Prompt: "A meal at an unusual time."
Snowflakes blew in to dot her eyelashes and make the white world even harder to navigate. She looked down at her reddened knuckles, blooming in the pale of her cracked hands. She winced as the bitter cold bit through her wraps, blustering under her coats as she bent down to pick up each piece of gnarled wood.
The woolen scarf rubbed not unpleasantly against her mouth as she breathed frozen crystals into its nap. She inhaled, exhaled, thinking only of completing this task of gathering wood so she could go back into the small house and bank, once again, the guttering flame of the woodstove.
Finally, her arms could hold no more. She trudged the last mile back to the dark blot on the landscape, the rough-hewn cabin built so many years ago by an anonymous antisocial, graying now in the twilight. She shook her head again, shrugged the snow from her shoulders. She hated how this whiteout world made the division of day and evening hard to discern. Today of all days, she would have liked a few more moments of daylight. But like so many things, it was not to be.
At the threshold, she yet lingered. Desiring to get out of the stark frozen outdoors, yet not ready to face the truth of what lay inside waiting for her. Summoning her courage, a mystical idea that she had been assured of by her foremothers, she pushed through the heavy oak door.
Once inside, she dropped the sticks in the coal box, long empty of the black ore, and half-fell backwards, closing the door behind her and collapsing against it, eyes closed before she looked through damp lashes into the dim oil lamps that half-illuminated the cabin. She inhaled slowly, steeling herself for the evening before her.
The stove was giving off a low heat, and she opened the iron door to insert only the driest of the twigs into the dancing flame. Groaning, she straightened up and rubbed the small of her back with her splitting hands. Living out among the wild had aged her past her thirty years. Days, hell, nights like this brought this fact into sharp relief. Again she shook this thought off and walked to the water basin. Laid out next to it were the last of her root vegetables from the cellar. This surprise spring blizzard postponed her setting out the seedling she had sown in the past six weeks. She knew the wait for harvest of any sustenance would be delayed further into the summer as a result. If there even was a summer. Tonight she was not certain of anything.
No matter, she thought. It won't change what I have to do tonight. She sunk the knife deep into the flesh of a shriveled carrot, a dessicated onion, a darkened potato. All she scraped into the warming pot on the wood stove. Having dispensed with the rote mundane chopping, she sighed. Her shoulders sagged as she willed herself to have resolve and move forward. She moved towards the dark back entry of the cabin and stretched out her hand, feeling her way by memory in the dark. She walked slowly forward leading with her hands, fingertips outstretched, until she encountered the smooth worn wood of the axe handle.
Even now, in the semidarkness of her home, she hesitated. If there was any other way, she would choose differently. She closed her eyes, shutting out the vision of choices she could have made years before. She could not go back.
She hefted the axe and moved back into the lamplight. In the next room she could hear her daughter, mewing like a weak kitten, waking up from a hunger-fueled nightmare. No doubt she was reliving some version of what had happened the day before.
Two days earlier, the small creek by the cabin was roaring. Spring had flirted with their hopes, melting the snow and coaxing green shoots of daffodils and wild onion from muddy ground. Her daughter had laughed, jumped and run, despite having spent most of winter sick with cold, flus, pneumonia even. She had smiled to see the child so happy, even while warning her not to overdo, not to go too far from the house, to stay in sight in case she had trouble breathing again. She herself sat in the watery sunlight, allowing herself to lean briefly against the bark of a tree that had been there as long as her family. She closed her eyes, lulled into thinking that they may just make it, they just may survive. The weather would grown warmer. She would plant again. And the rest of her family would return.
She must have fallen asleep, as the cold, settling into her legs, awakened her. She listened for her daughter's laughter, her voice, and heard nothing. Startled, she sprang up, almost tripping by the uselessness of her numb limbs. She called her daughter's name, again and again, and heard nothing. She raced through the woods, the skeletal trees mocking her as she looked frantically for the child.
Out of breath, she stopped, leaning forward and trying not to be sick around the sinking stone in her stomach. As she gasped, she heard a small rustle. She rushed in the direction of the sound, adrenaline both propelling and sickening her.
At a small clearing she stopped. Her daughter lay on the ground, bleeding from a gash in her leg. As the crimson flowed, a creature stood above the child, lowering its gaping maw to feed from her wound.
The woman went cold. Her own blood thundered in her ears as she grasped a jagged rock at her feet and leapt towards the creature, her makeshift weapon making contact with the side of the creature's head. The creature went limp and the rock came crashing down again and again until there was no more movement.
At this her daughter began crying in a slight wheeze. The child's body was wracked with each breath. The woman went to her daughter, keeping the creature in her peripherial vision as she tore her own shirt and bandaged her daughter's wound, which was turning black and charred where the creature's saliva had touched it. Pulling on her daughter's arm, she coaxed her to stand and carried her back to the house. Once in her own bed, the child began to cry and clutch her abdomen. Neither had eaten in days.
The mother tucked her child in and told her to stay in bed. She made her way back to the woods where the creature's gray form lay in the gathering twilight. She bound the creature's limbs with strips of cloth torn from what remained of her shirt. And she began dragging the creature through the woods and back to the shed behind the cabin.
Once in the dark shed, she felt for a stub of candle her father had left there. She lit a match from a book and pulled the chains from the eaves. Once in a more prosperous time, her family had hung venison and other game from these chains. She wiped away frightened tears as she thought about the being she was about to chain. What would her father say if he could see what wild game she had captured? What would he say if he could see how far she had fallen, how desperate she had become?
She turned back to the creature and choked back the bile that filled her throat. Swallowing her disgust, she reached and grabbed two limbs, manacled them with hooks and links, and then pulled the chains taut. The creature's gray countenance winced and then went still. She located the rope and tied the lower limbs tightly together too. A small voice in her head, not unlike her mother's, whispered not to make the knots so tight that it cut off circulation. She almost laughed, scorned this voice. Circulation? Do these creatures have circulation? No, she could not care. She could not feel. This was survival.
Then why did she have no stomach for it? She turned abruptly and made her way to the cabin.
In the dark, holding the axe, she cannot bear hearing her child cry for hunger any longer. It was time.
She lifted the axe and walked outside to the shed. She could see the silhouette of the creature in the moonlight reflected from the snow. She almost faltered, then she thought of her child's charred limb, the angry slash of crimson gaping even now. She lit the candle, and the creature's countenance, came into view. She stepped forward, not thinking of mercy or forgiveness. She had to do this. It was time.
The creature turned its face to the mother. Its eyes sought her eyes. A single tear trickled from the wrinkled eyelid.
The woman shut her eyes. And brought the axe down. It was time.
(c) 2013 Terre Brothers Johnson, short story from writing prompt. Rough draft. No edit.