Yann’s father liked to drive at night and he drove fast. After the holiday on the island, he drove them back to their mother in Paris. Under Mont Blanc they stopped at a rest area and the vehicle took in black mountain air. The tall peak twisted towards the moonlight, fracturing over a blue concave that dissolved into skirts. Come and look, my Yann. Your father has climbed to the top of that.
In the tunnel through the rock underneath, the car sat behind swaying trucks and grew hot. Yann saw the emergency exit sign: a red running man chased by jagged flames. His sister Constance sat up in the back seat.
They were still a long way from Paris when the car hit an animal. Yann’s father fought to control the steering wheel but the animal’s mass drove against the motor as its legs ruttered under the bumper. His father pulled over to the verge. Goddammit, goddammit! he said. He opened the door and dropped his feet onto the road. His breathing was deep, shoulders fallen and two fingers pinched into his eyes. Yann smelt wet pillows of forest air. Constance was asleep.
His father trod around into cones of light but Yann could only see his shirt and his face in brown, lowered ridges. There was no sound. His father recoiled, then turned to the roadside, following something that moved into the woods. Yann saw a flash of red and white.
His father crouched to the front of the car. Yann thought back to the island where they had all stayed in a warm stone house. Down by the water, Yann and Constance watched a fat man with rubber rock shoes and a spear gun, who caught a few small fish. They saw his body submerge and the hard kicks he had to make to go under. There were sea urchins on the bottom and Anita told them never to swim in there or they would suffer like crazy. Anita was their father’s new girlfriend and she drove back to Dubrovnik yesterday for work. Anita had bought a basket of red sea urchins and they watched her skin them alive and slice up the pulp for spaghetti. Now look who’s suffering! she’d said to their grins.
His father came back to the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition. The engine started and he moved the gears. They pulled ahead for a few yards then began to coast along.
The car stopped. The engine shut down and there was no turning it on again. His father struck the steering wheel with flattened palms. On one of his father’s fingers was a gold ring with a flat blue stone.
He took up his phone and called a number, listened to a recording. He rang another number, ringing and ringing until someone answered. Yann heard a crabby voice inside the phone that said Eh? Eh? so many times. His father threw down the phone, locked the doors and closed his eyes.
There is a man coming with a tow truck from the village, he said. Tell me a story, Yann. Don’t let me sleep.
Yann loved making up stories for his father. This one was about a mountain climber from Persia, trapped for ten years on the summit by spirits, until an enchanted gold ring appeared in the folds of the rock. His father was a tall Venetian and as he spoke Yann watched his tanned face and the way his lips fell apart as he was taken by sleep; how his eyeballs travelled under their lids, attentive to Yann’s voice. Yann thought that his skin would taste salty if it were kissed, but he didn’t want to kiss his cheek anymore. Although his father’s mouth had lines at the sides and his teeth grey ridges, Yann had seen a photo where they might have been twins—his father a boy in shorts standing by a canal.
When they were on the island his father shouted when Yann and Constance fought. He shouted at Anita too, making the mascara run down her face until he embraced her in her bikini.
Near the end of his story, lights came up behind them and his father straightened, peering into the mirror. Constance began to cry. The tow truck’s grumbling motor shook through the car. His father wiped dribble from the side of his mouth as he stepped out, slamming the door. Yann looked across to the sea of trees and knew the fox they hit was in there, panting on a patch of freed organs and blood. He knew it was staring into the spiralling branches, hearing these noises come up from the road.
In the morning, crows would start tugging out the plastic straps of its innards. Yann told Constance to be quiet or he would tell her the goriest story in the world. Sometimes, he would tell her stories just to see her tears well and plop from her chin. Then he would hug her wet face to his chest.
They were hoisted inside the truck’s cabin with their sweaters and shoes back on. The ramp was lowered and Yann heard a clanking and the hiss of hydraulics. Their punched-in car crawled up behind where they were sitting with its torn light. Stuck above the cabin window, Yann saw a rolling nude woman and another one weighing up her own round bosoms in her hands. She was smirking and wearing a stupid starry cap. His eyes caught on the Holy Mary magnet on the dashboard, and the wrappers and the stinking hat pushed across the seat.
His father climbed inside, taking Constance onto his lap. The driver came in next to Yann and looked hard at the children. He pulled out onto the empty highway and the truck laboured a while before it began to pick up speed. The next exit was not so far. The man slotted coins into the toll machine and drove more raggedly than before, given the road was bent and narrow. They came to a village surrounded by fields dotted with large white rocks. Yann saw that these were cows doused in moonlight. They looked magical and he wanted to go closer to them.
His father had left his phone in the car which was now strapped onto the rusted truck in the floodlit garage. Constance locked her arms around his neck and his hand cupped her bottom in her shorts. The driver stole glances at her. There were two beds in a room off the garage; the man said they should sleep there until daybreak. Yann’s tired father nodded. Yann knew that by now he was too tired to care. Yann turned over his pillow and could smell someone else’s hair and breath. He twisted in the sheets unable to close his eyes.
Yann watched as Constance folded into their father’s body. He sat up and looked out of a small barred window. Through a cleft between buildings, he saw the cows in white mounds. He rose and put on his shoes and walked into the garage, dragging his fingers along the side of the tow truck, feeling dents and rust flakes and grit. The room smelt of metal and things that would never be repaired.
He thought about Anita, how she was beautiful but his father shouted at her and one night she disappeared. She returned bumping into things and Yann heard her puke in the toilet. Anita’s dark hair sloped across her forehead and slipped behind her ear. She squeezed grapefruit juice for them and spooned in curls of local honey and rinsed their glasses. Upstairs, in the bedroom, Yann knew his father pulled away her shirt to suck her brown breasts. If Anita noticed him she shooed him downstairs.
The garage door was unlocked and Yann went outside into the night.
At the end of the street he saw the square with its war memorial and a bar with a green light in the window; he saw that the light was a scrolled green word. He wanted to see the cows but he also wanted to see if he could understand the word that was written there. He crossed the square and stood before the bar. The word was written in a language he had never seen, with strokes and curves threaded together then pulling apart. A man stood at the window looking at him, he turned and ran away as fast as he could. The door squeaked open and the man called out, Arrête! Arrête! Yann stumbled across the square and funnelled down a side street trying to keep his footfalls quiet.
He crouched there, listening to his short breaths. He saw blackness at the end of the street and charged off again towards this. It was an unlit park full of trees: a spiked fence with a locked gate. Yann ran along the fence then turned back. He knew he had lost the garage. He imagined the tow truck driver in a bed with his dark berry eyes open, next to some woman with wrecked hair.
Now he stopped. He crept along an alleyway where there were bowls licked clean. He began to breathe. He thought of the fox listening to the woods, each hour shorter as its body drained. He thought of Anita listening to her rushing music with cymbals and horns. Anita had said that Saint Agnes was the best saint, that she was just a girl when the Romans tortured and beheaded her, dragging her body through the streets. Yann knew that next summer his father would have some other girlfriend and they would never see Anita again.
Constance would be upset and she would ask for her over and over.
Yann thought of Constance sleeping. When Constance slept her lips would open and Yann would put his finger inside her mouth. But on the island when Constance climbed into Yann’s bed, their father said Yann was too big now and it wasn’t allowed. Constance had cried that Anita slept in their father’s bed and their bottoms touched. Anita took Constance upstairs and Yann’s father threw himself on the sofa and asked him for a long story, absolutely the longest story he had ever told. Yann’s father liked his stories to be full of splatter with only the heroes spared. He didn’t much like stories with girls.
Yann stood up and looked out of the alleyway. The road was empty and there were no sounds or footsteps. He could smell the breath of cows on the air and he was calm. He started to walk. He went down a street after the park, which took him to a wide field with wooden fence posts slotted together. In the corner of the field the cows were a glowing sculpture of rumpled spines and poking horns and curved heads. Their smell rose to him. Yann passed through the fence and walked to them, over tufts of grass and cracked patches of mud. Some of the cows looked up and he felt the curiosity of their eyes which were brown pinpricks. Others were asleep with vast mauve faces that looked like papier maché masks. Yann touched one of the animal’s warm flanks and felt bristles all over his hand as he pressed down his palm. He knew that the red coat of the fox was lifeless now. He knew the stone house on the island was quiet and bare.
Yann found his way back to the garage and slipped through the door into the room where his father and Constance lay asleep, enfolded even tighter than before. He unwrapped a toffee he saw on the table, but it tasted sour and he spat it on the ground. He took off his shoes and curled to the wall and knew that you could never go back anywhere, no matter how hard you tried.
About the Author
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and has lived in Italy, Ghana, France, Belgium and Somalia. Her collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’ was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize 2014 and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize 2011. Her stories have been shortlisted in the Hilary Mantel/KWS Short Story Prize, the Short Fiction Competition (University of Plymouth), the Labello Press Short Story Prize and the Love on the Road Short Story Competition (Liberties Press). Catherine has stories published/to appear in Structo, Ambit, Litro, Wasafiri, Fugue II The Siren Press Anthology, Trafika Europe and The Nottingham Review. Her story ‘Magaly Park’ received a Pushcart Nomination in 2014.
by Beth Maiden