HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

We Dont

Lindsay Fisher has work in: Stories For Homes, a charity anthology for the homeless; For the Children of Gaza anthology; the Fish anthology 2016; and in Bare Fiction Magazine. Also online at Cease Cows.

We Don't

The dark is something we wear these days, like clothes we have grown comfortable in, clothes that hold our shape in them when we undress in the breathless whisper of night, with our backs to each other; and we lay our shed clothes over the arms of chairs and they are limp versions of ourselves, all slip and sag, like we are already old.
We donít break the silence of that dark, not as we once did, not above the shuck and hiss and sigh of our clothes when we slip free of them and they rub against the skin. And we donít anymore steal a look at each other, standing naked in the cold, our bodies all jut and curve and white as salt, and both of us a little bolder in the half-light and excited by the nearness of her to me and me to her, and reaching one for the other. We donít.
It must have been different once. We must have loved and been loved. There must have been a time before this time, when heartbeats were quick and my hand touched her breast, held the warm small weight of it in my palm and nipped the nipple between the pinch of finger and thumb, her hand rubbing me hard, and our mouths so close we shared breath; and we did not have need of beds or mattresses then, but lay down together where we were, and maybe that was in the back seat of her fatherís Ford Anglia with the American style and the backwards sloping rear window, or on the Axminster carpet in my motherís front room when she slept upstairs, as deep in dream as drowned. But if there was such a time, our memory fails us and we donít even think on it. We donít. And there is her side of the bed and mine and we donít ever make the mistake of trespassing, not now.
We lie, side by side, under the cool press of a linen sheet, a space between us, and we donít sleep. Or if we do sleep, then we donít know that we do. For what is sleep but a cessation of everything and donít we know that already when we are awake and the day is lit up and the phone rings and we donít answer it?
This too will pass, we might say to each other, but there is no surety in the words, not though we have written them onto the walls in letters that are stark and shout and bleed all at the same time, not though we have carved them into the top of the kitchen table with the points of potato knives and carved them deep as wheel ruts in snow or mud, and scratched them onto the glass of our windows so that every time we look out we also look in. This too will pass we might say, and what if it does pass, what comes after, what then? We donít know and I donít think we want to know.
And so we feign sleep, perhaps. Not closing our eyes, for there is no difference to the dark if we do. Lying still as a held breath. Lying with our arms straight by our sides and our hands unclenched and empty. We are aware that we are not quite alone, not quite fully alone, and yet weíre more alone than if we were sleeping apart and in separate rooms, me downstairs on the Chesterfield sofa and her upstairs with the bedroom door closed tight as clenched fists. And the nights now are longer than the days, but though long are never long enough.
The house creaks and cracks about us, shifts its weight, takes on the cool of the night and lets go the memory of the day, or holds onto it somewhere in the very heart of the house, hidden. And we listen, ears sharp as nettle, listening for something beneath, something that is missing now, that is only an absence of something that was there before. And like stars that have gone out but still the light of those stars reaches us, we listen for something that is already gone.
And wasnít there a boy once, and he was the sun and the moon and the stars all rolled into one? And now there is only a darkness.
We donít say what is in our heads, not to each other. There is no need and anyway there are not the words that would make what we think into sense. So we lie, side by stiff side, not sleeping or speaking or touching. Just breath, slow and even, and blood pulling through our bodies, and our thoughts screaming with animal voices.
The night sucks the air from us and our tongues are sticky and hold to the roofs of our mouths. The space between us is coldest of all and we donít try to fill it with any warmth, and we remind each other to breathe just by breathing ourselves, which is an unkindness we cannot avoid.
And the night slides slow and black as treacle pulled from a dipped wooden spoon, clings more than it slides. And we donít turn to each other or away, and we donít fold into sleep but stay as we are, waiting Ė as we waited once before, for news, and then a man in police-uniform was there, approaching the house, seen far off, and we did not know if we should go to him, meet him half-way, and the news be in our hands a little sooner than just waiting. And donít they say that no news is good news, at least, and so we stayed where we were, putting off what the man had to tell us.
And we are waiting now, or waiting still, and it is the same as before: we do not know what it is we are waiting for.
They say it is unbearable cold in space, and empty and dark; and there is a space between us in the bed that is the same, and a space inside of us that grows and grows. And the night is outside us and at the same time it is something within. And didnít God once divide the light from the darkness, and now for us our grief has reunited them.
And when things break, do they always make a sound? The crack and shiver of wood or stone or glass. Or like a tree falling in a forest and no one is near, does it fall in silence? And hearts are like glass in that they break easily, and they say that those same hearts mend in time, and maybe that is what we are waiting for, though we donít really want to let go of the broken that we are. We donít.
And the night ends sometime and there must be light then, the new day cracked open like an egg. But it makes no difference to us for darkness and light are the same thing now and nothing to separate them except the shifting of the clock hands.
We donít get up in the gathering light, not right away, and we donít feel grateful for the day, a day that, even before it has begun, has let go of everything, it seems. We donít get up singing as once we must have Ė every day singing, surely. And we donít step from our bed into dancing and skipping, and yet there were days like that before. How could there not have been?
We lie waiting and wishing the night was a little more than it was or the day a little less. We lie not knowing if today we will go on lying till the night swallows up everything again. We donít speak or move or think of being. We just lie.
And there was a boy once, and he was a reason to get out of bed, reason enough and all the reason. And he called up the new day and he laughed or sang or danced, and he was a part of us as we were a part of him. And now he is gone.
ĎI am sorry,í said the man in police-uniform.
Long after the night is something so broken that it cannot be put back together again, we lie still in our bed, staring at the ceiling and the small cracks there, feeling some affinity with them, looking to see if they are wider this morning, wider than they were last time we looked, and wondering if today things will finally and completely fall apart.
Outside, the air is warm, and a heart is beating, even and like a steady drum, two hearts at least but not three, and bees fizz like the radio static between stations, fizzing against the glass, and birds dare to sing hallelujahs to the sun, and a cockerel announces his impatience at our lying in and the cows low to tell us they are swollen and sore in their udders. And still we donít hurry into ourselves, but lie suspended in that no-manís land that is between sleep and waking.
And time passes somehow.
The clock beside the bed says it is time and past time, and everything says the same. And so, at last, we get up reluctantly from the bed, from the push or pull of habit perhaps, and we dress again, in yesterdayís clothes, back-to-back as we had when weíd undressed, doing it now in the light and still not daring to look. We donít.
And there was someone else there once, in those before days, sleepy too, and gently crumpled from lying curled up in a ball, and smelling of milk that is new-tugged from the cow, or smelling of Pears soap or Gibbs SR toothpaste, or smelling of warm. Wasnít there someone else? Surely we did not dream that.
ĎI am so sorry,í said the man in police-uniform again as we closed the door against him.
He was there, certainly, on the threshold, a boy, our boy, not daring to step into the bedroom where we slept, for that was the rule back then. And we donít, either of us, say anything about that now, but we both look to see if he is at the door, waiting for permission to enter, forever waiting now.
Downstairs we donít stop for breakfast. There are chickens scratching in the dirt outside and cows pushing to be in the milk shed first and the pigs are grumbling like unhappy old men. And a boy is waiting somewhere, waiting for his toast to be buttered and spread with Robertsonís strawberry jam, so thick it spills over the edge of the toasted bread and drips from the rim of the plate onto the table, and a glass of milk poured straight from the fridge, so cold it makes him cough if he drinks too fast, or making his head hurt. But maybe the boy is still upstairs in his bed. Did we think to check this morning?
His bag is packed for school, at least, sits by the back door, today the same as yesterday and the same as the day before. And we mark the time on the kitchen clock before going out to tend the animals and it is still early and the boy can sleep a little longer if he is tired, for arenít growing boys better if they have slept well?
We donít speak, and we canít speak, not when everything we would say is a lie. And who says lying is a sin? And what do they know anyway? Instead we move around each other, like we are not really there, like we donít exist in this time, like stars that have burned out but still the light from them flickers.
We pull on our coats and step into old shoes, heavy as bricks or lead or deadweight, and make to go. But then something catches her eye and at the same time catches mine. It is the boyís cup, his favourite, and it has fallen from the table or been pushed, and it lies in pieces on the floor Ė and she breaks a little more inside and I do, too, and we bend together to pick up the remains, careful so that we donít cut ourselves on the sharp edges.
ĎIt is just a cup,í she says, brave and matter-of-fact and her voice not betraying her; and I say, ĎYes, it is,í and there we both lie, and we are weeping then, and it is sudden, for another part of what we had has been taken from us and never will be whole again, and it is not just a cup. And so, little by little he slips through our grasp, the boy we once had, and we donít say his name, we canít, not ever, not even saying it in prayer or wish. We donít.