By Richard Wallace
In most short stories there is an element of truth. Truth gleaned from life’s experiences and our perceptions of the larger world around us.
In most short stories there are enough grains of truth and snippets of reality to make the story work. In most stories there is enough to allow the reader to identify with the theme of the story or to simply enjoy it for what it is.
I wonder what snippets the reader will take from this story? In short, what is real and where is the fiction?
The kitchen was not unusual. It was not unlike a lot of other kitchens in the village. A wood stove and a sink with a hand operated pump.
The pump brought up water from a cistern under the house. When the handle of the pump was at work it rattled and squeaked in protest. It was not an unpleasant sound and the water from the pump gushed out into the sink in spurts.
There was hope that someday the pump might be replaced with taps and running water but on a list of priorities that idea would be listed under ‘someday’. The same could be said of the wood stove.
The wood stove was a somewhat multi-purpose fixture in most of the kitchens in the village. It cooked the food, heated the kitchen and boiled water for washing dishes. It heated the water for washing clothes and provided hot water for the weekend bath.
None of this was unusual. As for the bath, it took place in the living room in a wash tub. News papers were put on the floor to soak up any water that splashed out over the sides of the tub but the floor was such that it really wouldn’t have mattered if it did.
This simple wash tub served the whole family. The smallest child went first, the older children were next and the adults were last. The bath was marginal at best and modesty always a premium.
The kitchen and the bath situation, like the rest of the house, were rustic to say the least. Calling the house rustic would be kind.
The kitchen cupboards were going to have doors, someday, the battered walls were going to be painted, someday, and the torn and scuffed linoleum was going to be replaced, someday. Someday never seemed to come.
Where was this village? I can’t tell you that. Why not use your imagination? It could be anywhere; anywhere your life’s experiences might have taken you. I wonder if you would go along with the idea that this could have been a village just about anywhere in the world?
“Your Dad will be home tonight.”
“I know. I didn’t get the wood split like he wanted.”
“You did your share.”
“Is sister going to be all right?”
“She’s never going to be all right but she’ll survive, they all do.”
“But she doesn’t even have a boy friend.”
‘I don’t know. I don’t know and she won’t say.”
“She’s only in Grade Nine.”
“Does Dad know?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know how. He’ll find out soon enough.”
“Does Dad like working in the woods?”
“I think so, it’s a job.”
And so it was. A conversation between a mother and her young son. A conversation about his sister who would soon be front and center in the family. Not an unusual situation in this not unusual village.
“I did the chores and put fresh straw in the horse stall. I should have done the wood.”
“That’s all right. Your Dad will be coming down the road soon, why don’t you go and meet him?”
“How was your week?”
“My week? It went.”
“How long will the mill be running?”
“Not long. You get everything done?”
“Pretty much. I did all the chores and put fresh straw in for the horse. I’m doing real good in school and I need you to help me with a project.”
“Like I have time for your school work!”
“It’s easy Dad, it’s about different kinds of wood and you’re good at that. And I did my homework every night.”
“You get that wood split like I told you?”
“No, I tried to get it done but every time I started it something else came along.”
“You should have done it. I wanted it split and in the shed.”
“Dad, I’ll do it next week. It’s only September, we have lots of time.”
“I told you to do it this week and I meant it.”
“Dad, next week, I promise.”
“You should have done it this week like you were told. You’re gett’en the barn.”
“You’re gett’en the barn. Right after supper.”
“No Dad, come on, it was busy.”
“Don’t ‘come on’ me. I’m working in the woods all week and you’re telling me that it was busy. I’ll show you busy! And don’t give me any of that ‘come on.”
“But Dad, I had a lot of homework and stuff. I’m going to make it into Grade Eight next year, easy.”
“You listen to me. After supper you go out and get the horse out of the stall and take the belly strap off the harness. You get in the stall and wait for me there. You got that?”
“No Dad, please.”
“Dad, I can do the wood tomorrow, it’s Saturday, I can do it, easy.”
“You’re a little late.”
And so it was. A conversation between a father and his young son. A conversation about working in the woods, wood that hadn’t been split, and oh yes, gett’en the barn.
“Hi, you’re home. Supper’s almost ready.”
“Boy’s gett’en the barn!”
“What! What do you mean, gett’en the barn?” What’s he done?”
“Not what’s he’s done. What wasn’t done.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Didn’t split the wood like I told him.”
“Oh my God, we had a terrible week, dreadful. Wood was the last thing we had time for.”
“I told him to do it and I wanted it done.”
“Don’t be so crazy. That wood can wait for a month.”
“He’s gett’en the barn and that’s all I want to hear out of you.”
And so it was.
“You have a good week girl?”
“Why’d you look at your mother when you said that?”
“No reason. I didn’t know I did.”
“Look at me when I talk to you.”
“You’re getting to be quite a little woman now aren’t you, all filled out and lady like.”
“Look’en like your mother when I first came around, took her out.”
“What Grade are you in this year?”
“Grade Nine Dad.”
“That’s just about where your mother was when I came around. See that you don’t grow up too fast. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Yes Dad, I know what you’re talking about, you should know.”
“What! What did you say?”
“There you go, looking at your mother again, What the hell’s going on around here anyway? Why did you say that?”
“I don’t know Dad.”
“You looked right at me and said I should know.”
“I know I did, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t give me sorry, what did you mean?”
“Dad, it’s just that you said that I look a lot like Mum when you first took her out, when she was young, that’s all.”
“I sure hope so.”
And so it was.
Supper eaten in silence.
“That sure was a good supper mother. Beats the hell out of that slop they serve up in the woods.”
“Good, I thought you’d like it. I thought camp food was pretty good.”
“Not this camp. That sure was good pie, any pumpkins left in the field?”
“Of course, there’s a whole field of them.”
“Girl, cut me another piece of pie. You sure are look’en grown up.”
“Dad, I’m just growing up, that’s all.”
“Boy, get to the barn.”
“Dad, no, please.”
“Get to the barn or I’ll do it right here!”
“Dad, you don’t understand.”
“I’ll give you don’t understand. Get to the barn.”
“My God, don’t do this to your son. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s a good boy.”
“You shut your mouth!!”
“No, don’t do this. Don’t start on him.”
“It’s started, get to the barn.”
“This isn’t right! You just got home. We had a nice supper. What’s the matter with you? You chased one son away, isn’t that enough?”
“I made a man out of his brother and I’ll make a man out of him.”
“No, no you won’t!”
“Watch me! Call it a lesson in life.”
“A lesson in life; and when was the last time his brother came home?”
“I don’t care if he ever comes home. Boy, I told you, get to the barn!”
And so it was.
A lesson in life.
And there we sat. We sat on the bank of a slight elevation above the road. It was a narrow dirt road that ran through the village; a narrow dirt road that separated this cluster of houses. At the time we didn’t know just how narrow it was. None of us were old enough to drive.
The narrowness of this road meant that secrets were hard to keep. Loud voices coming from a house didn’t stop at the road. Voices in anger and rage. All kinds of voices, some frightened and crying. Others hurtful and hard to forget.
Opposite to where we sat on the bank was the barn. A rural version of ‘a great hall of justice’. It was in this barn that one of the great lessons in life was about to play out.
And there we sat, transfixed. We sat there in some kind of perverse anticipation. Why not, we didn’t know any better.”
Word had spread quickly. One young boy had heard the exchange between the dad and his son. The word was out and all of us knew what ‘gett’en the barn’ was all about.
We really didn’t know what was about to take place. We had only heard about it. We didn’t know what this deranged monster of a father was about to do.
So we sat there, waiting for justice.
The barn was so close to the road that we could hear the harness being lifted from the hooks where it hung on the wall. We could hear it being taken apart.
We could hear the horse being taken out of the stall. We didn’t know about the fresh straw.
And so it was.
It was time.
“Grab the manger!”
“No Dad, no!”
“Wait, I told you to get your shirt off!”
“Get it off; that’s more like it. You had better learn to do what you’re told.”
“Grab the manger! Boy, this is for you!”
CRACK…..The sickening sound of leather on skin…..silence
“That was for you boy!”
CRACK…..More leather on skin
“That was for the pile of wood you didn’t split!”…..more silence
CRACK…..More leather on skin
“That was for your useless sister!”
This time the silence was shattered.
A single scream.
A scream of pain.
CRACK…..One last leather on skin
“That one was just for good measure!”
“You learning boy?”
This question was followed by one God-awful drawn out scream.
The boy had been brave. He had taken the belly belt from the harness and led the horse from the stall. Then he grabbed the manger, just as he had been told to do. He held onto the manger and waited. He only waited for a few minutes but it must have seemed much longer than that.
He waited for what he knew was about to come. Waiting for his lesson. He knew all about it. He fixed his eyes on a nail in the wall, just above his head. Then he waited.
As ordered, he bent his head forward and as he did his young shoulders lifted up towards the nail. It wasn’t long before the waiting was over.
CRACK…..The first laying on of leather on skin.
Driven to his knees he picked himself up and waited. He did not cry out. He didn’t have to wait very long.
CRACK…..The second laying on of leather on skin.
This time the boy was driven in to the manger but still, he did not cry out.
He pulled himself up and waited. If silence has a sound, that was all that was heard.
CRACK…..The third laying on of leather on skin.
This time the boy was driven further into the manger. This time a single scream shattered the silence.
CRACK…..The forth and last laying on of leather on skin.
This time the boy was driven to his knees and he could not get up. He did muster up enough energy for one last scream. One God-awful drawn out scream, a primal scream, a scream for survival.
We heard all of this and we were frozen in fear. We were not ready for what had just taken place. Not ready for the lesson just administered in the ‘great hall of justice’.
There were four ‘cracks’ in all. One for the boy, one for the pile of wood, one for his useless sister and one for good measure.
Four cracks in all.
Four cracks of leather on skin.
Two screams from this young boy.
Screams far too old for his age
A scream to survive.
And a mother, pounding on a window, pounding on the glass, pounding too hard, don’t break, don’t break the glass…..and then the sound of breaking glass.
The sound of shattering glass melded with that one last scream and blended into the evening air; the sound of shattering glass playing its part in this madness.
And a mother crying,
“Stop cruelizing that boy!”
All of these sounds came together
as though choreographed in a
cruel musical score.
The dad left the barn and walked back to the house. He ignored the crying of the mother and told her to stay where she was.
We never knew if the young boy cried or not. We supposed that sooner or later he did.
And so it was.
A lesson in life;
You do note
none of the participants
What would it matter?
What can be said of a dirt road
dust in the summer,
muck in the spring.
What could be added
to a sound like ‘crack’,
leather on skin
to make it hurt more?
What of silence?
why embellish silence?
And now dear reader, what exactly did you take from this little story? A lesson in life?
What did you really take from this lesson?
What made you turn the pages?