I found her on the sloping paddock leading up to the row of run down dwellings, under a broadsheet of snow. I’d had to dig her from the drift with my bare hands. She was ready to drop, any day now. I’d have to keep my eye on her. It was the coldest spring weather in living record and was set to get nastier. I carried my pack up to the house and heard her follow, crunching the snow between my own tracks. It was further than it appeared from where the stagecoach had dropped me by the creek at the bottom of the hill, partly, from the effect on the eye of the terracing and partly a trick of perspective on account of the oversized wall slicing the house and the hill in two, over a mile ahead of me.
The door was open and what remained of my newly acquired flock was in the parlour. There was shit on the flagstones though I doubted the place would have been more hospitable without the welcoming committee. On the bright side, it was heat of one sort, and in the absence of any means to light a fire, I took it with grace.
I slept fitfully. Shouts rose and fell through my neighbour’s wall. By next morning the tracks and the visitors were gone. Half way down the paddock, a mass in red stained snow. The ewe, frozen, her nose bloodied and tail end soaked the only parts distinguishable in the drift.
I scraped around until I felt the scrub of new grass but there was no lamb. Reluctantly I took off my jacket, put it around my neck, a substitute, and rolled up my sleeves. The placenta was out. I made a fist and a cursory sweep confirmed she’d given birth but with no tracks I couldn’t get a picture for what had happened. In any case, the lamb would be dead. The blood on the ewe’s nose wasn’t from licking the birth sack off.
I found a leg in the thaw, picked clean but the joint still intact. I took it around to the other house.
‘it’s the wolves’
‘you had experience of them?’
‘not for some time, since they took -’
Mallick’s wife had been heating milk in a tin jug and had been so quiet I had almost forgotten she was there.
Though far from slight, she was almost as tall as I, she appeared small in the shadow of her husband, a Minotaur of a man. Their only similarities, their beast’s heads and misshapen eye teeth. Features their children had inherited.
Mallick had said to meet him up at the house if there was another attack and he’d show me how to trap the wolves.
As I walked up the slope I saw the door was open and could just make out the dark forms of a person standing over another seated one. It was a cold day to have the house open to the wind. I imagined Mallick’s wife cussing the loss of the heat for the bairns. Then I imagined them, the young ‘uns, with their spectre eyes and wind scalded cheeks. Those hollow little heads held onto little more than sinews of frames by tattered, too small clothing which sagged in their middles for all it was short in the limbs. I remembered their faces when the bowls had been put in front of them, the slice of bread cut into fingers and shared: one hand between four and the thumb cut into bits, thrown on top, and finally the milk. Steam had risen as the warm liquid had swum over the tin bowls. All except the littlest had set to like gannets with spoons for bills, she just eyed me with the one ghoul eye until her mother said, ‘get it darn yer, it’ll be cold egeen.’
There was an exchange of furtive glances between the other children, their eyes coming to rest on their father who only echoed his wife, ‘get that darn yer, afooer it’s cold’.
The girl poked a finger, white and fragile as a wishbone to the dirty tip, and hooked up the milk skin. She held it there, dripping, thickening, before putting it to her thin chapped lips and stuffing it in the small gap. I doubted she had ever known a meal large enough as to need to open her mouth for. It was an odd thing to be thinking of as I approached Mallick’s door for the second time that spring.
Mallick’s wife stepped out to meet me and I could just make out the boots of her man, seated behind her. She wiped her hands on her apron and for all it was filthy I could see the streak of blood.
‘been cutting is hair’, she said, ‘never learns t’ sit still’.
I winced at the thought of his slit ear. I’d lost a piece of my own lobe to a pair of kitchen scissors and a pudding bowl as youngster and I could see from Mallick’s youngest, now appearing from behind her mother’s petticoats, that she’d been first in the basin that morning. She had a white band between the blunt edge of her mousy hair and the greasy tide lower down on her neck. Mallick said nothing. He had struck me on our first meeting as a man whose face was fiercer than his bite, not to mention one who had, through years of marriage, perfected the skill of keeping quiet while his wife did the yapping.
‘I’m here to warn you, there’s been another wolf attack on my flock’,
‘anything taken?’ Mallick’s wife asked, shooting a look over her shoulder at the big fella, listening, waiting for me to go on.
‘I managed to scare it off, it only looked like a young thing, scrawny.’
‘aye, them’s worstens’, Mallick’s wife said, ‘them’s ones yerve t’ wetch aht for’. She leaned forwards, pushing her youngest back inside, behind her, and scanning the surrounding hillside. ‘astall git mine inside for t’neet, thank ye’ and she stepped back, once more blocking the doorway.
A bank of ash cloud was roiling down over the Black Hills, sending an icy blast on ahead, the first sleet needles pricking my eyelids before I turned, pulled up my collar and headed down the slope. There was no terracing on Mallick’s side.
Mallick’s house sat back to back with my own at the top of Wolf Hill but a thirty foot boundary wall severing his land from mine meant that I’d had to walk for two miles to call at his door. The wall was not Mallick’s doing but that of the previous land owner, a man named Nobbing, who had, according to town lore, built the wall to settle a quarrel among his sons.
Town lore wasn’t entirely reliable. Back then the farm was thriving. Nobbing was the first pioneer to raise a complete herd of thoroughbred Angus and folk came from every neighbouring township to the monthly market. His second born was thought to have been the brains behind the whole set up, often seen wandering the hill alone, tending to the cattle at all hours. The eldest lad had never shown an interest in the farm, preferring to spend his money on heifers he could never convince to follow him home from the neighbouring townships.
Time came when the old man wanted to pass the farm on to his sons. By now the eldest was courting the only daughter of a butcher in New Sodding and suddenly saw the value of a robust herd. His father, however, always displeased by his eldest on account of his resembling his dear deceased wife’s mother, had already promised the land to the youngest lad and would have stuck to his word had he not been called to a commotion on the hillside one evening by the butcher’s daughter.
The girl was in a state but managed to say that his eldest had his youngest by the throat and had threatened to rip it out. The old man had dashed out onto the slope just in time to stop bloody murder and urged his sons to take a half share of the farm. The youngest said nothing and skulked off to be with the cattle but the eldest set off on the long walk into New Sodding to fetch a law man to make the deal binding. When he returned, the old man was dead on the hillside, appearing to have been attacked by a wild animal of some sort and during the inquiry that followed the youngest son spoke only to say that it was his father’s wish that the farm be divided and the township be severed: his own side thence to be known as Great Nobbing and his brother’s as Little Nobbing. The law man thought it only fair as the sharing itself could not be overruled on account of the butcher’s daughter having witnessed it.
The wall was built. Soon after, the cattle disappeared from Great Nobbing only to reappear in Little Nobbing. For a few brief weeks the township was alive with the preparations and celebration for the eldest brother’s marriage to the butcher’s daughter but shortly after the wedding, shaggy corpses began to turn up in the creek at the bottom of the hill, their red coats torn in clumps from their hides. Some said it was the brothers carrying on their quarrel, some said it was the old man settling the score from the grave, but from then on the hill on either side of the divide was known as Wolf Hill and the story found its way into a ballad which could still be heard in the tavern on a cold night.
The storm came in fast and with a mile still to go I was soaked to the skin and it was dark. I began to sing the ballad to myself to occupy my mind which was beginning to play tricks on me. I was thinking over the sighting of the young wolf the previous night, only now, every time I tried to replay its actions I had seen the face of Mallick’s child, keen and hollow. I sang:
When the wind blows icy and the leaves fall from the trees
And your son has fallen to the night
When you hear the howling take the hiding from the wolves
And wrap your bairn up tight.
I felt dizzy, light in the head. Had I forgotten to put a light on in my own house? Had my own children had the sense to run inside and close the door? I lost my footing and stumbled. The scrub grass felt like a rain soaked fleece under my knees. Through the wind and hail could just make out the howl.
I woke to the sound of liquid being poured into a basin and the humming of the ballad still in my ears.
‘ah, it lives, astall git mother’
I must have drifted off again for the next thing I felt was the cold flannel scuffing at my whiskers and the water drizzling down my neck. I tried to sit up. The bed clothes were tight.
‘yer’ll not be gooin anywheer this minute, mister, jest yer rest easy for the time’
‘how long have I? – I have to get home’ I said. The matron looked to the daughter, now standing by the window. I could see fine hairs rising in the chink of sunlight between the drapes.
‘yer needs t’rest, that’s what yer needs t’git. Astall be back in a shot wi a healing brew. Mind Hasty.’
She stood and flapped her hands at her daughter, ‘lit day in, sunleet mends all woes, mister, that it does’ and with a bluster of skirts she was through the door and crowing down the stairs.
‘mam’ll ev yer fixed reight as cream atop milk in nay time, dun’t yer werry, mister, en, if a may seh, yer looks a churn a better colour today than yer did whence they brought yer in’
‘folks what fahnd yer. State yer wer in, mister, weren’t nob’dy thought yer’d mek it rarnd clock, sithi, look at yer nah?’
‘how long have I been here?’
‘astall seh av read a set er Daily Blaggers’
My words came out with something of a shriek coinciding as they did with the girl’s opening the curtains. She studied me, silently perplexed for a moment, and I, for my observations, once my eyes adjusted, could see that she was not as young as I had initially supposed.
‘yer ed a freet that neet, anall, din’t yer’
I shook my head.
‘yer dun’t remeber, does yer? Ah, ‘appen is for t’best, as folk say, what memory weynt remeber’s best fergorren. Only,’ and she came forwards at this, leaned down close to my face to say, ‘it’s nightmares that weyn’t lerrus fergit, int it?’ She jumped back when her mother came creaking back up the stairwell, appearing with a flushed face and a tray of steaming broth and nub of black pudding.
‘this’ll ev yer reight sooin enough. Si thi, Hasty, help mister get set up and see e gets ‘is fill – astall want t’ see a clean bowl’. The girl bobbed a sort of courtesy which seemed both affected and utterly appropriate both at once.
Her mother swept up her skirts and was again testing the staircase.
Hasty un-tucked the sheets and as I struggled to work my legs loose enough to push myself to a seated position she slid a cool milky arm down my back and around my waist and fed her other in front of me to meet it, retracting them both almost immediately.
‘forgive -’ I coughed. ‘it’s early morning’
‘t’is nothing of the sort, mister, t’is solid mid-day’
Her cheeks were as rosy as her mother’s had been a moment earlier.
‘I must go home now’
I got out of bed and after some initial staggering managed to pull on my clothes.
‘wait, si thi, mister. Mam’ll ev summat t’ seh for reighting if yer dun’t ev nowt t’eyt.’
‘miss, I was always taught never to eat and run’ and with that I pulled on my boots. As I stood Hasty thrust her hand into my trouser pocket. I did a sort of dance to get around her and left. Hasty’s mother spun on her heels on my passing her to get to the tavern door.
‘I must go home now. I thank you for your kindness and hope I can repay you in some small way?’ I blathered, barging the door. I could hear her shouting, ‘Hasty, what yer said t’ mek mister off in a flerry?’, as I reeled up the street.
A news boy came towards me with a Blagger held out. I felt in my pocket and pulled out a piece of black pudding. The boy dropped the paper and ran. I picked it up and read the headline on the front page ‘Hiding From The Wolves’ and beneath that a picture bearing an uncanny resemblance to me. I never found out what the rest of the article said as there was at that moment a prolonged blast on a whistle and two members of Little Nobbing’s Constabulary were upon me and dragging me at speed to the headquarters.
Sergeant was a stout man with a set of russet bugger handles flanking his ruddy cheeks. He could have been anything between forty and seventy as most men in Little Nobbing had a hard done by look about them. Life was harsh, uncompromising as the weather, and now I was discovering it was just as unpredictable. The constables bound my wrists to the chair before taking seats out of my view. Sergeant was thumbing through the newspaper they had taken from me.
‘do yer know what I dun’t like?’ He didn’t look up.
I shook my head but before I realised it was a pointless gesture Sergeant added, ‘strangers. Do yer know why I dun’t like strangers?’ I didn’t. I didn’t particularly want to know, either, but I had at least the presence of mind to keep that to myself. ‘strangers,’ he went on ‘breezing into tarn never bring owt wi em but trouble’. He looked up at this point, but not at me, directing his statement to the constables. ‘Ah seh, dunt yer agree?’ No answer. He slammed his fist down onto the desk and the pages of the paper were still fluttering back to their former place when it dawned on me he was talking to me. ‘I don’t know what you’re referring to’ I said. He dropped his eyes to the newspaper again and stroked his mutton chops.
‘lived in Great Nobbing long, have you?’ he said. There was a hint of smugness about his speech but I couldn’t be sure if it was aimed at me, comment specific or a general feature of his person. He folded the paper up, took a brown bag from the drawer, wrote ‘exhibit two’ on it, and slipped the newspaper inside. I looked around his desk but couldn’t see any other bags, nothing in fact presenting itself as exhibit one.
‘what’s all this about?’
He guffawed. ‘yer ‘ear that, lads, wants to know why ‘e’s ‘ere’.
Having taken my own eyes off him for a moment I couldn’t tell if he was still looking at the constables or at me now. ‘what was yer doing ahtside the Lamb and Flag?’
‘is this about the black pudding? Because I can explain; it’s all very innocent’.
‘innocent, eh? Very well, play it yer own way, mister?’
The smile fell from the sergeant’s face and he stared somewhere very near me for several moments during which the constables whispered something. Sergeant cleared his throat.
‘well, I think we have enough information from you for the time being. Constables, please untie Mr Nobbing’.
As I walked back towards the farm the full weight of my presence hit me. I had been foolish to think I could slip into my family home unnoticed but I had been a bigger fool to think I could end the curse.
The weeks of wild weather gave way to the somewhat timid roar of early summer but there were no more visits from the wolves in those sunny months. The village shrugged off its grey overcoat and took on the air of a place I recalled from my mother’s stories if not from my own memory. Familiar and novel altogether I relished my wanderings around the township after the cattle market most weekends, often stopping by the tavern for a jug of ale ostensibly as a means of repaying the landlady for her kindness but in fact I wanted to know the details of how I had come to her. She was affable enough, though insisted Hasty stay out back for the duration of my visits, and over the course of the summer she told me all the town’s stories about the old farm and the mad goings on there over the years. She was fond of the wild man of Great Nobbing, she said, and was sad but hardly surprised by his heading out to the Black Hills one day and never returning. I could have filled in some of the gaps in her tales but the fabrication was a pleasant balm for truths best forgotten.
The warm weather lifted everyone’s spirits and even Mallick’s children acquired an almost healthy glow. Certainly they had fuller bellies now the fields and hedgerows were alive with rabbits, but the youngest still looked at me with eyes so hollow a spiritual man might have thought them portals for the dead. I doubted she would survive another winter as harsh as the last. That’s when I thought of the lamb.
It had been my intention to gift the first lamb of the year Mallick only the wolves had gotten to it first. Now, with the wolves gone, I could give him one of the lambs I’d bought at the market if not my own.
I drove the lamb for the first mile but it forgot what its legs were for by the second and it was only the thought of not wanting to present an ill looking thing that I decided to carry it around the wall and up the hill to the Little Nobbing farm house.
The big man was sitting on a chair by the door with a large enamel bowl between his feet, a box to his left and a small heap of rabbits to his right. One of his elder kids, I couldn’t have guessed an age or sex any more than I could tell the birth order of all but the youngest, was skinning the dead while another wild eyed sibling scraped the pelts clean with a curved blade missing the handle.
‘afnooin’, Mallick reached into the box and pulled out a rabbit which for all it bucked and squirmed could not get free of him. ‘What’s matter wi yon lamb?’ He spread his fingers slightly, revealing the rabbit’s frenetic throat.
‘nothing, I- ’ I suddenly felt foolish, embarrassed of my gift. The rabbit made a cat sound, like a baby choking and I watched in disbelief as four kits fell from it into the box with the others.
‘gorrus us a pennyroyal’ Mallick said, raising the doe to catch the children’s attention. The knife glinted as the blade caught the sun. I blinked and missed the moment the point went in, seeing only arterial spurt and hearing the bowl thrum like the hammering of a distant gong. I put the lamb down, kneeling to pat it. Mallick tossed the empty doe on the heap and, to my relief, stuck the knife in the earth. The child with the pelts now came over and appeared to be considering exchanging the broken blade for Mallick’s precision piece but the big man pointed to the bloody basin. ‘tek tharrinside, thi mam’s weytin on it’. The child’s eyes flashed as the blade had, as animal’s eyes appear when seen at night: transparent, alight. I couldn’t watch the careful steps taken to transport the load indoors for fear I might jinx their gentle progress so I focussed on the lamb, pushing it towards my neighbour.
‘I wondered if you could find use for it?’ Silence. I looked up to see if he had heard. He was looking directly at me, an unreadable expression flattened his features and then his mouth fell wide open and he roared almighty laughter that made me glance to check for the blood bowl’s safe delivery and the lamb skedaddle from my hand only to stumble and roll to Mallick’s feet. He stopped laughing and nudged it with his toe.
‘appen if we ev another bleak winter astall find yon lord lamkin a power o good t’keep draught from evvin us under t’door’, and then he roared again.
The summer days stretched out like lazy hounds and with a hole the size of a magpie in the roof above my bed I was up with the crow, grafting through the sun’s boom, and didn’t down tools until the only bird to be heard was the old owl on the outhouse. Dog tired as I was, an extra hour’s light was always in demand. Come August the house was back to how it had been when I was a child and had crept through the hole I’d dug under the wall to steal a lamb for my mother only to be caught by my wild uncle and kept in the outhouse until it became clear my mother wasn’t going to claim me. After they found her body I was taken to New Sodding to live with my grandfather who fed me as well as his dog and let me sleep in the kennel for my silence. When he too passed there was no kin left for the shop and it fell to me but butchery was not in my blood and I let it to the first man I met with a sweetheart and a wolf at his heels, and then I met Erlie. Her name said it all and through all the days of summer no amount of work could wear her memory out so long as my body moved. But at night the water filled my ears and I pulled the pale arms around my neck and knew they could not hold on.
In the last week of August the wind shook the trees with early rumours, of letting go of leaves and the township was full of bustle and preparations for the autumn fair. Hasty’s mother gave me free ale and mentioned she could do with a man’s hand putting together a new stall. Something sturdy, she said. She doubted the one from last year would hold the kegs and as popular as she’d be with the dogs she wouldn’t get through the winter months without the sales from the fair. I was as glad of the distraction as she was and when the time came to set the stalls up in the market square the camaraderie almost had me fooled I belonged. Hasty, as usual, was nowhere to be seen, until the day of the fair.
I’d been watching the trade at Mallick’s stall. Happen every man in the township had bought a link of his black pudding and I’d have cast a coin his way for every animal I’d lost to a wolf if it would make the coming winter easier for him and his lot than the last, but I knew the power of the curse as well as he. Neither of us could climb that wall, let alone pull it down. I hadn’t seen Hasty but, as most over the age of three know, closed eyes do not render the blind invisible, nor do they stop the faces coming. I blinked and she was at my side.
‘ahv bin lookin for yer’
‘then you’ve been looking for trouble’
‘I were wetching yer ovver t’ summer, whenivver yer came t’ tarn. Mam ses yer better help that ivver yer uncle were, for all is patronage. Allas rooermin off t’ Black Hills, tharrun’
I could see the wall like a scythe left out to rust and headed towards it. Hasty followed. ‘is it true, what folks are sayin, baht your sweetheart?’
The earth was hard, ridges form the carts baked hard so that I had to watch where I stepped. ‘I haven’t got a sweetheart’
Hasty lifted her skirts. ‘rumour’s yer killed her’
I left the path to walk on the verge. ‘rumours are poison enough to kill any man’. The grass seeds stuck to my legs, the chaff clouding the air gold.
‘there’s usually a grain o truth t’ be ed someweer among vermin words’
I reached for the stile, felt the smoothness, the hand worn bevel. ‘and it only takes one rat to destroy a barn’s worth of grain’
‘an a bairn?’
I pulled myself up onto the stile, pivoted, my face above hers, almost on hers. ‘and what if I am a rat? You’ll be following me still?’ I turned my back and jumped down into the field, knowing the sun I’d had at my back would blast her full in the face. Still she kept on.
‘mam ses there’s nowt but vermin from ere t’ New Sodding and beyond anyrooerd an folks are as good as them looking blessed on em regardless o coils damned to burn inside ‘em forivvermooer’
‘I bet she says heaven’s on earth, as well’
‘aye, she does, matter-er-fact’. Hasty laughed. It caught me off guard. I spun round but I didn’t catch what she said, she’d bent down to pluck the tendrils of vetch from the long grass, though I saw her mouth move as if in water, slow and out of reach, and I put my hand out to touch the hollow shapes of words without sound.
‘ah yer areight?’
I pulled my hand back and ran towards the woods, and knew not even Hasty would follow me there.
I stayed in the dark until the horse chestnuts fell, until there was nothing but the gaping wounds left in the spiny cast-offs after the fruits had been stolen. I came out of the cottage only to feed the animals and spy through the hole in the wall at the lamb I’d given Mallick. Sometimes it came to sniff my hand, nuzzle my palm, but mostly it just lay where it was. There was no life on that side of the wall, only a slow death, and I knew I should have been there, not Mallick.
In December, I invited the big man and his pack round to share the last of the mutton I’d had stored in the ale Hasty’s mother had given me as thanks for building her stall. We talked about the wall, what need there was for such a structure between good neighbours as ourselves. Mallick’s wife was keen to see the stone gone, it could fetch a bob or two besides, but Mallick said little. I could see he, too, was tired. Each winter seemed longer than the last. By January the lamb had also had enough, refusing even to lift its head when I pushed hay through, letting the dead stalks blow away in the wind. Before the first snowdrops had opened, the lamb was gone.
There had been no sense in trying to break through that wall. A curse cannot be broken with a lamb not of your own. I filled the hole.
The animals kept me busy enough through the spring, the ewes I’d bought at market the previous year were now producing lambs and I was awake most nights tending their safe delivery. Having put doors on the outbuildings the previous summer, I was able to lock them in at nights and wasn’t troubled by the wolves. I almost forgot where I lived, who I was, until mid-summer. Hasty turned up at the gate to the paddock. She’d come half way but seemed unsure whether to dare the last half mile. I walked down to save her the bother. She had her hands behind her back.
‘aft’noon, Hasty, what brings you?’
‘I brought you -’ she hesitated, looked over my shoulder, towards the wall. ‘a tussie-mussie’.
She pushed the flowers into my hands. I looked at the purple flowers, smelt the minty scent and threw them to the ground, pounding them to mud with my heel. ‘Mallick’s bairns have the fever. It’ll be gerrin thee nixt’ she shouted after me.
Despite knowing it was pointless, I took Mallick another lamb, I had plenty to spare. He was sitting in his usual spot by the door to the cottage. I waved but he didn’t wave back, typical Mallick. When I got closer I could see he was asleep with the blood basin under his chair and the knife in the ground beside it. I left the lamb at his feet.
That evening, I thought of Mallick as I was rounding the lambs up to take them from the bottom paddock to lock them in for the night. If he thought my gift funny as the first he wasn’t going to tell me.
The cart passed first. The horse followed, until the point where the track forks off from the main road to my place, just before the woods.
‘evening, Sergeant, late to be visiting’ I didn’t hear the constables behind me, and that’s when it hit me.
Hasty pushed it through the bars. It made the front page of the Daily Blagger. ‘is it true?’
I pushed the paper back at her but stayed on my knees, resting my head on my hands against the bars. ‘Mallick’s wife’s blamin yer.’ Her fingers were cool, I snatched my hand away.
‘these hands’, I said, ‘bring only death’. For the first time I could see fear in her eyes. ‘These hands are the hands of my father who as good as cut his brother in half with the wall he built between them. These hands were the last to touch my children and had to be prized off my dead wife’. Hasty was out of sight before the headline hit the ground: ‘Prime Suspect Nobbing Neighbour For Prize Winning Pudding Maker’s Slit Throat’ and underneath, the sub: ‘Cost Of Lamb High’.
I didn’t know it then, but Hasty had once represented Nobbing at the New Sodding athletics championships and still held the record for bare sprinting. When she left the station she ran to the tavern but was driven by a deep urge for justice to take the road up to the market square and from there along the road to the stile, fully intending at this point to lose herself in the woods, only, she said she was being pulled along by some invisible force and found herself as shocked to be at Great Nobbing as I was to be hearing about her being there. She had no intentions of staying there, and would have run along home but presently noticed some of my sheep were without lambs, though crucially, and here’s what got her suspicions going, not all of them. She knew I had a habit of locking them up at nights, but similarly, knew I was not in the habit of leaving half of them out to fend for themselves. Summer or no, there was always the risk of wolves on Wolf Hill. A walk to the house confirmed there were no lambs locked up for the night and so Hasty took it upon herself to set a trap, something else she was skilled at.
The house was riddled with strange noises and sleeping on the job wasn’t going to be a problem. Through the wee hours she became acquainted with the house’s dark recesses, and there were many, but did not hear the trap. In the morning she checked the spring and re-set it. She ate nothing from the pantry and satisfied the minimal hunger she felt by sucking the juice tipped fingers of the purple clover growing in abundance on the middle paddock. The following night she kept watch again, and the next, and the next. Sleeping in the day and living off her nerves she lost track of time. When the trap finally sprung she thought at first she might have imagined it. When she went to inspect the animal she thought she must be dreaming.
The birch spikes had pierced its belly, their bloodied tips were protruding through the pelt on its back, and Hasty would have left it there to die were it not for the whimpering. As she took the beast’s head in her hands to turn its face to hers, the fur, soft as its colouring, fell away. The cry the wolf made as she pulled it from the spikes would stay with Hasty all her life. As she carried its body home, in her arms she saw not the face of a predator but the fear of a cursed boy in need of a mother.
Mallick’s wife slit the throat of the ewe she was bleeding in her haste to take the child from Hasty. She laid the child on the kitchen table, his siblings gathered close. What was left of the rabbit fur could not warm his dying heart or staunch the blood now pooling, now congealing on the flagstones, around their feet. As Mallick’s wife cradled her wild child’s pale head, rocking as a row boat cut from moorings, Hasty listened her sing her boy away. ‘bye baby bunting, daddy’s gone a hunting, gone to fetch a rabbit skin to wrap a baby bunting in. Bye baby bunting, daddy’s gone a hunting to fetch a little lambie skin to wrap a baby bunting in. Bye baby bunting, daddy’s gone a hunting, a rosy wisp of cloud to win to wrap his baby bunting in’. There was a gasp, a choking, swallowed cry followed by a moment of pure silence broken only by the youngest child.
‘pudpud’. Whatever humanity remained in Mallick’s wife it was not forthcoming when she picked up the knife, wiped the blade on her hair and lunged at Hasty.
Sergeant and I listened in stunned disbelief as Hasty recounted all of this. Not one to let a skin form on any wrongdoing, Sergeant sent his constables out directly with an order to bring Mallick’s wife in dead or alive. He thought it best for Hasty’s safety, and while waiting for verification of the facts, if she waited in the cell with me. Without thinking, I held out my arms to her. Without fear she came to me and I knew I could tell her, when the time was right, I could tell her everything.
When the constables hadn’t returned by daylight Sergeant had no option but to take the law into his own hands.
It was several weeks before the remaining constable could say what had happened that night up at Mallick’s farm house. It had all happened so fast and the dark had him confused about what he’d really seen. No one believed his version of events when he got to the part about the wolf hitting Mallick’s wife over the head with a great enamel bowl, just in time to prevent her sticking Sergeant through with a boning knife as it happened, but no one could dispute the evidence. Mallick’s wife had threatened to do to Sergeant what she’d done to Mallick in the moment before the basin had made contact, and the blade was there in her hand for all to see. For his part, Sergeant could not be located for comment. He had, after all, been Mallick’s best customer. Also missing was the other constable, until they found his bones, scraped clean, under a heap of rabbit skins. Perhaps the most damning evidence of all was the bloodied bandage on the remaining constable’s neck.
At the inquest it was found that Mallick’s body had been completely drained of blood prior to his throat being slashed, thus explaining his peaceful appearance when I had taken him the lamb, which did not survive, as predicted. The judge was undecided about what to do for the remaining children now there mother was in prison.
We found them curled under the pelts and couldn’t part them. The eldest, a boy said nothing when I lifted the furs but the youngest curled into her sister’s breasts and said, ‘pudpud’. The wolf eyed girl said, ‘no more pudpud’ and took my hand.
They said they took the hiding from the wolves. I told them there hadn’t been wolves in these parts since my grandfather’s day, when the pioneers first came. He drove the last of them away.
A new Sergeant couldn’t be persuaded to take up residence in Great Nobbing for quite some time but when she did, Hasty proved to be the best detective the township had ever known, though business in the tavern was so slow there after that her mother had no option but to take up as her daughter’s deputy.
Hasty was a great help with the children. By the end of that summer only the wolf-eyed refused to take off her furs. As we enjoyed the last of the warm evenings, watching the mad antics of the children playing with the sheep, I told Hasty what I had wanted to tell her in the police cell. If I was honest with myself, it was what I had wanted to tell her the first time I met her, when I woke from my fever to the sight of her between the curtains with the sunlight fingering her hair as I was now.
‘She was picking flowers in the lane. I’d asked her father for a bed in exchange for honest work and he’d given me a mat under the porch till summer’s end. Erlie would sit on that porch come evening, threading daisies before plucking them of petals and cussing when they ran out on “loves me not”. Mostly I’d lie there and fall asleep with the petals on my eyelids until one night I must have said it out loud’
‘What did you say?’
‘I gave her a missing petal. Her family said they’d rather see her dead than with one of the Nobbings, and of the cursed side to boot, so I rented a cottage where Nobbing Creek meets the Black River, at the edge of New Sodding. The cottage was sheltered from view by a bank of willows. But she was sad without her family and not even our own children could satisfy the hole in her heart. As her loneliness grew, so did her shame. She would have been carrying our third child. Erlie came to me under a green waterfall and left with the sticks.’
I couldn’t finish the story. Later that night I left. I don’t know if I had ever meant to stay or if I had ever really left before but I walked that night and didn’t stop until I reached the bank of willows. Two children were washing flowers from their mother’s hair. They stopped when they saw me. I asked them not to touch the flowers but they laughed, and as their mouths opened purple flower heads tumbled out and I watched them, carried away on the current. The children were calling me, they wanted me to play but all I could think about were those flower heads and I let myself be carried with them.
For the first time in the township’s history, there was no autumn fair that year. With word getting around about the black pudding, a dwindling population, and since there was no one wanting to take on the running of the tavern, there wasn’t the demand for what little the township had left to offer. Besides, the few remaining townsfolk had their hands full. In my absence, Hasty had taken it upon herself to do a spot of landscaping. Well, I had said what’s mine is yours and she had, being Hasty, taken me at my word. As the last stone fell the helpers hoisted Hasty onto their shoulders to carry her over the rubble. I met her on the other side. She told me there would be another mouth to feed come the spring. I asked her never to pick pennyroyal again.
‘it were only t’ stave off t’ fever that got Mallick’s bairns’
‘Mallick’s children had nothing a change of diet couldn’t cure’
‘anyrooerd’, she tried to laugh her watery laugh, and then she added, ‘nay mooer leaving, yer ooerm nah’.
When the wind blows icy and the leaves fall from the trees
And your son has fallen to the night
When you hear the howling take the hiding from the wolves
And wrap your bairn up tight.
Howl, your bairn is gone.
Come spring the baby was born, along with sixteen lambs. The children, fat now they were no longer suffering rabbit starvation, named them all.
In the evenings we sit by the fire, tell stories about the early days and sing ballads while the flames dance in the children’s eyes. Except for the girl we called Lupin, who stays out in the paddock with the sheep most nights just to make sure they’re safe. And they are; the wolves stay away.
Rachel J Fenton is a writer and artist living in Auckland. She has work housed in: Horizon Review; Blackmail Press; Otoliths; Monkey Bicycle; The Camel Saloon; The Literary Burlesque; and other diverse venues. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Fish 2010 One Page Prize and Longlisted for the 2010 Sean O' Faolain International Short Story Prize. Her poem "Inherited" was shortlisted and named honouree in the 2011 University of Maine Ultra Short Competition. She blogs at: snowlikethought.blogspot.com and publishes a daily graphic poetry page at: escapebehaviours.blogspot.com