The weather was strangely warm for the end of October. Blustery winds shook showers of golden leaves from the trees that were only just beginning to turn. Songbirds still sang their summer songs but the wind snatched the tunes and scattered them among the branches. The sky, paler than summer blue was flocked with untidy cloud, strips and blotches of fuzzy white. Across the open spaces, purple buddleia spires nodded gently beneath the fluttering of butterfly wings.
The impetuous wind from the sea brought the smell of salt and ruffled the water on the river that the strong autumn tide swirled in an unappetising murk. Jim sat on a plastic mac spread on the damp grass and stared—at nothing anyone else could see. Before his face, willows and alders bent over the riverbank, but he saw nothing of their graceful tracery. The evening was bright, the fitful sun dappling the grass and sparkling on the wavetips, but he saw only darkness. And a pale face.
He had moved a long way from the place of his birth where his own dead walked. Back home, his mother would put a candle in the window after the vigil to light the lonely path from the road to her door. The trees around the farmhouse would be bare now, their leaves a damp puree, and the wind would have the cold bite of winter. She was welcome to her ghosts. This was not his country; here, the door to the otherworld opened to foreign dead. His dead were not beneath this soil.
He had come back reluctantly to this spot, on this day, just to be sure nothing had changed. The river ran over her face now, her body weighted down with heavy stones. She would lie on the river bed until there was nothing left of her, her bones picked clean by catfish. She had no grave, had nothing to rise from. No door would open to let her through. No one remembered her, no candle would shine to light her way home. He shivered and the pale face in his head opened wide eyes full of sorrow and puzzlement.
He gritted his teeth, refusing to let remorse take root. She had been a mistake. Unwanted. Lacking the sense to see that everything she did annoyed them. They had been perfect as a couple, needing nothing more, a circle; complete and sufficient. Then some foolish friends of Mary’s and her interfering old mother had persuaded her that her life was lacking in purpose. So the child had been born, and the mistake could not be indone.
Yet it was undone. They had undone it. Nothing was left now, no trace, no memories. Too young to have started school, the child was on nobody’s radar. Everything was as it had been before.
The light dimmed; the wind rose. Cloud thickened and covered the last brightness in the sky. He shivered again and prepared to go home, to Mary and the house that contained his world. He picked up the mac and shook the dampness from it, then folded it and pushed it into his backpack. The plastic crackled with the sound of breaking twigs. He listened. The river murmured and slapped against the bank. The wind hissed through the leaves with unsettling persistence. He listened harder and stiffened.
Mishka. Mishka. Mishka.
The wind whispered, the leaves fluttered and repeated the name.
The plastic mac crackled again, or else it was twigs shifting beneath a stealthy tread. He spun around. At his back now the river ran, a ribbon of darkness. Before him the trees of the river bank huddled thickly, swaying in the rising wind, their voices louder and more insistent.
He peered through the shifting darkness looking for the path, but the trees seemed to have moved and thick bushes grew where he was sure there had been nothing but scrubby grass.
He shouldn’t be outside at this hour. The coming storm had chased away the light and darkness had fallen too quickly, catching him unawares. He pushed into the bushes, his clothes snagging on brambles, tangling around his legs. He swore violently, as he tore his hands on the sharp spines. Wind bent the supple birch trees, lashing his face with spindly branches. And the voice of the wind was a low growl.
The wind had risen to a fury and he brought up his arms to shield his head from flying debris and plunged forward blindly. He could see no path away from the river; darkness was total. Total except for the glitter of eyes caught in a stray moonbeam. He froze as terror crept up his spine.
He put his hands over his ears but the wind, the leaves, the air hissed the name, over and over. He had buried the dog in the garden. Mishka had been attached to the child, had attacked him like a fury when…it was done. The dog had seen and would not forgive, so he had killed him and buried him in the garden. Mishka.
On this night graves opened and let the dead pass to this world. She had no grave, lying on the river bed.
Below the tumult of the wild wind he heard a snarl. She was nothing, just a heap of whitening bones washed by the ceaseless power of the river; she had no grave.
But Mishka did.