It’s Sunday, and we’re drawing lots in the church hall.
The vicar calls them straws, but really they’re only strips of paper. He shows them, each time, before we start: most are longer than his middle finger, a few—two, three, never more than six—are shorter than his thumb. Today, three are short. He fans the entire handful, with a smile, so that we all can see. Then he goes among the rows of weary women, and we each take a strip.
By the time he comes to me, my hand is shaking. I curl my fist and dig in my nails to make it be still. The vicar continues to smile. As I reach to draw my straw, his fingertips brush my own. His are warm, much warmer than mine. Then he moves on. Rather than look at the paper, I ball it in my hand. I wonder if I can tell from feel alone whether it’s long or short. I roll it within my fingers, back and forth, over and over.
Kathy, beside me, is looking at her slip. I know, perhaps only from how her body tenses, that her straw isn’t short. Then her eyes are on me, on my hands where they press against my stomach, turning the scrap there. So I stop and unroll it, careful not to tear the sweat-moistened paper. I hold it up so that she can see, and she holds hers up, and we can both see than neither one is short.
Behind us, a woman cries out. She is saying, “Oh, oh, oh,” again and again, a sound neither happy nor sad, like a pause between thoughts. I don’t recognize her voice. The women here are from five villages and farther, and I know only a few by name; less than that I’d call friends. But the woman making the oh, oh noise—which is more rapid now, as though she’s having trouble breathing—has her own friends, and they’re talking to her, telling her how lucky she is, telling her how glad she must be, ignoring her strange almost-sobs.
Eventually, the woman quiets. I wish I could leave. I wish we didn’t have to stay until everyone has drawn their straw. Is that uncharitable of me? To find this cruel? Anyway, there’s no use in wishing. We all must wait until the end.
At least there are only two short straws left. The woman who receives the second says a man’s name, which I don’t quite catch—Gerard? Gerald?—and then nothing more. The woman who finds the third won’t stop laughing, a sound not very different from the first woman’s sobs. Couldn’t we stop now, when there’s no more hope for anyone? But no, we carry on until the end. Anything else would be cowardice, I suppose.
Finally it’s over. Once we get outside, it takes Kathy and me three streets to separate ourselves from the diminishing throng. When we’re out of anyone’s earshot, Kathy says, “I wish it had been me.”
“Yes,” I agree.
“Who were those women, anyway? They weren’t from our village.”
“Don’t you wish it had been you, Aggy?”
“Yes, I do.”
How can I tell her the truth? How can I tell if she’s afraid, just as afraid as me? I can’t, so I hide what I feel. Then, not knowing how to feel, I feel nothing.
On the main street, we lapse into silence. Even Kathy’s limitless good spirits seem to have exhausted her. I find my eyes drawn to part-curtained windows, against my will. From the far side of the street, a shadow gazes back at me, unmoving, a featureless face halved by flower-patterned fabric. Seeing no eyes to meet, I look away, and fail to suppress a shudder.
Kathy doesn’t notice, or if she notices, doesn’t comment.
When we reach the store, we enter and join the line before the counter. Arriving at its end, we hand over our cards. A chalked sign lists the week’s privations: today there is no salt; there are potatoes but no eggs; there’s sugar, in small quantities, not enough for baking.
“I was hoping to make scones,” Kathy says sorrowfully. She’s always had a sweet tooth; this must be hard on her. I suppose I’m lucky, having long since stopped caring what I eat or in what quantities. Apathy makes making do much easier.
We part on Soot Lane. I travel the last distance alone, more careful not to look at windows. I’m glad to be home, until I step through the door. Then the emptiness strikes me like an open-handed slap. I can feel it, smell it, taste it in my mouth.
A year ago I never knew that emptiness had a taste. Strange how much you can learn in a mere twelve months.
During the week, we build bombs.
The bombs look like mushrooms, like a field of fungi stretching to every horizon. In the low light, the factory floor is without walls, without ceiling. There are only us and the bombs—and there are so many more of them than us.
Is that how it feels for you? Out there, where you are, have the munitions already outnumbered those they’re supposed to kill? While I work, I think of you. We build bombs to kill young men. We build bombs to make widows of girls like us. We build bombs to make money, to buy food, to stay alive, to build more bombs.
Some of the women talk and joke. Some of them even sing. I wonder how they can.
In the evenings, I don’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes I clean, though there’s little to be done. A house doesn’t get so dirty with one person, it seems. There are never enough jobs to keep me occupied, however much I hunt. Cooking, cleaning, washing—done for one, they still leave too much time.
Sometimes Kathy comes over, but not this week. I remember that her mother has been sick, and probably she’s busy nursing. Didn’t I used to have more friends? If I did then I don’t miss them. It’s hard even to remember their names. They are people in a book that’s closed and can’t be read, and it’s so rare now that I want company.
When I do, there’s always the radio. I like the dramas, and a few of the songs: the ones that are slow and sad and say nothing about anything. But I can’t tolerate the news. Whenever I hear the announcer’s voice, I long, irrationally, for him to say your name, as though the war is a dark water and your one small life could bob alone to the surface. But all they talk about is places and important men, numbers, statistics, battles lost and battles won. When the announcer’s voice comes on, I turn the radio off, and the silence lies thicker than old dust.
At night I lie awake in the darkness. Sleep doesn’t come easily these days. Not even exhaustion brings peace readily. Often I’ll lie until I hear the train: its approaching rumble, its whistle like a gull’s shriek, long and desperate. Once a week it will stop. Once a week it will discharge its burdens. In that caesura of deadened noise, I imagine its snaking body waiting patiently, smoke curling like steam from an old carthorse’s flank, as silent feet tread the silent platform. I wait for the train to stumble back into life, to recede, and in my mind’s eye, shadows drift along nighttime streets.
It’s Sunday, and we’re drawing lots in the church hall.
The vicar holds up ribbons of paper for us all to see. There are five short, and more long than I can count. I can’t remember the last time there were so many short straws. I feel a fluttering in my chest, like a frantic moth beating broken wings against my ribs—and I realize, to my horror, that what I’m feeling is hope.
I hold my breath until my heart grows still. I can bear many things, but not that.
My slip is long. I know it even as my fingers touch coarse paper, know without having to look. Kathy’s will be too.
Hope is always a liar. Hope always betrays.
Kathy and I walk back together as far as the store. Today, even Kathy is quiet. Perhaps hope infected her too.
Today there is no salt. There’s no butter or bacon. Sugar is rationed, and so is flour. There’s bread, but the loaves are small and hard and dark, little like the bread we had before. I can remember the texture of proper bread, but not its taste. I’ve always found tastes hard to remember, and smells too. Now I wonder if that isn’t a small kindness of memory; scarcity is easiest to tolerate with nothing to compare it to.
But oh, I can remember your smell: coal dust and musk and pipe smoke. It hangs around the house, loiters in nooks and crannies and surprises me. When I think I have no more tears, your scent finds ways to make me cry.
So maybe memory is no kinder than hope.
This week I’m on night shifts.
The factory is dark in the day; by night it’s Stygian. I work in an oasis of acid yellow light, an island where there’s only me and the bombs. Sometimes I hear voices from beyond the edge of my island. Sometimes I imagine that it’s the bombs, whispering together, sharing their jokes, singing their tuneless songs. They are inheriting the earth. They have so much more to celebrate than we do.
The shifts are from seven at night until seven in the morning. It’s night when I begin and night when I leave. By Saturday I don’t remember what day looks like; my recollections of sunlight feel frail and doubtful. I would like to sleep and sleep. I’d like to grow drunk on sleep, to become sick with it, to drown in its depths.
What would happen if I didn’t get up tomorrow? What would happen if my place in line was left empty? If my straw was short and I wasn’t there to receive it?
Useless questions. Of course I’ll go. Hope may be a liar, but it can’t be hidden from for long.
It’s Sunday, and we’re drawing lots in the church hall.
Today there are four short slips. The vicar displays them delicately, before folding them into the greater mass. He shuffles them clumsily in slender white fingers, and we all watch, as if we were the audience of a magic trick.
Today my hand is still. I’m too tired for emotion, too disorientated by being awake during the day. The significance of all this washes over me, leaving me unmoved. I take my slip, and Kathy takes hers. I look at my slip. It’s as long as the distance from the base of my thumb to the tip of my middle finger. I look at Kathy’s slip. It’s exactly as long as her littlest finger. My slip is long. And hers is short.
Kathy stares, just as I do. As we watch, the paper slides from her fingers. She looks at me, and there are fat tears in the corners of her eyes, refusing to fall. Then she collapses into my arms, as though there’s no strength left in her. I hold her, not knowing what else to do, and her body shudders and heaves. I don’t know how to identify the emotion surging through her, nor do I want to. All the while the vicar smiles at us, beneficent. I make no effort to smile back.
Outside in the street, Kathy’s stupor slips away, and suddenly she becomes bright. “I’ll have to bake a cake,” she says. She considers, frowning with the intensity of her thoughts. “But, oh—there’s no sugar.”
“I might have some,” I say.
Her pleasure is radiant and brittle. “Oh! Then that’s what I’ll do. With currants, just how he likes it.”
I don’t tell her that no amount of effort will do any good. She knows—or else, somehow, she doesn’t.
“I’ll have to clean. Wash the floors. Scrub the doorstep.”
Neither will cleaning help. She must know this; she can’t not. “I’m sure he’d like that.”
“Do you think so?” She looks at me then, the question repeated in her eyes. Could I be telling the truth? Knowing how badly she’d like to believe, my heart breaks for her.
“I’m sure,” I repeat, and wish I convinced myself, so that perhaps I could convince Kathy.
That night I lie awake, waiting for the whistle of the train—listening, as I know Kathy will be, with bated breath. The wind has died to nothing, and when finally the sound comes it carries clearly, like the shriek of a hunting bird. In its wake comes the slowing clack-clack, as metal wheels grind to a halt upon metal rails.
Perhaps if I were to look out my window I’d just be able to make out a pall of steam rising, to hover spectral on the still air. Perhaps if I strained my eyes I’d see shadows drifting through distant, silent streets. But I don’t need to look. Behind my eyelids I can see clearly. There one figure detaches from the others, and there in a doorway Kathy waits, oblivious of the cold.
I sleep little that night.
All through the next days I think about Kathy. We’ve been friends since we were little girls; we went to school together, started work at the same time, married within a few months of each other. Maybe we’ve never been truly close, but nor have we ever been so far apart. There’s a breach between us now that I know can’t be bridged.
So it surprises me when on the Wednesday, as I’m leaving work through the wrought iron gates, caught amid the crowd of other dark-eyed women with skin stained the yellow of old lemons, I spy her across the street. She doesn’t wave or cry out, but I know immediately that she’s waiting for me.
Kathy looks gaunt. But when she sees that I’ve seen her, her face lights. I force my way nearer, fearful of sharp elbows and sharp tongues, glad when I’m free and the crowd swells on without me.
“Hello, Kathy,” I say. And then, because I must, “How are you?”
“Oh, wonderful,” she replies, even as her eyes eagerly reveal the lie. “It’s funny . . . I didn’t realize, but while he was away, the house stopped feeling like a home. Now everything’s back the way it should be.”
“I’m glad.” If what she said were true then, oh, I would be. I’d give anything to see Kathy happy, because if she was then, perhaps, one day I could be too.
“Why don’t you come over? After your shift tomorrow?”
The question takes me by surprise, though now that it’s out, I understand I’d been expecting it. I make the first sound of an excuse, without knowing what I can possibly say.
“Oh please! George would be so glad to see you. Just for an hour. Won’t you?”
I can’t say no. Her desperation is like a net, holding me tight, reeling me near.
“Of course,” I tell her.
I feel his presence the moment I walk through the door. But I don’t see him at first.
He’s sitting in his armchair—the chair that was always his, with the frayed arms, the bald patches where elbows and palms have rested. But now that chair is in the corner, where the shadows fall deepest. I wouldn’t have noticed him but for the cold, the silence: there’s a chill from that direction, like the blast through a part-opened door in winter, and he makes no noise at all.
Not knowing what to say, I say nothing. Neither does he, and I’m glad, for who can tell what those invisible lips would utter? I shudder at the thought, and it’s left to Kathy to make conversation for three.
She bustles about, calling from the kitchen as the kettle whistles upon the stove. I take the chair farthest from his, looking anywhere but at him. But I can’t ignore the smell in the air, both familiar and strange: peat soaked by long rains. Nor can I help but notice the cake on the sideboard. It sits untouched, already growing stale. She’ll offer me a slice, I know, and I’ll have to say yes. Perhaps she’ll set another piece on the small table within reach of that grey-fingered hand, which will not ever reach to take it.
Kathy is still talking from the kitchen. Her words are drowned by the kettle’s shriek. I can’t bear to be here. I can’t stand to see what my friend’s life has become, what it will be forever more.
I get up and walk on tiptoes to the front door. Do hollow eyes follow me from the gloom? Do unspoken words tremble on the cold air? I open the door and let myself out and close it softly behind me. In the street, the air tastes clean. In the street, the shadows are only shadows. And as I hurry through the dying evening, I hope Kathy will find a way to forgive one more betrayal.
It’s Sunday, and we’re drawing lots in the church hall.
I miss Kathy. It’s strange to be here without her. I don’t know the woman standing beside me. She’s small and her face has no kindness in it, no hope either. I wonder how I must look to her. Have I grown hard? Do I seem bitter? Probably I do, for certainly I’m both of those things.
The vicar shows us the fanned ribbons of paper in his hands. At first I’m sure that they’re all long; finally my eyes pick out the one that isn’t. Just one for all of us, for this entire shuffling, throat-clearing, sad-eyed crowd. Then he jumbles them together, and that lone short strip is so easily lost, as though it never was.
Just one short straw. At least this week we have a small mercy: there’ll be no hope.
The vicar moves along the lines. Sometimes he mumbles platitudes; sometimes he makes small jokes that only he laughs at. He has a particular scent, of starch and cough drops, that I can trace his slow progress by, though his footsteps are silent on the lacquered boards. Then, almost without my realizing, he’s before me, hands outstretched, a fringe of white teasing from between his fingers. His smile is kindly and just slightly impatient. I reach and draw free a slip and fold my palm around it, and he moves on, like a well-oiled machine.
I look at the rectangle of paper in my hand, ready to crumple it, ready to dismiss this grotesque ritual from my mind for one more week.
My slip is short.
Not believing, I wish desperately that Kathy were beside me, so that I could compare my slip to hers. I don’t dare look at the women on either side of me. Have they seen? Maybe they’ll try and take my short straw from me. I close my fist hurriedly and then, no longer able to believe, have to open it again. A part of me is sure the slip will be long this time. A part of me breaks when it isn’t.
The church hall is too warm. There are eyes on me, eyes everywhere. They must know what I’m thinking—even though I don’t. I want to run. So I do. Outside the wind teases the slip from my fingers, and I watch as it dances along the street, as it flutters beyond the last of the buildings and is lost.
I expect someone to follow after me: the vicar, or else kindly busybody women. No one comes. After a while I have no choice but to start home. I imagine a white slip of paper cavorting among the dark-limbed trees. Will its loss change what’s coming? What if someone else were to find it? For a moment I think of chasing after, past the edge of the village and off the road, into the forest, to hunt for hours amid the black trunks.
Instead I start to walk home. My feet guide themselves, my thoughts are a numbness inside my mind, and it surprises me when I see the store before me. I hadn’t meant to come this way. I reach out a hand, open the door, wince at the jangle of the bell. I step inside, and still I’m thinking nothing at all.
Today there is no red meat. There are tinned goods, but no flour. There’s no sugar, but there’s salt. I can see the bags piled on the shelf behind the storekeeper, in regimental rows. They are blue and white, and make me think of sailors’ uniforms.
I point. “How much can I buy?”
The shopkeeper looks at me queerly. “How much do you want?”
I’d buy it all if he’d let me. “As much as I’m allowed.”
In the end, he sells me four small bags. He lays them out slowly upon the counter, hoisting each in his one good hand as I watch without impatience. He places them one after the other, as though at any moment I’ll change my mind. But I won’t. I don’t know what I’m doing or why, but I’ll do it anyway.
I hurry the last distance home, paper sack gripped in my arms, fearful of dropping it, watching in my mind’s eye as it bursts and spills its precious contents upon the rain-damp cobbles. By the time I reach my doorstep, my breath is coming in harsh tugs. I lay the sack down though I leave the door unopened. I know now what I have to do, what I’ve been planning all along.
I remove my bags of salt, to set them out carefully. I empty one across the window ledge, a second along the rim where doorstep meets frame—the step I only cleaned the day before. That’s two bags gone, but I daren’t risk that these lines should break. The third I tease into a thread that just barely covers the entire boundary where house meets street. Then finally I let myself inside. The fourth bag I carry upstairs, for the bedroom window.
For our bedroom window.
Then the tears come. I can’t help them. It’s as though I’ve somehow hidden what I’m doing from myself until this moment, and now the reality is too much to bear.
Only, it must be borne, because the alternative is worse. I wipe my eyes, afraid that grief will blind me, that it will stop me from doing what must be done.
When I’m finished, silvery lines just visible in the dying autumn light trace every border, every entry. I consider cooking and know that I couldn’t eat, that perhaps I’ll never want to eat again. In any case, I’ve spent everything I have: I have no money and no food. A part of me thinks, with an intensity akin to pain, of what a terrible wife I am. You’re coming home to me and the larder is bare.
A foolish thought. A silly worry, when what I’ve done is so much worse.
I go downstairs. Realizing I’ve left the front door open, I close it. My body feels heavy and useless, so I sit. Through the open curtains I can feel the dying of the light, as the sun dips toward the rooftops. I get up and close them. I want to cry and can’t. I want to scream but know I wouldn’t stop.
The silence is vast. I know it will drown me if I let it. I turn on the radio. Even the news might be bearable; perhaps, this day of all days, they really will say your name. But it’s a song that greets me, aching in its cheerfulness:
When life’s a beach,
Just out of reach,
Look on the sunny side of love.
The song is worse than the silence, and I’d like to turn it off. Only, I haven’t the strength; suddenly I have no strength at all. I sit down again. I could reach for the dial, but my hands are a leaden weight in my lap. The song has no meaning, and won’t be stopped.
When life’s a boat,
Pushed out to float,
Look on the sunny side of love.
The song trickles to an end. Another takes its place. This time I find that I can ignore the words. The radio becomes just noise, then nothing at all.
Have I slept? I don’t think so. But now the radio is only playing static, a shivering hum like a voice just beyond hearing. I get up to turn it off, and afterwards the silence is thick as falling snow. Then, far away, I hear the whistle of the train: long, low, and impossibly mournful. Beneath I can make out the declining rattle of wheels on tracks, like clockwork winding down.
I know what will happen now. The train has come to rest; steam writhes upon its flanks. Someone will open a door for you, but you’ll depart alone, and no one will be waiting to meet you. As you step to the platform, your feet will make no sound. As you walk into the empty streets, your feet will make no sound. As you drift through familiar passages, past familiar landmarks, over familiar cobbles, you will make no sound.
And just like that, I realize you’re outside.
You’re standing on the doorstep, and you’re looking up, at a home made strange by all that’s passed since last you stood here. You’re reaching out a hand. You’re back, finally back.
And you can’t come in.
You won’t understand why. No moonlight falls to light the line at your feet silver. Even if it did, the sight would make no sense to you. Are you hurt by this obstruction, this rejection? No, I think that it makes you angry. I can feel your fury through wood and brick.
Your shout is a whisper in grass. Your hammering is far-off footsteps, as of a figure pacing distant, vacant streets.
But you aren’t you. I know this, love. I know.
You went away, went to war, and what’s come back is only a silhouette. I know this to be true, because I’ve seen it happen to so many: to sons and fathers, husbands and brothers. So many men gone, and not one returned close to whole.
Hope is a lie. You are a lie. I miss you so, so much. But what I miss isn’t what’s outside our door, not what rattles my window with pale hands, hands that would be colder than ice if I should dare open the pane and reach for them. You’re nothing I could hold, nothing I could ever warm.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
But I can’t let you in, my love.
I must have slept. I don’t remember doing so, but I must have—for I’m curled in the armchair, and there’s light pricking at the gap between the curtains. For an instant I worry that I’m late for work. Then I remember that this week I’m on nightshifts once more, and no amount of oversleeping could make me late.
I remember, too, that in any case it doesn’t matter anymore—that nothing matters now.
I get up and open the front door. I don’t know what to expect, or if I expect anything at all. But there’s nothing to see: only a faint perimeter, like a snail’s trail, that navigates house front and windowsill and doorstep. The line of salt is undisturbed, not marred by footsteps or by the wind that rattles the chimneypots above.
You’ve gone. I don’t know where, but you’ve gone, and this time you won’t return.
I go back inside. The day is mine to waste. Then tonight, I’ll go to work and I’ll build bombs. I will build bombs to kill young men. I’ll build bombs to make widows of young girls. I’ll take from others what has been taken from me.
And from now on, I’ll sing as I work.
Originally published in Black Library, Volume Six, edited by Eric J. Guignard.