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At midnight Virginia stirs, roused by a sound from the chicken coop: a feral scamper, a skittish cluck. An intoxicating scent hangs in the darkness. By Virginia’s bedside is a vase filled with cut scarlet buds. It is May and the weather is unusually hot. In the garden, the roses are blooming. Love at the velveteen petal’s edge.
Beside Virginia, her husband lies embedded in sleep. Albert is upturned like a turtle, old flesh exposed. She feels his chest creak, rise and fall. The sheet undulates with his breath, soft and crisp as close-weave cambric. Outside, an owl hoots. The undergrowth crackles.
Virginia slides from beneath the sheet. She has been dreaming of a necklace unearthed in a dusty back drawer. The pearl is turning, she thinks in the dream. She puts on an orange quilted dressing gown, wraps the fabric around her half-awakened body. A droop of breast. Broad shoulders. A length of wrinkled, speckled thigh.
Downstairs, in the unlit hallway, her green wellingtons stand guard, two monumental tombs. The rubber boots are hard and empty against her bare feet, sacred chambers. Virginia eases open the back door. Outside, the night is like treacle and charcoal, a rich, deep, flowing black. She carries no torch, as the moon is full. It blazes in the sky like a Celtic shield, a celebration of dark hours. An ancient lustre.
As she walks, Virginia’s eyes shrewdly dissect the landscape she has shaped for over thirty years. Mapping the scene, she surveys farm and garden, cultivated florals and patch-worked fields. In the dark dairy shed, Jersey cows blink brown buttery eyes. Hooves shift on brittle straw. By the flowerbeds, the odour of roses coats the air, licking particles of the night. Snared by the perfume, Virginia hears a canine whine, another cluck. She forces her body towards the chickens; sturdy legs stride and strong arms swing. In the vegetable patch, she spies the fox amongst the carmine ripening strawberries.
The creature is edging through the night. Now, it freezes on padded paws. A stilled, arched back, its bristled coat like suspended fire: scarlet and mandarin. Virginia is speechless. She doesn’t bellow as usual, or cast a hastily grabbed stone. Instead, she stares at the fox. The fox stares back. Seconds pass as their eyes meet.
But then Virginia trips. She stumbles backwards. Her green wellington boot catches on a forgotten Frisbee. Her feet rise, carrying her body into motion. The world rotates like the plastic sphere that her sons once threw from hand to hand. They yelled “Here,” and “Over here,” stretching and spinning through their days.
As Virginia soars, she reaches up for the stars, and catches a reddish blur of fox fur. An oval strawberry floats in the wind. For an instant, her body is suspended in space and then Virginia topples. The moon cuts through sea purple-black. Bones crash. She is a meteorite thrown from the sky, descending into decomposing matter. Virginia lands in the compost heap, pulled down by gravity.
At first, she tries – desperately – to escape. But, floundering like a sky whale through the earth’s crust, with each attempt Virginia only sinks deeper. She lies back and looks up. Above her, the stars sing a litany of dead light. She consents to her descent into the mantle, stretches out arms and legs. Loosening the belt on her dressing gown, she begins to explore the landscape.
By her right ear, yesterday’s leftover porridge is smooth to the skin. A thin membrane seals a milky, oat-rich centre. Further down, a discarded Earl Grey teabag has split. On her neck, trickles of Bergamot liquid etch a fine brown tattoo. As she eases her right hand down, in a gesture of archaeological delicacy, Virginia excavates sharp, shattered eggshells. The porcelain fragments combine with the tangle of weeds she recently cleared from her flower patch. Thistle thorns pierce her skin. She digs deeper with her left hand. Dark fermenting waste seeps under her fingernails. Thriving, burgeoning bacteria. Virginia finds a glorious mesophilic mixture of bean casserole, cabbage leaves and what feels like a rectangular slice of toast. She exhales, and down her right wellington boot slides the remains of last week’s cauliflower cheese.
Virginia rolls, slides and twists. She digs and dives, scrapes and dusts. Each new discovery is a layer, a time, a tributary of touch: dry, wet, brown, green. As she turns, she laughs, Virginia chortles. She giggles and sings. From her mouth tidings tumble, slowly at first, like a string of oyster pearls, and then flowing in sparks of ignited light. Her memories come: lyrics and languages, visions and dreams. Virginia’s past is stripped naked, laid bare, strata after decomposing strata.
She is at the market, five years earlier. Virginia blushes as she wins First Prize for her pair of Old Gloucester pigs. Rosettes are pinned to pink scrubbed flesh, ribbons flap on bristled snouts. Then she waves as her sons leap into aeroplanes. Rucksacks strapped tight to their backs, they zoom across oceans and mountain peaks. Swiftly, they shrink into little boys, scuffed and sticky, kicking and sleeping. Virginia falls in love daily, but the creatures cling, ravage her time. Rapidly, she gives births to these sons. Her body divides, howls in pain. Virginia is enveloped in belonging and frustration, regret and joy. She is angry, forgives but does not forget. Her wedding night arises. Her head on Albert’s chest, their tangled bodies, folded in passion. “It is like this,” she thinks, as he enters her. She wants more, she pulls him to her.
The more Virginia moves, the faster memories emerge, collapse and disintegrate. Inside the compost heap, they pour from her nose, glimmering in luminous streaks from her eyes. She is with a teenage group of shrieking girls shimmying in the village hall. She smells cheap lipstick, sweat and fear. The vision breaks down and she is fourteen, eating the heart from books. Virginia butters pages, sandwiches them together, bites and devours.
The heap is humming. Temperatures rise and lights flash. The humid stench grows stronger. Virginia recalls darker secrets, extracting them from the law of superposition, always heading backwards. A man in the village touches her barely formed body with an adult menace. “Never tell.” From her ears rush shrieking nights where she sleepwalks, terrified and confused. Virginia cries out and a blackbird springs from her throat. The bird escapes through her raw red mouth. She raises her hand to her head and salutes him gravely.
Now, Virginia smells the night around her, the bewitching roses; a scarlet yield. She is a little girl dancing in the garden, enraptured by freshly cut grass and a song on the radio. “Wild Thing,” she sings. “You make my heart sing.”
“Behave,” her grandmother croaks, leaning over tightly knitted rows. Needles click ominously and Virginia shivers, as the wild thing holds her tight.
Suddenly, Virginia lets out a gigantic fart, releasing a stream of Maypole ribbons attached to a long white pole. She grabs the pole, stands and stirs. Round and round like a Christmas pudding Virginia mixes the compost heap. She winds time into a vortex, blending present, past and future. The last few sparkles fall from her hair and the lights fade. Temperatures cool. Exhausted, Virginia lies down and sleeps.
The next morning, at milking-time, Albert comes to inspect the chicken coop, and discovers Virginia asleep in the compost. She opens one eye.
“I might be here for a while,” she explains. “But I would like a cup of tea and some toast.”
He returns with her breakfast on a tartan tray. Virginia moves herself to a sitting position, looks at the blushing dawn and eats in exhausted silence. At lunchtime, Albert returns saying, “I’ve brought you tinned mushroom soup and a roll.”
A few days pass, and sensing that his wife needs some time alone, he says nothing about her new abode. Albert brings Virginia food regularly and covers her up with an old carpet when it rains.
At first the farmhands and locals are a little surprised, but they soon get used to the sight of the orange quilted dressing down, and green wellingtons poking from the compost heap. There are those that say that Virginia is idle, but they are wrong. Over weeks, the moon waxes and wanes. Dawns rise and the sun sets. Onionskins and old pastry disintegrate, and Virginia waits. She lies in the fetid, soft stinking heap and settles herself.
Then, late one August night, Virginia looks up to the starry sky and knows it is time. The flowers have wilted and the autumn is coming. In the moonlight, she eases herself up and admires her transformed body, a growing medium. She stretches, yawns, and earth falls from her skin. In the compost heap a dozen roses suddenly bloom, a bed of scarlet petaline. Virginia takes one flower, and places it on the heap for Albert, her first love but not her last. A wild thing is calling her. Virginia walks away from her farm and garden and is never seen again.