Short Story: To The Boat
Inspired by a J. Tillman song.
Words: James Walsh
It was called ‘The Hunter’, and it was where they lived. A forty foot fishing vessel with orange rusted bow and broken, useless mast, they had made it their home since their arrival some years before. Rarely had anyone ventured close enough to discover them, for it was near impossible to reach by foot, stranded on the bank of the lake and surrounded by steep hillside and dense, disguising foliage. To reach it by boat would mean to navigate the thick, choking fog that settled on the water, but then those who had heard of it knew better than to approach the boat at all, for it was the place that they, these sisters, these women of suffering, were waiting.
Boone was the eldest of the three; a stern, imposing woman with long red hair and sunken, weary eyes who took responsibility for her siblings. It was she that moved them from town to town, and she who communicated with outsiders. It was she who found the men, and she who prepared the ritual. Most of all it was she who kept them from the world, and the world, in any real form, from them.
Mauve was next; a frail and wishful reed, sinewy in her arms and legs and gaunt from years of tiring worry. Younger than Boone when their parents had died, she had taken to her sister as her keeper and been faithful as a hound ever since. If it was her sisters decision to act then she would follow, regardless of feeling (if feeling were there at all).
Lastly, Peach. A sister not by blood but by duty, Peach had been taken in by the others as a kindness of sorts when, some years before, they had discovered her standing in her floral dress amongst the trees, quietly watching them perform another violent ceremony. As was tradition, the sisters took her tongue to ensure their unspeakable truth would stay as such, but having done so, she did what no-one else had done, and followed them home. Since then she had followed them everywhere without word, an innocent bystander, until Boone had recognised the value in her child-like face and made plans to use her. Now she was the bait, the lure in their design. It was she, young Peach, who caught them their prey.
There must have been a cars weight in mens bones spread out around the bed of the lake, buried beneath the weight of the water, each victim lured to their end by young Peach, each of them cast under the same spell and put to rights, subjected to a kind of witchcraft; first rendered unconscious with violent efficiency and then prepared for a dark procession of chanting and torturous sacrifice. Peach, having played her part, would retreat and watch as her sisters engaged in the dissection of their victim and a greedy meal of his flesh, muscles and organs. By all accounts but theirs this was an unspeakable and unholy sustenance, but Peachs sisters were convinced of their being something other than human, and outside of the judgement on God. Their consummation of these men, they told her, was a path to purity. With every new victim, each new carnivorous sin, they purged the earth of its wickedness and raised themselves closer to God.
The weather was still cold, despite the winter having passed. There were still thin sheets of ice the size of food trays on the surface of the water, yet to melt and floating past the small rowboat as it slopped silently through the mist. Boone was sitting at theboats rear with the lantern, leaving Mauve to the single oar and the work of paddling them to the distant bank. Peach, put in her finest yellow dress, her thick hair combed and her cheeks painted blush like a childs, was sat beside Boone, listening to the thick lapping of the water and the croaking of the toads. They moved forward slowly.
It was the same this time as it had been any time before, but for the cold. It was only because of the leanness of Peach’s two previous suitors, insufficient in meat for even a weeks meals, that they had been forced to visit the mainland again so soon. Usually, with a view to letting their faces and the talk of disappearance be forgotten, there would not be such haste in their return, but with hunger came hurry, and Boone had warned Peach to choose her next friend with her sisters stomachs, and safety, in mind.
At the bank they tied the boat to a weathered stump and climbed the hill through the trees to an old truck, which they used to travel the twenty or so miles to town. They were comfortable here, in this, their fifteenth home in not even six years, for the roads were quiet and the alleys and bars of the reachable towns were filled with undesirable and anonymous mentruckers and salesmen and vagrantswhom few people would ever recognise as missing. When they reached a chosen town they would seek out a bar or truckstop, finding a quiet shadow in which to leave Peach. As Peach then made her way back toward her latest hunting ground, Boone and Mauve would turn the car and head back to the lake and the rowboat, the safety of the fog, there to wait for her return.
On this night, this colder than usual night, Boone chose for Peach, out of bitterness probably, a real dive of a place; designed in an L-shape, arched around a corner in the road, surrounded by nothing but darkness, no other building for some miles, and decorated with a single neon sign that changed from blue, to green, to blue, to green.
With her sisters long gone, Peach entered the quiet place and saw that much of the room was empty, but for a single table where two bikers were eating, and the bar itself, where sat a lady dressed in high heels, torn shorts and with a latex sheet around her chest, smoking a long cigarette and prodding at her brightly coloured drink with the accompanying paper parasol. In her usual daze, Peach shivered in the doorway for a second until she noticed the bartender, a butch and heavily tattooed woman, looking her way. She quickly moved her feet toward a nearby booth where she could sit. She was nervous, for it seemed that she would have to return to her sisters empty handed, and for this she would surely be punished.
In sliding into the leather seat, though, she looked up to see a man, overweight and unshaven, sitting in the bars corner where the artificial light struggled to reach and staring, through thin-framed glasses, into a bottle of beer. She eyed him for a moment, this imposing figure, and found herself wondering on the reasons for such a large man to be looking so sad, until he lifted his head to meet her gaze. Caught, then blushing, she quickly turned away, clutching her hands together and glancing over her shoulder to where the waitress was checking her reflection in an ashtray. When she looked back, he was still looking at her. Gave the briefest of smiles. Flustered, oddly, she stood and went for the back of the room, toward the neon sign shaped like a man drinking that changed, with an electrical zap, to a man pissing before changing, zap, back again, and so on.
Having straightened her dress and waited five minutes, slowed her breathing to stop her hands from shaking (which they always did), she returned to the bar. She was always nervous, she thought. This was no different.
The large man remained in his booth, but was sitting up straight now with his hand raised to get her attention. She stopped momentarily. Glanced around the bar. The woman was still sitting at the bar and had finished her cocktail. She wobbled on her stool. The barwoman was nowhere to be seen, but could be heard behind a closed door cursing somethinga piece of machinery perhaps, or herself. The bikers had finished and gone, leaving their empty food baskets on the table.
Peach wondered for a moment whether she should continue. For some reason she could see more clearly the bloody events that lay ahead if she approached the table. She could see the mans face, his eyes closed, on the floor of the boat. His hair was wet from fearful sweating, his skin flushed white and purple. She had never seen the future as clearly as this, never let her mind halt her actions for so long. Almost half a minute had passed. The mans hand was still in the air. With the thought of her sisters and her own suffering should she not return with what she had promised, Peach regained her focus.
I wasnt sure you was goin to come over he said as she arrived and stood in front of him in silence. I got you a drink. She followed his gesture to a full bottle of beer opposite his. I hope you dont mind.
She shook her head gently, but still hadnt sat down. This made the man nervous, and he rubbed his clammy palms together. It was not going as he planned. Of course, you dont gotta sit with me, you can just take the drink. I just noticed you didnt have one yet, and I thought, I didnt know if you might be on your own and like someone to talk to. She didnt reply. She wouldnt have, even if she could. Not that I wanna assume youre alone. Lady like yourself all the way out here. Seems stupid of me to think you might be impressed by a beer anyway. I apologise.
He was not looking at her anymore. She saw a shaking in him that reminded her of a newborn bull, or the nervousness of the young boy that used to be her brother and would cower beneath the table when their father was drunk and looking to hurt something. A sudden pity overcame her. She reached out her hand and took her beer. Gripping it with two hands she took a sip as he watched, and then she sat down in front of him. He was sweating around his brow and she smiled at him. This made him calm. He wiped the sweat away and took a sip of his own.
They sat in silence for some minutes, sipping in turn from their drinks, before he spoke again. “I aint much of a talker,” he said, scratching his head, “but then I guess you figured that out already. Probably a smart lady. Smarter than I am anyway. I never was good with words. Never read much, cept for letters and such, from my father. Then he was in the army so he didnt like words much neither. Never used moren four letters in a word I reckon. Cept when he was writin names and such”.
She was listening. She rarely listened. But then usually the men who spoke had little else to say other than that she reminded them of an angel, or that they were getting stiff just looking at her.
“I like your dress”, he continued, “looks like one my momma used to wear when she went to church”. His mouth was running ahead of his mind, which she enjoyed. He was open, honest, harmless. His eyes were dark brown, almost the same colour as the thick hair on his eyebrows, his chin, in his nose and ears. He was not handsome, but he was good natured, and to that she found herself helplessly enamoured.
For two hours they sat in the same booth, and drank only two drinks each. He had talked for most of the time, happy to tell her about his own sadness, his never having been married or even come close, and his knowing that time would soon make him unfit even to father a child. He told her of his having buried his mother under a field of elderflower that she had taken him to as a boy. When she excused herself for a moment to go the bathroom she returned to see him crying. She waited until he had stopped to return to the table, and kept it to herself. When a long period of silence made her uncomfortable, he instinctively put his hand on hers, as if invited. She enjoyed his touch, enjoyed it so much in fact that she felt a shiver ripple from her wrist to her shoulder and out across her back. After a moment he withdrew his hand again, but the damage had been done.
When it came upon them to order another drink, both their bottles being empty, she noticed the man become agitated and fittish. He was scratching the dirt from beneath his fingernails and muttering something that she couldnt make out properly, something concerning his being tired and there being a truck out front. She remembered suddenly the horror of the situation, the motive for her having engaged him in conversation, for having sat with him for so long, for having made him fall in love. Her chest tightened. She felt sick. She remembered Boone and Mauve, waiting in the woods not thirty miles from where they were. She remembered the boat. She remembered herself.
When he finished propositioning her she nodded and stood. They left together, through the large door and out into the icy chill.
Outside, the wind was howling, the nip rushing through the hair on Peachs arms and neck like razor wire. She started shivering immediately. Violently. The man took his jacket off and wrapped it around her. It would have fit twice and he was reduced to just his shirt and vest. As she warmed, he rubbed his large arms and held himself. They stood in silence for a long moment, lit in alternating blue and green.
“If you dont wanna come with me I wont take offense,” he told her, blinking repeatedly, lest his eyes freeze shut, “but I just want you to know that I ain’t never met nobody like you, and I ain’t never fell in love after two drinks before”.
She thought she loved him too. She wasnt sure what she was supposed to feel, but she felt something different. Something strangely over-whelming.
“So you wanna go together?” he asked. Her stomach turned. She stood still, staring at the icy ground, hoping that all this, all of the past, would disappear. She wanted it to be different. Wanted to have never met this man. She wanted to go back, wanted to tell herself, as a little girl crouched in the bush watching Boone and Mauve carve open a mans stomach, to shut her eyes and turn and run for her life. She wanted, wished, to not have to do this. Not now. Not this time. Not anymore. But she couldnt change anything. This was it.
She looked up into the mans dark eyes. His nose was red, his teeth chattering loudly. She nodded.
“Really? You sure?” he was rubbing his hands and looked over his shoulder towards his truck, “You got a car?”
She shook her head.
“That’s okay, I got mine over there so I can drive us to a motel or something, a hotel, whatever, theres gotta be one near here”.
She shook her head again. She was confusing him.
“I don’t understand. You dont wanna get a room?” She shook her head. “But you said you wanted to, I mean, unless you got somewhere better to go, I don’t…”
She nodded to cut him off. She wasnt thinking about it anymore. She couldn’t.
“Okay, I mean, if you’re sure, we can go any place you like. I don’t mind. I’ll
drive us, we can go whatever place you want. Long as its warm”. He laughed nervously. His knuckles were turning blue.
“We should go now though, fore it starts to snow. Fella come the other way said there was six inches come down not far from here, said he damn near died almost skiddin’ into a frozen lake. Tell you, that’s the last thing I want, to be near one of them this kind of night. Never liked water even when its warm and in a tub or such. Like it even less when it’s freezin cold”.
She stood still and silent. She wanted to cry.
The snow was starting to fall but the truck was steady on the road. The headlights showed rows and rows of trees pass by as they navigated the roads between woods.
Peach sat with her hands on her lap, the man’s coat still around her shoulders. The heating was on full blast and the man had donned a spare coat, one made of thick leather hide, suitable for hunting or riding. They had not spoken since they entered the car, and the only communication they had shared had come when Peach had needed to gesture for a turn.
“You don’t speak much, I noticed”, the man said. Peach kept looking at the floor.
“It ain’t a bad thing, you should know that. There’s a lot of folks out there think talkin’ makes ’em smart, think if they can stop others from talkin’ that it means they won somehow. But I don’t think so. I reckon you talk when you need to, rest of the time you just keep your thoughts to yourself”.
A moment of silence passed. The man seemed to be thinking.
“Then I realise I said pretty much every word since you sat down before, and that makes me go against myself. Makes me seem pretty stupid”.
He looked to her for disagreement, something to make him feel better. But nothing was coming. Peach was staring out of the windscreen into the white abyss. For all he knew she was asleep with her eyes open.Thirty minutes later and Peach showed the man down a narrow gap between trees. There was no path to speak off, no posts, no signs suggesting that a house was near, just lines and lines of thin trees stretching either side until they vanished into the darkness.
The man moved the car slowly through the trees until Peach pointed him towards a silhouette in the distance: the sisters truck at the top of the hill. It was dark, ghostly, sitting in the snow as if abandoned.
Having parked the truck, the man looked around into the darkness. The other truck was empty. There was nothing around for miles.
“This is it? This is the right place? You sure?”
Peach was sitting quietly. By now, Boone and Mauve were probably half way up the hill towards them, having heard the cars engine come to a halt. She could feel the
man becoming nervous beside her. His heart was beating harder, she could almost feel it in her seat.
“Look, if you’re playing some game with me, then I’m sorry, but I ain’t in the mood to be made fun of. I thought we was getting along fine, but I’m thinking maybe I got it all wrong and you’re just out to make a fool a somebody. And thats fine, but I’d prefer it you didn’t make me that someone. I’d prefer it, I could just take you home and we could part ways. I ain’t from round here, you wouldn’t ever have to see me again, I could make sure of that. We can forget each other”.
And Peach was struck with a painful longing. She did not want this man to leave. She did not want to forget. She wanted to choose him, and forego her sisters. She had done unholy things, but never as herself, and she wanted the chance to begin again. She wanted to be loved.
She looked at the man, who was staring at the floor between his feet, and she was about to reach out for him when she saw a glimpse of light peak from behind the ridge. The lantern. Boone. She grabbed the mans hand tightly and he looked up. He saw in her face a look of fearful desperation.
“You okay? You feel sick?” She shook her head. “You wanna go back to the bar? You forget something?” She shook her head again. Another flash of light, bigger this time. The man looked out of the windscreen. Another flash of light. “What is that? Is somebody here?”.
As the haunting silhouettes of her sisters appeared over the hill, Peach gestured frantically to the keys, still in the ignition. The man was squinting into the light, he couldnt make out the two women approaching fast, nor the iron rod in Boones hand. Peach was tugging at his arm, shaking her head.
“It’s okay, it’s women. Two of em. That must be their truck, maybe they broke down or something, they might need help”.
His innocence, his willingness to think the best, was going to be his death, she thought. What it was that made her love him was the thing that would have him killed.
She tried to stop him from getting out of the car, but he was heavy, and strong, and though it took him two attempts, he pulled himself from the drivers side and into the cold snow, by now ankle deep, that would soon be his tomb.
Peach watched as the man called out to her sisters. When he got no reply he turned towards her, and in that briefest of moments he was struck twice by Boone, heavily on the back of the head, and fell to the ground. With her target felled, Boone took a moment to catch her breath, and in doing so fixed her eyes through the trucks windscreen and firmly onto poor little Peach.
Mauve and Boone had agreed that they would leave Peach in the car, to return to later. It was more than three miles to the road, and in this weather she would not make more than half of that without tiring. Peach, sitting in the passenger seat and sobbing quietly, new the same.
They would come back for her, and Boone was looking forward to setting loose her hatred for her adopted sister, but for now their task was to heave this unwieldy corpse into their small rowboat. Their hands were cold and the mans jacket, covered in snow from having rolled him down the hill, was wet and slippery. Combining their strength they worked, limb by limb, to try and drag him into the wooden boat, and they had managed so far to have his head, arms and torso inside, and his legs dangling over the edge. The hard part was done, but the boat was still a short distance from the lake and they would have to pull it, with their victim inside, to the waters edge.
Peach was wondering how long she would have to wait for them to return. She pondered starting the truck and going for help but she had no experience of driving and if she started the engine then her sisters would be upon her in little time. She ventured out into the snow, wanting to escape the confines of the cab, and listened. She could hear the faintest muttering, and then the dull scrape of the heavy boat being dragged along the uneven bank of the lake. She could see, vividly in her mind, the scene.
She turned around to try and remove thought from her mind. She felt helpless, but was calm in the knowledge that it would not be too long before she would not have to think or feel anymore. She would, she thought, rather be dead than afraid.
In walking to the rear of the truck, she peered into the flat bed to see remnants of a hunters weekend: an uneaten sandwich and some rope, a broken flask and an old baseball cap. There was also, in the far corner, an old carcass, now decayed but once probably a small mammal, maybe a wild fox or coyote. It was sinewy and inedible, and not much to show to those who cared, and so it had been left to rot. She thought of the mammal and she thought of herself. Useless, without substance, and doomed to decay.
It was then, still full of hate for herself and the world, that she saw the gun.
Boone and Mauve were struggling to drag the boat through the frozen ground, but there was only a few feet remaining. Concerned more with the fast-freezing water on the surface of the lake, and the need to get their victim to their home before he recovered, they did not hear Peach approaching through the trees behind them, the loaded revolver clasped tightly in her hands and her heavy breath pluming out into the air like chalk powder.
With the boat was three quarters in the water already, the sisters were ready to push off, but without Peach to help, there was arguing between the two as to who would launch them. Mauve was used to pushing the oar and Boone to holding the lantern, and neither could do both at once.
Peach was at the edge of the trees now, and had still not been seen. Her sisters were bickering loudly.
Finally it was Boone, her blood hot and her patience almost exhausted, who plunged her long leg, with foot attached, into the icy water with a gasp and pushed. The boat strained and wriggled looser, but was still grounded. She readied herself for another go. She was not strong, and already tired from the work been done.
Peach was edging forward, her wet shoes softening the sound of her footsteps. She was now in the light, clearly visible should they look, but had approached them from behind. She was safe for now, but if one of her sisters should turn, she would be seen, and she was not confident of her aim. She had never fired a gun before.
With all her strength, Boone pushed again, the freezing cold splashing up onto her thigh. The boat inched forward. One more push would do it. But one more push she would not have, as Peach, less than five or so metres from the boat now, fired a shot and hit Boone in the small of the back, close enough to the spine, and sent her toppling over
into the water. The next shot missed Mauve by a few inches, hitting the boat, but the following attempt, with shaking hands, struck her in the neck and flung her backwards into the boat. With the crack of the shots having dissolved, Peach edged closer and saw, as she looked around the boat, Boones body upside down, her face under the surface and her limbs bobbing with the rippling tide. Her right hand was shaking, a twitch of the nervous system, and Peach watched closely until it had stopped, when she could be sure that it was a morbid finale and not a sign of impending revival.
Inside the boat, Mauve was flayed across the unconscious man, long dead having bled profusely from her throat onto his leg and crotch. Peach rushed to try and help him, she was unsettled by seeing him stained with blood, even if it was not his. She lifted Mauves waspish body with all her strength and tipped her over the boats edge with a splash. As the echo of Mauves meeting the water eventually faded, everything fell silent. It seemed even the wind, the trees, the earth itself that was usually so loud, had stopped still. Everything had come to an end.
The smoke of the gun lingering in the still chill of the air, Peach knelt on the boats floor and lifted the mans head into her lap. She had covered them both with his large coat and she could feel his pulse in the back of his neck, near enough to his wound, with her finger. In time with the sound of the lapping water, she stroked his hair and whispered sweet things into his ear.
Around the boat, Boone and Mauve had gone. Their bodies were some metres away, the tide gently leading them out into the middle of the lake, to where they would sink and come to rest with the others.