There was a distinct feeling of neglect about the old farmhouse. Cracked white weatherboards, with a rusting corrugated iron roof and a well-used veranda that stretched across the front of the old building, assaulted the eyes on approach. Two, dirty brown ruts, molded over time with a strip of bright green grass up the centre, led from the gate to the home front. When the weather was wet they would turn to mud and it was near impossible to negotiate.
She called the farm Jordan because she liked the name. At least, that was the story Peggy Sherman told. Several titles had adorned the pale wooden sign which swung from a post at the entrance to the driveway. With each owner, a different name burnished the lacquered timber. It was tradition.
In the small family cemetery that graced the property, Peggy placed the multicoloured bouquets of flowers in front of the worn grey headstones. The monuments were chiselled with the names of those who had lived in the farmhouse before her. A final resting place of family members who had worked the pastures for many years. She liked to visit them regularly, just to remind herself where she had come from. Green grass surrounding the headstones was neatly manicured without a weed in sight. A well-kept white picket fence was scrubbed and painted every summer, and enclosed the small area. This singled-out zone was the one patch of farm preserved to perfection. It was very different from the house which had been sadly neglected. Peggy would be the last to be buried in the small fenced lot. Who would place the flowers when she was gone? There was nobody to carry on the family name and nobody to care for the intimate graveyard. What would happen to the property? Would the small plot be moved? She hoped not. She prayed that the name would stick forever and her family’s remains would always grace Jordan.
Fields of wheat that waved in the wind like a golden ocean stretched for miles, interrupted by snaking streams and long dusty tracks, encompassed the small farmhouse. Every year the wheat was harvested and ground at the local mill to make flour. Peggy never saw any of the fine white powder, it was shipped off to different parts of the country to make bread and other baked goods. The money contributed to a mediocre lifestyle she had adapted to. There was nothing extravagant in the slightest about the spending habits Peggy had formed, but the farm was comfortable, and she enjoyed the solitude. At times though, she wished for just a little companionship.
An open fireplace was her one luxury, and the wood was chopped elsewhere and delivered to Jordan before the cold weather set in. She would slowly stack the fuel in the large shed and every few days, she filled her wheelbarrow and transported the tinder to the house where it would be arranged neatly by the hearth. Using a hatchet and a chopping block by the back door, Peggy chopped a few of the larger pieces into kindling. The work was exhausting, but when the fire crackled in the evening, the memory of her hard work disappeared like smoke up the chimney. During the colder months, it was kept alight constantly to make her life a little easier. With each night that followed the day, she sat in the same chair by the same fireside and time moved forward as she gradually headed towards her winter years, the years that would be her end. As that day drew nearer, she often drifted back to her springtime, remembering herself as a teenager and happily reminisced about the company she kept.
They met at a summer camp when Peggy had just reached her adolescent years. She fell for him after a single glance. Slightly older than her, his looks were intoxicating. His hair was the same colour as the wheat that grew in the fields on the homestead, and his eyes as blue as cornflowers. He enchanted her, and drunk with lust, she spent evening after evening with him. Sneaking from her bed into his and enjoying the satisfaction of his maleness. During the daytime, they joined the regular activities with the other teenagers, and their meetings were kept a secret. That particular summer camp would stay in her memory always.
As her belly grew she hid it with loose-fitting clothing and although there were accusations cast her way, she brushed them off like flies and carried on. Mornings of illness accompanied the swelling and Peggy rose earlier in an effort to hide her condition. When the pain came far before it’s time, by herself in the shallow water of a stream on the wheat farm, she reached the point of departure. The cool water refreshed her, and she buried the product of her original sin beneath the earth under the willow that wept on the bank. In the bark of the tree, she carved the name of her stillborn child.
Sometimes Peggy would cry. She would remember that dark lonely time, and unable to hold back the tears, she would sob, but always alone. Telling herself to stop bawling, the crying would cease as she remembered the decision she had made in secret.
When her summer arrived, another lover entered her life. Working in a diner, she served up milkshakes and he paid her with compliments. Struck by his looks at first, and after, struck by the back of his hand regularly. Again, she kept her secret, hiding her sorrow behind her smile. The bruises were covered with makeup and a happy pretence kept up, but beneath the surface, she looked for a way out. Away from her family, he always took her violently and under protest. Unable to cope any longer, one night whilst caught in his arms, she adorned the back of his head with a heavy object and felt him slump as the last rattly breath escaped him.
Once more Peggy hid her wickedness beneath a pile of soil, but this time, there were no tears. Alone and silently relieved, she carried on as though nothing had happened, hardened by violence and time. The questions came and went and although his disappearance was mysterious, he had been known as a philanderer and stories were hatched regarding what may have happened. Peggy kept the truth to herself and nobody had any reason to doubt her.
Alone she lived and worked, and lived and worked. Outings with friends kept her busy and her past was soon pushed aside. Jazz entered her life and she relished the joy that it brought. Purchasing a record player, she spent a little of the money she earned on the black discs that sat on the turntable spinning and spewing out the tunes she sang along to. A rare gift was discovered and with a small amount of confidence, Peggy took to the stage in a nearby bar. Her name became a regular addition to the posters that decorated advertisement boards in the small town. The money was a pittance, but the sense of pride and the pleasure her singing gave the audience was the real prize. Patrons who listened to her sing thanked her and many friendships were built in the small bar.
Without any professional training, she relied on her sound, but without the real know-how, problems soon developed. A visit to a doctor revealed nodules within her vocal folds, and forced to lay down the microphone, Peggy was heartbroken. She still frequented the bar, but instead as a spectator. Nights of drinking far too much followed. Eventually, the addiction that matched the sadness came to a head and close friends encouraged her to seek help.
Reluctantly she attended the small gatherings admitting to herself and others what she had become, and it was through the help of the group that Peggy conquered her despondent nature and became a source of good fortune for others. Slowly her foundation grew stronger and as time passed, her success in the community, and the feeling she received by helping others, far outweighed anything she had done before. A new type of fulfilment entered her life, but when she received word from home about an illness in the family, there was no other option for her than to head back to where it all began. At first, just for a visit, but it was apparent where she was needed the most.
As her autumn years approached, she returned home to the farm and after she said goodbye to her mother for the final time, Peggy moved back into the familiar ragged house with her record collection and a few important possessions. The farm was known as Eagle’s Crest, but she never asked why. It was a name her father had chosen, and he had never shared his story with anyone. Once strong and masterly, age had taken its toll and his memory faded daily. She nursed her ageing father, but she herself grew weak. Illness took her closer to her mother and as she fought the beast with every ounce of her failing strength, her hair died with the condition. Carers visited the two invalids making the reality just a little manageable, with gifts of soup and sweet dishes to ease the journey. Neighbours gathered together to help with the homestead, and the gesture brought with it optimism and courage. The disease confined her to the house until she conquered the monster and recovered. Never the same though, her vigour never fully returned, and as she inched closer to her winter, Peggy buried her father in the family plot.
The lacquered board was purchased immediately, and the name Jordan added. Peggy hung it with pride at the entrance to the farm and continued through her autumn by herself, smiling when she saw it swinging in the wind.
Winter finally set in. Alone, she continued to sell the wheat and tend the small plot of land that honoured her ancestors. There were rarely any visitors, until Hope arrived. Still in her summer, Hope was looking for work and Peggy welcomed her with arms wide open. Sunshine blessed the farm once more along with a fresh breeze that escorted the younger woman.
Peggy shared her stories but kept her secrets. Tales of happiness and sorrow from her seasons were revealed and Hope listened with enthusiasm telling stories of her own journeys. Never having travelled herself, Peggy loved the stories of far off lands and different cultures. They enjoyed each other’s company; both were a comfort to the other. It was almost a mother-daughter relationship and Peggy knew, when her winter came to an end, she would leave the farm in capable hands. Hope would put the posies on the graves and keep the green lawn trimmed and lush.
Towards the end, a moment returned from the subconscious springtime of her life and she contemplated the decision to tell of her actions. Twice in her life, she kept secrets and now they weighed her down. The burden was far too heavy for an elderly woman to carry. With a shaky hand, she wrote her sins in a small red vinyl notebook, a gift from a Christmas long gone. One undisclosed moment from her spring, and another from her summer, crept onto the pages and she closed the book locking it away in a drawer.
Hope sat beside her bed in the small hours of the morning. Warmly she held the frail woman’s cold hand in hers and as the end drew closer, Peggy handed her the key that would unlock her secrets and reveal them to the rest of the world.
In the small of plot within the pastures of Jordan, Hope added fresh flowers to the graves of the woman who had left her the farm, and the family she had never known. There was work to be done on the old house and nothing would be easy, but it was necessary. Each room held a memory of the departed and she found herself wiping the tears from her eyes on more than one occasion throughout the day, as she packed away the past. She fingered the key kept safely in her pocket, unsure of what it belonged to. Trying cupboards and cabinets, finally in the small bedroom where Peggy had spent the past few months, Hope found the lock that fit the key and opened the drawer that held the vinyl covered book and the secrets of Peggy’s life.
Relaxing in the chair by the feverish fire, she sipped her hot, black coffee slowly and read page after page of shaky handwriting which revealed the sins of the past. Places were pinpointed, and with emotion she contacted the authorities to disclose information that would bring a family peace. At least there wouldn’t be any repercussions for her late friend.
The other secret, Hope investigated herself without disclosing it to another soul. Armed with a gardening trowel, she sought out the spot by the stream, and beneath the willow, she moved the earth with the small spade. The cloth, threads of an old rotted jacket, barely wrapped the skeletal remains of the premature child who had never known the world. In the wrinkled grey bark of the tree, the name Jordan was carved. Hope took to the tree with a tomahawk and carefully cut around the name digging away cautiously so there was no damage to the slice of bark. Removing it in one piece, she gathered her collection.
Within the small fenced off area beside the grave of Peggy Sherman, Hope dug in the soil removing enough to hide the precious bones of the tiny stillborn baby. Covering the remains, she said a silent prayer for the boy who never drew breath and sheltered the grave with the bark from the willow. The name Jordan stared up at her from the ground.
Hope never changed the name of the farm and the carved wooden plaque still swings from a pole by the gate in honour of her lost friend and the secret that was finally revealed.