At seven in the morning on the Monday after the old man’s death Ash Harker cycled to the Colony. The old man had snared the lower fields, probably on the Friday morning. Half a dozen rabbits were stiff with rigor mortis, eyes gone, flesh ripped by crows. A couple were already maggoted. The American girl released them and threw them into a ditch and picked up the snares. Four rabbits were still fresh, one alive. She despatched it and gutted them all and piled them into her bag.
She proceeded methodically, trying to free her mind of thought. It didn’t work. She kept seeing how the old man would have done it, the deft way he could gut a rabbit with a couple of flicks of the knife and a single delve with his hand, the ease with which he could pull a snare from the ground. She tried not to think about his death. How much did he know? Did he feel the flames on his body? Did he suffer? The moment – her vision of the moment – kept replaying itself in her mind. Anyone who reckons time is a once-only event knows jack-shit, she thought. Some moments never end, eternal recurrence as long as there’s someone to remember, to care. The smoke would have left him unconscious, she argued. Stands to reason. Be reassured. But the visions she had were never like that and she would not be reassured. Not knowing the truth was like a pain in her heart. What did he do? What did he think?
Did he think about me?
She knew the question was impertinent, a vanity, unworthy of her or of him. To measure a life in relation to your own was cheap. The thought, though, could not be erased.
Damp seeped up her trouser legs. Rain fell on her head and back, gradually working through her clothing onto her flesh. Wetness made her hands cold – how ridiculous, the middle of July and I’m cold. The old man wouldn’ of noticed but I do, goddamnit. She collected around forty snares and reckoned there were probably another ten somewhere. She kept looking for an hour and then gave up.
She found herself at Dallerie without any conscious decision to go there. The old man’s house was in darkness and the stone shed where it happened was locked and sealed by police tape. She shook the door and it rattled in its frame but would not budge. She walked round to the side and looked up at the boarded opening high on the wall into which grain was once poured for winter storage. She rested her bicycle against the wall and after a couple of attempts managed to stand on the frame and reach up to the board and push. It gave way with a groan and she pulled herself up and rested on her stomach on the ledge, half in and half out of the building. She waited until her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness inside and drew her legs up until she was sitting on the ledge, then eased herself down and dropped onto the top of the coal bunker. She jumped to the floor and wiped her hands on her jeans.
The smell nearly made her gag, acrid and thick, oddly sweet. At least it don’ smell like a barbecue, she thought. That had worried her, the idea she might smell his burned flesh. She tried the light and was surprised that it still worked. The front half of the shed was strangely intact, its bare walls and floor offering little that was combustible, but the far end was blackened and charred beyond recognition. His old workbench was destroyed, three legs rising impotently, the top disintegrated and lying in pieces on the floor. In the corner there had been a cupboard where he kept his petrol and his guns but you wouldn’t know it. The floor was still wet from the firemen’s hoses, choked with ash and cinders and ruin. His last moments were here, his last sights these. Why didn’ he get away? Cross the floor, open the door, escape? Didn’ he struggle? Didn’ he try? She refused to believe his last moments were passive, not him, not that man, that fighter. She refused to believe he would succumb. She refused to believe he was dead.
But he was.
Why did I come here? she thought.
Because I’m lonely, she answered. It struck her like a revelation and she resolved never to be lonely again. It was a weakness, a vulnerability that others could use against her, a flaw that threatened her independence. It’s jes’ me, me against the world, and the world don’ care dipshit ‘bout me so I don’ care dipshit ‘bout it.
That was the litany. Now, she had to make herself believe it.
She looked around the shed one last time, as though hopeful of finding some memory still extant, but there was nothing here except the end of things. She turned the Yale lock and ducked under the police tape and slammed the door behind her and walked away without looking back. New world, new plan.
The afternoon had faired up, a slight sun shining down and the air warm on her skin. She walked along the Academy playing fields and through the railway embankment and made her way down to the river and peace and solitude.
Lady Mary’s Walk stretched in front of her, straight and wide, beech-lined on either side, the tree tops coming together to form a canopy. Beneath, it was dark and cool, the ground soft from generations of leaf-fall dissolving into humus. Alongside, the river Earn ran serene and quiet except for patches of turmoil where giant rocks impeded its flow. The water crashed over and round these obstructions, that which was peaceful suddenly roused into agitation. Hidden violence. Latent power.
She found the broken-down fence lining the ghost of the old railway line and counted back to the third tree on the left and walked around it, trailing her hand across its rough bark. Carved into it were initials and names of the lovers and children of Crieff across generations, as they were on every tree in turn, old Crieff custom, parish register of the poor and hopeful over decades. She found the entries she sought.
She traced her finger around the markings, seeking a connection with the man who carved them nearly forty years before. The old man, then a young man, what hopes did he have for those children, Alistair and Karen Disdain? What life did he imagine for them? For himself? If he had known how it would end, what would he have done? Could he have done anything differently?
‘Can I?’ she said aloud. No answer was returned.
Above the children’s initials there was a larger, older engraving of a heart, beautifully carved, symmetrical. Inside were the initials:
SD & MK
Sandy Disdain and Mary Kemp, married to celebrate the end of war, the return to normality. Whatever normality might be.
Ash felt in her jeans pocket and pulled out a penknife. She chose a spot beside the old man’s heart and slowly, carefully, began to carve her own, identical in size and shape, cutting deep and true. She laboured over it for half an hour, making it perfect. When it was done she stood back. There was room inside for initials but she had no initials to include. Not even her own. Who was Ash Harker? Where did she belong? What was her terminus? With the old man she had felt, for the first time ever, solidarity, purpose, companionship. Ash had never cried in her life, not even when her momma died, but at that moment, solitary in lovers’ lane, a seeker lost, she came close. She walked into town and in William Low’s she bought bread and stole whisky and slowly she climbed through town to Ferntower. She spoke to no-one.
The lonely hunter let herself into the howff and placed the whisky bottle on the table. She took a tumbler from the cupboard and filled it and sat down. She stared at the old man’s chair through the gloom. It was like a void in time.
‘I’m gonna snare the high fields at Culcrieff tomorrow,’ she said aloud. ‘I figure it’s a while since you last did ‘em. And, soon as I find where you keep your nets, I’m gonna have a run through up at the Colony. Saw a field there today looked jes’ right.’
Silence encased her. A chill went through her. She took her fiddle and placed it low on her shoulder and she began to play and she began to sing.
He passed by the rail bridge,
Rowed over the river,
The scent of sweet Cicely,
He ran through the dark wood
In search of his woman
And two came together,
She sipped her whisky and closed her eyes. His aroma was all around, so strong she figured if she kept her eyes shut long enough when she opened them he’d be there. She tried it. His empty chair loomed before her. She stood up and looked outside at the evening darkness. How can he not be here, when every molecule of air in this room has cycled through his body a thousand times? When does a space and its occupants merge? When do they divide? She grabbed the whisky bottle and sat down again, stretching almost horizontal. The darkness soothed her. This evening she would be alone. This evening she would remember. She would mourn.
And, in the morning, when the dawn comes and the birds start to sing and the world to turn, life would resume because that is the only way it knows how.