We see each other at the same time. I watch her reaction and imagine it must be mirroring mine: her mouth goes lax, her eyebrows lift, and her eyes become acutely white. This is so weird, I say, because I have to say something. I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience, she replies. We share details: full names, parents, dates of birth, the names of the hospitals where we were born. I take out my ID and she studies it keenly before passing it back. She is eight months older than me, so we are not twins parted at birth. In fact, we don’t seem to be related in any way. I ask lots of questions, but we don’t have much in common besides our faces. Doppelganger, that’s the word. Once we have said everything we can think of, we part, shaking hands awkwardly and I try to remember why / I had come into town as I was out of diesel and also to pick up some other small things: biscuits and tinned fruit. But now I feel a deep need to return home immediately. I sit in my van and let it idle for a while, allowing the gentle hum of the engine to settle me. I take several deep breaths in. I don’t know why this has unnerved me so much. It is such a silly meaningless thing. When I get home, I make some sweet hot tea and sip it while standing on the porch. Now that I think about it, I don’t think we are even that similar: her nose was longer, her eyes were more grey than blue, there are tiny lines around my / mother informs me in a typically offhand manner that people only see a fetch just before they die. I decide then and there that I am going to downplay the whole thing even though I feel like I have been halved like a magician’s assistant. I pretend to be light and breezy because I don’t want to admit out loud that the experience has unbalanced me. I also resolve to continue using my original word “doppelganger” which is reassuringly German. What does doppelganger mean? I ask her. Are they an omen of death too? She pauses as if going through the rolodex of nonsense pub quiz knowledge in her head and then eventually she says the / neighbours’ dog follows me around while I work. I call him dog because I don’t feel I can use his real name. I feed him little bits of ham and I rub his belly. I tell him my secrets. I even tell him about my reflection. He bounds over to me when he sees me these days and it makes my heart do a little leap, but I know not to trust those brown eyes. It’s just the ham and the rubs he likes / me to wear my hair up because he says he likes kissing my neck. The men I usually crushed on hid themselves well. They were elbowy and jagged and anonymous. There was never any jealousy. Never doubt. He, on the other hand, is so conventional that it shocks me. I have never had to compete before. After our first date, he sends me a dozen / of my sheep have been killed overnight. Their throats have been torn open, their wool pinkish and spotted, the grass below them crimson. There is a wolf about. I drag their bodies down the hill to burn them and I call for the wolfhunter to come. I will need to stand guard until he arrives. I will probably lose a couple anyway over the next few days because of the shock. Sheep are like that. They absorb trauma. Their little hearts give way and the / lab is low and quiet. It is silent save for the little plops, sometimes a slosh: the tiny sounds of frogs moving in watery tanks. C comes in at half past nine once she has dropped her children to school. We have an arrangement where I clock her in and make up excuses if anyone asks where she is. Though no one ever does. We are completely alone down here. C has a parcel with her. It came in at the same time as her and she signed for it. I check the label is correct and then open the parcel and check its contents. C rolls her eyes while I do this, but I like being accurate. On two separate occasions I have found missing urine samples, so it is worth checking. I don’t tell her about my doppelganger because though I like C I am wary about giving her any private information that could potentially be used against me. While I am looking through the paperwork C starts to ready the syringes. Some days I do it and / the next day there are more bodies to drag down the mountain. Perfectly good sheep, their tongues loll and their eyes roll back in their heads. A waste. I lose five good sheep this way. I inspect the fences and walls to make sure there are no holes, no ways through for a sly wolf. I made them all myself and while / we work C complains about her husband. He is useless, she tells me. He can’t dress properly, he is always late, he doesn’t know how to tip but she won’t leave him. In fact, she seems to love him, and I don’t know why. She complains about her children too. I won’t say that she doesn’t love them. She must do, I suppose. It’s just that she doesn’t show her love. She never seems to find the / women in my family have a trick of dying young. Damaged heart muscles. Swellings and bumps that multiply. Systems that fail. A quart of weedkiller that burns through stomach and throat. It is for this reason that I have kept myself unburdened. I am free and untethered. I can’t allow what happened to my father, my sisters, my brother, me happen to anyone else. My job is / simple and neat and exact: pregnant women produce elevated levels of gonadotropin. The hormone gonadotropin causes frogs to ovulate. If urine from a pregnant woman is injected into a frog, the frog will ovulate. I note the presence or lack thereof of eggs, I fill out a report and send it back to whichever doctor and then presumably there is some moment of thrill or sadness or relief. Rarely do I think of the reality of it. Those feelings are so far from here. My life is just frogs. The next day / the wolfhunter arrives. I bring him to the top field, show him my homemade fence and talk to him about the sheep. I set him up with a flask and a tin of sandwiches for the night before I return home / I go and wait for him in the reception area. I’m not supposed to do this. It is not our arrangement. But I enjoy observing him. I like seeing him from a distance. I don’t approach him when he gets out of the elevator; he is with a colleague. And anyway, that isn’t the point. His eyes spot me, but he continues walking fluidly towards the front door. I wait until he is near his car before I exit and as I am walking / downhill, my eye catches the falling sun so tender over the rolling hills. For a second, I am blinded. My foot slips, I lose my balance and fall heavily onto my back. My breath is trapped in my chest. My eyes don’t understand what has happened. I turn to the left and see a large jutting rock that surely would have split my head in two. I sit up slowly, checking every limb and joint as I go. Everything still seems to be working. At home, I inspect marks and bruises and clean my hands, but I am relatively unharmed. I hope / he likes touching me over my clothes. He likes my tights and shoes. He likes removing them slowly. He kisses the backs of my knees. He blows cool air on my neck that makes me shivery. He likes to unpick me. He shapes my body to his and turns my / neighbour visits and I take her honey and flowers and soft cheese and give her some sausages, a quart of buttermilk and two freshly baked loaves of brown bread. I don’t know why she brings the flowers. There is nobody here to see them. They will wilt and I will have to throw them out and the whole thing will have been for nothing. I don’t tell / C about him because I know she would ruin it. She would have questions and would make faces. She would create holes and pull and stretch and reveal. I need to protect this for now. I place the frog back in its tank and reach in to take out the next: little massage, pinch in the hind leg and then / the next morning, I wake with pains in my stomach. This happens a lot. It’s digestive problems or stress or something. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to being a good day. I do some deep breathing. I try some stretches. I drink hot water with lemon and ginger. But still that gnawing burning pain continues. It exhausts me. I want to stay inside under my duvet but of course I can’t. I have to check on lambs and fix stone walls. I meet the wolfhunter as he is coming down the mountain and I am going up. The day is still sleeping. There were no wolves around last night, but he has found traces of them. He has heard them howling in the distance and has followed some tracks around the farm. How many wolves does he think are around? Maybe four or five, he says. He tells me to be careful at night. Don’t be out and about. Wolves can attack if they feel cornered. But I tell him that I’m not scared. I’ve already lived longer than I ever thought I would. He’ll be back tonight when it is dark. It is a slow process, but when / we are both ready we line up and begin. I take a frog from one of the tanks and hold it gently in my hand, massaging its back to keep it placid. C does the same. Then I pick up a syringe and inject the frog’s hind leg. I do it as gently and as quickly as I can. It’s just a little pinch. Once I have removed the syringe, I place the frog back into its tank, take some notes and then move onto the next. Then we go through it all again: pick the frog up gently, tiny massage, a little pinch and / the sheep seem to know that I am feeling under the weather because they are going out of their way to be difficult. My brain is heavy, and I walk slowly but I do my job anyway. When I finally get back to the house, I make myself a large bowl of porridge with plenty of brown sugar and cream. I’m not sure if it will help my stomach but it will certainly help my mood. I don’t think any other woman in my family had stomach problems. Maybe that’s how I will go. I had always hoped to go quickly. A shock. But something made me feel that my death would be long and drawn out. I am not really interested in diagnoses or doctors or medicines. Maybe someone could save me, cure me, treat me. But it wouldn’t matter because then something else would get me anyway. I put / on my white coat and inspect the frogs. I search for tiny eggs in the water and note what I see. This is a particularly fertile bunch. There is something about this time of year. C and I make bets on which frogs will ovulate. It’s nonsense of course but it’s just a bit of fun. C is well in the lead, and I currently owe her a packet of jelly babies, two Jaffa cakes and one large gin and tonic. The following morning there is some success: / the wolfhunter has the remains of a wolf over his shoulders. I would have brought him down myself if you had told me, I say. But this is only a young male. This isn’t the alpha; he is still out there. The wolfhunter can hear him howling in the night, he / kisses the inside of my thighs and licks my nipples and parts my lips and asks, ‘is that alright?’ and it is alright. It is definitely alright. He positions me, moves pillows, kisses my body. He looks at me as if he is just seeing me for the first time and my / neighbour comes over that afternoon with a neat bunch of wild garlic and some homemade raspberry cordial. But really, she is looking for gossip. She has seen the wolfhunter and wants to know all about him. She alludes to long nights with just the two of us here. I put her right. I tell her that he will be gone once the wolf has been killed. Which is the truth. But she will glaum onto anything. She doesn’t just / complain about her husband. C complains about other women too. She hates women more than anything. She is suspicious of them and always doubts their motives. I wonder if she hates me. I wonder what she tells her husband about me. But then of course I realise that she doesn’t tell him anything because she doesn’t think about me at all. Early the next morning, / the wolfhunter shows me the female of the pack. Her body is lean and agile. She put up a fight, he says. He is confident now that he is closing in on the alpha. He thanks me for the sandwiches and the hot coffee. It’s nothing, I say and he / makes pancakes and orange juice. He does this thing with pasta. He talks to me about wine like he thinks I know about wine. He has learned where things are in my kitchen, where I keep the pots and pans. And when he is gone, I find that he has left his favourite biscuits in the cupboard and a nub of cheese in the fridge. Little reminders of him that I / have to go into town for supplies. As I step out of my van and onto the street, I realise that I am anxious about possibly seeing my reflection again. It is stupid and so unlike me. It means nothing. It is nothing though I wonder / how it feels. I try to imagine it. I stuff a jumper up my dress and take the bus into town and everyone is lovely to me. I place my hand on my belly to protect it. People move out of my way. Other women smile at me. I feel special. I feel noticed. I see / one of the neighbours’ children in her school uniform and with her school bag but not in school. She is with a boy, and they are furtively holding and touching hands. He is maybe a year or two older but only just that. And then her head moves, and we lock eyes for a moment. She turns and says something to the boy, and they move on quickly. I wouldn’t have told anyone. It is only / later that I remember my doppelganger. She had completely disappeared from my mind. It is funny how quickly I had forgotten and indeed how quickly I am unnerved once more. The chances of meeting her again are slim; neither of us live in town and on the / fifth night finally there is victory: a large wolf is dragged down the mountain. I make the wolfhunter some tea as he loads the grey beast onto the back of his truck. He will take the pelt as a trophy and send the body to Athlone where they will issue his payment. He says that more wolves will probably come through the forest in the future. I tell him about the fence and the wall. I tell him about all the work I do. I tell him that I protect the sheep as best I can but that the wolves get through anyway. I just can’t seem to stop them. That’s life, he says. That’s nature. Just do the best you can. I see / keeps telling me to take a holiday. She says I need a break, that I work too hard. I never take a day off. I am never sick. I like to work. I enjoy having a routine. I would happily come in on those days when I am / not afraid of death. I have been preparing for this since I was a small child and my mother sat me down and told me that we were cursed. She told me that all women have some secret, and this was ours. After my mother’s funeral, I found a bundle of pages under the mattress in the spare room that she must have forgotten about. Or maybe she just thought she had more time left. Once I saw the writing and string, I hid them from my father. I didn’t want to hurt him like that. I stored them inside an old tin box and put them on my kitchen shelf. But I haven’t opened them or looked at them. I’m not sure I ever will. Once they are read, they cannot be unread. I take / off my shoes and tights and loosen the zip of my skirt. I fumble with remotes and finally find something I like. I am feeling different somehow, not like myself. I dance through the kitchen and the sitting room. I twirl and turn for half an hour. Eventually, I return to his arms, kissing his lips and loosening his belt. The music becomes further and further away. I can hear a bang of thunder, but it doesn’t matter. Then there is a flash, an aura around my eyes and the kitchen goes dark. In the night, I am awoken / by the neighbour’s dog. I pull the curtains back but there is nothing to see. The night is slow and silent. I sit on the side of my bed hoping that he will stop barking but he doesn’t. I force myself to get dressed and go outside. I have no torch: I move through memory and the light of the moon / illuminates his sleeping face. I place his limp hand on my belly. He doesn’t wake or move. The night-time makes things unreal; the morning will be a small affirmation. I imagine I feel the / dog sees me, and he becomes hysterical. Alright, dog, I say. I try to catch his collar, but he pulls himself away. There is a growl behind us. I turn and see two glowing eyes in the darkness. The figure moves forward, one step then two: a wolf. I spread out / the spawn on my bed. It lays there. It wriggles slightly. The bed becomes a wet patch. I spread it with my hands until there is an even layer across the bed sheet. Then I lie on top of it. I feel it move beneath me. It squirms between my folds. I squelch. I pour them over me like jelly. I bathe in them. They seep into every crevice. I am a frog. I am floating. The bed feels so far beneath me. I could be on water. I could be on a cloud. I could be on a lake. There is nothing beyond the / wolf snarls and then lunges at the dog, biting clean into his leg. The dog bites down hard on the wolf’s ear. There is a tussle. The sheep are bleating. I try to distract the wolf: I yell, I wave my arms, I yell again, I throw stones. The mess of fur and tendons and sharp teeth finally unravels itself. The dog is a sad mess. The wolf is bloodied but its legs are still strong. It whimpers and / I have a favourite frog. I wouldn’t tell C this; I am a little embarrassed about it. This frog is slightly smaller than the others. She is always calm and relaxed when I pick her up. On her back is a black thumbprint. That’s how I can tell her easily from the others. She sits in my hand happily. I think she likes me, though I’m not sure if frogs are even capable of that. I feel / suddenly quite calm. It is just me and the wolf. This would be an okay way to go. It is certainly better than a trip and fall or a long lingering wait in the hospital. This is a fight. The wolf hurls itself at me and I throw myself out of its way just in time. It turns in an instant and comes at me again. I twist my body out of its path. The wolf’s eyes are on me. It snarls. I go / to her now: I inject her and massage her for a bit longer than I normally would. I place her back in the tank. I kiss the air. I will wait and see. Slowly, I / crouch down and retrieve the pen knife from my calf and / we clean out the tanks for the next batch and start the process again.
Feb 01, 2022