She woke up in a creaking house, two floors below the room she had fallen asleep in.
|She woke with a start, the sky's crooked smile still burning under her eyelids. The kitchen was black; she could only guess at the shape of the sink and that of the table, both standing in the dark like two darker, more solid masses. The floor tiles were cold and sticky with sweat – blood? – under her head. She pressed the palms of her hands against her eye sockets, briefly seeing flashes of white. The house grunted and resettled around her. She sighed, scrambled up and stumbled through dusty halls and creaking stairs to her bed, where she crashed down. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
She looks up from the heather she is tending to. He is standing a few feet away from her, his bulk grounding against the insolently blue immensity of the afternoon sky.
His eyes search hers, looking for a reaction and visibly finding something they do not like. He looks away, shifting a little, as she stands up from her crouch and wipes the dry earth from her hands against her trousers.
“I thought you might want to know.”
A lot more should be said. Sentences sounding like, why are you leaving, or come with me, or please stay. But words are scarce these days; it has been weeks, months, since they last caught a meaningful sentence. The wind is empty.
“Heathers don't need tending,” he points out. “They infest the land well enough on their own.”
“I know,” she answers. “But this one is mine.”
He nods, as if it made any sense whatsoever. They both know it does not.
“There's nothing for you here.”
“You don't know that,” she retorts.
“This house is crumbling, with or without you inside,” he insists, meeting her eyes with a courage she did not know he possessed.
“This has nothing to do with the house.”
“Don't lie to me. If you don't want to say anything, then don't, it's not as if I wasn't used to your silence anyway. But don't lie to me.”
He means it as an order; she hears it as a dying man's last request.
“I never wanted to hurt you,” she tries. The words chaff against her throat, but, if this is going to be the last time, she has better to do things right. For once.
“It isn't a thorn's intent to hurt, but it's still its purpose. I don't blame you,” he answers. She grimaces a little. She had forgotten how words could harm. At least, silence cuts where you know it will, not unpredictably, at random, like words do. He seems to realise it, shrugs, half-apologetic. His eyes are two pools of sky.
She will miss him.
She does not say it.
“You're never leaving, are you,” he murmurs.
“This is all I have,” she offers in reply. She does not say the rest: how her bones are tied to the house, how her joints creak in time with the doors' oxidized hinges, how her stomach rumbles along with its old wooden carcass. He knows all the same.
In the morning, he flags down the rusted train that crosses the plains once a week and climbs on it. He carefully sets his bundle so it will not be stirred too much by the movement before turning to her as the train sets off again. She stands on the crackled platform watching him going away, upright on the flat, half-empty freight wagon. Strangely, she feels like she has lost her way.
A few days – or was it weeks? – later, she woke up in a cupboard on the second floor. When she managed to unlock the door and stumble out, a fresh gust of wind from nowhere brought to her the smell of freshly-cut oranges. She could not tell if it emanated from the setting sun in the west or the kitchen downstairs. The latter was empty, but the rocking chair in the living room was swaying back and forth as if a child were playing with it without letting it lose its momentum. The house felt rearranged around her body, better fitting. Outside, the air was still as a pond. Heathers covered the ground and came to lick at the house's feet like a dark, bushy sea. He had been right: they did not need tending. She was not even sure she could recognise hers from the rest any more. She got out on the porch and leaned against one of the elephants' tusks that acted as supporting columns for the overhanging roof. The horizon was empty, both of trains and elephants. There were just the heathers, the sun and the house that surrounded her in a cool, familiar embrace.
Her brother comes first. She is wrenching heather plants from the soil around the house before they threaten the foundations. They do not seem to stop at anything.
“Fire would be more effective,” he points out.
She gets up, wipes the earth from her hands as best as she can before turning to him. The whole scene is eerily familiar. She has already played it, with another him, in another time – but the plants, the smell, the sun on the back of her neck are the same.
“Wood burns too,” she replies, taking him in. He has not grown – not that she had expected him to; he is still the same spindly, pale boy she last saw. His pyjama hangs from him like it would from a rack.
“Good riddance,” he shrugs.
She turns around and looks at the house, really looks at it. Today, it has decided to lean eastward. The unhinged shutters hang from the window frames like the dropping corners of as many dark, grinning mouths. The paint is so chipped it looks like the wooden walls were sprinkled with a few drops of it in a misguided attempt at decoration. The sight is almost painful. She purses her lips and crouches again, pulling on the next plant with all her strength. The sound of roots being torn from the soil is sickeningly satisfying.
“Do you think you could possibly stop using Grandma's rocking chair at night?” she tartly asks.
“That wasn't me. Not this last week and a half, at least.”
“Then tell whoever's doing it to stop.”
“You know that's not how it works.”
She sighs and closes her eyes against the harsh daylight. Her brother's figure wavers in the hot air the ground exhales.
“Go away,” she whispers.
The sheets were drenched in blood. In the moonlight, it pooled in dark stains on the coarse white linen. The idea of the accompanying stench floated around in the air without really taking shape. The ceiling looked ready to drop on the bed at a moment's notice. She gagged and rolled out of it, landing in a heap on the dirty floor. The door opened, giving her a chance to stumble out of the room before it closed back again in a grunt. She leaned against the wall, willing her heart to calm down and beat at the rhythmic time of the axe that was cutting wood outside.
“You're not holding the hammer strong enough.”
“If by “strong enough” you mean the way you used to hold onto your bottle then no, I most certainly am not.”
She feels more than hears her father's disappointed sigh but does not turn around, instead fishing another nail in her pocket and hammering it in the peeling board on the external wall.
“Rain is coming,” he tries again from underneath her.
“I know. Now leave.”
She had always thought that, after all these years, the resentment had gone away. But it had just lain dormant under feet of caked dust, ready to spring up at a moment's notice. His voice is enough. She stays on the ladder until she is certain he has gone away. She comes down carried by heavy raindrops she then watches from the porch, alcohol making its way down her throat. The heathers flutter under the water and seem to retreat a little. Far away, where the earth seems to melt with the clouds, she thinks she sees a lone elephant crossing the rusting rails. She downs the rest of her glass and leaves it on the railing before going back inside, knowing it will be gone in the morning.
The shovel barely grazed the hard ground, and the pickaxe did little better. The house, however, opened its insides almost eagerly. The floorboards were carefully displaced, as were the stones, layer after layer under which was lowered the body. When everything was put together again, nothing could have told the house had become one not only of the living, but also of the dead. It groaned in satisfaction before settling more squarely on its foundations. Not long after, the rain had made the ground pliable enough to dig a grave in it if necessary. They never waited for the rain to bury their dead.
The axe makes a dull sound as it bites the old, tired wood. She huffs, lifts it and swings it down again, over and over as sweat streams on her flanks, under her arms, into her eyes, prickly and warm. After an infinite amount of time, the tree creaks and groans down to the earth, lifting a cloud of dust and the odd heather leaf in its fall.
“Winter won't be here for a few months yet,” her mother says from the branch she is seated on, her feet barely touching the ground.
“At least firewood is something I won't need to worry about later.”
She starts chopping the branches off starting by the top of the tree, furthest away from her mother.
“You're lonely,” says the latter.
She does not answer, rather focusing on the splinters of wood flying everywhere. The sun is still low on the horizon. She can hear the distant rush of the weekly train towards it.
“We just worry about you,” her mother tries again.
“Enough of this,” she cuts, not looking up. “The days are mine. Stay in your nights, mother.”
She spends the rest of the morning piling the chopped wood against one of the house's walls, dead wood against dead wood. When she has finished, the sky is an enormous, relentless blue mouth. She wishes for a sound other than the wind and the voice of the dead.
When she opened her eyes, the world was swaying. Her bare feet grazed the rare patches of grass on the ground in a soothing back-and-forth motion. The swing moved gently and silently, the only sounds the grunts of the tree and those of the house a few feet away. Listening very carefully, she managed to hear the distant creak of the rocking chair. She let her feet drag in the dust until the swing stilled before getting down and going back inside the house. She passed the entrance of the living room without a glance, trudged up the stairs and opened a door at random, falling on the bed, knowing she would wake up elsewhere all the same.
“You need to stop dying,” she whispers, rolling a pebble in her hands.
Beside her, Heather huffs in amusement.
“I could say the same to you.”
“The thing is, I'm not dead yet,” she replies, setting her forehead against her bent knees and loosely draping her arms around her legs. Heather shrugs against her.
“It'll come,” she says.
“I'd like to live before I die, though.”
Up here on the hill, the wind is stronger and carries a few words in its folds. Voicing them is far easier that near the house.
“It seems you're finally taking the right direction for it,” Heather murmurs.
She looks up. The plains are stretched out at their feet, flat and all-devouring under a flat and all devouring sky. The rusty railway glints in the late afternoon light. In the distance, east and south, dust rises in a hazy cloud, erasing the horizon line.
“I miss you,” she chokes.
For a moment, the wind is the only one talking on the top of the hill. Then Heather adds:
“But you need to keep going. You need to leave.”
Heather's hand sneaks in her own, tangling their fingers together. She lets her head fall on Heather's shoulder.
“I think I'm dead inside.”
“I tried to get rid of you.”
“You did what you had to do. It just didn't work out.”
“I don't know how to just live.”
“Start by leaving. Figure out the rest as it comes,” Heather says in her ear.
She swallows, her free hand grasping for her bundle lying on the ground next to her.
“I won't be coming home,” she says softly.
“There won't be a home to come to,” Heather whispers, squeezing her hand one last time.
At the hill's feet, the flames have died down. The only thing left standing in the charred remains of the house are the tusks, proud and blackened by soot in the evening air.