Published in Issue 1 of Visionary Tongue, Autumn 1995.
Outside the old sash window, the sky was darkening over the saltings and the long flat fields stretched away into the dusk towards the village. It was December, the day before the old winter solstice, but Jeanne did not feel cold in the high unheated room.
Below her, the house was empty and they were dead. The smell of old clothes and lives filled the other rooms. As a child, she had slept here, at the top of the house. Now she kept the window open all the time, letting in the cold. She did not care if something else came in.
In the summer, the room would be full of flies. In the winter sunset, little glittering molecules of air were drawn in by her breath.
Across the salt marsh, the lights of the village flickered on. She could see the moon rise behind the church steeple. Once it had been in front of the steeple, but her mother had said she was making up stories. Outside the window, something fluttered in the branches of the oak tree.
Jeanne lit another cigarette and blew the smoke spirals towards the night. The room was very quiet, and in the silence, the door creaked, hesitantly, as if someone was standing outside.
The house was old. Once it had been flooded by the sea. Now there was a wall at the edge of the marsh to keep the water out; but the tides were getting higher and nobody came to raise the wall.
They were dead, but the house did not remember that.
Last night at this time, she had stood at the gate for nearly an hour, staring towards the town. Her mother’s presence had been strong in the kitchen; the cat howled at her chair. When the last light had faded from the sky, Jeanne had gone back into the kitchen and fed the cat in the dark.
She was here to sift through their lives and take what she could find. The house suffocated her. She talked to her lover, an angel from a Botticelli picture. Of course he was long dead as well. Dead enough not to hurt.
‘Is it full moon tonight, my love?’
‘The air hangs heavy in the firmament.’ He was always so vague, now. The house stifled him as much as it did her. Somewhere in one of the rooms was the picture where she had first seen him. She could not leave without that. But first she must go and meet him.
Jeanne lined up the little white tablets along the edge of the inlaid dressing table. She spaced them precisely along the bramble pattern, one for each cluster of blossom. She swallowed the first. In the mirror, a glimmer of light came and faded.
‘Listen, my heart,’ he said to her, ‘that’s the basilisk climbing up the ivy on the wall. Don’t be afraid. I will not let it in.’
‘I love you,’ she said gently, looking out at the oak tree. the shadows gathered in its branches where she had lost the gold ring on her seventh birthday. Maybe a magpie had taken it. Magpies are of the crow family. They will eat young pheasants. One for sorrow, two for tears, three for hopes and four for fears. She picked up another white fleck between her bitten fingernails. There was a glass of wine on the table; he must have brought it for her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and raised the glass to toast him. The tablet was bitter but the wine was sweet.
Somewhere, out on the marshes, the tide was coming in, folding gently over the samphire and sea lavender. The thick black mud would look like water in the dusk. She knew people who had drowned there; her lover had drowned there. She wondered how it had been. She could hear the waves, although there was no wind.
‘It was a gentle death. Nine days and nine nights, lying there in the soft mud, feeling the tide come in and go out over my face and under my eyelids. There were small creatures in the mud and I felt happy I could feed them. The moon rose when the evening tide came in. The water tasted like tears.’ He stroked the cat. It purred at him. She swallowed the third pill and went to the window, slowly, as if she might stumble into him. An early star was tangled in the branches of the oak. One of the diamonds from her mother’s eternity ring was gone.
Today, she had found her mother’s diary. Her mother had written of a lost lover who had drowned. Jeanne smiled, and wondered if she was living in her mother’s death-dreams. She wondered if her mother had thought of her as she died. She sat herself on the narrow window sill and stared through the air.
‘She loved you, never think not.’ His voice was soft, and although he was very close, she could not feel his breath on her neck. ‘Darling, I do not breathe,’ he whispered, and she laughed.
‘Did you know my mother, then?’ she asked him.
He said, ‘She had a lovely face.’ She turned back to the room, hunting for his reflection, but the mirror was cracked and showed nothing but fragments of the room.
It was time to walk and Jeanne was out in the lane in front of the house, the cat twining astonished about her ankles, purring. Through the gap in the hedge and over the bridge made from a railway sleeper her father had pulled back from the river shore. Bats fluttered subliminally around the chimneys of the house behind her.
‘I mislike the marsh,’ he said to her, ‘but I will walk with you to the wall and see you safe.’
Jeanne smiled, knowing that he could not see her in the dusk. ‘You are kind. Did my mother ask you to look after me?’
‘Of course,’ he replied, as if he had just remembered that himself. ‘I am your guide.’
Together, they walked down the pebbled track to the gravel pit, a pale heron lifting from the water into the night at their approach. She heard the rustle of its feathers as it flew above them. He walked three paces behind her, soundlessly. The rusty sign at the field gate glistened with dewy spiders’ webs. Jeanne opened the gate and went through into the sharp stubble, the cat leaping at moths in front of her.
‘See how full the moon is, my love,’ he said to her. ‘The tide will be high tonight. The fish will be caught in the branches like stars.’
‘That’s pretty. The cat can catch them,’ Jeanne answered, laughing. Almost, she turned to kiss him, but the cat came bounding back to rub against her ankles again, and she stroked its head.
The sea wall rose above the flat field, like a grave. Jeanne ran forward, dizzy from the wine and the dusk. The dead grass on the slope of the wall was very pale. It crackled beneath her feet. Behind her, the cat howled.
As she reached the crest of the wall, the first wave broke coldly over her feet.
© 1996 Tanya Brown