you say you’re helping? Do you think one of them would have ever helped you?” Robert grated out, his voice starting to rise. “Do you think one of them ever helped your great grandfather when the blood was running down his back?”
The man waved a hand toward the fire, as if to flick Robert’s words away.
“Yeh look at this all the wrong way ‘round, son.”
There was disappointment in the man’s voice.
“You chose them over me,” Robert said. “You chose them over mother, and she’s dead from your neglect. You have no right to come here and destroy my peace.”
The man sighed. “Maybe I was wrong in that.” He leaned forward, face intent on Robert, who stared into the fire, back rigid. Raindrops fell down the chimney and hissed into the fire.
“Maybe I need time to make it right. But there’s a fire in me. Yeh know that. And I got teh make that right, too.”
Robert turned, round eyes narrowed, face a mask of stone.
“No. I don’t know that. All I know is the fool’s errand you’re all on, and the danger you’ve put me in here.”
“But the Gray Communes…”
Robert picked up the poker and jabbed the logs, sending a spray of sparks up the chimney.
“Can go teh hell.” Robert shook his head. “They’ve used you, Da. Just like their ancestors, the Descendants are using you all.”
Sophie gasped and Robert’s head shot up, catching her eyes. The man stood suddenly, hands palm forward at his chest, as though ready to ward off a blow.
Sophie stood herself, tucked the shawl more tightly around her shoulders, and came the rest of the way down the stairs.
She never took her eyes off Robert’s face. His eyes bored into hers.
“You need to tell me what is happening, Robert. If the commune is threatened by this man, we need to know.”
Robert set the poker on the stand next to the fire.
“There’s no danger, Sophie. None at all. This man standing here is just a fool. He’s only a danger to the people he says he loves.”
Sophie moved closer to Robert, to the fire. The warmth of it slipped through the layers of her robe and nightdress. Even the wide wooden planks beneath her stockinged feet were warm.
“I thought you said your family was dead.”
“They are,” Robert said. “My Ma died of a failed heart, and I don’t even know this one’s name.”
The man’s face crumpled in the firelight and his eyes grew bright with moisture.
“He’s my son, miss. And I need him.”
“No.” Robert stopped. “No. The foolishness you walked away from your family for, that’s what you think needs me. Well, I’m staying here.”
The big wooden door creaked open and footsteps echoed on the wood. A dark face in a all wrapped up in wool peaked into the room.
It was Jane, come from the barns.
“Glad teh see folks is awake. Robert, yeh gotta come teh the barn. Tatiana’s in trouble and Thomas and me can’t help her.”
Robert and Sophie looked at one another.
“I’ll just go put some pants on. You go, Robert. Go.”
Sophie heard Robert fumbling into boots and coats and then the big door groaned shut.
She stared at the man.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“You’re the first person to ask me that. But I’m afraid I can’t tell you. You can call me Quobnah.”
The name tickled something at the back of Sophie’s head, but she couldn’t catch the thread.
“Well Quobnah,” she said, “If you can’t tell me your name, that means you’re a danger somehow. Now, I don’t know how a man such as yourself could be a danger to us all in peacetime,” she leveled her gaze at him. The man didn’t blink. “But if you put our commune, or our villages, in danger, things won’t go well for you. Now, I have work to do.”
She moved toward the stairs.
The man spoke to her back. “He can’t see that this is all a lie. It’s a lie built on other lies. None of you can see it, can you?”
Sophie stopped and turned to him. He looked both proud and defeated. She never knew a man to look that way before.
Terese might. And Sophie never knew her to be a fool. But Terese wasn’t going around doing who knows what this man was doing. Something that frightened Robert enough that he’d moved half the country away.
Terese was here with them.
“I don’t suppose you can fly your aeroplane at night, but come the morning, you’d best be on your way.”
By the time Sophie got to the barn, Tatiana was making strange noises and the other sheep were restless in their pens. The ewe’s back legs kicked out against the straw.
“Sshh, there, ssh,” Jane held the ewe’s head gently.
Thomas was doing something at the back chimney, and Sophie could hear the hiss of hot coal dropping in a bucket of water.
Robert’s eyes were closed, both hands softly running over Tatiana’s belly.
Sophie came closer and crouched down on the straw.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
Jane whispered back, “Tatiana looked teh go into laboring three hours ago, and it was all fine. She shoulda had twelve more hours teh go, so we didn’t think we needed yeh.”
Tatiana jerked her legs again, straining, Jane stroked the sheep’s velvety black head.
“Ssh, girl. Sssshhhh. Can yeh massage her dock?”
Sophie pressed her fingers through the layers of thick wool until she felt the quivering muscles above the ewe’s tail. She began to press, gently, then harder.
“Robert isn’t sure yet what’s the matter. He thinks the lamb got turned around.”
Robert finally raised his head and opened his eyes.
“It isn’t that,” he said. “The lamb is just too big for her.”
“Is there anything to do?” Sophie asked.
Thomas came up with two metal pails filled with water.
“I have the hot water,” he said. “Sofe, can you get the soap for Robert? And the lanolin cream?”
“Get a blanket and fold it into a pad,” Robert said to Thomas, as Sophie went to get the soap and cream. “We’ll have to raise her hindquarters if I’m going to be able to help her.”
By the time the lamb was delivered, and the small tears in Tatiana were sewn up, the sky was the gray of predawn.
Sophie saw that Robert washed up again, then she and Thomas practically carried him into bed.
The man wasn’t in the house, but Sophie didn’t care. She hoped that he was gone.
Back in her own room, Sophie was exhausted. She smelled of sheep and blood, and afterbirth. Jane had stayed with Tatiana and the lamb. Sophie promised to come back after she’d slept a couple of hours.
The water in her chipped basin was cold, but Sophie couldn’t stand to not wash herself. She stripped down to her underclothes and rubbed the soft soap over her arms, face, and hands. As her hands slipped up under her arms, she heard the usual noises of the house rising.
Other people splashing water in their basins. The low voices of Daniel and Boy-Boy. Terese heading down the stairs.
But there was another sound, too. A low, keening, shuddering to a stop. Then soft, muffled sobbing.
Robert, in his room. Should she go to him? Was it right?
A soft ch-ch-ch-ch-chhhhuuup, came from the paddock, then a low rrrrrr that turned into a buzzing.
Sophie looked out of her window.
The white plane with the red seven painted on the side took to the sky.
The sun broke over the hills of Anglaterra.
It wasn’t her birthday anymore.
Sophie sighed, and slipped back into her robe. Then she creaked open her bedroom door and went to see if Robert needed comforting.
That’s what family was for.
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