By Annabel Rogers
It was midsummer, and under this crisp hot summerness Ava managed to shred all the fine bits of tendon in her knee. Her mother had told her, I knew, not to play that last match. Not for any discernible reason. Like, she knew it would happen. And it did.
The knee was Bad. I knew this too, because everybody kept saying it: this is Bad. All swollen and twisted up inside, lots of frightened looks being passed around. She was sixteen, she was already a star, and now? It’s like all her death-defying caught up with her.
Not that tennis is a risky sport. But watching them you feel like they’re doing something dangerous. All leaps and twists and arcs like trebuchet, isn’t that what they called them? Trebuchet. Tennis is maybe the closest they get to danger, the closest most people get. The age-old human instinct to throw things over their heads. So, whatever. Her death-defying caught up with her. She was flat on her back on the court moaning in pain. The court was a clay sort of material, brightly salmon coloured under a very painful sun. She was all in white — she admired the clean, quartz look of Wimbledon — and the strip of stomach where her top rode up was much lighter than her arms and legs, which were a sort of ruddy brown onion-skin colour. Her mother had her arms crossed.
Is she ever going to play again, someone said, and someone else said shut up don’t say that in front of her and she just moaned in pain. Which is also something you see, like, less of these days. People moaning in pain. Humanity in general is now very anti- stabbing and disease and things. At least in the vicinity of tennis courts. It feels like I’ve gone out of business.
I was interested in Ava because she was a tennis player, and like I said tennis is interesting because it’s sort of dance-with-death-like. I was also interested in Ava because she had absolutely no concept of time. Not in a constantly-late sort of way but in a forgetting-your-own-age sort of way. She was frequently surprised when she looked up and saw she was taller now, her mother had grey hairs, and she was going to have to win something soon to get serious. Getting serious means forgetting you have any other sort of life outside the court and getting brand deals and things, those weird symbols like something from an earlier time that they put on the strings of their rackets. She was already halfway there since she measured time only in match time, which meant not very much time passed for her at all.
This interested me because most humans are always looking at the clock.
Her mother was interesting too. Because of the way she knew things, like the way she knew Ava shouldn’t play today. I hadn’t quite worked out what she did, yet, only that it involved a lot of time on her computer writing things that sounded made up, like today’s Mercury in Venus suggests you should be careful about what you share online, though the human projection onto the planets was one with which I was familiar. Being a common theme, throughout the centuries. My favourite theory of theirs was the bodily humours but they seemed to have discarded that a while ago, now, which was a shame.
Ava and her mother did not get along, which was why she didn’t listen about the match today. Now her mother was glaring at the baseline. There was a long red stripe glistening on the salmon-coloured clay, where Ava had skidded on the other knee when the Bad one had folded. The four humours were a good theory, I think, because it was the only way humans could make sense of what is objectively disgusting about their lives. Ie why should we (meaning they, meaning humans) deal with squelching-and-oozing-and-bleeding, and things, and the four humours were like, because that’s what we (meaning they, meaning humans) are. Beings that squelch-and-ooze-and-bleed, and things.
Ava was attempting to sit up. She got to the bit where she had to unfold her legs which were still ungainly, though she was sixteen, like a fawn’s, and she made a sound not unlike the
sound a fawn makes when its leg is broken in the jaws of a wolf. It seemed to be decided very quickly that she would have to be carried home.
Her mother did not believe in modern medicine, which was another source of interest to me, because it meant I had them all to myself. Not that there was much I could do. Neither of them knew the old words. But I still wanted to help. So her mother was giving her something described as a natural painkiller which, unless it’s poppy, isn’t actually going to do anything, and then her mother went downstairs (I’d followed them home) and Ava screamed a bit at her closed door like I hate you! Why do you act so disappointed in me when I’m doing something real and you’re just scamming people all the time! Like you’re scamming me right now! It hurts! and then she flung herself back on her bed and was silent for a while.
You could see the woods through her window, which was nice. Homely. In the old days they’d have left a kid (a baby goat, I mean, not a child, though I did occasionally get children which was a little alarming) in the clearing for me to eat, to pray that she’d get better, though back then they had bigger things to worry about than knees, like plagues, which it was a very lucrative time for me, back then. Not that I liked being paid in kids. I used to give them back some of the blood they’d lost and send them off into the woods again. (If I got a child I’d repay the blood with that of those parents who left it there, which was only fair of me, I thought.)
Ava was moaning in pain again and her knee was a bright hot spot of fire, so I decided to do the nicest thing I’ve done in centuries and get her another ice pack. Her mother was watching something in the kitchen, which was full of the laughter of absent people who probably died a long time ago, and she sort of blinked as I went into the freezer and found another ice pack, which was strange because I didn’t want her to see me. I took the ice pack upstairs. Ava was quiet now, and poking with pretty ginger curiosity at her knee. But I’d got the ice pack now so I thought I may as well give it to her, and I said hello I brought this up for you, I thought you might need it and then she started screaming, which was an understandable reaction, I suppose.
MUM! she was screaming. THERE’S A THERE’S A DEER WOLF THING MONSTER THING IN MY ROOM! MUM! which was maybe the nicest thing I’ve been called, though not entirely accurate. Like, I’m not really one or the other or even both.
Just take the ice pack I said. Her eyes were the size of moons: she looked a little bit Celtic, I thought, which maybe was the reason I’d even picked her out in the first place. She took the ice pack and placed it on her knee with the sort of reverence they used to afford the old gods, back in the day, but it really was just an ice pack so when she wasn’t miraculously cured she threw it at me. GET OUT she said. I found it increasingly likely that her mother would react better than her so I didn’t go anywhere when the door opened, which I’ll admit was a mistake because her mother started screaming too and I could have told her I was rising from Venus, whatever that means, and it wouldn’t have made any difference, so I decided now was the time to go.
I went into the woods and thought wistfully of clearings and altars, though I did sort of admire this tennis-court world we all now lived in. But like, there’s little room for the romance of the old things. Ava seemed to have elected to forget the entire interlude and was now quietly crying by her window, I could see. Her mother, in the window of the living room, was chewing the end of a pencil and thinking of ways to work the old gods into her next Mercury and Venus pronouncement. The prophets used to respect us, was the thing, and the athletes used to pray to us for favour. Not so much Ava. Not so much now.
The woods were quiet and dark and ageless. There was a bank of houses all down its spine, Ava’s being one of them, and I considered the fences. I would be lonely without Ava’s mesmeric arc and swing — but that was over now whether I visited her or not. So — what now?
I looked across the gardens towards the end, where the manicured-ness thinned out and, like, died. There was something rattling around in one, a dull metallic sort of ringing, I guess, like a cheap bell. It was a goat, I saw, a young one, with a bell around its neck. The forest loomed large over its head.
I was getting a bit hungry too, so. What now?
ANNABEL ROGERS reads English at Magdalen College. She’s been told to limit the semicolons, so please keep her in your thoughts at this difficult time.
Art by Jemima Storey