I awoke to darkness and the low glow of green digits from the bedside clock. 2:12. That was when I heard them. The voices from the garden grew up and through my closed window, vines too indistinct for words. That was when I knew what had woken me.
As though still dreaming, I slipped from the bed into the winter of the room and twitched the curtain back the smallest pull. The front garden was dark, no swish of traffic from the country road beyond.
They moved and I saw them, darkness hunkering down beside darkness, in the quiet space at the bottom, where the stream – so dry it is mud – cuts through and the hedge stands black, just clear of the lane everyone passes down to get into the village.
The moon strained against the cloud. Two figures. Men.
“Here, I tell you.”
The moon burst loose as the men dug, incomplete forms bent and broken from this angle. One without a head. They worked quickly.
I felt cross. It was only in May that the garden had begun to look the way I wanted and now this. I wished for the short, dry fingers of the blackened hedge to scratch them back out onto the road. Then they wouldn’t be my problem anymore. I felt scared. Their organised hands flashed, reflecting back the white of the moon.
I thought of the money we lost selling the old house at the wrong time and the little curved nail marks I could see cut into my palm after they told me. I thought of the geese which used to nest in the opposite field. If the stream hadn’t dried up, they would have been here by now.
Spades. The clunk of the metal edge against the dry ground. The top soil is thin in my garden. Spades can turn to weapons in the wrong hands. I didn’t want them rooting around down there, but I did want to know what they’d find. I’d dug some areas, to push back chaos, when we’d first moved in. Not there, though.
I wanted these darkly-clad strangers to go, yet I no longer wanted to be alone. Jeremy had a lot to answer for, even if it was water under the bridge.
What if I turned the lights on? I thought. Would they run? Would they leave their task half unpicked and disappear into the black?
Once back in bed I could not sleep. Anger doesn’t sit well with slumber. I turned and twisted, cocooning myself in the tangled quilt, staring at the darkness that bled across the ceiling, as though the moon had been switched off.
I didn’t want to be alone again.
What if I brought them mugs of tea and watched from the rim of the hole? I didn’t want them to take anything. Everything on the property was mine, with Jeremy gone. What if the tea was laced with more than just milk?
I crept back to the window. Heard spade hit solidity.
What if I bound their hands and rolled them in?
In the morning, first talons of sun, like watered light, woke me and I was out, shucking my boots on, tucking my pyjamas in for warmth.
I could see what they had done.
I could see where they had cut the turf. Like scars in skin, the puckered look of the edges of the hole enlightened me. The sunken portion of ground showed me they had found what they were looking for. They had taken it away.
I was born the year my sister lived in Paris. People who wanted to hurt us – by us I mean my father, because of who he was, and sister, because of who she became – liked to imply that I was not the product of my parents at all but rather the illegitimate daughter of my sister and some wild Frenchman to whom she had taken an ill-advised shine. The fact that my mother’s nervous condition made her almost reclusive did not help matters. And, when I was born, with dark hair and skin, to my blonde, fair mother, the rumour grew.
The shadow the rumour cast behind us was long like the shapes we made in the evening garden after a full day of summer sun. The darkness of our enemies, however, was heavier still, as uncompromising and ominous as an accidental fall into an unused well.
My father was a scientist. He had been employed by the government to advise on all manner of scientific matters and some felt this enabled him to wield too much power. My mother, on the contrary, felt not that the scope of his power was too far-reaching but that the attribution of power others gave him was potentially harmful. She was greatly distressed by the death-threats we received at home when he spoke about animal testing, and she never got over being taught how to check under the car for bombs.
The mark this photograph shows on the wall above the staircase is my mother’s blood.
I shan’t pretend to remember verbatim what was said about my father’s work to me or my sister. I suspect that my sister, always a generation older, knew more than I did.
My mother loved my father very much and this is the only reason I can offer to account for why she lived, alongside him, a life she did not enjoy. The travel tired her. The press agitated her. She once said to me, perfectly seriously, “I feel there is something to be frightened of around each and every corner,” which indicates a distressing subsistence. She would have preferred something quieter, I’m sure, if she had been allowed to choose. She would never have left him of her own volition.
My sister was in Paris for the year after school, the year she changed from being eighteen into nineteen and, from the few photos I have of her during this time, she was young for her age – much more of a girl than a woman. She retained this girlishness right through her life, even into middle age and I suspect that never marrying contributed to this in some way as well. Illustrating children’s books suited her immeasurably.
The handprint suspended in the blood, you will notice on close observation, is my sister’s.
As for me, with all the excitement surrounding our family name, I’ve always been drawn to a life less showy. I’ve worked hard, in my own way, at this small life in which a meal or book can elicit as much enthusiasm from me as romances and films do in others. It is a simple life. I am proud to be able to survive on so little. Sometimes, yet, the clamour of my own thoughts makes my mind a little less quiet than I might seem from the outside.
It is my belief that my sister drugged our parents before making the small, careful slices across the arteries at their wrists, which explains why they seem to have accepted their fates without struggle.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think my sister was my mother. She was a very controlled person who believed that everyone made his or her own luck. She strove determinedly for everything she ever had and she wasn’t silly or careless or prone to being swept off her feet. I think you can see this in her work. The tightness of the small sketches and the precision of the gouache fit her character. The books she illustrated are prim and neat and evoke her wonderfully.
Her artist’s hands were far more delicate than mine. That was what made it so easy for me to take the knife away from her.
Rumours are ugly. Like whispers in darkness they hold no true shape but instead are added to, like a globule of gum under a school-desk, by every passing mouth. And this is one of the reasons I wanted to set the record straight. I’d rather that there wasn’t any more space for wild imaginations to prowl over our lives again, especially as three members of my family are not here anymore to tell their versions.
The cuts into my sister’s body, on the other hand, you’ll note, are not controlled, because I was not so prepared. I did not wake that morning knowing I would have to kill her and I somewhat panicked as I thrust the knife home.
About the Author: Sarah Mitchell-Jackson writes prose and poetry. Her work has appeared in The Critical Pass Review, Really System, on the Conium Review website, and the No Extra Words podcast. She lives in Cambridge, UK, with her husband and son. More about Sarah Mitchell-Jackson here.