It was snowing when Ria arrived in Carrmore, and didn’t look as if it would ever stop. Taking time out from unpacking the boxes and bags that she had crammed into her little green Skoda for the drive north, she went to the bedroom window and watched the flakes descend with universal patience out of the black sky. Then she rested her forehead on the glass and exhaled a breath she’d held so long that her body was sore with it.
The house was not a big house but neither was the Skoda a big car, and her possessions—mostly clothes and toiletries, her tablet and phone and, for some reason, the small TV from the spare bedroom where she’d spent more nights than not in recent months—looked paltry spread out on the floor. Once she’d scattered these few tokens of herself throughout the rented house, the place felt a little more homely. When she started to think about the things she had left behind, she went back to the window. Back to the snow.
Ria had known the Highlands would be wintry, but had not expected this much white. The garden, buried several feet deep, was featureless and flat and the boundary hedges between the two-storey, stone-built property and its neighbours were rounded like rolled cotton gym towels. It was perfect.
The next morning eased her slow and soft out of her deepest sleep in months, unexpected sunshine illuminating the paisley curtains like whorled stained glass. Then a knock reverberated up through the house and made Ria’s heart skitter like a panicked mouse. When it sounded again she relaxed a little, realising that it was an impersonal rap, not an impatient fist. Risking a peek from the window, she saw a neat line of crimp-soled prints in the snow leading to the gate to next door’s equally pristine garden. A porch, guttering fringed with icicles, obscured of the visitor all but a swish of skirt, a booted ankle, but those were enough to calm the mouse. No one she knew dressed like that. She threw on a jumper and jeans and went down.
The visitor had a smile that out-dazzled the scintillations of the garden snow. Ashlin Duff. Ria thought the woman was singing to her, but she was merely introducing herself as she stepped with care into the tiny porch and then entered the kitchen itself. “Kent you got in late, so I brought you some bits and pieces.” The cardboard box she hefted contained an entire week’s groceries.
“I can’t accept this.” Ria’s mouth was musty. She had not spoken to another person since calling in sick to work. Not to the petrol station attendant on the M6, not to her family. Certainly not to Richard. “Thank you, but really . . . ”
“It’s no bother.” Ashlin Duff smiled again, shifted her grip on the box. “Do you mind if I put this down?”
Ria stepped out of the way. “Sorry. Of course.” She’d come here for solitude and wasn’t ready for this intrusion, but she allowed it to happen. This was just a friendly stranger, and it’s easy to lie to strangers. She forced a smile. “If there’s coffee in there, would you like a cup?”
With her North Face jacket, wellingtons and old fashioned skirt, sky blue tartan with pale green and orange checks, Ashlin looked like a country doctor or a geography teacher. Though a startlingly pretty one. “I’d love to, but I’ve messages to run.” She scribbled something in a notebook, ripped the page out and left it on the table. “Another time though, eh? Give me a shout if you want anything.”
And with that Ashlin Duff was gone and Ria had her solitude back. Aisling, she read from the note next to the neatly printed number. It looked even more musical that way.
Ria put the food away, quickly filling the cupboards and fridge. Aisling’s kindness was embarrassing. There was too much here to qualify as a few things. She’d gone to the trouble of cooking as well and there were tubs with neatly written freezer labels, even a casserole dish containing a huge piece of pork shoulder that had been rubbed with spices and slowly roasted. Even cold, the aroma was unbelievable but it would take a week to eat the thing on her own. The lack of surprise in Aisling Duff’s voice when she answered the phone and accepted the dinner invitation made Ria suspect that this had been the plan all along.
The mouse wakened again as she put the phone down, unsettled by her boldness. Ria had come here to get away from people after all. To pacify the panic, she made tea. Proper loose leaves, steeping in a pot under a knitted tea cosy until it was black as tar. Milk that she decanted into a kitsch jug shaped like a cow. She took her mug outside to look at the snow, and almost immediately spilled her drink as her foot skidded on the lower step. It was iced over with stalactite drips. Little wonder that Aisling had been so cautious when she entered earlier. Making a mental note to salt it later, Ria bypassed the step and went out to stand at the edge of the snow. It came up to her mid-thigh. Outside, it wasn’t as cold as she expected. More as if temperature was absent. Sound too. The garden had a temple stillness that the unceasing snowflakes only accentuated. Aisling’s footprints along the path were partly covered already. The perfection almost restored.
Ria went back in and explored the house. When she’d rented the place she’d done so in a frantic rush from the public library, caring only that it was somewhere quiet, somewhere far away. She had no actual knowledge about the property or its owners. Now she browsed the bookcases, opened all the drawers and doors, rummaged through the tools and paint pots and rolls of off-cut carpet in the cupboard under the narrow stairs, and discovered that the smaller bedroom on the upper floor was not a bedroom after all. It was a sewing room.
She found that odd. When you entered the rental market, you made your property serviceable and comfortable, but kept it impersonal. Perhaps a few generic books or DVDs at most; otherwise you risked preventing a tenant from settling, making the place their own. And who would retain a sewing room when a second bedroom opened up the property to the family market?
The room’s only light was cloaked in a velvet shade that pooled secretive illumination over a work table on which sat a treadle-cranked Singer sewing machine. Shelves contained a library of pattern books, spectra of thread bobbins and Tupperware boxes that held assorted zips and buttons, poppers and hooks and eyes. Along the back wall were stacked bolts of cloth like a forest, boles furred with multihued moss. Cotton and chintz, satin, velour.
Silk. There was a lot of silk.
Ria was drawn to a bolt so buttercup yellow that it glowed, so soft it was like cream slipping through her fingers. Cool and gentle on her skin as snow.
She thought about the sewing room while she prepared dinner. An odd revelation of the owner’s personality, as if it were a memory that the house were unwilling to relinquish. As the pork warmed through, the kitchen filled with luscious spices that awoke an appetite in her more intense than she’d experienced in months of anxious sparrow-picking. There were potatoes among the groceries but she couldn’t face the effort so she opened a packet of wraps instead. She chopped a wizened red chilli, then shredded half an iceberg lettuce. The knife felt strange and heavy and she found the act of slicing through the crisp leaves addictive, chopping until the bowl overflowed. She put it on the table with the other things.
What else? Wine. Aisling had taken the liberty of buying half a dozen bottles, all white. Pinot grigio, chenin blanc. The sort of thing Ria habitually helped herself to large glasses of at home. She poured herself one now. It was cold as icemelt.
“How did you guess I preferred white wine?” She asked this as she poured the last drops of the bottle into Aisling’s glass. They had consumed virtually all of the pork, shredded with forks, dolloped with crème fresh. There wasn’t even much lettuce left.
Her visitor’s smile was a secretive thing. Shy, like she needed permission. “Lucky guess.” Aisling stretched over. She was wearing a lovely ribbed sweater the colour of a January sky. There were pills in the wool, a strand flying from one of the cuffs, but it was obviously a beloved garment. Something she knew she looked good in. The turtleneck roll accentuated her pointed chin, the pale blue worked with her dark lipstick and the smoked haze of her eye shadow. The fingernails hadn’t been shaped for a while, but were freshly lacquered to the same glossy colour as the glaze that she now wiped from the denuded shoulder bone. That she curled her tongue around and sucked clean. “No one with any sense really drinks red wine, do they? It takes far too long to drink.”
Ria’s turn to smile. It was something she could have said herself.
Aisling took another scoop of the sauce, then sat back, savouring it. “So, what brings you to Carrmore?”
The question came in such a relaxed fashion that it took Ria aback. As if Aisling and she were old friends instead of new acquaintances. Her guard shot up. “I . . . suppose I just wanted to get—”
“Away from it all?” Now Aisling’s smile was a mix of impatience and sadness. “Sorry,” she said, evidently realising the presumption of her interruption. “It’s just that everyone comes here to get away from it all. I meant, what specifically?” The presumption again, as if it was perfectly natural that Ria should open up to a complete stranger about the awfulness of her life, the thing she had done. Aisling gave a small sigh, and when she spoke next her voice was buttered with patience. “You don’t have to tell me, but do you know about the silkbones?”
Ria shook her head.
“Carrmore is a place where people come to forget. It’s not just the peace, the gentleness of life here. It’s the snow. Do you . . . understand?” The hitch implied she had been about to say something else. Ria had a weird certainty it was going to be remember. She didn’t reply. Aisling pointed at the remains of the pork. “When I’m gone, take this bone and clean it up. It should be large enough unless you’ve got a real catastrophe on your hands. Once it’s spotless, whisper your troubles to it. Be specific, tell it the things that made you come here. All of them.”
Ria stared, not quite sure how to respond. “And then?”
“And then parcel it in cloth. Nice and tight. Silk works best. Swaddle it as if this is a most valuable possession, something that you have no choice but to let go of: grave goods, a dead child. Make it beautiful.” Ria was still puzzling over the question of how her visitor knew that she had silk in the house, and almost missed the last thing. “Then take the parcel out into the garden and bury it in the snow.”
“And what will all that rigmarole achieve?”
“Just do it, and you’ll see.”
When Aisling Duff left a little later, the parting was embarrassed and rushed. As if her neighbour had hoped for the course of the evening to go a different way. Maybe there had been a motive behind her generosity after all. Ria watched her pass through the slatted gate. Felt something akin to guilt, something like shame as she returned the woman’s wave. When the gate closed it dislodged a rill of soft snow that pattered to the ground, and when Ria looked through the slats again, Aisling had vanished into the darkness. Ria felt bound to wait until her neighbour was safely inside, but though she waited a full minute the lights of the house did not come on.
Ria did the dishes first. Enjoying the scald of her skin in the soapy water while, through the window, she watched the unhurried flurry of the snow tumbling out of the darkness. Only once the kitchen was spotless did she realise that she hadn’t binned the shoulder bone with the rest of the scraps. She stared at it, knowing that what Aisling had suggested was ridiculous, but . . . she had to do something. Using the flat of a cook’s knife, she scraped away the rags of meat and fat; scoured until only bone was left, smooth and cool. Then she ran fresh water, frothed it up with suds and dunked the thing into the basin. She broke out a new scourer and gently washed the bone in long shriver’s strokes, and when it was clean she patted it with a towel.
Upstairs, she pondered the bales of cloth. The yellow one still stood out, so she chose that. The big scissors slid through the material with a hiss, leaving a thready edge that made her feel she’d spoiled its perfection. She spread the golden swathe on the kitchen table, folded the cloth once, matching the edges and pressing down on the seam, and then once again. Only then did she place the bone in the centre, and as soon as she saw it there—a thing itself of internality, a thing that should never be seen, its secrets exposed; the joint knob flaring into a plane that was both flat and curved and that bore fascinating ridges, that was smooth at first glance but, on closer inspection, was pocked with pores like an ancient cave structure—did she realise quite how much she needed to speak the thing that had been on her mind these many months.
So she told the bone. A dry whisper at first that became a babble, that became a torrent of words. She told the bone about the . . . Well, to begin with it was boredom, she supposed. A restlessness disaffection. About the online bingo, and then the slots which drained away her cash as effortlessly as the bone was absorbing all of these words. About maxing out first one new credit card then another. About Richard continually asking why she’d become quiet and evasive. The look on his face as he asked all the questions she’d been fearing since the thing had got a hold of her. And, worst of all, when he said the thing she didn’t understand: “Why do you do these things?” As if this wasn’t the first, the one and only time. Even him knowing that there were things that she was keeping from him formed a chasm between them. She hadn’t volunteered any further information, and he hadn’t pried. They had a good life together, a good love. Neither wanted to be the one to test its strength, its fragility.
Now she did say all the things, told them to the bone and, as the words blizzarded out of her, she began to feel warm. It built first in her vacated chest, kindled around her mouse’s heartbeat. It rose to her throat, a lapping wave of heat that quickened, then surged up her neck and tightly over her scalp. A boiling skin of pressure. On the very last word it released with a hot, pained pop that left her dizzy and breathless and afraid. She stared down at the bone and the yellow silk, and then hurriedly wrapped the one in the other, tucking the corners tight and securing the bundle with safety pins. Then she blundered out into the garden, wading into the undisturbed snow. It soaked her jeans, wet though still not cold.
After a dozen laboured paces she stopped and slipped the package into her cardigan so that she could use both hands to break the surface of the snowfield in front of her, which resisted her fingers like the crust on a brulée before it gave. It took her maybe a minute to dig a hole wide enough, deep enough. By the end, her hands were red and raw, and then at last she felt the cold. It burned her skin, leached fire into her bones, but Ria wasted no more time in planting her package, wanting to be shot of it, repulsed by the shame. She scooped the snow over the top and then stumbled back into the house without once looking back.
That night she had difficulty sleeping because of the cold. The heating must have been broken and there were not enough blankets in the place. She got up when dawn crept like a stalker behind the paisley curtains, and looked out to see that, with the snow continuing to fall at its unhurried pace, the garden was once again featureless.
Her memory of why she had expected it to be otherwise was gone.
By lunch time, so was she.
Ria couldn’t believe she was doing it, but she played Richard’s message to a complete stranger. Her husband’s voice, compressed by the speaker of her old, spare phone, sounded artificial, invented. In the twenty four hours since she’d arrived in Carrbridge, with its silence and snow, he’d begun to feel less and less real. His questions, the confused anger that she knew lived under his skin.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Richard said. “These things you do.”
She and the woman who called herself Aisling Duff, had had a wonderfully companionable evening. Great food, a lot of booze, easy chat and much needed laughter. There might even have been a twinkle in Aisling’s eye; a spark, an offer. Had the circumstances been different . . . Well, but they weren’t. And, now that they were talking about this, the moment was most definitely lost.
Aisling listened without interrupting. “He sounds worried,” she said at the end, serious now.
“I don’t know what he means. These things.” Coming to Carrbridge had been a heartswallowing leap, a pin jabbed in a map. “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like…” She swallowed. “And he doesn’t even know what it is.”
Aisling nodded, but her smoke-shadowed eyes were troubled. After a moment she said. “No, it’s not.” She took Ria’s hand. Not in an impersonal manner, the way you might comfort a colleague who’d learned of a bereavement, though not in an intimate way either. This was a gentle, familiar clasp. As Aisling told Ria about Carrbridge, her fingers sought out the pulse in her wrist, soothed it. As she told her that she had been here on several previous occasions, the candles sizzled. As she told her about something called silkbones, Ria’s eyes tracked from the remains of their lamb shank to the unrelenting tumbling of snow outside the window. Then back to Aisling’s earnest face.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because . . . ” Her visitor drew a breath. “The silkbones, are meant to relieve you of the big things, hen. Things that have got too heavy to carry around in your head. Always there. Obstructing your thoughts, your ability to function. The things that sink you. But, Ria, your visits here are getting more and more frequent, and believe me . . . ” for some reason, she was crying a bit now, “there are only so many secrets the snow can take.”
“What do you mean by frequent? How many times?”
“More than is good. Because when the thaw comes . . . and it always does . . . you’ll get your bones back. All of them.”
Aisling’s words churned Ria’s deepest memories. She had known nothing about any of this, only now it felt as if she sort of did. “The thaw?”
Aisling looked pained. “Every now and then the thaw comes and anyone’s bones that are still buried become exposed for the world to see. All your secrets. You can only lay them down for a little while. You can’t lose them forever.”
For some reason this knowledge woke a trickle-melt fear in Ria. “What can I do?”
Aisling’s cool fingers squeezed her hand. “This time don’t use the bone. Tell me instead. Face to face. A problem shared . . . ”
Ria stared into Aisling’s open face. Made herself think about the thing: the money she spent on adult dating profiles; the two feverish yet sterile encounters that she’d arranged in a city hotel when Richard was out of town; his baffled anger when she’d accidentally lost her new phone because she didn’t know how to erase its call and data history. Why do you do these things? She couldn’t answer him. She was not in the habit of revealing her secrets to others. Not ever.
“But if I tell you . . . ”
Aisling nodded, murmured, “It’s what I’m here for, I think.”
Ria hardly heard her. “If I tell you then I won’t forget it, will I? It won’t wipe it out and go back to normal.”
Aisling paled. “Ria, you can never wipe it out, not really. The silkbones . . . ”
“But you said that’s what they’re for. Forgetting.”
“Until the thaw.”
“That’s long enough.”
Aisling nodded quietly, squeezed Ria’s hand. Soon afterwards she made her excuses to leave and, as Ria watched her negotiate the icy step, she felt only the tiniest twinge of guilt at not asking her kind neighbour what had been so clearly troubling her own thoughts. She was too eager to try the thing with the huge lamb bone and the silk from the odd little room upstairs. Anything to be rid of the knowledge of what she had done. Clean slate, go back home and resume the good life she and Richard had built together.
She felt like an idiot doing this thing, with the pillow of folded silk, the clean bone resting on it—and could there be anything more bare than a bone? Could there be anything more bizarre than treating it like a confessional?—but once she spoken her frets she no longer felt stupid. Once it had absorbed all of her worry she felt calmer. And once she had planted the bone out in the snow, watching until the descending flakes covered it up and she had begun to shiver, she felt at peace.
The next morning she woke in the bedroom of her little getaway place, rested and relaxed, and smiled with anticipation of going home. The only thing that marred what had been an entirely uneventful stay was the odd note that she found among the milk bottles. She hadn’t noticed it on her arrival though it must have been there for weeks. A note left by the property owners for the gardener perhaps in times before the snow had set in. In a neat female hand, it said:
Dig them up. All of them.
It had seemed like the ideal spot to get away to—quiet, remote, and far enough north that it sometimes still snowed in June—but now that she was here in Carrmore, Ria couldn’t settle, couldn’t relax. The temperature fluctuated uncertainly; when she wore her sweater she felt stifled, when she took it off she got goosebumps. Outside, the garden was too still. Not a breath of air, not a flake of falling snow to top up the even spread that had covered the lawn and beds to a tremendous depth some time ago, that now glistened with an icy slickness in the grey afternoon. Not a sound—no birds or distant cars, no children, no neighbours’ too-loud TV. She had come here for peace, but this degree of isolation was alarming. It left her with nothing but her own thoughts. The things she’d done.
There was a gate at the end of the path. It led into the garden of the house next door. She wondered if maybe someone would be in. She’d interacted so little recently that she thought maybe exchanging a few words with a stranger might be a relief. Stepping out from the kitchen, Ria almost lost her footing on the step directly below the row of quietly dripping icicles. She would need to salt that later. Gingerly, she made her way along the path and when she pushed the gate to next door’s garden, a rim of ice fell off in a solid block. It shattered on the snow crust, the pieces skittering away.
The house next door was similar to hers. A fine construction of grey sandstone, mossy lintels, neatly painted windows, the roof and chimney breast capped with white so evenly it was like a Christmas card. The garden was entirely hidden by snow. She could tell before she peered through the window that she would see a tidy, comfortable home, but one that had not been lived in for a while. Another rental house. She didn’t knock. Suddenly, she had no inclination to shatter this stillness.
Back inside and with the daylight already starting to fade, she put on the TV but the shows were all full of people and the things that people did. Crimes, betrayals, infidelities. Realising that she was hungry, she investigated the fridge and found it bare apart from a tub of chicken wings left by the last tenant. She opened the tub and examined the contents expecting the worst, but they could have been placed there that morning, the meat orange with spices.
Rather than brood, Ria heated the food and ate. She gorged herself, fingers and mouth getting messy as she stripped and savoured every last morsel of the delicious flesh, discarding what could not be consumed into a bowl. A growing pile of bones, grey-white bows and pins like ancient jewellery unearthed from a Neolithic burial site. Exposed things.
Rather than think, Ria took the bones to the sink and washed them, concentrated on making them beautiful. She found some offcut squares of green silk in the odd little sewing room upstairs and pretended she was a museum curator, setting each of these precious things to the best advantage. And then to each of them she told its provenance. Discarded in a railway station hotel in Bracknell. Crumpled on a bookie’s floor. A carpark off the A4. The spare room floor after a Skype session with a stranger, the shivering light of thrill and shame. Each, an inconsequential event, a one-off, never to be repeated. Each best buried. As she told each story she flushed with heat and pressure, groaned with the relief that came of knotting each parcel of silk. But it wasn’t enough. She had to be rid of them, get them out of the house. Rushing outside she slipped on that damned step and pitched forward, scattering her bundles across the snow. She scrabbled after them punched holes through the ice to bury them, and by the time she was finished her clothes were soaking and her hands bleeding. But it was done, and she was too exhausted when she went back in to do anything but sleep.
Ria wakes with a wail that catches behind her clenched teeth. Lies panting in sweat-damp sheets as the rags of whatever she was dreaming about flutter at the corners of her mind. It’s not morning, she’s not even sure where she is. She wonders why Richard isn’t here, and then she remembers.
Ria gets up and draws back the curtain. The cloud cover has teased apart like tissue and the moon is partly visible. In its paltry light, the garden is glowing, glittering. Such a strange thing after the perfection that looked as if it had been untouched forever. There is a sickly wrongness to the scene.
She goes down and opens the door and, in the silence, it is the tiniest of sounds that tell her what is happening. The brittle ticking of ice, the music of drips, the trickle of running water. And sure enough, now that she hears the sounds, she sees it too. The porch icicles are splashing rapidly onto the step. The snowfield surface is pitted and slumped in a dozen places, as if hot stones lay beneath the surface. As she watches, a portion of the crust caves in with a sigh. The path along the side of the house is already exposed and meltwater gurgles through the exposed iron grid below the drainpipe.
Every drip, every unhurried crack and shift, contributes to the dread growing in her belly. A thing for which she can see no reason other than the spoiling of the perfect winter picture that has, it seems, not brought her the peace she was looking for.
She tries to scoop snow into the nearest rapidly expanding hole but where her hands touch, it melts still faster. She tries to crawl up onto the surface, but her hands and knees simply plunge through the crust, hastening its disintegration still more.
There’s nothing she can do.
Dawn is fringing the clouds when she spots the first tatter of sodden silk, a scrap of emerald that flaps open as the snow recedes to reveal something pale inside. And the instant Ria recognises what it is the memory hits: the anticipation of the hotel bar, the starched sheets, the rough, impersonal sex, the electric excitement of betrayal and the crawling guilt that came immediately after it was over. The second one is closer, tumbling to her feet as a section of the packed snow calves off. The sodden material unpeeling around the animal bone, the memory of yet another betrayal. They come thick and fast after that. They flurry. The coloured cloth, the bones within. Sex, money, often both. Nights, days, lunch times that she would have sworn in a court of law to have had no knowledge of, but now are undeniable.
The ruined silks come in all colours, the bones in all sizes and shapes. Odd, awful things. As the snow melts, Ria takes all the memories into her, pictures Richard’s face, hears the disbelief in his voice: Why do you do these things? And knows the honest reason: Because I wanted to, because I needed to. Just one time. What harm can just one time do?
It’s not long until Ria can see what is under the snow. Flattened grass, a border of twiggy shrubs, a dirty plastic football. Soon the snow has shrunk to one remaining mound beneath the shade of the trees along the back hedge. She approaches it, bare feet on the real earth, toes in the dead grass. She should be cold but she is burning with the shame from all the bones she’d buried here. And this, she knows, is the first one, the worst one. The one that started it all.
Ria sits on the grass and waits until eventually it comes to light. The wrapping had been a sensual sky blue. Now it is water-shot and scabrous, shaped not unlike a woman lying on a couch. You could imagine that. Perhaps after a wonderful meal and too much wine. You could imagine stroking her hair as she slept, head on your lap. Wondering what that night meant. The kiss that had gone on forever, that you’d wanted, bone deep, to lead to more. And, as you wondered, your thoughts would turn as they always did to Richard, to the good, simple love that you shared and cherished, but that could never be called passion. Then it would be you shaking her awake, asking, demanding, shouting at her to leave. Pushing her out of the door so that she slipped, and fell. And there was blood on the step and on her face and in her hair, and through it the white gleam of cracked bone. And you know that is something that should never, ever be seen.
What could she have done, Ria thinks, but bury it deep?
What can she do now, with all of these things under the warming sun of a springtime morning but sit here alone, and pray for snow.
Originally published in Secret Language.