Idly she dug the toes of her cheap dimestore sneakers into the grey clay. If she dug out a hole more than two inches deep it would lethargically fill with pallid, mud- stained water. She didn't care that the mud soaked the cheap fabric of the sneakers or clung in ugly globules to the undersides of the white rubber. With a child-like absorption she continued to twist her toes from side and side, seeing how long she could dig before her toes were threatened by a drenching from the swamp water.
Her reverie was broken after quarter of an hour or so, when she heard shouting from the house. She looked up, knowing that the brittle reeds would hide her from view. The Woman came out, shouting something at Him. She had long blonde hair and was wearing a mid-length black leather coat. In her left hand She clutched a sports bag. He looked miserable in a grey fleece and faded jeans.
He said something, in a low voice that she couldn't quite hear. There was more shouting and then a car door slammed as She got into her sporty shark-grilled metallic-blue BMW. There was another outbreak of noise as She gunned the engine. Rubber tyres crunched on gravel and the car speed off up the kilometre length of farm track towards the main road.
He did nothing for a moment. Then He shut the door to the house with a soft click.
Glassy stillness returned to the swamp.
The first thing Chuck did was, was to make himself a cup of coffee. The house felt empty. The way it did when his parents left after the Christmas celebrations or just after his grandfather's death, when he had moved here for the first time. The way it had after Cassandra had left the last time.
Part of him felt like getting drunk. Part of him wanted to shout and punch a fist hard into the tiled wall: so hard that the knuckles and bones in his fist would crack and break. That the tiles would shatter and sharp ceramic shards would be driven through his skin. For now though the rational, pragmatic part of his mind was in control.
Chuck wandered from the terracotta tiles of the kitchen into the polished floorboards vista of the living room. He flicked on the ultra-expensive sound system that he had bought himself last year. The first CD was one of love songs. The pain was too sharp and fresh. He immediately hit the Disc Skip button with a jerky, frightened tap. Tori Amos: Under the Pink. Too depressing. In frustration he tried the radio and found the local station. It was playing soulless R&B. Chuck gave up and pushed the sleek black Power button to off.
He slumped down in his leather wing-backed reading chair beside the empty fireplace. From outside the silence and pale clear light of the swamp seeped in through the French windows.
Chuck sipped at his coffee and wondered whether Cassandra would be back to make up or to collect her things. So many stupid fights over so many trivial things; expressions of deeper resentments and fears and jealousies. Should he have done things differently? Been willing to compromise? Been willing to abandon his stiff- necked pride? Would giving in once really have led to him giving up his Art? He had tried hadn't he?
Guilt warred with sorrow and regret and with wounded pride and the anger at being cast aside. She had said she needed him. Why didn't she need him now? Why had she left him alone again? He began to brood, to dig at his thoughts and emotions, weighing and counter- weighing the arguments for his and Cassandra's actions. Behind him he heard the creak of the outside door opening. At first Chuck thought that it was the dog, but then he remembered that Ben had died two years ago. His faithful Labrador heart giving out from old age. Chuck stood up and wandered back out to the kitchen. The Girl was there. Pale, alabaster skin, dark hair cut into a spiky mop. Ancient wool jumper faded to a dirty khaki, torn jeans and sneakers that looked like there should be held together with duct tape rather than wishful thinking. She has traipsed grey clay from the swamp across the tiled floor. "Hi," she said, swinging herself up cheerfully to sit upon the top of one of the kitchen work tops; "can I have a cup of tea?" Chuck ran a hand through his brown hair and then let his confusion and guilt out in a long sigh. "Sure".
They fucked all afternoon and into the night until He could do it no more; the overcast light of early spring, illuminating the room through the skylight. As they lay on the rumpled sky blue sheets, her arm sprawled across His chest, she watched the sky darken to leaden twilight and then blacken as the Earth fell into its own shadow. Her arm was sharply white against the bleached brown of His faded Californian tan. She didn't know if she loved Him. She thought she might. She knew that He didn't love her. He lusted after her yes, but His emotions were still too confused by the Woman. Maybe, if she gave Him time, He would come to love her. He should love her. That was the way that it was supposed to be. The bedroom was dark and cold. He was snoring softly. In delicate silence, she rose and dressed herself in her jeans and faded-to-khaki jumper. She walked barefoot out of the bedroom and down the stairs. The bare wooden risers were cool against her naked feet. She was careful to grip the banister so that she didn't slip on the polished wood. In the Utility Room, she took a pair of His socks and the dirtiest, oldest looking anorak before pulling on her mud-stained sneakers. She left quietly, letting the door latch catch behind her. Outside she paused. The night air was cold, the grass crackling under foot with the new frost. Part of her wanted to go to the barn where she had been created. Off course it wasn't a barn anymore. The farm had not seen any livestock for years. The barn was now his workshop, a place that smelt of paint and turpentine, plaster and dust. Twisted piles of brass and rusted metal lay discarded in corners abandoned after the oxy-acetylene torch had failed to bring vision to life. Slabs of white stone waited to be carved; given form and texture and sold for more money then there were worth. She shivered with the cold. It might have been where she had been created but she preferred the swamp. It called too something deep n her soul. She turned away from the barn.
Cassandra was fed up of listening to the car radio. She was bored with her collection of CDs too. Definitely time to buy some more. She switched the in-car entertainment system off as she slowed the BMW to make the left-hand turn. The cylindrical steel bars of the cattle-grid clattered noisily as she eased the car over them. Momentarily she smiled as she forgot where she was heading and enjoyed the smooth flowing sensation as she drove the car through the even bends of the farm road. The sensation fled as she crested the rise and saw the dilapidated barns and house and the decaying waters of the bog beyond. Was it only two weeks ago that she had driven out on a crest of anger and crunching gears? Her stomach knotted and twisted as she braked and parked the car beside Chuck's battered pick-up. In her throat Cassandra could taste the bitter coffee she had hastily drunk at a roadhouse three quarters of an hour ago. This was the second time she had come back to Chuck. Wasn't there some phrase; third time pays for all? Third time lucky? Well he would be lucky if she came back to him. She wanted too. She needed him, wanted him. Despite all of Harriet's best efforts to persuade her she wanted to make it work. They loved each other, so why the fuck couldn't they together? "Lets do it" she muttered to herself and stepped out of the safety of the car's side impact bars. It was only as she was halfway between the car and the house that she realised that she still really did not know what "it" was. Was she collecting some things to make her stay in Harriet's flat more comfortable? Or was this the point where she and Chuck made up? Declared their love in a passionate flood of tears and kisses. Or even, if she was lucky, had a long talk over the kitchen table and promised to try harder. You had to work at a relationship didn't you? Take the rough with the smooth. Be willing to compromise. Eat humble pie occasionally. Apologise and be welcomed back with open heart and arms. Basically it hurt too much without him around. She needed his laugh and his smile and his scarred sculptor's hands. She needed him. She didn't even need to fumble in her bags for the keys that Chuck had given her. The door was unlocked. She opened it and walked in, feeling like a stranger in a house that had temporarily been her home. Her stomach flipped as she anticipated meeting Chuck making a cup of coffee. "Hello!" she called, trying to squash the tremor of nervousness in her throat. There was no reply. Perhaps he was in the barn, working on a new piece of sculpture. Though he normally came out when he heard the sound of a car engine. Maybe he had recognised the BMW and had decided that he would rather leave a confrontation until later. After all, discretion was the better part of cowardice. The jittery quality had not fled she quickly searched through the pile of discarded mail on the kitchen table. Most of it was for her. Absent-mindedly, still unsure what she was doing, she slipped the envelopes into her bag as she walked across the living room towards the staircase. Cassandra could not stop thinking about how she felt like an intruder or a thief. She did not need permission to be here but she wanted it. There was nothing obviously different about the place. Chuck had kept it tidy. He had not let the place fill up with beer cans, pizza boxes and cartons of stir-fry the way that some of the boys she had dated in college had when left alone for five minutes. But there was now something missing: an elusive quality that was only noticed by its absence. Maybe this was it. A few more trips to pick up her stuff, a few more blazing rows and then she would be gone for good. No more chances. No reconciliation. Her heart felt heavy with dread. The house brooded, waiting for something to happen.
Chuck buried his face in the curve of bone and skin where the Girl's neck and collarbone met. She smelt of the earth and of sweet smelling bark. For a moment he was still, feeling his heart and lungs slow. He felt the cool spring air as it dried the sweat on his temples. The Girl shifted bringing her hands down from where they had been caressing the bark of the tree. A pale hand gently stroked his uncombed brown hair. Some movement disturbed their bodies and Chuck realised that they were no longer joined as one. The moist swamp air stroking his naked buttocks suddenly made him feel very exposed. With a sigh he pulled away from her clasp. He kissed her disappointed face briefly before reaching down to pull up his trousers. She leant back again, stretching her arms up and back so that her fingertips, and head and shoulder blades stroked the leafless bark. Her small breasts peeked from beneath the folds of the unbuttoned shirt. Her pink nipples were still firm. She yawned and then folded herself over, one hand brushing her spiky black pubic hair before she zipped up her jeans. Chuck realised that he had never seen her wear knickers or bra. The sudden thought of the Girl in lingerie threatened to make his blood rise again, but before he could follow the thoughts of the fantasy, she spoke: "Did you hear a car?" He paused. "I don't think so. I was being distracted remember?" She lowered her head and smile out of the corner of her eyes. He bent forward and kissed her on the top of her head, relishing the smell of earth and bark yet again. "Lets go take a look," Chuck continued, his thoughts drifting to Cassandra's lingerie that was still in the house; "I'm sure that it is nobody important."
Cassandra walked into the bedroom and felt the knife twist deep in her belly. Her lungs filled with fire and her skin flushed crimson with shock, surprise and a deep anger. Until now she had never been surprised by any sudden passionate emotion. She had held enjoyed her passions but always felt as though she could step back in and take control. This rage threatened to overwhelm her. It washed over her, obliterating rational thought or logical explanation. Her gut contracted with the sick sensation at the discovery of the betrayal. She felt violated and her fury was an animal reaction to the pain. On the bedside table, beside the lamp she and Chuck had bought in some DIY chain store, were two empty wineglasses. Not one. Two. Not a tumbler half full of water in case Chuck had a thirst on the night but wineglasses. Two of them. The bed was a tangle of rumpled sheets and crumpled duvets. Condom wrappers were strewn across the floor: The used condoms and dirty tissues lay in and around the wastebasket. "Bastard!" she yelled and threw her handbag hard against the dressing table. The dresser's mirror shook from the impact but did not break. She wanted to cry. She wanted to stomp and shout and throw a tantrum. She wanted to tear out his treacherous throat and claw out his heart and spit on it while it lay still beating in her hand. She wanted to rip off his scrawny little penis and stuff it down his lying, throat. Then as hastily as the anger had arrived it left her. Ebbing away to abandon Cassandra on the edge of tears. Her knees began to buckle and she sat down on the edge of the bed. This had never happened to her before. She had been lucky. No one had cheated on her before. She had only gone to stay at Harriet's for a couple of fucking weeks. She had come back willing to beg and plead and bargain. Did this stomach wrenching betrayal always feel so bad? She was saved from her tears by the sound of someone; it had to be Chuck, entering the house downstairs. Cassandra salvaged the dregs of her anger and stood up. She snuffled back her tears and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She wouldn't let the bastard see her like this. And some abstract part of her mind noted that he was no longer 'Chuck', he was now 'the bastard'.
She studied the face in the black bark. She wondered if eventually the rest of the body would form itself out of the wood until it had long brown ringlets of hair and thin arms with elegant fingers. Its legs would have to be strong and firm. Then would it shed its bark like snake shedding dead skin? No, not a snake, a dragonfly shedding its chrysalis. Would the Woodman walk out of the swamp to let the sun warm his polished bones? Or would the Woodman need a Creator's hand to shape its body, as she had needed a hand to shape her form? She looked for Him, but He had walked out of the edges of the swamp towards His house and workshops. And there was another car parked outside the house: Her BMW.
Chuck yawned as he wandered into the kitchen. He began to make himself a cup of coffee. The Girl had wandered along behind him. She would be here soon, when she stopped chasing butterflies or peering at brightly coloured reeds. She was so like a kitten in many ways. Still young. And playful. He grinned. The smile paused as he heard footsteps down the stairs. The sound of a car engine? Metallic blue BMW outside. Letters not as he had left them on the table. Shit! Cass was here! Fuck, oh fuck, oh fuc- The kitchen door opened and Cassandra walked in. "Er, Hi –" began Chuck but the look on Cass's face interrupted him. "You utter fucking bastard! Who the fuck is she?" Cassandra picked up the closest thing on to her right hand and threw it at him. He tucked his head into his shoulders and then heard the sound of porcelain shattering. He looked up. "Look I can –" "Explain? Explain what? You miserable, fucking weasel. Did your 'artistic passions' get carried away? Go on, explain." Chuck looked at her with the expression of a puppy had been kicked. Or maybe a puppy that had just had its nose pushed into the pile of crap it had left in a neat pile on the expensive carpet. "Oh shit, Cass," he said; "I never meant for you to find out this way." Anger seemed to slip away from her leaving the icy, indifferent exhaustion of defeat. It was not worth throwing things. It was not longer worth fighting. The guilt was plain as day on Chuck's face. "How the fuck did you mean to me to find out?" she asked, sorrow and anger warring for control in some awkward place in her mind. Chuck opened his mouth to begin some confused, evasive reply. A reply that would fail to explain that he had not thought about telling Cassandra anything. In fact, he had not thought about Cassandra at all. He had not had time for doubt or guilt. There was a pause in the fight as both sides waited to see what would happen next. Would it be tears that might lead to Cassandra's dream of tears and kissing or would it be sulking as someone's proud sensibilities were walked on or would it be more bloody shouting? The pause was shattered as the Girl pushed the door open with her left hand. It slammed into the kitchen wall with a loud crash before the Girl caught it on the rebound with the same left hand. Her grey eyes bored into Her with a fury that made Cassandra want to back away into a corner and reach desperately for one of the Swedish carving knives. With her arms folded across her chest, the Girl spat out her words: "He is mine! You can't have Him. You gave Him up!" Chuck stood there. Confused. Torn. "Take him. He is all yours," replied Cass fearfully. Was this wild, feral, girl- child her rival? The madness in the Girl's eyes scared Cass. The urge to fight was routed. Fuck this entire mess. Screw Chuck. He had made his bed; he could lie in it. The Girl snorted and turned her head to gaze out onto the submerged trees of the swamp. With a calmness that she did not feel, Cassandra turned to Chuck. "I'm just going to get a few things. Clear out my stuff. I'll be back a couple of times after that and then you can have the keys and I'll be gone." Chuck looked at the back of the Girl's head and then at Cass, He nodded. She turned and walked out of the kitchen. As she crossed the threshold into the living room, curiosity and the desire for one final biting comment overwhelmed her. She turned and looked back into the kitchen. The Girl was gone and Chuck was heading out of the door. "Hey Chuck!" she cried, "Fuck you!" Cassandra paused. He didn't look back.
The Girl walked into the swamp, a feline smile of delight playing around her lips. He was hers. She had given Him up. Snapped the fragile, spider-web threads that had held them together. He belonged to her now, All of Him. He was following her not the woman. He was giving Himself to her, wholeheartedly.
With long slow steps she walked back up the wooden staircase. She opened a storage cupboard and took out a pair of unmatched flight bags. Cassandra cried a little as she stuffed conditioners and shampoos and perfumes and soaps and shower gel into one bag. She tried not to feel anything as she packed away a selection of underwear and T-shirts and skirts. She would let herself feel the hurt and Chuck's indifference later. She might let herself have a melodramatic breakdown in a diner on the way home. Let some middle-aged waitresses with a bad perm and motherly eyes comfort her. Right now, she didn't want to feel anything. Right now everything was too raw and tangled. She was swinging from rage to grief to fear. She didn't know what to think or feel. She ought to call Harriet to tell her she was coming back. That thinks with her and Chuck hadn't worked out. That Harriet had been right all along. She didn't. She rummaged through the chest of drawers, looking for the sweatshirt she wanted. An old black Raiders top, from when they used to play in LA, that Scott gave her a week before she very publicly broke up with him in a crowded bookstore. She just wanted something black to wear and some vicious rock on the car stereo on the way home. She probably ought to take some of Chuck's favourite books and CDs on the way out. Make him miss her. Cassandra kicked a duvet aside to reach the wooden box at the end of the bed. There wasn't much in there that was hers. Mainly Chuck used it to dump old clothes that were covered with stone dust from his workshop but she couldn't find the fucking Raiders top. Maybe he had hijacked and she would find it full of splinters from some piece of metal that he had been trying to cut, grind, bruise and weld into another form. She opened the box. There were Chuck's clothes and a couple of books thrown on top. Something by Aleister Crowley, a cheap paperback that looked like it had been sold at a New Age Carnival. There were burns in the cover that could have been made by cigarettes or maybe hot rocks. Cassandra picked it up by its lurid pink cover. Psychedelic writing on the cover advertised it as book of love spells. There was an ouja board, a handful of red and black and white candles. Then three more books: the first two were both thick hardbacks with ancient pages printed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The gold writing that had once embossed the navy blue, so dark that it was almost black, leather, had long since worn away. The indents of the letters could be seen. One book was entitled "Aphrodite: The Greek Goddess of Love", the other was "A Collection of Essays on Pygmalion and Galaeta". The third book was of the same age but much slimmer than the other two. It was bound with red leather. The lettering on the spine simply read "Golems."
The Girl walked deeper into the swamp. This time she let the grey waters drown her sneakers and soak into the legs of her jeans. The swamp sucked at her with each footstep. Small wavelets rippled away from her shins and she splashed her way further into the bog. Heading for the heart where the decaying trees and reeds where tangled and so interwoven that, even in wintertime, only thin watery light penetrated the matted canopy of vegetation. Heading for the centre where everything was protected and sheltered from the rest of the world. The swamp water felt cool against her alabaster skin. Behind her, the Girl could hear the hurried splashing footsteps of Him as He raced after her. Her Father and Her Love coming to be with her for all time. She let the swamp fill her soul. Listened to its call. They would live in the swamp together until the stars fell out of the sky. Until the sky was black and empty and eyeless and all life was extinguished. For forever and a day.
Clay dragged at Cassandra's boots as she tried to follow Chuck into the swamp. She had always hated the stillness and biting insects of the place. Never understood why he had wanted to move into his Grandfather's house after the old man had bequeathed it to him. Never understood why he preferred this dismal landscape to the beaches and sunshine of California. What had her foolish sculptor boyfriend done while she had been away after their first split? He had been alone out here, No company. Nothing beyond faith to believe that she might come back to him. What do you do when you are an insecure artist who is afraid that no one will ever love you again? Stupid, desperate fool. Men could be so fucking pathetic. Why couldn't he wank over some porn like anybody else? Why did he have to create a walking, talking sex toy? Artists! Men! She stepped from one treacherous clump of yellowed grass. towards the next. Beneath her icy puddles of muddy water concealed dank rotting grasses and rancid loam. The sole of her boot touched the clump of grass and then as she move her body forward to put her weight in her leading foot she slipped. Cold water sprayed up as she found her legs, knees, hands, face and hair suddenly drowned in the dankness of the bog. Coughing, spluttering and swearing, Cassandra spat mud out of her mouth. She looked up from where she crouched on all fours, fingers sliding deeper into the foulness below the surface. Beyond her, across fifty yards of glass still marsh was Chuck. Embracing the Girl as the swamp water soaked up her white clay skin. Neither if them had noticed her. The Girl clutched Chuck tight as his hand slid around her back, slid up, underneath her jumper. They both stood with their feet in the water, ignoring its bitter wet chill. Cass watched as the swamp water soaked into the Girls' jeans at knee height. Slowly, the swamp seemed to curl up and over the Girl's hand-me-down clothes, covering her sculpted form in weeds and decaying twigs and slimy mud. Her soul embraced the swamp: the swamp embraced her. It mixed with the living stone of her corporeal form, joining with her as she clasped Chuck. Where Chuck's hands stroked the small of her back between the waistband of her jeans and the folds of her jumper, the white skin was darkening as the swamp soaked into. It became discoloured and dirty. The smooth flesh beginning to coagulate and thicken into lumps as Chuck's sculptor's hands shaped and moved the flesh. Dragging at fistful sized lumps of wet clay as he passionately tugged at the Girl. The Girl pulled him closer. They held each other with their eyes shut. His passion was oblivious to her transformation. The swamp rotted her from within. Turning her flesh into a thick grey tangle of mud and dead vegetation. Fingers like clay covered twigs stroked his face, leaving smears of mud across his smooth flesh. She kissed him. And his eyes opened in a scream as her muddy tongue silenced all sound. She pulled him towards as she fell backwards on to her lover's bed of reeds. Covering them both beneath a sheet of grey water. The ripples faded and the water returned to a glassy sheen.