Fiction / Shannen Malone

Malfunction

Issue 3. January 15, 2022

She submerged her hands in the dark, welcoming soil, only her knuckles visible, bone pale and hopeful little heads of mushrooms. The weight of her knees pressed into the ground as her back bowed over the earth in something like prayer, a worshipful arch of the spine. The air was fresh in her lungs. In and out. In and out. Rain whispered down the line of her neck, beads catching in her smiling collar.

            Audrey woke at four minutes past five in the morning, every morning, for the last three weeks. She set no alarm, but her body was following an inaccessible clock without her input or permission. She dragged in the first breath of conscious air every day the same way she brought the bins in after pick up. A chore. And a dirty one.

            Booting up was a routine as follows; she hauled herself resignedly from the cosy cocoon of her bed to the bathroom. Blearily she wiped the gunk from her eyes, emptied her bladder, flushed. Control, command, enter. The rushing water sound met its echo as she performed this essential maintenance, and Audrey craned her neck back to squint at the skylight and watch the rain. It pattered against the glass, sprawling webs of water. A fine network of shadow arced across the bathroom floor in a reciprocal dance. Art created, washed away, recreated again. Truly unique moments. Her neck grew stiff, and she made a beeline downstairs to the kettle.

            The long hems of her pyjama pants shielded her feet from the harsh cold of the kitchen tile. She made her tea. Distantly, moving like an automaton. Gears and springs and mechanical motion. Her spoon clinked against the ceramic rim of her favourite mug and she imagined filling herself up as she poured. Steaming out the impurities in her clockwork. She splashed the milk in. Birds trilled outside, set against the low hum of stray cars filled with early risers wending along the roads. And the rain. Steady and grey.

            The light in the kitchen was muted. Soft like a pearl. Audrey sat on one of the wooden chairs at the table, staring out the window and listening. Nothing moved in the house. There was no radio or music on, and yet Audrey wouldn’t venture to call it silence. She fluttered her tired eyes closed, hands cupped loosely around her hot mug, and paid attention to the not-sounds. Her own breathing. Movement in the pipes. The fridge humming.

            When Audrey opened her eyes again they fell on a small, wax paper packet. She drew it towards her, the paper crinkling under the pads of her fingers.

            “Horrible weather we’re having,” said the supermarket cashier the day before, swiping Audrey’s items through with a careless efficiency born of monotonous practice. The loud beep burst in Audrey’s ears, accusatory, a cardiac monitor for a body that didn’t belong to her. The milk beeped past. Eggs. Beep. Sharp red cheddar. Beep. Audrey nodded, feeling strangely separate to the conversation. She glanced at the cashier’s nametag. Rachel. She had long brown hair, swept back in a ponytail, and a friendly smile. Her nails had slicks of purple polish that must have been on its third or fourth day. The index finger and thumb of her right hand were chipped at the tips.

            “I’d give my left foot for a bit of sun,” Rachel said. She flicked her head as she spoke, flipping her fringe out of her eyes. Cucumber. Beep. Tampons. Beep. Toothpaste. Beep. There was a long queue building at the next till over, and Audrey deliberately refused to look at it. It didn’t matter that there was a long queue, she wasn’t in it. She was at the front of hers, she was as good as out the door, there was no good reason for the fizzing in her circuits, the storm of an impending shut down.

            “But sure I’m in the wrong country for it, amn’t I?”

            “Sorry?” Audrey said, focussing on Rachel, not wanting to be rude. Face neutral as everything began misfiring inside her.

            “For the sun?”

            “Oh, right, yeah,” Audrey said, lamely. Plum jam. Beep. Laundry detergent. Beep.

            Audrey wanted to tell Rachel that she loved the rain. That the sun exposed and heightened her, made everything creak and itch. Jammed her cogs. The rain soothed the sharp parts of her mind, lined her elbows and wrists and vertebrae with moss and curling ivy, let her sink in the grey-lilac shadow of it. The sun was a killing bleach. The rain rinsed her clean. Helped her to breathe.

            “Meant to be some sun next week I think,” she said instead, her mouth a traitor. “We’ve that to look forward to at least.”

            Rachel visibly brightened at that, and Audrey slipped further away as she chatted. Smalltalk was an electrical impulse. Audrey’s eyes grew unfocused, even as she yelled internally at them to sharpen, to concentrate. Broken lenses and a blurry supermarket. Rachel was finishing up with Audrey’s shopping when Audrey’s warped gaze snagged on something. Behind the rows of conveyer belts and cashiers, beyond the oppressive wall of noise, there was a display of plant seeds.

            A thrill of anxiety rushed through her, a flush of adrenaline designed to carry her out of lethal danger, not a mildly uncomfortable social encounter. She pictured the diagrams and worksheets her therapist gave her, drawings of the body and how all the different parts worked to keep her safe. Her lungs breathing quicker to get oxygen into her blood for her limbs to run away with all the faster. Butterflies the size of pterodactyls low in her belly as the blood flow changed course, a warning tingle racing laps over her skin. Survival and fight or flight. She didn’t need it right now, she told herself, she didn’t need to act like prey when there was no predator to be found.

            But still, her palms itched with sweat. Still, her heart beat in a rhythm made for running.

            Shame followed a moment later, that ever-vigilant shadow. It tutted pityingly as she tried to pull breaths into her belly, counting them out in practiced patterns, imposing order and arithmetic on chemicals and irrationality as they swept through her in waves. Her mouth dried up.

            “Fifty three thirty,” Rachel said, waiting expectantly. There was another woman in line behind Audrey, their shopping divided by the plastic partition. A little girl stood at the woman’s side, tapping small fingers on the conveyer belt’s surface. She was wearing a sweet red headband in her hair, but long strands had escaped, hanging in front of her eyes.

            “Can you – can you wait just a minute,” Audrey said. “I – I just forgot something.”

            Without waiting for a response Audrey rushed past the aisles to the display, scanning the rows without reading any of the labels. It was so loud in the supermarket. The people and the machines, the machine people. Anxiety rendered Audrey illiterate. She thrust out her hand like an arcade machine claw, capturing a packet at random and clutching it protectively as she hurried back to the till.

            “Sorry about that,” Audrey puffed, handing over her bounty with a needlessly trembling hand. Rachel raised an eyebrow, and Audrey heard the woman behind her sigh in a drawn out gust, the clink of coins smacking together as she prepared her purse to make up for the time Audrey pilfered from her. The packet sailed over the scanner. Beep. Audrey read the luminous green word on the display.

            Daffodil.

            She collected her shopping and moved away quickly, glancing back over her shoulder at Rachel and the woman. This wouldn’t even make it into their over-tea stories in the evening, but was the biggest part of Audrey’s day. The doors slid apart with a swish, her trolley’s wheels gliding across the linoleum.

            After looking it up online Audrey had wilted, the triumph of surviving the shopping aisles and the arch of Rachel’s brow fading. She had missed the optimum window for planting the bulbs. They had far less chance of growing this time of year. But they wouldn’t keep, they wouldn’t make it to the right season intact.

            She held the quiet promise of the crinkling packet in her hands as her tea steamed next to her. Audrey felt a surge, a quick inhale tied to the tail of it. It was strong, like the rushes of anxiety she was used to, but different. A distant cousin. A desire. A potent desire to convert mechanism to muscle, gears to tendons. Something to turn the ticking of a second hand into a pulse.

            She wore the rain cleaved to her like skin, thick on the back of her neck.

            Audrey knelt in her tiny back garden, a square you could see the entirety of without turning your head. Her pyjamas grew wet and filthy with clods of dirt. The soles of her bare feet turned up to the sky, pale and vulnerable to the falling rain. Her hands plunged into the earth, fingers spreading like roots. Audrey dug small but deepish pits, in multiples of the bulbs sizes as per the internet’s instructions. She patterned them side by side, but not too close. Apparently daffodils liked their space.

            Audrey scooped out the earth like flesh from a fruit, soft and giving, and imagined a vast expanse of the flowers she hoped would grow despite their odds. She pictured daffodils by their thousands, like the photographs she had seen of the tulip fields of Holland. Butter yellow and with their delicate trumpet faces turned toward the sky as they were conducted in symphony. Bold and brassy. Living colour.

            With the pits excavated, Audrey loosened the soil at the bottoms for the roots to catch hold. She withdrew one of the bulbs from its packet. It was small and brown, like an onion. She studied the shrivelled improbability of it, then placed it gently in the hole she had dug, wider side facing down. She smoothed the soil over it, like a parent tucking a child into bed. She laid her palm over the top, pressing her fingers firmly until they left impressions on the ground. The rain soaked earth smelled fresh and vibrant. Drops of water hung precariously from the tip of Audrey’s nose as she worked. Her fingernails were caked with soil. Dark, and so very soft.

            The rain continued as each bulb was laid to bed, Audrey’s hands wet and methodical. She breathed in a steady metronome, deep into her belly. She didn’t count, didn’t practice, didn’t follow a pattern. She simply breathed. Away from noise and false threats. Her skin prickled with chill, her flesh pale against the saturated soil. She shivered. A beautiful malfunction. The sun rose as a cautious guest, dripping gold over the ledge of the horizon. Like clockwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shannen Malone is a queer Irish writer living in Mayo. She's currently suspended in a liquid that is one part "just finished her librarianship masters," two parts eviction, and a splash of climate anxiety for flavour. Her work has appeared in Bindweed, Headstuff, and Entropy, and she tweets @shannenmalone.