It was the smell of the soil that made Rachel give in. She had wondered for so long what that smell would taste like. Letting the damp and sticky mud coat her fingers, she raised them to her lips. Her tongue came forward and licked it, hesitantly, waiting for a bitterness that didn’t come. It melted away, unlike anything she had ever tasted. Satisfying. Like sucking the blood from a cut. Natural. Her fingers dug into the ground, scooping up the earth, so she could eat it out of her hands. No longer cautiously but in reckless mouthfuls; a ravenous hunger she had never experienced. Her hands clawed through the ground, finding something long and thin. Harder than a twig; white like bone. It did not stop her from sucking the damp, thick soil from her fingers.
She laid down, right there in the soft earth, letting it be her skin and the leaves her blanket. She imagined life in her belly. The kick of tiny legs and seeing skin stretch as her baby grew. She had been empty for so long. And the fistfuls of earth were filling her, coating her insides, making her full. “I’ve eaten you, dirt of death,” she whispered. “Now give me life.”
It had taken Rachel a year to find out her husband was a liar, that she had swapped one prison for another. She sat by the window, looking out at her land, the little corner of the Scottish Highlands that would always be hers. It was in her blood, after all.
She watched the light seep out of the earth, her hand resting on her flat and barren stomach. The hills in the distance silently mocked her with their swollen bellies, just like Simon did.
The familiar whirring of the shutters began, clattering as they closed tight, hiding the only sight that brought relief. The house was “smart,” like her often-absent husband, and entering its night-time settings. She stood and walked downstairs, the dark spaces ahead of her lighting up, sensing her body’s movement.
“Lights down,” she said, and the lights dimmed. Simon’s stupid daylight setting made her feel like she was in a hospital.
Thankfully, the strained Highland generator couldn’t supply power between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., which meant the blinking blue eyes that recorded her in every room, including the bathrooms, were blinded. It was a time to smile and be free—her hard work paying off. She may not have a job anymore, but she was working hard to get the life she wanted. The house, like Simon, ran according to a series of rules. She’d consented to them, embracing them at first. But the unrelenting gaze of the cameras and Simon wore her down. When the power went off, he was blind. Another one of Simon’s rules was that she could never to go outside at night by herself. It was for her safety, he said, like all his directives were. Exploring in the midnight dark became a seed that sprouted in her mind and grew like a weed until she was consumed with a yearning to walk beyond those shutters.
She felt her ancestors most of all at night. Family; known and unknown. They were all here somewhere, in the roots of the trees, the clay of the earth, and the dust in the breeze—even her mum—blending together into a spiral of life that might end with her.
Rachel always had to grit her teeth and fight for what she wanted. After nine long months, she was still barren. She’d picked Simon because he had already fathered five children by three different women. All pregnant in under three months, he had boasted.
She knew there was nothing wrong with her—part of the credit card debt was the cost of private tests—but every month, he said the same things. She was stressed and bereaved. She was the problem. More rest and putting on weight were the cure.
He was a liar, and she had the proof in the drawer under her bed. She cursed herself every day for not ordering the male fertility home test kit before they married.
When she heard the click of the power shutting down, Rachel rose and opened the front door, adding her shadow to those gathering outside. The night air was cold and slicing, but she welcomed its kisses deep down into her pores.
As she stepped away from the house, she felt her stomach sink. Less than a year old, it stood like a scar against the skyline behind her. Even the darkness could not remove the gleam from its white walls. It did not belong here. She knew that now, just like she had come to know other things.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to her ancestors’ land. “One day, somehow, I’ll make things right.”
As she walked down to her lake’s narrow sandy shore, she felt the water’s pull and imagined its numbing power, swallowing her whole, freezing her racing thoughts until her mind was still and clear, reflecting the night’s sky.
The same thoughts wore deep grooves into her tired and restless brain. Give up. You’re too old. And you never used to want this. ‘Baby bores with whinging clingy brats,’ that’s what you called them.
She turned her back on the water, and the air twisted, took a different form, and found its lungs. The wind rushed past her, pushing her into the welcoming embrace of the ancient wood whose empty arms flickered in the shadows, beckoning her, comforting her.
Rachel wasn’t pretty like her sister Caroline. She’d grown up watching how blessed life could be for a pretty girl while Rachel developed other skills—a thick skin, patience, and gritty determination. Those skills meant she could help their mum better than anyone else. As an adult, she didn’t run out of the room in tears or make excuses not to visit. She wiped up feces and changed the bedsheets, holding her mum’s head up so she could vomit into a cardboard sick bowl.
On one of her better days, Mum told Rachel about the glen, regret in her eyes. “Take my ashes there,” she whispered.
Rachel held her mum’s hand at the end, looking straight into the abyss with her. The two of them belonged to something bigger, a spark that connects everything living, and Rachel had watched that spark fade away. She felt the cold, growing shadow of darkness, the stiffening and slackening as her mum’s body gave out.
Now, Rachel felt empty and dead inside. She wanted that spark back. Everything else was meaningless. She knew she could never find any peace until she brought a child of her own into the world. The baby bores had known more than her all along.
Guided by only snatches of moonlight, Rachel found her way into the heart of the wood, where the terrain sloped high into a hill and then dropped off, a grassy cliff. The bumpy ground made her fall onto her hands and knees. This was no natural slope. She knew instinctively it was an ancient cairn, and deep under the mud, her ancestors’ bones rested.
A memory came to her then, of walking through her wood with Simon, her mum’s ashes in her rucksack. Her virgin eyes unprepared for what she would see when the wood cleared. For a moment, not quite sure of who she was, as if she were a wrong note in a chord. She knew this place, even if only from her dreams. Something was waking up inside her. This was where she was meant to be, not in the concrete cities and man-made interiors.
The earth’s fragrance permeated the air. The dark and fiery nights of winter, the sweet petals of summer. Rachel raked her fingers through the rich soil, feeling its wetness, watching how it stuck to her skin and turned her fingernails black. It wasn’t long before those stained fingers found their way back into her mouth again. She took the mud into her hands, eating her fill for the second night in a row. She wanted to press her face down and eat directly from the ground, but she resisted. She would hold back and take what she needed—just enough to be full, enough to imbibe the spark of life she could feel incubating below her.
Life and death. Flesh and ashes. Two sides of the same coin.
When she fell into bed, spent and content, her body ached, but pleasantly—like how she expected to feel after sex but never did.
When she awoke, Simon was standing over her. She hadn’t expected him to be back until the weekend, but then she remembered—she was ovulating, and he kept a record of her cycles. He always returned for her fertile time, for his “selfless duty” with his futile seed.
“Hey, baby, have you missed me?” He sat down on the bed next to her, his bear-like paw stroking her face. He had the confidence and ease of a rich man accustomed to getting what he wanted. It didn’t matter that his beer belly stuck out, that he was going bald, that he might have been handsome if only his nose were smaller or his teeth straighter.
His clumsy fat fingers and coarse palms groped her face, moved down to her chest. She swallowed her revulsion, not just at him but at herself for creating this situation. She could have had a few one-night stands or chosen a sperm donor, but those options wouldn’t have cleared her debts or built her a house in the middle of the Highlands.
“Don’t you want to? It’s your time,” he said.
She involuntarily shifted away when his hand reached her pants.
“Christ, when did you last shower?” he asked. “There’s dirt and mud all over your knees and hands.”
She could still taste the earth in her mouth later while he grunted behind her, and she held onto it, reminded herself that nothing good in her life had ever been gained easily.
Rachel woke up to the sound of banging outside. Simon always found something to work on. She walked over to the window and saw that he had dug a small trench. As she looked down, he crouched, examining a pipe while a puddle of water spread at his feet.
As she turned away, a flash of green by her feet caught her eye. Under the window, a tiny green stem—bright and tender—pushed its way through a hairline crack in the floorboards. Rachel wondered how far it had traveled to get there. Up through the dirt, worms, stones—up and up—and now so close to seeing the sun. Without thinking, she dragged the bedroom chair over to hide it. She was still sitting there when Simon entered, his footsteps thudding and his jeans covered in mud.
“Ah, you’re finally awake,” he said, pulling off his dirty clothes. “It’s midday, and you haven’t eaten, Rachel. Come on. We’ve talked about this. I’m trusting you to look after yourself. How do you hope to get pregnant if you don’t eat?”
“I’m not hungry,” she replied. The aftertaste of soil still lingered.
“It doesn’t matter. Eat anyway. Build your appetite back up. Oh, and don’t use the downstairs toilet for a while. There’s water under the floorboards, but I can’t find the leak. We might have to rip out the floor to find it.”
“I don’t get why you’re always looking for leaks.”
“Because this house is near a lake,” he said, and she looked at him blankly. “This isn’t an ideal spot for a house, remember? Subsidence. If the ground under the house gets waterlogged, it could sink, taking the house down. Cracks can be a warning sign. Have you seen any?”
“No,” she said. “But I’ll tell you if I do.”
Rachel wanted to laugh as he walked into the shower. She’d been stupid to think the land needed her help. It had been taking care of itself for millions of years.
The earth was her secret, like the growing stem and expanding crack behind her bedroom chair. She filled up plastic food bags with soil in case she was unable to get out when Simon was home. One bag a day turned into two, then three, but she had found a way to control her craving. Little and often was the key. She would consume a couple of spoonfuls every hour, and then the bags could last all day.
It was working. Simon said that the color was returning to her cheeks. Sometimes, she’d feel sick, but a handful of the earth would always settle her gorge. Rachel had tried the ground in other places, but it was always sweetest near the cairn in the woods, where her ancestors’ bones slept. It was worth the pains, even when the stomach cramps made her curl up into a ball and press her face into the pillow with silent screams.
A few weeks later, Rachel’s body refused food. She vomited everything back up: undigested cereal and toast speckled with clumps of earth. Her secret laid bare.
Simon panicked when he saw it, and fifty minutes later, she was in the hospital. The staff asked her so many questions, took her blood, put drips and antibiotics into her arm, but she didn’t tell them about the soil. Rachel wondered what they would see when they scanned her stomach. She imagined the mud clogging up her belly, filling up her airways, changing her from the inside. But there was something else on that black and white screen—so small that Simon and the nurse didn’t notice.
A dot, beating on and off in a steady rhythm.
The car ride home was long and silent. The bottle of pills rattled in her cannula-bruised hand. Simon barely looked in her direction, his eyes fixed ahead on empty and narrow curving roads. She could almost hear his unspoken thoughts: Churning, speeding up, slowing down, unable to reach a conclusion. He suspected, as did the doctors, that she had done this to herself. Somehow. “I have to go back to London tomorrow. Why don’t you come along?” Simon asked.
“To have a break. Change of scenery. You could see your sister. See some friends.”
“I thought being up here was supposed to be my cure.” She felt her stomach shift uneasily. “Why would I want to leave the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen for London?” He would not take her away from her glen.
“Don’t you find it kind of bleak and lonely? I know it was your mother’s land, but she never lived here. I don’t understand why you like it so much. It’s miserable.”
“I feel the same about London.”
“But London is full of life,” he countered.
She sighed. He did not feel it. He did not see it. “I’m not leaving, Simon.”
And so, the earth in her belly remained her secret.
“I’m pregnant,” she announced. The brief look of shock on Simon’s face confirmed that his fertility kit results were true.
“Are you late? That can happen when you’ve been ill or stressed.”
“You know I’ve never missed a period before. And anyway, I took a test. It’s positive,” she said, handing the test with its proud two lines to him. She had actually taken three tests over two weeks. Just to be sure.
He spent a long time staring at it.
She waited for him to say the words. Or to accuse her of sleeping with someone else.
“We should see a doctor,” he said before leaving the bedroom.
Summer was fading as the night stretched out its arms to seize the day. Rachel’s growing belly now matched the curves of the hills around her.
Simon’s alarm went off at seven in the morning. Today, like most days, she pushed the pillow over her face. If she turned the alarm off, another would start, and if she ignored that, then Simon would call her. He said he’d set the alarm to give her days “structure” and to ensure she ate properly. She pulled herself out of bed. After a few moments, the alarm fell silent.
Even at thirty-six weeks, she still felt sick, and only one thing still cured her nausea. With her back to the camera, she took out the small bag of earth she’d hidden in the cereal box and swallowed a spoonful. Rachel sighed as she felt it dissolve in her mouth, satisfying the ever-increasing craving.
Her mobile rang. Simon. Her friends and family from her old life rarely called, but it was earlier than usual for him. He should be in the gym by now, or perhaps on his way to the office—though she admitted he had grown agitated in these last few weeks. As her pregnancy progressed, not even a battery-powered bedroom camera filming her overnight or his repeated phone calls soothed him while he was away.
“Rachel?” He sounded a little breathless, and she could hear the hectic sounds of a now alien city.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
“Nothing, Rachel. Just take it easy, okay? I—I shouldn’t have left you. I’m on my way back now. I’m flying into Inverness; then I’ll drive. Please just sit down and rest.”
“For God’s sake, there’s nothing wrong with me. Maybe you should have a ‘rest.’”
“You are not fine. Go look at yourself in the mirror.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m fine. The baby’s fine. There’s no need to rush back here.”
“Please, not this again, Rachel. We talked about this. You know this.”
“I’ve never felt better.”
“Rachel, please. You know what the midwife said.” Simon let out a long sigh, and for a minute, she could only hear his breathing and the sound of traffic around him.
She waited for him to hang up, but instead, he spoke in a low voice.
“I’m sending you the video from last night. Watch that and then tell me there’s nothing wrong.” The phone went silent. A few seconds later, it buzzed in her hand with a new message.
Rachel walked to the bathroom and stopped at the door, closing her eyes against a sudden wave of dizziness. When she opened them, she did not recognize the woman staring back at her. Her hair was still her mousy brown, but windswept and pulled in ten different directions. Her hazel irises were surrounded by bloodshot veins. Brown soil stains covered her pale cheeks like blusher. A memory flashed through her mind: crawling on her hands and knees, facedown in the soil, eating. Feral.
She ran into the bedroom and saw the brown stains across the pillow. Mud caked the white sheets under the duvet. She bent forward and touched it—still wet. And she could smell it, no longer the fresh sweetness of summer rains but rather a smell you’d run away from coughing and choking; something dead, something rotten.
Clicking on the message from Simon, Rachel played the video file.
It was strange to see herself like this, how Simon saw her, in black and white night vision, curled up on her side, her hand holding her stomach. On the screen, she began to wriggle, her knees pulling up, her arm tightening around her belly. She looked as if she was in pain, her face scowling. Then she sat bolt upright.
For a moment, she looked directly at the camera with empty eyes. She stood up soldier-straight, arms flat at her sides with her stomach jutting out, and walked in slow, steady steps—not how she usually walked with her shoulders slumped forward. Her bulging belly was the only part of her that had any shape or fat. When did her cheeks get so hollow, her arms so thin?
On the video, she walked out of the bedroom and the feed cut out. It came back on as she returned, her lips curved upward in an expression somewhere between a grimace and a grin. She paced the room, her empty arms in a cradling position, rocking nothing.
Rachel could hear something faint, so she turned the volume up. Crying.
She threw the phone on the bed, felt Simon watching her. She ran downstairs, still in her pajamas, and slipped on her boots. The Skype tones started up immediately, and she heard the app-controlled deadbolt engage with a loud thunk.
Knowing his eyes were on her, she turned and ran through the house, turning on all the taps. Rachel flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She could hear the whirring starting. The shutters. She slammed open a cabinet and retrieved a cast iron pot. Her mobile was ringing now, over and over. She hurled the pot towards the window, feeling a sharp jab in her stomach. Glass tears rained around her. She snatched a blanket off the sofa, hastily wrapped it around her body, then jumped through the broken window.
She landed on the decking outside. She picked herself up, barely able to breathe, but she ran into the wood anyway and stumbled to the hill at its center.
Rachel fell to the ground, relieved. Her safe place. She would be hidden here. Everything was going to be okay.
But her breathing didn’t slow and her stomach started to cramp. Bile crept up her throat. She reached out and brought a handful of earth into her mouth, but today, it tasted bitter and sour.
Not nourishment. Poison.
Rachel coughed and choked. She could barely swallow it. Her stomach cramped again—wave after wave of pain, like she’d had before in the hospital, when they’d said it was just a bowel obstruction and pumped her full of fluids and antibiotics.
Wetness dripped down her legs.
It was too soon for her water to break. She pulled down her pajama bottoms, not wanting to believe her eyes.
Blood—red like life, red like death.
She dug her hands into the ground, unable to control the force of her contractions or stop the flow of blood soaking into the earth.
Between the waves of pain, memories came to her as if a dirty veil had lifted, and the world came back into focus. The images in her head were vivid, and the voices were loud—her mum in a fitful sleep, growing restless, her eyes darting around, not really seeing the room around her.
“We go there when we’re dead, Rachel,” she said. “Don’t stay there. Promise me. It’s a dead place.”
The waves of pain almost blurred into one now, and she felt a primal, unstoppable urge to bear down. She didn’t want to. She wanted to keep this thing inside her, but her body was driven by instinct now. Regardless of her wants, it would live and die. What grew inside her must come out, clawing and gnawing. Every part of her body violently pushed it out of her.
Rachel screamed. She saw more than red blood now. Something as dark and solid as the soil she lay on was crowning, splitting her open.
Memories were so sharp and bright that they made her head pound—the midwife biting her lip and asking whether her husband was with her, saying “I can’t find a heartbeat.”
But the midwife had been wrong.
Simon had been wrong.
They wanted to cut her open and take her baby away. They hadn’t known what Rachel did. They hadn’t felt what Rachel felt.
Her baby kicking. Crying.
She wouldn’t let them touch her then, just like she’d never leave this place now.
This was home, not a place of death. Life dripped from every blade of grass, from each dried-out branch, from every single drop of clear water, in every bone buried underground, and in every mouthful of soil.
Inside, Rachel was no longer empty and dead—the spark was back. Her ancestor’s bones were her bones. Her blood was their blood.
Her forebears had given her a baby she could keep forever, made from the dust and dirt of their land.
Nothing good ever came easy.
As she rocked the baby’s wet, cold body in her arms, she could hear them; all the bones buried in the earth that she was bleeding into. Her mother’s milk. It would nourish them, soothe them as they rested in the tangle of their tree root cribs.
By nightfall, she heard Simon shouting her name. She was too weak to walk for very long, but she wanted him to see her baby, to share her joy.
When she made it out of the woods, her legs gave way. Holding the baby close to her chest, she sat.
The house looked different. Even in the darkness, she could make out a crooked line running down the middle. One side tilted at a different angle to the rest.
“Look,” she said, offering the baby to him. “It’s our baby. He has your eyes.”
But Simon didn’t want to hold the baby.
Instead, he curled up on the ground as his screams and the baby’s became one.