Untitled painting

July 22, 2009 at 10:25 pm (Skrifa)

A photo of the unfinished painting. It has since been finished.

A photo of the unfinished painting. It has since been finished.

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The Portrait (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:16 pm (Skrifa)

The Portrait

The hotel sheets are supposed to be smooth and soft, because that is what they promise existentially. But they are not, and they rub against the backs of my thighs as I look at the portrait.

It is of a woman. I shift my weight, separating my sticky legs. Her head is thrown back over the pillows, her cheeks are flushed peach, and her blonde hair curls over her cheek. I stare at her with an open mouth, my back hunched, slightly squinting, until I realize I look ridiculous and straighten up, look around, lick my lips and grin sheepishly at the phantom cameras hidden in the walls.

What do I expect? That they’ll show pictures of me looking gormless to everyone I know, or ever knew, these imaginary interlocutors? The woman in the portrait is a splash of rose and flesh and gold. Her fingers are plump and delicately tipped.

Her womb is hidden with the sheets of the bed that stretches out behind her. Presumably it is meant to be this bed. Her leg reposes, meaning that under those rumpled linens are folds of dimpled flesh. She is plump. The artist cannot accept both her smoothness and softness and the folds of flesh that necessarily come with it. This woman is strapped in, held in, by the loose caress of the sheets around her.

She dares me to stand up, to study her painting, and I do. It is not a replica. I nearly trip over my overstuffed luggage, dropped around my feet in a ring. I step awkwardly over the dark green, frayed duffel bag with wheels, and find myself nose to nose with her, my hands splayed out on either side of the painting and just under it to prevent slapping my face into the wall.

She is painted in oils, or perhaps gouache. The artist took great care with her body, applying paint delicately, smoothing over evidence of the passing of his brush. I say his because the sexual attention to detail he gave the softness of her skin, and because of the rough hastiness with which he painted the bedsheets surrounding her.

Her finger is hanging towards me, towards the artist perhaps, carelessly, as though she had not been posed. I can smell my dirty skin, my dirty underwear, through my clothes. The rim of my jeans, unnoticed until now, cuts into my belly.

I look down, ashamed. I glance around again, wrap my elbows close to my torso, to prevent my smell escaping. I rummage through the bags, trying to find my toiletries, frowning at the smell that overwhelms my nose. I am not clean.

When I get to the shower, it helps a little bit, but I can’t look down. Unevenness does not wash off. I wrap myself in a towel, hiding. I look in the mirror to wash off my face, and can’t see the imperfections I know are there. Bathrooms are flattering. Then I turn my head and it’s there; the lumpiness, the awkwardness, the clumsy arrangement of jawline and cheek and neck, the crooked nose.

I smooth my hands down my sides, hoping to wipe away the existential grime that coats reality. The woman in the portrait must have had them, but they were disregarded by the artist, slavering at his brush.

Perhaps women have at least this grace, a grace in the eyes of men. Whatever lust might damage when it fades, for a moment it shines perfectly, making worry unnecessary, if only for a little while. Despite its inevitable shallowness, and despite the judgment of women.

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Iseult (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:10 pm (Skrifa)

Iseult

The woman Iseult took to worrying her old fingers by tracing the bones, up to her swollen and knotted joints, over, to the bottom of the alabaster nail, and back again. She would repeat this operation for each hand, stretching her fingers and baring her palm, as though she were about to put on her black evening gloves.

Her fingers felt too thin and her joints too round, and she worked as though she might be able to smooth away their faults in the working, as though perhaps her careful attention would serve to shape her fingers into the form she wanted.

She would most frequently attend to this habit when sitting with her legs crossed, propping the inside of her wrist against her knee; if she had brought a book and some tea with her, they would have to wait until she had finished.

Iseult did not ever seem nervous. Even when wringing her hands, she was quick and methodical at her pointless task and would never let her tea get too cold. No one asked her about her habit, simply because she was so careful – they assumed she had a conscious purpose. Perhaps, they thought, it was for plumpness to return to those delicate hands – or she was trying to smooth away her faults of character.

In my youth,” she told her psychiatrist, “I was suddenly frightened of subway trains.” She worked on her hands as she spoke, when he had told her to, “just talk. About whatever you want. We’ll get to the analysis later.”

She made it perfectly clear to her psychiatrist that, before her fear, her life had not been a vapid idyll: Iseult was by practice not entirely satisfied, even when she had an answer. She had studied stupidity and ignorance with a careful eye, until concluding, to her amusement and with a feeling of hopelessness, that to be a fool was a necessary condition for intelligence. Those who are intelligent escape being stupid only to find that they are mired in conformity, everyday life, and even that is not the end: after breaking through this crust of the mundane (a form of bland stupidity), they will have found their way to madness (the refuge of the idiot).

The day she broke through, she had been almost twenty-two, and the rain on the pavement was making Paris smell as though it were a moor scattered with boulders like the bones of the earth risen from their graves, mouldy with lichen and patches of moss, rather than garbage and sweat and crêpe vendors. She had worn a pair of flat shoes.

I had been walking all day without having to pat dry my shoes,” she said. “This was delightful to me.”

Iseult found pleasure in events and objects when they worked out elegantly, if there were no loose ends to tie, if they were compact and useful. Simplicity was not enough. Her shoes pleased her because they kept her feet just off the ground, just high enough so that her feet would not be wet. Her umbrella pleased her because it formed a tight circle of dryness around her, and could eventually be folded and stored. She tried to explain this to her psychiatrist, but could not.

The rain was respectful of me,” she said, instead.

So what happened to upset you?” he asked. “To upset you so much?”

On the sidewalk next to the courtyard of Notre Dame des Champs, there is a grate, where the rain cannot gather or run towards the street, but falls into the darkness, dropping softly onto a place known only to God and the techniciens du Métro, large enough for a person to stand in the centre and at an arm’s length from solid ground. Iseult had crossed it and grates like it often enough as a girl, without being disturbed. She’d found it pleasantly thrilling, when young.

Only,” said Iseult, “after stepping on the grate, the ground did not seem solid again – to me.”

She carried on past the grate to the corner of Rue Stanislas, where she turned into the street and walked under the dripping trees hanging over the iron churchyard fence. They were bright, shocking green, for they loved the spring warmth and the rain. Nobody had bothered to cut them back and so their branches reached down to Iseult and brushed the crown of her umbrella, but despite their loving touch, Iseult was immune to comfort.

Every step she took seemed to rest lightly on a thin shell of concrete and earth, while under her feet there was a delicate honeycomb of black tunnels where the stale air howled and the lights buzzed sickly in the dark, where tubes of hot metal raced from one end of the city to the other, or perhaps around and around in circles, carrying their stiff passengers, all the same, lined up in seats or standing next to poles, staring out of windows or reading newspapers.

But they were alive,” she said. “I realized, half-way down the street, that they were alive, these empty-eyed mannequins.”

She saw in her mind’s eye not a real subway train with bright lights and noisy chatter, but rows of identical bodies standing the gloom, facing the front, silent and still but for the swaying of the cars to the curves of the track, dressed in dark suits of green and blue like the colours of the deep ocean, their gazes yellow headlamps that shone straight in front of them.

I could not keep walking,” she said. “I had to hold tightly to the fence and lower my head.”

After a moment, she took a breath and continued her walk, but away from her lunch appointment with her mother’s cousin on Rue Vavin. Instead she bent her steps towards Rue de Rennes, to cafés her cousin would never enter.

She had to walk carefully; if she stepped too lightly she might slip on the wet pavement, but if she stepped too hard, the ground would crumble; she would fall in front of a train, arms thrown up above her head, legs sprawled beneath her, unable to stop all of those headlamps from running her down. Her red umbrella would spin forlornly on the street where she dropped it until it was crushed by cars. Her red shoes would be smeared with grime, forever lost to the world of light.

Her psychiatrist wanted to know where she found herself, how she had coped.

In a café, on Rue de Rennes itself, not a side street. It was large and expensive,” she told him. “Because my cousin was very snobby, she could not stand places like that. She chose small cafés, exclusive to people who know where to get something wonderful for not much money. I only needed a place to go and to be alone, close to where I was. I needed to take the weight from my trembling feet.”

Did that help?”

The building looked so heavy, like it would crash through the earth at any second, because the earth seemed so weak and so hollow. I got a table outside, at the edge of the awning so I could be close to the rain.”

She’d lit a cigarette immediately, before she’d even taken off her gloves.

I knew, everyone sort of knew, that they were awful for you,” she said. “Americans are so funny; they think we’re stupid about that sort of thing. They think that it’s a question of saving you from yourself, because if you smoke you must not know the facts. How to explain it? – I’m not used to needing to explain, and every time I try I find myself at a loss – Tobacco is a pleasure of the old world, where things are delicate and dangerous. It’s very difficult to make things of beauty, especially societies, without giving them a little blood, a little – travail. Without being wilfully stupid.”

Why do you say that?”

Intensity, uniqueness, you can’t get it by saying you have it, by declaring that everyone has it. You have to pay for it.”

She’d ordered an espresso and then, when the waiter was not ten steps away from the table, had called him back to change her order to a machiatto, because without a few spoons of milk foam her fluttering stomach would not have been able to hold dark coffee without pain. When it came, it was larger than she expected, and there was no ring of coffee on the saucer. The sugar cubes were wrapped in plain white butcher’s paper, one next to the other. There was a square of dark chocolate in gold foil, on top of her napkin, next to a silver spoon. These careful details made her feel a bit better.

She sat with her coffee, swinging her foot so that the back of her left shoe flapped against her heel, stirring until it was cold with the spoon, which was soothingly heavy, until the ash on the end of her cigarette became so long that it fell noiselessly to the ground.

I knew I was ridiculous,” she said. “I looked around and said to myself, ‘All these people, none of them as crazy as me,’ but I was comfortable with that. They were worrying about their children, the weight of their shopping bags and getting their shopping ruined in the wet, a thief snatching their bags from under the table, their bank account, the rain, their failure to be special, even though –” she laughed. “You know, we are French, we are all convinced we could not have done it any better, but there’s always this nagging thought, ‘Oh, when I was young I signed up for the Sorbonne, I was convinced I could do it, and then I had to drop out in the second year because I thought it was too hard, what happened to me? Did I get stupider? No, of course not, university does not make you stupid, perhaps I became lazy.’

Of course in France there is not this idea that children are infinite fonts of potential – we have stupid children, in France – if you were not going to make it somewhere, you would be told. The conversation would go something like this: ‘Papa, I want to go to the Sorbonne.’ ‘Chouchou, you will have a horrible time there. Consider applying to a place where you will be happy.’ Of course my own Papa was more direct about it; he said, ‘Izzy, you will be a woman, and always outclassed.’

I said to him, ‘Papa, Simone de Beauvoir went to the Sorbonne,’ and he said, ‘You are not Simone de Beauvoir.’ ”

And did you attend the Sorbonne?” asked her psychiatrist.

I did, and was very successful there. But he was right – I was not Simone de Beauvoir.”

When she had finally sipped her stone-cold coffee, she was surprised at its temperature and apologetically ordered another. The waiter, who was having a pleasant day, told her there would be no charge for the replacement. Even this did not ease her mind.

All these people – I imagined that the truly stupid ones did not know that they would never be anything extraordinary, and so might be able to return to the ground above – but the simply ordinary ones, even people who had been brilliantly educated but who would end up doing nothing more than their jobs, perhaps reading an intelligent novel now and again, kind people, unpleasant people – these would be the people swallowed up by the earth to become breathing statues in the trains. They were not individually stupid; they were only surrounded by this aura of stupidity that they created with the help of the naturally foolish, so perhaps some of them would be smart enough to be conscious of this… transmogriphie?”

Transmogrification? Transformation?”

Transformation. And that is the worst thought. That some of them might know when they were being consumed – the entrances to Métro stations are so like mouths gaping, have you noticed?”

She told her psychiatrist that perhaps she would have been fine in the end if the woman in the wig had not wandered her way into the café. To Iseult, who did not know the nature of her fear, the woman in the wig seemed to add weight simply because Iseult was already so precariously balanced, so tightly sprung, that anything out of the ordinary would be distressing rather than amusing. Perhaps, she told him, her fear would have not taken root in her so deeply, and she would have remembered it fondly as a quirk of the weather or the phases of the moon.

She was the most vibrant thing in the city, this woman,” she said. “She was wearing a wig as you might see on stage, silvery blonde, all piled up on her head, with bright red and blue silk roses, each the size of a child’s palm, lined with glitter. Her dress had them, too. It was blue and white gingham. She had on red, glittering shoes. As first I thought she was an actress, from a pantomime or something of that sort, escaping the Green Room in a fit of pique. But she did not speak French, only English; the poor waiter was having a hard time understanding her, and she seemed to think that if she spoke more loudly it would make it easier for him. She seemed to think that he was stupid for not understanding her. She had an enormous valise that she put right in the way, so that the waiter had to step over it to put down her coffee. It was decorated with red and blue stars cut from fabric, studded with sequins. When finally the waiter moved her luggage out of the way, she raised her voice to him, and said, ‘Don’t you dare touch my things!’ And she was black, which spoke to either her courage or her recklessness for making such a scene… of course, now it would be different… She was magnificent.”

Did you speak to her?”

Heavens, no! I shrank back into my chair. I was embarrassed for her, for her rawness. You could see her insecurity, pride … her unhinged mind in her clothes and speech and movement. She had a photograph in a wooden frame that she took from her valise, no glass to protect it, and she began to cry over it, to wail and sob, and she kissed it many times. I finally presumed she was in Paris for a funeral.

She left the café before I did. I wanted to stay until she was gone. I felt deeply for her but I wanted to reclaim my table as my own… she – she made the café hers, just by being in it. Every observer became a part of her business, because she was so impossible to ignore. Everyone’s thoughts and problems were brushed aside, just because she was there. I stayed – I did not want her to think I was leaving because of her.”

Her second coffee had also turned cold, but once the woman had gone, Iseult drank it all the same, smoking another cigarette and watching the sun fall. It seemed to hover at the horizon and then suddenly lose its grip and plummet behind the edge of the earth. Aware that it would be dangerous for her to return home long after sunset, she left money on the table, and as she was reaching for her scarf, caught a glance of her own red shoes glowing in the deep rays of the sunset.

I ripped them from my feet,” she said. “I threw them away from me, vehemently, under the table, and they tumbled into a mud puddle, at the place where the sloping pavement owned by the café met the city’s pavement. They were ruined. I left my umbrella leaning on my chair, but the edge of the chair was slippery and so it fell into the puddle with my shoes. I walked home barefoot in the rain.”

Why was that?”

I was not quite over my fear of trains.”

Not quite? How long did it take you to walk home?”

Hours and hours. When I got home to my apartment I phoned my Papa and told him I was mugged for my things, but that I threw my money at the thief and ran away so that he did not get my pocketbook. Papa telephoned the police. They never found my shoes or my umbrella; I suppose someone must have taken them or thrown them away.”

What happened with your cousin? Did she make you feel guilty for not meeting with her?”

Oh don’t worry, that’s not important to the story.”

Alright.”

“–she was cross with me at first but she happened to spot a friend on her way home from the café to complain to, and so was thankfully not angry with me when I phoned her. I did not tell her I had been robbed; it felt like a bad lie, and my Papa was not the sort to tell anyone such things. He would have said, ‘If Izzy wished it, I would repeat what she tells me.’ I know I haven’t spoken of him until now.”

You can if you like. I would eventually like to ask about him, but this is our first session; you should talk about whatever you want.”

I’m realizing your first impression of him is not the best. It is only that – the prevailing misogynistic views of the time were an excuse for him, to be overprotective of us. My Papa was a good man; he loved my Mama and me very dearly.”

I understand.” Her psychiatrist paused. “So, for a while you were fine? Until you came to New York.”

Yes.”

How long ago was that?”

Nearly thirty years.”

Your English is excellent.”

Thank you – I still make a few mistakes.”

I haven’t heard any,” said the psychiatrist. He smiled at her, professionally. “So then,” he said, looking down at his notes. “Yes. So you didn’t experience lasting trauma that you knew of, at that point?”

No, not at all. After a few days I was able to take the train easily, but I never enjoyed it much, so I got plenty of exercise.” The corner of her mouth turned up.

So why do you think it has come back, so late?”

You would think, wouldn’t you, that it would appear the instant I came to New York. All these subways everywhere. Nobody driving, everyone taking the subways.”

Something like that. That would be what I would expect, if it were a typical presentation of a phobia.”

It built up so slowly, I really didn’t notice for oh, many years,” she said. “And then I was on my way to Columbia University, to speak to one of their graduate students about a piece of his I wanted to publish, far uptown, and on the train was a homeless man talking loudly and waving a bundle of sparkling flowers. He was young, with an interesting face, with eyes that simply looked right into you. He could have been the next messiah, for all I knew. This must have been in the eighties sometime, in November, perhaps 1985 or 1986. He kept trying to get a group of young, sharp-looking businessmen to buy a flower. They looked like a pack of weasels, quick-moving and impeccably groomed, and they politely ignored him, but they were uncomfortable with him and annoyed; it was obvious. I watched them and I could not pick a side, in my head, in their conflict. I became uneasy and I had to get off.”

Hmm. Was it the train giving you anxiety, or the people?”

I –” she paused, to think. “I think it was the train. But now that I tell you, it does sound like the people, doesn’t it?”

It does. But we’ll figure it out for certain in later sessions, I think. Sorry, you said you were a…?”

Here, I work with a New York publisher.”

You must get tired of people in your personal life giving you manuscripts.”

Especially because I only rarely work with novels. Mostly it’s literary non-fiction, as I started in the business with an academic journal… we published odd little pieces no one else would take. Ones which did not quite fit into anything, sometimes pieces that would not really qualify as academic. It’s still running, in Paris… I run the company there and am employed here. Often the work runs together – the journal is now officially published by my employer.”

She paused. Looked at him. He said, “Oh, I’m not bored at all. Firstly, it’s my job not to be bored, and secondly, I don’t often have to force myself to be interested.”

She smiled at him. Said, “What a lovely talent to have.”

I just seem to get interesting patients. Sometimes the working of the mind is so intricate… but when I was a medical student, I saw a lot of the same problems between patients. It seems like the brain is likely to go wrong in much the same way with everyone, but these days I see a lot of different ways in which those, I guess you could call them glitches, play out.”

Even madness can be mundane.”

There are standard ways in which people go mad, if their madness is a result of their neurological makeup. Of course the details are different… I tend to see the cases, and I suspect you are one, in which people are neurologically normal but tie themselves in such knots their brains can’t quite cope anymore. A psychologically-based, eventually psychiatrically-relevant problem.”

Aren’t you revealing your hand too early?”

I don’t think so. I don’t like to trick patients… some people do; they think it’s for the good of the patient. Honestly, I can’t see keeping anything from a patient unless they’re so delusional they can’t function. You seem to be having trouble, but on the whole, you’ve got things working fine, yes?”

She smiled at him, and leaned forward on her seat, pressing her palms into her knees. “And how do I know this isn’t a trick?”

He laughed. “So this event, the weasels on the subway, that was the catalyst? Did it come back all at once?”

I suppose not. I slid back into my fear, but it was so gradual… I am usually practical, so I didn’t think to see a doctor, only to remain capable. As you’ve said. But only ‘mostly alright’ does not work for me.” She looked at the carpet, uncertainly. “It really has gone on too long.”

The psychiatrist stood. “Anything that makes you unhappy like this has gone on too long no matter how long it has gone on… Would you like some tea?”

Yes, please.”

He made the tea himself, rather than ringing his secretary for it. “I don’t serve coffee. I want to relax patients, I suppose is why. Tea seems more comforting.”

The drink of dependence, something that earns trust, rather than being independent and adult and a little more dangerous, like coffee.”

I suppose that’s all true – I don’t think of myself as manipulative in that way, as I’ve said, but it seems true.” He handed her a cup.

She said, “I could not take the train. And then I could not be in tall buildings, because I thought they might be sucked down into the ground like sinking ships. The ground is so thin, like an eggshell, over the tunnels.”

And this is where you are at the moment.”

Yes. I manage to walk on the streets, but I have maps at home that show the infrastructure underground. They are for architects, contractors, that sort of person. I paid a lot of money for them. I tend to avoid places where the subway lines cross, if I can.”

I think,” said her psychiatrist, “that you should start by taking a trip out of the city.”

Immediately as he suggested it she said, “Where should I go?” but he waved her question away.

Go somewhere you haven’t been before,” was all he said. And when she pressed him, “Maybe you could visit a friend? Right now I’m concerned that you take it easy, be out of New York, as it exacerbates your anxiety, and frankly, I get the impression you work long hours. You need a break. Then we can continue. I think I have an idea of how to help you, but I also think you need some peace, for a couple of days.”

You don’t think I need hospitalization?”

We don’t put people in the hospital unless they’re a danger to others or to themselves. If you become a danger to yourself, I will advise it, but listen, hospitals are designed to help you, and I think what will help you is taking a brief holiday.”

Should we set up a session for when I come back?”

If you want to continue working with me. It’s entirely up to you.”

She took her psychiatrist’s advice. On the bus to Poughquag, she counted white cars, daydreamed of having a greyhound that she would walk in Central Park and a rooftop apartment so she could keep him, was disturbed by an English translation of The Red Shoes, felt carsick, and ate some carottes râpées, which helped to settle her stomach even though she’d used plenty of vinegar. The book of poetry that she’d been meaning to read for weeks was left untouched, and so when she checked her belongings right before she got off the bus, to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind, it stared at her accusingly from between a bottle of water and a half-empty packet of tissues.

Oh, whore,” she said. In French, and under her breath, so no one would hear. There were only a sweet young couple and a teenager with headphones left on the bus, and they were towards the front. She could have said it any way she liked, and it wouldn’t have been heard. She was gripped by the thought that if she’d yelled “Putain!” at the top of her lungs, they might have heard, but then she wouldn’t be Iseult anymore. Iseult was brought up not to yell. She would be someone else, and her body would be different, and she might be younger, or male. So she didn’t, even though it would have made her feel better.

She called a taxi on her sweet little company-owned mobile phone. As it dialled, she rummaged in her purse for her cigarette case. It began to rain.

Hello? Hello?” murmured the phone.

She pressed it up against her ear, and ordered a taxi with a cigarette in her fingers and with a lighter palmed in her right hand, ducking under the awning of the bus station. Iseult had stopped carrying umbrellas many years ago. She waited for her taxi as the rain dotted the ground. The air smelt of grass and of oil, washed out of the cracks in the asphalt of the road to form an iridescent slick, which would disappear within a few minutes down the storm drains.

A man kept going in and out of the bus station. He went inside and came out again at least five times before Iseult finished smoking her first cigarette. He looked agitated and had a heavy-looking sports bag with a thin and straining strap that he kept hoisting up above his right shoulder. On what seemed to Iseult to be the hundredth trip it ripped, and a few things fell out and scattered over the threshold of the door. He put his hand over the rip but made no motion to pick up his things. Iseult stubbed out her cigarette and started towards him, intending to help him, but before she got close enough to make eye contact, he glanced at his watch and ran into the station for the last time.

A few receipts, an old cinema stub, and a brochure of New York attractions were strewn across the threshold, next to a plastic bottle cap and something shaped like a travel-sized shampoo, wrapped in foil so it would not spill. Her taxi was late and so she leafed through the brochure. Not only was it of the type she could get at any subway station and popular tourist attraction, but it was two years old and completely useless: even without the coupons, restaurants in New York changed so often that any listing older than two weeks was unreliable.

There was also a keychain with a worn rubber dog at the end. Wanting to be tidy and finished with the brochure, Iseult picked everything up and took it to the trash bin, putting the sad little Scottie on the windowsill, unable to throw away someone else’s keepsake. She hesitated, and then picked up the keychain, turning it around in her fingers. Her cab pulled up and, as she would have to go back inside to throw the little dog away, she put it in her bag.

What she saw of Poughquag was mostly trees. Occasionally a dog barked, or a car revved its engine somewhere beyond view.

There was David’s old yellow convertible, parked outside. There were no lights on inside the house. Still, it was the middle of the day. She paid for her cab. David’s driveway needed re-paving. The cab left. She rang the doorbell. It sounded strained and discordant. There was no movement inside.

She called, “David!”

Nothing. She thought of running after her cab, maybe visiting an art gallery in a nearby town. She had a list of them in her pocketbook. She had never run after a cab in her life. The yellow car had a rusted belly, decay scalloping its edges, creeping into its corners. Her cab had long gone. She would never catch it if she ran. There were weeds brushing her ankles, through the cracks in the concrete. There were ant nests in the flowerbeds. She could call the taxi company again. The lace curtains behind the dirty glass panes of the door were staining at the edges. The welcome mat was covered in black mould.

She backed away from the door. She had her phone; she could call her psychiatrist, tell him she was going back to New York straight away, that his idea had been horrible, that she needed to be working.

A few paces away, and she loosened her grip on her bag. She slung it over her elbow and set off around the edge of the house. She did not call out again. There was no one home.

Across the front yard, she streaked her shoes with dirt. In the back garden, she gathered dandelion and grass seeds on her clothes. In the close space between the fence and the side of the house, she ticked her blouse with splinters and mussed her pixie cut on the branches of the more exuberant bushes. The property surrounding the house smelled wild and sweet, like Clematis flowers. She faced the front door again. She tried the doorknob. She tried a hairpin. The door opened.

David was the man who had met her at the airport when she first arrived in New York. He had been her first American friend, quite literally her first American anything.

He was a big blond boy,” she’d told her psychiatrist. “Exactly what silly people expect of Americans. He was even wearing cowboy boots. He could speak a little French, which is why he was the one to meet me.”

Is that why you want to visit him for this holiday? You had a thing for him?”

She’d smiled vaguely. “A thing? No, not that. I was very independent in my early thirties; I didn’t develop any thing for anyone. He stood out because he was the first. My first American friend. When you do anything for the first time, you remember it. When you have sex for the first time, it stands out, even if it’s nothing very special otherwise, no?”

He doesn’t sound as if he’s bland or ordinary.”

I have had some very strange and extraordinary friends. And David, well… I’ve told you, David was almost an archetype. The blond cowboy?”

So you want to visit him because he acclimatized you to America? By being something you expected?”

You remind me why I hired you. You’re good at guessing.”

Her psychiatrist had laughed at that, and said, “That’s my job, Isolde.”

She smiled a crooked smile at him, re-attaching a clip in her brilliant white hair.

Have you not kept in touch with him?”

No, he was drafted in Vietnam, soon after we first met, and after that it was only Christmas cards. Those eventually stopped, of course.”

She’d called his agent, who said that as far as she knew he was still living at the address in Poughquag, because that’s where the royalty cheques were mailed. And here they were, in a pile of mail that slid out over the doorstep, spilling over Iseult’s shoes, envelopes and cards biting her ankles, looseleaf fliers making her skin itch. She stepped over all of it.

The house smelled dark. The carpet had been grey, or blue, but was now patchy and brown in places. There was a muddy, full ashtray on a table in front of the doily-draped recliner. There was oxidized change in a cut crystal bowl next to the door, and a navy blue, wood-handled umbrella, steel tips rusted. The keys to the car lay beside the bowl. There were water-damaged photographs in frames, of a family. Their faces were faded, unidentifiable. The television was set in a wood cabinet, which had a yellowed and curling doily on top, and sitting on that, a rusted antenna. There was a coat hanging on the coat rack. Brown water streaked the wallpaper. She took the keychain out of her bag, kneading it between her fingers.

Iseult’s footsteps sounded to her like water dropping on concrete. The linoleum in the kitchen was warped so badly that the floor looked like waves in deep ocean before a storm. A full cereal bowl and a box of ten-year-old cereal sat on the counter, and Iseult could not step any closer. She was afraid of what was in the bowl, what she might see if she opened the refrigerator, what lay dead in the cabinets. She was afraid that the kitchen floor would not be solid, that she would step into it and be pulled under, into the dark water, by a grasping current. The small kitchen window was plastered with bright green leaves, so that the light from it was stained with chlorophyll. The kitchen, thought Iseult, was being swallowed up by the yard outside. Something scuttled under the sink. A shiny roach contemplated her, antennae gesturing, looking for all the world like living cellophane or a roach from a joke shop, made of rubber. She left the kitchen.

The door to the bedroom was open. The bed closest to the window, ratcheted up on its white metal frame, was disturbed. The small wooden bed closest to Iseult was neatly made. An IV stand stood forlornly in the corner. She did not walk into the bedroom. There were sirens outside. She stood in the hallway, as though she did not want to be seen standing in the doorway by the ghosts in the room. She looked at the mussed bedclothes, at the back yard through the bedroom window. She gripped the keychain tightly, at the bottom of her throat, with both hands.

The policeman who now stood next to Iseult said, “This place is distressing, isn’t it?”

She turned her face to him, and nodded. He gestured towards the front door. On her way out, Iseult dropped the keychain of the Scottie onto the hall table, putting it with its own kind, abandoning it like a sad memory.

Outside, there was David, in a wheelchair. He threw out his hands at her.

How could you do such a thing? How could you go poking around in someone’s old life like that? Who do you think you are? Were you trying to steal money? I hope you’re satisfied. There can’t be twenty dollars lying around in there. Twenty dollars! A neighbour saw you poking around, you know. She called the police for me when you went into my backyard. I haven’t opened that door in so many years, how come you think you have a right to? What did you find? Was it curiosity? I’m not going to press charges, because, I mean, look at you, it was obviously just being curious, you’ve gotten your clothes all filthy and they look pretty expensive. What in the hell were you going to steal? You’re an old woman!”

You’re an old man, David,” she said. His hair was almost gone. His knees had finally given out on him, she supposed because of the stress he’d put on them during his military career.

He turned to the policemen. “I think I know this woman. It’s fine.” They hesitated. “Really, it’s fine. I can call a cab to pick me up.”

How do I know you?” he said.

David, I am, I am so sorry, I don’t even know what happened.”

My wife died,” he said. “I found her when I came home from work. The nurse had left for the day. Of cancer.”

He was wearing red slippers. His thick fingers had shrunk. He was disturbed, a wild deserter, no longer the demon Legion, no longer many.

I left,” he said. “After they took the body, I just walked out. I couldn’t be there, but I couldn’t get rid of anything.”

I live with my son,” he said. “He doesn’t know. About the house.”

My name is Iseult,” she said. “You were one of my writers.” She wanted to be home, walking along the river with her long dead friend Anne, poking gentle fun at her long dead Papa so that he huffed and puffed and smiled at her, shopping with her sister’s granddaughter for fruit, kissing her brown-haired first kiss, fitting into a crowd like a puzzle piece or a mote of dust, being buoyed by things she knew.

Isolde,” said David. “How the hell have you been, friend?”

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A Picnic (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:08 pm (Skrifa)

A Picnic

Marcel’s eyes flew to the top of the stairs, where her wing-tips were still just in view.

“Marcel!” she cried. “Run!”

He ran, and when he could finally see her, she called to him again. “Marcel! The train!”

Her woollen poncho billowing out behind her, as though she were a bat. The train, smirking with half-lidded eyes at him, like a giant snake. Marcel could not reach her in time, and the train lurched, as though it were gagging.

“Oh,” she said, “now we won’t have our picnic.” She combed her hair back with her fingers.

But the train had stopped. The conductor opened a door on the end and called to them.

“Come,” she said. She took his hand.

On the train, she sat facing the window, her fingers drumming on the windowsill. “Marcel,” she said, “have you ever seen a lamb without ears?”

“No,” he replied.

“I have,” she said. “On the coast of Scotland, far north, where the rocks are black and jut out into the sky. The farmer who took care of him had a cruel sense of humour, because he had a bell on his neck. It was so his mother knew he was coming, because he did not bleat. He never knew why, when he jumped, other lambs bleated at him. They must have thought his bell was his voice, and so although he could have had a voice, he never knew how to use it, because he didn’t know what the bell was for. The farmer’s wife told me all this.”

“Didn’t he give away the flock to wolves?”

“No,” she said. “When they weren’t out with the flock, they kept him pastured. His mother would wait outside the gate before it was time to come in for the night.”

She wagged her wing-tip at him, swinging her right leg. The picnic basket was becoming uncomfortable, and so he put it on the floor. She glanced at it for a very long time before looking up at him.

“Is there lemonade?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he said. He opened the basket and found a bottle of lemonade for her.

“I am sorry I’m drinking it so early,” she said. “It’s not at all warm today, but I’m so thirsty.”

An old woman sitting across the aisle from Marcel leaned in and said, “There are no wolves in Scotland.”

“Really?” he said.

“Oh, it’s true,” said the old woman. “There haven’t been wolves in Scotland for hundreds of years.” Her back was curved, but her eyes were bright, and they smiled. “May I have some of that lemonade?” she asked. But before Marcel or his companion could answer her, she saw the drinks trolley coming down the aisle.

“Never mind,” she said to Marcel, and patted his hand. “I can buy something of my own.”

“Do you have ginger beer?” she asked the man behind the trolley.

Marcel’s companion was drinking her lemonade very slowly. She did this, Marcel had noticed, when she had tired of a drink but did not want to put it away, in case she would want it again. When she saw him looking at her, she gave him the lemonade. He put it in the basket.

The train was passing over water.

“Look over there,” she said to Marcel.

He looked, but could only see trees and bulrushes.

“I saw a house,” she said. “It was nothing but a ruin of wood and roof tiles. It was very pretty.”

“Ruined houses are dangerous,” he said.

She looked at him with hurt in her eyes. He looked away.

“How long is it until our stop?” he asked her.

She did not answer at first, twining her fingers in and out of each other.

“How far are you going, dear?” asked the old woman.

“To Lewes,” he told her. “To the end of the line.”

“Not long,” she said. “Perhaps twenty minutes.”

Marcel’s companion asked, “Do you know how long the bus takes? From Lewes to Cuckmere Haven?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, dear.”

“Don’t worry about us,” said Marcel. “We’ll be fine.” His companion looked at him worriedly, but she said nothing.

Five minutes before the train pulled into the station, Marcel picked up the picnic basket from the floor, checked that nothing would spill or be crushed, and walked to the door of the train. His companion followed him, after she noticed that he had gone.

“You got up without telling me,” she said.

“I thought you would notice,” he replied.

She patted his arm, although her eyes were sad, and walked to the door, bringing her face very close to the window glass. She fogged it with her breath. This irritated Marcel.

“You shouldn’t do that,” he said. “You might catch a cough from other people having done that.”

“I’m sorry, Marcel,” she said. “I don’t want you to worry about me.”

“I’m not worried,” he said, even though he was.

She smiled at him again, and again, there was hurt, but she wiped it away clean, and her smile brightened. He smiled back at her, genuinely pleased.

The conductor pushed past both of them, apologizing. “Sorry sir, miss. I have to unlock the door.”

“Thank you,” said Marcel’s companion. The conductor tipped his hat to her.

“Won’t be long now,” he said to them. “You’d best step back, sir, miss. You don’t know how tricky these trains are if you haven’t worked on them all day.”

“Have you ever fallen off?” asked Marcel’s companion.

“No,” he told her, “but I saw a man fall. They’d polished the brass on the handle and not wiped it after with a rag. His fingers slipped off and he fell with hardly any fuss, right under the wheels of the train.”

“Oh, oh my goodness, how horrible!”

“It weren’t as bad as you think, miss. He only crushed his leg. Happily working, hopping about like a frog. The passengers love him. Excuse me now, miss.” The conductor unlocked the door and, after testing his grip on the brass bar, swung out over the gap between the train and the platform, calling, “Eleven-thirty morning Wealden Line to Tunbridge Wells, all-aboard!”

“Don’t you take a break for lunch?” asked Marcel’s companion.

“Not today miss, no,” said the conductor. “The train don’t stop long enough at this hour. We just turn right around again.”

As they passed, he said, “Good day sir, miss,” and smiled at her. “Eleven-thirty morning Wealden Line to Tunbridge Wells, all-aboard! One minute to departure, all-aboard!”

An unpleasant-looking man pushed past Marcel, and tore the picnic basket out of his fingers. It hit the ground with a crash, and a sound of breaking, and the man turned around irritably, as though the noise of the picnic basket had been an unexpected inconvenience for him.

Marcel wanted to punch him, over and over, until his face was raw and bruised. His hands shook. But he crouched, and attended to the picnic basket. His companion had already righted it and was searching to find out what had broken.

“It’s only the fig preserves,” she said. “They haven’t gone far. We’re only going to have to wash one napkin and the wrapper on the ration chocolate, and there’s plenty left in the jar for the cheese sandwiches.” When he said nothing, she looked up. “Marcel?”

He was staring into the distance, the green hills and beyond, the sky over the ocean, which he could not see. He knew the ocean was there, but he could only know it because beyond the hills, there was nothing but sky. He was clenching and unclenching his hands.

“Marcel,” she said, “it’ll be all right. Help me wrap the preserves.”

He helped her, but she cut her palm on the glass. He didn’t know how; one second he was helping her guide the thick damask napkin around the broken jar, the next she had drawn back and there was blood on her palm.

“Marcel!” she said. Her eyes held alarm, and not quite fear.

He stood, and put his hand on her shoulder, turning around to see if he could find a conductor, or the stationmaster. “It’ll be all right,” he told her.

She had wrapped her hand in a napkin, and was sitting with her legs folded under her, nothing escaping her woollen poncho save her wounded hand. She looked very small.

He spotted a man in uniform, who was in fact the stationmaster, and asked him to fetch bandages, and some rubbing alcohol.

The stationmaster brought them at a run, along with some water for her to drink. She sipped it while Marcel tended her hand and the stationmaster hovered worriedly about their heads, wanting to ring the local doctor on the station phone.

“Are you sure I don’t need to telephone a doctor?” he asked. “I’m sorry miss, I don’t want to worry you, but that does look quite deep.”

“I am a doctor,” said Marcel. His companion nodded at the stationmaster in confirmation.

“Oh,” said the stationmaster. “Is the young miss all right?”

“Her hand will heal nicely,” said Marcel. “As long as she keeps it clean.”

“Marcel…”

He looked at her professionally. “Yes?”

“It’s nothing.”

He looked back down at what he was doing.

“Very proud to have met you, in that case, sir,” said the stationmaster. He nodded towards Marcel’s blue peaked cap, lying on the ground because Marcel had removed it to tend to the wound. “You’ve done us all a wonderful thing. Shall I hold your cap for you, sir?”

“Thank you,” said Marcel, but without looking up. The stationmaster rubbed his thumb over the red lacquer crown, the eagle in gold.

He said, “An honour, sir.”

“Where’s the bus stop for Cuckmere Haven, please?” asked Marcel’s companion.

“It’s only down the High Street and to the left, miss. I’ll take you there.”

“We’ll be fine,” said Marcel.

“It’s no trouble,” said the stationmaster. “The bus stop is only a sign and a bench; you might miss it otherwise.” He handed the cap back to Marcel, who held it but did not immediately replace it.

Marcel wanted to tell him to leave, but the man was very kind, and so he did not. On the way to the bus station, his companion acted like there was nothing wrong with her at all. She was bright and lovely, in her silly men’s shoes and her heavy poncho, and the stationmaster was obviously very taken with her.

“You remind me of my own youngest, miss,” he said. “Cheeky little bird, she is. Eats nothing but fruit from our apple trees when it’s ripe; the missus has to force-feed her with cold ham otherwise she’ll turn into a bird, I shouldn’t wonder.”

When they arrived at the bus stop, the stationmaster waited with them for a few minutes, to be polite.

“Are you French, sir, by family? That makes it so much more difficult.”

“My grandfather,” said Marcel.

“Me, I love the French,” said the stationmaster. “My wife is from Calais. Her whole family, gone, just like that.”

“How awful!” said Marcel’s companion.

“It was hard,” said the stationmaster. “It was hard, miss. It was hard for all of us. But we’re all right now, aren’t we miss?”

“Yes,” she said.

Marcel asked, “How often does the bus come?”

“Did you check it before you left?” asked the stationmaster.

“Yes,” said Marcel’s companion. “It said the bus was due every day at 12 o’clock.”

“Sometimes it runs a bit late,” said the stationmaster. “You’d best wait a few minutes more.”

“Thank you,” said Marcel.

“Well sir, miss, I must be off.”

“You’ve been very kind,” said Marcel’s companion.

“Not at all, miss. Sir,” said the stationmaster, and left them.

“Marcel,” said his companion, “would you fetch me some water? I’m a bit dizzy.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Marcel. “Wait for me here.”

When he returned with a glass of water, she was sitting on the ground.

“Don’t do that!” exclaimed Marcel. “The ground is filthy and you’ve an open wound!”

He helped her up, careful to avoid her hand. He gave her the water glass. “Not to mention, you look common when you do that.”

I’m sorry, Marcel,” she said. But she looked shocked when he said the word common.

The bus came, and they sat on the top, because she wanted to see far ahead.

“You know the chalk in the cliffs is falling into the ocean,” she said. “The land is shortened by almost a foot per annum. It makes the cliffs look like a rumpled carpet.”

“I did know that, actually.”

“Really?” she exclaimed. “Where did you learn it?”

“In school, you goose,” he said, and ruffled her hair.

He was standing up before the bus came to a stop, anxious that the bus might not stop for them.

“Don’t be so worried,” she said. “We’re nearly the only ones on the bus. Besides, you pulled the bell.”

He stood anyway, and lurched down the stairs, with the picnic basket hitting the walls. She followed, but half-way down the stairs the bus turned a corner and she grabbed the railing with her wounded hand. She fainted.

Marcel caught her, and brought her to the ground level of the bus, and then went back to fetch the picnic basket.

“Is she all right?” asked the conductor.

“She’s fine,” said Marcel, and carried her off the bus with the picnic basket before the conductor could ask any more questions. He laid her in the grass near the bus stop, and rolled a cigarette.

“Marcel,” she said. He ignored her. “Marcel.”

He knelt beside her and lifted her up. “Where should we eat?”

“I don’t know, Marcel,” she said. “Perhaps we should just eat here, and not bother with seeing the cliffs today.”

“Everything’s all right!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, but I should dress my hand again properly,” she said.

“I did dress it properly!” said Marcel.

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. You did. But it does need dressing again.”

“Please,” he said. “Let’s walk to the cliffs.”

“I can’t, Marcel,” she said. “We should take the next bus going in the opposite direction.”

“You stay here, then,” he said. “I’m walking to the cliffs.” He picked up the picnic basket.

She called after him, “Marcel!”

He kept walking.

“Marcel! Please!”

Her voice got quieter as he walked. The smoke from the cigarette was getting in his eyes.

“Come back!” She was trying to run to him. “I’m sorry, Marcel, I’m not like you, I’m not strong like you.”

“No,” he said, “you’re not. That’s not a wound, that’s a scratch. On a good day, that’s a scratch. On a bad day, that’s not even worth bandaging.”

But Marcel,” she said, and her voice was breaking. Her face was tinged with grey. She did not look well, even to him. “I’m not one of them. I’m your sister, Marcel. Your baby sister. The one you used to look after and sneak ha’penny sweets to when mum and dad weren’t looking.”

“I remember you,” he said.

Yes,” she said. “You just don’t remember you.”

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Snow (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:07 pm (Skrifa)

Snow

From behind the brittle windowpane, the line between the sky and snow looks like the first washed-out brush stroke in a landscape study and somewhat like an overexposed photograph of sand dunes. The snow and sky feel like water running over a slate rock. It’s a glassy, cold, wet place.

I step into the snow, and the quiet. I am on a gentle slope. There is no wind. Caged tapwater doesn’t smell of anything, but this place is made with wild water, and it smells like the essence of a dead leaf or a clump of dirt. My first footprint seems small compared with the empty space in front. Hardened, twisted spindles divide up a small part of the sky, close to the horizon, there – a black wood, a frozen cobweb of trees. Far away.

My footsteps do not break but enhance the quiet. When I step down I hear the snow compacting under my foot. There is no sharp snap nor any brisk crunch. Only gentle grinding, stop, lift, the soft sound of my boot touching the top of the new snow, grind, stop. Under the pressure of my foot the snow begins to melt, to clear; the bottom of the snow begins to muddy with the dirt under it. When I put the tip of my nose next to my footprint, the wounded snow smells strongly of earth.

To smell the ground I must use my hands as support, splaying my fingers. They feel like icy bicycle spokes. The ground feels hard and wet. The top snow clings to my fingers like beggars or children. I brush it away as I stand; it dissolves on my skin.

The snow is falling. If it happens to drop on me, it touches me like eyelashes. If it happens to touch warmth, it stays, exchanging warmth for cold. It falls like eiderdown or shredded cotton. At the centre of the clusters are the tiny seeds of white ice that make it attach to itself, the bottom of my shoes, to everything, save the trees in the black wood.

It does not stay to rest on the trees in the black wood.

I put one foot directly in front of the other. I want to walk softly. The slope becomes more gentle. I can see the top.

My breath hits the inside of my scarf and comes back to me, wet and cold. My eyes are warm and bright. I am a small solid warm thing in a world of soft cold, and my eyes are the only window to the outside, because although my hands are bare, my wrists are wrapped tight. I can feel draughts of cold air pass by my eyes and creep into the crannies of my neck.

I stop, look to one side of the slope, then the other. There is nothing. Close to me, the snow down falls in separate feathers and at different times, but it comes together in a curtain farther away, to hide the slope and beyond it, so that the sky and the snow merge, so that the brush-stroke horizon is gradually erased. The snow goes on forever, up into the sky; the sky bows down to meet the snow, so that I am standing on sky and am breathing in snow.

I hesitate to turn around, but it is exactly the same behind me: my footprints fade into the dove grey of the world and of the falling snow. There is only the jagged crack of branches ahead of me, above the top of the horizon.

I reach the crest of the slope. Now I can see the trunks of the trees. I put my hands in my pockets to warm them. I bury my fingers in the skein of woollen yarn I have in my right pocket. It isn’t warm as it should be – it has been kept close to my skin – but scratchy and cold. I stop here, just as the slope becomes completely level, turn around, look down the hill where my footsteps are being filled with snow and gathered up into the land.

I unwind a long piece of the yarn, wind it up into a separate ball, and tie a small knot. This goes over the edge of the hill, far, farther away because I am at the top, and because I play out yarn with both of my hands as my woollen plumb pulls out more line, until it comes to rest just between the snow and the sky. It looks like it’s floating between them, a deep red buoy in a pale, bloodless sea. I put the skein of wool back in my pocket. It will not run out.

There is no sun, only sky that glows dully white behind a patina of snow. The landscape sleeps. It is cold and fresh, and it does not breathe. There is still no wind, no breeze.

I turn to my left, and there is a wall of stones, mostly gone, mostly collapsed. I can sit. As I reach the wall, I see a few stones that must have belonged to it long ago, separate from the rest. They do not belong to the plain, which is unvarying and flat. They are too far from the wall. They cannot have fallen or rolled to where they rest. There is no reason for anyone to have put them there. There is no reason for them to hang back.

I mark my initials on the largest one with my fingertip. I draw a circle around it, on the ground. I stand, watch my marks begin to fill. I walk to the wall, and brush away the snow, where I sit. I pull my boots close to me and remove snow from them. Water has not yet seeped into them. I pull at the long pieces of wool hanging at either side of my neck, to cover the bottoms of my ears with the flaps of my knitted hat. I tug at the bottoms of my hair, plaited in two long strips. The snow gleams in them like stars. I tuck my heels in and rest my chin on my stockings. I let my arms encircle my ankles. I wedge the fingers of my left hand behind my right heel, and the fingers of my right hand behind my left heel. I breathe.

I look towards the tree at the edge of the wood, where the raven looks back at me.

The wall, which should break the landscape, is deeply part of it, rising out of the snow instead of slashing into it. Those rocks still in the wall or in piles that are sheltered from the snow reach out to it – catching only an edge, or a space of white. From above, the wall must only be a faint outlines in the unbroken plain. These ruins are not a good resting place, but I sit here and watch the snow fall.

It must have marked the edge of the forest, once. Here the trees are far, but there is another piece of broken wall up ahead, under the black tree where the raven is sitting, watching me. Watching my line of red yarn that cuts the plain. Farther, and sections of wall meet the trees.

I unfold myself and put one foot down in the snow, and then the other. I look at the raven. He looks back at me. I can feel the cold from the stones in the wall against the back of my legs, through the stockings, even though they are thick. I can feel the hardness of the stones in the wall against the back of my legs, through my skirt, though it is thick. I take the skein of yarn out of my right pocket, in both hands, and I walk to the rock where my initials are long faded in the snow, and I loop the yarn around the base of the rock, still looking at the raven, now walking to him, the red yarn pulling tight against the rough stone.

The tree is not as black as I approach it. The raven is sitting in one of the higher branches. This tree is somewhat apart, but it is still a part of the wood. There is a root growing through the section of wall next to the trunk, joining the tree and the wall, the wall and the black woods. The entire wall was once a part of the black woods.

I walk under the raven’s tree, passing the skein of yarn under a root that juts sharply into the sky, streaking the outer yarn with black dirt. The snow thins under the trunk of the tree but never breaks. I put the yarn back into my pocket. I run my fingers over the tree. Its bark is knotted and hard, as though it has turned to stone. It chills my fingers.

I can feel the raven looking at my back as I walk away to my right, towards the wood, the branches no longer cobwebs but fingers combing the sky.

There is an old wooden gate, as high as my waist, no longer surrounded by wall, marking the edge of the black trees. It has become an obstacle rather than a way to ease the journey. I could walk around it, but I hunch my back slightly and stand on my toes to reach the dark metal latch on the far side. The old, grey wood is heavy and smooth. It swings open heavily, silently, and I shut it behind me.

I look back, out into the plain, at the tree with the raven, his head twisted around to face me, at my line of yarn disappearing to the right, anchored by the rock that is no longer visible to me in the softly falling snow. My footsteps crunch as I turn, on frozen, dead leaves, on patches of ice as thin as paper. The trees in the wood provide some cover from the snow.

The wood is not dense – there are still spaces of white, but as I walk, the trees come closer together. Here there is sometimes bare ground – crumbling wet, black dirt – puddles of partially frozen water dusted with patches of snow, bushes coated in frost, their bright berries draped in ice. Here there is a path. Here, the land is frozen in movement: up, down, banks and mounds and meadows. There are drifts of leaves and branches, fragile ice hanging from them, enclosing them in a delicate net, broken with a careless gesture, a single step.

The path is not straight. It takes advantage of the land, choosing the quickest, easiest way. The plain is gone; there are only trees, my yarn weaving in and around them, catching on the roughness of their skin, suspended by twigs and branches, but the trees provide only an illusion of enclosed space. I am still surrounded by dove grey, and snow, and the light of the sky.

The path tips down, into a tight cluster of trees, where there is a small stream, and a wooden bridge, not even long enough for a person to lie across it, narrow enough for me to put my thumbs, facing down, on each railing, my fingers folded over the other side, and to press my palms hard against the edge of the railing, and so lift my feet from the planks of the bridge, briefly, like I’m floating over the water. I bring my ankles up and turn my face to the sky, thrusting my shoulders back in their sockets, my eyes closed, my fingertips tight against the wood. The yarn hangs from my pocket like a fishing line.

When I fall, the flat slap of my feet echoes through the wood. It is not so quiet here; the water drops from leaf to leaf, trickles under the bridge, around the plates of ice that cover and surround it. Some of them are like windowpanes, showing me the brown and black stream bed underneath, the rocks and the water and the earth. I lean with my elbows in my stomach and my hands clasped and my wrists on the edge of the wooden railing, standing on my toes, looking through these windows. This stream is the artery of the landscape. It smells strongly of wild water here.

As I leave the bridge I trail the fingers of my left hand over the wood, glancing back at the spokes of the railing where I have woven my red yarn in and out, out and around, in and through, tying knots, making loops. The dropping water sounds like ice bells whispering.

The woods begin to clear; there is space between the trees; the path widens suddenly and there is a clearing, the path only marked by a dip in the snow.

And there is a little house, only two or three rooms, with dark windows and no smoke coming from the stone chimney. An axe is embedded in a tree stump in front and to the right of me. The house does not quite face me. It turns away, towards the trees, showing me its left shoulder like a frightened child, where the stump and the axe lie abandoned. The path curves around to the front door. There is a space behind the house, before the wood begins, hidden from view. I can hear my breath, close, in my ears.

I ignore the path and walk to the back of the house, passing closer to the axe, which has a blue rubber handle. It should not have been left in the snow. It gleams dully. I wipe the palm of my hand through the snow. The tree stump is old, covered with deep black cuts and scars.

My footprints again mark out my path, and no other’s. My footsteps do not make any noise now, apart from perhaps a murmur or a sigh; the only thing I can hear is my breath, gasping in my ears like wind. Behind the closest corner of the house, an empty chicken coop lies abandoned, the floor partially covered in snow. A brown leaf skitters through the black, cold opening of the hutch at the back. The chicken coop does not smell of anything, not birds, not straw, not rotten vegetables or grain. It is only another silent landmark. I pass it.

Near to the chicken coop and across half-moon humped red brick markers, dipped in snow like iced cookies, lilting to one side and the other so that five half-moons are lounging on their backs while five others examine the ground, lies a garden shed, shut up tight and locked with a padlock, which is striped in blue. The only noise in what seems like hours is made by my left foot stepping over the three-inch high wall of brick half-moons. The shed has a grey tiled roof, and has not been unlocked for a long time. It is painted what was once a deep green. It has two small windows, chicken wire embedded in the dirty glass. It must be filled with chopped wood. I turn away from it.

Farthest away lies a stone well, capped tightly with a thick wooden lid painted to match the garden shed. Just behind it, the clearing ends, and the line of trees is thick.

I walk to the well, looking at the trees, playing out my yarn behind me. It does not have a frame or a bucket. There must be some machinery to pump the water to the house. The cap looks like it hasn’t been moved for a very long time, and as I approach it, I can see that it is lined with metal. I trace a line in the snow there with my finger, a sweeping curve.

Behind the well is the body of a woman. Her head turns to face the stones. Her skin is white, deep red and purple and black where it touches the ground. Her eyes stare at me, rolled up in their sockets; her mouth is open. She has black marks around her neck. Her arms are behind her, and her palms face the sky. She is blanketed with snow. Her hands are filled with snow. As I step over her, my yarn trails on her cheek.

Tied onto the closest tree is a tyre swing. It is cold and filled with snow but I manage to fit both of my legs through. The rope is green and brown but it will not break. The land slopes down behind the tree. I wipe the snow from the top of the tyre and rest my face on the rough, hard rubber as I push against the ground, my pink fingers covering my eyes, letting my stomach move up, down, with the motion of the swinging, letting the world spin with my confused inner ear. My feet swing over the well. I’m leaping over the woman’s back. As I swing toward the wood the ground pulls away from my feet, farther and farther. The yarn from my pocket whips at the snow, making snail trails. I look up at the sky.

When I pull my boots out of the tyre, one catches, and I stumble. I feel the woman looking at me, laughing at me. My head jerks around, but she’s still facing the stones, the snow on her shoulders undisturbed.

On the other side of the well is the remains of a vegetable garden, understandably neglected in the cold, only small white stakes to mark what once grew, “Carrots,” “Sugar Snap Peas,” “Pumpkins,” “Parsley,” “Basil”, “Tomatoes,” “Turnips,” “Chad”. There are a few cabbages left, behind a sign that says, “Savoy,” their nested cups filled with snow. They look like lips, drinking.

The back door is not latched, and swings open when I touch it. The porch is bare, although there is a plant hanger, empty, to the left. There’s a coat rack just inside the door, a few coats hanging there, and a small pile of shoes underneath. I do not remove my coat, but I shut and latch the door. My yarn is shut into the doorframe, but I do not remove the skein from my pocket. I do not wipe my shoes on the mat, do not leave my boots in the tiny green and grey slate mud room, but track snow into the hallway, onto the expensive cream carpeting.

The house is dark, and cold. A window in the bedroom is open; snow has drifted up against the wall and the bed. I take a quilt and a blanket from the cedar linen chest at the foot of the bed. I have to dig its right side out of the snow to open it.

There is a wing-backed armchair of rich brown wood in the sitting room, upholstered in dark green fabric with small white flowers. It faces a window at the front of the house. I curl up into it, first putting down a corner of the quilt, wrapping myself, my clothes, my coat, my boots, the dirt, the dead leaves, the snow, the yarn in my pocket, up tight in the quilt and the blanket. I snag a bit of the top edge with my fingers, curling them under, and put my knuckles under my chin, shrugging the rest over my shoulders, between my back and the chair, sealing warmth in. There is a fireplace in the wall, smelling of ash. Cold breaths of air come from its mouth, charred and black, empty of wood.

I fall asleep. I do not dream.

When I wake, the light is unchanged: pallid, monochrome. I am warm, but I unwrap myself from the blankets and walk back to the bedroom, opening the door, which I’d closed. A red line of yarn goes into the bedroom and comes out again. I free it by opening the door. I choose a book from the bookcase and leave, shutting the door.

I take the book back to the chair, and drape the blankets around me, loosely this time. I try to read. My fingers are warmer; they can turn the pages deftly, without fumbling. The paper is dry and cool, yellowed at the edges, not delicate but old and cheap. It smells of dust, of libraries. The book is a trashy romance novel and so was written to grab attention but I’ve read it before and so it holds no interest for me. I’ve read them all before. All she has is trashy romance novels. After twenty pages and ten minutes, I put it aside.

I stand up, dropping the blankets. I walk to the window and press my fingertips up against the pane. They leave prints, which disappear, eaten up by the condensation on the glass, no trace of my mark there. I breathe into the glass. The evidence disappears. I was not here. I fold my arms, look out of the window at the snow and just visible, the black trees. I go to the door.

It opens silently. There are no footprints, only the gentle upward slope and the virgin snow and the thin fingers of the trees reaching into the sky, just above the horizon, far away, there – in the black wood. I finger the end of the skein of red yarn in my pocket, brushing it against my thumb so that it frays into a tassel of soft wool. It’s snowing, in great big clumps that drift and sway, like feathers or shredded cotton. It’s always snowing here.

I step into the snow, and the quiet.

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