He doesn’t watch Jo the way he used to, but watches the greasy pub regulars. He judges her rogue beauty by the twitch of their sluggish smirks. If he focussed on Joanna, barefoot and dancing in front of the bar, he would shrink back into himself. She fills the cold pub with warmth, as she sweats through moves. Her body possessed by the guitar solo, she spins and sways, bare soles against cold floorboards. There is something innocent in her wildness, in her reckless determination to be free. This he had understood every other evening he would meet her here after work. He would grab a pint and watch her dancing inbetween orders, before walking her home after the bartending shift. Now, he understands nothing but this blind and fearful rage. He mentally tears Joanna apart. Strips her down of her tanned firm flesh which smells of bark and animal-hide, strips her of her wolfish grin and howling eyes until she is just woman. His woman. He downs the rest of his beer and wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. All the hunger of ‘mine, mine, mine’ gnawing his love down to the bone.
This forest had been a sanctuary from John’s boredom. Here his clumsy footfalls were silenced by the forgiving softness of moss. He loved the shameless way the branches pleaded upwards, making submission look mighty. The breath of the trees occupied an emptiness at the pit of him. It wasn’t enough though. He wished that he could carve himself into every tree, seize every leaf, grip at the earth like he was roots. The day he met Joanna the forest had felt more indifferent towards him than ever. The air cut into his lungs and brambles clawed into his jeans. He zipped his red hoodie and crossed his arms over his chest. Every jagged silhouette was a wolf. One day, when he got enough money together he would buy this land, one day all this beauty will be mine, mine, mine.
A sudden presence snatched a squeal from his throat. The two figures froze. He looked like a rabbit to her and she looked like a wolf to him. “I er, ‘aven’t seen you around ‘ere before?” he declared, verbally pissing on his territory. Her smile fell and she walked towards him with a jokingly cold glare. There was this howling in her bones, a solitary wail wrenching through darkness that was both animal and ancient. Laughing as she threw her head back to share her joy with the sky, she exposed a constellation of moles across her jugular.”I’m just stayin’ here for a few weeks.”
She was staying in a battered blue campervan which she must have driven down the dirt tracks to the grass clearing. He had followed her back through the forest watching enviously as she matched all this wilderness while its roots lay ready traps at his clumsy feet. He was hoping that they would arrive at some neutral ground, a small cottage perhaps, even the campervan would do. She didn’t lead him inside, but threw herself down on the damp grass, pulling a sheet of tarp off a pile of wood and spreading it across the ground for him. He missed live wood; he missed the honest grip of his penknife. He missed the softness of the wood he chunked out. The wood at the furniture store where he worked stunk of chemicals and ruthless machines which sanded wildness into perfection. He knew that smell of screaming wood had stuck to him and was sure she could smell it on him.
Now she is laughing her heaven-ward laugh, a dance still in her step as he walks her back to his. She looks too proudly rugged, skipping, down the neat suburb streets with the loose leaves; unruly ghosts in chaotic search for lost homes. He feels more comfortable when he locks his door behind her. A sigh escapes him as he pulls her roughly to him. She smiles through kisses, her waist so small and soft, she feels small enough to contain, to posses entirely. So when her firm hands settle on his own waist, he feels reduced. He makes his kisses more forceful, his hands stronger, as he seeks out the soft, weak parts on her. She begins to struggle, her laughter stops. But John is on a mission, he is planting his flag. She is a reluctant mine of treasures. He is not like his father was; he’s never been down a mine. If he had sweat and bled in trenches under the Earth’s flesh he would at least understand the worth of the treasures the Earth is dominated for and plundered of, even when she offers them willingly. Even when she offers it with love. All John understands of his needs is that they’re a commodity. Joanna snags her teeth on his lips and rips in calculated defence. Yelping, John leaps away, tasting iron “Bitch!” She could knock him out now, cleanly, end it before it really gets started, but she gives him a chance. She stands voluntarily captive, clothes hanging dishevelled from her still frame. She tests whether the “no” in her eyes will be enough. He advances again smearing his own bloody lips against hers, still drunkenly fumbling. Now she punches, trying not to feel satisfied by the sickening crunch of bone. An uppercut forces his lips from her and stumbling backwards, he trips to the floor.
He looks up at her, smeared through his blurring vision like an Angel halloed by the street-lights yellow pouring into his flat. He is sure then that she will kill him. This is what he’d feared, being vulnerable was synonymous, to him, to being degraded and exploited. He hadn’t considered that he’d rather it be her, beaten, than him. What she did was haul him to the bed, pull him out of his shoes and trousers, drag the duvet up to his neck and kiss him on his bloodied lips before unlocking the door and disappearing into the night.
He will be more cautious, from now on, with his expectations of her. He will no longer meet her after work, to avoid her casual dancing. He will let her turn up at his doorstep whenever the urge takes her, trying not to drive himself crazy with the thoughts of how she spent the nights she wasn’t with him. He will avoid his parents, knowing their disapproval will latch onto his hurt. He will snigger with his work mates and pretend Joanna is as dependent and incapable as their girlfriends seemed to be. One day, he will think on grumpy nights spent alone, one day he’ll save up enough guts to afford her and then all her beauty will be his, his, his.
One night he will work up the courage to admit submission and walk to hers. She will be sitting by a sparking fire, gutting a rabbit, its blank eyes fixed on the dimming sky. She will smile and rush to him, hugging him thankfully. They will walk to the pub where she will still be barmaid and grab a pint. He will watch her in the stagnant room. When they walk back to hers it will be raining and it will feel like her gaze feels on him, like he is being flayed. He will take off his top which was already sticking to his skinny frame. The rain washing through his pores, he will dance with her, dance like her, down the grey streets. She will let out a whoop of joy which echoes a howl from the emptiness around them. She will pull off her own top to join him, the rain on her skin will be shining warm with street-lights, like embers in a fire. In this moment he will think she is the holiest thing and his reverence for her will overcome all his own desires and insecurities and expectations.
She will get pregnant that night, when she tells him he will feel like he’s finally planted a seed, like a part of him might now belong to the untouchable beauty of the forest. They could grow something together. She will move into his flat until the baby is born. The night Joanna returns from the hospital with a baby girl, she will kiss a teary-eyed John and she will taste iron on his lips. The hungry, drunken, bloody-lipped ghost of that night will fill the flat. She will tuck both John and the baby in bed, kiss them each on the head before unlocking the door and disappearing into the night.
He will think it’s because he tried to dig too much out of her. She will think it’s because her every kiss has a bite in it. The baby will grow and spend hours watching the forest from her bedroom window, waiting, a howl for her mother swelling in her heart.