Tuesday 25 February 2020

Bog Girl

by Margaret Drummond


Sometimes, in the coldness of my bed I imagine how it was for her at the very end. I draw my legs up to my stomach and curl my arms tight against my body, my fists clenched. I have fought, I have squirmed and turned, but now I yield to the searing pain of the knife. I twist and contort my head and neck to try and copy her as she was when they found her, to mould my features into that mask of fear, mirror the terror in her eyes as the knife slices into my chest. Feeling the sticky warmth of the seeping wound, I strain to open my mouth and emit the screams of pain and betrayal that had echoed in the reeds as they killed her. I finger the imaginary noose around my neck, feel the coarse flaxen fibres and struggle for breath just as she did as the noose grew tighter about her throat.  In the cool night I float down to the river bed, smell the brackish water, breathe it into my lungs and finally welcome the stillness of surrender.

 I lie caressed by the thick, brown water, lapped by waves, as above the icy wind whips along the river bank, rippling the reed beds.  I sleep in velvet mud as seasons come and go. In winter I gaze up at the steely sky through the frosty lace window. Under the ice the eel writhes past, the fish nose at my rags. Silently I stare at the shadow of the heron pacing the ice. As the thaw comes I feel the silver stab of his beak, as a frantic, flailing fish leaves the water. Between the sheets in my bed I imagine the soft mud enveloping me in a shroud of brown velvet. The layers settle as I sleep, still twisted and tormented but silent and still.

I dream about her sometimes as she might have been. The old families here have a certain look. You see it when the children from the local primary school come to visit, that same flaxen hair, the red raw faces.  The same faces from the old photographs that hang in our foyer. I imagine she would have been like them, like me, really, because I too was born and bred on the fen. Sometimes as I see the young girls cycling to school, bent low over the handlebars, I see myself and her at seventeen, pedalling hard to make headway against the wind to finally arrive somewhere warm and sultry, where there is only a soft breeze.

Of course, like many, I did leave once, for a short while, but nowadays I prefer not to think about that time away. I set off to make my fame and fortune like my sea-faring ancestors had done. There is a statue of our most famous son in the town square. He looks out beyond the fen to the sea, telescope in hand awaiting the ships back from the east. Not all the men returned. Some drowned, some starved, some succumbed to strange foreign maladies and then there were those who were seduced by the ways of the east, lured into the opium dens and the brothels, intoxicated by the perfumed opulence of the Spice Islands and bewitched by the dark-eyed beauty of the women. They chose to stay away, perhaps as I should have done in the big city when I too was captivated by the chocolate eyes of a stranger.

Nowadays, after every foray to some foreign city, I return and bring her safely home, like my ancestors brought the shrivelled seeds and pods that would make their fortunes. We tick off the items on our clipboards as we gently unpack her. At each venue we lovingly drape the cloth they found with her over the void in her torso. We dim the lights and draw the curtains to shield her from the daylight. We try to look after her. 

When the bog girl`s left foot was unceremoniously sliced off by the peat-cutter`s spade after two thousand years in the fen, she was subjected to further humiliation. The villagers removed some of her bones and teeth. They pillaged her grave and removed burial artifacts. Perhaps those broken yellow bones are now lying in a drawer nearby, an ancient fen trophy. Nowadays we are more respectful. We like to preserve her dignity. Her cloth is fragile now, but we like to think it was perhaps her own, maybe woven for her by her own mother with love. I would like to think that someone once loved my bog girl when she was alive. I know it is not always true, and of course I have no experience in these matters, but I would like to think that a mother always loves her child.

The authorities once engaged a forensic artist to reconstruct the face of our little bog girl. He arrived with his case of instruments, took measurements and painstakingly made a clay model of her face. As he worked we would ask him why he had given her high cheek bones or a low forehead. Patiently he would explain about the measurements and the DNA and how the computer had tracked the genetic traits of the various local Germanic tribes, using data from living inhabitants of the region. The clay head was reddish brown, like the bog girl`s tan leather body, the eyes lifeless hollows.  One day, with a flourish he revealed the bog girl as she may have been, recast in plastic, with strawberry blond hair and blue eyes and freckled fair skin like mine. It was all so real, the bluish shadow under the eye, the slight furrow of the brow, the curl of the lip.

He draped a piece of sacking about her shoulders, and left her hair loose and wild as it might have been from the buffeting wind of the fen. I saw her bent over the cooking pot, grinding the corn, scrapping an animal skin as in our display. The bog girl began to follow me. I saw her face every day in the town, in the young girl who served me in the bakery, in the mirror at the hairdressers I saw her sandy head bent over mine, curling her top lip in deep concentration, snipping and shaping my fading tresses into the short, neat style, she feels appropriate for a woman like me.

We do not know why our little bog girl had to die but we like to speculate. We are almost certain that this was a ritual killing, perhaps to appease an angry god or to ensure a good harvest. We know that she had a curved spine, we can tell this from her bones, and I sometimes wonder if this was why my poor little bog girl was singled out. Because she was different? I like to show the schoolchildren around when they visit. When I tell them these terrible things I see how some of them bristle with righteous indignation at the injustice. It lifts my heart to think that the young still have such pure ideals, as I once had. I would like to think that she believed her death would achieve something worthwhile, but the contorted features and the howling hole of her mouth reproach me. I can never justify her death, any death.

 In those years away in the big city researching, imagining all kinds of scenarios for the murder I finally came up with another theory. It was one that pleased me.  I would lie awake at night in my room at the university breathing in the scents of patchouli and joss sticks, my pale skin gleaming in the moonlight next to the sleek, dark body beside me and imagine life as it could have been.  It was a theory I liked because it gave her some form of dignity.

Perhaps she had to die because she had violated some code, transgressed some boundary which offended the others in her tribe. Maybe she had defiantly refused to marry some waxy skinned, flaxen farmer, because she really was in love with a dark-eyed stranger from another land. As I shop, carefully considering each  peach and  mango  as the weekend stretches before me, I  sometimes hear the shrill tones of a truculent teenager remonstrating with her mother over some trifle and I hear the voice of my little bog girl.  I remember how it was for me, how I knew, at seventeen that I wanted to go somewhere, where the wind was not sharp and salty, but warm and gentle, full of spicy promise. A place where something else was possible .When I hear the reply of the mother and strain to see her, I hear my own mother`s terse and tired voice and remember that terrible time when I had to decide. I lurk in the shadows, compelled to watch and listen to the altercation, replaying in my head those dreadful scenes so long ago, between a mother and a daughter.

In the afternoons in the summer, I like to leave my office at the museum and walk amongst the living. Sundays are the best. Families come to visit on Sunday afternoons.  Alone, I sit in the museum restaurant, sipping coffee, imagining how it would be to see her now. I see her as a baby, deliciously plump and dimpled, as a skinny wiry child, as a blushing awkward teenager, tetchy and prickly. I see and hear her everywhere. And afterwards I return to the exhibition and see my little bog girl in her glass case like Snow White. Although the museum is cleaned every night I sometimes like to wipe over her case and pat it protectively, like a mother stroking the head of her sleeping child.

Now, at night I am always alone, and that is when I think of her most.  I hear the old wooden house, my family home, creaking like an old lady settling down for the night. I still choose to sleep in the room I had as a girl, although the posters have now been replaced by suitable prints. I still have the faded photos of those heady days of summers in the city, but they are locked away, along with the painful letters of denial and betrayal. I have never quite got round to reorganising my mother`s room.  I have always meant to redecorate, but even now, her spirit still sleeps there. “You must do as you want with it,” she used to say….but I have grown accustomed to the whiteness of the walls. It suits the house and the fen and now it suits me. Once I fought it, but now I have come to realise that my mother had been right, right about all of it.

Lying in my bed at night, I sometimes think of the time when they unearthed my girl from that place, so wet and dark. I curl up tight on my side like the bog girl when they found her, my arms crossed over the gaping aching hole in my torso.  I recall how I felt for my mother`s hand as I lay on the cool crisp hospital sheets, remember the roughness of her fingertips as she stroked the tears from my cheek and softly murmured words of empty consolation. “All for the best, my love, all for the best….”

I wonder if my little bog girl, had been alone as they took her to her death. Had her mother been there to console her, had they held her, back and smothered her screams as they took her daughter away?  I would like to think that a mother, any mother, would not allow her child to die, but I have learned now that this is not true and in the darkness I open my mouth wide, wide like the bog girl,  in the silence of the fen I howl.  

About the author 

Margaret Drummond is a retired teacher and translator from London.  You can find some of her work on CafeLit and she  also writes for European blogs about aspects of life in Central and Eastern Europe. She is especially interested in how nations and cultures merge and evolve.

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