AE Rutherford 69
Rose gritted her teeth and stared down at the page in front of her. Sustainability in densely wooded areas of Norway stared back. She read the opening sentence for the third time.
‘While the coastal areas of Norway are well known for their conifers…’
The sighing – which had been hiding itself as a kitten-thin mewing – grew louder, heaving her whole ribcage, and the words swam before her on the page. Rose pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes, trying to shut it out.
Quieter again, the sighing thing whimpered. Rose jabbed a finger into her chest. Silence, for a moment, and then it started again, drawing breath in short, stuttering gasps. Furiously, Rose slid her fingers into the dark between her rib bones and, with one deft movement, pulled the sighing thing out. It was warm in her hand and heavy. Surprisingly heavy.
Cautiously she laid it down on the open book and stared at it with a mixture of revulsion and fascination. The thing seemed to be weeping soft, pink tears, which it released with each lingering sigh. It didn’t look broken. It didn’t even look battered or bruised, as she had so often imagined. It just looked incommensurably sad.
Rose unwound the scarf she was wearing from her neck and, laying it on the table, began to wrap the thing in the fabric, hushing its murmurs tenderly as though it were a child. But as the sighs threatened to crescendo, she pulled more angrily at the ends of the scarf, finally tying them into a tight knot. By the time she bundled the parcel roughly into a jumper, the sound of sobs was echoing around the room. She jammed the construction right to the back of her wardrobe and, having closed the door, slumped against it.
She had wondered if she might sleep easier that night, but she shifted fitfully in her bed as the sighing resounded in her dreams, mixing with the sounds of cars and partygoers on the street outside. She woke with puffy eyes and the ghost of a headache. As she sipped at the morning’s first acrid cup of coffee, she gazed at the wardrobe with a steady fascination, picturing the dark corner where it – where it what? It wasn’t lurking; it didn’t have enough spite to lurk, she thought sourly. And it couldn’t curl up – yet somehow that was exactly what she imagined it doing, curling in on itself, tucking a non-existent head under a non-existent wing, letting tears seep out from below closed eyelids.
The sighing – wistful, for the moment – permeated the room.
Packing her books into a tote bag, Rose fingered an envelope she had addressed the day before, a request for soil samples in different areas of woodland.
Norsk institutt for skog og landskap,
In one sweeping motion, she flung the wardrobe door open, reached for the bundle at the back and shook off the jumper wrapped around it. Then she stuffed the thing – still knotted in her scarf – into the envelope and sealed down the flap.
For a moment she weighed the envelope – bulging, sighing – in her hand before slipping it into her bag. She set off for the library at a jog, not bothering to lock the door behind her and slowing down only as she came to the post box, where she rummaged in her bag for the envelope.
Returning home that evening, she flung herself gratefully onto her bed. For the first time in months it was quiet. She felt herself to be a shell – hollowed out but delightfully whole, cool and calm to the touch.
Over the next few days, she wrote twelve pages of her thesis. She would pause on coming and going to smile at the girl at the library desk, who was surprised into smiling back. The girl noted that the dark rings under Rose’s eyes were fading and longed to ask what she was using – some kind of enriching moisturiser perhaps, or was it just concealer? In the evenings, Rose baked bread – wholemeal, white, sourdough, far more than she could possibly eat on her own – and as it baked she sat cross-legged by the glass door of the oven, watching in wonder as the dough ballooned up out of itself.
She slept well those nights, the room around her dark and dreamless, the only noises those floating up from the nighttime lives of others: the murmur of Mr Jalbout downstairs, or drunken singing stumbling along the pavement outside. Sometimes a keen wind would find its way through the fittings of the window, bringing with it the hint of pine needles and, inexplicably, a rustling like small mammals in undergrowth.
‘The young Rosa from upstairs is looking happier, plumper,’ Mr Jalbout tells his wife, bedridden, her world shrunk to the view from her window and the chatter of her husband.
‘Last night she was hauling two full bags of groceries up the stairs. Perhaps she has grown tired of pizza.’
Mrs Jalbout’s eyes are following two pigeons outside, who flutter between branches, drawn and repelled by each other like magnets, but she squeezes her husband’s hand to show she is listening.
‘But she is not so proper anymore, this Rosa,’ he says. ‘Leaves follow her into the stairwell. A few days ago, there were just a couple, by the door, but now they sweep into the house with her, form a path where she has been. And the mud! You might think she worked on a farm, not at the university.’
One of the pigeons grows tired of the game and flies clumsily away. Mr Jalbout leaves the room to fetch an extra blanket.
Rose laid down her pen and stretched the fingers of her right hand, then slowly clenched them into a fist. She peered again at the finger she had cut the day before. A bruise seemed to have formed around the wound, almost brown and slightly swollen, and yet when she pressed it, it didn’t hurt. She remembered how, when she had put the knife down, it hadn’t been blood which seeped from the cut, but some kind of viscose amber liquid. She had raised her finger to her mouth and tasted the sweetness of the syrup on the tip of her tongue.
Rose stood up and wandered over to the mirror, absently brushing a leaf from her shoulder. She gazed at the reflection of the trees lining the street behind her. Balancing on one leg, she brought the sole of her left foot to rest against her right thigh, and stretched her hands up towards the sky. ‘There now,’ she remembered her dance teacher saying to the class of teetering eight-year-olds, ‘Don’t I have a lovely little forest full of trees?’
The student has seen Rose in this café before. He thinks of the seminar she taught which he attended last semester, and does not remember the contours of the Nord-Trøndelag coastline, but rather the sense of urgency in Rose’s voice as it dipped and rose, and the flick of her wrist as she wiped the whiteboard clean.
She had come in to order at the counter, her hair more windswept than usual, the broken twigs which trailed in after her defiantly meeting the proprietor’s disapproving gaze. Now she sits at one of the tables in front of the café, the only non-smoker to brave the piercing wind. As her hand moves steadily down the typed page in front of her, the student notices what looks like ivy winding its way up her leg in an embrace. Later, his own article read and highlighted, he glances through the glass door to see that the ivy has spread to cover the table, snaking through cup handles and down the table leg. Only it isn’t ivy after all, but some kind of ground-covering plant with star-shaped, white flowers. He gazes at it, perplexed. He’s sure he’d known the plant’s name, once. Rose presumably remembers the name, for she is smiling at the petals in an absent sort of way. The student notices for the first time that she has leaves poking out between her hair, like an intricate flower arrangement. As she lifts a hand to tuck a bud behind her ear, her movements are strangely stiff and yet somehow supple at the same time.
He is half-way down the street before he realises he forgot his gloves on the table and, stuffing his fists into his pockets, turns back. Rose must have left just after him, for the corner outside the café is empty when he returns – empty but for a perfect, self-contained woodland. The ground is carpeted with springy moss which gives way to shy gatherings of blue anemones. Beyond the table, now invisible underneath its nameless plant, stands a sapling. A birch, he guesses. The notched silver bark is free from lichen. A few first leaves are surrounded by buds, waiting to unfurl into green.
Annie Rutherford makes things with words, and champions poetry and translated literature in all its guises. She works as programme co-ordinator for StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival, and as a literary translator. Her translation of German poet Nora Gomringer’s work, Hydra’s Heads, recently appeared with Burning Eye Books.