Jess Richards' Snake Ropes, book published by Sceptre
We're at the top of the cliffs at the path what leads down to the beach. Stars are scattered all the way down to the horizon. The fishing boats are tied up to the cleat posts and in the dark them look like open coffin boxes.
Morgan props me up, frowning. Keeps glancing behind us at the Thrashing House. It's silent, no creaks, no groans. She's thinking so loud I can almost hear her.
I say, 'What if I just lay down outside your pink fence. Stuck my leg out . . . so your Mam can see I'm hurt.' My throat is hoarse. 'She'd have to do something then.'
'I dun know what she'd do.'
'Dun copy me! Talk proper. Dun sound right from your mouth.'
'I still don't think she'd take you in. She dun trust anyone.'
'Keep your own voice. Look, you can see my cottage from here. At the edge of the row, nearest the beach.' I point down the cliff. My cottage looks rickety and worn, but solid. It's like nothing has happened.
Only my legs shake and my belly aches, deep inside of it.
She says, 'Are you all right?'
I stare at the empty sea and tell her where I've put the cottage latchkey. I tell her about the tall men, tell her to get herself hid in one of thems boats, for that's the only way she'll get to the main land.
Morgan turns to face me. I never seen a face so clear, like she's never seen anything she dun want to. Her face is like an empty piece of linen what's yet to be stitched on. No wonder she's copying the way I talk. Trying to make herself a picture of something, but on her it dun fit.
She says, 'I'll get you close enough so you can crawl to the fence, lie down and stay still. Mum walks around the inside of the fence each dawn to check no one is lurking outside.'
'Who does she-'
Her eyes shine. 'No one ever is. This time, you will be.'
My head is full of Mary, my heart feels stuffed full of feathers, I want to wrap her up. I don’t want to feel like this with everyone I meet. I just feel like this because she’s new. Everyone must feel this ache in their chest when they meet someone. How do people decide who to care about? My heart thuds. The next person I meet, I’m not going to care about them.
I’ve gone all the wrong ways, staring at every blade of grass, touching the branches of the small trees, avoiding thistles and climbing stone walls. I’ve passed a smokehouse and a farm with three barns, but now I’m nearing the graveyard again and can see the Thrashing House on the highest hill. I know how to get to Mary’s cottage from there. My limbs ache with tiredness, I’m rumbling with hunger, my bare feet walk me forwards. There will be a bed and food in Mary’s cottage, and soon I’ll sleep.
But the woman with long black hair comes out of the graveyard with her spade over her shoulder. I crouch down behind a twisted blackberry bush. Is she a witch, an alchemist, a dissectionist, gruesome scientist or confused vampire . . . out in the graveyard all night with a spade?
She goes towards a small house where a murder of crows squat along the gutter, making croaking sounds at the dawn. The woman carries some kind of worn textured fabric. She reaches the house and leans the spade against the wall. She holds the fabric out. But it’s not fabric, it’s an animal hide. She shakes it out and earth falls in clods.
She clasps it to her. Holds it, strokes it, smells it and disappears around the back of the house. I want to know what she’s found.
I knock on the back door.
I fumble with the catch, which clicks when I push it down. The door opens into a small kitchen, herbs and spices in jars. I pick up a small bottle with a clear liquid inside it. The label reads, "Forgetting herb".
On the other side of the kitchen a door is ajar.
"Hello?" My voice is too quiet. "Hello?"
I push the door open and can’t speak, because the woman is naked.
She lies face down on the floor, on top of a decaying animal skin that smells of earth and of death. Her hands wrap what was once the face of the animal around her own face, she holds its earholes against her ears.
She sobs, her shoulders shake, she cries into the pelt, her body rolls against it, covered in soil, old fur sheds on the floor, almost dust. Her back is so pale, her black hair trails over it. She cries, clasps the skin around her face, her shoulders rise and fall, her shoulder blades clench, unclench, her smooth white skin is covered in goosebumps.