Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha

BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

Blood Rites

The Pool continues Short Story Week with Daisy Johnson's Blood Rites

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By Daisy Johnson on

When we were younger we learnt men the way other people learnt languages or the violin. We did not care for their words, their mouths moving on the television, the sound of them out of radios, the echo chamber of them from telephones and computers. We did not care for their thoughts; they could think on philosophy and literature and science if they wanted, they could grow opinions inside them if they wanted. We did not care for their creed or religion or type; for the choices they made and the ones they missed. We cared only for what they wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds.

***

We left Paris one morning knowing we would never go back. English was the language of breaking and bending and it would suit our mouths better. None of us would ever fall in love in English. We would be safe from that.

Moving did not suit us; we were out of sync, out of time with ourselves. We rented a big, wrecked house out by the canal. Tampons swelled the drainage system; our palms were crisscrossed with promise scars barely healed before the next one. We promised we would never let it happen again. What had happened in Paris. None of us would let our food ruin our lives. The old walls of the house grew stained, dark swells of rustish wash across the sagging ceilings.

Greta came back most nights mournful; she’d been hunting roadkill. Arabella grew purposeful with unease, raided the butchers and spent the long days cooking up a storm of meat pies, of roasted birds inside birds and thick, heavy, unidentified stews. I was swept along by their disorientation, found myself lying in wait for the large, unafraid mice that populated the kitchen, found myself obsessed with daytime television, endless hours watching old quiz shows or the shopping channel.

We settled. Eventually. Greta, dancing the way she used to, bare feet tapping along the corridors, said it was a stupendous house, a house that knew how to feel. I laid down mouse traps and culled whole colonies in a day. We ate the leftovers of Arabella’s cooking obsession in one long, sluggish evening and then emptied everything in the fridge into the bin. There was nothing in there we needed more than what we would have.

Arabella invested in a pair of wellington boots, put on one of the mouldy raincoats we’d found in a cupboard and went out on a reconnaissance mission. Came back talking, without pause, on seed-planting schedules and wind direction. She’d been, she said, in the local pub and she’d met men there who she thought would taste like the earth, like potatoes buried until they were done, like roots and tree bark. English men never really said what they were thinking: all that pressure inside, fermenting. We could imagine it easily enough.

She held out her hand, told us to taste it, told us she’d been able to smell their salt-of-the-earth insides across the barren winter fields. We sucked until we could: fen dirt heavy enough to grow new life in it.

Later Arabella broke into seriousness: we would have to be careful, pick carefully. We’d have to share. She changed the Bob Dylan record with her long white toes.

We shaved all the hair off our legs and underarms, plucked until we were smooth, coating the white bathtub in drag lines of dark; moisturised until we shone white and slick through the dim; painted crimson ‘yes’ markers on our mouths.

We looked the way hunters must do. We looked the way we’d looked in Paris, half-glimpsed shards and shadows of skin, the meaningful line of stocking or bra.

This isn’t going to work, Greta said, pulling at her hair.

We raided the backs of the wardrobes; hunted in the dressing-up boxes we’d saved for bored days, snuck out to pillage washing lines. Regrouped and stood silently at the sight of ourselves: jodhpurs and polo necks and gilets.

Greta said, dreamily, that we looked like child catchers.

Arabella said we looked fierce.

She got the money and we pushed into boots and wellingtons at the door and went out, Greta trailing behind to catch her fingers on the blackberry bushes and kick at the frozen puddles. At the door to the pub Arabella turned to look at us for one final check: wiping her thumb at the blood Greta had used to darken her lips, straightening my carefully knotted scarf, mussing her hair with both hands. The Fox and Hound. We went in. Lined up at the bar. Listened to the quiet that spread the way a spool unravelled.

Arabella leant over on both elbows and smiled the way she did and said we would really quite like three gin and tonics if that was all right.

We were hungry but we took our time. Greta liked the school kids, drunk already, though it was barely eight o’clock, and rowdy on it. She bought them drinks because they were too young to do it themselves, laughed at their under-the-table shot taking. We heard her telling them that drinking would only ever get better, that they would spend their lives lying to their doctor about the number of pints they consumed. They looked at her as if she were a thing summoned up, formed from everything they’d never even known they wanted.

Arabella liked the old men in their corners or sat at the bar alone, talking in strange, weathered code to the barman about different ales. She liked the veined alcoholism of them, the implicit watching. She knew enough about the World Cup to get by.

It didn’t matter who they liked. The one we would take had raw hands from the cold and narrow, glass-covered eyes. I knew before I went to him the sort of girl he’d want, one shy enough to look as though she shouldn’t be there, one quiet enough to look as though she had something to hide. He did not respond in much more than monosyllables to my questions. I liked the dull return of his voice, the way he looked at his glass rather than at my face. He was, he said, a vet. When he was drunker he would tell me it was a bad time to be someone who cared about animals. He told me about the foxes being gassed in their earths. I told him everything has to die somewhere.

I finished my drink and he bought me another, bought one for himself, did not clink the glass I held up, only held his up too: a salute. He spoke about animals as if I knew them too and remembered them well. He worried about the land, thought he would move on when he had half a chance. Less than half.

It’s not the way it used to be, he said.

When it was flooded? I said, half joking, and he looked at me as if this were a thing you could not mention, were not allowed to mention.

He was not married, had no children, was on his own the way someone was when they knew no different. I did not ask his name.

We left together. He said he was too drunk to drive and I said I was walking anyway. On the long, straight, dark road I sucked his bottom lip into my mouth and he made a startled sound as if someone had broken something sharp into him. At the onset of headlights coming over the flats I pulled him to the hedge line, forced the gasp from him again. He was afraid of me though not for the reason he should have been. When I took out one breast, he would not touch it, only stood a safe distance and looked until we carried on.

At the house I saw it as he must have done and wondered if he knew what was coming. It smelt of feathers and iron kettles. I took him to the kitchen. There were broken wine glasses on the table; our discarded clothes were in piles. The fur hat on the draining board looked sentinel, only dozing. I made him a whisky and water strong enough he puffed his cheeks out, shook his head.

He seemed unsurprised to find them in the sitting room, dressed in their nighties, Greta’s head on Arabella’s lap, a Leonard Cohen vinyl turning slowly next to them. I sat close enough to him on the sofa I could see the ice in his glass shaking. He sat and looked around at the rows of records, the 1965 Van Hurst guitar taken from a travelling musician, the signed January Hargrave posters.

Are you in a band? he asked. Arabella called him a lovely man and offered him her hand to kiss. Greta laughed like a child, told him we were groupies and – because she’d been hungry the longest – she got the first try. We asked her if he had the flavour of love and she only smiled a scarlet smile and said he tasted the way burrowing into the earth, mouth whaling open, would taste.

It was not the occasion for leftovers. We buried the little that was left in the big back garden, toasted our success with a whole bottle of something local Arabella had stolen. There wasn’t enough of him remaining to merit a burning, though I think that would have been best: a sacrificial fire to warn the rest of our coming.

***

The next day we woke with a strangeness inside us we could not identify. Tried to stave it off with our favourite songs, our best dresses, opened all the windows to air the house through.

I feel – Greta started to say and Arabella gave her a look good and hard enough to silence her. Said: I’ll paint your nails.

I lay watching them. I felt heavy, ached through. Not full – rather bored, weary.

I feel – Greta started again.

Stop it, Greta, Arabella said. It’s fine.

I sat up, rigid. I did not know where it had come from but there were things I wanted to tell them right now; there were things they needed to know. About the giving- in the earth was doing, about the dying foxes and the flood water. The globe was comprised of bone and organ, the mandible of the sea, the larynx and thyroid, the scapula and vertebrae that held it all together. I bit my tongue until the feeling passed.

It was not the first time we’d eaten something we shouldn’t.

***

For a week or so the vet pressed out from inside us. I caught Arabella in the kitchen, weeping over a plucked chicken. Greta began speaking in clipped monosyllables. I caught myself counting the bones in their bodies.

Still, soon we were hungry again. Arabella said that we needed to be careful; this was not Paris. She took up cooking once more and we ate well and often. Sometimes she went to the butchers, came back with quails and woodcock and whole pigs. Mostly she went hunting in the thin spinneys that separated the farms, came back with rabbits and pheasants. Then we got bored of this and we did not eat at all.

When the time came we decided we could not risk picking up another man in the pub. We made a profile on some dating websites, spent long evenings sitting around the computer, pushing one another’s hands away. We found a man who, in his picture, showed only his chest, one hand holding up a phone to take the photo. His profile said that he enjoyed drinking and working out. He wrote that he’d been a sailor but didn’t do that any more.

Men like that, Arabella said, no one is ever surprised when they go missing.

We sent him a message and he replied quickly. He used the words cock and cunt and fuck and hard with a regularity which dried them meaningless. Occasionally he’d, typing drunk perhaps, talk about a girl and a baby and a twin brother and how he’d lost the lot of them. The next day he’d regain his composure, write that he wanted to do this to us and he wanted us to do that to him. And when we were done he was going to do this. We said all right, sent him photos of Greta in her underwear, arranged an evening for him to come to the house.

We dressed Greta. This was not the occasion for polo shirts or wellington boots. We painted her mouth a red church.

When the doorbell went, Greta climbed into her heels. The smell of aftershave was palpable through the door. He looked older than he’d said on the Internet, thin at the cheeks, dressed up the way someone pretending to be younger might do. He looked her up and down with a slowness, said his name was Marco and he was ready. Greta giggled. Stepped backwards to let him in. The big hallway was dark. He stumbled on something, an abandoned book or rolling wine bottle. Greta led the way to the kitchen. We closed the front door behind him.

***

The next day the feeling that had come after the vet was back and worse. Arabella went out to get rid of the car. Greta and I sat in silence in the sitting room. Arabella must have been thinking about it on the drive: it’s because we haven’t eaten for a while, she said as she marched in, tracking mud. We’re just full.

We took turns in the bath. The nail varnish Arabella was using to paint her nails overturned, spilt a thin blue splash over the wooden floor.

Fucking Jesus, Arabella said matter-of-factly and then looked around as if to see where the words had come from. Greta laughed and then fell silent, dipping her head beneath the water line.

When I woke that night Arabella was shifting beneath the heavy blanket, her hands doing fast work out of sight, her eyes on the revealed white of Greta’s shoulder and neck. I lay and watched her until she turned to me, poked out a concentrating tongue, said: I’d like a piece of that. I want a piece of that. Roared when I reached out to pinch the skin on her arm, called me words I did not think I knew: except, then, I did.

At breakfast I tried to confront them. Arabella was buttering her toast with violent, angry motions.

I think they are inside us, I said.

What do you mean? What the fuck do you mean? Arabella’s knife went through her toast and squealed over the plate.

Greta looked a little pained across from me. I wondered if perhaps she was not quite lost yet, if there were syllables she retained that were still her own; if she felt, at times, her own language pressing back.

You’re both talking like that boy we ate the other night, I said. The rude one.

Bollocks, Arabella said. Greta got up and went and turned the radio on loud.

I wanted to tell them I knew the truth. The truth was fen men were not the same as the men we’d had before. They lingered in you the way a bad smell did; their language stayed with you.

I locked myself in the pantry, waited to see if I could feel it coming before it got there. I watched out for hints of violence in words that came to mind. I hunted for a thickness in the sentences that formed silently. I was looking so hard for the man that I did not see his predecessor climbing up in my belly again until it was too late.

There was the smell of spice and meat. I dozed off on the warm floorboards, dreamt I was swimming from the inside of one animal to another, moving organs aside with my hands. Often, as I passed from the gut of a horse to one of a dog to a small, angry cat, I could see the sickness beating in them, reached out with my fingers to try and fend it away. It was not until I woke up, Greta banging on the door with both hands and asking what the fuck was I doing she needed to eat some fucking food, that I realised I knew the names for the parts of all the animals I’d dreamt of. It was not a light knowledge, not a thing I could carry with me without noticing or caring any: it was rock heavy, a heated weight. I opened my mouth and heard the words spilling out in a stream I could not see the end of: adre nal, abdominal, abrin, antipyretic, aortic, arrhythmia –

Blood Rites appears in Fen, published by Jonathan Cape

@djdaisyjohnson

Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha
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