Picture Credits: zoltan-tasi

faith, god, life, love, marriage


Sandra Dennis, February 13, 2024

Bessie woke wet with perspiration. The bed was a furnace. Sheets drenched. She kicked off the blankets and eiderdown, found relief in the cool air outside the bed. A full moon shone silver rays through the thin curtains which fluctuated in the breeze from the ill-fitting windows of the medieval farmhouse. A vixen screamed.

Henry snored. His grey head sunken in the feather pillow, exhausted after a day on the farm. If he woke, he’d get ideas, so she lay inert – didn’t want to oblige. Didn’t want to the last time, but he insisted.

When would these disturbed nights end? These symptoms that would lead to her monthly bleed ceasing. The headaches, irritability, tearfulness, anxiety and insomnia that started six months ago, were worse now. She was deflated, heavy, tired. Hated the days of frustration and tears for no reason. She would wake-up fine, then something, however insignificant, happened and her anger grew; tension in her shoulders and neck tightened like a fist. Days where her mind was full of clouds and confusion. Henry, unsympathetic, finished her sentences, or huffed into his porridge. Grateful to have witnessed her mother’s symptoms, she understood now why her mother used to fling open doors and windows during the winter months despite the complaints of cold. Now it was her turn. Couldn’t discuss it among the ladies at chapel. She must suffer it alone.

The searing heat continued. She had to get outside. The floorboards creaked as she gathered her clothes. She stood still. Held her breath. Henry’s snores continued. Along the landing, silence from Ida and Dottie’s room. Arthur’s was at the other end away from the stairs.

In the sitting-room she dressed before the dying embers of the fire. Despite the heat, she would feel the cold outside, so she went into the hall and pulled on her woollen coat.

Her footsteps on the cobbled yard disturbed the silence as she walked towards the silver fields. Clouds gathered over Edgerington Park. Rain was on its way.

An owl hooted from Ashen Copse wood. In West Field the ewes and lambs scattered, baaing and bleating, as she strode towards the ancient oak, its outstretched branches silhouetted against the moonlit sky. The air was invigorating, cool on her face and neck. As she approached the tree its roots like entangled limbs made her stumble. In the light of the moon she could make out carved hearts and initials on its trunk: her own and Henry’s. Others too, including Henry’s parents: J.C. + C.H. 1833.

Bessie traced her finger over the shape of Henry’s initials. Where had all the time gone? They were happy in the early years of marriage, but challenges on the farm, fourteen pregnancies and his affair with one of the village women took their toll. And, when the babies died, he withdrew, emotionally, not physically – she performed whether she wanted to or not. A wife’s duty. She folded her arms around the tree, its rough bark on her cheek. The years must have slipped passed as she was distracted by Henry, the children, the farm. Tears filled her eyes and spilled onto her cheeks. Why was she always weeping? She found the recent heaviness, which enveloped her like an infernal shroud, despite her efforts to remain cheerful, harder to bear. It would start in her chest, slide to her stomach and legs, making them feel as heavy as the limbs of the oak. She stepped away from the tree. Must walk.

Ashen Copse wood stood like a black mass at the bottom of the small hill across the stream from West Field. The familiar pull of them was strong as she walked towards the brook where water sang over the stones, its melody as familiar at night as in the day. She lifted her ankle-length skirt, trod onto the first stepping stone – it shifted slightly – as she knew it would; continued carefully across the rest to the other side. The sense of them was keener as she entered the woods. The moon cast peculiar shadows under the canopy of oak and ash. Wild garlic crunched beneath her boots. Its was scent strong, as was the whiff of decay. Some poor creature crawled here to die. She took the left path which led deeper into the trees and away from the footpaths the villagers used. The peace and stillness of the woodland often drew her away from her chores, but not as deep into the trees to where she was headed tonight. The moon illuminated the trail through the woodland like a magical path in a fairy tale. Bessie continued, faltered on roots, skirt snagged by brambles. Something darted through the undergrowth. A rabbit? A badger? A fox?

She continued to where they would be waiting. The clearing in the copse was familiar. She stopped. Took a breath. Stepped into the glade. The moon cast its light onto a small circle of irregular stones, each one marked with a withered posy tied with a white ribbon. Time had suspended itself. Silence hung sorrowfully. She paused. Breathed. The scent of damp earth. The natural world waited. Moments passed then the leaves began their whispering, alerting the woodland creatures of her presence. The dark shape of a tawny owl shifted silently away.

Nobody knew about the graveyard hidden in the depth of the woods. The concealed clearing, untrodden, except by beasts, where she would scrape a scar in the soil and lay her child to rest. Each burial was sealed with a prayer to the natural world to welcome and cherish her lost ones home, where the trees protected, the soil embraced, and birds chorused lullabies. Not all of her babies were buried here, only those who died before they were due to be born. Six stones lay silver-lit at her feet. Some of the graves were hardly burials. Small squares of blood-smeared cotton she entombed in the earth. Two scrapes were deeper, held bulkier forms. The stones heavier.

Bessie expected some of her children would die, mourned each one. Two of her sons, Oliver and Leonard, who hadn’t reached school age, were buried in the churchyard of Saint Peter and Saint Paul up in the village. These visits didn’t need to be kept secret, but she was not encouraged to visit them in case she became ‘maudlin’. But, these ‘graves’, were her private affair. Each ‘birth’ day she came, lay whatever wildflowers were growing at that time of year, whispered their names along with a prayer: all carried away on the breeze.

If her husband’s family knew about her affinity with the natural world, they would have burned her at a metaphorical stake. Their mantra was ‘But to us there is but one God’, Corinthians 8:6. There was no room for ancient, pagan views. The Collisons were Christian and when she married into their fold she knew she must hide her beliefs. Her own convictions were similar to Polly’s, her maternal grandmother. A woman fascinated by changes in the moon; the creatures of the night: bat, owl, vixen; and her sense of the healing powers of Nature. Her mother-in-law, Clara, would have banished these interests as ‘blasphemous’, as would Henry. They were horrified, gave her a sermon on the ‘blasphemous ideas’ of Charles Darwin, when Clara discovered her reading his book, ‘On the Origin of Species’. A copy of which she inherited from Polly fifteen years ago. Henry took the book away from her and didn’t return it. Did he read it? Curious as she was about Darwin’s ideas. He wouldn’t admit it if he had.

Bessie remembered the spring day she and Grandma ‘happened upon’ a gathering of men and women in a woodland. She was nine years old. In a clearing, laid out on a large rock, was a collection of leaves, feathers, mosses, antlers. A man called through the trees, ‘God of Trees we summon you’, which echoed around them. Moments later a tall figure appeared. The hair on Bessie’s neck stood rigid and goosebumps covered her arms. A beast, head and shoulders above everyone else, approached. His chest was bare, his long hair hung around his face, and, on his head, were antlers. ‘The Devil has horns’. She reached for her grandmother’s hand, unable to drag her eyes away. The man dressed in green and brown blended well with the woodland like some curious camouflaged creature.

The gathering of people skipped and chanted to the beat of drums and bells, the whistle of flutes. The horned creature led a procession through the woods followed by the crowd who chanted ‘God of the Trees, Lord of Nature’. Her Grandmother danced, held her hand, face joyous. They came to a clearing where the forest man was met by a woman dressed in leaves, flowers and feathers in her hair. ‘Goddess of Nature’ the horned creature welcomed her. The pair moved their bodies close in a bizarre dance, his hands upon her, before they vanished into the trees. These images remained for months. Along with a feeling of unease. And, excitement.

Now, branches squeaked like the pained cry of a distressed animal. Fear. She never feared the woods. Why now? Was it this terrible anxiety that in recent months caught her unawares at different times of day and night? A feeling something awful was going to happen; as though her intuition, so reliable until now, was fading? How her mind wandered into a fog of forgotten words and memories. It was unnerving. Frightening. Clear-minded, confident in conversation, this concealment of her own thoughts felt like a self-betrayal.

The woodland floor was hard as she knelt in the middle of the stone circle, sat back on her heels, trailed her fingers over each of them in turn. She wondered, who her lost ones would have been? Would they look like her as Ida, Edith and Hattie? Or similar to Henry, like Arthur and Daniel? Maybe they would have taken after her own father like Dotty? She didn’t dwell on the ‘What ifs’. But, sometimes her mind wandered. Probing the unanswerable.

Clouds swallowed the moon. A distant rumble of thunder made her spring to her feet. Raindrops stung as they fell through the trees on her upturned face. Her wool coat was warm, but wouldn’t keep out a downpour. She whispered her farewell as she headed back towards West Field, must return to the farm. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness as she hurried along the pathway. The rain fell heavily. Thunder rolled across the landscape. As she drew towards the edge of the woods, where the trees thinned onto open meadows, she realised she was in the wrong place. Lightning flashed, but there was no sign of the ancient oak. No sheep, their bedraggled lambs drenched from the heavy rain sheltering against their mothers, bleating piteously, afraid of the thunder which cracked overhead. Perhaps she was on Lord Easton’s estate?

Rain pelted on her head, induced a shiver as cold drops trickled down her spine. Cold. The cold seeped into her inadequate clothing. She cursed herself for being ridiculous. It was what she often felt, not helped by Henry’s continuous taunts about the way she was changing; her weight gain, the sagging of her skin and no interest in him. ‘You’re ridiculous’ he told her, which made her run to the outside lavatory and sob secretly into her handkerchief.

Bessie retraced her steps until she found herself on a wider path. She’d been this way before with the children. She turned a corner, tried to decipher the pathway as it diverged at a large ash tree, it led in different directions. Where was she? She glanced above her at the tall trees which swayed and groaned. Their branches reached out finger-like twigs clutching and grasping her hair. She ran towards the ash. A slap from a branch made her cry out, the sting of it adding to the bite of the rain on her face. She slipped. Tripped. Stumbled forwards, tried to remain upright. Failed. Fell. A shooting pain in her ankle. She tried to stand. It burned. She must get out of the woods, find her way back to the embrace of home and family. Sobbing, she hauled herself along the path, her ankle throbbed as she reached the ash tree and her decision. Take the right path. But … what if it was wrong? Her resolve diminished. She was ridiculous. Lost in the woods. Useless.

A useless, old woman. No longer a good wife in the sense Henry wanted. Not needed as a mother. The children were all growing into adults and one day it would be her and Henry alone in the farmhouse. No laughter or chatter from the children. Her face was wet. Rain and tears mingled on her cheeks and dropped onto her saturated clothes. Whatever should she do?

A noise. The low of a cow. Lord Easton’s estate, but she must be heading north if that was the case. No. Must be going south, which meant the lowing of the cow was coming from Fayre Acre Farm. Home. The cow lowed persistently. Giving birth. She hoped the calf would survive the storm. The rain and wind were fierce. Lightning illuminated the clouds to purple-grey. She must get away from the trees. Another flash. Edge of the woods. She pushed onwards following the low of the cow through the meadow of driving rain. The monstrous trees behind her.

Her relief was short-lived. Lost.

Her sob became an anguished cry as she sank to her knees and howled into her thighs as the raw wet earth threatened to engulf her. Bury her. As she had buried her lost babies and her own desires over a lifetime of giving to others – happy to until now. Now she needed something for herself, something she could call her own. But what did she need?


Henry was at home, unaware she was out in the storm, afraid of the night, the woods, her future with him. Her children all tucked in their beds with no reason to think their mother was anywhere but safely in hers.

The rain lashed at her as she crouched upon the sodden ground The storm continued its savage rebellion across the landscape. Trees flung their branches as if in protest to the clouds above for creating havoc. The clouds retaliated with their own brazen response as if goading the trees into full battle. Lightning ignited the darkness giving fallacious hope.

Dazed, chilled and saturated, she hauled herself to her feet. The wind and rain made the walk across the meadow arduous. She pressed on towards home. Needed the warmth of the fire. Her children. Dawn was gathering in the east, the sky full of hostile, slate-coloured clouds.

So cold.

East. Something spoke through her fog of memory. She must trust her intuition. It was hours ago she caressed those silver stones, was close to her lost ones. The rain eased, but the wind continued to hurl itself at her. Why was life such a battle? Where was the light-hearted girl she used to be? The ground beneath her leather boots, which were sodden and loose, sucked her feet into the saturated clay. The slurp of her progress ridiculed her. Through the meadow she trudged. The water lay deep beneath her feet, the splash of it meditative. She was headed home. If she made another wrong turn, it wouldn’t be long before Henry would be up to milk the cows. He would discover she was missing and come in search of her.

Across meadows, through the charcoal grey of daybreak. Head bent. Shoulders braced against the wind, she waded through the quagmire, her feet slipping and sliding beneath her. Thunder now a distant rumble.

She must keep going.

Ahead there was a patch of greyish light. Although it wasn’t sunlight, or candle-light, it was lighter than the darkness of the night when she was lost in the woods. Whatever it was, it emanated a welcoming warmth. The light drew her on. She followed its lead. As she advanced it called to her. Tempted her onwards towards home, and peace; as the woods and her lost ones beckoned her earlier. Bessie didn’t notice the change beneath her feet, all she knew was there was a promise of comfort, a warmth she needed to feel in order to be safe.

Home. Nearly there.

She was on the right path. Knew as the water slapped against her thighs, exactly where she was and it was the right place to be. The water was now at her waist. Her chest. Almost home. She could sense the warmth of its embrace as she continued to push onwards. The welcome of her family, their concern she was lost; their admiration she found her way home. They wouldn’t take her for granted, they promised; they would cherish her, they promised. And they, like her, wouldn’t forget the little lost ones buried in the woods.

As water lapped around her ears, Bessie heard the song of the natural world into which she installed the care of her lost ones. Now she committed herself to the call and care of it too. Home: its peace, its comfort and its right to remain forever free.

Sandra Dennis

Sandra Dennis

Sandra Dennis is a Writer and Teacher who lives in the Cotswolds, England.
She has a MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University and a BA in English Literature from the University of Kent, Canterbury. Her work includes radio plays, historical articles, poetry, novels and
short fiction for adults which is often linked to the past, family
ancestry, landscape and the natural world. Sandra has been short-listed for Mearns Writers’ Short Story Competition and Full House Literary.

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