‘Who was that on the phone?’ Jenny says. Her cheekbones reprove Farley. They always do; he comes from a lower order of men.
He settles himself before the bowl. He’s devoted days to freeing it from the carapace of soil, the crusts and corrosion, and it shimmers like a mirage on the prosaic scrubbed pine kitchen table. Farley rotates it lovingly. The hunters pursue a leaping stag through a forest, its antlers tangling in the branches as it flees the spears and hounds.
‘Well?’ Jenny says.
‘Mason,’ Farley says. ‘Wanted to know if I’m going to the farm tomorrow.’
She sets the table around him with restrained violence, as though barely able to resist stabbing his resting forearm with a fork. She’s weathered the years well. Her dark blonde hair still sways over her collarbones and her skin is soft. Farley hasn’t held up his end of the bargain. Diminishing hair is the least of it. But he’s older, entitled to have gone to seed. Which he has.
He should have reported finding the bowl. You have to report what you find to the authorities, Jenny keeps nagging, sell it to a museum and share the money between the finder and the landowner. As if he doesn’t know this. But Farley can’t betray the hunters, the pact he made when he delivered them from a thousand entombed years. His hands relive the weight of the vessel as he coaxed the reluctant land to release its grip. Gold and silver as heavy as stone, corrugated and moss-black from burial.
The bowl astonishes him, like a new planet.
‘Supper’s coming up,’ Jenny warns. She lofts a serving spoon.
The figures ripple against his palms. He snaps his hands away and stares. The men, motionless now in the metal, had moved beneath them. Though how could they? Farley pincers the rim between thumb and finger, counts the circling hunters. Five, six, seven. Eight. Is he back at the beginning? Eight or nine? He rubs his jaw, tries again. Eight, he ventures, though it’s hard to tell. Sometimes the tallest leads the pack, sometimes not. He’s convinced they shift about on the far side of the bowl as it revolves. Or maybe he loses track of which man he counted first, tricked by the turning. He’s afraid this is all it is, a trick. Afraid the hidden movement in his palms is not the hunters running but merely the deception of his flickering pulse.
‘You’re not out there again tomorrow?’
He glances at Jenny, startled. He’d forgotten she was there. His gaze slides to where the coats hang beside the kitchen door, to where his metal detector reclines against the wall, partly covered. He hasn’t touched it since he dug up the bowl, shoulders braced against an assault of pewter rain rattling across the crouching hills and down the field into his face. The drenched sheep ignoring him.
‘No,’ he says.
Jenny is no doubt angling for a few hours when she can pretend she’s going to help with the flowers at the church and instead slink off to Mason’s bed. While Mason’s wife was alive, Farley and Jenny had attended parties at the farm. Coloured paper lanterns, half the village there sometimes, local musicians, catered buffets. After the car accident and Susan’s death, Jenny developed the habit of stopping by at Mason’s with her own home-made offerings. (She’s a fine cook, her Lancashire hotpot a glory.) Apparently it was a small step from baking cakes to sandwiching herself between Mason’s sheets. She seems indifferent to whether Farley is aware or not. He might resent it more if he didn’t reiterate to himself, often, that her disappointment is an understandable response to finding herself mired alongside him in his dull trudge from birth to death. By degrees, he’s lowered himself into the icy knowledge that she married him only because she gave up waiting for someone more exciting. For Mason.
Farley edges through his life in near-silence. It’s a refuge to him but a burden to Jenny. This realization has crept into him like rain seeping into peat. It pools in his soul, as cold and dark as bog water.
‘Have you told him about it yet? It’s half his.’
‘We need the money,’ Jenny says.
She reminds him of a dog closing in on a marrow bone. He studies his plate, now scraped empty. He suspects she’ll bare her teeth if he catches her eye. Perhaps bite him.
‘We do all right,’ he says, knowing all right isn’t enough for her. It isn’t enough for him either, but there’s no way out.
She runs water in the sink. Her back is as stubborn as his silence.
Farley wonders whether she’s read the thought flitting like a bat through his mind: that he won’t inform Mason. His mistake was hurrying home in the blustery evening with the bowl blazing in his backpack, his boots thudding on the slippery leaf litter in the lane. He shouldn’t have shown it to Jenny. She will, eventually, go behind his back to Mason. He should have protected it. The bowl, the euphoria of releasing the hunters from their never-ending sleep under sheep-nibbled turf, is the only proof he’s ever received that his life matters.
Separation from the bowl will break him.
A narrow man of no particular height with sloping shoulders and an incipient paunch, Farley has overheard people say he resembles a rodent. He files such words away in one of the small boxes in his mind and leaves them there. He’s not bothered by his long-nosed face, its bland contortions before him as he shaves, its crooked smile in the wedding photos. On the infrequent occasions when he inspects his countenance more thoughtfully, pausing in his shaving instead of whipping through it, he searches for glimpses of Anglo-Saxon or Norman blood in its planes and lines. Or Danish, being from the North himself.
In the early days, Farley privately questioned how he’d managed to entice Jenny to marry him. She found it convenient, perhaps. He was a library assistant when they met. A great reader, though not a great talker even then. He was fond of camping holidays in Wales, but after the first trip they endured as a couple (dripping nights under chilly fabric, stray lambs bleating for their mothers, laughter or more embarrassing noises carrying from every other tent) she declined to repeat the experience. Not too hopefully, he sought to interest her in castles instead. She made an effort and so did he, sifting his memory for engaging historical snippets to impart. He did his best to quell the rising clot of fear that he bored her; castles certainly did. Empty rooms and ruined stone, she said apologetically, once you’ve seen one and so on. After that he retreated. Never even suggested his other love, museums. At least at the library his silence made him an asset.
They have nothing in common, but they arrived at this understanding too late.
When they married, Jenny relinquished her share of the chores on the family smallholding (early morning milking of a small dairy herd, raking out of chicken guano) and took a job at the Citizens Advice office. She baked and entered cakes in the village fair. They frequently won. Her Victoria sponge, luscious with clotted cream and home-made apricot jam, was almost enough on its own to justify Farley remaining married. Throw in the hotpot and it’s a deal, he’d joke, but only to himself. In any case, he was dogged in clinging to his marriage, shrinking from acknowledging the probability that Mason was tupping his wife.
The first frisson of marital doom emerged when he arrived home on a Tuesday evening and Jenny told him about Susan’s death. She was crying and he wanted to hold her, but she stiff-armed her way out of his hug. He assumed she was inconsolable, though she and Susan weren’t close. It flummoxed him until he understood that the emotion burning in her wasn’t grief. It was anger. Anger that she had surrendered and married Farley instead of holding out for Mason. He sealed this nugget in another of his boxes, before a tide of bile could flood his throat and drown him.
He refuses to stand down, but he no longer touches Jenny. He doesn’t know how he’d take it if she recoiled in bed as she did from the comfort of his hug, repelled from him by her desire for Mason’s hand. He lies awake in their moonlit bedroom, straitjacketed by loneliness, carefully preserving a six-inch strip of unwrinkled sheet between them, the no man’s land that separates him from his wife.
Farley had achieved a degree in biology and he thought he was on his way. Teaching appealed to him and a private girls’ school hired him. He had a friend or two at the time, others he’d met in teacher training, and they were agog, envious of his luck, lamenting their own troubled placements at out-of-control comprehensives.
But the posh girls mocked his Northern accent. Geraniums were part of the term’s lessons on reproduction. Pots of them lined the windows. The girls renamed him, not calling him Mr Moore but Geranium, the way he pronounced it. Ger-ehhh-nium, they brayed from the biology lab’s scarred and Bunsen-burnt benches, when they didn’t lock him out altogether. The few girls that refrained from joining in the taunting contemplated him with mute pity, daring him to report the rabble, but he didn’t. Not then. Not until, in a muck sweat of mortification, he showed a card made by the ringleaders to the head teacher. She loomed over him, a stern caryatid in size nine pointy shoes. It wasn’t so much the suggestive pansies stolen from the school flower beds and glued to the card’s front that put him over the edge as the handwritten ‘FUCK OFF, GER-A-NIUM’ in green biro inside.
He resigned at the end of the term. That was when he started at the library. He’d never been much of a one for history, but in England, you can’t turn around without stubbing your toe on a Roman mosaic or blundering upon an Iron Age fort. As silence conditioned him, the past thrust itself into his sinews. The lives of his unknown ancestors wove themselves into a thread that began its journey thousands of years before and tied itself to him, as much a part of his existence as his own living bone and blood.
Jenny, when he let fall he’d been a teacher before she met him, encouraged him to go back to it; the salary was better than his library pay. It was the early days of their marriage and they were renting a worn one-bedroomed flat over a chip shop. He hadn’t the talent for it, he said, without confessing to the geraniums, and he was brought up hard when out of the blue she produced a pot of them ‘for the colour’. He revolted against the flowers. They smelt sour, he said. They nauseated him. She’d never heard him vehement about anything. They were sitting on a second-hand sofa with a sag in the middle, the geraniums condemning him from the windowsill. She cast him a baffled, disillusioned look. It was the first trickle of contempt. The next time she raised the subject of teaching, he told her the only reason he’d been employed was because there was a shortage. She didn’t contradict him, but perhaps she hadn’t heard. She was ramming the vacuum cleaner under the sofa at the time, and she didn’t mention it again.
Farley unravelled over the years into a worn, stooped man, like one of those beige blokes you half-notice in a park with a little dog and immediately forget. It disconcerts him. He’s fifty-six. He was young once, with worthwhile hair and a bit of a lift in his walk. When he tries to assemble the steps that carried him here, they seem extremely few.
Four in the morning. The chair chafes the tiled floor as Farley seats himself at the kitchen table. He hasn’t been able to sleep for the past hour, the bowl gnawing at him. He floats his hands over the hunters. He counts again: eight, nine, eight. They stir unseen against his palms, warm and vibrant. Distant shouts and the trampling of a stag’s hooves reach him, arriving from afar on a fitful wind.
‘That bowl,’ Jenny says.
She’s rigid in the doorway from the hall in the first glimmer of dawn. Farley gathers the living metal against his chest. A spear point jabs his sternum.
‘What are you doing, holding it like a baby?’ she says.
She advances, her dressing gown bolted around her like armour. He jumps to his feet and backs against the counter. The bowl batters his naked ribs.
‘It has its own life,’ he says.
He has to raise his voice over the jubilant yells of the hunters. Have they killed the stag?
‘This nonsense has gone on long enough,’ Jenny says. ‘I’m telling Mason today.’
Farley wraps himself about the bowl to contain its bucking. He’s light-headed. The stag’s antlers clatter between his ribs. The baying of hounds threatens to overwhelm him. Can Jenny not hear them?
‘I know about you and Mason,’ he shouts. ‘He’s not getting his hands on my life.’
‘You’re not making sense,’ Jenny says.
She seizes the edge of the bowl. Gold cleaves to bone, bone to gold. He loses the sense of where flesh ends and metal begins. The stag bellows, or perhaps it’s Farley himself. Hounds trample him, their horny paws bruising his limbs. The hunters are running, but one slows as he passes Farley and their eyes meet. Farley reaches for him. Grasps his hand. The hunter wrenches him beneath the trees. The rank smell of the stag’s fear buffets Farley’s face and its cloven hooves spatter his skin with torn leaves. Branches rattle against antlers. A hound’s rough fur scours the back of his knee. He stumbles and halts to catch his breath, leaning the butt of his spear against a tree root. He’s the ninth man in this golden land of woods and streams, the land of his ancestors.
Jenny’s hand touches his face. It bends him back once more to his old world. He must stay with the bowl and he flinches away. Can she see him? She’s on her mobile.
‘Mason,’ she says. ‘Something’s happened to Farley.’
Her voice oscillates into the distance.
Surrounded by the joyous singing of the hunters, Farley strides into the forest.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
ROZ DEKETT is a British writer who lives in Philadelphia in the US. Her previous publication includes a short story in Fish Anthology 2017, a short memoir piece in the York Literary Review, and non-fiction in the American children’s literary magazine Cricket. Another short story won second prize in the 2017 Bedford International Writing Competition. She’s a former BBC radio and newspaper journalist and is seeking publication for a novel while working on another. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @rozdekett or on her blog at www.rozdekett.com