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A Garden of Rooks

Part 1: The Disasters

How long had Smit been here? She felt like this moment had grown its own lifetime and existed for as long as she could remember; her mind had raced a thousand races whilst her heart had beat maybe once, or was it twice? She is acutely aware of an absolute existence and intricate senses, but they aren’t her own. At least, they aren’t her current senses. In her mind she is thirteen again, in her thirteenth winter; she could smell the sodden earth and hear the close, hard rain as her small home offered all the shelter it could. She could feel the forearms against her chest, and the thin breeze of Lysander’s own breaths against her neck. She had always felt close to him, and as they wore the dense night like a blanket he would be her cradle. He had weathered more winters than she had, this was her logic: he knew what he was doing. The safety swallowed her deep into its unconcerned trunk where she intended to remain for all her long and luscious life. Smit remembers how it always ended in the morning. Smit blinks, mud is pressing into her eyes, she hasn’t taken a breath for some time.

She is fifteen now, in her sixteenth summer. Breathless, she tumbles; laughing with her particular might. Feeling a thud on the grass beside her, Lysander’s bare torso towers over her as he kneels. She picks out his uncontrollable grin through the delighted tears blinding her. He pulls his thick white hair out of his grey eyes (she always thought they matched) and wipes the sweat from a very red brow. She was always faster than him in the mud; he would sink in, but he’d catch her up on the firmer ground. She didn’t know why she used to race Lysander; she knew she’d always been physically strong but he would always be the more powerful, especially when they made love. Making a few deep inhalations and concentrating hard, she could present herself almost like she hadn’t tried to win this time. He pretended to be fooled and she recognized the movement of his eyes. Unceremoniously he craned and shifted his body over hers and, holding down her two hands with his own, stared directly into her pupils. She hears his voice which seemed to cut open her warm, plush heart as if it formed the most razor-like bronze knife and warmly pierced her pale chest.

“I love you; with every emotion that is mine to give, I am yours for all the summers and the winters to come. For the starving dread and the elated joy, I am yours. You will never be unhappy when I am happy, and you will never be hungry when I am eating.”

Smit believed Lysander, she knew there had never been a more honest man. She chortled sincerely; Lysander’s grin turned perturbed before he laughed aloud.

“I’ll get you for that!” he called before he and Smit tumbled through the long grass they lay in. Smit remembers how the scene ends, and how close he felt that night. She feels another heartbeat, or maybe it is her body struggling for breath.

With a sudden shock, she remembers her sixteenth summer, or: the summer Lysander built himself a lyre. Smit remembers how she thought it was a gift for her until Lysander started plucking its strings and dancing to its tuneless, muted wheeze, looking happier than she had ever remembered. He had asked her the day before to find him in the copse near the village, the one directly away from the sea. It was their cherished place and the place they had been intimate for the first time, and Smit was convinced he would have a gift for her. She had conceived though that his dancing was, unfortunately, giftless, and the poor harp seemed to beg for mercy. Approaching the powerful man, who was in his twenty-second summer, Smit held her lust for a burst of laughter behind a solemn stare. Lysander stumbled and fell when he noticed Smit approaching, he thought she looked determined; he didn’t see the root behind him. Smit’s stoic expression remained even after she gently kicked away the lyre and mounted her man. They entangled, but Smit’s memory of this fades as she blinks once more, her heart beats once more, her eyes open. She is thrust to the present, the winter after that summer.

Smit’s arm still stretches down the rocky face of a cliff, reaching for something no longer there, replaced by a distant, turgid mass of roiling surf. She screams into the pitch-dark night with a voice that sounds like it is bleeding; screaming over Face of the Land. The disbelief turns into a sickness that fills her completely; her muscles tense and her body contorts and the image of the falling man replays and repeats in her disgusted mind. Her nails claw into her own flesh as her horrid, curdling yells fill the air and shock the Earth.

Still writhing, she tries to steady herself on hands and knees; still writhing. The hard rain strikes Smit like a volley of arrows.

“Please, no.” Her arm stretches once more and she shifts her body over the edge. She is a long way from his twisted body, she thinks he is still alive. She feels sick to the core. She is being torn apart with horror.

Far beneath her, Lysander vomits his precious blood as the violent ocean does its best to comfort him. He remembers when he used to protect Smit in her home from this kind of weather, before she had grown strong. He remembers when they would race around the top of this cliff, and how he always let Smit win. He remembers in the summer just gone when he had hypnotized Smit with his beautiful lyre and the song he had written. He remembers how she was drawn towards him with so much determination, and they had laid with each other in the very spot they had laid in three summers prior. He remembers the pure and intense emotion he felt just days ago as Smit confronts him. He hears the words in his mind again: I think I’m pregnant.

Compulsively forming his signature smile with his shattered jaw, he sinks and thinks no more.

A torn human, barely human, Smit picks herself up; shaking and feeling the chilling rain and the bitter wind, she feels grotesque. Clutching her swollen belly, she automatically creeps down the hill from the top of the cliff. The milk-white chalk steps that shape the Skull of the Land appear to spit violent flashes as the colossal fort’s ramparts are lit up by the storm in the distance. The sight of her family’s home reminds Smit of nothing but her Lysander; if he was there he would hold her, and be her cradle once more. The thought brings Smit quivering to her knees and she screams more; feeling her throat tear, she cannot stop. Her plain woolen clothes cling to her underfed frame, and from her knees, still gripping her abdomen, she weeps.

Ascending to her feet, Smit feels the mud through the prickly grass. She becomes aware of the static, greasy feel of the air. Her spirit pulls her body down the hill, across the scree, and to the ocean. To Smit, the edge of the water is the edge of a knife, and each breaking wave is a lacerating slash at her throat. Breathless, she unconsciously picks her path between the cracked black boulders that pepper the pebble beach with her eyes fixed on the thick water; she holds a thin hand to her neck as the slashes get louder.

Smit’s senses begin to return, though they bring her sickness twice as thorough. The heavy and distressed voices she had thought were in her head for a moment become real, and her pupils darted around the horizon, trying to pick details in the black-on-black wash and sky. A stroke of lightning reflects off a wet, sleek upturned hull in the surf: she recognised the shape of a long-boat. Smit can hear the men now, or some of them. She could see them now too, two mere shells warring with nature for their very existence. A human was on its knees far away, shuffling a body onto its back, trying to pull itself and its friend from the murderous swell. Was it Lysander? Smit moves to find out.

Treading across the beach, the stones press into Smit’s feet as they always have, only now they seemed to cripple her and weaken her already meek steps. She can’t focus on a thing but the movement of those people, and would mindlessly cut her ankles against the occasional larger coarse boulders strewn along the shoreline, all the size of men’s heads. A footstep feels uncharacteristic; soft. Smit kneels to inspect the body which has been tossed onto the Earth, frantically feeling the cold corpse; pulling at its dank clothing and feeling its crunching, sticky wet collapsed cranium under a thin dust of hair, she very quickly believes the body is not her Lysander’s. The clouds are turning red, and the sun is rising.

The living, struggling figures have noticed Smit and their deep, dreadful screams are aimed at her. Her pace quickens.

“Have you seen a blonde man?” Smit's soft, loud and quavering voice somehow pierces the noise of wave and storm and startles the man with the other man on his back. Both are on the floor as she approaches; the confused man is still heaving another man higher up the shore, and they are now out of the waves. He looks at her.

“A blonde man,” Smit repeats.

The able man turns away from Smit and, with tremendous effort, pulls his friend over his back. Crawling on hand and knees, he begins towards the Skull of the Land. The red-filtered light against its stone foundation marks the fort as a deep flesh wound, as though the mother hill it sits atop is a dagger thrust into the clouds. The Skull is far enough from the beach that Smit would struggle to run there, yet the able man is carrying his friend to it. The friend convulses and vomits, he is clearly holding onto his life with a fast-weakening grasp. The horizontal downpour is still drenching the men as they climb up the stony beach like a sick and disfigured dog, and through the mud crawling directly to the fort. Smit finds herself following the able man and his friend. They are shivering; however, they are not looking back to the wreck, back to the dead man with the crunching, collapsed, sticky skull, back to her Lysander, and back to the others who must be lost. They do not call to Smit to help, and she follows them closely like a stalking starving carrion bird, through mud and shallow waters, directly to the fort. Smit tries to hold her aching chest, her painful body, the sickness hasn’t left her and delirium embraces her. Her tears are lost in the rain as her spirit is lost in horrific tragedy. Following the able man, she watches his friend’s shivering calm and, eventually, stop. The able man continues to carry him, unaware.

At the foot of the Skull, the able man hears noises like dogs’ paws on gravel, and Smit recognises calls of men in her own language. She sees folk rushing to her, she feels hands on her frame and a hard embrace. A horn sounds in the distance. The able man is helped to his feet by people who look dry. His friend is left on the ground, on his back. Smit can see his face, black with running blood and flesh torn from his burst eyeball to his jaw. She is suddenly aware of her shivering, she cannot remember why she has her sickness, and she does not know who is holding her. She feels herself cradled, and is carried.

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