This is how I come to kill my father. It begins like this.
I’m eleven. We find the mare shortly after noon. She’s not been there long so the foxes haven’t come yet. The flies have, though. She is glossy, plump.
‘Why?’ I say.
Tom’s bony shoulder lifts, indifferent. Sometimes things just die. He’s learned that well. In recent months.
The mare’s mane is black on the parched turf. Kneeling, I reach a finger to her. He pulls me away from the corpse. I expect a scold but all he says is, ‘There.’
I don’t see it, and then I do, in a clutch of bracken, ten paces beyond. Small and dark in the green shadow. New-born.
‘What will you do?’ I say.
He pushes a hand through his hair. ‘Pest question, Iris. What would you have me do?’
This hurts. ‘I’m not a pest,’ I say. ‘I’m trying to help.’
He gives me a gentle shove. ‘Pest.’ Since his mother died in March Tom’s voice has been blank.
We watch the foal as it lies, head tucked into itself. It sighs. Thin cotton sides heave. Its coat is still slick in places. It is too small to live but it doesn’t seem to know it.
‘We could feed it,’ I say.
He gives me a look which means that I live in a big house with floors shiny with beeswax and high ceilings where the air goes up into white silence and the linen is scented with lavender and tea rose. In the mornings I have porridge with cream, milk from my silver mug if I am good. Tom’s knees jut through the worn patches in his trousers. He lives with his silent father in the draughty farmhouse with slates missing from the roof. He is in the fields before dawn each morning. There is no we.
I squirm. My boots are tight, my feet bloodless like the flesh of a gutted fish. I shed my stockings somewhere near Bell Tor. Beneath petticoats my bare legs are gorse striped, beaded with blood.
‘Never works,’ he says at last. ‘They won’t take it. Or they sicken. There’s something not right for them in cow’s milk.’
‘I don’t want it to die.’
‘You’re a girl,’ he says. ‘You don’t understand.’ So I know he doesn’t want it to die, either. In a March storm Charlotte Gilmore stepped on a fold of her skirt. I see the moment reflected in Tom’s eye each day: the buffet of cold air on her face as she falls down twenty steep stairs; her dress, belling about her like a tossed blossom; the thunder which covers the sound when her neck breaks.
‘Come on,’ he says. When he’s upset his voice rattles like a badly fitted drawer.
Our long shadows slide over the turf. The foal raises its head, questing. Tom seizes it. It twists and struggles and bats him with little hooves. Tom lifts the foal onto his shoulders, settles it there. Slender forelegs and hind legs are safely anchored in his fists. The tiny brush tail whisks, indignant.
They go like that, back towards the farm.
‘They’ll be missing you,’ he tosses over his shoulder. ‘You go off home, now. Pest,’ he adds.
‘Wait,’ I say. ‘Wait!’ I run on tight feet.
Henry Gilmore leans on the farm gate. His stare is wide, full of nothing. Tom stands upright before his father. At his shoulder the foal flicks little ears. Tom asks the question once more.
‘Maisie’s colt weaned two days ago,’ says Henry Gilmore.
His words are slow. He gives Tom his flinching glance. Once he looked at you straight. Not anymore. He left his eyes in Tom’s mother’s grave four months back.
‘Will she—’ Tom stops.
Henry Gilmore shrugs. ‘Could be. Don’t fuss her. If she mislikes it. You let her do what she will.’ He reaches a hand to the foal’s muzzle. Its nostrils tremble, move across his skin, scent his grief.
‘It’ll die, either way,’ he says. ‘Better quickly.’
‘Might not,’ says Tom, and the air between them grows dense.
‘You’ll not make a farmer,’ Henry Gilmore tells his son, touching Tom’s shoulder with an absent hand. He leaves us, fades through the gate into the blue. Tom, the foal and I watch him. Distance narrows him as he goes, whittles his figure to a dark drop crawling across the bones of the hill.
In the loose box Maisie peers through a forelock the colour of dirty snow. Clumps of mud cling to her tangled belly. She lifts a broad lip in our direction, shows us her butter-yellow teeth.
‘You’re not to go in,’ says Tom. ‘Pest. D’you hear? No matter what.’
He has a twitch above his eye. His eyebrow stutters with distress. The foal’s muzzle brushes his cheek. Tom’s hands tighten sticky about its legs.
‘You’ll have to hold it,’ he says. ‘Can you? If you. Yes.’ A flurry of little hooves and the foal shrieks like a cat. At length it subsides in my arms. Its pounding heart, its thin new bones.
Tom says, ‘We have to make them smell the same.’
Pressed together, the foal and I shiver under the sun. I can’t see where Tom has gone. There’s the crack of his boots on the dry earth, the puzzling intricacy of wood, metal, catches, clasps, doors. He is back quickly.
‘This’ll do.’ The tin is squat and burly. He prises the lid up with his knife, plunges a hand in. It comes up a shining paw, gloved in treacle. Dark shining loops. He covers the foal’s poll and withers. He puts the stuff on its hindquarters, smoothes it over the heaving flanks, over its belly. When he’s finished my arms are crosshatched as if by the path of snails.
‘She won’t hurt it,’ says Tom. His hand cradles the foal’s jaw. Its eyes close. Long lashes on sooty lids.
‘She won’t,’ he says again, not to me.
Over the stall door Maisie shakes her massive head, blinks a bashful eye, lifts her rubber lip.
‘No,’ I say, ‘she wouldn’t. Good Maisie.’
The surface of the carthorse is vast. Her flanks ripple like a quiet sea. Tom watches. His eyes show the blue iris, ringed with white.
‘Won’t do to wait,’ he tells himself, or me. Maisie offers flared nostrils to his sticky hands. ‘Yup,’ he says to her. ‘All that. Soon.’ He slips into the stall, bolts himself in. His hands move to and fro, between light and the straw-scented dark. They coat Maisie’s muzzle and mouth with treacle. He works backwards along the colossal sculpture of her, moves out of sight into the dim. She stands but her head follows him, the glassy brown trail.
I pick up the foal. It lies like a sack in my arms. It has given up. Its hooves are no larger than shillings. The thud of its heart on my wrist. It smells of fresh crushed nettles, sharp against the farmyard.
‘Will it be all right?’ I say.
Tom says nothing. I carry the foal to the stall door. It is quiet, leaden. He reaches, takes it through the crack into the dark. Then he’s out. He blinks in the sudden, honeyed day. His dark eyebrow quivers. I put fingertips to my wrist. The flesh there holds the memory of the foal’s heartbeat, weaving over my own. We wait, silent.
‘I can’t,’ Tom says. So I look.
In the dim light Maisie’s nostrils traverse the lineaments of the foal’s body. She licks the treacle from its muzzle, eyes. Her tongue sweeps down its length, a thick banner. The foal mews, a high complaint. Maisie levers it upright, nose under its stomach. Her ponderous head is as long as its body, an edifice of teeth and bone. The foal stretches. Its neck elongates beyond possibility, reaches upwards in a graceful line. It can’t reach. It makes the high sound again. Maisie bends her legs, collapses groaning into the straw. Her eyes close. The foal feeds, a tiny, resolute shape by her monstrous belly. The tail whisks. Maisie breathes. Hayseed whirls in the slanting light.
‘It’s all right,’ I say. There is no reply.
Tom’s lips are moving silently. I shove a finger into his ribs. I fold a damp hand around his thin brown wrist. Tom whips his hands from his ears where they have been painfully pressed. He goes to the stall door.
‘Good,’ he says in a rush. ‘Good. Oh, well done, pest.’
‘Don’t call me pest anymore,’ I say. ‘I don’t like it.’
‘I know,’ he says. ‘Sorry. I don’t mean it, Iris. You’re not a pest. It’s just— Remember how you felt when the dogs got your rat?’
Sorrow comes and anger, hot.
Tom nods. ‘That’s how I feel all the time, now,’ he says. ‘Every day.’
I think about this. ‘All right,’ I say. ‘You can call me what you want. I don’t mind.’
For the first time since his mother died, Tom takes my hand in his. We watch the mare and the foal. Bees hum in the falling afternoon. Sound bleeds back into the day.