Femke Brockhus – Small Faltering Flights
Around the old white house was a garden of thorns, tufted grass and wildflowers, broken roof tiles here and there. Julia picked up a fragment, fingered the sharp edge. It left a dark imprint at her feet, wood lice crept back into the soil.
Look, she said, life is everywhere here. Only slower. She wiped her hand on her dress.
The house was a sanctuary at the edge of an unspoiled village, on a hill, the sea beyond. For a time, this would be the view, the quiet monotony of the days would serve a clear purpose: hers to write something exceptional and his, in the shadow of his last project, to purge his body of a deadening fatigue.
He was warm, his mouth was dry. The wind cooled the sweat under his arms.
She let the tile fall from her hand and thud onto the grass.
He followed her inside and watched her as she looked. The sand-strewn floorboards, the cobwebbed corners, a simple kitchen with a large sink, faded wallpaper with its stains of dried damp, a wood-burning stove in the living room, stairs that creaked up to three rooms, an attic beneath the low slant of the roof, it had all looked a touch different in the softer spring light months ago.
The autumn before that, when by chance he first saw the place, it had been a pale wooden house weathering coastal squalls. Leaning plant-like into its natural surroundings, left at their mercy, the salt winds, the damp, the light.
Julia breathed deeper. The dark, smoked smell of the place.
You can sleep sound here, she said, with the windows open to the incoming wind.
She prised open the window above the sink. Behind the house was a smell of small, dead creatures.
He stands at the kitchen counter looking out. There’s a crack in the window. She’s still not back. He washes his hands, sprays the kitchen sink clean.
How much time to kill?
He counts the hours.
Seven hours later, still nothing. He straps his daughter into a sling and heads outside.
His senses are heightened, he notices everything with an uncanny clarity—
her keys on the hook
doormat at a slight angle
a stray sheep far from the rest of the flock
a footprint on the gate
flies on blades of grass
a desiccated mole hanging off the barbed wire
a shoe beside the path (not hers)
an orange plastic bag flying in the wind
a black bird amid the foliage
the quivering heat
two men at the bar in the pub
early for beer
a broken lamp on the façade
the corner store’s Closed sign swaying to and fro, there’s no one there and the lights are off.
He accosts people, startles them, sees the subtle recoil, the look – tries to steady his voice when he asks, his arm around the sling across his chest, rocks his daughter back to sleep, wipes drops from his nose, smells the earth on his hands.
Give it time is not what he wants to hear, they won’t listen, people spooked by his restlessness try to calm him, to reassure, brace themselves, move on quickly, ask aren’t you the architect who did the village centre?
I didn’t know you lived in the village, I mean way out there.
The older woman can’t catch his words, his accent or her hearing, he doesn’t know.
The blood rushes hot in his ears, the dry ground creaks as he walks, searches and searches, calls out to her until he can only breathe her name.
His restless orbit, a small group gathers, hears him at last, swept up in an uncommon commotion, jolted from slumber by a whiff of danger.
Then the question, how long has Julia been gone. He looks at his watch and adds the hours spent searching.
Hours don’t count, they say.
There is no right time to call the police. He doesn’t know if it is too soon, curses himself for being too late, then doubts the truth of it all: she is not gone, she’ll be back soon.
Dazed, he holds the line.
He stares out at the winding road, two lines of dirt with grass growing between, a cart track, just wide enough for a car. A numb quiet above the purple heather. All living things concealed.
He thinks of her telling him how as a child she squeezed into the drum of the tumble drier and hid for hours, curled up warm and secret, waiting until they noticed, until they looked for her.
At times, she said, you have to pull back and wait.
A voice on the line.
Down at the station, the questions that follow force a crossing to another place. Risks are sounded out and bleed into reality.
Is her disappearance unexpected?
Is her absence out of character? Are there physical or mental health issues?
Is it urgent that she be found? Could she be a danger to herself?
Does she have transport?
The pen in his hand quivers above the form. It is a test to prove that desire not only wove him through her, but that now and then he was also paying attention.
When did you last see her?
What was she wearing when she disappeared?
What are her distinguishing features?
Translation by David Doherty