Fen

Fen

by Daisy Johnson

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Overview

A singular debut that “marks the emergence of a great, stomping, wall-knocking talent” (Kevin Barry)

Daisy Johnson’s Fen, set in the fenlands of England, transmutes the flat, uncanny landscape into a rich, brooding atmosphere. From that territory grow stories that blend folklore and restless invention to turn out something entirely new. Amid the marshy paths of the fens, a teenager might starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl and grow jealous of her friend. A boy might return from the dead in the guise of a fox. Out beyond the confines of realism, the familiar instincts of sex and hunger blend with the shifting, unpredictable wild as the line between human and animal is effaced by myth and metamorphosis. With a fresh and utterly contemporary voice, Johnson lays bare these stories of women testing the limits of their power to create a startling work of fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977740
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 571,395
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Daisy Johnson was born in 1990. Her short fiction has appeared in the Boston Review and The Warwick Review, among other publications. She was the recipient of the 2014 A.M. Heath Prize, and currently lives in Oxford, England.

Read an Excerpt

Fen

Stories


By Daisy Johnson

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2016 Daisy Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-967-6



CHAPTER 1

STARVER


The Land was drained. They caught eels in great wreaths, headless masses in the last puddles, trying to dig into the dirt to hide. They filled vats of water to the brim with them: the eels would feed the workforce brought in to build on the wilderness. There were enough eels to last months; there were enough eels to feed them all for years.

The eels would not eat. They tried them on river rats, sardines, fish food, milk-softened bread, the leftover parts of cows and sheep. It was no good: they reached into the water, scooped them out, slapped them down, slit them lengthwise. There were too many eels and not enough men. And eating eels barely more than bone was not really eating at all.

They burnt the eels they could not eat in piles, stood watching. It was, they were certain, a calling down of something upon the draining. Some said they heard words coming from the ground as the water was pumped away and that was what made the eels do it, starve themselves that way.


We were walking home from St Silvia's when Katy told me she wasn't going to eat any more. She'd stopped in the road. I turned back.

What do you mean?

There were three years between us and I was used to the look she gave me.

I'm stopping eating, she said. I started today.

Even that first night I thought I could see the shift in her. All the lights were on in her room: the lamps on her desk and her bedside table, the overhead, the glow from her computer screen. When she lifted her shirt to change, her spine was a heavy ridge along the middle of her back.


When she wasn't in lunch on Thursday I went to find her. Ducking down to look at feet beneath toilet-cubicle doors, behind the smoking shed; finding her, eventually, on the stile at the bottom of the school field. I'd brought an apple, rubbed it to a shine on my skirt, held it out to her. She was perched on the stile with her knees raised to her chin, not holding on. The fields were half flooded the way they often were.

I said her name but she didn't seem to see me or St Silvia's behind me or anything else until I tossed the apple to her, striking her leg. She almost lost her balance, made a hissing sound, then thumped down and grabbed my wrist.


I continued daily over that week to try and feed her, surprising her with peeled carrots chopped into mouthfuls, chunks of melon, halved avocados. When she ignored them I tried whitely iced doughnuts, chocolate bars, scoops of ice cream. I left the food in places I knew she would find it: on her bedside table, on the top of the cistern in the bathroom, in the drawers where she kept her clothes. I could smell the food rotting in the guttering from my window, did not need to look out to know what was there: doughnuts squashed to jam explosions, browning avocados, a slick stream of leafy raspberry-ripple.

Katy would rap her knuckles on our conjoining walls so I could go and hear how she'd refused biscuits, made clever excuses for missing lunch. At dinner she would kick me under the table so I could observe the ease with which she would appear to be eating. She'd perfected it: talking a lot, chopping everything on her plate once, putting down her knife and fork to talk more, and then chopping everything again and raising up her full fork and putting it down to say something else. Her movements were swift and jerking.

In her bedroom after dinner I watched her scooping food out of the pockets of her blazer, dropping it into the guttering. In a way she'd never done when I tailed her to netball practice or balanced on the edge of the sofa while she and her friends watched films, she included me in this: her starving.


The weekend was easy. We made our own lunches, ate in front of a film on Saturday night, were expected to help ourselves to the chocolate cake, the bananas in the fruit bowl, the freshly squeezed orange juice. She was mutely triumphant whenever I saw her, watching me as I ate two of everything and then rounding her shoulders in an exaggerated gag.

But then, Sunday. Our grandmother. Clipping in on high heels, balancing a mountain of almond meringue in one hand, a pot of cream in the other. The segments of roast came out of the oven one by one. Katy sidling in to watch, holding stiffly onto the back of a chair. The chicken was trussed, brown, cracked, steaming and sliced so legs fell akimbo and the stuffing unfurled. Katy's hands were curled to mounds on the table. She was sweating across her neck, chest and forehead, her mouth open a little as she breathed. She could not keep up her patter at all while we ate, only pushed the food from one side of the plate to the other.

What's wrong with you? Grandmother said when Katy emptied her plate into the bin, refused meringue.

Nothing. Just feel a bit sick.

I opened my mouth to speak; saw Katy's black pupils contracting, her tongue furious against the roof of her mouth.

Go upstairs if you're not hungry.

Katy passed close behind the back of my chair, the bottoms of her feet slapping the tiled floor.


She did not talk to me until after school the next day. Coming up and taking my hand, telling me we'd walk back the field way. She tugged me along. At the top of the stile she hesitated, pale with sharp points of red on her cheeks, knuckles whitening, panting a little. It was over a week now. I wondered what she was running on, air or determination or anger or something or nothing or someone.

We walked along the edge of the cornfield, past the canal and the tree-shadowed dirt where the older kids came to drink; earth dug down into a fire pit at one end, the beer cans, someone's white underwear floating in the beck.

You won't tell anyone, Katy said, not turning back. She took my bag from me, held it over the shorn-back ground. I thought about the sound the combine harvesters made, working through the night. Katy shook her arms so the books and pens and hairgrips fell, scattered. I shrugged, knelt to put everything back in.

You won't tell them, she said.


* * *

By the end of the second week she was falling asleep: pillowed on her arms at dinner, curled on a bench at lunchtime, drowsed so deep you had to shake her. I dreaded waking her, seeing her eyes rolling into focus. She missed classes, made me miss them too, grabbed me in corridors so we could go and sit on the stile at the bottom of the field.

At lunch Katy's friends, mobile phones jutting from the waistbands of their skirts, cornered me in the locker room. They were tall, more limb than body.

What's her problem? one of them said. There were streaks of blue highlighter in the girl's pale hair. She hasn't answered any of my phone calls.

She thinks she's better than us, said another, leaning on a locker, jigging her skirt up a notch higher at the waist.

Well. She's coming to Harris Ford's party, I presume, said the first, folding her arms across her ribcage.

I don't know.

They looked at me as if they didn't believe a word.

I dawdled at the end of school, not wanting to pass on their messages or see her falter at the head of the stile, and when I got home she was there already – stood in the middle of the kitchen while Mum moved round and round her, leaning in now and then to shift a strap or move a strand of hair. How could she not see it? The skin on Katy's arms was bleached of colour; her mouth was a stretched line.

Mum lent me her blusher, Katy said, and I could see it, triangular arches on her cheeks. On her neck, the line of foundation was firm. The lids of her eyes darkened with eyeliner, smudging at the corners.


Katy sat in the front of the car and talked and talked. I could see Mum's head nodding up and down. We pulled up outside the house.

I don't want to, I said. Katy and Mum turned round and looked at me and Mum said: what do you mean? And Katy said: nothing.

When we got out Mum leant down and put her face close to mine, pushing the end of her chin and mouth against my cheek, leaving a smear of lip salve.

You OK, Suze? Something wrong?

I looked at Katy. She was on the grass leading up to the house. There was music coming from the open windows and she was dancing.

I looked at Mum and shook my head. Waved at the sound of the car moving away across the loose gravel.

When I went inside I tried to ignore Katy. My friends were there and we sat and watched everyone else. Some of the girls were draping themselves over chairs, lounging with intent. We knew what they were doing: arranging their bodies so their legs were at the best angle, so their faces offered the most flattering side. We would do it too if we had the courage. There were boys at the party, some of whom were at the sixth form college and had car keys and hair on their chins. Mostly the girls didn't talk to them, only turned in their direction as if they were magnets.

In the corner of the room Harris's older brother was holding sway with a beer in one hand and a roll-up cigarette in the other and Katy sat on the arm of his chair. Harris's brother hadn't been to university; worked the mechanics his father owned, had tan lines cut around the edges of his clothes and didn't say much of anything.

I could feel my friends ignoring Katy for my sake and I ignored her too but eventually there was nowhere to look. And eventually she was on his lap.

His hand's up her top, someone said. I didn't need them to tell me.

Later when Katy took Harris's brother into the bedroom and closed the door behind them I knew the whole room was timing their absence. Some people shifted closer, laughing and drinking, trying to hear. My friends and I played fuck, marry, kill; theoretical five minutes in heaven, imaginary spin the bottle. There was a story people always told about a girl who used to go to our school and, they said: lost her virginity to a bike. We marked the outfits round the room out of ten, judged the older boys with what we considered harsh critical notes, talked about our crushes.

Look, one of them said.

Harris's brother opened the door to the bedroom and came forward. He was carrying something in his arms, a blanket or length of piping. Except when he put it down next to me, the head on my lap, it was Katy.

Where are her clothes? There was something in his face I wanted to draw out and strangle. He held onto her hand and then dropped it.

Where are her clothes? I said. I started to take my jumper off, struggling with the arms. A lot of the girls in the room were laughing but I could see one picking up a coat from a bundle and hurrying over.

I looked down at her. Her spine was now a great, solid ridge, rising from the mottled skin of her back; the webbing between her fingers had grown almost past the knuckles and was thickening. Her face had changed too, her nose flattening out, nostrils thinning to lines.


I woke, in the night, on the pull-out hospital bed. Mum was next to me; Dad was asleep on the chair. Katy put her hand around the drip in her arm, tugged it free. We walked along the corridors. With each step Katy made a panting sound. In the bathroom she stood under the shower with her eyes open, her mouth parted to catch the cold water, lip it up. She was, she said, dry as a bone. She stood there until a nurse found us; me curled beneath the sink, watching her.

You'll kill yourself, the doctor said. Katy blew bubbles from the side of her mouth.

In the day they force-fed her. At night we walked along the looping corridors, circling and circling. In the bathroom I listened to the sound of her, coming out red knuckled to stand under the shower, drinking gallons of water so her stomach swelled, mountain-like, out of her ribs.


Her skin was dry like paper, the hair on her head falling out in handfuls. She couldn't walk any more, only hauled herself across the floor, belly down. She could not hear when anybody spoke to her: watched mouths, shook her head. When Mum and Dad weren't there I held up signs for her to read, moving closer and closer until they were a hand's width from her face, and still she squinted, shook her head. Why won't you eat something? I wrote, and she held the paper to her nose, tried to eye each letter at a time, sucked her thick bottom lip into her mouth and then let it go with a pop.


We were in the hospital a week. I sat in the corner of Katy's room and watched how everybody tried not to see what was happening. Though it was clear. It was clearer than ever. Her hands were not fingered now, only heavy unwieldy paddles she used – angrier every day – to knock over trays of food, dislodge her IV.

They kept giving her oxygen. I wanted to tell them it wouldn't work, it was no good. She was drowning in air. At night I brought her bowls of water, lowered her face in, watched the bubbles, saw how she came up just about smiling.

Nights. She rolled out of bed, flopped her way down the corridor on her belly, searching for something. I followed her at a distance. They took to tying her to the bed, straps around her middle, her forehead, her ankles. She ignored our parents, looked blindly for me. I knew what she was asking.

They knew there was nothing they could do for her. We took her home. A nurse would come every day to feed and clean her.


Katy locked herself in the bathroom and would not come out. Sitting on the floor by the door I heard the sound of her in the bath, the water sloshing out, the slap of flesh on plastic, the sound of the shampoo and conditioner bottles falling to the floor. When Mum broke down the door we stood and looked at her but only I would stay, sat on the floor, patting messages through the surface of the water, pushing her under so she could breathe.

The ambulance is on its way, Mum shouted up the stairs. Katy rolled her head to look at me, moving her long body in the water. I wet a towel, lifted her free, carried her out through the back garden, under the hedge and into the field. Her face next to mine, the thrash of her excited stomach against my side, the flapping of gills shuttering on the side of her neck.

I carried her as far as the school field. Paused at the stile to rest. The canal ran deep there, was mired over with weeds and nettles. I lay her on the ground, jerked her free from the towel, pushed her sideways into the water. She did not roll her white belly to message me goodbye or send a final ripple.

Only ducked deep and was gone.

CHAPTER 2

BLOOD RITES


When we were younger we learnt men the way other people learnt languages or the violin. We did not care for their words, their mouths moving on the television, the sound of them out of radios, the echo chamber of them from telephones and computers. We did not care for their thoughts; they could think on philosophy and literature and science if they wanted, they could grow opinions inside them if they wanted. We did not care for their creed or religion or type; for the choices they made and the ones they missed. We cared only for what they wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds.


We left Paris one morning knowing we would never go back. English was the language of breaking and bending and it would suit our mouths better. None of us would ever fall in love in English. We would be safe from that.

Moving did not suit us; we were out of sync, out of time with ourselves. We rented a big, wrecked house out by the canal. Tampons swelled the drainage system; our palms were crisscrossed with promise scars barely healed before the next one. We promised we would never let it happen again. What had happened in Paris. None of us would let our food ruin our lives. The old walls of the house grew stained, dark swells of rustish wash across the sagging ceilings.

Greta came back most nights mournful; she'd been hunting roadkill. Arabella grew purposeful with unease, raided the butchers and spent the long days cooking up a storm of meat pies, of roasted birds inside birds and thick, heavy, unidentified stews. I was swept along by their disorientation, found myself lying in wait for the large, unafraid mice that populated the kitchen, found myself obsessed with daytime television, endless hours watching old quiz shows or the shopping channel.

We settled. Eventually. Greta, dancing the way she used to, bare feet tapping along the corridors, said it was a stupendous house, a house that knew how to feel. I laid down mouse traps and culled whole colonies in a day. We ate the leftovers of Arabella's cooking obsession in one long, sluggish evening and then emptied everything in the fridge into the bin. There was nothing in there we needed more than what we would have.

Arabella invested in a pair of wellington boots, put on one of the mouldy raincoats we'd found in a cupboard and went out on a reconnaissance mission. Came back talking, without pause, on seed-planting schedules and wind direction. She'd been, she said, in the local pub and she'd met men there who she thought would taste like the earth, like potatoes buried until they were done, like roots and tree bark. English men never really said what they were thinking: all that pressure inside, fermenting. We could imagine it easily enough.

She held out her hand, told us to taste it, told us she'd been able to smell their salt-of-the-earth insides across the barren winter fields. We sucked until we could: fen dirt heavy enough to grow new life in it.

Later Arabella broke into seriousness: we would have to be careful, pick carefully. We'd have to share. She changed the Bob Dylan record with her long white toes.

We shaved all the hair off our legs and underarms, plucked until we were smooth, coating the white bathtub in drag lines of dark; moisturised until we shone white and slick through the dim; painted crimson 'yes' markers on our mouths.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Fen by Daisy Johnson. Copyright © 2016 Daisy Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

I,
Starver,
Blood Rites,
A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle,
How to Lose It,
How to Fuck a Man you Don't Know,
Language,
The Superstition of Albatross,
A Heavy Devotion,
The Scattering: a story in three parts,
II,
Birthing Stones,
The Cull,
The Lighthouse Keeper,

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