A Note on the Understanding of Fossils
by Cathy Lennon
She is leaking. Milk dribbles from her breasts and blooms across her nightdress as she works. She has an ear cocked for the baby and his fearsome greed but her focus is the flour and water paste she stirs. Shivering, for the range is almost out, she dips her hand into the bin and sifts more powder into the bowl. It is hard to make out the consistency in the candle-light and she must get it just right. She pours more water, hoping there is enough. It is long past the hour that anyone will be about outside, but the sight of the Canon’s wife in her night attire will surely set tongues wagging. Not too wet, she mutters, addressing the paste whilst trying to ignore the sting and the dampness that now spreads to her armpits. She needs to work quickly.
The door rattles and she looks around for a cloth, finds none. It rattles again and she winces. Don’t wake the baby, don’t wake the baby, don’t wake the baby. She opens it with sticky hands and the call of an owl enters with a draught of air and her husband. He is still in his work clothes, black as the night outside. ‘Found him!’ By the light of the lamp in his left hand, she can see the tortoise in his right. She nods, excited, but shushes him with her finger and a fierce glare. He deposits the creature on the kitchen table and they both observe the timorous sway of its head as it seeks its bearings.
‘I thought,’ she whispers, ‘we can spread the paste here.’ They dance around each other, spreading and smoothing. His ink-stained fingers are not so deft as hers and after a while, he stands to watch her working, a smile on his lips. ‘William!’ she hisses, and gestures towards the tortoise, making its way perilously to the table’s edge. He cradles it against his robe while she stands to evaluate the drying paste. She dabs a gentle fingertip into its setting thickness and nods. ‘Now!’
The tortoise crawls across the strange, white landscape before it and behind him emerges a trace, a pattern they both recognise. They exchange a jubilant look. Upstairs in his study, the marks in the sandstone block that have perplexed them both are transformed into a key to greater understanding. He cannot wait to return there, to start to write. Her fingertips itch for her sketch pad. With a kiss, he is gone. She surveys the ruined tabletop, the doleful tortoise, the basin and the floor. Upstairs their baby son begins to wail.