She’d dug the hole all summer, hacking into brittle cracked earth. Tom had offered to help, but she had dismissed him. This was her hole, her place to go. Every day she had risen early, while the soil was cool and the ground rustled with the vibration of rising insects, and every day she had dug, trying to make a new mark on this place. It had been their retreat, a space of isolation and hopeful rebirth. The false heat and skin flaked dust of London had driven her away, seeking silence and fertility in the earth. Her theatre weary legs had grown short and then stopped completely, unable to carry her dreams, instead becoming heavy in step, with endless grimy pavements and cab rides filled with vomit.
Tom had run after her. He had caught her falling figure and built them a hut, on the red soils of Southern Portugal. He built it around her prostrate body, which seemed to rattle and sigh in relief with every plank of wood nailed over her. It became a wooden womb, a place to shelter and a home. He had flitted about, bower bird and chirp, tucking here, nesting there, with brawn and unyielding desire to build them both a new life.
After days on the floor, watching him place furniture here and hang a picture there, she rose on brittle bone and staggered to the door, to the new light and landscape. Blushing cheek of field, peppered with golden stubble and lynched by olive trees brought fire to her swollen feet. She stood, planting skinny fingers on hips and drank it in. Her souls loosened and feet burst a tearful dam, seeping into a true heated dust, baked by sun and empty tread of people.
They spent a few weeks tending to the hut, building an outhouse and porch with swinging hammock. They moved silently and peacefully around each other, an estranged lovers waltz, not daring to touch skin or sully the air with words. The magic rose with each rising sun and span a new found warmth into barren stomach and gravid heart.
Then one morning, she rose with single thought and needling skin. Her feet lifted and fell before her, carrying her intentions to a patch of land beside the hut, and here, she fell to her knees and dug fingers, like knives at the dirt. The hard surface only allowed her to rake through a few centimetres at a time, gathering earth skin under nails, which became the clogged dead mittens of a puppet. She wanted to create a stage in the soil, a hole to jump into, to run, to dance and to hide.
When Tom came out to find her, she got up and went to the outhouse. He lay down and watched her figure grow small against the sky before it suddenly reappeared towering over him, shovel in hands. In her eyes he saw the story, and he rolled lazily out of the way. He saw her raise the blade above her head, eyes fixed, and watched it sear down through the air, to make a cut, a wound, a surrender in the earth to bury her body in.
At the end of the summer she laid the shovel aside, and they stood side by side at the edge of the hole, a 10 foot by 3 foot crude circle. She turned to him and smiled, as a flock of blue birds lifted off a tree behind her, and she took his hand and pulled him with swinging hip into their hut.
That night, sleep was absolute. They did not hear the thunder, or the sudden rain storm that pummeled the tin roof of their hut. They did not see the hammock grow heavy, and bear itself down till its fixtures snapped. They did not see the pit filling with water, a cup half empty, then half full, then full to breaching. They did not see or hear or smell the wet, which slashed and cleaved for hours.
When she woke, to a hammering in her head, she ran outside to the pit and stood, arms clinging to her breast as if to steady a great toppling ship. The pit was black and smelt of rotting roots. A few leaves skated slowly on top and a drowned bee, which would never feel the flight of wing again, lay its soggy stripes against the darkness of that sad pool. She had yearned for dryness and red dust here, but now the dankness had come again, dragging its heavy mould to smudge at her earth and urge. It was ruined and she lurched, one hand on chest, towards the outhouse.
When Tom woke, he felt the sheets cold beside him and lay for a second listening to a quiet scrapping sound. His skin bore goose bumps, as cold breeze carried in the smell of a sodden land outside. As he reached the doorway, sheet wrapped like clipped wings around him, he saw her, this time in the field off to the left of the house, her body rigid, her mouth smiling as her hands dug again and again, deep into the new mud. He went to her and picked up the shovel to help.
One evening they came together in the kitchen, and sat at a table in the dark. A candle quivered between them, the flame hopping, caught between their two breaths. Woven at its base lay the dead flowers he’d bought her in August.
“There is silence tonight,” he said.
“No, not silence,” she replied quietly.
The door to the hut banged faintly as a breeze tucked in on them.
“What made you think that?” She asked, twisted fingers knotting against the table leg.
“Well…I can’t hear them anymore.”
“I can.” She spat.
Tom met her hot eyes and looked away. His glance fell into the searing white of candle light, and when he looked up at her again, she bristled with a thousand black worms, they wove in and out of her face and he began to prod at the pool of wax gathering on the table.
“You know Jen, when I was a kid, my dad made me work in a factory that bred guinea pigs. I had to collect the babies up every day from hundreds of metal pens and put them into new pens away from the adult males. I never understood why, until one day I came across a pen with a few half eaten babies. I mean, the male adults were eating them, the dad’s were eating their own.”
“Is this necessary, Tom?”
“Well, yeah, cause I’m trying to tell you something important.” He held his finger a moment too long in the hot wax and winced. “Any babies that weren’t already dead, I had to gather them up, you know, and put them out of their misery, poor little things. My dad told me it was to toughen me up.”
“This isn’t important Tom. It’s about you, and I’m not sure why we have to talk about you while that noise it happening outside.”
She got up to fix herself a glass of wine, blood rushing in her ears like sea storm and fire, as she flung the claret down her throat. She poured another and drank it quickly, hands fluttering. Tom sat quietly at the table, his eyes fixed on a beetle creeping across the wood in a lonely march. The door banged to his heart beat and soothed him.
“I’m sorry love, I was trying to comfort you.” He said, turning on a hinge to look at her.
She forced a smile and slowly pushed the cork back into the top of the bottle with her thumb. The blood was silenced.
“Come here,” He said softly, offering out his hand to her. The hut walls leaned in, trying to settle anxiously on his open palm, but she broke the air with a stride and grabbed his hand. He pulled her onto his knee and she clung, an anchor, around his neck. He rocked on an unseen horse and blew softly on her flushed neck.
“They didn’t come for you,” he murmured into her hair, “they didn’t come for either of us. It’s not about us, they aren’t here because of the pits, you dug them good Jen, you dug them good and now you have one to stretch in.”
“I dug them,” She murmured.
“You dug them well.” He reaffirmed and rocked her to sleep.
Morning broke and hacked its orange phlegm onto their land and hut. Tom left her sleeping, a curled cocoon in his yellow jumper and hat, sunglasses dwarfing her pale thin face, eyes closed windows, shaded shut. He creaked over to the drop sink and stuck his head, up to his neck, in cold water. When he slowly rose, a ship wreck rescued, he pushed calloused fingers through his hair and pulled a t-shirt off the washing line to drop over his head, silencing cold aching skin with its soft cotton. They hadn’t showered for a week, after the immersion tank coughed up the saddest sound and died. The smell of their sweat licked the walls and he yearned for fresh air.
Quietly he moved over to Jen’s still body and crouched like a frog to jump, beside the bed.
Fingers gripped a heavy box, and skimmed it out into the light. He opened it up and pulled out a shotgun and cartridges, resting it like a dead appendage in the crook of his elbow and stood up to go outside.
The first shot woke her from deep sleep and she blinked, lips dry, heart pulling pistons in her chest. On the second shot she sat up, weaving like a weary flower trapped in a bind weed of bed covers. She stumbled to the door and paused, leaning against the frame as the world span softly. Pulling a breath through flared nostrils she swung the door open, bracing for impact from the harsh sunlight.
An eerie silence greeted her feet as they touched ground outside, only the door to the outhouse banged tentatively from wisps of hot air.
Eyes scanned the orchard and fields, trying to pick out his figure against the bent trees. Holes puckered the land skirting the hut, mottled acne in red mud, falling either side of a flagstone path to the outhouse and the beginnings of a studio. Paintings lay stacked against tree trunks and a few drawings littered the floor, small offerings to keep the Gods at bay. She started to walk to the porch behind the hut, when a strange fullness in the air stopped her. A bursting pulse clipped in her ears, the sky rippled like a jellyfish pinned under glass, and she froze, as a great smudge of blue swept past her, disappearing back around the hut.
Tom came with stride in pursuit. His hair was thick with sweat, face flushed a lava erupting from a once dormant volcano within. He looked upon her coldly as a stranger, before eyes flickered with memory and love.
“Hello, sleepy,” He said, lowering the gun, standing a few feet away.
“Tom… what are you doing?” She stammered.
“They won’t leave Jen.”
Another pulsing burst, then another smudge of blue, beaks, wing and feather. Tom ducked and looked at her.
“The damn birds Jen. The stupid blue birds you’ve been so afraid of.”
“The noise Jen. They make it. Not ghosts or spirits or demons.” He pulled more cartridges from his pocket and reloaded the gun. “The noise you hear in the night? It’s just birds…Stand back, they’re coming round again.”
Jen finally saw the smudge as hundreds of tightly packed birds, dashing a frantic fragile boom around them. She walked backwards looking at the hut and the flock wheeling in an endless circle around their home, moving so fast it seemed as if the roof was wearing a beryl smoked halo. Tom fired again and again into the sky, but the birds kept circling.
“They’re not making any noise,” She said, choking on a tear.
“I know. They stopped when I came outside.”
He lifted the gun and fired another couple of shots, which cracked and burned in the air.
“Leave them Tom,” she said urgently, “They’re beautiful.”
He looked at her, sitting against a tree, and lowered the shotgun. Her face beamed and glistened with tears, her mouth broke into smile and she began to laugh. Tom went to her and sat down, scooping her against his chest. They sat like that for the next hour, watching the birds swing and rotate in the air, till with a sudden flutter they evaporated upwards and away over their heads, merging with the blue of the sky. Jen continued to laugh and cry, clinging and pushing against Tom. Something had shifted and been released with the flock, they had taken her darkness with them. When she fell asleep, Tom gently moved her to the hammock and went to the studio.
The sun slowly buried itself into the horizon, nuzzling downwards till it popped and sprayed its pale orange sherbet against a pressing night. When Jen woke and looked out to the pit, she saw Tom hammering a wooden post into the ground beside it. As he stepped back, she realized it was a sign which read: ‘Play and Sacrifice’, and she suddenly knew what she had to do.
Sam Hacking is a landscape painter and writer living in East London.