By Rowan Wilson
The winner of the Spring 2020 ORB Fiction Competition, judged by Will Eaves
The travellers ate their food, and it did them no harm at all, even though it had been prepared by Thorgunna. They spent a very comfortable night.
It’s like this, take it or leave it. I put my body back on, and I find it fits me awkwardly, greying and bunching up at the elbows, sluggish, stubborn stuff, bad meat. It moves as if I am in pain, but I’m not, and I think I am misremembering what pain is. It moves like the ginger kid with the rat in his hat in that film Ratatouille. All I know is I am heavy with myself. I can’t push my blood round its usual circuits so it just sloshes around inside. I grew unaccustomed to having a body so fast I wonder if I was ever meant to have one at all.
I put my body back on, nothing else, because I am heavy enough with the body. I put the body back on because another woman has my bedsheets, is getting her sticking scent deep in the folds. My lovely sheets that knew my skin. And so when I was laid down I was uneasy, uneasy, I jerked myself awake and found that I was batting against the doors of the little wooden house no bigger than this body like a moth.
I broke my coffin open and now I am clattering around, unused to everything, the body amazingly stupid and slow. I have to say, remember: eyes open. I have to coax it, because it’s frightened—I know that because it flinches against me. When your body won’t move with you, you have to be very cautious, because that puts you on the edge of coming apart. I hold it carefully, like you would a child who woke up with a horrible dream and can’t place herself in the dark. I say, ok, ok, what would you like to do? Since you’re up, you can do anything. What would you like to do?
I am in a house I’ve never seen before. It’s poorer than the one I used to move in. A clump of box rooms stacked next to each other. No books. Damp crawling up the walls. Still, someone has put out rugs and little postcard pictures of mountains, like they mean to do more than pass through. As in every bad dream, the doors don’t seem to be anywhere that makes sense. I crash against everything, and feel it with an infinite delay. They put me in the room with the fridge.
I say to the body, what would you like to do? I’m sorry I woke you, I couldn’t lie down without my sheets, I was lonely. Let’s do something. I am wriggling around inside my loosening body and I feel rotten for confusing us both. The body is pulling apart from me. I have done something terrible, something unkind. The body hefts down to the floor, heaping itself on top of itself until it’s lying flat. I used to think we bury bodies so we can’t look at them, or so they can’t come back, but in fact I know now it’s because they like it, the sweet dark crush of soil packing them into geology. It’s the kind of heaviness that feels good, feels easy, thoughtless. Like the moments before you sleep. Falling without fear until there’s nothing of you at all, until you are granules of yourself. And I shook it out of rest, before they could sink us both. Now body lies there in the sparse cold air of this high country, wanting denseness, wanting weight. I know I have done something unkind.
I think about letting it lie there. The heaviness is in me too. The world is effortful, light slams into me with unspeakable violence. But there are children living here. Toys spill out of stacks in the corners of each room, disfiguring the lines of the house. To find a body—not looking its best, I admit—lying here where someone cooks them breakfast in the mornings would be worse than anything I could do to my own bonestuff.
So I jostle the body up. I am ungentle, I handle myself roughly. Body reproaches me with aches that pretend at the memory of harder pains. But the nerves are unravelling under the skin, every signal scatters and baffles itself before it arrives. It takes almost nothing to undo decades of building yourself as a serviceable thing. I want you to remember this: your effort is always incommensurate, will always be done away with by the bigger thing. I don’t say this to frighten you.
Body leans against a cupboard, panting out of habit. The hard unwarm light of the kitchen peels the shadows off everything—chairs and cans and piles of sad vegetables. I think about what will make this better.
Let’s make something, I say to body. Let’s make something now.
There is no motion belonging to cooking that I didn’t make when I was alive. Now all of them are scripted into my wet slack muscles. I cooked constantly—to acknowledge that I hadn’t seen my relatives for a while, to gratify the women I married, sometimes just to mark time, to remind myself a day was ending. I baked bread on nights I came home late. I cooked for hours and hours on weekends, not because I was hungry—I never had an appetite for anything I made myself—but to watch other people eat, and thank me. To watch people make a mess of themselves with my food, while I stayed clean and lovely, moving in and out of the kitchen with salads and lamb and baked rice with barberries and almonds in blue and green bowls, missing nothing. I cooked instead of speaking. It was how my body was useful to people. It was my own particular grace.
Cooking is never not wanted. Let’s make something, I say, and tire us out, and leave it here, and go back down. A passing-through present. Someone will be glad.
At first the memories are muffled. There is a knife in front of me, and a chopping board, but I can’t understand how body’s hands could relate to them. Dying has stupefied me. I am always calling to myself from far away. But in time the knowledge clicks in: I raise the arm and bring it down, I am chopping onions, and I think to myself, I am chopping onions. The eyes stay dry as insects. I am clumsy, the knife juddering through the white. I make a mess of the first one. The second is better. I don’t cut them up into cubes, I like to leave the slices heaped up like little crescent moons. That startles me—remembering what I liked. Small good things that changed the colour of the days. I think it might overcome me. I remember myself, what I have to carry.
It’s nothing important I’m making. Pasta, beef, tomatoes. It’s what was there. But it’s decent food, and I find some chilli flakes and nutmeg at the back of a cupboard, and I imagine what it would be like for the heat that comes off the pan to reach me. I sink myself in the uses of the body. I feel the familiar glutinous stretch of time that comes with cooking for nothing in particular. I become easy. Which means, of course, that I betray myself.
Something slips. Something drops off. The left arm is insensible, suddenly, and it hangs off me while the sieve I was holding clanks on the floor. It’s the biggest sound in the world.
When I hear them on the stairs I am still trying to recover the body. One hard scare and I can feel it scrambling away from me like an animal in the woods. Things twitch and spring out of all sense. I have seen toys wound up too far spin jittering across a floor abhorrently fast. I cannot gather myself up. Four men come crashing into the room, talking all at once. They see me and they still. I remember now I am wearing nothing but the body, and that they can trust their arms to act with them.
I scuttle back into a corner. The table and the food between us. I feel like a creature.
I look at them through these filmy disused eyes, the men who have carted a coffin in the back of their car into another country because a woman they knew slightly asked them to take her home. They are looking very carefully at what parts of me they can bear. Hands, feet. Things that show the shape of bone in life, and are less changed. Places on the body where there’s less of the stuff that yields. This surprises me, though I know it shouldn’t: I frighten them. I frightened them before, too, because I kept to myself and was curt without meaning to be. But I am unused to giving men fear that makes them sick. I have never been a horror before now. The body is taller than any of them. One of them, the youngest brother, leaves the room and doesn’t come back.
But I also look at them looking at the food. I know this road: they’ve had nothing but bad sandwiches from gas stations and Styrofoam cups of thin sour coffee for days. Food that leaves your mouth tasting like rot. They circle the table like planets. Hunger has made them edgy, snappish. One of them says something about disinfecting it, and another one nods, but another asks, how? They speak about this problem for a while in low voices. I don’t tell them I always wash my hands. After some time the next youngest brother lowers his head and begins to pray, furtively, with the awkwardness that belongs to a man trying the faith he was good at when he was a boy. He crosses himself, and then—a smaller, quicker, gesture—the food. This strange tender archaism. Making a mass out of a pot of pasta. No one ever blessed something I made before. How much I feel watching him—how close the feeling is—ruins me again. I look down. Body’s feet are effigies of themselves.
In the end, the eldest brother says, with a little half-shrug: ‘It’ll go to waste if no one eats it.’ In the end he is already sitting down. I understand. I have also done stupid things because I was hungry, and I wanted food to make me feel solid in a strange night.
It’s funny how little they hesitate before glutting themselves. Then, I have never seen men be shy with food. They heap their plates and pack their mouths. They chew loudly, the way you do when you’re eating with family. ‘It’s good,’ one of them says, not to me. I stand at the side watching them eat like a butler. I can’t think where else to put myself. Something of their satisfaction transfers. Not all. Not enough.
When they are done, they scrape back their chairs all at once, remembering what they can’t bear to be in a room with. The brother who blessed the food looks back at me. ‘Thank you’, he says. He has sauce round his mouth. Imagine, something as usual as this.
They empty out of the room. They were barely here. How much can a ghost lose?
I clean up. I am a good guest. When it’s done I am defunct. There’s nothing to hold, nothing but the body, still wanting soothing, keeping close. After all it’s not so different from every other night I’ve spent in a kitchen, working hard at not losing my mind while sleep shuts everyone else up in dumb compartments. After all it’s not so different.
Hours and hours, and still, nothing settles. I lean on the edge of the table. I’ve been awake for too long, overtired, tired over into something else. There’s something quick in me I can’t put down. Body jangles with holdover life.
Out the window, the sky is blanching. Morning will come in exhausted colours, bled bare. In the corner, the coffin braces open to take me back inside, fold me into the ground.
What would you like to do, I say to body. Tell me what you’d like to do, and we’ll do it.
Body starts in answer. I walk out of the house and into the waiting land.
ROWAN WILSON reads English at Merton. Their termly fifth week crisis takes the form of panic-googling ways to escape to the sea and spending a lot of time on the 'Join Us!' webpages of cloistered monasteries.
Art by Abigail Hodges