* * *
Far away to the north the land emerges from the suffocating forest and runs down past orchards full of apples to the sea. Here a high cliff beetles out over the water and here young men dive, mother-naked, into the deep pools at the cliff's foot, at the bottoms of which grow lank green ribbons of seaweed. These, despite their stench, furnish a sovereign remedy for unwanted pregnancies; and every day the women harvesting the apples, and dropping them into baskets of woven straw, can look down to where the young men haul themselves out of the glittering sea, there to throw the ribbons of seaweed into identical baskets.
Out of the forest and down into the tidy, fragrant orchards one day came Jeremy, desperate for human company and even more desperate for some other food than the scrawny, half-cooked quail and rabbits on which he had been living for a week and a half. They were scrawny because he had nothing but his bare hands to hunt with, and so was unequal to all but the oldest and least savory of animals; this could not be helped, but that he snatched them barely warm from the fire, and ate them more nearly raw than otherwise, was no one's fault but his own. It was a terrible hunger that compelled him to do this, and to forget each time that each previous time he had burned his hands and his mouth. He felt that he had never been so hungry in all his life, which was not true, but it felt true.
He seized an apple from the tree nearest him, but had barely put his teeth into it when he felt the hot pain of a lash on the backs of his legs. He let go of the apple, and it was partly to retrieve it and partly to grovel that he dropped to the ground after it. "Oh please, oh please," he implored the first pair of feet he found. "I must have food, else I will die."
The feet at which he had thrown himself were shod in sharkskin and belonged to the overseer, a man whose withered left arm rendered him unsuitable for any work requiring the use of two hands. This was why he did not get his livelihood from the sea, but in the orchards with the women and old men. Maybe this upset him and made him happy to lash people who stole fruit, but in any case he felt no pity for Jeremy, for couldn't any living thing say as well as he that if it didn't have food it would die? Moreover, everything that is fed is expected to work, whether cow or man; even the cat kills rats for her bowl of milk. But the overseer had noted that Jeremy was tall. If he would harvest the apples from the high branches once the women had cleared the lower ones, he would have his meals and a blanket and a copper coin a day besides. Hearing this, Jeremy embraced the man's shins for sheer affection.
So when, a few minutes later, the dinner bell rang, and two of the stoutest and strongest of the women arrived from the cookhouse bearing baskets of bread and salt fish, Jeremy was allowed as much as he wanted; and he ate so fast that the women laughed and one of them asked if it hurt him to chew. Then, the things being cleared away, he went to work with the others, plucking the fruit from the high branches.
After supper that evening, before retiring to his blanket on the cookhouse porch, Jeremy went down to the shore for a swim. In the waning light the young men were still diving. He wondered how difficult it would be to drown one of them. It would likely be simple to seize one by the hair and stab him, but Jeremy liked the idea of drowning one. It would be comic, like drowning a fish.
Watching them from that distance he could not discern that there was a young woman who also dove. Like the others she wore her hair in a long braid down her back; like them she was lean and hard-breasted, her brown skin greased against the cold of the deeper water. To anyone watching from the shore she could be distinguished only by the thin cloth knotted around her waist. It fluttered like a pennant against her flanks as she dove, and though it always came away as she disappeared beneath the surface of the water, likewise she always managed to replace it before she swam back to shore.
He learned all of this the next day when the women told him. They assumed that he would be interested because they assumed any young man would be interested in a young woman who went about so nearly naked, and who trafficked so openly in stuff that other women bought in shops that had no names. They had some grounds for this assumption. Other young men had come to their town, and been interested, but Mina had spurned them all. It was generally understood that she was to some degree the property of Tarquin, who dove alongside her, and who clearly wished to crack the skull of any man who looked at her, only how could he, when she wore nothing but a washcloth? "We wouldn't be able to walk for the bodies," yelled one of the women. They had to yell because Jeremy was always several trees behind them.
He found that domesticity, at least this kind of make-believe domesticity, agreed with him tremendously. The routine of each day was like a gentle sinking into sleep, so that the daylight hours were like a long prelude to the actual act of curling up on the blanket on the porch. The wife of the man who owned the orchard, either out of charitable feeling or because she wanted to conceal him as much as possible, had hung from his corner of the porch roof such frayed bits of linen as would no longer suit any other purpose; he lay there in the white moonlight as if he were in a white room, and the sea-scented apple-scented air fumbled at the linens so that they lapped him like sleep.
He was happy to lie on the porch and to have gossip related to him in shouts by the women and to stuff himself with cod chowder and raisin pudding, but there was one thing about his work that puzzled him, and that was the question of what to do with the copper coins. He received one of these every day, which was a generous wage for picking fruit, but then it was a generous town. Money poured into it from all sides. The shops were full of luxuries for purchase: chairs with backs, nightingales in cages, dresses dyed fanciful colors like crimson and pale blue, metal bracelets, rugs, shoes that tied up with ribbons, and hilarious women who leaned from the windows and initiated confusing conversations. Jeremy, who had never earned a regular wage before, was fascinated by the idea that any of these things could be obtained in exchange for the coins that he in turn had obtained in exchange for his days. It was true that he obtained food for them as well, and that he ate the food and it disappeared, as the days themselves had; but the coins remained, the bones of the days, like the bones of a fish. They could become a bird or a chair or a woman, as he chose.
Finally, he decided to give them to Mina.
He liked Mina; in her was condensed all his admiration for the divers, because she was the only one he could identify when he stood on the shore and watched them. They cut through the air as gracefully as birds and slipped into the water and breached again, sparkling in the sunlight. They moved ceaselessly, trotting up over the shingle, flinging the seaweed into the basket, starting up the narrow path that led to the clifftop. In places the path vanished into steep tracts of jagged rock that had to be clambered over. Occasionally one of them emerged from the water with a writhing fish, slapped it dead against a rock, and ate it raw.
After supper, when there was still a glimmer of daylight left, Jeremy would wade out up to his knees and throw an apple to Mina as she surfaced. She would eat it then and there, the seaweed trailing from her hands into the water, with a voracity that Jeremy admired because it reminded him of himself. When she waved to him to show her thanks, the seaweed streamed out behind her arm like a pennant.
"Tarquin's not going to like you making love to his girl, Jemmy," one of the women yelled to him after a few days.
"Does throwing apples at someone count as lovemaking?" he yelled back. The women laughed as if he had made a great joke, and expanded for the next half hour or so on the various forms of lovemaking they had been subjected to, and how much they would have preferred apples instead. But Jeremy remained puzzled. After all, it was only on faith that he understood Mina to be a woman, and he threw apples at her merely as one would throw bread to a goose, for the pleasure of seeing her dive. He enjoyed this more than he would have enjoyed a chair or a painted woman or a pair of shoes with leather rosettes sewn onto the toes. And Mina would have to dive deeper for an apple weighted down with seven copper coins.
He threw such an apple to her that same day, one he had stabbed seven times with the point of his knife, creating seven slots into which he wedged the coins. In the quiet of early evening he could hear the splash as the apple disappeared beneath the smooth purple swells, and the splash as Mina dove after it. He had rolled up his pant legs and the water stroked his knees as he waited for her to surface again.
When she did, she did not sink her teeth into it as she always had before. Instead she pulled it apart with her hands, putting the coins into her mouth as she found them. When the apple was gone she struck out for shore, and her wake streamed out behind her like a crimson robe in the sunset. Jeremy admired the pretty picture this made, but he was tired; before Mina could reach the shingle, he fled up the hill to his blanket.
* * *
He had hoped that he would vanish in the falling twilight, and that Mina would be left wondering what her benefactor had been. But Mina knew of him already; everyone did. Tarquin in particular knew of Jeremy. He did not speak of Jeremy, because he would sooner have cut his own throat than give the impression that he felt threatened, particularly by an apple-picker. But he was seen scowling more furiously than ever at the men who looked at her, and the women whispered to each other that it would come to a bad end.
A man was waiting for Jeremy on the path to the cookhouse. Though Jeremy had never seen Tarquin up close, it could only be he: the long braid of salt-whitened hair, the glower, the hard-looking muscles were all as the women who worked in the orchard had described them. He was wearing a pair of pants rolled up to the knee, as if he had just been wading or intended to do so shortly; Jeremy couldn't decide if this looked more or less ridiculous than it would have on a smaller, softer man. The pants were held up by what was obviously, even on such short acquaintance, the best thing about him: a belt buckled with a fish carved out of bone.
"You've been cozying up to my girl," said Tarquin.
"I've been throwing apples at her," said Jeremy, and wondered if Tarquin would consider this a confession. The fish was a fanciful one, with scrolls and spikes, and he would have liked to see it in better light. Because he was thinking about this, he was a little surprised when Tarquin punched him in the face; as he tried to stand up afterward, however, he acknowledged to himself that it had not been a very surprising thing to do.
Tarquin punched him once more, this time in the stomach. "Mind yourself," he said as he walked away.
After a few minutes Jeremy found himself able to breathe again. He did not give much thought to having been punched, though he hurt in the places where it had happened; many men, and women too, had done as much to him or worse, and he had come to accept it as one of the consequences of meeting new people. Some of them were going to punch him. Some of them, not content to punch him, were going to try to stab him or push him down the stairs or crack his skull or drown him. He did not take it personally. He went up the hill to his blanket and pressed a cool fold of linen against his cheek.
Some time later he awoke. It was still dark, and the only sounds were of the branches rattling in the breeze and the doves purring as they drowsed in the forest. It was the moonlight on his face that had awakened him; the moonlight that streamed in through the linens, turning into a silhouette of herself the woman who had parted them. With one hand she touched the cloth around her waist and it fell silently to the ground.
"Mina," said Jeremy, for it could have been no other, just as Tarquin could have been no one but Tarquin. He rubbed his face and yelped.
"What is it?" she cried, kneeling by his shoulder. Her hair was loose; the smell of salt water drifted from it and from her skin. "Did Tarquin do this to you?"
Jeremy was still not sure what was happening. Why had she come here in the middle of the night? What did she care what Tarquin did to him? "Yes," he said.
"The dog!" said Mina. "No, he is not even a dog, he is not fit to live among men as a dog is!"
"It's not so bad," said Jeremy. Mina drew one of the linens aside so that the moonlight fell again on his face.
"Pig!" she said. He assumed she was still talking about Tarquin. Then he wondered if a pig was less fit to live among men than a dog was. Of course people did not keep pigs as pets.
She kissed him then, and would have embraced him, but he held her away. He wanted to go back to sleep.
"I'll get your money," she said. It took him a moment to realize what she was referring to, and yet she said it as if he would understand perfectly. Perhaps, he thought, they were not really having the same conversation, or perhaps they were not having a conversation at all. He had heard stories of ghosts who seemed to speak to the living but who were only repeating words they had spoken in life, usually to someone now also dead, concerning love or money. There was nothing to be done about ghosts like that, his mother had told him; they couldn't hear you.
But clearly Mina was not a ghost; she appeared plainly in daylight, after all, and she ate the apples he threw to her. Ghosts could not eat. "You don't have to do that," he said. "You can keep it."
"I don't understand," said Mina.
"The money. You can keep it," he said, and to preclude further discussion he rolled over and shut his eyes. Mina did not move right away. Her salt smell lingered, and he felt her hair brush his shoulder when she leaned down to kiss his cheek. Then the linen swished aside for a moment, and the moonlight flashed full on his eyelids, and she was gone.
Jeremy awoke at dawn, and for a moment he believed he was in a prison cell, a milk-white prison cell of an uncertain shape, like the inside of an egg. People were shouting, and he parted the curtains and went outside.
It turned out that Mina had been found dead on the path that led to the beach. Jeremy learned this immediately from several different people, all of whom seemed to believe that it was a matter that concerned him intimately. He wasn't sure why this was until he was brought to the spot where she lay, her neck bruised and broken, and one of the women gathered around her body said, "We told you no good would come of your lovemaking, Jemmy."
Up until that moment he had assumed that Tarquin had killed Mina, but only because that was the simplest answer; he himself had not killed her, and Tarquin was violent where she was concerned; the idea that Tarquin had killed Mina for some reason that involved Jeremy struck him as novel and charming. So far as he knew he had never before induced another person to commit murder.
"All I did was throw apples at her," he said.
Also novel in a pleasant way was the fact that no one suspected him. Everyone knew that Tarquin had done it, though everyone also seemed to feel that Mina had in some way invited being murdered. All around it was an unpleasant business. At least now they could bury her and be done with it.
Jeremy slung Mina's naked body over his shoulder and carried her up the hill. The crippled overseer led him through the orchards and past the cookhouse and into the woods along a path that was hardly more than a flat place in the bright peacock-green leaves of the undergrowth. The cemetery was there, a clearing laid out in rows of stones and planks hammered into the ground. Jeremy, who knew how quickly news of an interesting person's death could travel, was not surprised to see that a grave had already been dug, or that an old woman was waiting to wrap the corpse in a cloth. She was only the woman who tended the dead, no kin to Mina; he could see that by the skill with which she swaddled the body in a few quick turns. Having done this, she opened Mina's mouth and put a sprig of some kind of plant under her tongue, and a round flat stone over it; then she closed the mouth again, so the teeth clicked together, and the men who had dug the grave lowered Mina into it and shoveled the dirt back over her. After a few days they would come back to place a heavy stone over the mound, so that Mina could not rise from her grave and seek revenge.
"Why shouldn't she?" asked Jeremy, when this was explained to him. "Tarquin killed her, didn't he?"
He had, and he oughtn't, the women told him, but there was no sense in making a bad business worse. Mina had been a bad woman, as Tarquin was a bad man, and there was every reason to believe he would come to a bad end as she had done, without their intervention.
"I shouldn't think you'd want her walking, anyway," yelled one of the women, for they were at work by this time. "She was trouble enough for you." Jeremy assumed she was alluding to his black eye. No one had asked him where he got it; it was as if black eyes could be caused by one thing, one person only. Tarquin! Was he the author of the world's woes? Could no one be injured but by his hands?
"I should so like to see her walking," Jeremy yelled back. He imagined her clawing out of the grave, throwing her shroud upon the ground. Naked she would run down the hill, and find Tarquin, and spit the stone in his face. But "Don't say so!" cried the women, so he kept these notions to himself. Silently, as he picked, he thought of the seven coins he had given to Mina: they were the unworked clay of his days, which he might have made into a fur cape, or a cage full of birds, or anything he chose, and where were they? He had given them to Mina, but she had died, because the one thing they could not be turned into was more time. Tarquin had taken them -- even if they were still in Mina's purse he had taken them, because Jeremy had wanted her to have them, and now she would never have anything again.
And all day long he could look down at the beach and watch the young men, Tarquin among them, slap the stinking ribbons into the baskets.
That evening after supper he went to the street where the shopkeepers were hanging out their colored lanterns. An old man had a stall here that Jeremy had noticed before, where he carved bits of bone into flutes and door knockers and boxes for putting rings in. His lanterns were puddles of oil in blackened bone cages, and by their light he sat working at something Jeremy could not identify.
"I want a belt buckle in the shape of a fish," he said.
The old man put his knife in his teeth and pushed a straw basket across the table. Jeremy picked through it in the guttering light, turning aside shapes of leaves and knotted eels until he found a fish sufficiently elaborate in scrolls and spikes. He held it up. "I'll give you three for this," he said.
The old man snorted. "That's ten," he said.
"You're mad," said Jeremy. "Five."
"Seven," said the old man, and Jeremy laughed and clapped his hands, dropping the fish back into the basket, and ran all the way back to the cookhouse.
* * *
He could not trust himself to wake up at the right time, so he spent the night without sleeping in the undergrowth by the beach. To keep awake he told himself a story wherein Mina's spirit rose from the grave and went to the clifftop. She could be seen diving by the light of the moon, and thereafter any man who dove would be found drowned on the shore the next day. Jeremy imagined the cloth about the specter's loins: it would float shining on the water until the ghost surfaced again to retrieve it. Perhaps he would try to pitch apples to her, but she would not notice them. Or she would notice, but be unable to touch the apples, and become incensed, and kill him too. What would he do if that happened? The women would say he had asked for it.
He had dreamed of swimming out to where the divers surfaced, and seizing Tarquin by the hair when he came near enough, and drowning him. It was pleasant to imagine him thrashing and struggling, powerfully at first, and then growing still. Jeremy knew that in reality Tarquin would likely smack his head open against the rocks at the foot of the cliff -- and eat him like a raw fish, possibly. So that would not do.
Instead, when he came by, Jeremy hit him on the head with a rock. The first blow wasn't enough to knock him out, and so Jeremy got a little of the struggle he had imagined, during which he managed to smash one of his own fingers between the rock and Tarquin's skull. When the body finally fell at his feet he could at first only double over with his hand in his mouth.
Tarquin was not dead -- far from it, Jeremy supposed, as he probably did not wish to die, and he usually got his way where the flesh was concerned. Even his inert bulk put up a kind of fight: it was all Jeremy could do to drag him down to the water and turn him over onto his face, and though it was wise to wait for a minute or two to make sure of the outcome, Jeremy had to admit to himself that he did this mostly in order to get his breath back. Then he had to run up the hill to the porch to get there before dawn broke. He was awake this time when the shouting began.
* * *
Because Tarquin had been killed by a ghost, he was to be laid not in the cemetery but in a secret location known only to the woman who had wrapped Mina's body. She plodded off into the woods leading a mule, the mule dragging Tarquin’s body strapped to a sledge. It was presumed that she would leave the body in an untraveled spot and cover it with such rocks as she was able to lift. She was not expected back before nightfall. It sometimes happened that she spent the night in the forest with such a corpse, and returned the next day.
"Isn't that dangerous?" asked Jeremy. The dead were covetous, everyone knew that; they were hungry, sometimes literally. Tarquin in particular did not seem like the kind of person whom death would render trustworthy.
"Maybe for you or me," he was told, "but she is a friend to the dead."
Jeremy felt that he was in his way a friend to the dead also, in that he was a friend to Mina, and in particular a friend to Mina as a dead person. In her life he had given her seven copper coins, but in her death he had given her Tarquin, who was probably worth more than that.
"Dig her up, and you'll find that belt buckle of his," they told him. Now that she had done the mischief of which they had known she was capable, they no longer considered it dangerous to discuss her.
"What's she want with it?" he asked. "She didn't have any use for a belt buckle when she was alive."
A few of the women made scolding noises, but they all laughed. "She wants it to remind her he's dead," one of them said.
"That makes sense," said Jeremy. He sometimes took things from people he killed, and kept them until they got lost: wedding rings, shoelaces, bits of bone or hair, mostly useless things, but comfortable in the memories they represented. Sometimes, after he lost them, he would see other things that reminded him of them, so that in their absence they became objects in their own right. Merely by observing he made the universe more real, larger, as if it were a plant he watered or a stalled beast he fed. The belt buckle was different, though. The belt buckle had belonged to him the whole time.
"Now weren't we right to say that the whole business would sort itself out?" asked another woman.
"Absolutely," said Jeremy.
* * *
In other literary news concerning me and me alone, I have sown the seeds for a bumper crop of rejection slips by submitting a story to six different literary magazines. My therapist is very proud of me and it's possible that facing my fear in this way is what has made me so prolific lately.
About the word prolific, by the way, my idol H. W. Fowler says "prolific is in common use, but to make a satisfactory noun from it has passed the wit of man." That's true, you know.