In 1551 the Italian surgeon Fiorovanti was travelling in Africa when he came upon two men fighting a duel. The cause is unrecorded: a camel? a woman? While Fiorovanti stood watching, one man sliced off the other's nose. The fight continued, but the surgeon's attention was elsewhere. He retrieved the flesh from the sandy ground and rinsed it in urine. As soon as the fight ended, he accosted the owner--winner or loser, again we don't know--sewed the nose back on, applied balsam and bandages. The patient, convinced only that absurdity was being heaped upon his suffering, argued throughout these ministrations. But eight days later, when Fiorovanti removed the bandages, there was the man's face, once again whole.
I do not know when or where Fiorovanti was born, but I was born in 1920 in the lowlands of Scotland, outside the town of Troon, less than thirty miles north of Alloway, where Robert Burns lived. It is a mild-mannered part of the country. The fields are fertile and predictable, with foaming hawthorn hedges and woods of beech, chestnut, and birch. Even as a little girl I judged the landscape inferior to the one I knew from stories, the fierce, dour Highlands where my mother had spent her childhood. My father, who had never travelled north of Glasgow, felt the same. Into his accounts of her life he wove the old legends: stories of the valley where Agricola's lost legion held sway over the blue-faced Picts; of a glen, high in the Cromalt Hills, where the dead carded and spun wool, gathered honey, and made mead and no one could distinguish them from the living. You might think such tales would have been rendered counterfeit by the barrage at Ypres and Armentières, but in my childhood they were still common currency. Perhaps the weight of so many new dead could only be borne with the help of the old.
I arrived in the upstairs room at Ballintyre close to morning on a mild April day after a labour that lasted twenty-four hours. The midwife who attended my mother sat by the bed, knitting a cardigan for her nephew out of the slate-grey wool left over from the endless socks and scarves of the War. The soft clicking of her needles accompanied my mother's struggles.
The midwife turned two sleeves, the earth turned once, and my mother's cries ceased with almost shocking completeness. "There, Barbara," said the midwife, her forearms streaked with blood, "I knew you could do it. You have a lovely girl."
She held me out towards the bed.
"Closer," begged Barbara. Without her glasses the world wavered. Obediently the midwife stepped forward into the circle of light that fell around the oil lamp; Barbara extended a cautious hand. Only then, as she touched my skin, warm, damp, smoother than a rose petal, did her fears subside. She yawned.
The midwife smiled down approvingly. "That's the ticket. You take a wee nap while I show Mr. McEwen his daughter."
Crooked in her arm, I would like to think I gave some sign of protest at leaving Barbara--curled my toes or furrowed my brow--but the protests that are recorded came from elsewhere. We were almost at the door when an outburst of sound drew the midwife to the window. In the early morning light a flock of magpies was fighting in the apple tree. The tree was in full bloom, and as the birds tussled among the branches, the blossoms drifted down, like snow, onto the dark soil. With a harsh screech a bird flew away over the garden wall; one by one the others followed.
"What is it?" asked Barbara drowsily.
"Some magpies squabbling in the apple tree." The midwife leaned towards the glass, counting. "One, two ... six," she declared.
"Six magpies? Are you certain?"
But already we had turned away again. "Take a nap," the midwife repeated from the door. "I'll be back in a trice."
She carried me down the narrow stair, scarcely wider than a tea tray, to the kitchen, where my father, David, had sat through the night, embroidering a cushion cover. Later he would show me the awkward fern that marked my advent. When the midwife opened the door, he leapt to his feet. The two of them gazed down at me, David blinking back his tears. "Eva," he said. "Welcome."
The midwife praised his choice of name and sent him to fetch more coal from the scullery. I was tucked into a dresser drawer beside the stove. They had a well-earned cup of tea. David paced back and forth, too excited to sit but sufficiently mindful to ask after the midwife's nephew; she described his engineering exams in detail.
When she had finished her tea, she carried a cup upstairs. How soon did she know that Barbara was not merely asleep? From my own experience, I suspect as soon as she opened the door. Illness has an aura; it hovers above the body. Whatever hope lingered would have been banished by the raspberry hue of Barbara's cheeks, the nickering of her breath.
The doctor took Barbara's pulse, listened to her chest, and shook his head. No penicillin in those days. The influenza was back, he said, and squeezed her hand in farewell.
Saint Cuthbert's churchyard already had two whole rows of graves marking the autumn of 1919. In one of my nursing books a map showed how the disease spread north, like oil creeping up a wick. It passed from Manchester to Bradford, Bradford to Newcastle, Newcastle to Berwick, and on up through Scotland until eventually cases were reported as far north as John o'Groats. My parents had survived unscathed until the morning of All Hallows', when Barbara fainted at the breakfast table. She was unconscious for four days and confined to bed for a month. Then she had seemed to recover--until I arrived.
One of Barbara's favourite stories, also one of mine, was "The Little Mermaid," and that is how I imagine her death that day. As the sun rose she passed back through her youth and childhood down to the sea. Deeper and deeper she dove, to where the king's daughterskept their gardens, and the fishes and sea horses greeted her like an old friend. Nothing could call her back, not my father's urgent voice at her bedside, not my cries, which rose in volleys from the drawer beside the stove. Perhaps the noise even sped her on her way; she had stayed only long enough to bring me into the world.
Some parts of this story are true in one way, some in another. Now that I too have worked, married, had a child, I bring to Barbara's life the details of my own. My birth, the visitation of the magpies, her abrupt decline: these oft-repeated tales took on the lustre of the much-polished, seldom-used mahogany table in the parlour.
The magpies were the midwife's story. When I was old enough to go shopping with Aunt Lily, we sometimes met her bicycling down the main street in Troon. She would stop, straddling her bike, to chat about her most recent delivery. If matters had gone well, she was full of banter. Failure made her sombre, and then the sight of me, a reminder of one, drew a windy sigh. "I never saw a woman fade as fast as Mrs. McEwen," she would say. "One minute I was showing her the baby, and the next she was gone. Just a slip of a lass."
"Barely twenty," Lily confirmed. "You did everything you could."
The midwife shook her head. "Maybe if I'd sent for the doctor when I saw the magpies. I'll always regret mentioning them. The last words she heard, poor lamb."
"You can't trust the birds," said Lily. "We saw three at the bottom of the lane this morning."
Together they repeated:
"One for sorrow, two for mirth, Three for a wedding, four for a birth. Five's a christening, six a dearth, Seven's heaven, eight is hell. And nine's the devil his ane sel'."
"I've no plans to get married," Lily went on. "And you don't see four at every birth, do you?"
"No," admitted the midwife. "Well, Eva looks bright as a button. Are you being a good girl?"
I mumbled a yes into the scratchy tweed of Lily's skirt. The midwife patted my head and pedalled off down the street.
Ballintyre had been our family's home ever since my grandparents rented the house from a local farmer. David and his two sisters were all born in that same upstairs room. Later, Violet married an Edinburgh greengrocer, and Lily moved to Glasgow in 1914 to be a secretary. But David had gone on living in the doughty stone house, first with their parents, then without them. At the age of forty-six, he had surprised everyone by up and marrying Barbara. When she died, after less than two years, he summoned Lily.
Lily wept as she read the telegram. Only the past summer she and Barbara had spent hours walking on the beach, gathering razor shells and discussing whether animals had souls and how Lily, recently enfranchised with other women over thirty, should cast her vote. They had joked about the long wait before Barbara could enter a polling booth. "Eleven years," Lily had said.
She never thought, as she packed an overnight bag and told heremployer she needed a week's leave, that her own life too had been struck by lightning. But almost as soon as she crossed the threshold at Ballintyre and found David blinded by grief and every room shaken by my cries, the impossibility of departure became apparent. She telegrammed her employer for a second week's leave, and at the end of that she wrote two letters, one resigning from her job, another asking her landlady to pack her trunk and send it to Troon. Perhaps there was a third letter, a letter she never mentioned.
I wailed like a banshee until the night of the funeral. Then I seemed to decide that sorrow was the least of my tasks and gave my attention to eating and sleeping. Lily, a youngest child herself, had little experience of babies and her reminiscences of those early days were a catalogue of near disasters: the time she almost dropped me on the stove, the time a cat sneaked into my crib. "It's a wonder you survived your first year," she would say. "You led a charmed life."
The most serious occasion, though, an occasion in which her clumsiness played no part, she confided only after I had left home to study nursing in Glasgow. That spring I caught bronchitis, and Lily came to visit me in the infirmary. Perched on a chair beside my bed in the women's ward, she told me about the afternoon she'd been polishing the silver while I took a nap. She had sat at the kitchen table, rubbing the spoons until the bowls winked back at her; then she moved on to Barbara's hairbrush. She was working on the handle, a posy of embossed flowers, when she decided to check on me.
In the hallway she stopped, aghast. Sixteen steep wooden stairs led up to the bedrooms and there, within inches of the topmost stair, I lay. How Lily reached me, she never knew. In an instant she held me to her bosom. "Eva, my precious," she murmured. "My cherub."
When her terror receded, she carried me back to my room;what she saw there made her startle all over again. My crib was in the corner, with the bars--here Lily gestured at the rails of the next bed--still in place. "Though what difference did that make," she added, "when you could barely sit up?"
I nodded, too hoarse to speak, and she turned to describing the church whist night. David too, when she'd told him, had merely dipped his head. Those early months he was like an automaton, lifeless as the young men sent back from France. If she had claimed to find me flying around the chimney, he would have nodded. He bicycled to and from his insurance office; he went to Saint Cuthbert's on Sunday; he did what Lily told him. Often in the middle of the night he slipped out of the house to visit Barbara's grave.
Shortly after Christmas he emerged from the underworld of mourning. One frosty evening he hurried into the kitchen and, without stopping even to remove his bicycle clips, took Lily's hands in his and thanked her.
So I came to consciousness in the company of these two middle-aged people--and a third, much younger. Barbara was dead but far from gone. On all sides were reminders that Ballintyre was still her home: a gauzy studio photograph above my bed, the back door she had painted scarlet, a curious hat stand in the hall which she'd rescued from Larch House, where she worked as a housemaid when she first came to Troon.
Lily and David spoke of her often, their tones suggesting that she was away on holiday and would, in her own good time, return. Indeed, as I followed Lily round the house, she sometimes addressed Barbara directly. "Why did you let David buy such a wee carpetsweeper?" she would say, or "How could you put up with this stingy washing line?"
In the evenings after supper, David took me onto his knee and told me stories. When Barbara was dying, he had clung to the notion that if he held her in his thoughts unwaveringly, if he did not allow himself for a moment to be distracted, his love would carry her to safety, like a raft across a dangerous river. Now he told me about her life with the same vivid concentration.
"Barbara grew up a hundred miles north of here in the valley of Glenaird. There was no town, like we have, only a famous boys' school and a big house, the Grange, where her father was a gamekeeper and her mother a housekeeper. Barbara divided her time between them according to season. In summer she accompanied her father on his rounds. In winter she helped indoors. Her mother said if she polished the brass door plates hard enough she would see her future husband."
"And she saw you," I said.
David laughed. "She saw someone with a moustache. She tried it once at Larch House, and the head housemaid gave her a terrible scolding."
"We went to Larch House today," I offered.
"That's right," said Lily. "On our way to the cobbler's."
Then it was time for another kind of story. David told me about a boy, born on the Isle of Skye, who wouldn't stop growing. He became a giant, famous for his strength and his bad temper. "He had very big white teeth," David said, clicking his own modest ones. "And people used to say, whenever a boy or girl disappeared, that Hamish had eaten them."
Later, as I climbed into bed, I was sure the giant was lurking inthe garden, waiting to sink his teeth into me. If I opened the curtains, I would see him, towering over the apple tree, nose pressed to the glass. I clutched Lily's hand and babbled my fears.
"The giant is from long ago, Eva. We don't have giants now at Ballintyre, and if we did the Wrights' dogs would chase them away."
"There aren't any giants," Lily repeated. "Do you want to take out my earrings?" She bent down so I could reach her ears. While I fumbled the fine gold wires out of the mysterious holes, the giant tiptoed away.
By my fifth autumn I could walk the mile into town, and I joined David in his weekly visits to Barbara. On Saturday after lunch we picked a bunch of woody-stemmed chrysanthemums from the garden. Then we set off down the lane, David carrying the flowers, me skipping beside him. At the churchyard, he threw last week's blooms on the compost heap and filled the vase with fresh water from the rain barrel. Meanwhile I cleared away the fallen leaves. A copper beech grew near the door of the church, and week after week throughout the autumn, leaves blew across the graves. David set the chrysanthemums in front of the stone and reminded me that Barbara too had grown up visiting a churchyard. "Her sister, Elizabeth, died of polio," he said. "She was just fourteen, poor thing."
"Poor thing," I echoed cheerfully. Fourteen sounded old to me.
As he scraped a clump of moss off a corner of the stone, David described his first meeting with Barbara. He was waiting to see the optician--once again he had sat on his glasses--when the door of the inner office opened and a young woman stumbled out, almostfalling over the threshold. David jumped up to help; glimpsing her damp cheeks, he proffered his handkerchief. In exchange Barbara confided her sorrows. Ever since she arrived in Troon, a few months ago, something had happened to her eyes. "I was always the first," she told him, "to spot the deer on the hills, the grouse in the heather. And now even the trees across the road are blurry." She had managed to conceal her condition until the previous Sunday, when her employer caught her squinting at the hymn board in church. "She was so upset," David said, patting the stone. "She was sure no one would ever talk to her again if she wore specs."
In my imagination the gravestone became a door. It swung open and there was Barbara, going about her daily business, polishing brasses, wearing her spectacles. She was nearby but inaccessible--rather like Aunt Violet, who lived in Edinburgh.
On our way to and from Saint Cuthbert's we passed Miss MacGregor's school. I would stop and press my face to the gate, yearning to be among the boys and girls inside. Soon, David promised, and one afternoon, shortly after my sixth birthday, when Lily and I were making pie crusts at the kitchen table, he raised the subject.
"School," Lily exclaimed. "She's still a bairn."
"We went at her age."
Lily gave a snort and pressed down on the rolling pin so hard that a thin tongue of pastry hung over the edge of the table.
A few days later, though, she did produce a primer, and every morning, before the shopping, I sat making long rows of letters and numbers and reading about Percy, the bad chick. It was school I craved, not study, but by dint of threats and promises Lily drummedinto me the three Rs. Soon I was adding my own postscript to the weekly letter to Violet: Love Eva, xoxox.
That summer was particularly fine, and I set up house for myself and Mary, my doll, under the red-currant bushes. When I had the rooms furnished, I fetched Lily. "Here's the kitchen," I said. "And here's your room. This is your bed."
"Very nice." Lily fingered a cluster of currants. "We'll soon be making the jam." She headed back to the kitchen.
A few minutes later a voice said, "What a cosy house."
A woman was peering through the branches. Everything about her shone as if she had been dipped in silver. Her hair was white as the swans I saw when David took me fishing, and she wore a white dress with little blue checks. "What's that?" she asked, pointing to an empty matchbox.
"That's the stove. And here's the pantry." I indicated a grassy niche lined with pebbles.
"Oh, you've made lots of preserves, like Aunt Lily."
I knew, of course, that they were only pebbles with grit clinging to them, but her understanding transformed them into rows of bottled plums and blackberries.
"I brought you something," said another voice. A girl with long braids joined the woman. She was seven or eight years older than me, with a rosy face and eyes the colour of bluebells. Her pinafore was hiked up so I could see her knees, dirty and grazed like my own. She handed me half a dozen acorns. "I thought they'd make good cups and saucers."
Both the woman and the girl looked familiar. Perhaps I had seen them at Saint Cuthbert's, or the Co-op? The sun had been shining all along and there was no wind, but now the day grew much warmer.For a moment, with my two guests leaning through the doorway of my little house, I forgot to breathe. Everything was so clear and distinct that it seemed to leave no room for me. Then I thought I was only what Lily called overheated. I took off my cardigan and served them tea in the acorn cups; they sipped appreciatively.
Later, when I went indoors to wash for lunch, I told Lily, "The woman doesn't take sugar. But the girl likes two spoons."
"She must have a sweet tooth," said Lily. "Stand still. There's a twig in your hair."
Several weeks passed, enough time for me to have largely forgotten my visitors, before they came again. One morning Lily and I were on our way to gather the eggs when we heard the tinkle of the knife sharpener's bell in the lane, and she hurried off to give him the carving knife. Alone, clutching the egg bowl, I wandered down the cinder path towards the henhouse. At that age waiting, even briefly, made me feel as if I had been cut free of my moorings and was slowly drifting away.
"Why don't you go in and get the eggs? Think how surprised Lily would be."
The girl, in her blue pinafore, was swinging on the lowest branch of the apple tree. "I dare you," she said, dropping to the ground and darting around the side of the house.
What a good idea. There was the knotted door, the latch, well within my reach. I stepped inside and, setting the empty bowl on the straw, shut the door.
Lily treated the hens with businesslike contempt, and in her company I found it easy to do the same. "Move, chookie," I wouldsay, and put my hand into the nest. Now, alone in the small hut, the nine hens grew larger and fiercer by the second. "Go away," I whispered.
Something warm brushed my leg. "Aunt Lily!" I cried. But the thick air swallowed my voice.
Jemima, the black hen, began to push forward.
"Shoo, shoo. Off you go."
The woman stood beside me, the silvery woman, clapping her hands. "Come on, Eva. Let's get the eggs."
I felt as I had beneath the red-currant bushes, suddenly squeezed and breathless. "Come on," she said again.
She held the bowl for me while I went from nest to nest, and I noticed she had to stoop to avoid hitting the cobwebby roof, whereas Lily could stand upright with ease. "See?" she said, at the last nest. "You don't need to be scared of the hens." She placed the bowl in my hands.
Before I could thank her, the sound of footsteps made me glance towards the door. By the time I looked back, the woman was gone. I could not have said how. Did she melt through the walls, crawl out of the hatch by which the hens came and went? Between one moment and the next she simply disappeared.
"Clever girl," Lily said. "You got the eggs all by yourself."
"No. The woman helped me."
"That was kind. Next time maybe she can give you a hand to tidy your room." She took the bowl and ushered me out of the henhouse.
EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE. Copyright © 2001 by Margot Livesey. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.