Kush led me into the bathroom on our wedding night. The white tiles and mirrors made me nervous.
Then I saw he’d already laid out a steel tray on the marble counter containing syringes, needles, ampoules and packs of dressings. The scalpel looked small and innocuous. My lip curled, revealing my teeth.
After Kush’s funeral we go back to the house that he and I shared. This self-designed exemplar of modernity was his dream, built it at the edge of the forest against all advice, because I’d been pining for the trees.
Lisa and I lay out the food in the kitchen, ready to carry through to the mourners. The kitchen was Kush’s domain. He loved to cook.
“What do you think?” Kush asked when the first worktop was fixed in place.
The worktops were made of highly polished concrete. I laid my cheek on the silky, cold surface. Kush copied me, looking into my face, his dark eyes full of thoughts.
“Which platter for the prawns?” Lisa speaks to me like I’m an injured animal.
“The blue one.” I resent her interrupting my train of thought.
An hour before the funeral Lisa brushed my hair and tied it up. I wanted my grief to trump hers, to rub her face in it. When she reminded me to put on shoes, as I tried to walk out to the car in stockinged feet, I realised what I was feeling was real, not just a righteous affectation.
“Where are the breadsticks?” Lisa asks.
Kush had been insistent on a pantry. I like it. A store for lean seasons.
“I can’t see them.”
I join her. We rifle through the boxes and packets without looking at one another. What’s between us feels leaden. I freeze when I hear voices from the kitchen. Maria and Naomi.
“Poor Ava.” That’s Naomi. “She’s devastated.”
“I’m not sure I’d have as much self-control as she’s shown today.” Maria is one of the few women I’ve met who is truly in love with her husband.
“She’s in shock.” Naomi pauses. “Do you remember the netball?”
She sounds fond, not mocking. I’ve learnt to laugh about that too. Lisa had taken me to the club. They were trying to teach me how to play. Few women work, so they must fill their time. I was so excited by the chase that I leapt on the ball, trying to bite it.
“Kush was such a good man.” Maria sighs. “What’s she going to do now?”
Dr Garston told me about periods but I wasn’t prepared, not really. He didn’t mention the pain for one thing.
I woke with cramp low down in my stomach, as if I’d eaten something rotten. I waited for diarrhoea but nothing came. I felt uncomfortable. Wet between my legs. I smelt iron, not good and fresh, but old and decayed. The amount of blood surprised me. I stuffed toilet paper in my knickers and went to the supermarket. I took all my allowance, unsure what having a period cost.
I stood in front of a wall of sanitary products. Tampons. Towels. Liners. Winged, unwinged. Light, medium and heavy flow. I picked up a packet bearing a photo of a girl on a bicycle. I wanted to tear it to pieces so I wouldn’t have to see her idiotic smile.
In fact, the whole supermarket put me in a rage. Soap. Bread. Water in bottles, of all things. A dozen choices of each and yet no choice of how to live.
Women are sacrosanct. Dr Garston said. Scarce. You’re protected at all costs. You must perform your duty in return.
I wanted to run but my newly remodelled body wasn’t fast as it once was.
A pair of women carrying shopping baskets walked up the aisle, slowing as they approached me. They stank of fake flowers. One of them stifled a giggle. I whipped around, my back to the shelves, quick enough to see one of them wrinkling her nose in disgust.
I flushed with shame. They wore uniforms; tight jeans and long jumpers, belted at their waists. I was short and stocky by comparison. I didn’t have their sleek hair or a painted faces.
Out in the woods, my sisters and I would’ve run them to ground. I would’ve have put my teeth to their necks, not to break their skins, just to bring them into line.
“Do you need any help?”
A third woman approached. She smelt of sugar and was styled like the others, but she sent them on their way with a look filled with nip and growl.
“You’re Ava, aren’t you?”
I was notorious. Ava-the-dog-girl. Raised by wolves escaped from zoos, or feral mongrels. I was unmistakable. Large eyes beneath a marked widow’s peak. Big hands and feet.
She tried again, gesturing to the pack of towels in my hand. “It can be daunting.”
She pulled a scarf from her bag. “Here, wrap this around your waist. You’ve got blood on your skirt.”
I flinched, but she spoke gently as she reached around me and secured the scarf with an artful knot at my hip. “This is your first period, isn’t it?”
“Let’s get you some things.” She threw boxes into her basket with the assurance of a women well versed in menstruation.
That was how I met Lisa.
“I’m staying here tonight.”
All the mourners have left, even Lisa’s husband, Paul. I can’t imagine him touching her. He’d keep her on a shelf like a trophy if he could. He doesn’t like me.
“No. Thanks for the offer though.”
My formality confuses her. It’s enough to hurt her but not enough for her to take offence. Widowhood is a sword and shield.
“I’ll help clean up.” Lisa starts scraping a plate as if to demonstrate. I’ve always refused to have any staff. I don’t want strangers on my territory.
“Leave it.” I take the plate and fork from her and put them down. “I need to keep busy. Here, take these. I’ve run out of vases.”
I hand Lisa the fat pink blooms. Peonies from one of the bachelors, presented to me as if he were already a suitor. I hate cultivated flowers. Give me snowdrops or wood anemones. Give me clumps of primroses. Better still, a soft rash of bluebells. My sisters and I rolled in them and the fragrance clung to us for days.
Lisa takes the bouquet but they slide from her hand and land on the floor. It’s the first time I’ve looked her in the face today. Her shoulders hitch up and down with her gasping sobs. I don’t know who she’s crying for.
I know I should reach out for her. It’s what people do in these circumstances.
“I’m sorry.” She searches her pockets and pulls out a crumpled tissue to dab her eyes with.
“It’s been a hard day for both of us. Go home. Get some rest. Your husband’s waiting for you.”
The barb finds its place. I can tell from how she tries to compose herself. She’s about to say something but I don’t want to do this with her. Not now. Not yet. I hurry her along with, “I’ll phone you tomorrow.”
“Okay, Ava. If that’s what you want.”
The house falls into a lull when I close the front door after her. I listen to its quiet murmurs. They used to make me look over my shoulders to see who was there.
Kush is in every detail. People always comment on his eye for things. Each room is a careful curation of beauty. Lines of porcelain on recessed, underlit shelves. Antique dip pens on a malachite tray. Books arranged with care rather than piled on shelves.
I load the dishwasher and wipe down the surfaces. I push the vacuum around the lounge. Something too large for the hoover’s appetite gets sucked up inside it. The machine makes a whining noise that rises to a high pitch. I fall to my knees and howl back at it.
Since Kush’s death I find it easier to fall asleep with the blinds open so that I can see the outline of the trees. The forest is my friend. I imagine that their dark depths hide rabbits, foxes and owls. The natural world replenishing itself without the blight of man, now that the reduced population clusters in cities.
Not that I sleep well. I lay awake, marking time, then doze fitfully only to wake again an hour later.
It takes a few heartbeats to realise that Kush isn’t beside me and will never be again. Now that he’s gone, and I have what I came here for, I should leave.
The security lights snap on. Sometimes a foraging animal does this. I wait for the light to turn off but it doesn’t. I go to the window.
The world is bright white under the floodlights. From my vantage point I see a flash of movement on the footpath beneath me. Whatever it is, it’s fast. The lights snap off and the ones on the other side of the house go on, their brightness shedding in a diagonal across the grass.
I’m alone out here in my glass box at the edge of the trees.
I run downstairs, my feet thudding on the steps. The lights follow whoever it is as they circle the house. A fox wouldn’t do that.
I reach the dining room just before the lights go out completely and I get a flash of something disappearing between the trees.
I pull the bifold doors open and run out. The flood lights come on again, this time because of me. Bare legged, the wind tugging at the hem of the old shirt I’m wearing, I’m exposed. They’re out there, watching me.
“Come on!” I scream. “Come and get me!”
But there’s nothing, except darkness and threat of rain.
Habit carries us when the heart’s given up.
I get up and shower. Kush and I had separate bathrooms. He said he didn’t mind sharing but I did.
I spend ages in there. I tried to make a joke of it.
That’s because you’re a woman.
I open the cabinet that contains my daily rituals. The things I didn’t want Kush to see. Despite the vials of hormones, the syringes and the packs of pills in there, I still need the depilatory creams, razors and shaving oil. Slant and pointed tweezers for the most stubborn hair.
There aren’t mirrors in the wilderness. Self-consciousness is a human trait. My reflection’s that of a woman just shy of middle-age, her waist starting to thicken and with a bit more heft to her buttocks. Her breasts, though slight, sag.
My body is fighting back since Kush’s death, my nature trying to reassert itself. An alarming amount of new hair covers my chest and stomach despite the cocktail of chemicals I take to keep it in check.
I collect everything from the shelves and dump it all into the bin.
The phone has been ringing all morning but I can choose who I speak to. All hail caller-recognition.
“Is this a professional call?” The brushed aluminium receiver is cold against my ear.
“Of course not. I stopped being your therapist a long time ago. I hardly got a chance to speak to you yesterday. I wanted to see how you’re doing.”
“I’m as okay as I can be.”
“I think of you. A lot. I want you to know how much I admired Kush. What happened to him was terrible. You shouldn’t have had to see it.”
Memory is cruel. Of all our years together, the first memory of Kush that jumps into my mind is of the fresh blood coming from his mouth in waves every time he was sick. The paramedics put up a drip, pouring in fluid to replace the blood lost from his stomach ulcer, but eventually he started to vomit that up too as he had no blood of his own left.
I screamed for my sisters, somewhere deep inside my mind.
“Ava, are you still there?”
Jamie taught me to speak. I can imagine his expression now, the same as then, when he was trying to get my attention.
He’s reluctant to hang up.
“Can you believe the cheek of some of those men?” He means the ones at the funeral, with their flowers and overtures.
“One of Kush’s colleague has already left me a message about going to dinner.”
“They don’t know you, or anything about you. How dare they?” Jamie sounds angry.
These single men are desperate enough to cruise funerals for a potential mate. A widow’s grace period is short. You have to choose or they’ll choose for you.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“Not right now.”
“Okay. Keep in touch.” The hurt in his voice surprises me. “But call me if you need anything.”
The beginning of a headache covers my right eye. I go back upstairs and curl up. I realise that my head isn’t the only thing that aches. It’s funny how you don’t realise how much you need someone until they’re gone.
Dr Garston always frowned at me. I don’t think he realised he was doing it.
“I’m a specialist in women’s health. Do you remember me? I came to see you with Dr Phipps when you first arrived.”
“You were wearing the same red bow tie then too.”
That startled him. When he first saw me I was pissing on straw because the porcelain toilet frightened me.
“You’re a fast learner.”
“That doesn’t sound like a compliment.”
Jamie Phipps chuckled. Dr Garston wasn’t as amused.
“Her capacity for language is supernatural.”
I smiled at Jamie, even though I didn’t know what supernatural meant.
Dr Garston’s mouth twitched. “Then she was with people for longer than she remembers.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
They both looked at me as if to settle the argument.
“I’ve told you, I don’t remember.”
“No matter.” Dr Garston got up from behind his desk. “Would you step outside, Dr Phipps?”
The word doctor was infused with contempt. Jamie was only a doctor of words. He squeezed my shoulder on his way out.
“Get undressed. Nurse will help you.”
“I don’t need help.”
“I’m Carol. Come through here.” The nurse, white haired and thin, took my elbow.
I undressed in the cubicle. She didn’t react to my abnormalities. My breasts were flat and clitoris engorged to manly proportions. Dark hair covering me in varying degrees. As she fastened the ties of the thin blue gown, she leant in close to my ear. “Don’t let him see that you’re scared of him.”
“He looks at me like I’m an animal.”
“He looks at all women that way.”
The general barrenness of women. We were all a problem to him.
After Dr Garston inspected me, he kept me standing while he told me about the regime he’d planned to make me more normal.
“You will bleed from your vagina every month. That’s called a period. That’s good.”
My forest-sisters and I knew about that already, although it wasn’t a monthly event. Spots of blood that dripped on our thighs as we walked. The afflicted retreated until the others found her and licked the imaginary wound clean.
“I might as well chip you now.”
“A tracking device. It’s so we’ll always know where you are. All women have them.” He relished my discomfort at that. “It’s for your own good.”
“Men here are civilised. They treat women like jewels. A man who attacks a woman risks execution.” He didn’t say women are only for the wealthy. “There are places where men live without women. If they abduct you, they’ll keep you on a chain like a dog and regularly rape you.”
The only time I ever saw Dr Garston smile at me was when he said the words like a dog.
The trill of the phone wakes me.
“You said you’d call.” It’s Lisa.
“What time is it?” I wipe the crusts of sleep from my eyes.
“I fell asleep.”
“You promised you’d ring me.”
“You sound angry.”
“Worried. Not angry.”
“You worrying won’t help me, so don’t.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re my friend.”
There’s a fraction of a beat before she says the word friend. I don’t reply.
“We are friends, aren’t we?”
“Yes.” I use my most ambiguous tone.
“It doesn’t sound like it, not anymore. This is more than shock over Kush. Why are you—”
“I’m not up to this now.”
That stops her dead. Her breathing’s ragged.
I’ll not feel bad for being distant and rude. I’m not the one who has anything to feel guilty about.
I want to cry after talking to Lisa but I can’t, so I rip the phone from the socket and smash it against the wall. It doesn’t break, just makes a mess of the wallpaper, which frustrates me even more.
I wish Kush were here. I’d do the same to him. Instead, he’s left Lisa to bear the brunt of it all.
I sit, nursing my numbness until it’s dark.
I’m not startled when the security light goes on this time. What makes me jump is the wet thump as something hits the window pane. It comes again, then again. Splat. Splat. Splat.
All the ground floor windows and doors are secure. The security lights make it worse. It creates halos around the dark patches on the glass. I wrap the quilt around me so I’m rolled in it, as if this can block everything out.
Go away, go away, go away.
My bravado of the previous night has gone. If I looked out I’d be able to see who it is in bright glory which makes me more afraid than of the shadows. I’m not ready for that. Not yet.
The problem is that I can tell from the volleys that there’s more of them down there flinging balled up mud. There’s a whole pack of them.
They stop as the morning light comes in, and I fall asleep for an hour of so. The bedroom windows are completely muddied, drying in patches to pale brown.
They’ve been busy out there. Every ground floor window has been pelted too. They’ve made a mess of the wooden cladding that Kush had chosen because it weathered silvery-grey with age. It’s a facade to make the house more at home in its surrounding.
The pond that runs beneath the decked walkway has been polluted with faeces. Most of the fish have been flicked onto the path, their bright colours dulling.
I grit my teeth and pull out the power hose and spray off as much muck as I can, leaving the glass streaky but cleaner.
A distant engine gets closer. It roars as it approaches. It’s Jamie, on his motorbike.
“What the hell happened here?”
He follows me in, carrying his helmet.
“I don’t know.” I’m about to ask him why he’s come but he interrupts me.
“You shouldn’t be alone. Not out here. It’s dangerous.” He takes off his jacket and lays it on the arm of a sofa.
“Not to me. And I’m getting used to being alone.”
“Yes, you’re a fast learner. Words fell from your mouth like flowers.”
“You’ve got a selective memory. For the first few weeks, I pissed in corners, and ate food from a bowl on the floor.”
I bit anybody who came too close and they finally tranquilised me with a dart. I awoke to find they’d shaved my fur, clipped my nails and bound me in clothes. How I howled.
“Am I?” My own tears confound me. I’m more tired than I realise.
“Ssh, I’m here, it’s okay.”
Jamie puts his arms around me. He presses his forehead to mine and his voice is soothing. He smells of sandalwood and leather. The softness of his nose pushes against mine, the pressure helping to close the distance between our mouths.
I scuttle backwards. He follows.
“Let yourself feel this. Go with it.” He pushes against me.
Perhaps he thinks he’s generating sexual tension. I strike his chest with the heel of my hand as a warning. It’s an impotent gesture.
“I’d never hurt you, Ava.”
His mouth searches for mine again. I jerk my head out of reach.
“It doesn’t matter how much money Kush left you. If you don’t take a husband they’ll choose for you. It’s the law. You’re rich enough to choose for yourself. Why not me?”
Jamie’s hand is on the back of my neck. He’s determined.
“You can’t say no. Not forever.”
“I’m saying no now.”
“Who knows you better than I do? I can’t afford you but now you can afford me.”
Arousal comes off him in waves.
“I love you, Ava.”
He puts a hand in my hair and clutches at the roots. He pushes his face into my neck, his other hand pulling at my shirt buttons. He’s risking a lot, considering the punishment for rape outside marriage. Maybe he thinks that nobody will believe Ava-the-dog-woman, or this is a forceful seduction rather than an assault. Jamie isn’t going to stop.
To think when I was first found that I was prepared to submit to such violent invasions for the sake of my sisters.
Disbelief is a paralytic, preventing fight or flight. You have a series of moments in which to act, after which you’re lost.
He pauses and I reach up and take his head in my hands, tilting it. His lips part in anticipation. Then I twist, a powerful jerk to the right and he falls like all the bones have gone out of him.
It’s been years since I killed anything.
I put down my cutlery. I wanted to lick my plate to get at the last of the steak juices and the salt crystals, so I distracted myself by looking out of the window at the trees. Salt. What a marvel.
“Do you miss it?” Kush asked.
The pain in that question made me turn to him. He’d never asked me that before, not even in our most unguarded, intimate moments.
“You built a house in this beautiful place for us. I can go outside whenever I want to.”
“It’s not like living out there though, is it? Tell me what it was like.”
There was no way to tell him what was out there. Escaped pigs grown to boar-like proportions, armed with tusks. Horses that thunder along the dried-up river beds, too wild to ever be ridden. It’s not just mammals. There are elm saplings deep in the forest. There are abandoned towns in the great forest. The foundations have been torn up by roots. Broken roads lead nowhere.
So the real world regrows.
“Let me show you.”
I slid open the doors. The fresh air energised me after the air-conditioning within. I ran. Kush was behind me.
I ran between the oaks and the beech trunks, along an irregular line of young silver birches. I threw off my shoes. Paused to undo my skirt and let it drop. I peeled off my t-shirt and flung it down. The cool air chilled my skin. I laughed.
“Be careful!” Kush called after me.
I laughed with joy as I ran headlong, like I’d die if I stopped. I felt damp moss and bracken beneath my feet, punctuated by the crack of dead twigs. I could smell leaf mould. I scrambled over fallen logs and felt the mud between my toes. The fecund smell of home.
I still run but not as fast as I once could. My heart pounded. The light through the leaves found my flesh as dappled patterns.
I looked back to see Kush trying to keep up. He held a stitch in his side, wincing with pain.
I was so exhilarated that I didn’t see the danger ahead. I’d been running blind. The trees stopped at a precipice. The forest was no more. The drop was unforgiving.
Once I would’ve known it was there half a mile away from the thinning trunks, the roll of the land, the change in natural light and the resulting lichen growth on the bark. land. I would feel it in the breeze on my face. How I’d forgotten myself.
Kush closed the distance between us at a walk, panting and sweaty.
“I thought you were going to fall.”
“I knew it was there.”
Kush always knew when I was lying.
“You’ve hurt yourself.”
Both my feet were bleeding. He made me sit down and he pulled out the thorns. I’d forgotten my soles weren’t thick and calloused anymore. My arms and legs were scratched.
Kush glanced up a me like he was seeing something in me for the first time, something he took to be a sort of madness. It made me sad, because men had once been wild and free too.
Taking Jamie up to the cliff-edge is heavy work. I can’t bear to looked at him. He falls like a broken doll.
His motorbike he heavy and cumbersome and I wonder if it’s worth the effort. In the end I dump it in the undergrowth and cover it as best as I can.
There’s a van outside the house when I get back. The delivery man gets out when he sees me and thrusts a clipboard at me to sign. He’s unhappy at being kept waiting. I don’t apologise.
“I didn’t want to leave this on the step.”
It sounds like reproach. I hand back his pen without a word.
The package is from the crematorium. Kush is returned to me in a plastic urn. He would’ve hated that. He was a big man but I wasn’t expecting his ashes to be so heavy.
I put most of Kush’s remains into his beloved ginger jar. He brought it home one day, his eyes round with fascination.
“This is hundreds of years old. It was made on the other side of the world. This colour is called celadon.”
“Celadon.” I rolled the word mouth around with my tongue. It was a beautiful pale green that contained grey and blue. I traced the vein of gold that ran through the porcelain like jagged lightning. “It’s been broken.”
“In Japan damaged things are sometimes repaired with gold. It’s called Kintsugi. The flaw makes it more precious.”
“Are you a collector of flawed things?”
The jar is the most fitting resting place for Kush, but I want part of him to be outside too, to be free. To nourish the ground and the trees so that I can taste him in the rain dripping from the branches and smell him in the sweet chestnuts.
I put some of his ashes in an old jam jar and go out.
Our weekend guests would admire the forest from the panoramic windows, as if trees were dangerous animals. The human race is gradually dying in concrete enclaves, only they don’t know it.
For me the trees are company. Each type has their own discourse. Their leaves speak differently. When Kush was working I’d come out here and lie between the roots of the giant oaks. I imagined the pack surrounding me, our chests rising and falling in unison. We’d all dream the same dreams of rabbit flesh and the dark haunch of deer. Of rootlets pushing their way through the soil and the uncurling of ferns. Love knots of diamond-backed adders and the clinging, climbing ivy. Fat blackberries burnished and brown conkers.
I sit on a fallen log when I reach my favourite clearing. It’s been colonised with wood beetles and bracket fungi. A centipede crawls out from between the rotting bark and crawls over my hand. How life survives.
It’s time. Kush’s ashes are soft in my fist. I let the wind takes him.
I walk back slowly and stand at the forest’s edge looking at the house. A chill sets in.
The huge windows reflect the moving clouds. The house is a piece of art in itself. As much an art gallery within as a house. I can’t imagine a future there without Kush.
Then I realise that the front door’s wide open.
I stand at the threshold, listening. Silence.
They’ve been busy. The canvases in the hall have been slashed in parallel lines. Strips hang off them. Clothes are strewn down the stairs, reduced to rags.
The smell coming from the lounge is so pungent that my eyes smart. The sofa seats have been torn open and the stuffing scattered. The sofa carcasses reek of urine and other musky signatures. Magazines and coffee table books are confetti. There’s snot smeared on the mirrors and the windows, as if someone’s pressed their faces against them.
Kush’s collection of porcelain has been pulled from their shelves and smashed with utter disrespect for their provenance.
Except Kush’s urn. It sits in the centre of the low table, placed carefully amid the debris. I wrap my arms around him.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was angry at you. It doesn’t matter if you loved Lisa. It was my fault. I resented loving you. Every morning I thought, today is the day that I’ll leave. I’ll go home. But when I saw your face all I could do was stay, one more day.
When Kush proposed marriage, I explained to him what Dr Garston had told me about my abnormalities. My eggs were few and my uterus misshapen. It contained a pouch that he couldn’t remove, and it would interfere with artificial insemination.
Kush kept him head down as I spoke, only looking up at me when I finished.
“That doesn’t matter to me.”
I thought I’d got the measure of Kush then. Even wombless women were wanted for pleasure.
“But are you sure it doesn’t matter to you?” He gestured to my bookshelf, piled up with books on reproductive anatomy, physiology, and theories on our lamentable infertility.
I waited naked on the edge of our marriage bed. My clothes were laid out on the back of a chair. Kush stood in the doorway, frozen. We started at each other. His gaze stayed on my face. It took all my strength not to drop into a crouch and bare my teeth, even though I’d agreed to this arrangement.
A few times, sister, that’s all we need. Lie still and submit. Then you can come home.
I was aware of everything about Kush as he crossed the room. The movement of his Adam’s Apple. The eyelashes framing those dark eyes. The confusing smells of arousal and restraint on him. I’d never been so aware of the clothes that covered him. The security of those second skins didn’t seem so false anymore.
He reached over to the chair and picked up my knickers. He knelt before me and put them over one of my feet and then the other.
He pulled them up like a was a child in need of help. He slid the straps of my bra up my arms and reached around to do up the clasp at my back.
The dress came next. I held up my arms and the supple fabric slipped over me like a caress. I shivered.
“I’m yours, to have whenever you want.”
“I want you,” I’d never seen him so fierce, “but I want you to want me, too.”
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak.
“Ava, there’s something I need to do.”
Kush led me into the bathroom. The white tiles and mirrors made me nervous.
Then I saw that he’d already laid out a steel tray on the marble counter containing syringes, needles, ampoules, and packs of dressings. The scalpel looked small and innocuous. My lip curled, revealing my teeth.
“Please, Ava. It’s important to me.”
I didn’t understand what it was he wanted. He put a hand on my shoulder, the new wedding band glinting under the bright, clinical lights. He placed his other hand on the back of my neck and pushed my head down. “I’ll try not to hurt you, I promise.”
There’s the crunch of someone stepping on eggshell porcelain behind me. I should be on my feet, ready to fight, but all I can do is clutch the ginger jar tighter.
“What happened here? Are you hurt?”
“No. I came back to find it like this.”
“Pack a bag. You’re coming to stay with me.”
This is the Lisa I know. Maternal, calm, taking charge. It would be easy to let her sweep me up and carry me out of here.
“No. Forget this. It’s not important. There’s something we need to talk about.” I have to say it now, while I still have a chance. “I know about you and Kush. I forgive you both.”
Her mouth forms a surprised circle.
“There’s always been a part of me that I held back from Kush. I don’t blame him for turning to you. And I know how things are with you and Paul.”
“Kush loved you absolutely. There was only ever you.”
“I know, Lisa. You’d become so awkward together, like you didn’t know how act around each other.”
Lisa’s low throaty laugh is clogged with tears. “It wasn’t because we were having an affair. It was because he realised that I was in love with you.”
Love. How much love have I had in this lifetime? Love that I wanted. Something that thought was love but wasn’t. And this, love unrecognised.
“Say something. Please.”
Lisa. Friend. Sister. I lean in, ignoring her sharp intake of breath as I put my lips to hers. An undefined kiss. She tastes of heartbreak.
“I can’t stay here anymore.”
Colours rises in her cheeks.
“I can come with you.”
“You won’t survive out there.”
“They’ll find you.”
I take off the long necklace that I always wear. The vial that hangs from it contains Dr Garston put under my skin.
“Kush?” Lisa asks.
“Yes.” What better wedding gift could he give me than freedom?
I lift the ginger jar lid and drop the necklace in. Let it rest there, at least for a while.
“You’ll be alone out there.”
“I won’t be alone.” I’m not a foundling. I’m forest born.
“What are you?”
Lisa’s hesitant. She wants to know but is afraid of the answer. It’s a question that nobody ever thought to ask.
“I’m a woman.”
“Not like me. Not like anyone else I know.”
“No, you’re right, I’m different.”
“I’ll show you. Come outside.”
She follows me. The earth is not the only thing to thrive in being left fallow. Out in the woodland, women have flourished too. Falling childbirth out there has refashioned us. We’ve found another way.
I shed my clothes and stand as when my mother spilt me, screaming and thrashing on the dark earth. I stand as tall as I can and wait.
My sisters heard me crying when Kush died. They came from far away. Our strange gift allows us to hunt as one and subdue our enemies. Words are superfluous. I don’t know if it’s something primaeval in our genes or not.
They come out of the trees, some on hind legs, some on all fours. They’re all short and stocky, just liked me. They grin and grimace by way of greeting. Our thoughts buzz. Oh, you men and women, with your limited language that’s so clumsy and veiled.
Our communication is instant. It’s full of vision and nuances. I pull at the threads of their thoughts.
You’ve grown fat and old, sister.
We’ve missed you.
You’re so bare.
Indeed I am, for all my regrowth. They have no shame in nakedness and I must learn that skill again. I lift my head, despite my deficit of fur.
We’ve been waiting for you. For years. Why have you taken so long?
We need to go north before the winter.
Their pelts are thickening in readiness for the snow. Before the freeze sets in we’ll find the breaches in the ground and explore the crevasses and cracks. We’ll crawl on our bellies through the narrow passages into larger caverns where clean water pours through. We’ll sleep in the safe arms of the dark.
What’s that? They’re all looking at Lisa, who’s behind me.
Lisa is watching us all, unable to hear the silent dialogue.
Sister, I say.
Can we trust her?
Yes. One sniff of doubt from me and they’ll tear her throat.
Hhmm. They’re bemused by her pallor, her height, her smell. Can she run?
Not like us.
Can YOU still run?
One of them lowers her head as she approaches, sniffing me. Her face mirrors mine in her widow’s peak, her pointed chin and her heavy brows.
I pissed all over your den.
I cuff her for that and we both grin.
Are you full of seed for us?
If you have a limited supply of eggs, it’s wasteful to squander one each month in hope of it being fertilised. It’s more efficient to save them for optimal conditions.
That’s the reason that I came here. We’d occasionally found a man living in a house as derelict as his mind, somewhere deep in the woods. We were kind to him, even if he couldn’t father children. When we ran out of those we hade to take men from the margins which was dangerous. None of us wanted to be caught and forced to live in cities, even if it meant there’d be plenty of mates.
We all want to be free to run.
I was chosen for my strength, speed and ability to endure. My vestigial pouch, bemoaned by Dr Garston, everts into a spout.
Captivity has made a reproductive theorist of me. Although hot inside my womb, tiny swimmers can survive for several months, by what I can only imagine must be chemical means.
I will share Kush’s hoard with my sisters. I’d expected to be a vessel for sperm, not to find love. I hadn’t expected a man who was man enough to let me be free to choose for myself.
Lisa wants to know what we are. Uncanny evolution. We’re the future, not the past. The world will be ours when you’re all gone.
I’ll miss Kush. I’ll miss Lisa. I’ll miss your beautiful, arcane words. But when I run, I don’t look back.
Originally published in The Porcupine Boy and Other Anthological Oddities, edited by Christopher M. Jones.