It was first light on a winter’s morning and Owen was already at work. Around him fallen trees lay like casualties of a war, their bare branches bleached bone white by the frost. Owen tried to keep his eyes on the faint sunrise staining the horizon but instead he found himself picking out the trees he’d helped fell.
The protesters had left after the last tree was cut down, looking broken and defeated in their VW vans, their hybrids, their family cars, their rainbow scarves and trailing sleeves, their thermals and winter coats. Some of them had been crying and Owen had put down his chainsaw as they filed past: a small sad funeral procession.
Now Owen stamped across the frozen ground in an attempt to avoid chilblains. A noise snapped him out of his thoughts. Somewhere nearby someone was crying. It was not the abandoned crying of a child but grown up tears, punctuated with odd gasps and bitten off wails. It was coming from behind one of the fallen trees and for a moment it sounded as though the tree itself was crying.
There was a woman sitting on the icy ground. Her hair was the colour of summer wheat and it fell across her shoulders like a cloak. One hand rested lightly on the tree’s trunk, as though she was comforting a sick child. She must have been freezing.
Her dress was modest enough, falling to her feet but her arms and most of her shoulders were bare. No coat, no thermals he could see, just flimsy green fabric. Her feet were bare too, unless you counted the smattering of frozen mud. Owen had seen women wearing less in the depths of winter but only on nights out and never barefoot.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Owen said, tearing off his fluorescent vest so he could offer her his coat. ‘You’ll get frostbite.’
The woman only glared and got to her feet without his help. She ignored his jacket.
‘Did you do this?’ she said, throwing an arm out wide to encompass the fallen wood. Sometimes Owen could barely move from cold by the last hours of his shift but the woman didn’t even wince. If it hurt her to stand on the frozen ground she showed no sign of it. ‘It’s carnage.’
Owen felt his hackles rise: he’d had a lot of that lately, off the neighbours, off people he’d barely said three words to, even Chloe didn’t like where his wages were coming from, although she said she understood.
‘What do you expect from a building site?’ he demanded. ‘They’re going to build it with or without me. Only this way I get to put food on the table.’
‘And that’s enough, is it?’ The woman asked. Owen had had protesters scream and rail and throw clods of frozen earth at him. It was nothing to the look in the woman’s eyes. ‘And what about the farmer? How will he eat?’
‘Look, he was paid. The lease was up: it’s not like they stole the site off him,’ Owen said, with all the conviction that he could manage. It was a source of local bitterness. The family hadn’t wanted to leave but they couldn’t win a bidding war, even with the loans, the money borrowed from friends, even (or so Owen heard) after selling the family silver. There was talk of a boycott but Owen doubted it would stick: not once people got used to having a supermarket so close.
Instead of standing in the cold arguing he put his coat around the woman’s shoulders and marched her inside, ignoring her protests. The metal portacabin was like stepping from a fridge into a deep freezer but Owen pushed the woman into a seat and switched on the heater. There’d be trouble later: he wasn’t supposed to switch it on until the first team arrived but he was damned if he was having anyone catch hypothermia on his watch.
‘Do you take milk?’ he asked, filling the kettle and switching it on. ‘Tea or coffee?’
The woman didn’t answer. She was watching him with a kind of detached curiosity as though she wanted to see what he’d do next.
Owen put a tea bag in each mug, added water, stirred milk into his.
‘It’s too late you know,’ he said more gently, putting a mug down in front of her and sitting down himself. ‘The trees are gone.’
‘They weren’t ordinary trees,’ she said. ‘There was a shrine here in Roman times. People would travel for days, sometimes for weeks, to pray for fertility and a good harvest. They called her Ceres.’
She hadn’t touched her tea.
‘I didn’t put milk in,’ he prompted. ‘In case you were vegan or something.’
‘My wife’s a vegetarian,’ Owen continued. ‘Ever since the horse meat scandal she won’t eat the cheap stuff and we can’t afford organic.’
‘Do you know why the Brits won’t eat horse meat?’
‘Horses are expensive to keep.’
‘No more expensive than in France. The Anglo-Saxons used to ritually slaughter and eat horses: something to do with absorbing their power. Of course the church stamped it out. And we’re still feeling the effects today.’
‘So you are what you eat? Don’t think Chloe’d appreciate it if I called her dolphin-safe tuna. Or a vegetable. She wasn’t keen on meat before mind: all those animals raised in the dark and fed on steroids.’
The woman looked pained. ‘It’s not right. But more people are born everyday and the world gets smaller…’ She raked one hand through her golden hair. ‘I don’t know what the answer is.’
She sounded tired. Not the slurred voice and bad coordination of someone who’d been up all night sabotaging diggers and chaining themselves to trees. This was the bone deep weariness of someone who spent every day fighting just to stand still.
She was starting to shiver as she warmed up, the way people did after they’d been really cold. Owen took off his gloves and handed them to her.
‘You’re being very kind to me,’ she said. ‘Why?’
Owen shrugged. ‘You can’t just leave people barefoot in the snow.’
‘It’s not snowing.’
‘Frost then. It’s only what I’d want someone else to do if they saw Chloe out in this weather.’
‘Is Chloe your wife?’
‘My pregnant wife.’ Owen smiled mirthlessly. ‘It’s amazing what you’re prepared to betray when you’ve got kids to feed.’
‘How many do you have?’
‘Two little girls and a third on the way,’ Owen said, smiling properly this time.
‘I had a daughter once. She’ll be visiting soon.’
‘Lives with her dad, does she?’ Owen asked, hoping that this would be less awkward than saying nothing.
‘Her husband,’ the woman frowned. ‘You wouldn’t believe the trouble I had with him. Took it into his head that they were made for each other when she was still a slip of a girl and then there was no stopping him. I’d visit but I can’t be around him. Physically can’t.’
‘He a bad sort or something?’ Owen asked stirring more sugar into his tea. She didn’t look old enough to have a married daughter.
‘Oh he’d never hurt her and he’s never cheated,’ the woman said. ‘But he took her away from me and I can’t forgive that.’
‘Don’t know what I’ll do when mine take up with boys,’ Owen said.
‘You won’t stop it,’ the woman said, staring into her mug.
She looked as though she was about to cry again and without thinking about it, Owen reached over and squeezed her hand.
‘I used to hate him you know,’ she said tonelessly. ‘She could have been anything and now she’s stuck with him. But now I see her and she’s happy and I wonder if I was forcing her to be something else too.’
‘You did the best you could,’ Owen told her. ‘There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for your kids.’
She gripped his hand and made an odd choking sound, smiling despite herself. She was beautiful, Owen noticed, almost unnaturally so. He wondered how he’d missed it.
‘I suppose I should be glad she’s happy down there,’ the woman said.
‘Southerner is he?’
The woman laughed. ‘About as southern as they get.’
‘Well there’s nothing wrong with that,’ Owen said. ‘Every where’s south of somewhere.’
‘You’ve been kind to me,’ the woman said, getting to her feet and smoothing of her skirt ‘Don’t come into work tomorrow. Take your family and leave. This town is dying.’
‘It’s the recession,’ Owen answered. ‘Things are tight everywhere.’
‘No. This town is marked for death.’ She opened the door. Outside the mist had lifted – the site looked like an open wound.
Owen felt a sudden chill, right down to his bones. It was the cold air getting in, he told himself. The door was open. That was all.
‘Once I’d have cursed its crops to failure and sent disease to plague its livestock. But a supermarket kind of defeats the point,’ she smiled bitterly. ‘And they said the Greeks were the only ones who could do irony.’
‘What then?’ Owen was familiar with pagans. Chloe had been one in her youth, although he’d understood that most frowned on curses.
‘I have a brother,’ the woman said, making her way down the metal steps. If the freezing metal hurt her feet she showed no sign. ‘Doesn’t like our family being insulted.’
‘If you wait until someone gets here I can talk the foreman into letting me give you a lift,’ Owen said. ‘You shouldn’t be walking around like that.’
‘Don’t worry about me,’ the woman said, standing on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. ‘Go with my blessing, Owen. And remember, don’t come into work tomorrow.’
* * *
Owen was too distracted to notice if anyone looked at him strangely for the rest of his shift, although Chloe was quick enough to point it out when he got home.
‘There’s a mark on your cheek,’ she told him.
Owen ducked into the hall to see for himself in the mirror. There was a poppy coloured smear on his jaw, the same shape as the strange woman’s kiss.
‘You should be ashamed, coming home to your pregnant wife with another woman’s lipstick all over your face,’ Chloe called after him. She was teasing but wouldn’t be if he didn’t volunteer an explanation.
‘Come here,’ Chloe said, scrubbing at it with her sleeve after he’d explained everything as far as he understood it. She only succeeded in turning his whole cheek red with irritation and when it faded the mark was still there, smeared into the shape of a poppy. ‘You must be allergic.’
‘She didn’t even look like she was wearing makeup,’ Owen muttered.
‘Stop staring at other women’s mouths.’ Chloe stuck her tongue out at him. ‘Look, don’t worry about curses: only the gods can curse people.’
It started to sleet as they went to bed, a soft insistent patter which kept him awake late into the night. Only when the wind started up, howling through the power lines and tearing at the trees did he fall into a restless sleep.
In Owen’s dreams the cranes and diggers were gorging themselves on the dark earth, tearing through ligaments, spitting out stones like fragments of bone. Down and down they went, until the forest was a cavern. There were people down there, Owen realised. The dream got markedly worse after that.
It was jumbled, if jumbled was the right word for something with sharp edges and hidden drops. The air around him seethed, white, then blue-black, then white. There was a roaring all around him so deep he felt it as much as he heard it. There were other noises too: screams and the sound of metal buckling.
He woke in a still-dark bedroom to the touch of a woman’s hand on his forehead.
‘Go to sleep, Owen,’ she said, in a voice as soft and cool as her palm.
‘Sorry, Chlo,’ he muttered. ‘Nightmare.’
‘What’s that?’ Chloe called from the bathroom.
Something suddenly seemed deeply wrong but his limbs, his eyelids, even his thoughts were heavy. Sleep closed over him like a fist.
By the time he woke up the sky was beginning to turn light and his shift was half over. He yanked his clothes on so hard he almost tripped, swearing under his breath so as not to wake Chloe. There was no time for breakfast but he grabbed an apple on the way out the door, knowing he wouldn’t get chance to eat it.
* * *
He saw the lights before he even reached the turning. Ambulances were streaming away from the site. The sirens weren’t blaring but that only made them seem worse, the way doctors got all quiet when they were delivering bad news. As he reached the site he saw a fire engine levering one of the cranes upright and firemen digging into the twisted metal underneath. There were police cars too and the red-white builder’s tape had been replaced with yellow-black.
‘I’m supposed to be starting my shift,’ he told a policeman, surprised at how detached his own voice sounded.
‘Not much chance of that now,’ the man replied, his face grim. ‘You want to go home. Count your blessings you didn’t have the early shift.’
‘What happened?’ Owen asked.
‘Lightning,’ the policeman said, taking his helmet off as the last of the ambulances made its way down the lane. ‘Apparently one of the cranes wasn’t grounded properly. Everyone was sheltering in the portacabin with the weather like it was.’ He shook his head. ‘Go home. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.’
There were human corpses now, laid out among the fallen trees. The red blankets covering them were stark against the white ground: from a distance it looked as though the trees were bleeding. Owen shivered and turned away.
[Kit Taylor has been fascinated by Greek mythology for as long as she’s been able read (and has the picture books to prove it). She also has a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and an MRes in Creative Writing, both from the University of Northumbria and her writing has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, NSU Spotlight and published by Northumbria University Press. She regularly contributes reviews of books and events to Cuckoo Review and has been designing and running her own creative writing workshops for several years. Kit currently works as a freelance copywriter and proofreader at inkhornwriting.co.uk and runs a blog at http://a-k-a-kate.blogspot.co.uk/.]