TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
She wiped her hands on her apron, peering out the window. Red and orange leaves hurried by as the cold autumn wind battered the small cabin. The girl should have been back from the errand by now. At that moment, she saw the flying, fiery red braids. The devil’s mark on her right cheek, a constant reminder, was clearly visible, even at dusk. The girl, breathless, burst through the wooden door.
“Ma! Come quickly!!”
(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)
October barked sharp warnings of an early winter, and Maisy Able thought of spring — fancy, flirty spring — gone before you could begin to soak it all up. A fickle lover leaving the door open for the heat of summer to sizzle your sweat. And fall was her twin. Showing off, then leaving without a good-bye. Autumn only put off the inevitable; unable, or unwilling, to stop the hard freeze. The long nights shivering. Or the insufferable longing for the sun.
She smoothed calloused hands down the thread-bare apron and wished aloud for Sarah to get home. Come on home, girl. Dark’s comin’ nigh on early, this night. Wild dogs’ll be out. Her voice trailed to a whisper, and she lit the oil lamp before the dark could steal her soul away.
The sun glinted off the orange leaves, leaving the last light of day seemingly on fire. Maisy wished she’d gone with her daughter. But at fourteen, Sarah was holding her own. Growing like a ditch-weed. And twice as tough. She’d survived the onslaught of the town boys. Bums and bullies, they’d come calling, and one after the other, they’d taken turns. Determined to never again be taken against her will, Sarah Able carried a bowie knife, the one owned by her father before his early demise. Fleet as a doe, woods-wise and strong, she feared nothing in the forest. Still, the cur dogs had been close for weeks. Crossed with coyotes, they skulked … too brave. Too unafraid of humans. Maisy wished they could afford a gun. A twelve-gauge. But they’d gotten by this long, and maybe the dogs would soon leave. Maybe … maybe this time, they’d forget the curse of Able Hill.
A flash of red around the woodshed sent a surge of hope, but it was only maple leaves running ahead of the wind, caught upward in a miniature twister — as if dancing — as if glad to be loose from a parent’s arms. Then, Sarah, provisions tied around her waist, her dark red hair disheveled and wild, appeared, bringing as well, relief … apprehension. And guilt.
“We’ll git a horse soon, daughter. I promise.” Maisy spoke before the child was near and stepped from the shack’s door. A shrill yap blended with the breeze. The dogs had come.
Without being told, Sarah shut the door to the shed. The cow, cats, an old one-eyed collie, all sheltered alongside the dozen hens kept in a corner pen, tucked away from predators.
“I’m home, Mama. Dogs gave me’a start. Had to keep ahead of ’em. One looks to be a wolf, too. They was right behind me … ya hear ’em?”
She sat the feed sack with flour and lard on the table. Now they could cook again.
“I heard. I worried this time. Them dogs are gettin’ braver all the time.” She wrung her hands and shuttered the window to the sounds of the pack.
“I’ll try’n find a horse soon. We need a wagon … need a lotta things.”
“It’s okay, Mama, we’ll be fine. We’ll have to git us a gun soon though.”
“Well, git to bed. Tomorrow’s another day. Tomorrow, tomorrow.” Maisy hummed the word like a tune, over and over, as she pulled the quilt over her girl’s shoulders. She sensed the movement in her daughter’s belly then, and began the preparations. It would be a long night. Finally, Sarah whimpered in resignation … and lay in the blood of a birth two weeks before its time.
The washtub bubbled hot, and Maisy held the cloth that held the soaked cloth over it, letting the steam mix the scent with the wily winds. The moon glimpsed from behind the cloak of clouds, and then looked away, when, for an instant, the shine of green eyes blinked from the underbrush surrounding the shack and tiny barn. The moon didn’t want to see. And the dry maize crackled in protest.
Humped backs swaggered out of the underbrush and briars. Low, guttural growls reminded of promises made. Matted hair with the odd colors of indeterminate breeding stank like swamp-water and Maisy let the rag drop into the water. The clearing held its breath as the coy dogs came for their due. The trees stopped their clawing and drew back, waiting … watching. Something wise screeched a warning of wicked wrongs. And Maisy Able stood between evil and angels.
“Take me. Leave my babies to live.” Heart pounding like a caged bird, she stepped forward, off the porch, down — down, into the shadowed pack. Behind her, the newborn snuffled in hunger and fear. His cries gurgled quiet, finally sated, as he was put to the breast. Sarah turned away, and safe inside the cabin, barred the door against what she could not watch. Or help.
Flesh, hot and sweet, filled the gaunt bellies. They would wait once more after this night. They would suffice with deer, rabbit and the occasional hen. They would wait another twelve years to gorge on a lamb of God — the meat of innocence. The wild dogs of Allistair County would wait patiently in Kentucky’s deep hollows. Ghosts of death, they would wait. Wait patiently for the blood-red feast of the Hunter’s Moon.