waking rites

My father liked to talk about burden. The shape and weight of it, how it felt to hold. Run the bath, he’d tell us, and keep it running. When the water’s about to spill, that – that is what burden feels like. He’d soliloquise at the kitchen table, working away at something metal, his hands clumsy and swollen as if someone had blown air underneath the fingernails. My brother would nod, cramming next to him, leaving no space for me to sit. They shared the same thick brow and nose, a duplication of smiles whenever their favourite television programme came on.

She left when we were little. In the middle of the night, taking with her only a small holdall containing things no one would miss - underwear and tampons, her favourite book. If she kissed me goodbye, I don’t remember. We’d gone downstairs and found the kitchen blisteringly clean, a fresh cottage pie in the fridge for later. That was her goodbye in lieu of a note. We packed away everything she’d left behind and carried on as before, never asking why she’d gone, only knowing that she had. I kept her apron and wore it every day, my hand smoothing across the map of stains I’d never washed, imagining each one was a baked birthday cake or Sunday lunch, until her messes and mine became inseparable.

I tried to keep the same routine as before. Coffee in the morning, but never breakfast – my father and brother ate that with the other men in the village before work, although I always served a pot with biscuits and jam, just in case. The kitchen air was close with last night’s cooking, rendered fat seeping into the walls, turning my stomach. I put the kettle on to boil and pressed the heel of my hand against my temple. I’d woken up earlier than usual with a headache, a mounting pressure in the back of my skull. ‘Make it hot,’ my brother said, rushing into the kitchen, making me jump. ‘Scalding. And find a thermos for it, we’ve just had a delivery come in.’ He pushed past me, leaning just enough of his body weight to knock me into the cooker, my hand almost touching the flame. I pulled back quickly and went rooting around in the cupboards for a flask while he shoved his boots on. He had started wearing a new deodorant, something that almost certainly came with a name like endurance or collision. I wondered if he'd bring his latest conquest to meet us, and if she was a vegetarian.

As I poured the coffee, I looked outside and felt the pain in my head travel down the rest of my body. My hand began to tremble, mouth working uselessly to form words I didn’t know. Coffee overspilled the thermos, scorching my wrist and counter, but it all seemed to be happening very far away. My brother cursed, using a kitchen towel to mop up the spill. ‘What did you do that for?’ he asked, but I couldn’t answer. I felt myself handled, filed away like unwelcome post. My father was in the kitchen now, and together he and my brother pressed their heads against the cool glass of the window to see. They frowned, asking each other sensible questions like what is it? and how did it get there? before concluding it didn’t matter much if it was going to make them late for work.

My father kissed me on the cheek. ‘See you tonight, petal.’

And that was the first time we saw the Obelisk.

 

***

 

There were various answers, depending on who you asked. Theresa who ran the chippie claimed it was a PR stunt, but couldn’t elaborate any further. Neil, my father’s best friend since they were four years old, said it might have been an optical illusion, which no one could disprove because they hadn’t been to investigate it yet. Thomas said it came from God, but no one listened to Thomas. Nobody could even agree on the time it appeared. Adam, our neighbour, swore blindly he’d seen it appear very suddenly when he’d put the bins out, around ten o’clock. But this was soon refuted by his wife Poppy, who claimed she hadn’t seen anything amiss when she got up in the middle of the night to use the toilet. Only one thing was certain: it hadn’t been there before, and now it was.

Our village was a green globule, frothing and loud. It had a post office, supermarket, DIY shop, doctor’s surgery and pub, which served things like hunter’s chicken and beef stew. Abandoned shops decayed like bad teeth along the main street, ventures hastily begun and abandoned by townies who’d spent a weekend here and decided what we did or did not like. The only exception to this rule was a small boutique that sold linen dresses, candles, cookbooks and handmade soaps, which my mother had owned; when she’d gone, my father had soaped the windows but left everything else untouched, certain nobody would care enough to break inside. He’d been right. I was forced to walk past it whenever I came into the village to do my shopping, my head pointed at the ground in shame.

I held a list in my hand. Chores to complete, things my brother had asked me to pick up for him. Once, when I’d suggested he could do his own shopping during his lunchbreak, he’d told me I was a lot of hard work, that I needed the excuse to get out more. Maybe he was right and I was a lot of hard work, how could I be sure I wasn’t? Sometimes I fantasised about walking into the village and not stopping, piercing through it like a bullet into the next place, and the next, collecting different horizons as I went. And then I would spill something at dinner or notice a stain I hadn’t managed to get out of my father’s shirt and feel terrible.

First I went and picked up some tablets for my headache. It hadn’t lifted in days, was almost bearable until I looked out the window and remembered the Obelisk. The receptionist at the doctor’s surgery made small talk with me, about the weather and if I had any weekend plans, but it was the silence in between these questions where we really spoke. I watched her face and noticed the stress lines mapped across her forehead and mouth, the purple bags which dragged under her eyes. When I was outside the surgery, I dry-swallowed two tablets, retching from their bitterness.

The supermarket was busier than usual. Housewives and mothers bought more than just food here, impatiently hoisting their toddlers up on their hips as they traded advice and gossip. I recognised most of the younger mothers, having shared a classroom with them at some point. Had even been to one or two of their baby showers. Today they were gathered in a circle, between the butter and blue cheese, all wearing the same feverish expression. I attempted to file past them, grasping my shopping list tightly like a shield, but was still absorbed into the fray, which smelled like perfume and curdled milk.

One of the women said, ‘It’s technically on Robin Miller’s land, though I doubt he’s even noticed. He wouldn’t notice his own arm missing unless you slapped him across the face with it.’

‘I’m not looking forward to the rubberneckers it’ll bring about,’ another said. ‘Parking will be a nightmare.’

'Has anyone else felt a bit funny since, or is it just me?’

‘It’s not just you.’

‘I haven’t been able to get this one down, she’s been a nightmare.’ A mother jostled the little girl she was holding, who began to wail on cue. The other women laughed and made fawning sounds, rubbing their hands along the girl’s head and face.

Their abundance always made me nervous. I was used to my father’s practical quiet, the ebb and flow of his passionate outbursts before he’d sink back in his chair, excised. When he spoke, he spoke about things that I understood, like the mechanisms of a clock or what to expect from the weather based on the clouds’ movement and height. Even my brother was reassuring in his own way. But the women in the village spoke quickly and about everything - their relationships, their failures, the parts of their bodies that oozed and dribbled. I wondered how they could allow themselves to be cracked open so wide. ‘What about you?’ one of them asked me. Eyes turned, polite smiles forming. I shrugged, murmured some sort of assent. No, I hadn’t been sleeping. Yes, it was strange.

A security guard wandered slowly up the aisle. We rippled, as if we’d done something wrong, as if our baskets weren’t filled with food we were about to pay for. I took a step back, expecting our circle to disperse, and felt a hand steady me, keep me in place. ‘Morning, ladies. I’m going to have to ask you to break it up, I’m afraid, so the other shoppers can get through.’ He didn’t seem to understand or care that we were the only ones there.

We came apart slowly, in our own time, offering petal-bright smiles and hellos, our soft limbs untangling from each other. It was only after we’d separated that I realised my headache had shrunken, and now it restarted like a hammer on an anvil.

As the guard passed by, one of the women wandered over to the selection of yoghurts and picked up a container. I recognised her from school, she’d been in the year above me. Her name was Quinn now. She turned it over in her hand, scrutinising the ingredients, the packaging. Raised it above her head and pelted it to the ground. Yoghurt spewed across the linoleum, a chunky streak of pink. I guessed strawberry, or rhubarb. The security guard turned around and stared, sensing that this wasn’t an accident, but a line being drawn. We inhaled collectively, holding back our laughter, our jeers. ‘Right,’ he said, snatching her basket and dumping it on one of the refrigerated shelves. ‘Off you go.’

She flashed a smile over her shoulder at us as he escorted her outside, his fingers digging into the flesh of her arm.

 

***

 

The scientist arrived quietly. He booked a room above the pub which overlooked the main street, and paid a little extra for supper every night he was there. Apparently, there was no limit to how many buttered parsnips he could eat in one sitting. My brother claimed he looked too young to be a scientist, that he couldn’t have been much older than me. Every day someone saw him leave the pub with a wheel-along suitcase and head down towards Robin Miller’s property. ‘Don’t know what he expects to achieve,’ my brother said, chewing a triangle of toast confrontationally. ‘It’s there now, isn’t it?’

‘I expect he’s making sure it’s safe, all above board,’ my father replied.

When I finally saw the scientist for myself, I realised my brother was right – he was young. And tall. And had a crop of orange hair that was tucked into the back of his shirt that I desperately wanted to free. I found him in the DIY shop, trying to choose between two reels of electrical tape, a comma forming between his brows as he deliberated. He didn’t dress like a scientist, but then again I didn’t really have a clear image of how a scientist should dress, besides the goggles and white coats I’d seen in movies. He had on a bottle-green hoodie rolled up to his elbows, trousers that looked a size too big. The overall effect was sophomoric, like he was bunking off class.

I paid for the lightbulbs I’d come in for and followed him from a safe distance. He had a clumsy gait and kept tripping on the cobblestones, shooting one arm out to steady himself, the other reflexively clutching the tape. I imagined where he must live when he didn’t live in a pub. A cluttered apartment, shelves labouring to hold all the books he owned, a kitchen that still looked brand new. He turned down the lane that led to Robin Miller’s and I stopped short, looking up at the Obelisk that chewed into the sky. Even now, I wasn’t sure I liked the way it made me feel, all sharp and bright and impulsive. I hadn’t slept in weeks, had utterly shed the need for it, though I still jumbled my bedsheets and made them up again every morning, playing along. And in the back of my head was an encroachment, something that hadn’t been there before, amassing like storm clouds. I wanted to know the Obelisk as well as it knew me.

‘Oh, hello.’ The scientist finally noticed me as we stepped into the Obelisk’s shadow. He’d already set up for the day, various equipment dotted around the area. I picked up a roll of canvas and opened it, revealing a collection of small tools, including a dirty toothbrush. ‘To collect soil samples,’ he explained, squatting to put on some gloves. ‘It’s impressive what you can learn from dirt. What grew here before, how old the land is, whether there’s been any human interference.’ It seemed pointless trying to work out what had come before when the Obelisk was here now, but I smiled politely anyway, handing him back his toothbrush. He smelled of the city, dirty and rampant. As I leaned over him to finally free his trapped hair, I caught a whiff of sweat tinged with cheap takeaway food, shovelled down alongside equally beleaguered co-workers who hadn’t seen their loved ones in weeks. Did they secretly love it? Did they greet one another with things like, back into the trenches we go? Was my mother one of them?

The scientist disappeared inside his tent, one foot poking out. His socks had his favourite football team on them. ‘My grant will only cover a few more weeks here,’ he was saying. ‘And then I’ll have to go back, so I’m trying to collect as many samples as I can. It’s nice to have a little company.’ He emerged with a harried smile, a cumulus of hair falling in front of his eyes. Again, I had the urge to tidy him, to lick my thumb and clean the speck of dirt on his jaw. Straighten his collar. Press my lips against his, hard enough that we’d feel each other’s teeth. He swept past me, a chisel in his hand. The sound as he chipped away a corner of the Obelisk reminded me of teeth being punched out in a fight, my whole body suckering and shrinking, agonised. He proffered the sample, smiling sweetly as if he’d just plundered my ribcage and brought out my wet, hungry heart. I took it graciously, feeling sick and ill-treated, and turned it over in my hand. It felt warm, hot, and I looked at the scientist for confirmation, but knew if I asked him he wouldn’t know what on earth I meant.

 

***

 

I became what I thought of as interesting, collecting hobbies and pastimes like trinkets. It wasn’t enough to listen to my father and brother sleep through the night, their various gases escaping their bodies as they turned over in bed. I read books. I researched causes on the internet and donated to them. I sat on my windowsill with a notebook and pen, recording the various animals and insects that came out at night. Foxes raided our bins regularly, tipping them over and ripping into the plastic bags, running off with gristle and cardboard cartons. The rats came after that, large ones, hoovering up any scraps left by the foxes, their ears peeled back for predators. Eventually, I grew bolder and began exploring the rest of the house. I crept into rooms like a ghost, touching things, pretending they weren’t mine. I rearranged my brother’s CD collection. I put my father’s car keys in the fridge. I hid in my wardrobe, breath held, waiting for someone to discover me.

One night, I spotted Quinn halfway down the driveway, framed by the moon and mist, utterly terrifying. She had a carrier bag filled with cigarettes and sweets that I guessed she’d stolen. She smiled at me, a jelly snake hanging out of her mouth. I put a coat on over my pyjamas and crept outside, arms folded tightly across my chest to keep warm. Up close, I could see her eyes were shrunken and bright, like mine must have been. She was wearing a leopard print fleece. I liked looking at her clothes. I was used to seeing her in school uniform, unflattering boxy skirts designed to vanish our bodies but which the boys had no trouble feeling under anyway. She had broad hips, a small waist, thighs which touched. There was a large mole on her collarbone which she pressed whenever she was trying to think of a word. ‘Have a piggy,’ she told me, dropping a pink chocolate onto my palm, the kind that always felt a little chalky.

We began walking to the shops together. It wasn’t far, but felt like an adventure in the dark. She’d wait for me at the end of the drive, sometimes with beer, waving a bottle at me in greeting. At first it was just us, milling up and down the parade of shops, pretending it was a Sunday afternoon, but we were soon joined by the other women, some with their children in tow. I wondered if they snuck out of their houses like I did, or if some told lies, or the truth. The streetlights went off after one o’clock so I couldn’t see the Obelisk, but I could still feel it, we all could. It wrangled our spines, shook our bones, and we didn’t mind one bit.

‘I thought I'd miss sleeping,’ one of the women said. ‘But I have so much more time now. I’m learning the piano.’

‘I saw an owl. A real-life owl.’

‘I never noticed before that my husband talks in his sleep.’

Quinn suggested we go to the river. Autumn tested our resolve, arms slipping out of jumpers and then right back in again. Quinn was the first to brave the water, squealing in delight, promising us it felt like hell, that her tits were about to drop off. We told her to dunk herself underwater and she did, emerging with a baptismal cry, calling us all bitches. One by one we shucked our clothes and edged forward, toes wriggling in the mud, holding each other for balance. ‘Get in here now,’ Quinn warned me, slicking her hair back. ‘Or I swear I’ll never forgive you.’ My lungs seized as the water closed over me. She caught me and guided me further into the river, until we were up to our necks, and I remembered how to breathe. ‘You okay?’ Quinn asked, smiling, squeezing my hands under the water. I nodded, laughed. Children hurled clumps of moss at each other, made crowns out of them, dynasties forming and collapsing in seconds, kings and queens running to their mothers for comfort. I could feel the machinations of fish swimming past my feet and forced myself to keep still, not wanting to seem delicate in front of these women. Afterwards, we crawled onto the bank and collapsed, gathering close for warmth. It was too cold for the water to dry on our skin. It rolled off us in slick rivulets, pooling around our waists. I could see the moon between branches. ‘Do you want a cigarette?’ Quinn asked, digging around in the plastic bag she always brought with her. I’d never smoked but took one anyway.

When the water became too cold even for Quinn, I opened up my mother’s shop. Only at night, to give the other women a place to converge. Restoring the shop made me feel useful, handling the same objects she had, wiping down the floors and counter until it was almost like I remembered. There was a small table in the corner where I’d sat after school to do my homework, pucks of gum grown rock-hard in the corners underneath. I found some spare chairs in the storage area and dotted them around the shopfront for the other women to sit. They enjoyed looking through the different items, trying on skirts and dresses in the changing room, strutting down the length of the shop like it was Milan. I sprayed perfume on their wrists and neck and felt myself go up in their estimation. They handled my mother’s things with care and I loved them for it. If someone dirtied a dress or pulled a stitch, they took it home with them to clean or repair and brought it back the following night, replacing it on the hanger, fresher than it had been before. When I said they could take whatever they wanted they refused, and began bringing money into the shop. I didn’t know how to work the register so I pocketed the cash and squirrelled it away at home, under my mattress, behind the spice jars.

I’d never been part of a sorority before. Had spent the entirety of school never knowing what to wear or say to make myself popular. Even Quinn had been one of the art freaks, writing swear words on her shoes and dyeing her hair a carousel of colours. It had been much shorter then, before she’d transitioned and decided to grow it out. Once, I was convinced to cut my hand with a compass to impress one of the goths, but when I did, they laughed and called me sad. But now I felt myself slip in beside these other women effortlessly as we changed together, became something new. During the day, when we were busy working or rearing our families, I thought about them constantly, rehearsing what I’d say to them when we were together. I went into the loft and sorted through my mother’s things, setting items aside I thought they’d like, tubes of half-empty lipstick and mascara, CDs I hadn’t listened to in years. There were outfits I’d forgotten about but remembered vividly once I touched them, a peasant blouse embroidered with herons, a blue skirt. I took those for myself and wore them around the house, pretended I was in a film. When I showed the women what I’d brought, they fell on me hungrily, lavishing me with praise, and sat me on a chair in front of the shop’s full-length mirror. I squirmed as they painted me, their hands squeezing my cheeks into a pout. Quinn drew eyeliner on me, the same style as hers. Afterwards, they stepped back so I could admire their handiwork. I touched my cheeks, my lips, and sighed. We hadn’t dreamt in months.

 

***

 

Sleepers began looking at us out of the corner of their eye as if we were too bright, stars on the brink of collapse. We continued to smile like we were taught, sweet ones that showed only a suggestion of teeth. In the pub and post office, it wasn’t unusual to hear words like wild and shameful said about us, but we took it all in good humour. They hated us, thought we were unreasonable, that we should at least try to sleep, and we felt sorry for them because they were scared and angry, because they didn’t feel the Obelisk as we did, growing and hungry and beseeching.

My father no longer knew what to do with me. When we crossed paths in the kitchen, he’d smile awkwardly before slipping into a mortified silence. I still cooked for him and my brother, still picked their dirty clothes off the bathroom floor, but they kept a distance, edging around me as if I was a feral animal, capable of mangling them.

I decided to cook Sunday lunch, bought the largest leg of lamb the butcher had. Gathered fresh mint and rosemary from the garden, tucking it into the pocket of my mother’s apron. But I didn’t let the meat rest long enough and the juices wept onto the chopping board, leaving the meat grey and dry. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ my father said, taking his seat at the table. He leaned over his plate and inhaled. ‘Still smells amazing, petal.’ I drowned our plates in gravy, which I hadn’t made from scratch.

Underneath the table, my brother pinched the skin above my waistband. He grabbed so hard that I gasped, my fork clattering onto my plate, splashing gravy. I waited for my father to say something, but he was absorbed in his yorkshire pudding. My brother smiled, his fingers squeezing and twisting the unfamiliar fat I’d grown, each inch an evening spent away from them. I looked at the fork I’d dropped and imagined what I could do with it, how I’d feel afterwards. ‘Pass me the carrots,’ I told him.

 

***

 

Quinn sorted through avocados, peeling back their caps to check if they were ripe. If they weren’t soft enough, she flung them back into the crate, hard enough to bruise their fickle skin. She wore one of my mother’s dresses, a confectionary of blue and pink that swept down to her ankles and looked exquisite. ‘Here,’ she said, handing me one of the avocados. ‘Make yourself useful.’ I held it up to my nose, pressed it gently, and after a moment’s consideration shook my head, passing it back to her. She shrugged and tossed it back into the crate.

We spent all of our time together, no spouses or children to look after in the day. I liked being her favourite. She made me sit in her living room so she could read my fortune, flipping over cards and revealing their portent, rejoicing or commiserating with me into the early hours, where we’d pick everything up and start all over again. Sometimes I convinced her to go for walks with me, along the spines of hills so we could see the Obelisk, breath snatching from our lungs. The connection I felt to it - to the other women - had become irrevocable, consuming; something given to me that I knew I could never give back. Quinn was unfit and made us stop often, bending over with her hands on her thighs, head shaking from side to side.

‘You’re not meant to be here.’ The same security guard from before snatched our baskets away. ‘Go on, out.’

‘I don’t want to go,’ Quinn said. ‘I need these avocados, I’m making a salad.’

He scrunched his face up at her, bared his teeth and spat out words designed to invalidate, maim. She blinked slowly, turning first to him, and then me. Around us, a crowd was knitting together, growing pink in the face. I could feel the other women, their fury and humiliation steadily emerging like a fox from its den. They surrounded us in a circle, groceries forgotten, dressed impeccably in my mother’s clothes, and I felt safe, taken care of. The guard scowled. He threatened to ban us, to call the police, shoving his face so close to mine that I could see the blackheads on his nose. He wanted a fight, you could see it in him. Maybe that’s why he’d taken this job in the first place, in the hopes of chasing delinquent teenagers down the street, taking back whatever they’d stolen and giving them a roughing up for the trouble. He hadn’t expected this, not us. ‘Come on, then,’ he said. ‘Come on.’ I took a step backwards and Quinn reached for my hand. Mistaking this for cowardice, the guard closed the space between us. His breath smelled of microwave meals and tobacco, teeth yellow and shiny.

I felt them smile before their lips curled, heard the laughter in my gut before it rang around the supermarket. We looked from one to another, holding our stomachs as they stitched, our peals loud and devastating. I ran out of breath and began wheezing, holding onto Quinn for support, before the delight hit me all over again, the absurdity of it, and I resumed my cackling, pointing at the guard and screaming. He ripened like a fruit, tried to shout over us but we were in the throes of it now. As he tore away from us, he stumbled, and I saw it then, tears welling in his porcine eyes, the final injustice before he fled from our hyena noises.

There was an irritation in us afterwards, a chafing. Like being late to an appointment. We left the supermarket and walked through the village in pairs of twos and threes, Quinn and I at the head of our pilgrimage. Every now and again, we’d suffer another bout of laughter, but it was tainted with nervousness, like the hesitation before a kiss. We arrived on Robin Miller’s property, who was either out or uninterested, the windows closed and curtains drawn.

The scientist’s tent was still there. He cupped a hand over his eyes to see us and began gathering his tools, waving his arms for us to stop. I was disappointed that he could breathe so well under the Obelisk, that he could not hear its call, which demanded an answer. The ground moved beneath us, heaving with the little bones of creatures. Mothers held the hands of their children, who looked up and smiled, seeming to know so much more than we did. I wondered what my father would eat for his dinner tonight, whether he would make do on his own.

Quinn went first, the other women following behind, pins of pink in their cheeks from the cold. When he realised what was happening, the scientist reached for my hand, trying to hold me back. I shrugged myself free, peering past him to look at my mother, who stood reflected in her heron blouse and blue skirt, those delicate ankles that we shared.