Fiction

The Deluge

I

THE GIRL STOOD beside the gate at the top of a field, looking down toward its centre. There, a tree grew from the ruins of an old farmhouse. Though her entire childhood had been spent in and around these fields and though she could map the web of narrow roads as accurately as a hawk, this field was unknown to her. That morning, she had come upon an unknown way, diverging from her usual route and now stood in wonder at the scene before her; this solemn little building emerging from the silver morning fog as it began to clear.
  December was drawing out the severe beauty of the land, like oil from a seed. But this abandoned sward seemed more desolate and remote than those with which she was familiar. The trees lining the outer border were showing their age. Their thick exposed roots seemed to swell from the dark earth; their branches twisted like knuckles around the joints of neighbouring trees. Any life their limbs once bore had decayed and dropped from their barren grimace. Those fallen, lay blackened on the wet ground.
   The girl too had her own severity. Her grey eyes, fixed within the small arch of her brow and her pale skin, had travelled as far as the grey that carried the sky. She pulled herself up over the gate, clutching the metal before landing in the deep grass. With heavy steps, she cut a narrow path toward the ruin.
   As the ruin grew closer, she could see more clearly the dark redness of the bricks, a deep muted colour, like fertile earth. She finally stepped out from the grassy entanglement, balancing against the crumbling corner of the building, treading carefully till she came to the empty doorway. Inside, the floor had vanished, the foundations having completely decayed. In their place, a thick carpet of short grass like turf, littered with heavy slabs of rubble. The grass was barely distinguishable from the moss growing on the fallen bricks. The inner structure had been reduced to a long stone atrium, the length of the room had become a church aisle; the tree standing against the far wall, an altar.
 The tree was much younger than those on the border. Its trunk was thin but solid, the bark smooth and darkly golden in the shade. The girl pressed her hands upon it, feeling the steady pulse in her fingers against its solidity as though her pulse belonged to the tree itself. She looked up to the branches. Tender emerald leaves grew on the barely outstretched limbs, unblemished by the onset of winter. The sun now breaking from the fog, shone through the branches, illuminating the leaves like a crown. The girl closed her eyes and felt the sun’s warmth recover feeling in her cheeks, her hands still firmly pressed against the tree. 
   She rested there a moment, lowered her arms and leant her forehead against the bark. Just then, a great serenity washed over her. It was unlike any sense she could describe. The body of the tree was warm like the chest of an animal, a mammalian heart beating softly beneath the wood. A breeze moved through the ruin and a cold drop fell on her wrist. She felt the droplet move down her hand, running over one of her fingers. Above her she saw between the meeting point of two branches, a fissure opening and exposing a tear in the wood’s fibres. From this wound, bled a thin white secretion running down the trunk. She stepped back calmly. A cold unease occupied the former warmth the tree had provided. She watched the fissure continue to slowly weep. Stepping forward, she reached as high as she could and placed her fingers on the tearing. She applied only the slightest pressure and the wound gave way.

II  

 WITHIN MINUTES OF leaving the motorway, Richard and Anna Haywood, newlyweds enjoying their first year of marriage, found themselves lost amid the tall hedgerows which cloistered the roads. It had been many years since Richard had visited Geoff and Karen Juniper, and since his old friends – family, by any practical definition – were unable to attend the wedding, it seemed right to pay them a visit. 
   Anna teased Richard for his lack of orientation to which he responded with mock outrage. It was true, however. He could hardly recognise the area despite countless trips he made with his parents visiting Geoff and Karen at their home at Beacon Hill Farm. It was as though the area had rotated on some axis, and every corner he now turned drove them further from his memory of the place.
   “Are you sure we got off at the right junction?” said Anna, waiting for another playful outburst from Richard.
   But before he could respond Richard was forced to press sharply down on the brakes, causing them both to jolt violently against their seatbelts.
   ‘Sorry darling. Are you alright?’ 
   ‘Look,’ said Anna, pointing toward a girl staggering towards them. 
   The girl showed no sign of having noticed the car, her gaze fixed doggedly downward. Her feet landed on the tarmac as though surprised to find solid ground beneath. Richard wound down his window to speak to her, though by the time he leant his head out the window, she had already inched her way through the narrow space between the hedgerow and could be seen walking away through the rear-view mirror
   ‘Do you think she’s okay?’ said Anna. ‘Maybe you should go out and ask if she needs a lift.’
   Richard, uncomfortable with the idea of offering a girl a lift on a secluded road, dismissed the idea. ‘She’s fine,’ he said, moving the car forward again. ‘That’s what it’s like out here, you know. I used to go for long walks on my own all the time at that age. It’s the only way to cope with the boredom.’
   Unimpressed and not entirely convinced by his response, Anna stared out of the window, silently brooding on the matter, watching the blur of hedgerow flowing past.
  Richard squinted ahead, ignoring the sudden hardening of humour inside the car. His glasses climbing up the bridge of his nose, he focused instead on finding a sign or indication of some sort, something to remind him of where he was.  
   ‘Ah, there it is,’ he said, at last. ‘There, that’s the beacon for the farm. We’re here.’ 
   Anna, the words lost to her as she gazed out the window, connected the unheard utterance to the view ahead. From a peculiarly tangled and rounded corner of brambles, an old beacon brazier rose from the greenery beneath, its spiked crown above an iron basket, marking the turn for the farm.

III   

HAVING PARKED THE car on the wide gravel drive, Richard unloaded the cases from the backseat while Anna stretched her back, admiring the surrounding view as the mist cleared across the levels. From a side gate, the benign, elderly figure of Geoff Juniper emerged to greet his guests. He was dressed, as usual, in a grease-stained cooking apron which he wore over his corduroy trousers. He had grown long tufts of dark grey hair on either side of his ever-widening bald spot and the features beneath, though sunken and worn, beamed with sharp-eyed affection towards his young guests. Anna greeted him with youthful, melodic lightness, as Richard waved feebly from across the roof of the car toward his father’s oldest friend.
   ‘Leave the bags there, we’ll fetch them in a moment. Come through to the garden. Karen found a hare this morning. Poor little thing had its leg trapped in the fence.’
   ‘Oh no. Is it alright?’ asked Anna as they moved through the gate into the garden. 
   ‘Well between you and me,’ he began in a low whisper, ‘I think the creature’s done for. It’s clearly in a lot of pain and the kindest thing to do would be to release the poor animal from its suffering.’ He paused earnestly for a moment then puckering his eyes: ‘I think low and slow for a few hours, don’t you? Bit of bacon, some cider maybe some cream, heh?’
   ‘Geoff that’s horrible. You ghoul!’ Anna cried, as the old man laughed to himself, wiping something from the front of his apron.
   The garden had somehow retained much of that summer’s verdancy. The rose bower hanging above the bench still held on to flowers in full bloom, their petals only recently beginning to curl. Beneath, Karen sat smoking a cigarette when she noticed the arrival of her young guests, then placed it into an ash tray without putting it out. 
   ‘Oh my darlings, I’m so pleased to see you both,’ she said, gripping their hands tenderly.
   ‘Anna, my love, you’re a flower. You look utterly, utterly beautiful.’
   Anna blushed slightly, though she always derived a small pleasure from Karen’s remarks.
   ‘I’m just so happy to see you both. We only ever get to see our own wizened old carcasses around here, it’s nice to see some youth and beauty for a change.’ 
   ‘Oh, that’s total nonsense,’ Anna replied, ‘but very sweet of you to say.’
   Richard greeted Karen, kissing her on each cheek and expressing how wonderful it was to see them both. Karen held onto Richard’s wrists a short moment. Her bright eyes, shining out from the thin skin around her cheeks, stared directly into his. It was a look she had been giving him since his father died. A nurturing concern, now with an added sense of pride. She held him once more, tightly.
   ‘Karen!’ Geoff shouted from the roses, ‘Where have you put the hare? We need to do something about the poor thing. We can’t keep it suffering like this!’
   Karen turned to the other two and whispered: ‘He wants to eat it. Look at him, he’s a like fox. He’s been dissecting it with his eyes all morning.’ 
   A woven wicker basket lay next to the bench with a blanket covering the top. Inside, on a dark woollen quilt, was the hare lying on its side. Richard noticed the unusual way the creature’s head fell backwards, and the way its eyes looked to the wall. He felt the ignominy of the creature as it waited inside its ready-made coffin. He knelt down and pressed his finger in the gaps of its paw, then moved on to its spine. The animal remained still, except for the heavy swell of its lungs.
   ‘It’s brain damage,’ he said looking again into its eyes. ‘Just like when Bobby died. We’ll have to put it down. It won’t survive out in the wild.’
   It was agreed then that to keep the animal alive any longer would be inhuman. It also allowed Geoff the opportunity to cook something with the meat later, a natural consolation to the morning’s distress. Karen and Anna decided they would go for a walk out in the fields, and that the men would take care of the slaughter.

IV

   RICHARD AND GEOFF stood above the animal. It lay there much the same as it had done since Karen rescued it from the fence, its eyes like dead fire scanning anxiously within its paralysed head. Geoff lifted it out of the basket and felt the warmth of its belly as it rose and fell below the fur. He gripped the hare around its ribs, feeling its heart beat against his palms.
   Richard was attempting to conceal his unease, forcing an unnatural posture. It was an odd mix of masculine immediacy and hardened composure, his cool-running blood – red, but growing stagnant. 
   Geoff moved to the bench. He placed the animal on his lap, holding it just above its hind legs and wrapped his finger round the hare’s neck until it met his thumb. With a short tug, the neck snapped and the animal fell limp. 

‘A simple chinning.’ Said Geoff as he stood up, patting Richard on the back with his free hand, the other still holding the creature by its neck. ‘He died looking up. An honourable, Christian death, wouldn’t you say?’ A strange ironic glint appeared in Geoff’s eye.
   Richard’s revulsion awoke his other senses as the short act echoed in his mind. He heard more in that echo than just a quick snap of the neck. Time slowed and each ligament from the animal’s neck to its shoulders tore and cracked as they separated from one another. He saw it too. He saw beneath hair and skin and flesh and saw the spine disjoint and its fluids change course.  He heard death enter through the gaps of its bones. 
   Geoff squeezed down the animal’s lower half with his thumb, draining out the urine which had already soaked into the fur.
   ‘We don’t want that in the stew now, do we?’ he said, more to the animal than to Richard

 INSIDE, THE MORNING shade took rest beside the soot-coated fireplace, smelling of cold smoke and ancient brick. It was an old farm. A dozen or so generations had lived and died between these walls. Faceless and forgotten, but occupiers of life all the same. The woodwork and stone had taken in the joys and traumas housed within. It was there in the discoloured weathering, in the cold air the chimney let in each night before dawn.
   While the women were out walking, the men were in the kitchen ready to prepare the animal. The hare was curled up in a large metal bowl on the counter, next to the garlic gloves, mustard, rosemary, and half empty bottles of wine. Geoff explained to Richard the basic rules of paunching a hare, the same he learned as a boy. The first was to remove the skin without puncturing any organs. Geoff demonstrated this by making a small cut with his knife, loosening the fur from the meat and running the blade up across the belly. He then emptied the intestine, kidneys, lungs, gall etc. into the bowl; this is the paunch. He set aside the liver and heart which he would fry later in butter. He went through the cavity once more to check if there was anything left. When all had been removed, he picked up the carcass and, turning to Richard, said:’There you go, matey. A lovely new purse for the wife.’
   This was followed by a gruesome cackle and a disapproving sneer from Richard, who was watching with mild fascination. 
   ‘Now the skin. This is the fun bit.’
   He cut off each of the hare’s feet, placing one in his apron pocket and handing one to Richard for good luck. He then cut off the head. One by one he popped out the legs from the fur, revealing pale but healthy-looking meat, tightly bound to the bone. From here, it was simply a matter of peeling away the rest of the fur in one singular motion.
   ‘Just like a banana,’ said Geoff, his voice slightly strained as he tore the fur from the body. He then placed the carcass in a bowl of salted water and gave Richard the fur.
   ‘Or maybe a lovely fur hat,’ laughing once again, before taking the bowl of entrails out to the garden. Richard hung the fur up on a hook outside by the backdoor, while Geoff threw the entrails over the fence. On the counter, the head remained on the wooden board, its yellow, protruding eyes staring out into the empty room.

VI

   ON THE BANKS of a small stream, the girl watched as the water changed colour. She stood on the root of a large tree, her arms behind her – holding on – as she gazed into the emerging torrent. The white liquid, now pouring out from cracks in the wood, bled into the stream. The water turned to opaque clouds, spreading out and mixing with the current as curdled milk rotates down the plughole. Within minutes the stream was almost completely white, rising violently and crashing against the river bank. The trees wilted like poppy stems; all rigidity wasting away as fountains burst out from the eroding wood. A branch fell, crashing into the water. The fibres seemed to tear, the material having softened to a pulp. 
   The girl, increasingly frightened, moved further away from the trees, and watched from the safety of the grass. One after the other the trees sank into the stream. Not in the way they do when felled. Instead they imploded like buildings, collapsing from the inside. 
 Rain fell heavy and cold. She began to cry. She could not make sense of it. She hung her head to help the tears run. When she opened them once more, the water at her feet was turning white.

VII

  ON THE HILL, the wind drew down the rain as the downpour brought on early dusk. Anna and Karen broke out from the field, shaken and relieved to have left the mud behind and to have their feet once more on solid tarmac, their faces numb from clenching their brows against the harsh rain, their cheeks stinging from the cold. Neither of the two could see beyond a few feet in front of them. The storm appeared in the shapes of every tree and curve of their surroundings, claiming all structure and clarity. They did not see the water running from the fields on to the road, they did not see its colour. They did not see the girl standing still in front of them.
   They were silent. The storm too seemed to subside in that moment. The girl, who was facing away in the direction of the road leading down to the valley, began to move slightly, attempting to place a foot forward but staggering instead to the side. Anna ran down, slowing as she approached the girl. She placed her hands on either side of the girl’s shoulders, supporting her failing weight. The girl’s eyes were open but unresponsive. Her head was being held up by her spine rather than the muscles in her neck, and so it seemed to hang back slightly. Anna cradled her head until they made eye contact. At which point, the girl reached forward and wrapped her arms around Anna’s waist. The girl pressed her face into the wet surface of the stranger’s rain coat.

VIII   

GEOFF, WITH CAREFUL trembling hands, placed the heavy stewing pot into the oven. Beneath the cast-iron lid, the saddle of the hare lay in three parts with its legs tucked around, stewing in a pool of stock, cider, root vegetables and thick cuts of bacon. After a slow two hours in the oven, he would then add cream and serve it at the table.
   Richard lay on the sofa reading a book he had picked up from the shelf in the hallway; a book of local history. He found himself particularly engrossed by a section he found on the Civil War; of the battles fought in the area and how certain stories made their way into local folklore. These were stories that were mostly left out of history books, due in part to their speculative nature, and lack of solid contemporary evidence. Nonetheless, these were stories that resonated through the hills. 
 He looked up from the page, out of the window, onto the driveway. He and Geoff were growing quietly but more steadily concerned over the whereabouts of their wives. Neither of them could be reached by phone. Knowing there was little to be done in this weather he returned to his book. There was a passage describing an execution that took place in a field not far from the farm. A young Royalist soldier was captured by a group of Cromwell’s men. The young man, practically a boy, had been stripped naked in the middle of winter, his body beaten, and almost every bone broken. He was forced to renounce his king. After further beating, he renounced his God. He was finally left in the mud to die; naked and wretched, and without a single loyalty in his heart to comfort him in his last few moments of his life. 
   Richard flattened the book on his chest. He closed his eyes and concentrated his senses on the heat emanating from the fire as it travelled in lapping waves across his neck, around his ears and into the short tresses of his hair. In the darkness, he could better appreciate this most primitive of comforts; a comfort born of the earliest human achievement. He also heard the rain outside. He could hear it making its way down the chimney; the individual droplets hissing as they hit the full-blazing logs. Perhaps he and Geoff should go out and look for them, he thought, see that they aren’t hurt. 
   The sound of yelling, cut through the falling rain; the heavy crunch of boots on wet gravel, running toward the door. Richard looked out from the window and saw Karen running over. Anna followed behind with the girl in her arms. The door swung open and for a brief moment the storm itself seemed to enter the room.

IX   

GEOFF RUSHED OVER immediately from the kitchen, picking up a woollen blanket from the back of a chair. Anna passed the girl into Geoff’s arms, who wrapped her up in the blanket before placing her closer to the fire. The girl sat there in silence, staring blankly into the flames, shivering beneath the blanket. Anna knelt down beside the girl’s legs, resting a hand on her knee. They were gathered around the girl, careful that she had enough space, but curious of the events that had led her to the house in her current condition. The girl, however, would not speak. Her reticent posture made her look smaller, the blanket wrapped broadly around her small frame. This in turn made her eyes more luminous as the reflection of the fire, abstracted into bright pools of light, moved across her irises. Her eyes contained and revealed the fear she felt, otherwise hidden by her reticent demeanour.
   Karen turned to Richard and suggested quietly he run a bath for the girl. Richard obliged and made his way upstairs, secretly glad to get away from the uneasy atmosphere. Anna, still at the girl’s feet asked her: ‘Would you like to tell us your name?’
   The girl did not reply. She would only move her eyes towards to group, then draw them straight back to the fire. Anna continued to gently press questions on the girl, though she did not know what to ask or how to give comfort with words alone.
   ‘Would you like to know my name? My name is Anna, and this is Karen and Geoff. They live here. Where do you live? Is it very far?’
   Still the girl said nothing. Geoff, at this point, decided he would try himself:’Is there a way of contacting your mother? You know she’s probably wondering where you are. I’m sure she’s very worried about you and would be glad to know you’re safe.’
   Tears began to fill the girl’s eyes. Her stony expression turned a hot reddish colour, as though the fire had taken immediate effect, smarting her cheeks now wet with salty tears. Anna rose up without thinking and held the girl. The child did not lean in to her grasp but sat there, crying numbly.

X   

ANNA SAT ON the edge of the bed with the door to the bathroom closed in front of her. She could hear the girl on the other side of the door, splashing contentedly in the bath. Something about this situation had shaken Anna. Something was brooding within her, but she could not place the anxiety. For all she knew, the girl had simply been caught in the rain, and was now quite happy to be warm and safe. But there was something in the way the girl had been standing in the road and the way she sat by the fire, the way she stared into space as though it were occupied by some horrifying presence. Anna listened to the bathwater being splashed around, attempting herself to draw some comfort from the noise.
   The girl was happy enough, for the time being; though more from the physical relief of being warm than from any real change in her emotional state. She was humming to herself; a cheerful little tune, made sombre by her delivery. She arched her back forward and dragged a flannel across the surface of the water, dreaming away as she attempted to write off the day as a kind of terrible dream. Anna, unable to put herself at ease, knocked on the door, asking if the girl was okay. The girl would still not reply. Anna looked down at the pile of wet clothes by the door. That milky colour, which had struck her when first carrying the girl through the rain, now gleamed brighter in the clear, indoor light.  She picked up a wet under-shirt which despite its thinness felt inordinately heavy. There was a damp residue on the fabric, thick in consistency, similar to a paste or glue. Anna rubbed her fingers together. As it dried, it felt more like wet paper.
   The water now lukewarm, the girl pulled the plug to let some out before topping-up with hot water. She watched the water swirl down, cutting with her finger the small tornado that climbed downinto the drain. After emptying some of the water, she began to fill the bath up once more. This time, as the hot water flowed in, and the water level rose, the girl began to remember what she had seen that day. With the surface edging higher, the girl began to panic; her breathing became short and a cold tingling sensation came over her body. She then saw that the water running from the tap was of the purest white, almost invisible against the porcelain. Itspread to the bathwater, exactly as it had done in the river. She began to thrash and scream, sending water on to the floor as she attempted to climb out. The violent kicking made her catch her foot on the tap. A small cut appeared on the plump curve of her heel. Drops of blood mingled with the water, creating pink veins that spread in delicate webs across the surface. Anna, having rushed through the door, shut the tap off and held the girl by the shoulders to keep her still.
   The room quietened down, the only sound being the residual swelling of the water and the storm quietly raging outside. Anna held the girl’s face in her hands. This was the first time the two had held eye contact. Very gradually the girl’s breathing slowed down. She felt safe with Anna, which Anna recognised in the girl’s countenance.
   ‘I know you’d rather not speak about what happened, but you’re going to have to tell me’, said Anna. ‘It’s okay. I promise I won’t tell the others if you don’t want me to. But I need to know what happened. What’s more, we need to get in touch with your parents and let them know you’re safe. Do you understand?’
   The girl had been looking down into the water. She cupped her hand, filling it to the edge of her palm before letting it pour trickle through her fingers. 
   Finally, she murmured something: ‘They’re dead. They’re probably all dead by now.’
   ‘What do you mean? Your family? What makes you think they’re dead?’ asked Anna.
   ‘The water.’
   ‘What water? What do you mean?’. 
   ‘The water from the trees. It’s coming. It’s flooding everything. It’s not going to stop.’

XI

   ANNA LISTENED WITH attentive disbelief at the girl’s story. The girl told her what happened down by the river. How the trees collapsed in pools of liquid splinters and how the water began to spread over the ground. The girl narrowly escaped drowning when the riverbanks and hedgerows broke, and the water flowed in like a wave. She made her way out of the valley, finding the road leading up the hill where Anna and Karen found her. The water grew with unnatural energy and intent. Its source was mysterious, but it was clear it would consume everything. The girl could not properly register these events. It was as though she had just woken, unsure if she was still in a dream. 
   Hearing the rain fall outside, she knew that everything she had ever known or loved, was, at that moment, vanishing beneath the water.

XII

  IN THE BEDROOM, Anna had laid some clothes on the bed. 
‘Now, I’m going back downstairs. You should sleep. Will you be okay up here on your own? I found some dry clothes for you. They shouldn’t be too big, I don’t think.’
  While the girl dreamed, light from outside filled the room. She did not sleep long. When she awoke she became aware of a deep silence. She hadn’t yet realised the rain had stopped, though it might have been time itself that paused for that moment. She got out of bed, not quite of herown volition, and walked over to the window. The moon was shining brightly onto the scene. She could see the rose bower and the flowers filling the garden. She saw the bench and the basket beside it. Then she saw the pelt hanging from a nail by the back door and the hare’s head sitting strangely on the chair. The moonlight brought out every shadowy detail of the fur and the bone structure on the hare’s face. Then another light emerged on the horizon, where the hill began to curve back down. A band of white light – the water, brighter by the light of the moon, rising up in the distance like an alien sun. 

XIII   

DOWNSTAIRS, THE TABLE was laid and glasses were being filled with red wine. Geoff took the stew out of the oven and carried the dish to the table with the pride of a crown-bearer. Richard, Karen and Anna sat around the table smoking cigarettes and drinking. The logs in the fireplace had burned down to dark, branch-like embers.
  Geoff placed the pot in the centre of the table. Richard and Karen let out a small cheer, while Anna sat silently, smoking her cigarette. Geoff removed the lid, releasing a cloud of steam; a rich, savoury fragrance spreading across the table, mixing with the cigarette smoke. 
   ‘Does someone want to call our young guest?’ asked Geoff.
   ‘Here she is…’ said Karen. The girl entered from the hallway, shy in her oversized clothing.
   Karen stood up and walked over to the girl enthusiastically. ‘Are you hungry?’ she said, putting a hand on the girl’s shoulder, guiding her to the table. 
   They sat down with the others. The girl looked up at Anna with quiet assurance. Anna put out her cigarette and stroked the girl’s hair.
   ‘Okay, who’s hungry?’ asked Geoff.
   He ladled generous portions into each of their bowls.
   ‘Would you like any of the meat or just the sauce?’ he asked his young guest. 
   ‘What kind of meat is it?’
   ‘It’share.’ said Anna.
   ‘Oh. No thank you,’ said the girl flatly, though not meaning to sound rude.
   ‘Just the sauce then,’ said Geoff, filling her bowl before she had time to answer. ‘There’s bread here as well.’
   ‘Thank you,’
   They began to eat, each of them tearing at the large loaf of bread in the middle of the table. The sound of chairs shifting into place, and cutlery rattling against the china, chimed across the table. Richard was the first to try the hare. He struggled with his forkto tear the meat from the bone, expecting it to fall away with ease.
   When he placed it in his mouth, it was dry and tough; he could hardly swallow it without first taking a large sip of wine. The others all ate quietly, while the girl dipped her bread into the stew until it dissolved into the cream. The others chewed loudly through their meat.
‘Hmm,’ said Geoff, after a short but uneasy silence. ‘It’s pretty grim, isn’t it?’
   They all assured him it was good; though it was almost completely inedible, and the polite lie only made things worse. It was not only the texture, but the flavour of the meat itself; so gamey and dark, it overpowered the broth which would have been delicious on its own. Instead, it brought to mind how one might expect fox, or badger meat to taste.
  Karen looked at Anna, as if to ask if there was a plan for the girl. Anna responded by calmly moving the plate away from the girl, who sat back in her chair with a grateful expression.
   They carried on awhile in the same awkward manner. Geoff was particularly dismayed by the outcome of the meal. His disappointment turned to churlishness, as he turned to the girl, and said somewhat curtly:
   ‘You know, we really ought to get you home soon, I think. Do you have your mother’s number?’
   The girl looked up from her bowl, unable to respond; looking to Anna for some kind of answer.
   ‘We’ll give her a call once we’ve cleared the table,’ said Anna.
   ‘Fine.’ Geoff said, satisfied, though unchanged in his temperament. 
   After everyone had given up on the meal, Anna insisted on clearing the table. She piled the plates in her hand, placing the cutlery on the top plate, then carried them to the sink. She looked up toward the window, expecting the darkness of the field – instead a white glow, which seemed to intensify as soon as she laid eyes on it. The plates fell from her hands into the sink.
   ‘What’s the matter darling?’ asked Richard, on seeing the look of horror on her face. 
   Without answering, Anna moved swiftly towards the back door, shutting it loudly behind her as she left.

XIV   

THE GIRL FOLLOWED, scraping her chair against the tiles. She opened the back door and found Anna on her knees. The field was now entirely subsumed by the water, white as bone and glimmering. The flood filled out every corner of the horizon. The shifting water, a deep swelling sound, lay softly above the silence. The moon shone down from above. It did not glare, and the light’s reflection did not glisten upon the surface. It rested with muted ease, heavy against the darkness.
   The girl moved closer, wrapping her arms around Anna’s neck, resting a cheek on the back of her head. The water was folding in gently by the fence and hedgerow; the enormous weight of its body, of the life beneath, keeping it at a slow distance. This serenity of pace steadied the girl’s panic. They seemed almost to be resting as one, as though having arrived at their chosen point, at their chosen moment, paused together. The others followed into the garden and were immediately struck by the beauty of the field and the moon and what remained of the night sky. The water had gathered around the basket which previously kept the hare, whose head now rolled softly somewhere beneath the tide. The basket floated on the surface, then as it filled, sank.
   They watched as the water hastened its approach. When the water reached the girl’s shoes, she felt the same calm as when she pressed her hand against the bark of that young tree. Eyes closed, they waited, each one of them like the stone-cast of an ancient relief, still and perfectly silent. With the water rising up around them, they accepted their fate without struggle or resistance.
  They drowned within a dry pool. All of existence frozen beneath the white shadow. The walls, the solitary beacon, then the moon, all drawn down. And there, into that terrible and beautiful void, the stars followed. Extinguished fire across a clean white page.