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Better Angels

“How far down, missus?”

The woman’s staring not at the hole in the wet ground, nor at the tall bearded man who’s asked her a question, but back at the house behind her. She’s half-turned, the top of her torso twisted almost impossibly, almost fluidly, in defiance of the strictures of the steel-stayed corset beneath her plain black dress. The sandstone house is two storeys, wide verandahs running around both levels, walls punctured by doors and floor-to-ceiling windows, all of which are open, their shutters pinned back despite the cold and the rain.

“Missus?” His voice is low and rough, still thick with the accent of his native Bristol, but tender.

Fionnuala Farrell’s eyes are pinned on the small group clustered on the lower verandah: an older woman, plump, dark-haired, with a white apron over her navy frock; three small girls, hair as red-gold as their mother’s, not yet in mourning attire because no one had thought to make any for them so early in their young lives.

“Missus? Missus Farrell?”

The woman shakes herself as if coming to, and looks down. As if the man and the hole he’s knee-deep in are new to her. As if the other man, the shorter one, who’s gazing at her with cold pity and bold assessment, is a stranger. As if she cannot begin to recall how they came to be here, standing in the rain in what might be an elaborate English garden rather the highlands of Tasmania.

“How far?” repeats the man patiently. “How far?”

The intricate white lace collar circling her throat looks yellowed beside the pallor of her face, and the grey eyes seem barren as the sky. Then there’s a moment when the questioner sees a spark flare in the dead ice of her gaze, and knows she’s dropped back into herself.

Fionnuala peers at him, takes in the mud streaks and grass stains, the soaking fabric of his shirt, waistcoat and trousers, the beads of rain in his black beard and the beetling brows. Clearly he doesn’t want to keep working; he keeps glancing towards the small stone hut where there are beds, a fire, and the end of a bottle of rum he’s made last almost a month. His companion in misery is smart enough to keep his expression neutral, his mouth shut. A border has been marked around them with a low iron fence; this is the first time a cemetery has been needed at Gracemere.

“Six feet, Mr Donovan. My husband deserves nothing less.”

“But, Mrs Farrell—”

“All the way down,” she replies in harsh tones. “Thylacines, Mr Donovan. I do not want my children waking one morning to find their father food for animals.”

She stares at him until he looks away, muttering “Yes, missus.”

“The ground’s soft, shouldn’t take you long.’ Her tone is flat, even, carries no hint of everything spinning inside her. She looks at the diggers, the hole, a moment longer, then pivots on her heel. Her steps as she walks towards the building are precise.

There is another man, digging a trench from the side of the house out to the garden, where pipes are to be laid. There’s not enough room for three men to work the grave, but he’s in no way spared from labouring duties. He’s not as tall as Donovan, nor as broad as Fetch, but he’s handsome and younger than both, with ruddy brown hair and a tidy beard, light sage eyes; beneath his clothing, which fits well enough to show a degree of vanity, he’s lean and muscular.

As the woman passes him, she gives him not a glance, though he ducks his head in greeting, and murmurs, “Missus.”

Fionnuala Farrell nods curtly but doesn’t answer, doesn’t meet the green gaze. As soon as she sets a foot on the bottom step of the verandah, she falters; her knees giving way to weakness. The children break from the housekeeper’s skirts and go to their mother. Her hands rest on them. Mrs Lenahan watches, waits for a few seconds before she comes over to help, placing a callused hand on Fionnuala’s arm. Before she allows herself to be pulled along, the mistress of the house glances over her shoulder, across the cleared land of the garden and beyond, out to the trees that surround the house, thick and dense eucalypts.

When she at last disappears inside, the rain comes down all the harder. The men keep at their tasks.

Patrick Farrell lies on the heavy mahogany table in the formal dining room. Black cloth beneath him, and a frilled pillow to rest his head as if it might make a difference to him. Dressed in his Sunday best, he’s not a tall man—a good head shorter than his lofty wife—and stout. Clean-shaven but for a thick moustache, and balding so there’s not enough hair to hide the bruised and broken crevasse in the right side of his head.

Outside, the watery daylight is fading and the room is in shadow; some lines of grey light drift in through the open French windows. Fionnuala rests in a stiff-backed chair; the other seven—burgundy velvet padded—line the far wall so it doesn’t look as though the family will sit down to a strange supper. She cannot imagine eating in here ever again. Her feet are placed on the expensive rug like she might rock back and forth if the seat were correctly configured. There’s a rocking chair up in the girls’ room, where she’d sit to nurse them when they were new; perhaps the action is one that gave her comfort then and she’d like to repeat it now. Perhaps the ground simply feels like the only solid thing around her.

She can hear Mrs Lenahan answering questions from the girls: Where’s Papa truly if not on the dining room table? When will Mama be better? Why do the angels need Papa? Talk of heavenly creatures sets her teeth on edge.

There’s a knock, which pushes the dark wooden door further open.

“Missus?” Donovan’s still wet and covered in mud; hasn’t bothered to wash and change before he came to see her. She wonders if it’s deliberate. Water falls to the parquet floor, soughs into the weave of the rug. Fionnuala doesn’t answer, keeps her eyes on her husband’s face.

“We’re done. Six feet. All the way down.” He sounds resentful.

The woman nods.

Donovan turns away, then back when she asks, “How long have you been with us?”

“Six years, missus.” He clears his throat. “Fetch too. Him and me got assigned here at the same time when we got our tickets of leave.”

Fionnuala notes he doesn’t mention the younger man, Flynn. “It’s hard for everyone, Donovan.”

“He was a good master.”

“Yes. A good man.” She pauses. “I’m sorry I was sharp with you today.”

“You’re the boss, missus. Leastways until you sell up.” There’s a lick of malice in his pitch, which she ignores.

“Sell up? Mr Donovan, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Be hard for a woman on her own . . . ”

“Still not as hard as losing him,’ she says softly; faced with the rawness of her grief he coughs. “See Mrs Lenahan before you go back to quarters. There’s a cask of brandy for you all.”

“That’s generous, missus!” His mood lifts with his voice. Her loss offset by the thought of a good drink.

“It’s from Patrick’s store; he’d be happy for you all to have it. Give him a good send-off, Donovan.”

“Thank you, missus.”

“All of you; make sure Flynn gets a share.”

There’s a hesitation that confirms his dislike of the newest arrival, the six-month wonder favoured by both the Farrells. “Yes, missus.”

“I don’t . . . ” Her incomplete thought interrupts him mid-turn.

“Missus?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What, missus?”

“What happened to him. I don’t understand why Patrick fell.”

“The horse must have been spooked, missus,” he says gently. “Maybe Mr Farrell wasn’t paying attention.”

“But he was an expert horseman, Donovan.”

“Sad to say, missus, better than the master have been thrown before and will be again.” He almost whispers, “Something spooked the horse, maybe a damned rabbit is all, a bird breaking cover.”

Slowly, she nods. “Perhaps. But where’s his vesta case?”

Fionnuala had given it to her husband as a gift, his initials engraved on the front.

“Can’t say, missus. Must have fallen into the grass, down a rabbit hole. We didn’t see it anywhere when we found him.” He looks perplexed, wonders if there’s another question there, an accusation he should address.

“Goodnight, Donovan.”

“Goodnight, missus.”

She sees his hand closing the door and says a little too quickly, “You must leave it open.”

When he’s gone Fionnuala returns to her vigil. Outside the French doors, out in the garden, close to the house is a silhouette, which she fails to notice because her husband sits up, straight from the waist. The pillow falls to the floor. Patrick twists his head on his neck to face her, but at least she can’t see that terrible wound. She blinks, swallows, clutches at her own throat.

“I know what you did, Fionnuala,” he vomits the words. She knows from examining him that he’d bit his tongue in the fall, almost taken it off, so it’s no surprise that forming sounds is so hard for him, so discordant. Fionnuala closes her eyes, hard, counts to three before she opens them.

Patrick is lying down again, the pillow beneath his head still; the fabric on which he lies is untroubled. But now a trickle of blood leaks from the corpse’s nostrils, and out from under his lids too. Fionnuala rises, takes hesitant steps to the table. She stares at the crimson-black, then looks at the doorway that Donovan’s left not long ago.

The blood bubbles as if there’s breath behind it, but Patrick’s chest doesn’t move, he’s not alive. There’s just the echo of his words in her ears: ‘I know what you did, Fionnuala.’

“No,” she says softly, “you don’t.”

The darkness between the house and the workers’ hut feels like an ocean as Fionnuala stares across it. Against the small square windows are the shapes of men weaving back and forth, dancing, holding mugs in the air, any enmity set aside for however short a time. Behind her the dining room is aglow; Mrs Lenahan gives the body on the table one final examination, rubs the top lip again with a stained cloth, then straightens. She joins Fionnuala as the noise of the farewell comes on the breeze.

“Disrespectful,” mutters the housekeeper. The taper in her hand that she’s used to light the lamps is burning down slowly. She doesn’t blow it out; the flame illuminates both their faces. Somehow Fionnuala appears older.

“They liked Patrick. Liked working for him. They’ll have to get used to answering to me.”

“And good luck with that. Donovan and Fetch, they’ll be all right if they learn to hold their tongues. Other one doesn’t say much.” She touches Fionnuala’s shoulder. “A man as can keep his mouth shut is rare and wonderful.”

Fionnuala half-laughs, half-sighs. Briefly, she leans her weight into Mrs Lenahan’s palm, then straightens away. “Hopefully they’ll all stay. We need them. Donovan and Fetch have been here long enough to know the ropes. I don’t fancy having to break new ones in.”

“They’ll be coming soon, you know. All the single men, looking for a wife. Rich widows are rare enough here.” Mrs Lenahan catches sight of Fionnuala’s expression in the guttering glow. She shakes the last of the flame away so she doesn’t have to see the devastation on her mistress’ face. “Ah, love, I’m sorry. My tongue’s running from me.”

“I barely remember a life before him,” whispers Fionnuala. She remembers the sensation, though, of it; of being trapped on her father’s estate, of being defiant in the only way she knew how. She remembers having to marry Patrick Farrell, who was kind and convenient. Who knew everything and was still kind. She remembers the little boy, born too soon and buried beneath the rose bushes in the western garden of the lonely Dublin mansion. Had the need arisen, Patrick Farrell would have given the child his name. She remembers the escape he offered. And she’d so badly requited him.

“They’ll all come with the same excuse: be needing a man around,” Mrs Lenahan mutters words Fionnuala’s heard from more than one mouth.

Fionnuala clears her throat, changes the topic. “Is it done, then?”

“All clean and tidy, Mrs Farrell.” Mrs Lenahan speaks offhandedly.

“What does it mean?” Fionnuala asks though she already knows. “Such a thing.”

The older woman says nothing.

“You answer me.” Fionnuala grabs the housekeeper’s upper arm, and the other woman gasps. “The blood . . . ”

“Old wives’ tales and superstitious nonsense,” the housekeeper hisses. “That a corpse bleeds when its murderer is close? Only a fool would believe that. Your man was thrown, his horse spooked. Sad but unfortunate. When they’re dead, they’re dead.”

“Yet you’re the one who said the doors need to be left open, to let him pass through, get used to being dead. That the grave earth should be salted after he’s laid down, to keep him there.” The two women stare at each other. “You’re a terrible liar, Nelly Lenahan. We both know such a thing’s been enough to get men hung back home . . . blood witness . . . ”

“Only two people were in that room when he bled, you and Donovan. Should I think either of you . . . ” She licks her lips as if parched. “Sometimes bodies just bleed after death is all. Doesn’t mean we don’t take precautions.” After a pause, the housekeeper touches the girl’s hand, and makes a tsk sound. “Lord in Heaven, you’re frozen. How can you be so cold and not shiver?”

“I don’t feel it,” says Fionnuala, her voice almost musical. “Don’t feel much of anything at all.”

“Come along. Say goodnight to your girls. They need you.”

Fionnuala’s earlier annoyance at the housekeeper’s faith flares like blown-upon embers. “Don’t promise them angels, Nelly. We’d need better ones than I deserve.”

Fionnuala wakes in fright in the lonely centre of the four-poster bed; the extra covers feel too heavy. Despite the cold, her long nightgown is damp with sweat, as is her hair. She sits up and scans the moonlit room. There’s just the movement of the curtains in the icy gust, nothing else, yet she can’t help but know something’s not right. Rising, she pads bare-footed into the corridor. Empty, all as it was when she retired; she doesn’t know how long she’s slept, but suspects it cannot be long.

She hears a noise—a whimper, an animal cry or a child’s—at almost the same moment she realises the door to her daughters’ room is closed. Fionnuala frowns. Surely Mrs Lenahan wouldn’t have made such a mistake? There’s a golden glow in the gap beneath, showing that the lamp she let her girls keep for comfort is still burning.

At the entrance, she turns the handle and pushes on the door, which swings aside with a creak as Fionnuala steps across the threshold.

A man is leaning over the bed. The blade of the knife he holds is liquid dark. The oldest girl cries again, louder now that she’s seen her mother. The man turns and takes in Fionnuala’s expression and grins.

“Don’t you know what I did for you?”

Fionnuala feels sick, thinks she might just spit up hot vomit where she stands. Fears she might not stop if she starts.

“Gave us a chance, didn’t I? Even after you’d cast me aside.”

He grabs the bright copper hair of the bleeding girl and hauls her upwards. Her sisters, now awake, begin to wail.

“Last chance, Nella.” His voice seems to rasp on that gentle nickname. “When these are gone, we start again. I don’t want dead man’s babies roaming about.”

Fionnuala screams.

Flynn doesn’t count on the intensity of her rage. He’s astonished when she charges towards him. He lets the weeping child go and raises the knife against the object of his desire. It might well not be there for all the attention she gives it as she strikes at him, her forearms and the white cotton sleeves becoming stained with red; her flailing paints the young man with her own ichor.

Her attack is so fierce he ends up trying to cover his face and head instead of fighting her off; the one hit he connects to her cheekbone doesn’t slow her at all. Fionnuala drives him back, through the French doors and out onto the verandah. She keeps swinging at him, punches and kicks and claws, until he’s hard against the white railing. She gives one last good hit and he tips, cartwheels over the balustrade and is gone.

The knife falls at Fionnuala’s feet, and she retrieves it before returning to the room where Nelly Lenahan has appeared, a hurricane lantern in her hand, the fear in her face saying she witnessed Flynn’s fall.

In the bed all three girls are howling but Fionnuala can barely hear them. She examines the oldest’s neck and finds the cut is shallow. Flynn misjudged, she thinks, was trying to slice the fabric of the nightgown—to what purpose she does not wish to think.

“Fionnuala! What happened?”

“All my sins come home to roost, Nelly, and not an angel of any quality to protect us.” She hefts the knife. “Take care of them. Lock the doors after me.”

“Where are you going?”

“To make sure he’s done.”

It would be safer to stay here herself, yearn and hope until morning. Shout from the verandah and pray the other men in the hut hear them, are sober enough to help. But her blood’s been spilled from more than one body, and Fionnuala can’t think of anything she’d like more than to watch Flynn bleed into the soil of her home.

But where Flynn’s body should lie there’s nothing. Fionnuala looks up at the house, to where Nelly Lenahan is leaning over the railing, lantern raised high. The spill of yellow light reveals dark streaks against the white-painted downpipe, showing where and how the man’s fall might have been slowed.

“Come inside, Fionnuala!” The housekeeper’s voice is shrill.

Fionnuala shakes her head. She continues on a slow circuit around the house, lit by moonlight and the lantern Mrs Lenahan carries like a lighthouse beacon as she follows her mistress’ progress. When she comes to the trench Flynn was digging earlier in the day she almost falls in, then rights herself and jumps over. The shovel is still stuck in the ground and she thinks, stupidly, that if Patrick had been alive not a one of the workmen would have dared neglect tools so carelessly.

As Fionnuala moves on, a figure rises from the ditch, careful to stay out of the path of the light.

“Fionnuala, come inside!”

“You go back in. I’ll rouse Donovan and Fetch.” If they’re still alive. No love lost between the men of Gracemere, perhaps enough dislike to ensure the established ones be taken out first. And Fionnuala heads off, high-stepping like a nervous cat, into the night before Mrs Lenahan can begin arguing.

Lamps are still burning in the windows of the little hut, so it looks like a gem against the black of the landscape. Fionnuala carefully mounts the few steps and pushes open the rude door.

At a square, rough-hewn table she finds Donovan and Fetch. Their heads are on the tabletop, their crowns touching, limbs ragdoll loose. The keg of brandy is precariously balancing close to the edge. Fionnuala holds her breath, uncertain, then hears the telltale noise of a snore. Not dead, but drunk. Very drunk. How much did Flynn urge upon them? How far had he planned ahead? How much of this night’s doings were simply opportunity mingled with spite? She moves swiftly and begins to shake Donovan. The man is unresponsive, as is Fetch when she slaps him.

She backs away, a sob escapes. As she’s at the black hole of the door a hand comes up from behind and snatches the knife from her grasp; another wraps around her throat. She’s lifted back against Flynn who half-carries, half-drags her out into the garden. Incongruously she thinks of the muscle and sinew of him in better times, duller times, when Patrick was away so much and she felt so trapped and bored. She thinks about how sweet the touch of the younger man was, so briefly, before she came to her senses and ended their dalliance. How he’d seemed to take it well enough.

The hand at her neck feels wrong, fingers clearly broken. He puts his mouth to her ear and hisses, “You would have died quiet. We’d have had some fun, then you’d have died quiet, bitch. Now your girls are going to listen to you scream for a long while. Then I’ll see to them.”

He pushes her towards the house, stopping as the mood takes to make small incisions in her throat, across her chest, nothing to kill her, just to cause pain and fear. They come to a stop, careful to remain in the darkest of shadows beyond the reach of Nelly Lenahan’s lantern. “Now, tell her to come down. Tell her it’s safe.”

Fionnuala nods as well as she can, a jerky movement. She tries to talk, but only manages a strangled whisper. She tries again, gets out, “Too tight.”

He loosens his grip, and she seizes the moment to crush the broken fingers and knock the knife away. She kicks backwards at his shin and he screeches as her heel connects.

Fionnuala tears across the lawn; she does not look behind for she can hear his pursuit. Then, as he watches in surprise, she leaps, lithe as a dancer, and he cannot think why. Nor does he realise until it’s too late to stop: his arms cartwheel but his momentum is too great. To make matters worse, as he falls into the ditch Patrick Farrell appears behind his wife’s back as she lands on the soggy ground.

Flynn screams with more than pain as his feet connect with the bottom of the trench, his ankles jarring, his right knee hitting the wrong angle. He’s half-in, half-out, swearing, and terrified by the spectre only he’s seen for it flickered out the moment he fell through it.

Fionnuala feints to her left, grabs something he cannot quite make out, then wheels about with an elegance he cannot help but admire. His admiration, however, lasts only until the shovel she’s retrieved from where he left it hits him in the side of the head. One moment he sees her, angel-white against the blackness, then nothing. The sound of metal on flesh and bone is loud in the cold night air.

When Flynn opens his eyes, it’s still dark. He can hear heavy breathing and sobs, the scrabbling sound of boot heels against a wooden floor. His own breathing, he realises, his own sobs; his own heels scraping. He fidgets and fiddles in his trouser pockets, then there’s a scratch: a light flares.

The silver case lying on his chest gleams in the dull glow of the vesta match, the initials “P.F.” seem to shift in the valleys and peaks of their engraving. Flynn lifts the match as high as he can: it doesn’t go very far. There’s a too-low wooden ceiling above him; he moves the tiny flame to the right, comes quickly to a wall and a join. He cries harder, which makes the dipping flame flicker. He tries to calm himself. He moves the thing again, turns his head to the left.

Patrick Farrell’s lying next to him, tilted on his side so they can both fit in the box Fetch had made for his master.

Patrick Farrell’s eyes suddenly open.

Flynn screams.

The flame extinguishes.

The predicted phalanx of single men in search of a wife has manifested; seven of them infest the gravesite. Other neighbours, five married couples, make up the numbers. Fionnuala, Mrs Lenahan and the children all appear exhausted, but that’s easily passed off as grief. A thick black lace mourning veil helps to obscure the bruise on Fionnuala’s cheek and the high neck of her dress covers the bandage. Her daughters cling to her long black skirts and she pets them distractedly. She’s staring at the ground, the muddy rectangle inside the low iron fence.

A priest reads a psalm, the words of which wash over Fionnuala’s ears.

Donovan and Fetch, shovels in hand, looking worse for wear, step away from the recently filled-in grave. There’s a pile of stones near the makeshift wooden cross; they’ll lay those over the top soon enough, after everyone else has gone. Neither has asked about their missing workmate; neither commented on the weight of the coffin they carried to the hole early this morning.

When the priest finishes, the attendees are herded to the house by a kindly neighbour, the sort who lives to bustle other people about. Fionnuala waves Donovan and Fetch to follow the group, and they mutter “Yes, missus.”

At last, there are only Fionnuala and Mrs Lenahan, waiting. They are silent for aching seconds, until a very, very faint thudding comes, travelling up through the ground. When the dull noise subsides—which seems to take an awfully long time—Fionnuala turns away. She pauses, puts a hand on the housekeeper’s shoulder, and says, “Don’t forget the salt, Nelly.”

Mrs Lenahan nods.

Originally published in The Review of Australian Fiction, December 2017.

About the Author

Angela Slatter is the author of the novels Vigil, Corpselight, and Restoration, as well as eight short story collections, including The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings and A Feast of Sorrows: Stories. She’s won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, a Ditmar Award, an Australian Shadows Award and six Aurealis Awards; Vigil was nominated for the Dublin Literary Award. Her work has been translated into French, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, and Bulgarian.