You don’t notice at first what she sees. She’s blocking the window with her body, but she gasps, and you see the flinch of tension as her body reacts before her mouth has even spoken his name. Her hair flicks out behind her as she moves, its tips catching your cheek. White-blonde waves swish through your vision, then disappear out the door after her. The meal started on the side stands forgotten.
The cream paint is desert-cracked, the edges digging into your fingertips as you lean on the window frame to peer out the window. And you see her stumbling across the road, hands reaching forward, as the stained, rickety black cart judders forward, her lover sitting, bound and silent, on the rough boards. The mismatched brown horses pulling it snort and toss their heads against the bite of the whip, and her lover’s body jerks with the movement of the cart as it pitches over a pot hole. She is left in the middle of the road, half hidden by the swirl of dust kicked up by the cart’s wheels, her fists clenched and her body leaning forward as she screams. Hot tears hiss as they fall onto the dirt road.
Your knuckles are white, your hands clenched tight to the window frame. Somehow you knew she was expecting this. Knew the possibility of this was one that had been haunting her for months. But to have your fear become reality is a deathly thing. Your breath is tight in your throat, and each heartbeat is painful in your chest. Thump thump thump, loud in your ears as you watch her cry. Unable to move. Blood trickles unnoticed between your fingers from where a sharp splinter has dug a jagged cut in your palm.
She’s still standing in the middle of the road, shoulders hunched. In the distance the cart rumbles further and further away, its sharp black corners half hidden by the dust. It passes over a hill on the horizon, and is gone. And suddenly she’s moving. Skirts dragging in the dirt, feet pounding at the surface of the road, she’s running, fast and frightened, towards where the cart disappeared.
In your haste to follow her, you trip on the doorstep and stumble forward. Your hands slam into the ground and your knee scrapes along the stones, but you’re back up and running before you’ve even registered the pain. She’s moving faster than you, somehow. You’re running as fast as you can, your breath rough against your tongue, rasping through your teeth. Your feet smack against the rough road, your legs already ache with the unaccustomed work you’re forcing them to do. And yet she is moving steadily away from you. The landscape moves past you slowly, and although you double your efforts, til your lungs are tight with lack of air and your legs are weighted-heavy with the extra work, you only seem to move slower. Ahead of you, she’s getting smaller. She’s melding into the dust cloud that is dragged behind the fast-moving cart.
You slow down. Close your eyes. Your feet stumble and scuff in the dirt. Your breathing is heavy and jagged. With each step you ache, but to continue to follow her seems like less of an option than a necessity.
At first when your feet come down to meet dry grass instead of stone, you don’t notice. Then the cold seeps through your closed eyelids and you open them to see darkness. You’re on a hill crest. Below you, stretching out in a vast space of shifting dark, are fields of black grass. Like living things they move in the wind, long sharp blades that swish and slick against each other so that their movement echoes the waves on the sea. They stretch to both sides. To your left a line of trees, sable bark and twisted boughs, stand guard before the drop of land into grey ocean. A clean, sharp salt smell drifts up from the damp ground.
She’s below you. Struggling through the waist-high grass, her hair whipped side-to-side by the wind. Her dress is torn and it catches continually on the thorns of the black flowers hidden in the grass. Scraps of it tear from the hem and flutter away in the wind like ragged moths. She’s still running. Moving as fast as she can, though the grasses whip at her legs and the roots snatch at her ankles and rip the soles of her feet. She’s reaching with her hands. A nominal, ghostly-pale shape in a sea of shifting darkness.
Ahead of her is her goal. Tall and rickety, it lurches away from her across the field like an oversized misshapen insect. Your stomach clenches as you see it. Built like a ladder to the heavens, the massive wooden structure has four levels. The first three levels are inhabited. Large woven baskets sit supported in holes in the heavy wooden flooring, each basket lined with dirty rags and rough grey material. They shed scraps of fabric so that the air around the structure is broken by tiny fluttering shapes that are whipped away in spiralling circles. And each basket holds a man. This you know. Despite its distance, you can see the hands that reach from the edges of the baskets into the thin air. You can hear the quiet sobbing and the despairing moans of these broken men, as it mixes with the creaking of the twine-bound joints and is swept towards you by the howling wind in a discordant melody.
Suddenly you are as desperate as she is. Desperate to see her reach her goal, to see her win this race. You try to move forward, but your feet are rooted to the ground, sunk into the bruised-plum mud, and you cannot. For you’ve seen her lover. Shadow skin and eyes deep as the night. He stands, his head held high, on the top level. The gallows swing free. Three loops of twisted rope. Dark against the purple-red clouds of the sunset.
Stop watching. But even with your eyes closed you can still see her, imprinted on your eyelids; a pale moth fluttering, struggling, on a background of black motion. As your eyes reopen, the sun falls. A sudden bright light from the horizon silhouettes her lover, the twisted rope, the creaking structure, in a graffiti painting of black on bright white. Stark and clean and terrible. Then the top rim of the sun sinks into the sea. She screams. A thin sound. And blackness falls.