A Short Story
By Gabriela Houston
I wince as a splinter forms just above where my index fingernail grows. Just below the top layer of the skin so I can see it crystallise from the flesh, a little swirly current of pain.
She’s unhappy with me. I understand. I’m late, ten minutes late to be exact. Another five and I will feel a ragged splinter on the inside of my nostril. Five more and a creamy-coloured pine flake will appear just next to my iris.
A boy who isn’t good might as well be made of wood, she will say with a smile stretching her perfectly-shaped lips, lips of deep blue, expertly covered with a scarlet lipstick.
I used to think she was beautiful when she first told me I was to go with her. I didn’t mind my father’s tears then because my love for her had hardened my heart. How well I remember them now.
I don’t think her beautiful anymore. I see the cruel look in her almond eyes as her thin eyebrows arch when I displease her. Which I can’t seem to avoid no matter how hard I try.
The sawmill job was her idea. There was no need for it. But she didn’t like the flowers I picked for her. A gift of expected spontaneity.
A job would mean I could earn money to buy her gifts worthy of all the gifts she’d bestowed on me.
A job at the sawmill was a delicious idea, so she said. She actually licked her lips, while looking at my face, searching for the slightest sign I wished to disobey her. There was none. I’d learned to keep my face like a mask of flesh before her.
And now I’m late. The shipment arrived an hour later than it should have and, though I worked fast, I could not escape with the chiming of the clock. She won’t listen to my excuses. Maybe, if I’m lucky, she’ll turn me into a log so I don’t have to face the work again tomorrow.
Trees die slowly. People don’t tend to know that. They don’t tend to think of it.
But I can hear the fallen giants as they’re moved, chained through the yard, brothers in pain, huddled together on the huge trucks, knowing they’re dead though they haven’t yet the peace of it.
I smile as I sign the delivery form. I can’t hear their cries. I smile at the delivery man as well. Every morning I smile and listen to him talk of the traffic and his lazy brother who is a lumberjack though he’s unsuited for “man’s work”, as the delivery guy says.
I nod like I care, resting my hand on the bark of the tree closest to me. Some little comfort, I hope. An apology maybe. Useless either way.
I stand by the saw as their trunks are split into long planks. Even my ear defenders can’t muffle out their warning song. The trees sing to their waiting brothers to tell them there is danger, there is death coming. There’s nothing any of them can do. I can smell their sap as it trickles down, its amber drops hardening before they even touch the floor.
Every day I do this. Every day I whittle at them, like she whittles away parts of me at night.
And now I’m late.
I scale the stairs two at a time and pause to compose myself before I knock on the door.
Come in, she says.
I put a smile on my face.
You’re late. She sounds angry but I can see the delighted twinkle in her eyes, as she looks at me from below her long eyelashes.
I’m very sorry. I tried to get here as fast as I could, I say truthfully. My eye began to itch just as I reached the top of the staircase, but I won’t look in the mirror. It would please the part of her which needs no encouragement.
She leans back in her chair and smooths out the wrinkles in her dress. A dull sensation in my knees reminds me I’m amiss. I kneel in front of her and kiss her hand. The dullness in the knees disappears, dissolving into the fleshy warmth as if it was never there.
Now, I thought we should stay in tonight, she said, clapping her hands like an over-excited toddler. I’m not fooled. But she gets creative in public, so I nod with enthusiasm.
We sit on the ugly orange sofa she loves, and watch the TV, some kind of a true-crime show she enjoys. I sit on the floor in front of her, trying to focus on what’s happening in case she asks me about it later. I try to ignore the feeling of her icy fingers running through my hair and gently caressing my neck.
The show is good, better than I expected. She’s humming softly, a vibration coming out like a purr from the back of her throat. A soft rustling. Must be her wings, I think, her large, ugly wings fluttering in the draught.
There is no draught. Something falls around my lap as softly as snowflakes. I can’t tell what it is at first. Violet and brown, tinged with red.
Bark. Plane-tree bark. She’s been peeling the long thin translucent strips of it from my neck. I jump up and instinctively draw my hand to my skin. It feels dead, smooth. Wet. Sticky.
I look at my sap-covered palm.
She just laughs, a deep belly laughter which shakes her whole frame.
For today, she says picking up a small piece of bark. For wanting to run away.
I didn’t… I start. There’s no point. Because I did. It was all I wanted to do all day. What I wanted every day.
She takes my silence as an affront just as she would my words. Suddenly annoyed, she purses her lips and snaps her fingers.
Warmth spreads through my body, and I open my mouth, suddenly breathless as the pain hits me. I look at my red hands and feel a trickle of blood pour down my once-more fleshy neck, and right between my shoulder-blades.
Clean it up, she says before shutting her bedroom door.
I look at the strips of my skin for a moment. Then I walk to the bathroom and rummage through the mirrored cabinet above the sink. I have all the supplies ready. I spray the disinfectant on the open wound of my neck. The smell of it turns my stomach and I throw up into the toilet bowl. I kneel and lean against the wall. I just want to hide, to sleep. But my neck is still bleeding where she peeled the skin off. With shaking hands, I place a clean sheet of gauze over the spot.
I pull out the sofa bed and try to find a comfortable position. I’m bone-tired, and soul tired and tired in all the ways in between. But I don’t find it easy to fall asleep. I want to think she’s spent her energies for the night. That she won’t crawl out of her room as I sleep and touch my chest with her icy fingers, turning my lungs to timber so I wake up with a start, feeling my flesh claw for the oxygen I can’t draw.
A little boy who isn’t good might as well be made of wood.
The next morning I’m at the sawmill as usual. Where else would I be? I make use of the free coffee they serve from the large kettle. It tastes awful and does nothing to mask the smell of the wood chippings and the sap. The best part of the job that smell, Jack, a young guy with a goatee and an already spreading gut says as he breathes in deep, like we’re at the beach.
I mumble into my paper cup.
I turn around. Molly, the accountant, comes to the mill once every couple of weeks to help sort out the wages. She is tall and heavy-set and nothing like the one I live with. That in itself makes me like her.
Hi, Moll, Jack fills the silence between us.
But she doesn’t look at him. She smiles at me, a little shy smile which forces her eyes down even as the corners of her narrow mouth go up. Anyway, I better get going, she addresses her feet and rushes past me.
I look after her. She smells nice. Sort of sweet, like icing on a doughnut.
Looks like Big Moll has a thing for the handsome Italian lad! Jack smacks me hard on my back, sending a sharp tendril of pain up my neck. I turn to him, angry. His eyes are wide with surprise at my expression.
Hey, man, I mean nothing by it. She’s a nice enough girl. Just, you know, I assume not your type.
And what’s my type, I say, already turning away from him. A large pine, shorn of its branches, lets out a piercing scream as it’s cut in two. It will make a very fine MDF board. Oh no, I check the sheet. This one goes straight to Ikea.
At lunch break, I go to the cafeteria. My neck throbs under my turtleneck and I sweat. I buy a baked potato with cheese on top. The cheapest thing on the menu.
I sit down at the only unoccupied table. The guys I work with are friendly and I don’t want friends.
My last friend is a novelty hat and umbrella stand in our hallway.
So I just sit quietly.
Some of the guys thought it was because my English was no good. But that made them try and teach me.
I kept silent, and eventually, they stopped.
May I join you?
I look up at Molly who is already seating herself opposite me, wriggling around till she’s pushed the bench a few inches further from the table. She has a full plate of roast, potatoes and overcooked vegetables.
Is this all you’re having? She points at my plate.
She looks at her plate, all self-conscious all of a sudden. I feel a sudden pang of pity.
I already had a sandwich. Got hungry early, I lie. I rub my nose out of habit.
Ah. She brightens up. So, how are you fitting in here? You always seem to sit alone? So, which part of Italy are you from? I’ve been to Venice last year, a sort of a last hurrah with my uni friends before starting work. She giggles and shuffles a bit in her seat, the prepared conversation starters tumbling from her.
I should tell her I don’t want the company. That’s what the fairy would like me to say. I smile instead. Venice is very beautiful, isn’t it, I say, though I have never been. Doesn’t matter. I’ve seen the postcards. Houses on water. I get it.
She seems relieved I joined the conversation. She has a snag tooth on the left of her upper jaw. I like the asymmetry of it.
I let Molly talk as she tells me about her upbringing, her Irish parents and her childhood by the sea. She went to university because she felt she was supposed to and emerged with a degree she didn’t know what to do with. The accounting courses got her this job, which she likes, surprisingly.
I’m interested, in spite of my better judgement. Her life feels so normal and so safe. Being around her feels like settling down inside a warm duvet.
She asks me out for a drink that night, which brings me back to reality.
I can’t make it, I have a sick relative I take care of. No, I can’t make tomorrow either. Or any other day. Yes, the welfare carers don’t have the resources to support working people like us. Yes, the cost of private care is prohibitive. Yes, it’s a shame. Yes, yes, yes.
I let her fill in the blanks in the information I provide about myself.
She looks dispirited but cheers up almost immediately. We have the lunch breaks at least.
Yes, we do.
The next few weeks are a comfort I don’t dare trust. Every day, I watch out for Molly in the morning as I walk into the mill yard. I smile back at her and wave and think of nothing else till it’s time for lunch.
At home, I take care to not show any change. If the fairy thought the sawmill was no longer a torture, she’d make me find another job instead. If she suspected I spoke to people at work, she would turn my tongue to wood. If she thought I wanted to run off, she’d root my feet to the ground and turn my heart to sawdust.
I can’t tell Molly the truth. The truth is ridiculous. The truth is wholly, entirely unbelievable. The lies are easy. The lies are comfortable. The lies no longer have a consequence.
We skip work one day. Call in sick. I’m never sick. Nobody bats an eyelid.
We meet at the corner of the part of town I haven’t visited before. The dilapidated shopfronts and boarded-up deli are not exactly romantic, but the rush of the temporary escape is. The sky is grey and it smells like it’s going to rain.
I don’t mind. I like the rain. Molly shows up in an ill-fitting pink skirt. It smells like a new polyester purchase off some dubious online store. I like it.
I like everything about Molly. I like how she is as imperfect as she can be with a face bred not carved, with a body grown not turned.
When she closes the motel room door behind us, I smile at her.
She walks up to me and puts her arms around my waist, resting her chin on my chest so she can look up at my face.
She’s chewing her lip.
She must be nervous.
No, not nervous, she’s smiling.
She kisses me and I let her push me onto an armchair.
She pulls my sweater off over my head.
You’re very good to me, she says.
Such a good man, Nocchio.
I open my eyes. Her lipstick is different today. Looks purple in the morning light.
Are you a good man, Nocchio?
No, not purple. The kiss smeared a bit of it on her chin and I wipe it away with my thumb. Red, bright red. Red on blue, blue lips.
Because I’m not so sure now. Are you a good man, Nocchio? A truthful man?
I hold my breath as I look up into Molly’s cold eyes. The almond-shaped eyes.
Little boys who are not good, might as well be made of wood.
The fairy’s hands trace patterns on my chest, which tightens in swirls like frost on a windowpane. Rosewood swirls imbedded in the flesh. The fairy likes to make my pain pretty.
I’m frozen in the chair.
I can feel a tear on my cheek. She catches it with her nail and lifts it off my skin so I can see. The tear hardens into golden amber. She flicks the end into a long-curved needle. She eases it through the hole in her ear, her once more small, slender ear. She moves her head this way and that, admiring herself in the reflection in my eyes.
I move before the experience can curb the emotion of the moment. I surprise her as much as myself. Once the illusion of Molly is shed, the fairy’s body is once more small, brittle-boned. And my hands are strong. I grab her waist and push her off of me.
Her eyes open wide for a moment, then immediately narrow into angry slits. She spreads out her ugly insect wings and lifts up from the floor. The room is so small she nearly touches the ceiling.
Little boys who are not good, might as well be made of wood, Nocchio.
I’m not a boy anymore, I hear myself say.
Stupid, stupid bravado. What can I do to her? Better fall to my knees. Beg for forgiveness. Worship her beauty and power and cruelty and hope she stops the stiffening of my joints and the itching in my legs as the skin turns to bark and already flakes away from the flesh, though the blood is still pumping through the muscle and bone, in the meat still in need of encasing.
Instead, I throw myself at her. I tear the gentle film of her wing with my hooked fingers, fingers of oak as soon as they touch her.
She screams, a shrill, inhuman sound. She lunges at me, though I’m bigger, though I’m stronger and heavier. She’d do better staying away, reducing me to splinters with a flick of her wrist.
I grab her neck. I squeeze, hoping to drain all life from her before she drains mine.
My back turns rigid. But my hands still hold. My chest hurts as the fibres in my lungs harden. I don’t let go. Leaves sprout from my head, the hawthorn’s brutal thorns creep under my skin.
I don’t let go.
Little boys… who are not good… might as… well… be made… of… wood…
My vision blurs. But I can still feel her neck in my hands. My hands harden into roots still wrapped around her throat.
I would smile if I could as her body slackens, once the vice of her own moulding squeezes the last breath from her.
I’ve done good.