‘Foxglove’ by Nadia Henderson: from Tools for Surviving a Storm: Eleven Tales of Nature, Love and Fear
by Nadia Henderson
Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of getting to know so many women whose writing we love — when we’d see a submission from them in our inbox, we’d eagerly dive in. Nadia Henderson is one of those writers, and so when we opened submissions for DD’s first one-author collection of work in 2021, we were so excited at the prospect of working with her on a collection of stories. The result was Tools for Surviving a Storm – a transporting, original collection in which Nadia examines the lines between nature and the human world, and the connections between love, fear and change. Journeying from Sweden’s ancient woods to the floodplains of the American South, the women in these stories navigate loneliness, loss and what it means to be alive in an ever-changing world.
For those who haven’t read the collection yet, we’ve selected the haunting short story ‘Foxglove’ to share, where a debilitating fear of foxgloves fuels a mother’s obsession. Read the ten other spell-binding tales — get your copy of Tools for Surviving a Storm now.
We stop halfway there to go to the supermarket. We buy still-warm sourdough rolls, avocados that dimple when we press them. Basil and pine nuts for pesto we’ll make at the weekend; unwaxed lemons, two bulbous heads of garlic. Seb wheels the trolley down aisle after aisle and I follow, gripping Ellie’s hand. She pulls against my hold, desperate to slip out and away, so she might run past her father and disappear around the corner. I tighten my grip.
We walk back to the car, the wind whipping our hair. Ellie walks quickly, eager to return to her games on the back seat. I do not let go of her hand.
It took us an hour to find her, sixty minutes that felt like much longer. Now that Seb has turned it into a dinner-party anecdote, the length of time she was gone for has been reframed as a minor detail, a wave of the hand, a ‘half an hour, give or take’. He never meets my eye when he shares these retellings.
The drive from the supermarket to the summer house is slow and silent. On stretches of clear, smooth road, Seb puts a hand on my knee. I feel the weight of his palm against my skin. I’m sure he’s not thinking, like I am, about every one of those sixty minutes, this time and place last year. I shift in my seat so his hand moves away. In the rearview mirror, Ellie’s head is bowed in concentration, fingers moving at lightspeed over the surface of her tablet.
The first thing we see when approaching the house is the foxgloves. They grow by the wooden rail of the veranda, gaping mouths in various shades of pink. Last year, Ellie – who, at seven, stands just a head above the tallest stems – put a finger into one of the flowers. I shouted, startling her away. Now, I imagine a whispered welcome slipping from their tongues like poison.
Seb pulls into the driveway. The foxgloves sway in the breeze and I try not to look.
In bed the next morning, my husband spills hot breath onto the tender skin at my neck. I twist away, but he’s close behind. He puts a hand across my hip, his wedding ring glinting in the milky light.
‘We should get rid of the foxgloves,’ I say.
His body stiffens. The hand that has started to thumb at my thigh recedes.
My voice is cracked and low. ‘They could poison Ellie.’
‘Only if she eats a whole field of them,’ Seb answers, rolling onto his back.
There’s the sound of the door handle, and our daughter appears with a paper fortune teller in her upturned palms. Seb adjusts the covers, sits up against the headboard. ‘It’s barely six o’clock, El.’
Ellie jumps onto the end of the bed. ‘Want me to tell you your future?’
She places one thumb then another, one index finger then the other, under the tips of the folded contraption, and begins to move her hands.
Later, I lay the table for breakfast. Ellie’s future, as she had read it, will include freshly baked croissants, so Seb has gone down to the village to buy some. I prepare coffee, and warm milk for Ellie, who is flicking the fortune teller across the table, jumping down from her seat to retrieve it. There’s a rush of pink in the corner of my vision as the foxgloves bob against the window. I could do it now, I think. I could take a knife to their stalks, bury their heads for the earth to gorge on.
We returned to the house after searching the woods for half an hour. It was brazen in its obliviousness, offering warmth and comfort as if we weren’t hollow with panic. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to put my face into the cushions and scream. Instead, I went back to Ellie’s room, begged for clues. There was her bed, unmade; sheet trailing on the floor. The folded pyjamas neatly stacked on her pillow, a heart-wrenching sign of obedience. There must be something I’m not seeing, I thought. There must be something else on which we can place the blame.
I went back into the living room. Seb was leaning against the breakfast bar, gnawing the skin at his thumb. ‘We have to call the police,’ I said.
He lowered his hand. ‘And say what? How would we explain this?’
‘It doesn’t matter. We can just tell them what happened.’
When he didn’t reply, I marched into the kitchen and ripped the list of numbers off the fridge. As I reached for the phone in its cradle, Seb grabbed it and held it behind his back. ‘We’ll find her, Mara. She has to be somewhere.’
I looked at the empty cradle, the crumpled list of numbers in my hand, the bunch of bananas turning brown in their bowl. I looked at anything but my husband. ‘She’s not a fucking remote control stuck down the back of the sofa, Seb.’
His fist came down on the bar, the phone clattering to the floor. ‘You think I don’t know that?’
Tears clouded my sight. ‘We have to report her missing.’
I brought myself to look at him then, this man that I loved. This man, who’d taken me camping and asked me to marry him as we toasted marshmallows over open flames with our four-year-old daughter. This man, who’d washed my hair and rubbed soap into my skin the day we found out that the child before Ellie would never say their first word, take a first step, or know this world at all.
Seb snatched the keys from the bar. ‘She has to be somewhere.’
We walk down to the seafront in the afternoon. The coast bends away from us like a curved bow, and we point out boats in the distance, the arched wings of seagulls cawing above us. Seb and I sit down on a towel by the dunes, while Ellie pulls off her oversized t-shirt and runs towards the water. Except for a father and son coaxing a kite into flight by the rocks, we have the beach to ourselves.
I dig my toes into the sand and watch Ellie chase the tide, holding on to her sunhat. Seb unscrews the canteen he’s brought, pours white wine into plastic cups. When he touches his hand to my arm to offer me a cup, I flinch. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’m just tired.’
He strokes the back of my neck, moves my hair to the side. ‘Maybe we can have an early night.’
Ellie is sitting in the shallows, splashing her hands in the water. ‘Maybe.’
Seb leans back on the towel. His voice is small against the wide-open space, as if it has come from the mouth of a shell I hold to my ear. ‘I don’t know what you want me to do, Mara.’
The late-August sun is weak behind clouds. It’s not a question, so I offer no reply. It’s a statement, a confession. I rub my goosebumped skin, pull the hem of my dress down to my ankles.
‘You have to forgive yourself,’ he says. ‘I can’t do it for you.’
I watch my daughter shovel sand into piles that, in her imagination, are mountains, or castles.
It was our fault that Ellie went missing. She’d wanted to explore the woods around the house, but we’d put her off with lukewarm promises of going out later instead. We’d given her paper and crayons, and left her outside, alone.
I remember my mouth pressed to Seb’s, his hand under my skirt, the dull ache of the kitchen counter digging into my back. It had been so long. Outside, I could hear the wind whistling through the birch trees. Nothing mattered more to me in that moment. Then, I remember the crayons, rolled away; sheets of paper blown across the veranda. Running from room to room, clinging to doorways; certain there was a corner I hadn’t checked, a stone left unturned.
For months afterwards, I’d sit on the toilet back home and pinch the skin at my inner thigh until I cried from the pain. Sixty pinches, one for every minute she’d been lost, felt like repentance. Then I’d climb into bed with my husband and wait, in vain, for him to speak.
When I wake up the next morning, Seb’s side of the bed is empty. I check the pillow for warmth that might tell me how long he’s been up and it’s cool to the touch. Daylight streams through a crack in the curtains, soaking the room in stillness. I press my phone to life and the screen shows that it’s gone eleven.
Sleep is a function I’ve come to view as selfish indulgence. I mimic my daughter’s circadian rhythm as closely as I can; going to bed only when I’m sure she’s asleep, waking up at least an hour before she does. Her routine has been harder to maintain during the school holidays, but I tell myself this disturbance, and the exhaustion it brings, is a suitable penance.
Through the slightly open door, I smell butter and smoke. I hear the frying pan crackling with heat and Ellie saying, ‘Can I flip one?’
‘The pan’s too heavy for you, grub,’ Seb replies.
Ellie jumps down from her seat at the table when I walk through. She runs to me, buries her head in my stomach. ‘We’re making you breakfast because you’re tired,’ she says, her hair matted and wild.
I bend to kiss the top of her head, breathe the scent of her into my lungs. She looks up at me, face glimmering with expectation. That’s when I see it: the milk jug in the middle of the table, pink mouths open.
Ellie runs back to her seat and Seb comes over. I stare at the pancake batter bubbling on the stove. ‘We’ve got maple syrup or lemon and sugar, your choice,’ he says, slipping an arm around my waist. When I don’t respond, he follows my line of sight to the flowers. ‘Ellie helped me pick them.’
I jerk away from him, smile at Ellie who’s looking up at us, confused. ‘But, you know . . .’ I say, tears prickling behind my eyes. ‘You know I don’t like them.’
Seb goes back to the pan, scrapes the overdone pancake into the sink. ‘Ellie, what are those pretty flowers for?’ he says.
Ellie slumps in her chair. ‘Looking at.’
‘And what are they not for?’
She stifles a laugh. ‘Eating!’
I sit down next to Ellie. She traces invisible letters on the surface of her plate and I try to guess the distance between her hands and the flowers.
We found our child huddled in the hollow of a fallen tree, half a mile from the house. The sky was streaked orange, everything bathed in twilight splendour. I pawed at her limbs in silence, searching for wounds. ‘You’re hurting me, Mummy!’ she shouted. The miracle of her unscathed skin left me breathless.
‘We called for you, Ellie,’ Seb said, his voice straining. ‘We called your name over and over. Why didn’t you answer?’
I pulled her small body to mine, breathed in the smell of her hair. I could feel my heart racing between us, beating for two.
‘I was scared you’d be angry with me,’ she sobbed.
I sunk to the ground, rocked my daughter back and forth in my lap until there was a bite to the air and no more orange sky.
Ellie demands another beach day, so we abandon a half-hearted game of Guess Who and walk down. It’s Saturday, and the beach is crowded with families; we weave through a minefield of wilting parasols and rusting loungers, laying our towel down on a spot by the rocks. I grab Ellie’s wrist as she turns to head for the water. ‘Sunhat please,’ I say, straightening the cotton rim across her forehead.
‘It’s like some sort of hellish Renaissance painting,’ Seb says, nodding at the mass of children playing in the shallows. Despite myself, I feel the pull of a smile.
We sit in silence, watching Ellie bring handfuls of silt out of the water and letting it run, glistening, through her fingers. Older children push each other over behind her, the water rising in spurts as their backs break the surface. The air rings with the sound of their screams.
‘All right,’ Seb says, standing up. ‘How about ice cream?’
Before I can answer, he’s picking his way towards the truck in the dunes.
Next to me, a mother urges her child to stand still as she attempts to rub sunscreen onto their back. There’s a tussle, and I feel small hands tug at my hair as the child topples into my lap.
‘Amelia, apologise to that lady right now,’ the mother says.
I look at them and smile. ‘It’s OK.’
When I turn back around, I can no longer see my daughter in the shallows. There is just the yellow crown of her sunhat bobbing in the water.
Everything but that hat – the mother, the sunscreen, the bent spine of a splayed book I step on – blurs at the edge of my vision as I sprint towards the water. I hear myself calling her name. The fear is physical, primal; the only real thing. Then I’m in the water, far beyond the children, slicing through gentle waves towards the thin line of the horizon.
A chorus of voices, like sirens, call to me from the shore. Seb, an ice cream in each hand, Ellie by his side.
I walk ahead of them on the way home, my spent limbs burning with every uphill step. When their shadows stretch out in front of me, I up my pace. By the time we reach the house, I am breathless with exertion. I stare at the foxgloves; the patch of mutilated stumps, the gardening gloves Seb has left there.
Ellie kicks off her shoes at the door before going to her room. I walk back and forth in the kitchen, watch Seb put the game of Guess Who away, folding each plastic flap down with care. ‘I thought she’d drowned.’
Seb slides the lid cleanly over its box and leans back on the sofa. ‘Is it not far more likely that she saw me going for ice cream and followed me out to the truck, which is exactly what happened?’
I think of the sunhat floating at the water’s edge. My voice is a knife. ‘I looked away for a second and when I turned around she was gone.’
‘She knows not to go more than ankle deep, Mara,’ he says. ‘You need to learn to trust her.’
‘Why didn’t you call the police, Seb?’ I spit.
He looks at me, confused. ‘Because I knew where she was.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Before.’
The space between us spoils like rotten fruit. I stare at him slouched on the sofa; jaw clenched, eyes down. ‘Because calling would have made it real, and I couldn’t make it real,’ he says, choking back tears.
The sudden smallness of his voice takes me back to the last time I saw my husband cry. The gel, cold on my skin; indecipherable shapes on the screen. The nurse’s fading smile as she went to get the doctor. He’d held my hand in his and tried to hide his fear. It’s OK, he’d kept saying. It’s OK. He’d kept hold of my hand and together we’d listened to the sound of car horns beeping outside while we waited for the nurse to come back.
We drive home the following day, stop at the supermarket halfway. Ellie strolls down the aisles, brushing her fingers against the shelves. We buy biscuits, cartons of juice; bottled water and napkins. As we make our way outside, Ellie slips between parked cars; waiting, crouched behind bonnets, for her father to find her. I listen for the sound of her laughter, plimsolls on the tarmac.
As night paints the sky pastel pink, Seb takes my hand in his. He smooths his thumb over my skin, gives a gentle squeeze. I sense him glance in my direction, but I don’t turn to face him. Instead, I watch the trees blur past outside, delighting in the movement of wheels against road that is taking us forward.
Tools for Surviving a Storm: Eleven Tales of Nature, Love and Fear
A transporting, original collection by Nadia Henderson, examining the lines between nature and the human world.