We are lying on your bed, both naked, quiet. You tell me about your medal, whisper words like ‘gallant’ and ‘recognition’ and ‘King George VI’. I try to cover up my breasts and my stomach with my hands but you draw them away, and while you talk and kiss my breasts I pretend I am outside: snow hugging my shins, my tongue catching glitter, the wind biting my neck like a wild animal.
I want to stay in this bed and read stories about long roads and the towns that fall between them, but you insist I come outside. I’d already planned to, but not with you.
I’d told you it was nothing; I just wanted to walk by myself. You said you’d be quiet, you hadn’t seen me in so long, you just wanted to know I was there. I’d said no. When you’d finally asked me if you’d done something wrong, I’d call you an idiot.
My mother used to say relationships were like hospital wallpaper—the way they peeled silently, slowly, at the corners. I want to tell her I’m afraid of caring less; how I haven’t worn your ring for weeks, how I don’t think you’ve even noticed, how if you have you haven’t said anything and I don’t know what that says about either of us. How I don’t listen when you talk about the Middle East and how they’re sending more soldiers out to fight. How I don’t read and you do. How we don’t really match.
But you insisted you join me so you did—and here we are, outside, with your fingertips on the small of my back, edging me forward. I feel a territorial anger towards your fingers, willing them to leave, imagining you thinking of me as if I was precious, hating you even for the possibility.
But I’m glad I’m outside because it is beautiful: black and white trees and a neverending horizon, our breath curling in the arctic air and disappearing in a hush.
“That part of the field, over there,” you point, taking my hand with you. “Just there,” you say, looking at me. Your fingers leave my back and I relax. “My mother used to take me there, to the willow. We used to watch the deer slinking through the heather. Sometimes there were pheasants too. They must have liked the smell. It’s pretty sheltered from the sun but they used to stay there hours, even with us standing so close. They were so quiet.” You sigh, long and heavy, like a late sunset. “There was something about that willow, something they couldn’t get enough of.”
“Grouse eat heather,” I say. My knees creak as we walk. “It’s the only thing they’ll eat. It was probably grouse, not pheasant.”
We both turn towards the willow; long, green chains stir and swing invitingly in the cold sun.
I thought you were considering this fact, turning it over in your mouth, liking the sound grouse on your tongue, perhaps imagining a covey of grouse gathering amongst the purple heather, only their necks visible above the flowers, but instead you change the subject. The air around us becomes tougher. We’re walking, your fingertips find a new home in front of us, making quick shapes in the air as you talk, and I know you think your conversation is a masterpiece, and this makes me like you less.
“She’d bring paints out in the summer and paint the willow and the deer and the sky, and sometimes me.”
You’d once said the reason you joined the army wasn’t to fight—it was to forget that your father had left you and your mother when you were young, and now you felt a need to protect things: lands, families.
I thought your reasons were stupid. You had no muscles, no grit. I’d asked you once if you’d killed someone and you’d smiled and said you’d killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die. I didn’t find it funny.
It’s dark by the time we reach the willow. My thighs are numb from the cold, and our hands are no longer touching, buried deep in our own pockets. Your face is pink and colourful, like a birthday card.
You stand between the willow’s chains, playing with them loosely in your hands. I venture underneath its branches, wading through the thick snow, and I can smell it: the heather. It smells like hunting trips with my dad—the stronger the scent, the more likely we were to find game.
You say something quiet, looking back towards the house, when something screeches from underneath the willow. We both turn to look. It happens again: a rough, desperate squawk.
“What is that?” you ask, but I shush you.
Near the trunk of the willow I see a grouse lying amidst the snow and the purple bells. Its side is open, bleeding —a gash splintered across its wing. Its colours are concentrated and dark; brown, black, white, red—running over its body like an oil painting. Its eyes blink rapidly and its breathing is chalky.
I clear the snow around it and sit. You bend over me. I know exactly what you’re going to say.
“Come on, let’s go.”
You think you’ve spoken gently, but all I hear is it’s not our problem. I stay crouching, my hands around my knees. You say my name, the same way you might call a soldier, and for a moment I think I am one—a buddy of yours, thick and tired during war.
I twist the bird’s neck—holding onto the twist the way someone might wring out a wet towel. I am quick, smooth, until it falls loose in my hand.
The scent hits me first—stalks of heather stick out of the bird’s throat, like potpourri. The purple flowers are flattened and wet like the hair on a newborn calf.
“He was a goner,” I say. I get up, see you saluting.
About the Author: Carlotta Eden is a writer and editor living near London. She co-founded Synaesthesia Magazine and her stories have been published on CHEAP POP, Chicago Literati, Fifty Word Stories, among others. Find out more at carlottaeden.com or on Twitter @1chae.
Story Song: "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem