He pushed at the cold white flesh. It gave under his thumb. Disgusting, repulsive, foreign. He looked at the clock on the wall. He started to imagine how it would feel to smack the limp body. How it would fall if he were to roll it off the bed and onto the floor. How it would sound as it hit the floorboards. Would it be different to a living body? He stared at it and decided that it would be, simply because the sack of meat that used to be his pigheaded wife, could offer no resistance. Clarissa had died in her sleep of a brain tumor that had been forming slowly and gnawing at her mind, unknown to anyone, since she was twenty-three. But Phil had spent the past twelve hours staring at her body convincing himself that he had willed her dead with his hatred, and that everyone would blame him.
He went into the kitchen and made a cup of tea. The radio mumbled quietly about the upcoming Olympics. The cat meowed, a tractor slugged up the dirt road, a tap dripped. He felt sick. He could hear Clarissa’s mobile vibrating in her tacky handbag on the kitchen table. It stopped. It started again. It stopped. He cleared his throat, coughed, and then cleared it again. He cracked his knuckles and told himself over and over again that he’d done nothing wrong. He put on slippers and went out to the porch to smoke a cigarette. He smoked one, and then four and then five, and then he finished the packet. It hadn’t been his fault that they’d grown apart, he thought to himself, grinding the last butt into the ashtray. She’d changed.
Cicadas droned around him so loudly that he started to feel as if he was inside a giant pulsating cicada, that Western Australia was one big buzzing creature. His head throbbed. She’d been the one who had gotten old and mean. He rubbed at his temples with his thumbs. She’d pushed him away. He went inside and took a Xanax from the bathroom cupboard, careful not to look at his wife as he walked through their room to the en suite. He stood by the sink for some time, staring at her dirty underwear and bunched up socks on the floor under the basin. He hung up her damp towel from yesterday. He spent some time studying his stubble in the mirror, then went into the kitchen and grudgingly did the dishes. She never did them.
The phone rang, shrill and artificial. He answered.
“Phil? It’s Penny, is Clar there?” Penny, Clarissa’s mother, always condescending and rude.
“Oh… Well, she’s not answering her mobile.”
“No. Well… Phil. Would you tell her I called?”
“Good. Ta.” She hung up.
He would have told her, but he couldn’t.
He would have to eat soon, and sleep. It was Sunday; he had to prepare the silage in the morning. There was always so much work to do on the farm before winter and he was falling behind. He looked at the fridge. It hummed. He pulled out a steak and prepared a meal. He ate in front of the TV and felt slightly better. Clarissa’s Cocker Spaniel yipped at him. He gave the dog his leftovers and guiltily realised it was the first time he’d fed her all day. He went into the pantry and got her two cups of pellets. He looked down at her.
She grinned and licked him, her stupid pink collar twinkling. He’d never paid much attention to the dog. He patted her on the head and took off her collar. He felt better. He showered, got changed, and put on a load of washing. Everything seemed slightly more okay, more normal. He realised he should probably do something about Clarissa’s body. He turned the TV off and sat in silence as he braced himself to go back into the bedroom.
The strangeness of her being just a sack had evaporated and he saw his wife. He sat down beside her and felt the closest thing to grief he could manage. The depth of his sadness surprised him. He lay down and stared at the ceiling, breathing in deeply and allowing his back to fall into the familiar grooves in the mattress. He braced himself, then rolled over and looked at her. She was almost peaceful, lying there. He felt guilty. He hadn’t really looked at her for a long time. He had seen her, but hadn’t seen her. She wasn’t so bad. He remembered that Clarissa used to be pretty once, that her hair had been so smooth and soft. He had loved her hair. It was matted and wiry now. He touched it, gently, with his index finger, and then shifted his body forward so he could easily stroke her hair with his entire hand. He combed out the knots with his fingers, unconsciously at first, but he was soon working methodically through the snags. Her eyes, although glassy, were still beautiful. He went into the bathroom to retrieve her brush and tried to prop her between his legs so he could brush her hair, but with a slight twinge of revulsion he realised she’d gone stiff. He delicately pulled the bristles of the brush through her hair as best he could and then left her in peace.
That night Phil slept on the couch. He woke up early, fed the dog, and showered in the spare bathroom. After smoking a few cigarettes on the porch with a coffee and the paper, he put his overalls and boots on and went down to the sheds. He spent the morning fixing one of the tractors that had a broken axle. After stopping for a quick lunch he checked on the water troughs and the fences, making sure everything was just as it should be. For the rest of the afternoon he weeded. He covered as much ground as he could, pulling out smaller weeds, and spraying the large thistles with the weed killer he carried in a plastic pack on his back. As the sun went down he could feel the straps cutting into his shoulders and his lower back cramping from the weight. When he got back to the house he fed the dog, and spent some time scrubbing the pink dye from the poison off his hands before preparing some dinner. Avoiding the bedroom, he showered in the spare bathroom and found clean clothes in the laundry. But he couldn’t concentrate on the television drama he was watching; he knew he would have to go into the bedroom eventually.
His palms grew clammy as he turned the doorknob. The room smelt strange, but it wasn’t as bad as he had expected. Clarissa was still lying there peacefully, just as he’d left her the night before. He walked over to her, and kissed her forehead, but her skin felt wrong. He went into the laundry and filled a bucket with warm soapy water and sponged her gently. He found her some clean pajamas and decided they could do with an iron. He ran the iron over them, enjoying the way the steam rising off them smelt like washing powder, and the way it felt as it tickled his neck and face. He changed the sheets and then slowly and patiently undressed and redressed her, carefully working with her wooden limbs. He was surprised by his sudden desire to have one more night to lie beside her in their bed, without any anger or animosity between them. He just needed one peaceful, restful sleep with her. He undressed, pulled a light sheet over them, and quickly fell into a heavy and dreamless sleep.
He woke to a stench so repugnant that he clamped his hand over his mouth and nose and flung himself at the window, struggling violently with his free hand to pull it open. He shoved his head through the window and began to convulse with vomiting. His vomit spattered onto the rose bush outside their window, weighing the blooms down, making them sag and fall from their stems. He gasped desperately at the air, sucking in deep greedy lungfuls, his eyes bulging. He spun around and stared at her accusingly; she was the source of the smell. He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as he stormed past her to the bathroom, furious. He splashed his face and looked at his reflection, his mouth was distorted with revulsion. He spat bile into the sink. He wasn’t sure what to do. He stood by the bathroom window, gathering his thoughts. He desperately tried to block out the drum of cicadas coming in through the window. It seemed with each second that they grew louder, closer, more incessant. It was all he could do not to scream. He slammed the window shut. It muffled the cicadas slightly but now his nose filled with the stench leaking through the door from the bedroom.
Phil slid the door open and stood in the doorway of the en suite watching his silhouette sharpen and dim across her body as the fluorescent light in the bathroom flickered behind him. She was grotesque. His saliva became bitter and tangy in his mouth. The insides of his cheeks and the roof of his mouth felt like they were sweating. He forced himself to cough. He ground his jaw, hard, and coughed again. He fought back the acidic bile rising in his chest and gritted his teeth against his arching tongue.
Clarissa’s feet, which awkwardly protruded from beneath the blanket, had darkened. They had become swollen and disfigured. They did not look human. If Phil squinted and blurred his vision with his eyelashes, they took on the appearance of large pig trotters, all pink and black and fat and fleshy. In her rot and decay he saw her for what she truly was, a carcass. Every part of her, he saw with horror, had swelled and bruised. She was a translucent package of liquid fat. She was ballooning and moist and foul. He realised it was too late to tell anyone, that he had taken too long. The stench and the realisation made him gag. He stood by his side of the bed, leaning over her, and threw up. She had to go. A strange sense of calm overcame him. The sweet sickly stink of her reminded him of decaying waste, of silage. The way her organs were fermenting beneath the tightening outer layer of her skin was like grass matter rotting beneath the plastic. She was a decomposing mass, and she could complete this process in the mixture grasses and weeds that he would put out to decay in a few hours. He would be rid of her.
Phil placed the silage in a large heap on the ground and rolled over it methodically with the tractor, pushing the air out. It took considerable effort to compress the substances in silage so that they cured properly; Phil had mastered the process. He carefully laid a sheet of black plastic over the pile, placing tires around the edges and over the top. He stepped back and admired the large plastic heap, the sun setting behind him. He always took immense satisfaction from knowing that beneath the heavy weight of the tires the silage would begin to ferment within a couple of days. Phil liked the idea that within two weeks, this pile of grass clippings and waste would become a supply of nutritious feed for his livestock. It had been a productive day.