Creative Writing Ink Short Story Competition Runner-Up

Blessing the Giver

Lucy Arnold


There’s pig’s blood in the door of the refrigerator. It is in an old spring water bottle, one of the slim ones, with the label faded and beginning to desiccate into brittle frills. The blood has started to clot at the neck of the bottle where it wears a darker collar. It was a present.

Dora has lived here now for nine months. This is just the most recent gift. She reaches past it for a carton of milk. In the pasture beyond the house, beyond the disused branch line railway, dairy cattle are groaning out their grief as their calves are weaned in pens beyond their sight and comprehension. The sound snags in the trees and rolls against the walls of the house as the kettle boils. She doesn’t pay it any attention. She doesn’t like the countryside. Sometimes people come with dead things in boxes. Deer, slick and shiny, in four neat quarters, swaddled in binbags in a cardboard box. Pheasants plucked bald, shivery-looking. Sometimes it is something cloudy and fermented, fizzing with autumn and resentment. The first week they moved into the farmhouse, full of thanks and embarrassed apologies, and missed jokes in a new country, they tried to open such a bottle. It exploded, shooting a cork through the plaster board ceiling. Mossy remnants of apple pulp clung to the beams and windows like lichen, sticky in her hair. After that anything which came with a cork was opened outside, immediately poured down the drain.

The day after the explosion she was in the farmyard, re-igniting the boiler which had once again blown itself out, when two men approached her down the drive. It is a long drive. She had plenty of time to observe their coming, dressed in work clothes, faded blue and orange boilersuits, rubber boots caked in mud and manure. She asks if all is well (because she only has old fashioned phrases with which to pilot her way through these conversations, aware all the time she sounds archaic and wilfully strange). We heard a cry, they say, on the wind. Are you alright? She tries to conjecture: it was a sheep no? Or a dog? No, they say, a scream, like a human. Frightened or hurt. She stares around her, at the empty yard, at the golden columns of the poplars moving in the rising wind. There is nothing wrong here, she says. No one is hurt. But as she watched their retreating backs, she wondered.

A few months pass in silence. Then, a voice, wizened and high, like an ancient child, comes over the wall adjoining the garden, calling her name (which sounds ugly here with the emphasis on the last syllable): their neighbour, Manette. She is aged and minute, like a poppet, with scrutinising little eyes which put Dora in mind of bluebottles, or sometimes of a two-way mirror. Her neighbour’s gaze bores into her as she catalogues her new ailments, and those of her husband. Litanies of discomforts minor and major, creaking unpredictable bowels, funguses and infections. The neuralgic pain which settles on her husband’s scalp like a demon hand and squeezes. Yet when Dora asks a question, trying to flesh out the rural social skeleton inside which she rattles around, the bluebottle eyes glaze over. The shutters come down.

She is invited to the house for a drink. She goes over at 11am as the autumn day is mellowing into something a little too hot, a little too humid, for late October. Toussaint is only around the corner now and in the church next to the farm an excavator rears above the enclosure, its jaws clotted with clay, preparing the ground for new memorials. Buttons of chrysanthemums in ugly colours sprout like mushrooms. Her neighbour’s house is small, she walks straight into the living room where her neighbour sits before a vegetal gravel of diced carrot and celery on a small piece of kitchen paper. She sits, is presented with a viscous dessert wine in a dusty glass. Her hosts place before her a small basket of cellophane wrapped brioche, each sweating in its little packet. The wrappers feature cartoons of teddy bears, and she feels a creeping sense of infantilisation, like motion sickness, as she opens one, which is both to do with the bears and nothing at all to do with them. They attempt conversation. She hears a story about the parish priest, three priests or so back, with a predilection for teenage girls. She hears about a dispute over the use of a well which has resulted in a feud so long and silent now it is almost geological, running through the village like a fault line. Her head begins to throb slowly in the overheated room, the sweet bread in her stomach feeling as though it is inexorably expanding. The house, by quirk of architecture, is silent, all external noise – the Angelus, the metallic jangle and clatter of tractors, the braying of the donkeys down beyond the farm – all is muffled, drowned out (there will come a day when she will hear the donkeys screaming and then two explosions, like gun shots, and then silence and after that she will not see them again and when she tells her husband about it he will simply ask why anyone would shoot two donkeys in quick succession. She will think that sometimes people do things for no earthly reason at all. Sometimes people do things just because they can. But none of this has happened yet). She arrives home to find her watch has stopped, three hours have passed, and one of her chickens has drowned itself in the pond.

Dora’s husband speaks little or no French, gets by on a series of semi-eloquent gestures and a lopsided, apologetic grimace. She speaks some bad French and so the upkeep of the ancient neighbours falls to her. She takes out their rubbish, the muddle of peelings and eggshells, nail clippings, hair and shredded letters from the bank, staggering to the communal bins and trying not to let the bags, with their odd protrusions and sharp edges, touch her legs, trying not to breath in a low sweet smell of rot. She does their shopping but cannot get their requests right, week on week their desires seem to change in ways she cannot fathom. Between her own halting sentences her neighbours bicker viciously with each other, as though she is not there, as though she is a child or an animal whose good opinion does not count. Then just as she is about to throw up her hands, to make up a lie for why she has to leave, the bluebottle eyes narrow to points, become cajoling and sly and try to press on her a gift. To say thank you. For helping.

On one afternoon she receives a set of cupping glasses. Tiny glass domes with a handle like a nipple at their apex, made to be heated and applied to bare skin to raise blisters, to increase the flow of blood. Dora marvels at them, their oddness, their transparency and anachronism. She displays them in the dining room where, when she glances at them, she sometimes feels a residual heat coming off them. Another afternoon it is a set of family photographs. ‘Take them take them if you don’t take them I will burn them, I have no need for them.’ These she slips in an envelope and returns to her neighbour’s sideboard along with a paper bag full of medications. They are not mentioned again. On another occasion a cabbage, a box of eggs, a slice of boudin noir which she flings into the glove box where she forgets it until it goes rancid. Her husband accuses her of being ungrateful. She sprays the inside of the glove box with bleach and inhales.

She begins to take the long way around the village, walks the dog back to the farm through deer paths and holes in hedges to avoid being summoned. But always the voice from over the wall. She is out cutting hydrangeas for a vase when she hears an upstairs window open a touch. A pause, in which only the sound of the stems yielding to the blade can be heard. The window creaks slowly closed once more.

Somehow the neighbours get hold of their phone number. Their calls increase in number and length. Leaving the phone to bleat in its cradle doesn’t help. Answering doesn’t help. The calls begin to structure their days. With unerring accuracy they come as she sits down to write, to eat, in the middle of conversations expanding with pressure and expectations like balloons left in the sun. There comes a day when the ringing begins to be accompanied with a flash of light at the periphery of her vision, an apparition she cannot look directly at. The winter starts coming down in curtains of frigid mist. The marshes turn white. Blanchissement.

More and more she abandons the cavernous farmhouse and sequesters herself in the old potager, pushing her hands into the black earth, tracing with one finger the long slick tap roots of dying docks and thistles to their terminus and wrenching them free. She half expects them to scream. It is painful to be uprooted. She turns over the beds, wreathed in clouds of her own breath, carefully, chary of what she might excavate. In their first week she smashed through a long-abandoned clutch of eggs beneath the undergrowth. The air filled with the smell of sulphur and thwarted life and she vomited uncontrollably into the shattered shells. Emptied.

Christmas passes, in silence and solitude. Her husband remarks upon it, the phone lying mute on the sideboard, though he is instinctively incurious, one of life’s natural animals, and his observation sits whole unto itself, unexplored. In Manette’s house one light burns stubbornly in the top bedroom, a glaring eye in the jaundiced December fog. But no calls come, from anyone. When she pads up the long drive in the half-light to extract lopsided stacks of Christmas cards from their post box, she recalls the sense memory of the jack for the phone line coming free of its socket, depressing the milk tooth catch and sliding it loose with a slick click. Hauling the mahogany sideboard back into place like a sexton closing a mausoleum. Silent night.

The house becomes infested with mice. In the evenings the two of them sit and listen to the dry scuttlings in the walls. Dora’s husband opines about their lack of a cat, yearning for a pack of sturdy barn cats, semi-feral, to restore the balance between predator and prey. They do not have a cat because their dog keeps chasing them off. It is his great love, to go shrieking through the uncut grass at the back of the house after them, to lurch up from sleep with his deep hooting bark and pursue them through the poplars. He never catches them but he gets close, so close, his pale yellow canines closing with a snap, nothing but air in between. He is a creature of unshakable rhythms. She never finds him where she isn’t expecting him or finds his lithe brindle outline missing in action. So when she comes down one morning to see his bed is empty, and disarranged, the kitchen door swinging on its hinges, she knows he is not coming back. Word of the dog’s disappearance permeates through the village like ink through water. In the house over the garden wall, lights squint through the late winter murk, scrutinising and perpetual. Dora stands for long minutes in the garden, locking eyes with the glowing windows and suspecting and suspecting.

Walking through the village, gripping his lead in her fist she knows she is making a spectacle of herself. She knows she is an embarrassment somehow, like one parading a corpse demanding reparation. Sympathy withers. She doesn’t care. The wild primroses begin to stud the hedgerows, pale cats’ eyes in the deep green and they watch as Manette calls out to her neighbour from the shadow of her doorway. ‘Come, come, I have something for you.’ Je parie, thinks Dora.

She steps across the threshold into the damp warmth of the house, its exhalations and exudations trapped by the concrete floors and cement clad walls. The sudden change in temperature makes Dora’s clothing cling to her skin. Beads of sweat inch down her spine and pool under her ribs. She feels she is not fully in control of herself, her boundaries are becoming permeable. Manette is inching around the kitchen, making instant coffee in tiny, stained cups, a heaped dessert spoon full of dusty granules and another of sugar clotted by damp. All the while Manette is chattering under her breath. It takes a moment for Dora to understand what she is saying.

The dog, so sorry, so sad, will you get another? Was he your dog or your husband’s? These things happen here, the local hunt, boars take them sometimes. It is sad but you can get another, at the markets they sell puppies. The kettle is screaming on the stove but Manette leaves it to scream, instead fussing intently in a drawer. She emerges and in one snakelike movement she crosses the kitchen and clamps Dora’s hands in hers.

‘J’ai quelque chose pour toi, pour te remonter le moral, un cadeau, pour te dire merci, pour tout
ton aide.’

At those words Manette looks up into Dora’s eyes and a smile appears on her face like a stain spreading through fabric. The older woman begins to force a set of three rings onto Dora’s fingers, costume jewellery with angular awkward cut-glass set into thick bands. Dora tries to curl her fingers into fists, protests incoherently but Manette’s grip is impossibly strong, they are locked together in a farcical dance. She feels the metal bite into the sides of her fingers. Looking around wildly, as if for someone to help her, her gaze lands on a loop of leather hanging from a nail next to the kitchen door. She sees its two buckle ends. Its familiar tag. Something deep within her detonates, far far below ground. She closes her eyes.

Manette does not notice the shift in Dora’s attention, as she grunts and strains in her efforts to deliver her gift. So, when Dora twists sharply, reaching out her free hand for the dog collar, for the door handle, it catches Manette off balance. As if the sound had been recorded in insolation, picked out carefully from any background noise, she hears her neighbour’s temple connect with the sharp corners of the upper kitchen cabinets with a wet crunch. There comes an unnatural whiplash snap of the head on its drooping stalk of neck.

In the kitchen the clock is ticking with a sound like beetle legs on metal. The galvanised steel sink is full of nettles and half peeled boiled eggs. Linoleum smiles up stickily at the corner of the room, she feels it roll under her feet like a wave. Outside she can hear Manette’s doleful, balding chickens, listlessly excavating their enclosure, hopeful of escape. Time gets viscous. Concave. On the floor Manette’s stillness deepens to a pool. One of her slippers has come off and an ant has begun to foray across the grease-clotted synthetic lining.

One by one, she peels the rings from her fingers, slowly, as if they have begun to adhere to the flesh, and drops them into an empty ash tray. More ants have joined the first pioneer. She opens the back door, lifts the collar from its nail and smooths her thumb along the soft leather curve. Walks steadily away across the grass back to the farm. The rooks in the church tower eye her beadily as she makes her deliberate progress. She pushes open her gate and sees two livid bands standing out bright against her fingers, turning blueish in the cold.

“Dora!”, she hears her name like a rebuke and the grandfather clock begins intoning as though the bowels of hell are opening and she blinks her eyes open, turns her head to see Manette’s bluebottle eyes inches from hers, still animate, still in the close humidity of the kitchen. Glittering. She glances towards the floor. Still the ant is making stately progress across the linoleum but towards only an absence. No dead angles, no dishevelment. No stillness congealing.

“Vous m’ecoutez? Ingrat!”

Her fingers feel hot and swollen but when she looks at them they are as pallid and thin as ever. They curl slowly into loose fists. The movement reminds her of the carnivorous plants which live on the marsh and feed off its fluttering lives.

“Desolé Manette. Je n’ais pas besoins des bagues. Je n’ai pas besoins des trucs.”

And she sweeps the rings into the sink, into the mess of nettles and eggshells and sodden kitchen paper. Crosses the parlour. Opens the front door, walks through and leaves it gaping. On the marais the fog is rising and the rooks follow it spiralling upwards as a black canopy, a parachute in reverse.

She finds herself back in her own kitchen. Her mouth is dry, full of silence, and her hands shake. As she opens the fridge (almost before she opens it, she knows that this will happen) the bottle of pig’s blood slithers from the top shelf, as though the earth has tilted slightly on its moorings, an imperceptible queasy shift. It hangs in the air for a moment, ferrous, heavy, before it hits the terracotta floor tiles and detonates into a pink mist. She sees all of this happen despite her lids and lips being pressed tightly shut. Her face is dripping, viscous and cold as she kneels in the pool which is widening towards the shadow gaps under the freezer, under the cabinets where the desiccated corpses of mice repose, and the blood moistens their dry little bones.