The wind that danced the tilia trees, a short story by Michael McGlade
In this month’s Hennessy New Irish Writing winning story by Michael McGlade, a young woman tries to escape a nightmare scenario
This room had been her prison cell for years and more. Her world kept beat to the rhythm of the wall clock. Men marched to its pulse, came and went. Night or day, she couldn’t tell. When alone she watched the sick yellow light that stole beneath the metal door, a pale remembrance of the sun that had once dripped like syrup from a jar onto the clay streets of Rozdrojovice. The clock rattled like the oars of the docked boats on the banks of the Svratka. Sometimes the hallway draft whistled like the summer wind that danced the tilia trees. She would not forget home. She shut her eyes and each time she did so she went home.
He inspected her, turned her over, checked for needle marks. She was clean. Tall, spoke-thin, almost boyish. Hair like spun gold. Eastern European, probably. He’d asked for the youngest they had and they gave him a girl in her late teens, a starved pale thing. At least her eyes were shut, just as he had requested. He pushed inside her.
The sting made her stiffen but she knew better than to show discomfort. Over the months, the pain of it had lessened. She pretended she was a rock even though her body felt as hollow as driftwood. She endured these men like glacial erosion. This man he smelt of cough drops and ammonia and sweat. She kept her eyes shut, as instructed. She kept her eyes shut and dreamed of home where one day she’d take Vilém.
He hoped she wouldn’t open her eyes. If she did, he’d have to turn off the lamp on the bedside table. He’d paid extra so she wouldn’t watch him. They had promised she wouldn’t. He studied her shut eyes but his mind lingered on the unlocked door. He wished they would have let him lock it. He’d feel safer if there was a dead bolt. Someone paused outside the door. He lost control, tensed and twitched inside her. He hated it when they listened. Reaching over to the bedside table he switched the lamp off. Remained frozen on top of her. Wished this room was darker, that he could disappear from sight. No one could ever know he was here. The wall clock crunched like a bad gear change. Not much time remained. He moved inside her. The cot creaked like a rusted gate hinge startled in the wind.
She studied the beat of the wall clock, made it into a tune and played it as a rhythm in her head. It sounded like a frantic heartbeat, like a mother in search of a lost child. She wondered if Vilém had yet been put to work, like she had at that age – no, he had to be still too young for that, at least she hoped so. This man on top, he jerked faster. He smelt of too much cologne and too much talcum. Skin slick as oiled plastic. Wheezy, laboured breaths that stank of whiskey. They were all the same, these men. Wanted her, but didn’t want to be seen. She’d been told not to open her eyes and she never had, terrified of the punishment from the men who owned her. Eyes shut, she dreamed of forever-blue skies and the wind that pulsed off of the Svratka ghosting the barley fields. Her brain itched and scratched behind her eyes like some creature wanted out. The pang in her belly pulsated into her limbs. Her owners had said it was nothing to worry about. They spoke in her dialect, at least some of them did. They said if she ate the food her pain would disappear, and true enough when she ate her food the pain vanished. She’d grow fuzzy and warm. A couple hours later the pang would return. She didn’t know what drugs they were giving her, only knew she could no longer live without them.
This room reeked of other men’s sweat and their musk and he’d need to shower for an hour to rid his body of the odour, at least an hour or his wife would know, or the kids, or the dog, who had stared at him funny when he came home that last time. It had been his first time and the dead weight of it made him need a half-bottle of whiskey just to get to sleep that night. He’d been wired, almost high, for the next few weeks. His friend he’d met online was right: it was as good, maybe even better, than he had ever dared imagine possible. He’d been into the chat rooms every day since. Funny how it had all started, a simple anonymous conversation online and he had an address and reviews within minutes . . . A noise outside the door now. Someone lingered there. His gonads blipped. Hadn’t he paid them enough? This was his private time. He pushed down on her, left most of his bulk on her.
Chest hair scratched her face like wire wool, coarse as her father’s. She didn’t miss her tatica. Wished she was able to forget him entirely but he always slipped back into her thoughts. He’d kept her till she was fourteen, made her cook and clean and tend to the farm animals, then sold her and never said goodbye. Those men had removed her from Rozdrojovice and all she knew since then were the dark caverns of trucks and ships and rooms. She kept her eyes shut. Knew she was forbidden to open them. But to keep them shut meant she must remember her old life, which was worse than any punishment from her owners. They had beaten her before and on the occasion in which she had escaped from the room that was her prison cell, having thrown open the door which was never locked or bolted to make her way on hands and knees through a hallway lined in crusty linoleum, not knowing where she was going but certain that she must not stop because it would result in a return to her unending torment, she made it to an exit and tasted the stale city air before they knocked her unconscious and from then on they had brought her the food that made her woolly and sleepy and awoke the pang in her stomach every few hours, so painful was it that she dared not miss a single dose of those drugs. That was the first year here. Vilém had been born the year after: they beat her for that too.
The wall clock clanged for him. Time almost up. Increased urgency. Most of his bulk now on her he must be cautious, such a delicate thing, could crush her if he wasn’t careful. His folds of fat hugged her like a blanket. The girl mumbled. Seemed to like it.
She dreamed of Rozdrojovice with its wooden huts built on stilts upon the banks and mudflats of the Svratka river and the wind that pulsed through the barley fields and danced the heart-shaped leaves of the tilia. Summer brought the tilia fruit – crimson peas that hung on greenish-yellow ribbons – and she’d be barefoot beneath the tree to avoid the sun for a few brief moments when working the fields, and the earth beneath the tilia was sticky from honeydew and columns of ants would farm the aphids and the sap, and she didn’t know which it was better to be, the aphid or the ant, because each had its strengths but were dependent on the other for survival, without one the other would perish; and when she was too hungry to think, she’d pinch off one of the hearth-shaped leaves and chew on it. She missed these things for Vilém, hated home but missed it too. When Vilém came to her room, quietly creeping in so he’d not get caught, here she’d sit with him and tell him these stories of home, the few things that she clung to.
He thrust harder. Imprinted his weight. Her sharp bones bit into him. Piano keys for ribs. He watched her eyes were shut and listened for movement at the unlocked door.
She kept shallow breaths. Endured his bulk. Thoughts of her tatica and her home came to mind and she couldn’t outrun them. They hurt worse than the man now on her. Instructed as she had been to keep her eyes shut, it was this decree that brought her to a stark realisation: there was no way for her to escape this life; she would be sold onwards as she had been before, or she would die in this room that had been her prison cell for years, most of which she could no longer remember. This man, who was succeeding at hurting her, she would not allow to destroy her. If she had nothing of value in this life, then she should have no fear of what was to come, and so it was that she opened her eyes and stared into this man’s face. He was old, must’ve been in his sixties. Cheeks swollen like a gerbil’s. Waxy-white skin. Wrinkly as a prune. She met his eyes, which were hard as mined stone. He glanced away and his jowls reddened. He cupped a hand over her eyes, buried his face in the limp pillow. His weight crushed her into dust. A dead weight she couldn’t move.
She breathed with shallow puffs, otherwise the anaconda won: it wanted you to take a deep breath so it could constrict tighter around the abdomen and collapse the lungs.
He’d been promised that she wouldn’t look. She had studied his face and committed it to memory, he was sure of it. What if she said something to someone? Anger and revulsion took him. He clamped both hands around her throat and squeezed.
She spoke but no air was permitted to escape her lungs and so it was that she mouthed the words she wanted him to hear, not that he would have been able to understand her dialect, but had he been able to then he would have heard her say Take me home. The wall clock’s tambourine rattle made cicadas tick in her head.
He strangled her, fingers gripping her throat like a vise. He squeezed and squeezed until she became still and silent and a crimson ring had formed round her neck. Her lips blued. Eyes became glassy and formless as melted wax while her essence draining from existence in juddering degrees till nothing substantial remained. Slumped upon the girl, now, their bodies closer than water, he lingered there like lovers do. The madness that had taken him had departed and he released his grip and the girl lay lifeless and he drew his hands to his face to weep a silent pathetic apology. He understood he had been growling during the strangulation and knew somebody would come to check on the girl. Through his hands, he watched her and continued to do so and muttered prayers as he did so, then her glassy eyes blinked and she gasped and drew in rapid breathes and the man sighed and managed a smile. There was movement at the door. He did not turn and he did not react. It was over, now. They’d beat him, take all his money, but that would be the end of it. He’d buy his way out of it and never return to a place like this. The door opened and someone entered, slower and less urgent than he’d expected. Probably momentarily shocked by what he’d done.
The girl angled her head toward her saviour and mouthed silent words, unable to speak. A distillation of fear came upon her eyes and the man craned his head around to face the person who had entered the room.
It was a boy – her boy. Couldn’t remember if he was five or seven, the years fuzzy as mist. She’d named him Vilém, but they called him Bill. He had the table lamp in his hands and struggled to raise it, this ugly iron thing that a blacksmith might have forged, taking the boy’s entire strength to lift it aloft, and, as gravity now swung it down, the sharp-edged base struck the man on the side of the skull with a dull thunk like when a watermelon splits. The boy’s eyes watered and his chest shuddered and he took his mother’s hand in his and cried gently, careful not to be heard or they’d never let him back in here again.
The man now slumped on top of the girl lay limp and unbreathing, the dead weight of his carcass a solid unmoving thing. She could only gulp shallow breaths, unable to throw this thing off of her.
She shut her eyes and she was home.
Wind snow-globed dust among the clay streets of Rozdrojovice. Milka, somebody said. Milka, you’re home. And little Vilém, too. Milka moved soft as fog toward her hut and muddy water lapped the banks of the Svratka and the paddles of docked boats beat like a marching drum.
Michael McGlade has an MA in English and creative writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. His stories have appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Ambit, Grain and Shimmer; mcgladewriting.com