“You’re not... with them?” she asked, reaching out to pluck a twig from the nearest girl’s hair. Annick shrugged.
“Kind of half-way, I guess... I'd let it all go, if things weren't like they are. Too hard, these days, too hard on your family... I don’t want it for my girls.” Once more she sat back from the goat and picked up her stool, moving to the next and muttering to herself. “Running with all that, finding someone like their father... then losing him, losing their land to dead meat, ending up on the spike in the city. Better they meet a lawyer, find a nice condo, stay out of the dralna.” She laughed. “Damn, but I hate it when I sound like my mother.” she added, nodding toward William through the shade of the building. “Rough ride you picked there.”
Feminine laughter drifted their way on the breeze as two witches told a joke between them, their hands on his arms and gazes on his face as he indulged them. Susan shook her head.
“He’s much easier than he looks.” she smiled. Annick glanced up at her misunderstanding.
“Sweeter than treacle, no doubt. Aint why the Black Ops want to bag him up, though. And it aint why the dead meat are on his brother.” The blunt force of her language struck Susan unexpectedly. “Tie that lead for me? She’s going to step back into this.”
"You don't like Edward either?"
"Didn't drive all the way to his show for the pictures." The woman shook her head. "Less said about some things, the better."
“I was thinking, if... I mean, if anyone really wanted to get them, they could have done it by now.” The sound of Susan's own naivety embarrassed her and she looked down at the grass. The eldest child arranged the coffee cups beside the pail, watching her mother fill them halfway before taking one to their visitor. “Thank you Frida, that’s lovely manners.” she told her, setting aside her disquiet. Not to be outdone, the nameless toddler forsook her caprine support and lurched forward to lean against her knee with a look of doubtful inquiry into her unfamiliar features, the puzzling colour of her hair, and finally the pendant that hung from her neck. Susan handed it to her, and the little girl dropped down onto her haunches to examine the jade at length.
“Guess you can look at it that way, but Girl there... she doesn’t have a name because her parents didn’t get round to giving her one. Got pulled out of their car by a bag van. Caleb’s brother and his old lady... a year ago now.” She shrugged back her plait before resuming her chore. “We’re not all the way out here for the great schools.”
“Don't you worry?” Susan asked over the child’s head.
“Everyone should worry.” Annick spoke with a stoicism that darkened as her testimony concluded, sliding the pail out from under the nanny as she stood up and tipped her head toward the barn once more. “We’ll be okay... til someone gives us up and they come out with enough heat to take us in. We’ll all be like your friend there, one day. Last ones standing.”
From the yard, the witches quit the men and wandered back toward their vehicles, calling cajoling farewells and invitations to William and Caleb that brought Susan’s teeth together in her frown, arranging their sacks in the trunks and trading cars as they negotiated their various destinations. Two members of the cutting gang broke rank and begged passage, leaning over the doors of the cars and attempting licentious persuasion that was ridiculed and rebuffed. They were left behind in a blue cloud of exhaust fumes while Annick penned the goats and hoisted her youngest ward onto her hip, committing Frida’s hand to Susan’s. Together they made their way toward the yard, pausing to pour the milk out to a stall busy with spotted calves.
The bay mare carried William in a circle between the railing, his pale face expressionless as he assayed its gait. It threw out its lacquered hooves in taut, collected deliberation, mane lofting and falling against its neck as it passed them by, listening as closely to his murmured requests for change of pace and lead as he did to its footfalls. Satisfied, he let the mare halt before the barn door where it dropped its head, its breath scattering the sawdust as it nosed the small puddle of milk the child had poured for it.
“She's short on this one.” he said, patting the animal’s right shoulder while Caleb scratched his neck and shook his head.
"There you go." he shrugged.
“Got a pick?”
Heaving himself off the stump, their host went in search of the implement while the unnamed infant squirmed and reached for William, jogging impatiently; he accepted his admirer with both hands, forestalling a less equable demonstration by sitting her in the crook of his elbow. The child lifted Susan’s pendant from her chest and showed it to him, cackling as he allowed her to place it on his nose, then in his mouth. He took the pack of cigarettes that she extracted from his pocket from her, spitting out the pendant while the horse began to doze beneath them.
“When you're twelve I’ll buy you your own.” he laughed. “Don’t tell your aunt and uncle. How’s it hanging, Annick?” he added, nodding down at Susan, who leant against the doorframe. “Christabel been telling you about my nasty h-o-e s-h-i-t?” He spelt the last two words out in deference to his fellow passenger.
“You said shit.” Frida informed him, returning with her father.
“Young lady, you go to a much better school than I did.” William replied. He slid down from the horse’s back, eyes suddenly wide. “Look out, the baby’s going for the jugular!” he exclaimed, lurching backward and passing the girl over his shoulder, bending to roll her across his back and catch her as she fell, shrieking with exhilaration. Susan stared in bemusement while Girl bitterly resisted his attempts to hand her over, grasping his shirt with both fists. “They can fly unassisted until they’re four years old...” he added, turning as though to toss his burden over the railing.
“We’re four hours from a fuckin defibrillator, so quit giving your girlfriend a fuckin heart attack.” Caleb smirked.
Extracting himself from the child's clutches William bent to pick up the horse's hoof, knocking the sawdust from its figured arc and drawing the tacks from the horn, running his fingers around it slowly in search of the pathology he suspected. He used the hooked tip of his nail to remove a piece of road metal and looked up as the animal flicked her heavy tail.
“There's a pissy little abscess, right up there along the bone.” he related, letting her foot down. “She's good everywhere else. Clean that up and you've got a twenty grand ride for eight K.” The figures grouped about the railing shook their heads and murmured at his prognosis.
“You’d pay that for her as she is?” Caleb frowned, handing him a can of beer.
“I’ll swap the jag for that horse and this crazy baby.” he replied as the girl was returned to him. His host shook his head.
“You’d have yourself a fuckin deal if I wanted any blood of mine living under the same roof’s your Judas fuckin brother.”
“Not this again.”
“Yeah it’s this again... fuckin dirty bastard...”
“Who’s been putting it around this time? Starts with S, ends with a tuck?”
Drawing himself up, the lycanthrope hooked a thumb in his jeans and spat over the railing, leaning an elbow on the wood.
“It aint like I like Siobhan, but it’s comin in from all points... Ed took a neckfucker payout, now he’s just waiting on word to start in on the rest of us... you know he’s mean enough to do it too, so don’t fuckin look like that.” Caleb related. The idlers behind them voiced their agreement.
"We all fuckin know he is." one of them asserted, his statement like something shot from a shaken bottle; he was broad, overalled and ponderously-formed, heavily-countershaded by the intensity of the tan on the upper portions of his arms and shoulders. A gap between his lower teeth formed a berth for his drooping cigarette.
"Mallet, how about you sit the fuck down before I kick your asshole outta your ear? If anyone's gonna chew this pasty fuck a new one, it'll be me, thanks all the fuckin same." Still shaped by the tensile strength of the convictions they visibly stowed in the face of their leader's displeasure, Caleb's subordinates raised dust with their boots as they straightened up off the railing, Mallet favouring the discretion recommended to him.
“Honestly, I don’t think Edward's involved with anything like that.” Susan ventured. “He sacked Opal the other day... they've had a huge falling out.” Her remark drew every surrounding gaze toward her, and she coloured slowly while Caleb shook his head.
“That’s real nice of you to say, but this goes a long way past Opal. She’s just the bitch of a bitch of another bitch.” he replied. His eyes stayed with her, their deep green enclosed in vivid, lamp-black circles, the muscles in his jaw and bare arms flexing at the prospect he expounded. “And old Ed’s what you might call an evil fuckin genius... he got a tongue of his own for refutin this shit, so you tell him we're all fuckin ears.”
William finished his beer and crushed the can in his hand with a mimed, eye-rolling roar to amuse the child on his arm.
“I don’t think he hears too well these days.” he admitted. “He's solid, though, and I don't say that for my health. But I'm happy to discuss it further, if anyone else is.” The expression he offered around the yard did not ease his companions' scowls, but Susan watched the potential coiling behind them fade as none of them were tempted to accept the invitation implied.
“Then I suggest you pull him off that hooker and get him to fuckin clarify.” murmured Caleb.
“What’s a hooker?” Frida inquired.
“Never mind, sweetheart.”
"I've been trying." William admitted, patting the horse's flank. "Was this everything? We've got to get back."
Girl flung herself face down into the grass and wailed passionately upon discovering she could not catch him up as he sat down behind the wheel of the Jaguar. The dramaturgical ardour of her demonstration caused him to sigh and rise once more, stuffing the bag of dope into the glovebox while Susan shook her head at him from the passenger seat.
“Remember... no, not try again.” she told him. He grimaced at the ascending volume of the child’s entreaties and walked back across the yard to hoist her from the ground; she climbed onto his shoulders in order to avoid Annick’s patient attempts at retrieval as the sun flared and dipped below the roof of the barn. William let her down into his arms and pressed a kiss to both her ears, stroking the fox-brown lick of hair back on her head while she allowed herself to be consoled, and eventually transferred into the woman’s charge.
Susan’s eyes stayed with him all the way down the meandering trail. He smiled down at her questioningly from the gate as he replaced its key.
“Nothing...” she replied, though she continued her inscrutable observation. Finale sunlight, swimming with dust and miniature fauna decanted from the overhanging branches laid itself across the lane in stripes of bronze and secret purple; he slowed the car in appreciation of both the evening and her regard until she leant across, stepping her foot down on the brake and drawing them into a halt in the midst of the way. Removing the glasses from his head, Susan set them on the dash and turned to kiss him, reflecting on the strange, privileged intimacy of the act itself, at once symbolic and intrinsic. The light shifted, darkening her skin and turning her into a subtle, private version of herself, her warm arm curling around his shoulder. "I heard you the other night, out on the balcony. I don't think you weak, just because you're not mean or hard..." she told him. "I think you soft, and I think you kind, and... I am in love with you... I just didn't realize." She watched his eyes darken as she spoke. "I'm that baby... when you leave, all I want to do is lie down on the grass and scream." He smiled, inviting her into his lap, and she sat back against him, taking the wheel as the Jaguar rolled forward. William retrieved his glasses and arranged them on her head while she steered in a leisurely meander.
"You might want to think twice about getting down like that with an ethnic minority, Christabel... I smell troubled times, and I'm pretty sure I saw pointy white hoods back there."
"I don't care. Use your ghetto powers on them."
"You don't care now. You might, one day."
"Don't worry." she smiled. "If anything happens, I'll protect you."
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce