When the inquiry was ignored he interrupted his swing and turned back to where she stood, plaster-white and breathless by the parapet, her hair confined to a strange, confluent web of braids.
"She’s underneath us...”
"Ça va, cloudcheeks?”
"Do I look like I'm alright?" she exclaimed. "This is doing my fucking head in. We're not staying here.”
Putting down the axe, he came to her and took the bundle from her arms, looking over the mirror in surprise before setting it down upon the row of stone; he lifted a garment from the shroud of disintegrating linen, its shattered atoms drifting around them in a haze of white while a dress fell open from his hands. Composed of heavy lunar samite, its high-waisted bodice was densely figured with a nebula of hand-cut gems, finch-yellow and violet sapphires and rock crystal, as coldly lustrous as Olympian ichor where they were clasped to the silk by gold thread curling into buds and tendrils. Susan closed her eyes, its cynical splendour so much more a cage than an adornment that it overwhelmed her.
"I'll have get it altered.” he lamented, regretting his flippancy at the sight of her reaction.
“If we had a toilet I would flush the fucking thing. She doesn’t want us here, I told you... why do I have to keep saying it? I'm not spending one more night in the same building with a... a fucking dead person, in a downward bloody spiral who lies awake at night and listens to us fucking...”
“You have to let the drama queens bust a move, Christabel... just wait til they get it out of their systems.”
“They’re not drama queens, they are psychopaths! Psychopaths who can't stand the sight of me." She dragged down the fabric of her collar to reveal the scars on her neck. His eyes drifted over their ragged topography, though he knew every ridge and hollow. “You can be as stupid you like! This is how I end up."
"I don't think staying where we..."
"You don't think, that's your fucking problem! I can't spit the fucking bullets out, and I can't take someone else trying to kill me, Sachiin... we are going. I'm not asking you!"
He took a slightly flattened pack of cigarettes from his pocket, holding one between his lips while he retrieved his lighter, never more aware of her gaze in spite of his deliberate silence.
“I’ve never really done this before, so it might lack credibility." Sachiin admitted. "But this is my foot, and it's coming down. There's too much snow. I’m not losing you to something as fucking stupid as hypothermia... so c’est comme ça... you'll just have to trust me. Nowhere for a week."
She clasped her own face, everything she had stamped down in her chest emerging in tears. He looked out over the parapet with a hand on his nape, his struggle manifesting in a deep tic that worked across his shoulders, deforming his resolve.
"You didn't hear what she was saying... for fuck's sake, what am I doing here?" she demanded of herself, sucking a broken breath through her hands.
"Christabel..." he exclaimed softly, immersed in her dismay. "I’m saying no to you... be proud of me.”
She struck at him as he touched her arm, turning to stride across the roof into the darkness of the ruin, snatching up one of Petrouchka's forgotten coats in the midst of tripping over its crumpled form and following the steps down to the postern door. The effort required to heave it open checked the blurred impetus of her descent; she sank down into a crouch against the stone of the mountainside where it neighboured the weathered timbers, wiping at her eyes with her parka sleeve. In doing so she caught sight of Kala'amātya returning from a solitary foray. He ascended toward her slowly with no need to question the colour of her face, standing with his rifle on his shoulder while he waited for her to compose herself.
“You hate this place as much as I do.” Susan murmured. "And your fucking brother’s morphed into a fascist who knows what’s best for me, so can we please take him to a town where he can buy drugs and go back to being no fucking use to anyone?”
"You'll lose too much condition trying to walk in this, and there's more to come. Wait a week." he told her, his study of her referring him to the unspoken elements of her distress. Looking up into his illegible features, she knew she could not command everything required to disclose Petrouchka's admission, the failure sitting like lead inside her stomach.
"You must want shot of me more than ever."
“You could have stayed in Gévaudan.”
Susan shaded her eyes from the sky, shaking her head and expressing an arid obscenity.
"If you don't know why I didn't, I can't even feel sorry for you.”
He slid the rifle from his shoulder and made an offer of it, which she ignored until he took her wrist and pressed it into her grasp, meeting her glare without a word. Susan threw it down onto the snow and dropped onto her backside to push off the edge of the steps, carrying on stiffly down the hill alone.
A tumble of dry powder descended the slope with her, settling on her lashes and catching on the lush pile of the coat around her shoulders from which it shook loose, banished as it might have been from the back of an animal. She marched on down the incline, making long bear steps that compacted the crusted snow. It was not until she was reminded of the river by the sound of unseen water that she slowed, standing on a narrow piece of level ground and looking around herself. Cold crept into her sleeves but made no headway against the warmth haloed about her neck and chin by the fur; the gorge accepted venous tribute from the slopes on either side of its sunken, blackened crevice and she followed the tiny streams of melt to the edge of the drop, sitting down on a drift to take in the sight of the half-buried river. The cliff beneath her was not nearly as tall or forbidding as she had expected, its steep degree built up by enormous boulders cast from the ridges into a broken but passable grade, the great blocks ignored by the water shouldering past them, as dark as graphite in suspension. Fine spray settled on the fur as she devised a way over the descent to a point where the river was pinched so tightly between outcropped stone that she might have leapt it; she wiped a drip from her nose, folding her arms and sitting in her hunch until the sun had shifted overhead and tipped her shadow backwards.
Susan looked to the north and south and climbed slowly from the drop on all four limbs, rising to her feet once more where the hill leveled into a broad shelf. The air glittered with buoyant whits of ice in flues of sunlight drifting down from slim rifts in the cloud. At first glance the trees seemed placed as though by careful hands at some considerate distance from each other, and that they cultivated sophistry, their slim shade cutting the white with stripes of matte grey, snow lying on their branches like inverted shadow. Shrugging off her coat, she hung it from a sapling and lay down, first in profile, then on her back, imprinting two versions of herself into the pristine little plain. Her own small scale annoyed her as it had always done, seeming closer to some minor, nameless scion of her order than the species to which she belonged, though she drew consolation from the adult nature of the impressed proportions. A brief exam of her surrounds yielded broken wood, pebbles and bracket fungi; knocked from the fir they climbed in velveteen succession, the shapes of each were pressed into service as features on her effigies. Crouching for a moment at their feet in the grip of a vague dissatisfaction, she leant forward and planted a cigarette in each emblematic mouth. The effect was so displeasing that she flicked them away along with those remaining in the pack, tasting wet ash on her tongue and noting the narrow slash of red on the back of her finger before the discomfort of the scratch itself, hands almost disembodied by the cold's numbing, insidious empery. From them she looked up through the curling tendrils that had escaped her braids, glimpsing movement flickering amid a copse of pines recently carbonized by lightning.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK-ISH
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce