Traditional British nursery rhyme about magpies:
One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy.
He was out in the back field, shooting at magpies. She heard the crack and echo from inside the house and held her breath until she saw the birds rise, black and white against the endless rolling grey. One for sorrow, she counted, two for joy. It hadn’t worked out that way, she thought. Giles was kneeling like a plastic soldier, rifle angled at the rutted mud in disappointment. She felt the anger again and shoved open the kitchen window with the heel of her hand.
“Leave those birds alone, won’t you!”
It was so cold now. The low sun made no difference. Her husband turned towards her but he did not wave. She would have liked that once. A cheery wave and a witty reply. Not anymore. Not today.
She should try harder, for what was left.
“I’ve made a coffee if you want some!” Her voice scattered on the wind.
Giles stood and folded the rifle over his elbow, pausing for balance in the grooves of the soil. The birds returned, a little further away, four of them now. Four for a boy, she muttered. That hadn’t happened either. She pulled hard at the window and wondered briefly where the bullet had landed. Then she shut the landscape away, the acrid manure and husky smoke and the distant rush of cars. She took two mugs from the cupboard, put a drop of milk in his. The window frames whistled and rattled and she watched him step over the sagging barbed wire fence and into her garden, kicking out at the nearest pecking hen. She knew their names, and glared through the glass, banging with her pink, swollen knuckle. He ignored her.
The mugs were on the counter, steaming as he swore at his boots in the porch. She took hers and waited.
“What time is she coming?” He sounded as though he were in another world. He was louder than nature.
She listened as he racked the gun.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I don’t know.” She warmed her fingers above her mug, and sighed though he did not notice. “You know what she’s like.”
Giles filled the kitchen, golden curls and his burly outline, thick socks loose on his feet, brambles and earth about him.
“For God’s sake Steph,” he said. “She’s your bloody sister.”
“What difference does that make? We came from the same womb, I’m supposed to know what time she’s getting here?”
“Very clever,” he said.
He took his coffee, leant against the kitchen table, rolled up the sagging sleeves of his jumper.
“Why’s she coming anyway? Today of all days.”
“Some sort of emergency. She said she had to clear her head.”
He snorted. “The usual, then.”
“You don’t have to talk to her.”
“It’s the last thing we need.”
A fine drizzle flecked the window. The magpies were still out there, rummaging in the dirt. More of them now. She checked the clock on the wall. It would be dark soon and then she would come. Beneath the clock, a clutch of dried allium heads rested in the only unbroken vase she had left. She was glad Nell was coming. Strength in numbers.
Giles paused at the foot of the stairs, stooping in the frame. He was just too big for this house.
“I’m going to have a shower.”
“Is there any hot water?”
She had no idea.
“In the kettle,” she said.
He shook his head at her and headed upwards. He would have laughed, before.
She listened to the creaking of the wood that marked his steps to the bathroom, then the shudder of the pipes and the pressured rush of water. Bath time used to be louder. She finished her coffee and put the mug in the sink. Through the window, the dusk was lowering and it was almost a fairy tale, the birds nestled in the hedgerows, the quiet stirring of the night animals. The magpies had gone and she wondered what had fascinated them so much, in the field. Three for a girl, four for a boy. That anger again. The water surged upwards and she turned on the hot tap in the sink, just to annoy him upstairs. He used to find it funny. Instantly, he bellowed her name. She let it run a little longer.
Later, when the sky had sunk into the blackness of the earth, headlights carved the dark and swept across the unlit kitchen. The hens clucked and cowered from their coop, and Steph sympathised. She stood in the porch and waited for her sister, checking herself in the glass. She just looked tired now, more than anything. The worst of it was gone.
Nell fell out of her car into the awkward gloom, swearing as her new season boots sunk below the heels. Tracers of rain flickered against her. Her sister was good in a crisis. She hoped she might help, but did not know how.
“Are you out there, Nell?” Steph tried a laugh.
It reminded her of camping before, when they were together and the shadows were alive, and Giles was daddy and tripped on the guy ropes. When she was real.
“I think so,” said Nell. “It’s hard to tell. It’s so dark out here!”
It is, Steph thought. She brightened her voice.
“Well, just aim for the light. Try not to fall over!” She listened as Nell slipped towards the porch, and then her sister was in her arms, hair cascading over her face and shoulders and enfolding her in memories of another life, of expensive conditioner and perfume. They held each other for some time.
“Are you ok?” Nell whispered.
Steph was crying again. She nodded and that was enough.
Nell removed her coat, a long, fashionable curve of cotton and trim.
“That’s not waterproof,” Steph said, uselessly.
“That’s not normal,” said Nell, pointing at the rifle above the pegs.
“It is round here.”
Nell rolled her eyes. “I’ll never understand why you still have it.”
Steph shrugged and led her into the kitchen, where the clock ticked and the alliums were dead and the black window reflected themselves.
“How was the drive?”
“Fine. Quick. The roads are easy. Until they get near here, anyway. The last few miles took me ages.”
They said nothing more after that.
Steph opened the fridge. It used to be full, she remembered.
“Drink?” she said, although the bottle was already open and it hadn’t gone well yesterday.
“Sure,” said Nell. She sat at the kitchen table.
Upstairs Giles was moving about, his feet heavy above them. Steph took down two wine glasses and filled them, the bottle gurgling as it emptied. He could serve himself.
Her sister was staring at her.
“How are you, really?”
“I’m fine,” said Steph, tasting the wine and realising she was, now. “You know,” she added.
Her sister nodded.
“You look awful.”
Steph pretended to laugh.
“Thanks, sis!” Though it was true.
“Oh come on,” said Nell. “You know what I mean. It’s hardly surprising is it? You’re allowed to.”
Steph drank and Nell did too.
“Are you sleeping ok? You look tired, more than anything. Your face is all… puffy.”
Steph touched her cheeks.
“And what happened to your hand?”
She examined herself as if for the first time. Her knuckles were split and raw. They revealed too much. She pulled her sleeves down as far as she could.
“Do you want to get away from here?” Nell said.
Steph tried to smile but her eyes were wet and her mouth a contortion.
“With me, Steph? Have a break from it?”
She wanted to, so very much.
But then Giles was there, at the bottom of the stairs, and she saw a child in pyjamas and she could not just leave.
“Nell,” he said.
“Drinking already?” he asked them both.
Steph handed him a glass.
He grunted. He had put his jumper back on, even the muddy trousers. The field was upon him again.
He emptied the bottle, uncaring as the sediment fell, and fetched another, mixing the two like ash and water. He tilted his glass at the two women. Nell tilted hers back. Giles finished his and poured another. Then he sat heavily at the table, the chair screeching against the stone so that Steph gasped in memory. He glanced at his wife, then lurched forward.
“Why are you here, Nell?” he asked.
“For my sister,” Nell said.
“For you, you mean.”
Nell sat straight-backed, defiant. He stared at her. Steph eyed the golden curls, still wet on the ends. She wanted to towel them dry.
“You shouldn’t be here. Not tonight.”
“She needs me.”
“No. She doesn’t.”
“She asked me to come.”
“After you called.”
Nell pointed at herself.
“After I called?”
“She called me. Steph called me.”
Giles faced his wife, his face as red as her knuckles. She could almost make out the marks on his cheek.
“You called her?”
Steph nodded. Put the wine glass down.
“I needed to see her.”
Giles stood. He was very large. She wondered if she would have taken after him. She would have loved her anyway. She would have loved her so much.
He was trembling again.
“Aren’t I enough?” he said.
Steph didn’t know. Nobody was. Nothing was.
She was silent and Giles made a sound in his throat that she had heard once before when the earth fell. The chair clattered behind him as he hurtled to the porch. He threw on his boots and coat and slammed back into the darkness.
Steph gazed at the empty porch, at the space where he just was. She recognised his anger, understood it. It calmed her that he was that way too. Then she stared at the chair, the cushioned seat separate from the body. A moment ago, she marvelled, it was just there, upright and at the table. And now it lay broken on the floor.
She didn’t know who she was anymore, she thought. She was wounded and she did not belong.
Steph stared at her sister and did not know why she had come.
The new day started as all the others she had seen, one after the next, each one the same. They had said that dawn would make things better and it usually did, a relief to the chiselling of her darkest thoughts. But not this morning. This morning she felt a fury that she could not overcome.
She had not undressed from yesterday and was stale in the half light, alone in their bed. The curtains were open and she had tracked the night to its end. Outside it was blue and grey and they were out there in the field, three of them.
Steph stood, her hand aching and bruised, and crept to the landing, where she had found her shaking and afraid so many times. She listened to her husband snoring, sedated in the spare room that was his. He would not join her in her weeping.
She creaked downstairs to the kitchen where it was pale and sullen, and checked through the window and saw them there still. Good. She was dehydrated from the long night and she turned on the tap, her knuckles still raw around the metal as she sucked from the cascading water.
She should check on Nell, she thought. It was not her fault. She opened the door to the living room where Nell was warm on the sofa, swaddled and tucked under blankets. Nell was asleep and she looked like her, like who she might have become. She had fed and rubbed and sung to her there, together in the darkness, her bright eyes unclosing. She was happy then.
Steph abandoned that path. It was too much to bear and she felt the fury burning where she began. Her fingers tingled with it. She would not suffer it any longer.
She slipped back through the kitchen, out towards where the ending started. In the porch she reached for the rifle on her tiptoes and its weight was a reminder. She checked the magazine. There were enough.
She padded barefoot into the garden where the hens clucked over their eggs. He would take them later. It was not raining anymore and she had heard it stop, hours ago. The rifle rested on her shoulder, but cold and hard.
She opened and stretched herself over the wire. The mud in the field was soft and the pain of the small stones fed her anger.
She pushed across the ploughed lines and the clouds were high, she noticed. The heavens were distant about her.
There they were.
Three of them, black and white against the earth that had swallowed them all.
She was hot with violence.
She knelt in the soil and was quiet. Her heart. Her breath. The road that was too far.
She raised the rifle and took aim.
The soft wind in her child’s golden hair.
She squeezed with a gentle finger.
The crack whipped across the rutted land.
One for sorrow.
Her fury in her blood.
She squeezed again.
Two for joy.
A crying shape rose and clambered on the air. She fired once more.
Three for a girl.
E J Saleby
E J Saleby is a writer and musician who lives near the Kent coast with his understanding family. He can often be found at his laptop, rewriting a story or tweaking a waveform on Logic. He is currently working on his fourth debut novel.
‘Atoms’ was published by Fairlight Books as a short story on the website and also on paper in their collection, the Fairlight Book of Short Stories Volume 1. You can read / buy them here:
‘Drunken Wasps on Rotten Fruit’ (a story about a disgraced rock star at a suburban dinner party) will be published by Fairlight in March 2021.
Various other flash fiction and music is on the internet.
Twitter / correspondence: @EJSaleby
Minimal techno: soundcloud.com/frozenoutonbattery
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