The harsh slam of the door echoed through the walls of the old marsh cottage. Anne curled up amongst the rumpled blankets, clinging to warmth. She slept on a bed far too small for her, feet ever so slightly dangling off the end. The ceiling stooped low over the bed, crowding her in. The sharp, prickly smell of cedar clung to the scratchy sheets. Cracking open her eyes, she looked at the adjacent wall and the yellowed wallpaper covering it. The room was dark with no outstretched shining fingers of sunlight touching the far wall.
Even on the second floor, Anne could hear the march of heavy boots, banging cabinets, and clanging pots and pans as her mother swept through her routine. Growing up, Anne had listened to the symphony every morning: the harsh shrill from the coffee kettle brewing on the stove and the rush of water washing the pot clean. There was the snapping of laundry being folded. Then the purr of the land buggy would follow, filling the air. The house would rumble in response, and off she’d go. Her mother was sixty-seven. Summers had come and gone, but mother was up, just as always.
On the way to the door, however, her mother broke from her routine and started up the stairs. Each one creaked under the weight of her heavy boots. Heart leaping into the back of her throat, Anne squeezed her eyes shut, dreading the firm knock on the door. She had been expecting the question ever since she arrived five days ago. Anne had come exhausted, broke, covered in filth and drenched in rain, cradling all her worldly belongings against her chest. How does a child explain to her mom what she’s done with her life and how she has wasted it?
The footsteps approached, but the knock never came. The heavy footfalls passed by. Her mother rustled through a closet for a moment before returning downstairs and heading out the door. The buggy’s engine roared to life a moment later, and off she went.
Frigid silence reigned throughout the house. Anne heaved in a sigh, tension flowing from her body. Was she relieved? Disappointed? She couldn’t tell, but she expected her notice of eviction any day now. She had needed somewhere to stay when everything fell to pieces. So, she thought of home. What was home, anyway? This place certainly didn’t feel like it anymore.
Shaking her head in confusion, Anne slid out of bed. She pulled her blanket over her shoulders while tucking her feet into a pair of slippers. She was awake now, and there was no helping it.
Shuffling into the kitchen, Anne grabbed the kettle from the cabinet, its surface a clean shine. She filled it with water to fix a cup of coffee. A part of her slid back into her childhood routine, dusting off long-dormant memories. Long indeed. Forty-three years, to be exact. But here was her room, unchanged after all that time, and old habits came back like she had never left. A sharp shrill. The whine of the kettle pierced her thoughts. Coffee was ready.
But as Anne sat at the kitchen table, sipping her coffee and basking in the first drops of sunlight, she heard the steady rumble of the buggy steadily returning.
The door swung open a moment later, revealing her mother. She was a short and stocky woman, strengthened by a lifetime of work out here in the lowlands and marshes. She wore a thick pair of pants, heavy boots, and a bulky leather jacket. The jacket was a memento of her husband’s. One worn, calloused hand grasped the doorknob while the other was tucked away in her pocket.
“Ma,” Anne curtly greeted her mother.
“I need ya help with somethin’, Anne. The traps need haulin’ in. Typically, Todd, the new neighbor, is in town to help me with jobs like this. Two people doing the work of one makes it fly by, especially wh—” She paused and pointed at the cup in her daughter’s hand. “Wait a minute. Do you have any more of that?”
Anne shook her head.
“Darn,” her mother grumbled, “would’ve liked another cup. Ah, well. I’ll be waitin’ in the buggy when you’re ready.”
She walked back outside, leaving the door ajar behind her. A gust of the frosty morning air barged into the house. Shivering, Anne downed her coffee and went to grab a heavy coat. A few minutes later, she followed her mother outside, gently closing the door behind her.
The buggy bumped along the rough manmade path through the thicket of trees. Moss dangled from the branches overhead. Eventually, the thick curtain of foliage cleared out to unveil a plain of marsh grass. Fields of green stretched out on either side of the path, a raised mound in the water, which snaked along toward the main river. The dank stink of the marsh filled Anne’s nose, mixing with a sprinkle of salt. The trip passed in silence, the only sounds coming from the purr of the buggy’s engine and the shrill whine of the cicadas.
“So, I told you about the new neighbor, right? Well, newish. He’s been there for ten years already, but he’s still fairly new. Moved in after the Robertsons left. Remember them, don’t cha?”
Anne grunted in response, gazing at the passing scenery, trying to tune her out.
“Yeah, they moved out after the bad drought. Kinda glad they’re gone, though. It’s a lot quieter on this side of the river now. Todd’s one of them quiet folk. Don’t say much.” Ma rambled on. “He’s a mighty fine worker, though. Fine indeed. Kinda reminds me of your Pa.”
Still, Anne didn’t make a sound—not a whisper. Why mention her dad now? Was it a poor attempt at conversation? No. She was trying to sa—
“Wait a second, look. There he is.”
Her mother pointed out of the buggy. Anne leaned out slightly to see what she pointed at. A jet-black raven circled overhead, roughly following the dust cloud the buggy kicked up in its wake.
“The bugger is following me again. Wants to nab another fish or rabbit from me. Not fair to mooch off me when it hasn’t done squat to earn it. Can’t stand that.”
She kept glancing at Anne, expecting an answer, but found nothing. Anne never said a word but continued to mull over her mother’s words. She was trying to say something—no doubt about it. Hoping Anne would take a hint. Telling her to stay away. Ma had no patience for scavengers.
As they approached the river, Anne could hear the soft trickle of the current of the receding tide gently meandering toward the coast. The buggy crested the shoulder of the river before lurching to a stop. She could taste the salt in the air.
“Come on. I want to get back by lunch. This shouldn’t take long,” Ma said, stepping from the buggy and steadily walking to the traps. Each trap was tucked under the brush clustered at the water’s edge.
“Hey! C’mere! This trap got one! And bring the hunting bag. You go ahead and dress this one while I check the others,” Ma shouted, waving Anne over.
“Ma . . .”
Anne’s chest was tight. Another thing to tell her. Another disappointment. “I don’t remember how to skin a rabbit anymore. It’s been . . .”
Her voice trailed off. She strained to remember how long it’d been. At least twenty-five years. No. Thirty?
“Are ya joking?”
Anne shook her head.
“Then why’d I bring ya here for?”
“Sorry,” Anne murmured.
“Just come here and hold the bag, then,” her mother replied before pulling out her hunting knife. She quickly got to work, muttering under her breath as she did.
For the next hour, the pair set about stopping and checking the traps. In reality, Ma retrieved and checked the traps. Anne merely sat on a nearby log while holding the hunting bag and shouted insults at the circling raven, keeping it away.
“Are you going to help at all?” her mother asked, mild irritation slowly creeping into her voice.
She was trying to, at least.
“No, you’re not,” Ma replied. “That dumb bird hasn’t come anywhere near us. Besides, there is nothing in these traps.” She pulled back some branches as she talked, revealing another trap, empty like many of the rest.
“Not a good haul,” Ma bemoaned.
After she had hidden the trap once again, she plumped down in the buggy’s passenger seat, wiping her hand off on her pant leg. The raven circled down and landed a few feet away on a warped piece of driftwood lodged in the sand.
“Looks like your shouting worked,” Ma remarked. “All that hot air, and he’s still here.”
“Shoo!” Anne cried. The raven stood deathly still, its beady eyes meeting her withering gaze.
“Agh,” Ma groaned, “my back is killin’ me. Ya mind checking the last of the traps? They are probably all empty anyway.”
Anne stood up, walking toward the cluster of bushes where the last few traps lay hidden. Did Ma really think that little of her now? But this was better than shouting at the bird. It was something. Something to prove herself with.
The first two were empty, but a lifeless gray fox lay beside the third. Blood caked its fur, and its leg had been mangled by the trap.
“Ma, got a dead fox in this one.”
“Just release the trap, and I’ll come take care of it,” she said, standing up from the buggy. “Tell me ya at least remember how to release a trap?”
Anne didn’t reply. Instead, she silently fiddled with the trap before getting it to release. Not too hard, she thought. She grabbed the fox by the scruff of its fur before it whipped its head around and squealed at her before quickly sinking its teeth into her arm. Anne screamed and threw the animal away from her into the brush, dropping the hunting bag.
She stumbled a couple steps away, cradling her arm. She had only had a moment to catch her breath before a streak of black flashed past her. The raven snatched the hunting bag, containing the scarce few rabbits they successfully trapped, and flew off into the marsh with his fresh catch.
“He took off with our lunch!” Ma cursed under her breath.
“Why are you worried about that?”
“Oh, right. We need to get that cleaned.”
Anne sat in the passenger seat of the buggy, clenching her teeth while her mother cleaned out her bite wound.
“At least it was only a shallow bite.”
“It could’ve been much worse. Why weren’t ya wearin’ a pair of gloves? And why did ya grab it like that? Ya can’t be making dumb decisions like that out here.”
“And all my decisions are that dumb, aren’t they?”
Here it was. The conversation she’d been dreading.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just wonderin’ why I brought you out here. Shouldn’t have bothered.”
“That hasn’t been what you’ve been implying every time we’ve spoken the past few days. You’ve just been hoping I’ll finally get the hint and leave, right?”
“Why would you leave? I don—"
“Just leave me alone!” Anne cried, stepping away from the buggy. “I can walk back from here.”
“But what about—"
“Just go. I need some time alone.”
“Okay.” Ma slowly climbed back into the buggy. “Anne, I’m sorry. And be careful on the way back.”
The engine roared back to life, and her mother drove off, kicking up dust in her wake. Anne patiently watched her fade into the distance before starting along the path in the sea of grass. She’d get to avoid the conversation a little bit longer.
With a sigh, Anne clambered back up the slope to the trail before starting back toward the house, her hand throbbing as she walked. The marsh baked under the sun’s gaze, air clinging to Anne’s skin. Flies swarmed around her. And the raven returned from its meal, circling overhead: a scavenger living off others. And Ma had no patience for scavengers.
How do you explain the story of how you squandered your life? How you take what precious things you’ve been given and toss them aside, leaving you to take what you need—what you want—from others. And by the time you realize your mistake—by the time you repent and beg for forgiveness—it’s too late. Your adult life has passed, and you are nothing but baggage to be cut loose and left behind. And when you come slinking back home, the one you ran away from, who expects to be welcomed with open arms?
Maybe Ma could understand what she was going through. But Anne had likely ruined the opportunity. After yelling at her like that, Anne expected to see her bags piled by the entrance and the door barred from entry. She wanted another chance to try again. To learn how to set traps. To learn how to dress a rabbit. To learn how to shoot a gun. If that’s what it took, she’d do it all. She just didn’t expect to see mercy again.
As she approached Ma’s house, she could hear the shrill whine of a boiling kettle of water, most likely for coffee, ringing out over the marsh. The sun’s heat beat down from overhead. It was about late afternoon—time for supper. The house, its exterior covered in moss and faded paint, gradually came into view over the horizon, shrouded in the thick brush of the marsh. The lights were on. And the door was open.