The Killing House

In October 2018, the CBC ran a short story contest. I didn’t really have a hope in hell of winning — the only things I’ve successfully published are short articles. Winning a fiction contest was going to take a whole level more practice than I’d ever done before. This is my submission. And no, I didn’t win. Didn’t even make the short list. Oh well, it was a good experience.

Little fingers slowly spread through the tussle of tightly-curled cream fur, desperately willing for the return of a departed life, periodically touching wet wounds from sniffles and stifled sobs. Over and over, the hands caressed the softness, refusing acceptance. 

“It’s gone,” came a voice, flat and plain. The little fingers paused only momentarily. 

“Mother!” came another voice, caring and critical.

“It’s dead,” was the flat reply. “She has to accept reality.”

“Mother!” a repetition hissed. Attention turned away, and larger fingers stroked soft, brown hair. “Mirabel…” 

“He’ll wake up,” said little Mirabel, her fingers still entangled in the small dog’s coat. 

Mirabel’s mother’s arms embraced her from behind. “Honey…” 

“This is pointless!” came Mirabel’s grandmother, her arm flung like an arrow at the former beloved pet. Eyes darted between the older women in the room, first accusingly and answered with uncaring, then countered with anger. An aloof front negated any further discussion. “Mirabel!”  The little girl looked up slowly and silently, her light green eyes reddened and swollen. “Come!”

The elder woman marched to the thick closet door and flew it open, drawing out a heavy dark green coat that draped to the mid-thigh of her clean and pressed dark grey pants. She drew up the buttons and flipped up the hood, covering her tightly-bunned white and grey-streaked hair. “Mirabel! Now!” 

“Moth–!”, but Mirabel’s mother was silenced with a single straight and taut finger. She turned and left swiftly.

The girl gently lay the lifeless bundle on the floor, and with several sobs, slid towards the closet and her grandmother. Her coat — a near-perfect copy of her matriarch’s — was held out expectantly. Mirabel reached up to take the coat and found it firmly clamped in demanding, bony hands. She looked up to two old blue-grey eyes. She looked down to Mirabel. “Get it.” Mirabel craned up, her eyes still watering, confused. “The dog.” Mirabel glanced to where her mother had been. “Now!” Beatrix pinched Mirabel’s ear tightly, drew her back to the dog’s lifeless body, and guided her down. Sobbing, Mirabel scooped up the lifeless animal with both arms. “Come.” She opened the door and waited for Mirabel to pass through before closing it behind them. 

The great log house stood on a slight rise over the ranchlands, the door opening onto the western fields that dropped away to long-disused grasslands that burbled towards the distant river, which wrapped around the southwestern edge of the massive property before following the setting sun. The grasses whished in the autumn winds, a million hollow scrapes that sang in a low, melodic hiss. 

“Mirabel!” called Beatrix, already several steps onto a well-worn path that led up the rise to the north. But Mirabel was still on the front step, crying. The weight of the dog tugged at her small arms, wanting to fall to the ground. She arched her back against the pull. Beatrix blew a breath, spun, and marched to her descendent. Mirabel’s feet urged to step back, but were held in place. A pair of strong, old fingers pinched at Mirabel’s shoulder. “You will come when you are called!” The girl and her dog were propelled forward. “Stop crying.” 

Mirabel followed the path away from the house, up the rise, struggling with her burden, fighting every need to weep. Beatrix remained a step behind, a constant urge to move forward. As the path bent to the west, a route Mirabel had followed countless times before, a hand shot out from behind and prodded Mirabel to continue forward into the grasses. Though long overgrown, Mirabel’s feet found an ancient path hidden under the yellowness. 

They walked until nearly reaching a partially-collapsed, moss-grown rail fence. The house was a small peak of roof far behind them, hidden behind the rises and dips. A dark bird cried high above them, drifting in the breeze, circling. 

“Drop it,” Beatrix ordered. 

“Why are we here?” Mirabel asked quietly.

“Drop it.” A threat. 

Mirabel stooped and gently lay the dog on the ground. As she did, she noticed a large rock on the ground. Aged from decades of summers and winters, she could still see a name in worn black paint, the lines having been redone several times. “Who’s Rupert?” she asked. 

Beatrix’s nostrils flared with a quick exhale. “Come.” She turned west and followed the fence line. Mirabel looked to her pet and started to pick him up again. “Leave it!” Mirabel looked to her departing grandmother, then petted the still animal gently and whispered. Hearing the cry of the bird above her again, she removed her coat and placed it over the dog. 

Mirabel ran to catch up to Beatrix, who had already traversed down one rise and up another. She was standing over a steep drop, looking down to a large, dilapidated building. She looked as if she were being held back. “Do you know what that is?” 

Mirabel shook her head. She had only known it to be off-limits. “I’m not allowed to go there.” 

Beatrix drew in a deep breath with a barely noticeable shudder. Mirabel spied a drooping in Beatrix’s shoulders. “My grandfather founded this ranch, built it from nothing. He raised sheep,” she explained calmly. “Ten thousand head, feeding cities far to the east. We used to own all the land you see.“

“Why aren’t there any here now?” asked Mirabel.

“Because,” Beatrix replied, and offered nothing else.

“Oh,” said Mirabel. “I like sheep!” Mirabel smiled. 

Beatrix glanced down. A rare smile, pulled unnaturally taut. “I liked sheep, too.” The smile slunk away and the shoulders snapped to position. “Where does the lamb on your dinner plate come from?” Beatrix asked, her voice clear and sharp.

Mirabel shivered despite the sunshine. “Mommy gets it at the … store?” 

“It was once an animal,” said Beatrix, wrung her hands tightly in front. Her breaths had gone shallow. “A living, breathing creature that was slaughtered, cut up, packaged, and sold for your enjoyment.” She could not see the horror dawn on her companion. “This farm raised sheep for their wool, and for their meat.” She stared at the building for a long moment, then nodded. “Come.” 

Beatrix started to walk through the fields, following no path. She walked carefully, looking more through the grasses before her feet than ahead of her. Mirabel, her leadened feet initially unwilling to move, slowly followed. Down the rise, around some unkempt bushes losing their leaves, until they found their way to a long-abandoned road that had circled the property, unseen from the great house. The windowless building was long, with two great, sliding doors at the front. At the far end of one side, Mirabel could see the rotted remains of a corral. They stopped at the front. 

“All things die, Bea,” Beatrix said quietly, looking at the sliding doors. She started to take a step forward and stopped. “You…,” and her voice faltered. She took a breath. “You must accept death, Mirabel. We all must.” Beatrix stared at the sliding doors. “Many things died, here,” she added softly. 

“What happened in there?” asked Mirabel.

Beatrix continued to stare. “It’s an abattoir,” Beatrix said plainly. “It’s where they…” She rubbed her throat. “So many years,” she whispered. “So many lambs.” Her fingers trembled as she crossed her forehead. “I thought I could come here…”

Mirabel went to Beatrix and held her hand. “Grandma? Are you okay?”

Beatrix sniffed, and wiped at her nose. “I had a pet lamb, once,” she said, cracks forming in her voice’s regalness. “His name was Rupert.” She dabbed at her eye. 

Mirabel pointed up the hills from where they had walked. “His name was on that rock.”

“He was a lovely lamb,” Beatrix remembered softly. “He had blue eyes. Do you know how rare blue eyes are with sheep?” Beatrix didn’t wait for a response. “He had the softest coat, he always wore a yellow ribbon around his neck. I fed him carrots every day.” Her face glowed in the setting sun, and she smiled slightly. “He slept in the shed next to the house. I made a bed for him out of straw. I tried to get him to sleep in my bed at night, but my mother caught me sneaking him into the house. I gave him one of my blankets so he wouldn’t miss me.” 

“Why is there a rock with his name on it?” asked Mirabel. 

The smile blew away with the breeze. “One day, when I was about your age, one of the farm hands was chasing an escaped lamb and found Rupert in the yard where we had been playing Hide and Go Seek. Rupert was a terrible hider, but he could always find me. The farm hand didn’t think about why the lamb had a yellow ribbon, he just took Rupert. I saw him when he was almost here. I ran after them, falling down the hill, screaming and begging. The farm hand didn’t hear me as anything but a little girl to be ignored.” Beatrix walked unsteadily to the doors and placed her hands on them, feeling the deep crevices of the weathered wood. “Like you, I was told never to come here, never to go inside. I should have listened and stayed outside. I should have let go. But I wanted my Rupert. I was young and impetulant … and I ran through the doors.” She moved her hands to the old handle, and pulled. With a shearing screech, the hung door jostled to the side.

The building seemed like the maw of some ancient serpent, the light pouring in through the doorway, fading to empty, cold black. Cracks in the roof let in faint slits of light that did little to illuminate. Then the smell of long forgotten death seeped out in an invisible fog. Beatrix closed her eyes and cringed; Mirabel’s eyes were wide and as rigid as the rest of her. 

“Back then, the building was full of the sounds of … killing,” Beatrix’s voice was quiet. For the first time in Mirabel’s life, her grandmother sounded old. “I went through the door,” she said, as she skulked into the building, “and saw a dozen men slicing through … meat,” she looked to an empty space as if someone were standing there, “laughing.” She stopped only a few paces in the door. Mirabel peered in, but refused to enter. “Then they saw me. The only sounds in the room then were the crying lambs in their pens.” Still looking to the empty space, Beatrix’s eyes slowly went to the other side of the wide room. She turned her head, then the rest of her, and shakily walked to a spot on the floor. It was empty, the wood well-worn and broken. She crouched down and touched an empty patch with reverence. “It was here,” she whispered.  “I remember the scream.” She touched her ears. “My scream. 

“My father found me,” Beatrix’s voice fluttered in the massive void, “holding my dead Rupert. His workmen had no idea what to do and just stood there. My father pried Rupert from my hands.” She held them up and looked, the old memory projecting like a movie. “I wailed like a banshee. He tried to tell me. I couldn’t … wouldn’t listen.” Beatrix tried to stand, but her dignity failed and fell to all fours. She sniffed lightly, cleared her throat, and pushed her way to a bent-over stand, the weight of time holding her down. “I kicked him,” she whispered. “I cursed him. I hated him. He took my Rupert.” Beatrix turned to see Mirabel, still standing at the door, then slowly shuffled towards her. “I did the only thing I could do. I ran away,” Beatrix continued, her voice stronger, though caught in her throat. “It wasn’t hard to do, this used to be a very large ranch. I fell asleep under the stars, but I woke in my bed in the house.” 

Beatrix reached Mirabel and tried to reach out, Mirabel took a few steps backwards. Mirabel’s eyes were red, her cheeks washed from tears and rubbed red. “My father came to me that morning and tried to cheer me up. He gave me a lambskin.” Her face sunk with the next memory. “He told me it was Rupert’s,” she shook her head. A single tear fell across the creases of her withered face. “I cried that entire day,” she said, her wet gaze casting far over the hills for several moments. She then stepped out of the barn and tried to pull the door closed. She struggled for a few moments before she stopped and sighed, and looked at her granddaughter. “Help me,” she held out her hand. “Please.” 

Mirabel slowly came to her grandmother’s hand, and took hold of the aged fingers. They were cold and leathery, not the warm, strong hands Mirabel had only ever known. The hand did not pull nor grasp and seemed delighted just to be held. Mirabel came close to her grandmother, put her arms gently around the heavy felted coat, and hugged. Beatrix looked down and patted Mirabel’s head. “I’m so sorry, Mirabel. I forgot.” 

“Forgot what?” asked Mirabel. 

“My innocence,” Beatrix replied. “My youth.” She smoothed out Mirabel’s hair, then moved her hand to the small face and gently wiped away the wetness. Mirabel smiled and sniffed. Together, they wrenched the old door back into place, then hand-in-hand, started the slow walk up the old road. “I gave Rupert a funeral. I felt it was the only decent thing I could do. I buried the lambskin, and his yellow ribbon. That stone marks his resting place, in the fields we played in.” 

“Do you miss him?” asked Mirabel. 

“Very much,” said Beatrix. “More today than I have in too many years.” 

“Did your father ever say he was sorry?” asked Mirabel.

“No,” Beatrix replied softly. “He told me to grow up,” Beatrix shook her head, “so I did.” Beatrix could feel Mirabel shivering in the chill air, the sun having set behind the hills beyond the property. “Let’s get your coat,” said Beatrix. “After we get your parents, and a shovel.” Mirabel looked up curiously. Beatrix smiled brightly, “I think Rupert would like to rest with a friend.”