John coiled the rope thirteen times around itself to form the hangknot. The ridges of the knot felt strong, almost muscular, in his hands. John knew his knots. Working on farms will make you an expert in practically anything, or anything practical. He slid the noose open and held it at arm’s length, looked at it carefully: it’ll serve.
He set the noose aside, went to the window. The day was almost over, his tasks complete. The sun slanted across the fields, the bands of light arrayed in almost perceptible lines. Sometimes John thought that if he squinted hard enough he would be able to separate the individual particles of light from each other, see reality as a collection of molecules rather than a unified and seamless existence. He blinked, relaxed his gaze, refocussed. The dislocated image reconnected, assumed its normal appearance. The pastures outside the cottage were their regular dormant brown, burnt off by the winter frost, waiting for the start of spring. The road than ran beneath the bottom pasture and residence was empty of traffic. A black strip that ran through a curve and over the rise. He took in the scene, made golden by the last of the light, made a last pass to see whether there was any detail that was unusual, undone. He paused, held his breath, let the pressure increase and then released it. Then John spoke: ‘As always, I’m done. Done and alone’.
John had prepared for this moment. He would never let the property to go untended, never allow the animals and the land to go neglected. He had pressed send on a series of emails, but delayed their delivery until the next morning. What would follow from there would allow for a transition.
John blanked his mind, compressed his emotions. He set the chair in the middle of the room, stood on it, initiated the process he had rehearsed in his mind many times. He hung the noose from the beam above, tested the knot with the strength of his arm. He shut his eyes and saw himself dividing into smaller pieces, atomic particles and molecules, becoming his essential self, disconnected and without bond. He clinched the rope around his neck, and as he did so the words from Woody Guthrie’s old tune slipped unbidden into his mind: tell me, will that hangknot slip? No, it will slip around your neck, but it won’t slip back again.
And then he thought: If I am to be alone, then I will at least be my essential self. He reached within for an emotion, something that might make a connection, and found only an empty greyness. Then there was a moment of free fall, then nothing.
John awoke on the floor. It took him some time to focus his eyes. He could see a fine film of dust on the floorboards. A coin lost under the kitchen stove. A burnt out match next to the wood heater. The chair was upended, the rope was still coiled around his neck. He felt the air pass in and out of his lungs, sensed the moment where all the air had escaped to be replaced anew with the next inhalation. He was breathing. He reached up to his neck, released the knot. His skin was abraded, stinging, exposed. He focussed his eyes on the ceiling. The beam above him had cracked in two under his weight, the rope losing the weight necessary to asphyxiate him or break his neck, releasing his body to fall to the floor. The ceiling above the beam was cracked but intact. The beam would have to be replaced. He closed his eyes, rested his head on the floorboards, let his thoughts go. The first thing that came to mind was: I can fix that beam. He smiled, despite everything. I can fix that. His face was covered in dust. That fucking Guthrie, he only knew half the story. He gently dabbed the rope burn around his neck with his fingertips. Well if I’m here I’m here, in particles or as a whole.
John sat up, threw the noose aside, righted the chair. It was completely dark outside. He walked to the window, stared into the empty night. The stars burned cold in the winter sky. All of the footsteps he had taken on this planet; the decisions he had made to get to this point, the moments where he had chosen to do nothing and stay silent, all traced away from him, unspooling from his mind into the dark world outside. There’s no point thinking about it, I’m clearly not meant to die just yet. But he felt like a cliché. A farm manager too poor to own his own land, too isolated to meet anyone to share myself with. Too many hours to spend with no one but tasks to be done and books to be read. Too many times where I’ve had a thought and no one to talk to about it, and if I write it down no one to read it. Too much time.
His thoughts spread, dispersed. There had been a woman once, Tahlia. He thought of her again, as he often did, like an animal that traced its tracks backwards to somewhere that felt safe. Tahlia had been hitchhiking on the road that ran under the property, and had accepted his invitation for a meal. She had lived with him for a spring and summer before she left. Younger than him, but with a broader experience. She had helped him with lambing, shared his bed. He would rest his head on her belly at night, trace his fingertip across her stomach by the candle light, outlining the C-section scar above her patch of dark pubic hair. John had asked her about the scar once but she had closed off, turned her head, not spoken until the next day.
But that time was past, and he was alone. He closed his eyes to the dark. I’m not much more than a servant. I can’t even control my own death.
And then something unexpected happened.
In the distance John saw headlights. He had driven the road beneath the farm for the last eleven years, knew every twist and bend. The oncoming car was approaching far too quickly, bumping over the rough bitumen, barely touching the surface. It would never make the bend. John pressed his fingers to the glass pane of the window, saw the tips whiten under the pressure, and despite no one being able to hear, heard himself shouting ‘Brake! Brake you fucking idiot!’
Later, when John recounted the next frenzied few minutes to the attending emergency services, he realised that he had an almost forensic recollection of the details. He had seen the car leave the road at speed and fly out over the gully, landing on all four wheels before violently flipping and cartwheeling until it struck a tree. He never saw a brake light, just the head and tail lights spinning in the kaleidoscope of disintegrating car. There was no explosion, only the sound of an over revving engine and the thudding clacking clatter of metal and plastic buckling over the land.
John had started moving before the car had come to rest. He had taken his coat, phone and penknife and was half way to the wreck before the wheels spun to a stop.
Although he could smell the heat from the engine, John couldn’t detect the sharp tang of petrol. He took in the upturned car and shattered tree it rested upon. Ducking down to look through the shattered driver’s side window, John could see a dark shape crumpled in the cabin. He took a deep breath and climbed in on his belly, grasped his hands out to the person. He latched onto a forearm, and wrenched backwards, out of the car, and into the open.
The dark night initially spared him much of the detail, but when he took out his phone and shone the torch upon the shape, he saw.
A heavily pregnant woman, probably full term. Her head had been crushed by the accident, one side completely pushed in and squashed. Her death would have been instantaneous, the impact a moment between two seconds. Then John looked at her body. Her distended belly had rucked out from her clothes, the skin bluish under the white light of his phone.
Two years prior John had been mustering the sheep when he saw one of the pregnant ewes fall and break her leg. The flock had been spooked by the sound of a wild dog howling in the distance, and the ewe, about to drop her lamb, had stumbled and not been able to rise. John saw the situation for what it was. The ewe was as good as dead. He slit the ewe’s throat with his penknife and did his best to rescue the unborn lamb. It was surprisingly easy to open up the ewe and pull out the lamb, but John had butchered many sheep before, knew their anatomy. He had raised the orphan as a poddy lamb until it could walk, and then joined it to a ewe whose own young had been taken by a wild dog.
In the darkness of the night, with the hot engine ticking under the cold light of the stars, John touched the dead body of the woman. Still warm, although the blood would soon cool. Less than two minutes had passed. John felt his neck, touched the stinging rope burn, the air cold on the sensitive skin.
The constellations looked down upon the scene. Light particles streaming through the great void of space, their light extinguished by time and distance, gazing upon a man who should be dead and a women who had died.
John acted. He unclipped his pocket knife from his belt, the same one that he used for the menial tasks that filled his day, and mentally copied the C-section scar that his finger had traced on Tahlia’s belly, not thinking of what harm he could do, but trying to remember that he had brought a lamb into the world, allowed it to breathe on its own. Maybe I can do it again? He pierced the skin, made the uterine cut, opened the amniotic sac, hoping the child was undamaged and still alive. And then he plunged his hands into the woman’s body, felt for the baby’s head, his fingers desperate and gentle.
The baby emerged into the world, skin steaming in the cold night. There was a moment of silence, and then the first hitching cry. The child wailed in his bloody hands. John closed his eyes. Squinted as hard as he could. He had snatched meaning from the dark void of the universe. A billion molecules tied together to form a life that had been, until that moment, existent only in utero, but was now alive and independent. Another living thing born into the world, at the hands of a shepherd. Working on a farm will make you an expert at practically anything, or anything practical.
John looked at the child. A boy. He held him to his chest, under his coat, to keep him warm. He put his phone to his ear to call for an ambulance. As it connected he looked up at the night sky. A multitude of stars, too many to count. The milky-way, the cloudy home of uncounted suns, spiralled around him. He breathed in the cold air, felt the sting of his neck, and waited for the phone to connect.
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