Issue 1

Kirsty Gunn

My cousin Bill loved animals but he killed them too. It was part of living on a farm, he said. You loved the pets and kept them but then you got rid of them just as easy. Like the little Easter lamb and we put a daisy chain on its head but Bill’s dad stuck his knife into its throat just the same, and Bill put all the grey kittens that Ailsa and I had been feeding right into one big potato sack and dropped them in the river, in the deep part, beside the little waterfall and they’d never be able to climb out.

This all went on those summers we used to go up to the farm. There’d be a little creature, a rabbit in a box or those sweet kittens, say, and then they weren’t there any more. In the same way Bill’s father, I suppose, was there one summer but not the next. It was just country living and country life – is what my mother thought about it. Even though she didn’t know that much to say. She was only a person who lived in the city and she had her job there and it was me and Ailsa that knew farm things because of Bill and Aunt Pammy and Uncle Robbie before he was gone. And so my mum and Aunt Pammy were sisters? They were pretty different, they really were. My mum wouldn’t do the things Aunt Pammy did.

The animals stopped being killed after Bill’s dad was gone though, even if Bill kept on the habit with the knives and the stones but by then there were no more baby calves or sheep to look after, no more chickens or geese. He helped Aunt Pammy get the heads off the last of the hens, I saw him do that in the first week we were there. And the dogs that weren’t working any more… Neddy who used to help Bill’s dad with the farm shot them all, one by one, and Bill wanted to help him do that too but it wasn’t the same as the killing before when Uncle Robbie had been around. Those dogs weren’t like the other kinds of animals anyway because Bill’s dad had kept them all, he’d let them live. And they’d had puppies that grew up and worked on the farm too or else Bill’s dad sold them or gave them away. But now all of them were also just dead. Neddy took them into the barn one after the other and in the end Bill couldn’t use the big rifle because he was too young. “Besides” Neddy said to us kids, “It would break my heart for Robbie’s boy to do it. Like it breaks my own to have to.

Neddy had to get a job in town then, because the farm got taken back by another farmer and there was nothing for him to do there after the shooting of the dogs. Still I thought things seemed a bit the same for a while, even with Bill’s dad gone and the animals not there. Ailsa and me were still on holidays there, I suppose, like every other year, is what I thought then, and that was the same, and it was the same fields still around us and the sea at the bottom of the cliffs and the house was the same.

But something had changed after all, something tidy. To do with Uncle Robbie not being there - but not in the way of him not walking in the door any more, or missing the things he did or said. It was more because there was no more mess like there had been mess when he’d been living there, with the blood and bits of killing. No more of him going around the house with his boots and with the mud, bringing inside all that stuff he used to do when he was out amongst the farm, in the cold paddocks by the sea, or up in the hills on his own..” And Aunt Pammy seemed in a way quite happy, I thought, I noticed it, I mean, after Uncle Robbie was gone, that the man she was married to was no longer there to bring mess in that way. The house had no great boots in it, sitting in the hall, or guns, or knives on the bench and with bits of animal stuck to them, or gutted fish in the sink in the scullery… Instead Aunt Pammy put flowers in vases and there were clean, empty rooms. And other things too, like there was one little puppy left from the litter after the mother had been shot who was allowed to come into the house and Aunt Pammy made up a bed for the puppy, in the kitchen where it was warm, and I saw her sometimes leaning down to pat it and talk to in a soft and gentle way.

“Mum’s getting fancy” is all Bill said, when I asked him what he thought about any of this. It was because he was a boy, maybe, and become a half orphan in a way because he no longer had a dad. And so Aunt Pammy turned into this person who wore dresses sometimes and I saw her put on lipstick too, and scent, and she went out of the house without telling any of us what she was doing, just went out into those big summer nights when it never got dark… Maybe that was hard for him to see.

Oh Bill, I don’t know what you were thinking. In your bedroom with all your toys piled up, those boxes of your cars and farm things and your clothes and your drawings, and you slept in there at night with the door closed when before you kept it open for Uncle Robbie to come in, wearing his farm socks he’d had on that day and the old jersey he always wore. He used to sit on your bed and say goodnight and the door was open then, into the hall. But now it stayed closed. So perhaps you just couldn’t see, like I saw, like maybe only a girl might see, though my little sister was too young in those days to notice…

But the killing from before seemed truly gone. And not only the smearings from blood… But the knowledge of it, the dark part of the farm Uncle Robbie always brought in with him, that he sat with his son with, to say goodnight. Now there was only a boy left and a father who was not there. And I thought Aunt Pammy would be sad that Uncle Robbie was gone and that the farm was no longer theirs and that the animals weren’t there… But instead she let the little puppy play in the house and there was a kitten too, from the cat who lived in the toolshed, and she didn’t make Bill take it away and its brothers and sisters and put them in a sack.

Instead she let things in. She let them, then, come in, allowed them – is a word she might say – in the way Uncle Robbie hadn’t allowed things before on the farm. For now it was a house, not Uncle Robbie’s farm any more and when I saw her again drawing on that lipstick in the mirror one night and then smiling at herself, at her refection in the glass… I knew then what Bill in his room with all his things around him might never know. Even with the house all tidy and the door wide open into the summer night. Even if I was to tell him myself what I’d seen down at the beach while he lay in his room, with the door closed, and his father’s jersey with him in the dark.

But would I tell him? Ever? That the man who was around the village that summer, a visitor from town Bill reckoned had been down on the beach a lot of times, just sitting on a rock or walking around, flicking stones into the water, came over to me that night, after I’d followed Aunt Pammy out the open door, gone out of the house myself, and asked me, “Have you seen your aunt?” and I looked behind me and she was right there. With her pretty dress and her bare brown arms and her hair let long, and smiling in that same way I’d seen her smiling in the mirror so I ran away then, without answering him or even saying hello, back up the hill and fast, back to Bill but not saying a word to him even then, though I might have, because in the end there was something in the house that might have been familiar to him after all.

That if you had looked, Bill, if you had been able, you would have seen too – and more than the house tidy and the floors all swept and bare. And more than the scent and lipstick in Aunt Pammy’s room - but that her bed when you opened it up and looked inside was dark with something, dirt I thought, like from down their bodies and on their legs from them being together like I’d seen when I turned at the top of the hill that day and went back down the beach and they were there, your mother and that man. And understood as well, perhaps, if I had been there in the bedroom with you to show, that what she had been doing, your mother, out in the open nights, in all that wide shining air, bringing it back into her bed and leaving it there through her white sheets…Was a mess like another kind of killing. But if you never asked me where your mother was those nights when your father had gone… If you never asked me, then I would never need to tell.