This is a short story I wrote for the HC Chistmas competition. Didn’t win a prize, though 🙁
Eight-year old Astrid Waver wasn’t sure whether her father was a farmer or a brute. For her little sister Marie there was no such dilemma, she was only scared. To the folks in St. Michaels, Bernard Waver was just a crofter, the tawny, taciturn widower with a tuff of red hair who had inherited the small plot of land from his father, and he from his father and so on. In Spring and Summer the villagers could set their clocks to Bernard working his land or looking after his beasts. After dinner, he smoked his pipe, alone, on the bench that stood against the drab-white front of the old farmstead until he went to an early bed. He worked diligently, heart and soul, every day, except for the day he buried his wife. Five years ago. After that, his sister Felicia came to stay, returning from Ashford, where it was said she had an affair with a married banker. She was bit above them all, always had been, but now she looked after her nieces and after the house, grudgingly.
In his own way, Bernard loved animals and he bred them with care until they were ready for human consumption. Then he killed them, without emotion or thought, for a buyer or to feed his family. They tasted good, just like the land, rich and healthy. Chicken, rabbit, pig, sheep, even the occasional cock-pigeon for which he had no use. Just as his father had taught him, he instructed his daughters to look after the five Belgian hares in their rabbit hutches at the backside of the barn. Astrid and Marie had to feed them every day and clean the cages on Saturday morning. Astrid, who was a tall, dark-haired girl with strong hands, loved the rabbits which an intensity that bordered on hysteria but Marie was terrified of the long-eared animals that grew overnight from soft little bunnies into giants she couldn’t lift and would bite her if she tried. She watched Astrid caress the rabbits for hours and carry them around in her arms like babies. She had named them Minnie, Wilbert, Ada, Polly and the king of them all, black Mister Bib, the tiny white spot under his chin explaining his name. Astrid knew all about their different characters and habits.
“We have to be very careful with Ada now, Marie,“ Astrid was teaching her five-year old sister, “she has Mr Bib’s babies in her belly, at least I think so.”
Marie’s round eyes, blue and innocent like her mothers’ looked up at her:
“How do you know? How can Mr Bib creep into Ada to leave his babies? I never saw Mr Bib having any babies.”
“No silly,” Astrid replied worldly-wise, “he sits close behind her and gives her lots of very quick cuddles and that’s how it happens.” Astrid placed black-and-white speckled Ada with great care in the big carton box so she could remove the pellet-filled straw and shake fresh straw in the hatch. When Ada had returned to her clean house, it would be Marie’s turns to pick up Minnie and how she dreaded that moment. But if dad came around the corner and saw that Astrid did all the work, she would have to lift all five of them for punishment next week.
“Will you help me lift Minnie’s bum just a little?” Marie whispered, peeping towards the corner of the barn. Astrid nodded and the girls managed together for another week.
It was a Saturday in mid-November when Astrid awoke with a knot in her tummy. It was that particular day of the year. She slid out of bed and walked over to the window in her pyjamas. Shivering with cold and misery. She pulled the curtain aside and in the weak light she could see that the first snow of winter had fallen, a thin layer paved the cobbled farmyard and the meadow where four Suffolk sheep stood dozing. In spite of herself, Astrid’s eyes were drawn to the wooden contraption that stood leaning against the barn across from the yard. She could hear the horrible squealing again in her ears, followed shortly by the agonized cry of Ronnie, last year’s pig. Astrid suppressed a wave of nausea. Within two hours it would be Beth’s turn, hanging there upside down, slit open from throat to tail, while her father, his hands all wet and bloody, removed her bowels. That moment would in fact be a lull in this awful day, the one between the two real horrors: Beth’s fearful death scream as her father jammed the dagger in the side of her neck and the plate of crisp pork that Aunt Felicia would put in front of her for dinner.
Fifteen minutes later, father and daughters sat down to breakfast. Aunt Felicia, a tall red-haired woman with a chagrin mouth, was slamming pans on the stove, even louder than usual. Astrid sensed that her aunt hated this day too, but she didn’t know why, certainly not because she loved Beth. Maybe she missed the man she had to leave in Ashford. Marie was unaware of the fatality of the day and spooned her porridge as a good girl. Astrid tried but couldn’t manage.
“Felicia, we’re going to have the black rabbit for Christmas.” Bernard announced. Astrid almost choked in the bit she was trying to shallow. Tears sprang to her eyes but she was wise enough not to say anything.
“Whatever,” replied Felicia and closed the sink cupboard with an angry kick of her foot.
Bernard pushed back his chair and got up:
“Lot of work today, I’m off.”
Astrid pressed her lips together and felt her cheeks go hot. If she had known how, she would have wanted to stop breathing at that moment. ‘Never!’, she thought, ‘that brute is not going to kill Mr Bib.’
As a devoted mother Astrid set about cleaning her rabbits while her father made preparations to slaughter Beth. Marie only had to hand the fresh straw and fill the cups with food and water. Astrid was talking to her rabbits non-stop:
“Come-on Wilbert, stop jumping around, come here, my darling. Ada, you naughty girl you have made such a mess this week. Mr Bib is not going to like you being such a sloppy wife. And Wilbert I think you are fancying little Minnie, aren’t you, sniffing at her all the time. Polly, Polly, Polly you are such a dolly.” Astrid rattled on and fussed over the rabbits until she heard Beth first squeal. She froze, finished the work quickly and run inside.
Astrid couldn’t sleep that night and tripped out of bed to her bedroom window again. She peered outside, searching. There was a few inches of snow now, the ground completely covered . But something was lying in the snow, dark patches here and there. She opened the window to have a closer look. The patches were dark, dark-red blood. Downstairs she stormed, bare feet and in her pyjamas she ran outside, crying and screaming. There was blood everywhere, with here and there little balls of fluffy hair and tiny bones. Her rabbits, her babies. And it was her doing. She had killed them! Killed them! Astrid sank on her knees in the snow and sobbed uncontrollably. Bernard came running out of the house, tying his dressing gown around him, startled at his daughter’s screams. Then he saw what had happened.
“Jeez,” he cursed, “a fox or a dog! Get inside, Astrid, you’ll catch a cold.” Dazed Astrid got to her feet and obeyed her father. She stumbled indoors and sat at the kitchen table. The crying had stopped, suddenly, and she was just pale as a sheet, her whole body shivering and her teeth cluttering so wildly that she couldn’t form the words. She was talking to no one in particular:
Bernard came in and put a blanket around his shaking daughter. He didn’t listen to her, he was trying to cope with his own pain. Marie, frightened and tiny, tiptoed in and went over to stand next to her father. He picked her up and held her in his arms.
“Shush…shush..” he comforted awkwardly.
Astrid got up as well and, the blanket trailing behind her, went on wobbly legs to her dad.She buried her face in his flank. He stroked her dark curls and mumbled again:
The three of them just stood there until Felicia came down, frowning:
“What’s this spectacle all about?” No one answered. It was dead still in the kitchen. Dead still. So still that Marie’s little ears heard a faint scratching at the back door. She wriggled free from her father’s arms and went to the door. Mr Bib’s round eyes looked straight at her. Marie bent down and he jumped into her arms. Ever so proudly she walked back into the kitchen.
“He didn’t try to bite me, jumped straight into my arms. See!”
12 December 2010