Selected for Woven Tale Press by New York Times Notable Author Sandra Tyler
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Shortlisted for Fish International Prize 2013
The last bomb did the trick, as far as she was concerned. And you can’t say what it is gets into her, as she eyes the chips and marks around the door-latch. She waits and packs the children’s things that night, by candlelight, ‘The way they did it in the old days’, she says to herself, getting to work. Her grown children’s things and her grandchildren’s, fending off their many objections, her daughter’s tugging at her elbow and she curls away from the pulling hand, she’ll stand firm against the children’s anger, their care for her and their resistance. “It’s time.” She will say, pushing out her chin and eyeing them severely.
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And it will rain so hard that night that morning comes.
So she’ll send her children running off into the early morning, send them in to nothing, in to nowhere they can see or have seen before, and she’ll be dry-eyed when she does it, she’ll do what she has to do. Although she herself will stay put, that’s the strange part, the unfathomable part, her grown children and grandchildren, she’ll send them into nowhere, into nothing, send them away, because, Well. Because hers will never be sins of omission, she thinks, never failures of imagination. The day you think will never come, Child. It’s here. It’s now. It’s time to run again. It was time yesterday.
She will use her father’s money to get them gone, she’ll give them everything he’d left her, everything he’d got and she had got and leaving herself destitute, destitute, not a pot to piss in, spreading the goods between them so that none can make a tally of what’s left, what might be left for her, the last sleight of hand she’ll cast over her children, but hopefully, she’ll think, her last of everything will be enough to set them all up, just a little, where they’re going, and the place itself she cannot see but knows it’s there, knows it, feels it, the promise that’s invested in the running moment. She imagines her long gone father, just for a moment. Gazing at her softly, bleakly in the way he used to, he seems to raise one ghostly hand toward the rain-smeared window, the hand quavering in mid-air, her children and grandchildren are bright blurs outside the glass. And caught in the loops of water running down the pane.
The rain comes down then, hard and sudden, throws a dark veil over everything, a shadow. She finds a deep hole in her mind and buries herself in it, Dee-Men-Chaaa, is what her doctor calls that, “Demon Char,” he runs the sound of it along his tongue and smiles. A long, grave smile.
And the sky was grey and heavy and foreboding, she thinks, when the children left, storms coming, always the storms, but it doesn’t matter, as her senses fall away in pieces and in parts and the great forgetting beckons, either a forgetting or a different species of understanding, you can’t say which. And she’ll watch the tree outside the kitchen window, hauling its vast arms in the air, being thrown about and battered by the first bomb’s blast and then the next one and the next one and the next, somehow they all miss that tree, she thinks, perhaps they’ll always, dangerous to gamble, hope, delay, she knows it, better run before, only because you can’t run after, and it doesn’t matter, the storm, she tells herself, because safety’s not a quality of light, of rain or sunshine, cold or heat, she’ll think, but of a father, of your father, who is just a man. And he’ll smile, softly, gently, as she leans towards his ghost, her heart is cracking open like an egg. In two clean empty parts.
One morning she forgets her grandson’s name, curls over on her own doorstep. She howls. Thinking of the boy, of his soft infant features, dark irisless eyes, small body bumping at her daughter’s spine that day as the children ran, him entangling baby fingers in his mother’s hair, and hers too, when she’d leaned in to kiss her daughter brusquely, for the last time, she’d had to stand quite still as they’d pulled his tiny fingers out of the knots in her steel gray curls, because it is time, because it’s now, now, Now. And as her heart is softly cracked, in two clean pieces, she finds she always knew it would come to this. Because we inherit fear with all the other things. Fear with the clocks and watches, only so we’ll know when it’s time to run.
So when her long gone mother whispers down her mind’s left ear, she’s unsurprised.
And still unsurprised, even when that long gone voice is joined by her dead grandmother, that woman who’d once crossed a continent with her mother as a baby, bumping at her spine too, and Mother’s tiny fingers curling in Grandmother’s hair. It’s never over. Demon Char softly shifts behind her, tilts its knowing head.
The baby’s name won’t come to her the next day either, it’s sudden, she thinks, when it happens. And she roots for the now nameless child like conjuring things.
“No.” She had said. “No.” As her daughter had pulled her softly toward the front door on that last day, “Come!” And the old woman had to calculate what her daughter would refuse to, how much an old woman could slow them down. “No.” And in that moment she is boiled down to that word. And then it’s No to her very veins and bones and sinews, No through the corsets and the pearls, No thrown to the roofs and rafters and the bubbling plaster walls, the cracked kitchen sink, It’s always been No. But her daughter’s face flinching with hurt, with bewilderment, because the children never understand, never, and it’s better that way. She’d dug a long, slow fingernail into the soft part between her knuckle and her thumb, ground it there slowly, thrusting out her chin to stop the tears. “Get Gone.” She told her daughter fiercely. The last dark gift, she thought, looking at the way the hair curled into the soft dip at the back of her daughter’s neck, and then she pushed her toward the door. “This is my house,” she said to her daughter, her daughter who was turning back to her once more, once more faltering in her tracks, she was turning, turning. The old woman responded to this with some ferocity, she opened the door, she hardened her heart, she’d tried to harden her heart.
Her daughter sighed and turned away to button her middle son’s backpack.
And once the softest parts of her were gone, in the form of her children and grandchildren, then she no longer felt soft at all. She felt invincible in defence, if only for a moment. Like every grandmother in her own lineage who was ever left behind, she told herself then, when the children ran, when she told them to, when she made them, summoning her whole self to get them gone.
Next day, in her mind’s eye, all the children are leaving, all the children in the world, as an eternal line of old women troop through her memory then and she joins them, takes the place they’d readied for her, she believes, come on, come on, they’ll say to her, with love, a single voice, running down her left and inside ear. A hundred old women she has conjured now, her mind’s eye, in long ranks, their gray hair curling, dusty, in just the way hers curls, their eyes are dark, irisless or else tawny, lapis lazuli and silver, only the lousy ancient knees are always the same. The knees. That are the other inheritance they’d taken with them on their travels across the earth, the women of her family, getting stuck sometimes in the rucked rich country earth, unholy mud, the knees, inherited along with the stubbornness, and what stubbornness, watching their children leaving, spying on them fiercely through a hundred gold lit door hinges, and the children seem to whir and bob, from this distance, ‘Don’t turn, don’t turn, don’t turn,’ the old women mutter toward them as they go.
Prayers for the living, she thinks. And then she couldn’t go on with that thought.
Demon Char dips and rises, falls again.
She’d buckled behind that closed front door, she’d folded. ‘His name,’ she thinks, ‘His name already’, like ash dunes, after the bombings, slowly washing to the doorstep of her mind. And her mouth had opened to make a perfect O. Slow and amazed.
And now, through the low slung kitchen window, somewhere at the rockoned skyline, she imagines she still sees the children, like small dots against the land, she thinks, like they’re ripe to fly, and tells herself ‘And then they go out, like small lights, into the place, the places, that you can’t see, spreading out across the dark unfathomable land and going on, using the money of men and women whom they’d never met but who had worked their whole lives, as it turned out, toward this moment.’
Prayers for the dead, she mutters a quiet thank you to her father, that chink and chink he makes in her children’s shoes, and tells herself she hears her father whispering still, in the tick and clink of metal upon metal coin, a thin voice heard in the rattling, and a chance then for them. In the place you could not see but knew was there, the safe place, and she’s throwing back her head, softly butting at the wooden door behind her, ‘You just knew it, running, walking, rattling down the train tracks, sailing, flying into the future, going on and on. No home, no home at all. For any of us. Prayers for the living.’ She thinks, screwing her right fist into the cold pain along her pelvic bone. ‘Godless and most necessary prayers.’
She wonders how she’ll get up from this floor. Feeling the cold hard kitchen tile now.
‘Wanting to get up, that’s the trick’, she thinks. ‘That isn’t nothing. Though whether I can get up or not, Well.” She sighs, she strains against the door handle, ‘That’s a different question.’
“Go on, Child,” she’d spat angrily, at her daughter, because she was turning, tripping, on that last day, knowing that she’s seeing her mother for the last time, “Go On, Child!” And so the old woman in that last light dashing the misty view to pieces, throwing out the rose tints and the petals, the soft falling light, so’s she’ll look bloody boiling mad in the final frame. And then thrusting out her chin, shutting the door.
It was her last gift to the children, her worst and best gift, “Just go!”
She’d known enough to move from the window then, because her daughter was still hovering, trembling with the enormity of the turning page, the huge oak at the bottom of the garden dragging its vast arms in the air and shook like being hauled out by the roots, the leaves were shuddering and the branches creaking, rising. Then the old woman watched her through the hinges of the door, muttering things she couldn’t say out loud, ‘Prayers for the living’.
Her eldest daughter’s wavering onward feet, ‘Prayers for the onwardness and for the wavering, prayers for the feet. Above all things,’ the old woman thinks, ‘prayers for the feet.’
And rubbing at her aching pelvis, watching the sky, she pauses like that.
‘Any kind of prayers. It all will sound the same when this dark comes down’.
“Gone.” She’d told the neighbours, days later, as the dank of early morning turned into a sweltering afternoon. And then her own stout feet are heading homeward from the busy market, where she suddenly remembered she’d nothing to buy supper with, then seems to hear it in the rattling wheels of a passing car also, “Go on, go on, and just keep going, running ’til you’re past the bomb-dust, ’til you’re past the ruins of all this, this…”.
And she thinks of her father once more, what he’d left behind of himself, now heard rattling in the hems of skirts and false bottoms of children’s shoes, she’d sewn Him to them all through that last night, Money. Her needle going in and out and flashing in the lamplight, bent to the task like a sacred ritual, perhaps the ancient kind, and the sacrifice that’s torn asunder, stitched back in slow parts, quite changed. ‘Money. Yes,’ she thinks, ‘those ‘magic stones’ are real enough,’ mere twitches of battered metal or small printed letters, with their patterns and their swirls, which can be exchanged for other things, by some strange incantations, like the right to flee unharmed, the freedom to live and then the sense of things curls into Demon Char.
Money is what her father had amounted to.
What he’d left behind him.
“And it depends how you look at it,” she thinks aloud.
And Father’s voice, his work, his sacrifice, uncurling in the fleeing moment now, in the clink of metal clacking into metal, gold watches, shining gem stones, red and gold and lapis lazuli blue, silver, silver, all of it.
Demon Char gathers, rises.
Soft and dark behind her.
‘Listen carefully,’ she thinks, ‘not everyone can hear my father’s music, the soft steps and the hard ones and the lilting leaps, go on, go on, go on,’ she tells them, in her mind’s eye, her own voice running down her long left ear, ‘Go on and just keep going, tink, tink and chink and softly rolling silk. Only take with you what you can carry. Only ever buy what you can take, what you can roll in rags and run with.’
That was her father’s credo all his long life. Although he never said it out loud.
“So take Him with you, take him back,” she tells the children, in her mind’s eye, and that lone voice running down her mind’s left ear, “His last gift to you, his last of everything, because you’ve got to love it all to love at all,” remembering how often Father would infuriate her, and his many blindnesses, “But a generation’s worth of back ache and chafed fingers”, the way that best of minds, she thinks, was turned, again and again, with each blood beat, to the most brain-boiling and soul-curling work until his brain quite boiled, his soul quite curled, “So take it now, my life, my unlived lives, the past shouts,” she says and she stops in the street and raises up her arms. No longer muttering to herself but shouting, crying, curling into all the clarity of madness, “Take it! Run now, he Always Meant It For This!” And with a sudden and an unfathomable joy, prayers for the mad and for the madness, drops her bags in the street, drops everything and rises, nearly knocking a cyclist off his bike, he turns and curses, and she comes back to herself a little, finding that she’s honoured her father to a nearly empty street, to the chicken peeping from the dusty gutter, “Take It All!” She roars at the chicken, who appears to listen gravely, and two mustached men passing roll their eyes and snigger, “Take all we ever were or will be soon, don’t …” and her throat is wrecked from roaring at the backs of the sniggering men, “Don’t Turn”.
And she can’t remember who she is for one long moment.
What she came here for, what she feels, she can’t even feel it, then, “Don’t Falter.”
And she’s muttering to herself and she’s faltering, telling it to herself now, to a chicken,”Like a baton,” she says, then feels it curling into light once more and then remembering, Demon Char curls one solid looking finger at her, beckons her closer, “A baton, that’s not handed down but thrown. A long, slow lob, parent to child and on and on and so one hand to the next and hard and slow and skilled it was, that lob,” she points a bony finger at the chicken, sighs. “And the… the baton rises.”
The chicken tilts its head in wonderment, the moment passes slowly.
There’s a cold feeling in her stomach, seeps toward her bones.
A long slow coil of doubt, she pauses, like that, on the pavement. Doubting.
“I’m a silly old woman.”
‘Prayers for the mad and for the madness,’ Mother says. It’s sudden. Down her left ear. ‘Godless, twisted, necessary prayers, also nothing less than the injunction of every grandmother behind you, going back a thousand years or more’, and she screws that fist into the pain that’s moved to the left side of her pelvis.
” ‘I am not coming,’ I said.”
‘Your own grandmother said the same. The same words, all the languages there are’.
The chicken scatters wildly as the old woman rises to her feet, she watches it go thoughtfully, fingering the strand of hair that was once caught by her scarf and isn’t now.
The child watches her mother get up from the huddle of anxious adults, softly picking at the ground with sticks and talking in low voices and, wearing the old woman’s scarf, the child’s mother picks her way around the rocks and rubble of the bombed out barn, and bothers with the children, scratching their own small sticks into the old barnyard floor, in unconscious mimicry of the adults, making their own endless swirls and plans and patterns in the dust, then she steps clear across the barnyard floor, still wearing her mother’s scarf ’til one of the men calls out to her and she turns softly toward him, looks, “Take it off”, he says and gestures toward the scarf. “Take it off.” He says. And the child’s mother stands there bewildered for a moment longer, and several turn their heads to look at her, “It’s a dead giveaway”, he says, or something like that. Again, words said and unsaid, said again, a thousand years or more of passing through, of passing by, of passing for the other. The same words in every language that there is.
And then the mother seems to see, to see what he means and, still as if she’s dreaming, takes it off. Soft black curls tumble down her neck, slow and forlorn, unraveled from the scarf. She stands there for a moment longer, gazing, not at him, not at anybody, lost in the middle distance, “What about my hair?” She says. As if to no one, to the air around her, to herself. And she stops. She sits down on the busted wall behind her. She gives up. Her brother’s wife picks her way toward her with the scissors. “We’ll give you a nice bob.” She says, she says something like that, then with a single gesture toward the children seems to gather them up, herd them toward their father, “Eat something.” She tells the children then she gets to work on the mother, not without sympathy, soft black curls falling to the barn floor, buried in the bomb dust and the rubble. She kicks over the traces before the mother sees what she has lost, then stands on them, she clips and clips and when she sees the hair-shorn woman’s daughter watching her so shrewdly, so carefully, so amazed, then the aunt turns away from the excavation in those bright large eyes, lapis lazuli and silver, also green and edged with gold about the iris, and hums a light song from the radio, something about a girl leaving things behind, something about love, something about leaving, unfathomable to the woman-child but it has a catchy tone and the woman-child stands up suddenly. She’s hungry and she gets up with the others, striding so wide-legged, lolloping, she is definitively a child in the moment, nothing else, wide rushing gestures of the sort that her grandmother as a child made too, going everywhere she went as fast as birds and bees, her father used to say in a sing-song at the gate as he came home, as he gathered her up at the gate and threw her, laughing, over his shoulder, “As fast as flying things,” he’d say in a lilting sing-song, and had they only known it then, the problems with the knees already there, and in the grandchild too, in this woman-child who’s lolloping now and keening forward, fast as her grandmother once went, and only a soft crunching in her now, just now, but the stillness that those lolloping, striding, leaping legs will come to written there too, from the beginning, even in the lope, the stride, the racing moment of the bright-lit child, rushing onward with the things she has forgotten, all the things she can’t forget or won’t. Them too, them too. The soft swish of her skirts, the silks, soft rattle of precious stones along her hemlines and the bumps of all the hidden pockets at her skin. Her dark, warm skin and the bloodbeat just beneath it too, under the silken rustle and the soft rattling of beads.
Prayers for the dead.
Later the child finds Grandmother’s key in her pocket. Rusting but solid and it glistens in the long seam of her palm. When she was small her grandmother would never let the child leave the house without giving her The Rules to follow, sternly and brooking no dissent whatever. The child can still remember her grandmother looking her in the eye, softly, warmly, as a general can be sometimes with his troops, the key to the door held out toward the child so that the child could let herself back safely when she got done playing, and then as the child held the latch ready to go, “Home.” Grandmother used to say. “Before the dark, Child.” Pointing at the gentle space then, between the child’s eyes. Holding her short and very square brown finger there before her, and that way casting a stop over the other sorts of clock a child might care to find. In shadows or the drift of dust and other shades of grey. “Before the dark comes plunging on your head.” And held the child’s head against her apron, one long moment, fiercely, and then holding her apart, the child’s grandmother would clarify, “It’ll come down fast, the dark, Child. When it comes.” And pointing out the shades of grey, “So not ‘a little dark’, not ‘mostly dark’, not when any but your own eyes tell you what it is. Come running. Before not after dark starts, no excuses.” Pointing her stubby nailed and sun browned vein-strewn finger. Framing the child with rules. And only, “Yes.” The child would tell her grandmother, happily, in those suddenly disappeared days, “Home before the dark. And I’ll be good.” Not remembering the question. If there was one.
Only now that the adults are stressed and anxious and exhausted, the children too scared to whine, only now the girl misses her grandmother’s sun-browned, vein-strewn pointing finger. Laying out the world for her in black and white.
Her own small hand lays softly in her lap, she raises it and looks. Gently amazed.
There was an important moment days back but she hadn’t known it then, being just a child, having nothing to compare it with, all of the moments seem important to a child. Her grandmother was hedged about by policemen. One held her scrawny wrist, not rough but firmly. And her grandmother hadn’t spoken, passing the child. She had acted like she barely knew her, knowing how this policemen likes to know the value of all things, so then what value child to grandmother, or grandmother to a child?. And of course her grandmother had returned, and the policeman was all smiles then, a long curved, grim-lit thing, that slow smile, leering and patting his pocket and Grandmother pats his arm, apparently they are great friends now and he is full of charming words that fall short of apology. Later, after her grandmother locked the door after him, in all three places, the child thought she saw the dark lines of her grandmother’s skull, just for a moment. A grey shape moving deathly underneath her skin.
The child had dreamed about The Important Moment on that last night, fitfully, in candle light as her grandmother took her clothes, her shoes, and did strange things to them, there was a needle going in and out like that and flashing in the small flame, then the child had slept and dreamed about that bombed and depthless cat’s eye that was her grandmother’s as she left them that day, the policeman’s hand a claw around her thin, old wrist, in this dreaming. And then only a few days later her grandmother had seemed to turn against her family so abruptly, to turn away like that with a capacity for cold they’d never dreamed of, and in all the granddaughter’s dreams thereafter her grandmother turns her once more in that cold cat eye, the child quite bemused by it, just as her mother had been.
Because only an old woman understands the impossibility of protecting anyone you love from anything at all, perhaps only an old woman understands it.
And so the old woman’s twisted, necessary prayer, as she shuts the door behind them, it will sound like madness, sound like muttering, it will sound and look, and even feel, just like despair although it’s nothing of the kind, nothing of the kind, the same exact time, only fearing bottomlessly, in the way you fear for children, then a rooting, to the veins and bones and sinews, to the growling stomach and the aching pelvis, to the sharp pain in the soft skin of her hand where the fingernail drove in that last day, rooting for them with a savagery that’s unfathomable and strange, for the children to go on, go on, go on and just keep going. And in every language that there is, has ever been, and down the ages, eons, before even the words there was the grandmother, rooting for their travelling feet, their running feet, although the wooden door hinge that she’d peered through will have been the wood itself, the door’s lamp-lit edges just slow falling light. Falling in its traces.
“Run!” She will say, not clawing at the children’s heels but rooting for their feet, their wavering onward feet, their feet, their smooth hard and still growing feet.
There’s nothing else.
And then as if the radio playing tinnily in the bombed out barn changes its tune, with all the children gone, and starts to sing Demon Char’s song instead. Something about the phantom limbs, the hidden hands that help us, and then the flesh and sinew, silk and stone, the soft rattling and the chink and clink of round metal safety nets, that the living can exchange for other things, Demon Char sings, all down the left and inside ear, like safe passage and the right to flee unharmed, flat shining stones, then start again, start again at the beginning, and without them, where they’re going, and still nothing lost, nothing can be lost or taken, nor can it be, not ever, the past being written in us to the veins and sinews, secrets in our bones, also the inheritance of fear and a certain quality in the way we say goodbye, and so we take it with us anyway, anywhere, the past not dead, not even past, all that, Amen. We know not what we are.
Prayers for the dead.
For the running moment and the secrets sewn to us, the futures written in our bones, and the radio chimes merrily in the burnt out space, in the bomb dust, in the ruins of everything, and the past not dead not even past, and safety just a quality of grandmothers with their stony and uncompromised goodbyes and of our mothers. Our mothers, running, running without looking back, a soft shift in the light and watch us go. Watch them go.
Prayers for the smooth unfolding limbs, the leap, the seamless joints of knees, the running moment, then, prayers for their slowing and their crumbling, prayers for what makes them crumble, bloodily and savagely and rising, because you’ve got to love it all to love at all, and all of it, all of it. To the veins and living sinew, oh, oh, oh, the bones,
Prayers for the living.
Godless and most necessary prayers.
And the tinny radio claps out at last and they let it lie and in a bit the dust will seal transmission, clog the works, and still the music plays on, running down the child’s left and inside ear. “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, Child.”
The child imagines rolling off Grandmother’s shoulders like a sigh, like a song,
“Because you’ve got to feel it all to feel at all.”
The old woman will make a small remembrance of her grandmother when she gets home from the market, and one for her mother who had once come running past us somewhere near here, with her before she’d even seen the light of day, unborn, and as her cloth bag wrestles strangely, tries to remember swishing in the red, gold lit, against her mother’s pelvic bones. Being shaken gently to the rhythm of her mother’s pounding feet. Knowing safety in that moment was not a quality of light but only of her mother. Of her mother as she ran and stumbled, picked herself up out of the dark rucked, bloodied earth, caught her breath and ran again.
The old woman pauses at her front door, puts a hand out, she leans hard against the hinge. Opens up the dusty shopping bag with the other hand. Then slowly, tenderly pulls the chicken out.
Longlisted for Fish International Prize 2014
“Don’t get him started, don’t get him started …” Dan’s mother in a hushed voice, to the young farm labourer, who’d had the poor sense to ask out loud about her boy’s red and purple stained face, and then the boy’s father going on and on and on about it, the way he always does when he’s got an audience. “The birthmark, the birthmark … it’s a birthmark, damn it.” And then silence. Silence again. “Forget it.” Says Dan’s father. “Why can’t you all forget it?” Glaring at his son Dan like it was Dan’s fault, Dan’s Fault. That scar. The cool, appraising quiet in the room. Dan’s face is a wordless accusation of his father and he knows it. The boy’s gut slithers, groans. Not this again. Not the scar.
Uta eyes her brother quietly.
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Uta’s found a good position tonight, peeping through the hinges of the kitchen door, not in and not quite out of things. But then the cat slips round her leg twice, yowls, it’s a dead giveaway. Uta freezes. Pushes the half-starved creature away, with her left foot. ‘That cat’s a darned spy,’ thinks Uta. Her father’s turning toward the kitchen door, the cat. Eyes the wood-knots and the rusting handle, a sort of blind rage gathering. The cat slips out then veers away from the father, makes steadfastly for the shopkeeper. She picks him. Slides round his huge shins, he puts out one callused hand toward her and the cat moves softly through his fingers. Settles on his boot-less right foot. A thrumming, whirring sound. A warm right foot.
Dan doesn’t know himself what that mark is on his face, a birthmark or a scar, it has been there as long as he can remember, running from his cheekbone downward, like a finger pointing. The lines spread out, stop at his collar. “It’s a devil’s lick,” his father meets his eye. Then slapping his small head upside, hard, and Dan’s hair is rising. Static. The hand hovers there a moment, looms over Dan’s head, conjuring who knows what. Dan’s mussed up blonde hair drifting up to meet it, snaps with electricity. And when Dan opens his eyes, he sees that great hook thumb first. The long unkempt yellowing fingernails. It’d be quite unnerving to an adult, that perspective. To Dan’s mother, to the two farm workers and the shopkeeper, lolloping in their seats then sitting up slowly, strangely, sliding feet. Chair-legs shift and clank into the wall. “Ahhh, leave the lad alone, Man.” The mildest possible objection. But it’s that hand. Ugly, brute from an adult’s perspective but to the child it’s like a claw. Huge knuckles, cracks in the skin, strange knotted veins, things juggle, blur and change in the boy’s eye-line. Then his father ruffles up his hair and the hair just goes on sticking to that hand like magic. Crackles softly as it pulls away from Dan.
Now the boy’s looking down.
“Dan ..?” His mother again. Sounding like a question to him.
Uta records the progress of their father’s rage, like always, takes the measure of that hard scowl which appears to take in not only Dan but the guests, the damp walls, rickety chairs and the two children’s mother standing tense as a sentry in the corner, by the peeling wall, her back to the fireplace. Uta slides her head out then she dips behind the door again, she vanishes. The cat slips after her. Dan hears his sister, scrabbling feet in the small room beyond the kitchen. The bolt in the back door being slowly slid back. Scrape of rust against metal. He quietly roots for Uta’s safe passage to the shed. Their father’s rage has passed the water-mark already. The moment when a beating seems inevitable. The only question being who’s turn it’ll be tonight.
“Dan …” And his mother can’t finish her thought. Plucks at her small wrist, once, a small and savage gesture, lets the hand fall, soft, like she forgot it. Her wrist, her arm, the room. Now she’s looking at the guests, trying to think what she should say next. Dan watches her mouth opening and opening to speak. Nothing comes out.
The father cocks his head, listens to the small movements of the girl in the room beyond. Turns back to the boy. Small lowered head. Soft dip in the back of the child’s neck, the father eyes the tiny fragile skull with satisfaction. Fear. The boy shows fear. Respect, at last. The way his father sees it, smirks. The boy is looking anywhere but at his father’s hand. Then Dan feels his head gripped, it’s sudden. Jolting neck then stiffens, steels himself against the downward pressure of it. It’s hard, the hand. Nicotine stained. Smell of stale tobacco, soft rot.
The laughing is the worst part, Dan thinks, in spite of everything. Laughing although it’s anything but funny. First his father then the others. The father’s performance not complete until the soft burn of humiliation seeps into his child’s face. Blood rising to the surface of Dan, warm shame. The child feels the pressure in his throat to laugh along too. The shopkeeper looks up at the sound of laughter. Gazes around him sternly, waits for it all to stop.
But that huge thumb. Thumbnail pressing at the skin above Dan’s left ear, then Dan’s head shaken lightly. It doesn’t hurt much, not yet, but his heart is thrumming like a tuning fork. Knowing what comes after the guests leave. Knowing how this goes. His father’s empty laughter then. Quite joyless laughter (that flinch was a mistake, and in front of the neighbours, that’ll be trouble later too, thinks Uta, peering at Dan through the kitchen window, then ducking under the chipped ledge, narrowly avoids hitting her small chin). The father goes on guffawing, throwing his head back now, roaring and cackling in a most unlikely manner. Forced. The shopkeeper watching him quietly, thoughtfully from his corner. And the two younger men looking at the shopkeeper, as if waiting for him to decide what the whole thing means. The two farm labourers, acned skin and bow legs, a certain similarity in the shape of nose, chin, giving away that they’re brothers, cousins at least, not from Lindenbry or their names would come easily to the shopkeeper. Anyway, he can’t imagine how they got caught up in this. Everyone in Lindenbry knows you don’t accept an invite to this house.
Now the two young men are sliding boot-less feet along the floor, and their feet are getting faster, the way children’s do when they’re waiting for some trouble. Perhaps hoping for it. They’ve heard about this, prepare themselves to have a story of their own to tell about what happens in this house, over a beer or two or three some future dark night. The shopkeeper coughs and clears his throat to indicate displeasure, reproach. Their feet stop shifting, slide to a slow halt.
Dan reddens. He’s still looking down.
‘And in truth he likes an audience for this, the boy’s father. For all this,’ thinks the shopkeeper, meeting the father’s eye for a brief and uncomfortable moment. Then turning back again just to watch the boy. Waiting to see what he will do next. That boy Dan is something special, he believes. He’s seen a few things here, the last years. He could use a lad like that in the shop, he’s real quick and he takes orders.
The father still has a good hold of the boy’s head.
“A devil’s lick,” Dan’s father booms. “A birthmark.” Then lets go of the child, stalking toward the fireplace. Leaning hard and suddenly against it. The fire spits and crackles, tiny fragments spattering on to the rug, then go out softly. There’s a crack in the old stone mantelpiece, runs from the point where the father leans his elbow, then branches out into a map of flaking brick. Dirt gathers black in the thickest seam (and the father is disgusted with his wife’s housekeeping, but you can’t clean what’s broken. And most things in the cottage are busted, chipped at the very least).
The father’s scowling at the ancient dents in the wall above the fireplace, gathering his thoughts. It’s a dangerous moment, when he stops to think. It tends to go only the one way. Like scrambling off a steep edge into nothing, slipping down it, Dan can feel that in his stomach (for his sister Uta fear’s located in the throat. Her breath quickens, slows, at the window.) Their father, sloped at the cracked sink. Them all orbiting his planet, if they want to or not.
The boy’s only hope, thinks the shopkeeper, his only hope is to hate his father. In these moments, forget all the times when his father was ever smiling, charming, different. Better to think of that father as being long gone. Or simply someone else, he’d once found himself advising the boy of just that, as Dan had nursed a swollen lip in the alleyway behind the shop. The shopkeeper’s husband had coaxed the child out then slowly worked the small hand away from the hurt mouth, the boy had blinked in amazement. ‘Hate. Hate is better.’ He’d advised Dan, as the child sobbed with shame and refused to name the culprit, “My father was a … drinker too, Boy. A drinker. Let’s put it that way. Anyway, let me tell you from a man who’s known your kind of troubles … Hate, hate boy, hate will save you, anger. Rage, Dan.” He’s staring intently at the boy now, tilting forward in his bent chair, wishing to remind him of that long-ago conversation. And the boy tenses too, because he does remember, and then it’s as if he’s waiting for a missile to be launched from his father’s corner. Rearranges all his features until they’re orderly and strange. Steel. He thinks of something smooth and cold, hard, like a stone.
The shopkeeper leans back in his chair. Rests his cold coffee cup on the hard shelf of his distended belly, observes the boy with something close to satisfaction. And then turning back to the father, curious to see how he’ll take it this time. Not getting the reaction. ‘The boy has learned the way to take the very last thing back,’ the shopkeeper thinks. Watching the child’s face settle into coldness. ‘It took me years to learn that. But the boy has nailed it before he’s passed ten summers. Boy knows how to dig in, weather like this.’ He is quietly proud of his disciple.
It doesn’t seem to occur to the shopkeeper that a boy like Dan needs help of a practical kind, rather than pep-talks, big words, fine advice. In Lindenbry, folks don’t interfere too much with ‘family life’. In Lindenbry, a child will save himself or not be saved at all.
‘Burgo and red ink’, the father notices the boy’s face stiffen. “Burgo and red ink.” His father hisses. Believing Dan’s look to be impudence, rather than courage, fear. “Burgo and red ink.” And he crosses the room, three strides, cuffing Dan sharply, the back of the head.
“Take that look off your face.”
Not too hard this time, not like the time last week when Dan’s ears sang, colours blurred. Today we have company. There are limits when company’s here, although not as many limits as you might think, as Dan knows well.
Dan’s father catches Uta’s eye at the window, just for a moment. Dan sees her too, watches all the colour drain from his sister’s face. She ducks again.
“Hiking in the mountains usually cures that.” Says the father, turning back to his boy but he’s addressing the room. A sly look spreading slow over his thin face. “The boy will know in his heart who is boss when he feels his rope slide. Won’t you, eh Dan?” And then, louder, repeating, spitting lightly on Dan’s collar, “I said … Won’t. You. Dan?” Eye to eye.
“Yes Sir.” Without intonation.
The father leans back, eyes his son shrewdly. Flicks a glance at the climbing rope which is strung to the cottage wall and its shadow spills out. Then looking smoothly from the rope to the boy.
Dan is sitting on his own hands, digging his small square fingers in his thighs, alternating hands and fingers, ghost drums and invisible piano, distracting himself with the pattern, with the method, music, reach the end and start again, tells himself, ‘Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think about it.’ Trying very hard not to look at the rope. Which appears to Dan to be snaking down the wall now, the left hand corner of his vision.
Uta’s eyeing their mother through the gap in the hinge, the shutters. The mother’s over made up mouth looms into view, then she turns, shifts in her seat, blocks the window with her long back. Uta sees the shoulder of her mother’s cardigan, there’s the familiar small tear as the sleeve comes away from the body of it. The woman no longer having the energy, it seems, to keep on stitching the holes in things. The holes keep coming. Uta closes her eyes, then opens them softly. Squints at the dark box of the tool shed, just beyond the house. Slides one small stocking-less foot along the shin of the opposite leg, leaving it mud-striped, scratches at the freckles on her small sun-browned nose, she’s thinking. There is just one key to that shed door and Uta has it.
The theft of the key has been Uta’s greatest coup.
Dan has only just this moment noticed his mother’s rouge. He’s never seen her wear it before and closer examination reveals she’s applied it without skill or confidence, moist dollops gather in the downturned corners of her mouth. Dan recognises the essence of his mother’s performance, distraction, smoke and mirrors, draw fire, draw fire, draw fire from the boy. And she goes on smiling, Dan can’t look away from those strange plump red lips. Turning dark blue at the corners and the edges.
The two young farm labourers don’t alter the positions they decided on early, slouching in the ruined dining chairs, patched up and propped to, leaning crookedly against walls as if the whole frames might collapse soon, like everything else in the room is collapsing, in one way or another. And although Dan knows that his mother is afraid, is trying to raise herself to meet the challenge of the rouge, of the company, of the whiskey being slowly supped and the boy in his hard chair, Well … In the end it amounts to another display of weakness, one which Uta and Dan have come to believe only brings their father to the boil. Recharges him. Watching the way her hand shakes as she offers folks coffee. A small upturned corner at one edge of their father’s mouth, a curl, as their mother trembles with ‘Respect’. Anyway, the children have begun to put the two things together, her shaking hands right before one of their father’s well aimed missiles, and they’ve learned to hate their mother when she trembles. It is what it is.
Uta is peeping around the shutter, small furrowed brow. Tiny scowl.
Through the unpainted wood-slats, squinting, Uta has taken the measure of the bottle on the dirt floor. Worse and worse, she thinks. If Uta doesn’t scatter right there and then toward the dark shed in front of the copse out back, then it’s only because Uta’s feet won’t catch up to her mind. Small paralysing moment, outside the cottage window. And a strange detachment, looking down at her feet, her limbs as if they’re someone else’s. But a moment later Dan hears her scrambling slipper-less down the footpath outside. The shed door closing, soft clatter, sound of the sly bolt on the inside of the door being crossed too (Dan’s grandmother fixed it there for the children, last thing she did right before she went to bed for good and died there in the unchanged sheets, eleven weeks later. The metal of the bolt’s gently rusting, marking the years since the old woman had to go. Her death was a soft dive into darkness for the children, but they held on somehow. They are holding on right now).
Dan imagines he can hear the tink and rattle of the shed key in its old lock, belt and braces because the bolt could come away from the wall that easily now, the screws have been loosened by repeated shouldering of the door, but their father can’t bust a solid old thing like that down, Dan thinks, not by himself. Not without the key to the lock. Dan breathes out. Knowing that his sister Uta is safe for tonight. (He hopes Uta’s remembered her coat this time, because the weather’s turned lately. She might be out there for a while, depending on how things pan out in here. A lot of ifs there, a lot of strategising. It’s amazing what you can get used to, thinks the boy.)
“There’s coffee, there’s coffee, there’s coffee, there’s coffee …” Dan watches his mother vainly puffing out her breast to distract his father, then seeing that it doesn’t, that it won’t, distract or move him, still doesn’t move him, and she pours more coffee. Sighs. Tilts her head to one side, beakily and quick. Eyes the closed door behind her, and the bolt is still open. Dan sees her thinking, Good. That means Uta is outside already. Turns back to face the room.
Just one small boy to worry about tonight then. She eyes her son. Dan sees the next anxious thought scrambling across her features: ‘But did she take her coat?’ Two sets of widening eyes, same shade of hard blue, beautiful in its way, although of course the boy is marred by the dark stain across his features, and high arched dirty-gold eyebrows rising, the mother is like the son in the mirror, in a certain light: I don’t know. The coat is the next thing to see to, the coat and a blanket for Uta. The hint passes between mother and son. They’ve had to learn to be quick. Small signs. And ‘coat or no-coat’ is no joke in this weather. Difference between Uta waking up cold and not waking at all.
And the fire twists, dims and dies, casts Dan’s mother in the half-light. Deep shadow moving down the left side of her face. Grimaces like a gargoyle, her son knows she’s figuring all the angles now. Trying to. Dan believes he sees the resemblance between her and the terrifying stone figures, tilting off the sides of the local church. Although his mother is a pretty little thing in daylight. A soft fissss and Dan watches the fire go out altogether. Sucking all that last light from the room. His mother sighs again, in the dark. Quite loud then at once she regrets it. Because who knows what the thing will be sets the father off this time.
“It’s dark now. It’s almost … Better get … Better get on …”
And the shopkeeper pauses then stops talking altogether, shifting uneasy in his chair. Hand over his tin cup to stop those trembling fingers pouring him more coffee. ‘Poor woman,’ he thinks, ‘but there are limits to the stone cold coffee that a man can drink.’ And he makes as if to get up. Chair legs squeak under the weight of his great backside. But then doesn’t move from his chair. As if his legs decided the thing without him. ‘Not yet.’ Tells himself that there is something he forgot to do here. Holds on to the pocket over his heart, waits for the lost thought to return, and the woman and the small boy just watching the shopkeeper, and his great thick, greyish hand. Clutching his heart, pulling on his huge front pocket. Then gazing back at the boy with a soft amazement. “It’s no good,” he groans. “I forget what I came here for.”
“Dan …” His mother says his name, as if to no-one, nowhere, to the air around her. Looks blankly into the middle distance. And then she moves her low chair as if absentmindedly, clatters it down in the corner by the window, where the boy can see her. Curtain-less window, stars. Lapis lazuli blue sky. Moon looms. A soft gold thumb-hole in the sky now.
“Dan …” She says again. She hits her shin against the steel rim of her chair. Just the way Dan knew she would. Hits it right there. As if that might satisfy the father. She’s eyeing her leg softly. No wince, although she certainly felt it. Raises her eyes gently then toward her husband. A long dark indent in her skin is bubbling up under the surface, softly fanning out where the chair struck home. She can’t meet the child’s eye now. Her boy despises her, for one long moment.
“Forget it.” Dan’s father is seeping slowly down the back of his fireside armchair. Like his volume’s been turned down. His voice is gruff and strange now. A different tone entirely. “Just forget it.” He says, breathes out heavily. His wife, his son and the shopkeeper note his dark turn.
‘It’s sudden, that. When it comes.’ Thinks the boy. Like a signal from the wings, that business with his head, cocked head, because he’s thinking, the shadow tipping out the recess behind the fireplace and then his father’s inevitable darkening mood as evening shifts into night. That nerve-racking playfulness slithers away, something worse is beginning. This generally being the moment when his father’s guests leave. The excuses can get creative, Dan has seen grown men stutter about a cow that’s lambing, dog with pox, group diktat via the vicar: Don’t drink on Thursdays (turned out weeks later, Vicar never said it). “It’s pox-o’clock.” Dan’s grandmother used to call it, dryly. Pox-o’-clock, when even the densest of their neighbours finally senses the soft slide in the cold room’s atmosphere. Scrape of chairs, muttered goodbyes, and a subtle worsening of their father’s nightly scowl. For some reason that Dan himself has not yet fathomed, the guests get to leave here and he doesn’t, although he’d happily sleep in the cold woods, if he were only allowed to. Imagines folding himself up, curling in the trunk of a tree (it’s a soft falling in the stomach as the door closes behind the visitors, a cold, slippery feeling, base of the spine, and Dan will eye the closed door. Willing it to burst right open. The child watches the door for hours and hours some nights). But, unfathomably, folks are soothing the father as they swing their legs or hold onto their chair backs, groaning softly, cheerfully even, rising to their feet, saying they must go. The storm becomes an invitation. Any weather at all but the weather in this room.
The father’s left eye’s rolling slightly in its socket, effects of the last drink. Dan’s father must be managed carefully, most folks in Lindenbry know how, when he’s like this. How to tiptoe the eggshell that is dealing with the men of his household, the men with his name. No trouble, please, just let me out. Best get to the door, any which way that you can because he likes a good fight, this one. He likes it. Mostly verbal, he’s a tongue like the devil. Will have no memory of it next day. Next day it’ll be all your fault. And he’ll hang on to a cold grudge like no-one you have met or known or even could imagine to exist. Folks in Lindenbry knew the father’s father and his father before that. Pride is the curse of the family, who’ve fallen so fast and so far in the last generations, it’d make your head spin, but that was important, in Lindenbry: keeping the peace, keeping up appearances, letting folks keep a hold of their old pride, the small boy knows all that and the boy’s mother knows it. Dan can’t look at his father, crouched in his armchair by the fireplace, swallowing up all the life of the room, one look. But he feels that reptile stare on him anyway, the heat as his own colour rises.
The shopkeeper sighs and rises, dry as summer boots but he’s not much given to macho antics, this is what he tells himself, so he says nothing. Does nothing. Because there are logs still to chop back home and chickens to feed, four growing daughter of his own to scowl and scold at, one more on the way. Yes, the shopkeeper is one for conserving his energy, so far as it’s possible. One for choosing his fights.
And then the scrape of chairs and people going out by ‘the wrong door’ again, judging by the look on the father’s face, and the wrong door being the back door, but everyone makes the same mistake because it’s the back door you take in Lindenbry, although for the once important family Dan’s father came from … Well. It’d be the front door, more formal of course. Dan’s father takes things like this personally, often finds the need to remind folks of his family’s status, mostly right after he has caught them semi-gagging at some dirt pocket they’ve discovered. The sheen on their chair’s seat-cover. Crusted bottom of a cup they’ve been drinking from for a half an hour.
Once Dan’s oldest neighbour, in the cottage opposite, long since passed away but a toothless and amazingly red-faced man, much missed since his death, whose own family had risen instead of fallen under his yoke, although he took a drop of whiskey time to time his own self. Anyway he was not at that time so old as to be entirely tired of trouble, took it into his head one night to take a potshot at Dan’s father. Right hook. And then a long, deep wink at the children after. Dan noticed how the wink gathered up all the lines on the left of his face and twisted them, just like that, into a bunched up knot like a muscle or a knuckle, the outmost corner of his eye.
But no other man in the village, or woman come to that, ever came as close to standing up to Dan’s father. Later on Dan and Uta had noticed the old man from the cottage opposite had left a boot-print by the back door, chimney soot like Father Christmas. Who occasionally came, even here, even to Dan and Uta, so perhaps that’s why the children had made the connection between the two in their minds.
The shopkeeper and the two labourers squint at the tree out front as they leave. The tree is groaning and complaining, heaving forward dangerously then rocking back on to its roots. The shopkeeper hears the crash and rattle of Autumn, thousand crazy rhythms in the leaves. On an impulse takes one look back at the large, grey-stone cottage behind him. Paint-peeling and a hundred signs of ruin in the front yard. He sighs. And then un-linking the rusting front gate, rolls it off his shoulders. That scene, that room. The two younger men lope off right, the shopkeeper looks left, pauses. Then taking care to lock the front gate behind him. One last look at the house, his gaze drawn to the opaque upstairs window on the right. The shed behind the house. He can’t quite say why. Then strides on home, he doesn’t much care to look again. The youngest farm labourer goes back for his dog, whimpering on a string at the raised root of the tree.
“Almost forgot that darned dog again, damnit!”
The dog rolls the rain off its shoulders, soaks the labourers. More groans and then slow laughter.
Uta risks cracking open the shed door, at the sound of laughter, sharp replies of the dog.
She watches the men track down the garden and out of the gate.
Dan is still sitting in his hard chair. Concentrates his gaze on the chips in the kitchen wall, running from the sink and over the stove until it’s head height. The practise shots, long gone china plates tossed at his mother, long gone saucers and cups. The wedding presents. Dan traces the pattern of them like a dot-to-dot, then goes back, this time counts the cracks.
Dan and Uta’s mother can barely recall anything but this cottage, and although she grew up many miles from Lindenbry, still … to think of anywhere but this sinking room makes the woman squint with effort, fail. And the rooms wins. With its hard chairs and the cold fireplace because her husband drank the firewood and the chair-cushions, the embroidered armchair and her mother’s hardwood dining table, and she turns and looks about her, the tablecloths and her aunt’s crocheting (wedding presents), all gone. He drank the rug, her grandmother’s jewellery, even the small pendant with the star, he drank Her up too. And her life before Him seems to blur and vanish. It is her nature to stay here, like this, whatever it is. What they say in the village shop. Can it really be that simple?
The front door shudders, creaks. Whistle of winter approaching.
Sometimes in dreams the mother thinks she can see there’s a way out: Strange, broken path it appears to be, twisted and essential … it’s only that her feet don’t work in the dream. The walls of the room seem to press in on her, she peers out the curtain-less window. Trying to see something.
But it’s black now. Out there. Softly dark.
The boy goes on swinging his legs in the chair, feet don’t touch the floor yet.
The old woman in the bed next to his turns and sighs in her sleep. Her cover slips away, revealing rib bones fanning outward like the long teeth of a comb. The nurse switches every light off as she goes out, until there’s only a thin, low gleam left. Flickering mottled bulb, at the far end of the corridor. And the old man softly blinks his eye and turns a corner, into the child he was and there’s nothing in his face to note that transformation, only a blinking eyelid, an old man’s gentle amazement at the end. The woman in the next bed turns and stares, as if she senses something then she whisks her curtains shut. So roughly that she tears a seam, one curtain hook snags and droops on the runner, her face suddenly in the gap between, dark iris-less eyes just like his sister’s.
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It turned out later she had taken their father’s lifetime of savings with her, his sister. When she’d left. Every penny of it, to the last dirty down-trod tiny coin. And their mother’s and grandmother’s, his own. She’d searched pockets, purses, floorboards, scrabbled in back cupboard jars. She’d got hold of the lot like a debt collector. There was a small uproar in the village, the family left destitute by her, not a pot to piss in, not even next week’s rent on their cottage, everything, everything. The remaining small children in the house were taken, to The Home, as she must’ve known they would be, there was no roof, no food, they were beggared, busted. She’d folded up the family, she’d shut up shop. Over the years she must have logged in her mind the money’s hiding places. That quiet child. She’d left them nothing, not even the dirt cottage floor, the cracked ceiling she’d wept under.
She left soon after the, the… And then he still can’t say it. Even to himself, not find the words. Unspeakable things. ‘After the last time.’ She was hard, the family said. When she left. And at the time, being just a child, watching the baby’s fingers being untangled from their mother’s hair and torn away, he’d believed their words. She was hard. Only the lines are redrawn differently, as the years pass. New lines. New shadows. Glimpse of light.
He’d seen her getting on the bus. It was a pivotal moment for the boy he was, her leaving that way and whichever way you cast it and recast it now, he knows he’d made up his mind then. He would leave too. That same bus. One way or the other.
Like her he hadn’t left, he’d fled. She’d led the way. She’d marked it with pathfinders, dropping softly in the dark that seemed to hang beneath the children in those days. The bus was the key, they both thought. Even now he sleeps and dreams of bus wheels rolling, sticking, sliding in the country earth, the rubble-strewn roads, dipping and sticking in the ruts and cracks in the road but going on. There’s an ancient promise in the leaving, he believes even now. In the very running moment. A replenishment in itself, a great cosmic finger raised in slow salute. He felt her shimmering with life in that fleeing moment, and he’d stood there in that cold light, I’ll leave too.
It came to him somehow.
He watched her go.
And as he felt the rhythm of those tyres bump over rucked rich country earth, as she clattered slow and clumsy away, the bus crashing and rolling, getting stuck in that rich rucked and unholy mud, slowing then, heaving against earth and wheels spinning for a while then going on. He’d watched the bus go ’til his ears turned cold. He’d stayed until it was a black dot in the distance, silent, shrunk, his fingers were numb and frozen. The bus crawls off along the slow resisting land, even now. In his mind’s eye it’s still rolling.
What did she feel? As the bus gathered pace, as the window panes screamed and rattled, as she took off, map-less and harsh lit into her future? There is what they said to feel then there’s what we felt.
Like two vastly separate continents, those things were. And then, stirred and exhausted, gently butting at the cold stone of the wall behind him, ’til he believes he seeps into it, his mind is softly spreading out.
Everybody knew she was being hurt somehow, he believes now, and the manner of that hurt, knew it deep down in their bones some way, though they told themselves it couldn’t possibly be so, that, but there were small signs of damage, as clear in their way as chips and cracks in a vase. But the other mothers touched their handkerchiefs to noses and then spread their hands as if these were unalterable things. And the notices of harm, Well. These were things that you could ignore, the village believed, it was that way in those days. Perhaps it’s that way still. The strange dark magic of denial, like casting stones instead of seeds, he thinks, because all those ladies go to church and bow their heads, wearing their best hats, their best hats, as if they’re saying, ‘Seeds I tell you, seeds that we are planting here,’ and looking about the pews with satisfaction, heads lowered, so they can only see their knees, their knees and hands, and then next day their men will head out to their fields, like always, none of them stopping in their tracks, the horse sweating at the bit, dig in their heels and ask themselves, ‘What about that child?’
Not one looked about them, to the miles and miles of hard wrought, miss-sown land, no one found the words, in this remembering. Says that unspeakable thing, makes that necessary and painful human reckoning. It would perhaps have felt to them like saying, and with the sweat steaming and streaming down their shirt back, but that this whole field’s ploughed wrong, nothing. It’s all barren, fields and fields and fields, save the child, if you can, start over. Start over? No. No-one pulled those words out of their parched, dry, work-worn throat in those days (because these are seeds, seeds). So no-one in the village spoke up for his sister, so it went on. The relationships between the families in the village being sown too, like the fields. A hundred years or more of ploughing between folks, then there’s the hedgerows, of course. Your piece and mine, the fences. All the fences. There’s your cow. That grazed my cow’s land fifty years since and we’ve barely mended the fence between those long dead animals. The joints and joists and hinges on the gate. The gate is falling off its rusty hinges, there are other fragile things here. Above all there is how the land lies, there’s the long account of what’s been lost and won between us neighbours. The small guilts and the larger ones. And so everyone knows, of course, yet ‘No-one knows a thing’ (and truly believing that they don’t) and so knowing and unknowing and both, both, the same exact time. Because there were no words for that, so the unspeakable gathered darkly in that wordlessness, that long gone unprotected child, her un-named pains all gathered in the silence of the farmers and their wives, until she has no words at all, the child. Until that’s taken also. It cannot happen so it didn’t happen, isn’t happening now, Child. And he imagines it then, that silence, like a cold hard hand reaching down his sister’s mouth, his own too, plucks their words out. A child screaming in the night, screaming at first, when she was small. If you willed it enough, then you didn’t hear it, he remembers darkly. Strange will, a slithery unfolding in the soul, cold soul, fathomless soul, he thinks now. And ‘Forgive that boy. He was a child. He was afraid.’ And yet he cannot, even now. Even now can’t find those words, only choking, spitting, streaming, ‘Something in the papers’, says the nurse. Takes it away. Closed in her fist.
He’d had what they’d called a god fearing childhood, and in his mind’s eye now the vicar’s in agreement, ‘Let us pray,’ he says, all down the long left inside ear, and then the congregation settles into silence. Silence? When it should have been roaring in the vacuum for the child. And the old man jolts awake, the old woman next door snorts and sighs and puts a hand up in her sleep.
He watches it fall softly down, with the one raised finger tracing an invisible seam in the air.
‘Let us pray.’ The vicar said and they’d gone on. As if she’d never been, his sister. Blameless, they believed themselves, quite blameless. And the rucked rich land of his childhood’s smooth and shiny, trackless. In his mind’s eye now, opaque. He sighs, he scratches at the white wall. With his long and boney index finger, trying not to think. Forget it, tells himself. Forget her now, she’s gone.
Only there are things he can’t forget.
She must have waited for her moment then, he thinks. That golden child, The Thief (they’d called her after) but that harsh lit and hard little girl, who of course was not hard at all but only broken, waited for her moment ’til her whole life seemed like an infinite pause, a vast intake of breath, a scream with a hand clapped over it, and when she found it, when she found it was the moment, this, here, now and took it, running. Broken and strange, wild, not looking behind her. Because she daren’t. Because when the moment came it turned out that she knew it’s now or never and when she saw the moment had at last come and she took it, took it, running, the stumbling from each floorboard to each crack under the bench, under the seeping cottage wall, watching the door, the door, the door, like that, and fingers freezing up with fear, skittering about the cottage like a nervous animal, like an animal and when it came, when the door’s flung open like that, she is tearing down the street and the bus timed perfectly, the bus that’s always late or much too early but today it doesn’t miss a beat and doesn’t hover and running toward it and her feet are stumbling, stumbling and she’ll crack her ankle on a rock at the roadside but it doesn’t matter and she doesn’t even feel it. Because at the last it turns out that running for her life, running for everything there might ever be or will be soon … it’s her own feet will run her out of town.
She stood a chance then. In the big city. A girl like that.
Sur-vi-vor. Roll the word out on your tongue.
And the cold wind rushing past the thief’s ears, through the crack in the old bus window? And the cold weight of stolen coins against her hip, the cold heavy weight of them?
Well, this is what it feels like to survive.
And he’d rooted for his sister in that running moment, with everything he’d got, because there’ll be no mercy this time, if they caught her. Even he knew that.
“She’d better not show her face round here again.” The family said, but in her sharp breach of the rules, she’d obeyed a much older, greater one: Run from harm.
He believes now she took the money so she couldn’t come back. Because sometimes you can’t trust your feet, they veer and circle ’til you end at your beginning, the last sigh rolling back to meet the first one coming. But she’d severed it, his sister.
A neat, savage incisor through the last fraying ends of love and saved herself.
The engine judders in its cage, like swelling fit to burst and then tunes out. Silence. Then thrumming back to life, purring and snoring like a giant cat behind us.
“Cloud cover”. Jake says, points to that dark bank of greyness shifting. Rising. He mutters something I don’t hear, I catch the end of curses. “Something’s rattling wrong.” I say to Jake. He turns toward me slowly. “I know. Is it coming from behind, or up in front?” And I don’t answer. Only look him eye to eye, like that. Control lights dim and flare. I listen.
“I can’t hear it now.”
Jake turns away and sighs. And now we’re watching the last of sky light stubbed out. The rattling of the Lancaster, rough clank of metal against metal. I unzip the sky, like that.
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I have to brace myself. There is another crack developing, running down the centre of our living room, first like a thin seam and then all the edges of it casting out. The shadow of the door, just like the door grows. I breathe my fag-smoke at it ‘til the dark space seems to rise up. Else only swaggers through it, ticking, leaning softly, oddly. Then flicks her tail-tip, leftward. Darts. In the direction of smoke, like it points the way. Her tiny sign. Out, around and in, she goes. The other side of Evie. And hides behind her. And then curling round her leg. “Bloody cat.” Says Rob.
“A watched door never knocks.”
Eve can’t raise a smile, she tries and fails at it. And in a bit I fail at it as well. Clock ticking and gets louder and smoke rising up. A burning in my throat.
“Your bloody fag.” She says. “Your bloody fag.” She sours her lip at me, “You blow it at the cat, Frank.” And wipes one sleeve across her face and turns. To face the mantle shelf, the photo of the son we wait for. In uniform and standing to attention.
And then the simple way the one thing changes to another as the hand turns, “Won’t turn backwards any,” I say. “Tock tick.” And I look Eve eye to eye. Her face filling up with something cold and slow and obscene then she looks away (Joe is ten weeks late home, I’ve never seen his mother so angry). Door grows and quiet ticking. I see Our Rob drawing his coat on. Slow, like a man acts in a dream. Or puts his coat on for the first time in his life. “And you can take that off. Right now.” She barks at him. “You’ll wait for your brother.”
There is a knock, a rattling. He didn’t fight the squeaky gate, Our Joe. We didn’t hear his feet slide in the gravel. Eve, startled, fumbles with the front door, hands not working, “Frank …” she gasps. Then frees the catch, scraping her fingers on it. Stumbles on the door jamb, yanks the door that hard and fast into her chest.
“A special tea for your homecoming.” I say. Move aside and let Joe past. Watch him go hand to hand with his brother, who was sloping in the inner doorway. They go hand to hand again, then hand to shoulder then a brief, breathtaking hug. Rob’s slapping at his back, wiping his eyes. And now Joe’s looking at his father over Robbie’s shoulder, Rob pulls him off his feet and lurching right, Joe putting out a hand, his dad breaks his fall. Only Joe’s shoulder hits the mantelpiece, slow stumble, and Rob is laughing, ruffling up Joe’s hair. Joe rubs the shoulder which appears to pain him now.
“Stop bein’ a puppy, Rob.” I say. “You great big oaf.”
“Get us some tea, Eve.” Frank says.
He means so ‘the men’ can talk. But there’s a thing in me was folded, put away, and it uncoils. It’s glistening, sliding … Something happens, “I don’t take orders.” I say, stiffly, to our Frank. “I don’t take orders. From you.” And Frank’s eyebrows rise, like that. Two black hinges creaking skyward. Then the dark eyed challenge in our Rob, the lightest thing: “Please, Mum.” All the soft lashes framing his iris-less eyes and Rob evaporating me like this, the way your youngest does. And then grins, knowing it. But I go on, “Don’t you have a bag, Our Joe?” And look for it until it dawns on me what Frank and Robbie must’ve seen already,
“Oh God, Joe, aren’t you even staying?” And watch Joe’s eyes go cavernous, like that, two candles burned down to the wick and guttering out and hold my arms toward Joe, hold myself for him, knew it before him that he wouldn’t … that he couldn’t hug me … “Joe … Joseph. You are home now, Son.” His face falls. I lock eyes with Frank, then it’s me that makes a dash for the kitchen with Rob’s “Muuummmm…” and with Frank’s “Evieeeeee…” trailing after me.
“Leads with her bloody chin every time, that woman does,” Frank says to our sons.
“And I can hear you.” I say. “I can hear everything you say, Frank.”
I will get a hold of myself in the kitchen. I’ll think about Joe’s boyish face when he was waving me goodbye. Smart uniform, shiny buttons. Soft chin of still-youth, round freckled nose. Not this stooping man I struggled to recognise for the first full seconds. Strained taut about the mouth, listless eyes, low-lidded like an alligator’s. Same face but some kind of structural rearrangement to him. It’s like sewing. And you take a little tuck, a tiny one but right there, then you stand and, fabric falling from you, it’s another dress. It’s another son.
They said, “Bombs. Your boy’s a bomber then, Eve?”
I drew myself to my full height, I said, “It’s very precise. These days. It’s all precision.”
The milk for the Welcome Home Tea curdles quietly. Something rising softly to the top.