Agnes has a headache. The thick air presses her temples, her heavy-lidded eyes squint despite the lack of sun. She glances up, for the hundredth time that morning. Black clouds broil above the fields, frothing like a mad dog’s spit, resisting the wet wind tossing them across a purple sky to merge with the distant mountains. The wind is false, mild, non-wintry. Agnes crosses herself and returns to raking out the pig’s sty. The Devil has been let loose from Hell this morning. Her thoughts go to Evan, fishing on the river. He’s a farmer, not a fisherman, but the rare higher tide today has tempted him. Lamprey for our supper tonight, he told her with his big grin when he left in the darkness. The river will run fast. Agnes shivers. She never trusts the river. It might be called Severn these days but Agnes has heard the heathen Romans called the river Sabrina, worshipped her as a goddess and the Good Lord knows she’s every bit as temperamental as any goddess. Agnes crosses herself again.
She finishes her raking, slow and clumsy with her big belly, bloated with child. She throws fresh straw into the sty, refills the water trough. The pig crouches in a corner, tiny eyes watching her. It seems wary, as if Agnes is a stranger come to do it harm. Not yet, piggy, not yet.
Agnes presses one hand to her throbbing head, another to her belly, and returns the pig’s stare before waddling across the yard to the farmhouse. The hens cluck around her legs, fluffing their feathers. Agnes impatiently pushes the most persistent aside with her boot. They follow her inside, cackling as if their necks are about to be wrung. Agnes scowls. Their necks might well be wrung if they keep this up.
‘Lewis,’ she says to her six-year-old, and the oldest, ‘did you search all over for eggs? These idiot birds will have laid them in any hole or under any bush today.’
‘Yes, Ma.’ Lewis pokes the fire with a stick and reaches for the last of the wood piled by the hearth.
Agnes sighs, pulls her shawl tighter and peers into the cradle where baby Rhys sleeps. She strokes his fat pink cheek. A beautiful baby, quiet. An angel.
‘Where is Gwillim?’ Agnes says. ‘Is he fetching wood?’
Lewis shakes his head. ‘He wanted to go fishing with Da.’
A cold finger slides down the nape of Agnes’ neck. Gwillim is four, and fearless. ‘He’s gone to the river?’
‘Then you must fetch the wood while I find him. A storm is coming, a violent storm. He’ll be blown away if he’s caught out in it.’
She goes into the yard and looks up, again, at the sky. The wind pulls at her uncapped hair to send it swirling about her head like the swirling of lampreys in the river.
‘Stupid, stupid Evan,’ she mutters. ‘Stupid, stupid Gwillim’.
Her chest tightens and she runs into the wind, through the gate in the stone wall which protects her vegetables from the sheep, and along the path to the river.
She stops. Water races towards her. It covers the path and spreads to the left and the right, churning in a froth of brown and dirty white like storm waves on the seashore.
But it’s not the blue sea. Agnes recognises the colours of the river, which, it seems, reached its high tide and wasn’t content to stop. Instead it has swelled like Agnes’ stomach until it’s burst the non-too-sturdy defences meant to keep it to its own banks.
Evan? Gwillim? Agnes can’t breathe.
She steps forward, into the water, and is knocked to her backside. It rises, rises, and Agnes is pushed and dragged, straining to stand but her belly and her sodden skirts drag her, the river tumbling her like a stone. A sheep floats past, legs scrabbling, terror-wide eyes rolling. It bleats. There’s more bleating, the heartrending cries joining together to lift above the silence of the rising waters, to cut through the braying of the wind.
Agnes heaves against the water, pushes her arms forward and finds the stone wall. She pushes her shaking body against it and cries as loudly as the drowning sheep when the water churns through the gate, swift as a spring stream, and into the house.
The wind whips her thin voice away but Lewis is there, by the door, his knees submerged.
‘The table!’ Agnes yells, terror finally giving her strength to shout. ‘Climb on the table!’
Lewis nods, bright boy, while Agnes prays to God that the table, weighed down with Lewis and the iron pot Agnes had been about to fill with dinner, won’t float.
Rhys! The cradle is on the floor by the fire. It will float, and Lewis will grab it, hold it against the water, keep his baby brother safe. Agnes’ body shakes harder, and not from cold alone.
Her hands and feet grow numb, terror pounds her heart against her ribs, but still she clings to the wall. The water rises up her legs, to her waist, spilling over the stones to level itself either side of her fragile sanctuary.
She is half-blinded by her hair, can hear nothing except wind and water and screaming sheep, but she turns her head, praying for a sight of Evan striding through the swirling muck, Gwillim on his shoulders.
What she sees instead is the cradle, and she is sick at the knowledge that the water inside the house has reached the window. Her baby son sails out of view and Agnes pushes herself along the wall, stone by stone.
Her feet barely touch the ground, the water eddies around her like a whirlpool sucking her into its depths.
If Evan were here, he could swim to the cradle. But Evan is on the river, in the river. With Gwillim. And Agnes can’t swim.
She clutches the stones and joins her screams to the cacophony of the sheep.
It’s near dark when the wind drops to tired squalls and the water recedes enough to let a trembling Agnes squelch to the mud-filled house. Lewis is there, crouched on the table with four fright-struck hens gathered tight against his legs. Agnes takes the boy, hens and all, in her shivering arms.
‘I couldn’t get to him, Ma.’ Lewis sobs into her chest.
‘I know, I know.’ Neither could Agnes. She knows Lewis’ pain.
‘Da?’ Lewis says. ‘Gwillim?’
Agnes shakes her head. ‘They will come if they come,’ she says and gulps back sobs for Lewis’ sake. ‘But now I have to see about the pig and the cow.’ She sets the boy and the hens on the floor, takes Lewis’ hand. It’s unspoken that she won’t leave him alone, not this time.
The cow is gone, but the pig is on the roof of its sty, lifted by the water, kept alive by the higher walls on three sides. It stares at Agnes with accusing tiny eyes. It had been right to be wary.
‘We have the pig still,’ Agnes says to Lewis.
‘And the hens I saved.’ He takes her hand and offers a trembling, fleeting, smile.
Agnes cups her free hand beneath her belly. She feels life there too.
© Cheryl Burman
Note: The Great Flood of 30 January 1607 devastated both sides of the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary with flooding as far as Gloucester. At least 500-1000 people and thousands of livestock perished.
Winning Story: Contest #6
The following stories are the Outright Winning Entries for the Monthly Short Story Contest
March 2020 onwards