Shorts: A place for short fiction and non-fiction
Where the spine meets the head
I’ve never killed before. Never even seen a dead body, unless you count a few goldfish, flushed down the toilet. I’m a townie, raised in a place where death is tidied away.
A prolapse Sara says. Uterus and ovaries trailing in the sawdust at the bottom of the cage when she fed Topaz earlier this morning. Inoperable, even if we could get out, which we can’t. We’ve been snowed in all weekend, a storm that rolled clean over the Russian steppes, tore down Britain’s spine and dumped its angry white load on the North Downs. On us. It’s 20 feet deep in places, they say, where it’s drifted. A policeman nearly died after he fell into a 10 foot drift trying to rescue a couple of trapped motorists. Our village is twelve miles from the nearest town, and the roads are impassable, north and south.
There was no question I’d have to do it, I knew that. We’d talked it over though: which particular method of dispatch we should use. Drowning, she said, was supposed to be a peaceful death. So drowning it is.
The bucket stands just outside the kitchen door, steaming slightly, because I don’t want Topaz freezing to death. I walk Sara and the boys to the front door. She’s taking them for a walk. She’s pale and grim. They’re wired. They’ve been stuck indoors for days. We’ve talked to them about it, but I don’t know how much they understand. They’re young, six and three. There’s no hint in my cheerful wave goodbye of the mourning I feel. This is the last time they will see me pure. I’ll be a murderer when they get back.
“Might as well get on with it,” I say to nobody in particular, merely to calm my own sorry self. I have the rubber gloves ready. They’re reluctant accomplices today, fighting my fist, snagging themselves on knuckles, nails, any callous they can find. Rebel gloves, accustomed to household chores: washing up, window cleaning. Not murder.
The normal shed smells; sawdust, dirt, and must, are cut with a faint ferrous tang when I unlock the door and tug it back, scraping more snow into the pile behind the door. Topaz is huddled in the corner of the cage when I walk into the shed. We put her in there when the cold turned bitter. Is it the cold, or the pain that’s making her shiver like that? Or perhaps a premonition of what is to come. They’re supposed to have instincts about these things.
She’s a pretty thing. Abbysinian, with a lively can-do attitude when her reproductive organs were tucked neatly inside her. She’s clearly feeling sorry for herself. There’s none of the feistiness of past encounters. She barely turns her head to protest when I fold my fist around her to pick her up.
No point in hanging around. The quicker I get on with this, the sooner it will be over. I pick up the bucket by its stained iron handle and carry it over the threshold, into the kitchen, kick the kitchen door shut with my trailing left foot. This is as good a place as any. Now. Quickly, before there is time to think, reflect, regret, recant. It’s merciful after all, what I’m offering. A release from pain.
A faint memory of chlorine wafts up from the bucket. I turn my head away, pick a spot on the wall, focus on it, and plunge her in, deep as she’ll go. I wish I could think of her as an it. Easier to handle the death of an it. My fist fills with urgency: muscular contortions violent enough to jerk my locked arm from side to side in the bucket. Panic. I imagine the water flowing into her mouth, her lungs. Through the water I can feel her nails scrabbling on the bottom of the bucket. It shouldn’t take long: a minute, maybe two.
She goes limp. Maybe it’s already over. I loosen my grip a little, and she bursts back into life, a fist-full of violent muscle, taut and insistent as a heart. And that’s what I’m now imagining in my hand: a heart. Surely, she can’t last much longer. I turn to look. Tiny air bubbles are still rising though the water. How has she still got air in her lungs? She must have been underwater two minutes now, at least.
Gradually, painfully, the churning at the bottom of the bucket slows, then stops altogether. I wait. A minute more. Two. Silence like only snow can bestow, no cars and few people to disturb the virgin stillness.
I look again. There are no more bubbles. I loosen my grip. Nothing.
The phone—an old fashioned rotary model that was screwed to that spot on the kitchen wall when we bought the house—bursts into life. It’s two feet above my bowed head, and it sounds like judgement. Should I answer? Is she dead?
I lift her from the bucket, take a step outside and lay her gently on the snow, peel a rubber glove away and pick up the handset. Sara’s mother. Calling to make sure we’re okay, that we have enough to eat, that we have power. I glance out of the window in the top of the door. Topaz’s body is steaming a little in the cold. The water was still warm. I reassure my mother-in-law, explain. “You poor thing,” she says. “Go and make yourself a nice cup of tea.”
It’s not possible that I’m seeing what happens next. Topaz’s limp body stiffens, shakes, stirs. I drop the phone, grab her with my still-gloved hand and plunge her back into the bucket. It feels like I’m murdering hope.
Only later, talking to villagers used to country ways, do I learn the kindest way to kill a small creature like a guinea pig: a sharp blow to the neck, where the spine meets the head, with the butt of an axe.
We were the ones rode the yellow buses. Nowadays you’d have buses all over the city, and all the kids would use them, but back then the kids in town would mostly walk to school. It was only us country kids who rode the bus, and it put a difference between us and the townies. The truth is the difference would have been there, bus or not – seems like it ran deeper than any yellow bus.
Most people call me Nelson, but my real name is Neil. Don’t ask why. I guess I had a bad eye once, and was made to wear an eye-patch. Someone called me Nelson, and people thought it was funny, so it just stuck.
Back before we sold the farm and they built the shopping mall up on Stone Road on our land, Frank – my best friend – lived opposite us. He had a brother once. Most people don’t know it about him, and he doesn’t talk about it.
He was a long lick of a boy, about 10 years old when he died. He was always hanging around Frank and me, trying to find a small part he could play in our goings on, but we wouldn’t have it. Not generally. We’d be out fishing on the pond down in the valley round back of the farm and he’d show up with his pole and a can full of worms he’d dug up. The kid always had a snotty nose, and like as not a snail trail down the front of his shirt, or along his arm, where he’d wiped it. He never looked neat or tidy.
Frank, he’d beat him around the head a little and tell him to get lost. Not politely either; swearing was usually involved. Or he’d trail after us when we was out hunting gophers. More than once I put an airgun pellet in his behind, just by way of discouragement. I meant nothing unkindly by it, but a 12 year old don’t want a 10 year old hanging round them. There were things Frank and I got up to we didn’t want generally known. Nothing illegal. Just a little irregular you might say.
I remember it like yesterday. Frank and me, we were up at that old diner just off the main highway, eating fries and gravy and doing nothing in particular.
It was a slow Saturday morning in the fall. The kind of day townies drive out to pick up a pumpkin for Halloween, so the diner was more than usually busy. People were standing in line behind the register, waiting for us to give up our spot. A few of them were staring at us and muttering under their breath, which just made us all the more determined to stay put.
Outside the frost was still hanging around in the shady spots. The diner’s windows were steamed right up from the cooking and the bodies packed in there. Funny, but whenever I smell that diner smell of coffee and cooking bacon, mixed up with a slight tang of maple and cinnamon and cut with a little sweat, I think of that morning.
The first we knew of the accident was when this big Chevvy truck comes barrelling into the car park. The driver, he just pulls up at the door – leaves his engine running, and the driver’s door wide open so anyone could have jumped in and driven it off – and shoves past the people in line, shouting to call for an ambulance. There’d been an accident on the main road. Someone had hit a patch of ice and spun out, crushed a kid against a barrier.
Me and Frank were up and out the door before anyone else made a move. I don’t know if he was thinking what I was. We hadn’t seen his kid brother all morning.
We ran hard and pitched up at the place first. The car driver was still there waiting. He’d taken his suede jacket off and laid it over the kid, but we could see right away it was Frank’s brother.
There was a trickle of blood running down his cheek from his nose, and his left arm was poking out from under the coat at an odd angle, so you could see it was broken. He had a new bike – fluorescent orange it was – which was mangled up under the front of the car. I remember noticing one of his shoes had been knocked clean off and was lying 50 or 60 feet away on the roadside.
Frank knelt down beside him and leaned over his face. Then he looked up at me and nodded, to let me know the kid was still with us, even if he was stone cold out. Just as well, he’d have been in a lot of pain.
We waited for 20 minutes or more, but the kid never came round. Finally an ambulance showed up and took him away. Frank took off with him but I went back to the diner to call his mother: tell her what had happened and let her know to get herself to the hospital.
Every head in the diner turned to look at me as I walked back in, but I didn’t care about that. Chrissie, that’s the woman who owned the place, she asked me how the kid was, and I just told her we didn’t know. He was still alive, and on the way to the hospital was all I could tell her.
I walked back home to wait. There was nobody home at Frank’s when I called later in the afternoon, and I didn’t see any sign of life over there until around 8 O’clock that evening, when the old pickup pulled into their drive. The four of them – Frank, his mom and dad, and his older sister Kathy, trailed into the house, never a word between them that I could hear. I knocked about ten minutes later and Frank came to the door. He said the kid was hanging on – he was a fighter – but it didn’t look good. The car had crushed his chest up against the barrier and mashed up his insides real good. The doctors didn’t hold out much hope that he’d make it through the night.
He made it through that night alright – he clung on for three days. I’d see the pickup drive off to the hospital in the morning early, and pull back in at night around 8, but I didn’t see anything of Frank for three days. Just the four shadows trailing out to the truck in the morning, and trailing back into the house at night.
Seemed to me the kid might make it if he was holding out that long. Probably trying to prove the doctors wrong – that was just the kind of thing that kid would do. But the fourth morning the pickup sat outside the house until past 10, and when it finally moved, it was just Frank’s dad driving it.
The funeral was two days later. The church was packed. Funny how people’ll come out for the funeral of a kid like that, as if they’ve lost something by his passing. I’m not saying they weren’t sincere. Just seemed odd to me that the same sour-faced old geezer who chased the kid off his land in summer shows up to mark his passing and talks with pain on his face about the tragic waste of it all.
You could tell Frank missed his kid brother, but he wouldn’t talk about it, and neither would his mom and dad. It’s like they were pretending nothing had happened – just a boy-shaped hole had opened up in their lives. His mom got real quiet, and she stopped wearing those bright flowery dresses she always favoured in summer, but she didn’t break down or anything. Never shed a single tear as far as I know, aside from those she cried at the funeral, which was only to be expected in a mourning mother.
From the outside nothing much seemed to change. Frank said his mom wouldn’t serve meatloaf no more. That boy loved his meat loaf, and she’d served it the night before he died. Frank and his dad asked her for it every now and again, seeing it was their favourite too, but she always refused.
And there was something else. She kept the boy’s clothes. She laundered and ironed them and folded them away in his drawers as if she was expecting him home any day, and wanted to be sure he had plenty of clean clothes to wear. Seemed a little nutty to me, but Frank and his dad, they didn’t comment on it.
She’d probably have wanted to keep his room the way he left it too, but he shared it with Frank, and somehow life just swept through that room and washed the kid’s stuff away – his toys, and his posters were all gradually replaced by Frank’s stuff as he got older.
You try to hold back change and it’ll rip your arm right out, but it seemed like Frank’s mom was stuck somehow, and she couldn’t get past it. Put me in mind of a stick jammed between two rocks in the middle of a fast running stream. You stand and watch for a while and you’ll see it being battered backwards and forwards by the power that’s in the water, but sometimes the harder that water hits it, the more jammed in it gets. It’s funny to see a stick agitated like that – frantic with the buffeting it’s taking, moving hard but going nowhere. But then if that stick somehow gets free, it’ll sail away graceful as a feather falling to ground on a still summer day, and find a nice quiet spot, a pool maybe, where it’ll just gently spin with the water’s swirl.
That was Frank’s mom: agitated and frantic but jammed stuck right where she was. I never saw her sit down for a rest after the kid died. She was always on her feet, cleaning or polishing something. She never stopped, and she wouldn’t let Frank or his dad stop either. She whipped at them with her tongue like a kid whips a top to keep it spinning. But no matter how hard they worked at it they couldn’t satisfy her or make her happy.
She wore them down, and herself with them, so that Frank could hardly bear to go home after school. He’d hang out at my place and watch TV, just to escape the frenzy she created once you were around her. But it didn’t matter how hard she worked, she seemed to get a little sadder with every year that passed, like the life was just leeching out of her.
After a while Frank’s dad gave up trying to pull her out of it. He watched her close, because he believed the kid’s death had somehow put her out of whack – like her brain had dislodged or something. He wasn’t exactly a scientist. But he stopped trying to apply whatever blow would jolt her out of it.
Maybe he was right after all. Maybe it was a jolt that did it in the end. I can’t rightly say. All I know is that the three of us: Frank, his dad and myself, we went fishing down at the creek one summer, we must have been 16 or 17 at the time, and when we came in the back door there she was, surrounded by a pile of the kid’s clothes.
That’s not right exactly. It was a pile of what used to be the kid’s clothes. It looked like she’d ripped them to shreds – just piled them up there in the middle of the table and tore them up. And there she was, sitting in the middle of the pile holding her best pair of scissors and staring into the heart of all she had left of her son.
That stopped Frank’s dad dead in his tracks. He took a step back towards the door and whispered to Frank over his shoulder to go and get the doctor. Said to tell him she’d finally cracked after all this time.
Hearing him, she looked up from the table and smiled – the first I’d seen her smile in years. Probably the first she’d smiled since the kid died. She told him not to be stupid. There was nothing wrong with her. It was high time the kid’s clothes were put to use.
Frank’s dad, still not entirely trusting that she was in her right mind, asked what use that might be. She laid her scissors down, and he looked at them like a coyote eyeing a fat rabbit. Didn’t you know, she asked him, that your daughter Kathy is pregnant with twins?
After that the words just poured out of her. She couldn’t see him anymore, she said. When she tried to remember him – to see his face and picture his smile – she couldn’t. It was like he’d drifted away from her, or she from him. It was what she’d dreaded – him slipping away from her, leaving her there in the darkness all alone.
Frank’s dad still didn’t look real comfortable. He was keeping his eyes on those scissors, that’s for sure. When the flood had died down a little he jumped in mid-stream and asked her what that all had to do with tearing the kid’s old clothes to shreds.
She looked at him like he’d hit her. It’s a quilt, you numbskull, she told him. I’m making Kathy’s babies a quilt out of our boy’s clothes. She shut up tight as a trap after that and fell to work with her scissors.
That was the first Frank or his dad knew about Kathy having any babies, let alone twins, so it called for a small celebration. The three of us were still out in the back cleaning and gutting the fish we’d caught and drinking beer when she called us in for our dinner. I guess you can imagine Frank’s face when she pulled a meat loaf out of the oven and set it in the middle of the table.
It didn’t take her long to make that quilt. It was ready a good time before the twins were born. Although it was a little out of the ordinary for a patchwork quilt. It was mostly different shades of denim, with some plaid flannel and some polyester shirt squares. But whatever was left of the kid in those clothes had somehow unstuck her, because as soon as she started work on it she came back to life.
I asked her about it one day – when it was quiet and there was just the two of us in the kitchen. She thought about it a while and shook her head as if she was trying to get hold of an idea, but she couldn’t quite get a grip on it.
Then she said something I always thought was very odd – though she was always a reader and inclined to say odd things. She said it was like how on some old buildings you could still sometimes trace the outline of another building that had been built up against that building – like the ghost of the building that was gone. And though it was gone it was still casting its shadow on the present, and that there was some comfort in that: in knowing that though things change and move on, the past leaves an imprint that can’t ever be fully erased. And that was how she felt about Robbie now. That his shadow lived on through the quilt, and that it had led her out of the darkness and back to the light.