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Photograph: Hans Splinter
On Wednesday she left the washing in piles in the sink. Went out to the field. The men had their backs to her, arms folded over ribs, looking at the horses. Joe Lloyd the vet wasn’t there. That was how she knew they weren’t looking at the injuries: the shaved areas where Joe had stitched the skin closed, the sores around legs and hocks, jagged stripes across bellies.
The bay. One of them said.
Not that one.
The old one, next to the gray.
He turned like he knew, looked at her. She flattened her stomach against the fence, lowered her chin.
• • •
On Thursday they brought the hooks down from town, drove them into the walls of the old arena. She felt she was listening to it all afternoon. Peeling the potatoes into the sink, plucking the chicken bare, trying not to do it to that low strung beat or look out the window every time they came out, dragging in another bag. There were more hooks than there were foxes in the county. The first time there’d only been one and now there were more but were there really that many?
• • •
By Friday she’d fed them for every meal, the men who’d come from the towns to help, and, though she was tired enough to sleep at the table, she couldn’t sleep at night. They would not talk about it but she knew he could not sleep either, knew by the way he flipped back and forth, shifted to wake her though she did not need it. He said disconnected words that she tried to crease into sentences, though it creased to morning before they formed.
She heard enough in the swing loose of the kitchen door to know they would wait for the weekend to finish, wait for Sunday to go through itself, and then they would put the horse in the arena away from the rest.
She knew also from remembering the first time. The way there was a building of something nervous and snapping until finally that night when there was no way they could wait any longer. That time it was a dog, a stray dragged into the barn by its scruff. She never saw the animal, only heard the sounds it made and then the silence, but she’d crept down and looked out the kitchen windows and seen the rays of light pitching into the dark mouth-hole of the barn and the blurred shapes of the men leaned on car bonnets. In the half-light the guns sparked above the trucks but the passage of the bullets into the barn was lost and she only imagined the cleaving in the air as they went.
She gathered a lot also from the way they acted: he came to bed later and later, in the mornings she carried out boxes of empty bottles, at night she woke to hear their voices raised in protest, argument, or elegiac jubilation. Normally when he came in she would be awake, listening to the sound of him up the stairs, the drunken rest he took halfway. One night he put his curled fists beneath the scoop of her knees, put her on the floor at the foot of the bed, bent low like he was going to fall. He said I want you to cook beef on Sunday.
• • •
On Sunday there were men in the yard out the front of the house all day. There were more than before, coming and going, in and out. She made cups of tea in a daze. Burnt the beef brown, undercooked the potatoes. They did not notice, crowded knees and elbows in at the table, slopped their glasses full and then full again, talked loudly. Horses and sheep were being attacked from the Ridgefield’s buildings to the start of the coastal farms, a child had scars from the side of its neck up to a missing eye, nobody kept chickens outside anymore. All the same this was different from sitting in the pub and talking about the number of birthed cows or the firmness of corn heads. And it was better than talking about a single animal, probably mangy from rabies and on a spree, the way it was the last time. This was something, anyway.
She should have known the land was in him, that he dreamt at night of things moving beneath the black earth.
That night, after she’d washed up, she was tired enough to sleep. Relieved until she woke later, felt the cold wash of air coming from the open window, tried to move to get up and close it. Then the sudden weight on her chest. Held her breath till it was gone. Then it was and she was throwing pillows aside, looking for the slick body, flicking the light high to show the corners of the room. Only when he stumbled up, took her wrists, and held them did she see there was nothing there, or think that what she dreamt of could not climb walls anyway.
He slipped a hand beneath her nightdress. This was what it had done to him, the late-night talks, the fast slicks of activity across the farm, the teeth marks on the fetlocks.
• • •
On Monday she woke early. He was still asleep. She lay and looked at his back. Once, when they first met in the city, they took bottles of beer to a park, sat on the slope of a hill. Where I come from, he said, there aren’t any hills at all. She made jokes at that, told him that was clear if he could call what they were sitting on anything other than a molehill. He didn’t laugh much though he’d been laughing at her jokes all evening, only swilled the bottle up and took a gulp big enough to lessen it by half.
She should have known then the land was in him, that he was born with the flats reflecting in his pupils, that he dreamt at night of things moving beneath the black earth. He felt no excitement at hearing about the fast train tracks they were building from Cambridge to Oxford or listening to the radio programs about India or Africa or Paris. She should have known even feeling the small bushel of something she felt for him that night was enough to curse her into that land forever.
She got up without waking him. By the front door she put on her shoes and coat. Crossed the yard, skirting the puddles. At the door to the arena she paused, looked back at the house, at the window of their bedroom. She expected to see him there, looking at her. He wasn’t, so she went in. Seeing the house and fields and barns the first time, she’d been confused as to what the arena was for: a square building with a swing gate. That was until the summer came and she watched them breaking the horses beneath the high corrugated roof. After the animals were broken enough to ride they never stayed long, only enough time to grow stocky around the hocks and then off to a riding school or as some child’s first pony. Except nobody would buy a horse mauled enough to look like you beat it.
They had raked the sand clean of foot and hoof prints so she left her own solidly on the walk to the middle, glancing back to see them tracking her. In the middle of the arena there was a stake hammered into the ground with a metal ring on one side. On the walls the hooks were spaced out evenly, going from a little above her head to her knees, three hooks and then another three. She caught her finger on the end of one, pressed to see it whiten the skin.
She could hear the horses in the barn. There were chains on the door and Greg Loowes’s dog lying outside. She’d heard them debating it in the kitchen, how the foxes got in though some nights three men stayed up late to watch and some nights there were four dogs there. One of them, she didn’t know his name, was derisive of their bafflement, said foxes were getting into houses, into locked bedrooms, and their barn wasn’t much of a challenge. All they were doing was digging under and in. They netted the floor. She’d spent the next weekend sewing the teeth-torn nets whole, though they wouldn’t use them for that again.
When she went back inside, toeing off her shoes at the door, he was at the kitchen table, doing up his boots. She didn’t say anything and neither did he. She made coffee and toast, put them in front of him and sat opposite, drank hers. Thinking of the hooks on the wall, of the stake dug into the sand, made her feel as if she was famished and when he didn’t move to eat she took three pieces of toast and had them in quick succession.
When are they coming? She said.
He brushed the empty toast plate toward her.
Aren’t there any eggs?
No, she said, they’re all gone.
He spent the morning in the kitchen, at the table, not doing anything only sitting or asking for more coffee. Then he cleaned the stalls out, reappearing with wheelbarrows full of muck to empty onto the heap. That only took two hours. When she came downstairs he was back at the table, pushing toast crumbs into lines with a finger. She put the radio on. At lunchtime she made him a sandwich. When he only ate half she, nervously ravenous, ate the rest standing over the sink. He stayed there for the rest of the day, now and then pouring himself glasses of water, now and then going upstairs to the toilet, now and then flicking through the local newspaper. She got nothing solid done, only half doing anything and then forgetting to finish it. The feeling of it was like the feeling of something else so when he went to the sink for another glass of water she couldn’t help it: put her hands onto the tops of his thighs.
What are you doing?
She didn’t answer, cupped her fingers around his legs.
They’ll be here soon.
She didn’t say anything, pressed herself lengthwise along the back of him, felt the rough burr of energy making her hands shake, thought of the hooks elongating out from the barn walls and of the stake in the middle where they would tie the horse.
She reached round the front of him, fumbling at the catch of his belt. His hands were restraining for a moment, round her wrists, and then gone. She pulled the belt undone, chucked the button free, pushed the zip down.
It reminded her of when they first met. She worked at a café, knew no one, spent the evenings in the cinema across from her room, sometimes watched two films a night back to back so she was almost cross-eyed by the end. When she met him he taught her the excitement of dark cinemas and of not watching the film you paid to see. Taught her well enough so later she couldn’t see films on her own in the same way, put her bare feet on the chair in front of her, slipped her hands inside her jeans.
By the time her bottom was on the sink ridge and the shaking in her hands was bridging down the rest of her there were men in the yard shouting for him. She felt him speed up, saw the tension in the side of his face, saw him thinking about afterward: doing up his trousers and belt, sitting to put his boots on, going out the door into the barn and putting the head collar on the horse. It was ruined for her, so that when he was actually doing all these things and she has rearranged her clothes, washed her face and spat into the sink, the bud of shaking, fearful energy was worse than ever.
She went outside. There were trucks and cars in the yard. A dog jumped up at a window as she walked past. In the back of all the trucks were the heavy farm guns. His, she recognized the smooth clean of it from his working on it at the kitchen table, was leaned against the wall of the barn. The door to the barn was closed and padlocked. The gate to the arena was swung forward and she could see shapes moving inside. It was not quite dark yet but it was getting there. She went and stood by the door. She couldn’t see much only hear their quiet voices and the sound of the horse. She moved inside the door and then down into the corner, stood with her back against the wall.
The horse was tied to the stake in the middle. The men were grouped loosely round it. He was beside the head, his fingers looped under the head collar. When they cut the horse—once along its neck, once on each side of its stomach, once on its face—he held on and, though the horse was making a high sound and throwing the back of its body around, its head where he was holding stayed still. She thought she would be able to smell the blood as it went down the sides of the horse and into the sand but she could not. She wondered if this was the way it was the first time, when it was only one fox and when it was only a dog they were cutting.
The men left the horse and went out into the yard and then it was very quiet. She could hear the horse moving around, tugging at the rope attached to the stake, wheezing and making low sounds.
By the time she decided to go to the horse it was so dark she could not see anything. She felt forward with her feet, shifting one into the sand and then the other, hands held out to either side. When she felt something, wet and warm, she thought the horse was further away and pulled back fast and felt the horse’s fear and put her hands over her face. Only it did not come at her and she put a hand out and then the other and moved close enough so she could feel where she was touching and feel the blood and feel the horse’s nose coming heavily down onto the cup of her inner elbow. They stood like that for a long time. There was no sound from outside the arena and she wondered how long they would wait out there.
Later she was almost unaware of where she was or what she was doing. The horse was drawing in long, noisy breaths through its nose, its sides rising faster and faster. When she looked at it she thought she could see the pulled-back whites around its pupils and then she realized she could see other things: the shape and size of the barn, the shape of the horse’s head and body, her own hands when she held them up.
She remembered the first time, remembered looking out of the kitchen window. The men were ranged hidden around the door to the arena, some behind their cars, some laid flat on the ground, some behind the wall of the barn. They all had their guns out. At some point there must have been a sign she did not see because all the car and truck headlights went on and they started shooting into the arena.
How strange it was to remember that moment and at the same time be standing inside the arena, making out only the shape of the door and none of what lies in the yard beyond. It was almost like being in two places at once. Barely real anyway.
Then the horse made a sound the same as when the men were cutting it and pulled back hard so the rope burnt across her arm and when she looked she could see the fox too. It was standing a few feet away, its head turned to one side, its body angled. It stood there and looked at her and she looked back.
Behind her the horse jerked back and forth, the sound of the rope and the head collar and she wondered if there were more, skirting in around the walls the way she had, feeling their sides against the wood, crossing toward the center. She wondered how long the men would wait outside, if they would calculate the amount of hooks they wanted to fill or if the thought of recounting it in the pub or at her kitchen table later would get the better of them and they would start shooting early.
She did not look away from the fox and, though already there were sounds growing and growing around them, the fox did not look away either.
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