Short Fiction by Georgia Poplett
The woods at this time are poised, stalagmite; somehow, their lack of rustling voices makes them all the more disturbing. They are often compared to silent men, soldiers in solemn parade. But to Renée, the twisted conifers coiling themselves in throttling spirals move as women. Agonised, wild-haired, long-fingered, these trees crawl towards the sun. Like women in pain. A man would surely lay down and die.
That is why Renée fears them; Renée, who does not scare easily, who peels back bandages to witness scars. Their dark and monstrous forms leer at her from outside the confines of a path mown through the copse by a century of trampling. If they go on north as they have been, the lake falls away and to the left of them into two cupped hands grown mossy. To the east and west sit the plains, and south squats the house.
Her great-granddaddy, the Old Man, farrowed the northern thirty-fourth hectares of his homestead as a windbreak of kinds; a living barrier to the Great White gusts which got into his bones of a winter’s night. The lake started as a breakaway surge from the Niobrara during the storm of ’88, scurried in ditches and crannies towards the plains and the town he’d started calling Calhousie after himself. Drowned everything in its wake and what it couldn’t drown, it fed. More swamp than lake now, it spans a couple dozen hectares at the mouth of the copse, spawning stumps and thickets. In summer, its surface buzzes with insect wings and passing herons.
Renée has a very old and very bleary memory, fuzzed by time, of the weight of a long rifle in her arms like a baby, although she herself is only a baby in this memory. She is following Mama’s caterpillar-tread boots exactly, printing each step in the dip and inkwell of Mama’s. They are walking into the woods. Renée is maybe six, maybe seven. She has not got on a cap, and the chill is taking root in the delicate seashell arches of her ears and making her feel sick with the cold. Her fingertips turning to blueberries on the safety.
Twenty years later, she shivers. Silas turns slightly from in front and grins back at her. “Got any good game here?” They speak in hisses, snatching sound from the air so as not to alert the woods.
“Oh, yeah. Hare, duck. Whitetail.”
“You do this a lot growing up?”
“Sometimes. For food.” Though sometimes, when her daddy was still around, they’d slice up jackrabbit skins for selling.
“Oh, not that. No.” Gleaming, spinal fins slicing through water, articulated like vertebra. Renée shakes the feeling off. Nothing lives in that lake that isn’t bracken or duckweed. He had tried, Old Man; he had tried to introduce a great many fish into that body of water—trout and walleye and bass and pike—but they only lasted a few days before bloating to the surface belly-first.
The pale blade-edge of the lakeside appears further ahead, framed by pine branches. The thing about this part of the world is that you always come up on everything in real time; there’s no shifting of landscape to warp perspective. Cherry County is spread out like a sheet. You hardly ever catch sight of something before you’re upon it.
The soft shuck and slush of the lakewater grows as they approach. If you fling open the windows in Mama’s room, you can hear it calling. Towards the end of her life, she often spent nights listening to it, the wind whipping hair across her cheek. Mama believed that women belong to water, and water to women, in some vast and formless way. Perhaps that’s what the trees are reaching for.
Renée follows Silas’s point. A grassy mound rises out of the tangled branches heaped around it, like a sleeping still belly. Atop a bare patch is a crudely fashioned wooden cross, made from two sticks wound together with twine.
“Oh, that.” Renée hefts the gun from her side and rests it on a tree stump, barrel to the sky. Wipes a hand across her face. Even in this temperature, they’re working up a sweat. “That’s Elise.”
“That aunt of yours?”
They stand together in churchlike silence for a while. Renée can smell the sharp, oaky tang of rained-on soil creeping into her sinuses. A cobweb of vines creeps across the foot of Elise’s grave like a hundred tiny nooses.
“What’d she do, exactly?”
“Elise? Oh, she ran on off out of her marriage,” Renée returns absently, knotting a scarf beneath her chin to keep from windburn. “Was gone six months. Six months until her man got sick and died. Consumption, I think. Don’t know for sure.”
Silas gives a low whistle. “Sad,” he says.
As for Elise … “Oh, they found her,” Renée says. “Brought her back. Apparently soon’s they got here, she was in labour.” She catches Silas’s expression. “Yeah, she was pregnant.”
“And the baby?”
“Died.” Renée stoops to relace her boots.
“Why’s she buried all the way out here?”
“Well, she couldn’t be buried anywhere consecrated.” The question remains on Silas’s face. Renée gives him a look. “They hanged her.”
“For murder.” Renée scoops up her Model 70, slings it over her shoulder this time. “If we go on up that way, there’s some good hideaways.”
She starts walking, striding more like, and Silas has to scurry to keep up although his legs are so much longer and leaner than hers. He starts up again. “What about your gramma?”
Renée blows roughly into her clenched fists. The skin flushes. At her feet, a tangle of choke-cherry corkscrews around the cap of her boot. The curling, circling stems loop under and over each other, hundreds of strands looming together. Tightening and crocheting and closing the gap. The branches are chaotic; as chaotic as the branches of the family tree whose women loved and looked after this land.
“She died,” she says, finally. “When I was little.” Gramma Fan was young when she died—fifty-eight and spry for it—but to her granddaughter she had seemed old, a conglomeration of chins hunkered in a houndstooth armchair. She never lost the colour of her hair but the lines in her face ran canyon-jagged.
“And your granddaddy?”
Renée shoots a look at him. “You’re interested,” she says shortly, forgetting to whisper. She does not want to talk about what Elise did, or the damage water does to pine boards, or the devil of a job they had getting the water-bloat out of those boards. Worse, she does not want to think about the dry remains down there with a hitch in the spine where the rope whip-cracked the upper vertebrae out of joint and brought her great-aunt’s existence to a screaming scrambling stop.
“Sorry.” Silas spreads his palms sheepishly. “I just like people. They’re interesting.” He swigs from a flask in his pack and goes on northwards.
They both freeze at a mournful bleat not far off. Close enough to curdle your liver; too close.
Silas reanimates himself, butt already at his shoulder, barrel trained to the sound. “Sound carries across the water, huh?” he chuckles, softly.
Creeping low to the ground, they edge upwind towards the source through snarled bluestem and fescue. Through a keyhole parting of undergrowth, Renée peers for a glimpse of the animal up ahead. Her breath hangs, suspended, in the air in front of her face.
The animal paws the ground, grunts. A flash of tawny hide and hooves between branches.
Silas sets off the rifle with a shot that sets the birds overhead to screaming. It’s been a long time since Renée heard gunfire and the volume of it is enough to get her heart hurdling into her throat. She white-knuckles the gun unconsciously.
There’s a soft thump as the doe slumps down onto its forelegs and rests its cheek on the earth amongst rotting conifer leaves and sticks. Silas whoops and re-latches the safety, swivelling the rifle back into his shoulder-sling. By the time he gets to its side, it’s unreachably dead.
“Never seen an animal not run before,” Silas pants, reaching for the knife at his belt. He grins at Renée, who stands a little way off, fiddling with her own rifle’s safety.
Renée isn’t thrown by the doe’s fearlessness. The animals on her land are naive: creatures of quiet copses, shelter, sun and wind. The full spectrum of human cruelty is alien to them.
She makes her way around the carcass for a better look at the .257 hole. A pinprick scab forms at the base of the animal’s ribs, a patch of skin beneath its shoulder where the animal’s fur is so white, she can see the pink underneath. The wound is hardly visible. A spot of russet among the brown. Like most things, the true damage is done on exit.
Gently, Renée tilts the body with two fingers. As she does, the neck lolls left-ways, and the face turns itself up to her.
Mama’s face. Mama’s face, moulded onto the sinews of the whitetail’s neck with only a thinning scab where the two join. The eyes are crepuscular, grasping, two hollow curves where once was light. A seep of blood glints damply at the corner of her half-open mouth and the curve of her nostril. The skin of her face is drawn paper-tight to the bones beneath, stretches back past the temples and jaw to join the fur connecting it to the body.
Renée scrambles backwards, bending her nails back to the bed, digging them into the soil behind her. Her throat spasms. Suffocates. A cavern opens inside her, crushes her ribcage with its sheer chasmic depth.
Unaffected, Silas raises his hunting knife and pushes it deeply into the animal’s chest cavity, cracking through sinew with a terrible wet snapping noise. He goes on about the art of gutting, the calculations of angle and pressure it takes to carve up a living thing and make it meat. The knife puts lines throughout the body, divides it up into cuts of flesh. As Silas gets to the gullet, heat comes off the carcass in steaming waves which drift up and away into the winter sky.
All the while, Renée sits with the freezing groundwater creeping into her jeans and her skin, trying to breathe through hands round her throat, watching Mama’s face on the carcass staring her down. The rasp of steel slicing flesh is terrible, galling; like ripping open a paper bag sodden with something liquid. As Silas goes in to make another cut, she jolts to her feet at last.
Renée staggers towards him, grabs the hand holding the knife with both of hers. “Stop!” she screams, jerking him away from the carcass. “Stop, stop, that’s my mama!”
“What the fuck?” Silas is so absorbed in the business of gutting that he flinches involuntarily before pushing her away, pitching himself back a few feet.
The breaths heave themselves out of her. “That’s my mama!” Renée kneels over the partly-gutted carcass, gripping its flesh with both hands.
She’s hardly aware of Silas behind her, sheathing the knife and laying one hand tentatively on her shoulder. “Come on, Renée. Let’s go back—”
She screams at him then, a tangle of get off and get away from her which doesn’t land; the words are not so much words as they are a feral scream, ranging into a pitch which jags on her vocal chords and catches in her throat like a crooked finger. She makes a grab for the knife but Silas wrestles it behind him. There is utter incomprehension in his face.
“Jesus Christ,” he mutters, backing away. “Jesus Christ, lady.”
He turns and flees through the woods. Renée hears him breaking branches far away into the distance, like a thing pursued. She screams again, wordlessly this time, helplessly, until the sound balks in her throat and will go no further.
A band hovers over her vision. Part-water, part-blackout, it is as thick as a crushing headache but without the pain. Bewilderment. At herself. At whatever’s come unstuck in her mind.
When the tears have ebbed for her enough to see, Renée gently rolls the carcass over again. It’s gone. There is no face. Not Mama’s, anyways.
Just a whitetail. Just a dead whitetail.
Georgia Poplett is a writer and Piccadilly-based bookseller about to complete her MFA in Creative Writing. Born in Kent, she now lives amongst the Gothic spires of North London. Her work considers the mythology of the mother, as well as medical humanities and magical realism. She writes fiction but is still working on the money and a room of her own. This is an extract from her novel-in-progress, She Herself is a Haunted House.