People on honeymoon visit a different time zone and endure a surfeit of shared hours. We learn the language of negotiation when volunteering to lose a little of ourselves. Both of us feel change to be obligatory, though we can never quite express who we might become; we know we will be less ourselves. Adding to our transformation, impending parenthood: the great world tilts.
Everything changes without appearing to, Ami tells me, drinking cool water from a thick green glass, busy rubbing moisturiser into her belly.
‘Normal people don’t notice how they change. But this? The old me is going along for the ride,’ she says, trying to explain. She’s standing naked at the end of the bed, shielding me from the heat of the day that flows through the balcony door on a breeze. My skin alternates between warm easiness and gooseflesh. I wrap the sheet about me as she says, ‘I don’t recall buying the ticket to this, but somehow it’s out of my hands.’
‘It’s early,’ I say, slumber-slick and mumbled.
‘In England eleven is almost lunch,’ she points out, flicks droplets of water me. ‘For us it’s dawn.’
‘Aren’t you happy here?’
I’m saying it’s strange,’ she says, twisting her wedding band, resting the glass on her belly.
I kneel on the bed and hirple to her.
Here in Spain every hour is an endless now. Not that the clock has shifted five hours; we have moved. Dinner at ten, that’s the norm, and heading to bed at two in the morning just what we do. We have come to believe waking late-morning suits us, and to expect when we wake not breakfast but each other, bruising morning hunger. A shower on the veranda is not unusual, and swimming naked in the pool nothing to mention. Drying below circle eagles has become ordinary. We eat sparingly, full with each other and the coloured spaces of an ancient landscape.
After making love, gathering together the ribboned fragments of ourselves, we head out to explore August hereabouts at hatless noon.
Following a stone-walled dry canal deeply wounding the cork forest valley, we are overshadowed by Jimena de la Frontera as it bakes whitely on its hill. Each heat-shimmered turret home is closed and silent. A sad beauty infests this place, a weariness. The world here is more made of mountain sky than earth, cobbled from the offcuts of history. Give the stones and bushes voices and no work would be accomplished. But the town, bright against blue heaven, occupies me only briefly, as if the weight of it causes my head to become too heavy for my neck. Rather the pressure of a tourniquet ring draws my attention. We walk on, wishing for shade and water. Being more captured by a slither of diamond sun rainbowing the skin of my wife, the town’s meaning escapes me. Her hips I follow, my boots obliterate her sandal prints, and I mark the miracle of another breathless day haloing her hair. The hours accordion in the heat.
In time the canal joins a kinked boulder river, and here we meet a hunter hiking with two long-leg hounds – no longer puppies, not quite grown. It feels he has been waiting. He is unageable, his face abrupt, drawn in walnut ink, and his voice is gravel growling until the dogs come to heel, their obedient tongues pulsing red. The man’s shirt is thick and poor and once was blue. His tawny face mirrors the ravines we’ve skirted these last two hours. His eyebrows shield eyes that hover over cacti, stone, cliff; anyplace rather than my wife’s heedless bikini. I guess we are the only people out at this unspeakable hour.
His voice alludes to work I almost recognise – I have to distil his meaning. Croaking a crippled English, he recognises our language from our dress and inept stance, our foolishness to be in his place. Ami lilts a northern species of Spanish at him, apologises for her Gijón accent, while I am all too aware of her near nakedness, the heat, the dogs, his sober watching. I fake a smile without intruding, listen as they find uncommon ground between the vice of land and sun. As she stoops to fuss the wary dogs, uncomfortable with affection, as he looked down at her, the hunter steps back and to the side. His rifle casts a mast-like shadow that separates my silhouette from hers. It feels like an umbilical cord has been cut.
Explaining the two dogs are all that remain of a litter out of his bitch, he says the strongest two proved fit for work, so the investment was not wholly wasted. She was a dutiful mother dog, fast and smart, until she was no use, growled when he sorted her puppies good from bad.
He is confident the animals will prove as useful as their mother. He will make them so. Then looking about, he warns us of the yawny snakes peevish from heat that inhabit this area. We are to be careful of any invitation from shade. It is a lure, he says, much like the devil’s promise to Adam, or the temptation by Eve. He nods at the animals waiting on him, quivering for his signal to rush away. He stares hard into my wife’s eyes when she stands, hands on hips, and he says how the mother dog at least had the chance to teach her pups to be wary of noon shade as much as sun. Before she ran out of lessons, passed their care to humans, the mother dog showed the youngsters how to belong to the land and traditions. To be measured by their usefulness. His face grows slack, damp and animated as he speaks.
His thick trigger finger points at my wife’s belly, as if the hunter is about to say a kind thing or bless her, then he changes his mind – his features harden – and he speaks of the grim trail ahead, the climb awaiting us, the day’s relentless heat, our lack of water and wisdom, and I am reminded of a father scolding a daughter. Daring a glance at my wife’s six-month stomach, lifting his cap as if honouring the blessed Virgin as we part, he briefly licks lips thick with stubble collecting salt, and I notice the scent of sweetened lemons, the wetness of his grey hair.
In a box canyon fifty metres on we find condensed heat and a thirst to touch, each kiss igniting sun-dried flesh. The only fluid about these parts being sweat on skin. It shines for a moment before all liquid is absorbed by the dust that ornaments our limbs. After, though perhaps during – everything is different here, and love intoxicates our senses – we doze, adsorb the sun, become like stone we are so still. We both dream of time as a river, that it flows about us making us white and smooth.
Her, ‘Jesus!’ springs open my eyes, and I too stare at the mother dog hanging by her neck. She is watching our dreams from a dead tree.
In our silence she is warm from both sun and just-stopped heart, and her liquid eyes are red-edged with shame and blue flies. Her coat is delicate to touch and soft, as if she were once loved or had been bathed only recently by weathered hands taking her to murder. Long legs quarter the ground, the hills, the forest, her killing tree. Her tail stiff with devastation. The mother dog sways above a pool of fragrant piss. One ear is cocked in death, as if listening for her master’s call.
And we do not cut her down. We leave silenced, sickened. Given the landscape claims her as its own, given we are trespassers blighted by the need for finca shade, we walk away changed, unvoiced. When we have some distance, we do not speak of the hanging mother dog that once was good until she was deemed not.
The next morning, for the first time in forever, we do not make love. We do not slumber while the world turns and changes. We wake on opposite sides of the bed at the same moment. Early enough to witness night become indigo as day douses the swarm of stars. Muted clouds unfold pale arabesques. Goat bells jostle hills. You cannot tell how far sound travels here, Ami says. Or how far back the hills reach, she says. Nor, in the course of a day, how close death comes to life.
Seeking something missing, she finds me in my corner of the bed, one fall, one submission, and holding hard my head, smiling without beauty, Ami forces my face down to her belly.
‘Speak to her,’ she tells me.
With my hands on Ami’s hips, my mouth pressed to her distended body, I pray a subdued good morning to our god-like child swimming in a cramped and heedless womb. She is our sacrifice to an unknown future, I sing-hum. My wife lifts my head by my ears, puts her left hand about my neck, lets it rest there, fingertips digging into me, before letting go to slap my face the everlasting once. Her mouth twists her features hard as a dead tree. She reminds me of the hunter.
Disturbed by my tuneless lullaby our daughter kicks, awakes from dreams of a mother dog sinking yellowing teeth into night’s heatless air, until twisting free of her noose she is able to run once more through the dark forests of Andalucía.