Pale green flashed across his eyes and burnt out the sight of the trees as the ground flew up toward him, pain bursting outward and leaving him witless for a moment, extending then contracting upon itself like an imploding star around the deep gash opened on his nape. From the lip of the hole his assailant bent down, ripping a length of his hair from the edge of the wound with her stained white fingers and considering it with a grimace half-full of pointed teeth.
"Red... like a whore." she whispered through her disused throat.
William stared up at the tiger print stretched across her great pale body, its hem fluttering, ragged, about her knees, and sat down again on the edge of the pit. Thick tears ran unceasingly from her eyes like melt from a perishing glacier, leaving black-trimmed trails on her cheeks, her long, oddly partial hair fraying and breaking amid its unwitting laurel of leaves and brittle needles. She was at once doppelganger and archetype, faded ghost and plastic flesh. As though she had already satisfied his questions, he reclaimed the shovel, favouring the shoulder that did not pain him as he dragged the shrouded body into the hole. The woman stood with her fingers working against her palms while he filled the pit, the coiling force behind her stare searching for some unguarded point of entry. A dull mark, like a gibbous moon, had been struck across her forehead, and Susan's voice fell from her mouth, perfected to a grotesque degree.
"William... William... Mr Lamb... William...” She used it in a garbled string of onomatopoeia while he recovered from his start, standing like a croaking bird, her dead stare shining as the stolen laughter fell from her mouth.
Rising suddenly, William sprang across the grave, forcing her backward in an offence that he did not press home, returning instead to the grave to tamp its broken earth in silence, gathering his spinning wits. When he had recovered sufficiently he kicked the empty plastic into a roll and walked the long slope back toward his brother's car with it under his arm, keeping his eyes from her, though she spat at him in passing.
Susan looked up from her book as he let himself in, sitting cross-legged on the bed beneath headphones and bedecked in swags of fire-gilded Turkoman and Indian jewels; collars, pectorals, coronets, hairpieces and earrings in silver, carnelian and jade rifled from the caskets lying open on the mattress. When he did not return her smile or appear to even see her she called after his disappearance into the bathroom.
“Did you remember milk?” Out of sight, William shrugged off his shirt and glanced at the mirror behind him, leaning over the bath and turning the shower head onto the back of his neck in an effort to flush the laceration. “How can you go all the way to the bloody shops and forget?" Her frown awaited him, following him toward the door as he dragged a jersey over his head despite the warmth of the evening. "William...” she added. “Come here.”
He moved on into the hall, the uncharacteristic evasion prompting her to slide down off the bed after him. Stayed by her injunction he stood mutely in the passageway with a face so fixed and vacant that it was almost unfamiliar; she caught his wrist and drew him back into the bedroom, the jewels layered about her head and neck chiming against each other. Susan let him stand in silence while she tried to decide what had impressed her so unfavourably, turning him around after a moment's indecision. A manual inquiry, more instinctive than explicitly reasoned, yielded nothing until she passed her hands over his shoulders. Though he did not flinch, he ceased to breathe; standing on her tiptoes, she perceived what lay beneath his collar and clapped a hand over her mouth at the sight of it.
"What happened?" she whispered furiously, kicking the door closed and walking him to the bed where she knelt on the mattress to examine the wound again, turning suddenly away with her eyes screwed closed. “It looks like someone threw a lawnmower at you... there’s stuff stuck in there..." The shovel blade had cleaved his half-translucent tissues deeply, scoring a rut into the wide structures shielding the side of his nape and leaving a dark line of embedded debris. A flat piece of splintered rock, punched sideways into the broken skin, met with the highest curve of his scarified tattoo. Susan swallowed a throat full of bile, abandoning him temporarily in favour of the drawer in the red chest that she had claimed for herself. He stood up in another attempt at departure. "Sit down!" she cried, rattling a hand around the compartment until she had secured a box of sticking plasters and a pair of tweezers. “Do you honestly think you can walk in here with a giant bloody fleshwound and say nothing? There's things I will put up with but that is not one of them!” Pushing him down once more, she climbed up behind him and discarded the rings clustered on her fingers. "Who did this, for god's sake?"
She was distracted from his reluctance to reply by her first wary attempts to cleanse the margins of the wound, the grit wedged in its depths proving grotesquely elusive under skin that distorted its location like water refracting light. Two deep forays with the tweezers exhausted her fortitude and she blew a hard breath, looking up into the darkness of the canopy. In raising her hands to lift his hair out of the way she saw him flinch at the shadow of her arm, a reaction buried as quickly as it was suffered, though its mechanised defensive answered far more than a blow from a stranger. Susan sat still, then set down her implements, lowering her head to his shoulder and meeting with a dismaying rigor that grasped him like a fist, granting a grim transparency to the process that had so affected him.
"William..." She settled her hands against his sides. "If you want me here, and you want me to know you, you have to tell me." She stroked his stricken body slowly, and through her fingers felt his breathing recommence. "I don't care what it is."
“You say that now."
"I can see your spinal column."
"You said you were going to the shops... just start with that."
"I was lying about that. I had to go to the plantation and dig a hole for som..."
"Stop..." she demanded; he obeyed. "That thing you said at the restaurant... about your brother being a... about what he does for a living. I thought you were joking." She slid a hand across his mouth as he attempted to reply. "Don't say yes or no. If this is something to do with him... just... I don't want to know. Skip over that bit." Susan applied herself to the wound once more, using his account as a distraction from the procedure. His indifference to her delving appalled her as much as the sight of it. "You were at the plantation..."
“I was at the plantation minding my fucking business and someone tried to take my head off with the shovel while my back was turned.” he sighed. At his description of the injury she looked away from it once more, shaking out the row of plasters curling on her thumb.
"Did you see who it was?”
“Yeah, I did.” Profound reluctance returned with the guard that hardened his posture. “It was Rana, my wife.”
Susan sat back on her feet.
"You have a wife..."
"It's not what you're thinking..." he sighed. "It's just... a contractual thing with us. When you’re a kid the hags flip a coin and hook you up, no cake, no holding hands. It’s not a fucking love connection.” Despondency worsened the pain in his neck. “She’s supposed to be dead, anyway. Turns out she’s... well, not fucking alive. I’ve spent most of my life trying to stop her doing this.” he admitted, indicating his injury. Susan pressed her hands to either side of her face. “I’m sorry..." William offered again.
She recovered, applying herself assiduously to taping the laceration closed with a row of overlapping plasters that proved as reluctant to adhere to his skin as he was to abide the attention.
"She's like you?" she asked. He nodded carefully.
"I know I should have told you. But I didn't think she mattered."
"I'm not bothered about her... it's what she does to you... you're a fucking mess and it wasn't just the whack with a shovel." she told him ruefully. He moved to sit with his back to one of the carven pillars, leaving her hands to fall to her knees. “Is there anything else I should know or is it just secret wives and giant wounds? How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”
“I don't know... just before the Russians went into Persia.”
She shook her head at the thought of it, eyes closed.
“How did she know where to look for you? You could have been anywhere.”
"I wish I could say I didn't know, but fuck..." William lamented. "I think I do..."
"This was her, wasn't it?" she murmured, pushing a hand over her scars.
"I'm so sorry, avai'sahdi... I should have known."
"William, if you don't stop fucking apologising for whoever did this, I will hit you with something." Susan thought better of the remark and slid a pillow behind his back, sitting cross-legged on the quilt alongside him, wearing his despondency beneath the brilliance of her eclectic finery. He watched her frowning down at the palampore motifs; in spite of all he had conveyed, her presence blurred his looming apprehensions, a charm against the spectre striking at him. William picked up her hand and closed his own around it, allowing the strange, enfolding configuration of their respective fingers to speak for him. "I don't remember how she looked." she admitted.
"We all look the same... there's a boy version and a girl version and that's it."
"What was... is... she like?"
"La'issa. Complétement zinzin... deeply disturbed."
"Why are you such a nutter magnet?"
"If I knew what the attraction was, I would have had it surgically removed."
"Judging by the way she climbed a house to pull my arm off I don't think she fancies me much." He glanced up at the sour, grudging smile she directed toward him. "Promise me you won't ever let anyone kill you with a shovel."
William set the pillow in her lap and lay back on it with her assistance, enjoying the sight of her face framed by the jewels.
“I’d be happier with a heart attack under my much younger girlfriend." he assured her. "Did you know recent studies have revealed that a lap dance can ease the pain of a serious injury without the use of harsh chemicals?”
“It’s not that I don’t like them or anything, but I wouldn’t feel right about you doing hair whips with your neck like that.” she sighed, patting his forehead. He touched a finger to the first item she had selected from his varied cache, picking out its unassuming shape from beneath the larger collars and pectorals.
"I found that in Jaipur." he told her as she looked down at the piece, a Mughal pendant carved in the shape of abroad palmette from limpid, willow-green jadeite. A garland was traced within its curving bounds by hand-chased gold and precious stones, silvery diamonds and bird-blood rubies forming the leaves and buds that curved around an emerald-hearted lotus; it hung between two terminals of twined seed pearls on a chain of aged, buttery gold. He smiled. "Avec les compliments."
"That's very nice of you, but I only accept presents I could afford to buy myself, and I know that's a very boring rule, but I'm very comfortable with it."
"Oh Christabel..." he groaned. "I was hoping you'd abandoned your principles when you agreed to sleep with me. Just... call it a trade."
"A trade for what?"
"This is not something I'm proud of, and I've been meaning to tell you... but I accidentally ate all your jam."
"All the jam?" she exclaimed. He nodded, his gaze wandering over her scowl until she murmured to herself and leant down, holding the jade for him to kiss. "You owe me a pair of good knickers too, so I'll hold on to it, but nothing else, I mean it." she warned. His face clouded with another intruding concern.
“Shit... I’ve got to go and break this to Ed. He won’t be pleased. He and Rana did not get along.”
“What do you think he’ll do?”
“It will be bad. Like pitting a maladjusted tyrannosaur against a crazy tyrannosaur and pelting them with beer bottles and deer carcasses. He’s the one who kicked her into touch the first time.”
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
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