by Derrick Eaves
In the backwoods of Upper Canada, 1796, time comes to a halt.
Not more than an hour after waking to find his wife’s lifeless body beside the bed, James had driven the carriage along the rough clearing to the dwelling of the only neighbours for twenty miles–Sarah and her husband, Thomas. Sarah hurriedly packed a few items in a travel bag and rode back with James to help bury her only sibling.
As they rode along the edge of the freshly-ploughed field, the conversation was directed toward practical matters. The closest doctor was thirty miles away and the road would surely be flooded over at this time of year. The paperwork to make everything official would have to wait.
But once the carriage left the civilized farmstead and entered the cover of forest, James began speaking of his wife’s rapid decline in health.
“She hardly left our bed, and when she did, it was just to pace the cabin.” James worked the reins to guide the pair of horses around several large dips in the crude road.
Sarah clutched the hem of her skirt to keep it from getting splattered with mud. “I knew she had not been well of late,” she said, “but I still don’t understand.”
“And the scratching. She would scratch her arms until they were nearly raw, muttering to herself.”
“What would she say?” Sarah had been staring off through the stands of hardwood as they rode, but she now looked at James who just shook his head and let out a long sigh.
“Time, she’d say. It can’t be time. God knows time is one of the few things we do have in this place. Now watch your head coming up.” He whistled and tugged on the reins to slow the horses down as they passed by some low-hanging branches. “You haven’t yet asked how she died.”
“I know. And I suppose it’s only right I should hear it.” Sarah reached up to lift a small branch from a maple tree over her head. Everything inside her felt numb and cold as if she were caught up in a dream, but the merciless bouncing of the carriage as the wheels tried to keep to the muddied tracks let her know that this was all too real.
James shifted in his seat. “She had a particularly bad spell last night. I tried everything I could think of to comfort her, but nothing made a difference.” His voice became choked and Sarah did him the courtesy of looking away. “She would be crying one minute and staring blankly out the window the next.” He stopped talking as the horses pulled the carriage around a bend and across a small creek. “Before putting out the final lamp for the night, she turned to me with such a look on her face and asked, do you think our babies are waiting for us in heaven?”
At the mention of her sister’s two stillborn children, Sarah felt a flood of tears come unabated. She held her face in her hands as James brought the carriage to a stop on the path. Wave after wave of grief washed over her until she was able to regain control. She hastily wiped away the tears. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Please, I need to know this.”
James flicked the reins and the carriage started up once more through the maze of trees. “It was this morning,” he said quietly. “When I awoke, I found her on the floor beside the bed with a bottle of medicine beside her.”
Sarah furrowed her brow. “What type of medicine?” She knew her sister had been suffering from melancholy, but she was not aware of any medicine.
James spat the words through gritted teeth. “Some tonic she bought from a street vendor when we first landed in Quebec City five years back. I forgot she even had it until I saw the empty bottle beside her this morning.”
When they arrived at the cabin, James drove the carriage up to the door. He reined in the horses and offered Sarah a hand as she climbed down. “If you need any help with, you know, trying to–” He looked toward the stable and fumbled awkwardly with the reins.
“I’ll be fine, thank you.”
“Well, I’ll see to everything out here then.” He flicked the reins and the horses started plodding toward the stables.
Sarah opened the door to the cabin. And there, through an opening to the only sectioned room in the small living space, she could see the legs and feet of her deceased sister on the bed. For a moment, Sarah didn’t move. During the carriage ride, she tried imagining that moment of seeing her sister’s body. The thought had brought her to tears, but it had also filled her with anxiety and fear. Now that she was in the moment, the need to act overcame all other feelings. There would be time enough to grieve after the burial.
She walked into the bedroom and knelt down by her sister. My sweet Catharine, she thought, stroking her sister’s long, dark hair. How could you do this to me?
Looking for some decent clothing to dress her sister, Sarah opened a large trunk that was tucked into a corner of the room. It didn’t hold much, but the few contents did capture the memory of her sister: Catharine’s wedding dress, a few simple pieces of jewelry passed down from their mother, and a journal detailing the journey across the Atlantic and up the St. Lawrence to this homestead in Upper Canada.
But it was one final item that caught Sarah’s attention, mostly because she had never seen it before. There, beneath the neatly-folded wedding dress, was a beautiful clock. Sarah frowned as she picked it up. When you could only carry a few prized items across the ocean and deep into this new world, why bring something so unwieldy? And why had Catharine kept it hidden away all this time?
Sarah looked back down at the clock. It was made of solid cherry and had six oval faces encased in glass, each with a single spidery hand. One was clearly a second hand that ran backward. Sarah watched the hand in the next oval and noticed a very slow but clear movement–the minute hand. She wasn’t sure if the other four faces worked, as they appeared stuck in the twelve o’clock position. It must be broken, Sarah thought.
She stood up and set the clock on a small, crudely-built nightstand. The beauty of the timepiece seemed so out of place in this cabin–old-world beauty thrown into the wilderness. Even its ticking, a sound so common in any home or business back in England, seemed so foreign and strange to Sarah’s ears.
… tick … tick … tick …
Over the next couple hours, Sarah busied herself with preparing the body as best she could. She bathed her sister and dressed her in the wedding gown. She brushed her sister’s hair until it was perfect. She meticulously cleaned and trimmed the fingernails so no one could have guessed that Catharine had worked a single day of her life or spent five hard years living in an isolated homestead in the wilderness. She would have applied a touch of make-up if she had found any among Catharine’s belongings, but she was satisfied well enough knowing that her sister’s cold cheeks and lips still maintained the faintest blush of a recent life.
Having prepared her sister’s body, Sarah went outside to pick some flowers. By the edge of the small clearing, she saw the freshly dug plot. She couldn’t resist the urge to walk over to it and look inside. The earth changed texture and colour at different layers. Near the surface, the soil was a grey-brown clay, but the soil became more sandy and dark in the final few feet. She gave a quick look around and lowered herself down into the plot.
The soil was cold on her fingers and the back of her neck as she lay down. She licked her lips and slowed her breathing down as she watched the sun disappear against the rim of the plot. It didn’t take long for panic to set in. The earthen walls felt so close around her. Her throat began to constrict and her heart began to pound audibly, briefly reminding her of the timepiece. … tick … tick … tick … And she finally became aware that things were alive all around her. A centipede scurried for cover and several worms had already partially disappeared through newly-dug holes.
Sarah tried to get back on her feet, but her movement allowed some soil to fall down onto her face. She let out a scream and quickly clambered out of the hole. Embarrassed, but still alone, she remained a moment on her knees beside the plot. Brushing loose dirt out of her hair, the full weight of the situation finally bore down on her. Catharine was dead, and that hole, hidden from the rest of the world in that God-forsaken wilderness, would be the final resting place. She quickly gathered some wildflowers and took them back into the cabin.
It was late afternoon when James opened the cabin door. His boots were caked with mud and his sweat-soaked clothes were layered with sawdust. Sarah noticed that his eyes never went to the back room.
“I had to use some boards from the sides of the wagon, but at least this will be proper,” he said. He wiped sweat and sawdust from his brow with a rag that he then stuffed into a pocket.
“As proper as can be, I suppose.” Sarah sat at a small table that had rough-hewn benches for seating.
For a moment, James just stared at his feet, but he eventually sat down across from his sister-in-law. “I didn’t force her to come out here with me. Or you for that matter.”
Sarah knew this wasn’t the time to vent her anger, but she couldn’t hold back. The emotions from this day were too built up inside and she needed to open the floodgates to release the pressure. “My sister was happy before you dragged her out here! We had a good home back in England, and she would have been happy there. Instead you sold your business and talked my husband into loading us all onto that boat without giving Catharine or me any say in the matter–as if we were mere chattel to you men.”
James stared across the table at her. “You mind your words. You know as well as I that Catharine was not well. This move was meant to get us away from everything.”
“Aye, but that didn’t work now, did it?” Sarah knew she had said too much, and she quickly looked down in embarrassment.
The tension seemed to clear somewhat from the space between them.
James quietly picked at a splinter of maple from the edge of the table. “Did I ever tell you how her illness began?”
Sarah just shook her head, still unable to look her brother-in-law in the eyes.
“We were back in Chelsea, and everything was perfect.” He smiled for the first time that day as he continued to pick at the table. “She wanted to go for a walk through the market one morning, but I could tell it wasn’t a random idea. She had a purpose to her. And that was the first time she met the fortune teller.”
Seeing the many emotions cross her brother-in-law’s face softened Sarah’s heart. In her own pain, she had forgotten that he had lost far more than she had. Everyone has a role to play in a family’s survival in the wilderness of this new country. He was now on his own. She reached a hand across the table and gently touched his arm.
That small act of tenderness was almost more than James could handle. He rubbed the tears from his eyes before continuing. “When she came out of the shop the first time, I knew something was wrong. She didn’t want to discuss what she had been told, but she was preoccupied with her thoughts for a number of days afterward.”
For Sarah, listening to the story was like watching pieces of a puzzle fall into place. She slowly shook her head as if admonishing herself for not seeing the situation more clearly from the start. “So, Catharine thought she knew the fate of her poor babies’ souls long before they were taken.”
“Aye,” James replied, and he turned his head to look away. “And that’s when she became obsessed with visiting that damned fortune teller.” He got up and walked to the far end of the cabin where several jugs were lined along a shelf. Uncorking one, he poured himself a cup of some clear alcohol. He gestured to another cup, but Sarah shook her head.
“I’m afraid to say I went with her once.” Suddenly feeling a chill in the late afternoon air, Sarah pulled her shawl close around herself and crossed her arms. The sound of spring peepers was always a welcome sign at this time of year, but the only sound Sarah could focus on at that moment came from the faint ticking of the clock in the next room.
… tick … tick … tick …
Sarah sighed and rubbed her hands together. The question had pulled her out of some trance. “To that fortune shop in Chelsea.”
“And what happened?” James had his back to Sarah as he looked out the window. The sun was just starting to go behind the trees to the west.
“Oh, I didn’t think much of it at the time,” Sarah replied. “To be honest, I teased my sister the entire walk there. But Catharine was in such a strange mood. She was…distracted by something.”
“And what did the witch have to tell my wife that time?” James asked as he took another long drink from his cup. Sarah caught the fire in his words, and she realized this must have been a sore topic between the couple.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to see or hear much. The main foyer was dark, and a young servant greeted us. Catharine gave her name and the serving girl directed her to a back room blocked off by a curtain.”
James set his cup down and scratched his beard as he stared at the floorboards. “You didn’t go with her?”
“I tried,” Sarah said, a note of regret in her voice. “But I was told I had to wait.”
“And what did my Catharine tell you when she came back?”
Sarah flushed and looked down at the table. “She didn’t say anything at first. She walked right past me and hurried down the street. I tried to pry anything out of her, but she didn’t make any sense. She just kept saying, That’s too soon! I’m still too young! I just brushed it all off, but I see now that her faith in that fortune teller was more than her fragile state could handle.”
James noticed his sister-in-law’s shiver. “We should get on with burying her.” He downed the last of his drink and set the cup down on a shelf.
They wrapped the bed sheets around Catharine’s body and carefully carried her outside where the crudely-built coffin was waiting. They fit her into the box and James began nailing the lid shut. They managed to lift it into the back of the wagon, and then they led the horses across the clearing to the plot James had dug earlier that day.
It took much cursing and several stops and starts, but eventually James managed to lower his wife’s coffin into its final resting place.
“Would you like me to say a prayer?” Sarah asked. The moment seemed almost anti-climactic to her. All their work that day was for that moment, but now that the moment was at hand, neither of them knew what to do with it.
James just shook his head and took up the shovel. “No. I don’t think God can hear us way out here.” He began to fill in the hole as Sarah turned to make her way back to the cabin.
Sarah was going through her sister’s personal belongings when James came through the door. “Help yourself to anything you find,” he said. “I’ll take you back when you’re ready.”
Sarah went to the nightstand and picked up the timepiece. Something about it captivated her. “What is the meaning of this clock I found in Catharine’s trunk?” she called out to James, who had just sat down at the table to eat a few bites of stale bread.
James stood up and walked over to the bedroom doorway. “The timepiece. I never wanted her to have it, but she insisted. And I certainly protested bringing it with us.”
“But what is it? The hands are moving backward.” Sarah traced the beautiful lines and curves of the clock with her fingers.
James finished a final bite of bread and brushed his hands off on his shirt. “Catharine became obsessed with everything and anything the fortune teller revealed. As you already know, it wasn’t long before she was going to the shop two or three times a week.”
Sarah looked over her shoulder at James in the doorway. “What does that have to do with this clock?”
“I’m not absolutely sure. All I know is that Catharine begged me for months to have a clockmaker in London custom design that timepiece. I finally relented even though she never told me what it was for or why its hands move backward.”
Sarah couldn’t bring herself to set it down. It was as if she could relate to this exotic item taken from its element and thrust into the wilderness to be forgotten. “Backward,” she repeated. “As if counting down to something–”
Everything came together in Sarah’s mind, and she held her stomach as a wave of nausea hit her. “That’s what the fortune teller told her that day. But that’s not right!”
Sarah flipped the timepiece around and frantically scanned everywhere for any other clue. She found it on the bottom–a small dark script burnt into the wood. She had to squint to read the fine print.
James placed the order for the timepiece himself, so when he realized something was written on the bottom, he quickly came over to see. “What does it say?” he asked as he knelt down beside Sarah.
She read the inscription:
Catharine Jane Cooper
February 23, 1751 – June 27, 1796
James jumped up and staggered back a few paces, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s today! How is that possible?”
Sarah stood and went to steady her brother-in-law, the timepiece still in her hand. “But don’t you see? She didn’t know! If the clock was meant to count down to the time of her death, it was wrong. It’s still running—look!” She held up the clock.
… tick … tick … tick …
They both looked at the six faces with the six different hands–year, month, day, hour, minute, and second. Neither person could speak as doubt and horror began to seep into their minds. Pale and trembling, James ran out of the cabin in the direction of the plot.
Sarah remained in the room, her thoughts running back through the events of the day. She remembered the slight hint of colour in her sister’s face. Had they checked everything? What have we done? she thought. She closed her eyes and prayed that these doubts were false.
But in the back of her mind, Sarah could feel the splinters of wood digging in under bloodied fingernails. She held her chest, imagining the air being depleted of oxygen with each scream and panicked sob. And then there was the darkness, utterly complete and final. Sarah looked back through the window at the fading sun, and for the first time since her move to the new world, she felt helpless and alone. All she could do was close her eyes and pray as the final seconds of the timepiece ticked in her brain – 32, 31, 30, 29, …
“The Forgotten” © 2012 Derrick Eaves
Original fiction debuting at Fear & Trembling Magazine.
(Image Credit: PDTillman, Wikimedia Commons)