BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

The Water Cure By Sophie Mackintosh

Sisters Grace, Lia and Sky have grown up isolated from the world, with only their parents for company, told that they are being protected and taught what they need to know to survive. It’s a claustrophobic life and everything is thrown into chaos when their father disappears and then three young men wash up on their beach, testing everything the sisters have been told. In raw, visceral prose, Mackintosh probes at ideas of the threat of male violence and the ways women are told to protect ourselves and take responsibility for our own safety. But it’s also about love and sisterhood and survival – think Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled in book form. A hypnotic, stormy book, with one of my favourite endings I’ve read in a long while. ANNA JAMES

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THE WATER CURE

Sophie Mackintosh

£12.99, Hamish Hamilton

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Sisters Grace, Lia and Sky have grown up isolated from the world, with only their parents for company, told that they are being protected and taught what they need to know to survive. It’s a claustrophobic life and everything is thrown into chaos when their father disappears and then three young men wash up on their beach, testing everything the sisters have been told. In raw, visceral prose, Mackintosh probes at ideas of the threat of male violence and the ways women are told to protect ourselves and take responsibility for our own safety. But it’s also about love and sisterhood and survival – think Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled in book form. A hypnotic, stormy book, with one of my favourite endings I’ve read in a long while. ANNA JAMES

Chapter:

One

Father

Grace, Lia, Sky

Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.

It’s wrong to say that we don’t notice. We are just absorbed in ourselves, that afternoon when he dies. Unseasonable heat. We squabble, as usual. Mother comes out on the terrace and puts a stop to it by raising her hand, a swift motion against the sky. Then we spend some time lying down with lengths of muslin over our faces, trying not to scream, and so he dies with none of us women bearing witness, none of us accompanying him.

It is possible we drove him away, that the energy escaped our bodies despite our attempts to stifle it and became a smog clinging around the house, the forest, the beach. That was where we last saw him. He put a towel on the ground and lay down parallel to the sea, at on the sand. He was resting, letting sweat gather along his top lip, his bare head.

The interrogation begins at dinner when he fails to turn up. Mother pushes the food and plates from the table in her agitation, one sweep of the arm, and we search the endless rooms of the house. He is not in the kitchen, soaking fish in a tub of brine, or pulling up withered potatoes outside, inspecting the soil. He is not on the terrace at the top of the house, surveying the still surface of the pool three floors below, and he is certainly not in the pool itself, for the sound of his splashing is always violent enough to carry. He is not in the lounge, nor the ballroom, the piano untouched, the velvet curtains heavy with undisturbed dust. Moving up the staircase again, a spine through the centre of the house, we check our rooms individually, our bathrooms, though we know he will not be there. From our scattered formation we come together to search the garden, search deeper, sticking long branches into the pond’s green murk. Eventually we are out on the beach and we realize one of the boats has gone too – a furrow in the sand where it has been pushed out.

For a moment we think he has gone for supplies, but then we remember he was not wearing the protective white suit, we did not do the leaving ceremony, and we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity. And Mother falls to her knees.

Our father had a big and difficult body. When he sat down, his swimming shorts rode up and exposed the whiteness of his thigh where it was usually covered. If you killed him, it would be like pushing over a sack of meat. It would require someone much stronger than us.

The father shape he leaves behind quickly becomes a hollow that we can put our grief into, which is an improvement in a way.

***

Grace

I ask Mother if she had noticed any sickness in you. Any hint of your body giving way. She says, ‘No, your father was in fine fettle.’ Dark turn. ‘As you well fucking know.

Your body was not completely all right. Of course I would see that where she would not. I noticed a slight cough, mixed up a honey tincture for you the day before you died. Boiled nettles from the end of the garden, where we dump our rubbish and leave things to rot. My hands blistering as I pulled them from the earth in at afternoon heat. You drank it straight from the saucepan. Sunburnt throat moving under the metal. We were sitting in the kitchen together, two stools pushed close. Your eyes were watery. You did not touch me. On the counter, three sardines spilled their guts.

‘Are you dying?’ I asked you.

‘No,’ you said. ‘In many ways, I have never been better.’

***

Lia

Confirmation comes in the shape of his bloodstained shoe washed up high on the shore. Mother finds it, but we don’t salt it or burn it the way we would with other dangerous waste. ‘This is your father!’ she screams at me when I suggest it. So instead we pull on latex gloves and we all touch the blood patch on the shoe, and then we bury it in the forest. We ing the gloves into the shoe ’s open grave and Mother fills it in with a shovel. I cry on to Grace ’s shoulder until the flesh of it shows through the material of her dress, but she only stares into the canopy above us with dry eyes.

‘Can you feel something, for once?’ I whisper to her later in the dark, sharing her bed without asking permission.

‘I hope you die in the night,’ she whispers back.

Often Grace is repelled by me. I don’t have the luxury of being repelled by her, even when her breath is sour and a gentle scum of dirt clings to her ankles. I take whatever contact I can get. Sometimes I harvest the hair from her brush and hide it under my pillow, when things get very bad.

***

Grace has a deep fascination with a pair of black patent sandals that one of the women left behind years ago. She straps them on from time to time even though the soles flap loose, the leather scales and flakes. One morning she puts them on and lies face down in the sweating dew, right in the middle of the garden. When Sky and I find her, roll her over with our hands, she is motionless for thirty seconds or more. Her eyes are fixed. Her first movement is to rend at her hair, and we join in like it’s a game, but it turns out it’s a cue that I didn’t even know I was waiting for. Then we are all just useless there on the lawn, already painfully overgrown, waiting for Mother to find us.

Because we are new to mourning, Mother is panicked. There are no therapies for this unknown crisis. But she is a resourceful woman, ardently repairing the broken her entire life. More than that, she was a woman at our father’s side, absorbing and refining his theories. Her hands are bloodless when she lays them upon us. Soon a solution is found.

For one week, Sky and I share Grace’s bed. For one week, Mother puts the small blue insomnia tablets on our tongues three to four times a day. Short and foggy breaks in the sleep to be slapped awake, to drink from the glasses of water that crowd the bedside table and to eat crackers Mother spreads with peanut butter, to crawl to the bathroom, because by the third day our legs can no longer be relied upon to hold us. The heavy curtains stay closed to keep the light out, to keep the temperature down.

‘What are you feeling?’ Mother asks us during those swims up to consciousness. ‘Good, bad? Oh, I know that I wish I could sleep through all of this. You are the lucky ones.’

She monitors our breathing, our pulses. Sky throws up and Mother is there immediately to tenderly scoop the vomit from her mouth with her forefinger and thumb. When she puts her into the bathtub to clean her up we are dimly aware of the shower running like a distant storm.

All through the long sleep my dreams are boxes filled with boxes filled with small trapdoors. I keep thinking I am awake, and then my arms fall off or the sky pulses a livid green, I am outside with my fingers in the sand and the sea is vertical, spilling its seams.

After, it takes a few days for my body to feel normal again. My knees still crumple when I stand. I have bitten my tongue, and it swells and moves in my mouth like a grub against dry earth.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

When we emerge from the lost week, we are surrounded by pieces of paper with Mother’s writing on like reminders. They are pinned to the walls, slipped into drawers, folded into our clothes. The pieces of paper say, No more love! Her pain gives her the gravity of an oracle. We are very troubled by them. We ask her about them and she tells us a revised version.

‘Love only your sisters!’ All right, we decide, that is easy enough for us to do. ‘And your mother,’ she adds. ‘You have to love me too. It’s my right.’ OK, we tell her. It is no problem.

***

Grace

Sometimes we pray in the ballroom, sometimes in Mother’s bedroom. It depends on whether we need bombast, Mother on the stage with her arms raised towards the ceiling, sound bouncing from the parquet. In her bedroom it is a quieter worship, graver. We hold hands very tightly, so we can blur where the I ends and the sister begins. ‘Devotions for the women of our blood,’ we say.

It feels good to wish my sisters only well. I can feel them focusing on our love like a crucial piece of information that needs memorizing. ‘Sometimes,’ Mother tells us, when she is trying to be loving, ‘I can no longer tell you girls apart.’ Some days we like this, some days we don’t.

***

The first time we gather to pray in Mother’s room after your death, I broach the idea of drawing the irons again. When I say it nobody nods, nobody agrees with me. Our eyes go to where they hang on her wall. Five hooks, five lengths of iron. Five names above the hooks, but only four names on the irons.

‘Once a year, Grace,’ Mother tells me. ‘Just because you don’t like the result.’

Lia looks sideways at me. She was the one who drew the blank iron, which meant that there was no specific love allocated to her this year. ‘Bad luck,’ we told her. She was stoic. All of us put our arms around her and told her that of course we would still love her, of course, but we knew it wouldn’t be the same, that she would have to scramble more for the affection, that it wouldn’t come as easily. We wouldn’t be able to touch her so freely. You picked me, as usual, tying me to you for another year. You rigged it. The whole thing was a sham.

‘My person is dead,’ I point out.

‘Grief is love,’ Mother says. I expect her to be angry, but she looks panicked instead. ‘You could call it the purest kind.’

So much for loving only my sisters.

It occurs to me that I would like you to come back to life so I could kill you myself.

***

‘We always love some people more,’ Mother explained when we first drew them. ‘This way, we can keep it fair. Everyone gets their turn.’ It seemed simple, with those irons new in our hands and our names painted fresh upon them. Lia got me, that time.

We would all still love each other, but what it meant was: if there was a burning fire, if two sisters were stuck in the inferno and they were screaming a name, the only right thing would be to pick the one the iron dictated to save. It is important to ignore any contrary instinct of your traitor heart. We were quite used to that.

Two

Lia

One month after we lose our father, King, I am standing at the edge of the swimming pool, in the lavender light that comes up where the border hits the sky. Our pool is the sea made safe, salt water filtered through unseen pipes and sluices, blue and white tiles surrounding it and a marble counter where drinks were once served. Thick rivets of salt are laid down on the tiles immediately bordering the water, guarding against toxins brought in on the wind. King explained to us that the salt drew out badness like damp, his hands quick and busy as he scattered it, tanned a deep, dry brown.

I am wearing a white cotton dress, fishing weights sewn into the hem, the sleeves, the neckline, where their coldness presses against my collarbone. I have not worn it since King died. On the pastel-striped recliner behind me, my belongings: towel and water, sunglasses, an enamel cup of cold coffee. Taking a deep breath, I release myself into the water.

Grace and I are the only ones who play the drowning game. Sky is more than old enough now, but Mother kicked up a fuss when King suggested that she start – the baby, the favourite – and Mother herself has always been exempt. She has suffered enough already. There is little we can do to save her body now, beyond the palliative. When we were younger she made a point of watching us from one of the recliners, a tall glass of water in her hand, her favourite blue linen dress hitched up to mid-thigh.

Grace and I could go together when we first started. King held us both under the water with ease. He only invented the drowning dress later, when we became bigger, our limbs harder to manipulate. My sister was small for her age, and when I was twelve and she fourteen we overlapped, a year of being exactly the same size, before I overtook her. I remember this as the golden year, the year of my double. We wore identical swimming costumes that Mother had sewn by hand, red with a bow at the left shoulder. Our lungs started to develop the capacity of grown women, so that we could hold a note for a long, long time. We could blow our emergency whistles for what felt like whole minutes.

My feelings are limping, wretched things. Underwater, staring at the stained tiles, I scream as loudly as I can. The water kills the sound. Opening my eyes, I turn on to my back and watch the sun through the water, a rippling orb of light. It is at times like these that I can imagine holding myself down until the water floods my lungs, that I realize it wouldn’t even be so hard. The real trick is how and why we continue surviving at all.

My chest starts to hurt, but I stay under until the static creeps at my vision, and then I claw to the surface. I stagger out of the water, fall on the recliner and wait as the feeling subsides. A deep gratitude floods my heart.

Part of what made the old world so terrible, so prone to destruction, was a total lack of preparation for the personal energies often called feelings. Mother told us about these kinds of energies. Especially dangerous for women, our bodies already so vulnerable in ways that the bodies of men are not. It was a wonder that there were still safe places, islands like ours where women can be healthful and whole.

‘We’ve cracked it,’ King told us in the first days of the drowning game. Inventing a new therapy always put him in an expansive, joyful mood. He whirled Mother around in his arms, her shoulder blades tight against his hands, feet off the floor. Day of happiness! We ate a whole packet of chocolate wafers to celebrate, only slightly stale, dipped in goat’s milk.

The air did become lighter; small seabirds came to our home, hovered around the garden, the pool, and sang to each other. Yet beyond the forest, beyond the horizon, the toxin-filled world was still there. It was biding its time.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

In the heady days without our father, we let our bodies sprawl. We no longer breathe into jars so King can test our toxin levels, our lips clamped around the glass. Mother relies instead on circumstantial evidence. On our temperatures, our pulse, the slick and pimpled paleness of the insides of our cheeks. She prescribes double rations of tinned meat, kelp boiled down in the pan. She browns the Spam in oil to fool us into thinking she has killed Lotta without our permission, taking a crowbar to her tensile skull down by the beach. ‘Cruel!’ we shout at the top of our voices once we’ve established the goat is not dead after all.

Mother often talks about the possibility that one day we will kill her in her sleep, if we don’t cause her death indirectly from a heart attack, because daughters are hard-wired for betrayal. How we feel about this statement varies.

‘How much do you love Mother today?’ we ask each other, one by one, lying in the dying grass of the garden or on the beach, burying each other’s feet in the sand. The answers come with no hesitation.

‘Two per cent.’

‘Forty per cent.’

‘One hundred and twelve per cent.’

***

Grace

Mother senses our disquiet, decides to resume order. She lists the chores on a large blackboard in the kitchen, propped up against the yellowing tiles of the wall behind the counter. We erase the words with our hands as we complete them, in no hurry.

Making up our beds with hospital corners, flat and true. Opening the windows and doors on calm days to let the unstirred air in. Cleaning the surfaces in the kitchen with dilute bleach and vinegar, carrying buckets upstairs, sluicing each en suite in turn. Strengthening the salt barriers at the end of the shore, around the pool. Feeding and milking Lotta. Wiping the windows of the sea spray that webs them. The repetition kills me. Every time I rinse my vinegar-pruned hands I ask myself, Is this all there is now? Just let me lie in the long grass at the end of the garden. Let me sleep through the rest of my days.

Before chores we perform our morning exercises. We stand in a row on the wet lawn, our backs to the heavy ballroom doors. If the weather is not good we retreat to the ballroom itself, the sound of our exercises echoing on the parquet. I am not allowed to do the dangerous ones any more.

Instead I watch as Lia and Sky are left to fall and crumple into the grass. They know what’s coming, but still they scream if they make contact with the ground. Mother stuffs the muslin into their mouths to fell the sound. The key thing is that they are falling. There is no hesitance in their limbs. The nature of the game means that they do not always fall: they are caught more often than not. Mother wraps her arms around them and staggers, moves backwards.

Lia and I have been mistaken for twins in the past, but when I watch my younger sisters now I notice how their eyes are identical, their eyelashes sparse and pointed around pale blue irises.

‘You should be relieved,’ you said as I cried in front of you for what would be the final time. I was not relieved then and I am not relieved now. The dead weights of them, falling backwards in front of me. All you were ever doing in the last days was making me unknown to myself. Revealing thing after useless thing.

We move on to the next exercise, Mother rolling hard, varnished balls for us to swerve away from or catch in our hands, red and blue. She aims to crack them into the bone of our ankles. We have to remain alert to escape the quick explosions of pain. Not me, not any more. I only join in with the stretching and even this makes my back hurt. I have to furl myself up slowly and put my hand in the small of it, and Mother notices.

‘Do you need to rest?’ she asks me without interrupting her own bending, her body a shivery, wasted thing. ‘You shouldn’t overdo it.’ ‘I’m fine,’ I tell her, but I don’t go back to stretching. Mother raises her arms with no comment. I see all the veins standing out along them. She is showing off to me, I think. She is demonstrating that even her old body is painless, superior to mine.

When the exercises are over I put my arms around her to make up for my thoughts. Sky joins our embrace, her cheek against my upper arm. Lia stays where she is, doing extra stretches, interlinking her hands and pushing the air away from her. I feel bad that she can’t join in our circle. Mother switches her eyes over to where Lia moves and I can tell she is feeling bad too, but there ’s nothing I can do.

***

My bed used to be placed next to the wall, Lia’s mirroring it in her own room. But as we grew older I started to feel uncomfortable being hemmed in from any angle. Now the bed has to be in the centre of the room. Lia moved hers too, copying me. Sometimes I press my ear against the wall to listen to her breathing, though I would never admit it.

Tonight, I hear her crying. She cries the way she does when it is just us sisters, the three of us alone, and I am surprised. So it isn’t for show, that sound pressed from deep in her throat. My own eyes stay dry and I don’t go to her, even though I could.

***

Lia

Strong feelings weaken you, open up your body like a wound. It takes vigilance and regular therapies to hold them at bay. Over the years we have learned how to dampen them down, how to practise and release emotion under strict conditions only, how to own our pain. I can cough it into muslin, trap it as bubbles under the water, let it from my very blood.

Some of the early therapies fell out of favour, and the fainting sack was one of these. King disdained it as archaic. Also, we turned off the sauna years ago to preserve electricity and without the sauna it didn’t work. That was a shame in some ways. I enjoyed the dizziness, the rush of my uncooperative body dissolving into nothing.

We use electricity so carefully these days because of the blackouts. They happen most often in the height of summer; the rooms become cavernous after sundown, dotted here and there with the light of candles. I thought this might be a clue to what was happening beyond our borders, but Mother said that she and King orchestrated it themselves, that it was just another part of their plan to keep us safe.

Our fainting sacks were made of a heavy weave, not muslin but not quite burlap. They had once held our or rice, Mother unstitching the fabric then re-stitching it into the right shape, carefully embroidering our names on to the front. On therapy days she would lead us out in single file, through the kitchen door to the old sauna hut at the edge of the forest, its panels splintering amid flourishing weeds. We held out our arms, naked except for our underwear, and stood motionless while Mother guided our limbs through holes in the rough fabric. She sewed us into the sacks right up to the top of the neck. Then we were carried into the sauna, locked in, and given a small glass bottle of water each that quickly became warm as blood.

Soon the sacks were soaked through with our sweat, our own personal salt water. We grew dizzy and lay down on the benches lining the walls. I finished my water first, because I had ‘poor self-control’, as diagnosed repeatedly and sadly by Mother and King. As I sweated out the bad feelings, a lightness came over me. I would allow myself to lick the skin of my forearm once, twice; a reluctance to let my pain go.

Gradually, one by one, we each lost consciousness. When Mother came to rouse us, splashing water on our faces, we shuffled unsteadily on to the lawn together. We were glistening, our hair wet. We lay on our fronts on the grass, the damp fabric chafing at us. She took a pair of scissors to each sack, cutting right down to the bottom along the seams. When we were well enough to stand, we shed the stiff, cooling fabrics to our feet like a skin.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

Some of the beds in the abandoned rooms are arranged strangely, left by women long gone. Women who preferred to sleep by windows, or who wanted to keep their eyes trained on the door at all times. Women who were plagued by visions, whose hearts pained them in the night.

We are lucky, because we have been exposed to minimal damage. We remember what those women looked like when they came to us. But we also remember the effect the therapies had on them. How their bodies strengthened until they were finally ready to undergo the water cure.

We only bother to make up our own beds now, stripping the sheets and blankets from the others for our use, so the mattresses lie naked and fleshy on their frames.

‘Do you miss the women?’ Mother asked us once. To her we answered, ‘No.’ Only later, alone, admitting to ourselves, Yes, maybe a little.

***

Grace

In the lengthening time after your death, I think about the other people who have left us. All women, sickened and damaged when they arrived, cured when they departed. There is a different quality to your absence. A heaviness to it, a shock at its centre. The house is emptier than it has ever been before.

As far back as I can remember, these damaged women drifted through our lives. They arrived with possessions wrapped in sacking, plastic bags, large leather cases that cracked at the seams. Mother would greet their boats at the jetty, looping rope around the moorings.

In reception the women wrote their names and reasons for coming in the Welcome Book while Mother found them a bed. They rarely stayed longer than a month. They ran their hands over the front desk, fake marble but still cold to the touch, in what I now see was a kind of disbelief. At the time we waited in the dark, high up on the stairs, balling dust from the carpet between our fingertips. We weren’t supposed to go near the women when they were newly arrived from the mainland with their toxic breath and skin and hair. We fought the urge to make a commotion, to make them turn around and look up at us with their red-rimmed eyes.

You, too, stayed far away from the women, at least at the start. Acclimatization was necessary. They sat waiting with their hands pressed between their knees and their eyes on the floor. They had been through so much, though we had no comprehension of what.

The work started at once. There was no use in letting the body falter longer than necessary. In the dining room Mother laid out two rows of glasses on one of the polished circular tables. Buckets on the floor. We were not supposed to watch.

The women drank the salt water first, their faces pained. They threw up repeatedly into the buckets. Their bodies convulsed. They lay on the floor but Mother helped them up, insistent. They rinsed their mouths, spat. Then they drank from the second row, glass after glass of our good and pure water, the water that came from our taps like a miracle, the water that the sprinklers cast out in the early dusk like a veil across the garden. The water we ourselves drank by the pint first thing every morning, Mother watching our throats as we swallowed. The women took it into themselves. It was a start. The water flamed their cells and blood. Soon the glasses were all empty.

Once Lia and I saw a damaged woman run down the shore towards the jetty. We watched her from the window, waiting for Mother to follow, the way we knew she would if we tried to escape. The woman had bare feet and her hair was the bloom of a dandelion, whipping in the sea wind as she moved her head from side to side. I never knew her name, but something within me now thinks it might have been Anna or Lanna, a soft sound, a name ending with a kind of call. She found her own boat and we saw her get in, we saw her fumble with the motor-string, we saw her leave. She sailed in a curved line across the bay, soon out of our sight. We waved, pressed our hot hands against the glass. We did not know much, yet somewhere we knew that we were watching the beginning of the end.

Three

Lia

Grace’s stomach grows, filling with blood or air. I notice it first when she is in her swimsuit, sunbathing next to me. I stare at her through my sunglasses until she realizes, bunches a towel across her body despite the heat. At first I think it is a disease, that she is dying. The stomach swelling comes with a deep exhaustion, Grace falling asleep where she sits, circles imprinted under her eyes.

It affects me. For once I am able to keep my distance, she doesn’t have to push me away when I get too close to her. I hurt myself more often in an attempt to make some unspoken bargain, line up strands of my hair on the white linen of my pillowcase as votive offerings, but her body still changes. I send out small pleas when I am drowning myself, when I am sponging the blood from my legs. Save my sister! Take me instead!

‘Thinking yourself uniquely terrible is its own form of narcissism,’ King had always reminded me, when I went to him crying because nobody loved me any more.

I will probably do anything, I tentatively promise the sea, the sky, the dirt.

***

‘Fetch Grace a glass of water,’ Mother tells me. ‘You make the dinner tonight.’

I go out to harvest herbs from the garden, spot a small black snake sunning itself on a patch of scrubbed earth. Normally I would scream, but this time I find a branch that has fallen, hit the snake until it’s burst open like something cooked too long. I throw salt on its pulp and wash my hands in bleach solution. The skin of my two index fingers peels, both hands. Good enough yet? I ask nobody.

After we eat, my sister retches in the corner of the lounge. She runs out of the room and down the corridor towards the bathroom, her bare feet an urgent slap on the parquet. When she comes back, her face is like the moon. She lies down right there on the floor, choosing the rug with the tassels in front of the empty replace.

I worry that my biceps aren’t strong enough to dig her grave and if not me, who will? I worry that I will catch it. I pinch my nose and gargle salt water until my eyes run.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

Mother is stricter than King at first, but she does relax over time. In the evenings she trickles a small amount of whisky into her glass and drinks it out on the terrace, looking over the rail to the pool below, the treetops just out of reach. We join her out there, and sometimes she tells us about how we arrived, the story of how we came to be.

She tells us about Lia, a stone in her stomach dragging her body down. She tells us about Grace, bundled in white. She tells us about Sky, as yet unimagined but already there, somewhere, in the two that came first. In the dust of the stars above them, or planted in their hearts like a seed. King drove the boat, watched out for dangers, while Mother held Grace in her arms, the burden of two small lives. Another boat was tethered behind, low in the water and almost overladen with belongings, with hope. Neither Mother nor King looked back across the waves, the world shrinking to a flat line, a smear of light and smoke. This was a promised place, is how she tells it. A place that was hers from the start.

***

Grace

Different parts of the body submerged mean different things. Different temperatures, too. Ice-bucket therapy for hands and feet, where energies concentrate. Crucial to take the heat of feeling out of ourselves. Naturally cold, I am rarely prescribed it. Icy little fish, your pet name for me. Former pet name.

Lia has a day where she can’t stop crying, and she doesn’t try to hide it. On the contrary she sits in my bed even though I don’t want her there.

‘You’ll poison the air,’ I tell her, irritated.

‘Leave me alone,’ she says, bunching the duvet around her feet. It’s a very hot day. I can see every speck of dust where it twists against the oral wallpaper, the light. Her cheeks are too red. She is fractious, always so difficult.

***

Mother fills up the ice bucket, half ice, half water. The four of us are in her bathroom. Mother is in her bad-day uniform: King’s old grey T-shirt and leggings with holes at the knee. We are all in our nightgowns; we didn’t bother getting dressed today. Lia is still crying. She puts her hands in the bucket voluntarily. She wants to feel better. For a second I am moved. ‘Good girl,’ Mother murmurs. She keeps her hands on Lia’s wrists as my sister closes her eyes and grimaces. Sky drums her hands on the floor, a mosaic of blue and white, does not take her eyes off Lia’s face. Her movements become quicker. ‘Stop that, Sky,’ Mother says. Lia’s own hands move in the bucket, the clumsy sound as she stirs the ice. I watch the colour recede from her face. Air greenhouse-still, browning foliage laid on the windowsill. We are forever bringing flowers inside and forgetting about them, a failure to care about anything other than ourselves.

***

Later, I go to the pool with Sky. Her body is not a burden to her, and I am jealous. She lies by the pool with her arms at to her sides, face obscured by the sunglasses you brought back from the mainland. Her skin does not prickle like mine, too tight. There is nothing sloshing and mysterious inside her. When I sit down she puts her arm around me at once and I do not mind it. Her touch is easy and thoughtless. Sometimes when Lia grasps for me it is like we are both being tortured.

I’m surprised Mother has not appeared yet. Normally if my sisters and I are by the pool she can’t bring herself to leave us alone. She does not go in but instead lies by the water, inert under a glistening layer of the tanning oil we aren’t allowed to use. If we’re swimming she will get as close as she can to the water without touching it. We can’t even escape her there.

Sky takes off her sunglasses and stands up. ‘Watch,’ she says. ‘I’ve been practising.’ She walks to the end of the diving board and meets my eyes, waits until I nod, and then throws herself up into the air. She turns a somersault and hits the water cleanly. She wants nothing from me but my admiration. I give it, because if this world belongs to anybody it is her.

‘That was a good one,’ I say. She flops back next to me, examines the new spider veins of my legs with a sad noise. The twelve years between us are heavy with the things that a body can do or have done to it. Heartburn leaves a tidemark at the back of my throat every time I eat. My back freezes and tells me enough. I can tell she is fascinated and afraid. It has been a while since she has grown at all.

She shifts on to her stomach to let the light catch her back. Fists up her hands in the way that I remember from when she was a baby, when she was carried everywhere in her trailing white sacks with the ceremony of a gift. And I am happy for a minute, here, with my sister, her blameless body reminding me that not everything is in vain.

***

Lia

Once every three months or so, King went out into the world to fetch supplies. It was a dangerous journey that required careful preparation of the body, so he developed an ingenious system of short sharp inhales and long exhales to propel the mainland air as far away as possible. His face became red as he practised in the ballroom and we joined in solemnly, panting in solidarity; the slatted morning sun falling over us, the curtains of the stage drawn back so that we faced its dark mouth. One of us daughters always fainted. Sometimes it was two or all of us. When that happened, King would become agitated. ‘You see?’ he would tell us as we surrounded the fallen sister, as we flicked water against skin. ‘You see how quickly you’d die out there?’

On the day itself he would pack the boat with food and water for the journey, with the cross-stitched talismans we created, red and blue thread embroidered on remnants of old bed sheets. The patterns were abstract and mysterious, and he sold them to the husbands and brothers of sick women on the land, who saw hope or magic in the dreamy repetitions of our hands.

King prepared himself by dressing in a white linen suit that was slightly too small, soiled despite Mother’s attempts to wash it, the underarms stained yellow. ‘Function over style,’ King told us a long time ago. Nothing else that fitted him was reflective enough. He wrapped white cotton around his hands and feet and took wide lengths of muslin to clutch against his mouth.

We all gathered at the shore to cast him off, watching as he walked slowly down the jetty. Crying was allowed on those days because it was our father, and he was taking responsibility for our lives. We looked back behind us at our home, a home kept safe by this and other such actions, and our gratitude almost hurt. King raised his hand to us once he was safely in the boat. When he started sailing we began the breathing exercises again with extra vigour, heads and hearts light. We lifted up our arms. Were we imagining it, that haze on the distant ocean, that barrier he had to cross? Perhaps.

Soon he would be out of sight. He went in a straight line for a while and then turned right until he had left our bay. We knew his lungs were robust enough to filter out some of the toxins, even if his large body became weakened by the air’s assault. When Mother started crying we all patted her with our hands.

There was no formal dinner on the leaving days. Instead we ate crackers, the last of the tins, Mother opening more than usual because new things were coming to us: household objects, and food that would keep, sacks of rice and our and sometimes hard pieces of enamel jewellery that King would place in Mother’s palm and she would fold her fingers over. Gallons of bleach in blue canteens. Our own specific requests: soap, bandages, pencils, matches, foil. I always asked for chocolate and was always refused, but I tried every time. Magazines for Mother, handed over in three layers of paper bags and handled lightly by us sisters, who were forbidden to read them.

The journey took three days. One day to reach the mainland, one day spent there, and back on the third. On King’s return date, we waited all day. In the morning we helped Mother prepare a Welcome Back meal, our fingers raw and quick against stained plastic chopping boards as we cut onion until it looked like rice, the transparent scatter of it browning in the pan. We concentrated on the chopping with our entire hearts, and when we had finished one onion we would look up before starting the next, gazing out of the large windows that took up most of the kitchen’s far wall, searching for the speck of his body.

At dusk we would finally spot the boat and arrange ourselves on the shore to greet him. He returned to us reduced, and it was important for us to hide that it was difficult to see this, so we made sure to keep smiles fixed upon our faces no matter how red his eyes, the hair already covering his chin without his usual routine of a dawn shave, a pre-dinner shave. He always smelled foul. Luckily he never wanted us to touch him upon his return, not even Mother. We unloaded the boat as he dragged his body upstairs to soak in the tub, to let the scum of the outside world fall away. By the time he came back down for dinner he was a little livelier, although with deep circles under his eyes, like someone had taken a chisel to his face. And by the next day he would be back to normal, his regular size, though he still kept his distance for a few days, in case he’d brought something back, and so we were reminded of how easily damaged we were. As if we could forget it.

Once I was caught opening one of the magazines. Mother had left them in their bags on the old reception desk, distracted momentarily by some domestic emergency. Sky saw me reading it and screamed with true fear for me, bringing the others running. Though I didn’t make it past the second page I was still required to wear latex gloves for the rest of that week in case I contaminated anyone, and I was banned from dinner for the rest of the week too. My sisters brought me discs of sweatily buttered bread and dry fish that they had hidden in their laps. Grace accompanied her offerings with strict words about how stupid I was; Sky brought hers with sincere guilt about raising the alarm. I forgave her easily because the scream was proof of concern, of love, the same way she would have screamed had a viper been raising its head, fangs bared towards my outstretched hand.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

A piece of paper pinned to the corkboard in reception is headed simply

Symptoms.

Withering of the skin.
Wasting and hunching of the body.
Unexplained bleeding from anywhere, but particularly eyes, ears, fingernails. Hair loss.

Exhaustion.
Trouble breathing. Tightness of the throat, the chest. Agitation.
Hallucinations.
Total collapse.

There is no hiding the damage the outside world can do, if a woman hasn’t been taking the right precautions to guard her body. Mother could always tell from the first moment a new woman arrived how ill she was, whether she was beyond saving, and she would shake her head at the futile hostility of the world, the impossibility of it all. It wasn’t their fault that their bodies were unequipped.

‘We have young girls,’ she would tell the newcomer from behind a muffler, the muslin bunched over her lips. Perhaps the woman was just agitated. A nosebleed might have afflicted her on the crossing, blurred drops of blood still lingering at her sleeve from where she had dragged it across her face. ‘Please wait down on the beach, just to be sure.’

Sometimes all they needed was a few hours of the new air to improve. From the window as they rested on the shore, heads pillowed on their luggage, we could almost see their strength replenishing, the way it did with King when he returned to our land. We watched their shoulders straighten, the shaking of their bodies subside.

***

Grace

There is a violence to our eulogizing. We are making something of you that you never consented to. We are turning you into something else: a man finally overcome by the world. I know you would not want to be remembered that way. Thinking about you is akin to dragging your bloated ghost to shore. And why would we want to keep bringing that back?

Lia creates a shrine. Her hands do not shake as she arranges photographs and cowrie shells, even as her eyes leak. I let her have the comfort and do not comment, just look at the tattered photo that is you and Mother on your wedding day, a flower crown, the white suit when it was newly purchased.

Shrines are banned, Mother writes in yellow chalk one morning, the chalkboard propped near the breakfast table so we can’t ignore it. Stay present. Stay with me.

These days I am thinking a lot about your approach to life-guarding, your declarations that you would fell anyone if necessary, in the name of love. And even during the bleaker nights I can hear how the baby inside me sings, or seems to. Popping and amniotic, like the calls of dolphins.

Four

Lia

On a hushed evening following a hushed day, Mother takes us into the ballroom and leads Grace on to the small stage at its far end. ‘Your sister is to have a baby,’ she tells us. We applaud and march our feet on the floor to drum up noise, but we make too much of it and Grace winces.

‘Where is it from?’ Sky asks.

‘Grace asked the sea for one,’ Mother tells us, her hand hovering at the end of Grace’s braid. ‘She has been lucky.’

I stare at Grace until she meets my gaze. How dare she.

***

Later I climb over the rail of the terrace and pull myself up to sit on the roof itself, the edges of the slate tiles digging into my thighs, and I watch the dark sea. I ask and ask, but there is no answering call inside my own body. The waves remain the same, the thinning evening air does not stir. It is possible I want it too much, the way I want everything.

When we were younger, Grace and I played a game called Dying. It involved folding your body over and wadding your eyes up tight. It involved shaking. I was always the one who died – of course I was – so I lay in front of my sister as she threw salt on me.

‘We told you not to go out in the world!’ Grace would shout in an imitation of Mother. ‘What did you wear?’

Just my body. Just the gown.

‘You’re shrinking now,’ said Grace, strictly. ‘Your lungs have burned up. Your eyes are drying out. Soon you will disappear.’

Please.

***

When I walk past Grace’s room later on, I see her lying unmoving on her stomach, the soles of her feet filthy against white linen. I think for a second that she is dead, but when I call she kicks her feet listlessly, assures me that she is very much alive.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

Time without our father becomes stretching, soft. Sugar melted in the pan and drawn into something new before hardening, contracting. There are many days which bleed into each other. The sun in the sky seems closer to us all the time.

Incidences of joy like playing hide-and-seek together, on a rare raining day. Water rinsing the walls of the house, pouring to the drains. From the tall glass doors of the ballroom we watch it pooling on the ground, and filling empty burnt-earth pots that once held small, fragrant trees. Then we move to conceal our bodies. We discover each other wrapped in a velvet curtain, in the old industrial oven, unused for decades, petrified grease caking its ceiling, or behind furniture or doors, waiting patiently for a long time.

Sometimes we become mildly sick, headaches or stomach cramps, and if one sister is sick it’s like we are all sick, so we rally our efforts into healing. The afflicted sister lies on the bed and we brush her hair, administer the small white pills that King brought back encased in cardboard and bubbles of foil. When the sister is better, we cheer. Look what we did, we tell each other. Look how we fixed you.

***

Grace

I go down to the forest whenever I can shake my sisters off. The only place I can find a degree of calm is among the sightless trees, their shadow.

Slipping from the house and across the lawn, I move stealthily through the ornamental beds, past rocks marking out the borders of vegetable patches we no longer maintain. The green beans stopped growing years ago, but the tomatoes, nearer the house, have taken on a life of their own. Their fruit falls and attracts stinging insects. A jam of dirt, overblown globes and seeds.

Down at the end of the garden, I pull up my skirt and climb over the low wall. This is where the forest begins. There is no birdsong, only the dry-skin noise of the leaves. On the other side, I run my hands along the stones of the wall until I find the right one and pull it out. Matches, wrapped in cloth to keep them from damp. A small lighter that belonged to you, yellow plastic. I try it out experimentally on a pile of dead twigs, the liquid inside low, but it still works. For a second I remember how your hands looked moving the flint, the flame rising up, and something passes over me. I do not cry. Fuck you, I mouth to the air instead. It makes no reply. Where is your ghost when I need it?

There is barbed wire in the forest, deeper than I dare to go. Should anyone arrive on the island, it serves the same purpose as the buoys out in the bay, marking out a clear message. Do not enter. Viewed from another angle, Do not leave. I imagine the smoke drifting over it, a defiant signal. But I am too far away, and I stamp it out within minutes. I wonder what it would be like to set the whole forest on fire, to see everything curl up and blacken. But this small blaze is as much as I would dare to do. There is no real danger. The woods will always have the coolness of shadow, dark and wet underneath the boughs.

***

Beside the pool in the afternoon, Lia will not stop talking at me about you, the word remember repeated on the wind like an incantation. She idolized you.

The desperation in her voice is unbearable. Eventually I slap her and she almost falls, then comes back up towards me with her hands ready to fight. I lean back.

‘I’m not going to hit you!’ she tells me, horrified at the idea, despite her automatic fists. They are just a reflex. ‘Not in your condition!’

I go inside to sit in the cool alone, but I slam the door behind me too hard and the ancient chandelier falls from the ceiling in a plume of plaster dust. Glass ripples out over the floor. I scream and scream until everyone else is standing around me, staring, too dumbfounded by my reaction even to run for muslin to stop up my mouth.

‘This house is going to kill us,’ I tell Mother. She has no qualms about hitting me in the face then, condition or no condition.

***

Lia

Two dark purple fingertips on my left hand, from being submerged in ice. The dead big toenail of my left foot also.

The comma from a paperclip I held in the flame of a candle, pressed against the baby skin of my inner upper arm.

The starburst at the back of my neck where Mother once sewed my skin into the fainting sack. Two stitches. She did it on purpose, and yet somehow the blood when I ripped them out was my fault. I want to die every time I think about it.

Bald patch near the nape of my neck, size and smoothness of a thumbnail. That wound belongs to King, who pulled the hair out with his own hands.

Large red stain on my right thumb. This is the thumb I press to the hob when I am cooking. It helps.

Water mark on my flank. Mother poured the hot kettle on me. I screamed bloody murder. I punched her square in the jaw and she just grinned, a pink-tinged grin, because I had caught her lip against the teeth but caused no mortal harm.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

When the damaged women saw King for the first time they often recoiled. Man. But our mother explained that here was a man who had renounced the world. Here was a man who recognized the dangers. Here was a man who put his women and children first.

Away from the toxins, a man’s body could swell and develop unchecked. That was why King was so tall. We thought the hair on the top of his head might grow back too, but it turned out that was a damage that could not be reversed.

‘What are men beyond the border like?’ we asked him.

Eventually he gave us an answer. He spoke of perverse appetites. He spoke of bodies grown strong despite the toxic air, men like trees grown against the wind, knotted, warped. Some thrived on the poison; it was like their bodies had learned not just to overcome, but to need it. He spoke of danger. Men like that tracked around the toxins carelessly. You would feel the effect in their breath, the touch of their hands. Men like that would break your arm without thinking. ‘Like this,’ he had said, demonstrating on us, clasping both fists around each of our forearms in turn and making as if to snap. We felt the bone threaten to give, stayed calm. ‘And worse.’

***

Grace

The season turns about five months after your death and there comes a higher tide than usual, water pressing up against the coastline. An annual occasion. The sea rushes forward to cover the jetty, engulfing the shore and swelling right up to the pebbles on the shingle line. Mother consulted the almanac a week ago so we knew it was coming. We gather in the lounge to watch the swollen moon from the window. The light feels purifying.

I think about the things that have washed up to us on previous high tides. Squat catfish the size of my arm, rotten as a blister. Jellyfish full of poison. Other things that we were not allowed to see, things that meant the beach needed to be cordoned off, our curtains closed. Tides dredge and bring forth. The world comes nearer to us.

‘Careful, girls,’ Mother instructs us. She is letting us watch for now because it is beautiful. Because of the light’s quality. When I glance to my side I see Lia’s eyes wet with tears. Sky’s eyes are closed, and I close my own eyes too, picture my heart flipping in my chest. Underneath that I picture the baby, lying still. Even through closed glass the air smells of pine and salt. It almost burns.

The next day comes house arrest as Mother patrols the shore. She puts on King’s white linen trousers, the fabric falling over her feet, a muslin veil hanging down from a wide-brimmed hat to cover her face. It looks elegant. She will check the tideline, the shallows, even the edge of the forest, though the water never rises that far. She locks the front door behind us. We lag in reception, watching her pass through the door, watching the handle turn, the click of the key. The world outside seems to glow with a new and clean light.

We go to the lounge. Mother has let down the curtains but not the blackout blinds that cut out sunlight completely. Lia goes to the window, but Sky calls out ‘No!’ with such fear that she doesn’t have the heart to push it. Instead she comes back and kneels on all fours so that our little sister can ride her like an animal, even though Sky is really too big for that now. They move mournfully around the room, Lia dipping her head so her dark hair reaches the floor, gathers there like a rope being let down. In the end they lie on the carpet and stick their limbs into the air, moving them around.

‘Woodlouse,’ Lia says as she watches the movement of her arms and legs, slow, controlled. It was our old game. ‘We are stuck and cannot get up.’

Soon Mother comes back to tell us we are safe again, but we decide to keep all the windows and doors closed anyway, just in case. Mother nods at our caution. ‘You are doing so well,’ she tells us, taking off the hat. The muslin trails to the ground. ‘I am so proud of you.’

***

Lia

Trauma is a toxin that hooks into our hair and organs and blood and becomes part of us, the way heavy metals do, our bodies nothing more than a layering of flesh around everything ingested and experienced. These things sit inside us like the misshapen pearls we sometimes prise from oysters. Fear calcifies in our veins and the chambers of our hearts. Pain is a currency like the talismans we sewed for the sick women, a give and take, a way to strengthen and prepare the body. ‘You think you know pain,’ Mother used to say. ‘You don’t know anything, you have no idea.’ And then the love of the family, a balm that keeps our airways soft and wet, a thing to keep us drawing breath.

There has always been the worry that I would catch something of Grace ’s trauma, because she was exposed young, at the age when any trace of toxin would cause immeasurable harm, whether or not she remembered it. Mother and King were traumatized too in their own ways, but they spoke of adulthood like a mantle, something that repelled.

Scream therapy then, in the early days, was supposed to tap our feelings out of us, allow us to expel the excess through the mouth. Up on the terrace on a windy day, we stood in the air. King still had some of his hair back then, nestling at the ears. I remember him being a giant, remember the wind bending me and Grace. Mother wore earplugs and held her arms around us, supporting us in the hot gusts. King held a stick that he called a conducting baton. He stood a few feet away from us, no earplugs, all the better to check we were screaming with the correct cadence, with sufficient enthusiasm.

‘Scream from the chest,’ he had told us. ‘Low down. None of that throat-screaming. Not through the nose.’

We did. The air came out of our mouths, heavy, full.

‘Louder!’ shouted King. The wind was taking the sound away. I would never be able to scream loud enough. I launched my voice with all my force and felt unendurably happy. I had been waiting my whole short life to feel that way.

‘Now move to a throat scream,’ he told us, lifting the baton higher. We adjusted how the air was being expelled. The shrieking was high-pitched now, a noise of terror rather than of fierce joy. The baton moved from side to side, Grace screaming more powerfully, and then me. My voice cracked slightly. Our mouths were dry.

‘One final push,’ King encouraged us. ‘One last go. Give it all you’ve got.’

A pause, a breath. We gathered ourselves and then we let loose, we opened our mouths as wide as they would go and the blood flooded my face, there was no more air. My cheeks were wet with unexpected tears. It was such a relief, to do that. It was such a relief.

Five

Grace, Lia, Sky

Without our father, it is very hard not to think about things going wrong. Years ago we saw something forbidden – something that washed up in a storm, one of the times when Mother had locked us in the house and drawn the curtains tight. But there are so many rooms here, so many windows. When she went outside we simply found another room at the top of the house, and through the glass we saw the lump that Mother and King were digging a hole for. What could only be a ghost, fat and blue. It had been a woman, was now the nightmarish memory of a woman. It was undoubtedly toxic and yet we could not look away.

Mother was surrounded by the damaged women and they were crying hysterically, all of them. But King did not cry. He was grim and resolute. As we watched he covered the ghost with a sheet and drove the shovel into the sand like it was an enemy he was killing.

***

Grace

I am walking towards your grave when I notice the browning of the leaves. It’s too early for the summer death of the greenery. I move through the forest carefully, noting other changes. When I come to the border, I can see it has rusted badly, some parts almost broken.

I have a theory that pregnancy ramps up your ability to intuit a threat. Extra-sensory. Mother has a theory that pregnancy makes you histrionic. I am milky, hormonal, prone to sticking cold teaspoons in my mouth so I can taste the metal.

I have tried to discuss the border with Mother, but either she doesn’t want to know or she doesn’t want to talk about it with me.

It causes me a lot of stress to think about pushing the wet lump of my baby out into a compromised world.

***

Lia

There are some things I thought had died with our father, but I am wrong. Mother tells us over breakfast that we will be heading down to the shore for a love therapy, and I have to put down my spoon. Suddenly I am not hungry. The slick orbs of tinned fruit, anaemic, swim in their juice. A prune like a dark yolk next to them. Grace continues to spoon mandarin segments into her mouth, unperturbed. The therapies are never as bad for her. Her hands never tremble when she puts them in the sack, when she moves to draw an iron out.

As we approach the beach I see two small cardboard boxes with air holes in the lid and a large bucket next to them, several gallons’ capacity, already full of water. Also a smaller bucket, a box of matches, a pile of twigs and leaves, and two pairs of thick gardening gloves. Sky grasps for Grace’s hand and I twist my own behind my back.

‘My girls,’ Mother says. Her face is speckled from the season, from the heat, her eyes like two pale chips of glass against the skin, her lips cracked. She always loves this, seeing us being brave. She gestures for me and Sky to come forward.

‘Lia, you first,’ she tells me. The one with the least love always starts it. I pull on the thick gloves. She ducks to the floor and picks up both boxes. ‘Choose.’

I take one from her and hold it in my hands. Something inside runs around, the box’s centre of gravity moving. I place it on the sand next to me, and take the other. Something is in this one too, but it is slower. Dank woodland smells from both of them. I put it down.

‘I choose the first one,’ I tell her. Get it over with. She nods.

‘It’s a mouse,’ she says. ‘I found it this morning in the traps.’ She looks from me to Sky. ‘Sky, take the box.’

Sky picks up the first box. The movements become quicker, a scuffling at the edge of the box. Her hands are shaking.

‘You can let Sky drown the mouse,’ Mother tells me. ‘Or you can do it for her.’

Sky looks at me imploringly, but she doesn’t need to. I am already reaching for the box even though the idea of the small velvet body makes me want to cry, the thought of it moving in my hands. My sisters watch me mutely as I lift the lid.

‘Don’t let it get out,’ Mother tells me, but in one motion I cup it under the stomach, lift it out and drop it into the bucket of water. It ails valiantly but it is already exhausted. Soon it sinks and lies motionless, suspended. I feel the tears gather at the back of my throat. Sky mouths Thank you to me, water in her own eyes.

The next box holds a toad, leathery and stunned. I know Sky would be terrified of holding it but I have no such problems, stroking its squat body with one gloved finger, hoping that might be it. Mice are pests, spreaders of disease, enemies of our survival. Toads are not. But Mother gestures to what I now realize is kindling, next to the box of matches on the sand.

‘Mother, no,’ says Grace. ‘That’s too cruel.’

‘Life is cruel,’ Mother tells her. ‘If you girls can’t make difficult decisions for each other now, you’ll never be able to.’

I look down at the toad, its ugly skin. Its movements are slow, as if the warmth of my hands is comforting.

‘Mother,’ I say too. My mouth is dry.

‘If you won’t do it, your sister has to,’ Mother says.

‘Please, Mother, no!’ Sky says, on the verge of tears again. ‘Please don’t make either of us do it.’

‘I’ll touch it with my bare hands,’ I tell her. ‘I’ll drown it.’

‘No,’ she says. ‘I don’t want you getting sick. And it can swim. I wasn’t born yesterday.’ She looks to my sisters. ‘Get the fire lit, then.’ When the bonfire is ready, I crouch next to its small flames. Mother is looking at me, seeing if I will go through with it. I could let the toad go, hurl it down the beach. It might die then too, its body smashed and useless. My breathing is ragged.

‘If you can’t do it, give it to Sky,’ Mother says one last time. But I will not make my sister do this, and she knows it. I drop the toad into the fire and move back.

Almost instantly, Mother throws a bucket of water over the flames. The toad hops out, barely blackened.

‘You passed,’ Mother tells me. ‘Well done.’

Sky looks up at me, stricken with gratefulness. Our feelings pass between us like an electric charge. I accept them, absorb them, and then the weeping comes over me in a wave and I pull off the dirty gloves, put my hands to my face.

***

Grace, Lia, Sky

There are still days when Mother doesn’t get out of bed, though they are further apart now. On those days we know she is thinking of King, and we know that she is suffering from a thing called heartbreak that we have no comprehension of and probably never will. She tells us this not-knowing is a gift, like the life she managed to breathe into us, the life she has always protected so fiercely.

‘Can you not be grateful for that? Can you not thank me for that?’ she asks us from the bed, her blankets a smudge in the darkness as we stand in the doorway.

We say, ‘Yes, Mother. Thank you, Mother.

***

Grace

‘Draw pictures of what the men have done to you,’ Mother told the damaged women. Lia, Sky and I were allowed to sit in on this kind of session, occasionally. ‘So you don’t have to let the words out.’ The mystery of it. I wanted to look at every page, but the women shielded their pads with their bodies as if the information were deadly.

They hunched over their paper, pencil and pens moving in wide arcs. It was a busy season. Seven or eight of the women were staying with us at that time, looking at us daughters with watery eyes across the breakfast table, or standing out at the edge of the forest with you and Mother, holding hands loosely, staring into the dark.

‘You can keep it abstract, if you want,’ Mother told them, benevolent. The varnish on her nails was chipped. She looked tired. She went from woman to woman as they drew, tapping their shoulder before she looked.

‘May I?’ she asked them, and then studied each page in turn.

Putting the things down on the paper was better than letting the words into the air, which would be tantamount to bringing the contamination with them. We didn’t see the pictures. One woman wept, tore a hole at the centre of the page. Another drew something in great detail and spent the rest of the afternoon rubbing it out carefully, centimetre by centimetre.

Later we were allowed to join them on the shore as the drawings were all burned, the women throwing matches and salt on the bonfire. You always kept your distance, surveying from the back. You must have wanted to look. The drawings were not things you had done, but the actions belonged to you the way the pain of the women belonged to us. Your body made you a traitor, despite everything. We stayed there until the tide came up and reached the ashes, turned them into sludge.

***

Lia

After years of them, I am used to sudden awakenings, to Mother’s hand clamped against my mouth. Always a drill for some unspecified event, the worst ever yet to come, always her dank vegetable breath and the white space of her eyes, blinking too fast. I go with her every time, even when my sisters refuse, feign too-deep sleep, charm her into letting them stay put. Being asked is enough for me, let alone the possibility that this time it could be real. Fear roiling in my stomach, and something else too, something close to hope. Every year the seasons become warmer and it is the earth telling me that change is coming, it is the air whispering, It will not always be so, and in the meantime this intimacy as I follow Mother down the stairs when nobody else will, the cool torchlight, for to be good is to be loved, I do believe this, and I have been good, I am always being good.

***

There is a storm the night that it finally happens. Mother wakes us up, will not take no for an answer, and leads us into her bathroom. It is cramped, too hot, blankets and pillows on the floor for us to use as bedding, but the only window is small and has a wooden blind that shuts out all the light. King made that blind himself so he could develop photographs in the pitch-dark, dripping paper over the bath. Mother floats tea-lights in the sink. We try and make a bed for Grace in the tub but she is too large now to t in, bulbous like an insect with her skinny legs, so in the end Sky is the one who lies down in the porcelain with a folded towel beneath her head. Grace stretches out on the floor, my hands hovering above Grace’s stomach. My need thrums uncomfortably loud. ‘Don’t,’ Grace says. She does not say it gently.

Water from the tap, our mouths kissing the metal directly. Water scattered with our fingers at each other, cooling. Mother stands and tries to see what she can from the window. When the wind catches the blind extra hard she makes the same shushing noises that King had developed for his trips, her lips pursed, as if she can out-blow it. To the noise of the rain, the noise of the protections of our mother, we fall into curled-body sleep.

In the morning the storm is over and Mother is gone. The three of us wake each other, move slow through the door into her bedroom, where she stands by the window, looking down at something on the beach. She is shaking, and I start to shake too. I cannot help it.

‘Stay there,’ she tells us without looking around. ‘Don’t move.’

We ignore her, walk to the window. ‘No,’ she says again, but it’s too late.

There are three people lying on the shore, high up on the sand past the breakers. As we watch, one of them sits up and retches ungracefully into the sand. They remain sitting up.

‘They’re men,’ Mother says, putting her arms out to push us back, though they are far below us, though we are safe for now. ‘Men have come to us.’

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Sophie Mackintosh
Dystopia

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