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South Texas doesn’t look at all like most people expect, especially along the eastern coast. There are beaches, for one thing; long, thin strips of brown the colour of birdseed, decorated with the occasional lost herd of white, hump-backed Brahmin cattle and a few part-decayed dolphin corpses. Beyond the sludgy gulf of Mexico and the booted, hatted sunbathers, the beach fades into a thick tangle of live-oak and kudzu. The branches are drenched in gray hanks of Spanish moss, like witch-hair, and the shadows are full of cougars and enormous, tiger-striped mosquitoes that like to hide in your sweaty creases. This is where the people live. They carve out grass-lined enclaves and build the biggest houses that they can for the money they have. Some of the houses have dirt floors, but the outsides are kept well-painted and the cars in the driveway tend to be both large and expensive. They have few guests, so nobody can tell.
The streets are all charmingly named; Arthurian and themes are prominent. So are the characters from the stories of Robin Hood. There are no liquor stores, few grocery chains, and a plethora of fast-food restaurants and churches. At night, if you listen, you can hear the sound of stills exploding – occasionally punctuated by torrents of gunfire. This town has few professionals, and all but one share the same street.
Dr Marten, the retired dentist, lives with his wife in the mansion he built on the bone-edge of town.
The house that Dr Marten built (using the money his wife inherited) is bigger than most Walmart stores – even the huge superstore in San Antonio looks puny beside it. The style it apes is high Victorian; it aches for the legitimate trappings of bloodline and class, even though the foundations were laid in 1967. Since it was built so far into the wrong century, it more closely resembles the troubled nightmare of movie Victorianism than an image of the thing itself. The turrets stand higher, the paint is darker, the windows are more oppressively small than any set into a wall by Charles Barry. Dr Marten’s wife, Rosalie, protested when she first saw the plans but she was very young and had been well brought-up. She refrained from telling her hard-working young husband that she would never crack the class system this way and, in fact, by doing this thing he was losing some of the brittle ground that he’d won by marrying up.
After a few years, she realized that Boyd never intended to impress her family; the house was a message to the town.
The thought struck her, suddenly, while they were enjoying their usual leisurely Sunday after-church brunch. It flashed into her brain while that-decade’s Mexican maid forked crustless squares of toast onto her plate. Looking across the long, mahogany table at her short, fat husband (bent bull-like over a plate heaped high with jalapeño-dusted scrambled eggs) she shivered, glad that she’d heeded her upbringing and buttoned up.
Boyd’s skin was thin, but his fists were hard. She’s seen such men before, touring the family oil-fields with her father, but all of them were grime-smeared workers with a grudge. They felt, her father said, smiling, like the American dream had failed them. ‘There they are, Rosy. White, with enough brains to read a meter, and they’re still roughnecks with fat wives and two nickels touching in their pockets.’ He pressed his soft, fatty fingers into her shoulder, ‘All their lives they were told that if they didn’t progress, if they made no money, the trouble was that they weren’t working hard enough. Their neighbours agree that laborers are failures. They think it about themselves. So they’re wound so tight they’ll explode at anyone even slightly below them. Those fat wives again. Their filthy children.’
Rosalie swallowed, ‘So why do they tell us that in school, if it’s so hurtful to them?’
Her father smiled, his new gold bridgework (Boyd’s craft) glinting in the midday sun, ‘Because it benefits us.’
Now, Rosalie knew, she was like those wives herself. Unconsciously, she touched the healed bone beneath her left eye and remembered the fight they’d had about the lions.
It was just after Dr Marten retired. He was thirty-five years old and Rosalie’s father had, the week before, been buried. Rosie’s money flowed into his bank account (her name was on it. She could take what she wanted, so long as she brought the teller a note that he’d signed) and she no longer had to spend whole evenings listening to him gripe about the extravagant cost of keeping up their house.
Boyd was happy for a week, then he got bored with himself, puttering around the mainly-empty hallways. They hadn’t bought much furniture, yet. They could only afford the bare essentials. Polishing his guns, he stalked through the hallways, sniffing around, until one day he came across an article about big game hunters in an ancient copy of The National Geographic that he found open on the arm of his TV-watching chair.
That night, he took her in the way that had (lately) been reserved for the maids and said that he was considering starting a kind of importing business, set up specifically for just one customer. He laid it all out as she lay there, worn-out, slightly bruised, and sweating through their brand new sheets. He knew people everywhere, in Mexico, in Nairobi, where the import laws were lax. He’d pay for the cats, pay for their flights, for some one to feed and water them over the course of the journey, then pay truckers to drive them up from Mexico City.
The cost would be extravagant, of course, but they could afford it. And just think of the way the mayor would look at him (Him! A scholarship student! The guy who earned his keep at college by cleaning out the mayor’s blocked toilet) the next time he came over for a hunting party and saw those magnificent lions stalking through the baited cattle-fields at the edge of the property! Imagine the look on the old man’s face when he saw that Boyd intended to shoot them himself!
Rosie propped herself up on one elbow and peered at him across the coverlet. She said, ‘Why not just fly out there yourself and shoot them on the veldt?’
Boyd’s small blue eyes grew wide and glassy, his face flooded with so much blood that his cheeks turned brick red, ‘Because they have to see it Rosie. They have to see me do it. Otherwise, they’ll whisper and laugh at me behind their hands.’ He flopped back onto the pillows, murmuring, ‘I know them.’
That’s when Rosie made her mistake. She whispered, just loudly enough to carry over the hum of their ceiling fan, ‘You shouldn’t care what they think, Boyd. You’re married to me. You’re above them.’
That set him off.
Rosalie spent the next few days drifting in and out of consciousness, surfacing out of a great sea of pain then sinking back beneath the waves. She never contradicted him again.
Now, the stuffed skins of five dark-maned lions line the entrance-way. Their bullet-holes were carefully patched, their teeth and claws perfectly preserved and terribly polished. People didn’t talk to Boyd as much, in church, but they lowered their eyes when he passed in a show of deep respect. Or at least they did, for a while. Until the years passed and the old mayor was voted out.
Last week, at a covered-dish dinner (Rosalie had the maid prepare a plate of gently-spiced tamales – peasant food is very in right now) she stood by her husband, her hand stashed, securely, in the crook of his arm, and watched the new mayor smile, slightly, as Boyd was telling him what ought to be done with tax laws. Rosalie watched Boyd’s white eyebrows bunch as he traced the smile from the mayor to the new, young minister. She felt her heart flutter, furiously, in her thin-boned chest.
On the ride home, sinking into the Rolls padded leather seats, she stared out the windshield as her husband drove (hardly seeing the sharp tips of the bull horns mounted into the front of the long, black hood) and listened to Boyd rant about the nerve of that mayor and upstart young minister. ‘Why, I know for a fact’ he said, gripping the wheel with a pair of white knuckles, ‘that boy’s daddy was trash. He worked for your old man, out on the rig. Now that he’s gone to school he expects the whole town to be handed to him. That Minister’s the same. Trumped up trash from Kentucky. Bet his momma birthed him on the floor of a tarpaper shack.’
Rosalie flinched. She tried to make herself fade into the upholstery.
Over the next few days, she watched the pressure mount behind her husband’s blood-clouded face. She watched him slap the maids around, kick over tables, and pace threadbare trails into her grandmother’s silk carpet. On Thursday, while they were eating, Boyd dropped his fork onto a plate (the tines took a chip out of the china) looked up at her, and said, ‘Rosie, I think it’s just about time for another hunt.’
He stared levelly at her. Watching the colour drain from her cheeks he smiled and said, ‘ It will be harder, this time, and more expensive. The PC brigade shits on everyone. But I can manage it.’
Rosalie felt the fork trembling in her tingling hand.
‘I’ll invite them on Sunday. You’ll help me with the phone calls. The paperwork.’
And that’s when Rosie made her decision.
All the lions that Boyd imported were male, save for one, but Rosalie remembered from school that in prides the females did all of the hunting. Humans love to impose their hierarchies. The skin of that single lioness was considered unworthy of mounting. It had been made into a carpet (with the head still attached) and then rolled up and shoved into a trunk in the attic, but Rosalie went up there often to look at her family photograph albums and read her books (Boyd didn’t like to watch her reading. He didn’t like her going where he couldn’t track her) so she knew where it was.
That night, Boyd complained about the taste of something bitter in his cognac, but he drank it down anyway, the same way that he always did. As soon as he fell asleep, open-mouthed, leaning against the leather back of his batwing TV chair, Rosie forced her popping knees up three flights of stairs.
The trip was harder, on the way down. The lioness skin weighed about seventy pounds. Mainly, she dragged it furside up across the floor. The skull clacked behind her whenever it hit a snag, or the curved leg of a table. It slid pretty well against the carpet.
The worst part of the journey was the five minutes she spent hauling it through the living room. Boyd was deeply drugged and, unusually for him, he was snoring, but her heart pounded at the thought of stumbling and waking him.
She needn’t have worried.
Standing beside the right arm of his chair, Rosalie hauled the lion skin up across his chest, head first, like a sharp-toothed blanket. When the glass-eyed head dangled over the back of the chair, Rosalie climbed on top of her hidden husband, placed a knee on either side of his fat stomach, and felt around beneath the fur for the shape of his face. Finding the nose and his two narrow lips, she clamped them closed. She held on, hard, even as the body thrashed.
When Rosalie was finished, she wiped a shower of shining, dun-coloured hairs off of her skirt and went into the kitchen. For the first time in years she made herself a pot of coffee and stared out her window while she sipped it. It seemed to her that, full dark or not, she could hear the birds. They were singing loud, and very strong.
Bethany W Pope
Bethany W Pope is an LBA winning author, and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards, the Cinnamon Press Novel competition, and the Ink, Sweat and Tears poetry commission. She placed third in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition, second in this year’s Bristol Poetry Prize, long-listed for the Bare Fiction short-story contest, short-listed for The Arianne’s Thread Poetry Contest and she was highly commended in this year’s Poetry London Competition. Bethany was recently nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns, (Oneiros Books, 2013), and The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). Her first novel, Masque, shall be published by Seren in 2016.