AN: Oh, goodness. I must have written this in some sort of trance, because when I went back to edit it there were so many moments of weird syntax and unnecessary detail. I hope this fic sounds alright. I'm a tired child and I should be asleep by now.
Disclaimer: The situation belongs to me, the characters do not. Also, this whole one−shot sounds really awkward, I'm warning you ahead of time.
He never meant to dig it up. He never meant to find it at all, really, but it was too obvious to ignore− even as far away from it as he could possibly distance himself, it sat in the back of his mind, its presence like insects mating and spawning, maggoty ideas festering in the empty spaces of his skull and bursting into fat, ebony−glistened flies, swarming, buzzing, ricocheting every moment he lay awake, every hour of every day…
Hooper had been the first to come across it. Poor naïve man. They had been walking across the grounds, the graying Charles and the brightened Hooper, when he tripped over it− a great mound of upturned earth, half strangled with grass, half empty and dry, the whole miniature dune lying like an abandoned mausoleum right there at the edge of the lawn.
Hooper went sprawling onto the ground and landed face first in the dew−damp grass. Charles pulled him to his feet, and after Hooper muttered several festered attempts at anger, the two headed back to the waiting company lines that they had originally set out to see.
Hooper swore never to walk near that spot again, lest it trip him another unnecessary time; but Charles returned that very night. He couldn't say what drew him back, what tugged him from his bed in the middle of that sleepless night, and when he arrived at the mound it greeted him the same as it had before− it lay there still and solitary, forlorn and unloved as a woman wandering rain−soaked streets, without car, without umbrella, without friend to lend her a coat. Even the darkness dwelt upon it in a different sort of manner− only the shadows of the waned light would press itself close, the insubstantial blackness, as though the real night refused to touch it. The only difference in the mound from that morning was the ghosted imprint of the edge of Hooper's boot, one thick, squelched indentation like cupped hands waiting to be filled.
He couldn't even say what drove him to start digging. Maybe it was the way the mound looked already overturned with Hooper's unfinished shoeprint, maybe it was the way the mound seemed so distant from the world and yet so very much connected, a landmark lost and forgotten. Maybe it was the way it sat in the welled shade of an oak tree, protected from the sharpened light of both sun and moon, hidden from the tantalic touch of both day and dark, an anomaly near the outplaced roots that swarmed the lawn. It sat between roots that Hooper had managed to avoid− but Hooper had tripped over the mound, as though even his subconscious found it conspicuous, important, worthy of notice. It was, in a way, the tree that bothered Charles the most about the whole affair.
He knew that tree. He had felt that tree against his back in the dizzy afternoons of summer, eaten fat strawberries under its branches, drank rich wine beside its bark, watched cerulean cigarette smoke drift pathless into its leaves.
He bent over the mound of earth and ripped its empty hands apart. He pulled the dirt up in sieved clumps and scattered it to the grass, to the wind, to the world, damned if he cared what sort of a wreck it would look like in the morning. The desire to know what lay there in the earthen tomb diseased him− he grew sick in a boiling pile of his own curiosity. The mud wormed into the lines of his fingers. His hands grew damp and brown, and his uniform caked with the sifted dust.
At last, bleeding fingernails and dirtied skin, he found what he had dug for. Face strained red and skin soaked with the sweat of exertion and nervousness both, with one sharp tug from his weary hands, a box came tumbling out of the hole and landed in his lap.
Charles tucked the box under his arm and stood. The wood felt heavy against his side, cold and crisp with something not quite ethereal but not quite corporeal either. He carried it all the way back to his lodgings− a dirt−infested track through the halls of Brideshead. He winced every time he felt the dirt slip from his pants and onto the marbeled floor.
When he had come to fetch the box, the walk through the halls was empty and undisturbed. Now, box clutched tight to his chest like a frightened, wandering schoolboy might clutch his volumes of musty text, he could hear every noise that the house made. Its occupants slept with whistling breaths and incurably loud heartbeats. It took his footsteps, already made substantial by the thick soles of his army boots, and sent them parading as gunshots down the corridors; in the sanctity of the Brideshead halls he sounded more like an intruder than a visitor.
He reached his room a shaking, storm−carried man, each step swaying in directions that he was unable to right. He had to fumble for the light switch; the wallpaper under his fingers was curled and rough, the flower of their patterns wilted, when he found the cold bronze of the switch waiting for him, as it had been, by the door. Charles turned on the light, and it filled the room with a thin yellow glow, wan and stretched flat like sickle−cut wheat.
He shut the door behind him and sat down on his bed, held the box out in front of him. Mahogany wood, deep and dark; earth clung to it in some places, but patches of the wood stood out in others. To his long−deprived senses it glowed with a faint holy−water hue, a paradisiac shine, and smelt of forest trees and citric polish, smoothed down by other hands, by other faces, by other impish, youthful, memory−harmonized grins…
Then, with one sharp breath like a cat stepping onto a piano key, Charles opened the box.
Inside the corpses of six shriveled marigolds curled up like stillborn children in their wooden womb. Their heads were shrunken, lopsided, deformed tufts of yellow hair hiding deformed lines of yellow faces. Their stems, colorless as calcite, tugged broken knees into bent chests and never straightened themselves out again.
No longer did the flowers breathe; they had been declared corpses the moment they were shut into the box.
But Charles chose to ignore them. Next to the dead marigolds a piece of paper lay unfolding. It was too thick to have been folded up properly to begin with, he mused, because its edges had sprung outwards when the box opened, as though it had been cramped for far too long and was now struggling to get a good view of the world once more. He unfolded it all the way, yellowed side by yellowed side, until a piece of paper torn, no doubt in his mind, from one of his packed−away sketchbooks rested wrinkled and open on his knees.
The paper under his hands felt like he had bumped straight into nostalgia− the handwriting flourished and flounced, thick, sprawling letters all etched with abandonment. Even the medium by which it had been written declared itself akin to a sort of distant, desperate childhood; a crayon, deep red like sunsets and sin, portrayed the message in caked, cracked letters.
To any of you who might think this an unsubstantial thing, I apologize. Unfortunately, it seemed rather difficult to purchase a crock filled only with gold, so I decided that I must make myself a box of marigolds instead. I wasn't going to bury this at all, because it's not nearly as splendid as I would like it to be, but Aloysius insisted that I had to. I wanted to bury a bottle of wine here, but I'm afraid it was rather hot today and in this miserable weather I seemed to have drunk every last bit of it.
Charles, if you find this, your drawing paper is immensely enjoyable to write on. Next time you come to visit, you wouldn't mind bringing a basket full of strawberries, would you?