Art Pact 275 - Dry Garden

The previous weeks had been unbearably hot, and it was not just me that suffered. In the early morning, when the sun had risen but had not yet had time to heat the air, I unlocked the door to the cabin and walked barefoot on what had in May been the lawn. I had lain there, reading, the soft moss at mattress beneath me and grass blades borders around my arms and legs. It had been comfortable - lush, almost - but now I could feel nothing but scratchy hay pricking at my soles, and the moss had dried out until it was nothing more than kindling. I sipped at my lukewarm cup of acorn coffee and flexed my feet, scratching at the dry surface of the ground with my toenails. It was time to cut them, I noticed.

"When do you think it's going to end?" asked Milla. I'd not noticed her sitting in the shade of the big oak that marked the boundary between her land and mine. She was still in the long ragged shift that she slept in, and she held a block of ice in her hands, shifting it from one palm to the other every few seconds. She has always been more quickly affected by the heat than me. I remembered her long legs, so pale that the corkscrew blue veins just beneath the surface could be seen easily. At night she would sleepily cartwheel those legs, pedaling the blanket away from herself (and, of course, from me), until there was nothing left on her but her night-clothes, and those rucked up to expose everything up to her lower back. Sweat drops pooled in the little depressions at the front of her thighs. But she had been sleeping in her cabin for the last few months, since our fight.

"A few more weeks yet," I said.

"It's still only July. It could be months. August, easily. Maybe until the end of September."

The names were convenient fictions. Milla, in her language, had different names for them, I believed in a lunar calendar that did not match the written one, and at any rate there was no reason to be entirely certain that we were still on Earth. But we both knew English, and so we called the summer by those names: June, July, August, and the winter by December, January, February. There were no dates more specific than that. We decided by fiat - one day Milla or I would mention it being the start of August, for example, and that would be the end of June. Some of our months must have been barely a fortnight long, others two months or more in reality. But there was no telling what length a month should really be, not here, and so we fell in with our own biases to some degree - if we were enjoying June, we were in no hurry to end it. If it was a terrible month, it would pass quickly. The months, I thought, had passed both quickly and slowly since we had been living apart again. We had both been rushing to get the fight over with, but it had a momentum of its own that we could not override. Milla would move back in with me when she was ready to apologise, or I would creep to her cabin one night and admit my failings and beg her to let me back into her arms.

We were civil, of course, even affectionate - we could not be otherwise, after so long. Even then, in the bright morning, when we were still both tired and stiff from sleeping alone, at the height of our irritation with each other, I was still drawn to her, and I joined her under the tree, leaning against the broad trunk so that I could draw the side of my foot up and down her right thigh.

"You know-" she began. I waited, stroking her leg with my foot, but there was nothing more. She juggled the block of ice into her left hand and ran her right along the back of my calf. It was cool and wet, just as I should have expected, but the shock of how cool it was still caused me to jump a little. She drew her hand back.

"No, no," I assured her. "I was just surprised. You were going to say something."

"I wasn't quite sure how to say it," she said. "I don't want to, uh... accuse you?"

"Well that sounds a bit like an accusation itself. Come on, spit it out."

"You have to promise this isn't going to make things worse between us."

"We're fine," I said, although I was not sure that we were. But I knew that we would be, that we had all the time in the world and we would be, one way or the other. "Go on, tell me what it is."

"It's not a tell. It's an ask. Were you outside my cabin a few days ago?"

"A few days when?"

She shrugged.

"The day before yesterday?"

I'd thought about it, certainly. I'd lain in bed and run my fingers across my belly and imagined that they were hers, and thought how pointless the fight was and that I shouldn't be able to remember even what it was about, except that my memory - my stupid memory - was intent on preserving every second of the experience and replaying it to me over and over again. I could easily have got out of bed and gone to her cabin, but why on earth would I have stayed outside? I would have come in, I would have thrown myself on the big rug of unknown fur and pleaded with her that we had been apart too long, that there was nothing so serious that we should let it get between us.

"What makes you ask?"

"I thought I heard someone," she said. She hesitated for a second. "And there's your footprint."

"Show me," I said.

#

It could have been my footprint. What little evidence it had left in the dry ground was hard to interpret, but someone had stepped there, in that dust, and then moved away. Milla never went outside barefoot, so it wasn't her. But it also couldn't be me, because I was sure I would have remembered making it. I measured the length of the print against a stick and compared it with my own foot. It was longer, although perhaps the process of making the print had exaggerated the size of the foot that made it. The person, whoever they were, had stood looking towards the door of Milla's cabin and then turned sharply so that the print was carved into the dust as a strange arc or pie segment.

"I found it yesterday. I suppose I hadn't been looking very hard."

She had been acting a little strangely yesterday, but I'd put it down to the tides of detente and stubbornness that washed us closer together and further apart during our periods of separation. Once, two decades ago, we had spent a year and a half in tumultuous storms of emotion, barely speaking except in anger for days at a time but punctuating those rages with nights of passion in which we seemed to be more together than ever. Now we were older (old, Milla said), and the tides of reconciliation were weaker just as those that kept us apart were fading.

"Well it isn't mine," I told her. She frowned.

"Do you mean-"

"I didn't say that," I said. "I just know it isn't mine."

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