CONQUER, BATTLE by Marion Bright
THE DREAD MORNING COMES, and Mathilde lies naked on the bed. She has heard Jess walking through the house, in and out of the bedroom, since early. Silver light filters between gaps of the dense tapestry curtains, and birds outside have long been calling—hurry, hurry.
Mathilde should be up. She is certain the hour is late. Yet, she avoids the clock that tells her in two hours Jess will leave her, will be taken from her, put behind locked doors, the concrete-steel chamber of loss, of jail.
Asleep for spells, but mainly disturbed by her dreams, the residual anxiety of her wakefulness, she has not rested, her body is tired, she lies still. She wants to know where Jess is, when he will come back to bed, come back to put his side to hers, his cool cotton shirt against her warm skin, staying there, a second longer, in airy hope.
Looking again to the curtains, she fathoms their long-plumed blue birds, posed on tendriled branches, cut against a shadow green. Like her mother’s quilts, which she now keeps in blanket chests in the guest rooms, the patterns of death, birth, and sickness are stitched into cursive, pinwheels, and stars. Further back, still, her blood is French; she descends from Gallic women, sent over with William the Conqueror, who sewed scenes of battle and defeat, of birds who warned of disaster, of the greatest conquest of all time. These sibyllic blue birds that she sees are trapped in the fabric that hides her life from the outside world. One day they may tell the tale of the conquering of Mathilde, the battle of Jess.
She opens and closes her fist, as though conjuring through them the energy to pull herself up. These hands are worn; the veins are relieved from the surface as though slid beneath tissue-papered skin. She has fought with these fingers against hot plates pulled off the kitchen line, and typewriters, seventy words a minute, five days a week.
She should remember, though, that these hands are curative, too; they have rubbed Jess’s shoulders, his back, his arms, and head, shifting, ever shifting, as though summoning a strain that she could tap, and bloodlet from him the poisoned tendency to take what isn’t his, to get caught, to put her in this situation.
She yells, “Jess! I don’t want you to go.” She smothers her face into a pillow and wishes she could snuff out the dread that creeps into the hairs on her arms. She rubs her eyes. Salt tracks flake on her face from thick tears that formed and fell in her dreams.
“You’re going to be dressed by the time I have to go, aren’t you?” he says from the doorway. He wears what he normally would to work: khakis, a checkered button-down shirt, and his snakeskin belt that she bought him as a birthday gift last June. He’s barefoot but otherwise, he looks sharp. He is a white collar criminal after all.
“I’ve been up since six,” Jess says. “There were things to do. I put the riding mower in the back shed and fit the truck into the garage beside your spot, but I didn’t get a chance to mow the back yard. I hung the Calais oil painting in the hallway, though.”
“Thank you,” she says. “Now, come here, please.”
He shakes his head, resisting her.
“Have you eaten?” she asks, dropping her arms. “What time is it? Have you had coffee?”
Mathilde watches him rustle around the bureau and into his top drawer, where plain white boxers lie, in search of something critical, it seems. He digs to the bottom of the cotton pile and back up to its top.
“What’re you looking for anyway?”
As Jess moves, Mathilde catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror above the bureau and tries to straighten down her mess of black, wiry hair, the siren’s crown that Jess so often said he loved.
“Are you going to be ready soon?” he asks.
“I am. I am. I’m ready. I’m not out of bed, but I’m ready. Born ready.”
“Bill Davis tell you the accountants were coming by next Tuesday?”
“He didn’t mention the dates, but he said something about it.”
“You saw the piles of forms I left you on the dining room table?”
“Yes,” she says now slipping a blouse over her shoulders. “They couldn’t refund the hotel in Dinan, you know.”
“I’ll sic the accountants on them.”
“I can take care of it, you know,” she says. “I can do it.” She enters the adjoining bathroom, a convenience she’d lived nearly an entire life without. She brushes the washrag that hangs above the sink, which falls then. She folds it in half and secures it atop the towel rack out of habit. Despite such rare circumstances as these, the life-current demands that they be considerate still, that they tidy, that they dress, and, eventually, that they leave one other.
She examines her face in the mirror and notices a small bruise forming on her neck. Last night, their love was different than before, and this morning, his shoulders, his back, the remembrance of his flesh brings a surge—the phantom post-coital pleasure that last night’s sex provides. They had lain in the dark for a couple of hours, the room oddly quiet. Perhaps they meant to commit a prayer, or to make an acknowledgment that this night was worthy of some reverence, or ritual. He would go to jail tomorrow, after all, an embezzler, after all. Instead, they tried to sleep. Both of them shifted from front to side, covers off, covers on. Mathilde started the ceiling fan with the remote control and then flipped it off. No matter if the air was oscillating or stagnant, there seemed a lack of oxygen, a dissipation of viable air.
The slowing click of the ceiling fan finally abated and the room’s artificial beat—the dull hums and buzz of electronics—was replaced by the rhythm of their human breathing. Exhale, inhale.
“You know I’m leaving tomorrow,” he spoke in the darkness.
“I know. I know.” As she spoke, she drew her fingers to his spine and combed his vertebrae with her knuckles. Down to his lower back, she traced infinity signs from one side to the next. It was a natural gesture, one meant for her good as well as for his. She touched things to understand them and when she couldn’t understand them, she tried to cure them. She searched for that element of his she had not seen, had not understood. She found it somewhere beneath his hip, and so she kneaded his lower back as though, like the doubts that had sometimes plagued her, she could surgically remove it and re-sew them anew.
“Stop it,” he said softly. Then he grabbed her wrist and threw aside the twisted, heavy sheets between them. He pressed her back into the mattress, farther and farther. With each press she felt his manhood though something was awry. For the first time since forever, Jess was not aroused.
“Are you all right?”
“I don’t know,” he said and stared down at himself then held his malfunction in his hand, defeated, perhaps. Mathilde kissed him, kissed his head, his thighs, the freckle on his stomach. It was as though applying a magic salve across him. Then Jess stopped her and pulled her face to his. She saw the pores of his nose, the crinkle of his frown, and the edges of his lips, until she could focus no more upon him. And what did he see, she wondered?
As he brought her torso so close to his, with real determination, with force now behind the arms and fingers, a mad ambition behind him, she shuddered with discomfort. His elbow pressed her neck sharply, then between her legs, his hands bore fiercely to no good. She suddenly wished him weakness, for him to stop. She wished an eternal impotence, like tonight’s. She wished that all his musculature strength somehow were given to his head, his heart.
As she looked back into his face, she knew what he saw, too, in her, someone who should be conquered.
In the bedroom, in the morning, Jess sifts through a pile of dirty clothes collected in the corner by Mathilde’s chest of drawers. “I can’t find them,” he says.
“Did you put my underwear and socks anywhere else?”
“You keep them in those top drawers and that’s where I put them.”
“Where else would you put them?”
“Well, I didn’t steal them.”
“Oh, come on,” she says. “Sit still for a second.” She redirects him out of search mode, attention given to settle him, to make him still. He shakes his head, knowing that to stop with her now is to prolong the morning for which they have waited so long.
“I don’t want to be late now,” he says, but she holds him, her shirt unbuttoned and open, his cold belt buckle on her lower ribs, and he loses his balance, stubs his toe on the corner of the bed. “Ow. No. No. Stop that.”
“Go on, then,” she says, pushing him away. “It’s not like they won’t come get you anyway.”
The night Jess’s brother Graham reported his accusations to the sheriff’s department Jess admitted to Mathilde what he had done. As he explained his actions (a couple of checks written to himself instead of to a vendor was all he told her), she put her computer aside and rubbed a swatch of curtain fabric between her fingers. She was searching online, on eBay, the way all her friends shopped, for a rug to go with the window treatments. A new house required valuables, golden paint, regal wallpaper. She had bought expensive pieces that must match the heavy, carved desk bought from a taxidermist in town. She filled the desk drawers with votive candles and found feathers caught in its splinters. Dark spots on the top she once thought were ink could be blood. It was impressive and so should be the rest.
“Couldn’t you talk it out with Graham? Couldn’t he just let you pay it back?”
“I can’t pay it back. He’s mad. This isn’t the first time he’s said something.”
“Can’t you just work it off? You put in enough hours for him.”
“You’re asking too much,” he said and nearly tripped on the pile of wallpaper samples that lay beside her. “You know. You ask for too much. A new house. A trip to Brittany.”
“Really? That’s how you think this all happened? Well, if that’s what you believe. But you wanted all that, too. And you wanted me and you got me.”
“That’s what I believe.”
Mathilde had nothing to do with why he started stealing, but for the way she looked like she does now, on this morning of his departure, like someone he could stay with for a while, could lie with on a Tuesday morning, could press from him what he knew, too, needed to be pressed out—the liability to lie, to steal, all that. He needed to see her hair mussed across the pillow the way it was this morning. He needed to keep her.
She finishes dressing, then opens the heavy curtains to the empty field behind their development, removed from neighbors’ yards and their uninvited, but duly given, glances. Mathilde would be curious enough to peek into windows, too, if one of her neighbors were indicted. She might look further, to dip in and out of people’s yards, if she could. She might smell her neighbors’ living room lavender potpourri, might warm from their coal fires, might mistake a callous remark for a love song. Like some soaring hawk she might coast through the neighborhood and flap a warning signal to the others, her own experience enabling her to portend theirs: make sure you keep your hands on what’s yours.
Yet, there are no hawks in this neighborhood, none that Mathilde has seen at least. The fall has left sparrows, jays, and her favorite, the warbler. The male’s yellow breast, the alluring coat, is so similar to her favorite color, the one Jess dislikes. She knows the warbler is a wandering bird, although he seems to be monogamous. Surely his song, his color, his constant flitting is meant for a new love. The male must work so hard to attract, she has thought. Or if he is monogamous, then why must he work so hard to keep, to hold onto?
The bird feeder hung from the maple tree dangles and sways—a squirrel has jumped off it. Mathilde ought to have Jess put a metal umbrella over the feeder so the squirrels won’t climb down the rope and steal the food. It’s another task she’ll have to take care of herself. Only then does she remember the house may be sold, and the feeder will one day stand empty.
For now, she finds peace in the kitchen that shines and gleams. The walls have yet to be stained with cooking grease, or flecks of gravy, or oil from fried steaks. It is pristine, not like her mother’s house or the one-story ranches she rented making nearly minimum wage, a way she thought she’d never have to live again. She winds around the island and back to the window where she sees the driveway and wonders if the sheriff really will come to get him if he doesn’t show up.
“I swear to God, I can’t find those damn socks.” He seems beyond frustrated now.
“Tell me what you’re looking for exactly, and I’ll help you find it.”
“When you go messing with my things, I can’t find a damn thing.”
“I told you I put all your laundry in your drawer. If you can’t find it there, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I heard you the first time, goddamnit. They’re still not there.”
She reaches below the island and swings open the cabinet door, yanks out a pan with a noisy clang loud enough to make her yell above the sound: “Jesus Christ. It’s not like this morning isn’t stressful enough already without your yelling at me.”
“You bet it’s stressful for you.” He walks towards the dining room, then turns to say: “Real stressful. What’re you going to do today? You going to get back in bed, sleep in your big ole king-sized bed? You going to eat something you cooked in your nice, new kitchen? Put in a movie? Well, that’s a stressful day for you.”
“All right,” she says. “All right. You did this, you know. You did this, not me. But I don’t want to get into it.”
“I don’t want to get into it, either.”
He stops, and she stops. Then she says, battle-weary and tearful, “I don’t want to get into it, and I’m not going to get upset, either. You should just know I’m feeling it, too.”
“Jesus,” he says and almost makes it to the dining room. “You know, you think that matters. Getting upset, crying. It’s just a trick. I can’t do anything if you’re crying. So don’t think that means anything.”
“Well, I never did it anyway,” she says and must divert her eyes from him, from his quivering torso, from the threads seeming to unstitch at every seam.
She surveys the bowls and the flour on the counter. What next? What next? Baking soda and salt. She adds milk and stirs the mixture, faster and faster.
“What socks do you need exactly?” She yells and thwacks the wooden spoon to the side of the bowl, cream batter flecking into the air.
“I need the gray ones,” he yells back, “with the padding on the heel and the orange stripes around the top.”
“The ones I gave you from Orvis?”
“Yes,” he stands in the kitchen again.
“Why don’t you just take any of your other pairs? You’ve got a million. They don’t have to be a particular color, do they?”
“I want to take those.”
“The ones I gave you?”
“Jesus Christ, how many times do I have to say it?”
“All right. All right,” she says and cracks eggs into the bowl. “Look in the mudroom with your hunting stuff.”
“That’s not where I keep them.”
“It’s where I put them. I thought you might want them for when you went out next.”
“And when did you think that was going to be?” he says and walks to the mudroom behind the kitchen.
When he reappears, he holds them, the thick, heavy wool that will be part of his new uniform. He smells them, and she imagines they carry a sweet detergent scent, these regular things that she gave him, on no special occasion. He seems relieved, as though he has finally seen some strategy behind her actions, that she has been, in fact, optimistic. That she has stitched a picture of a normal future, one that includes hunting trips, airplanes to France, dinner tonight.
Sometime in the spring, ten months, nine with good behavior, that’s when he’ll be out. There are things to be done in the meantime, she knew this. And the birds, the poor birds in the fall. How will they have enough food with the squirrels, those damn squirrels running rampant on the ledge? She eyes one now through the window and, though the batter is ready and though the coffee should be poured, she says: “Get that goddamned squirrel off that feeder.”
“Get out of here,” he yells at the squirrel through the double-paned window.
“It’s out there every damn day.” She brushes her hands on her jeans, leaving batter on her hips and heads to the mudroom. “Where’s your gun?”
“In the closet.” He pours himself coffee, ready to sit still with her at last.
In the mudroom, by his jackets and boots, amidst the carrion-scented stains of old hunting clothes, she fiddles with the latch to the gun case. She removes the shotgun that looks newest and most familiar. She has only shot a couple of times in her life, for fun at Thanksgiving, and never at anything animated, yet, she locates the shells, breaks open the gun and loads it.
“Be careful,” he calls as she walks out the door.
Outside, the air is cool and calm, charged for something or nothing to happen. Mathilde’s movements have startled bird and squirrel alike. She remains still while the target squirrel returns. Her arms tremble slightly while she waits, and the gun becomes heavier and heavier. Yet, she is patient.
In a minute, he comes to her, quietly, as a hunter is wont to do. “You know how to aim, right?” he asks. She nods. His head lines up beside her to see what she sees.
“I can do this,” she says, stepping away from him.
“The safety off?” She clicks the safety off. The squirrel is on the ledge, and the feeder swings slightly. Her fingers, with more control, more finesse than she had expected, press the trigger, press the arm, press it until it fires. Bam.
The sound echoes across the empty field and back to them. Bird and mammal and seed and air disperse. “Hey!” he yells.
“Did I hit it?”
“You hit it,” he says.
The feeder swings, free of the damned squirrels. It ticks and tocks like it’s been pushed by a gust of wind. The ledge is askew and seems to be broken at the hinge, like a loose joint on a wooden marionette.
“Shit,” she says. “I hit the feeder.”
“You hit everything,” he laughs.
“I didn’t get a warbler, did I?”
“No,” he responds, though he has lied to her before.
“Look who can take care of the squirrel problem.” She swings the gun to her shoulder and nearly points it at Jess, who sweeps the barrel low and away from him.
“Yep, I’m looking at her.”
“I’m a sure shot.”
“You think if they come to get you, I’ll scare them off with this?”
“Nobody’s coming to get me. Nobody that you’d be able to hit, at least.”
“I’m a sure shot.”
“You’re a tough old girl.”
A warbler returns to the feeder. Its feet, accustomed to clutching wood, limbs, and the spindly twigs of the forest bottom are spread wide on the crooked rod. It shifts reluctantly, cautiously on the unstable feeder. It inches and twitches to peck the seeds that have spattered across the tray. And its yellow feathers are dulled by the fall, overcast light.
“I never got upset over this, did I?”
The bird continues its call: hurry, hurry.
While Mathilde watches the birds and the ground around the feeder, Jess turns to eye the back of the house, resting his gaze on the driveway. Then she sees him walk to steady the feeder, seeing what he can fix. Surely, he must see it, too, the flitter of a bird wing in the tall grass. Surely he knows what she does, though he has lied about it already: Mathilde had hit one of the birds.
He must think Mathilde will never notice, that she may never know.
“We just move on,” she says in answer to a question she’s not sure was asked. She continues to watch the animals return, avoiding the trembling, wounded bird. There’s no confusing what she’s seen, and Jess hasn’t noted her reaction. Victory, he must think.
She slumps, the gun suddenly feeling too heavy, her grip suddenly too weak to hold it, and the nose catches the ground. She decides then that she won’t go to the station with him; she’ll have someone help her retrieve the car later. She must stay here, there is handiwork to be done, a shot bird to attend to.
Inside, after Jess has left, Mathilde spreads open the tapestried curtains in the bedroom. Her ancestors were Gallic women who sewed the history of the Norman invasion into the Bayeux Tapestry, although it’s not a tapestry at all, but embroidery. The story is not the truth at all, but a re-telling. History isn’t even written by the victors, merely by those who keep on.
She fingers the pattern of vines and stitches across the weft, from one edge to the other, from one era to the next. The dread morning has passed into day, a day that Mathilde can handle and do something with. A day in which she will find herself capable of repairing a bird feeder, selling the desk, not mentioning the carrion feathers in its drawers, deciding she must keep the drapes, no matter if the house sells. Weighing this for that, though the scale may be broken.
She will bury the bird she shot now that Jess is gone. She’s sure it’s dead, for she had expected to be this disappointed.
MARION BRIGHT is a writer and teacher living in northern Michigan. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship and a Lakeside Fellowship. She received a student fellowship to the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and completed the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. She is a native Kentuckian.