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War

War

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.

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Jo Ely

Described as "an intelligent, creative, imaginative, original writer" by Guardian Book of the Year author Trevor Byrne, Jo Ely has been Shortlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize and has had a short story selected for an anthology edited by New York Times Notable Book of the Year author Sandra Tyler (Woven Tale Press, US ed. 2016). Jo has published short stories, children's books and written interviews with writers for the Woven Tale Press. She also reviews for the world's first online Empathy Library. 'Stone Seeds' is Jo's first novel, published by Urbane Publications (Amazon.co.uk).

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