The poem is 'Saturday Market' by Charlotte Mew. I have omitted the second stanza for brevity.
Bury your heart in some deep green hollow
Or hide it up in a kind old tree;
Better still, give it the swallow
When she goes over the sea.
They call it Abbott’s Water. You recall as you stand there that the pond was named after a Jenny Abbott who, local legend has it, traded her child to the fairies for eternal youth. There is no greater sin for a mother than to sacrifice her own child for such selfish ends and, quite rightly, God cursed her so that she could no longer see her own reflection. Though this doesn’t seem too bad to you, the story goes that Jenny was a vain woman who, driven mad by the unbearable uncertainty- was she still beautiful or not? How could she ever tell? - drowned herself in this pond. You shudder to recall it and unconsciously take a few steps backwards. All nonsense, of course. There never was a Jenny Abbott and after this month you have your doubts over whether there is a God.
You expected to feel grief, standing here in your thin cotton dress, but all you feel instead is a kind of emptiness tinged with a gnawing sense of guilt. At what you can only guess. Your own feelings have become as alien to you as the wild feelings of fox or bird or hare- strange, animal emotions that have no humanity in them anymore. Your heart is as cold as if all your blood had turned to ice and frozen in your veins- you wonder if it will shatter when you move. It is for that reason that you do not cry. All your tears have become ice.
What were you showing in Saturday Market
That set it grinning from end to end
Girls and gaffers and boys of twenty –?
Cover it close with your shawl, my friend –
Hasten you home with the laugh behind you,
Over the down –, out of sight,
Fasten your door, though no one will find you,
No one will look on a Market night.
It was not much of a life, in that time you are beginning to think of as before, and nostalgia is unlikely to ever set in. In the beginning there was you and Harold, and though you loved each other, these days you suspect that that love was the kind where there is only enough for two. When you became three that love started to stretch, and strain, and break. It took three years, this slow dissolving, where you both became strangers to each other again. The first year you both tried to fight it. For the second year you settled for fighting each other. At the end of the third year, when you came home from market one Wednesday afternoon and found Harold gone, all that you could do was wonder what had taken him so long.
Now that you were two, some things became easier but most were harder. Overnight your life seemed to become public business and it was impossible to walk into any crowded place (and all places seemed to become unbearably crowded) without eliciting stares and whispers. Bossy old ladies that you grew to hate stopped you in the street and told you how ashamed you should be. You did not understand why it was you that should be ashamed. It was your husband that had abandoned you. It was here that you developed your habits of silence and solitude. Far easier, when faced with uncomfortable questions, not to answer them at all. Easier still to avoid the questioners completely.
See, you, the shawl is wet, take out from under
The red dead thing –. In the white of the moon
On the flags does it stir again? Well, and no wonder!
Best make an end of it; bury it soon.
If there is blood on the hearth who'll know it?
Or blood on the stairs,
When a murder is over and done why show it?
In Saturday Market nobody cares.
So you lived, if one can call it a life, a strange pair in a house at the edge of the woods, speaking little and shunning company. The optimist might hope that it would have brought mother and son together- in truth your silence drove you further apart. He was still a small, toddling thing, hardly a useful ally against the world, and though he could speak in a clumsy way you did not find it charming or diverting. He picked up your closed-in nature for himself and you were happy to leave him in the back garden with strict instructions not to leave its confines. Inside, you worked hard at whatever small jobs you could find, usually mending clothes. Your stitches are small and neat and with every one you lock your tongue tighter and tighter.
Your son was not one for the childish chuntering that all children indulge in when they play, and when the garden outside fell silent one Saturday afternoon you did not notice at first. Intent on your mending, you only realized what had happened when the light started to fail and you looked up, out of the back door and into the empty garden. The tangled darkness of the wood seemed to beckon as you carefully set down your needle and walked out into the grey twilight. In the edge between day and night you felt a kind of beginning. It was not difficult to guess where the boy had gone- he’d had a fascination for Abbott’s Water ever since he was tiny and you had wheeled him there in his pram, and when you reach the water’s edge your suspicions are confirmed.
You did not arrive too late to stop him drowning, but you stood and watched until the struggling ended.
Then lie you straight on your bed for a short, short weeping
And still, for a long, long rest,
There's never a one in the town so sure of sleeping
As you, in the house on the down with a hole in your breast.
You tell no one what had happened. At first it is hard, and you find every day is a test of your old vow of silence. But your tongue had had practice in keeping secrets and lay still as a stone while the village chattered around you. Nobody thought it strange that they did not see your son- you had always kept yourselves private, isolated from the comings and goings of everyday life. You bury your son quietly just beyond the garden, the unaccustomed exercise making you so tired that the next night you sleep soundly in spite of yourself. You wonder, in the days that follow, if there is something wrong with you. Certainly no normal mother would allow her son to die. But what you have done fills you with no grief or regret. It simply is, and wailing will not undo it.
Alone in something that you cannot name, at first you did not realize that you were not the only mother who had lost her child. In the village, you started to hear snatches of gossip about Laurie Knowles, Michael Hopkins, Sam Jones. Three children had disappeared over the past month. All the children of the village would say is that they had gone to Jenny Abbott. You listened more carefully and you realized that all of them vanished since the drowning. Nobody else connected the two facts, because nobody else knew what you had done. Across the counter the shopkeeper winked at you and said, “You’d better keep your lad safe.” You nodded to show that you had heard. If you could speak, you’d have assured him that there is no safer place than where he is now.
The next day an expert was called in from the city. They were some kind of inspector and also a woman, which caused a stir in the village. To your great surprise, she came to visit you. She asked you a lot of questions that you did not like and then mentioned your son. You told her, your voice cracking from disuse, that he was playing with the other children. She gave you a look that was not disapproval but made you feel worse than you had in a long time, and informed you that the village children had told her that they had seen him at Abbott’s Water every night for the past month. Your heart clenched. She told you that he asked those children brave enough to approach if they wish to play with him, and if they agreed, he took them by the hand and led them into the forest. What happened to them then is unknown, because nobody came back.
You could answer her, and your silence betrayed you as it had never done before. There was no shouting or condemnation. She knew what you had done, and what you must do now, and you both understood that that was punishment enough. The lady from the city left you as the light failed. She did not wish you luck. You do not believe that there can be such a thing any more.
Think no more of the swallow,
Forget, you, the sea,
Never again remember the deep green hollow
Or the top of the kind old tree!
The wind off the pond is cold. You shiver and wish that you had thought to bring a shawl, although you do not think that you will need it presently. You have been waiting for quite some time, but you do not think that you will have to do so much longer. Soon enough, your son appears through the reeds at the far edge of Abbott’s Water. Your breath catches in your throat- you hardly recognize him. His hair is longer, the dull green of pondweed, and his eyes are as grey as river-washed pebbles. You stay where you are as he approaches you around the edge of the bank. When he speaks, his voice is the rippling of water over stone.
“Will you come and play with me?”
You nod. You do not trust yourself to speak. He offers you his hand, cold and clammy like frog skin, and you only hesitate a little before you take it.
Hand in hand, you walk into the forest.