Its seven pairs of legs scuttle soundlessly across the tiled floor, moving in a purposeful line before pausing in front of her foot, antennae caressing the air. With a sniff of irritation, Heather plucks a tissue from her pocket and reaches down to clasp the woodlouse, the segments of its hard body putting up slight resistance. It writhes in her shielded fingertips as she pinches ever so slightly, the force cracking its body, thankfully encased in the tissue to spare her the details. Heather wads it up and tosses it into the bin, where it unfurls of its own accord to display the contents, a dusty smear of grey fringed with threadlike, splayed limbs.
Heather wipes away the pooled condensation from the edge of the window-frame, gritty blackness staining the cloth. This old house, rotting away faster than her. She hoped the place would need little maintenance, but no such luck. Even lugging the stepladders out to change a lightbulb required a feat of strength, and left her body wracked with pain. Not that she had a choice. It had long since stopped bothering her. She’d got over it. She’d had to.
Silly thoughts, though. They often pop in, uninvited. Moving about, keeping busy. That distracted her. But even as she rearranged the mantelpiece and dusted behind the pelmet, the thought of that poor creature kept coming back into her head. Squashed, lying there in the waste paper basket, unremarkable. Pests, they were. Pests. But maybe an auntie, mum, daughter. Heather shook her head. The things you imagine when you’ve no one to talk to. She keeps on working, focusing her mind on the clumps that accumulate amongst the feather duster.
Those words, though – they’re people’s ideas. No damned woodlouse, no little slater thinks about its mum or its sister. Silly, just silly. Heather bickers with herself as she sweeps the kitchen floor, opening the back door and ushering the dust out into the back garden. She’d use the pan, but honestly who’d notice and why can’t she just take a few shortcuts these days? Clattering around in the doorway, loosening a stubborn knot of hair from the bristles, she collides with a pot of lavender, sending it flying, shattering on the garden path, exposing the packed mud and roots within. Heather tuts under her breath, looking around for her shoes before venturing out to clear up. As she kneels over the spot where the pot stood, she sees the circular impression teeming with life. Slaters scatter for shelter, clambering hastily over a docile worm. They spill over the side of the step, disappearing into the undergrowth. This was its home, she thinks. This was its family. Left behind are a smattering of smaller, paler replicas, their exoskeletons not fully formed, twitching and directionless. Poor little babies. First their mummy, now their home. She brushes the offspring off to the side with the palm of her hand, shooing them down into the same wet soil as the rest of the colony.
Despite the cold, she leaves the door open. Good for the house, an airing. Heather perches at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, the breeze arranging amber leaves in the doorway. She tuts to herself again. The clean floor. But what did she expect? Tom would’ve gone mad, the carelessness of it. Look at that mess, woman. He was fastidious, that’s what he would’ve said. Expected things a certain way. Heather sighs, but the self-pity she intended to summon feels false in her chest. Watching the leaves accumulate, she realises her heart is racing.
It’s safe round here, she thinks. Doors can be left open. She goes through to the front of the house to watch telly, the neon flicker of afternoon game shows piercing the twilight. She dozes off, and when she wakes up the house is in blackness. She switches the telly off at the plug. Waste of money, he would’ve said. It was never a habit of hers, but he would go round doing it after her. She supposes he did have a point. Venturing back to the kitchen, Heather feels the evening air ripple around her ankles. A slight drizzle has coated the kitchen floor, many of the leaves now mushy underfoot, soggy through her socks. She peels them off and feels the ground cool and fresh on her soles. She hops back quickly, worried she might be crushing poor little creatures underneath, apologising aloud just in case. She brushes leaves and mud off her feet, petrified she’s mangled them. Then, emerging from underneath a fraying oak leaf, a slater makes its way across the floor, working along the skirting boards, methodically investigating the layout of the room. Heather’s breath is shallow as she tries to keep from trembling. She speaks, welcoming it.
The moon is almost full, more than enough light to see with. The slater doesn’t seem to need any more, that’s for sure. Heather crouches down as it makes a second traverse across the room, back towards the doorway. She talks softly, not wanting to disturb it. She urges it to stay, she won’t hurt it. It senses the breath from her mouth and rotates its minuscule feelers, pausing for a moment before altering course slightly. You must be scared, poor thing. Heather places her finger in its path, flat along the ground like a fallen log. The feathery tickle of its legs as it heaves itself over her knuckle is as huge a sensation as any she has ever experienced, her entire body concentrated on this one point. The slater trundles off, back out the door and into the wet night.
Heather blows a layer of dust off Tom’s books, studying the spines for anything that might assist. She comes across one about garden wildlife, adorned with illustrations of foxes and frogs and worms. This will do. She flicks through, scanning pages of information and detailed pencil drawings. She learns about their habitat, their habits. She reads about how their eggs hatch inside a pouch, the babies then expelled by the mother, pushed out coiled and translucent, closer than expected to how she imagined herself in the act of birthing. She reads about how they stay with their children, the nesting colony buried in safe, cold darkness.
The next morning, Heather doesn’t bother wiping the condensation off the windows. The shimmering pattern made by the morning light makes her feel like she is looking up at the world from underwater. A few slaters are busy in the doorway, many of the leaves bearing evidence of having been nibbled through the night. She heaves a plant pot from the garden, a big clay one, and positions it as a makeshift doorstop, doubling up as new shelter for the slaters. She whispers, begging their forgiveness, offering this in return.
She spends the day padding softly amongst the neglected corners of her garden, careful not to disturb and intrude further into the multiple colonies nesting there. She drags moss-coated rocks across the lawn with her bare hands, depositing them in the corners of her house. When she has run out of rocks, she pushes aside wilting ferns and retrieves segments of a felled tree, long since hidden in the undergrowth, each section slimy and black. She thinks about Tom, in his element, chainsaw slicing through the trunk like butter. Never did get round to the wood burning stove, come to think of it. These wouldn’t do for that now, all waterlogged from years outside in the elements. Heather smiles as she lifts the wet wood out of the mulchy bed and carries it into her living room, her fingertips struggling to grasp the slippery surface, letting it fall with a thud onto the cream carpet, resting right there in front of the telly. Each piece of the tree she brings in forms another element of this haphazard monument, some of the pieces balanced against another, others strewn at a distance, but each piece slotting together with an intuition and sympathy. Tom wouldn’t have liked it, she thinks. Not a chance. When she is done with the wood, she stoops low into her flowerbeds, scooping up armfuls of organic, decaying matter and scattering it around her house like musty confetti. The dank outdoor scents fill her nostrils, close and rich.
Heather wipes a space amongst the clumps of soil and vegetation with the sleeve of her dressing gown and sets down her tea and toast. A handful of slaters have taken shelter under the rock at her feet, venturing out to investigate the fresh pile of leaves she has delivered. Heather rubs her bare toes across the mossy stone in a slow radial motion, humming to herself and her companions.
The surface of the table is being eaten away, the veneer stripped by the alkaline, she reckons. Each time she clears a space for herself, the soil forms into higher ridges, and she watches the slaters gather confidence, venturing further from their main colonies across this vast landscape of miniature dunes. Getting confident, she thinks. What would that mean to them anyway? She wonders if they experience it somewhere under their armour, a tingling in their appended lungs perhaps, a skip in their forelimbs. Or maybe the feeling ripples through the whole colony in a wave, a great shared sense that her own life can only hint at.
Heather peels the yellowed strips of foam from the rim of the window-frames, the dried out insulation crumbling in her hands. Damp air trickles through the cracks. She unscrews the brushy draft excluders that Tom had fitted to the front doors, so proud of his little hacks to save money and retain heat as their bodies started to wither together. A gust of wetness laps at her ankles. A few slaters have ventured through to the front porch, striking out to colonise this new frontier. She feels shame that there is nothing for them here, no shelter or nourishment, just her desolate brass umbrella stand. She scoops up handfuls of mud from the front garden, packing it together into a conical structure, her palms slapping gratifyingly on its walls as she moulds. Two of the slaters make tentative steps towards it, scaling the sloping sides of this new monolith. She sprinkles a handful of crunchy leaves as a final flourish, running her hands over the surface, the slaters summoning more of their kin towards the mound of dirt, burrowing beneath its surface, their bodies gently caressing the taut, paper-thin skin of her knuckles. She notices something like joy rippling through their bodies, a shared sense of discovery, of being part of something. This feeling burrows into her too, her stomach tingling, and she sits like this for some time, the thrill of being privy to something outside herself. She chuckles, imagines if Tom were to see her now, on all fours in her nightie, slathered in mud amongst these bugs. What would he think? Stupid woman. She expects to feel shame or embarrassment come barrelling in, but instead feels only a satisfying coolness, detached, able to breathe.
As the midday sun lifts itself above the cloud cover, the windows start to dry, the condensation now only clinging to the edges of the glass. Heather knows it’s a balance, not too wet but certainly not too dry. She’s been reading up, she has. She saunters round the house, careful not to interrupt the arrangements of logs, mud and vegetation that have taken root in each room and now even in the middle of her hallway. She spritzes water from an old spray bottle as she goes, taking care to give the established colonies a thorough soaking, watching as the droplets pirouette through the air and hang in a delightful sheen across everything in sight.
Heather prefers to shower by moonlight now, the artificial bulb extinguished, a pale grey beam diffusing through the opaque glass. They prefer that too, she thinks. Better for both of us. Funny the things you only know once you’ve lived together. An arrangement of bark and smashed clay pots that she fashioned a few days ago leans pleasingly at the base of the sink. As she lathers her hair, she sees a world of activity going on, slaters busy on some crucial task. One has detached from the group and makes its way towards her, intrigued no doubt by the steady slosh of water. While her eyes are closed, foamy suds creeping down her face, it is swept up in the stream, losing its grip. She opens her eyes in time to see its upturned body swerve towards the plughole. Instinctively she juts her foot out, diverting its course, lifting it up on her big toe. She blows the worst of the bubbles from its body, awkwardly bending to pluck it from her toenail. She holds it gently between her fingers and raises it to her face. Its eyeless form twitches. She carries it back to the sink, places it atop the colony. It turns towards her, shaking its antennae in an alien formation, before retreating back amongst the fold.
Heather watches the lace curtains dance in the wind, chilly sheets enveloping her body. She knows the slaters prefer to do their work by night. In some ways they make the perfect housemates, her up and freshening their lair by day, leaving them undisturbed once the desiccating sun has gone. Not all that tripping over each other, all that nonsense with other people in the house.
A slater shuffles along the headboard, its segmented shadow magnified in the moonlight. It topples from its precarious route and lands on its back with a tiny pop onto Tom’s pillow. Heather brushes the creature back onto its legs, the rumples in the fabric towering over it like disorienting mountains. She strokes its hard body, feeling the ridges in its back. It freezes and she sings to it through her teeth, in a weightless whisper, a soothing lullaby that she’d never had a use for. Maybe this is the one she saved from drowning, poor thing, a rogue, always wandering off. She thinks about putting a dab of paint on its back, marking it out for future reference, but this just doesn’t seem right. Us people, she thinks, always imposing, trying to make other things fit around them. She drags a handful of gritty soil from the bedside table, smearing it across the fresh satin. The slater scuttles amongst the dirt, moving in interlocking loops that seem to encompass a type of joy.
About The Author
Euan Currie is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His work is forthcoming in The Literatus and Neanonenono, a new multidisciplinary journal from Newcastle.
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