The Roadmender

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Author: Michael Fairless

Chapter I

A GREAT joy has come to me; one of those unexpected gifts which life loves to bestow after we have learnt to loose our grip of her. I am back in my own place very near my road - the white gate lies within my distant vision; near the lean grey Downs which keep watch and ward between the country and the sea; very near, nay, in the lap of Mother Earth, for as I write I am lying on a green carpet, powdered yellow and white with the sun’s own flowers; overhead a great sycamore where the bees toil and sing; and sighing shimmering poplars golden grey against the blue. The day of Persephone has dawned for me, and I, set free like Demeter’s child, gladden my eyes with this foretaste of coming radiance, and rest my tired sense with the scent and sound of home. Away down the meadow I hear the early scythe song, and the warm air is fragrant with the fallen grass. It has its own message for me as I lie here, I who have obtained yet one more mercy, and the burden of it is life, not death.

I remember when, taking a grace from my road, I helped to mow Farmer Marler’s ten-acre field, rich in ripe upstanding grass. The mechanism of the ancient reaper had given way under the strain of the home meadows, and if this crop was to be saved it must be by hand. I have kept the record of those days of joyous labour under a June sky. Men were hard to get in our village; old Dodden, who was over seventy, volunteered his services - he had done yeoman work with the scythe in his youth - and two of the farm hands with their master completed our strength.

We took our places under a five o’clock morning sky, and the larks cried down to us as we stood knee-deep in the fragrant dew-steeped grass, each man with his gleaming scythe poised ready for its sweeping swing. Old Dodden led by right of age and ripe experience; bent like a sickle, brown and dry as a nut, his face a tracery of innumerable wrinkles, he has never ailed a day, and the cunning of his craft was still with him. At first we worked stiffly, unreadily, but soon the monotonous motion possessed us with its insistent rhythm, and the grass bowed to each sibilant swish and fell in sweet-smelling swathes at our feet. Now and then a startled rabbit scurried through the miniature forest to vanish with white flick of tail in the tangled hedge; here and there a mother lark was discovered sitting motionless, immovable upon her little brood; but save for these infrequent incidents we paced steadily on with no speech save the cry of the hone on the steel and the swish of the falling swathes. The sun rose high in the heaven and burnt on bent neck and bare and aching arms, the blood beat and drummed in my veins with the unwonted posture and exercise; I worked as a man who sees and hears in a mist. Once, as I paused to whet my scythe, my eye caught the line of the untroubled hills strong and still in the broad sunshine; then to work again in the labouring, fertile valley.

Rest time came, and wiping the sweat from brow and blade we sought the welcome shadow of the hedge and the cool sweet oatmeal water with which the wise reaper quenches his thirst. Farmer Marler hastened off to see with master-eye that all went well elsewhere; the farm men slept tranquilly, stretched at full length, clasped hands for pillow; and old Dodden, sitting with crooked fingers interlaced to check their trembling betrayal of old age, told how in his youth he had "swep" a four-acre field single-handed in three days - an almost impossible feat - and of the first reaping machine in these parts, and how it brought, to his thinking, the ruin of agricultural morals with it. "’Tis again nature," he said, "the Lard gave us the land an’ the seed, but ’Ee said that a man should sweat. Where’s the sweat drivin’ round wi’ two horses cuttin’ the straw down an’ gatherin’ it again, wi’ scarce a hand’s turn i’ the day’s work?"

Old Dodden’s high-pitched quavering voice rose and fell, mournful as he surveyed the present, vehement as he recorded the heroic past. He spoke of the rural exodus and shook his head mournfully. "We old ’uns were content wi’ earth and the open sky like our feythers before us, but wi’ the children ’tis first machines to save doin’ a hand’s turn o’ honest work, an’ then land an’ sky ain’t big enough seemin’ly, nor grand enough; it must be town an’ a paved street, an’ they sweat their lives out atwixt four walls an’ call it seein’ life - ’tis death an’ worse comes to the most of ’em. Ay, ’tis better to stay by the land, as the Lard said, till time comes to lie under it." I looked away across the field where the hot air throbbed and quivered, and the fallen grass, robbed already of its freshness, lay prone at the feet of its upstanding fellows. It is quite useless to argue with old Dodden; he only shakes his head and says firmly, "An old man, seventy-five come Martinmass knows more o’ life than a young chap, stands ter reason"; besides, his epitome of the town life he knows nothing of was a just one as far as it went; and his own son is the sweeper of a Holborn crossing, and many other things that he should not be; but that is the parson’s secret and mine.

We took rank again and swept steadily on through the hot still hours into the evening shadows, until the sinking sun set a GLORIA to the psalm of another working day. Only a third of the field lay mown, for we were not skilled labourers to cut our acre a day; I saw it again that night under the moonlight and the starlight, wrapped in a shroud of summer’s mist.

The women joined us on the third day to begin haymaking, and the air was fragrant of tossed and sun-dried grass. One of them walked apart from the rest, without interest or freedom of movement; her face, sealed and impassive, was aged beyond the vigour of her years. I knew the woman by sight, and her history by hearsay. We have a code of morals here - not indeed peculiar to this place or people - that a wedding is ’respectable’ if it precedes child-birth by a bare month, tolerable, and to be recognised, should it succeed the same by less than a year (provided the pair are not living in the same village); but the child that has never been ’fathered’ and the wife without a ring are ’anathema,’ and such in one was Elizabeth Banks. She went away a maid and came back a year ago with a child and without a name. Her mother was dead, her father and the village would have none of her: the homing instinct is very strong, or she would scarcely have returned, knowing the traditions of the place. Old Dodden, seeing her, grumbled to me in the rest-time. - "Can’t think what the farmer wants wi’ Lizzie Banks in ’is field." "She must live," I said, "and by all showing her life is a hard one." "She ’ad the makin’ of ’er bed," he went on, obstinately. "What for do she bring her disgrace home, wi’ a fatherless brat for all folks to see? We don’t want them sort in our village. The Lord’s hand is heavy, an’ a brat’s a curse that cannot be hid."

When tea-time came I crossed the field to look for a missing hone, and saw Elizabeth Banks far from the other women, busied with a bundle under the hedge. I passed close on my search, and lo! the bundle was a little boy. He lay smiling and stretching, fighting the air with his small pink fists, while the wind played with his curls. "A curse that cannot be hid," old Dodden had said. The mother knelt a moment, devouring him with her eyes, then snatched him to her with aching greed and covered him with kisses. I saw the poor, plain face illumined, transfigured, alive with a mother’s love, and remembered how the word came once to a Hebrew prophet:-

Say unto your brethren Ammi, and to your sisters Ruhamah.

The evening sky was clouding fast, the sound of rain was in the air; Farmer Marler shook his head as he looked at the grass lying in ordered rows. I was the last to leave, and as I lingered at the gate drinking in the scent of the field and the cool of the coming rain, the first drops fell on my upturned face and kissed the poor dry swathes at my feet, and I was glad.

David, child of the fields and the sheepfolds, his kingship laid aside, sees through the parted curtain of the years the advent of his greater Son, and cries in his psalm of the hilltops, his last prophetic prayer:-

He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass.

Even so He came, and shall still come. Three days ago the field, in its pageant of fresh beauty, with shimmering blades and tossing banners, greeted sun and shower alike with joy for the furtherance of its life and purpose; now, laid low, it hears the young grass whisper the splendour of its coming green; and the poor swathes are glad at the telling, but full of grief for their own apparent failure. Then in great pity comes the rain, the rain of summer, gentle, refreshing, penetrating, and the swathes are comforted, for they know that standing to greet or prostrate to suffer, the consolations of the former and the latter rain are still their own, with tender touch and cool caress. Then, once more parched by the sun, they are borne away to the new service their apparent failure has fitted them for; and perhaps as they wait in the dark for the unknown that is still to come they hear sometimes the call of the distant rain, and at the sound the dry sap stirs afresh - they are not forgotten and can wait.

"SAY UNTO YOUR SISTERS RUHAMAH," cries the prophet.

"HE SHALL COME DOWN LIKE RAIN ON THE MOWN GRASS," sang the poet of the sheepfolds.

"MY WAYS ARE NOT YOUR WAYS, SAITH THE LORD."

I remember how I went home along the damp sweet-scented lanes through the grey mist of the rain, thinking of the mown field and Elizabeth Banks and many, many more; and that night, when the sky had cleared and the nightingale sang, I looked out at the moon riding at anchor, a silver boat in a still blue sea ablaze with the headlights of the stars, and the saying of the herdsman of Tekoa came to me - as it has come oftentimes since:-

Seek Him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night; that calleth for the waters of the sea and poureth them out upon the face of earth; the Lord is His name.

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Chicago: Michael Fairless, "Chapter I," The Roadmender, trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Roadmender Original Sources, accessed January 24, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CHPP65ESSESZB7P.

MLA: Fairless, Michael. "Chapter I." The Roadmender, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in The Roadmender, Original Sources. 24 Jan. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CHPP65ESSESZB7P.

Harvard: Fairless, M, 'Chapter I' in The Roadmender, trans. . cited in , The Roadmender. Original Sources, retrieved 24 January 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CHPP65ESSESZB7P.