White Hare is an experimental novel in progress that I have been working on as part of my Creative Writing BA (Hons). The story genre is a domestic thriller with gothic elements.
‘Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.’
— Dante Alighieri, Inferno Canto I
‘In Nature’s temple, living pillars rise
Speaking sometimes in words of abstruse sense;
Man walks through woods of symbols, dark and dense,
Which gaze at him with fond familiar eyes.
— Charles Baudelaire, Correspondences
Led by one headlamp, the van passes through Abriachiltie Village and rumbles over bumpy track, sputtering when the incline steepens. Rosa Ross hums along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Always’, which is playing on the radio. Slate clouds burble across the evening sky, threatening a downpour, and seagulls drift by in search of food, screeching. Condensation slicks the windows, and Rosa leans against the passenger door, while her husband, Lachlan, coaxes the steering wheel with one hand, negotiating the high camber. Between them, their son, Jonah, sits high-up on a booster chair, dangling long, slim legs, which poke out from his navy jogging bottoms. He is playing on the Nintendo Switch they’d given him for his eighth birthday the previous week.
‘Mummy, can I have another malteser, please?’ Jonah draws out the vowels of the last word as he eyes the large bag of sweets Rosa bought for the Samhain Festival in their village next week.
In Abriachiltie they hold a hybrid celebration, Samhain Hallows Eve, and many of the old traditions are still celebrated as villagers usher in the dark half of the year. She offers the packet, and he takes a chocolate ball before resuming his usual position: head hunching over, thumbing the joysticks on the console. He shoulders Rosa’s hand away as she pushes a black curl from his forehead, and a smile nips at the corners of her mouth before she turns her attention back to the window. Along the trail edges, needling fir trees pitch against one another, blotting out light and brushing the sky. Rosa’s fingers go to the locket resting below her collar bone, which juts out, just as her ribs do. She strokes the surface of the silver oval containing photos of Jonah and his twin sister Lily. On Samhain they will mark the second year of Lily’s disappearance.
Engine warmth blasts through the vents, making up for the broken heater, and Lachlan wriggles out of his blue-checked lumber jacket. On his left forearm, there is a tattoo of a red rose, and his left wrist displays new markings: a dot, a line and a circle.
‘When did you get those?’ Rosa asks.
He follows her eye line, ‘I’ve had them ages,’ he shrugs.
‘Why those symbols?’
‘Tattoo artist’s idea.’ Lachlan yawns and pulls off his beanie, flinging it onto the dashboard, as though it is something he detests. Peppery curls fall onto his forehead, almost touching his long black lashes.
‘Did you get them done in Inverness?’ She asks.
‘No, here,’ he says, ‘she was a travelling tattoo artist.’
‘She?’ Rosa looks down and flicks a crumb from her jeans.
‘Yes, she.’ He glances at her, but Rosa turns her face to the window.
Lachlan blows air into his cheeks, puffing them up before releasing a slow stream of breath. He turns onto the mile-long lane leading to their house, and the van bumps over stony ground. In the rear, their groceries shuffle backwards, hitting the doors with a soft thump. The rocking vehicle kindles Rosa’s nausea, and she circles the old-fashioned crank handle below the passenger window, allowing cold air to spill in. She inhales several deep breaths which are infused with pine and woodsmoke, and her long hair blows across Jonah’s face. He screws up his nose as strands of red tickle his skin.
‘Mummy stop!’ he whines, as he swipes at his face, eyes never leaving the screen.
Rosa rolls up the window, leaving an open sliver, and returns her eyes to the passing pines. Wind whistles through the gap, and as they approach the entrance to Abriachilte Woods, the van slows to a crawl. Lachlan leans forward, head tilting while he peers through the windscreen, and Rosa isn’t sure if he is staring at the tree harvesters, or something else.
‘They must be felling trees,’ she says.
Without answering, Lachlan draws the van to stop. The suspension creaks as he climbs out, and leaving the door open, he wanders towards the forestry vehicles, stopping when he reaches the gate. Rosa is shivering, even though she is wearing her thick Aran cardigan.
‘What’s Daddy doing?’ Jonah’s heavy jacket rustles against the seat.
‘I don’t know,’ Rosa says, keeping her eyes on Lachlan, who raises his hands and rests them on his head, while he paces back and forth.
In her pocket, her phone beeps, and she slides it out. She presses her index finger to the sensor, unlocking the screen. A message from her friend Eilish appears.
‘I saw the van passing. I thought you were popping in for a cup of tea? ‘
Rosa looks at Lachlan. He is just standing there now, staring at the trees. She quickly taps out a message. ‘Sorry Eil’s, Lachlan’s being weird today. I’ll message later.’
Rosa is about to ask Jonah to close the door, but Lachlan makes an abrupt half-turn and strides back to the van. She slips the phone into her pocket.
‘Mummy, what was I like when I was in your tummy?’ Jonah asks without his eyes leaving the screen. The console pings as his car races through a series of golden hoops.
Rosa loves his random questions, and she thinks for a moment. ‘Well, there was a lot of wriggling.’
There had been lots of sickness too, which began the day after she’d told her mother about the pregnancy. Rosa had been sitting on the stone floor in Lachlan’s hallway, knees bent, browned by summer, handset cupped between shoulder and cheek while she twisted the spiral cord around her finger waiting for a gap to speak. Lachlan leaned against the wall on the other side, hands pushed deep into his pockets, head down, not looking at his feet. Rosa had needed to see reassurance in his big blue eyes or an encouraging nod, a smile even, but he offered none, and thinking about it now, she supposed that was the first sign that something wasn’t right.
‘But what about university, Rosa, your Masters?’ Her mother’s voice had risen in pitch.
‘I can do both, mum,’ she’d said, believing she could.
‘Don’t be so ridiculous. Come home, and we can arrange a termination.’
Rosa slammed down the receiver.
The springs groan as Lachlan climbs back in, slamming the door. On Jonah’s screen, his car speeds up, and the gaming music matches pace.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asks, but Lachlan doesn’t answer.
Jonah interrupts, ‘But how do you know if it was me or Lily wriggling?’
Rosa glances at Lachlan. His face is stony, but she can see the slight beat of a muscle, and she knows this is because his teeth are clamped together.
‘You were the wriggly one after you were born,’ Rosa says.
Lachlan reaches forward and turns up the music dial.
‘For God’s sake, boy! Can you not be quiet for two minutes? You’re giving me a bloody headache!’ Lachlan’s jaw is stiff, his chin juts out. He runs a hand through his hair.
His words slice through Jonah, and he shrinks into Rosa. She puts her arm around him, pulling him close, glaring over his head at Lachlan. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and steeples his hands, covering his mouth and nose.
‘Was there any need for that?’ Rosa says.
Lachlan sits up, ‘I’m sorry son. I’m sorry,’ he reaches for Jonah.
‘No,’ Rosa says through tight teeth.
‘Fine!’ He turns the key and the engine sputters before coming to life, and without putting his seatbelt on, he presses a foot against the accelerator, causing the van to lurch forward. The tyres bump in and out of potholes, bobbing them around like raggedy dolls.
‘Lachlan!’ Rosa reaches up and hooks her fingers over the grab handle. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Daddy, no,’ Jonah cries, ‘I don’t like it!’
But, Lachlan stares ahead, unblinking, as though something possesses him. Rosa places her other hand on her chest, covering the locket. A blur of white emerges from the scrub, a rabbit, she thinks. No, its legs are too long, it’s a hare. The animal bounds across their path, but there’s something else close behind, following. A child; a little girl. The wind breathes, lifting her blonde curls, and she skips across the track. Rosa freezes, her eyelides unmoving, as the girl flickers through the single light beam.
‘Lachlan,’ she gasps, ‘it’s her; it’s Lily!’ But he doesn’t respond, his eyes trance-like on the track.
‘Lachlan, stop!’ Rosa screams. She reaches across Jonah and yanks the steering wheel down. They swing left. Metal screeches against rust, and Rosa heaves forward, straining against the seatbelt before slamming against the chair, her skull bouncing off the headrest. The console flies from Jonah’s hands and clatters onto the dashboard, whirling up a plume of dust before crashing into the footwell.
The van is still, silent. Rosa’s left ear whines, and voices echo as though she is far away. Jonah! Her neck stiffens, causing her to wince as she cups Jonah’s face in her hands, but apart from being a little shaken, he seems fine.
‘Where did she go?’ Rosa grasps Lachlan’s arm, scanning the trees.
‘Who?’ Blood dribbles from a gash above his eye, and he swipes the back of his hand over it, smearing his forehead.
‘Lily! Did you see her?’
He shakes his head, grimaces when pain bites. Rosa pushes the door. Caught by the wind, it swings wide, with her still holding on. She slips from the ledge, scraping her calves on decaying metal, mottled with burnt copper patches.
‘Lily!’ Rosa’s slight figure stumbles over the path, eyes wild, but there is no one else here.