by Tanya Brown
Outside the old sash window, the sky was
darkening over the saltings and the long flat fields stretched
away into the dusk towards the village. It was December,
the day before the old winter solstice, but Jeanne did not
feel cold in the high unheated room.
Below her, the house was empty and they were dead. The smell
of old clothes and lives filled the other rooms. As a child,
she had slept here, at the top of the house. Now she kept
the window open all the time, letting in the cold. She did
not care if something else came in.
In the summer, the room would be full of flies. In the winter
sunset, little glittering molecules of air were drawn in
by her breath.
Across the salt marsh, the lights of the village flickered
on. She could see the moon rise behind the church steeple.
Once it had been in front of the steeple, but her mother
had said she was making up stories. Outside the window,
something fluttered in the branches of the oak tree.
Jeanne lit another cigarette and blew the smoke spirals
towards the night. The room was very quiet, and in the silence,
the door creaked, hesitantly, as if someone was standing
The house was old. Once it had been flooded by the sea.
Now there was a wall at the edge of the marsh to keep the
water out; but the tides were getting higher and nobody
came to raise the wall.
They were dead, but the house did not remember that.
Last night at this time, she had stood at the gate for nearly
an hour, staring towards the town. Her mother's presence
had been strong in the kitchen; the cat howled at her chair.
When the last light had faded from the sky, Jeanne had gone
back into the kitchen and fed the cat in the dark.
She was here to sift through their lives and take what she
could find. The house suffocated her. She talked to her
lover, an angel from a Botticelli picture. Of course he
was long dead as well. Dead enough not to hurt.
'Is it full moon tonight, my love?'
'The air hangs heavy in the firmament.' He was always so
vague, now. The house stifled him as much as it did her.
Somewhere in one of the rooms was the picture where she
had first seen him. She could not leave without that. But
first she must go and meet him.
Jeanne lined up the little white tablets along the edge
of the inlaid dressing table. She spaced them precisely
along the bramble pattern, one for each cluster of blossom.
She swallowed the first. In the mirror, a glimmer of light
came and faded.
'Listen, my heart,' he said to her, 'that's the basilisk
climbing up the ivy on the wall. Don't be afraid. I will
not let it in.'
'I love you,' she said gently, looking out at the oak tree.
the shadows gathered in its branches where she had lost
the gold ring on her seventh birthday. Maybe a magpie had
taken it. Magpies are of the crow family. They will eat
young pheasants. One for sorrow, two for tears, three for
hopes and four for fears. She picked up another white fleck
between her bitten fingernails. There was a glass of wine
on the table; he must have brought it for her. 'Thank you,'
she said, and raised the glass to toast him. The tablet
was bitter but the wine was sweet.
Somewhere, out on the marshes, the tide was coming in, folding
gently over the samphire and sea lavender. The thick black
mud would look like water in the dusk. She knew people who
had drowned there; her lover had drowned there. She wondered
how it had been. She could hear the waves, although there
was no wind.
'It was a gentle death. Nine days and nine nights, lying
there in the soft mud, feeling the tide come in and go out
over my face and under my eyelids. There were small creatures
in the mud and I felt happy I could feed them. The moon
rose when the evening tide came in. The water tasted like
tears.' He stroked the cat. It purred at him. She swallowed
the third pill and went to the window, slowly, as if she
might stumble into him. An early star was tangled in the
branches of the oak. One of the diamonds from her mother's
eternity ring was gone.
Today, she had found her mother's diary. Her mother had
written of a lost lover who had drowned. Jeanne smiled,
and wondered if she was living in her mother's death-dreams.
She wondered if her mother had thought of her as she died.
She sat herself on the narrow window sill and stared through
'She loved you, never think not.' His voice was soft, and
although he was very close, she could not feel his breath
on her neck. 'Darling, I do not breathe,' he whispered,
and she laughed.
'Did you know my mother, then?' she asked him.
He said, 'She had a lovely face.' She turned back to the
room, hunting for his reflection, but the mirror was cracked
and showed nothing but fragments of the room.
It was time to walk and Jeanne was out in the lane in front
of the house, the cat twining astonished about her ankles,
purring. Through the gap in the hedge and over the bridge
made from a railway sleeper her father had pulled back from
the river shore. Bats fluttered subliminally around the
chimneys of the house behind her.
'I mislike the marsh,' he said to her, 'but I will walk
with you to the wall and see you safe.'
Jeanne smiled, knowing that he could not see her in the
dusk. 'You are kind. Did my mother ask you to look after
'Of course,' he replied, as if he had just remembered that
himself. 'I am your guide.'
Together, they walked down the pebbled track to the gravel
pit, a pale heron lifting from the water into the night
at their approach. She heard the rustle of its feathers
as it flew above them. He walked three paces behind her,
soundlessly. The rusty sign at the field gate glistened
with dewy spiders' webs. Jeanne opened the gate and went
through into the sharp stubble, the cat leaping at moths
in front of her.
'See how full the moon is, my love,' he said to her. 'The
tide will be high tonight. The fish will be caught in the
branches like stars.'
'That's pretty. The cat can catch them,' Jeanne answered,
laughing. Almost, she turned to kiss him, but the cat came
bounding back to rub against her ankles again, and she stroked
The sea wall rose above the flat field, like a grave. Jeanne
ran forward, dizzy from the wine and the dusk. The dead
grass on the slope of the wall was very pale. It crackled
beneath her feet. Behind her, the cat howled.
As she reached the crest of the wall, the first wave broke
coldly over her feet.
© 1996 Tanya