The chickens aren't laying. On a normal day we'd have four, maybe five eggs waiting for us in the dewy morning, all covered in blood and down, but for the last three days there hasn't been a single one. They don't seem sick, but they're definitely quiet. Quieter than I've ever heard them in fact. They huddle together in the back of the coop like it is already the middle of winter. Maybe they're spent, but they're not that old. Three, maybe four years. If they don't start laying soon I'll have to wring their necks. I tell them this, but they don't react. They just stare at me with those beady little eyes. Still, we have enough eggs for the week at least and back in the house she cracks two into a spitting pan and we both stare hypnotised as life's ingredients coagulate in hot fat. The low sun shines through the square window and lands on the back wall, framing a nail at the top of a patch of pale paper that forms the faint shape of a cross. The absence of a symbol of hope. "Have you finished a picture lately?" I ask, filling the silence. She stops her busy work and looks at me hard.
"Have you been in there?" she asks back, her voice full of accusation.
"No, I haven't, I wouldn't. I don't... I just wondered if you had something we could put there." I point to the nail and the wall and the missing crucifix. "Would be nice to hang something there again perhaps?"
"No." she shuts me down. "Leave it like that."
In the afternoon, I pull carrots. It's surprisingly warm in the bright sun and the movement heats me up fast. I roll up my sleeves to work harder, and to look keener. I know she watches me from behind the canvas and glass of the sunroom. Why can she only look at me with those intense eyes when there is something between us, even if it is just glass and space? I roll my sleeves up still further and feel the rough skin sting on my forearm. My hand goes to it. I look down. It's red. Scarred. Cut in hatches and crosses. I look back up at her as if to say, look at what we've done, but she's gone.
That night we sit apart and eat a rich stew, a family recipe handed down to her through generations of ice cold women. It's a dish full of warm spice, reassuring roots and embracing depths, ladled out for generations in place of affection. It's how I know she still loves me. Because no one could cook so well for someone they feel nothing for.
Under her secret but watchful gaze, I harvest the land. The low sun catches what gilt leaves haven't already fallen to the ground and the blue sky looks as fragile as a finch egg. In the distance, over the dour sea, winter lurches ever nearer. Yes, I think, now is the time to reap what we have sown. This used to be my favourite time of year. I remember the smell of chutneys bubbling and spices drying, life abundant, the three of us thanking the spirits for all we had. We had so much... I'm pulled out of bliss by a screech and a boom overhead, the sky being split by a harrier jet, scrambling low. It screams out to sea before curving back in toward the land in a giant sweep of the sky, heading in the direction of town, and perhaps the capital far beyond it. Another follows, doubling the screech and doubling the boom. I run up the field after them but they're gone in an instant. I feel her behind me. The strange sound brought her out of the house. We look at each other, puzzled. "Practice?" I ask in the torn air.
"Hmm." She says. "Must be." We stand side by side looking down the ragged and windswept coast. When the boom eventually leaves the air her eyes grow critical and wander the land till they find the dry stone wall that ambles across the horizon. "It's too low," she says, after a moment's consideration. I look at it. The short, squat wall has stood there an age, collecting moss and lichen. Two small sections are missing their top stones and sheep pock the landscape beyond it. "You should build a fence," she says, and she's right. The wall is good enough to keep the sheep at bay, but a person could straddle it easily. The man that walked through here last week likely came over it, and we both know it. Apart from the gated entrance to the driveway, it's the only way anyone could get onto our property.
"I'll do it in the spring," I say. "Does Charlie still do fencing?"
"Yes. Yes, he does. He does everything we need." A thin smile on her face, the start of a question on mine. The query hangs in the air for a moment, then we go about our solitary businesses, each hoping tomorrow never comes.
It's here. The third anniversary of what I did arrives as inevitably as the seasons, bringing with it a sadness that feels like a presence in the house. I work alone on the land, and in that way today is like any other. I see her in the sunroom, as always, the blank back of a canvas facing me, the front being struck and whipped with her paint and grief. She glances around the side of it now and then, looking at me like she's painting my portrait. Maybe she is. I narrow my eyes and smile weakly, trying to meet her in the pain we're sharing, but she doesn't respond. She just squints in my direction, looking at me like I'm a still life project, just some dry rock in a barren landscape. Tick tock. Time passes defiantly. Shadows needle across the grass. The boughs of a bare tree obscure the falling sun. Cold, thin hands pass over a pale clock face. Tick, tick, tick, the clock ticking ever closer to that fateful tock. The moment everything ended. 5:47 pm. Time eternal. With every passing second, I feel the tremor building. It starts as a tremble in my knees, then it's a weakness in my knuckles, a ball in my throat, a prick in my eye. Don't cry. Don't let her see you like this. You've got to be strong for her. You've got to be strong. I drop my tools and keep my head down as I trudge over the grass and out of her sight to the back of the house, while the ocean, wind and trees conspire to whisper his name into my cold bitten ears. Nathan... Nathan... Nathan... I drop to my weak knees in front of the faint mound in the earth. It used to be flat here. This ground was flat. But now it isn't. Now it's forced up by something deep underground. A box. A box with something in it. Something I put there. Yes, now the anger comes, the way it has on this day each year since he left us. It shudders through me like a storm. My face stretches into a silent scream. I draw up my dirty hands to hold it back, to put myself back together, but I can't. It's coming now, and it can't be stopped. I moan and moan and I beat the earth, fighting it, punishing it for the horror, for all the fucking horror I have seen. For showing me my own flesh and blood crushed flat under my own black tyre. For ever making me feel that sickening crunch. For ever letting me see his treaded face. No one should have to experience that! No one! That experience should not exist! It shouldn't fucking exist! I take my fury out on the very earth itself, beating it hard, beating it deeply. And I feel another beat. The beat of feet approaching fast. I spin around just in time to see her hand swing towards me. Her hand meets my face with all the force she has and I fall onto my son's grave with my face stinging and my ear ringing. She jumps on top of me, her thin, paint-stained hands in striking fists while the fires of all hell burn in her eyes. "Get away from him!" she screeches. She claws and beats, grabbing my beard and hair, pulling me up then smashing me down. Pulling me up then smashing me down. Has the sky turned red? No. Blood. Blood on my face. Blood in my eye. It's fading. The red world is going black. It's OK... I try to say. It's OK. It's OK for her to hurt me because I know it helps her. I know she needs this. I can't say the words because the blows keep landing, but it's OK because she needs this. She needs this. She needs....
I come round. The pillow is wet and red where my head meets it and my mouth feels thick and full. My left eye won't open. I stumble from the bed, more than just groggy, and lean against the bathroom sink, swollen and sore with some bright new scars to add to my collection. I see myself in the old mirror. Bruises, blood and beard. Behind the mess of hair, scab and swelling, I catch a glimpse of someone I used to know. A man who was once a boy. Once innocent. And I wonder, when she looks at me does she ever see that boy she met? Or the man she married? Or does she just see the accident? She must. Some days it feels like that's all she can see of me. That's why she hurts me. Because some days she can't see the man for the manslaughter. And it's OK. Some days neither can I. Now I look at my wounds in more detail. What am I dealing with here? Bruises. Lots of small cuts and scratches down the left side of my face, none of them too serious, but there's one deeper gash that runs down my heavy brow across the lid, and perhaps into the globe of the eye that won't open too. I force the closed eye open with fat, indelicate fingers. For a second I see a half blurred world through that swollen eye, then the wound across my brow splits open and blood runs freely down my face, turning the scene an all too familiar shade of red. I'm faint. This is too much. I can't fix this on my own, so I call out to her. "Help!' I shout. "Help me! Help me!" I fall to my knees on the bare boards, holding onto the pale porcelain with bloody hands, then the world that turned red turns black again, and I'm gone.
In the timeless black, there is only him. He's tiny in the distance, so small I shouldn't even be able to recognise him, but I know it's him. I know my own son. I set off running. I'm excited to see him. An engine revs. I run faster to get to him but he's still so far away. The engine revs faster, but I keep running. Suddenly I'm there. His back is to me. He's such a little boy. I forgot how small he was. I spin him around, but each side is only the back of him, the back of him, the back of him, and the engine is screaming, and the engine is screaming. Nathan! His final image wakes me. The bed is clean but my mouth is dry and the skin feels tight on the left side of my head. I raise my hand and feel the tightness there gingerly. A bandage is wrapped around the left hemisphere of my head. She must have fixed it when I was unconscious. The presence of the tight bandage is reassuring and I feel...better. Not good, but better. The light is weak. Is it early morning or late night? And what day is it? She is sat in the seat by the window, looking out. "Mmm," I say. I was supposed to say, "Morning," but only "Mmm" came out. She turns to look at me and her face is full of concern. It's a beautiful face. A face that could so easily melt into a smile. A face that could say, I love you, without ever saying the words. I smile. I can't help it. She brings it out of me like a flower in the sun, but with that the sun sets. Her face falls dark. She stands up straight and leaves the room. I hear doors open, then close, and I'm alone again. I notice food on the side table. A dry sandwich and a glass of water. I choke it down. My teeth feel bruised, but I chew and swallow with gusto and I feel like I'm coming back to life as I fall back asleep.