The farmer’s daughter began her fifth period, more excavating, more mortal than the previous. The toilet under the stairs flushed half-heartedly, returning red-brown effluent. Go down, go away, be off to the underworld! She pumped a second time, jangled the handle to make her point. But there would be more. Dark clumps and entrails, another six days of the end of the world.
A school friend had been on a winter holiday in New York and said the toilet at their aparthotel was space-age.
Legend! Like an egg, she said. And the lid lifted and closed by itself, and a night light under the lid. And Bluetooth.
A what toilet? the farmer said. Her family wasn’t that kind of family, he told her. They didn’t have smart toilet money.
It was the trip she was keen on. The whole package, bagels as big as tractor tires, Top of the Rock. Giant stone lions minding a library. Legend. The school friend’s NYC haircut got more artful the more it grew out. But the farmer’s daughter didn’t tell the farmer any of that. She’d be told they didn’t have New York money.
This weekend nobody was going anywhere. Not to a city, not to an airport to get to another, bigger city. They had to stay indoors, no buts, ifs, or ands. Indoors was mandated by the news, the weather, the knife-faced government minister tasked with emergency. Even the youngest, blithest meteorologist had looked rattled. When every day of last year’s heat wave boiled the mercury of the day before, she had smiled and bade everyone enjoy. But last night her voice was coldly instructional. She described an extreme wind field at sea, gathering force and making its way to the coast. Her map was swagged with white weather. She implored her viewers to abide by the precautions. The farmer’s daughter wondered if the meteorologist lived for this once-in-a-lifetime call. From coast to coast, from point to point.
Her father went to the supermarket early in the morning.
I’d like you to put down a few things, he’d said. Things you like in case we can’t go out for longer than they say.
He used squared paper and wrote in capitals. BUTTER MILK JAM HAM, and on it went, the useful, humdrum stuff of the fridge and cupboards. She’d added Cheetos and chocolate and ultra-thin pads that said Teen on the packet.
He slid down his glasses, read carefully. Right, I’ll see how it goes. Right.
She read about a pill that suspended your period for many months. Side effects included headache, breast pain, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. She would accept all these conditions in lieu of pain that rummaged wide and deep, and blood as dense as animal liver.
The farmer brought the weanlings to the shed and closed the door on the last of their skittish backsides, then put groceries away. From the kitchen window, he descried the bullocks in the second field north. Top corner, ranks tightened, they stood with their heads pooled together like politicians.
What did they know about endurance he didn’t have a clue about? What secret skills had amassed in their marrowbone over generations? He couldn’t remember the name of those ancient long-horned cattle with chests like winter cowls. They must have passed a thing or two down the line. His father and men like his father always called their farm animals the beasts. Their dogs, though, were creatures and pets and dotes and old loves.
He lowered himself into the chair in the bright front room where the sleeker, more modern things lived. It was a giving leather, a pale wood frame. He remembered all its slender limbs on the floor, his wife slotting them together. One Sunday she assembled two such chairs, along with other items she said would be more useful than he could imagine. Everything came flat-packed with doodled instructions. She promised to do it all.
He still found stray wooden dowels and plastic caps to camouflage screwheads. A set of blue shelves remained wrapped in plastic.
Harley moved under the chair on his belly, a low, ruthless hustle like a trainee in a terrorist camp. The beagle was smellier than usual from stress. He had arrived to them in a small crate the farmer knew was an old badger trap.
The farmer’s wife had lofted the pup like pride and then dropped him on the table. He stank; her eyes watered. She said he reminded her of an ancient, rotting man who sat in front of her in church years ago. The dog was folded in shame under its absurdly long, soft ears.
Still, she said, sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.
She brought the dog to her shoulder, where it crooned with safety and desire.
Now it wouldn’t be long before his daughter got vexed at the dog’s rankness, shouted Piss OFF when he went to her door like a pedlar. There was never anywhere enough for him to go, except another room, and another, from which he got expelled in due course.
How had his wife come up with that thing about teaching and loveliness? She read a lot, committed things to memory. He had always admired the wise, sometimes cryptic stuff she dealt out like cards.
This is a bad omen, her father had said last weekend. Bad, bad, bad.
He was texting her aunt back and forth about a meeting time for drinks.
She’s telling me to wear something short-sleeved. Nothing dour. Blue, she says. Or the lively purple. There’s a place she wants to try.
The farmer’s daughter had said that seemed like good advice. It was fun to see him flustered. He struck the keys hard, put the phone down on its face, and walked away. He was restless, which made him younger and more hopeful.
Dad, she said, you’re being foolish. It’s just a night out.
Tonight the farmer’s daughter spent an hour searching for portents, toggling between almanacs and Nostradamus. In drawings the old seer looked highly fretful. His eyes were large and sad-rimmed. Water shall be seen to rise as the ground is seen to fall underneath.
She stood up from her screen, and ounces of blood plummeted to the pad. In ancient Rome someone had the job of telling fortunes and futures from the guts of dead animals. Someone was probably doing this with period blood right now. Monetizing with ads from pads and tampons. There was an influencer for everything.
Her father called Harley to his food in a gushy voice given to only the dog. Sometimes he sang to Harley when he thought he had the place to himself.
Hey there, you with the sad face, come up to my place and live it up.
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry.
She wondered if he got her Cheetos, or if something as epic as a raging tempest would clear the shelves of every trashy snack in town.
The farmer was bored by waiting. He should make bread, one loaf for fresh and one to freeze. He knew the basic operations, how much of what went when, but he didn’t have the hands for bringing it all together on the table. And that, his wife had insisted, was the one true route to good dough.
He could ask his daughter, say bread was the right thing to do in a storm. She didn’t seem convinced about the severity, though. And maybe it would veer off course, leapfrog the whole country to piss on the old enemy next door. He flicked on the radio. Someone was personally injured, the voice said, by the way the older generation didn’t take her and her generation seriously.
He checked the drawers for candles and matches. His wife would have drawn everyone from their lairs, out to some centrally located commotion, like a comedy or brownies or a board game. Scrabble, which the farmer hated. Balderdash he came to like, the nonsense laws and the daft acronyms. His wife’s specialty had been bluffing full and likely film plots. Her face gleamed like a river with truth or invention.
The farmer still slept stormily without her. He bolted awake with locked knees or an arm killed by his own weight. But lately it hadn’t been as appalling as those first encounters with no-man’s-land in the middle of the bed. Then he’d woken up falling at speed or drowning in the North Atlantic. He missed the hard work he did to survive those sinking, choking nights.
Harley had been inconsolable, but he too got better by the day. He didn’t spin frantically at the sound of bicycle wheels on the gravel. He stopped throwing himself like an asylum patient against the back door. For this new fortitude, the farmer let him sleep beneath the bed, even if the room was fetid by morning.
The farmer’s wife was missed more unremarkably in summer than in the raw, dark months. She was a fluorescent pink ankle sock that kept turning up in the dryer, a carton of rice milk each of them waited for the other to throw out. Whether peptides eye cream or sea buckthorn shampoo, she moved steadily to the back shelf. Soon one of them would surely take the initiative and a big black bag.
Harley shumbled away from the farmer’s daughter’s door after some disconsolate scratching. It had been raining blindly for hours, stopping short like a film clapper board snapped, then more rain.
If she had her way, the farmer’s daughter would never go out again. The town and shops and school would be as remote and unreachable as oil rigs. She would like the roof to get torn off her school. River water move in sheets across the tennis courts, rise above the ground-floor windows.
Last year two girls walked into the river. One in winter, another just before school broke for the summer. Everyone went to the evening viewings. The funeral home had a low ceiling with pocked tiles. Beside a garage, it whiffed of engine oil and diesel. Doors were open to the street. A man walked by with a sweating bag of chicken, a drumstick raised to his mouth. He lowered it slowly, and fastidiously he folded it back in the bag. He bowed his head and moved on.
The bruise on the first girl was a painting. It was murmured she knocked against a stone outcrop under the bridge. Her face shrank back from that bruise, because it was the most vivid thing in the room.
The second girl’s hair was drawn back in stiff strokes. Powder clouded the baby hairs along her jaws, and she wore a matte pink lipstick. It must’ve been the family wanted that face. It made her look older. Old enough to have known better, old enough not to have suffered.
Her own mother said there had been enough morbidity for one year. Or did she mean mortality? She looked up to the bookcase, as if the right word would come tumbling out like a leaf.
Whether or which, she said, it’s tough enough a year for ten. They ought to fence off that fateful river.
The farmer’s daughter went into and exed out of apps the school crowd used most. There were lines and affiliations. There was getting invited and abruptly dropped. Her mother said it sounded worse than the Tudor court for flavor of the month and cruel disfavor. One app had a whispering option, and it bristled with conspiracies back in the time of the drownings. Lousy things were said about the father of the first girl and the mother of the second one. The father got words like perv and letch and interferer. The mother was given a sleeping pill habit and a boyfriend from the encampment by the motorway. The rough tribes, someone said.
The farmer’s daughter watched the flames smolder and get fanned to bright, new life. She wanted to say those things were lies or at least unlikely. But defending fathers and mothers, even the parents of dead girls, made you a laughingstock. When she had said the history teacher was the only cool teacher they had, she was told to get her head examined. The history teacher was the first new teacher the school had in ages. The old one was called Bad Macca because he looked like a cranky Paul McCartney. The new one came to the town with a daughter. The daughter wore turquoise eyeliner and ankle boots covered in a dozen little straps. The teacher dressed in greys, garments like sailcloth that drowned a body.
The farmer’s daughter watched the putty pot outside her window. It had been out on the sill for weeks, after her father glazed the windows. He said it was more satisfying work than he expected, and a big payoff against draughts. The pot was full of rainwater now, meniscus shivering, fighting not to break the edge. She didn’t blink until it spilled its lip again.
Her father’s eyes had given up like this, when hers held fast and soldierly, but who would confirm this as fact?
Her throat had filled with hot oil, her ears with a wheezing ache. Everyone, though, everyone would corroborate the weather of her mother’s funeral. How bright and mild and handsome, for March.
The wind was tacking harder now, groaning too. From under the chair the sound of high-speed licking, Harley at his phantom balls again. The dog delved and tended, comforting himself as best he knew. The farmer went round the windows, all with X’s taped on. The safety advice for staying indoors said to take this precaution. It prevented glass from bursting in hundreds and thousands when a window cracked under pressure. The farmer’s daughter did them all with blue painter’s tape. The effect was neat and unerring, as if each window were part of a grand plan for controlled demolition.
The farmer should make her a cup of tea, rattle chocolate chip cookies onto a plate. Or a glass of milk and a bowl of Cheetos. They were a poisonous color and a nasty extruded shape, but they were her choice and desire these days, so he got a few bags. Other than that, he was no good at getting through. She’d been rushing to her room after school. She’d been sliding from his view.
He ate a cookie in one bite to ease the sharp recall of Saturday night. But it rushed around him and wouldn’t be thrown off. His own father used to say that when a woman was foolish, well, it could be quite becoming, but when a man was foolish, listen, that was just foolishness.
A few pints, his sister had said. A bit of music! His sister was full of suggestions.
And his sister was first up for drinks. The bar was trying to stay abreast of the times. Craft beer and a garden, tiny lights on strings.
Lovely stuff, his sister said. But people looked sheepish in the twilight. The farmer was disoriented by talking and drinking outdoors.
His sister’s friend said she adored the luminous skin of all the old folks.
It must be the damp air! Humectant. They look fabulous!
She was American, and she hugged the farmer to meet him. She vowed the next drinks were hers.
She’s a breath of fresh air, his sister said, isn’t she, as the friend steered three ciders back to their bench.
The farmer saw other people watching him, watching them. The band wouldn’t let go of Glenn Miller. The farmer asked his sister and the friend if they knew Glenn Miller had gone missing in an airplane. Flying to France to play for troops in the war, never to be recovered.
The friend thought that was Glen Campbell, no?
No, the farmer told her, Glen Campbell died only a few years ago. He said his mother and father had seen Glen Campbell sing “Mull of Kintyre” in Dublin. An angel drenched in sweat, they’d said.
No way, his sister said. I never heard that! They never told me the same stuff as you.
He, a boy, had been repelled by their fealty to a country singer. Until he saw Glen for himself years later, in a shaky video, in a venue filled with heat and devotion, Glen picking up bagpipes and playing them like ready banter.
The farmer’s sister went to play cards with an elderly couple looking for a third for Sergeant Major. She threw him a sharp, quizzing look. He kept talking, about Glen and Van Morrison and Luke Kelly. He summoned them all like friends for support.
Outside, the town had shifted on its axis. Bright-faced throngs, slim slow sliders. The farmer was tired and bleary under a new hotel’s hot lit awning.
No to the nightcap, time to drop everyone home, the farmer was sure they understood, six miles in the other direction and all.
His sister insisted she get dropped off first. She looked away, swung her arm over the friend’s shoulder.
In the farmer’s car the friend mastered his face in a wide kiss. It was a searchlight panning cold sea for survivors.
My bad, she said.
Anyone could see he wasn’t ready. She went in curt steps to her front door, the tall, bright window. He waited until she found her keys. He’d hate his daughter to know about his long, silly minutes in the front seat. Not a word, he’d have to insist with his sister.
He turned the car sharp for the main road. His lights flushed out stone walls and trees. The gallant moment of bringing his wife home before she was his wife. Stoats on the verge, weasels’ eyes in walls. She’d reminded him of the difference, stoat being bigger, tail dipped in dark paint.
Home to the large, dark house of her people, where there were never keys, where the door was always unlocked, where the farmyard light scoured the car like a spacecraft planning to land. But still the farmer waited, until she got folded inside the wings of that old place.
He drained the nibs and dust at the end of the packet of cookies. He hadn’t realized how much a person could eat when time was empty and for the killing. He filled a cereal bowl with Cheetos. They looked unexpectedly lovely in the white ceramic, like they were grown to glow as bright, healthy fruit.
The farmer’s daughter named the last two Cheetos in the bowl Catherine and Heathcliff. She pressed them in a savage clinch and ground them to mush in her mouth. The kind of end they wouldn’t mind. She hadn’t decided if she liked that book or was merely hooked by it. It had the most melodramatic love lines ever written, the kind actors had to spit to say.
Yesterday she’d rolled a little paper to a grey pill. Plain words, an order. Bathroom behind the gym, just after the last bell. She’d set it on her tongue, moved it to higher ground behind a big back tooth.
The bathroom behind the gym had walls painted pus and trickling, squirting cisterns. A radiator banged like someone was fastened behind it.
Two weeks ago the first note from the history teacher’s daughter had said, I think I’m right about something. Something about you.
The second, When I did something dirty your face showed up in the mirror!
The farmer’s daughter should’ve been frightened, but something like this had been heading her direction. It was just a question of when and where.
The kiss in the back bathroom wasn’t startling. It was clumsy business to be gotten past so the next time might be easier. The first time the farmer’s daughter tried a tampon, she duffed the whole thing. She’d done the calm-breath exercises, stood with a foot on the edge of the bath, inner and outer tube, the moves memorized.
None of it readied her for the insolent shock of settling matters to a comfortable place where, the leaflet said, you ought not even feel it. She pushed toward where she thought was the small of her back. Her hands jangled coldly when she pulled her jeans back on.
In the back bathroom, looking for somewhere to place or slot her hands, she remembered the word footling. The girl who got all the A’s in English class.
When the farmer’s daughter’s mouth footled and bludgeoned and skidded against the history teacher’s daughter, it was a thing she might want again. Even if they got found out and slurred like filthy witches on the whispering app.
Anything else I can get you? Her father, a knock on the door. He said he was thinking of watching a film, only he didn’t know what one, maybe she could choose.
You pick. I’ll watch whatever.
She meant it and she didn’t, but they could eat from trays like the days after the funeral. Lasagna from containers brought by neighbors and half-hour documentaries about agriculture or urban architecture.
Right, he said. I’ll find something. I saw there was one about aliens and people trying to communicate with them.
Isn’t that always the way, she said. Until they eat or leave you.
The electricity was butterflying, might go out before they got their film. The wind was relentless. Lids and barrels were rolling round the yard. A gate had come loose one field up, he knew from the exasperated sound of older metal, but he wouldn’t chance going far in that tumult. Get hit hard enough not to get up.
He set the kettle going and looked for tea. The cans-and-jars cupboard sent shockwaves through the kitchen. Spiky bergamot and the hayfield swoon of chamomile. Stocked when his wife stopped drinking coffee. He pined for her coffee, that thing from her enigmatic life before him. She’d come with all its paraphernalia, small silver pots, smaller cups rimmed with gilt. Whole weekends infused with the scent of burnt rubber.
She’d always taken coffee, she said. In Dublin, then in Paris, then when she moved back to the countryside with her parents. She said they disliked the taste almost as much as he did.
When she moved to his house, she had plans for design. They sanded floors and painted walls and had sex more times than he was sure most people did. And coffee, sour as smoke through the house.
Then tea boxes, coming by courier, the driver baffled at the small consignment in his hand. Ceylon Orange Pekoe. Formosa Oolong Spring Dragon. There were black teas and rusty teas, dried rose hips and organic gunpowder.
It was an education, she said, she was learning tremendous things about what went into tea. Fine grades and hand processing. Tender buds collected in highly controlled conditions. Sometimes one bud and two leaves. She would never wait for a kettle to reach full boiling, because that was too hot for most good, proper tea.
She used milk, even though it wasn’t recommended for fine white teas and those made from berries. And she left half-finished tea round the house. The farmer found cups gone cold and cataracted. On the shelf of old DVDs above the television. Under the bed. He placed his mouth where hers would have rested. The old liquid trembled and issued a smell of turned earth.
It turned out the aliens film didn’t start until later, by which time they’d probably be in darkness. There was something about an Irish emigrant girl in New York. There was a true-life murder case that, the write-up said, might or might not be solved. The farmer hated sinister, grisly stuff where women and children were victims and the voices of truth-tellers were altered for their safety.
His daughter sat on the couch just as he hit on the baking contest.
Yes, she said. Let’s do this thing!
She drew cushions around her like a rampart. Her language had changed in the last year, become more derisive and elastic. Sometimes she sounded like one of the radio callers who got two minutes for railing and spleen. Or she was whimsically delighted by the smallest details. Pasta shaped like ears, a cruelty-free lip balm. He rarely knew what she’d love or hate. He tried to keep up with the trends.
Right! he said. Let’s do this thing.
She looked at him like he’d issued an insult.
The baking contest was tiresome. The camera ran around to see who was under pressure and who got their mirror glaze perfect. A plume of flour marked the spot where someone dropped a bag.
I love her. Love her! his daughter said of the older woman who visited stations and judged matters with increasingly menacing sweetness.
His daughter said if your sponge was dry, you were done for. The farmer counted waffle ingredients he knew to be in the cupboard. Maybe they’d make breakfast together in the morning. Do this thing.
The baking contest ended in someone crying because she didn’t make the cut. Another contestant couldn’t believe he’d gotten through. OhmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod, he said through bright tears. The farmer’s daughter could never compete for anything on television, not general knowledge or dating or cooking or sport.
Her father had gone to the sheds to check the animals.
Five minutes, five minutes, he said. I’m not going to end up dead.
She spotted the album from Portugal on the shelf under the coffee table. Her mother had taken good photos, insisted on printing.
Real people take out an album, she said. They look at it. They don’t suffer the computer. File names and folders be damned.
The hotel walls were exquisitely white and the pool a staring blue. There was her father, grinning lushly on a lounger, grinning again before diving in. There were precise photos from small towns and untrammeled beaches they drove to, lunches in restaurants where laughter surged from the kitchen each time the door swung open.
Most of the farmer’s daughter’s photos were crap. The elements never lined up, because she was never fast enough to catch people at their best. Instead her mother’s mouth was a livid line on the steps of a sixteenth-century church and her father’s shoulder departed the arrangement. They were both dim and doubtful in a shop that shimmered with silk scarves.
She’d like to have filmed them from the balcony one evening. Her mother sang to her father, down by the pool. They were the last of the day’s hedonists. Someone had built a ziggurat from plastic glasses. Boxed in light from the pool and patio windows, her parents were lean as whippets. They looked good in swimming gear.
Her mother’s voice swam deeper in that melancholy song.
Love-o, love-o, love-o, love-o, love-o, love-o love, still falls the rain.
Her father came back from the sheds in a fluster. A Friesian was looking suspicious.
Like she’s ready to calve. I know the look. Fuck. Like, could she have asked for worse conditions!
He cursed only in the extremes of farming trouble. Not politics, not cooking, not the sadness that sent him to bed early.
There’s stuff flung all over the place. And I thought I tied down everything. Branches on the hens’ house.
He was worried about a sheet of metal on the hay shed. It was loose and belting like a sail. He would wait until first thing in the morning, then straight to the Friesian with blankets and tarp.
Keep storage heaters away from flammable stuff. Wear shoes in case of broken glass. Have a battery radio. Don’t depend on the internet. Listen for updates. Above all, listen for updates.
Her father clicked through channels.
Where, oh where, is that aliens film? I’m ready to settle down to something daft!
The farmer’s daughter budged to get some comfort. It was time to change her pad. Hopefully the history teacher’s daughter was following the protocols. She turned away from the farmer and kissed her forearm. Maybe she should send a note. She would be kind. She would admit to feeling nothing anymore, not so much as a twitch, even though she’d thought, then hoped she would. Probably they were practicing for others. Nothing to be ashamed about. That’s how the world worked. There was no one person for a person, in spite of those unwearied bastard swans in the poem. She would make the history teacher’s daughter laugh so much she’d forget the whole thing.
A branch raked its nails on the window by the bookcase. When Lockwood reached out the window at Wuthering Heights to grab a stormy branch, the branch grabbed him back.
Ten minutes until the film, so the farmer made tea from two bags. His daughter said she’d join him in a cup. He understood why people drank chamomile by night. It tasted like a snooze in a field in June. It didn’t wire him to the moon like black tea did. Caffeine was the enemy of people with jumpy numbers.
He’d gotten terrible blood pressure numbers at last year’s visit. Systole, diastole, the very words were nasty, obstructing all attempts to spell them in his head. His doctor said it was bad luck.
How did we let it all go as far as this? the doctor marveled.
Who were the we, the farmer wondered, in this equation? He tried to see round the doctor’s shoulder.
But lucky they caught it now, the doctor assured him. He didn’t like numbers like he was seeing here. He didn’t like them one bit, but they were surprisingly common among rural men.
Welcome to middle age, the doctor said to the farmer. I play golf myself, to keep things in check. I suppose walking fields is the exercise you get?
Then the doctor said he had to ask if the farmer was stressed or depressed.
We have to engage a patient on that kind of thing, he said. More so the men. It’s purely procedure.
The farmer said there wasn’t anything bothering him, at least nothing he could think of right there.
The doctor was glad. He wrote a three-month prescription for the BP and told the farmer to look up a book on meditation.
The farmer could have told him that once or twice a week he was struck by a hot, throbbing pain that he loved his wife more than she did him. But it wasn’t a problem per se. Merely a reminder of the common unfairness of the human heart.
The doctor added oatmeal and blueberries to the list of good stuff.
His daughter’s chamomile was cooling off. She’d picked up the cup, put it down to go to the bathroom again. So much time in the bathroom, she might as well pay tax and insurance on that cramped, chemical place. He set the honey jar next to her cup, a spoon. Alien music struck up, sonar pings and the low boom of unexplored territory. The old television got louder for some things over others. His daughter shouted she was coming, and would he pop out the footrest? She loved the laziest seat in the house.
When his wife woke him in the dark heart of their last night, the room was impenetrably black and love a wordless panic. He sweated to make her happy. He worried awhile about his heart, the valves groaning like tight doors. In the morning her sleeping face was clear, serene, as if she’d been on a wonderful overnight junket up those tea mountains where they picked only buds.
They used the younger, prettier photo when she was a morsel of nine o’clock news. She was celestial in the top corner of the screen, smiling shyly above a crashed car. The car lay on its back like an insect, no hope of righting itself. The driver had been drunk, a young man from another county. The farmer’s wife had been on her evening walk, yellow fleece jacket, elbows going like pistons. The news moved on. An elderly bachelor’s lottery win on the peninsula. The camera ogled stacks of turf behind the man’s meager home.
Later, after most of the worst was over and the rest hardened and contracted like mortar, the farmer’s sister said she hadn’t realized how like Meryl Streep his wife had always looked. Tremulous, watchful for those who would break what was dear.
He would watch a Meryl Streep film now, instead of the aliens. Sophie’s Choice would be too heavy, though; Falling in Love too sad and antiquated. Better one where Meryl was older and funnier, flirty and easily sidetracked. Ruefully trying out love once again.
Then the wind went ninety and Harley bayed for pity. The air banged like a Lambeg drum. It was so startling it could have been a comical trick. He found himself wanting, sickening, in the panic. No know-how, no courage whatsoever. He shouted for his daughter to come down, come down now!
He wasn’t able to decide among the photos of his wife. He slid two inside his shirt, one to each teat.
The farmer’s daughter was in the bathroom when the lights went out. She fumbled the fresh pad and stuck it to skin and hair instead. Shitshitshit. Her father was shouting. Time to get downstairs.
Rez-de-chaussée, she learned in French. Level with the street, perhaps to do with carriages and horses. Her mother always tried to get in on her homework.
Vous avez passé(e) un vacance avec votre famille. Décrivez le meilleur jour (200 mots environ).
Oh, oh, I’d need way, way more than two hundred words!
Her mother had sought the writing prompts and the reading comprehension. She loved how French current affairs always seemed more serious, more engaged and intellectual, even if it was just a bus strike.
The farmer’s daughter ripped the pad free, turned it round. She patted the bathroom walls to find the door. The landing wasn’t much brighter. She moved slowly, heavily, so as not to trip on the stairs. This might be what it felt like to be pregnant, one foot in front of the other in darkness, testing the ground for stability.
Her father met her at the bottom. Cumbersome as a wardrobe, smelling of sweat, he wasn’t any way huggable, but still she did, clapping her hands to his thick back. In the worst circumstances, survivors always hugged in films, sometimes ground foreheads together.
They moved to the utility room. It had no windows and was sweet with dryer sheets. Her father put a beach towel on the floor, and Harley took the spot with a lackluster sigh.
What’s that on you? he said, when the flashlight swept her hands.
Blood in dribbles and stripes, already drying. Then he knew. The same spills in the bathroom on and off. He had wiped them up. Never a word said.
She said sorry for the slasher film. She’d been blind in the bathroom.
Here, he said, extending the flashlight to her. I’d say you turned the back of my shirt to a cave painting.
He threw his arms wide, turned around ceremoniously. She held the light like a burning stick and moved it back and forth across his back.
A cave painting. His joke was an awful delight, the kind she’d love to have come up with. It was fresh when blood was old and staling. Instead she said she was embarrassed for him, for herself, for Harley.
It wasn’t Altamira, and it wasn’t Lascaux. But when her eyes slipped out of focus and the resinous light got smoky and the blue of her father’s cotton became limestone, a potbellied little horse appeared smeared on the wall of his shirt.
Mary O’Donoghue is a writer from the west of Ireland living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her short fiction has appeared in Granta, The Georgia Review, Guernica, Kenyon Review, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, and elsewhere. She is fiction editor at AGNI.