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The Shady Sisters


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Acts of Balance


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Broken Strings


Nancy's Backstory


Ruth Willmarth


Nancy's Books:
Mad Season
Harvest of Bones
Poison Apples
Stolen Honey
Fire and Ice
Mad Cow     Nightmare
The above 5 novels in print, and now
e-books, Belgrave House.
The Losing


Nancy's Books for Children:
The Pea Soup

Agatha Award 2006
Best Children's/YA Novel
Down the Strings
The Great Circus
    Train Robbery

Agatha Finalist


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Nancy Means Wright

Mad Cow Nightmare

Chapter One:

    Ritchie was wearing black jeans ripped in the knees and a T-shirt that read Death To Brits on its soiled front.  He'd bought it the one time he was in Ireland.  When he bent to drop a paper full of droopy flowers on Nola's tray table, she saw the black stallion on the back of his shirt.  The beast was bucking, its hind legs kicking up, the man on its back gone sprawling, top hat and all—an Englishman, she supposed, toppled by an Irishman.  
    "Fifteen minutes," the nurse said in a starched voice and, frowning, rustled out.  
    Nola understood the frown.  Here they were in a Canadian hospital, with a picture of the queen on every wall!  The queen wore a silly little pillbox of a hat on top of her bluish hair; the man in tights beside her was kissing her plump hand like it was a warm macaroon.  Ha!  To Nola, royalty was no better than poor Irish travellers like herself—in spite of the fancy carriages and the horse guards dressed to the teeth in velvet and lace.  
    "And where did you pick the flowers?" she said.  "They got vases here, you know.  Just ask the nurse.  They might die, though, in the cold of this place."
    Nola was always cold, even though the nurse insisted the air conditioning was turned down.  It was because of the surgery, the nurse said: brain surgery was a delicate matter.  Nola had been in critical, she'd barely come through, they said.  She didn't understand it.  She'd simply collapsed one day on the New York farm and Ritchie dragged her over the border in his uncle's truck and up to this Toronto hospital.  Canadians took in every sick body was the excuse.  
    "Never you mind," Ritchie said.  Meaning he stole the posies off a cart or out of some florist's window.  And then, when she reached out for them, "Leave 'em be—and get that white sack offa you, we're outa here."
    "No, Ritchie, I'm not ready."
    They'd got the tumor (fancy that—she'd had a tumor, just in front of the left ear it was), but she still felt the weakness, the pain in the left temple.  Besides, they fed her three meals a day here, they said she was anemic; she wanted to take full advantage before they tossed her out.  
    The next she knew he was in the locker, throwing jeans and shirt at her, her rosary beads, her black purse, then sucking up the lemonade on the tray table with a little smirk, damn him.  She'd been drinking it slowly, to savor it, it had just the right sweetness.  "Up," he said.  "Before the big nurse comes back.  We gotta find Darren."
    "Darren doesn't want to go back," she said.   Ritchie's half-brother Darren was fed up with the uncle's harsh ways.  He'd left the farm three weeks ago for Vermont where he had a cousin on his non-traveller mother's side and the cousin had got him work on a nearby farm.  
    "Uncle wants him back.  And move your butt, we gotta hit the road."
    "Hit it how, the road?" she asked.  Uncle would want his truck back, he wouldn't want it going to Vermont.  And their own pickup had died of old age the week before.  She couldn't believe Ritchie was doing this to her, with her only five days before collapsed outside the cow barn.  
    He didn't answer her question.  
    "What about Keeley?" she asked.  "I don't want the boy left there alone."
    "I called Penny," he said, "she'll keep an eye on him."
    Penny was their neighbor and Nola's friend, Keeley liked her.  She was a counselor in Keeley's school—when he went to school, that is.   Keeley was as shy as a chipmunk caught dozing on your front porch.  Now Nola's twelve-year-old son was out for the summer and the neighbor had a part-time job—she couldn't always look out for the boy.  
    Nola didn't have to go to Vermont.  She could ring the nurse, stay right here.  She reached for the bell but Ritchie's hand clamped down on her wrist.  "You stay," he said, "and you're on your own when they dump you outa here.  I wasted a week already waiting for you.  Darren could be in Mexico, and no one to say where."
    She got up slowly—slowly was the only way she could do it.  Tormey Leary was cheap; he'd never let them take the truck as far as Vermont, even if he did send Ritchie after his brother.  If Ritchie expected her to walk it might take a year—if she had a year to live.  She staggered some, deliberately, on the way to the toilet.  He didn't try to catch her, he'd know she was putting it on.  She heard the woman in the next cubicle groan—that one was just out of surgery—gall bladder or something.  At least she was beyond hearing Ritchie's talk.  Nola looked at the puffy face in the mirror and grimaced.   At thirty she was already getting lines from the hot work in the corn fields.   She'd balked, but Ritchie wouldn't let up on her.  He and his half brother had capital in the uncle's place; he was in the will, he said, they had to make a go of it.  
    "Hurry up, will ya."  He was standing in the doorway, scratching his armpits, shuffling his feet.  "No time for primping.   You can do that on the road."
    "I gotta sign out at least," she said, "I can't just leave."
    "You can," he said, "you definitely can."
    She was too weak to fight back.  There wasn't even the guts in her to grab that last hunk of cake from the plate on the tray table.   And they'd left the posies behind.  "My flowers," she said, but Ritchie said, "Keep going."
    On their way out down the echoey corridor a woman shouted, "Don't go!  Bad luck if you go!" A man stepped out in the hall and narrowed his eyes at the dark-bearded Ritchie, but Nola felt it was herself the woman was speaking to.  
    Ritchie hustled her past the nurse's station where the nurse had her nose in a computer, down the elevator, and out into the lobby where no one paid attention to them, no one at all.  Outside she shut her eyes against the dazzle of the late June sun.  The traffic coming and going sounded like the outer space she'd seen once in a Disney film where the stars and planets and asteroids all spun crazily about one another.  Her knees gave way under the terrible weight of her headache.  
    She leaned on Ritchie and this time he had to let her, there was a cop standing on the corner.  If Ritchie was scared of one thing in his life, it was cops.  One day she'd dare to ask him why.  
    For now, she was his captive.  They walked right past the cop and around the corner to the truck and no one said a word.  She, for one, couldn't have said a word if she'd wanted to, his arm was cramped so tight around her chest.


Chapter Two:

    As usual, Colm had fallen asleep after they made love.   It wasn't that he wanted to, she could hear him straining to stay awake—all those groans and mutterings: "Love ya to pieces, Ruthie, let's live together, let's.…" The leg and arm muscles shifting and twitching, and then the soft sonorous breathing into her neck.   And he was off to dream land, leaving her wide, wide awake—all that adrenalin left over from the lovemaking.
    Ruth was glad, of course, that they were lovers; it had been a long drought since Pete left—fully four years while she'd struggled with the farm and the three children.   And Colm had waited all that time.   Impatiently, yes, but waited—the old Irish bullshit about "no other woman" in his life since they'd first met in high school.   Though when she called it "bullshit" he'd rear up on his hind legs and shout, "It's not fair, Ruthie, to say that word when a guy bares his soul to you.   Would you like me to say 'You don't mean it when you tell me you love me?'"
    No, she wouldn't.   There were times when she had to back off and apologize.   No more using the word "bullshit" now except out in the barn when she had to clean up the droppings.   She got up to use the bathroom, was suddenly overcome with the heat.   The sole air conditioner was in the bedroom and that one installed only this summer over her protests.   Colm needed cooling, he said, to counteract the sweat that oozed the length and breadth of his body while making love.   A normal Vermont summer had only four or five days in the nineties, but this summer they were already up to a dozen hot dry days and it was only the fifth of July.   A suffocating thought.  
    She shoved open the window and the sound of an accordion poured in, and then a woman's sweet soprano.   Ruth had succumbed in a weak moment when Colm had brought along a distant cousin to fill in for her hired man Tim, who was taking a year off to explore Alaska.   But the cousin arrived in a pickup more battered than her own beat up Toyota and began to unload suitcases, tents, cooking equipment, musical instruments.   Then out came a dog, a potbellied pig, and three human females: two adults, and a pony-tailed girl barely out of puberty.   They looked like gypsies, but they weren't gypsies, according to Colm: they were Irish travellers, whose forebears had come over after the First World War.  Some had settled, like the herdsman Darren, who stemmed from a village in North Carolina; most were clannish and peripatetic and kept to their own kind.  
    Colm was quick to point out that he had no traveller blood: the kinship evolved through a perfectly respectable Irish grandmother who'd happened after the war to wed a handsome young traveller named O'Neill.  
    It was the younger adult, a thirtyish woman named Maggie, who was singing now—something about love and loneliness.   They weren't quite the right words for Ruth who had found love these days, but who still needed her space for quiet thoughts.   This was the first summer in years in fact she'd had the house all to herself.   Teenager Vic was a counselor at a summer camp and Emily was spending a month at the Jersey shore with a college classmate.   Daughter Sharon, as always, was at home in East Branbury, with a dozen chickens and three crowing roosters that were the butt of threatening phone calls each week but that Sharon and the grandbabies refused to part with.  
    The singing followed Ruth as she padded back into the bedroom, and grew louder still when she pushed up the window.   Colm was asleep, sprawled now across the whole bed.   He was a restless sleeper, had only recently had himself taped and wired head to toe to discover whether or not he had a sleeping disorder.   It might be sleep apnea, he said when she laughed; she might find him dead one morning in bed—did she have no compassion?  
    She had no compassion at least for these relatives who seemed already to have multiplied, for another female voice was joining in and it wasn't the high-pitched tremolo of the younger sister, Liz or the quavery soprano of Maggie's grandmother, whom she envisioned squatting on the trailer steps, stroking her pet pig.   This new voice sounded more mature, a kind of deep-throated contralto.   A third instrument came in on the chorus of "Danny Boy": Oh Danny Boy, the shades of night are fa-all-ling…  and then a male voice, slightly off key, bellowing Oh sweet Ellen-a-Roon….  
    It was too much.   Too loud.   Too jarring.  They were revving up the cows in the pasture—she could hear the bellowings.   Colm must wake up, he must go down and deal with them—never mind the sleep disorder.   She shook him and told him so.   "Colm, love—we can't have this."   She snapped on the table lamp.
    "Huh?" Colm looked startled, as though he'd seen an apparition.   She supposed she did look ghostlike: hair hanging in her face, bags under her eyes she called udders—a joke of course—but when she looked in the mirror they seemed to deepen and darken.   Ruth hadn't particularly worried about her appearance until she and Colm became sexual partners, and now she found herself taking surreptitious glances even in the shiny milk pans in the cow barn.  
    "Listen," she said, and flung the window wide.   One of the female voices hit a high C and Colm groaned.   The males bawled an octave below.   One of them attempted a harmony that came out a cacophony.   A drum joined the chorus; then high-pitched laughter and more bellows from the pastured cows.  
    "Tomorrow's Monday.   Work day," he murmured, but it was no excuse.  
    "They're your relatives," she reminded him.   "And I work every day.   I need the peace."   Colm yawned and started for the door.   "You can't go out naked," she said, "they'll think you want to join in the orgy."   She threw him his shorts.   He sat back on the bed to pull them on, maddenly slow, examining a mosquito bite on his leg, just when the outdoors sounded like a whole rock and roll band.  
    When the noise went on for another quarter of an hour she went to see for herself.   In spite of the light from lanterns set up on plastic chairs, no one seemed to notice her standing there in bathrobe and barn boots.   She was only one of a crowd of a dozen raggedy participants, all beating on makeshift instruments: pots, fry pans, metal waste baskets, glass bottles.   A pale thin woman was clapping spoons together to a sentimental melody that the traveller Maggie Power was belting out an octave above everyone else.  
    And where was Colm?   Why, leaning against the John Deere tractor, grinning ear to ear, his unshaved face pink in the fire the group had made in front of the travellers' trailer.   He was waving his hands to the rhythm of pots and accordion as though he were back on the old sod himself.   She threw him a dark look but his eyes were on the woman playing the spoons— admittedly a beautiful woman: long lustrous black hair, curving cheek bones and skin the color of milk.   No, not milk but chalk, Ruth decided, for there was a sickly pallor about the face.   Her hands were busy with the spoons but her dark violet eyes were gazing up at the half moon as though any minute she would swing herself up on it and sail off to some quieter clime.  
    As Ruth watched, mesmerized, the woman appeared to shrink into herself, like a genie melting back into its bottle.   In moments she was crumpled on the ground, curled up like a foetus.   Was she dead?   Playacting?   Or simply passed out, drunk perhaps?   The others, carried along by their music making, appeared to ignore her.   The music crescendoed to its high, maudlin resolve.  
    At the end of the song a tall, lean, bearded man picked up the prostrate woman and, complaining bitterly—"Christ, Nola, and I got a bad back, you want to crucify me, huh?"—carried her beyond the lantern light and into a tent that someone had pitched several yards beyond the trailer.   Which made Ruth all the madder because who had given permission for a second family and a tent on her property?   This was a working farm, a hardscrabble farm; there were balsam and scotch pine trees in this area, Ruth's attempt at diversity.   Already she saw where a row of seedlings had been trampled by callous feet.  
    "Look here," she shouted, and no one looked.   Colm's relative, Darren O'Neill, was pumping up a new tune on his accordion.   Maggie was arguing with him:
    "That's not the tune," she screeched, "that's not it a tall, you got it wrong."
    "Is," he yelled, "is an alternate, you never sung it right, you don't listen."
    "I do, I do, you got it wrong!   Now put down that thing and let me sing it right."
    Ruth marched forward, hands on her cotton hips.   She wished she'd had on her working jeans—who could show authority in a bathrobe?   "It's midnight," she hollered.   "Do you know what time the cows get milked?   Do you?"
    The crowd quieted to a few whisperings, stared at her.   Who was this creature come to put the damper on their party?   "Now what kind of foolish question is that?" Darren said, smiling at Ruth.   "Where you think I'll be at four-thirty this morning but in that bloody barn over there, milking your big beautiful herd?" He pointed at the red barn that seemed at this hour little more than a dark heap of boards where the moon had slid under a cloud.  
    Ruth stood there, awed by his insensitivity.
    "Aw," he said, coming over to her,"five hours of sleep is plenty, I never needed more, ma'am, not even when I was a kid."   He grinned into her face.  
    "Colm," she said, addressing the infuriating figure in the white boxer shorts.   "This is your relative.   Please explain things to him.   And who gave permission for that tent?" She pointed to the tent where the bearded newcomer was emerging now, stomping over to the group of spectators squatting on the grass.  
    Squatters.   The word came to her.   They squatted on your unoccupied land until they claimed it for their own, and who could get them off?   She'd heard that about the Irish.   Who were these people anyway?   Gypsies, she thought.   She didn't care what Colm called them.   Travellers like Maggie were surely to be classified as gypsies.   Not European Roma gypsies, but itinerant wandering Irish-Americans who thought nothing, folk said, of taking the corn you'd just brought to fruition in your garden, or the ripe tomatoes or pole beans.   Human racoons!   Come in an ancient pickup and a trailer painted a canary yellow.
    Colm was whispering to Darren; the tall lanky fellow was all apologies as though he'd no idea the music could have disturbed anyone's rest.   "Right," Darren said, "we'll put it all away and let you go back and have your night's sleep.   We'll be fresh as buttercups in the dawn and you'll get a day's work out of me'll make you fall on your knees and shout A-men."
    "And that?" she said, ignoring the bullshit (that word again but fitting this time)—she pointed at the newcomer's tent.
    Darren squinted as though surprised to see it there, a thin plastic structure with tiny holes as though it had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees.   He laughed.  "Oh, that's just my big brother Ritchie, come to take me back to Uncle's farm.   The hired guy quit when he couldn't take Uncle's temper, and now he's short of hands.   But would I leave you in the lurch?   Aw, hell, you know I wouldn't—I swear—got a Bible around here?" He crossed himself with a flourish, glanced at Maggie for support; she trilled a few high notes.   "Not this summer, not when I promised to stay, and Maggie here's got a concert next month, up to Burlington, in one of them cafes there.   Good pay too, I tell you, am I right, Mag?"
    "Right," she said, and rubbed her palms together.   She gave the younger sister a slap on the bum and sent her into the trailer, presumably to sleep.
    "They're not staying, any of them," Ruth mumbled, and glared at the yellow trailer, which was clearly profiled now where the moon had swung back into view.   Beyond the trailer she saw a second pickup that someone had ridden into her pasture, mowing down a hundred new trees no doubt.   And then a horse grazing on her scotch pine.   She was dumbstruck with the audacity of it.   And there was her lover, Colm, smiling, calm as a summer's night, thumbs stuck into the band of his white boxer shorts.   They were all alike, the Irish—on both sides of the ocean.   Not like her own rational Scots, who'd feel the weight of an awful guilt to be exploiting another's hospitality.  
    "Darren.   Please.   I want them out by tomorrow night."
    "But, ma'am, the woman's sick—she had surgery, Nola did, two weeks ago—up to Canada," Darren said, looking innocent.   "You can't throw her out.   It's just till she recupes, you know, and they'll be outa here.   I give you my solemn promise."   He held out his large calloused hands as though a Bible might suddenly drop into them.
    "Day after tomorrow then," Ruth said, relenting.   "Tell your brother to find a place for the two of them.   These are new young trees on this pasture.   I need the income.   And see to it that horse is out of here at dawn.   Can't you see it's digging up the grass?"
    She blinked, and the place was suddenly empty.   The spectators, horse and all, had gone, crawled away it seemed, into the dark.   Were they bundled up among her trees?   Sleeping with the cows?   What would she find in the morning?   Her trees trampled, her pasture littered with bottles, jars, paper cups, burger wrappers?  
    She had to have her sleep.   She had to be up at four-fifteen.   The cows wouldn't wait.   She stumbled back to the house.   Colm was there at her elbow, all sweet talk and hands stroking her butt.   Not a single apology for this mayhem in her life, this loss of sleep.   She loved him: he was good, loyal, engaging, compassionate.   He had a great sense of humor.   But there were times he went too far.  
    "They would've sneaked over the border, I expect," Colm said.   "I suppose we should call that hospital, but I don't want them in trouble."
    "What hospital?   Why would we call them?   What about?"
    "Why, that woman who died of variant CJD disease—you didn't hear it on the radio?   They did an autopsy after she had surgery in a Canadian hospital and that's what it was, CJD, Creutzfeld–Jacob disease—the human form of Mad Cow."
    Yes, she'd read about it, but oh, he was maddening, using those foolish initials.   As if you could reduce pain, death, and disease to mere initials.  
    He went on with an ingratiating smile as though she were some kind of idiot, wholly out of the mainstream.   "Comes from eating the meat of animals tainted with Mad Cow.   They're making a call for a hundred patients who might've been infected from the surgical instruments after some young woman died of CJD.   Or from a patch of brain sheathing they closed the incision with.   And worse, a couple of them donated blood, might've lied about where they'd been—like in farms where they'd had Mad Cow.   The hospital's closed down for now.   They need those folks back for testing.   For quarantining, I'd expect."
    Slowly she put it together—her brain wasn't working too well at this hour of the night, especially after the rude interruption out in the pasture.   Some young woman up in Canada had some incurable disease, and this woman in her tent, here in the Willmarth pasture, who'd been in that hospital and might be infected herself .  
    Oh dear.   "Do you think it's contagious?"
    "Contagious?   Well I don't know about that.   Could be, I guess.   But over a hundred deaths in Britain and Ireland in the nineties—you read the papers, right?   It attacks the whole brain, makes it look like a sponge, full of holes.   Brings on depression, paranoia.   You start seeing things upside-down.   You see things in surreal colors, you hallucinate—see bugs crawling all over the place.   It eats away speech, memory.   You turn into a vegetable.  The worst, they say, is if you're infected it can sleep inside you for up to forty years—tens of thousands could already have it.   And when it wakes up—bango!" Colm clapped his hands together.   He was clearly enjoying the effect his words had on her.   "Dead in seven days."
    Outside, the accordion made a last trill, and was silent.   The night beyond the bedroom window was black, the moon eclipsed by racing clouds.   She imagined waking to a pasture empty of cows, like the sheep farmers up in East Warren who only three years before had their herd quarantined and then slaughtered because two animals had tested positive for a form of Mad Cow that could take years to prove.   A livelihood removed, dreams destroyed.   She'd felt sick for them.
    "It could happen to me," she said, struck with the magnitude of it, the horror.   "Oh, my God, it could."   She flung her arms around her lover's neck.   "Colm, we've got to get the woman out of that tent, back to that Canadian hospital!"
    "Even then it could be too late for us," he said.   "People will hear about it.   Panic.   Jump to false conclusions—you know."
    She knew.   She knew only too well.   She felt the panic herself.   She held on to him, needing solace.   But he was already asleep.  


© Nancy Means Wright


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