Kate’s been out on the roof again. She’s drawn her finger through salt the color of wood ash, the sigils barely holding together on the terracotta slope of the tiles. The gutters are clogged with yellow fat, and dead hares whose eyes are gilded in gold leaf. Across the valley a field of barley whitens with mold and blight.
I coax her back through the casement and hold her while she whispers curse words into the damp cotton of my shoulder. Her breath smells of bonfire smoke. She does not sleep.
I know where the artist’s bones are. Deep in the clay below the Gravenstein apple trees. Root-wrapped and smeared with grease. The fruit tastes slightly of marrow and damp cloth. It is not an unpleasant flavor.
Something has been killing the hoopoe, leaving their plucked bodies in the orchard’s long grass. Their scorched beaks have been torn free and sealed tight with honey. Kate does not come down here often, though she can see the trees from the house. I pick up the corpses, the loose feathers, and drop them into a burlap sack, the one I normally use for harvested fruit. Later, I bury their small bodies in shallow graves.
“I didn’t mean to,” Kate says, and I know she’s telling the truth. “He scrubbed out the salt. I don’t know why he scrubbed out the salt.”
I look at the line going around the house. A single footprint has worn through the white powder, tread still visible. He lies on the corner of the porch, eyes wide and blinded with mold erupting through his jaw and across his tongue. Even though the cartilage in his throat has turned to dust, he still tries to speak.
“You need to finish what you’ve started. It’s not right to leave him like this. To leave him for me to deal with,” I say, but even as I finish speaking, I know she can’t. She never can. We keep two large apple presses behind the house. I use the second one, and later burn his uniform down at the far end of the orchard. The wind will carry the char of smoke down the valley, away from us and the town.
Kate sits, her back against the pollard’s bark while she knits. I watch bees flit from blossom to blossom. The day is calm and bright, her needles clattering against each other. I’m glad she’s come down amongst the trees. The air is full of the scent of fresh grass, crushed by our footsteps. I force the scions into the cleft cut in the rootstock, take out the chisel and seal the graft with wax from a single red candle.
Afterwards, I’m not sure how she distracted me to get at the tree, but she managed to. The glyphs are small and precise, carved with the tip of her knitting needles. I know she has good intentions. She sees the gaps in the world, and needs to close them. I’m grateful. How can I not be, but I wish she would tell me. Speak to me. I dig up the tree and the surrounding soil. There are still unburnt scraps of uniform on the warm embers. I push them deep into the flames as the dirt-covered roots start to smolder.
We are low on food, so I take some of last year’s crop to the village to sell.
“Had a bonfire?” Carmen in the grocers asks. I know what she wants to know. I stay silent. I’ve hidden most of the scrying ingredients in the house, but Kate is inventive. Instinctive. I can feel her watching even when she isn’t.
“Burning old scrub,” I say, putting the basket on the counter. There will be extra cash, too, but I will stash that away for the winter.
“We’ve seen the hut again, Rachel. Glowing between the trees,” Bill says. He stands by the window and does not turn as he speaks to me. I have not seen the hunting lodge appear, but it does not surprise me.
I notice the clattering first. Hundreds of barbed fishhooks fall from the sky onto the road outside. This is not Fortean, but a threat. I step outside, and the downfall pauses long enough for me to get to the car before intensifying once again to trap Carmen and Bill inside the store. I see their faces pressed against the lettered glass.
The sky glitters. Kate has done it for me. Setting the clouds on fire and letting them fall like forgotten fireworks.
“This won’t last, you know,” she says, slipping her arms around my waist. “We just need to make the best of it.”
The streamers of light twitch as they hit mist rising from the river.
“Already fading,” I say, and she sighs, unhooking her fingers and walking away.
I arrive back from the orchard and cannot get into the house. The porch is covered in wax bees, their wings fluttering against the rotting wood. The day is warm, and the wax soon melts. The insects inside fall to the ground, suffocated. I try not to step on them, but there are too many, and they rasp as I make my way inside. The hives will be empty now, and many of the trees will not fruit.
The artist only ever gave Kate one piece of art. An old installation never taken by a gallery. She keeps it in the cellar, no other room big enough to display it. On the day he delivered it, he pulled up the lane in a battered white van. With our help he dragged out the hospital gurney, ants and beetles already suffocating in the thick smear of honey across the metal.
After he left, Kate would eat the sweetened insects, dedicating each death to a goddess whose name only she knew.
In the morning I scour the river bank, collecting torn shrapnel from a plane’s fuselage. The registration number is scorched beyond reading. There is no one to tell.
I take Kate by the hand and she leads me down to the orchard, though I am the one who asked if we could go. Paperweights of dew slide from the grass, glisten on the skin of her bare feet, and for a moment I am transfixed. We reach the orchard, and it is worse. Even Kate gasps. The elm trees are no longer seedlings, their granite branches resting on the crowns of the apple trees, crushing the Berlepsch and Weirouge to pulp.
“There are two thousand,” she says. She reaches up and plucks a leaf, lets it fall. Silica in the rock glistens like dying stars.
“There need to be zero. They are killing the apple trees.”
I do not ask where the stone has come from. Whether she grifted it from some family quarry in a nearby village, or erupted and cooled a volcano far through the earth. I think I can smell bone in the rock. I do not ask.
Someone has been to the house. Aftershave lingers around the porch, a light reek of citrus and alcohol. I let my hand rest on the door handle, peering through the frosted glass for any bundles in the hallway that do not look like they belong. Kate is sitting on the stairs.
“The visitors went away,” she says. Her knuckles are red-raw where she’s torn skin to lace. I nod. It was lucky they did. I know what she was planning to do. I’m glad she didn’t feel she had to.
She has found the artist’s cap and is wearing it, long hair bunched up inside. Sat in the dark. The room is heavy with the reek of sweat-stained wool and all his lies.
When he was alive, he never took it off. The thing with lies is they have power. He knew that and wore them like ribbons.
Kate uses them to create other things. These falsehoods smell of mildew. I glance at her arm in the little light coming from the window. She is sprouting jackal fur in the crook of her elbow. I reach into my pocket for the tweezers, ready to pluck it out hair by hair. Root by bloodstained root. It’s the only way, or it will spread and she will be his by morning.
Later that night I take the hat down to the meadow and try to burn it to ash. The flames dance across the weave. I wedge it into the crook of a pear tree. I know it will be back in the attic by morning.
They’re not taking our apples in town anymore. They say that the crop is tainted. Kate wants to come to the town, to support me. I can’t let her. The way they’ll react to her. The way she’ll react to them.
I wake up in the middle of the night and go to her room. She’s sitting on the edge of her bed, window open. I can hear flies buzzing across the fruit as their offspring burrow through apple skin. The scent is sweet and warm and collapsing. I walk across to shut the window and she says nothing.
“You need to stop,” I say.
“What will happen, will happen,” she replies. Her face is turned toward the floor, shadowed and hidden. I cannot tell her reaction. There is a scent of burning willow and pine. Sap bubbles out of her fingertips and drips to the floor.
I tell Kate that after enough blossoms have fallen in the meadow, the artist will find his own way back through the soil to knock on the door. She asks about all the wasps that drink themselves to death on apple-rot cider, slipping between worm castings and mole burrows. I do not have an answer for her that is not a lie, so instead I tell her a truth: Wasps never stay under the earth for long, dead or not, before they steal skeletal leaves for wings and return.
We drive into the town. It’s the first time Kate has left home in five years. She sits in the back, the window closed even though the day is one of the hottest of the year. I can smell myself on the recycled air inside the car.
I turn us down the main street. People are sitting under parasols, drinking ice-crowded drinks and eating chemical- flavored ice cream.
“They’re staring,” Kate says, shrinking down in her seat.
“They’re not,” I lie. “It’s far too warm to pay attention to anyone else.”
But she does not believe me. My lies are brittle children, and they do not live long around her.
The beetles are small and black and crawl out from inside the doors, up over the car’s windows, scratching the glass with their feet. Soon they obscure the view outside, the temperature inside climbing as the sunlight bakes their carapaces.
I put on the wipers to clear the windscreen, but there are too many, and they smear as they are crushed. I slow down. I can hear them crawling along the petrol pipes, drowning in the fuel and filling the tank. Their dying bodies clog the air vents, sealing us from the world.
I could explain that this spectacle of death is draping us in attention. That people who had not noticed our progress through the town center are now leaving their houses to watch. To stare. I do not. Cars are not the only things that can be suffocated with dying insects. We abandon it beside the road and walk home through the orchard.
“We need to make the circle bigger,” she says. I am too distracted by looking after the fruit to pay any attention. To give her any attention.
The salt crosses the track up to the house, crystals fresh. Along the ditch are two rows of salt pans, evaporating in the sun, stone tacky with clots.
There are two people on the back porch. She has slit their throats with sharpened oak leaves. Wrapped them in blankets that do not cover their injuries. Through the fabric I see bones like larch poles snapped and splintered. The last of their blood, the little she did not harvest for crystals, has seeped across the floor. Flies from the rotten apples sip their fill.
“What was I supposed to do?” she says, I take her arm and lead her back in. Her hands are stained with yellow pollen. I do not know which flower it comes from, but I wash it down the sink.
“It was very quick,” she says as I scrub her hands with the nail brush. She winces as the bristles catch her knuckle scabs. I say nothing.
I did not want to leave her for the night, but accountants don’t come where we live. Carmen and the others must have seen my car go. Took their chance to try and stop Kate. They did not succeed. From a distance it looks like the visitors got together to help manage the orchard, but Carmen and the others aren’t pruning the tree. Accelerated branch growth has woven its way through their veins, splitting their muscles from their bones. Their teeth will be the fruit harvested in autumn. I find Kate amongst the windfall, arms around her knees.
“We need to make the circle bigger. All the way around the fields,” she says, but I know that no salt circle will ever be big enough to keep the world out. Maybe we’re two faces of the same monster, me and her. I hold her close and ignore the sound of shattering jaws from the canopy above. I lace my fingers through hers and lead her back to the house.
Kate has covered all the furniture in calico, thick and muffled. Mice tug the fibers loose and hoard them behind the wooden slats in the walls. I stand in the middle of the room and look around at the chairs, the sofa, the cupboards. The piano. She brushes past me and sits down on the stool. Her hair is curled with honey that drips down the back of her dress. I try not to gag at the sweetness. She rests her hands on the covered keys and underneath, hammers strike taut, muffled strings.
“When he made the original one, he meant it to be silent.”
I’ve barely finished speaking before I know I’ve made a mistake. She stands and walks over, placing each foot with grace. Running a finger through her hair, she coats my lips with honey. The sugar turns to skin and I have no mouth. She returns to the piano stool and continues to play.
Later that night she wakes me and runs a fingernail across my face. The mouth is not mine, her memory is not that precise, but I am glad to be able to speak.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and I want to answer, but even with my speech returned I cannot bring myself to reassure her.
Wilted blossoms fall around us as we stand in the middle of the orchard.
“They’re dying,” I say, and she nods. The trees can take only so much grief. Absorb so much death before their roots wither in the ground.
“I can make them come back,” she says, and I appreciate her offer, because it is truly given, and comes from sadness, which is her most powerful ingredient, but I shake my head.
“Even if they do, there are no bees,” I say, and before she offers to fix them too, I hug her, and we sag against each other like two trees planted too close.
There are routes she does not know. Routes I have masked from her with honeysuckle and knots of uncarded wool buried in old lemonade bottles, the necks sealed with glass marbles and apple pips. I buried them long ago, pressing them down into the dirt of the path, below stiles and between hawthorn trees. The fog of them gets lost in the fog of her thoughts.
The basket is heavy, and split-willow rods rub away the skin of my forearms. Kate is having a good day.
“I can come and help, Rachel,” she says. She never uses my name. There are only two of us. It sounds crystallised on her tongue.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll be back for dinner. I have my lunch in here.”
She smiles, and I do not notice at the time how brittle it is.
I should not have drawn her attention to the basket. There is food in there, but not for lunch. Enough to get me beyond the hills.
The route is blocked with brass rods running from thorned branch to thorned branch. She is sitting on the fence, wrapped in calico. The trees reach out and entangle me before I can move. Blood beads along my arms and hardens to ladybirds that scratch far more than the thorns.
“I couldn’t carry on,” I say.
She nods and strokes my arm between the wounds to give me ease.
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
I wake up in the fruit cellar, lying on a metal gurney. It is dented beneath my spine, and I cannot get comfortable. Across the room she has arranged the artist’s bones, a pile of wet soil on the concrete where she has sifted for his fingertips. Without moving, she drags the gurney toward her. The hare is nestled in her lap, blank-eyed, gold-leaf crumpled against its lashes.
“I won’t be him, you know,” I say.
“I know,” she says, smiling. “I will have the best of both of you.”
This is a lie she speaks with the full knowledge of its nature.
His skeleton doesn’t quite fit in my skin. Splinters of bone embroider my muscles, which are too short to stretch across the new femurs. My own are a fine powder coating my diaphragm and lungs. Already, infections are spreading from the clay she did not clean from the time-pitted surface of his spine. Vertebrae are in the wrong place. I do not know if this is intentional or carelessness. There is pain, but I cannot scream. She has stitched my mouth shut to stop my face slipping from his skull. She has kept my hands free to make the new artworks he never finished. The fingerbones are too long for me to hold the tools she has prepared. Soon she will strip me back to her artist’s bones, and I will be little more than fat clogging the drains.
Steve Toase lives in Munich, Germany. His work has appeared in Lackington’s, Aurealis, Not One Of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine among others. In 2014, “Call Out,” first published in Innsmouth Magazine, was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year vol. 6. You can keep up to date with his work via tinyletter.com/stevetoase, facebook.com/stevetoase1, www.stevetoase.wordpress.com and on Twitter @stevetoase.
3100 words, Shimmer #46, November 2018