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We Bleed Water

by Katie McIvor

2505 words

When you’re already dead inside, Jack thinks, it shouldn’t be possible for anything to make you feel worse. The sight of that cottage, though—clinging to the foot of a lumpen hill amid acres of dead, wasted bog, its white paint smeared and stained with moss—at that sight, the little remaining air drains out of his chest, and for a moment he leans dizzily against the car, his head heavy both inside and out, wondering if this is how he will die.

He didn’t want to come here. It was Jessie’s idea. She thought it would help, and anything that helps Jessie at the moment has to be given a try. When she described Uisk, he imagined a romantic landscape, a Brigadoon-type place, with green mountains and deep valleys roamed by stags. Jessie was still a child when she left and her memories are consequently full of giants, unadjusted for the inflation of intervening years.

In reality, this place is a bog.

Jack unpacks the rented car. The air inside the cottage is moist and unwelcoming. He piles their bags just inside the door, alone in the fading light. Jessie has taken Innes up the hill. It’s November, very much the wrong time of year for Scotland, and he worries it will be dark before she finds her way back down. He pictures her slipping and cracking an ankle, tumbling into the bog, drowning in shallow mud. He tries to laugh at himself. Why catastrophize, when the worst has already happened?

Through the clouded windows, he feels the bog watching him. He can hear it breathing, big, ballooning breaths like an enormous animal. At least, he imagines he can.

The bags are unpacked and the electric heaters lit in both rooms by the time Jessie gets back. She puts Innes on the kitchen counter, touches her fingers distractedly to the back of Jack’s neck, and starts to cook some pasta which none of them will eat.

In bed that night he wakes to find her rigid, every muscle clenched, tears flooding furiously from her closed eyes. He tries to hold her. Their attempts at comfort are clumsy, like schoolchildren formulating a first kiss. They don’t know how to do any of this. Nothing in the books about it. She doesn’t sleep. He suspects she hasn’t slept in weeks.

He dreams of lying at the bottom of a bog and tasting the layers of peat, mud, acid, moss, all the way up to the sky.

• • •

No babies here, that’s one good thing. The Uisk population is either elderly or yet to escape. Sullen teenagers stack shelves and stare into their hands. Nobody moves here, nobody stays.

Some of the older residents remember Jessie. She feels no need to seek any of them out, doesn’t know them well enough to burden herself with social calls, but occasionally one of them will stop her in the street or in the little supermarket and say, “Well, isn’t that Chessick?” And even on her worst days Jessie will smile, out of politeness, answer a few questions about her parents, make vague promises to stop round for a cup of tea. She doesn’t tell them why they’re here. From the way they gently lay their eyes on her, though, and the way their hands hover through the air, Jack wonders if they already know.

“Who’s Chessick?” he asks as they’re driving back to the cottage.

“It’s Teasag,” she replies, and spells it. “Just the Gaelic way of saying ‘Jessie,’ that’s all.”

She’s told him before that she doesn’t speak Gaelic, doesn’t remember any of it, but being back here seems to trigger the odd word. Like dead roots resurfacing from the ground, she will point things out—a seagull, a stone wall—and say wonderingly, “Faoileag. Gàrradh.”

They spend the first few days cooking, walking, trying to read. They’re not ready yet to do what they came here to do, so they don’t speak about it. At night, Innes perches next to the bed, within easy reach. They climb the hill, carrying Innes with them, and at the top Jack looks out over miles and miles of marsh. The sky here seems so low. He could reach up and grab the rusted clouds. There is a flat rock with a giant footprint carved in it, a king’s footprint, Jessie tells him. He puts his muddy boot into it and sees himself dwarfed.

They walk through the bog. There are paths, though not obvious ones. He follows Jessie. She seems able to find her way, while Jack grows quickly disorientated. Their progress is slow and each walk takes several hours, no matter which direction they go. Jack becomes mildly delirious on these walks. The bog is not dead, as he first thought. Insects and miniscule birds flit between grass mounds and the waters move like slow breath. Jessie tells him bog facts: a peat bog is ninety percent water—you’re walking on water right now; it can hold twice as much carbon as a forest. He isn’t listening.

A patch of raised ground lies to his left, just a few steps away. Jessie is heading round the long way, sticking to the path. He says, “Look—shortcut.” Places his foot. Jessie says, “Don’t!” He’s already two steps in. Another two, and the mud fountains up over his boot, dragging him, sucking his leg into the depths. He is being pulled downwards as though by a living force. He has to stagger, overbalance, catch Jessie’s hand. The boot comes off with a gargling slurp.

Jack walks home in his drenched sock. Jessie is furious and doesn’t speak to him the whole way. Hours later, she still hasn’t spoken. It’s the grief, he tells himself, it’s the hormones, not him.

• • •

Some days he thinks the bog looks bigger than it did yesterday. When he voices this to Jessie, she tells him that the bog breathes like a living thing, mushrooming up and shrinking, rising out of the land like a swollen sponge. She says it simply, as if it is a fact that everyone knows.

The thought of scattering Innes into that sickly muck makes him want to scream.

He knows Jessie feels the same things that he does. The emptiness in his arms, which have grown used to Innes’s soft weight resting between them. The rushing nausea when he tries to eat. The guilt which crushes him like an anchor out of the sky. If only we’d woken up earlier. Checked on him. Taken him to the hospital in time. He knows she feels these things too, but there is a glass wall between them and he is alone with his thoughts on his side, she alone on hers.

They cook and walk and go to the supermarket. The days count down.

The spit of gravel where they park their car floods one night, the hand of the bog flowing up and over its surface, trying to snatch the vehicle into its depth. Stranded weeds and a layer of blackish mud left behind smear the stones.

Alain who owns the cottage comes round. “Just seeing how ye are,” he says in a bland tone which causes Jack’s teeth to grind. Alain is a widower; it’s obvious in his stale breath, his creased clothes. He probably thinks he knows what they’re going through.

“It’s not for everyone,” he says, nodding out of the window to where the restless edge of the bog licks the banked gravel. “Takes a bit of getting used to.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” says Jessie.

“Aye, you would.” Alain crinkles his eyes at her. “People round here, they say if you cut us, we bleed bog water. It’s part of who we are.” He turns to Jack, his tone lightly accusing. “What d’you think of it?”

Jack wants to say, It’s horrible. Fetid. Unnatural. Instead he says, “Lot of wildlife.”

Alain says, “Curlews, plovers. Hen harrier, if you’re lucky. They even found a bog body, once. Remember that, Teasag?”

Jessie doesn’t.

“In the museum down in Edinburgh, now, poor bairn. Thousands of years old. Miraculous. She was a human sacrifice, most likely.”

Jack makes the mistake, later, of looking up bog bodies on his phone. The shrunken heads and stretched, bronze-like faces haunt his thoughts. He dreams of Innes shriveled and tanned black. Tiny fingers, fingernails, perfectly preserved in peat acid. He dreams of sinking alongside his son, bog water filling his own mouth. He wakes sweating and wants to retch, but Jessie is awake, as always, and he has to pull himself together. He reminds himself it is worse for her, more physical. In the evenings she fills up the old hot water bottle they found in a cupboard and sits with its quilted cover pressed across her stomach, across her leaking, aching breasts.

• • •

“Not here.”

“But we agreed.”

“No. I didn’t know… Jessie, look at this place. We can’t leave him here.”

His voice breaks and he walks a few paces away, mindful not to stray off the path. The sunset music of the bog sings around him: low birdcalls, distant seagulls, drips and plops of frogs. He wants to crouch and hold his head and hurl angry words into the mud.

“Just a small piece, then,” Jessie says. “People do that. Have themselves scattered in all their favorite places, or in different countries. That’s a thing.”

He looks at her. Her eyes are bright, feverish with unshed tears. She needs to do this, for whatever reason.

There were so many times, when Innes was alive, that Jack wished he didn’t exist. In the tiny hours, when the post-midnight wails sliced his sleeping brain apart, he would force himself out of bed to wipe and change and feed, a full day of work ahead of him, the whole time thinking, Why did we do this? Why can’t we undo it? And he knows he didn’t really mean it, he knows that, he’s certain every new parent has these thoughts at one time or another, but the guilt sits heavy on his skull and his guts still clench with horror at himself.

He pulls in his breath and agrees.

Together, they scoop mud aside until a fragile hole forms in the peat. It fills instantly with water which is so cold and clear it might have come from another world. Jessie kisses the urn. She takes a pinch of Innes, between two fingers and thumb, and gently lets it fall. The ashes dissipate into the water. It’s a moment of peace, a stillness settling over them, and he hugs Jessie to him with one arm as they crouch there in the darkening bog.

• • •

Innes comes to him that night. He is baby-pink, sandy-haired, smiling his burpy smile. The furious sad-relief washes Jack’s veins. He reaches out, a sob of longing biting his throat. Then Innes turns his head and Jack sees the piece missing, a chunk torn out of one velvet-soft cheek. The bare gums beneath are visible and horribly pale within the darkness of mouth. Jack wakes silently. Somehow, he gets to the bathroom. He vomits in wrenching gouts, his whole body shaking. He blinks and blinks his eyes as though the friction could rid him of what he has seen.

He wakes Jessie, flashlight in one hand, saying, “I’m sorry, you were right, I’m sorry.” She doesn’t question. It’s only as they’re picking their way out into the night, Innes in his urn held to Jessie’s stomach, that he realizes she really was asleep, properly, for the first time in weeks.

The hole is gone, so they dig another. Cold wet peat stains their hands. Jessie holds his shoulder as he empties the rest of Innes into the dark water, into the shine of flashlight, to sink from sight. Then he tips his head forward and shouts, a harsh ragged cry, and the night animals of the bog stir and murmur in response.

• • •

They sleep for ten hours. Jessie’s skin fills out, the caverns under her eyes smoothing away like peat water rising through dirt. They smile at each other without crying. Jack takes big, ballooning breaths. In the shower, brown-black soil sluices from his hands and feet, as though the bog has become a part of him, but he doesn’t mind. They brush their teeth and brackish water spits out. They grin with tiny weeds embedded beneath their tongues.

Jack finds his consciousness pulled continuously into the waters beyond the gravel bank. He can see Innes, sometimes, secure in the wet blackness as he was in the dark of the urn, in the dark of the womb. Sphagnum moss grows across his sky, a tapestry of thousands of plants interwoven, piling into hummocks and carpets and cushions. Whorl snails, tinier than Innes’s toenails, creep between the fronds. The water which holds him contains ancient pollen grains and the fossilized stumps of trees and his father’s left welly-boot. He floats among roots of bog asphodel, among the stems of sundews and butterworts, past the insects dying on their sticky leaves, and up into air with the skylarks and the marsh fritillaries. Jack and Jessie are with him. Together they have become part of this strange land. Unfamiliar words skim Jack’s lips: riabhag, dealan-dé, seilcheag. The language drips into his skin like blood.

He goes round to Alain’s farmhouse to return the key. Alain takes a long time to answer the door. When he does, the lonely blare of the television and the dusty smell of his hallway make him seem smaller, older, a hundred times older than Jack.

“We’ll hopefully be back some day,” Jack says with a bright smile as he hands over the key.

Alain gestures into the murk. “You live here long enough, lad, you come to learn that people never really leave.”

Jack nods uneasily. He is very aware of Innes, or what remains of Innes, lost somewhere in the bog. The empty urn, which travelled here nestled on Jessie’s lap in the passenger seat, is packed away, no longer meaningful. The guilt of this weighs on him. He suspects there are guilts which will always weigh on him.

As they drive away, Jessie leans her head into the window, letting the glass thrum against her skull. Jack can hear it. He can still hear the breath of the bog, even as it recedes into the distance behind them. He runs his tongue over the tiny weeds which grow in the hollow of his lower jaw. The satnav comforts him with repetitive orders: turn left, slight left, at the junction, keep right. He obeys. Outside, the ground is low, flat, watery. The road dips. They tarmac is puddled with brown water. Reeds wrap the axles, tiny snails wedge themselves into the cracks of the tires. Cuilcean. Seilcheagan. Jack is driving, a smile on his face, his wife’s head thrumming against the window, and the further they go, the deeper they sink, into the heart of the bog.

Katie McIvor is a Scottish writer and library assistant. She studied at the University of Cambridge and now lives in England with her husband and two dogs. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Mythaxis Magazine, Etherea Magazine and the Nashville Review, and is forthcoming from Silver Blade. Follow her on Twitter at @_McKatie_

Issue 35

March 2022

3LBE 35

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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