“That’s just boiled... don’t go burning yourself.” it advised. Susan turned to see a stranger seated at the kitchen table, his hand around a coffee cup; she was seized by the narrow, glancing idea of his familiarity but her surprise and vague embarrassment overcame it. Before she could think of anything to say, he rose and excused himself with a tip of his head, leaving through the door to the yard and walking to a battered, bright blue Morris waiting across the bridge.
Voyeurism chastened by the visitor, she waited a discreet while before venturing out herself. The stones were cold through the soles of her slippers as she tied the robe of violet cashmere purveyed by her host and lit her cigarette, walking on toward the stables. One of the half-doors shuddered at her approach and the faint glow of gas flame pushed through the gaps in the weathered panel. She stooped beneath the divided door, blinking in the darkness of a space cleared of the partitions that had once delineated milking stalls and loose boxes. On a wooden bench topped with a stained and broken slab of corpse-white marble, the great head of a stag sat squarely on its cleanly-severed plane beneath a mighty umber coronet of antlers, their weight propped against one of the stone piles that stood like the pillars of a neolithic temple. The animal's brass-coloured eyes were downcast beneath their heavy lids in a look of modest resignation. Blood had wicked slowly across the low end of the bench onto the straw beneath. Like a Hadean chorus, a row of cervine forms hung before the furthest wall, curing in the darkness, the dry blue of their flayed flanks glowing softly in the gaslight.
Gideon stood beside the body of the stag in a black butcher’s apron, the lamp hissing while the animal’s weight swung slowly from the ceiling truss; she sat down on a milking stool with an absented gaze.
“You had some sleep?” he asked, reaching up to release the deer’s skin from its hocks with a small, leaf-bladed knife, turning the carcass slowly. Susan had become accustomed to the polarity of his commonplace inquiries, their simplicity creating a curious ease. Slowly he began to punch the hide down over the musculature, catching it in slack, silky pleats upon his forearm and tugging it free of the attenuated neck before setting it aside.
“Not really.” she replied, rubbing her eye and watching the curiously bloodless process in silence until he leant toward her, soliciting a draw on her cigarette, which she supplied, the smoke thickening their already misted breath. The dark weave of his apron formed a sharp-edged contrast to the colours of his naked arms and shoulders.
“Forgive the contrétemps. Étienne... his boyfriend fucks his sister an the whole world is in flames. Je m'en fous, you know? I am not eighteen."
“Everything’s complicated when you are.” Susan reminded him.
“So it seem.”
“There was someone in the kitchen. Brown hair... sounded Irish?”
“Lawrence... a friend.” Gideon related as he wheeled a clean barrow up to the neck of the suspended carcass, positioning it carefully. He paused with his blade on the narrow belly and gave her a warning glance, to which she shrugged, thoughtlessly. She was not prepared for the speed with which he exposed the gleaming paunch of grape and olive-hued organs, nor the deft intrusion of his arm into the cavity; it was swallowed to his shoulder before the entrails emerged and slithered down into the barrow, settling into a mass in which each shape remained discreet within their elastic cauls and membranes. He cut the liver free and offered her a slice, the feted organ's fine black grain relaxing on the blade, from which she accepted it, watching him lick the back of his knuckles. The taste shocked her, as dark and heavily metallic as a mouthful of her own blood, pushing her back off the stool as she ejected it onto the straw; it put a vampyre's gargoyle head on the neck of the body swaying from the ceiling and returned one of Siobhan's stinking candles to her hand. Her host chuckled.
“I thought you are the girl who like new things.” Gideon's smile conveyed the gently contumelious nature of the remark, though she did not reply. He stripped off his apron and left it hanging from a rafter, dousing his hands in a bucket. “Déjeuner?”
His retinue had abandoned empty bottles and greasy dishes on the pine benches lining the kitchen. Cursing them in absentia, he swept an armful of debris into a roasting tray and set off along the hall, returning in a fresh shirt without it while she stood in the light of the refrigerator door.
“Motherless salops. If Luc can’t learn manners, he should learn to lock his door. What have they left for us, these merde oiseaux? Half of a lemon an some bad milk?” When his prediction proved substantively correct, Susan took a chair and reached for the box of cereal she had secreted in the highest row of cupboards, enraged to find it empty.
“Bastards!” she exclaimed, dropping down beside the table in an attitude of dejection. The lycanthrope sighed and began to slice a head of garlic on the bench beside the range, feeding a piece of chestnut into the firebox and setting a pan on the heat. The smell of toasting fougasse drifted past her without visible effect; Gideon trimmed the liver neatly before addressing the spirit that oppressed her.
“You don't know why you don't hear from him.” he suggested.
She propped an elbow on the table.
"Three weeks is a long time to not hear from someone who can’t be quiet for three minutes.”
“It’s not personal, Sussan... don't take it that way. If you don't know where he is, no one can learn it from you. It’s okay... he does his best for you.” He laughed, the sound coupling with the flash of the meat tossed in the pan. “You don't think this is hard for him? What would he love more than to know you cannot live without him? Poor Sachiin.”
“I don’t think it would kill him to make a bloody phone call.”
He exclaimed to himself, shaking his dark head vehemently at the peevish tenor of her complaint, the galvanic strength of his arm scraping the base of the pan across the hob.
“Young people... you have everything, but you can’t clean a dish or wait a day, or take a bad thing like a man. So fucking impatient. In my own day, I wait six month to hear if my family had burn to death, and was pleased to at least have the truth, but now everyone they bitch an cry for nothing. He don't call you? Qu’est-ce que? Et alors! If you don't like it, take a little piece of plastic an fly to the far side of the world. Endure nothing. Putain... now I burn this.” Smoke rose from the edges of the pan and he pulled it from the heat. The folded documentation on the table before her included one stained by the foot of a coffee cup, and he nodded down at it. "You know what that is? That fils de pute in Praha, last year he buy the hahdri over the river, an now he bribe the mayor to cut the trees, to fuck with me. One time you could walk from Lensk to Rouen in the shade... now, I will have twelve more Étienne with nowhere to go, crying at my door. Don't worry, Auberjonois, they all say... you are geris alujh... chef de meute... no one will come for you. But they will, I know, an where do I run? Where can I take a hahdri and these baby alujha? You want troubles, choux? I will trade with you."
He shook his head to himself and threw wild thyme into the pan. The sight of him muttering over the bench drew her to her feet, and she joined him, easing two plates beneath his elbow as he dished out.
“Everybody’s pissy today.” she suggested.
“Don’t look like that... it’s not you, ça va? You’re okay with me.” He sat down at the table with her and rolled caramel onions onto the tines of his fork. “Don't worry about Sachiin. When he wants to leave, that’s not a secret he can keep. With me it was like this... our aventure, three hundred eighty nine years... to say au revoir... nine long month in the same argument... bordel de merde... he could have given birth.” He ate another mouthful and laughed to himself quietly, glancing back to her. “Allez, Sussan... you know there is no cruel bone in him... he is too lazy. You must pay him an command him to be cruel, if that’s what you want. Why push a shit uphill?”
“You know where he is, don’t you?”
“They are like ducks... if there is trouble, they go up.” he replied, flicking his thumb at the ceiling. “They are on a mountain somewhere, spitting an calling each other names." Her hair had set in a tall curve over the clip pressed to one side of her head by her pillow, its accidental shape amusing him, though she did not notice in her frowning intent on her plate. “My god, I sound so old and grognon. Crazy old loup, not so good in the morning. Keep your eyes open for the good an for the beautiful, as I told you. Fais moi confiance. An you know, Sussan, there’s always a place for you here.”
Her fork grew still in the ensuing silence and her head rose slowly, eyes finding his and allowing them to direct her toward the white shape beside the cup abandoned by the stranger. The sight of her name pencilled alongside Gideon’s in the midst of the envelope caused her to rise and seize it, both fists struggling with the thick bonded paper until booking confirmations and airplane tickets cartwheeled onto the table, a flat, cherry-red lollypop cowled in fluted plastic clattering amongst them. In her delight she remembered the breakfast left cooling before her and set the tickets down, reclaiming her seat and devoting herself once more to the meal.
“It’s been sitting there all morning, hasn’t it?” she smiled.
“It come with Lawrence, on his way back to Praha. So ah, yes.” he admitted, watching her slide the lollypop into the pocket of her robe.
“How much longer were you going to let me go on?”
He picked a sprig of thyme from his gravy and set it aside.
“Pendant un petit moment.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce