Chap Cotham arrives at Southampton train station and takes a taxi to Ravenswood. The driver will return at the same time in a week to pick him up. His sister, Anna Cotham, will meet Chap at their cottage the day after his arrival. This is how they’ve done it for years. Overnight a storm rages and takes the phonelines with it and of course branches most likely fall to the roads because the house is very deep in the woods where the trees have always appeared both too slender and too tall.
In the morning Chap stands with a mug of coffee at the kitchen window and outside the day is cold and leaden-skied where recent mayhem has left the immediate landscape in shock. The winds have churned up the water in the pond to make it the brown of clay and on its muddy surface amongst twigs and clusters of leaves he sees a length of black hair lying flat along it like a crack in scorched earth or like a black snake in wait. Things are never just good or bad, Anna many times told him, there is always good in the bad and bad in the good. But this is only bad, he thinks, and her words mean nothing now. He knows it is her hair that lies there and her body unseen beneath the surface, for that is unmistakeable.
Chap pulls his sister from the pond. He lays her out on the grass and presses his mouth to hers. Perhaps it will wake her like in the black and whites. His lips become numb as hers so he keeps them just where they are and soon the cold welds them together which of course feels very natural to him. But then he starts to panic and it is only through breathing piston-like through his nostrils that he is able to warm them apart again. They split in a fog of cold steam but there is nothing from her lips, nothing at all, the breath in the air his and his alone.
He looks up from her and to the dreary banks and bare trees like moss-covered matchsticks for someone that might help but there is nobody and of course that has always been true but for the first time that brings him no comfort at all. He is soaked through with clothes clogged heavy with water and he trembles right through to the inside of his bones. Chap had to dive into the pond through water a degree or two shy of ice to get to Anna and soon he will likely die as well but from hypothermia and not how she had gone. Get her to the cottage, light the fire for warmth, hope that it might tempt a stir from her.
He clips some dirt from the edge of his mouth and without giving her too much of a look plants both his hands in her bare armpits and lifts. It is like the water has seeped in and doubled her weight and now she is difficult to move and no longer has the grace that had been hers and only hers to the last. Her skin is now an ivory white rather than a pale eggshell and contains a siege of lilac veins not far behind and he knows it will only get worse. He pictures her body ensnarled by tangles of veins like roots as she is dragged back into the pond. He pulls her further away. and feels she will bruise at a touch a lilac that will become purple will become black, but perhaps he can slow it all down. Anna had a hand in every scene of her life but now in death she can no longer direct and nature will reduce her to dust.
In the kitchen Chap lifts her onto the table. He knows it will be the exact length of her. He measured the timber for the table a few summers earlier with Anna lying on top as he drove the saw a breath away from her feet. She urged him to cut closer – closer, closer – as she teased her delicate soles towards the violent teeth of the saw and warm dust clouded the air a yellow pine. But now her ankles bruise plum from where the ropes had been tied and she stares with absence at the ceiling a bit like in the black and whites though she never featured in any of her own. She is naked and he knows her every inch.
A collection of logs burn furiously in the open stove where they glow like hearts but an inspection of her usually warm parts yields no change to her temperature. He hopes the heat might bring some kind of reversal but she feels like the pond even though she is now dry. He presses against the hollow beneath her ribcage with a couple of fingers. How it is the blood beneath her skin feels more like water he does not know but it does and she seems to already be becoming something else. Chap crouches and prods at the fire because he fears sitting still especially beside his sister as she is now. Sparks vanish into the throat of the stove and he closes the door on them as the pipes in the house gasp then yawn. He fears the decisions he will have to make and he fears what he might do in order to avoid making them.
From experience he knows it could only have been minutes that had passed but the silence closes in like a sudden intake of breath. It is like two hands pressed against his throat as the air slips from the room and the walls shift inwards. He senses for a moment the rotting has already begun but perhaps it is just the lurk of the pond water in the stove-heavy air mixed with what imagination he has so he shuts his eyes tight as a child does to concentrate but nothing changes. He is alone and trapped. Rabbit in the headlights, Anna would say. Often she would see her brother like he is now and mock the look of shock as it laid claim to his features, his dark eyes, the timid gape of his mouth, the papery complexion of his skin, the forever childlike expression of awe and fear.
He needs something to change and so he returns his gaze to the room with what to him feels something like bravery. Seen from the corner of his eye is her bare belly and beneath that the tuft of brown at the v and he turns from her like a traitor. He will look in the cupboards for they are kept well stocked with what he needs. What we hide in the world out there is welcome in the open here, Anna had said and he liked that. Chap will relieve himself of the chasm and then attend to his sister because in the heat of the stove he knows it will only be a matter of time before her body bears bacteria. He whispers, stay there Anna, stay there whilst I fetch a few things. Even though she is dead he feels she can on some level hear him but it feels more like her voice that speaks the words, like something she would have said. Stay there brother, stay there whilst I deal with it. Deal with whatever it was, it was always her that would do the dealing with, as he would wait and stare, longing for her return.
He has only to go a few yards over to the cupboards that ring the dark-panelled kitchen walls stopping only for the window that looks out over the pond when he feels as if his heart is caught by a hook and tugged harder the more he goes the other way and instead of a fishing rod at the other end there is the line wrapped around her fingers. I will not be long, he whispers, and he feels that rather than blood there are tears pumping through his veins but none as ever at his eyes. Rabbit, Anna would call him. Headlights.
A film of murky green pond water lies on the brick-tile lino flooring at the foot of the table. Beyond that is the kitchen area where there is enough space for one to move relatively freely or for two to constantly brush or caress or wrestle with each other. Dried flowers hang at the window, lynched tightly by brown string. He looks at them and in their nature sees something of the present that he cannot understand although of course he tries. He tries the phone but there is only the silence of a dead line and in his mind he sees himself walking the long road for help and it is as if a fist clamps to his heart at the thought for it would be like consciously walking out of true love for reasons unknown.
Outside there is rain and it falls to the pond like reams of thread or stray cobweb. The line to his heart tugs again and he goes for the cupboard which is his as he has done since Ravenswood became theirs. He opens it and sees that there is nothing. Each shelf is empty and each corner and the depth of each shelf to the wall is swallowed up in darkness and absence. He stretches an arm in and presses his palm to the back. He slides his hand around and feels only coarse plywood burning his palm as a film of sweat breaks out from his spine. He pulls the lining up which is just thick mud-brown wallpaper and sees beneath it only the odd crumb. There is no tate & lyle, caster nor golden. There is nothing, so he flees to the bedroom.
In there the two single beds that had been drawn together to make a double have been split apart and he sees the space between them pronounce itself to him as an open wound. At the window the curtains have been shut, the material a mock sky blue forced into a nothing grey by the darkening sky on the other side. By this time his jumper is soaked with sweat and he wipes his eyes and feels the tremors set into his body like a virus. He pulls the curtains apart. The window has been cleaned only recently and he sees through it the woods filled with a darkness like permanent-dusk and all the while rain smacks the panes like seagull shit on greasy spoon windows overlooking the ocean. He stays there gazing into the thick trap of branches and trunks the brown of tire-crud as they wrench this way and that with the wind and he tries to make sense of what is happening but of course his thoughts cannot collect like that. That is her ability and not his but he tries and remembers that she would say things are always simpler than you think, that they have an order to them, a succession of events, cause and effect, and so he tries: through the cottage to the kitchen my sister, Anna, is a dead body that looks up at the ceiling through absent eyes and the kitchen usually stocked with sugar and alcohol has been cleared as if prepared for sale and through into the bedroom where I am is our bed split down its centre like an axe through wood.
He does not understand. For a moment he has the sensation the cottage is not theirs but the sensation vanishes as quickly as it shows up. He feels the need to prolong time to see clearly inside it and of course that means preserving her body as best he can. The rain falls so hard upon the roof it is like it has come through the roof and into the attic and he imagines damaged cobwebs sliding like spit over worm-eaten wood, and then over her face. He goes into the kitchen and tries the phone again. Still silence. He places some more logs onto the fire and then sits down beside her. Her body has settled to an off-white though it is cast with a veil of burnt-orange from the glowing stove. It is becoming easier to settle his gaze on her as the light fades outside and the coming night bleeds into the room snuggling first into the corners and in turn ensconcing the two of them like something from a simple one act play.
Anna’s hair has fallen to the wood and has dried to its almost-black. Her mouth is open a fraction and her cheeks are freckled hollows below the broad protrubence of her cheekbones. Above are her eyes with their dark pupils sitting atop oval planes of shocking white. And in the details of eyelids and nostrils and earlobes and chin is the spectacle of decay, a pinkish green, now bruising her every feature with a steady and punishing slowness. But actually it is not that slow, it has only been a few hours, and already nature has found a way inside. Still are her eyes and to the ceiling and beyond they pierce. It is too late to close them perhaps, and as the seconds and minutes pass Chap feels less and less like he can touch his sister again and of course this makes his body tremble and he pulls his chair in closer. Then he speaks, he asks her what to do.