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Celia Ann Leaman's first novel, Mary's Child, reflects her love and knowledge of Dartmoor. Both it -- and the following short story (from the collection: No More Regrets and Other Stories ) -- were inspired by the legend of Jay's grave, near where she used to live in Devon, England, before she emigrated to Canada. Her author's web page is at http://www.devonshirebabe.com. Outside the home Celia works as a Librarian Assistant. Via the Internet, she offers her services as an editor. She lives in British Columbia with her husband.

Jay, the Farmer's Daughter
Celia Ann Leaman

In the county of Devon in England, there is a grave outside the parish boundary. It isn't, as you may think, the grave of a beloved pet, tended lovingly and adorned with blooms of the season, but of a young woman. It lies not far from a forbidding tumble of rocks called Hound Tor. When I first knew Jay it was a lovely place, but now its paths, well trodden by tourists, widen by the year. Still, I ought to be thankful for the flowers they bring. Once I planted bulbs on and around her grave, but the rabbits nibbled at the buds, and the plants withered away.

~*~

Jay was just fifteen when I met her. I wasn't a regular churchgoer, but I went that evening to the harvest thanksgiving. There was always something special about that service; the aisles stacked with ripe sheaves of corn, the window ledges decorated with fir branches, fruits and vegetables, dahlias, chrysanthemums and autumn foliage; the whole place aglow in candlelight.

I noticed a few people looking sidelong at me. Still somewhat of a newcomer, I imagined I was often the subject of gossip. Until then I'd rarely mingled and perversely enjoyed the intrigue I created. However, that particular night I decided to give everyone either the pleasure or displeasure of discovering I was quite human after all.

After church there was a potluck supper in the hall. It was no slap-dash affair either. We were all seated at the long trellis tables very properly, each place setting having a knife, fork and spoon, an empty glass, a paper serviette, and the tablecloths were white damask. To my right sat a man, the father I realized, of the girl on my left. I didn't know then that she'd skipped along a place, and thus incurred his displeasure for days.

I didn't take to him. He was heavily jowled, and had piggy eyes. He had a way of asking personal questions in a snide, suggestive way. It was inevitable, given our backgrounds that our conversation for what it was would fizzle out. Becoming disinterested, he turned away and began to banter with the young woman sitting opposite him. She seemed to be miffed with her sweetheart, and though it was unlikely she had any serious intentions towards the farmer, she flirted with him and laughed at his crudities like a silly filly.

Not wishing to be drawn into their obscene exchange I slighted the blond by ignoring one of her comments, and turned instead to converse with the farmer's daughter. She was very shy and all too aware of her father; though his attention was on the blond, I could see he noticed Jay's every movement. If he should notice laughter in her voice, his eyes would dart to her warningly.

She was, I think, greatly relieved when dinner was over and she could move away from me. We arose from the tables that were packed away to make room for the dancing. I could sense Jay's excitement, her disappointment too, because I was sure no one would lead her onto the dance floor. Though I saw many a man's eye flicker her way, the farmer guarded her like a ferocious old dog. It was, I thought, more than mere fatherly protection.

I discovered by making a few discreet inquiries that he was called Briggs Brown, though he was known as Digger. I unearthed something of Jay too. I learned she was not liked by the other girls. Most dislike is fear, and I wondered if their suspicions were for personal reasons, or because of her family. Couples paired off and families met with friends, yet the farmer and his own were as enigmatic as myself, and sat alone. The difference was, I was avoided because I was a mystery; they were shunned because people knew them too well.

By the end of the evening I'd made up my mind. I approached Digger and asked if his daughter might come to work for me. I could see he'd taken a dislike to me. He was cunning though, not a man to allow an opportunity to slip by. He enjoyed the moment of power, allowing the question to hang between us. I was impatient with his game. I added I was prepared to pay. That soon moved his tongue.

"What would you want 'er to be doin' then?" he said, narrowing his eyes.

"Filing. Tidying my affairs," I said.

He sniggered. "'Er? Tidy? File? You'll be lucky."

"I'll teach her," I said, politely. "She seems bright enough."

"Oh arr," he said. "'Er's bright enough all right. Regular little foxie 'er be." He turned down the sides of his thick, gross lips while he played me for more time.

Eventually he said, "'Er can come Wednesdays. That's all."

"Thank you Mr. Brown," I said. "I shall expect her on Wednesday morning at nine sharp then."

"The middle of the morning you mean." He sneered. "You city folk can't get up at a proper 'our then?"

Not that it was any of his business, but I retorted, "It's not a bad time considering I often write into the early hours of the morning."

He grunted and walked away. We were worlds apart and he wasn't at all interested in mine. I saw him murmur to Jay. She gave me a curious glance as they left.

~*~

She came the next week, two minutes before time. Her first words were, "I 'ave to be 'ome by four. Father says so."

"Yes, all right," I replied, and stepped aside to allow her in.

She met my eyes briefly, but she wasn't shy at looking around the cottage. She devoured everything, her eyes wide with wonderment.

"Those all your books?" she said, in her soft, low voice, the burr of Devonshire hanging on every syllable.

~*~

I handled her gently through those long, winter days and ever increasing darkening hours up to the winter solstice. It was bitterly cold that year, yet her presence lit my days more than any summer could.

She was a bright and eager student, and did her job willingly and well. So, I was startled when, one afternoon she looked at me and said quite vehemently, "I _hate these winter days."

I felt stung. I'd foolishly imagined I was bringing the same joy into her life as she brought into mine.

"Oh, I didn't mean " She put down her sheaf of papers and came to my chair. Her hands fidgeted with the back of it. "I wouldn't want you to think I was ungrateful," she said. "'Tis the best winter I ever 'ad. What I mean is, I shall be glad of the lighter evenin's." She hung her head. "'E's more to do in spring, see."

I pressured her hand slightly so she would look at me. Our eyes met. She saw my question. She closed her eyes, and two fat tears rolled down her cheeks.

"Oh, Jay, no."

I drew her down upon my lap. My face was close to her hair. She smelled so sweet, so fresh and young. We sat quietly for a while, each lost in our own desperation: me, searching my mind for solutions. She, ashamed and embarrassed.

"Can't your mother ...?" I began.

"She don't care? Saves 'er, don't it?" she said.

"Is there nothing I can do? Anywhere you can go?"

"No. Nowhere. Not a thing anyone can do," she said dully. I'd never heard such hopelessness in a young girl's voice. I wanted suddenly to shake her for her apathetic acceptance. I was going to insist she allow me to help her. And then, when I looked into her eyes I saw the defiance and anger, mixed with helplessness and pain. Oh, such depth of pain. She didn't accept it. She hated what was happening, but she had no choice. She was too young to leave home without his consent. If I kept her, he would simply come and fetch her.

"I've loved comin' 'ere," she whispered, fiddling with one of my buttons. I thought she was trying to undo it. I took her hand away. As I did, I caught her look of hurt.

"No," I said quickly. "I'm not rejecting, I'm just not sure "

"Would it be a sin then?" she whispered.

My reply was to lead her from the room and up the stairs.

It is said that thought brings a deed closer, and in this instance I believe it had. Perhaps she had been contemplating it too because she showed no resistance. Nor did she demur when I began to undress her.

There was no fire lit in my bedroom, we could see our breath cloud on the air. Yet we were so fevered we didn't feel the cold.

I knew this moment would never come again. It was the best there'd ever be.

In hindsight, what a fool I was to even imagine there would be another time. How our actions, offered up as one thing can result in another.

~*~

She was shy afterwards. It made me feel so much a thief I asked her if she regretted it. She shook her head. I feared she lied. Later, I knew she had, but not for the reason I thought then.

"I couldn't ever hurt you, if that's what you are thinking," I said. "I would take care of you forever if I could. You could come here. I could ask him. Never mind what anyone would say, others live this way "

She put a finger to my lips. Tears came to her eyes. "Don't," she whispered. "Please, don't."

She didn't look around as she walked down the path; didn't turn and wave as she usually did. The click of the gate sounded so final. I called her name, but she didn't reply. I turned away, hurt and bewildered.

It was misunderstanding that convinced me not to inquire why she didn't come to the cottage the following week. I didn't go to the farm, I couldn't have borne it if she'd rejected me in front of him. And so I waited another week, and another. No word came from Jay, or her family.

I had to go up to London for a while, but I left a message for her in the door, just in case she should come while I was away. When I returned, it was still there. Any gratification I might have felt in the dealings with my publisher was washed away by a wave of despair. I decided then that I would go to the farm the following day. I must know why she had ceased coming.

The next morning I was in my garden when I heard approaching voices. It was blustery as those late winter/early spring days are on the moor; sunny though, because I had to shade my eyes and squint to see who was there. It was hard to tell from where I stood, as the track outside curved away and down the hill, and I could only see the heads of several people. Curious, I went to the gate.

It was a group of six or seven men, followed by a clutch of women holding up one in their midst who could hardly stand for weeping. It was Jay's mother. She was following her daughter's coffin. They were taking Jay to be buried outside the parish boundary.

Knowing that could only mean one thing, I shrank away. I thought my heart would burst. _Why? In God's name, why?

One of the followers saw me and came over. "Found 'er in the barn," she said quietly. "'Er wouldn't tell her mother who the father was. 'Er just said 'er couldn't go on like it any more."

As she said this I glanced ahead and caught the farmer looking at me. If I'd been a man, I would have knocked him to the ground. The woman followed my eyes and sighed. "'Tis an awful thing to say," she said. "But perhaps in this case 'tis for the better." She put her hand on my arm. Her eyes met mine and dropped, and she walked on.

~*~

My reason for living in the village had been to write about the mysteries of the moor; never did I think I'd help create one. From that day forth I put flowers on Jay's grave. It became my haunting place.

It still is.


 

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