Thunk. Years back, a tough farm boy and a frail girl walked through a hay field.
Thunk. Rested in the amber and counted clouds.
Thunk. Reached up to the bruises on their necks—or rather, the girl did—first to her own, then to the boy’s. Just to see if it was still there.
Today, the axe split wood, kissing the scar of its blade on the chopping block. It took thousands of cuts to make this.
See, when Mariel was born, she killed her mother. Or at least, that’s how her father saw it. Watching in horror in the delivery room, it was as if his faithful wife felt what it was like to be wrenched from the comfortable and warm world of the womb and into the cold and harsh one we live in. That was just too much for her to endure a second time.
But Mariel knew her father loved her. She knew because he saw his late wife in her face. And she knew because, though her father would try and hide it, it hurt him just as much when he hurt her. So when he treated her coldly, cruelly, willing himself not to care—when he made her sleep outside in the chicken coops on nights he couldn’t bear but to keep his distance—she knew. She knew it was all out of a love too painful to speak out loud.
Thunk. It wasn’t clear if Mariel, now just shy of thirty but with eyes wide as they were decades ago, was thinking about all this as she washed the freshly-sharpened knife in the kitchen sink, the soft fshhh of the water hypnotic. Thunk. If she was remembering when her father fled town without a word or a note, as she stared vacantly out at the endless field through the dusty window. Thunk. If she was comforted by the gentle memory of the farm boy who found her abandoned in her father’s barn, as she turned the sharp end of the blade into the water and through her skin to make soap suds crimson.
Ah, shit! Mariel stiffened as she heard the sound of the axe thudding against the dirt outside. Of the screen door banging against its rotting wood frame, and the worn boot stomps approaching. She didn’t turn when Ben loomed behind her, the tough farm boy all grown up and worn down, his soulful eyes hardened above his long sleeves and lumberjack frame. But Mariel knew—with a sureness in her marrow—he was clutching his palm exactly where the blade had crossed her own.
Goddamnit, Mariel! Be fuckin’ careful! Ben snapped, red dripping from both of their palms to wet identical stains on the musty rug.
I’m sorry … Mariel whispered back, almost too quiet for his ears. But when Ben saw her shrinking form, he sighed and softened. See, he knew, too.
The last of a roll of bandage covered Mariel’s hand, Ben wrapping her up before cleaning his own wound, like usual. It was hard to tell if he noticed the pain in his palm, and harder to tell which of their blood soaked the bandage. Mariel rested her head on her husband’s shoulder as he tended to her, an old habit once intimate. Ben was diligent and careful with his wife—gentle, even—tying off the cloth with the familiarity of knotting a child’s shoelace. And for a moment, they were how they once were. Ben, the protector. Mariel, the protected. But no, they weren’t the children they used to be.
How many times … Ben muttered under his breath, pulling away as he finished wrapping the bandage. Only silence hung between them in the miscarried air, until the burly man tore an old T-shirt to finally wrap it around his own stinging palm. Mariel took this chance as Ben was looking away to steal a glance she couldn’t bear to hold at him when he turned back. She gripped her arm, knowing something was different—feeling the slow shift in that marrow, but unable yet to make accusations—as she squeezed the older bandages up her arm from other mostly-healed wounds. Don’t scratch at them, Ben chastised, fighting the itch of his own before heading to the door. Gotta see Lou for some more clean-up shit. Lord knows we need it.
Mariel flinched at the dead clap of the screen door as he left. And stay inside, Mariel!
So that’s what the faithful wife did. She stayed still, sitting on the couch with only the slow ticks of the clock for company. This was not how she wanted this to go.
Ben stomped past his chopping block to his rusted, beat-up truck. Behind him, the farmhouse was rundown, construction materials and cut logs littered to band-aid its rotting frame. Ben worked on the old home like therapy, but for every piece of wood he replaced, another had already been eaten away by black and mold. As he sat in the front seat with the key turned in the ignition, begging his aged clunker to come back to life, it wasn’t clear if thoughts had returned uninvited about the boy he once was. The boy who watched a skittish girl resting with the chickens from a distance. Who brought her blankets on chilly nights, and his mother’s homemade cookies, and his comfort. The boy who stitched her up, until one day he had to stitch himself up with her.
Mariel watched from a window as the old pick-up rolled off down the lone road. There was nothing but hay and quiet here, flat until the distance blurred to nothing, too. Outside, the scarecrow of a woman looked out to that very blur past the hayfield, as she often did, a glimmer of lake off her eye-line in the distance. A glimmer of pattering footsteps and whispers that had long gone silent with bubbles of water. The wind fluttered through the stalks, cold, bringing along a rustling that didn’t stop when the air stilled itself. Mariel wasn’t certain if she imagined the clatter in memory, but her eyes were drawn to their old shed nonetheless, its door left open in Ben’s hurry. Hello? Mariel called, before stepping closer. W-who’s in there?
Light sliced into the cluttered shed from the open door, dust motes thick like ash given a flicker of warmth before losing themselves in the dark. Long-obscured by shadows and cobwebs, hidden here were an old tricycle, a chipped crib, and hand-me-down sports gear. As Mariel pushed the door wide, her eyes avoided these relics to find the source of the rustling in the shed’s center. A stray dog sniffing around, its fur matted gray with dirt and car grease. When it saw Mariel—perhaps deaf in an ear, as the ragged thing noticed her a moment too late—it startled and cowered, shivering behind the cracked crib. It’s okay. No, no, it’s okay, Mariel cooed, calming. She was good at that bit, she always was. The stray sniffed, then allowed Mariel’s bandaged hand to pet it. She ran her hands through its tangled fur, tender. Realizing how much she was yearning for a warm touch herself. Oh my. Look at you. Look at you, my handsome boy.
Ben’s truck grumbled past rundown houses with few to no people out and about. A hometown inherited by his mother, and to her by his mother’s mother, their small cut of land was stuck in a time that seemed brighter to those who still lived here, now as faded as the paint on the buildings. The hard gazes of the locals Ben did pass reminded that the folks here lived and died by their antiquated opinions. Obsolete shops that anywhere else would have gone out of business in favor of one that could do it all—a cobbler, druggist, butcher. This sort of place was extinct, save for in the deep country; less ‘dying’ than ‘refused to die.’ No, the ghosts that lived here still had heartbeats.
Ben knocked twice as he entered the cozy clinic, the air much warmer than the town he just passed through. ‘Lo? Doc? Ben called in, before a body he wasn’t expecting hurried from the back, reading from a clipboard.
"Mr. Porter, for the last time, your tests won’t be in until ..." Natalie called before she stopped, realizing the trunk of a man, dripping blood through a ripped T-shirt onto the floor wasn’t her patient who forgot more than he remembered.
"Where's Lou?" Ben demanded, the question coming out harsher than he intended.
"He’s not in. Hired me to cover slow days," Natalie replied with a shrug. She was a city cynic nomad, accustomed to patients with worse moods than the gruff, bleeding farmer in front of her. Wouldn’t be long before he was just another stranger in the rearview anyway, and she was off to the next town in need of a body to fill space.
"S’just, haven’t seen you before," Ben mumbled with a tone that approached apology, "Doc and I have a, uh … understanding."
It was only then Natalie remembered a chicken-scratched note her elderly employer left behind mentioning that very understanding.
They didn’t speak again until Natalie had finished filling a bag with bandages, antibiotics, and alcohol. Not another word could have passed and they both would’ve been happy to be on with their lives—not in a mutual dislike, but in a rough understanding both were here for the quiet. Though in double-checking Ben’s lengthy list, Natalie’s curiosity itched enough to reach her tongue. "Running your own clinic?" The private man only grunted in reply. It was then Natalie saw the old T-shirt wrapping his palm was nearly soaked through.
"Christ, here let me—"
"No, I’m fine—"
Ben tried to stop Natalie, but he was too slow. She took his hand. Saw the angle of the cut. And understood something only someone who’d seen too many nights in triage would: this was done by his own hand.
"My own thick self," Ben explained poorly, "clumsy with an axe."
Natalie gently stitched Ben’s palm closed, though he had insisted it would heal. "They always heal," he had said. Though strangers, there was a strange intimacy often made between doctor and patient. An unspoken but required surrender, under the soft and steady buzz of fluorescents. The brush of cloth pulled away. Flesh touching flesh. A closeness that wasn’t quite there between man and wife; at least, not anymore. For Ben, to be the one who was comforted was disarming. For Natalie, it was the compulsion of the job she once had. To heal. Seeing something—a hint of thickened skin, maybe—she reached to pull up Ben’s long-sleeve. But he stopped her. No, that was an infidelity too close to commit.
Rice and Spam slapped a metal bowl, lapped up messily by the mutt’s desperate tongue just before Mariel heard Ben’s truck door slam in the driveway. Shit. She hurried the dirty dog into a closet, ignoring the mangy thing’s muffled whimpers as she went back to sit stiffly right where Ben left her. She sat as still as she could, listening to the lumbering sounds of Ben kicking off his boots, claps like broken glass through the house’s old walls.
New doc today, guess old Lou’s finally gearing to throw it in … Ben mumbled, going through the motions of a routine gnawed away by the years. He strained to hear a shushing from the next room as he slid his boots under the hall tree, medical bag in hand. Mariel?
Ben slumped into the living room to see Mariel sitting still on the couch. They waited in a motionless stalemate. Until her eyes shift nearly imperceptibly to the closet, the door shaking slightly. Instantly, Ben knew. No. He stomped to the closet, Mariel hurrying to him—almost scared to grab her husband’s arm.
No, no, please, Mariel begged, please. Ben ripped open the door and out popped the stray, happy to meet a new stranger. But this one was stiff, hardened as what was in his chest burned to his throat.
Mariel. It’ll get attached. Then you know. You know what’ll happen. Ben buried as much of the blame in his voice as he could. But what managed to scratch through quieted Mariel. She shrunk and pouted like a kicked animal. Something in Ben’s eyes kicked, too. He almost said something. He reached for words that might’ve eased the hurt they shared. However fruitless those words might have been, Mariel ached for them. But Ben turned away. They knew this dance, dull and deep. Fine, Ben whispered, but keep the thing away from me.
That night, Ben and Mariel faced away from each other in bed, a chasm between them in the dark. As had become a monthly routine, Ben turned to Mariel first, then she followed suit. Flesh clenched at flesh. Stilted and uncomfortable, like chopping wood or washing dishes. Each thrust was like scraping at a hangnail; fingers scratched skin as if in reflex to being scratched themselves. It was unclear who was hurting whom.
Before Ben could finish the act, he stopped himself. Mariel had noticed him pull back like this, though he usually swore he had just been drinking too much. They both laid there, unsatisfied. When they were done, Mariel could almost feel another body crawling under the covers to fill the space between them.
Over the next week or so, Ben got back to his therapy of readying a wood block, splitting it, then readying another. Thunk. He would see Mariel wash the dog through the window in the bathtub, stacking bubbles on its head like a hat as she laughed. Thunk. See the stray dog run out when Mariel left the screen open, trying to get his attention. Thunk. See how they would chase each other dizzy through the yard, despite Ben’s warnings he had construction materials littered out to patch up the blackening house. Ben did his best to ignore the mutt, and Mariel in turn. But Mariel caught him once—through the window, looking out past the field’s nothing—kneeling down and giving the pup a pat. She smiled, for the first time in a long time. When Ben saw red on the dog’s white fur, he knew his stitches had split.
Ben didn’t know exactly what brought him back to Natalie’s hand, thread, and needle—rather than dealing with it on his own like usual—but as she crossed back and forth, over and through the skin of his palm, he found a calm he’d lost back at the house. One Mariel had only now found in the fur of a lost mutt. Maybe it was because of this that when Natalie reached for his long sleeve again, this time he let her find the scars beneath. All the way up his arm, thick and mis-healed, like he had waited too long to tend to them.
"You know, I’ve seen this before …" Natalie said, with the measured wisdom of spending too many nights wrapping up wounds like this herself. Of once knowing a boy with scrapes down his arms much like these. Of driving from nowhere to nowhere when she couldn’t bear to stay after it was too late to help.
"No, you haven’t," Ben replied, knowing whatever he said, the doctor couldn’t possibly understand. "However you think this looks, it wasn’t me."
Mariel waited for Ben to come home. For the echo of his truck door shutting, or the kick of his boots scuffing the foyer. She looked up as the tick of the clock told her he had been gone too long. She curled her sliced palm into a fist and struck her thigh. Again. And again. And again.
Ben’s gaze shifted from his scars to his healer—ignoring the dull black and blue he felt spreading beneath his faded jeans—and though he knew it would make no difference, he wanted her to understand. "Mariel … she’s like a trapped animal. You go to help her, can’t help but go, and … she digs in. Makes you think—know if you’re not there, if you’re not the one to pick her up, there’ll be nobody else," Ben’s voice hushed nearly nothing. "But it ain’t out of hate. It’s not to hurt you. She does it to see if you still care. She does it to know. You just need thick enough skin to take it."
Mariel only stopped when she heard the dog whimper. She ruffled its soft fur, caressed its limping leg. She opened the door, letting the mutt run out and following suit. Chasing each other through the grass until they got dizzy.
Natalie traced the scars on Ben’s arm, not understanding fully—for how could she, how could anyone else?—and noticed the lightened ring of skin around his darkened tan where a band once was. When the quiet had gone on too long, she let out what wisdom she could. "Don’t trick yourself, Ben. Into thinking it’s strength to carry her weight so long the only thing you know to do is this."
It was then the crimson dot blossomed on Ben’s chest. The sudden pain made him clutch his heart, as it pumped what it had through his shirt. Natalie rushed to tend to the impossible wound, but Ben was already past her out the door. He put pressure on his chest as he sped down the lone road, terror in his eyes in the rearview. He left the truck door open, keys still in the dying engine as he hobbled out to the back of the farmhouse. And saw the bent nail on a fallen board in the grass Mariel had been running in, hidden by the uncut browning blades. Now wet with something dark. Saw Mariel clutching her own chest in pain, sobbing in the grass having fallen. Saw the form of the stray mutt, still, a few feet away. Something dark and wet matting the fur of its chest too.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. This was no axe splitting wood, but a shovel into dirt. Past the hay field into nothing, near the lake, Ben dug a grave for the dog. Next to it was an older grave. This one, a bit bigger. Just large enough to fit in the chasm between husband and wife.
Silent, Ben changed the wrapping on Mariel’s chest. But there was no carefulness to him this time. Only that distance she could feel with a sense deeper than her others, only that dull shift in her marrow spreading ever wider. It was an accident, Mariel whispered, it was. She tried to rest her head on his shoulder, that habit once intimate, but—he was done. He got up and left without a word.
When Ben returned to Natalie, she knew from his crumpled form what he was there for. He rested his head in her lap as he sobbed, her hand that stitched him gently now running through his hair. Taking its time, flesh caressed flesh. This was no passionate love affair. This wasn’t love, this wasn’t lust; it was pain and comfort. It was wanting to help. It was desperately trying to sew up a wound that wouldn’t close. The unspoken but required surrender of doctor and patient. This was bleeding out.
As Mariel waited patiently on the very couch Ben left her on, she thought she felt strange. She thought until she knew—somewhere deep beneath her ribs—something had changed. She knew because suddenly, and for the first time, her curse had been shifted back onto her. She felt his ache and his guilt and his twisted pleasure. She gasped out a cry as he did. But when it was finally over, she sat there in the dark, alone.
Afterwards, Natalie asked what Ben would do. If he would leave. If he’d realized that if all that was left between them was the nerve, they were only punishing each other. She knew herself, she’d soon be driving to the next nowhere. This one had dug up wounds she’d worked hard to bury. But Ben knew he had to stay. He had to stay close to his little boy.
Mariel let the sink water run over the kitchen knife, the fshhh of the faucet hypnotic. She stared out past the hay field’s nothing to the glimmer of lake. To where years ago she had told her husband she slipped and hit her head. To where she awoke to see the small body floating face down in the water. To where they rested him under the wet dirt.
Mariel didn’t turn when she heard the soft clap of the screen door against their rotting house. Or when his gentle steps led him to become a guilty shade in the doorframe behind her. No, she only turned when she heard her name. And sensed what was coming. She could see there was no way out, so she backed away from him through the backdoor where the hay field reached for something to hold onto. Ben followed behind her, but when he got too close, she held the knife against her arm in threat to stop him. Ben stiffened, until all he could do was say the words.
Mariel … it’s over. We can’t … her husband let out, I can’t keep doing this. It’s done. Mariel huffed, unable to feel the finality in his words. She knew there was only one way to be certain. A thin red line was slowly drawn on Ben’s neck. He clasped his throat as life spilled out, desperate to breathe.
They collapsed together, husband and wife, between the rotting house and the endless hay field. Mariel reached up to the wounds on their necks, first to his, then to her own. Just to see if it was there.
And she knew. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
*Feature image created for Pipeline Artists by Graham Sisk