Jay approaches the old farmhouse with her sunglasses and the radio off. She wants to see it and hear it clearly. In her memory it looms so huge, so loud and technicolor, that she’s sure she’ll be overwhelmed by it.
But it’s been abandoned for years now, and the bright painted boards are faded and rain-dragged, and the tin roof is rusted through in places, and the driveway is overgrown with weeds. She pulls the car to a jolting stop and sits there, watching the empty house as if waiting for someone to come out and greet her.
Everyone said that sunflowers couldn’t grow here and they were right, they couldn’t and wouldn’t until finally, one day, they did. Pop always said it was because of his Secret Method. He said it in capital letters like that to make it sound scientific and complicated, but Jay and Yara watched him in secret from Jay’s bedroom window and knew exactly what his method was, and it was this: he sang to the sunflowers. Big Pop, terror of the town, half the teeth smacked out of his head, body more scars than skin, faster with his fists than a kung-fu star. He sang to flowers.
Jay thinks now that she should have found that sweet. Her father, a surprise like a wrapped present, hard as nails but soft as trifle—it was sweet, right? But at the time she found it frightening: that Pop was so unpredictable, that he could be two opposite things at once, that there was no way to know whether he would respond with fists or song.
Jay gets out of the car and walks round to the back of the house, where in her memory miles of sunflowers gleam brighter than the sun. She finds a field of withered grey stalks, bent under the weight of their dead heads. The ground is heaving with black seeds, piled thick, gleaming like insect shells. She kicks at them and hears them sift and tumble, an uncomfortably sensual sound. For many seasons the field must have grown wild, alone all summer, then sank back on itself through autumn, only to repeat the whole thing again next year. A ghost harvest.
She shoulders aside a dead sunflower to go further into the field and jerks back with a shriek when a smatter of small black somethings land on her shoulder. She stands on open ground, shuddering, brushing off her bare shoulder long after she’s seen that it was just sunflower seeds, withered black carapaces now scattered in the dirt around her feet. She knows they just fell from the head when she knocked it, but she can’t stop thinking of the word spat, that the sunflower spat the seeds at her on purpose.
Jay goes to the back door of the house, faltering on the steps when she feels the lack of a key in her hand. Then she shakes her head, laughing at herself: city girl. All through her childhood this door was never locked, and she and Yara clattered in and out all summer, the door banging in its frame, the checked curtain whipping in the breeze. Now that she looks at the door, it doesn’t even have a keyhole; it’s just a brass housing and a handle, like on an internal door. And anyway, everything is rotted to hell now; the wood is soft and yielding under her hand, and the door creaks open easily. The floor is more dirt than lino. Everything has been ripped out: the sink, the oven, the cabinets.
On spring days Jay and Yara went exploring, eating blackberries straight from the bush, even though Mam said they were covered in fox piss. They’d stay out collecting berries so late that the sun went down and the light dropped blue and the owls swooped over their heads, making them run shrieking with laughter through the bramble-choked lanes. When they got home their arms were all scratches and their bellies ached from eating too many berries. Mam said they were sick because of the fox piss, and didn’t that just show them that it wasn’t safe for girls out there, and that the world was a sickening place, and they were to be home before dark from now on. Jay and Yara laughed—quietly, under the covers where Mam couldn’t hear—oooh, the dangers of the owl were terrible and oooh, the brambles were deadlier than the devil, and oooh, fox piss was coming to get the softest girls in the night.
Years later, Jay was in a bar, cigarette in hand and onto her fifth beer, and she mentioned to some pretty bit of rough the name of her hometown. Where all those folk went missing, said the pretty bit, and Jay laughed and waved her beer bottle like she was stirring cake mix and said nah, it’s a boring old town, nothing ever happened there but scarecrows and fox piss. The pretty bit laughed in that way you do when you’re not sure if something is a joke, but Jay stubbed out her cigarette and turned away because yes, people had gone missing, she remembered that now, at the time it had been in the papers and on people’s lips but she hadn’t cared.
She and Yara had been so busy in those days, preoccupied with hating their mother and trying to get their hair to do things it wouldn’t and pretending they were from a big city and wanting their periods to come and then wanting their periods to go away. She’d always had a thought that her tiny shitty town might someday be known for her, that she’d do something amazing and when anyone heard the name of the town they’d say yeah, isn’t that where Jay Kelly grew up? And instead it’s known for nothing at all, just some people whose names she can’t even remember, if she ever knew them at all.
Jay goes into the living room. It’s thick with shadows and she rips a sheet of newspaper off the window and lets in beams of dusty light. She’s not the first one in here; there’s a bucket with the remains of a fire in the middle of the room, and empty beer cans are snowpiled in the corners.
Some dark nights Pop would tell them ghost stories. There was a fire and hot chocolate and pajamas. It was Little House on the Prairie, though Jay had never read that book and didn’t actually know what a prairie was—some kind of prayer?
Pop liked to tell the stories best on rainy nights. He told them all the classics: the hook, the rat, the babysitter, the licked hand, the phantom hitchhiker. Mam would be annoyed that he was winding up the girls before bed because she’d be the one who’d have to deal with the nightmares, but in the end she settled down to listen too. In the gaps between Pop’s words and the rain, Jay was sure she could hear the sunflowers growing, the slow creak of their stalks like someone calling out to her.
Jay opens the door to the cellar, but she doesn’t go down the steps because she’s not a fucking moron. It’s dark and there’s no electricity and the steps are probably rotted through. Even from up here she can smell the stink of it: wet earth, old blood, secret rot.
For a while Pop turned the cellar into a mushroom farm. That sounds like it was a well-considered plan but it wasn’t; one day he found a crop of mushrooms sprouting in the corner of the cellar’s dirt floor, and he figured if they were already growing then he could make them grow more. He spent a whole season encouraging them, fertilising the earth under the house with bone meal and glass jars of frothing blood. He hadn’t checked before he grew them which were the edible kind and which were the poisonous kind; he just grew what was already there. Every dinnertime Jay would fear mushroom soup, mushroom pie, mushrooms chopped and blended in secret into everything she ate.
But instead of being afraid she decided to laugh, and she and Yara would wind each other up that Pop was growing magic mushrooms, and they’d egg each other on to go and steal some so they could take them together, lean back on the soft pillows of Jay’s bed and hallucinate freely, see new worlds blossom and flower around them as outside the sunflowers nodded and the scarecrows crept closer and their father sang, sang, all through the night.
So in the autumn dark Jay and Yara crept down the creaking cellar steps, ready for dares, ready to open new worlds—and found nothing but bare earth, the mushroom harvest gone. Pop had sold them, or given them away, or eaten them all himself.
Jay’s first job out of school was at a mushroom farm, a proper industrial one with flickering fluorescent lights and the choking smell of dried pigs’ blood and the dirt sucking at her boots as she tried to pick enough mushrooms to fill her container to the top so that she would have enough money for her rent. When she finished her shift and shucked off the heavy white boots and the thick white suit in the staffroom, replaced them with her cheap ballet pumps and her black skinny jeans and cotton vest, she felt so light and so dark, insubstantial, like she could slip into the shadows and no one would notice.
She remembers those times as being always night, always sitting gritty-eyed on the night bus with city lights swooping yolky past the window, always that place between waking and sleeping. She didn’t sleep much then. Partly this was because she took on as many shifts as she could at the mushroom farm, but also because even when she got back to her tiny studio flat and fell into bed, she had such awful dreams. The dreams seemed to come before she’d fallen asleep, and they were always of the sunflowers, their heavy heads like hoods on drooping necks, their leaves twitching like hands.
Jay goes up the stairs carefully, catching her breath at every creak, but the old treads hold. The landing window is spiderweb-cracked and she can’t see the dead field she knows is out there. She remembers now that it wasn’t the sunflowers that bothered her, but the scarecrows. Every time she looked she was sure that there were more than before, though when she slowed down and counted them one by one it always came up the same. Now the sunflowers are withered and so are the scarecrows, all their clothes and flesh gone to leave the bare wooden crucifixes.
One night Yara was going out with her friends to see a film so she ran a bath, and at the very end of the water there was a splutter-splat and into the tub plopped a mess of tiny white bones, scraps of black velvet, and two rows of teeny-tiny razor teeth. Yara came screeching out of the bathroom and Mam smacked her hard on the bare thigh and told her to stop being such a princess and that there was no more hot water in the tank so she’d just have to wash in the water as it was. Jay can’t remember now whether Mam scooped out the rotted bits of bat or not. She does remember that she made fun of Yara for weeks about her bat-bath.
Though now she realizes what she hadn’t at the time: that bat was down to the bones, so couldn’t have died in the water tank that day, so they’d all been having bat-baths for weeks.
Jay goes into the bathroom. Or rather her head and upper body go in; she keeps her feet on the threshold because the floor of the bathroom is rotted, the boards smashed right through in places, the kitchen downstairs visible through the splinter-edged holes. Everything here has been ripped out too: the sink, the tub, even the toilet. The walls are gouged with holes and she figures maybe that was to get at the pipes, for copper or something.
She laughs then, out loud, standing there on the threshold, remembering the scrap metal dealer in town whose sign was always getting the ‘s’ stolen off it, and how much she and Yara used to laugh at that, even though they had to spell out the word c-r-a-p as they didn’t dare say it even when they didn’t think Mam was listening.
One winter it got so cold and the wind blew through the gaps in the walls and everyone complained about it, even Mam. Pop didn’t put in heating or anything poncey like that—instead he built a thin inner wall of wooden matchboard, about a foot from the outside walls. It was warmer, after, though the rooms were much smaller and they had to push all the furniture closer to the middle. There was no space to walk around it so you had to climb over everything all the time like you were playing The Floor is Lava.
But Jay didn’t mind that: what she did mind was sitting with her back to the walls, because she knew how big the space between the walls was, and she knew that it was big enough for a person. She taped squares of newspaper over all the knotholes in her bedroom walls so that no one could put their eye to it and watch her sleep.
Jay goes into her bedroom. It’s utterly empty: no bed, no chest of drawers, no posters pinned up, no line of trainers along the wall. She walks around the edge of the room, counting her steps for some reason. She thinks maybe she wants to check if the room is bigger than she remembers. When she was a child this house felt huge and tiny. It enclosed her whole world, everything she knew, everything she’d ever loved or hated; but also she felt trapped in it, held tight, her limbs stretching too wide for the walls. She reaches the empty space where the window used to be and looks out to the field of rotted sunflowers and straight away she’s thrown back into the past.
The scratch of the straw against her skin as she hoisted them up, the straw hands stroking the nape of her neck, the footless legs bumping against her calves and trying to wrap around her ankles, the warmth of them. Pop telling her higher, lift higher, and she strained her arms as much as she could because they were heavy, much heavier than she thought they could be, and finally Pop got them tied to the crossbar and Jay could go inside.
At night Jay would wait for Pop to come and tuck her in, which she desired and feared in equal parts, but she shouldn’t have bothered because since he planted the sunflowers he was rarely ever in the house at all. When the moon came up and licked the world silver, Jay opened her window and anchored her feet against the bedstead and rested her belly on the splintery sill and closed her eyes and leaned right out so that she could hear Pop singing to the flowers and imagine that he was singing to her.
One night, driving home with Pop, rain lashing and his breath steaming the windows and the smell of hops and fart filling the car, and Jay didn’t know whether to make a joke about that or just keep quiet, and the country lanes were winding hairpins and the hills left her tummy behind like a rollercoaster. The trees seemed closer to the road than usual, like they were raising their arms to scoop her in and whisper secrets. Branches blatted along the roof of the car and wet leaves stroked Jay’s window, and she wanted to roll it down and she turned her eyes front to ask Pop if she could and a big black shape loomed up fast and smack against the car’s front bumper and thuck over the hood and Jay screwed up her eyes so she wouldn’t accidentally see in the rearview mirror. The next second she snapped her eyes open and turned around in her seat but the road had dog-legged and she couldn’t see behind them.
A deer, Pop said, hands tight on the wheel.
But, Jay said.
A fucking deer, Jay, he said, it shouldn’t have been on the road.
And perhaps that should have changed everything; perhaps she should have felt differently about her father then. Scared of him, or suddenly sure that he was a monster; or reassured, even, more trusting that she was a kid and he was a grown-up and he knew what was and was not a deer. But it didn’t change anything. Why would it? They lived in the country, and it’s all nature there. In nature, things die.
Jay goes back downstairs and through the kitchen and out of the house. She ducks her head and covers the back of her neck with her linked hands to protect them from skittering seeds and she goes into the sunflower field.
There are four crucifixes in the field but she only checks one. She digs a little way into the dry earth, feeling it stick under her nails and settle on her tongue. Her nail catches on something hard and she pulls it out. A tooth. It’s big, a molar maybe. No filling. It could be hers, or Yara’s; sacrificed to the Tooth Fairy and buried out here for some reason. She keeps digging. Her fingers close around a hank of hair and she tugs it from the earth, thinking it could be hers, it could be Mam’s, remnants from a hairbrush or—the hair comes free and there’s scalp attached, a rough square the size of a teabag.
Everything is spinning and she hears the dead seeds clacking and the sunflowers creaking and the empty crucifixes leaning down towards her and she digs, she digs, and all the way down it’s teeth and hair and bones and teeth and hair and bones.
Originally published in Nightscripts 4, edited by CM Muller.