Kailyn McCord’s wonderfully creepy “The Tail” begins as any good horror begins: with a seemingly innocuous, if slightly unsettling, discovery. “At the corner of our country parcel, where the driveway meets the street, my husband and I found a tail.” What follows cannot be explained by any conventional means, but her husband is certain the woman who lives across from them, le envou, is responsible.
At the corner of our country parcel, where the driveway meets the street, my husband and I found a tail. Or, I found it, and showed him, and that was how things began.
We arrived at dusk. The tail hung on the edge of the trash box, which was square and rotting and had been an aspect of the property we ignored save for its function as marker, as the first built thing to signal the place as ours. The box listed—still lists—against a power pole, and lettered down the pole’s wooden length in fuzzy, faded paint was the acronym USA. Not a reference to the country, but some code, of meaning only to the company men who serviced the lines, indicating where to cut, or what they might find if they did. We had never considered the letters, or very much the bin; we used a service for our trash, women who came and disappeared it from the corner of the garage. We paid the power bill. The lights stayed on.
But anyhow, the tail. That day as every day, the bin stood sad and a little disgusting in its dusklight silhouette, the top adorned with what from far away we thought was a flag, what on closer exam proved to be a fluttering black and white spindle of hair. The driveway beyond stretched up into the property, willows on its border obscuring the house, the length of its crumbling macadam edge crowded with abalone shells. A pretty scene, all in the budding moonlight.
We’d been many hours driving, winding the passes, my husband’s face taut and flushed from concentrating too long on that which he could not well see. He hated driving at transitional times of day, or in dappled sunlight, hated when there was no clear adjustment he could make to see the world sharply. He slowed the truck. At the passenger’s side, just beyond the glass, the soft taper of the tail’s end hung past the box lid, into the empty air. I rolled down the window. An acrid odor swelled into the cab. I reached out.
“Don’t,” he said.
“Don’t touch it.”
“It’s just a skunk,” I said.
“Someone left us a skunk?”
“Well no,” I said, “the tail.”
A breeze blew through the black spindle, ruffled its hairs.
My husband let go the brake and drifted us up the drive. We could look at the tail in the morning, he said. It was too late for solutions. And, what was there to solve? A piece of some larger animal’s meal, we reasoned, this as we aired the quilts on the bed, unpacked the insulated totes of groceries, this as we set the smallish blocks of cheese on the clear glass shelf in the fridge, treasures from a favorite hillside dairy, each a present in soft brown paper. A bear, or a cougar, or perhaps an oversized raccoon had dragged their meal across our bin, snagged the tail on a nailhead, this final delicacy forgotten in the ensuing feast. I snapped open a can of carbonated water, poured it into a glass, slitted a wedge of lemon for the rim. I set this at my husband’s elbow. His stomach was often unsettled after a drive.
“It could have been kids,” he said, and by this he did not mean young children, but rather the kid that intones a near-adult, its diminution meant to evoke their raucous and careless nature. He sipped his water and sighed. He shook his head.
Together we pulled open the blinds, bared the windows to the inky night. He stood and surveyed what lay beyond in the whitening moonlight. I took our suitcases to the bedroom, pulled agape the zippered flaps, set our clothes into the dresser drawers, their bottoms slick and cool. “A group of kids, maybe,” my husband said, in the doorway now, his glass hanging off the end of his hand, his elbow propped against the frame. A coonskin gag, the chopped end of a roadkill, the rest carried off for more mischief elsewhere. Or, the explanation we liked least: perhaps it was an actual prank, to leave the tail, its authors both more sinister than jolly high-schoolers and more pointed than an animal’s base instinct, their intentions dark, their choice of our bin meant to elicit exactly what we felt when we considered its possibility. A pitted sinking in the belly, this bin, not for its function as the highest point on this stretch of road, and not because it presented a pedestal by which to display the grotesque exhibition, but because it was ours.
My husband said we should put it out of our minds. We took off our clothes, tossed them into the wicker basket in the corner. As had always been our habit, we slept naked, goose-pimpled under the quilt, waiting for our bodies to make enough heat so the blankets might trap it back against us.
My husband lay on his back. I lay on my side, my cheek warming against his chest.
“It’s probably nothing,” he said, after a time.
“We’ll look tomorrow,” I said.
“Or kids,” he said. “It’s probably kids.”
He rubbed his thumb along my shoulder, kissed the top of my head. He shifted onto his side to face the window, a sudden coolness on my cheek. I pressed my nose to the flat of his back, paced my breath with the rise and fall of his ribs, the undulation in his spine. At some point I slept, although I do not remember the moment it began. Like every night, I knew it for certain only upon waking, only by the sun risen, our imprint on the sheets. Only by adding up a series of evidences could I see it, a shape they gathered around, something of the truth of what had happened.
* * *
This was not the first time we found something of a curious nature in the vicinity of the bin. I do not know if my husband remembers what happened before the tail, or, if he does, if he considers it relevant to our current circumstance. I have not asked him.
The trip was a last-minute excursion, of his suggestion. He had come home late to our apartment in the city, had found me sitting at the window sipping chardonnay, my knees draped in an afghan. I’d been watching a group of children play at the far corner of the park several stories below. They looked like figurines in a diorama, and I’d thought all afternoon about reaching down, about plucking one up and keeping it for myself. I was simultaneously sickened and consumed with this, a desperate want there alone in the apartment, imagining my giant hand fat and soft over them, a nimbus encroaching from the horizon. I sipped a buttery sip, tracked their distant movements as an owl would a vole. There, hanging off the spiraling ladder in her yellow sweater, a little girl, cheeks pink and ruddy, braids flopping down her back. A little girl, just for me.
My husband came to stand beside me at the window. He wore a cool grey suit that disappeared him so well against the dimming apartment that it looked almost as if I did not have a husband, but only a thin triangle of gleaming shirt and a head bobbing above. I leaned against his leg.
“Anything interesting out there?” he asked.
“Just kids,” I said. “At the park.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I did not tell him that, in part, what I liked to listen to was their laughter, how it was not sweet at all but comprised of a myriad shrieking, scream after frantic, earnest scream echoing up the concrete canyons and slapping the wide, square window. Real enough, this stuff of playtime fantasy, that I had not seen them swinging from the bright structure pipes, had I not watched the girl in yellow as she landed sure-footed on the spongey turf, I would have sprinted to their rescue.
“Next you’re going to stay you want to have one,” he said.
I said nothing. The image stuck in my mind, that mother rabid to save her child, impossible powers buzzing in her blood. I wiped the corners of my mouth with a pinch of my fingers.
“That would be something,” I said.
“Those are for red, you know,” he said, and flicked my glass with the flat of his nail. He sat down behind me, his chin on my shoulder. The glass was stemless, all the fashion in the last years, a round-bellied shape made to sit directly on the table. “They’re meant to help the wine heat up to room temperature faster. See?” he said, and he reached out to wipe the foggy outline of my thumb.
“I see,” I said.
“Want to go north this weekend?” he asked. He raked his fingers through my hair.
“Sure,” I said. A honk blared below, and the girl in yellow snapped her head around, loped across the playground, ducked into the open door of a black town car. Our talk turned to what meals we would bring, how long we would stay, where we’d go for dinner. I stood, folded the afghan, went to pour another glass.
We packed the car that evening, drove the roads into the night, listened to the lilt of a baroque recital via satellite radio. When we arrived, a cluster of heavy-headed flowers, large-petaled and pastel pink on their leggy stalks, had burst into bloom around the power pole. Naked ladies, they were called. I think they distracted us. It wasn’t until the next morning that I noticed anything, that there among the flowers stood a pile of flat, river-smooth rocks balanced in a stack. It was a cairn, like the sort of thing you see while hiking, a marker for when the trail dissolves without warning into open landscape. On a walk to check the mailbox, I had been trying to remember a dream I’d had of the girl in yellow, found that I could not catch more than a wisp of it at a time. I saw the rocks. I went to get my husband.
We walked back down the drive together.
“Hm,” he said. The sun was high already, a light wind pressing waves into the grasses beside the road. “It could be our friend,” he said, “le envou,” and jutted his chin toward the driveway across from us. A line of battered prayer flags hung along its length, fluttering in the breeze.
She was a strange woman, very seldom seen, and for that she had acquired this nickname, le envou, from envoûter, to witch, taken from my husband’s fluent French and blended in our own private jargon. We made fun of her as it pleased us, her plastic flamingos bleaching in the sun, her rainbow pinwheels disintegrating into the overgrown grass. Across the property stood piles of brush sorted by plant type, for what purpose we could not tell. Worse, the hackneyed sophistication of the prayer flags, and worse still, the stakes in her flowerpots rusted through, replaced with popsicle sticks or lengths of rebar, the same leggy geraniums blooming year after year, medicine pink.
My husband resolved to speak with her. He would ask her if in fact she had left the stack of rocks, and if she had, what she’d meant by it. When she answered, no matter what she said, it would give him a clear opening. Firmly, in a way she would understand, he would explain what it meant, the notion of property.
* * *
The woods behind our house are private woods. We do not own them, but someone does. We walk in them, long walks full of silent minutes in which my husband and I experience our own, separate peace. The morning after we found the tail, this several months after we found the cairn—which of course we had forgotten about, had not as we’d said bothered to speak with the neighbor woman—the woods sang with the steady hush of some far-off din. We had long theorized it was the ocean, or else the wind across a higher ridge line we could not see. It was not, as we’d first thought when we’d bought the parcel, traffic. Traffic was a city concern. When the sound rose, we would often stop and listen to it, straining to distinguish it enough to give it a name. Sometimes we held our breath, although this always seemed to make things harder, the steady, deafening pump of blood.
That day we made a loop through the woods and out to another road that led back to our own. We approached the drive.
“Oh,” I said, remembering. “The tail.”
It looked smaller than it had in the night. He pried a stick from the weeds, used its end to prod the tail, watched as it rolled across the slanted planks and fell onto the asphalt.
“Hasn’t been here long,” my husband said.
We looked at the fanned hairs wet in the morning dew, still springy even along the underside where the tail has rested on the wood. At its end, a layer of pink chuck encircled the bony nubbin, the point of severance where it had left the rest of the animal. My husband noted the lack of tearing at the skin, the absence too of a clearly cut edge; the bone, it seemed, had broken at the joint, an invisible dissection that had left no evidence of how it had been made.
He lifted one of the planks of the bin’s lid and, using a second stick together with the first in the manner of kitchen tongs, lifted the tail and let it drop to the bin’s earthen floor. It landed with a curl. My husband replaced the missing plank. There, at the bottom of its own little cavern, the tail would rot.
I took my husband’s hand. We turned up the drive, the abalone glittering in their heaped rows on either side. A nice late breakfast, I thought, oats and cranberries I’d brought with us from the city, already portioned into large jars bought specifically for that purpose. We’d pour thick milk from a glass bottle with a metal screw top. It was the small things that made us feel like ourselves.
On through across the morning and into the afternoon, we mentioned the tail only briefly, in short bursts. Each time we spoke of it, it edged further from whatever place it had initially held for us, its tenor changing, a reminder, then a story, then a joke. By dinner, it was complete, a finished narrative, something we could take home with us like a souvenir and give to other people. We sat on the deck. My husband asked me what the difference was between disconcerting and concerning, so as to know, I am sure, which he might use when describing this encounter to the friends we would see upon returning home.
“Concerning has a cause, I think,” I said. “Indicates an object. Disconcerting is more general. A sense of ill-ease without a clear source.”
He nodded. He sipped from his glass, gin with ice and mint, and stared out to the edge of the property.
“Excellent,” he said, and squeezed my hand.
* * *
My husband is a cautious man. He thinks I do not see that he is like this, but when we walk the property together, or the private woods behind it, he checks on things: sounds, the edges of the paths, any broken branch that splays differently from its fellows. He does this as if he is investigating potential danger, or tracking some pressing mystery, as if each detail might be a clue. Depending on his mood, he does this to greater or lesser degree, and then there are the rare occasions, usually when he has made us a generous batch of some new concoction, that he does not do it at all.
Our second morning walking through the woods, my husband was consumed. Any ease of the previous evening had evaporated, and he stopped constantly to listen, not in appreciation of the natural soundscape, or to notice more fully some twittering detail, but as if spying, as if he alone were keyed with the necessary skill to anticipate what ruin might befall us. Their subtleties would betray them: the snap of a twig, the clatter of a creek stone in a shaded culvert we could not see, and then he would have the upper hand. What did they mean exactly? Only he knew.
The walk crawled along, stilted, jerking in fits and starts. I longed for our usual pace, one that eased my blood up, one that left me at the end with a light, wrung-out feeling. I waited for him again and again, like I would wait for some distracted child, standing on the path, listening to my own heart slowing.
Where the forest met the road, he eased somewhat. At the bin, everything was as we left it, the lid on, the small pile of rocks at its base, the naked ladies’ browning stalks. We lifted the lid to check the tail, and indeed there it was, a limp curl in its square of dark. The smell wafted up, stronger for having been left to sit a day. My husband turned his face away.
“Should we throw it out?” I asked.
“Not in the house,” he said.
“In the garage—”
“Not in the garage.”
“We could bury it,” I said.
He considered this.
“It’ll fade,” he said finally, and shut the lid. “A few days maybe, but it’ll fade. Dust to dust, right? Isn’t that what they say?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I wish she’d cut that out,” my husband said, pointing to the stack of river rocks beside the bin, speaking of it as if the neighbor woman had stacked them newly, as if it were not us who’d let them stand.
We both looked across the road, up the winding drive. Past the ragged flags we could see her house, its small, two-windowed front, the panes reflecting the white glare of the mid day sun, flat and curtainless.
My husband took my hand and, delicately, with a slowness, pushed his toe against the bottom of the cairn. The stones slid out against each other and toppled with a clatter into the dirt.
“She’ll notice,” I said.
“Let her notice,” he said, and with a gentle tug he led us back to the house.
* * *
For lunch I made sandwiches with a sharp, dry cheese. I sliced the ham on a hand-cranked machine someone had given us for our wedding, a rustic thing, with blades spaced so the meat fell away in curling sheets, like freshly steamed silk. It produced wonderful meat, the machine, and was very difficult to clean. We sat at the dining room table. My husband watched out the windows, followed every darting finch as it emerged from the spruce and alighted to the power lines, their bodies brilliant yellows and reds, the row of them like a string of candies. His eyes flicked back and forth, tracking.
I stood and started in on the sink of dishes, scrubbing the slitted gap between the slicer’s blades. Out the window, the abalone glinted along the edge of the drive, flashing newly every time I moved my head. The people who owned this house before us, who built this house, were abalone divers. We knew because the realtor told us, a selling point, a rich piece of history. For decades the town had survived by the abalone fishery, but even after it closed, locals stayed the course with recreational take, and tourists came from miles around to pry the mollusks from the underwater reefs. Upon returning home, divers would spread the evidence of their catch through their yards, along their drives, would hand the best shells from their mailbox posts or set them in a line under the eaves of their outbuildings. Oblong iridescent bowls the size of dinner plates, the divers would give them away to strangers, foist them on their wives to be purposed in unending craft projects, heap them in hip-high piles anywhere there was room. You could tell a diver by their yard, the realtor said, and once we’d bought our country parcel I began to notice that she was right, that haphazard rainbow piles bulged across the lawns, behind the flaking fences, around dilapidated structures where the town children would play.
Standing at the sink, I could just see our abalone through the window. I stacked our salad bowl, the tongs, all the pieces of the slicing machine in the folding wooden rack. My hands had gone pink under the hot rush of water. I watched the entrance to our world through the trees, watched as the shells caught and shone, as they seemed to spread, to grow, to stretch across the drive. A trick of the light. A trick of the willow’s filter.
“Honey,” I said.
I fished the swollen bits of cheese from the gridded stopper at the bottom of the sink, flicked them into the trash. I looked back to the window.
“Honey,” I said again, the tenor come here, and when he did, a hand on my shoulder. I pointed through the willows.
He led us out, his gait quick and sure. Around the edge of the garage he stopped, threw out a hand that landed flat against my belly to stop me too.
“Oh my,” I said.
Where our driveway had been, where once a smooth plane of black asphalt had blanketed the span, a glittering field ran all the way to the road, a sheet of abalone fragments glaring like a river surface in the high sun. Holes gaped where the shells had sat in the grass, dark and damp, the crawlers that had hunkered wriggling away in retreat. As if the shells had been plucked just that minute, I realized, as if we had just missed the change. I stooped to scoop a handful but my husband caught my wrist, brought me back to standing. He knelt, his frame shaking slightly, to peer down the length of the spill. No fragment smaller than a dime or bigger than a quarter, all together an immense sea, its tide arrested, as if it had washed up and stopped, its edge a perfectly straight line at our feet
When he stood his face was drawn and pale. I laid my hand in a loose clutch around his arm, my fingers raw. He walked backward, slowly, toward the garage, keeping the abalone in his sight line. When he reached the door he groped blindly for the broom.
“Get the can,” he said, and I pulled out the empty trashcan and dragged it behind me. He fumbled at the shelf, handed me a pair of purple gloves, snapped another up his wrists, tucking his sleeves under their cuffs.
In the heat we bent double, a light, dry breeze raising the hairs on our arms. My husband pointed, theorized, bellowed instructions, spoke almost continuously as we filled can after can from the gleaming cover at our feet. Per his direction, I took each mounded load to a hollow near the pond’s edge and poured it out, the refuse tinkling as it fell. He worked in a frenzy, first with a push-broom and then, as the afternoon wore on, with a wide metal dustpan, its scrape against the asphalt scattering the finches from the lines. With each new scrape and each new pour of the can a glittering particulate took to the air, and in its wake the thing we did not name, did not dare to speak aloud, what I had noticed first when we stood at the abalone’s tideline as a faint under-scent, what rose now from the shells in great waves, a thick stench wafting over us. The particulate landed on our arms, on the raised hairs there, settled into the delicately pinned folds of my braids and the creases in the knot of my husband’s lambswool sweater where he had tied around his waist, and with every fine piece of glittering dust the smell, a stink sinking into us, and still he did not speak of it, not as the last of the fragments fell into the murky water, not as the sweaty hours gave way to an early dusk, not as, at the door of the house, we caught a glimpse of ourselves in the sidelight, pink-cheeked and shimmering, astink with all we’d hidden beneath the water.
We showered separately. I watched the last of my iridescence drip away down the drain. I dried myself, found my husband on the couch.
“Do you think it was her?” he asked. He sat with a top-shelf bottle and a heavy-bottomed glass.
“le envou?” I asked.
“Yes. Do you think?” he asked. His voice was frantic, with a hard edge, and also a little boy’s, some poor lost thing.
“I don’t know,” I said. It seemed the kindest answer.
He finished what was left of his glass, stood to pour himself another, paced one quick revolution around the living room and set the bottle back on the hearth with a dead clink. He sat, stood, sat again, clutched his elbows and stared out the wide, dark window. What I could see in our reflection: me a folded ball on the couch, my husband like the captain of some ship, or else the faceless figure at its prow, and rather than find himself before any expanse, he stood nose to nose with his own simulacrum in the glass.
I stood, clicked on the lamp. He startled, as if he had forgotten I was there.
“Maybe it was the kids again,” he said, his voice fast and continuous. “Too much for one person, or, too much for her, or, it could have been loggers, or, the fishery? The fishery. I mean it could have been the people from the old fishery. Clearing space. I could call…”
I moved quietly through the room, so as not to disturb him.
I thought about what I knew as I moved through the house, readied for bed, slipped myself under the covers. I thought about the explanations I could offer my husband, how I would help him through each one with patience and care. How if it had been the loggers, there would have been dirt amongst the shells; how if it had been kids, the pile never would have been so big; how, as my husband had said, neither could the neighbor woman have executed this action on such a scale. More than any of these, I thought of how we’d walked the drive just an hour before; how the thing I thought to tell my husband—and I would have done so tenderly, with restraint, with a gentle hand on his arm and all the best words I knew—was that the fragments, every one of them, had been worn smooth as a river pebble, smooth as the wide discs of rock that had been stacked in our cairn. Hadn’t he noticed this? The sea-glass nature of them? A quality rendered only by the great stretch of time passing? As we swept and scooped and ferried them by the bucketful into the willow ditch, as we moved through the ballooning cloy of skunk, hadn’t he seen how each was a disk, gentle, slippery, how, in order for abalone to become like this, to be spread diamond-hard and soft-cornered over such an expanse, it would have had to sit years in the sea before it came to us?
Didn’t he know it was not a question of who, but of what?
* * *
When he asked me to marry him, my husband took us to an elevated train track-turned-park that ran through the heart of our neighborhood in the city. A well-known nonprofit has recently completed the renovation, this with lauding from the mayor and ample government support. Stylish planters hung from the rusting I-beams and grated stairs, and water features dotted its length, these costly to plumb in, but worth it for the ambience they leant. Even from the street, the stretch of track looked different from the others, announcing itself as something other than a train.
We mounted the stairs. We walked. On a bench of finely sanded teak he placed me, his hands cupping the backs of my arms. He knelt at my feet, the concrete under him smooth as slate, and pulled from his pocket a small velvet box. He said beautiful things then, recounting how we’d met, praising the ambition of what we both wanted, assuring me of his absolute faith in the possibilities unfurling before us. We already had what most marriages sought, he said, a mutual future, a good, smart fit. When he opened the box, sunk into the slitted foam was a thin-banded diamond, heavy and globular in a white gold setting. He pushed it onto my finger, past the swell of my knuckle, to settle it around the stretch of straight, fleshy bone.
“I love you,” he’d said, and pulled me to him, and somewhere close a train rose out of its tunnel, and the hollow bellow as it sped down the track roared over whatever I might have said in return.
* * *
I woke in the morning in the country house to my husband’s side of the bed flat and cool. I found him on the couch, in the great room, his hair stringy and damp across his forehead, two yellow legal pads flipped open on the coffee table, both half-filled with lists and notes. All around him sheafs ripped from them and placed in piles covered the carpet. He sat up, bleary, his eyes blank and bloodshot.
We had planned to leave that afternoon. As he stared off through the windows, I busied myself to ready us: pulled the suitcases from the closet, emptied the wicker hamper, stripped the bed and set the laundry out for the service. I dished up a lunch, soup and cheese. My husband sat when I invited him to sit, ate without conversation, returned after to his place on the couch, to the long stretches of staring punctuated only by his hasty notes, scribbled and then set in a particular position amongst the rest. I packed our bags and staged them in the entryway, a formal front door behind the great room we did not often use to enter or exit the house but where we did, upon leaving, set our things. I made the bed afresh. I drew the curtains, the light warm and pink in the dying afternoon.
“What are you doing?” my husband asked me. He stood by the unused front door, our bags at his feet.
“Packing,” I said.
“We can’t leave,” he said.
“Why not today?”
“I need to know what’s going on,” he said, and began to pace anew, twitching across the sunken great room, around through the entryway and back again, clumping his hair in loosely clawed fists so that it fell like heavy, wetted yarn across his head.
“There could be more,” he said, “There could be… I need to talk to that woman.” He stopped, set his hands together, stared down at the stone floor.
“Honey?” I said.
“I need to talk to that woman.”
He lifted our bags, clutched them against his chest, walked them back into the bedroom and let them fall to the floor. He moved as if he did not see me.
“Honey,” I said again, and he stopped. He looked at me. He seemed to know me for a moment. I lifted my hand to cup around his arm, rubbed it up and down.
“le envou,” he said, and blinked, and looked over my shoulder at the door, and reached past for the knob to pull it open.
Beyond the frame should have been the usual view, a slate-cobbled path replete with a border in rhododendron and poppy, a short staircase, the garden, then the woods. In winter the path stood sparse and a little foreboding, and in summer it swelled with color and light. On this afternoon, it should have been just beginning to bud.
What spread beyond the door was no path at all, no beyond, but a flat sheet of thin-fingered willow inches from my husband’s face.
“Oh,” I said, and as I took another breath, a slow, sour smell broke over us.
My husband reached up to touch the willow, to set his hand against the wall of branches. He closed his fist around the nearest and pulled, broke it where it met its thicker limb. It hung by an inner green, dangling in front of him.
“Get the clippers,” he said.
I stood and stared.
He grasped a branch and then another, bending them, snapping them where he could. “Get the clippers,” he said again.
I trotted room to room, ignoring the request, taking a speedy estimate of the house. I knew we were soon to be enclosed. In the bedroom, behind the curtains, a woven, patchy shadow showed the thicket already growing there; from the entryway, the great room’s windows stood partially clear, and out in the garage, I could see that most of the open doorframe was still unobstructed. Passing my husband, just a minute gone by, I could see new buds pressed against the jamb, a single green sucker snaking its way across the floor. The willow did not appear to move as I watched it, but was again different when I returned a second time, my bag over my shoulder, my husband’s in my other hand, a second sucker and a thicker, barked trunk now entwining the church pew we’d found antiquing, where visitors sat to remove their shoes.
He tore at the advancing front, the swell of skunk thick around him, the only sounds the peel of wet wood and his low, huffing grunts.
I laid a hand on his shoulder. A self-made pocket pressed in around him, what he had broken of the thicket arced like a sarcophagus above his head. He muttered, reached up to find a hold. I pressed my face into his back, wrapped one arm around his waist.
“Please,” I said, and he stilled.
I thought I could hear the willows grow. I thought of what would happen if we stayed there, just like that, wondered how the plant would bring us down. Would it come slowly, gently, a patient construction? Or would it lash, striking so fast we could barely see it, and squeeze us like a boa?
The yank as he pulled against the next branch rocked him into me, sent his shoulder clacking my teeth together. I set his duffle down. I leaned forward one last time, kissed the flat of his back between his shoulder blades.
“I love you,” I told him.
At the garage the willows had nearly obscured my escape, but an opening remained, wide enough to pass through if I turned sideways, dragged my bag behind. A rise of hillocked branches stood high at the mouth of the driveway, the driveway itself overrun, impassable. I turned to the backside of the pond and saw it too crowded with advancing willow. Beyond the garden, the woods whispered in a light wind, looked exactly as they always had. At the property line, the horrors ended.
I do not know how long I stood there, at the edge of where our piece of the world ended, but eventually I took a step, and then I took another. The sky was loosing its last traces of blue, given over at the far horizon to a deep black. In the woods, the path shone silver, the moon slitted in cuts through the trees.
I listened for the rushing sound. The sky domed above high and cold and clear. The tracks we’d left on walks over the last days cut a wending maze of imprints over the yellow dirt, and the tracks of countless animals overlaid them, and this I saw all in the grey of the encroaching night. I began to walk, slowly and then faster. Skittering noises lead and followed, like I trailed them in a wake, like I was not on land at all but pulled with me some vast swell of watery forest creature, what met me as I traveled, what buoyed me along. And rushing still, over all of it, what I convinced myself in one minute was the ocean, and then the wind, and then finally that I didn’t hear it after all, that I had never heard it, that there was no it to hear, that all the wash of the world was only my own heart in my ears, pulsing, filling me as I set foot after foot through the night forest, a heartbeat, a heartbeat, faster, and I ran, and I was running, no evidence other than my own mind, private, alone, made of the world, the world in you, in you, spilling over.
The trees opened. The moon lit the valley clear, the neighboring houses dots of glowing windows, their fields awash, the thin cut of their fences and the dark mounds of sleeping horses easy in their pastures. I walked the road. I knew where I was. Something stirred between the protrusions of my hips, a deep and delicate flicker. I looked toward our parcel.
Hulking like a shellmound, the willow thicket rose beside the road, glowing from the inside, a steady electric heart. Its mass sloped gently down to the edge of the property, stopped just beside the trash bin. A light, clear wind met me as I walked toward it, a smell of dewed grass and dirt.
In the mouth of the driveway opposite ours, just before the mound, a figure appeared in the moonlight.
“Hello dear,” she said.
“Hello,” I said. My voice shook. I was cold. I set my bag down in the road. The woman came to stand beside me, looking as I did toward the thicket, tipping her head to the side, a look of pity for the bulk of willow.
“Well he might be a while I think,” she said. “It’s often the case. You have to let them work it out you know.”
I said nothing.
“I’m Agatha,” she said.
“We call you le envou,” I told her.
“I know dear,” she said, and smiled. “It’s far from the worst I’ve been called.”
And she lifted an arm and put it across my shoulders and took me up her drive.
* * *
I have been staying with Agatha for some months now. The summer turned to fall, and in our stretch of time she has taught me all manner of practices. Our days are simple. We pick fruit from her trees, dry it or can it sweeten it into thick syrups. We snare rabbits in the woods. Agatha shoots quail. She is an expert at splaying open the tiny birds, but asks for my assistance in dressing larger game, a goose or a duck, when she gets it. She battles a persistent stiffness in her hands, an arthritic curl, especially as the weather turns colder.
The flicker in my belly has started to bulge. I carry it with me all the time. In recent weeks, it has begun to prod at its confines. I prod back. Agatha seems unphased by the prospect of an addition to our number, assuring me that when the time comes, she will help me to usher it in, but also that I should not expect it to solve anything, that with it come no guarantees. I should try my best to expect nothing at all, she says, for it is not the sort of change one can anticipate. Of all the tasks in my new life, this is the hardest.
From the narrow porch behind the thick-barked pines, we are afforded a good view of the thicket, particularly when the sun sets at the west mouth of the valley and the light falls golden across the northern ridge. Agatha brings us tea, worries vaguely that the willows will suck away the water table. She clucks her tongue, shakes her head, and we discuss what we will do if that does happen, where we might dig a better well.
I do not pay the power bill anymore. At night, the thicket is dark. Every few days, I walk down to gaze at its tangles, the edge of the property marked still by the disintegrating bin, the power pole behind it and the dead lines bellied overhead. Sometimes, if there is no wind, I can hear the snap of willow from within. Sometimes, a low groan echoes through the valley.
A part of me is suspects that what lives in the thicket is no longer my husband, that he has evolved into something else. When, in the dark hours alone in bed, I think of what that thing could be, a kind of picture comes to mind, this picture born from the moans in the valley, a being furred and low to the ground, an entity that makes a sound of unknown origin. When I miss him, which I allow myself only after all of Agatha’s windows are dark, and she is sleeping, and the world beyond is still and quiet, it is this I hope for. That he might let himself be driven by instinct. That he might already be given over to an anamalian life.
Kailyn writes fiction and nonfiction in Cleone, California, where she also teaches writing at Mendocino Community College. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Literary Hub, Brevity, The Believer, The Cincinnati Review, The Masters Review, Alta Magazine, and Pleiades, among others. She holds a BA in English literature from Reed College and an MFA in fiction from the University of New Orleans, where she was the editor of Bayou Magazine. With support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, Writing by Writers, and the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, Kailyn writes about bodies, land, the West, fire, addiction, and true love. When not writing, she likes to be outside. You can read her recent work here and here.