There was a rhythm to the clicking of the knitting needles as the scarf grew longer. Her fingers were knobby and stiff but they never faltered, stitch after stitch, row after row. Her brown eyes were as bright and alert as those of someone much younger. The knitting yarn was the color of the sky above the little town on a sunny day. It was one of her favourite colors. She also liked sage green, lilac, rose pink and cream. She couldn’t remember who the scarf is for.
“That’s long enough now, Mum. You can cast off,” her daughter held the scarf to show its length. It was long enough to wrap twice around a neck with plenty to spare.
“All right, Dulcie. I will finish it off.”
“I’m not Dulcie, I’m Muriel. Remember?”
“Where did she go? Has she done her homework?”
“I’m sure she has.” In truth, Dulcie was visiting her new grandchild in another state.
After a while, Muriel helped her mother choose the color of yarn for another scarf. She knew it wouldn’t be long before her mother would have to go into residential care. On two recent occasions, she had wandered off on her own towards the river claiming to be looking for the bridge. Her confusion was worsening and her muttering of strange things becoming more frequent. She had developed obsessive worrying about the bridge. That morning, she had wrung her hands in agitation and said, “If there is a lot of rain; the bridge will be washed away.”
Muriel replied, “You don’t have to worry about that. They built a better, higher bridge ages ago. Eat your toast.”
Muriel sighed and looked at her mother. It was unfair that such a strong woman could be reduced to this state. Life hadn’t always been easy for Elsie. She had fallen in love with and married a scoundrel by the name of Len Bright who worked on the railway. He was fond of a drink and fond of an argument.
Elsie had learned early on not to argue with Len. Just the same, he often found an excuse to beat her up, leaving the impression of his cheap skull and crossbones ring all over her body. He had won the ring in a game of two up and was proud of it. Elsie thought it was plain ugly. Her daughters agreed with her but didn’t voice their opinion to their father.
Later that day, while Muriel was talking on the phone, Elsie wandered off, her discarded knitting on the floor near her chair. Muriel found her down near the river again. “Mum, where are you going? Come away from the water.”
“Where is the bridge?” She was agitated and walking in circles.
“The bridge is fine. Come home.”
“Look under the bridge. I’ve got to look.” She slapped at Muriel’s arm.
Muriel tried to steer her away from the river but Elsie shoved her, causing her to trip and fall to the ground. Fighting back tears, Muriel stayed where she was for a moment.
“Why are you sitting in the dirt? Look at your clothes. You had better not let your father see that.” Elsie bent and started brushing at Muriel’s clothes.
From a young age Muriel and her sister, Dulcie had learned to be careful and secretive around their father. If they upset him, he would take it out on their mother.
Rain had started to fall, drenching them as they walked home, the drops mingling with Muriel’s tears. Elsie refused to change into dry clothes, insisting she had to finish knitting a scarf for Alfred. She had forgotten about placing flowers on Alfred’s grave yesterday.
Muriel still mourned for Alfred though five years had passed since his death. After Len disappeared, Alfred had stepped in and shown the girls the fatherly love that had been denied them for so long.
It had been a relief when her father disappeared. He had become more violent than ever, beating Elsie senseless. On a number of occasions, neighbors had taken her to the hospital. She always discharged herself early because she didn’t want to leave the girls alone.
Alfred worked at the hospital and he began visiting Elsie while Len was at work. He sometimes brought treats like chocolate or fresh buns from the baker. The girls knew this was something they should not tell their father about but they were too innocent to think their mother might have been having an affair.
Muriel and Dulcie were surprised when they were told they were to spend the Easter holidays in the city with relatives they barely knew. The relatives were good, kind people and the city interesting but the girls didn’t enjoy themselves because they feared their mother would be killed in their absence.
Elsie met them at the train station. She seemed happier than usual in spite of the new bruises on her face. “Your father has gone,” she said.
The girls asked questions. Why? When? Where? Would he be back?
“He just left,” she said. “I don’t think he is coming back.” She couldn’t tell them anymore. Soon afterwards, she went to work at the bakers shop and she often smiled and even laughed.
Then Alfred moved in and the girls were terrified Len would come home to collect his belongings. Years passed and he never returned.
Muriel pondered these things as her mother sat knitting, oblivious to her wet clothes. She turned the heating up higher and draped a rug around Elsie’s shoulders. In bed that night, she talked things over with her husband, Brian. “Knitting used to have a calming influence on her but not now. She is obsessed about the bridge. I simply can’t watch her all the time and I’m scared she will drown in the river.”
“I’m afraid the time has come, love,” Brian said. “You will have to talk to Dulcie when she gets back.”
The rain continued for a week. The river became a swirling torrent of muddy water, sweeping animals and buildings before it. People were evacuated from houses in streets closest to the river and the Scouts hall was washed away.
Water lapped over the new bridge but it stood firm without damage. The old bridge didn’t fare as well.
When it was all over, people ventured out to survey the damage. Brian gripped Elsie’s arm firmly as the three of them walked along the edge of the receding river. There were dead animals, pieces of timber, broken furniture and empty drums caught up in the piles of debris. Then they saw what looked like part of the old bridge wedged between two trees. Muriel wanted to turn back before her mother saw it but it was too late.
“What’s that? I want to see it.” Elsie tugged at Brian, pulling him forward.
Something was caught up in the wrecked remains of the bridge. It protruded from the space between a large beam and what would have been the top of the bridge. Coming closer, they saw it was a blue candlewick bed cover, faded and rotting, but it wasn’t just hanging loose as if draped there. It was wrapped around something.
Brian poked it with his foot, turning it over. He wished he hadn’t. He and Muriel gasped in horror. Elsie was silent. They were looking down at the face of a skeleton. A skeleton wearing the rotting remains of men’s’ clothes. One arm had flopped sideways, away from the bed cover. There was a skull and crossbones ring on one finger.
Elsie said, “Len would never wear a scarf. Reckoned they were for sissies. Oh well, all the more for Alfred. Is there any blue yarn left? It matches his eyes.”