FICTION (April 2018)

The Devil’s Spit by Jane Fraser

I used to believe that sometimes things could be too perfect, that when life was going well, perhaps too well, it just couldn’t last. It was just a fear, I suppose – though I did once hear a tale of a teenage boy called Evans who apparently had it all; good looks, athleticism, charm – you know the type. Anyway, he fell out of a tree performing some prank, days before his sixteenth birthday and that was the end of Evans. Though this story was told to me decades ago, it somehow stayed with me, springing up on me every now and then, usually when I was perhaps a little too smug about life, as though to hold me in check and give me a little warning.

I was oiling the five-bar farm-gate in my garden with Ronseal Teak Oil when these thoughts last came back to me. Perhaps they drifted in on the summer breeze that hot August afternoon. It was an unusual breeze come to think of it, easterly, off the land, dry and pollen-laden – so different from the damp, salt-laden south-westerlies that usually buffeted these parts. I remember the breeze caressing my uncovered shoulders, noticing the fine hairs, bleached blond by the sun, stand up on my bare, outstretched arms which, I recall thinking, were almost the same colour as the gate I was brushing, a rich teak. I remember feeling vital. Yes, that’s the word. My new husband had told me I was blooming. I remember taking a few minutes to acknowledge how happy I was and to be grateful for it. My life had recently started over again and I was hungry for it, for everything. For relishing my work and piano playing and gardening and growing organic vegetables and learning Welsh and running miles each day along the beach. I was blessed.

And this feeling I breathed in along with the vapour of the teak oil, the turps in the pot on the grass, the coconut oil I’d rubbed into my skin and the honeysuckle that had started to creep through the hedges in the lane outside. Along with the honeysuckle crept simple tales and folk-lore. You couldn’t seem to escape these in the country; don’t cast a clout ‘til may is out; red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning, and the one about blackberries which I couldn’t exactly recall but which my mother had told me, in a chilling voice, when I was a child, something about never daring to touch those that hung on the hedges after Calan Gaeaf* for fear they’d be touched by the Devil’s spit. I particularly remember then how I was drawn to those blackberries, the white flowers still clinging to the firm, green fruit of the unripened flesh at their centre and anticipating how ripe and juicy they’d be by autumn when they’d be mine for the taking. And that’s when Evans came back to me.

The off-shore breezes continued all week and every day the temperature rose. It was said to be one of the hottest summers on record. It didn’t seem possible it could get any hotter. But it did. Strange though, as it sounded like winter, especially in the early mornings and towards dusk when the wind got up and moaned eerily. It felt foreign, sultry, almost unreal. And I loved it; the strangeness of it. Loved the way the trees spoke in a different way, whispering almost. Loved the way the sea sounded nearer than normal, echoing through the stillness. Loved the shafts of sunlight burrowing into my skin and bones. I knew it wouldn’t last and I wanted my fill of it, and would lie stretched out in the full glare of the afternoon sun on the hot slabs of the patio, a cat, almost purring with ecstasy in a state of semi-consciousness, letting my imagination drift. And there I’d lie languid, until I was sapped and wilting like the summer blooms, in the parched flowers beds, their heads drooping, desperate for a shower of rain to breathe life into them once more.

By the weekend, I sensed a change; by late afternoon on the Saturday, the stillness was oppressive, ominously calm. The humidity was achingly heavy, the kind of heaviness that made your ankles swell and your limbs drag. The landscape took on a strange hue. I remember thinking how air and earth had become one; even the slate chippings surrounding the lavender bushes seemed to be absorbed into each other and the air which took on a mantle of deep plum, as if it itself had substance and texture. The atmosphere was clouded with irritating bugs; thunder bugs. I could smell the ozone: we were due a storm to clear the air.

It was as dusk descended and the heavens turned to a thick ebony, almost touching me, that I felt the restlessness grow. I was unsettled, as if I was waiting for something I couldn’t put my finger on. It must have been the storm brewing. It was the inexplicable sensation of Evans again.

The wind rose, suddenly, swirling the leaves of the silver birch in the wild space at the far end of the garden. A downpour was imminent. And sure enough the first drops started to fall, vertically, bouncing in great splats on the patio. I frantically raced around the house, which now was filled with an uncharacteristic inky gloom, to secure the windows. I noticed I was clammy, my whole body dripping in sweat and tiny beads of perspiration soaking my upper lip and brow. I remember wiping the wetness with the back of my hand as I reached up and pulled down the sash window in the bedroom that overlooked the garden.           

In the half-light, it looked like a pre-historic bird, its immense wing-span stretched, hovering just feet above the birches, silhouetted against the sky. And then a violent rustling as it seemed to swoop downwards and come to a sudden stop, trapped in the silver leaves of the branches. It felt primeval and I rolled Pterodactyl around in my mouth with pleasure and with a logic that at that moment, made perfect sense.

It’s the wetness I recall now, the cooling deluge of storm-rain soaking my cotton T shirt as I raced towards this creature hanging there in the branches, silent and motionless. This creature whose wings too were sodden and limp. I could see that the flimsy silk of its wings, the tips like smoked tallow, had been violently ripped in the fall and had become detached from the skeletal framework which reminded me of tributaries of veins. Pathetic somehow, this loss of flight, this fallen angel.

This was a creature of unspeakable beauty with a fineness of form which was almost unearthly. Not yet fully mature, you could see the adult that would be in the face that was finely sculpted, sharp and intense; the skin taut and translucent, veins showing through the alabaster, the bloodless lips that looked icy cold, and the eyes, pleading to be cut free. This mesmerising bird-man had flown into my garden on a sudden storm one hot August night and fallen to earth. I felt an instant connection. He gave off an aura which I sensed even before his arrival.

I must have untangled him from the branches; unhooked the barbed brambles that had punctured his flesh. I suppose I might have helped him off with his harness and pack away his sorry wings. And I would have bathed the scratches on that face of his – wiped it clean – as my fingertips remained stained with blood, a juicy rich red-purple, like those fat ripe blackberries that would soon hang in the lane, just beyond. I presume I asked him his name, where he came from, all manner of things as I knew by his accent and his archaic northern dialect that he wasn’t from these parts, perhaps not even from these times. He simply told me that his name was Evans. I just have an impression of him leaving, walking down the lane that leads from the sea, trailing his broken and bedraggled wings from his shoulder, turning his head, just once, to smile, as he faded into the distance.

Naturally, my husband put it down to the combination of too much sun, heat exhaustion and the virus. The medical profession reassured him that high temperature, hallucination and out-of-body experiences followed by total collapse were typical; recovery was likely to take a long time. They put the broken branches on the birch down to the storm that night, the electricity in the air; but no one could explain the blood on my hands.

Summer and Autumn passed. When early November came, I ventured out beyond the five-bar gate and along the lane. The blackberries had flowered and fruited without my knowledge, save those remaining desiccated few, near which a foulness of blue-black flies buzzed over a heap of dried dung.

*Calan Gaeaf = Hallowe’en


Jane Fraser lives, works and writes in a house facing the sea on the Gower Peninsula, Wales. She is interested in walking as a way into writing, and the relationship between pscyhe and geography to make fiction. She has been a finalist in the Manchester Fiction Prize (2017), a runner-up in the Fish and Rhys Davies prizes, highly commended in the ABR Elizabeth Jolley short story prize and winner of BHS and Genjuan prizes for haibun. Recently she has been runner-up in the Fish Short Memoir Prize (2018) with her story ‘Where the Track Forks Left and Where the Track Forks Right’. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea. | Twitter @jfraserwriter