The Miller’s Daughter
Efrain was sitting in his favourite garden chair underneath the cherry tree. It was what he did every day during the summer months, if the sun was shining and the weather warm enough to keep him comfortable. Some days, when it was not, he would ask for a blanket from his daughter, Tina, who was caring for him in the evening of his life. It was a glorious, early summer afternoon with a gentle breeze rustling the leaves in the gnarly old cherry tree, loaded down with sumptuous looking red berries that the starlings feasted on several times a day. Strangely, no-one else seemed interested in eating them.
He had often sat and studied the tree and today, he thought how much it reminded him of himself. He didn’t think it was as old as he, but the contorted, knotty branches seemed to imitate the way he felt about his own ancient body, racked with arthritis and worn from years of hard work at the old grist mill and making malt at the brewery. He felt immensely tired today but didn’t want to fall asleep. Instead, he let his mind roam down memory lane for there is nothing like a journey into the time that once was, he thought. After all, today’s foolish world could not be compared to the old days.
The sun warmed his aged body as he drifted into a world of his own. Presently he found himself sitting on the wooden driver’s seat in the front of a wagon, loaded with sacks of grist, as he had done so often when he was young, but there was no horses hooked up to it. How strange, he thought. Was he dreaming? The wagon floated in the air above the grist mill and he could see Wilona, the miller’s daughter, with her white apron draped around her black dress and her dark hair tied with a green ribbon. He tried to wave to her, but he couldn’t move his hands. It was like he was paralysed, unable to call out to her or get her attention.
Slowly, the wagon drifted over the landscape, past farms, manors and small groups of houses, all of which were familiar to him. For a while, it hovered over the little house where he was born. He thought of his parents, both of whom had spent their lives in abject drudgery on the farm belonging to the nearby manor house. He knew he had grown up in poverty. There was never money to buy all the things they needed, but his mother always had a little candy for him when she returned from her weekly trip to the country store.
He smiled as the wagon drifted toward the sheltered, small cove and the little straw thatched house near the beach, the first place he lived after he had married Wilona. He looked for his little daughter, but couldn`t see her. Perhaps she was inside with her mother, waiting for him to return from the mill. She was such a lovely little girl, full of life and rambunctiousness.
Life in the small cottage had been filled with love and tender care, but when he looked down on it again, he saw that it had changed. . The picket fence was no longer there and the little shed where the pig was kept had also been removed. The wagon drifted into a cloud and nothing was visible for a while. He gazed into the misty greyness and tried to remember what had happened; why the little house, where he first lived with his bride, had changed so much?
The cloud passed by and the wagon floated over the church where he had married the miller`s daughter so many years ago. He tried to spot her grave, but there were too many and he couldn`t distinguish hers from others. Why had she left him so early? Like a phantom image, Wilona appeared before him, her open arms beckoning him to come. Efrain desperately tried to reach her, but he couldn’t move. He called her, but no word came from his mouth and he didn’t understand why. What was the matter with him? Why could he not embrace his love or speak to her?
Slowly she vanished from his sight and when he looked down again, he saw the town in the distance with the tall church belfry and the little harbour with all its fishing boats. It lay nestled picturesquely in the bottom of the bay that stretched its shimmering surface along the shores, with all its small, secluded beaches. He recognised the little red summer cottage on one of them and gleefully reflected on the many times he and Wilona had spent a Sunday afternoon there, drinking coffee with Charlene, the widow of the barber, who owned it. Tina would play in the sand on the beach, chattering excitedly to herself about things that only she and the make-believe world she momentarily lived in could comprehend.
He could see the brewery, where he had toiled for so many, many years, making malt. Strangely, he was able to smell the steamy, yeast-like odour that permeated the room where the malt was made. It was hard work, he thought, year after year the same, but such had been his lot in life and it had not been all that bad. The door to the stable where the horses were kept when he was young was open, but no horses were there; instead, several trucks were parked in the yard outside. Much had changed, little by little, during the 40 years he had worked there. Machines had replaced work that used to be done manually and new owners took over just before he had retired. He didn’t worry about it, nor did he want to think about it, for it had been a place of drudgery for him.
It must be late afternoon, he thought, for the sun was making longer shadows in the narrow, cobble-stoned streets that hadn’t changed since his great grandfather’s time. He liked some things to stay the same and remembered walking down the narrow alley ways, lined with houses that seemingly always had been there, although the really old, straw thatched houses were gone before his time. Then he saw the old house where he and Wilona had lived so many years and where Tina grew up. The little back yard was still there, but there were no flowers and the house seemed to be empty and not well cared for. It was old and frail like him and would disappear someday soon, just like he would, he thought.
Saddened, he looked ahead and recognized the little wooded area beyond the marshland on the east side of the town. He wondered if the centuries old oak was still standing there and imagined the tree as it used to be when he was young, its giant trunk and huge, thick branches, knotted with large burls. The ground around it would be covered with a blanket of acorns in the fall of the year, on which the squirrels would feast for days on end and fill their larders for the winter. The sweet woodruff grew nearby in the thick undergrowth. He remembered how his father had taught him to pick them and put them up to dry in small bunches and then hang them on a wall in the living room. A while before rainy weather arrived, they would give off a sweet, wonderful aroma. He had always marvelled at that and called it “The rain plant”.
With the afternoon waning, the sun had turned a deep copper colour. The wagon drifted slowly toward the harbour, passing over the centre of the town and the old bell tower, whose bells had tolled for the departed souls of the town ever since it was built several centuries ago. It would not toll for his, he thought, for he would rest beside Wilona and the bells of the church near his birthplace that tolled for the souls of his forefathers for more than 300 years, would also toll for his. It was the way it should be, for it represented continuity with tradition and connection with the past, and that mattered.
The wagon was now over the water, crossing the bay that was bathed in the deep orange light of the setting sun. He saw a few fishing boats leaving the harbour to set their nets for the night and the gulls that always seemed to follow them. Presently, he was floating over the farmland where his ancestors had toiled since anyone could remember. It was the same as it had always been and he was pleased to recognize so many familiar places that had remained in his memory for so long. He saw the church and not far away the old mill, but its wings were damaged and no longer turning. He wondered what had happened. Why had it stopped working?
His daughter’s house came into view in the landscape and languorously the wagon drifted over the garden. He saw himself sitting in the chair by the cherry tree and couldn’t understand why. How could he be both down there and up here at the same time? A blinding light encircled the wagon and a strange, unfamiliar sensation enveloped him, but it was a good feeling. He saw someone coming through the light and reached out with his hands and then he heard Wilona’s voice saying “Efrain, I have missed you”. He could move again and felt curiously strong and full of vitality.
Tina walked down the garden toward the cherry tree to bring her father into the house. A large flock of starlings scattered from the tree as she approached Efrain in his chair. She called out to him, but he didn’t answer. Efrain had gone to join the miller’s daughter forever.
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This work by K. Larsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.