Sarah Bernstein

Deathstyles, a story by Sarah Bernstein

IT WAS AROUND THE TIME the sow eradicated her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy. Things were leaving one place and showing up in another. It was springtime when I arrived, an east wind blowing, an uncanny wind as it turned out. It was the year I would let things be, I told myself, packing my meagre belongings into a bag. I would be gentle, I would be good, some world might after all be mine. I sought the interval, the indefinite scrap of time between one thing and another, but here too there were only arrivals and departures, only entrances and exits. And so certain things began to arise. The pigs came later though not much, and in any case, I could not have been to blame, I had only just arrived, I had no livestock caretaking responsibilities, I had only been in to look, safely on one side of the electric fence.

In short, the year’s new life arrived with difficulty, its will faltering at every step, which I could well understand: one arrived in the world after expending such tremendous effort, all that labour and pain, only to become one more monstrous bloom in these late days. And so the gulls picked off the ducklings, the hooded crows the chicks, the wild geese ruminated on the meagre ground. No grass grew, only daisies. The lean and hungry season endured. I got along well in the countryside with its diminished surroundings and frequent, indifferent deaths.

Day after day I affirmed the silence, chewing, chewing the cud. I unhooked the axe from its place beside the back door and set to work splitting logs. To make kindling, to make firewood, to compose something is to work it and disclose the space. Form as a gesture of the will. In his studio which overlooked the creek, my neighbour carved images of the area’s wildlife in stone, quarried in Dorset from time immemorial. From the privacy of his home, he wrote letters of complaint to the local authorities. I loved his letters. Beautiful letters, in flowing script, meticulously paragraphed, full of demands and interludes on the soul.

He would sleep no more. He would contact his lawyers and the lawyers of the relevant landowners. There would be, he wrote, in that exquisite hand, no wind turbine; there would be no deer fencing, no planting of trees or management of rushes, no bees, no council tax on second homes, no tourist tax, no reintroduction of beavers; no wildcats, no foxes, no foreigners, only things as they have always been, only Nature and the gaze. O rhododendrons! O such themes!

Listen, here is what comes to the surface after so many throes and convulsions—

Soon we will no longer need to withdraw to the desert. Soon personal ascesis will arrive in the form of one more mass mortality event, one more migration stopped by total annihilation. I think of the birds. I accumulate fidelities, weeping for the language that is no longer at our disposal, for the nothing in the word we can use. I speak in simple, declarative sentences. Nature and wellbeing, the Home Office, any number of crooks and lowlifes. I resume the impoverished life. Here too nothing settles in place—one can ask for nothing more. Nothing is enough.

SARAH BERNSTEIN is from Montreal, Quebec and lives in the Scottish Highlands. Her first novel, The Coming Bad Days, was published by Daunt Books in 2021. She teaches literature and creative writing.