Today, please welcome author Rebecca Burns to my blog. Here is an excerpt from The Settling Earth, her collection of short stories.
A PICKLED EGG
Sarah woke to a fierce north wind. She lay in the creaky marital bed, listening to the wind whip about the little wooden house and, watching the pasted wallpaper billow and bulge as warm air wove between the slats, decided to bake a pie. The bed was deep and comfortable-they had taken an extra trip up to Christchurch to fetch the iron frame, William had insisted upon it. He’d stuck out his chin, a jutting corner of stubbornness. Of course, the bed had made it down to the station-somehow it hadn’t dared break. As a rare indulgence, William had ordered a feather mattress from Wellington, and it now lay on the frame like a delicate fruit topping on a sponge base. Sarah pondered. Maybe a fruit pie would be too light after William’s long trip. Mutton would be more satisfying.
Her grandmother’s carriage clock ticked on the dresser and Sarah turned her gaze from the wallpaper to its opal face. She felt a faint pang when she saw it was a quarter past nine in the morning. She had gone to bed early the night before, but these days she felt so tired. Her limbs and thighs ached as she wriggled beneath the bedspread. Perhaps it’s the weather, she reasoned. It had been oppressive recently; the air hung about the house and garden with a stifling heaviness. Yet it was dry, almost unbearably dry, and the heat accompanying the wind felt like blotting paper on the skin, drawing out all moisture. It had turned the dogs crazy-even Bessie, her favourite. The shaggy black-coated animal had lain panting beside her pen and then, in a thrash of foaming energy, had run off, barking and growling. Sarah hadn’t seen her for days. And hadn’t she changed her own clothes three times yesterday? Finally she’d removed her corset altogether and sat around the house in a white linen underdress. Sarah nodded to herself and stroked her stomach absently. Perhaps a mutton pie could be baked and left to cool. Hans had slaughtered a wether only yesterday. William might like a cold mutton pie, served with a pickled egg.
But were there any eggs left? Sarah frowned and shook her head, trying to clear the fog in her mind. She could almost see the little cupboard in the kitchen where jars of jams and preserves were neatly stacked, but when she tried to focus on the row of pickled eggs, a cloud obscured her view. It was quite maddening. A shapeless grey mass drifted in front of the labels on the jars. In fact, not just in front of the jars. This baggy grey haze seemed to be there all the time these days. Sometimes, if Sarah tried to remember something important William had said-like when he would leave for town or what shirts he needed her to darn-she could see his mouth and lips move, but the grey cloud would obscure his tongue and suck up all the instructions. It seemed malevolent.
But hadn’t she pickled a dozen eggs just last week after wrestling them from the defensive hens as they strutted about in the backyard? She could distinctly remember standing by the fence, watching intently for her moment before shooing away the birds (especially that arrogant speckled one who always seemed to know how to frighten her) and braving the pen where warm brown eggs waited for her. She was sure she had bundled them into her apron, deliberately avoiding the baleful gaze of the birds. Well, hadn’t she fed them and kept them clean? Hadn’t she protected them from rats and hawks that pecked, pecked, pecked the chicks until their soft yellow bodies fell to the earth? Eggs are eggs, she reasoned, and these eggs are my payment. Still, she hadn’t looked back at the hens once she’d left their pen, and she was sure they were still cross with her a week later.
But the fact remained that she had collected a dozen eggs. Hadn’t she? She remembered the pent up energy balling in her stomach that day when William had gone away again, and Hans had been on the prowl. Remembering, Sarah sat up a little in bed. She recalled that William had risen early and flapped around the bedroom in his nightshirt, muttering about saddling his horse ready for the trip. She had watched him sleepily, sensing that she should get up and make him breakfast-indeed, that William expected her to-but somehow, she just couldn’t. Instead, the vivacity that should have gone to her legs gathered at her centre in a tense, tight knot. It gnawed all day, prompting indigestion that would not shift even after drinking a large glass of warm milk. She had been restless and strolled around house, moving from bedroom to parlour, parlour to kitchen, kitchen to scullery. And, when Hans slid into the kitchen, his eyes wandering over her dress and mumbling something unintelligible, Sarah finally burst into movement. She had hurried out of the way, shrugging off Hans’s fingers on her arm, and bustled into the yard. She gazed out at the run, spying the white merino sheep grazing on the horizon. The Southern Alps were pale and blue in the distance, and she lifted up her hands, cupping their silhouettes in her palms. She felt a sudden desire to run along the burnished flats in her bare feet, feeling the rough grass push between her toes, running to the bottom of the hills where jagged grey rocks marked the beginning of the trail. Would the rocks be sharp against her skin? Would they cut her if she scrambled up the mountain? Would they tear her clothes to pieces? She stared at the unreadable hills in the distance, feeling a trickle of perspiration prick her skin. Her clothes felt tight on her body.
Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant – The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.
Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities – these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.
About the Author
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), and has been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”-a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county.
The Settling Earth is her second collection of short stories. Her debut collection, Catching the Barramundi, was published in 2012-also by Odyssey Books-and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Award in 2013.