Months after her sister’s death, Marianne wakes up to find a growth of thick black hairs along her spine.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Garden of Earthly Bodies by Sally Oliver, an eerie and unsettling novel that grapples with questions of trauma, identity, and the workings of memory—available now from The Overlook Press.
Months after her sister’s death, Marianne wakes up to find a growth of thick black hairs along her spine. They defy her attempts to remove them, instead proliferating, growing longer. The hairs, Marianne’s doctor tells her, are a reaction to trauma, developed in the wake of the loss of her sister, Marie. Her doctor recommends that Marianne visits Nede, a modern, New Age rehabilitation center in a remote forest in Wales where the patients attend unorthodox therapy sessions and commune with nature.
Yet something strange is happening to Marianne and the other patients at Nede: a metamorphosis of a kind. As the hairs on her back continue to grow, the past starts to entangle itself with the present and the borders of her consciousness threaten to disintegrate. She finds herself drawn back compulsively to the memory of Marie, obsessing over the impulse that drew her sister toward death and splintered her family apart. As Marianne’s memories threaten to overwhelm her, Nede offers her release from this cycle of memory and pain—but only at a terrible price: that of identity itself.
After speaking to Anna, Marianne took a shower. She stripped and threw her shirt in the laundry, then changed her mind and stuffed it in the little bin under the bathroom sink. Then she stared at herself in the mirror. She was paler than she realised. The concealer hadn’t really concealed anything. In fact it had settled on her skin without reducing the puffiness, creating the impression her eyes were sinking. She had never been a stranger colour. She turned around so that her back was facing the mirror and peered over her shoulder.
Along the ridges of her spine, not one, not three, but a steady line of hairs that grew all the way up from the tailbone, just above the crack of her bottom, towards the middle of her neck. There were too many to count. Perhaps as many as fifty. She felt duty-bound to count otherwise she’d be admitting defeat. If they defied a limit, they had become as essential to her form as the hairs on her head.
She pulled a handful from the middle of her back and watched the skin rise without releasing them, growing redder the harder she pulled. She turned and rooted through the cabinet behind the mirror for a pair of tweezers. Precision didn’t make it any easier; the pain was simply more concentrated. She took a pair of nail scissors next and tore through the hairs so quickly she clipped her skin several times. It wasn’t until the blood reached the line of her bottom and curved into the darkness there that she dropped the scissors into the sink.
The shower was still running, so she washed her hands and waited for the hairs to disappear down the drain. When she stepped under the shower head she took her razor from the floor where Richard had knocked it over and straightened so she could steady it on her tailbone. In a quick, savage motion, she raked it along her spine. It split the skin instantly, but it was necessary; the skin had to be broken for the roots to give way. She sliced herself continuously in this manner, reaching over her shoulder to razor the top of her back, then parting her buttocks to shave as close to her anus as she dared, frightened that they would begin to grow there too. Thankfully, this part was clear. But it took her several attempts to wrench them from her back. They were so thick she couldn’t believe the pores on her skin were wide enough to contain them.
The sting was almost unbearable at first but she soldiered past it, raking the blade over her back without allowing herself a second to recover, censoring the part of herself that was witness to what she was doing, barely registering the damage. It was a task that could only be completed with mindless industry. The ridges of her spine enforced a rhythmic rise and fall. Sometimes a cluster of hairs presented a bigger problem and halted her progress; she had to use her fingers to eke them out from the torn skin. Then she grew careless. She could no longer keep the razor straight. What does it matter? she thought. She swerved off course, catching a mole she’d forgotten she had, somewhere on the right side. There was a burning sensation. She carried on.
This lasted for much longer than she later wished to remember, and it was much easier than she’d thought it would be. Far too easy. It was the cloudy blood on the floor of the shower that shook her from the spell. She gasped and dropped the razor. With a trembling hand, she managed to switch the water off.
‘Oh no,’ she said quietly. She sounded stupid to herself.
She ran, dripping, down the hallway to retrieve a pile of towels, all of them regrettably white, and carried them back to the bathroom, trailing a steady line of blood along the carpet. Her legs began to quake. Her hands went next. And she couldn’t find her face in the misted mirror, confused and aggrieved by its opacity.
Then she suffered. The pain had finally arrived. Marianne saw strange shapes on the back of her eyelids, bathed in red shadow. The sting was spreading towards her chest, as though the hairs had roots extending towards the end of her life, creeping inward and curling round the vertebrae like ivy to an arbour. A taut network of invisible lines existed and she’d barely scratched the surface of it.
She lay on her stomach with the towel pressed to her back until the fibres dried in the blood, knitting themselves to her skin. It would be hell having to pull it off again. She rested her left cheek on the tiled floor, and then switched the pressure to her right. Then she grew cold.
The phone rang and she wondered whether it was worth answering. But it might be Richard. Her joints were stiff when she lifted herself up and the sting returned like a whip. She moved slowly along the hallway with the towel hanging from her back like a cape. Every time she moved her arms and legs, the sting broke through so she tried not to move her upper body, keeping her spine erect. Her hair was still wet and she realised, with horror, that it was trapped beneath the towel. She scooped it all up in one hand and tugged the ends off her back.
The phone stopped ringing.
She picked it up, gasping as the sting rippled along the ball of her shoulder. It was an old phone that came with the flat, though she wasn’t sure why neither of them had thought to upgrade it. There was something antiquated now in the absence of a name or customised image that accompanied the call, something hostile about the caller’s veiled identity. Her fingers were slightly numb, so it took a while for her to dial the number that would trace the call. It wasn’t Richard, though she recognised the number as a local one.
Then it occurred to her it was most likely going to be Doctor Hind.
She’d placed the phone in its cradle again so when it rang out a second time, she shuddered. Perhaps the more blood she’d lost, the quicker she gave rise to panic. Everything that seemed anodyne, even slightly offensive in its mundanity – the unmade bed and the wardrobe door hanging off its hinges, the phone itself with its knotted white coil – now presented a very real threat to her continuing existence in the room. The red eye of the machine flashed out of time with the ringing, and she was convinced it was trying to translate something, a malice beyond comprehension, between each interval of sound. She snatched the phone to her ear.
‘Hi—what’s up with you?’
It was Richard. Marianne placed her hand on her chest.
‘You sound angry.’
‘I just called to check up on you. How was the thing with Anna?’
‘She’s letting me go,’ Marianne said quietly.
There was a silence at the other end. Marianne thought she heard him swear to himself.
‘What the hell is wrong with her?’ he said. ‘Is she so heartless that she can’t give you more time?’
‘I’ve had time, Richard.’
‘Yeah, but she hasn’t a clue how much you’ve suffered.’
‘I’m not writing what they want.’
He was breathing heavily, which she hated. ‘Why are you—what’s got into you?’
‘You don’t sound like you care. I bet you didn’t even fight for yourself! Why not?’
‘I don’t care.’ She said this quickly but there was a lump in her throat. ‘I was relieved actually…’
At that point, she felt breathless, like she couldn’t muster the energy to speak. And she’d lost her train of thought; it seemed to be branching off in different directions, little offshoots ending nowhere. The pain was terrible.
‘I want to lie down.’
‘Are you alright? You sound faint.’
‘I feel sick.’
The pain was starting to develop a rhythm. It was one note, a throbbing bass. She could hear its passage, a wave of sound in her blood that caused the cells to spiral upwards. Something pulsed forwards, rippling across the gap from spine to skin in one fluid movement. Inside these undulations, Marianne found relief in being materially vague. She was so taken in by it, she had an urge to answer Richard with something other than her mouth, to speak through the palm of her hand. For a second, she couldn’t recall what it was that released the thought into words, and the divorce between the two paralysed her.
‘Hey!’ The old petulance returned to his voice.
‘Sorry,’ she said automatically.
‘Are you drunk?’
‘Your words are slurred!’
‘I feel sick.’
Richard lowered his voice suddenly. Marianne knew someone in his office must have wandered close to whatever secluded part of the building he’d gone to to phone her.
‘Just lie down for a bit. I’ll try and come home for seven but might have to stay longer. Are you going to be alright? I’m sorry I snapped.’
Marianne frowned at the bed and said nothing.
‘Ah shit,’ he said. ‘Can I call you back? I’m supposed to be in a meeting in five minutes.’
‘Don’t. There’s no need,’ she said.
The pain had subsided, briefly, but it was a second in which her anger took charge. It was always there, endless reserves of it.
‘What?’ he said.
‘I’ve nothing else to add!’
‘Right. Look, don’t be upset. Don’t do anything drastic.’
‘Mari, please don’t be angry at me. I’m on your side. I just—have to go.’
She couldn’t bear it when he announced he had to go and then still had plenty to say, almost as though he was prepared to be chivalrous in spite of pressing demands. Sometimes she was convinced he made these things up, that he had a meeting any minute or the phone was ringing, so that she might think him so compassionate to continue the call for as long as he could to ensure she was alright. And why wouldn’t he be on her side? What other side was there? What did he mean by that?
She didn’t wait for him to say goodbye. It gave her a tiny thrill to cut the call without ceremony.
Then she saw herself in the mirror on the wall.
The blood had dried along her forearms and she’d managed to smear it over one side of her face. Her hair was also dark with it.
But when she turned around to view her back, her nausea returned—not because there were streaks of blood but because there were none. There was a series of lacerations, all of them conveying a manic energy, applied without precision, some as far out as her shoulder blade and hip bones. But they were so faint she might have scratched the skin weeks ago. There was no blood. The scars criss-crossed her spine like the scratches of a biro over a false sentence.
Excerpted from Garden of Earthly Bodies, copyright © 2022 by Sally Oliver.