Barleycorn

“Barleycorn”

by Cae Hawksmoor

They all want to die for me eventually.

Some spend themselves in an instant, their faces and voices leaving no more of an impression than shallow footprints in ploughed earth. Men like Peter are different. They linger over weeks and months, spinning out their final days into a terrible beauty until I cannot bear it. Until I swear all through the long hours of the night that this time I will save them. This time, they will live. I may as well try to fight the passage of the stars, the coming in and going out of the tide.

I am full-ripe with summer when I burn him, standing at the centre of a drought-ravaged field with a book of matches in my hand. Peter’s blood drips warm and vital, his body woven into an effigy of living wheat. The stalks of my hair plaited flat against my scalp and the ears of the grain brush against the waistband of my jeans. The dark is the still-warmth that comes in the lengthening of late summer and so quiet that I can hear his breathing over the burble of watery birdsong welling up from the copse down by the stream. Fog softens the blue-dark, a balm to the tinder-dryness of the field. My hand tightens on the matchbook, and I try to still my breath.

“Come closer,” Peter tells me, his voice gentle as the fog.

And I do. Close enough to see moonlight on the blanched sawdust of his skin, turning his face more tranquil than I have ever seen it. I strike the first match, and fire spills out warmth and shadow–filling the heavy fog with the smell of burning.

I was still greening with the spring when we first met. The young wheat of my hair barely even brushed my shoulders, still drinking in the yellow of the early sun. I didn’t know what had drawn me to that travelling fair so high up on the hill. I was still in the thrall of whatever it is that draws me through the trickle of the hours and the passage of the seasons, while the world all slowly turns to ruin. As chained to this cycle as the ones who seek me out, no matter how much poison is poured into the living earth year-by-year.

The fair was busy as I lingered through the early evening, people distracting themselves with flashing lights and synthetic noise while the sky clothed itself in a thousand shades of apricot and lavender above. I took endless rides on the Ferris wheel and marvelled at the cold spring wind that gusted against my body. At all the little houses in the valley, cold from doorstop to chimney with blue light flickering from windows.

I saw Peter in flashes from the lurch-and-spin of the Waltzer, lights and colours strobing the surface of my mind. He was perhaps somewhere in his forties. A landscape gardener, he’d say later. Brown as a nut in the way that a face can only be after a lifetime in the sun.

Even in those epileptic flashes, I knew it would be him. Something about the warmth of his laughter as he tried to stop his two teenage children from staring at their phones. I climbed down the thin metal stairs, and I stumbled into him. Easy to make it look like an accident. I reached out for his arm the colour of knotted roots of ash, and that electric resonance went singing through my body in convulsion. Both deep pleasure and deep pain. Memories that were more feeling than image: coarse rope between my hands, around my throat, the sound of blackbirds singing thick and syrupy in fading light. The fledgling chick that had taken refuge in the green tangle of my hair fluttered her anxious wings.

I raised a hand to quiet her worries, and Peter caught me by the elbow. As still and solid as if he was rooted there. When I looked in his eyes, I saw my desire and my agony reflected in his murky depths: a hollow, scraping longing to fall and not surface until long after he’d drowned. His daughter’s eyes ground over me like sandpaper, and I drew away before I no longer had the choice–letting the crowd draw me back into an ocean of colourful light, into all those fairground screams that are both fear and joy. But, when I looked back over my shoulder, he was still watching me.

And so I waited. Waited until the fair was packing up around us like a faerie moot, the illusion of its lights and paint and colours all slowly broken up and leached colourless by moonlight.

Peter stood on the threshold that led back into the normal world: headlights and tail lights, darkened windows and hushed voices. He was speaking with a tired-looking woman, her hair pulled back in a high ponytail that turned the lines of her face severe in orange streetlight. She hesitated as they negotiated over the two children, still gazing into their phones like hares captivated by the moon. She looked as though she didn’t trust herself to smile for real. Hesitation birthed out of a pain so deep that the grain of my heart swelled up for her, as though I had been soaked in sap and water. But I dared not approach. I could not allow the agony in her eyes to strip away my glamours the way the moonlight and the silence broke down the glamours of the fair.

I lingered at the edges until the woman with the worrisome smile shepherded her two moon-gazing hares into a waiting car that was far bigger than it had to be, tyres slithering on tarmac as they slipped back into the mortal world. I watched Peter’s heart go with them, pouring out through his eyes after the taillights until there was nothing left.

They were swallowed up by the streetlight and the dark, and his eyes sank towards me like a stone dropped into a pond. I heard the breath scrunch in his throat. Before he’d even closed the gap between us, his hands were reaching out for mine.

In supplication, or surrender.

We wended down the dirt track off the hillside and into the wheat fields below. Somehow, our hands twisted together. Our feet were cautious of finding their place in the dark, but Peter’s gaze never left me. I’d noticed those eyes earlier: murk-green like water stagnant in a pool. His hand was as warm as his laughter, but something half-seen shifted in his depths. I was not afraid to ask about the woman with the tense and frightened smile. I had followed the steps of this dance enough times to know that what I said would make little difference now. To him. To me. To what was yet to come.

“Do you miss it?” I asked, deep in his unweaving. Digging down into the marrow beneath his murk-water eyes.

“Married life?” he said. “Sometimes.”

For the longest time, there was nothing in the night but us. Our boots scuffed in the dry dust, and a faint spidering ripple of lightning spread out through the clouds. I counted the seconds on each of his strangled breaths. When the thunder finally came, Peter’s grip tightened on my hand.

“I miss the house,” he said softly. “What it meant. The kids. The feeling that… I don’t know. It’s all so broken. Long past the point that anyone can fix it.”

“With you and her?”

“With everything,” he said, his voice struggling between pain and resignation. “All of the goodness has gone out of it. We’ve turned it all to poison. We fill our lungs with it. Our minds. Our ears… Used to be that if you wanted to keep evil spirits out, you’d nail a sprig of hawthorn above your door. Cover the thresholds with a line of salt. For a while, that’s what it was like with Sarah. With the kids. Like all the poison couldn’t cross to us. When that ended…”

He sighed, his voice threadbare. Ahead, the field terminated with the sharp ridge of a railway embankment, a deeper and more menacing darkness against the tumbling shadows of the oncoming storm. When the sky spidered open again with lightning, I could just about make out the deep arch of the tunnel that would cut a path for us through to the other side.

“It’s not as though it’s something that happened to me,” he said, the words well-worn, a touchstone. “I’m not some beaten and bloodied martyr. I know that. I had my shot at that life, and I blew it.”

Troubled lines crept over the openness of his face, folding the skin around his eyes. The thunder shuddered somewhere in the empty quiet, but all I could hear was the sound of his breath. Forced and even. I stopped half-way between the wheat fields and the embankment with the young corn stretching out on either side as far as I could see. The blackbird chick behind my ear shifted uncomfortably in wet feathers. I took Peter’s hands in mine, relishing the electric resonance that rippled underneath my skin and brought every awn and hair on end.

“What happened?” I asked.

Peter shook his head, and looked off towards the darkness of the embankment. Towards the semi-circle of dull storm-coloured light that marked our passage through. He said, “I tried to kill myself.”

A terrible ache threatened to split me like a ripened grain. It robbed me of my next breath, and the one that should come after. Peter’s eyes hardened into pondslime-covered stones. I had barely even touched the fire that burned in him. The openness of his laugher and his heart, and already it was waning. I felt the sting of him, and every man just like him, as though they were each a needle driven in to bleed me. Until there was nothing left but an empty husk woven from dry wheat.

I would not allow it. Not this time. I would take this breaking thing and make it live.

“Peter.”

The tension drained out of the hard knots of his shoulders. He said, “It isn’t like it matters now.”

On the next ripple of thunder, the clouds unpeeled themselves from rain. The bottom fell out of the sky. I could not help but surrender to it. Laughing and luxuriating in the smell of fresh green that rose from the young wheat. I forgot about Peter in that moment, about the pain in his pondwater eyes, and my resolution to drain it out of him. I forgot about the blackbird fledging in the fresh stalks of my hair. I opened my mouth to the rain and let the droplets burst open on the shivering warmth of my tongue. Life and life only.

When I came back into myself, the lightning veined the clouds overhead and the blackbird chick nestled beneath the shell of my ear, shivering in plastered feathers. Rain ran into my eyes. I spread my arms, and spun around. Peter was nowhere around. It took a long time to make out his shape, watching from the curved arch of the tunnel. His back moulded against brick. He smiled, and the sap rose slowly through my body, reaching up towards the rain.

I slipped in out of the downpour. Into the rippling echoes of the tunnel. Pushed him back against the rough bricks and surged up onto my toes to cover his mouth with my own. His hot hands on my wet skin, as pure as the lightning. A train slammed over the embankment above, and pulses of vibration sounded through his body into mine. We pulled at each other’s clothes. My hips pressed flush to his and his hands clutching my waist. I fought against the buckle of his jeans, then his grip slipped on my wet skin and both of us were falling.

The wet ground knocked all of the air out of my body, and Peter barely caught himself before he landed hard on top of me. Then his mouth coursed over mine and we were taking off our clothes again. Peter’s hands clenched in the muddied earth as he buried himself in me, digging furrows in the naked earth. A low moan hummed in his mouth and I balled the rich musk of the soil in my hands. Squeezing all the water out of it. Smearing it in dark streaks across his back.

Every time we were together it was the same. We danced like this between life and death. Between sex and dying. The surge of his body against mine, resonant with something fathomless. The peace of his working hands in the rich earth around the caravan where he had lived these five years passed. The somewhere-elseness of his eyes when he lay his arm across my sweat-slick belly and drew a blade across the buckled skin on the inside of his forearm. Both pain and pleasure tangling together in the heavy dark and my body wrapped around his like an anchor, tethering him to the terrible beauty of it all.

“I was seventeen the first time I tried die,” he said.

I said, “Show me the place.”

And so he did.

We met outside a plain and soulless house that was once his holiest of holys, before something pulled the hawthorn branches down from all the windows and scuffed through the lines of salt he’d laid across the threshold. I leaned against the cab of his twenty-year-old Hilux as he said goodbye to his kids with that same easy laugh, and then we walked. The landscape gave itself up easily from suburbs to chalk hillside, the blackbird in my hair tested her young wings against the wind that blew in off of the distant sea. Cleavers and the cornflowers sprouted in the green tangle of my hair. I thrummed with life in the deepness of my blood and the fullness of my being. The world a haze of colour so sharp that it ached. Green needles of the grass. Blue sky. White chalk. A dozen hazy clouds.

He paused on the great crest of the hill. The city spread out in the valley below, stretching from horizon to horizon. Dull grey of the concrete, white gleam of fresh glass. It was a world as far away from this one as I can fathom.

“I grew up in a house somewhere down there,” he said.

He frowned, and his eyes followed the familiar lines of the landscape, trying to orientate himself. To anchor it to memory. But it had been too long, or else the world had changed too much from the one that he had known. He shook his head, and we moved on. The wind flared in my ears, and the blackbird chick finally dug deep enough to find her courage–arching her small wings against that wind and flinging herself out into the empty air. I watched her go with a hand pressed to my chest.

“It isn’t far now,” Peter told me.

We climbed through an ugly tear in an old chainlink fence, and passed again into another world. Here the grass grew in sickly patches amongst the dandelions and buddleia and then it did not grow at all. It had been some kind of chalk pit once, the hollow shell of a red brick factory in ruins at the centre of a great gouge in the earth. The top of its blood-coloured chimney was almost level with our eyes. Peter sat down on the edge of the highest terrace, his legs dangling over bloodless white chalk and two hundred feet of empty air. I took up my place beside him, my boots brushing against his as we swung them over the abyss. Something cold and dead wound itself around my heart.

The quarry was a wasteland. Nothing living could pass the threshold of its walls. The earth around the factory was a pale as death, poisoned beyond even the weeds’ ability to redeem it. Even the gulls scattered high above us by the wind seemed to lens around it rather than pass over the ruin. When I looked across at Peter, his eyes had the same quality as that place.

“I want to die for you,” he said.

I clenched his hand until I felt his knuckles strain. I would not grace him with an answer. Would not feed breath into that void that opened up inside of him, as empty as the wasteland in the quarry.

“Tell me,” I said. “I want to know how it was.”

“When I decided I would do it,” he said. “I knew that it had to be here. There are places in the world that are set apart for life, and places that are set apart for death. There was no one thing that caused it. One day I just realised that it would not be long before the places for the dead outnumbered the ones left for the living. It wasn’t some diffuse threat or some existential worry.

“I went out into the garden and pushed my hands into the dirt and knew that one day soon places like this would outnumber them. The world is falling in love with dying. We are convincing her of it with every day that crawls past on its belly. For weeks before, every time I slept I dreamed my way back here–the hills all bare white like the facings on the pyramids. A tomb for everything that was wild in this world.”

He stared into the poison chalice of the quarry. The ruined factory blood red against white chalk. Its windows broken black and wailing with the wind.

“One morning in early spring,” he said. “I took ten meters of the fresh rope my father had bought to pull down a tree, and I walked all the way out here. In there,” he nodded to the factory. “It’s full of broken, rotting things. They used to fire the chalk for lime down there. Feeding stone into the fire for almost a hundred years before the damned thing finally closed down. I suppose they’ll pull it down eventually, scuff the bricks into the chalk and pretend like it was never here. But the earth and stone that used to make this hole a hill will still be scattered across farmland from here out to the coast, and nothing here will ever grow again.”

I reached out to take his hand in mine, to bring some kind of living comfort to the strain that sounded in his voice. Like an old rope stretched out too tightly for too long.

He said, “There’s a broken beam wedged about twenty feet up the inside of that chimney. I don’t know how long it took me to climb up to it. A long time, I think. I’ve never been so good at climbing.”

Peter looked down at his hand and frowned, as though he was surprised to find it wended into mine. “Turns out that I wasn’t too good at tying knots either. I must have wrapped the rope around that beam a dozen times before I tied it off and put the other end around my neck, but I still woke up that evening just as the sun was going down, lying in the rubble at the bottom of that chimney with the rope all unspooled around me and fresh blood down my shirt where it had cut my neck but not quite far enough.”

“Peter…”

I said his name, but I think he was past listening. He shook his head and unknotted our hands, pulling his arm back into his lap as though it had been wounded.

“It was an incredible sunset,” he said, looking back out into the quarry. “The clouds all hazed with pink and gold and the sky this deep violet even as the stars all started to come out. I’ve watched almost every single one that’s come since then, and none of them can match it.”

I said, “What did you do?”

Peter shrugged his shoulders. “What else could I do?” he said. “I coiled up the rope and walked back home.”

“I’m going to make you live,” I tell him. “I’m going to make you want to live. I will not let you die.”

There had been so many others. Each one of them unique. Some part of me knows that this one was no different. Maybe he was right, and one day the death will overawe the living, but I would not help it to be so.

“Is that right?” Peter asked, like he had heard my thoughts. As though I’d spoken them out loud.

And perhaps he had, or perhaps there is just something in my voice that caught at him. Some echo of the fire that we have nurtured in between our bodies. When I looked across to meet his eyes I found them sparkling with a amusement. I grazed my hand against the roughness of his cheek, then his mouth was over mine and the only thing that I could hear was the flash flood of the wind against my ears, and the mellow sound of blackbird song spilling like fresh blood from somewhere out among the downs.

I almost believed that I could make it so that day. That I could clasp him close enough to keep him safe. To keep him drawing breath. But it was not so long before we suffered the consequences. Before the drought began.

I sat on the open tailgate of his old Hilux, dangling my feet over the edge until my toes just touched the dry grass. Marvelling at all the life that surged up to meet the low grey sky. Feeling it in the ripening of my own body. The yellowing of my hair.

A harvest mouse scrabbled in the grass below my feet, gathering dry stalks to weave her nest in the curve beneath my skull. The air was still, saturated with the sound and smell of petrol engines at work somewhere beyond the stand of trees. Amongst their branches, a barn owl watched the mouse with hungry eyes, and I watched him watching her. Peter disturbed the owl when he came out of the woods. Glowing with surprise when he saw me waiting there for him. White wings lifted silent from among the sunburned leaves and glid out ghost-like over fields of tinder grass. I hopped down from the tailgate and waited for the harvest mouse to scurry back up my leg twist herself into my hair, then I waded out into the meadow to meet my dying god.

His arms were full of a thousand living colours–weeds that he’d gathered for me rather than burn them with the tangle of hawthorn and old willow they had spent the morning clearing. I knew it just as deeply as I knew the names of each of those flowering things in turn, and traced their words with the tip of my tongue even as I traced their petals with my hands.

Poppy. Valerian. Oxeye daisy. Meadow grass and meadowsweet. Crosswort and a little late cow parsley.

We crushed the flowers between our aching bodies as he stepped into kiss me. Skin moulded against skin and a thick haze of pollen rose from between us into the heavy air.

“Tell me something,” I said as he drove us back to his flaking, peeling caravan, standing on the threshold between the meadows and the woods. “Something about you that nobody else knows.”

I leaned forward to switch off the radio. To cut off those anxious voices wondering how long the drought would go on. Worrying for rain.

Peter reached across to tug a strand of ripe cleaves from amongst my stalks of yellow hair, untangling it with careful fingers and winding it into the wildflowers in my lap. He went back to staring at the road unfolding before us. Turning down narrower and narrower lanes until we bumped down a thin dirt track, grass bursting from its centre and hissing against the underside of the truck. He said nothing at all, but pulled up in front of the last gate and stared out towards the white smudge of the caravan, half-hidden by spires of sunburned peas and squash and wilting foxgloves.

The engine was off, but his hands still rested steady on the wheel.

“I guess it would have been easy to die after the divorce,” he said, chewing each word carefully. “I thought about it. Honestly, for a while I didn’t think of much else. But Sarah was right. I was an idiot. I couldn’t do that to the kids. To her. Not after…”

He stopped, sucking an ugly breath down deep into his belly, then pushed the air out again in one long stream. He sat back on the worn seat, and linked his hands behind his head. “If I was smarter,” he said. “I guess I would have spent all that time seeking.”

“Seeking what?”

“Anything,” he said, and shook his head. “Instead, I got drunk a lot. Left the truck parked up here so I wouldn’t be tempted to drive home, and walked the mile down to the pub in the village.

“The landlord there… I guess I knew she wanted me, but I was too much of a coward to do anything about it. Then one night when I got so drunk that I just didn’t care any more. About Sarah. The kids. What people thought…”

I inclined my head to watch him. He didn’t sound afraid any more. Just as though he was untangling the story from himself the same way he’d untangled cleavers from my hair.

He said, “I told her: ‘What the hell, let’s do it’ so when everything was closed up for the night she took me upstairs and tied me to the bed. I don’t know how long it went on for. Long enough that it was light outside by the time that we were done. By the time that she’d finished unpicking all the knots…”

I twisted until I could rest my arm on the back of the bench seat. Pressed my cheek against my forearm. I said, “Did you enjoy it?”

The shudder that went through his body answered the question for me. I smiled and asked, “Why?”

He rubbed his wrist absently. Rested his hands back on the wheel. “Life and death together,” he said. He raised one hand to brush the almost-invisible knot of pale scar around his throat, his eyes turning deep and distant. “It was life and death together.”

He started when I opened the truck door and dropped down into the dry grass. The crickets all sang lazily as I dragged open the gate, and the heat was like a hand against my skin. As though it had weight all of its own. A mason bee that had spent the last hour resting in my ear purred her wings and flew off towards the small square of old wheat that Peter kept at the edges of his gardens, goldening itself in the growing grey. I walked beside the truck as Peter guided it up the track, and caught his fingers in my own when he climbed down out of the cab.

“Go inside,” I told him, easing up onto my toes and nipping the root-brown lobe of his ear. “And take off your clothes.”

I ran my hand down his strong side while his eyes lingered, then leaned into the back of his old Hilux, reaching for the rope there.

The summer stretched itself out, indolent and golden, and the drought would never end. The earth baked into terracotta, hard and red and fractured, and the stream behind the copse of trees parched down to a thin trickle. The wheat, the grass, and everything that was rooted in the earth sagged and wilted under the barren heat.

Red rock and no water. Everything already dead or dying except for the long stalks of the einkorn that Peter grew beside the stream. It grew old and strong and proud even while all the wonders men had wrought in the silent cells of its descendants failed and crumbled into tinder. All the world was shifting in its restive sleep, and famine slid through the shadows of their dreaming–crawling through the blue screens flickering behind windows.

“This wheat is old,” Peter said.

And I was tumescent with life. He rested his hand on the swell of my belly, and we lay nesting in the old wheat beneath a contrail sky, a dozen paces from the crude feet of the figure he had woven from the corn. It stood over us like a sentinel, its shadow stretching out into the east.

A late swarm of bees had settled in the furrow underneath my arm and we watched them come and go, gathering what nectar they could from the heady wilting flowers and building up their folds of comb against a winter that felt, in that moment, like it might never come. The field was almost ripe, and my mouse doe gathered the grains patiently from drooping stalks, feeding her young nestled in the hollow of my neck.

Peter’s breath tickled my throat, his face buried in my ripening hair. He spent half of the night before braiding it into seven-stranded plaits, cleaving tightly to my scalp between the poppies and corn marigold. I shifted my weight to face him, the awns on my arms and legs scratched like dried bristles on his skin.

“For almost all of human history,” he said, tracing a spiral pattern on my swollen belly with the callous of his thumb. “We’d sacrifice a little of ourselves into the harvest.”

The breath hitched in my throat. I listened to the grasshoppers purring in the einkorn and the low drone of the bees coming and going from the nook underneath my arm, and I wondered if he knew how close that he was now to the truth. To the force that had brought the two of us together, ancient and unfathomable as the highest currents of the wind, and the pendulum swing of the Earth around its star.

“We’d break our backs on the plough and scrape our fingers raw on the scythe. Men and women. Any child that was old enough to hold a winnowing fan. We’d pour our own blood and our grief into these fields. Anything to outlast the cold dark of the winter. But we’ve forgotten all that now. Instead of sacrificing a little of ourselves we give up two hundred million years of fossil sunlight. Wipe out anything that troubles us and tell ourselves we are entitled to it all because we are God’s chosen people. Progress’s chosen people. It doesn’t matter. They’re both the same.”

That quiet strain had crept into his voice again. I raised my hand up to rest it on his cheek, and buried my face in the cup of his shoulder, breathing in the oils in his hair.

“Don’t,” I murmured.

But I felt his body ripple with tension. It passed through him in a low vibration and entered into me.

“Don’t,” I said again, and then in desperation: “Soon, but not now. Come to bed with me.”

And so he did, my dying god.

Darkness came as rich and syrupy as the mead we drank from dirty glasses. We tangled together in the candlelight, nested in blankets piled on top of the caravan’s narrow bed. Sheened with each other’s sweat. I twisted fierce fingers into his unwashed hair, and pulled his cheek against my aching breast. Swallowed down the knot that snarled fast in my throat. Breathed the smell of burning wax until I could be certain to speak without breaking.

“You could stay here,” I told him. “Keep working in the red earth with your bare hands. Plant a little extra of everything because you would rather share it with the mice and slugs than poison anything alive. Keep a few extra chickens because you’d rather let them wander and risk them to the fox. This place is your bones, Peter. Your blood. You can stay, and I can leave.

Peter pushed himself away. “This isn’t about that,” he said, the tightened rope sound in his voice turning to something sour. To a carefully knapped edge. He sighed, drawing his knees up to his chest. “You aren’t listening to me. This isn’t about you. I’ve not stopped wanting this since that spring day down in the lime kiln with a rope around my neck. Sometimes I think I’ve always wanted it. But I fought it all the same, because that’s what you’re meant to do. Got married. Had kids. Bought a house, got a mortgage. All those little things that you’re meant to do to keep death out.”

I sat up next to him, my back pressed to the fragile fibreglass of the wall. I felt it bow outwards, as though it would tear and crack and dump me out into the dark. I sat close enough to feel the lazy heat radiating out of his body, but did not dare to touch.

I said, “You never told me. Why all of those walls you built against it came back down.”

“Because there is nothing to tell!” he said, anger bleeding out into frustration. He blew a breath out between his teeth, and reached out with an ash-brown hand to take my own. “Those walls were never made of anything but air. It was nothing. One day I came home from work and the kids were playing in the garden. It had been a long, dry summer and they were pulling up the yellow grass. Making a pile of it all. All day I’d been out in this old wood on the very edge of the town, uprooting the trees so that they could build big ugly houses. Sessile oak and beeches all three hundred years old if they were a day, and every time we cut one down I felt a little bit more of myself go out. Then I stood just inside the gate watching my kids pull up that yellow grass… it was just a stupid game! I knew it didn’t mean a damned thing. It’s just…”

I squeezed his fingers, although I knew then that we were long past the point where I could anchor him to something.

“Go on,” I said.

“The next morning I told Sarah I was sick. Waited for her to go to work. To take the kids to school. Went out into the garage and taped up all the cracks around the doors. I started my truck, got up into the cab, and waited to fall asleep. I remember feeling sick. The headache. And then waking up in a room so white it burned. Needles stuck in every part of me and machines all churning and beeping. If Sarah hadn’t been worried enough to come back… But she was.”

He lifted a glass from the bedside and emptied it in two long swallows, rubbing at the wash of tears on his face. “Afterwards,” he said. “She was pissed off enough to call me a lot of words I’d never heard her say before. To take the kids to stay with her friend, and serve me with divorce papers a month later. I can’t blame her for it. She was right. Lying in that white room I decided that she deserved better. That the kids deserved better. That no matter how I felt, I couldn’t put them through that again. But now?”

He swallowed his tears. I gripped the back of his neck, and we crumpled into one another. I breathed like he was breathing, until both of us were still. Saturated in the candlelight and the single blackbird singing out in the warm dark.

“The kids are old enough,” he said, so quiet that his voice was barely there at all. “They’ll be ok. And Sarah stopped caring a long time ago.”

I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t true. About the worrisome smile she had every time she looked at him. But it wouldn’t make a difference now. Perhaps it never could.

“And now this drought,” he said. “I feel like… maybe I can’t save the world. Maybe I can’t tear down all of those ugly new houses and put those three-hundred year old trees back where they should be. But maybe I…”

I sighed. This would never be the way I wanted it. Who know if it was even possible? I could no more hold onto this man than I could grasp smoke in my hands.

“How do you want it to be?” I asked.

Peter caught a breath that was almost a laugh. Almost a sob. He caught my face in his hands and pressed his tear-wet lips over mine.

He said, “I want it to be beautiful.”

And so I stand out in the einkorn with a lit match in my hand. My body trembles, but the sound of tears just won’t come out. I’m too afraid to break the hush. The low trickle of the stream and the shroud of mist that is the closest that this land has come to rain all summer long. A vast and watery quiet where I will bury him. Woven within the crude figure he’s braided from the wheat, slit open from elbow to wrist, Peter’s breath grows slack and slow. The last few drops of cider oozing from an apple press.

“To everything, there is a season.”

His voice, and the bright heat of the match almost burned out between my fingers, startles me out of my reverie. I reach blindly through the straw, aching to feel the raw charge of his skin against me one last time, but all that is left now is the lowest of crackles. Like grains of static in the hot close of a dark room. His blood drips down into the parched desert of the field.

“A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.”

This time, the voice is mine. His drifts somewhere beyond consciousness, and the match is almost out. I drop it in the bone-dry wheat and step back from the blooming of the fire. The bees in the crook of my arm mellow in the smoke, sinking down through the comb towards hibernation. The mouse pups flee the nest in the crook of my skull, and scamper off one-by-one into the stubble. A stab of pain like a contraction goes through my body. It brings me to my knees.

When I look up, I see the shadow of a man, immolated in a wreath of blood-coloured flame. Fire high and bright as stalks of wheat aching up against the autumn stars.

In the roaring of it, I think for one brief and fleeting moment that I can hear Peter’s voice. That he is screaming. But the sound he makes is not a scream, it is a whoop of joy.

I wake amongst the ashes, a low grey sky radiating heat and a thousand fat and feathery ashes in the ripe wheat of my hair, smoothing my skin to feather-down. They lift into a lazy vortex as I stand. The ground is still hot under bare feet, softened by a swathe of soot and embers. I drive the Hilux out into the field and set a fire in the cab. Watch it burn as the sky burnishes with morning. The same colour as mother of pearl.

By the time that it burns out, I’m walking. In those hours, time does not seem to pass at all. I follow the track down into the village and the road out onto the downs, cars all sweeping past in a haze of poisoned air. They leave no more impression on me as an echo of a dream, then they are gone and I am walking barefoot along a chalk track on a hill above the city.

I don’t know what it is that draws me there that morning, whether I am following a memory, an ache, or just the swing of the same pendulum that guides me from planting to harvest. From birth into death. But when I crest the rise before the quarry I stumble, and the tears pour out of me as though I am an upturned vase.

The whole quarry is like a cup filled up with life to overflowing. Wasteland plants from cusp-to-cusp. Ragwort and hemlock. Dandelion and buddleia. Birds and late summer bees filling the air with song as though it had been struck against the force of life itself. The factory is swagged thick with ivy and old man’s beard, until only the chimney remains unclaimed–rising out of the green like a red spire. The sky is murderous grey shot through with silver light, but the world below it is the kind of green that aches at the backs of my eyes and at the cradle of my belly.

Lightning spiders its way from horizon to horizon. The wasteland’s blooming, and it rains.

_______________

Cae Hawksmoor lives between genders and between worlds but also in North Wales, surrounded by mountains and moor. Their heroes include Carl Jung, John Michael Greer, and Sarah Connor. When they’re not busy waiting for the collapse of industrial civilisation they write stories, waste time on Facebook, and try (and mostly fail) to grow vegetables. Their website can be found at www.cahawksmoor.com.

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