After The Flood – a short story by Marion Husband

Added about 3 months ago by Marion Husband

Marion HusbandA brand new short story by our Book of the Month author Marion Husband.

The Noah’s ark and all its animals had been on Martin’s windowsill since his fifth birthday. A few days after the telegram she had taken to rearranging the animals that paraded so patiently towards their salvation. A few days later still she had secreted a pair into her skirt pocket and kept it there until the evening, slipping into his room quiet as a ghost to replace it in the gap it had left. Later she became more systematic, taking the last pair in line, returning it at sunset to the head of the queue where the ark’s ramp was permanently, expectantly lowered. The monkeys were her favourite; they had quick, furious little faces and tails that curved elegantly over their backs. She had an idea that the monkeys were fearless and wouldn’t care about the flood.

Once, early on, she imagined telling her husband that she believed Martin would return. He would be surprised at her timidity, as though she believed he would disagree! He would say of course – of course Martin will come home. But she also imagined his scorn, although her husband wasn’t a scornful man – she wanted sometimes only to think the worst of him – how he would say they believed in Christ but didn’t expect Him to turn up one day as if he had never left.

All she would say was that it wouldn’t be as if he had never left – that they had changed but this wouldn’t matter. Her husband would only look down at the novel he’d been reading, as though he would find some truth there he could share with her. She imagined him saying, ‘Believe all you will, with all your heart and mind, all your power and strength, with all your rituals and small superstitions. There may be magic in the world – who knows?’ Then he would smile at her, blessing her belief; he would be pleased she was taking such action. He wouldn’t comment even if she took the monkeys from her pocket and held them out to him on the palm of her hand. He would nod, understanding at once, going back to his reading with a lighter heart.

Through the days, between all her chores and tasks, she would seek out the animals in her pocket, tracing their faces, ears, paws and tails. There was stubbiness and sleekness, ridges and folds. The lions were jagged, the tigers smooth; the elephants’ trunks each had two tiny dents for nostrils, their tails short and tapered in curious scale to their fearsome tusks. She stroked the giraffes’ necks up to their sharp, pointed ears – always pricked, those ears: in her pocket the giraffes became alert, listening creatures; on the windowsill only vexingly unsteady. The snakes were curled like garden hose with forked tongues red as blood. So small those tongues that at night in bed she believed she imagined them. During the snake days she felt for their tongues, and the tongues would stab the tip of her finger and she was reassured. She had stopped looking at the animals too closely: she wanted to become blind to them: there would only be touch, a more thorough knowing.

At first she cried every day, of course. Every single day without fail, always when there was no one else about; and if there was someone else to see her she would very quickly make herself scarce. The handkerchief in her pocket would be caught up in a kangaroo’s tail, a torn trail of lace entangled around a horn or a hoof. Once, in her haste to retrieve her hanky, one of the tortoises had clattered across the bathroom floor. Only its shell was damaged, a crack almost too fine to feel. Poor tortoise, hunched and undemanding as a pebble. Tortoise days would be slow and steady; her fingers would make a deal of effort not to worry them. Her crying stopped on a tortoise day; her hand made a fist and the tortoise made its shell pattern on her palm and she told herself she would try very much not to cry again for a while, but to be stronger for her husband, and for Martin, in preparation for his return.

One Good Friday, in church during the singing about the green hill far away, she felt the tip of a monkey’s tail snap. She went on singing, although her heart faltered just as it had that first day when she watched the telegram fall from her husband’s hands. The telegram memory was vivid, sharp as the snake’s tongue: the open front door, the sunlight streaming in, her husband in his collarless shirt sleeves and slippers, suddenly an old man when a moment earlier he had been young and smiling, tossing some remark about the weather over his shoulder. She had stood in the hallway, a few feet behind him, a tea-towel clutched in her fists; she’d had a premonition: she didn’t need to read the slip of paper drifting tardily to the floor. She was all knowing like the snake, striking out at her husband that Martin was dead.

“Missing,” her husband said, and whispered, “only believed...”

In church, the monkey’s broken tail hard against her thumb, she remembered how she spat missing with such vitriol – a mother knew when her son was dead! Yet now it was she who believed and her husband who knew.

She couldn’t say when this reversal had occurred, not the exact day. She thought it was one of the monkey days, when she had picked up one of the pair – the male? – and studied his face intently. A creature so determined, quick on all fours, his graceful tail an emblem of momentum, of hope. Hope was something she could open herself to; hope seemed then, with the monkey in her hand and the sunlight casting little creature shadows on the sill, that it might be a balm. She needed to be soothed; the injury she had suffered needed somehow to heal; she couldn’t go on as she was. If she was to go on at all her heart had to be protected. She set the monkey down beside his mate. Side by side their monkey liveliness was more obvious: they would leap onto the ark, they would perch on Noah’s shoulder, urging him to hurry the slow creatures – the future awaited, and the drowned would be really none of their business. Hope, then, a looking forward, an anticipation – the monkeys knew about hope and belief.

Why should she invest so much in this little wooden carving? Martin himself had hardly played with this toy; he was a boy after all and not given to girlish play. In Martin’s world the ark and Noah, Noah’s wife and animals, were ornaments, unseen as the pictures on the walls. The noon sun had bleached the animals’ right side – one of the pigs had the white and pink splotchiness of a baby’s chubby thigh. The little monkey in her pocket was faded brown and tan and now her mindless worrying had broken him. She thought of messy glue, the futility of trying to stick the tiny fragment now pressed between her thumb and forefinger to the rest of the tail. But it wouldn’t look right, not ever again, the grace had gone.

The hymn ended; the green hill was still far away, and she forced herself to think of it: Golgotha, that place of the skull – but the hill only resembled a skull, like one of those silly ink blots on paper might appear as a butterfly or a dragon – fanciful to call a hill a skull just because of some squint-eyed resemblance. There was enough death, anyway, enough horror. She let the tip of the monkey’s tail fall into a deeper part of her pocket. The monkey would be fine; she would hardly notice the damage once he was back on the windowsill, about to leap onto Noah’s shoulder. All would be well.

That Easter Sunday her husband walked out to the lanes around their house and picked a bunch of daffodils, placing them in a vase on the sideboard beside Martin’s photograph. Her husband was a good man: he was clearly good, as an elephant is clearly large. She didn’t know his thoughts – she could no more see inside his brain than she could see inside the elephant’s. He could only reveal his goodness through words and actions; even the look in his eye might not truly give her insight: her interpretations may be wrong. She thought his sadness was greater than hers because he didn’t believe as she did. But she thought she may be wrong about this, and that some of her belief may have rubbed off on him. She should ask him, come right out with it, but there was too much risk of hearing him say the wrong words.

To test him she said, “Daffodils are a symbol of the resurrection.”

And although the voicing of even these few words made her tremble, she stood her ground and watched as he touched one of the half-open trumpets, his eyes fixed on it. He nodded; he said, “The resurrection was a miracle.”

“No – turning the water into wine was a miracle.”

He turned to her. “I love you.”

“And I love you!”

“Then let that be enough for us.”

Endearments and daffodils: words and actions. If this was enough for him, then so be it.

Noah stood on his ark, his small, dull wife beside him, their sons and daughters-in-law missing: she supposed they would complicate the story – the child who played with the ark might not know what to do with these extra adults – the animals were enough. Noah and his wife had never left the ark, she had never carried them around in her pocket; they were simply together, side by side, not touching but staring straight ahead at the inexorable procession. The scent of daffodils permeated even here, in Martin’s room, and she thought of sweeping the ark and all the creatures to the floor; there would be an end to it, no more calm, just a shrieking, destructive woman smashing all hope to bits, just as her husband had, but she wouldn’t destroy quietly, as he had, with all his goodness on display. She picked up Noah only to put him down again. Martin was alive – there was no doubt; her fury would pass but the certainty would remain.

The summer came with all the froth of May. She took to walking the lanes with the monkeys in her pocket; she had begun to cheat, taking the monkeys out of turn, telling herself that this was because they were already broken – one, at least – and it wouldn’t do to damage more. One day the ark would belong to another child. She stopped quite still: death stood before her – her funeral; the ark boxed and taken away, everything gone. Martin would return to an empty house and wonder at her going. She stood so still a stoat ran across her path, a white blur: she may have been mistaken. The monkeys were sharp in her hand, reminding her to walk on, brave and impatient. She took a step, then another: the stoat would catch its rabbit, true to the scheme of things.

One autumn evening she asked her husband, “Do you ever go into his room?”

“Sometimes.” Quickly he added, “I lie on his bed.”

She wanted to ask if he saw the ark and noticed all her small changes. But his confession made him press his lips together, made him take off his spectacles and polish them on his cardigan. He gazed straight ahead, blinking, mole-like. There were no moles burrowing towards the ark; there were too many creatures in the world to be included, remembered; there was only the capricious whimsy of imagination. Her husband hooked his spectacles over his ears and glanced at her. “I take off my shoes and lie down.” He nodded as though he was picturing himself shoeless on the bed and it was a good, comforting picture. She knew then that he hadn’t noticed the missing monkeys, or that she had placed Mrs Noah on her back, out of sight behind the ark’s cabin. Perhaps she would return her to her place – she was beginning to think she had committed an injustice.

“Should we leave things just as they are?” He asked.

She sat up straighter, smoothing her skirt. “Of course. Everything should be just as it was.”

He laughed, so sad, the saddest good man in the world. He wouldn’t chivvy or chide her; he had asked his question, she had answered; he wouldn’t ask again.

Of course everything wasn’t just as it was. Things change – some things imperceptibly, like the fading of wallpaper, the sun bleaching the lining of the curtains to ugly stripes. Time showed how neglectful she was: how the dust settled in the spiders’ webs, how her husband’s shape became embedded on the eiderdown she never shook out. There was a flattened path through the rag rug leading to the ark, narrow, as though the two-by-two pairs had trodden it.

She knew Martin would come home.

The war ended and she tried to care and to smile at her neighbours when they talked of relief. She felt only a kind of breathless anticipation – this shift had occurred, a leap towards the future, something must happen now. She went to church each day, the monkeys jangling in her pocket, their impatience becoming fractiousness. Martin would come home, but when? Soon, because the war had ended and there was no more for him to do; wherever he was, his duty was finished. Now it was finished she should go to France – this idea occurred to her in a sudden panic of indecision: go and search or stay and wait – which? If she knew he was coming home then of course she should keep her vigil; to go wandering the empty battlefields, even that particular place where his missing began, could only be a betrayal. He had written about a little shrine dedicated to the Virgin – one day intact, the next blasted to bits. Well – he wouldn’t be there! Where would she even begin to start to look? No, she could only stay, despite the monkey-like impishness of her panics.

She’d rubbed away the monkey’s fierceness – he became inscrutable. She thought inscrutability was wicked but a necessary protection. How calm she had become, rubbing away at the monkey’s little face. How the time passed so predictably. There wasn’t much to this waiting. She was sure he would come home and so he would come home; what were a few weeks or months here and there?

You think this is just another tale of love and loss, of madness dealing with grief. You read on only to discover how the tale will be resolved, with acceptance or a further falling into despair. You don’t believe in miracles – she must come to know that Martin is dead and reach a presumed peace – you know how you like to presume – this is how the rational story must end. But if she can’t know for certain, then how does she know? There was no cold cheek to kiss, after all.

Imagine the ark as the waters rise and all the animals you can imagine begin on all their unimaginable cacophony. If you can imagine this imagine a young man walking along a country lane. There is a story of how he was saved with all kinds of twists and turns and unlikely but never-the-less true events (in the way of all events in a human life). But this is her story and she doesn’t know yet how he was saved, only that he was – she believed and he came home. A true story of faith and hope – didn’t you want a happy ending?

She walks, then runs, towards him and the monkeys become what they once were, little wooden toys, patient and all-knowing.

Marion Husband is the bestselling author of the trilogy The Boy I Love. Her novel Now The Day Is Over is our Book of the Month for June—get it today for just £6.99.

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