THERE SHE BLOWS! New Welsh Writing

Martha, Jac and Sianco
Photo: Tom Salt
by Caryl Lewis

An extract translated from the Welsh (Martha, Jac a Sianco, 2004) by the author

Read the essay 'Martha, Jac a Sianco: not singing, dying' by Diarmuid Johnson in French or German

Chapter 23

"Watch your head now then, and don't let go or I'll fall down the steps." Martha walked unsteadily backwards down the storehouse steps. The skeletal remains of the scarecrow lay between her arms and Sianco's as he acknowledged every word which left her mouth with a little nod. The barley had been sown in a cloud of dust and ten days later a bright green shadow was bristling through the soil and clusters of crows were hopping like little black words along the thin arms of the nearby trees.
"Put it down carefully now then."
They lowered the body to the ground. Sianco had wrapped him in a blanket over the winter fearing that he would get cold in the old storehouse. Martha gazed down at the scarecrow. Its body was becoming more decrepit with each year's exhumation, the straw flesh leaving the wooden bones and its innards spilling out from the dark jacket. Sianco was almost crying.
"Come on now then, we'll make him better and then he can go into the field before those crows eat all the seed."

Martha bought some hay from the barn and Sianco pulled long pieces of twine from its midst. Sianco began to warm to the task and worked quietly, his pink tongue squat in the corner of his mouth with the exertion. He fattened the corpse with hay and straightened the wooden cross on which he was crucified. Every now and again, Bob would appear from nowhere and snatch away a knife or a piece of twine forcing Sianco to chase him, laughing. Martha watched him working and quietly 'tut tutting' as he came across holes in the jacket which mice had made. Martha and Sianco had dressed him in new clothes a few years before but they looked shabby by now and the fresh face that Sianco had painted him with sheep marker had run too making it look like his face was smeared in blood. After hammering in a few nails to keep the scarecrow upright the transformation was complete and they propped him up on the wall of the cowshed. Martha looked at him contentedly, whilst Sianco gazed on, a slow smile spreading. After a breather, they rolled him in the blanket once more and took hold of an end each before setting off for Ca' Marged. They were forced to rest every now and then so that Martha could catch her breath. She had thought of asking Jack if he could take the scarecrow up to the field in the tractor's bucket but he was with Judy now and she thought that they'd better leave him alone. Every time Martha rested, Sianco would sit in the lane, cradling the scarecrow's head in his lap, reciting the names of the flowers in the hedge.
"Bird's eye, Blue-bell."
The weather was mild, and Martha was struggling.
"Ox-eye daisy, Forget-me-not."
Another rest. "Black eyes, Daisy."
A sheen of sweat glistened on Martha's forehead as she took hold of the body once more. Her own felt heavy. As they turned into the field tens of crows took flight like flies off a carcass. The two walked a thin path to the middle of the field so as not to disturb more seed than necessary. Martha noticed that the crows had settled in a threatening cloud on the old oak nearby. Jack had dug a hole for the scarecrow that morning so all they needed to do was to stand him up and make sure he was sturdy against the wind. Martha and Sianco lifted him up to his feet and Martha held him while Sianco pressed the soil into place.
"Well, what do you think?"
"H...h...h... he's pretty," he answered with a broad smile. Martha turned to look behind her. The crows had shied further away and some had clustered on a length of power line in a long sentence. Martha shivered.
"You know what?" she paused and looked up at the scarecrow, one eye closed and the other hand over her eye, "I think he'd look better with a hat."
Siancos eyes gleamed.
"Go back to the house; Jack's old cap is in the pantry."
Sianco smiled at her and looked into her eyes as usual as if waiting for permission. Martha nodded her encouragement and he ran as fast as he could towards the house kicking up dust with his heels. Martha watched him go, his mind captivated with the thought of dressing the scarecrow, before letting her gaze drop to the earth. The small heads of the barley plants were rising like animal hair through the light brown soil. As the sun had sunk, she could now see the scarecrow's face clearly. His head was lolling as if he was dozing in the sunshine. She wondered whether his presence would be enough to keep the crows away. Last year, Martha had had to shoot crows and hang them by their legs from nearby trees as a deterrent, but even that hadn't worked for long. They'd keep away for days of course but they'd always return like a plague, their harsh crowing scraping through the air. Martha unconsciously rubbed her arms, feeling cold. The hairs on them stood up like the barley through the field's skin. Sianco had been a long while. The sweat on her back was now cold, making her shiver.
Sianco had probably forgotten his errand completely. Martha had never seen anyone behave so much like a hound; his mind set on one idea until another scent came along and dislodged it. Martha took her time and walked back along the thin path. The crows were still keeping their distance. She looked at the flowers in the hedge trying to remember their names. Dada had taught Sianco. Martha never had the chance, she was always working flat out. He'd sit in the hedge with him for hours and hide flowers behind his back giving Sianco only the most scant of descriptions. Sianco then had to guess their names. Her favourite flowers had always been those of the gorse bushes. Martha had never seen their yellow colour recreated anywhere. And the smell! There was nothing like it. It was exotic, like butter, like coconut. There was nothing else in the world that even came close. She knew that if she had ever bought a dress, it would have been a yellow one. She reached the yard and went to the storehouse to lock the door. Suddenly, she froze and her stomach filled with fear. The screaming was like the sound of a pig being slaughtered. She turned and ran as fast as she could to the house. Sianco's wails struck her like knives. She loved him like a mother. She went to the backdoor and stood horrified.
"What were you doing, you little fucker?"
Jack had a gun on his shoulder and it was pointed squarely at Sianco. Judy came out of the parlour buttoning her skirt and straightening her hair.
"Youre a right little pervert, aren't you?" she spat.
"Jack, what are you doing?"
"What were you doing, you fucker?"
"Put the gun down, Jack. Put the gun down!"
Sianco was screaming and his eyes were wild. He couldn't catch his breath to speak. He pressed his chest with one hand and screwed the old cap in the other as his tears fell.
"What's happened? Put that thing down, Jack!"
"He's a dirty little fucker! That's what he is! I'll kill you! Understand?"
"What did he do?"
"What do you think he did? Watching us like a little pig."
"Watching what?"
Jack was shaking, the gun still on his shoulder.
Judy wasn't even trying to pacify him. He moved closer to Sianco pressing the gun to his forehead. Sianco fell to his knees screaming louder.
Jack's eyes grew red, and flitted between Martha's face and Sianco. His breathing was heavy and sweat was dripping from his hair. Martha noticed that his flies were undone.
"Jack! What if Mammy saw us now?" The words penetrated Jack's fury slowly.
"I'd be doing us all a favour if I got rid of him!"
"Jack, you're scaring him."
"I'd be doing everyone a favour; we wouldn't have to look after him all the time then, would we?"
Even Judy had backed away slowly and disappeared into the pantry.
"I...I... I...I only..."
"Shut your fucking mouth...shut it!"
"W...w...wanted the cap," finished Sianco, closing his eyes with fear.
Long tears streamed from Martha's eyes and a dark wet patch spread underneath Sianco's behind.
"There'd only be the two of us then, we haven't got long anyway."
The three stood in a triangle, and the only sound was Sianco's tears pit-patting on the floor.
"Jack please, please put it down; Mammy wouldn't want this. Whatever she did, she wouldn't have wanted this!"
Jack's breaths lengthened, then became deeper. Martha felt their mother's presence between them.
Slowly and as if in a dream, Jack lowered the gun. Martha noticed that for the first time in years there were tears in her brother's eyes. He pressed them away roughly with his thumb. He felt for his flies with the other hand and pulled the zip closed. The dark patch was still spreading on the lino. Jack moved and felt behind him for somewhere to sit before lowering himself down. His breathing was still heavy and fierce and the sweat had soaked his collar. Sianco quietly got to his feet trying to hide the wetness underneath him. The cap was still in his hands as he ran as fast as he could outside. Martha took a cloth and wiped the floor before Judy could see it. Jack watched her, his eyes far, far away.
"He doesn't understand, Jack." She soaked up the mess noticing as she did that her hands were shaking. Jack pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "You shouldn't have scared him like that."
"Why did he stand there watching?" Jack was still rubbing his head with his hands.
It was getting dark outside.
"That's the way he's always been."
"He shouldn't have..."
Martha struggled to her feet and walked outside. As she turned, the faintest smell of cigarettes and the sound of heels walking towards Jack reached her. Martha called for Sianco in the yard but there was no answer, only her own voice thrown back at her from the silence. Bob's kennel gaped open. Martha walked slowly back up the lane to Ca' Marged.

As she walked, she failed to notice that the flowers had started closing. This time of year, Dada used to say, was the best time for flowers. You could see them exhaling, becoming lethargic and closing for the night. Their petals would curl around their eyes and they'd start slumbering quietly, leaving the cold of the night outside. The sky was shimmering with stars too this time of year and in the autumn, as if somebody had strewn them across the sky like dew and had forgotten to gather them up. They hung there like rain waiting to fall heavily onto the brown earth.
Martha turned into Ca' Marged. Sianco was there putting the cap onto the scarecrow's head with Bob stowed tightly under his jumper. Martha moved closer to him but Sianco failed to notice a thing. She watched him standing in front of the scarecrow staring at it as if there was nothing else in the world. The dark patch yawned down the back of his trousers. He stared oblivious, his eyes turning red and black in the darkness. The scarecrow stared back down at him and smiled.

Chapter 24

Sianco didn't return to his normal self for days and turned as white as wax from not sleeping. For nights he had refused to come into Martha's room and had lain like a corpse without sleep in Jack's bed. Quietness clung to him like a mist and even the hot weather couldn't burn away the cold shroud which surrounded him.
The steers were let out to kick and scrape their way through the fields and the swallows arrived in their clean suits until the yard was filled with their gossip. In week or so, Martha heard the cuckoo and Sianco ran into the house with his hands clamped over his ears in case he heard it sing without some money in his pocket. Whilst listening to it, Martha thought of Judy.

Today, Roy and Jack had been gathering in the sheep at first light and Martha had arisen early in order to cook. Jack had seen a maggoty sheep and had decided to shear early this year as the weather was so warm. John Penbanc was the shearer, a large fleshy man with thick arms like a lobster. Some said that he was heavy-handed with animals but he wouldn't dare do anything under Jack's watchful eye. There was a story circulating that he had hammered nails into the hoof of a bull too wild to be kept, so that he could claim from the Ministry. There had to be something physically wrong with the animal in order to get his compensation. Jack was used to dealing with his type, and under his keen eye, everything would be under control. John would always bring his son. A heavy boy, tall, with the top buttons of his shirt always gaping revealing scalded red skin, hairs and sweat. His wide face and the permanently surprised look he wore didn't give away his quick temper and brutal strength. The scars on his face were testimony to this. John, of course, would say that there was nothing nasty about the boy but that once you had a reputation as being a bit quick with your fists, then people would always bait you. Sianco had caught him kicking Bob one year until he yelped and had taken to hating him from afar with Bob pressed jealously under his jumper.
Martha coaxed the mince out of the bag and let it sizzle in the pan. It started spitting and changing colour. The menu was the same every year - mince, gravy and potatoes and then jelly and custard for afters. Martha would prepare everything early in the morning so that she could go out and fold the fleece. Afterwards she would come back, re-heat everything and carry it in a basket up to the field. The basket was already set on the table bristling with knives, forks and a pop bottle filled with milk for the tea.
Jack didn't do any shearing himself anymore because of the tightness in his chest and the fact that he now received money for his bad back and didn't want anyone telling tales. John and his son were relieved since he had been more of a hindrance than a help in the last few years.
By the time Martha reached the field, there were several fleeces waiting for her. Jack sat on the nearby fence waving flies from his eyes. The boys had taken off their shirts already and were working in their vests and moccasins. Martha always enjoyed the hustle and bustle of shearing day and would admire the quiet co-operation between the two men. They had laid out a tarpaulin so that Martha could fold the fleeces and she set about her work without hesitating.
She would get hold of each fleece and flick away any dirt. Then, she would shake the fleece out to its full length, fold both sides in and roll it tightly before tying it in a ball. Martha worked quietly, cleaning, rolling and then pressing each fleece tightly into the corners of an old wool sack which hung slackly on a metal frame nearby. Forty to fifty fleeces would go into each sack depending on the year. Martha lost herself in the noise and the harsh light of the day. Jack watched her quietly. It was a full time job, tending to two good shearers, especially at her age. He watched her, his head full of barking and braying and the loud purr of the machines. By the time they had finished with the morning's sheep, there was a thin layer of oil on Martha's clothes and arms and the noise of the sheep calling for their lambs was almost deafening.

Martha went to the house to fetch the food and boil the kettle. The heat was unbearable. Jack always insisted that they ate outside so as to avoid letting the men into the house where they might become too comfortable and slow to get back to work. Martha washed her arms before filling the basket. Sianco appeared from nowhere to help and between them both they managed to carry everything to the field. Jack fetched a bucket and water and a hard towel for the men to wash. John was talking ten to the dozen as usual whilst his son sat threateningly in the shade at the foot of the hedge. He ate hungrily, his fingers looking thick and clumsy around the neck of the slender fork. He'd throw Sianco dubious glances, not even attempting to conceal his contempt and would swear at Roy if he came too near the food. Jack also ate hungrily although he had done little all morning.

"We were up on Llain farm, yes yes." John was in full flow. "She'd bought us a big pot of cawl and left it by the hedge. I came around the corner and a little bitch had knocked the top off and gone head over heels into the thing! She was soaking. I pulled her out by the collar and let the cawl drip back in the pot. Yes, yes. Waste not want not! No, no. And everyone ate the bloody thing. Tasted no difference!"
Jack smiled. John's son dragged some bread through the gravy on his plate

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