I would catch glimpses of myself. As the parade made their way through the halls of Hentan House I would notice the red amongst them; From reflections in the framed photos, to the polished glass cabinets holding antiques, you could see me. The stained characterless body almost floating between them. Wandering, corralled, and pushed by the others. They didn’t notice but I was the one leaving my mark in this place. A dripping stain they’d see in the carpets and never quite remove completely from the wooden floors. My split toe-nail no longer hurt but neither could I feel the rest of my body. I was completely numb.
We were back at the indoor garden where I had first woke up. The women began to part ahead of me and I saw it. A wicker coffin. It was held up in place with black straps keeping it tied to one of those sack trucks they use to move boxes and furniture. The wicker was so finely woven it was maddening they had constructed it to be the place where I die.
‘Mum what are they doing?’ It was Cora’s voice. I was so relieved she was still alive. I thought they had been shot in the woods. That it was me who had pulled the trigger and ended one of them. Just hearing Cora’s grunts of pain and panicked questioning boiled my blood to spring forward but I could see Yarrow up ahead staring at me. That glint of the blade silencing me completely. Finally I saw her, lead in by Rosemary and another, they held her up as she heaved back and forth. Flushed and sweating, she tried to grab hold of her belly.
‘Tell me what you did with Aspen. Where is she?’ Cora spat out at them as they lead her to the front.
‘Don’t you recognise her?’ The lady who welcomed us here, Hyacinth, said pointing over to me. I kept my head down scared to look Cora in the eye. Then the wailing began.
‘Cora-’ I said raising out my hand unsure whether it was blood or berry that stained the skin.
‘Your sister has made it through all her trials. She has shown grit. She has taken life. Taken all that was offered to her, and finished her hunt. You should be proud to have a sister as strong as her. Dando will welcome her as one of his own.’
‘No-Aspen no. Mum where are you?’ Cora screamed.
‘I’m here.’ Her voice came from behind me. My head was still muffled by the ski mask and swelling. Just her touch sent shivers through my shoulder. ‘Cora please, don’t you want to protect the baby?’ Cora’s struggling softened as she looked past me to mum.
‘Is this what you did to your sister too? Just to save me and Aspen to go through the same thing?’ Cora screamed again and her legs started to buckle.
‘She did everything she needed to raise you two well. Your mother would have been proud.’ Hyacinth said. She must have worded it wrong.
‘Now listen to me. You are going to be put into that box there and everything will be over quick.’ Mum continued. I would do it for Cora. I stepped towards the wicker coffin. Let me do this for you Cora. Yarrow placed her hand on my chest and shook her head. I looked up to Cora and saw Rosemary place a rag across Cora’s face. Cora went limp and the two women began to remove her dress. I could see the child inside press against the skin.
‘Don’t you move, or we’ll wake her for the next part.’ Hyacinth said as she began to wrap white cloth across Cora’s body and face. Taking some rope she tied it across her forehead and chest. I remained still. Hyacinth stepped across to the white tree stump as Cora was placed into the upright coffin. I could see the noose wrapped around Cora’s neck lead out through a hole to a pulley.
‘Just as the great Hentan sister had been touched by Dando and gave birth on her death we continue the lineage to appease him. Sisters gather closer.’ Hyacinth spoke and the group gathered closer. ‘Yarrow, please take hold of the rope and make sure the coffin is held in place for the time being.’ Hyacinth said.
‘I’ll hold her back.’ My mum said but Yarrow squinted for a second unsure. It wasn’t until I saw the rifle placed up to my head did Yarrow finally relax.
‘So you were never our real mum?’ I said trying to find some sliver of truth to this insanity. ‘She died giving birth just like all the other mothers?’ I couldn’t look at her.
‘Your mother gave everything to keep the tradition alive. It was supposed to be me but she went ahead and stepped into that lake. We were only a few weeks apart you see.’ That meant only one of us was truly hers. Even now she remained completely still. Slowly the rifle wavered and dropped down to my shoulder. A tear rolled.
The rifle went off. I crumpled to the ground in panic as the women screamed. The rifle went off again as I twisted around on the ground to see her firing a second shot into Hyacinths chest. For a second I saw my mum, swaying the rifle to Rosemary before they descended on her. Like crows they picked her apart with their knives. I ran to the coffin placed upright still over the hole. Yarrow was straining to hold it up with the straps. I gripped ahold of the lid and yanked it open. Cora was still unconscious. I reached for the strap holding her neck upright but another’s hand gripped mine. Lily pressed the knife to my throat but the ski mask dulled it. I only saw fear in her eyes. I spun and closed the gap between us. Grabbing her hand we fell back against the grass. Locked in place I rummaged through her hair, biting and biting until my mouth filled with blood and her screaming stop. The knife was mine now. Another touched me but I pushed forward. Grabbing hold of the casket again I felt the wicker fold under my grip. I just needed to cut her free.
‘Get her now.’ Yarrow shouted from the side. I cut the first strap from her arm loose. A shot whipped through the glass from outside and struck another woman holding the casket. The casket tilted back. I reached to grab the frame but it slipped free. The top cracked against the hard lip of the hole and a snap rattled out as the casket fell awkwardly in.
The top of the casket had split and covered Cora’s face partially. I stepped backwards. Her head dangled loose. Between the cut cloth and rope her skin darkened to a deep red. A pair of arms tucked under my armpits and pulled me back. I fell limp, watching the grave for some sort of movement, as they carried me away. Mum was gone. Cora dead. But the baby was still alive. And for a split second I preyed for it to never wake up.
They laid me down between the great white stump where Hyacinth lay bleeding out. Yarrow quickly began to tie my legs together as I watched on.
‘That bitch…’ Hyacinth babbled to herself as Rosemary tended to her. The others were too preoccupied with the shooter who was still taking shots from outside to feel the ground vibrating. ‘You’ll obey, we’ll dose you up…beat it out of you. Starve and strip you until you are nothing more than our slave to the cycle and if that little one doesn’t breath then we use you to start this again. Mark my words. We are Henta-’ The white stump split and a great hand gripped Hyacinth’s head. With abandon it’s fingers blistered her forehead and peeled her scalp clean off like a wet tissue. Lost for words Hyacinth’s jaw continued to rattle like a bald dummy. The hand came down again slotting four fingers into her mouth and dragging her hard into the stump. Wedging her in place it used her body to pull itself out from the black pit.
It would not be silenced for anything. It would drown out all sound until all the women and myself could hear were the crackled splintering of wood and the crinkled mess of what was once Hyacinth.
They tore at my clothing from all directions. Pinching my skin and ripping the vest from my back. Before I could react, three hands were already gripping my arm. They pinned to the oak dining table as I heard scissors snip the air. I screamed as the cold metal ran up my ankles and down my back. My trousers slipped off with little effort. I shut my mouth in preparation for the searing pain of the blades they had sliced across my legs but I felt nothing. Rosemary twisted into vision and placed the scissors on the table like a doctor showing the child the needle before the prick. I clenched my legs together in one final protest at the hand curling into my pants. I bucked and pulled away as Rosemary watched the whole thing. I was not going to lay down and wait for this to be over. Rosemary picked the scissors up once more and snipped the sides of my underwear free as another’s hand pulled them away like a thread from between my legs.
‘Bring them in.’ Rosemary instructed as she threw my clothes to the side. Yarrow walked into the room holding two large wooden buckets. I could see what looked like handles sticking out from the large rim.
‘What did you do my sister and mum?’ I spat out and felt someone grab the roots of my hair and yank my head back. Rosemary knelt down and placed a white bundle of clothing at my feet.
‘Wear this.’She said as I attempted to wrench my arms and head free of the womens grip. Standing up she raised a white ski mask to my face. I twisted away in protest.
‘She still fighting you Rosemary? She is a survivor after all.’ Yarrow said and I heard the bucket drop down on the wooden floor heavy. ‘Look at this Aspen. Look over here.’ I couldn’t stop even if I wanted as the others twisted my head towards her. The buckets were filled with large black branches dripping red. Yarrow gripped one and pulled it out like a whip. It titled down from the heavy clusters of red berries still on it. I recognised them from the trees on the estate. Yarrow slashed it through the air and I felt my legs begin to give way.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked in some way to get them to stop what was about to come.
‘We have to protect you. The blood of the Rowan will be your ward against evil spirits. You need to live a long healthy life to look after the baby. As did Yvonne and her aunt before her. Let me place these on you or the whipping will be worse.’
I felt the hands loosen. I swung forward and slapped Rosemary across her ear. Scrambling past her I could feel the women behind reach out and miss me. Yarrow stepped between me and the door. With one strike I felt my legs slip out and I hit the floor. Instinctively I had raised my hands to protect my head but a foot lodged itself in my gut. Forcing the air out my body I retched and vomited across the floor.
‘Jesus wept. That’s pathetic.’
I heaved again as I crawled forward. Every single part of me burned from the inside out. I didn’t raise my head. I kept my focus low and on the floorboards.
‘Let her crawl around first. Get it out of her system.’ One of them jeered.
‘Don’t you forget she’s one of us. She will grow through this but we can’t have her despise us.’ Rosemary said standing over me. ‘Aspen…I’m going to cover you up.’
All I could do was breath as I felt her bony fingers lifted my hair from my face. The cotton mask dragged down my head. I kept my eyes clenched. My thoughts going to my mother. They had said she had gone through the same thing as me. How could she take me here with that knowledge. To know what they were going to do to me this whole time. Raising me to take the very same tortures. All for this family we she never mentioned. If it was me I wouldn’t spit on them even if they were burning. They had picked me up and slid the white thermals over my legs and breasts. They said it would be easier but those branches would still cut through the thin fabric.
One by one they took the branches from the berry filled buckets. Raising them in the air they circled and picked their spot. Yarrow held me in place while they each marked their spot to cover red. The first branch slipped over my bicep and smacked across my chest. I screamed out as the heavy blows began. The sodden berries burst with each thwack. Softening the blows at first, they smeared on the skin and fabric. Each spattering thinned and sharpened the branch. Twigs jabbed and stuck in my soft parts. Catching the skin with their hooks. Picking me apart like a hundred birds. The welts never softened the pain. They made quick work covering their patch of skin before whipping the next part. It wasn’t long before I felt the air cut across my face. Clenching tight I felt the branches start to be replaced by hands. The buckets sloshed as handfuls of the berries were now slapped onto my skin. Chopping at my neck and smearing across my lips. Yarrow laid me out as they stung the backs of my legs and ass. Nails scratching over my thighs. I raised my arms up again and again and felt them slapped away and knelt on. They never wavered, never stopped their work, until I felt the juices from the two buckets come pouring down over me.
Frozen in preparation for the next swift whip or beating I waited. The grunts and thwacks replaced by a choir of exhausted breath. I couldn’t remember the last time I breathed. Like a cricket on an open window I felt a presence behind the pain. It felt familiar. A hand to hold in the darkness.
I picked at the last shreds of the meal almost numb to the flavour. After a day of drinking the preparation and delicacy taken in creating the banquet had been wasted on me. All I wanted to do was fill myself with as much bread and offerings in the vain chance it would soak up any alcohol that had been stewing. I was pickled and buzzed. I pressed my forehead down onto the dining table and closed my eyes. The wood was cool and refreshed me more than any glass of water could. I hadn’t seen one glass of water the entire afternoon. Every time I requested one or reached for a jug it was always the same aniseed alcohol. A few cheered in the background as I kept my eyes shut. They were playing some game and I needed to rest for a brief moment before it was my turn. A loud bang shook through the room and the women cheered. I couldn’t look, I had to stay in this brief moment of peace before I was yanked up to play more games.
‘Are you sleeping? If you are then we can’t have that.’Rosemary said as I felt her hand stroke my back.
‘No – I’m just resting… Eugh how are you all so fine? You should all be passed out.’
‘You can’t sleep here. You’re next.’
‘I don’t want to be anything.’ I knew my head was going to feel like a pumpkin carved out by a fork tomorrow but I was enjoying myself. I could smell the gin and spa salts on my skin.
‘She’s wasted look at her.’ Yarrow shouted from across the banquet room. I could feel the breeze from the glass doors leading to the outside graze the back of my ankles. A gunshot went off again.
‘Aren’t you afraid of the police?’
‘No, not at all. We are real far out from any neighbors to complain. Yarrow she’s just resting for a moment before we begin.’ Rosemary said as she got up from her chair.
‘Get up and play. It’s your turn to hunt.’ Yarrow was behind me now. I could practically feel her towering over me. ‘Water is for the weak.’
I rose up and heard clapping from afar. I was ready what ever stupid drinking game they had in mind. Yarrow gave a big beaming smile and placed the rifle in my hands. I moved past the table as myself and a few others followed Yarrow through the glass doors and into the night. I padded over the cool grass as I saw three others ahead.
‘When do I pull the trigger.’ I asked.
‘First we spin you round…’ All at once I felt them grip me by the shoulders and twits me round catching my whole body off guard.
‘Get the scent. Whiff it. Catch it. Kill it. Hunt hunt hunt.’ They span me harder as the crowd jeered and emptied their glasses on the floor.
‘Catch it. Kill it. Hunt hunt hunt.’
Like a divination rod the rifle began to lower and I worried I might already fire the blank.
The others had fired theirs before me. Running out after the white rabbit.
The rabbit masked lady would skip out and always come back through the other door.
‘Hunt’ My mind was whirring. Their hands all over me making sure I kept on spinning. I clenched my jaw and hoped I wouldn’t puke.
‘Hunt…’ I settled my gaze down to the grass. A white blur stepped out. The plastic ears flopped down. Another’s hand twisting their arm. Faces. Rifle. Hunt. Hunt.
They shook me loose and my legs sprang to catch the ground. The rabbit was off. Darting from the light. I followed and fumbled but they were not quick. In the darkness we ran. I was lined up to them. Catching their scent amongst the cold air. Almost ready. I raised the gun but stumbled on a muddy patch. The rabbit increased the distance. I was losing sight of it now. The liquor was rising out from every place in my body. My lungs were burning. Legs shaking but still going. Never wavering. The rabbit twisted in the darkness and hit the ground. They had hit a low branch from the dotted trees. I slid forward and pressed the rifle down. Squeezed. Hunt hunt hunt. A crack ran through my arms. The rabbit flopped down and played dead. I had caught it.
I waited for the game to be over. I turned to hear screams for joy like a Guy Fawkes crowd finally hearing the bang from the rockets. I could see a few running over. Like a pack of dogs. Black eyes and smiling.
‘Come on now get up.’ I nudged the rabbit with my foot. It didn’t move. Kneeling down I looked at the still plastic face reflecting the moonlight. The seeping stain that was growing over the white shirt. The others bounded across the grass with abandon. Their feet drumming louder and louder. I placed my hand on the rabbit and felt the wet warm blood coat it. I brought it up close as I saw another rabbit broken against a tree. A few paces further another lied down face first with its mask blown off. The women were closer now but not slowing down. As if they had picked up the scent a new rabbit.
I finally felt like I could relax and not worry about how others saw me. These women had lifted me out of the ice chamber with praise and encouragement. They all smiled when I said I wanted to do it again because they too felt the same way. And just as I had been dunked into the ice it was me now who held the wooden lid shut as the rest took the plunge. “Hold down with all your weight.” A few said as I placed my palms on the wood in bated breath. I was pressing down with all my strength as the old lady scratched against the lid. I could feel some sort of exhilaration building in me, heavier than the fear I felt in the well, that lingered on the edge of my mind. Pushing me to think unnatural things; hold it just a little longer, just a few seconds that’s it.
I followed the crowd out into the garden. The stretch of land carried on until the red berried trees faded into a black line of woods that threatened to prick the sky. Birds chirped and the warmth from the sun pressed down on us heavy. A table had been prepared; At each seat was a large tankard of beer, one crystal shot glass, and a chopping block of white wood. In the center of the table was a dark oval bowl. As I sat down at the seat with my name I could the large bowl centerpiece was adorned with apple shavings and various sprigs of herbs.
‘Is it lunch time already?’ I asked Bay who was sat beside me. She was rolling her sleeves in preparation for the food. Bay stared at me for a few seconds, as if she was trying to read my face, and raised her shot glass to me.
‘We are preparing for the feast Aspen. Drink with me.’
I raised the shot glass to hers and slipped the drink down quickly. Aniseed washed over the tongue with a sweetness that plunged to bitterness quickly. Bay was already calling over Lily to pour another.
‘Another?’ Lily said already pouring the clear liquid back into the glasses.
‘Of-course, the girl needs strength.’ Bay replied. She slapped the table and Yarrow jumped from her chair in shock. ‘Yarrow is a bag of nerves!’ Even covered in a robe Yarrow could not hide her muscular frame. She had been quiet all morning, simply watching from the back for most of it. When it was her turn to drop in the well the others moved aside. Yarrow had plunged into the water and after a moments pause I saw her arm stretch out from the brick and slide the lid shut. When she was done she dragged herself out on her accord.
‘You want to play slaps with me while we wait?’ Yarrow smiled and I was reminded of those grinning cowboys in westerns. That smirk right before they pulled the trigger.
‘No she does not. Yarrow will smack the skin off your knuckles. Trust me.’ Lily chimed in as she poured a shot for Yarrow.
‘What is it you do Yarrow?’ I asked trying not to glance down at her forearms.
‘Sports?’ I asked.
‘Wrestling. I made it to Olympics in freestyle before the weight category restrictions. You ever tried it?’ I felt as if Yarrow was leading me down a path where I was going to end up knocked out on the ground.
‘I’m surprised. I trained with your mum all the time when we were younger before…before you that is.’
‘How was she? I couldn’t imagine her-’
‘She was a cocky shit. But good.’ Yarrow laughed. ‘It’s a shame she isn’t with us. I’d like to see if she still has the moves.’
‘When are her and Cora heading over.’
‘Yvonne and Cora have to take it easy. The babies and all.’ Yarrow spurted out.
‘Babies?’ I asked unsure if she knew something I didn’t. How could she?
‘Baby, Yarrow, it’s just the one I imagine. But Hentan’s are known to come out in twos.’ Bay replied in place for Yarrow. Yarrow raised her hand annoyed slightly.
‘Then Aspen here will have to drink for her sister and Yvonne. Ready…get that glass in your hand. Here we go. Cheers.’ I downed the clear mixture and thought that it tasted less bitter this time around.
I couldn’t handle another but before I could protest Lily lurched over and poured another.
‘Oh here we go. Time for work.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked but noticed them looking behind me. I turned from my seat to see three women carrying small wicker baskets in their hands. One of them smiled and placed the small bundle on the chopping block infront of me.
‘We honour our own strength this weekend. We prove we can fend for ourselves like those before us.’ Bay said as I tried to look through the tightly knitted basket. My fingertips dragged across the basket surface numb almost. The baskets had been placed on each of the guests seat. I could smell wafts of hay and fruit.
A hand gripped my shoulder jolting me. It was my mother smiling at me. A warm smile but like she was consoling a crying child.
‘Ladies. We are never given mercy so we must hunt for ourselves. This is how Dando taught the very first ladies of Hentan and we give thanks for that. Show Dando we can look after ourselves. Raise the lids and prepare the feast.’ The women lifted the lids off quickly with me following. As I slid the basket lid off the dropped it down onto the lawn as my stomach sank.
The rabbit twitched it’s head to the side and with black pearl eye stared at me. I glanced over to Yarrow to see her snap her rabbits head back. Bay had her fingers placed over her rabbits head as she quickly slit its neck. Mum squeezed my shoulder harder. She was urging me not to make her look bad infront of the others. Her sisters. My family. I had the runt of the litter – in an act of mercy to not have me slip up and let it run. The brown speckled rabbit did not twitch as my fingers nestled into the soft neck folds. My mothers hand drifted over my other hand and guided me to the knife. Bay and Yarrow and so many others were whispering me encouragement. It’s heart tapped against my thumb to a quickening beat. Drifting the knife over I wavered but Yarrow cheered me on. The whole table smiling at me like it was my first baby steps. I wanted to talk to you little rabbit. To place you on the grass and let you run free. To say a hundred sweet calming things as I did to the pets I owned as a child. But the knife was already parting your throat and your warmth was spraying out across the nestled hay. That tick tick ticking was now nothing but warm punctured meat.
When I looked back my mum had already left without a word. I continued to stroke the rabbit.
‘There is love from this Aspen.’ One of them, I think it was Bay, said to me. ‘You must honour them. Never let them go to waste. That’s the meaning of the hunt. Now turn them on their back and pinch the skin so your knife can make a slit easier.’
A few had already flung the skinned rabbits into the large bowl in the center. I followed the instructions and Yarrow helped hold it in place when I tugged at the flap of skin over the legs. Cutting through the sinew and strings. Into the dark oval bowl I placed it. Amongst it’s own as my own wiped their hands on paper towels and raised a glass. The deed was done. I scraped the purple viscera from my nails and downed another shot.
‘Now we de-core the apples and snap the rhubarb. Our work is never done.’
‘How is your foot holding up?’Cora asked me as the cleansing mists filled the stone room. The pills Rosemary had handed me must have kicked in as I barely felt the open wound anymore.
‘Can’t complain.’ I said, turning to catch a smirk on her face. ‘What? You know I can’t get it wet.’
‘Did you have to use a trash bag though? It’s bright orange. You look like a hobo.’
‘It’ll be even easier to see me swanning it up in the sauna then.’
‘Cora won’t be joining you in the sauna.’ Mum said as she finally opened her eyes after five minutes of sitting in the corner silent.
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘Because she’s pregnant. It’s a risk for her to be doing anything that could harm the baby.’
‘So what will you be doing instead?’
‘A milk and honey massage followed by a facial.’ Cora chimed in. ‘Is it weird I can already smell the cucumber they’ll be putting on our eyes?’
‘You’ll be heading into the sauna and pools with the others. Be careful Aspen, those women are a pack of wolves when they get together.’ I had always thought something had happened between her and her family for us to never speak with them but Rosemary had confessed to them speaking through letter.
‘Why are we even here then if you’d rather drop dead than speak to them.’
‘We have to be here. Cora’s pregnant and I couldn’t deny them of meeting her. Come on Cora.’My mother rose from the stone seating and held her hand out for Cora as I watched her wearily get to her feet as her occupied belly heaved slightly. I’d heard the expression that pregnant women glow but had never seen it before until Cora. She really did seem to shine with happiness. I wouldn’t want to ruin this experience for her even if it meant getting one up over my mum.
The plastic bag wrapped around my foot crinkled as I walked alongside the pool. Through the blue lights of the pool I could make out the symbol of an animal placed at the bottom in black tiles. I didn’t give it much thought until I entered the spa room. A fogged up glass door closed slightly as I entered from my right. The muted cream walls absorbed the orange glows surrounding the sauna before descending into a cool blue where a long stretch of glass invited you towards what looked like an ice cave.
I could hear two women whisper from the sauna. Stepping over I bit the bullet and pulled the door open. The heat reached out to me first but it was the womens eyes that burned into my core.
‘Make room to Aspen.’ A voice said amongst the steam and pile of naked bodies. I grew even more self-conscious at my own defensiveness to wear a swimsuit. The stretched out legs and arms reeled into their wet bodies like tentacles feeling their way out the coral. I stepped in and found a spot closest to the door. The wooden panels stung as I pressed down trying to make myself comfortable. All sound and chats had been sucked from the room in my presence. Everything came down to how I handled myself here with the group. From how they would treat me all weekend to how they treated my family. Although my mum had likened them to wolves I felt that I was the mouse in the hen house.
‘How is your foot Aspen? It was quite a shock to see you fall down.’ A lady spoke out into the sizzling dry void. I spotted her sat beside the ladle and recognised her as the woman who welcomed us. Even in the intense heat her skin remained tight and unblemished.
‘It’s doing much better thanks. I can’t have it slow me down.’I could see her eyes scanning my features. It was like she was looking for the tiny similarities between us. ‘So I guess we are all related here?’ A few of the women chuckled as we continued to sweat out our impurities.
‘Some more than others.’ A lady I hadn’t met yet replied as another nodded.
‘Have we always had this place?’ I asked. The ladies eyes all moved towards the lady who had welcomed us here.
‘This house was believe it or not a place of God. A monk once lived here. He only had one passion that rivaled his love for God and that was hunting. Our ancestors, two sisters, helped with the cleaning and tended to his dogs. As one of the monks last requests he handed them the deed. We have ran it ever since and continue the traditions.’
‘Yes. Dando taught those two sisters the ways of the hunt. And those sisters taught their daughters and so on. They lived for the hunt much like Dando and we honour that. The hunt can bring many riches for those that brave the challenge.’ A few of the ladies nodded and a few kept their eyes on me. I wondered if they were trying to gauge how I would react. The whole notion of hunting foxes made me feel disgusted. Fairytales were often sodden in the blood of women.
‘You hunt foxes then?’
‘Not at all. That isn’t hunting – it’s a cowards game. Are you ready for the next step?’
‘What’s the next step?’
‘We’ve been stewing in here for quite some time now. Now we plunge ourselves into the ice. You’ll need to trust us.’
‘Why would I need to do that?’ I had heard of people running through snow after Jacuzzis in an effort to shock their bodies. The dry air was beginning to get thicker as I breathed in through my nose. The women rose up all at once and the great wall of skin trickled with sweat as it approached me. I rose up with them and opened the door. The cool air from outside the sauna welcomed me. The group of women hurried to the ice room as I purposely followed behind. My skin tingled with the freshness of a newborn as I watched the women gather around a small brick well. Surrounded by a large gathering of ice, two women took hold of the wooden white lid and pulled it off.
‘Whose first?’ One asked to the crowd as an Grey-haired woman raised out her hand for another to help hold her up as she stepped onto the rim.
‘There’s nothing to worry about.’ Rosemary said form behind me. I hadn’t noticed her in the darkly lit sauna, perhaps she was the one laying on her back row.
‘You’re all going to jump in there?’ They were mad and they were going to pressure me into doing it too. With one quick hop the lady pencil dived into the icy well. Before I could call out I saw the two women holding the lid clamber forward. In one quick motion they slid the lid over the top and closed her in. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Three of the women turned towards me, instinctively blocking me from intervening.
‘Please wait Aspen. This is an old ritual we perform to bring out a deep sensory journey. The dry heat opens up your body and flows the blood. Then the ice snaps and flushes your body.’ A tapping came from inside the wooden lid and the women peeled it back once more. Open hands waited around the rim as two arms finally reached out. As the lady was pulled out and left to breath another took her place and more ice was poured in.
‘You will be next Aspen. Keep your jaw closed tight as you enter.’ The lady who welcomed us said.
‘And why is that?’
‘To stop you biting your tongue off.’ She smiled and Rosemary laughed. Three knocks touched the wood and the lid came free. The woman heaved herself out with her own strength and padded over to the towels. It was me next. I took off the plastic bag from my foot and edged towards the well. Ice sloshed back and forth over the deep blue that descended into black. I couldn’t make out where the bottom was but it couldn’t be that deep if these women stayed in it so long. Bandaged toe hooked over the brick like a hawks foot as I began to worry.
‘I just have to knock right?’
‘That’s all.’ Rosemary replied.
‘Okay then…’ I could feel my body trying to step back but I couldn’t not participate. These women were just trying to tease me. I plunged down with both arms clenched beside me. The water rushed up and sliced through my core. My arms shot out and hit the sides of the walls. Rushing up I saw nothing but black. Scrambling, I kicked my buckling legs out to find the floor but found no bottom. Ice slid into my mouth and lodged itself. I was a metal rod being struck; Ringing out painful vibrations. I sputtered out and slammed my hands against the stone. My legs continued to flap and shrink as the ice took hold of them. All sensation was beginning to recoil in. My feet were already lost. The fingered it’s way into my nose, threatening to slip inwards further. I slammed my hand across the stone again. The lid remained closed. I kicked my frozen legs harder and swung up. The fingers tapped against the wood. It wasn’t far from me. I could see nothing but feel the walls getting closer. Choking me. I spat the water from my face. Light breached through and hands rushed in, wrapping round my arms like molten chains, to pull me up. I sputtered for my breath as I saw a towel embrace me. Following the unseen person guiding me I finally sat down.
Breath returned. The rush subsided.
My thoughts gathered.
I wanted to do it again.
Sunlight rippled overhead in long shimmering streaks as my head bobbed up. No. It was not my head. I was tethered to a weighted body. We floated in the warming water until inky blotches of blood spurted out from between our legs. Clouding the sunlight I felt the water breach. Wrenching inward it gripped my feet and sucked me out. Out into the murky waters where cannonballs of people splashed deep to join me. Scrambling in their dozens they all reached out as if to catch me. Claim me for themselves. But I floated on simply watching. Waiting for the large eye permeating through the deep to see me. It wriggled for a moment, irked by my discovery of it. Were you happy to see me? Very soon I would have to breathe. Breathe and drink deep.
A mix of vinegar and bleach tickled my nose before wrenching me up into the very real world. I gasped and felt the glass bottle push against my upper lip. In that burst of consciousness my vision was filled with women. Peering down at me as if from heaven. From the snake-tailed tips, their tendrils of slick wet hair dripped down onto my chest like warm summer rain. Over them I saw the sunlight refract off the glass ceiling. Playfully shimmering over the deep blue sky in a way I couldn’t help feeling odd and familiar.
‘You gave us quite a shock. Take two of these quickly before your body wakes up.’ A woman with a ginger plait pushed out her hand to offer me the pills. I didn’t hesitate and took them into my mouth before gulping down a glass of water she handed me from her other hand. The other women began to spread out and wander off.
‘I passed out?’ I said out loud but it was more to confirm it to myself.
‘You have a nasty cut on your toe. Do you usually pass out at the sight of blood?’ The woman asked. I shuffled out across the white make-do stretcher that was really a sun bed draped in white towels and felt my toe spasm again. Wrapped in several bandages my once normal toe was now bulbous and a hazard to my weekend of enjoying free spa facilities. It was fat like a tick ready to be popped. Seeing it only made the resonating pain throb a little harder.
‘Not at all. It was just so nasty-looking.’
‘Here…’ The lady gave me a little plastic container with four pills inside. ‘These should do you for now. Do not take them all in one day okay.’
‘Will I still be able to use the services here?’
‘Ofcourse you can’t go swimming but anything dry you can do.’
‘I was hoping to just hang out by the pool.’
‘No, no no. Everyone is excited to have you join in the festivities.’
‘You know me and my sister? I thought you worked here.’
‘No but I am a doctor. Here at Hentan-House we are all a big family so they asked me to check on you. Did Yvonne never speak of us?’ There was a puzzling frown over the womans face. It was unmistakable that mum had problems with the family but were they really so surprised? I had never seen or heard her talk to anyone from that side. She never really spoke of our dad either. Other than that he deserted us. I shook my head and winced as the pulsing pain shoot across my toe.
‘Strange. She writes to me atleast once a year. And many more to my sisters.’ This couldn’t be true. She was piecing things together I had no clue over but I felt some need to defend mum. To stop any ill will being sent her way.
‘Oh, I think she’s mentioned a doctor before. I sometimes drift off about that sort of stuff.’ I lied. The ladies plait dripped once more. She smiled in response and patted her knee as if to confirm something.
‘She might have mentioned a Rosemary?’
‘Her and Janet don’t often talk about family. Is Janet here by the way?’ Rosemary shook her head but opened her mouth slightly before closing.
‘I don’t think so darling. Is there anything else I can help with?’
‘I think I’ll be fine thanks. Oh maybe- where is reception? I still need to unpack in my room.’
‘Of course, you haven’t been here before. You’re in the meditation garden right now. If you take those doors over there you can turn left and follow it down to the main hall.’ Rosemary gave a small smile and patted my hand. I tried to give a genuine smile back but what was there to be happy about? My foot was killing me and I couldn’t spend the whole trip ignoring strangers conversations by doing laps in the pool. Stepping off from the sun bed I eased my weight onto my weak foot. Gradually I got used to the pressure but I wouldn’t be running anytime soon. Hopping out across the grass I had to turn back to Rosemary who was thumbing through a thin black book.
‘Is this real grass?’ Once I said it I knew it sounded dumb but we were inside what I thought to be the middle of the building. The green stretch of grass covered the entire floor of the glass domed room. Through another glass panel wall I could see a few women bobbing about in the indoor swimming pool.
‘Yeah you aren’t the first to ask. Before renovations this was a courtyard garden for the priest that lived here so they decided to turn it into an inside garden. Can you feel the positive energy rising from the grass?’
‘Feels great.’ I nodded but couldn’t feel anything other than a throbbing pain. The inside garden was beautiful; Along the walls of glass were shoots of tall plants left to fan out and potted lavender. In the center stood a wide tree stump painted white. Once I saw that I noticed the smaller white stumps dotted around it in a circle. A woman was sat on one of the smaller ones with her eyes closed and bare feet nestled in the perfectly cut grass. I noticed a small glint of metal in her hands. She had been sharpening an ornate knife. She resembled a chiseled statue; a garden ornament left to gather small birds. As I walked past I noticed the wrinkle slits of her eyes peel open to see me intruding in on her zen vibes. I tried not to look her in the eyes but I could still feel hers and Rosemary’s on me. I could feel invisible eyes follow me as I hobbled through the halls.
The lobby was mostly empty except for a lone secretary ruffling through a stack of papers on the desk. I could see she was frustrated but I really needed to get to my room and decompress. The lady was fiddling with her white shirts top button awkwardly, as if trying to pry it loose. I slowly approached to the table in hopes she would notice me and enter polite mode.
‘Hey there, I’ll just be one moment.’ She said as she finally loosened the collar. ‘Ah that’s better…so how can I help you?’
‘I am trying to find my room number? My sister and mum have already gone ahead of me.’
‘Sure thing, I think I can find it on the computer for you… so what’s your name?’
‘Hund… Hund… There’s quite alot of you lot here. Sorry it’s my first day.’ She wriggled with the shirt collar as her other hand continued to scroll down with the mouse.
‘No problem. Kinda sucks you’re here by yourself.’
‘I know right! They really did a number on me. This is just a weekend gig apparently. Most of the staff are off for the weekend.’
‘Huh, that’s weird right?’
‘A gig is a gig. I actually got recommended by Lucile. She runs the agency I’m part of. Oh I found it.’ She double clicked and leaned in to read the screen. ‘You are in room 12. It’s just up these stairs.’
‘Awesome, thanks. I’ll go there now.’
‘Wait, you need this too.’ She pulled out a small stack of papers and handed it to me. The paper was cream and had a soft texture that reminded me of cotton. The top had been decorated with small drawings of red berries in the corner and a rabbit being chased by dogs at the bottom. The following words had been handwritten beautifully.
Hentan-House Welcomes You
Heat & Ice
Three Cheers to the Hunt
The Beat Around the Bush
Appeasement & Meditation
A knot gathered in my throat. It held me there motionless as my eyes bulged with an intense heat. Threatening to burst all I saw was my body hover over the cobbled ground. All I felt was cloth and rope. I had been hung. But it wasn’t me. No. I was somewhere else in a car. This was another person and I was merely inside. Shallow enough to feel just an echo of the throbbing violent pain. A passerby watching, with chin tucked to chest, as urine sprayed out across the rocks. A great shift and I felt myself slipping through the folds of skin. Falling out. My vision covered in a wet red and purple smear until light breached and I was free. Ejected, I looked up at the hung woman I was once inside. I knew those swollen blue eyes were vacant, but the feeling of her watching was so powerful I wanted to just weep there in the pool of blood and juices. A clacking of shoes approached.
A buzzer scraped through my head jolting me up. A large gate to the front of a property was retracting back automatically.
‘Play that song again Mum.’ Cora said from the back seat. I wondered just how long had I drifted off for.
‘No I can’t listen to it for a third time. We’re almost there so just let the next track come on.’
‘Come on, it’s my weekend. Let’s arrive there upbeat. I don’t want to listen to this old stuff.’ Cora continued as I pressed my temple against the cold glass of the door just waiting for it to end. If I could sleep in the car I would.
‘Let Aspen choose. You there Aspen?’ Mum waved her hand towards me but I barely moved. I grunted to show I was awake. My body body felt off. It was tight like breaking in a smaller pair of gloves. You could feel the second skin stretch.
‘What are the choices?’ I asked.
‘I want Spice Up Your Life but mum wants some Talking Heads old thing.’
‘It came out in the eighties. It’s not old at all. You know it Aspen, it’s Road to Nowhere.’
‘You know Spice Up Your Life is about crack right?’
‘Shut up!’ Cora shouted.
‘You and your friends all dressed up and sang it all the time. You made us watch you perform it.’
‘Yeah it’s got instructions on cooking meth.’
‘You’re talking shit Aspen.’ Cora said as mum beeped the horn.
‘No arguments. Okay. Aspen you’ve ruined it so we’ll just press random and listen to whatever comes on the playlist next.’ Mum fiddled with the buttons as I spotted another car approaching the gate too.
‘Here, I’ll sort that out while you drive.’ I clicked the small skip track button as we ventured onto the private land. As the gospel singing of mums choice ran through the car I stared out the window. Past the gate yellowing trees were fat and heavy with clusters of red berries. Like a pox the berries had filled the entire woods with a bloody sheen. And just as I began to wonder what they were the trees parted and the spa house stood proud over the trimmed green grass.
‘You used to live here?’Cora asked as she stuck her head forward to get a better look. I was surprised she could move so well considering she was as swollen as a gourd. I couldn’t believe a person could live in a place that large. You could house a small convent inside. It was amazing we had never heard of it let alone visited it.
‘The family still owns it. We rent it out mostly for private events.’
‘How come this is the first time we’re visiting it? I’d come here every summer if I had the chance.’ Cora said as she stroked her belly.
‘Because I like our space.’ Mum said. I could see on her face that there was more to it. We rarely saw our family except for Christmas when our Aunt Janet and her kids would visit. Janet was the youngest and was quite care free. Her two kids on the other hand were spoiled rotten. Maybe that was why Mum kept us removed from this side of the family, to protect us from becoming self-entitled brats. But there was a moment when I spied on Janet and mum talking about the past. Everyone except those two had gone to bed but I couldn’t sleep. I had caught sight of them on the decking in the back garden stood in the snow as Janet pressed her hand on our tree. As steam rose from their mouths I heard them speak about another sister called Lana. It was the first time I had seen my mother cry as she flung the last glass of red wine over the snow like a blood spatter. After that I rooted through all the house to find anything related to Lana but there was nothing.
The manor house turned spa stood proud over the gravel entrance and surrounding twice a week trimmed grass. A red streak of ivy ran across the front like a deep cut across the face that had been wrenched open and left to bleed down across the yellowing stone. The front of the building reminded me of the Jane Austen films Cora would make us watch when we were hungover in our teens. The clacking of the horse-drawn carriage and Cora’s deep sighs at those being the better times. I twisted my head and Cora was wide-eyed and dreaming. I had to check where her hands were to see if she was pinching herself. It made me happy to see her forget everything for even just a second. To not have to delve deep back into that hole filled with missing posters and baby worries.
‘Can we live here?’ Cora asked but Mum said nothing. She kept her eyes on the end of the road where the other cars had parked. There were six parked and one behind us. I had always wanted to ask her why she never spoke of her dead sister. But then she would change again. Further turning inward on herself until all we saw of our mum was this hard shell. My mum turned into the closest spot on the driveway and I went to the boot as her and Cora gathered their things. Just stepping down on the ground filled me with this overwhelming sense of comfort. If there was anything stressing me out or I needed healing then I would slide my shoes off and step barefoot onto the ground. It was electric.
‘Put your shoes back on.’ Mum said as she helped Cora wrangle herself and the belly full of baby out the car.
‘No need for shoes here. Hey there!’ A ladies voice bellowed out from the concrete steps leading to the large door. To call her an old lady was a disservice. She was the woman from the denture commercials, the actress who grew old with grace, those yogi woman who lived her life one pose at a time. She was definitely the right person to run a spa hotel. Turning to greet her too quickly I felt Cora’s suitcase slip from the boot. Suddenly I was not all smiles as the reinforced hard shell suitcase corner cracked my big toe.
‘Fuck,’ I shouted as the suitcase tumbled onto it’s side and I reeled back.
‘Jesus Christ Aspen,’ Mum spat out without even craning her neck around to check on me. I stared down in disbelief as my throbbing toe began to bleed out like a burst zit.
‘Are you okay there?’ The spa lady said as I continued to stare down. My face tingled and began to chill as the cracked half-open nail started to drain me like I had sprung a leak. Almost a perfect split across the top half of my toe nail. It reminded me of the hard boiled egg I had had for breakfast. The tip of the shell had been botched open you could see the cracks and runny yolk. It all went white.