Inside, by Ruth Jenkins
artwork by Beth Ward

On the first night he takes her to his house at the edge of the woods. ‘I have been building this a little each day since you were born,’ he says. And she likes the sharp excitement in his voice, and the way his body brushes against hers almost accidentally.

Outside in the dark it looks just like any other house. But as they stoop through the low blue door, she feels that, although she does not remember it, this is somewhere she has been before and never really left. He switches on the lights, and turns to watch her as though she is unwrapping a long awaited gift.

The carpet that stretches across the slanted front room is made of the swollen, wire-thick threads of her lost dresses, woven to a pattern of little green and yellow stars. Her old child-light hairs are twisted to ropes that hold the windows strong against the night. The walls are paper, bloated thick and large: her scribbled diary pages, torn school reports, blue-inked calculations. Letters and symbols swollen to the size of bent bony fingers. Everything she has ever made and discarded is a small seed he has planted. Every detail of every room is something once a part of her. Only the metal is his, the screws and nails that hold it all together.

There is room after sloped and tattered room. She walks for hours in the clear blue mornings. Each new room punches her with the truth of what she finds there.

In the evenings, he waits for her, having finished the new room he makes each day from bits of the previous one. He runs his fingers through her hair, strokes her long neck, says, as though pre-empting a question she doesn't yet know she will ask. ‘What else could be enough for you?’

He has seen everything that has happened to her.

i.
She will say she never knew what she was running from, just that one day she felt her body slip into a place that overlaid their everyday one, a quiet place where she could see the motions of his and her lives moving like a thousand silver clockwork pieces.

She uncurls all the threads of her dresses, tears her papers to thin strips, starts quiet fires. Leaves a little less behind each day. She wants to learn the secrets of the house, cuts off a strand of his hair while he is sleeping, pushes it down into the garden earth to see what will happen and watches it swell to the size of a worm. This is when she knows it’s just a matter of waiting for the right time.

But his body is not like hers. He is neat, leaves no trail of skin or bits of hair. He has no loved objects of his own in their living room or bedroom. Everything she sees belongs to her.

She starts to follow him. She finds the workroom where he keeps the instruments: the pots for planting her bits of hair, skin, any odds and ends of her life, his rows of sharp tools. And the nails in the red box, the only things in the house that never belonged to her.

She soothes the box open as though reaching inside a not-quite tame animal’s mouth. She picks out the nails one by one and slips them into her front pockets. She makes her way through the maze of rooms until she comes to the front room, remembers seeing it for the first time. She unties the ropes that keep the doors in place. She runs through the garden and the soil and the grass seems too close. Her hands shake as she plants the nails in a circle in the damp earth around the house. She watches them bloom in sped up motion around the house to a fence too high and smooth to climb and her on the outside.

ii.
She gets a job as a baker boy. Lives the rhythm of the heat, fire rising, dough hardening. Each morning she feels as though she is smoothing a series of faceless and limbless animals to an unbreakable sleep. She burns all her old clothes, cuts her hair blood short. She cannot speak, makes patterns with shapes. She keeps her body moving. The villagers whisper about the house at the edge of the woods and what must be happening behind all that metal. They put white figures without eyes or mouths outside their doors to ward off what is coming.

He has been breeding trees from a scrap of her dress caught in the fence when she ran off. He whispers songs to the ground until one thread swells to large enough a size. She is not surprised when she sees him rising from the top of a multi-coloured patchwork tree over the fence like the captain of a ship crossing the curved ocean. The land beneath falls into his victorious shadow.

iii.
He has prepared the room at the top of the house for her. He has swept it right clean. Nothing but the boards and the night sky.

The house is falling apart and torn. ‘I need you,’ he says. A picture of the sky she made when she was much younger fills the gaps in the roof, so they live all the time under its childish clouds.

He takes nails from a second chamber of the red box. She imagines it is bottomless, and that she could fall into all that bright red, and, falling far enough, become the colour. Since she went away she does not speak. He makes sharp mouths all over her body, voices for her to use. Gashes from shoulder to wrist, from the back of her neck to the small of her back.

Winter wraps around the house. He starts building rooms again. The days are nothing but clockwork. Each room looks the same. The objects are not hers. Her body is not hers. He watches her closely. He ties her to the bed when he sleeps.

She takes care of his animals. She sings to a large awkward blackbird when she thinks he is not watching. Then she wakes drowsy with heavy limbs in the room at the top of the house and does not know how she got there – sees the bird gashed dead and its body nailed to the door. She slips into a place that is just knowing exactly what needs to be done without even the need to form words or thoughts. She takes the feathers and pushes them into the cut down her back and the cuts down her arms. The feathers sprout to lop-sided wings and she stumble-flies through her painted sky into night.

iv.
She follows the tangle of roads until exhaustion makes her fall from the sky. She joins the circus. She lives in a green-wheeled caravan. She says to herself. I left nothing behind this time.

She is glorious. Her face and body are thick with paint. She flies through the wide canvas tent each night. She swoops and curves. She sees the open-mouthed faces. She throws out roses.

When she first moved into the caravan she asked the man in charge ‘Who made this?’ He did not understand the question.

The walls are smooth and fit with no gaps. She tries not to mind the silence of these plastic coated rooms, but each day, it feels like there's a little bit less of her. Even if there are men who seem for a while as though they see something worth keeping in her: they do not know where she comes from, and leave with nothing of her. Sometimes when she's flying at the top of the tent she looks down at the crowd, and whatever the expression on their faces, she knows with a certainty she cannot explain that no one will remember this.

She does not see the quiet man who watches from behind sunglasses and a soft disguise, who learns her routine, who sees where her roses fall and makes sure he is in the place to catch them. He pulls off the thorns and plants them in his skin, hides the spikes he sprouts on his arms and hands beneath white gloves. He follows her as she walks to the edge of the sea. He grabs her. He has been watching her. He knows what she does and who she has become. The spikes tear at her skin. She tastes the salt of his sweat. She screams. He plants the spikes around her and a rosebush coils up her arms and legs and hands and holds her tight in place.

v.
He cuts off her wings. He rebuilds the house piece by piece at the edge of the sea, around her in the rosebush. Her body swells and spits out his child. He builds a fence and they face out onto the sea. He lets her walk with the baby on the beach. The baby does not cry but watches her all the time. And he watches her with the baby. He handles it roughly. He holds it by the arm like an object. He talks about giants, and monsters, things in a human shape but swollen beyond it. A person that moves like clay, a creature with nothing human in it that he can make now if he needs to.

He knows everything that has happened to her. She walks through rooms and is punched by the truth of what she finds there. She walks by the beach and bathes the child in the sea. She holds the child softly and smiles at it. She is afraid he knows how much she loves it.

Everything of hers he makes into something that hates her. He digs a small hole in the garden.

She stands by the sea and it is as though the tide is drawing breath in and out. He is so busy preparing the soil he is not watching her. This is her chance. She thinks of villagers and their smoothed offerings.

She plants the child’s pink body in the water. It is summer. The sun is too hot on her skin. She holds the child down until it slips away from her. There’s a moment when everything goes silent as though the world has become an in between place where nothing happens except the light changing in slow motion. But the sea swells back with angry hands and a mouth and rises along the sandy path to surround him and the house and smash them and tug them away to sea as though nothing could be simpler.

Then the tide goes out and she’s alone with the trees and the sky.


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