By Stephen Thom
At one stage or another I would have had to begin separating the waste from the spark. The interior of the house by the lake, for all its anticipatory promise of rustic clarity and bright emergence, clung together in a stramash of sharp wooden cuts and dank corners. The wind tousled the unkempt grass that rolled towards the hem of the lake, calm and glacial in the dying evening. I slid a chair over to the window and watched the water as I scrabbled at the boxed receptacle containing her remains. I tried to grasp positive, intrinsic ideas as I rubbed the dust over my tongue.
All I wanted was for you not to hate me. All I wanted was for you to be a part of me.
I hacked at the noxious dryness. My eyes watered and I was stroking fronds of her hair on our fusty bed within a static envelope mirrored and claustrophobic and repeated throughout time beyond time, more real, present and vital than anything found in this earthly trap. The wired reel was broken by the sight of a figure, a mere stick man in the muddy distance across the lake, cutting a maladroit path down to the water's edge.
I rose to peer through the misty glass, and under the piled grey clouds I could discern the dot of a second man hovering near a small boat. Across the filmy depths the two wraiths seemed to engage in a physical altercation of some sort; in result, the man who I had seen making the journey down was somewhat bundled into the slender vessel. After another brief exchange, he began to row off, slowly.
The way the little boat and its bowed passenger slid across the lake looked tremendously sad. I had had enough of sadness in this world.
His hands were pressed around her throat, and he had moved the weight of his body on top of hers as she writhed underneath. My mind spat a series of clipped possibilities, each more disturbing that the last, and for some reason I turned away at that point. I have had to repeatedly bury the idea that this says a lot more about me than anything else before or afterwards. I have also had to bury the idea that I was thinking about myself then, as I am thinking about myself now.
For a second I took in the roll of stubbled grass that fell away from us, and through the dark, a neat line of thin trees looked like people watching. I think this sudden sense of external forces prompted me into action; anyway, I remember bringing the gas canister down over the top of his head.
She was shrieking 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry' when I kneeled down to hold her, and her body shook against mine. Over her shoulder, his head appeared at an odd angle to the rest of his frame, the face hidden in dirt.
I must have been more exhausted than I realised, because the following day I slept until evening. I awoke into that wretched rush of recall and spent the next hour sipping whisky and chain-smoking by the window in the kitchen, ushering in some kind of level calm.
The house was cold. A frigid wind buffeted the windows. In the candlelight, alternately blockish and spindly shadows wavered in transient illumination as if a malign separate world were pushing and spilling into my own. In my deepest delusions and flights of fancy I had projected this time, and had honed a pristine bubble of gratitude and a commitment to unshakable remembrance. It was all delusional. However much I had been inured to relentless grief and pain over the previous six months, it had prepared me in no way for this. It was the absence, the shocking absence, and I was grateful for the fleeting distraction of the island.
Perhaps shrouded in yesterday evening's mist, it had previously escaped my attention. Now the small hump of isolated land lay black and rumpled in the lake like a felled body. To my immense intrigue, lights played amongst its rises. I was squinting at these luminous pockets when a distant garble of voices broke the heavy still.
Pressing against the cold glass, I could see several minuscule figures approaching the little boat, silently bobbing at the far side of the lake. There appeared to be a great deal of jostling and commotion, and I saw a separate figure appear from the surrounding darkness to stride towards the group. At this point I reached for my glass and, clumsily, brushed it to the floor. When I turned back to the window the boat was halfway across the lake, bearing a single bowed passenger. The far rises were still and empty. I felt disorientated and utterly removed, as if my quest for peace had been callously inverted, and this fell hand in the hand with the returning needles of grief as I watched the boat glide towards the island.
My eyes slid open and little red dots flitted across my vision. I rolled over and my arm fell into the warm empty space beside me.
Jerking up, I flung the duvet off and padded through the darkness to the hall. The light was dim here too, and I pressed my hand against the wall for support. I could see the greyish haze of my fingers spread upon the bobbled surface and they looked as though they belonged to someone else. The tap was running in the bathroom further down, and I heard soft moaning. I dithered in the black tunnel, choking back images and finding my words. Then I snapped and paced down, rattling the handle.
There was a rustle, and the tap was turned off. I could hear wet sniffles.
'Sophie. Please open the door. Please.'
Another fit of rustling, and a click. The first thing I absorbed were her bloody arms. The deep fissures and the stringy flow seeping from them. Her face was pale and gaunt and beautiful. I put my hand on her shoulder and pressed her towards the toilet seat.
'Here, here... you musn't... this has gone on for - '.
I checked myself, checked the repetition and the cliche.
'Nobody knew him,' I whispered. 'Nobody knew of him. He'd been alone for - '.
She wailed, and I looked around at the mottled stains, the knife.
'He wasn't well,' she choked, burying her face in the mess of her arms and rising, forehead smeared red. 'He was my brother, and we - '
'He wasn't your brother for a long time,' I hissed.
'Because he'd been away!' She screamed. 'He'd been in... places, trying!'
'That doesn't excuse anything.' I squatted beside her and curved my hand around her cheek, pressing into the webs of drying blood.
'We can't hide this forever,' she whispered.
I drank myself to a stupor that night, alone at the kitchen table. When I awoke to peel my cheek from the wooden surface it was still night, or perhaps it was again night; I have lost track of how time functions in this place. Rain was lashing the window and a hooded man stood watching me through the pane, his face obscured by the driving streaks. I shot upright and began shouting gibberish. Thick gauzy shadows moved around me in the limp light and the next moment the window frame was empty save for the spatter. I lurched towards it and through the torrential curtain cutting up the lake all I could see was the damned boat, bleak and lost within the shifting, gluey panels of water.
If this was a test then Lord, I did what I thought was right to protect the person I loved.
A furious impatience snatched me and I grabbed my jacket and made for the door. The rain stung my cheeks and I clutched at my collar and slid down the mushy trail of greenery, towards the outskirts of the lake. Picking my way through damp bracken and groping branches I wound my way along an overgrown path threading around the border. My hair was pasted to my scalp and I wondered why I could never get the balance right. Within extremities of love cloistered unimaginable misery. To my left, the lake was a vast sentient being, heaving under the duress of myriad slanting silver stalactites.
I slipped on the path and my hands squelched into muddy rivets. I hadn't tried to help her enough afterwards. I had loved her misery. I had loved that it kept her close to me.
I heard the wet footsteps around me and felt myself lifted by several strong arms.
We met him on a grey and windy September afternoon, on a cleft on our hill that rose away from a flat plane of grass. I say 'our hill' because it was that at the time, and in truth this idea was imbued with a little more meaning that particular occasion, as we had arrived there on a kind of mission to re-establish ourselves as partners, as capable people, as family. She chose it as a safe place, a natural place, away from trappings and reminders. The dull sky pressed a clear incipience as we laid out our picnic.
'Maybe he'll be happier,' she muttered as she rustled through the cooly bag. 'Maybe he'll have let it all go.'
I was fiddling with the gas canister when we saw him approaching the rise from the left. He looked terrible. Sophie rose hesitantly. The wind flicked at her dress.
'John,' she said.
'You called,' he said, and the timbre of his voice made me rise too.
'It's been so long.' There was a waver in her voice, and she kneaded her hands. He was close now.
'You fucking called,' he said.
I must have passed out from shock, or fatigue, or else the machinations of this place had turned again and carried me with them, because I awoke in the boat, drifting in the centre of the lake. The rain was a softer thrum now, and the water sifted underneath me in oilish furls. Looking behind, I could see figures retreating into the dark foliage.
Bobbing in the drizzle I thought: I have only ever really cared about myself.
Please give me another chance to love properly.
Through the gentle shimmer the fringes of the island approached. I grasped the oars and pulled them through the water. Skeletal trees stood straining in greeting and on the grey shore a woman was standing, waiting. The waves slapped against the wood. When I saw the blood on her arms I began to panic.
I was by her side as soon as she put the phone down. Her moon eyes welled up.
'Sophie, I'm - you're incredibly brave, you should - to be able to forgive like that, I mean, blanket forgiveness, it's - '
'Please, please stop.' She plucked a tissue from her pocket. Her hands were shaking. 'He sounded better. I mean, still muddled, but - '
'Did he... what did he say about meeting?'
She sniffed a small laugh. 'He said that time's a flat circle.'
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