Island Love, by Frances Gapper
We keep things spacious in our large room because my wife can’t bear clutter, it makes her feel penned in. For this same reason (and although the draughts irritate my touchy glands) we leave the floor-to-ceiling windows open. Window means eye of the wind in Old Norse and my wife is the Old Norse type – long red hair, a warrior.
Dead leaves bright as her hair scatter across the floorboards. A red bird wings from my empty chest. My wife’s green dress is medieval in style, low cut but with high sleeves. A round flowerbed set in our island rug is beginning to sprout fronds. (Another of her endeavours to mix/reverse outside and inside. I fear rotting floorboards. But I guess she knows what she’s doing.)
Apart from wife, bird and dead/alive vegetation the room is empty of colour, uncoloured, arguably discoloured, certainly colourless, me included. Our island rug is being eaten away at the sides by moth or beetle or overlapping ocean. My wife has placed her chair on the island’s very edge, one leg offshore. She holds a ball of string, she’s winding me in. I’m light as shadow, my feet don’t touch the rug. Her thread vanishes into my hollow chest, tugs at something buried deep and far away.
Cobwebs drape and waft like filigree bunting. It’s a tricky room to get out of, unless you know where the door is. I suppose that’s true of most large rooms.
On our wedding night she asked me, what lurks in the labyrinth? Should I be afraid of it? – challenging, enticing me. But I didn’t know how to respond.
It was my first time, hers too. Worm, she cried upon sighting the male appendage. Myself I think worms deserve our tenderness and a bit of help when pavement stranded after setting out innocently on doomed ventures.
But I owe her. She aimed to marry royalty and live in a palace, instead she got me and my cobwebs.
At her request I commission a landscape gardener, sandy-haired Ross, to add interest and variety to our rectangular lawn. He suggests island beds stocked with colourful perennials. I’d have preferred something less garish, but she jumps at it. Oh Ross, yes!
They chat while he works and she lounges in a steamer chair. For her entertainment he imitates birds, such as a wood cuckoo. She laughs, thereby shaming us both. Cuckoo!
Loitering in the nearby temple of Persephone, screened by a yew hedge, I snoop as they grow intimate. For his entertainment she describes our honeymoon in the Drakensburg mountains, that ancient empty place. My brother, who lives in a gated community, had warned me beforehand not to take a certain road. If our car broke down, that would be it – robbed, raped and killed. So, upon reaching a fork I veered off along the unsanctioned route. Another car coming towards us flashed its lights. But nothing happened. We got through OK. She seemed calm enough.
What a weird thing to do, Ross says (as though it’s any of his business). How did you feel about it?
Angry with him, she says, for taking such a crazy risk. For putting me in danger.
That’s understandable. He unpots hollyhocks, digs around a boulder. Consults his plan. Gazes soulfully at her.
Now she promiscuously reminisces. Our chalet was on the higher slopes, away from the tourism trails. I bathed in a stream, the water was so clear but freezing cold brr I only stayed in a minute…
Doesn’t she recall what happened in the small hut and vast darkness? How we two, while lovemaking became prey: seized upon, unjoined, fragmented into atoms? A sacred experience, I would call that.
The next day, she set up her easel at a vantage point. A lammergeier – a type of vulture with the wingspan of a pterodactyl – circled above her. Attracted by her stillness, it sank lower and lower. But I protect my own. I ran uphill towards them, shouting and clapping my hands. Oh why did you scare it away? It was so beautiful.
Ross, squatting on his haunches, persists: Is he ever violent? Are you afraid of him?
Oh Ross, he’s the dullest man alive. I may die of boredom. She yawns and taps her mouth.
Does she know I’m here? Is she goading me like a bull? I feel strangely roused, energised. Women think men are machines, perhaps they’re right.
Later: she’s in the bath. I try the door, but it’s locked. Squinting through a crack between door and frame, I breathe heavily. The lock strains. She gets out of the bath (wise woman). Arms herself with the soap dish, a pink china swan, and one of the cabinet’s angled glass shelves. Plus her phone is on the wicker laundry basket, should she need to speed-dial Daddy’s bodyguards.
So instead I go into the bedroom and start destroying furniture. However, I’m a careful sort of vandal – while pulling out drawers and bringing them down hard to make the joints fall apart I don’t split the wood, so at some future date they can be reassembled and glued back together.
In her underwear drawer I find a horn or bone. She’s grown up a lot. No more prissy princess. ‘No more Ross,’ I tell her and she – perched towel-wrapped on the side of our bed, clipping her toenails and ignoring the strewn wreckage – shrugs.
The island beds viewed from above look like eyes. Some watch and some weep, others are blind i.e. not yet planted. I feel sad for my ruined lawn.
She and I continue to defy ‘healthy relationship’ blueprints. You’re my hero, you’re my hero she repeats until it blurs to IMRO, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation whose motto was freedom or death.
What is love, I ask the speaking head on our granite-topped kitchen island. An illusion, she replies. And? A means of bondage. I lack the nerve to ask her a third time. She gets snippy, like someone else we know.
Frances Gapper lives in the Black Country region of the UK with her life partner, Bear. She has published three collections of short and very short fiction.
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