She sleeps beside him, the heat coming off his damp pajamas, the
steady burr of his snores falling through the broken floorboards to
the empty lounge. Out back in the yard the bantam and hens roost in
the branches of the destroyed apple tree.
In the dream, her mother is in the butcher's shop of a strange town,
in slippered feet, her nightgown in flitters. "A pork chop and a nice
slice of liver while you're at it," she says to the ruddy-faced
butcher. His hand takes hers and places it on the cutting board. He
drizzles sawdust over her mottled skin and cleaves the hand off from
the wrist. A stream of butterflies, green hairstreak, dingy skipper,
and brimstone ribbon from the wrist and flutter off. The butcher wraps
the still limb in brown paper, tying a double knot with thick twine
and says, "That'll be tuppence ha'penny." The old woman tries to take
the package, but more and more butterflies spill into the air and
everything turns to black.
She kneads handfuls of creamy dough with orange-stained fingers.
Nicotine addicted, persecuted, her day is a maddening circle of tea
and biscuits, baking, smoking, the necessary fiction of the housewife.
Yellow rubber gloves and the tin of Vim; she heads for the outside
toilet, her wedding ring nestled in the soap dish on the kitchen
window ledge. He left a log floating in the bowl -- a perch -- bound for
open water. The apron hitched about her waist, the filth enough to
send her into hysterics. In matters of the household she is the senior
partner, the one who fishes the lump out of the fell water and quickly
bags it, her cigarette smoldering in the narrow hut. Does it matter,
she wonders, the flecks of tomato seeds in the water, the rusting
bones of the old Morris Minor in the yard?
The Paperwhites fold in the weak evening sun and a fool crosses the
street in the shadow of the primary school. In the crib, baby gums its
fist, patterns of saliva stain the sheet, and the hole in her stocking
worries itself ever larger. She puts another briquette on the fire,
knocking the dust off against the coal scuttle. Her dirty hands are
the direct success of a hard life, the creep of years, the baby a
latecomer. Through the curtained window the dusk moves along -- a boat on
a slow-flowing sea.
Mother told her as much, how she'd be marrying a moocher, one of the
shiftless kings of the small town they'll be forced to quit in
disgrace when the banks close the taps on the loan and the bailiffs
cart everything off to the showgrounds for auction. Made of stronger
mettle, she drops the bottle in the saucepan of water and lets it
bubble away, all the while reading the pages of last night's dream.
On the stove the bottle rattles against the side of the saucepan and
she takes it out of the boiling water with a dishcloth. She squirts a
drop onto the inside of her wrist to gauge the temperature, and
crosses the kitchen floor to the crib. Outside, a mackerel sky, she
watches a single green hairstreak settle on a dandelion, and the
memory of her mother's stumped wrist sends a sharp pain shooting
across her forehead. Baby smacks the rubber nipple and the
mint-colored creature flies into the window, as if trying to say
something with its death.