LATE NIGHTS, HE COMES
Fanch back from the field. Fanch hanging his heavy coat, dry or mad dripping like a miniature cloud he'd have brought in with him. Arh. The weather. Bright or pissing, but somehow always the same, the same brown of the land, the gloomy bloom of the gorse, the cart tracks running like scabies through it. And every day, every day the same. Maryvonne goes out to plant spuds, pull out spuds, or onions, or cabbages. Artichokes. Works the small plot. She makes bread for when Fanch comes home late in the morning, and they eat it still warm, with thick pieces from the lard she gets once a month at the market in Plounéour-Ménez. Afternoons, she makes butter.
Every day the same. Fanch back from the field. Except when he isn't, not at the usual hour. On days he brings the herd to the plot behind Ker Kalarec, he shuffles home, making his steps slower in front of the farm house, to be certain to be seen, and Youn Kalarec invites him in. Because he's always in at that time, Youn Kalarec, that layabout, always finished before Fanch, that's one thing you can't reproach Fanch, he works, but after work when Youn Kalarec invites him in for a glass of gnôle he says yes. Always does. And Youn Kalarec, that layabout, he invites Fanch for one, but one is never one, no, it isn't. One is a bellyful, that it is, and that may be fine for Youn Kalarec, who is home already, who can just stay where he sits at the table and wait for his mother, old Anne Kalarec, to serve him his dinner, then stumble out to bed and fall asleep thinking about his new shepherd dog and his hens and where the heck they hide their eggs. But Fanch, he has to walk home, and, Maryvonne is convinced, that's what shifts his mood, makes him mean. Not the gnôle—many men drink, so why should Fanch be turned so mean by it? No, it's the walk. Walking home too late on these tracks. Along the lake. People say the entrance to Hell lay there somewhere, under the surface. Maybe you walk along the lake and look into the water, and in a certain place you don't see your face reflected but the faces of the dead, the dead from the village you've known, the faces of long-gone kin.
When she'd married Fanch and moved into the family farm, she'd been surprised at how little people used carts around here. Back home in Locquénolé, on the coast, it wasn't uncommon for tracks to get blocked, when two carts took too long to pass by each other, careful a wheel didn't slip into a ditch, and others arrived behind. She'd thought it was because of the mountains, that horses tired having to climb the rocky slopes. Now, she knows. People simply don't want to ride them. Every creaking wheel they hear make them think of the Ankou, coming to take a soul back to the depths of Hell. They work all day with their cart, but they often let them lie in the fields at night, walking their horse back to the stable rather than riding their cart home and making themselves the noise the dying are said to hear.
It couldn't do a man any good to be out at night walking alongside that mouth of Hell. She'd seen Fanch cross himself as he walked along the lake, looking up at the dark, square silhouette of St Michel's chapel up on the mountain. That had been back when they'd been newly married and she went out, worried, when he was late coming home. Maryvonne had always thought that the chapel was useless to them. What could it do, except cheer them up a little on Sunday mornings? But it isn't Sunday morning one fears. It's the night. The night when Fanch walks home late, by the lake, after Youn Kalarec's invited him for a little gnôle. The priest who'd had that chapel built must have been a fool, a stranger to the land. A Frenchman probably, who knew nothing of the place, and had thought the Ankou to be just simple folk's superstition. Had thought building his little chapel on top of the mountain would defeat him. Heavy granite slabs had been cut out of the land, heaved up the mountain and laid onto each other for walls. Hadn't he known that taking this stone out of the ground he would take the demon, the stone of Hell itself with it? What comes from the land carries the land with it, Maryvonne knows. Fanch was born of this land and is as tough and dark as if he'd been born of the rocks rather than of his own gone mother.
Nights Fanch comes home from Youn Kalarec's his mood is foul. If it's raining he takes off his heavy coat and hangs it by the door, and Maryvonne has to put a mop under it so the drip pool doesn't spread all over the room. He leaves his clogs by the door, strips off his pants and shirt when they are wet too. He drops them on the floor where he takes them off, and goes to sit in the corner of the wide fireplace, on his low three-legged stool, steaming a storm. He puts his hand near the flame, complaining it's too low, that she can't even make a good fire, a fire to warm him up after a long day's work. She serves him his dinner, and adds a log to the fire, a slender one, for fear he might reproach her her wasteful ways.
"It's not the amount of wood that matters," he often says, " 's how you put it." He blows on his soup, tastes it, and invariably tells her it's not hot enough, even though she's just served it, seeing him coming down the tracks. She'd tried waiting for him to come in to serve him his soup, ladling it straight from the pot, but he'd yelled at her, saying what good was she, if she couldn't even have dinner ready when he came in after a long day's work.
Sometimes he gets quiet after his meal, and his eyelids look heavy, hanging down from his strong brow. He smokes a pipe then, and Maryvonne knows she can rest easy, that he will probably just sit there, puffing away, relighting it now and then with an ember he picks from the hearth between the blade of his knife and some twig, and that after sleep has made his head drop and he's jerked himself awake a few times he will decide to go to bed. She imagines him with Youn Kalarec, the two of them, sitting on either side of the table, mumbling things the other can't possibly hear, falling asleep in turns, their little glasses of gnôle clasped in their stubborn fists.
But sometimes there is more strength in him, and after dinner he picks a new fight, or rekindles the little annoyance he'd felt at the fire that wasn't strong enough, at the soup that wasn't hot enough. These are the times Maryvonne has to fear.
When Marie stopped in Huelgoat the late afternoon sun was still working valiantly against the odds, the centuries of drabness, and she surprised herself by breaking into a happy whistle as she crossed the parking to the Intermarché. It was only a small supermarket, and she quickly saw that whatever fancy feasts she might have wished to treat herself to during her stay would have to be dumbed down. It was a far cry from the abundance of Paris, its shops supplying the stubborn taste buds of a thousand different cultures.
She navigated the unfamiliar aisles until she stopped in front of the soups. She picked up a carton, cream of squash and chestnut, turned it in her hands and started reading through the ingredients without even thinking about it.
"Oh, great. Soup in a box."
Marie dropped the carton. It landed on the tiles with a thud. She didn't look around. She knew the voice—François's—had only rung out in her head. Still startled her, though. She picked up the carton, and put it in her basket.
She strode through the aisles, hurrying now, grabbing basic supplies, not bothering to compare prices or fishy additives. She was more seriously messed up than she'd realised, if she herself produced the kind of rebukes François had begun to use more and more in the past few months.
If she was to sketch the evolution of their relationship, to draw a time frame of its decline—as she often found herself doing, as if to excuse, to back up the dark thoughts brewing in her—she'd say that it had really started the year before, when he'd been made partner in the small, family-run insurance company he'd joined soon after graduating. François had previously joked about his boss's patriarchal ways, but once he'd been taken into the family, he had stopped seeing anything funny about those old-fashioned manners.
"What's so bad about a woman cooking a proper dinner for her husband?" he'd snapped back once, on the drive home from a dinner party his boss had organised to celebrate the new partnership. Marie had brought up a remark the old man had made, when he'd pointed out how lucky he was, that his wife had never got any fancy notions, that she'd been happy to stay at home while he earned more than enough for the family.
Of course, Marie had taken it personally. A quick look around the table had confirmed that the four other women were housewives. What was she to do, sit there and smile, nod along, agree that her job teaching kids to read, count, think, was a whimsical waste of time? She did the first two, and waited until she was in the car to disagree.
"Yeah, nothing," she answered, sighing. She suddenly felt drained. It was something they always did, that little debriefing after socialising, dissecting the night and everyone's shortcomings. They were a team then, always found they'd picked on the same aggravating details, X's nail-biting, Y's crazily digressive storytelling. It would have seemed mean had anyone heard them, but really, it was just a way of sharing. Of being close.
But now it felt like François was on a different team.
Marie went to the till with her overflowing basket, and emptied the loot she'd piled in on automatic pilot. The cashier girl, a poor soul who probably had to spend her whole summer working in that miserable village when the sea was only an hour away, beeped her purchases by, only opening her mouth to tell Marie what she owed.
There was no queue, and as Marie took her credit card out of the machine she looked up, wondering if she was the only customer in the supermarket. Such gloom, this emptiness. Or maybe it was her heavy conscience tainting her vision.
On the long drive from Paris she'd felt remorse creeping in, at how she had just left, taken what she told herself was an easy, cowardly way out, leaving a note saying she'd be away for a while, that she needed time on her own. What a cliché she was.
But then François had called her when he'd got home from work, and she'd forced herself to answer.
"Where the fuck are you?" His voice had rung through the car, coming out of the speakers like a stench.
She'd tried to answer, but had only stuttered. He kept shouting anyway, asking her what was wrong with her, what she could possibly have to complain about. She had to hang up. Turned her phone off.
At least now she knew she hadn't been wrong in thinking he'd changed, these past few months. At first she'd just thought it was the pressure of the partnership, his new responsibilities, that explained why they fought more, why their fights were more vicious, venomous. Like there was something rotten in their mouths and they were trying to spit it out at each other. Then she realised it was him. He was just turning mean, not fighting to prove he was right, or win anything, but to hurt her. It was a hatred. It'd crept in his eyes, it had, as months passed.
And then the day before, she'd said she was worried about the coming year. The school she'd been subbing in for months would probably not need her.
"What?" he'd said, looking up from his laptop, not bothering to hide his irritation. "Sometimes I just feel like..." He'd stopped, teeth clenched, shaking his fists in front of his face.
He tried to laugh then, to temper what he'd just said, but it sounded fake. The threat, that had sounded true. He truly thought she deserved a beating for worrying and bothering him about such trivial things as her job.
And so the long summer holiday was welcome, after all. As soon as he'd left the next morning, she searched the internet for some shelter, somewhere she could stay until she'd worked out what to do. She'd told her mother, and warned her not to tell François where she was, if he called. She hoped he wouldn't have the cheek to do that.
When Marie got to the house, she found the key under the rock the landlady had described to her over the phone. It looked to her like a miniature menhir, and a fantasy reeled out in her mind in which her prehistoric ancestors, shrunk, still roamed the land, burrowing around like mice, and pulling every stone they ran across upright for who knows what kind of pagan purposes.
The key, especially in such an obvious hiding place, seemed little more than symbolic. The house stood at the end of an unsigned gravel road, and she felt like only a very thorough and desperate burglar would go to the aggravation of finding the place and scouring the old shell for whatever slight riches it might contain.
Marie stepped into the living-room-cum-kitchen and dropped her bags at the bottom of the stairs. Did a second trip to the boot for the groceries. She wouldn't have to go out again in the morning. She could just relax, let her inner sloth out. Forget about Paris and the grey blur of her commute, about work or the lack of it, and about François, of course.
The house was just as she had pieced it together from the website's pictures. The mandatory off-white canvas of rental houses. Harmless plainness. Looking around, she indulged in a little fantasy in which François didn't exist, had never existed, in which she just moved back to Brittany, leaving behind the capital for good, for a new start in the country. As if finding a job here would be as easy as finding a rental house. She met a local—in this fantasy—the silent type, not quite beautiful but attractive in his own rugged way. A lumberjack. This wasn't exactly timber country, though. No manly glory in the dry, thorny bushes that seemed to be the only things growing around here. Nothing you could fell. A fisherman? The coast was far away. What did the sombrely handsome men do to fill their days around here? There was only the earth, the tough grass and bushes, the stones. She pictured the object of her daydreams, bent over, worrying the earth of a ploughed field with his bare hands, like the Monty Python version of a medieval man. She wondered if she had made a mistake coming here. If she had trouble even running fantasies. Maybe she should just have gone to the coast, where she came from, where she'd grown up. She'd have fitted right back in, but she had feared the triviality of a Breton beach town in summer would sabotage her efforts as far as self-reflection was concerned. You couldn't possibly reach a life-changing decision with the plastic boo-ing of beach balls punctuating your thoughts all day long. So she'd settled on that house in the Monts d'Arrée, which had the added advantage of costing nearly nothing. She'd got a two-month lease for the price of a week and a half on the coast.
She hoped to still find here the atmosphere of her childhood, the near-mythical landscapes said to be peopled by mean, prank-pulling korrigans. Like the free-ranging, wild and dirty evil twins of garden gnomes. She did find the atmosphere alright, the grim hills rolling into mountains, the boulders laid here and there like lazy pachyderms, the old St Michel chapel up there, its square silhouette on the craggy skyline signalling that not all had been left to nature. As if it needed proving anymore. The house stood exactly between the chapel and a decommissioned nuclear plant that sat like a concrete poo by the lakeside. Too costly or tricky to dismantle. The kind of lasting addition to the land humans had long thought only God could manage. That lake's water wasn't something Marie wanted to get anywhere near, but in this land treading on the ground was often like stepping on a saturated sponge. The water the gorse drank was likely to be the kind you got superpowers from. Or died from. She imagined the bushes shooting their thorns at intruders. At Parisian assholes strolling in asking for a Wi-Fi password.
She found a sauce-pan, half-filled it with water and put it on the hob, then fished her book from a mess of clothes, tangled chargers, and toiletries. Packing had consisted of stuffing whatever she could think of at the time into as many bags as she could carry herself. A mess, yes, but a movable one.
She made tea, and brought a chair outside to make the most of whatever warmth the sun still provided. There wasn't a terrace to speak of, just a few slabs of concrete so you could step out of the house confidently no matter the weather, know your shoes wouldn't sink into the spongy earth until a few steps further. She remembered the clogs her grand-father had kept by the back door, how he'd put his slippered feet in them to go work in the garden. Clog, clog, he'd gone out. His laps around the house a steady wooden beat.
This was enough of an outdoors for her, the concrete slabs, the house open behind her, the grave mountains all around. The lake: she thought of the Simpsons, those three-eyed fish radioactivity bred in Springfield. Still, it was better than Paris, and the 30-centimetre windowsill they called their balcony. She felt nauseous just thinking about the apartment. Claustrophobic. As if the thought of it—the thought of it turned her skull into the close walls of their home. Trapped her mind in it.
When they'd bought the apartment there'd been something almost romantic about how small it was. They'd made jokes about it, about how far it was from the expectations of people who'd grown up in Province.
She forced her eyes onto the page, hoping to trick her mind away from its rancid worrying. It worked for a while. Then a thin veil of clouds flew by, hiding the sun. The page darkened and Marie shivered. She picked up her cup, gulped down the cold leftover tea and went in. A cool breeze was rolling down the valley.
She felt a little hollow in her stomach. She'd had a couple of biscuits with tea, and now she wondered whether she would bother having dinner. She probably wouldn't get really hungry. And after all, fasting went well with all that thinking she had ahead of her.
Her eyes landed on her shopping then. She had left it, a heap on the table, and she saw the soup, the carton crushed in where it had hit the floor. No, she thought. Fuck this. I am not going to turn into some freakish broken thing. Some inept recluse.
Marie went to lock the front door. She didn't want to acknowledge the fact that the outside, the mountains, crept her out a bit. This darkness coming. The sun was still visible, but only as a dull coin through the grey, part of the contourless scene the landscape was turning itself into. Damn bleakness.
She wondered again if she'd made a mistake coming here, if she'd be able to stand it for such a long time. She wasn't used to being on her own, or to being out in the middle of nowhere in a little house far from the next little house. She was probably just being a fool. Locking the front door! Locals probably didn't bother with that. She'd have to learn to relax.
She cut open the carton of soup and poured half of it into a pan, turned on the hob. Maybe she would go back to Huelgoat in the morning, she thought. In her stupid rush she'd picked up only ready meals and snacks, as if she'd regressed to some young and clueless version of herself. Except such a version of her had never existed. Despite what François said. She'd always taken care of herself, known what to do.
She sat down on the couch to read, but she couldn't focus—the calm was too eerie. She had to turn on the TV to be able to concentrate on her novel. The volume down low to a nice hum, just so she knew she wasn't the only person alive on Earth. The grey fog outside turned to drizzle, then to rain. The noise of water falling and the low voices on TV weaved themselves together, conjuring a form of company.
When she saw movement in the corner of her eyes, she didn't look up straight away, mistaking it for the non-stop spasms of the screen, of the drops on the glass. When she did, she saw François's face grinning at her, framed in the little square window of the front door. She got up, shaking, and retreated in small steps towards the back of the kitchen. Facing him. He tried the knob, then shouted "Open the door," banging on it with his fist.
Marie saw his face relax, then break into a smile.
"Come on, love. You're being silly. Let's go home."
He saw she wasn't going to open, and he threw himself a couple of times at the strong door, then disappeared, and Marie saw him through the windows, sprinting along the house toward the back.
She ran to the front door. She unlocked it, took out the key, and just as she was getting out she heard the flimsy back door burst out of its frame. She just had time to close the door and lock it from the outside—François crashed into it, his grinning face just a few inches from her, behind the small window.
"You thought you could leave me like that?"
She started towards her car but realised the keys were inside the house. She ran up the dirt road, but when she turned back and saw he was already out and catching up on her, she jumped over bramble into a field. On the road he'd have caught up with her, and her chances of a car passing by when she needed it were slim here. Better to hide. Bet on him stumbling. She ran, trying to keep her balance on the spongy grass, turning around now and then. Seeing nothing, or flashes of François behind bushes and sheets of rain.
She was already soaked, her light clothes turning heavy, sticking to her skin. She thought she could hear the hum of a car somewhere. Should have gone for the road. Now she couldn't even see where it was.
She kept running, even though her throat felt like it'd been torn open. Like her lungs had collapsed. She'd reached the lake now, could see the water lap up the reedy shore. It looked like something a monster would come slithering right out of. She looked back, stumbling down as she did. Couldn't see him. She crawled behind one of the rare trees that stood in the valley.
She sat for a second, her back to the trunk, then grabbed a mug-sized stone and stood up. She could hear a hum again, behind the thrum of rain on the lake, and she was nearly sure this time it was a car. It was impossible to know where it came from, as if the noise was coming from the air itself, bouncing across the valley from mountainside to mountainside. Couldn't see any road or headlights.
Then she heard his heavy breathing. She could hear his steps. He wasn't running anymore, just letting his clumsy weight drop onto one foot then the other.
"Marie," she heard him rasp in his exhausted breath. He got level with the tree, and she saw he wasn't even looking up or around, just haggardly going forth, his eyes vacant, his jaw hanging, as if pulled by the weight of the water flowing down his face. She lifted the stone and brought it down with all her strength on his head. It landed on his temple, and she closed her eyes as blood burst out. When she opened them again she saw him lying face down, his upper body in the water.
She stayed there looking at him for a couple of minutes. When it was clear he wouldn't move again, she pushed on his ass with her foot until his body slipped whole into the water. It floated there by the shore. Moored to reed thickets. The surface of the lake quivered with the drumming drops, and as water fell it sent smaller spheres bouncing up, and there was a strange layer just above the surface where it was impossible to say whether things were rising or falling. She threw the bloody stone as far into the water as she could, then started walking home. Following the lake for a while, not fearing it so much now. She took her time, despite the dull lack of light. The cold water on her skin.
Back home she heeled her clogs off. Dropped her clothes on the floor, not caring about the pools that seeped out of them. Ladled some soup into a bowl; it was still warm. She sat inside the fireplace, on his little three-legged stool. The fire, she thought, isn't perfect, but it'll do.
ARMEL DAGORN is now back in his native France after living in Ireland for seven years. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Apex Magazine,Unsung Stories and Holdfast, and is forthcoming in the anthologies Haunted Futures and Strange California. The chapbook of his story "Out-of-town Harry" is out now from In Short Publishing. Find him at armeldagorn.wordpress.com.