Short Story: The Cardboard Effect
A large garden standing on a slope, a house hiding in the mist. The top of the garden reaching into the clouds like Snowden and looming over the bricks of the Victorian house. A rhubarb plant growing next to some wild mint, adding a fragrance to the grass nearby. Apple and plum trees casting shadows over bay windows, often dropping fruit with rotten cores.
A narrow chare with a stone arch runs along the side of the house. On one side, there is an ivy, climbing the brick. The red and green mixing like paint; a Gerhard Richter hung in nature. On the other, a small patch of bluebells, softly curled with their heads tucked under. They had bloomed in late April under a mellow sun. Asparagaceae, you told her. The importance of family in flowers, in roots, in life. The dozy bluebells sat still beside the fairy flowers. Patches of Dead Man’s Bells and witch’s gloves. You had tugged her away, keeping her to the footpath until you had reached the safety of the buttercup fields. Here, she would run and pick flowers – each petal brushing lightly against the bottom of her jaw – do I like butter?
You’d return to this place each day, walking past each patch, keeping an eye out for movement. The colours were vibrant in the evenings. Just as the light was about to fade, you’d catch the true blush of the Earth’s surface. It was as if the world expected everyone’s eyes to be closed in a blink, and in this second, it would change face.
The next morning glass bottles of orange juice and milk would be sat on the doorstep – gleaming in the sunlight. It always appeared that the sun was whitewashed. The milky hue of the sky diluting the flowers and brickwork. The stories which had been told would finish in the air and fog the dreams of people with sleep in their eyes. Rapids would run across your eyelashes, encouraging you to peer beneath them. What life grew underwater? You would try not to look. The rapids would pull at your eyelids and you’d retreat – the stinging too great. The foam gathered on the lips of waves.
Lemons and oranges decorated a voile that covered a window overlooking the courtyard. The concrete slabs cracked under the neighbour’s weight as he looked for weeds. His hand would grasp the roots of ivy which have snuck through the cracks and into his area. He’d hiss as he pulled at them, dislodging a few smaller pieces of concrete.
His cat, fat and with a harnessed lead attached to it, would gingerly walk to and from the shadows. His tail flickering into the sun and out again. The white fur mixing with the chalky air. The neighbour would often walk the cat early in the morning but would leave the lead attached to it in case it attempted to leave the courtyard during the day. It seemed that the cat had learned how to deal with the lead, and when the owner was not looking, he’d tuck the harness under a branch and tug it over his head. The neighbour would spit at it and shove it back into the harness. The cat would not fight, rather enjoying the attention, and would lazily place his paws on the neighbour’s knee as he fastened the bodice around him.
She would often watch this cat with curiosity, wondering why it did not just make noise to get attention. It was only after witnessing someone yelling for change, in the middle of a busy street, that she would understand.
You would sweep out your chimney that day. The slight warmth of the metal from where the sun burned through the windows. Smoke had been funnelling back into the living room a few weeks prior when the sun sat behind the clouds and the wind sent a chill through the bones of the house.
You had noticed the smoke slightly, at first. The odd curl of grey air forming in front of your face. Soon it would grow into strands of hair, languid against the ceiling like the locks of her hair in the bathtub. The thin wires spiralling against the cream. You would attempt to pat the fire out, smothering it in a blanket, while she danced. Her hands clasping and crushing the ash in the air.
The room became cloaked in the remnants of it all. The carpet turned from Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk to Picasso’s Guernica. He worked in monochrome in order to get to the truth of the painting, you had told her. The colour is a mask, she had drawn in the soot with her toes.
A moth flies from the brick and into your mouth. Tortricidae.
A calming breeze rolled over the hills, pulling the ivy slightly like a net inflating with fish. You sat with her, teaching her how to whistle with a blade of grass. The perfect technique for pressing it between her thumbs. Your hands enveloped hers as she blew into the green.
When she got the hang of it, you whistled along, making music in the wind. The noise vibrated against the windows; an echo rang along the chares and lifted the seedlings from their beds. She blew on grass and you blew the remaining dandelion seeds into the air. You’d pray for her safety.
The seeds nest themselves wherever they can land. She had tracked a few with her eye, landing in the creases of a brick wall that had begun to sag under the weight of potted plants. She often pointed the wall out to you, laughing at how it bulged the same way your stomach did.
You would catch her, later that day, removing the plants from their pots. Rosa, phalaenopsis, lilium. She’d be lying them in rows, ready to be planted in the grass. You would question her, asking why she was removing them. She would simply reply by pointing at the old, sagging wall. They want to be together; she would say. When you had tried to pot them again, she picked up a ceramic pot and drop it on the ground. The shards dispersed around her feet. Her ankles ran red, and you had noticed. The crimson against the white.
She continued to place the flowers into the grass. Save them first, then save me, she muttered.
Asparagaceae. You explained how family can rot against you. The cursed and the free. You explained to her to keep running. Through the fields and meadows, past the green kissing gate and the troll bridge. Past the limestone houses with the heavy wooden doors. She had to find the buttercup fields and melt into them. Let her body dissolve and find comfort in the disguise.
She’d later think of the buttercup fields and find patches had been burnt within her. The darkened edges flattened amongst the untouched yellow. She had been told of a world that would turn to cardboard, piece by piece. Like a child inside a box, waiting for their parents to notice they are missing. You would sit in the fields of grey and brown, and wait. You would not be able to leave; the box had to be opened from the outside. There was brown tape holding it shut and the only way to be released was to rip the fragile walls or be rescued. To break the box would be to break the disguise, to expose yourself to the air, to the ivy, to the rot. Often, there would be no one to find you, and sometimes you would refuse to leave. You had become accustomed to it – like the cat and the harness, it had made itself home.
She thought of herself as a buttercup. The small rays of sun brightening her petals as she sat beneath the chins of others, answering their questions in a flash of light. She was small, neat, bright, and she knew it. You would look at her and see how the light caught the blonde of her hair, making her glow a bright yellow as if her petals were growing in. You, she said, are a love-in-a-mist. Nigella Damascena. She’d produce a picture book of flowers for you, pointing to one annotated with your name. She would tell you that they are grown in patches of neglected, damp grass.
Ranunculaceae. They were related, by root, but they were quite different. You’d think back on this day. Could she have seen the mould growing in your chest and understood that the grass grew damp around your feet?
She had looked between you and the book, looking for a sign of recognition. In a past life, were we all flowers? She would think as you pressed your fingers to the pages.
She’d turn the page and point to Titan arum. And this is them, she’d whisper. The large flower blooming in the centre of the page. The Corpse flower inside Eden. She thought of this flower as the narrator of life, the one who knows and holds fate in their palms. They had given her the yellow petals and her father the jagged appearance. She believed that when your soul is forming, they assign you a flower, an emblem of life, and in such they must have an emblem too. She had read that this flower emits the scent of a decaying body, and with that, she knew that it must be Death, himself. The souls of the people he takes clinging to his fabric and soon everyone would smell the familiar notes of rotting meat.
You turn the page to find a dozen pressed buttercups between the pages.
Some days she would explore the garden alone. You had since locked yourself away in your study. Surrounded in the dust and darkness, she found herself agitated around you. She began to hate small spaces and dark corridors.
Outside, the sun would hide behind the clouds and she would sigh with each new shadowed minute. I will find the beauty in this dark, she would think before exploring the under-hedge of the far corner of the garden. Lying on her stomach, she would crawl under the green. A few twigs stuck in her hair as she scrambled towards the stone. Gently, she would tap against the stones until one came loose. She’d pull it away and peer out into the chare. From here, she could see the patches, lined up before her like patients in a waiting room – their heads hanging low.
You would peer outside every so often to see her legs kicking in the air from under the bush before returning to your books.
Purple, green, blue. She would meditate the words in her mind, saving the colours for a day where the sun would leave her inside with you. She would keep her eyes fixated on the flowers, looking for movement. Soon, she would reach a finger out from beneath the stone to touch them.
You’d grab her by the legs and pull her back.
Melancholia. The black bile was rising in you and you could not prevent it from forming in your chest. You became more reserved, less present, and she had noticed. The colour drained from your cheeks. When she would ask you why you were hiding, you would tell her of the fairies from the chare. They were looking for you after you had accidentally crushed one of the flowers. You would produce bluebell petals from your pocket, and she would gasp.
Under the light of a crescent moon, you would find her sitting in your study. Her face would be concentrated as she pieced the fragile home back together with tape and glue. You would watch her for some time as she tilted her head to catch the best rays of light.
When she had finished, the bluebell lay flat against your paperwork, a small rounded door and two windows delicately drawn below it. She had created art from your mistakes.
You would frame the piece and keep it at your bedside, always.
There was a small stream that flowed a few fields away from your home. You’d often take her there, admiring the life of the riverbanks and basking in the cooling spray of the upturned wind cupping water.
A large branch leaned out over the rush of water, covered by the strands of a nearby willow tree. The branch was high enough that you could dip your toes into the water, without the need to roll your trousers up. You would hold her, swinging her above the water as she glided her toes through it.
Sometimes, you went alone. Pausing on the branch before lowering yourself in. You’d let the water collapse around you as you searched for the riverbed, grasping at the mud and pulling yourself towards it. The rapids stinging your eyes. Usually, you would stop here with the pain forcing you out. This time you would allow it to show you its secrets.
Below, you saw darkness. The upturned mud from your hands clouding the river. From the corner of your eye, you would see movement. There was a shaping and twisting below you as if the mud had formed limbs and sprang to life in front of you. In the face of the creature, you saw yourself. The same ageing skin being dragged by each new rapid. The weeds curling around your wrists, holding you in a tight embrace. The river was grounding you to her and showing you her depths. The creatures which sunk in darkness and that were formed in the dirt began dancing around you and you had realised that they were you. These creatures balancing on the tip of your nose. The river had taken on your shape for each time you had embraced her, a memory, a snapshot that the mud had modelled around you.
You’d struggle to release yourself from her grip. Gasping for air, you’d rip at your wrists. Raising your head above the water, you could see the budding of a daffodil at the root of the willow tree.
You’d relax into her and wake up near the field of buttercups.
Some days, the sun would hide away, too. She would not understand how the sky could run out of light. Renewal, you would tell her as she watched the droplets of rain land against the window. Small puddles, forming like tears on a page, would soak into the windowsill.
It was days like this that she would question the colours. The purples and reds she had saved in her memory seemed like faded paint strokes that had only lightly brushed her memory. The rain, thinning them down like watercolours on a canvas. She would use the rain to paint a portrait of you.
Why is it that when the rain comes the Earth turns blue? She would think. But she knew that somewhere beyond the grey and white curtain, the same orange glow permeated in the air. She would wonder, if she was high enough to enter the clouds, would she see the divide? A lining of gold illuminating above her head while her body remained in the depths of the sea.
Gold lettering patted against the red fabric, words she could not read. Katomi Baoding balls, you told her. You opened the box to reveal two large, jade spheres. Picking one up, she’d hold it in her hand and walk around with it. It was heavy and cold and she could not close her fingers all the way around it, though she tried.
You’d teach her that they were to build strength. The trick was to hold two in one hand and circle them around in your palms – a stress reliever to you, magic to her. She’d try it with both hands, the balls sparking together, before asking for you to show her again. They would glide around your palm effortlessly. Two things co-existing, moving in the same rhythm, without touching. The distance helps maintain the movement; you’d tell her. Like the sun and the Earth, constantly rotating with an invisible string to keep them in perfect unison.
She’d roll one back and forth between her palms, listening to the ringing coming from within. A stone that sounded like a bell.
We cannot come to you because we do not know that you won’t hurt us.
She’d taken pictures of you. She remembers being called into the back room in order to get you help when you wanted to start medication. The cuts in your skin, the dark marks and the nicotine stains that lined your arms in patches. Your joints would rust as you struggled to hold position.
She’d think of the patches of flowers and compare them to the cells of your skin. Is there a border to separate the afflicted parts from the healthy?
She knew the apples would fall from the tree and soon rot on the outside. She’d feel the rapids against her eyelids that day.
The heat of summer hung heavy that week. She would lie on the grass and watch the rainbow of heatwaves dancing above the tarmac. A refraction of air stirring from the breeze. She’d take her camera and try to capture the small fragments of colour as they looped over the dislodged stones and interrupted weeds, only to find that the lens did not see what she did. You would come to check on her, as she dozed in and out of daydreams. The heat making her eyes heavy.
Can you see the rainbows? She’d ask. You’d shake your head and she would once again question the colours in front of her. What form does a colour take? To her, it was everywhere. In the air, the water, the grass beneath her. A world drenched in paint. She would wonder, if a person was left in the dark too long, would they still understand the light? Or would it become so foreign that even the colours of the sun would be hidden from plain sight?
She had taken a photograph of you as you turned away. Your body enclosed in grey, colours fracturing around you. She caught the rainbow as it caressed your skin, but you couldn’t see it.
You would brew your own wine after a while. The insisting perfume of yeast rising below her bed. Everyone talks about the lovely smell of baking bread, but no one speaks of the heated yeast growing beforehand. The way it makes the air heavy and grow thick. She often found it hard to breathe. It was as if the air was becoming dough and, in that dough, she sat like a sixpence. Was she lucky? She believed not. It was only after you die that she’d realise she was lucky you were there. That this self-brewery was your final attempt at survival.
Monilinia laxa, late July. The sun beating, the air still. You began to tan around your knuckles, a bruising effect. She saw colour in everyday life, even where it should not have been. The world began to saturate, the shadows fading into cool blues against the red sun. The orange hue of your sclera. The brown of your phlegm as you coughed into the concrete. You had started to rot, like the apples and plums. Each thud marking a new patch on the grass. You felt it in your bones, the aching. The birds had been picking at your skin until your wounds bled brown rot. The codling-moth crawling inside you, feeding on the darkness growing in your chest. She would sit and watch the apples drop one by one until the tree stood, a singular fruit left, stuck in a mummified state. You held a breath.
You’d pass, July 31st. The bluebells would ring in the sky, clearing the milky air and lifting the rapids higher. The witch’s hands climbed from the soil and curled into the world, fastening around you. The world had become damp; cardboard submerged in water. It grew soft and split between your fingers. The fruit becomes cankers on the soft bark, infecting the heart of the tree so that by next spring, the saturation had faded. The blossoms would wilt and shrivel. The world remaining brown. She would feel the same rush of waves over her eyelashes, the same loss of colour, as you did. She would taste the rot on her tongue, the moth creeping in the back of her neck until she too ran out of light.
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