4270 words, short story
Fionn took the dogs out to the water, and there, in the river’s reflection, he realised that January had left. He plunged his hands into the water, but she was not there; he sent the dogs barking over the hills, but they did not come back with her or a trail to her hiding place. No scent lay over the land. Exhausted and uneasy, Fionn and the dogs trudged back to the house. January was not there, either, though he hunted in every room, under tables and inside wardrobes. He only found his wife, curled up in the oven. The dogs lost interest and went to their beds. Fionn sat down on the kitchen linoleum.
Mara lay tucked neatly between the grill and the oven floor. She should have had to snap her neck to fit, and her throat should have been a mess of small bulging bones, but these days she bent at impossible angles, and her feet seemed to have disappeared entirely into the fan in the oven wall. She wore no clothes. It was a businesslike nudity rather than erotic. Charcoal dusted her skin.
“She’s disappeared,” Fionn said, to the linoleum, the oven, the snake-like curve of his wife’s neck.
Mara blinked her wide eyes. “Who?”
“January. She’s gone.”
“Not too long ago,” said Mara, “you were saying the same about me.”
“Don’t pretend you’re jealous.”
“All right,” she said agreeably. “Who is she? A lost lover?”
Fionn stared at her. “It’s January,” he said.
Mara laughed. Her hair tumbled out of the oven and onto the floor, so close that Fionn might have reached out and touched it. He knew better. “January was your friend too,” he told her. “Don’t you remember?”
“No. Tell me a story about her.”
Fionn thought, and found none. Mara had had few friends, but the ones she’d had were close; and Fionn could think of a hundred stories about each, events he had witnessed and ones he had only heard about, so well-worn with age and retellings that they felt whole and solid as fruit in his mouth.
“She isn’t real,” Mara said. “I could tell as soon as you said her name.”
“What do you mean, she isn’t real?”
“We know these things,” his wife said. She disentangled one hand to tap her forehead with a thin and pearly finger, and then coiled it back into a spring-tight fist, and slipped it away into the depths of the oven. Her we unnerved Fionn, because it was a growing we, one she mentioned more and more, a crowd steadily approaching from behind, ready to throw envious arms around her neck and pull her backwards, away from him.
“Some people just aren’t real,” Mara said, as if she had sensed a faux pas and wanted to remedy it. “You can tell by the sound of their names. She is not a real person, or not the kind of person it’s easy to find in reality, at any rate. How long has she been missing?”
“Since I went out to the water, maybe.”
“How long has that been?”
“An hour or so.”
Mara nodded thoughtfully, her chin and the crown of her head knocking against the grill, the oven wall. “What do you remember?” she asked.
Fionn thought about January. He could picture her easily, standing at the edge of the river with a yellow scarf in her hair, but he did not know if it was his river, and her smile was distant and unfocused. “I don’t know,” he said. “I know her face, I feel as though I know her, but I can’t tell you why.”
“We can talk about it later,” Mara said. “You look tired. You were out in the cold. Cook your dinner, Fionn.”
In the past year and a half Mara had grown more watchful over him. She ordered him to wear scarves and boots in bad weather, reminded him of meals he would otherwise have forgotten, sent him off to bed at a reasonable hour. She made sure he kept all his appointments and ordered him to visit the doctor for small but persistent illnesses. Why, he had asked her once, laughing, did she care so much? Didn’t she want him to die comfortably of starvation one day, so they could live together forever, pressed to each other’s hearts like baking bread inside an oven? “Don’t even joke about that,” Mara had hissed. “Don’t you dare.”
Fionn sat beside the oven to eat his dinner, while Mara sang to him, an unrecognisable and tuneless song, but comforting in its own way. The dogs gathered at his feet.
“I’ve thought about it,” Mara announced, when he had finished. “I think you ought to look for her. If you know her but don’t know her, if her disappearance is so troubling to you, there must be a reason. There is a purpose behind it.”
“Is this one of the things you just know?” he asked.
She blinked at him, her eyes too big in her thin, flattened face, a strange facsimile of herself. “Don’t ask me that, Fionn.”
So he asked, instead, “Will you help me?”
Mara smiled her same sweet smile. “Of course I will. But you won’t be able to look for her here. You know that, don’t you? You’ll have to leave.”
“I know,” he said.
Fionn washed the dinner dishes slowly, listening to Mara hum below the rush of water. Soap grew fluttering bubbles and each bubble spelled out January’s name. January, the colour of a sun rising, her voice in his ear, January waiting. “Where would you look for her, if you were me?” he asked his wife.
Mara manoeuvred her head around to look up at him, a thoughtful owl. “I would examine the clues,” she said. “I would start at the beginning.”
“Elliptical,” he said dryly.
Fionn bent, kissed the air beside her cheek, and shut the oven door.
When Mara had first returned, when Fionn recovered from the shock and the strange new logic of his wife as a ghost, he found himself prone to odd hungers. Down in the village, putting sliced pan into a basket, the desire for physical sensation would suddenly snatch at him and he would spend the next hour wandering through the shop aisles, touching knobbed avocados, rough soda bread, the silky synthetic feathers on a feather duster, paper napkins, basil leaves, broom handles; leaving a trail of opened packaging behind himself. Day by day, in slow increments, Mara grew stranger. In the beginning, although he could never touch her with his own hands, she had reconciled her shape to the things around her, the oven walls, the floor. Now she was forgetting how to exist in a concrete world. Her hands sank through iron. Her hair floated around her face like breathing seaweed, immune to gravity or the illusion of gravity. Her bones dwindled, she grew tightly coiled like curled ribbon. Fionn wondered what it would be like to touch her spiralling fingers, how her drifting hair would feel; but he did not know and never would, and this knowledge was a recurring illness that left and returned to attack him and left again. Having a ghost wife was like being married to a concept, an abstract noun, something beloved but elusive.
That night he dreamed of January, while a storm vaulted the roof to scream against the angles and planes of the house. Dressed in a yellow macintosh and wellingtons, January stood against the backdrop of foreign hills and valleys. Her hair whipped in the wind; small dragons snapped among the tangled ends. She smiled, and didn’t smile. Fionn, who did not seem to exist in this dream at all, saw that a chain around her neck held three small charms: a frowning sun, a sliver of moon, a lidded eye. January held a book in one hand. Her fingers were blackened with soil or ash. Fionn asked a question, and January answered, her answer was in the affirmative, she reached for him. Downstairs, Mara sang wistfully into the echo of the oven.
The next morning Fionn left the house and followed the last few traces January had left behind on his land and in the water: a yellow flower, yellow paint splashed on a broken fence, a bird with yellow plumage on its chest. January left her messages in odd places, borrowing from landscape and flora and fauna as she pleased. Fionn followed her trail down to the barren orchard. Rainwater dripped from the apple trees, although the storm had blown over hours ago. The ground was wet and mulchy.
A small girl in a yellow smock sat in the crook of a tree-branch, looking down at Fionn. Light pressed against her back, hiding her face from him; her feet, dangling down, were bare, and yellow ribbons flapped and tangled from the hem of her dress. One of the dogs barked at her, half-heartedly, and then gave up and trotted away towards the river.
“I’m looking for January,” said Fionn.
The girl said, “I know.”
“My name is Fionn.”
“Fionn Cogann. It says so on your van.”
“Do you know where she is?”
She shifted, and Fionn saw that a black sun had been painted over her mouth, with triangular rays like the points on a compass, making her look odd and dangerous, poisonous, many-toothed. He stared, fascinated and appalled. “Come up here and talk to me,” she suggested, so he pulled himself up to settle on the upper branches of the apple tree. Closer, the girl looked to be about ten or eleven, and above her fierce black mouth, black freckles had been dotted across her cheekbones. “I’m Swan,” she said.
“Do you know where January went?”
“No.” Swan brushed moss and rainwater from her hands. On one palm, Fionn noticed, someone had painted an open eye; on the other, an eye-shaped moon. “She’s gone altogether, or hidden very well. How do you know her?”
Fionn thought of January, solid and unplaceable. “I don’t know.”
The little girl shrugged. “January can be like that.”
“How do you know her?”
“She is my sister.” When Swan smiled, it stretched the sun out into a mouthful of fangs. “Though she didn’t live with me, not for years. She lived where she pleased.”
“How did you know she was missing?”
“The same way you did.”
At one end of the world, the villagers worked and conversed, brought children to school, studied, cooked; at the other end, Mara lay in Fionn’s oven like a snail curled up in its own shell; but this was somewhere in between the two, a dim twilight place, utterly inexplicable. “Has she done this before?” Fionn asked, half hopelessly. “Disappeared without warning?”
“Hundreds of times,” said Swan. “But never like this. This time is different, and I know it, and you know it.”
They stared at one another. Swan’s pockets, Fionn saw, were full of cut flowers, daisies, buttercups, children’s flowers, but none of them was wilting; they stood up tall and elegant, as though sipping water from some hidden source. Fionn sighed. “Have you been sitting here waiting for me?” he asked Swan.
“I have been waiting for someone. I assumed it was you.”
“Two hours,” she said, “three. I don’t know.”
“Are you hungry?” he asked her.
“I am,” said Swan.
Fionn led her back to the house. Swan paused to examine the shoes lined up in the hallway, the umbrellas toppled over beside the coat-rack, the photographs on the wall - Fionn and Mara’s wedding, Fionn and Mara in black and white, reduced to only the light and the darknesses of themselves - and the big gilt mirror, in which Swan’s face floated small and pale as a ghostly fish. Fionn left her studying her own reflection and went into the kitchen to make breakfast. He did not open the oven, not wanting Swan to know about his dead wife, not wanting to share Mara with her, but it was the first thing Swan did when she wandered in from the hall; she sat cross-legged on the linoleum and tugged at the oven door. Mara blinked at Swan.
“Who are you?” Swan asked.
“I might ask you the same question,” Mara said. “This is my house.”
Swan hooked one arm around her grass-stained knees. “You’re dead.”
“My sister might be dead,” she offered, a conciliatory gesture.
“I’m sorry,” said Mara.
Fionn made tea and bacon sandwiches, and he and Swan ate on the floor while Mara nibbled delicately at a piece of burnt onion. Swan ate two sandwiches, and then finished Fionn’s, and hunted through his refrigerator for lunch meats and cold leftover potatoes. “Where did you live, if not with January?” Fionn asked her, when she had exhausted his food supply and sat arranging frozen raspberries into indecipherable, bleeding designs on the linoleum.
“Irrelevant, Fionn,” said Swan, and she sounded calm and self-assured as any adult.
“Do you have any other brothers or sisters?”
Swan stood without answering, wiped raspberry juice onto her yellow dress, and left the kitchen. Mara shooed Fionn away with both hands, and after a moment he followed the little girl into the living room. Swan held up a picture of Fionn as a child. It was a bad photograph, but one he loved, because it was the only picture he had left of his mother: she stood behind him, pale and indistinct, her long hair blown across her face; and Fionn sat in a patch of dusky grass, playing with finger paints. Three black fingerprint dots crossed his cheek. His mouth was a dark and painty smudge.
“Fionn,” Swan said, her voice low, urgent. “There is somewhere we have to go.”
Violins had woken Swan that morning, shrilling against the chime of a grandfather clock. She knew her sister was missing. Scented air blew across the tops of green bottles, blue bottles, clear bottles scattered across the room, and the breathy notes sang in harmony, and they sang Swan, Swan, Swan.
She crawled out of her bed when the strings woke her. Swan lived, and had lived for the past three years, in an old brewery: a place still summery with the smell of hops, where nameless machines rusted and broken glass caught every angle of light on the floor and in the windows. She walked barefoot across the factory.
The first owners of the brewery lived there still. They were old, a few hundred years old, so long dead that they had forgotten even how to be ghosts, and only remembered their roots in the roots clinging to the earth. Once, Swan expected, they had carried shapes and voices; these remnants drifted away piece by piece, and now they were nothing but air and misplaced colours in light. They cared for her like loving parents. They had little to say, but listened sympathetically to her stories, and made her tea full of tin buttons and dust. They had met January only once.
Swan climbed up into an empty window-frame and looked out over the canal and boardwalk. January was nowhere to be seen, not in the waterfront businesses, the tall apartments, the crumbling lacework of bridge. Swan was used to disappearances. Her family was a family of strangers. But not January, not in this dreadful manner, an absence like a body carved in two. Something terrible had happened.
January had been young once, too. She had lived with Swan in a city apartment. They had slept side-by-side in a king-sized bed, and their walls were decorated with strings of seashells, sugary sea glass, dried flowers. January baked mussels for their supper in smoky sacrificial fires. Her younger face was different from the one she wore later, as an adult: swirled with black designs, her lips plum-red, vicious red, golden hoops swinging in her ears. Her older face was more sedate, more cosmopolitan, but Swan remembered the days when January climbed trees for the choicest apples and screamed to the wind. January had been Swan’s protector, and neither men nor monsters ever troubled them. But when Swan turned eight January packed away her lacy dresses, her willow spears, her golden earrings, put on a face more suitable for the outside world, and walked away. Swan had not cried. Without January to be the strong one, Swan was no longer the weak one, which meant she had grown strong, which meant she would never be afraid again. She left her own home and wandered up and down the city until she found the abandoned brewery.
Now, sensing her worry, the brewery owners surrounded Swan with their sweet breath. One made her a cup of tea. One brought a mouldy biscuit. Swan swallowed a piece of broken glass, an apple seed, a dead moth. “January is missing,” she said. “What do you think I should do? Do you think I should look for her?”
Automatically, the shapeless shapes of the brewery owners shook their gusty heads. No, no, no, they breathed.
January had visited Swan in the brewery once, almost a year before. She appeared in the factory front, wearing a belted yellow raincoat and fingerless lace gloves, bearing gifts like a conquering hero. She gave Swan expensive dresses, suede boots, sun hats with hanging veils of silk, wheels of cheese and salted meats, strings of glossy beads, elderflower cordial in frosted bottles, a silver tea service, pearl-drop earrings, a new yellow jacket. Swan accepted these gifts wordlessly. Rain dripped from January’s coat, though outside the sun shone. Her hair clung damply around her neck. Troubled, the brewery owners stood at Swan’s back, swirling themselves into a mistrustful light show. January had not noticed. Her adult face, clear of black paint, was swept with blush, her eyes dark and fluttering lashes long as spider legs. She spoke in a strange new dialect. January stayed for one night; in the morning she kissed Swan’s cheek, and left.
Swan ignored the advice of the brewery owners. They begged her to stay, to lie in the sunny factory and doze and dream and let them blow music from the many warped bright bottles. Instead, she dressed and she tied up her long hair. She pressed her mouth to the glassy ground. January’s scent hung there, faintly. Swan left the brewery owners to their own dreams.
Every step Fionn took away from Mara was a tangible one, a chain around his feet. He sat in a silver taxi and watched mile after mile of distance separate them. This world, the world into which he shot like a reluctant bullet, seemed to be the ghostly one, barely readable outside the car window; while his house and his dead wife were solid, a known territory. If Mara had taken up residence in his skull instead of his oven none of this would matter. There would be no room for imaginary January then, only the two of them, husband and wife, husband and ghost, the most intimate marriage.
They left the taxi at a hill lined with tall Georgian houses. Up on a black cliff, a castle made of golden rock balanced like a bird perching over the city. A tourist attraction, an historical remnant. Fionn wondered about the castle’s ovens. Where were they? Did someone keep them working? Did other ghosts live in them, royal ghosts, passing their time with songs and counting games, waiting until the castle crumbled around them? If the world’s ovens were populated with ghosts, how did anyone ever get any cooking done? A mystery, Fionn thought, one not even Mara would answer.
He and Swan counted houses until they came to seventy-six, a number that pleased them both, and they stopped simultaneously, and nodded at one another. Fionn opened the door. Inside the house smelled of cooking rice, limes, and another sweet, unnameable fruit. Along the seashell-grey walls, someone had hung old black-and-white photographs, minimalist things: a table full of light, a hat stand with one black hat, an empty bridge; stenographer’s shorthand for a life history. Swan smashed one frame against the wall and picked the photo out from the shards of glass. On the back was written Où es-tu? The picture showed a path of white stones, leading from nowhere to nowhere. Fionn and Swan made their way slowly down the length of the corridor, smashing every glass frame, examining every smooth, age-worn photograph. Each one had a note for them to read. Put together, they made up a strange news story, one without statistics or irrefutable evidence, and too arcane to be useful. Fionn and Swan collected the photographs in their pockets and stepped into the first room they found.
It was a bedroom, January’s. Dusty teacups arranged like standing stones waited on the floor to trip them up. The bedclothes on the iron-barred bed were rumpled; Swan found a single piece of orange peel beneath the pillow, a clue that left them with more questions than answers. On the ceiling above them, black mould blossomed in the shape of a woman’s frowning, indistinct face, a reproachful guardian angel. Fionn stared across the room at the bathroom door. He knew it was the bathroom door; and he knew that he should not cross the room to see it, knew that if he tried the floor would buck and tilt like a rough ocean, the armchair would snap ferocious teeth at him and the wardrobe would yawn to swallow him whole. He moved towards it. “Don’t,” Swan whispered.
In the bathroom, mirrors glinted everywhere. They were sulky creatures and refused to show Fionn his own pale face. Coloured water had fallen on the floor, and he side-stepped it carefully. January’s bathtub was a wide one, knobbed jets and painted tiles, surrounded by vials of bath salts, perfumed soap, tiny bottles of essential oils. In the bathtub lay January. Her hair was tangled and matted. Blood had dried into a dull glint. January wore veined, blue-tinted skin, and her eyes were open, cloudy like lake-water in a glass.
“You knew, didn’t you,” Fionn said.
He crept closer. January’s chest lay open like a tree, and inside it was a white staircase crowded with ivy, leading down, and warm air, the sounds of birds calling somewhere in the distance. Swan, hovering beside Fionn, rested her face on his arm.
“What are the rules,” he asked, “in a situation like this? Are we here to sew her up? To bury her and forget her?”
“No,” said Swan.
If January was dead, they were all dead, Fionn and Swan as well as Mara coiling in her oven, January neat and ajar. It seemed an impossible situation. Fionn gazed, pensive, at his lack of a reflection. In the end, he offered his hand to Swan, and she took it, the half-moon on her palm smiling into his skin; together, they stepped into the bathtub. He lifted Swan onto the first white step, and then swung himself down onto the open path in January’s chest. Fionn and his sister started down the stairs.
Somewhere, bread was baking. Mara smelled it and rose, uncoiling the way a snake rises, charmed, from its basket. She had not been a baker. She did not know pound cakes from fairy cakes; but these days the smell of bread welcomed her. She extended her pointed toes delicately. Each step was another oven, a shoe for her feet, until she found the bread in a stranger’s kitchen, and wrapped herself around it like a nesting doll. Behind her, darkness stretched out, never-ending; in front of her, Fionn wandered through the world; they were choices, ones she could not deny, only delay; and ovens seemed to speak her language. This one was vast, sweet-scented. A chef’s home. A bakery. Mara nibbled experimentally at a piece of char on the oven floor.
A small wind blew a puff of flour in Mara’s eyes, with the scent of seaweed and roses. January had tossed her yellow hair. “Greetings,” she said. Mara could not place the accent, but it did not matter. It was unmistakably January, impossibly January. Who else would it be?
“Does this mean you’re dead?” Mara asked. “My husband is off looking for you. He is a wonderful man, a lovely man. If he dies in your pursuit I will be furious with you.”
January shook her head. “I don’t know what I am.”
“I know you are,” January said, and laughed her beautiful laugh. “But for people like me, like my sister, like your husband, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. There are not only two states of being, alive and dead. There are others.”
Mara ground burnt bread between her teeth. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know what it means.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Mara thought of Fionn, the way she always thought of Fionn. If he died, who would hunt for him? Who would cross the country in search of his body, whether alive, or dead, or some mysterious third option? She asked, “What part of you is here, if you don’t know where you are?”
“The smallest part,” said January.
I will hunt for him, Mara thought; and it was a realisation, and a choice.
January drew herself closer, as though seeking heat in the heat of the oven. “Don’t you want to know what happened to me?”
“Do you believe in ghost stories?”
“No,” Mara said, judiciously. “Do you believe that they can help you?”
The baking bread glowed like a fire signal.