Fallen flowers beget worms beget a place to grow.
A house made of wood and stone, a bed built, a coop constructed. They move about their tasks methodically by day, seasonally by year. Spoken language is of little use. Sylvia keeps a few books of poetry, scraps of fabric in a wooden trunk. William understands maps and astronomy, migrations, places called feeding grounds. Sylvia can only squint at the wind picking up and dropping things. During the day, water takes all forms, removing words like sky, sea, land, estuary. They are all one, grey and against her ear. At night, the squall is shapeshifting. It takes up in her desire, colored blue, like ice and bluster. Her breasts are two half-moons under the sheets, an upside-down world of soft tending and pulling. Most nights, but not all nights, he fights the urge to cum in the deep of her warm. Her inner wet washes over him and the wind becomes a hush. He shoulders into the release, his jaw unable to close. Outside, a fox screams. The geese rearrange themselves, the stars do not move in the sky.
The ocean is violent and unreasonable. Its unpredictability spreads out of the water and up the land, settling along dunes and marshes. A constant arrival of urchin and fish. Cormorants and gulls smashed between wind and land. Rocks so slick Sylvia can feel her skull and the softness of her fingers exposed. The garden, planted in soft ground only a path away from raging confusion between fertility, death, and tangled seaweed, seems so pitifully human that Sylvia feels a quiet loyalty to keep her plot neatly laid and tended. Rows upon rows, spaced.
They have a shack to hang meat, fish, foul. There is a shed past the coop where she keeps metal tools, iron thick, used to pull up the invasive grasses that threaten her cloistered herbs. Her shovel is broad and rusted, knowing intimately the underside of her foot. She permits the fences to become entwined with bramble. Her breasts grow heavier, there is a rush beneath her ribs, hands exploring her insides. She touches back, hand on her belly. Rosehips are gathered for winter tea, baskets laid alongside the stove. A place to dry, a place to live.
She wakes with a start. William’s smell has become overwhelming, she feels herself gag, pushing back her blankets. She wanders out the front door to stand in the garden. The moon shows the rocks bright with a colony of sleeping pelicans, their heads tucked into their wings, below them, seals awake in the dark waters. She returns to the inside to quietly fill jars with herbs dried from spring. Mullein, nettle, raspberry leaf. She feels the surges, her back aching. She vomits into her hands but it spills over, leaving the mess on the floor. She manages to wash her hands in the sink. The sun is pulling pink and orange into the home as she drops to her knees, wonders if she is dying. Her saltwaters spill through her linen jumper, her belly is bloodful. She takes off all her clothes, unthinking. There is the feeling of breaking, held softly in the pantry. Then, slipping out, two creatures with wet faces. One, too small, translucent like jellyfish, with veins dark and still eyes beneath glassy lids, unmoving. One child alive, born hungry for a mouthful of breast, smudged white with vernix.
William’s hands know the slippery organs of fish, the spill of intestine slick on a deck. Now, they grip the pantry wall as the world swells beneath his feet. He sees the smallest of the two creatures, motionless, against the breast of his wife. The other baby squirming, pink. His hands are empty, then grabbing. His hands take the unmoving baby. He can feel the core of the thing, cold. Sylvia’s hands are gripping, unable to release. Her eyes are wishing the baby back while her mouth is silent, her body still working to birth the placentas. One afterbirth black like an Oaktree at dusk, the other red as rosehips in November. William’s hands pause. They feel too big to hold such a fragile thing, the velvety skin beginning to peel between his fingers. He looks at the other baby and cannot leave death next to her, not even in sister form. He brings the baby outside, leaving her in a bowl by his feet.
His hands use Sylvia’s shovel to dig a small grave. He returns inside briefly to grab fabric, a long section of ivory lace. He uses this to wrap the baby’s body, turning her over and over. He cannot hear his wife, her sounds have become the sounds of waves. He thrusts a marker into the ground, while laying the wrapped child face up, in wonderment to sky. It is hard to tell if he is moving gently, or abruptly, he feels as if he is underwater. Somewhere above, Sylvia’s wailing travels up to the clouds, moves them across the late summer sky. Later that night, without much talking, they name the dead baby Winter.
A long seascape of storm and trial, a window cracked against the gales. Pressed between their bodies at night, milk cries escape from the baby. Sylvia relents, feeding her, thinking of her simply as ‘the alive baby.’ In a few days, Sylvia’s nipples become blistered. She wraps them in cabbage leaves, feeling the hot swell. Infected with the expectation of two babies nursing fills her breasts so tightly her skin looks to crack. William leaves water filled buckets of fish covered in the sun, and two weeks later, skims them for oil. He rubs the baby and Sylvia down with the liquid fat. In bed he smells the glisten of scale, so he runs his hand along her thigh, wishing to reach her underwater. She moves onto her back, a breast escaping from the sheets. He lowers his head to drink her milk alongside the baby, relieving the fullness of her breasts while she looks out the window, listening for seals. The family grows into autumn. Without much talking, they eventually name ‘the alive baby’ Naimh.
Pickled blackberries with rose geranium and crabapples. Mackerel, flounder, and speckled trout. A fox enters the yard. Set upon spindly legs, her tail working to measure scents and emotions. She comes from the earth but visits the sea. She noses the fallen fruit, gives them a last roll, exposing bruises and soft spots. At night, she digs up the grave with her delicate black feet. The fox is chased out by Sylvia and her shovel, her barking geese following.
William kills one of the geese the following dawn. A quick throat slit, allowing the slender neck to lay in the crook of his arm, letting the body quiet. He ties thick rope around the feet, then ties it to the rafters of the shack so the goose can bleed out. The upside-down body rotates one way, and then the other way, a ghost in the dark of the meat shack, the bill pointed towards the dark red puddle. The bird is gutted so that William can bring the liver and heart to the foot of the fox den. He throws it down while pleading mercy for his wife. There is no response, no scurry, no movement made for the offering. In this moment, William becomes acutely aware of the relentless work of the waves against the rocks, his ears suddenly taking in the steady threat of ocean. He foots the den, the heart, the liver. He kneels, takes a pinch of the dirt dusted organ between his thumb and finger, brings it to his lips. The goose’s heart is bitter, iron filled. It tastes of squander.
William returns to the grave to make the ground even again. He places a slant of serpentine over the exposed piece of crocheted lace, taking a moment to look into the soil. The black earth of Winter stares back.
When he walks into their home, Sylvia is sewing geese wings together. He closes the door against the sea, hoping for silence. Quilts hang against the walls of the home, thick planks of wood with twisted holes, usnea stuffed into the corners. A dented iron pot is on the stove, simmering with marrow filled bones, fish heads, seaweed, and mushrooms he had traded for fish. Threatening to boil over, he removes it, wondering what he could possibly say about the geese wings. Baby Niamh cries from her seat in her mother’s lap, her infant hands working the buttons of her mother’s dress. Sylvia ignores her, running threads through the thick quills. Sylvia winces and drops the needle, a red pluck of blood forming. She sucks it for a moment, her eyes taking in her hungry baby, surprised, as if she has just noticed her. She brings her bleeding finger down to the pink lips of Naimh. A drop falls in her mouth. The baby roots into the air. Sylvia places her finger in the babe’s mouth, the suckling begins, nursing blood from mother. They both look more content than he has seen before, so he leaves the room to ready for bed.
At night, the fox continues to call. She wraps the back of her throat along the crescent moon and her teeth fall out of her mouth to form galaxies. The stories told in these teeth-star transcripts are of flooded marshes and drowned birds. Some of the stories are of other bodies much larger, salted, that washed up against the cliffs as their kin sang the memory songs of whales. The fox cry is thin and pitched hysterical, the sound of all things grieving.
But the family is foolish. They have unlearned the sacred act of bending over, lowering one’s face to the ground, as all animals of prey or predatory nature know how to do. They believe that dirt is only for death and pine boxes and gardens.
So, when William follows the fox at night, on two feet, it means the fox can see him but will not look at him or allow herself to be seen. She stays in front of him, invisible, her ears turning backwards to track William behind her. She hears the clinking of the trap and William dropping to his knees. The mallet digging in the metal mouth. The fox loops around to stand behind the man as William extends the metal mouth open, the jaw yawning with its bone breaking teeth. William stands up, gently toes the trap, and turns to walk back, only to realize the fox is sitting still in his path. Her long tail and legs are pulled under, her ears and nose are receiving the smells and sounds of William. The sweet milk on his mouth and sleeve. The fish under his nails, behind his ears. The fox allows him to look into her eyes before she disappears. Fog, forest, fox.
That morning, the not alive daughter’s grave is dug up. The exposed dirt is pitch dark, wormless, icy. Sylvia is standing over it, her nightgown showing under William’s fishing jacket. Her hair is wet and matted. Her green eyes stand out against the grey of the day, narrow and pointed against her freckled skin. The colors of pale moss and lichen are seeping deeper into the dark of soil of autumn. Sylvia’s fingers are black. William promises that he will bring rocks in the from bay to lay on top of the grave, and that she should go inside to dry herself, to try to eat something. She is barefoot, and in this moment her feet seem impossibly small.
Sylvia waits for him to round the corner before she drops back down to the grave. She allows herself a long smell, dragging her nose along the center of the grave, her cheek brushing up against the cold earth cocoon. Her hands insert themselves into the ground, her shoulders begin to pull her arms back, her movements quickening. No one is around to see her dig up Winter’s grave. No one is around to see her body become wild, thick with fur and intention. Finally, she gently takes her child’s body by the neck, heaving. A fox in a nightgown, holding a dead baby in its mouth. The father collecting rocks by the sea. The rain, slowly but surely eroding the edges of the earth.
When William comes back, the house is empty except for Niamh, wrapped in goose wings. Her cradle is marked with dirt and dried milk. He lifts her up to find the back of her head is muddy, and as he cradles her, he sees a trail of fox prints from the cradle to the back door. He puts the baby down.
Sleek, toes pointed slightly inward and exactly forward, a simple x running between the toe pads and paw pad. Needle indentations where the claws pressed down. The tracks double registering as the fox moves more quickly, now outside, front and back foot touch, legs extended. They circle the grave, an imprint over the impression of Sylvia’s bare feet. Fresh dirt dug out, a triangular spray behind the point of digging. The grave robbed. An indentation, baby shaped. The fox ran off, eastward, towards its den. Niamh begins to scream from inside the home.
The den is what a fox den always is. Outside, bones and wings litter the entrance. A small opening into the underworld. The underside of flowers and trees, a thin white webbing linking each plant being. It smells of rot and fresh animal fat, wet fur and shared breath. William crouches down, calling in. A low guttural moan comes back from the dark. He lays his body down, the loud sound of his heart irritating him. He enters as if he were swimming, his arms extended before him, his feet pushing him forward. His shirt, which had been wet, begins to be peeled off by the compression of the tunnel. He feels his pants snagging, tearing, catching in the fingers of roots, until his belly and cock are against the soil. He can smell his wife. Sweet milk and rosemary hands. The subtle smell of rot and wet linen blur his vision.
His wife is at the end of the tunnel, her nightgown torn and pressed to her chest. He can make out the outline of her shoulders, the thick fur blossoming out from her lace collar. Her ears are back, shredded linen around her, still working to swallow her mouthful before she is seen. To take in what she did not want to leave behind. He creeps closer to her, alone now, without children, alive or not alive. To know who he is or what she has done is irrelevant, he only wants to be with her. He knows, to be dead is to be eaten. Is this not an act of mothering, to feed their future children from the body of the not alive baby? He reaches for her scruff, pulling her under him, her arms wrapping around him and pulling him down. Claws on his back. Her human belly exposed between her fox fur, the bottom of her feet padded. She licks his face as he nurses. Purring and growling.
If you were looking in, from the outside, the first thing you would see is that the opening to the den is beginning to close. At the same time, the tunnel is narrowing, the fingers of trees and plants beginning to weave together, compressing. Sylvia’s body is wrapping around William, he is becoming less capable of overcoming her, her jaw is stretching around his neck. As he grips her body, attempting to push her back, he can feel her belly alive with pups, a squirming mess of fetal foxes. Her nipples are growing, filling his mouth, he cannot suck fast enough. Milk dribbles down his jaw, his neck. Her mouth is open, her sounds beginning to fill the closing den. William bends low, his face to the ground.
The fox mother sings.