“The Intruder” by Rebecca Burns
The bird had neared the edges of its strength and, as Ingrid approached, it lay still on the wet sand, bill shaking slightly. The guillemot’s underbelly was visible, white against black. Ingrid paused. These could be chequered birds; she had been bitten before, in the early days, by a guillemot playing dead in its snare. She poked with her sandal, nudging the soft flesh. There was no movement and, as Ingrid’s shadow fell across it, the guillemot blinked once and died.
Ingrid sighed. A quick but bloody end avoided. Next to gutting, she detested the sharp flick of a penknife separating a bird from life. Plucking she did not mind. There was something satisfying in grabbing handfuls of soft feathers and exposing the creamy plump flesh beneath. She always felt surprised at the paleness of a bird’s skin, such light beneath dark.
She knelt down and undid the wire from the guillemot’s webbed foot. She’d set the trap last night, having nursed a taste for roasted bird all day. Hunger took her like that. She was not one for a balanced diet—cravings were given into and sustained, until boredom replaced desire. She lurched from taste to taste, leaving one craving behind before plunging headfirst into the next. Last week she had longed for mackerel, and landed several fish from the rocks at the end of her beach. There had even been enough to take to the smokehouse four miles away. Angus was only too pleased to see her and hung up her fish next to the fleshy amber slabs destined for the island shop.
The guillemot would feed this week’s hunger. Ingrid slung the warm bird over her shoulder, feeling its head bounce comfortably against her back, and set off for her cottage a few hundred yards away. The weather was hot for this time of year, not yet May, and she regretted the thick sweater. Her cottage would be cool though, her single roomed home facing the sea. She hissed through her teeth, the nearest she allowed herself to a hum, and scanned the rocks behind the sandy shelterbelt.
Then she saw him. Tall and long against a blue sky, breaking up the smooth horizon. He stood rigidly, hands up to his forehead as he stared into the sun. He was there again.
The hiss died in her throat, and Ingrid nearly stopped. But she forced herself to walk on. She would not let him guess she had seen him, and that he unsettled her. Yesterday, when he first appeared, she thought he was a tourist, come to explore. She had spent all day in her cottage, door firmly shut, in case he blundered down onto her beach with his banal questions and entreaties for postcard-sized bits of information. No, she was not a sea-bird expert. No, she had not lived here all her life, she wasn’t even a native. No, he wasn’t welcome. But, of course, Ingrid would have said none of those things, so kept inside the cottage.
He definitely wasn’t a tourist. Tourists, in Ingrid’s limited experience, did not act like he did, standing so still. In the estate shop they fingered the local jams and jars of potted herring, buying armfuls of over-priced tartan trinkets to take home on the plane. They tended to drive everywhere rather than walk. Those who thought themselves children of nature hurried so noisily up to the cormorants that the graceless birds lumbered out of the way with barely a squawk.
This rock-like man was something else, if he was not a tourist. Ingrid knew all the islanders and he was not one of them. He was off the chart and was therefore… unpredictable. Anxiety spread like spilt tea in her stomach and Ingrid lengthened her stride. By the time she reached her cottage door, her torso could hardly keep up with her legs. The guillemot thudded wildly against her shoulder blades and was slung irreverently on the wooden table as she arrived home. She closed the door with a slam, the noise unwelcome and lapping out indignantly towards the sea.
She paused by the table, trying to remember how long it had been since she was last disturbed. No one came to check on the cottage. The laird was happy for her rent to be deposited into his account every month, and Ingrid’s bank took care of that. There weren’t enough birds on her beach to interest the naturists, and the cottage wasn’t en route to a broch or one of the island’s circles of standing stones. Of course, those in the village eight miles away or working on the laird’s estate had been intrigued when she had first arrived but recognised her unarticulated desire for privacy. The edges of the islanders’ sympathy and Ingrid’s silent plea for privacy pooled together comfortably, like the clear streams running down to the loch behind the beach, from which she drew her water.
The shadow on the shelterbelt was not following the rules. Maybe he doesn’t know the rules, Ingrid thought, as she stood to the side of the cottage’s one small window, and looked out at him. She crossed her arms. Well, he could stay there, for all she cared. If he came down to speak to her, he’d be disappointed. She wouldn’t even answer the door.
But these sort of determined thoughts were unusual and unsettled her. They felt alien and strange in her mind, like meeting a once-loved cousin after several decades. She knew she ought to embrace such firmness and resolution, and that safety lay that way, but she felt nervous.
It was easier to pretend the man wasn’t there. Ingrid reached for the curtains and drew them shut, blocking the man out. She sat down, eyeing the guillemot. She popped her lips, welcoming the distraction.
The sun was high by the time she had finished, and a pile of black and white feathers lay at her feet. The bird was ready for the oven, and a bucket of entrails stood by the door. She had become quite adept over the years in scooping out the insides and keeping the flesh. Ingrid moved to the sink to wash her hands. She would have to go out again.
She gripped the handle of the bucket and, pausing slightly, swung open her front door. She fixed her eye on the line of the sea and marched, head down, purposeful. She didn’t look behind her, back towards the dunes. Instead she walked into the cold surf, right up to her knees, barely conscious of her socks and sandals. She tipped out the bucket, watching the bloodied mass flop into the water, watching it being swallowed up and becoming one with the brine again. The guillemot came to her from the sea, and now she was giving it back. Well, the organs anyway, the most essential bits. She liked the even symmetry of the relationship.
As the heart and lungs floated away, Ingrid turned around. She scanned the land behind her cottage, but saw no one. The man had gone.
But Ingrid was not flooded with relief. Instead, she felt she had moved into a new space, a fragile bubble of reprieve. The beach was no longer an inviolate domain; it could be plundered and disturbed. She felt tears only a blink away and this made her furious. She could not remember the last time she had cried. So she dumped the bucket in the sea, washing out the last particles of blood, and stamped back to the cottage.
The persistent lull of the surf irritated rather than soothed that night, rolling out a rhythm of anxiety. Ingrid sat up in her narrow bed. The clock said midnight; she supposed that must be right, though she had forgotten to wind it up from time to time. It was not unknown for her to go days without realising the little traveling clock had stopped, and for her to be governed only by the emptiness of her stomach or her tired bones.
When she first moved onto the beach, fifteen years ago, Ingrid liked to sit out on the sand as darkness fell and pick out the birds swooping over the sea. They were little balls of animation, lighting up the pale blue of her days. They were the only glinting things she could bear—she had given up making jewelry soon after moving into the cottage, money never being an issue—but soon even watching birds became hard. She wanted to wipe them away, to clean the air of them. Like the seaweed. It irritated her with its lines of green spit, so she started gathering it. She heaped it in piles at the end of the beach, far away from the cottage. It took a month before she accepted what a futile task it was, but the sweat and stretch of her muscles whilst rolling the seaweed together was welcome. Eventually though, the cottage drew Ingrid in, holding her in the folds of the walls. She stopped sitting on the beach with the birds for company. Instead, she lay in bed, smoothing her hand across the white plaster in an echo of the surf.
Tonight, after seeing the man, Ingrid’s legs were restless. The man was troublesome; he was not a bird or a piece of flotsam, ready to be flapped away or scooped up. Ingrid stretched out her calves, pushing the bedclothes back. An idea took form, like rainwater in a fissure. She swung herself round.
She slipped on her sandals and pulled a coat over her nightgown. Stars threw down pale light, but Ingrid felt her way easily along the sand. She headed towards the rocks, using them to mark the edge of the beach, where she used to dump the seaweed.
Her back sang and her arms felt on fire by the time she had finished. She stood back, rocking on her heels and squinted over her efforts. She had made a line, a stone line running from the grassy shelterbelt to the sea. Her cottage was behind it, caught between the rocks set in nudging distance from each other, and the bank at the other end. Ingrid wiped her hands, pleased. These ancient chunks given up by the island would speak where she could not.
She walked back to the cottage, and sleep came easily.
But the following day, the man was not on the shelterbelt behind the beach. Instead he stood with his boots scuffing Ingrid’s line. She knew he was there before she saw him; it wasn’t his shadow falling across the window, or the sound of his feet on the sand. But, as she heated coffee on the stove, she felt him. And as she did, muscles in her upper arms began to tingle. Ropey tautness entered her body, pinning Ingrid within her skin. She felt pared, as though only her skeleton remained and all softness, all the warmth the life on this island had given her had bleached away. And so it was that Ingrid knew who the man was.
She clutched her coffee cup as she opened the door and walked outside, even though the porcelain burned her fingers. She took the scalding into her flesh gratefully.
He was older—of course he was—and something had happened to one side of his face. A stroke, maybe. Ingrid paused at her side of the rock line and stared at him. She would not have done that once, not so openly, but shock was behind it. She thought she would never see him again. And here he was, clothes hanging off him, whippet-thin, hair thin and weak. Ingrid brought her coffee mug to her lips, to cover her shaking mouth.
He went first. “They tell me at the shop that you don’t speak.”
His first words to her in fifteen years, and immediately Ingrid felt inadequate, at fault. She had failed; her decision to forgo language was not a way to heal, but was a blunder, a mistake, a slight against him. He had a way of unpeeling her.
But silence was, as Ingrid had learned over the years, a weapon. She lowered her mug and glared.
“To think we couldn’t shut you up as a child. How long?”
How long what? Ingrid raised an eyebrow, a skill she never failed to take pleasure in. How long did it take to stop dreaming about him? Nine years. How long did it take to gather the courage to escape and find this place? Three years, if you count from the moment the idea crept unbidden into her mind. She hid her maps and books, and her money, so he had no idea of her plans. How long did she hope he would leave her in peace and never come looking? Forever.
But, of course, he meant how long she had stayed silent. The answer to that was fourteen years. She had talked occasionally to Angus at the smokehouse, that first year of renting the cottage. But then he asked her for something she could not give. Her retreat into muteness puzzled him at first, and then hurt him. But now he understood and communicated with her in different ways; the stay of his hand on her shoulder when she walked into the hut, the way he brushed hair from her eyes.
“It’s not important,” the man said and shifted. Ingrid noticed his deliberate movements. He had lost none of his cat-like grace. She gripped her coffee mug tightly.
“So you waited until you’d got the money from that big contract—Prices of London, was it? And then took off?” The man stroked his chin. “No word, nothing, for fifteen years. You left your studio behind, all your tools.”
Ingrid breathed in, never taking her eyes from his face.
“Prices say you’ve not made a new piece in fifteen years. They have a couple of brooches left that they have on display. Twenty-thousand each. How much does this place cost?” He nodded towards her cottage and Ingrid moved, instinctively, to block his view.
He laughed. “Ingrid. I haven’t confiscated anything of yours since taking away your dolls house. You know that, of course.”
Ingrid did. She remembered how he moved on to other forms of discipline.
“I’m not angry, you know.” He put his hands in his pockets. Ingrid watched as his knuckles flexed. “Not about you disappearing like that, or cutting me out. Not even after you stopped sending me my share—you owed it to me, Ingrid. I paid your tuition and set you up in your studio, if you remember.” He sighed and looked out at the sea. “It took a change of bank-manager before I found out where you were. The old one wouldn’t sell me the information. This new one is young and… malleable.”
And then Ingrid saw it coming. The pause before a carefully chosen word. She recognised the signs. He had always taken a slight break between words and deeds. As a child she had hoped he would think more, talk himself out of his temper, but he never did. So, knowing what was about to happen, Ingrid reacted without thinking; she swung the coffee mug in an arc and smashed it into her father’s face.
A gasp and he fell to his knees. A scarlet ribbon slid down the side of his face, the side that betrayed his stroke, and he brought his hands up. He swayed. Blood dropped onto the sand, isolated glints of ruby red that were swallowed quickly. Ingrid watched, fascinated.
“Ingrid… please. I’ve come to talk, only talk.” Her father held out his hand, eyes closed. He looked as though he were feeling his way around a dark room.
Ingrid held the cup high again, but paused. A rattle of fear shot through her body. What had she done? He would kill her. Why didn’t she let him say his peace and then leave?
Except she knew he had not come to have a conversation and behave like a civilised person. Still, she brought the mug, now empty, to her side.
Her father leaned over heavily and sat on the beach. His breath came quickly, and Ingrid was reminded of a guillemot, caught a few weeks ago. It had thrashed around in the snare and by the time Ingrid found it, the bird had worked itself into a frenzy. She hadn’t been able to get near its neck, so had used a rock instead.
“Of course you don’t trust me.” Her father swallowed. “But what can I do now? I’m old. Your mother finally left me. You’re all I’ve got. I just wanted to see you.”
His eyes were wild and he looked exhausted. White bristle covered his skin, though not completely; pink flesh wobbled beneath. Ingrid shook her head. So Mum finally plucked up the courage as well? Better late than never. Did she leave with her bones intact, or did he give her a helping shove on her way?
“Ingrid. This silence of yours is pointless. You have to speak to me eventually.” Her father looked properly into Ingrid’s face. “Do you think you can cut me off so easily? I found you.”
Yes he had found her. Like she knew he would, though it had been many years since she had let that particular thought take form. Her father’s reappearance affirmed that their separation was not as complete as she’d hoped; instead it was stringy, layered, not clean and permanent. Here he was, wheezing on her beach, talking his way out of danger.
That was why she didn’t talk. Speech was so false and ambiguous. Her father could say the softest things whilst beating her body; he did this out of love, she would appreciate his effort when she was older. Ingrid remembered the exhaustion of trying to combat him, trying to open a dialogue and persuade him to leave the strap where it was.
“Ingrid…” his voice was low, almost a hiss. “Sit down beside me, we need to… talk.”
That pause again, and Ingrid was snapped out of her reverie. He was so insidious; she hadn’t been aware of the lull that clouded her mind and the silent way her father was getting to his feet. The break in his speech was a warning and an opportunity.
She reached down and, in one smooth movement, picked up a rock from the border she created and brought it down on the crown of her father’s head.
He fell easily. It surprised her how quickly his body crumpled. There was a faint “oh” of surprise and a bubble of air burst from his lips. He fell onto his side and his hands twitched.
Ingrid moved forward, stepping over the border. She almost tripped over her father’s shoelaces, tangled in a mass. One eye was open as the man lay on the sand. It twitched and roamed rapidly.
There was barely any flesh on his bones. Before he had been thick and strong. His arms were once bigger than her legs. Ingrid crouched down. His arms were now stick-like and brittle. She held her father’s wrist, feeling a faint pulse.
Then she stood and looked out at the water. A guillemot circled low over the water, stretching out slim wings and landing gracefully. Ingrid smiled, remembering the roasted bird left on her counter. And then she ducked down again, holding out her penknife.
The blood was easy to scuff away and roll into the sand. Harder was the heave and drag, pulling the body towards the rocks at the end of the beach. She worked quickly, desperate to take her hands from her father, and conscious that someone might—just might—wander by on the shelterbelt. She reached the rocks and pushed her father up against them. Then she hurried back to the surf, searching for seaweed.
Half an hour later, all she could see was a green mound. The seaweed was piled high, already pungent in the morning sun. Ingrid stood back, considering. She would have to pile it up every day, to keep the body hidden.
She turned back towards the cottage. Her heart felt so light she thought she could open her arms and soar alongside the guillemots and cormorants. She would have to pile the seaweed every day for years. She would be tied to this beach for an eternity.
Rebecca Burns is a married mum of two who has no time. She writes at night when her kids are in bed, and when she should be tidying the house or paying attention to her husband. Around 20 of her short stories have been published in online and print journals, including in The London Magazine, Menda City Review, Random Acts of Writing, Per Contra, Controlled Burn, Bartleby Snopes, and Foundling Review. Visit her website at www.rebecca-burns.co.uk.
To read Rebecca Burns’s comments on Alison Grifa Ismaili’s “Shape-shifters,” click here.
Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
“The Intruder” is a perfect example of effective storytelling through lyrical prose, imagery and tone. Despite the peaceful and tranquil environment we are immersed in, we understand immediately the protagonist’s struggles, that she’s hiding from something, not just the world, that something is desperately wrong, that something went terribly wrong in her previous life. She speaks not a word, but we feel her profound and unutterable suffering.
Comments on this story by Max Detrano, author of “A Hunk of Meat”
In the opening paragraphs of “The Intruder,” we meet Ingrid on the beach in front of her secluded cottage. She has trapped a seabird, a guillemot. The bird is still alive but not for long. Ingrid doesn’t like the killing, or the gutting; she enjoys the plucking, and returning the bird’s entrails to the sea.
Traps are a major theme in “The Intruder.” Ingrid lives in self-imposed isolation, and self-imposed muteness. There is a hint of penance, as well as fear. “The Intruder” is a story about one woman who attempts to escape from her past, and the traps that lay in wait as she tries.
The reader can’t help but wonder if Ingrid might be a little crazy. Yet the mood, the tone, and the choice of words build quietly to inform us that Ingrid’s condition is for a reason. And then, her solitude is interrupted by a stranger on the beach—an intruder—someone from her past. This Ingrid cannot allow.
Rebecca Burns displays a remarkable skill set in creating the setting of Ingrid’s cottage and the beautiful (and horrible) beach in front of it. Since it is all told from Ingrid’s point of view, we are never sure if the opinions we are hearing can be trusted, but the images are grounded in reality; we are walking in this woman’s shoes. A surefooted and reliable author is taking us on a trip.
Filed under: "Best of" 2011, Uncategorized | 5 Comments