This is a collection of stories by famous Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. She is well known as a children's writer, a science fiction writer and a graphic novel author. The book first saw the world at the end of two thousand and six. Each story is related to the next, so the book tells one long and confusing story. The book consists of eleven chapters. The heroes are completely different: a middle-aged couple, a young mother and her daughter, a high school student, a young man who loves travelling. Sometimes the story is told in the first person, sometimes in the third one. Gradually, the heroes of the stories meet each other, moving from chapter to chapter. These events are mixed and lead to unexpected results. The plot of the book is exciting and you want to read it in one evening.
There's never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought. Frogs - or were they toads? - trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins - what was the difference? - and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer's wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses beside the drive. Birds sang. Mud dried.
In the evenings, Nell and Tig sat outside their rented farmhouse on two aluminum-framed lawn chairs they'd found in the back shed, holding hands, slapping away the occasional mosquito, and watching a barred owl teach her two young to hunt. For practice they were using the twelve ducklings Tig had bought and installed on the pond. He'd made a shelter for the ducklings - like a little house without walls, set on a floating raft. They could have gone in under the roof and been safe, but they didn't seem to know enough to do that.
The owl swooped down in silence down over the surface of the pond where the ducklings ignorantly paddled, snatching a duckling a night, carrying each one up to the cavity in the dead tree where she had her nest, then rending the duckling apart and sharing it out to the young to be gobbled down, until all twelve ducklings were gone.
'Look at that,' said Tig. 'Such grace.'
At the beginning of May the businessman who owned the farm said he was selling it. He gave them a month to move out. Since there wasn't any lease, they had to go. But they couldn't move back to the city, they were agreed on that. It was just too beautiful up here.
They drove a half hour farther north, where the prices would be cheaper, and scouted around on back roads, searching out the For Sale signs. Up near Garrett they managed to find something in their price range: a house, a barn, and a hundred acres. It had been on the market for more than a year. Vacant possession, said the owner, who was showing them around himself. He lived on another farm; he'd been using this barn to store hay. But now he was selling both properties, cashing in. 'I want to see a bit of the world before it's time for me to be putting on the wooden overcoat,' he said.
There was a pond on this farm as well, and a number of gnarled apple trees set around the house, and a drive shed with an old tractor in it. That came with, said the owner. The house was white clapboard, built in the mid-1830s, with a cement-floored addition on the back - a summer kitchen. The cellar was unfinished; its beams were trees with some of the bark still on them. The steps down to it were steep and hazardous. The dirt floor was damp, and had a hard-to-place odour. Not dry rot, not dead mouse, not sewage, exactly.
'It needs a lot of work,' said Nell. The farmer cheerfully admitted it, and knocked five thousand dollars off the price. Then there was the matter of the mortgage, said Tig: they were iffy propositions for a bank, since neither of them had a permanent fulltime job. But the owner said he would give them a mortgage himself.
'He's in a hurry to get rid of this place,' said Nell. They were standing in the middle of the kitchen floor, which sloped steeply down toward the center wall: they'd have to jack the floor up from underneath and run in a new crossbeam, sooner or later. The wallpaper - one of many layers, as could be seen by the torn parts - was a faded green, with bulbous pinkish-brown flowers on it. The floor was linoleum-covered, in a pattern of maroon and orange oblongs Nell recognized from the Fifties.
'There's a hundred acres,' said Tig.
'The house is kind of dark,' said Nell. 'It's not very cheerful.'
'We'll clean the windows,' said Tig. No one had lived in here for years. Dust and dead flies coated the windowsills. 'We'll paint the wallpaper white.' He'd been out with the farmer, walking over the land. He'd seen a marsh hawk in the back field; he treated it like an omen.
Nell didn't say it wasn't the windows, not the wallpaper. But paint would help.
They scraped together the down payment, using Nell's savings and a sum from a television documentary Tig had recently put together. The weekend after they'd closed the deal, they moved their bed in. Then they sat on the linoleum floor, eating sardines out of the tin, and slices of brown bread and hunks of cheese, and drinking red wine. There was only a single glaring overhead light bulb dangling from a wire, so they turned it off and lit a candle instead. It was like an indoor picnic.
'So, it's all ours,' said Tig.
'I've never owned any real estate before,' said Nell.
'Neither have I,' said Tig.
'It's a bit scary,' said Nell.
'We'll go out and see the hawk tomorrow.'
Nell kissed Tig. It wasn't the best idea because of the sardines, but they'd both been eating them.
'Let's go to bed,' said Tig.
'I need to brush my teeth,' said Nell.
They lay on Tig's mattress - their mattress - with their arms around each other. They'd carried the candle upstairs; it flickered in the warm breeze that came in through the open bedroom window. Nell thought about filmy white curtains - she'd always wanted those, when she was young - and about how such curtains would ripple in such a breeze, once they had some.
'You shouldn't have said I'm your wife,' said Nell after a while. 'At the lawyer's.'
'A lot of women are keeping their own names now,' said Tig.
'But it's not true. Oona's your wife. You're still married to her.'
'Not really,' said Tig.
'Anyway, you put spouse instead of wife. It's a dead giveaway. Didn't you catch the way he was looking at me? That lawyer?'
'Just that way.'
'What would you like to be called?' said Tig. Now he sounded hurt.
Nell said nothing. She was spoiling things; she didn't want to. She'd been put in a false position, and she hated that. But she had no other word to suggest - no word for herself that would be both truthful and acceptable.
Over the next few days, they moved in the rest of their possessions - the bunk beds for Tig's two children, the ones they slept on when they came to visit; the single bed for the guest room; Nell's desk; a few chairs; some bookcases and books. Nell's orange table. She'd left the rest of her furniture behind in the city. They'd have to get some other furniture eventually - the house looked quite empty - but they didn't have the spare cash for it at the moment.
Tig's two boys came up the next weekend and slept in their bunk beds in their new room and went for a long walk with Tig, all around the property. They saw the marsh hawk - two marsh hawks. They must be a pair, said Tig; they'd been hunting for mice. The boys were pleased with the tractor in the barn. You didn't need a licence to drive a tractor, not if you didn't go out onto the road. Tig said that when he'd got the tractor in running order - or when someone had - the boys could drive it around the fields.
Nell didn't go on the walk. She stayed in the house and made biscuits. There was an old electric range that worked perfectly well except for one burner. They were going to get a wood stove too. That was the plan.
When Tig and the boys got back, they all ate the biscuits, with honey on them, and drank tea with hot milk in it. They sat casually around Nell's orange table with their elbows on it, just like a family.
I'm the only person here who isn't related to anyone, thought Nell. She was feeling cut off. She didn't get into the city very often any more, and when she did it was on business - she met with publishers, and with the authors whose books she was editing - so she didn't see her friends very much. In addition to which, her parents weren't speaking to her, as such, though they weren't not speaking to her either. Conversationally, she'd been put into a grey zone, a lot like a bus station waiting room: cold air, silences, topics limited to states of health and the weather. Her parents hadn't got used to the fact that Nell had actually moved in with a man who was still married to someone else. She'd never been so blatant, in her former life. She'd given some thought to appearances. She'd been sneakier. But now that her change of address cards had so flagrantly been sent, there was no comfort room left for sneakiness.
Nell threw her energies into a kitchen garden. There were groundhogs in the fields, so she began with a fence; Tig helped with it. They set the bottom edge of the chicken wire a foot into the earth so the groundhogs couldn't tunnel under. Then Nell dug in a lot of the well-rotted cow manure from the heap she'd found in the barn. There was enough of it to last for years. Beside the front door there was a knobbly, straggly rose; she pruned it back. She pruned some of the apple trees too. She'd taken a new interest in sharp implements - shears and clippers, picks and shovels, pruning saws and pitchforks. Not axes; she didn't think she could handle an axe.
By this time she'd read up on the local pioneers - the people who'd arrived in the area in the early nineteenth century and had cleared the land, chopping down the trees, burning their trunks and branches, arranging their gigantic roots into the stump fences that were still to be seen here and there, slowly decaying. Many of these people had never used an axe before they'd come. Some of them had chopped off their legs; others had stood in buckets while using their axes in order to avoid that fate.
The soil of the garden was good enough, though there were a lot of stones. Also shards from broken crockery, and medicine bottles of pressed glass, white and blue and brown. A doll's arm. A tarnished silver spoon. Animal bones. A marble. Layer upon layer of lives lived out. For someone, once, this farm had been new. There must have been struggles, misgivings, failures, and despair. And deaths, naturally. Deaths of various kinds.
While Nell worked in the garden, Tig went out and about. He drove up and down the side roads, exploring. He went into Garrett and tried out the hardware store, and set up an account at the bank. The in-town grocery store - not to be confused with the boxy new supermarket on the outskirts - had a sign in the window for eggs: BONELESS HEN FRUIT. On his return from these excursions, he'd tell Nell about such discoveries, and bring her gifts: a trowel, a ball of twine, a roll of plastic mulch.
There was a combination gas station and general store at the nearest crossroads; Tig began to drink coffee there with the local farmers, the older ones. They viewed him as an oddity, he said. They hadn't tossed him into the bin of contempt to which they consigned most people from the city. He drove a rusty car and didn't wear a tie and knew what a ratchet set was: all to the good. But he wasn't a farmer either. Nonetheless, they let him sit in on the coffee sessions, where he picked up farming hints and gossip. They even began teasing him a bit, a development he reported to Nell with some glee.
Nell didn't go along on these jaunts; she wasn't invited. The rule for the farmers' coffee group was men only. This was not stated, it was a given.
'I asked them what sort of animals we should have,' Tig said one day after coming back from the store at the crossroads.
'And?' said Nell.
'They said, "None."'
That sounds like a good idea,' said Nell.
'Then one guy said, "If you're going to have livestock, you're going to have dead stock."'
'That's probably true,' said Nell.
After several days, Tig said that if they were going to live on a farm, they ought not to let the land go to waste, and that would mean having some animals. Also it would be added value for the boys to learn where food really came from. They could start with chickens: chickens were easy, said the farmers.
Tig and the boys built a somewhat lopsided chicken house so the chickens could be protected from predators at night. They also made a fenced-in yard where the chickens could run around safely. Tig and Nell and anyone else who was there would be able to eat the eggs, said Tig, and then they could eat the chickens themselves, once they got too old to lay eggs.
Nell wondered who was going to kill the elderly chickens when the time came. She did not think it would be her.
The chickens arrived in burlap sacks. They adjusted to their new surroundings immediately, or they appeared to: they didn't have a wide range of facial expressions. The farmer who'd supplied them had thrown in a rooster. 'He said the hens would be more contented that way, said Tig.
The rooster crowed every morning - an ancient, biblical sound. The rest of the time he stalked the hens while they were scratching in the dirt and pounced on them from behind and stomped up and down on them. If Nell or the boys got too close to the hens when they went into the yard to collect the eggs, the rooster would jump on their bare legs and rake them with his spurs. They took to carrying sticks, to hit the rooster with.
Nell made the chickens' eggs into pound cake, which she froze in the freezer they'd found themselves buying, because where were they going to keep all the stuff that would be produced by the kitchen garden once it really got going?
Then Tig got some ducks - not ducklings, this time - which were allowed to fend for themselves in the pond, and then two geese, which were supposed to lay eggs and produce goslings; but one of the geese injured its leg, so it had to be taken up the road to Mrs. Roblin.
Tig and the boys and the Roblins were now friends, though Nell suspected the Roblins - the senior Roblins, who ran a dairy operation, and the junior Roblins too, of which there were many - laughed at them behind their backs. The Roblins had been on their farm for a long time, and knew what to do about all farm emergencies. The nearby cemetery had a lot of Roblins in it.
Mrs. Roblin was a square-shaped, round-faced old woman - Nell thought she was old - with short but surprisingly strong arms and red, deft, stubby fingers that (Nell suspected) had never seen the inside of a rubber glove. The boys said she pitched in when necessary, and Nell understood that this pitching had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with manure. Mrs. Roblin was clearly capable of any kind of enterprise involving guck and muck and blood and innards - the boys had seen her reach up into a cow and pull a calf out, legs first, a sight that had filled them with awe. While telling this, the boys would look at Nell, not critically, but dismissively: there was no way Nell would ever find herself up to the elbows in a cow's vagina, said that look.
Nell had hoped Mrs. Roblin would set the goose's leg and put a splint on it, but that wasn't what happened. The goose came back in oven-ready form, which, said Tig, was the way things were done in the country. The remaining goose, or was it a gander, wandered around for a while, looking sad, thought Nell, and then flew away.
By this time there were also two peacocks, a pair Tig had found at a peacock farm on one of the back roads and had given to Nell as a present.
'Peacocks!' Nell said. Tig was intending to please her. He always did intend it. How could she not appreciate his enthusiasm, his spontaneity? 'What about the winter?' she said. 'Won't they die?'
'Peacocks are a northern Himalayan pheasant,' Tig said. 'They'll take care of themselves. They'll be fine in the cold.'
The peacocks were always together. The peacock would display, unfurling his huge tail and rattling it, and the peahen would admire him. They flew around easily, and sat in trees, and pecked about here and there. Sometimes they flew into the hen yard. The rooster knew better than to get into a fight with the peacock, which was a lot bigger than him. At night, the peacock couple roosted on the crossbeam of the barn, where they must have thought they were out of danger. They screamed like babies being murdered, usually just before dawn. Nell wondered where they would make their nest. How many little peacocks would they produce?
In the garden, Nell planted everything she could think of. Tomatoes, peas, spinach, carrots, turnips, beets, winter and summer squash, cucumbers, zucchinis, onions, potatoes. She wanted generosity, abundance, an overflowing of fecundity, as in Renaissance paintings of fruitful goddesses - Demeter, Pomona - in flowing robes with one breast bare and glowing edibles tumbling out of their baskets. She put in a herb garden with chives and parsley and rosemary and oregano and thyme, and three rhubarb plants, and some currant bushes, a red and a white, and some elderberry bushes so they could make elder - flower wine in the spring, and a bed of strawberries. She planted runner beans that were supposed to grow up tripods made of poles.
The local farmers did not recognize this bean method. On their regular sightseeing forays into the yard - there was always an excuse, a stray dog, the loan of a wrench or hammer, but really they just wanted to see what Tig and Nell were up to - they looked hard at the structures of bare poles. They didn't ask what these were. When the beans started creeping into view, they stopped looking.
'Hear your cows went on a spree again,' they would say. They had a way of staring at Nell sideways: they couldn't figure her out. Were she and Tig married, or what? The way they half-grinned at her said they didn't think so. Maybe she was a free-lover, some sort of hippie. That would fit in with her busting her ass in the garden. Real farm wives didn't have gardens. They loaded their pickups with groceries once a week from the supermarket in Garrett, twenty miles to the east.
'Hear it took three days to get them cows back in the barn. Maybe you should take him to Anderson's.'
Nell knew what Anderson's was. It was the abattoir: Anderson's Custom Slaughtering. 'Oh, I don't think so,' said Nell. 'Not yet.'
They had the cows because Tig had decided they should raise their own beef: the coffee-drinking farmers all did. 'Raise four, sell three, put one in the freezer, you're all set,' was their pronounce - merit. So Tig purchased four Charolais-Hereford crosses on credit from one of these helpful farmers, who didn't tell any actual lies, but it would have been better for Nell and Tig if they'd asked a few informed questions. They didn't know that the cows would be able to jump, and jump so high.
The fences had to be raised and strengthened, but sometimes the cows got out anyway and ran off to join a large herd of other cows nearby. Tig had to take the two boys to get them back - throw some ropes on them, wrestle them into the truck they'd borrow for the purpose. That was dangerous, because the cows were skittish and never wanted to come home.
'Maybe they know we're going to eat them,' said Nell.
'Cows want to be with other cows,' said Tig. 'They're like shoppers.'
The cows' names were Susan, Velma, Megan, and Ruby. The boys had named them. They were warned about doing that - humanizing the cows - but they did it anyway.
Oona always telephoned on the weekends. At first she'd wanted to speak to Nell as well as to Tig and the boys - she wanted to enlist Nell's help, and issue instructions - but after a while she'd stopped doing that. Once in a while curt messages were relayed to Nell from Oona, via folded and sealed notes delivered by the boys. Usually they concerned missing socks.
One of the hens escaped from the yard and was found among the rhubarb plants with her throat slit. 'Weasel,' said Mrs. Roblin, having inspected the wound. 'They drink the blood.' She asked if Nell wanted to take the hen home and stew it, as it was still fresh and the blood had been let out. Nell did not - the victim of a weasel murder was surely tainted - so Mrs. Roblin kept the hen, saying she could think of a use for it.
Another hen set up shop behind a jumble of machinery parts in the drive shed, where she hoarded eggs - her own, and those of other hens avoiding their brooding duties. By the time Nell found her, she was sitting on twenty-five eggs. What could be done? The eggs were too old - too well developed, too full of embryos - to be eaten.
The boys were going to spend the rest of the summer at the farm, said Tig - a last-minute arrangement, because Oona was going on vacation. She was heading for a Caribbean resort, not alone.
'Do you mind?' Tig said, and Nell said of course not, though it would have been nice to have been told ahead of time. Tig said there hadn't been any ahead of time.
Nell stuck a list onto the refrigerator with a magnet. It was a list of cleaning duties: sweeping, clearing the table, washing the dishes. They would all take turns. She herself would continue to do all the laundry, in the temperamental secondhand wringer machine they'd found; she'd continue to hang it on the line. She was already baking the bread, and the pies, and making the ice cream, with some of the extra eggs and the cream they were getting up at Roblins'. Also there were the currants to be considered - she couldn't make every single currant into jelly. She'd tried to dry some of them in the sun, but then she'd forgotten about them and it had rained. Despite the various lists she'd been making, she couldn't keep track of everything.
There were numerous auctions that season - farmers died or sold up, and then everything in the house and barn would be put on the block. Nell felt like a scavenger; still, she went. She got a couple of quilts that way - they needed only a little mending - and a wooden chest, with missing hinges, but those would be easily fixed once she got around to it. She wanted things that would add up to a look - a farm look. More or less olden days.
Tig bought a baler, dirt cheap because it was an out-of-date kind. It produced small oblong bales - not the outsized cinnamon buns of hay that were the fashion now. He and the boys would take off the hay, he said. They could feed it to the cows in the winter and sell the excess hay at a dollar a bale. He'd pay the boys, of course - whatever you'd pay an unskilled labourer. Tig and Nell would lose money on this venture, or break even at best, said Tig, but it would be a terrific experience for the boys, who would be able to do some real work and feel useful. What did Nell think of that?
'I think it's fine,' said Nell. This had become her standard answer when it was a question of Tig's enthusiasms.
While Nell and Tig were going to farm sales, the boys spent time in the barn. They got up to lots of things in there. Alcohol was consumed, psychedelic substances tested, cigarettes and dope smoked regularly. The dope came from local back fields, where some of the younger farmers were growing lucrative though illegal crops of what they called 'wacky tobaccy.' Inside the barn, plots were hatched. Making off with the car was considered, running away to Montreal, or at least to Garrett, to see horror movies. These plots remained theoretical, and the boys did not shout or smash things, unlike some Nell had heard of, so Tig and Nell had no idea. They found all this out much later, once the boys had grown up, and had passed through their twenties and their anger at Tig for having left home, and had begun to share their reminiscences.
The boys weren't getting on too well at school - Oona had forwarded their report cards, implying that this lack of progress was Tig's fault. But Tig - who had the tractor working now, who let the boys drive it around the farmyard and out to the back field - said they were learning so many other things, things that would come in handy for them in their later lives.
The boys were taller now - taller than Nell. One of them was almost as tall as Tig. They had tans, and biceps; they ate huge meals, and when Tig didn't have them working at something else they were under the tractor, unscrewing parts of it and screwing them on again. They got covered with grease and oil and dirt and sometimes blood from various tool-inflicted wounds, which seemed to make them quite happy. Nell washed a lot of towels.
When the weather was right - hot and sunny - and the hay had been cut and raked into rows, Tig and the boys laboured at the baling, wearing thick gloves and bandanas twisted around their foreheads to keep the sweat from running into their eyes. The baler got dragged around the fields by the tractor, spewing out bales and chunks of dried mud and pieces of twine. The process was hot and dusty, and very noisy. Straw made its way into their clothes, fragments of it went up their noses. Getting the bales into the barn was the worst part. Nell helped sometimes, wearing a bandana and a big-brimmed hat. In the evenings they were all so tired they could barely eat; they fell into bed before sunset.
At the end of August, Tig received a typed letter from Oona, accusing him and Nell of exploiting the boys as child labour in order to make a profit from them.
Tig and Oona were supposed to be drawing up a separation agreement so they could get a divorce, but Oona kept changing lawyers. She thought that because Tig and Nell owned a farm, Tig must be lying to her about his income. She wanted more money. But Tig didn't have any more.
Nell sensed that she was growing a hard shell, all around herself. It kept her from feeling as sorry for Tig as she ought to. Tig's view was that he couldn't get into any sort of open conflict with Oona. He could not, for instance, initiate a divorce. Oona must be allowed to believe that she was the one in control. If Tig did anything sudden - if he made the first move - Oona would use it against him with the children. After all, they lived with her, officially; not with him.
'They spend more time with us,' Nell said. 'If you count waking hours. And she'll use it against you anyway. She already is.'
'She isn't well,' Tig said. 'There's something wrong with her health.' He said that nothing must be done to disturb Oona unduly.
I disturb her unduly anyway, thought Nell. I can't help it.
There was more to this conversation, but it wasn't voiced.
I'm almost thirty-four, thought Nell. When will things be untangled?
But Tig was in no hurry.
The wild plums in the hedgerows ripened and fell. They were blue, ovoid, fragrant. Nell gathered them up by the basketful and carried them home in a swirl of tiny fruit flies, and made them into compotes and rich purple jam. Tig licked her purple fingers, kissed her purple lips; they made love slowly in the warm, hazy evenings. Replete, thought Nell. That's the word. Why would I want anything to change, ever?
In September, Nell picked the less wormy and scabby apples from the apple trees and made them into apple jelly. The ground under the trees was littered with fallen and fermenting apples: butterflies lit on them and drank, then staggered around unevenly; wasps did the same. One morning Tig and Nell woke up to find a herd of drunken pigs lying under the trees, grunting and snoring in contentment. Evidently they'd been on a binge.
Tig chased them off, then followed them to see where they'd come from. They were from the pig farm up the hill, in back: they did this every year, said the pig farmer. They'd break out of their pen, just as if they'd been planning it for months, and dig their way under the fence. They always picked the right time. It cheered them up to have this one orgy to look forward to, was his view. Never mind that the apple trees weren't his.
Nell knew they couldn't say anything. A boundary was a boundary only if you could defend it. People's houses got broken into around here. Theft took place, vandalism. She didn't always feel safe when Tig wasn't there.
Susan the cow went away in a truck one day and came back frozen and dismembered. It was like a magic trick - a woman sawed in half on the stage in plain view of all, to reappear fully restored to wholeness, walking down the aisle; except that Susan's transformation had gone the other way. Nell didn't want to think about what had happened to Susan during her period of invisibility.
'Is this Susan we're eating?' said the boys, shovelling down the pot roast.
'You shouldn't have named the cows,' said Nell. The boys grinned. They'd discovered the value of shock and horror, at least at the dinner table.
Nell was overrun with vegetables. She didn't know what to do with them. Some could be canned, others dried and frozen, yet others - such as the mound of surplus zucchinis - fed to the chickens. Nell put up a dozen jars of cucumber pickles, a dozen jars of pickled beets. She stored the potatoes and carrots and onions in the root cellar, where they joined the bottles of homemade beer Tig had brewed and the crock of fermenting sauerkraut from Nell's excess cabbages. Putting the sauerkraut in the cellar was a mistake - it filled the whole house with a strong odour of dirty feet - but Nell comforted herself with the thought that it was high in vitamin C and would be useful if they were snowed in all winter and began to get scurvy.
In the second week of October, Tig and Nell beheaded their first hen. Tig did it with the axe, looking a little pale. The hen ran around in the yard, spouting blood from its neck like a fountain. The cows became agitated, and mooed. The remaining hens cackled. The peacocks screamed.
Nell had to consult Mrs. Roblin as to what to do next. She scalded the hen and plucked it, as per instructions. Then she took out the insides. She had never smelled anything so nauseating. There were a number of eggs, of various sizes, in various stages of development.
That's it, she thought. I'm not doing this again. Those chickens will die of old age as far as I'm concerned.
Tig made the chicken into a stew, with carrots and onions from the garden. The boys ate it with relish. They wished they'd been there to see the hen running around without a head. Tig had recovered from his pale moment and was revelling in the joys of description.
In late October, three ewes were added to the cows in the farmyard. Tig's idea was that they would produce lambs, which could then be sold or eaten. The ewes waded into the pond for some unknown reason and got their legs tangled in a roll of barbed wire that was lurking under the surface, and Tig had to cert them free with wire cutters and carry them out. Their fleece was sopping wet and they were very heavy. They struggled and kicked, and Tig slipped and went sideways into the pond, and after that he got a cold. Nell rubbed Vicks VapoRub on him, and made him hot lemon with whisky in it.
In November, Tig's bottles of homemade beer began to explode, down in the cellar. There would be a bang, then beer and broken glass all over the floor, like a Saturday night car crash. Nell never knew when one of the bottles was about to go off: venturing into the cellar to get a carrot or a potato was like running a minefield. But the beer in the bottles still intact was excellent, said Tig, though very effervescent. He had to drink those bottles in quick succession so they wouldn't be wasted.
Winter came. The driveway drifted over; the car had to be left at the bottom of the hill, where the big snowplow coming by regularly buried it. Then there was a sleet storm, and the telephone wires came down, and the electricity went off. Luckily the wood stove had been set up by then. Nell and Tig huddled beside it, wrapped in quilts, burning a flock of candles to keep the darkness at bay.
On other days - days without blizzards, or high winds, or freezing rain - the fields were dazzlingly white and pure, the air crisp. Tig loved feeding the animals on such days; he found it peaceful. They'd gather around him in the morning while he opened a fresh bale of hay, their fragrant breath steaming in the cold, jostling one another only slightly, looking in the wintry scene like the corner of a Nativity tableau. Nell gazed out the window at the tranquil grouping, feeling she was back in a simpler time. But then the phone would ring. She'd hesitate before answering: it might be Oona.
In February, with the snow whipping across the icy fields, the ewes lambed. One of them had triplets, and rejected the smallest of her three lambs: Tig found it shivering and trembling in a corner of the stall. Tig and Nell took the disowned lamb inside the house and wrapped it in a towel and put it into the wicker laundry basket, and wondered what to do next. Unfortunately, one of the lambs left with the ewe stuck its head between two boards in the stall and froze to death, so in theory the third, runty lamb could have replaced it; but the mother would have nothing to do with the desolate little creature.
'It must smell wrong to her,' said Nell. 'It's been with us.'
Mrs. Roblin told them to put the wrapped-up lamb inside the oven with the door open and the heat on low and feed it brandy with an eye dropper, so that is what they did. She came over in person to make sure they were doing it right. She treated Nell and Tig as if they were slightly dimwitted children - a few bricks short of a load, as the local farmers were in the habit of saying. The lamb was bleating feebly and kicking a little; Mrs. Roblin looked into its eyes and then its mouth and said it would most likely make it through. Nell wanted to know how she could tell, but felt it would be stupid to ask.
Day by day the lamb grew stronger. Nell cradled it in her arms while feeding it; she was embarrassed to find herself rocking it and singing to it.
'What's its name?' said the boys.
'It doesn't have a name,' said Nell. She wasn't going to fall into the trap of naming it.
Soon the lamb was standing up, drinking milk from a baby bottle. Tig made it a stall in the summer kitchen, where it was given fresh straw bedding every day; but as it became friskier and wanted to run and leap, they decided it was a shame to keep it cooped up, so they let it into the house. On the slippery linoleum - the new, slippery linoleum they'd laid down, with a pattern in the shape of tiles - its four legs splayed out and it had trouble keeping its balance. But soon it had mastered the art, and was bouncing here and there, twirling its long woolly tail.
It couldn't be toilet-trained, however. It peed whenever it felt the urge, and left piles of shiny brown raisin-sized pellets on the linoleum. Nell made it a diaper out of a green plastic garbage bag, cutting holes for the back legs and the tail, but that was worse than useless.
At the end of March, the peahen was found dead on the floor of the barn, underneath its crossbeam perch. A weasel must have gone up there during the night, said Mrs. Roblin: weasels would do that. The peacock was hanging around the crumpled body, looking confused. What will become of him now? thought Nell. He's all alone.
By April, the lamb was too big to be kept in the house. He was becoming too strong, too boisterous. They put him into the barnyard with the cows and sheep, but he didn't make friends with the other lambs. He kept to himself, except when Tig went into the yard to feed the animals. Then, when Tig's back was turned, the lamb would take a run at him and slam into him from behind.
It was a different story with Nell. When she appeared, the lamb would come over to her and nuzzle against her; then he'd stand between her and Tig.
Tig had to take a length of two-by-four into the barnyard to defend himself. When the lamb came running at him he'd whang it on the forehead. The lamb would shake its head and back off, but soon enough he would try again.
'He thinks it's a contest,' said Nell.
'He's in love with you,' said Tig.
'I'm glad somebody is,' said Nell.
'What's that supposed to mean?' said Tig, aggrieved.
Nell didn't know what it was supposed to mean. She hadn't intended to say it. It had just come out of her mouth. She felt her lip trembling. This is ridiculous, she thought.
After the murder of his wife, the peacock started behaving strangely. He displayed to the hens in their yard, fanning out his tail, rattling the feathers. When the hens showed no interest in him, he leapt on them and pecked them. He had a powerful neck, and packed a hard wallop. He killed several hens.
Tig shut the hens up in their house and tried to catch the peacock, but he flew away out of reach and screamed. Then he went after the ducks, but they had the sense to skitter down into the pond where he couldn't get at them. Then he caught sight of his own reflection in one of the house windows - a window with a mound of earth near it, on which he could stand. He displayed to himself, fanning and rattling his tail feathers and screaming in threat, and then attacked the window.
'He's gone mad,' said Tig.
'He's in a state of grief,' said Nell.
'It must be mating season,' said Tig.
The peacock took to lurking around outside the house, peering in through the ground-floor windows like a crazed voyeur. He knew his enemy was in there. Hate had replaced love in his tiny, demented head. He was bent on assassination.
'We should find him another mate,' said Nell. But they didn't get around to it, and then one day he was gone.
The lamb was growing bigger and bigger and more and more fearless. He no longer waited until Tig's back was turned, he'd now charge at him from any angle. His skull seemed made of cement; hitting him with a two-by-four merely encouraged him.
'We can't let him go on like this,' said Tig. 'He's going to injure someone.'
'He thinks he's a human being,' said Nell. 'He thinks he's a man. He's just guarding his territory.'
'All the more reason,' said Tig. There was a farmer nearby - said the guys at the store - who'd been drinking one night and had tried to cross a field where a billy goat was pastured. The goat ran at him and knocked him down. Every time the poor sod tried to get up, the goat knocked him down again. By sunrise the poor bastard was almost dead. The lamb would soon be a full-grown ram; then he might pull something like that.
'So what are we going to do?' said Nell. They both knew what. But Tig wasn't up to chopping the head off the lamb, and then dismembering it, or whatever had to be done; he wasn't up to butchery. Hens were as far as he would go.
'We'll have to take him to Anderson's,' he said.
They managed to catch the lamb. Nell had to lure him over to where Tig waited stock-still with a rope, because the lamb trusted her and didn't see her as a rival. Once they'd wrestled him down to the ground, they tied his legs together and carted him out of the barnyard. The other sheep and the cows looked over the fence, mooing and baaing. They all knew something was up.
Tig and Nell lifted the lamb into the trunk of the Chevy. He kicked and struggled, and bleated piteously. Then they got into the car themselves and drove away. Nell felt as if they were kidnapping the lamb - tearing him away from home and family, holding him for ransom, except that there wouldn't be any ransom. He was doomed, for no crime except the crime of being himself. His muffled bleats did not stop, all the way to Anderson's Custom Slaughtering.
'What next?' said Nell. She felt exhausted. Treachery is hard work, she thought.
'We get him out of the car,' said Tig. 'We take him into the building.'
'Do we have to wait?' said Nell. While it's happening, she meant. While it's being done. The way you'd wait at a child's first visit to the dentist.
Wait where? There was no place to wait.
Anderson's was a long, low building that had once been white. The double doors were open; from inside came a dim light. Stacks of barrels stood around outside in the yard, and crates, and a closed van - a horse van - and some rusted machinery parts. A sort of pulley. The barrels and crates also looked rusted, but they couldn't be rusted because they were made of wood.
There was nobody around. Maybe they should honk the horn to announce their presence, Nell thought. That way they wouldn't have to go in.
Tig was at the back of the car, trying to get the trunk open.
'It's jammed or something,' he said. 'Or maybe it's locked.' From inside the trunk the lamb bleated.
'I'll go in,' said Nell. 'There must be someone. The doors are open. They'll have a crowbar.' Or something, she thought. They'll have all kinds of things. Bludgeons. Sharp-edged tools. Knives for the throat-slitting.
She went into the building. A row of naked light bulbs hung from the ceiling. Beside the door were two more barrels, the tops off. She looked in: they were filled with skinned cows' heads, in brine. She assumed it was brine. There was a sweet, heavy, clotted smell, a menstrual smell. The cement floor was strewn with sawdust. At least the weather is cool, she thought. At least there aren't a lot of flies.
Farther on was a sort of corral, and some high-sided pens or cubicles.
'Hello?' she called. 'Anybody here?' As if she'd come to borrow a cup of sugar.
From around the corner of one of the pens came a tall, heavy man. On top he was wearing nothing but an undershirt; his thick arms were bare. As in some old comic book about torturers in the Middle Ages, he was bald. He had an apron on, or maybe it was just a piece of grey canvas tied around his middle. There were brown smears on it that must have been blood. In one hand he was holding an implement of some kind. Nell did not look closely at it.
'Help you?' he said.
'Our lamb is stuck in the trunk,' she said. 'Of our car. It's jammed shut. We thought maybe you had a crowbar or something.' Her voice sounded tinny and frivolous.
'Won't be hard,' the man said. He strode forward.
On the way back to the farm, Nell began to cry. She couldn't stop. She cried and cried, without restraint, in gasps and sobs.
Tig pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car, and took her in his arms. 'I feel sad too,' he said. 'The poor little fellow. But what else could we do?'
'It isn't just the lamb,' said Nell, hiccupping, wiping her nose.
'What is it then? What?'
'It's everything,' said Nell. 'You didn't see what was in there. Everything's gone wrong!'
'No, it hasn't,' said Tig, hugging her tightly. 'It's all right. I love you. It'll be fine.'
'It won't, it won't,' said Nell. She began to cry again.
'Tell me what it is.'
'Just tell me.'
'You don't want me to have any babies,' said Nell.
The lamb came back in a white oblong cardboard box, like a dress box. Neatly arranged in waxed paper were the tender pink chops, the two legs, the shanks and neck for stewing. There were two little kidneys, and a delicate heart.
Tig cooked the lamb chops with dried rosemary from Nell's garden. Despite her sorrow - for she still felt sorrow - Nell had to admit they were delicious.
I am a cannibal, she thought with odd detachment.
Maybe she would grow cunning, up here on the farm. Maybe she would absorb some of the darkness, which might not be darkness at all but only knowledge. She would turn into a woman others came to for advice. She would be called in emergencies. She would roll up her sleeves and dispense with sentimentality, and do whatever blood - soaked, bad-smelling thing had to be done. She would become adept with axes.
- THE END -