Short Story of the Month
Small Deaths by Kate Brown
Our Short Story of the Month is ‘Small Deaths’ by Kate Brown.
A young girl steps away from the inevitable confrontation between her mother and her visiting father, across the road to where one of the farmer’s goats is walking, curious about the adventure that might await her. And as young Moira walks further into the landscape, the tangled history of her parents’ relationship, with all its heady love, hate, bitterness and disappointment, is revealed.
Kate Brown is a British writer and filmmaker living in Berlin. She studied directing at the National Film and Television School and her films have been shown worldwide. Kate’s short fiction has been published in several anthologies and literary magazines. She teaches courses in novel writing for The Reader Berlin http://thereaderberlin.com/ and is a mentor for The Womentoring Project https://womentoringproject.co.uk/. Her first novel, The Women of Versailles, will be published by Seren Books in May 2017.
The goat stood in the middle of the track, its feet planted wide. Moira thought about heaven, how if the goat got her, she'd go there. She was only six, she hadn't done anything wrong yet. Had she?
As Moira and the goat looked at each other, the goat peed. The goat's pee was yellow. Moira knew because of the snow on the grassy bit in the middle of the track. She didn't like the colour the snow changed to, it was a horrible sort of yellow, a yellow that could only be one thing.
The goat made a bleating sound and walked over to her. Moira hadn't expected it to be friendly and she wasn't sure she wanted it to be. Maybe it would bite her finger tips? She put her hands in her pockets.
Moira had been sent out for a walk. Her dad had come to see her. He came once every fortnight, but - and this happened every fortnight too - within five minutes of him coming into the house, he and her mum were arguing. Moira was half glad she'd been sent away. She liked that her dad took her to the pier in the nearby seaside town and that she always got candyfloss or ice-cream when she asked for it, but she didn't know what to say when he asked her questions about whether she liked school and she didn't like it when he kissed her or tickled her. She didn't understand his touch.
The goat peered up at her and butted its head gently against her side. It had mean eyes, but Moira was sure it was trying to be nice. 'You watch those goats,' her mum had said. But maybe her mum was wrong. She'd told her to watch the girl at school who'd become her best friend. It had turned out to be all about her mum not liking the girl's mum.
Moira took her hands out of her pockets. She patted the goat's head.
"Where shall we go?" she asked it.
The goat trotted off down the lane towards the road. She hadn't expected it to understand, but it seemed to be leading the way.
Moira had been told not to go out into the road. But what if the goat went first? She'd have to save it from the cars, wouldn't she? She'd asked it where it wanted to go, so it was partly her fault it was heading for the road; the road where, when you looked right, you could see whether any cars were coming, but when you looked left, there was a twist.
The goat didn't look left or right, it just crossed.
It went and stood beside the gate into the field opposite. Moira looked right, then left, shut her eyes, and ran. She knew her mum and dad would be arguing for hours.
The feel of Jack inside her made Lizzie cry out.
Jack flinched. Even though they were alone, she could tell he was embarrassed. He hadn't always been that way.
Lizzie pulled him down harder, forcing the tip of his dick against her cervix. She wanted to kick him and bite him, punch him and pull his hair out in tufts. As he looked up, he caught her eye. He smiled. It was a fake smile. A smile to stop her embarrassing him anymore. She dug her teeth into his shoulder.
He drew out of her, sharply, got up and walked towards the bathroom.
"I'm not having that," he said, without turning round.
He locked the bathroom door behind him.
Lizzie lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She counted to five, an angry five, then threw the sheet back, jumped out of bed and pulled her clothes back on. Her neck itched the minute it came into contact with the cheap polo neck jumper her mum had bought her for Christmas 'seeing as you live all that way 'out there''. She scratched at her skin, knowing it would leave marks and feeling vaguely pleased about it. She stood at the window, looking out. Sometimes, she would stand there, starkers, for as long as she could bear the cold, just because she could. The farmer only came by once a day to feed the few animals that lived there. There were no neighbours, she could stay there for as long as she wanted, clad in not so much as a stitch. No-one would ever know.
Lizzie wondered where Moira was. She couldn't see her, and only two of the goats were there. Where was the bigger one, the one who moved in a way you couldn't predict? She pushed the thought out of her mind. Moira would be all right.
As she headed for the stairs she stopped outside the bathroom door. It was still shut. She wanted to say something, something flippant, something that would catch Jack off guard, but she didn't feel flippant at all.
Moira had been a love-child. What had happened?
The kitchen hummed. Lizzie started to rinse used tea leaves from the teapot, not turning the hot tap on to save electricity. Her hands got cold. She struggled with the urge to bang the pot against the edge of the sink when the old leaves wouldn't come unstuck. She'd already had to glue the handle back on when she'd done this before. Jack used to ask why she couldn't use tea bags. She tried to tell him how she liked the look and the smell of loose tea, of how it made her think of places she'd probably never go to, how, if it was in a bag it just didn't feel the same.
She heard the bathroom door unlock. Jack's foot on the stair. Tea fell from the spoon. She thought of those giant balloons she'd seen on the lake in a park, those balloons you could get inside. People grinned inanely out of them at passers-by as they crawled across water like giant babies. Lizzie had never been inside one of those balloons, but she thought this was what it must feel like if you were stuck inside one and wanted to get out.
Jack came in behind her. He didn't sit down. "I'll go and find Moira, then?"
The kettle boiled, right on time.
"Tea," she answered, without looking round.
She heard the chair scrape as he sat, did as he was told.
Once, Jack had told her she looked like a woman from a Vermeer painting. She had been eight months pregnant with Moira and, although she hadn't known it at the time, he'd been seeing someone else.
"But you wouldn't fuck me. What was I supposed to do?" were his words, when she found out.
Lizzie had never thought of Jack as the kind who couldn't help himself. She'd been wrong. Every month a new one. Every night falling into bed at her side and wanting more.
She still had the dress that had turned her into a Vermeer upstairs in a cupboard. Broad panels of black and purple cloth coming down to her ankles. A hippy thing that had acquired unintentional grace. She knew she would never throw it away, whatever he did, however many lies he told.
Although all the sex had exhausted her, it had been her power. If there was sex, Jack came back. He needed a familiar port in the storm. When they'd first got together Lizzie had laughed after he'd complained about how all the girls told him he had such beautiful eyes. He had said it was burden. Now, while he fiddled with a teaspoon, his hair flopping down in front of his face, Lizzie couldn't see his eyes. She'd forgotten, long ago, whether they were beautiful of not. She'd got too caught up in what they might hide. She watched him drink his tea. Racing it down in hot little sips.
He put down his mug. Lizzie waited for him to stand, to say it was time to go. But he didn't, he stayed still and quiet, hiding behind his hair.
"I'll get Moira," she said, getting up.
Jack peered out from underneath his hair.
"Don't… not yet."
His expression had changed. He wasn't angry with her anymore. Lizzie had a feeling he wanted something.
The goat's eyes looked like little letterboxes. Moira imagined the letters. Were they in the goat's tummy? The goat's eyes also looked like sweets. Magician's sweets, the sort used to bribe children to do awful things in awful places.
Moira followed neat hoof marks through the snow. The goat was very well behaved, it kept to the edge of the field. It seemed to know where it was going. Moira didn't think about whether it was a good idea to go after it, she concentrated on staying upright. One thing at a time. There was a tree in the distance at the end of the hedge. Every so often, Moira looked up and checked it was still there and whether she was getting closer to it. She almost forgot about the goat, it trotted ahead so quietly. She wished it would snow again. It wasn't pretty anymore, not like it had been a few days earlier. She had made a snow man and, because her mum hadn't had any carrots, she used a stick for a nose. At first she'd been annoyed about not having a carrot, but then she'd found two pine cones and used them as ears. When her mum had said that it was the most original snow man she'd ever seen, Moira could tell she'd meant it in a really good way.
The goat passed the tree and went on, without stopping, towards a copse. Moira was tired. She imagined what it would have been like if her dad had come and picked her up in a normal way, if they'd got straight in the car and driven to the seaside. Maybe the sun would have come out and they would have had ice-cream on the pier. Then she remembered the snow and changed the ice-cream on the pier to hot chocolate in a café with steamed up windows. Her dad had never picked her up normally though, and she didn't think he ever would.
She got out a bit of broken biscuit that she'd managed to smuggle into her pocket earlier on. Last time her mum and dad had argued and she'd been sent outside, she'd been starving long before they'd made up so, this time, she'd stolen the bit of biscuit earlier in the week just in case. It was a bit fluffy from her coat pocket, but she didn't mind.
Moira looked over her shoulder to check she still knew her way back to the road. She was on an adventure and one of the things about being a good adventurer was not to get lost. She knew that from stories her mum had told her; stories out of books, but stories from her mum's life, too. As she followed the goat into the copse, Moira pulled her coat tighter round her and put up her hood. She decided that, from now on, she was Little Red Riding Hood. She wasn't quite sure whether the goat was guarding her from the wolf, or whether the goat was the wolf. It didn't matter, she would make it up as she went along.
The path through the trees was a winding one, but she could hear the gentle tap of the goat's hooves on the half frozen earth if she lost sight of it. She did jump slightly when she stood on a rotten branch that cracked under her weight, but that just helped her get into the part. When she and the goat came out on the other side of the copse, she really was feeling like a character in a fairy tale and what she saw in the clearing in front of her, made the world in her head even more real: a cottage with a crumbly roof and ivy growing up the front.
The goat was already standing outside the door to the cottage, as if it was waiting for her. Moira walked towards it. As she got closer, she saw that the cottage wasn't really a cottage, but a small barn. She tried not to be too disappointed. In her head, she had already started practicing the lines she was going to need. 'Grandma, what big eyes you've got. Grandma, what big ears, you've got.'
The door to the barn was ajar. It was dark inside. For a moment, Moira wasn't sure.
She looked at the goat.
'Are you good or bad?' she wondered.
"D'you remember?" said Jack. "The witching night?"
Lizzie looked at his eyes, the set of his lips and chin. She didn't reply. How could she forget?
A German had been staying with them and he'd told them about Walpurgis night. About the witching rituals in the Herz mountains and about the riots in Berlin. As they lived in a provincial town, they weren't going to get far with a riot. There was a small druids' stone circle close to where they lived, not Stonehenge or anything like that, just a little thing.
They'd driven out there in Jack's camper van, eight of them, all crammed in like sardines. There should have been nine, but someone had been sick and couldn't come.
Lizzie thought about that, about being sick and missing things and how awful that had felt once, but how sometimes, maybe it was a good thing. What if she'd been the one who'd been sick? What if she and Jack hadn't jumped over the broomstick together. She couldn't be certain, but she thought that was the night Moira was conceived.
They'd walked through the woods collecting fallen branches and bundles of twigs. Lizzie remembered being surprised by how easy it was to make a broomstick, how, just like that, she'd had what she needed to be a witch. The sun had set a deep pink. They sat in a row on the hillside to watch it, like kids at an open air theatre, pointing and sighing at the best bits. Afterwards they ran in and out of the stone circle astride their broomsticks, still kids, still screeching.
At midnight it had all changed. Lizzie and Jack got 'married'. That was what jumping over a broomstick meant, they'd all known that, but it was to be a marriage that was only about the good bits. Stuffy notions that belonged to their parents' generation were not part of this kind of contract. It was a gesture of hope. A tribute to an alternative world, a vision of the future. We do not have to live like them, we can live as we wish.
Lizzie had tied a red scarf around her head, a flash of blood. Jack had worn an old tail coat borrowed from a juggler friend and gypsy earrings he'd stolen from his mother. As they ran, as they jumped, she had pictured it from all angles, turning herself into a camera, as if she were in control of time, playing out the moment to make it long and sweet. But of course, in the end, they hit the ground.
Afterwards, they'd been so wrapped up in each other, they'd disappeared into the camper van.
Lizzie had loved it as much as Jack had then, but he hadn't had to carry the result. He'd hadn't had Moira's feet resting on his bladder and intestines. It wasn’t exactly that she'd gone off sex, it had just stopped being relevant.
Looking back, there was no-one there that night Lizzie had known for more than six months, yet they'd felt like best friends. People you'd build empires with.
"D'you remember Sally?" Jack asked. Lizzie looked across the kitchen table at him, a heavy, sad feeling in her shoulders.
She did remember Sally. A girl who'd come from London, the one she'd liked best. She hadn't seen her for ages now. They'd lost touch when she'd moved. Now Jack mentioned her, Lizzie had this feeling of regret.
She tried to shake it off.
"I wish I'd seen it when she took all her clothes off and jumped over the broomstick on her own."
Lizzie laughed as she said it. She wished she'd seen it, but in a way, she wished she was the one who'd done it, not Sally.
Jack reddened. Lizzie wondered why.
A moth had got caught in the light of their paraffin lamp that night, as they lay there on the camper van's fold-out bed. It had spun and flapped around. Lizzie had tried to push it away and opened the window to let it out, but it wouldn't go. Then, Jack had pulled her down on top of him again. By the time they'd finished, the moth was dead. Lizzie hadn't liked the omen of this. Jack had just laughed at her, pulled his trousers on and gone out. This was the first time she'd felt uncertain about him, but she'd brushed her doubt aside. Five minutes later, he'd come back, put his head between her legs and made things all right.
Life had been as simple as that.
Was that what Lizzie had been trying to get back all this time? Thinking that if she went over to him and put her body near enough, he would reach out and touch her, would make her melt and then everything would return to the way it had been before.
It was as if she was trying to bring the moth back to life.
"So you liked Sally?" he said.
As she looked at him, Jack gulped.
Lizzie could see the moth. She remembered how it smelt when it had burnt.
The barn was disappointing. Inside, it was just that, a barn. Nothing cottagey about it at all. Moira sat on a hay bale. It was prickly, even through her winter coat. No Grandma. The goat was disappointed too, Moira could tell. It went to each corner of the barn as if it were looking for something. She knew that whatever it was the animal wanted, it hadn't found it, because it started to bleat.
"Poor goat," she said, but when it went on making the noise, Moira didn't feel so sorry for it anymore. It wasn't a nice noise at all.
She got up and went over to the door. She opened it.
"Outside goat," she said.
The goat stood in the middle of the barn. It looked at Moira. It looked at the door. It didn't budge an inch.
"Goat. Don't be like that. If you want to make that noise, please go out."
The goat turned away from Moira, made a move that looked, to her, like a toss of the head and walked towards the corner furthest away from the door.
"Goat!" Moira raised her voice. Moira stamped her foot.
The stamping appeared to be something the goat recognised, because it stopped and turned round. Moira thought it looked cross. She was cross too, but she was also a little scared. She remembered her mum telling her to keep away from the goats. Now, she wondered whether she'd been right.
That one moment of doubt was enough. Moira stepped to the other side of the threshold. She looked at the goat again, but it didn't move. She looked out across the fields, at the dingy mix of dark brown and white. She wondered how a tree could be a tree and be so not green. As she thought these thoughts, she let go of the door. It swung to, leaving the goat all alone, inside. As soon as it shut, Moira walked away from the door quickly. She felt bad about leaving the goat inside, but not that bad.
A little way from the barn, there was a cattle trough. Next to it, was an old dining room chair. Moira went over, thinking it would be nice to sit down. But when she got there, she found that the chair had no seat to it. It looked a bit like a cow had eaten it. Now that she was closer, she realised why someone might have put the chair there. The area in front of her was not earth covered in snow, but ice.
Moira nudged at the surface of the ice with her toe. It felt solid, but she knew it possibly wasn't. Going on an adventure with a goat was one thing, stepping onto frozen water was another. To distract herself from the urge to walk on the ice, Moira tried to decide whether the water under it was a lake or a pond. It was big, she realised. Bigger than the barn by far. So it must be a lake. You could see the edges, making an almost circle. The frozen water, even if it was dusted with snow, was flatter than the shore. There was tufty grass around the edges that stood up like a bad hair cut, like the one a boy at school had had.
Moira imagined a princess skating on the lake. She imagined the barn was a castle. She imagined a prince, then decided to imagine him away again. The princess had lost her sister. Her sister had drowned. So the princess had frozen the lake to punish the water for taking her sister away. Every day, she skated on the water, the blades of her skates cutting its skin.
It was while she was wondering what it felt like to be the skin of a lake, that the banging started. It was only a gentle thud and Moira couldn't figure out where it was coming from, until a movement caught her eye. The barn door was moving to and fro. The goat was trying to get out.
She pictured the goat's disappointed, but stubborn face.
How many steps did the goat need to take to move far enough away from the door and have another go? Was it hard work?
She thought it probably was. She thought the goat might get very cross. She put her hands in her pockets and waited, nudging the ice with the tip of her toe.
The banging stopped.
While it was quiet, Moira imagined herself locked up in a barn. What would she do to get out? Was there a window up high she could climb through and escape, so that when her kidnappers came to feed her the one crust of bread she was allowed each day, they would find her gone? She enjoyed thinking about it. The goat, of course, couldn't climb, so Moira wasn't surprised when the banging started again.
This time, it was more forceful than it had been before. Moira took a step back. Although the abandoned chair was not exactly sturdy, she moved round behind it. It was a better defence than nothing.
In amongst the banging, which was getting louder and louder and harder and harder, Moira thought she heard a bleat. She hoped it meant the goat was giving up, that it was tired out. She wanted to go. She wanted to run away, but she couldn't. She had shut the goat up in the barn and she knew that, somehow or other, it was going to have to come out. She wanted to go and tell her mum, she wanted her to come and deal with it, but she was sure that, if she did, she would get into trouble.
It went quiet again.
Moira pictured the goat lying on the floor asleep. She willed it, but images of little stomping hooves, of letter box eyes, broke through. Just as Moira squeezed her eyes shut to try and get rid of the messy ideas in her head, she heard a crash, far bigger than any noise the goat had made so far.
She opened her eyes.
It took a moment to focus because the snow was so bright. The door to the barn was open and the goat was outside. It was jumping, bucking in the air and charging across the space in front of the barn.
Moira's hands turned to fists. She stepped back, further behind the chair, making sure the cattle trough was in front of her, too. But the goat was not charging towards her. The goat was involved in a kind of frenzied dance.
Moira stared as it leaped and twisted, as it flew through the air.
It was free.
The sound the goat's hooves made as it landed, changed. There was no other sound in the air. The dull thud switched to something like a coin falling on a polished floor. The goat was dancing on the lake. The goat was pirouetting up and down, zigzagging, climbing the air as if it were a wall.
Then, the sound changed again. What Moira heard, this time, was a crack.
The goat stopped.
The goat was standing on the ice. The goat and the ice tilted to one side, there, right out in the middle of the lake. Moira couldn't see the goat's eyes, but she didn't think they looked like sweets or letterboxes anymore, she thought they looked scared.
The goat and the ice tilted some more. They started to sink.
This time, it was Moira who made a bleating sound. She moved towards the edge of the ice, there at the shore, where it felt so strong, so safe. She wanted to put her foot on the ice, both feet, she wanted to turn the ice back into one skin, to mend it and to bring the goat back home. Instead, she watched as it slipped out of sight.
The shards of teapot had a much more open, porous texture than Lizzie had expected. It wasn't the first bit of crockery she'd broken in anger, so she knew about their inner surfaces. The teapot made her think of a quarry that had been near to the house where she grew up. It looked like it had been carved from limestone rather than baked from china clay. When she rubbed her finger along an edge, it didn't cut, it was blunt. She was surprised to find that she was pleased her skin remained intact. She had thought she was seeking pain.
Sally. She might have known. Jack was bound to have chosen someone she liked too, but still, Lizzie hadn't thought of him as the kind who'd really get married, not in the way that normal people did.
When she threw the teapot, she'd aimed for his head. She could feel the surprise in her limbs as she let go. Jack had moved, of course, so it hadn't struck him full on, as it would have if he'd stayed still, but the blow had knocked him from the chair and drawn blood. He had disappeared from view, down below the table.
Lizzie hadn't moved towards him, to see if he was all right. Even though she'd had no idea whether he was. She wondered how, right after she had done something so awful, so violent, she could feel so calm. The scruffy kitchen was temporarily beautiful, it had the air of a painting; she was its central character, frozen in time. Strong.
Lizzie didn't see the blood until Jack poked his head up above the edge of the table. There was a lot of it.
Still, she did nothing.
As he got back onto his feet, wobbling, all she did was watch.
It was only when Jack stepped towards her that she handed him a tea towel. It wasn't entirely clean, but she didn't have anything else.
When she passed it to him, he tried to hang on to her hand.
She pulled away.
When he'd finished dabbing at the cut on his head, he draped the tea towel over the back of a chair and looked at her.
"What the fuck, Lizzie?"
Lizzie didn't reply. Her breathing speeded up a little; she could feel it, but he couldn't tell, so it was all right.
She concentrated on the pattern the fragments of broken china had made on the floor, waiting for him to go. When he moved towards the kitchen door, she didn't look up. She listened as he went into the hall. He was with it enough to remember where his coat was hanging and to put it on. It wasn't until she'd heard him go outside, and she was sure he wasn't coming back, that she stepped through the pile of crockery on the floor and went into the hall. She watched the redness of his car pull away through the small textured glass window that looked out from the top half of the door. Back in the kitchen, she sat on the chair where he had sat minutes earlier. She could still feel his warmth. She knew she would never feel it again.
Sometime later, Lizzie heard the sound of the latch and the creak of the back door. On hearing her daughter's step, she felt an unexpected surge of hope.
"Moira," she called, her voice bright and open.
She leapt over the shards of teapot, but before she got to the hall, Moira came in. She was quickly distracted from Lizzie by the mess on the floor.
Lizzie had forgotten about what the broken teapot might mean to Moira. She'd forgotten that Moira might want to see her dad. She didn't know that Jack had driven right past Moira as he left, that he hadn't seen her, but that she had most certainly seen him.
Moira gave Lizzie a strange look, one she couldn't read at all.
"Did Dad go because I was gone so long?"
Lizzie was surprised by the catch of guilt in Moira's voice.
"No. Of course he didn't," she said, hearing a catch in her own voice, too. She kicked at the broken teapot. "He'd wait forever for you," she said. "He went because of me."
She looked at Moira, knowing that although she was telling the truth, she was lying. He wouldn't wait for Moira forever. He wouldn't wait for anyone forever. She wondered if Moira knew, but she could see nothing in her expression that said she did. There was something wrong, though. Moira's eyes looked dull and tired and there was a streak of mud down her face.
Lizzie was about to ask what was wrong, but there was something about Moira's manner that put her off. She bent down and started picking up shards of broken china, to win time. That didn't feel right, either, so she stood.
Lizzie had only just straightened up, when Moira launched herself across the china puddle that separated them. She threw her arms round Lizzie and clung on tight. Lizzie's had to grab hold of the edge the kitchen table to stop them falling.
With her eyes on the china under their feet, Lizzie picked Moira up in her arms and carried her to the other side of the table. Still holding Moira, she bent and sat down in the biggest and comfiest of the chairs.
"What happened?" she asked.
Moira didn't answer.
Instead, she curled her legs up on Lizzie's lap. Lizzie stroked her hair, one arm tight around her, and kissed the top of her head. She looked out of the kitchen window. The sun was going down, although it didn't really look like sun, just a brightness through the dull grey clouds. Two of the farmer's goats were scuffling about outside. She couldn't remember seeing the third animal all day, the bigger more erratic male. She thought about asking Moira whether she'd seen it, but when she looked down at her again, Moira appeared to have fallen asleep.
Moira wasn't asleep. She was wide awake. She was thinking about how she should never have let the goat cross the road.