The Weekend Read
Eye for an Eye
By Rosie Garland
27th Oct 2017
She hugs the fox fur tight around her throat. It’s kept her warm for almost fifty years, but in November has its work cut out for it. The wind shoves her across North Bridge and down Nicholson Street. A young man scowls at her. She recognises the disapproval, aimed at someone wearing not just the skin of a dead animal, but one with its head and tail on show. She’d like to tell him it has three paws, not four, and that’s the only reason Robert could afford it; that it’s a fond reminder of a husband long gone. But it’s none of his business and besides, she gave up fretting about other people’s opinions years ago.
It was also years ago that she discovered her talent for shoplifting. Cameras train their beady eyes everywhere, even on little old ladies, but more often than not they are looking in the wrong direction; much in the same way as the store detectives who trail scruffy women in laddered leggings. She always dresses nicely, even to buy a loaf of bread. Old-fashioned, she knows, but it reminds her of happy times when people in shops called you by name. She’ll settle for politeness. All those kind security guards, returning her wrinkled smile and helping steer her shopping trolley when she aims it at a stacked display of artisan bread. They never notice how she uses the confusion to slide a can of peas into her coat pocket.
She pauses at the gate of Surgeons’ Hall. Something draws her inside. Shelter from the hammering gale would be reason enough, but something more is afoot. Perhaps it’s because everything in the museum reminds her how lucky she is. She drifts past cabinet after cabinet of undersized human skeletons with curved spines and legs bent double from rickets. And that phrase, repeated over and over on the display cards: Died In Childbirth. Died In Childbirth. Less than a hundred years separates her life from theirs. She blows a kiss to a child-sized woman; a woman she might have been.
The impulse urges her onwards. The only way she can describe it is that she has caught a scent and is compelled to follow. She’s in no hurry to return to the ferocious weather, so lets herself be swept up the stairs to the Pathology Gallery. Rank upon rank of shelves stretch to the ceiling, crammed with bones in sweetie jars sealed with ancient black tar. She never knew there were so many lost parts in the city. Her gaze is tugged to a particular bottle on the third shelf. Inside, a skeletal hand spreads like a fan stripped of its lace webs. It curves a finger, beckoning her to approach.
What a foolish notion. She shakes herself, and the fox fur quivers. You’d think she was truly dotty, not simply good at pretending. The bones have been wired and arranged in the gesture, that’s all. But her feet will not let her leave the spot. This is where she has been brought.
She examines the label. Left radius and ulna, metacarpal bones and phalanges. Fracture, gunshot, primary amputation. Even taking into account how tiny everyone was back then, it strikes her as the hand of a young lad – yes, an inner voice whispers, that’s right, a lad. Drummed into a militia, barely old enough to shoulder a gun, and he gets a bullet in the wrist for his trouble. All at once she can see him, clear as day, held down by his comrades as the field doctor saws his arm off halfway to the elbow. She hears the butcher chide his shrieking victim, better a bullet to the hand than the ballocks. Now, there’s a nasty place to go rotten. Tutting and shaking his head as he swipes the boning knife in a swift arc. Hush your caterwauling! I never heard the like from a fellow your age. Away off now to your mammy and get some tar on that stump and you’ll be right as rain in no time, so you will.
The boy waves, forlornly, from his glass prison. She raises her own hand and waves back. Poor lonely soul, she thinks. The display shelves are fronted with narrow strips of Perspex. Wide enough to stop the exhibits falling out, but not wide enough to stop someone slipping their hand within. She glances around, casually: fewer bug-eyed cameras than the supermarket; no uniformed guards stalking the corridors. She wriggles her fingers past the plastic barrier and caresses the lid of the boy’s flask. No-one stamps across the parquet floor and ticks her off. The glass canister is very slim. Why, it would fit through the gap.
No. Preposterous. She mustn’t even think it. But she does think it, and more. There are no trolleys with which to provide distraction, but she is up to the challenge. She shifts position to shield what she’s doing, grasps the jar and edges it through the slot. It’s rather like posting a parcel in reverse. With a fluid movement perfected during years of shopping expeditions, she pockets it, fluffing up her fox fur to disguise the gesture. Less time than it takes to draw a breath. She’ll be caught, of course, but somehow that’s the last thing that matters.
She shuffles the remaining containers together to fill the empty space and trots down the stairs and into the courtyard. Despite the chill, she flops onto a bench to catch her breath. Any moment now, a member of the museum staff will bear down upon her, demanding the return of their specimen. She’ll hand it over, complete with her finest impression of a harmless old dear who said it was calling out to her.
It was, but that’s not the point.
No-one comes. No-one growls, come this way, please.
A few flakes of snow escape from the leaden sky and sting her face. She ought to feel guilty about her terrible theft. It’s part of a person, for heaven’s sake. There’s not a twinge. When her heart has stopped pattering, she stands up and ambles through the stone archway. Back on Nicholson Street, the wind is sharp enough to cut granite. She rubs her hands to coax some warmth back into them. By a stroke of luck, the bus to Dalkeith pulls up just as she reaches the stop. All the way home the fox tickles her ear. The rocking of the bus makes it wag its tail, slowly and happily.
She stands the bottle on the kitchen table. The hand has fallen against the glass, what with all the jiggling on the bus. She prises off the lid, releasing a puff of trapped air and the scent of smoke. She wriggles her fingers inside to set it upright and in doing so, shakes hands with the boy. She’s surprised by warmth. It is almost furry to the touch. How ridiculous, she scolds herself. What did she put in her tea this morning; whisky?
She waits for her imagination to iron out its creases, but the bones remain silky. They could be part and parcel of her fur wrap, for goodness’ sake. She glances at the fox, stretched flat on the tabletop. Its eyes glint.
‘What a pair we make,’ she says.
The fox smiles. Whoever said animals have no sense of humour never had one about the house.
‘Trio,’ she corrects herself.
She carries the boy’s jar into the sitting room and positions him on one end of the mantelpiece. He makes a perfect counterpoint for the urn containing her dear Robert’s ashes. No; not a trio. A quartet. Together they make quite the family.
I dreamed of him every night. I knew I’d find a way to make it up to him, eventually. He didn’t deserve my vengeance. He didn’t set that snare; was simply unlucky enough to find it. If only he’d walked away. If only he hadn’t kept my paw.
With the eye of memory I see him, clear as if it were yesterday. Sent to check the traps, he finds my severed foot in the iron jaws of the largest. The chewed edge is wet and the drops of blood leading away into the bracken are fat and fresh, and not a single fly has had time to settle upon the meat. He is astonished that I – a dumb animal – bit off my own foreleg rather than let myself be taken. Not only that, but I must have gnawed through the bone in silence, because he recalls how he’s not heard a whimper all morning. He wrestles it free, takes it home and stows it in the chimney until it smells of a fire in the forest. He thinks it’ll bring him luck. The poor fool should know that good fortune comes from rabbits, not vixens.
My body cries out for what it lacks and my lost paw answers. Wherever he carries me, I follow, the hunted becoming the hunter. I don’t know why I do this, because no-one can return what has been torn away. I pray to the God of Foxes for my paw to be restored. When that is refused, I pray for restitution. For revenge. A lifetime of snapping chicken necks has made me spiteful and stupid. I watch, and wait, and when I have my chance, I seize it.
Like all young men, he is in a hurry to throw his life away for king and country, and that’s how he finds himself at the wrong end of more guns than I’ve ever had to face. But what I desire takes only one bullet. I watch the battle from a safe distance. When my chosen assassin shoulders his gun, I send my trickster spirit to whisper in his ear: left now, a little more to the left. I feel the curl of his finger around the trigger. Oh, the pull. I watch the bullet fly and pierce the arm of my thief. A paw for a paw. A fair exchange, I think, as I hop away in a pretty 1-2-3, 1-2-3, waggling my pert russet backside in the way that intoxicates many a dog-fox hereabouts. Let him keep my severed part, tucked into his shirt as a talisman. I only want his hand, not his heart.
So it is that I find myself, all these years later, outside the Surgeons’ Hall and draped around the throat of a woman not much younger than me. I scent the lad as soon as we pass. Unmistakeable, even now. I nudge her through the electronic door and up the stairs to where his perfume is strongest; the room where all the exiled limbs of men and women are stored. I can still see, though my eyes are glass. Mine is the eye of desire, which is strong enough to outlive any breath we have in our bodies.
There it is: his sawn-off hand, marooned in its lonely bottle and set between a gangrenous finger and a shattered knee. It has been stripped of its pretty meat, bones arranged in that gesture used by priests when blessing their flocks. I would raise my remaining paw in salute, but my bones were removed a long time ago. Of course, I’m the one who prompts the old woman to filch the jar. It’s no different to dragging a hen through the slats in a coop.
I am comforted. As happens so often, I regretted my act of vengeance as soon as it was committed. I tried to tell myself I was justified, and repeated that lie to my cubs so often I almost grew to believe it. However, I knew it was not the boy’s fault, any more than it was mine for stealing his Master’s chickens. It’s only since I commenced this second life as a fur wrap that I have learned the softness of forgiveness. I’ve hugged this woman close, have listened to her fears and frustrations, and realised how similar we are, beast and woman. Let us share this second life. See; she is opening the lid. She is reaching in. She is shaking his hand.
‘Eye for an Eye’ by Rosie Garland features in the forthcoming anthology from Immanion Press – ‘Darkest Midnight in December’ (December 2017)