An excerpt from Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, published by Granta Books.
They bring her out. Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light. The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones – not the last stones – bruise her bare feet. She stumbles. They hold her up. No need to be rough, everyone knows what is coming. From deep inside her body, from the cord in her spine and the wide blood-ways under the ribs, from the emptiness of her womb and the rising of her chest, she shakes. A body in fear. They lead the fearful body over the turf and along the track, her bare feet numb to most of the pain of rock and sharp rushes. Chanting rises, the drums sound slow, unsyncopated with the last panic of her heart. Others follow, wrapped against the cold, dark figures processing into the dusk.
On arrival, they strip her. It is easy; they have put her into a loose tunic. Her body is white in the pale red light, solid against the wisps of fog and the tracery of reed. She tries to cover herself with her hands, and is not allowed. One holds her while the other binds her. Her breathing is accelerating, its condensation settling on her face. All of them are accompanied by their exhalations, slowly dissolving into the air. They turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learnt to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. She has played with the children who now peep at her from behind their mothers, has murmured prayers for them as they were being born. She has been one of them, ordinary. Her brother and sisters watch her flinch as the men take the blade, lift the pale hair on the left side of her head and cut it away. They scrape the skin bare. She doesn’t look like one of them now. She shakes. They tuck the hair into the rope around her wrists.
She is whimpering, keening. The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.
There are no surprises.
They place another rope around her neck, hold the knife up to the setting sun as it edges behind the rocks.
What is necessary is on hand, the sharpened willow withies, the pile of stones, the small blades and the large. The stick for twisting the rope.
Not yet. There is an art to holding her in the place she is entering now, on the edge of the water-earth, in the time and space between life and death, too late to return to the living and not time, not yet, not for a while, to be quite dead.