It is after dinner one evening, and the garden is awash with stretches of the last golden beams of summer sun. Finn is stranded somewhere deep amongst the brambles, his feet awkwardly large and pale in his battered sandals. Wearing Finn’s too-big boots, Noor is playing the white knight, crushing the thorns gently under foot until she’s close enough to sweep an arm around his waist. He’s smiling, all big and dimpled, and Noor can feel the warmth of him through his thin shirt.
They’re here for dessert, and they begin to forage, clinging to each other like a large, many-limbed beast. They’ve made short work of this year’s crop in the past weeks and they have to venture under the tree canopy to find anything worth eating. Noor stretches up on her tiptoes to reach into the maw of several tangled bramble plants. She smiles as Finn hums something familiar, but half-forgotten.
He swears, shattering the peace, and she swings around to face him. He has shoved a blackberry into his mouth and is squinting up at his hand. A drop of blood wells on the tip of one finger, dark and dull in the evening shadow. He pulls a face and brings the finger to his lips.
Noor makes a mocking little moue of sympathy and brings a gentle hand to his cheek. Her fingers leave little daubs of black and purple on his skin. He laughs and turns his face to her, leaning into the touch. How easy it is, Noor thinks, to love this man.
Under the trees, his lips are very dark and very red.
Every time they fight, Finn goes all fragile and limp like a spooked rabbit. Perhaps fight is not the right word for what they do. Noor is annoyed, and Finn waits, passively, until she is not. It is an acquiescence. A martyrdom, maybe. He casts his eyes down, he bares the soft line of his jugular.
“You can’t just leave me in situations like that,” Noor says. “You know what they can be like. I need your support.”
She is careful to keep her voice gentle. It doesn’t help—Finn’s body goes slack and still. It is the kind of reaction that brooks no further argument. He puts himself beyond reproach.
“I’m not angry,” Noor promises. “I need you to understand.”
“I know,” he says, quietly.
Noor has every right to be annoyed. She wants to frown; she wants, perhaps, to raise her voice. More than anything she wants to know who Finn is seeing, when he glances at the corner of the room.
The speakers in the kitchen hum and buzz with poor copies of Finn’s favourite songs. Noor has been picking distractedly at the spots of moss growing in the joint of the windowsill. Curls of light warp around the drops of rain on the glass and all Noor can think of is finding Finn for a kiss, a cuddle, a quiet word between them.
She gives in, and wipes her hands.
Their bedroom door is ajar and Noor can hear the sound of movement within. Finn is perched on the edge of the bed, surrounded by slumped towers of folded laundry. Leaning close to the mirror, he seems to be inspecting his own green eyes, transfixed by his own reflection.
Noor huffs a laugh and Finn jolts backwards. In the mirror, Noor sees his growing smile before he turns all the way round. She closes the distance between them and puts her hand to his chin. As she moves, she catches sight of her own shadow slide across his cheek. For a moment they are inextricable, like ink into cloth.
She raises his jaw up to the kiss.
“Working hard?” she asks. From this close, she can see the blush creep across his face.
“I’ve done most of it,” he says, and turns to kiss her palm. “The rain has me all dreamy.”
With the first frost, a rabbit drags itself from the forest and lays its body down on the step by the back door. Finn gathers its soft, limp body up in his gentle hands and takes it to the workshop to be skinned. The skin slides off the rabbit’s lean, bloodless flesh with unexpected ease. Noor watches at the open doors, transfixed by her husband’s calm, perfunctory violence.
He pinches the soft, thin skin over the rabbit’s stomach and slits it open, revealing the brownish coils of its guts and shining lumps of organ meat. His hand stops suddenly. Noor’s eyes flick to his face. She steps into the workshop, trying to get a closer look at the animal. Finn’s hand comes up, shielding the little carcass. She shoulders in next to him:
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” he says, weakly. His hand falters, coming to rest next to the downed knife. “Just—”
For a moment Noor struggles to comprehend what she can see. She swallows an involuntary roll of her stomach.
Tucked between the curls of intestines, whole blackberries sit like jewels amongst the offal.
“What the fuck?”
“No,” Finn says, quiet but fervent.
Noor lurches back from the table. She sees the whites of his eyes, the flutter of his lashes, and the frozen corner of his mouth. She stares down at the curl of his fingers around the rabbit’s flayed body.
She will never know what he was feeling in that moment. But when she thinks back to this, it will be his face that greets her. There is no horror there, no disgust. Only a shocked softness—a quiet, bewildered, pleasure.
“It’s a gift,” he says.
Winter closes in around them, rendering the world pallid and austere. In the weak, white sunlight the lichen glitters with frost and falls in pale ribbons from the trees. Noor relishes the crunch of ice beneath her boots and swallows against the burn of cold air at the back of her throat. Making her way to the corner of the garden, she pries off the lid of the compost bin and sets it to rest in an iron-red mat of dead fern. She is greeted by a fetid smell and a warmth that reminds her of summer. She thinks of all the black earth that will be six months in the making, woven through with bright red worms. Noor empties the dustpan into the bin and watches the dark curls of her and Finn’s hair disappear into the gloom.
She feels a strange sensation, like someone is breathing on the nape of her newly-bare neck, and turns to look at the house. In the gloaming, it is easy to see into the kitchen: Finn sitting exactly where she left him, head bowed as if in prayer.
They are eating dinner and Noor tears open a loaf of bread. It has burnt a little in the oven, and she has had to cut the top off, leaving its insides pale and exposed. It softens beautifully in the golden spill of oil that floats on the surface of her soup. As she chews, she feels something catch on the sharp, uneven edge of a tooth. She frowns, feeling about the inside of her mouth with the tip of her tongue. Something dark and strange sits in the centre of the loaf. She pulls the bread toward her, and without giving herself time to think, digs her thumbs into the heart of it, ripping it, easily, apart.
There, baked deep into the loaf of bread, a chunk of animal fur curls, still attached to a long strip of skin.
Noor looks from her own shaking hands to Finn’s beautiful, placid eyes. She rises unsteadily from the table and sets her spoon down on the tablecloth. She moves to the kitchen sink, picking up a glass from where it dries on the rack.
When she twists the tap, dogwood roses drop sodden but whole from its mouth.
Anaemic winter skies give way slowly to clouds that are bloated and bruised. Snowmelt swells the stream that curls around the back of the house, lifting animal bones and debris from the dirt. Noor stands at the back door. She inspects the stale snow cradled in the shadow of the workshop. As it melts it reveals the suggestion of a small, animal body, rotting beneath. Noor sighs and drags her palm across her face.
The thing about fear, she thinks mildly, is that if you push up against it for long enough, you can make a place for yourself. You can graze your soft body against its sharp edges and maybe, finally, it becomes a long curve in which to bend. It becomes easy, natural. It becomes one more chore on a list.
Noor fetches a shovel.
Noor has unearthed a bottle of bleach from beneath the kitchen sink. She has been scrubbing at the green film that leeches across the floor and watching the raw pads of her fingers leave trails of red across the plastic. She realises, gradually, that she can hear sobbing through the thin, plasterboard wall. The sound of Finn gasping and his occasional, animal keens. Noor pauses to drag her hands across the thighs of her jeans.
Through a crack in the door she sees him sat at her vanity. His back is hunched toward the mirror and his fingers are in his mouth. From this angle it looks as if his lips have stretched too far, pulling taught across his knuckles.
She must make some movement, some sound that betrays her presence. He flinches, eyes shining as they turn to the place where her shadow slants across the floorboards. He makes a soft noise right in the back of his throat. He moves quickly, melting into the darkness outside of her field of vision. She lets the door fall open.
He is sitting with his back to the bed frame, his knees tucked up to his chest. She kneels beside him, shoulder to shoulder. His breathing is quick and shallow like a prey animal. It smells sour, and green.
“I think there is something rotten inside me,” he whispers. In the poor light, all Noor can see is the wet gleam of his teeth. “I think it grows with every passing year.” He touches his stomach and the folds of his shirt seem to yield beyond the point of reason. Noor wants to crawl away, but she does not. “And it is warm, and living, and it knows the shape of me.”
Finn keeps Noor up at night. He’s always been a restless sleeper.
She watches, pinned in place, for several, long minutes as he rattles the back door. He slams his shoulder against it, so hard the room shakes. He drops hard to his knees and there is the sharp crack of bone hitting lino. Nail and skin fall away as he scratches at the keyhole, like he can shed enough soft tissue to slip through.
Noor is unable to turn away, but equally incapable of witnessing this moment. She closes her eyes. She rests her palms against the fever-hot span of his shoulders. He says something. It is manifold—like babbling water, a hundred voices rolling into one. The sound coils and writhes in the space between them. It reminds her of a collection of unwieldy, contradictory things: popping firewood, Salve Reginas, the scream of a fox. She doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t need to.
Noor crouches behind him, fitting herself around the tortured curve of his back until the edges of their bodies are one, long line of uninterrupted contact. She puts her face into the shadowed hollow of his neck and breathes in the smell of wood rot and fresh blood.
The next morning, she peels herself from the kitchen floor. Finn is still asleep, knees pulled up to his chest. He looks too thin and tall, as if his body could spiral forever inward. Noor steps over him, and unlocks the back door.
Noor has never been religious, but there is something holy in the pearlescent dawn light. She kneels in the damp earth, and presses her forehead into the grass. She smells the rain and the soil. She puts her hands to the grass and feels the soft warmth of many creatures. She prays aloud, half incoherent. She prays for the green, growing heat of summer, for fresh fruit and the breeze through open windows. She curls her fingers into the dirt, pressing her face so close to the ground she can taste it on her lips. She prays that the festering hurt within her will be starved out, cauterised, transformed into burnt and salted earth.
It is Midsummer, and Finn has laid the table. He pulls a chair out and she sits, carefully, down. He pours her a glass of sweet, cloudy cider. It shines, crystalline, in the sun. His fingernails look too long, but his hands do not shake. He looks good—better, maybe, than he has in years. Behind him new, pale leaves split through the paint on the kitchen cabinets. The windowpanes are beaded with bubbles, as the glass remembers it was once sand.
They eat and it is simple. The skin of the fruit splits easily on her teeth. She eats mouthfuls of fish and the little bones cut the soft insides of her mouth. She cannot taste the blood. It is all just meat.
When she is finished, Noor stands up. She stretches her arm across the table and takes Finn’s hand in her own. They leave the dirty plates behind them and step barefoot onto the sun-warmed flagstones. His hand in hers, they walk to where the forest spills blue shadows across the grass.
Noor lowers herself to the earth and lets Finn lay his head in her lap. She pulls him as close as she can, desperately trying to gather all that remains of him into her arms. The green light through the leaves loves him. Under its radiance he looks beautiful and sad, like a saint in a stained glass window.
He opens his mouth, and all it contains is a shining, endless red.
“Finn,” she says, weakly, as though she can speak him back into existence.
He smiles, and it is beautiful. He glows with it.
When Finn cries it is the amber of tree sap.
And when he begins to drag himself toward the treeline, Noor lets him go.
Eve Brandon (they/them) lives in London, England. They write about transformation, rot, and love. You can find their most recent short story in Lavender Bones Magazine. They are on Twitter @EveBrandon_
photo by Magova (via pexels)