Glass in the metal frames of the wealthier graves is broken in places, as are the older porcelain name-plates, one painted with a scene of fields and trees. Its edges are aged brown, and the pieces undisturbed. A copper cat stares into the forest, death sitting beneath it in segmented solitude; unseen corpses in bullet-line rows; order unworried by time, safe in resistant obedience.
Pheasants, shotguns and tractors mark a piece of glass on Jean-Claude's grave, the relief's curved surface sucking green from the pines at the back of the cemetery before wringing it to grey, lensing the life from the trees. His tomb is wide enough for two, but his side is empty yet. A solid blue sky domes him and his neighbours; chainsaws serenade from the woods. À notre ami, à notre voisin; Albert, André, Michel.
At the end of a row of smooth, bright pitches lies a mound of earth, chalky sand churned to gravel. Plastic roses red to pink, feathered by the summer sun and brittler from winter, rattle in a vase. A green urn of brown stems is toppled at the side. A stone plaque from the grave next door bears the image of a single flower and one word: regrets. Patches of unused plots pushes through the undergrowth to find her clearing in front of the bus, trodden down and reeking of damp. Creepers wrap handles, 50s wood warped by the pine forest micro-climate, rain and frost sucked out by summer heat and the eternal needle carpet. Anthills stand dead under magpie chatter, the air around her melting and reforging to allow her feet into the shadows, over a pile of blue slates stored there for no reason unknown years ago. Inside the vehicle’s body is the smell of mushrooms and leather; the seat coverings have been bitten back by the Correzian winter, leaving exposed frames once cherry red and a bare earth floor poisoned by leaking oil. In the back of the bus sit benches against the iron frame, dusted with oak leaves and broken. One is coated in smashed glass. A pure white sun casts chicken stock, diaphanous light across the seat, shadows rubbed to nothing by the season. Ice crystals lock with enamel blue and blood rust spots on the fuselage. She pushes herself into the back of the bus and sits on the wooden floor. Through the gaps in the boards she can see a wheeless axle and whitewall tyre casing, lines of machine through clouds of breath; she takes cigarette papers and a tied plastic bag from her black wool pocket. Cold at bay with the shakes, tossing her black hair from side to side, puffing in the bus. One paper one way and one the other at the end of it, licked halfway to form an l-shape. Creased diagonal one way then the other to make a funnel. She crushes in buds then fishes a Marlboro from a packet, nods her head up and down while she works her chin, licks and rolls, produces a Bic and lights up, acid smoke filling her space and rolling over her eyes while she laughs and talks to herself. Outside there is nothing but the woods. Smoke after smoke and the ice takes her hands and her legs beneath the ribbed tights and boots and she pulls her hat down to warm her ears, scratching at her eyes and sniffing up snot. Smoke and smoke and the air holds her chest in place, props her up as she jabbers annunciatory, standing up bent with half the joint left and back through the benches out out out of the bus, off the bus to the trees. She looks back at the stripped birches in the split windscreen, beating around in her clearing to regain a sense of feeling in her feet, spitting at the rotten cream and powder blue duotone of the paintwork and away back through the bushes to a path once well-travelled and now used by no one, not another person but her, an unbroken, rusted beech blanket heaped up against mixed trees; brutal bark frozen solid; leaf edges razor and sparkling sickly in the deadlight. She creates the only footprints in the leaf river as she spits this way and that before leaving the throughway and taking to the forest proper, the smoke gone somewhere back near the bus. I am the trunks and the leaves my feet and the branches my hair and the sky my mind; she falls to her knees and listens for the river then up and closer into the imperious trees, the oaks, the beech, the birch and down to the pines sown in the river basin; she throws her hat and drops her coat, drags up the sleeves of her shirt and slams her forearms into the bark, demanding to be bitten then licking the blood as she lies in the mulch on her back and watches the trees’ arms struggle under the weight of the jelly sky, the sun heaping waves of burnt cream over lifeless branches as her breath plumes up from her mouth to kiss the trunks and stroke the leaf-fall around her shoulders and neck. After some time she pulls herself up against an oak and makes another joint, retying her hair from where it’s slopped over the side of her glowing face and reproaching herself for the torn skin on her arms. She sits against the bark on a bole, the tree’s base keeping her backside from the worst of the wet, and rolls up quickly, lacy blood running into her eye-whites and the voices in her skulls crowing at her stupidity for losing her hat. She puts the joint in a crease in the tree bark and runs back through the trees, her path easily spotable in the otherwise undisturbed leaves, and finds the black beanie lying snagged on a snatch of grey brambles. Purple lumps coagulate as she watches her arms before bringing her attention back to the hat, taking it from the bush and pulling it onto her head, then retracing her steps through the trees. A moment taken to recapture breath and hood her eyes against the declining drugs before sitting back into the bole and listening for the river again, finding it after a few seconds. Pure cannabis glows under the lighter’s flame, a rock of amber stitched to the forest’s wedding dress lace, and green smoke bellows from her cracked lips. Her hands are freezing, and the voices tell her she’s stupid to smoke without tobacco, that it won’t just be her arms this time, but she pulls harder and remains as silent and as still as possible, her wet hat against the oak bark, the second drag rolling in her open mouth unforced, wisps dragging from the corners of her lips and over the olive tan of her cheeks like milk in tea; smoke pours up her left wrist to hood her thumb; her eyes roll to see nothing but the voices, the voices mooching backwards and forwards between her ears full of pillows and schedules, needles and cotton: a crack. In front. She exhales, yellow smoke dragging out the sunbeams, invisible security protecting the jewels, barriers to the trap. The deer is no more than a metre from her and she can’t fathom how it ever got so close; she blows out hard, drawing lines in the air with her smoke; the animal bends down to spring before darting to one side then back again the other way at the smells of the joint and the sight of the laser clouds, then back again with a whinny before thumping away over the frozen leaves, white tail in velvet then vanished. Her throat is blocked. Tiny breaths. She draws the smoke into her lungs again, taking eminent care with her movements, not moving her body in any way aside from her hand and arm and lips and chest, then lets the smoke hang in her mouth again as her eyes rolls back up into her head and the cannabis fog dissipates across the face of tessellated bark.
After a time she comes around to find the light has moved on over the sky, and the whites from earlier have deepened. Teeth squeaking on the inside of her mouth, she nods forward and takes a sharp breath as pain in her neck left by the freezing morning worries her. On her knee is a welt surrounded by a hole in her tights and a thin crust of ash. Pushing forward off the tree she stands then falls then stands again, shaking. A net of lights hangs between the branches strewn with pearls, flexing fractals dancing over the bark and leaf mould, the rushing of the water beyond pushing through it in horizontal waves; she raises her arms up zombie and starts to giggle, crunching foot beyond foot through the trunks unconsciously led by the river. She is on the bank and looking out over a swollen grey vein clouded by her breath. Roots cancer the muddy torrent on all sides, their surfaces fragile with an ice incapable of catching the current. Cries and time goes and comes and she pushes up through the trees until hits a path she knows and keeps climbing then running then stopping with her face sloppy and grey. Gradiated green from violent, luminous pea to black on the other side, the trunks bend out of the ground like mushroom stalks. She has reached a log covering the path, a large dead pine, dead-fallen, its branches stripped of bark and risen antlers. The ground beyond is a bed of frozen moss. Filtered white drinks orange mist as the weak sun begins to burn off ice cloaking the pine needles and leaf-fall in a ghostly vapour-shell; the rocks around are sprayed green with lichen and green seeps into every angle of her vision and the path forwards is forbidden by the horns winces as she crosses the threshold into the lobby, the bright white of the reception strangling her pupils after the rainy night. At the desk, Claudette looks up, her face lit from below by the shift lamps, and smiles.
“Ben ouais,” she says, shaking off her hood and sniffing up raindrops. Her hair is jet in the dimness. “Toi aussi?”
“Ça va,” says Claudette, watching her deal with her wet coat and scarf, a flurry of half-seen and sighing. “C’est calme. J'etais tout seule cet après-midi, donc j'ai eu la chance.”
She grins as she approaches the desk, pushing her light blue cotton dress over her thighs then pulling up the white collar to stretch the buttoned front over her chest. She pins her hair back as tightly as possible and passes a palm over an eyebrow. They look each other in the eye momentarily before she begins pulling out schedules and picks up a red pen.
“Il faut que la patronne embauche plus du personnel bientôt,” she says.
Claudette huffs: “Elle est une vraie connasse.”
She snorts and crosses a line through a box on her sheet, the light and shapes of the desk swimming around her hands and fingers, the crepuscular air congealing, groaning as she checks her nails and curls her lip; eyes dart from word to word and line to line, a high note singing across the top of her skull.
“J'y vais,” she says.
Cream walls and green carpet line a corridor of low bulbs and slow alarms, dots of sound on a page of waved light confirming drips still drip. Door after door, one hand on the wall then stopping to recuperate before standing high in her dress and moving onward with no aid. Between the lights lining the ceiling are areas of relative blackness, and these push down on her strict hair, the brighter parts of the passageway pulling her up straight: the darkness crushes her shoulders together and and they fall towards the floor. Behind the doors the hairless chimps, the nothing proof. Eyes hood then brighten and she falters, presses on her abdomen and tilts her face to the floor. I look, but I cannot find the relevance of relevance, she says; there is no validity in existence, in my magnetic mess of fibres and neurons, in their puerile complexity; it’s a fluke. At the corner of the corridor is a well of black, but there is no limitless possibility, no mystery. I am monkey. I read a story today about a man who fired a nail into his brain and continued to work. That’s how important a man’s brain is to a man; you can shoot a nail into it and not even know. I am sufficiently elaborate to dominate my environment, this shadow, this tunnel in this building, the ancients this building houses. Logic is meaningless, she says as she pushes her face into the black corner; a dreamlike glitch; monkey struggles to remember even the simplest things; shopping lists, names, births and deaths; is unable to reliably retain information for even a day; cannot be sure in a witness box despite knowledge of experience thanks to basic brain; a tragedy of subjectivism, a sham of sophistication. She pulls her lips away from the wallpaper to leave a string of spit, becoming conscious again of the rolls of beeps from behind the doors, the beeps pushing against the frame of the corridor’s light like fetal fingers pressing on the stretched belly of pregnancy. Towards the door on the right. Existence could vanish now, cease to exist, she says, and the ramifications would be irrelevant. There would be no ramifications. There is no relevance. There’s only relevance where I choose to place it. My nature is to exist to needlessly procreate; to eat; to love; to master. Her hand, pure white, hooks over the handle and a warm rush hisses from the opening crack; in the room the light and air are flatter than the corridor. I beat myself with invented sticks in a phantom reality, boil my emotions because I have emotions to boil, she says, standing in the centre of the tiny room. I chart complexity because it hides me from simplicity. Existence is a lie. Non-existence is release. And the man in the bed has suffered enough.
“You have suffered enough,” she says, placing a hand on the side of his turtle neck. Ma chérie, he whispers, tears rolling over the papery skin covering his nose onto the pressed, striped pillow linen to rattle on the table as he closes his hand over hers. She swims up in the safety of his presence, up from the cold asperity of her mother’s tongue and her father’s silent disparagement, pushing up from the prisoned depths of the world of children to take his fingers at the surface of adulthood, lifted out to a café and a street and the sun and the warmth of love and desire. Her nails and lips are immaculate, she knows, and he thinks of nothing more than the flash of her blue eyes against a rim of mascara and the promise of a life and family in the milky skin beneath his privileged palm. A smile as she drops brown sugar into her coffee, continued stirring as she raises her eye back to his. Je t’aime, she says wordlessly, et je t’aime say his teeth, his lips and brow guns in the woods and the wail of sirens in the town, hugged together to protect her belly sound of German voices and pressing down on his face with the pillow while he continues to sob, ma chérie, ma chérie. All her weight is more than enough to stop him moving, and she walks again through the trees and the ice, searching for the river. When she dips her hand in to drink, she removes the pillow and ensures there’s no breath.
She looks at him for some time.