Jessica Simpkiss: Poor Men’s Currency (fiction) Nov 2018

Poor Men’s Currency

I sat at the kitchen table with my mother while we watched through the large bay window waiting for my father’s return. The fire sizzled and popped loudly from the other room. I listened as my mother’s fingers tapped nervously on the wooden tabletop, the callouses from the years of working the loom almost completely healed. Even the skin on my own hands had softened with the lack of work we’d been cursed with. My nails were clear and not muddied with dirt for once, but I missed the feeling of work on my hands.

After an hour had passed and my father had still not returned from his meeting with the Tweed man, I excused myself from my mother’s company. I found my way to the nearly empty pastures we still tended. In the distance I could see a handful of sheep grazing, their hot pink proprietorship stripes clashing angrily against the drab brown background of the hillside. The mothers were heavy with babies and promises in their bellies. Lambing was still at least ten days away. It wouldn’t be much work when they came, but amidst the nothingness, we found ourselves in the middle of, it was something.

The wind had picked up and the handful of sheep moved into the shadow of the hillside, hunkering down in the small crevasses after hours of grazing. The sun scrambled through the fast-moving clouds and glittered on the surface of the lake like fairy dust, begging to be swum in. As a child in the summer, I had braved the cool water, letting it sting my skin. Now that I was grown, I thought I wouldn’t have time for such frivolity. I kicked the dry dirt as I walked the pastures, leaving clumps of hay and filling the feed buckets as I did. What should have taken all day now took less than an hour. All I had was time and worry.

I tried to put memories of the past and fears for our future aside, but the two pulled me in opposite directions, leaving my insides in relentless turmoil. I’d walked all the way to the edge of the pasture, where the green-brown color of the ground disappeared into the blue of the sea stretching out to the horizon. I found a flat rock to lean against and duck out of the reach of the biting wind. I would have sat but the ground was still burnt in places. The smell of burning heather mixed with lamb’s wool spun in the air between the rocks and flooded my mind with painful memories of trying to save the animals that gave us life. Their deaths had been ours as well. Now, our lives had been placed in the hands of the Tweed man my father knew and his compassion for a family of sheep farmers living on the edge of extinction.

The wind died enough for me to hear the cry of the season’s first lamb. It wasn’t unheard of for mothers to lamb this early, but it made keeping the babies alive more difficult. Early lambs were weak and could freeze easily in the harshness of the winter that always lingered well into spring. His cries were shrill and desperate, but so were ours.

My father’s footsteps took the place of the lambs cries when he got close enough. The crunch of his boots over the dried and blackened grass grew louder the closer he came. When he perched on the rock next to me, he could hear the penetrating cry of the lamb as I had. His face was sullen and sad, gray like the storm clouds that hung over the horizon. We stood next to each other in silence, listening to the change we both knew the wind was bringing in.

“Will he still let me work the sheep?” I finally asked.

“He says he will, if that is your wish.” 

“It is,” I answered, knowing my place was in the field with the beasts and not behind the loom like other women.

“How many?” I asked, our eyes still unable to meet.

“Five hundred, and a hundred more each year for the first five years.”

I smiled. I would not cry like the lamb. I knew my place in this world and now I knew what my life was worth.

“Not bad,” I laughed, touching my father’s face to bring us eye to eye. “A thousand sheep will keep you the way an unmarried daughter never could.”