“I’m afraid this is just the truth,” she said with cool resignation. I looked at the conjurer’s tricks on the table. Bags of pebbles scratched with sigils strewn about at odd angles. A pendulum tied to a frayed bootlace.
“I’m going to turn out a murderer?” I scoffed. I mean, of course, I’d thought about those kinds of things. Everyone has. I got up in protest. “You wouldn’t even bet on it.”
“I’d wager two quarters and a 1973 dime your late father gave you,” she called out. I stopped cold. Fingered the coins in my pocket. I slowly moved back into my seat.
She picked up the cards, and something stirred inside her eyes that made me feel excited in ways I hadn’t yet known. “Listen to me, child,” she said, showing me the image of Death, “and I will show you how not to get caught.”
Mr. Charleston’s work was unmistakable. The village’s only major celebrity, he’d mixed his paints himself from pigments he found in the neighbourhood. Charcoal foraged from the woodburners’ remains. Ochre dug out from deep in forest reserves, his brushstroke as good as a signature to all who lived in that antiquated hamlet.
It was this the locals had in mind when the record-breaking work had been shown on the national news, sold at auction. The date on the painting just last year. They gathered spades and cut old fence posts for the pyre. Poured gasoline into the excavator.
I was nine when the first dream of an old god took me. I was the third of eight children to be contacted in our village before they found the shrine, and burnt it. I did not know it at the time, but everyone’s dream is different.
I dug a trench in a forest clearing, the drifts as deep as my thighs, far from any light but that of the moon. I kept digging but finding nothing, though I knew there was supposed to be something here. That nothing came the more I dug only turned into mounting distress.
It was not until I collapsed from exhaustion that I understood what I was looking for. For the first time in hours I felt calm. I laid very still, and waited. The kiss of the freshly falling snow felt like a benediction.
They hung images of their children’s achievement in the stairwell, while in my parents’ there hung only mirrors. They had been having lunch when I arrived. After I’d eaten, I noticed myself standing too long in that skylit hallway, staring ever closer at pictures of birthday parties. Of someone else’s dark and remote past.
Peering down at my hands I know that I can never go back there. The hole I made in the photograph collage will be apparent to everyone with eyes. For the display in my own stairwell, however, I will be lucky if anyone says a word.
Mice have certain neural pathways associated with motherhood. A chemical receptor in the brain allows them to do things like risk themselves for their offspring. They isolated it. Found it in humans. Made it into a drug and offered it up to women suffering from post-partum depression. After the change of government, it didn’t take long for people like me to be rounded up. We childless affronts to god.
All the years I spent explaining to my parents that I don’t want kids. What they said never left me. “There must be something wrong with you.” “Why don’t you see a doctor?” and “Why can’t you be normal?” Normal is productively miserable, living for others’ expectations.
If I stop picking up my prescriptions, or fail to administer a dose, the ParentGuard app notifies the police. Now, I am so very normal.
Five minutes until they make you go to the room again. The windows hold a view of the mountain you cannot reach. In the summer it is too hot. In the winter, too cold. But you have to be there. You have to be there for the gathering.
Four minutes until they make you go to the room again. The instructions printed on A4. Forever the same typeset. They always greet you but never want to hear your voice. The room is an extension, a hearing aid for someone else’s thoughts.
Three minutes until they make you go to the room again. The tables face one another but there is only one place we are permitted to look. The seats too low for comfort. The chairs older than most of us. They will be all that’s left.
Two minutes until they make you go to the room again. The building is unheated. Only this room gets warmth, and not much. Only this room needs human presence.
One minute until they make you go to the room again. The years pass but you are no closer to understanding. That may be their intent.
In my part of town, there’s a simple practice we all do when we discover something lost. We hang it up on the nearest railing, fence, or lamppost, in the hope that the person who dropped it might find it again. It means you are sometimes greeted by the sad sight of a single glove, or a bicycle key twined to a wrought-iron barrier. It’s usually assuaged a few days later when it disappears again. Assumedly restored to its rightful owner.
That is why this forest clearing has my heart racing. The sheer variety in the array of children’s toys and clothes. Hanging from so many tree trunks. So many branches.
He did not take the shortcut on this woodland road unless the others were all snowed under. While he did not believe in the stories of vengeful spirits that everyone in this single-supermarket town liked to tell, he also did not care to tempt fate.
He turned the beams up high but kept his speed low, for coming off the tarmac would be the worst thing that could happen here. First he passed the beech under which the redhead was buried, and then the creek where the second had been left among the reeds. Locations that had featured in no newspaper or police file. He slowed a little more and checked his fuel. His family were waiting for him at home.
A sword, glum and without sheen. Too ugly to be a display piece, but there it was, above the mantelpiece. Dormant, without its scabbard.
“Why’d you keep that hideous thing up there, Uncle Vernon?” I ask. He had invited me for dinner, unusually. We hadn’t spoken in years. Not since our argument. He called me a wastrel, pissing away his dead brother’s nest-egg. He wasn’t completely wrong. Two years later and I’m penniless.
“There’s an old family legend, lad,” he says over his brandy. “That this weapon must take a life every fifty years, or our house will fall into ruin.”
I drain my drink to the ice. “You said this dinner was about a job opportunity, Uncle,” I say with impatience.
“It is,” he says, unblinking. “Let’s wait for our dinner to go down first.”
His hands grasped for memories about the space beneath the bed. Out came a wooden chest more ancient than the room around him, model aeroplanes still tethered to the ceiling on cotton strings.
He unmasked his sacred haul. An identity parade of conquests, his penchant for redheads. He leafed through the driver’s licences. Yet something felt off. Everything was not in its place. Not in the order he’d left them. His mother, stretched by the years, lived alone in this dilapidating townhouse home. The boredom since he’d moved out. It felt such a nuisance to have to take measures now.