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Stop me
if you’ve heard this one before: the lands up north,
Hoar-bent, frost-locked, need deeper plows
To dig them. Here is one.

Beowulf , Meaghan Purvis

Have you ever heard the one
, he says, about the girl in the car and the fingers scratching. He mimes claws, reaches down to scrabble her hair, but she’s already doing the same to him, pulling at his knitted hat until he slaps her. And the fingers on the roof, she says, and it’s the dead boyfriend and the guy’s strung him up above the car. Yeah. I’ve heard that one before.
      He is leaning up against the sea wall because his side hurts and the sky is weeping its colours – long drain of white across the surface of the sea. His voice is like chalk, the gentle drag of it, and she thinks about cliffs and then about blackboards, about sidewalk games and murder victims marked out in silhouette, about pool cues and pigment dust and Pica. This happens a lot, this categorisation. Someone says aluminium and she makes a list: Coca-Cola, tinfoil, patio chair. Standing next to him but a little way removed, she thinks about the way they used to learn things; one holding up an item that the other had provided and naming it loudly: oven glove, umbrella, clock, Cup-a-Soup.
The wind is high – a pummelling thing that seems to lift and push at the ocean like fingers clawed in bedclothes. They are just beyond the beach, on the concrete flat that slopes towards the headland, and she wishes she had worn something thicker than a denim jacket. 
      I think, he said in the car a little earlier, I think I can make it that far. They had been driving since daybreak and she had mostly been telling stories to keep him awake. Remember the one about the petrol station, about the man in the back seat holding the axe. They have always done this, played at monsters, swapped stories that pretend a reality their ubiquity belies. Everyone knows the one about the man in the back seat holding the axe because it happened to everyone’s second cousin. A folk tale, in as much as a folk tale also means a lie.
       She hoped they might be able to go down onto the sand, but by the time they arrived it was touch-and-go as to whether she’d be able to get him out of the car. Don’t touch me, he said, and then, help me up. When he leaned against her, she thought of flying buttresses. Thought, in quick succession: masonry, gothic architecture, catacombs
       He has always been taller than her; a dark strip, stretching up towards the sky like some terrible fault in the landscape – a split within whatever view he inhabits. She is smaller, though still tall, the hunching gait of something difficult. They do not fit easily inside the car. When they spend their nights in motels, their feet stick out over the end of the beds.
      Do you think, he is saying now, that if I die here, you’ll be able to bury me. She looks out over the sand and imagines how much of it would have to be displaced to make space for him. I think I’d rather you didn’t, she says and then shrugs.

They came south several years ago, winding down from where they were before; nuclear country, soft polluted soil. They were younger then, possibly taller. Over time, her hunch has become more conspicuous, his legs taking on the aspect of something crushed – a spider caught beneath the rim of a glass. They were loping creatures once, the long strides of giants moving over sleeping cities. He moves slowly now, cautious as something on a wire. Their heads cramp automatically sideways when they slide into the car.
       In the old days, they travelled fast, eating up country, repeating words to one another until they’d learned them the whole way through: viaduct, Viagra, Ovaltine. Their vocabulary came in part from the car radio, which they played constantly, and their patterns of speech were littered at first with words almost entirely peculiar to music of the 70s and 80s (groovy, fever) until it occurred to them to move from an easy listening channel to all-talk. They drove by day and in the early morning, stopping on the outskirts of towns when the night came on and proceeding further on foot. 
       In the old days, it was easier. They moved soundlessly, no one saw them arrive.

Well what about this one, he says to her, elbows back against the sea wall, needle of pain in the left thread of his eye, there’s a woman you conjure to foretell the future. Bloody Mary. You say her name into a mirror three times and she appears, but summoning her isn’t always safe. She is unsure what to say to this as, again, it is a story she has heard before, so she simply inspects her hands, the mottled skin between the knuckles, and wonders what she’s going to do with him when this is over.
       Beneath his coat, the fabric of his sweatshirt is blackening, dark stain like an absence, like a hole punched through a wall. It is Tuesday, curtained windows on the scant collection of beach-adjacent houses she had noticed on the drive down. She imagines going back to one of these houses, ducking down to meet the eyes of whoever answers her knock and telling them please, I don’t know what to do. 
Why don’t we try to walk, she says instead, looking down towards the sand again – ridge-cut by headland winds, a queasy ripple running perpendicular to the tide. They came from ground like this, wind-ravaged, though different in its mineral content, the ratio of rock to clay. Where they came from, a thin reed of something poisonous bled through the topsoil, a dark infecting trace stretching down towards the place where things grew.

Once, they had come to a town in its first insanity of Christmas lighting, red neon holly wreaths and reindeer suspended in flight across the bow of the shopping precinct. They moved through the streets that night without speaking – 3am, witching hour in full illumination – but when they found what they were looking for, she still set her fingers to her lips.
       Afterwards, they were performing the necessary rituals (she keeps wet wipes in her rucksack, a value pack of chewing gum) when he huffed a sudden laugh, bent down to peel a flier from the ground. They were somewhere between streets, narrow lane leading off from the highroad, overshadowed by buildings on either side, and his voice echoed thinly as he read: Legendary radio DJ Les Brown from popular morning show Get Up With Les switches on this year’s town centre Christmas lights. She looked at him, the endless line of him, perhaps as tall as the buildings that boxed them in. She thought to herself: building, window, invasion, had pictured the curl of his fingers around the outer edge of a windowsill. She wiped her teeth with an index finger – copper taste, the zing of licked batteries. Legendary, he repeated, over and over, holding the flier aloft, and she played along: Legendary, mythical, fabled, monstrous, foul.

She leads him down the sand, one hand at his elbow, catching his side when he stumbles. It is still early enough for them to be the only people on the beach, though she had half-expected a dog-walker, an early surfer – salt smack of someone unfamiliar, wool-swaddle, hair and skin. When this happens, the far-off waft of someone, she has learned to clamp her tongue against her teeth to prevent the flooding of saliva; drip-choke of sudden hunger pooling backwards down her throat. 
       I feel bad, he says, this isn’t helping. The throb of his side seems to travel into hers by sheer proximity. She dips her chin into her chest to guard against the wind. 

At first (at very first) they had been content to roam, moving the way their bodies allowed them – the writhe, the shiver, the slink. How they first emerged was never clear to them, they simply were one day – same as anything – broken earth and the cake of soil crusted up into the corners of their mouths. They learned, in stages, to move their jaws and lips and finally to talk. His voice, the first time he used it, was like clay, mined from earth, the sound of something packed tight and gradually excavated. He spoke first, made a noise that wasn’t a word but which she would later misremember as hunger. It was the first noise to draw her attention; to drag her wet and invertebrate through the soil towards him. Above them that first night hung impossible stars and the wheel of the sky like something balanced on a tilting table, ready to slip. They knitted themselves together in pieces, became bodies that shuddered and sat.
       Over time, they learned to walk, to move in ways that brought them closer to the ordinary. They stood up, looked about themselves and realised they would have to travel if they wanted to survive. Hunger, she still thinks, often just before sleeping. Hunger, starvation, craving, yearning, longing, appetite, want.

They come to a halt some yards before the water’s edge when he decides with no forewarning that he cannot stand. She releases him without making a decision to do so, watches him go down with a detachment that seems appropriate to the fall of something vast, too big to care about on any personal level. The Roman Empire, the sinking of the Titanic. Tragedies, in their most generic sense, but not in a way that means anything to her. She only feels it briefly, this curious apathy, the sense that what is happening is just another story that she might hear and disregard: Did you ever hear the one about the sinking ship, the crumbling citadel, did you hear about the figure on the beach, the way his legs went out from under him. Coming to herself after a moment, she staggers down to her knees beside him, clutches at his elbows and then at his neck. She tries to recall how she has fixed things in the past, tries to picture the contents of her rucksack: loose change and antiseptic wipes, six packs of spearmint gum, three gold teeth she had found she couldn’t swallow, a clump of hair, a box of Elastoplast. 
       Come on now, she says, tries to recollect the plots of the radio soaps from which she first learned to speak in full sentences, come on now, you’re ok, you’re going to make it. In their early driving days, after they switched from the music stations, she had become briefly obsessed with radio serials – the low-stakes dramas and amateurish sound effects, the sudden stops and cliffhanger endings. Her voice now is an imitation of that. She is thinking of an episode of a daytime drama she once listened to; a woman’s voice soothing a man through partial impalement by a piece of farming machinery. You’re going to make it, she says again, just stay awake. Come on now, come on now, you’re okay. Amateur dramatics, all this, lines learned to move the action forward. She remembers bits and pieces of the dialogue but she can’t remember whether the man in the radio drama lived or died.

They had eaten to keep going, followed their appetites across country, away from the first polluted place. Pain in the bones when they failed to sate their hunger, pain in the eyes and up the backs of the legs. Once they started to drive, they tuned the radio only very occasionally to local news channels, learning words like ravening, like marauding, like attack. 
      One night, they came upon a town that lay asleep behind closed shutters, striding inwards from the curve of a road that fell beneath a protective line of trees. He whistled as they walked – a toothsome sound, something new he had learned to do with his mouth – and the noise echoed back to them in the valley-dip that held the town like something offered on a palm. She smelled it before she saw it: hot blood, the way it slugs through sleeping bodies. D’you know the one, he said, about the monster who visited the hall every night to feast on men until the hero did away with him, and the second monster who went on after him, who came to wreak havoc in revenge. They had been listening to a drama on the radio that afternoon, an ancient story filled with mists and murky waters and names she couldn’t imagine how to spell. Of course I know that one, she said, we just heard it. He quirked his eyebrow at her, set his sights towards the town.
       (Ways to eat: perhaps three in total. In pieces, insufficiently or all at once. When they approached a town, they did so always in hopes of a feast and in expectation of setbacks. It was too difficult, increasingly so, to proceed unchecked, to grab at something and carry it off without finding themselves pursued.)

In the sand, his shape is that of something scored, as though his coffin-lines are cut around him. Even now, she can’t be entirely sure what is wrong. The dark in his side is growing wider, as though something in his internal make-up has soured and caved in. She wonders briefly about starvation, tries to remember the last time they managed to eat without interruption, but if that were the issue then presumably she would be fading too. Something simpler than that, she supposes. They come from bad soil, are perhaps made up of it. Unstable bodies, grown from septic earth.
       I don’t feel good, he says, and she feels this the way she has always felt it: when he eats and her throat fills with air as if in mimicry, when he hurts and her body sings with an answering ache. They come from the same soil, rose up together one day like plane trees, and she worries this means that his sickness must also be hers. We’re not the same, she wants to say, I’m the second monster, not the first. I’m supposed to go on after him. 

She had watched, once, on the outskirts of a town before it slept. The lights of a pub and its hanging sign, the shuffle and hiss of a bus stopping to disgorge its contents. Mist-slick cobbles, parked cars and upstairs windows open half an inch. 
       She watched a gaggle of women rounding a corner, four of them walking in tandem, black tights and sudden gnashing talk: I heard he lives with his mother, I heard he has ringworm, I heard that after he sleeps with a woman he cries. They collected beneath a lamppost, bright-haired, shrieking and sharing cigarettes. One holding a box of fried chicken, another an asthma inhaler which she jammed in her mouth and depressed with a noisy zip. Did you hear what happened with Sarah’s boyfriend, did you hear about Gary, did you hear the thing he said. 
From the safety of the shadows, she watched them, pushed her face into silent imitation of their expressions: eyebrows up, chin down, mouth wide and whaling. Give me a drag of that, one said to another, reaching for a cigarette. Feels like rain, said one, this chicken tastes like fish, and she mouthed along. Later, she would pick them off, stalk one and then another, push her fingers into flesh pickled sour with alcohol like something plucked from a jar, open her mouth. For now, however, she only watched, staving off her hunger with the duelling need for something else, something other, the words she mouthed in tandem with the women on the corner: It’s cold. Let’s go inside. I’m knackered. One more cigarette.
We aren’t like them, he had always said, leading her through empty streets on the hunt for what they wanted. If nothing else, we’re bigger. She nodded and said nothing, mimicking the faces of the people they saw when she knew he wasn’t looking.

He has been dying since before she started the car this morning, holding his body like something he might spill from a bowl. Perhaps it was always inevitable. She sits beside him, seep of wet sand through her jeans, and listens to his breathing.
       Lying down in the sand like an animal with its belly exposed, he inhales, exhales. Seems to pause as if unsure between the one and the other. She has seen people die, of course, has chewed untold amounts of gum and flossed her teeth to free herself from their specific flavour. Dying people rattle and so now does he, which seems odd. He isn’t “people”, after all, and nor is she. Something other, they have always been: hungry ghosts, one shape and then another looming up towards the sky.
       She remembers listening to the radio - the story about two monsters, Grendel and his mother: half-murdered creature staggering down towards the water, another striding out to take his place. A myth or a fairy tale, she isn’t sure of the appropriate label: fantasy, fable, allegory, imaginary, unreal. When the first monster died, the second monster entered the narrative, but only for as long as she lived, which wasn’t long at all. 
      Do you think, he had said once, long ago – fiddling with the buttons on the car radio, moving past sports and weather, pop classics and local news –do you think we’ll eat it all, eventually. The towns, the cities, all of it. He was vast, snapping his fingers to a snatch of music, confident in their ability to continue unimpeded for as long as they needed to eat. Hey, here’s one for you a girl’s babysitting in a house and she starts to get phone calls I’m sure I haven’t told you this one before.
She looks at him now, the spill of his body, the way he seems to take up as many miles as there is coastline. He will die soon, she knows, and she will register nothing but hunger, press her fingers into his flesh and act the only way either of them have ever known how. Unhook her jaw, thick spool of white saliva. Floss afterwards, chew her spearmint gum. Have you ever heard the one, they will say, about the monster who died and the monster who outlived him. Did you hear what she did, where she went afterwards. Do you know where she is right now.
There is a town barely half a mile from shore – she glimpsed its rooftops from the car on the drive down, the curtained windows and the walls. Later on, she will brush her knees, wipe her mouth, pull her jacket tight around her and stand, preparatory to wending her way back in. When she leaves, the tide will wash away the imprint of his body, sea urchins like so many eyes unpeeled across the rocks. 
      Did you ever hear the one about the monster. Do you hear her coming now. 

© Julia Armfield

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