Chapter 1 - Once Upon a History
In a little wood unknown to all, there was a little house. And in this little house there were many children, most of which will only be spoken of briefly in this story.
The little house resided in the middle of a spinney which was hugged by a thick forest. The abode was made from brick and mortar and the roof composed of wooden beams and straw. It rested on a platform raised slightly above the ground to prevent rainwater from entering the hut. Despite its under-sized appearance, the dwelling had a great deal of room to accommodate the almost infectious amount of children there.
In describing the many children there shall only be said this: think of any youth you can imagine and you would most certainly be able to find an exact match residing there whether it be boy or girl. Amongst the many that lived there, the youngest being of about five years of age and the eldest eighteen, not a single other creature could be found. That is none other than an old goat and a great fat woman with a massive bosom, monstrously thick thighs, and a head that looked more like an enormous tomato. The woman was a mother to none of the children and had relations to no one, but the children all called her Nana and considered her as the owner and manager of the house.
But truth be told, no one owned the house, not even Nana. No one owned it because no one built it. None laid any claim to it because no one owned the land it was built on. Not only that, but how the people who lived there found it and came to dwell there was an equal mystery. Some speculations were made by the children, but nobody thought much of it.
The wood in which the children dwelt was a dark place. In the day, it was as bright as a night with the moon shining strongly on the earth. Yet at night, it was almost impossible to make head or tail of anything. For now, there is not much more to be said for any of the children or the place other than what has already been told.
This story begins on a miserably frigid and soaking night. All the children had long since been put to bed and fallen into difficult slumbers. Nana slept as air wheezed in and out of her mouth making a noise worse than a tree bending helplessly in a storm. While all the children slept in clusters in their moth-eaten beds, there was a tapping sound that pervaded through the room… tap… tap… tap…
A delicate hand was positioned for a fingernail to quietly tap upon another in a monotone rhythm…tap…tap…tap…
The hands and the fingernails belonged to a girl who stared at the thatched ceiling with strained eyes. She watched as the raindrops against the windowpane reflected on the roof as they slid downwards. Her fingernails tapped together in an attempt to mimic the pattern of the rain outside…tap…tap…tap.
“Rain is not meant to be slept through. Wouldn’t you agree?”
The melody halted and the girl’s eyelashes fluttered twice as if to reassure themselves the voice had indeed made its presence in the night air. The girl turned to see the face of the voice that protruded into the night. There, lying next to her and gazing softly, lay her sister Nora.
“Can you not sleep either?” asked Christine.
“From the way you talk about it, I can tell my answer would interest you as much as the news of a mayfly’s passing.”
Christine remained quiet for a moment. This comment had taken her off balance. She wasn’t quite sure if it was an insult or simply a statement made with no foul intent. She searched for a reply, but after struggling within her head for a while, she abandoned the meaningless effort.
“I have these impressions when I sleep.” Nora respired heavily.
“What kind of impressions?” Christine asked.
“Not really impressions, more like a feeling.” She gave a look of deep and grave concern. “A feeling of nothingness.”
“Nothingness?” brightened Christine, “You mean like no trees and no people? Or a bare ground?”
“No,” Nora replied flatly, “Not bareness. Just nothingness, like everything is empty. Not bare, just empty.”
“Is it hunger? Or loneliness?”
Nora pondered these possibilities for a moment. “No,” she answered at last.
“Well, then what is it?”
An uncomfortable silence followed. “I don’t know. And I hate it because I don’t know. I don’t understand what it means. It is as if I was concealed.”
Nora turned to look at her sister. “But even if I broke free from whatever was holding me, I wouldn’t have known what to do.” Deep, confused thoughts convulsed violently in her eyes, “The worst part is I felt I had a purpose I could not fulfill because I was trapped.”
“Perhaps,” speculated Christine, “perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps you weren’t dreaming at all. Oh, you know, like when you sleep with no dreams. You see nothing but a black chart in your memory. That’s probably what it was.”
“No, Christine,” Nora persisted adamantly. “It was indeed a dream and I’ll tell you why. In those kinds of sleep, there is no time. Memory skips from lying in bed to waking, but in my dream the passage of the hours was evident and drawn out.”
The two lay there considering Nora’s apparition, trying to understand the callous dream.
Christine quickly grew impatient with the process and rolled the sheets. “These things do not matter. Whatever they are and whatever they represent does not change the fact that tomorrow is going to be filled with labor and a sleepless night is the last thing we need.”
Nora persisted to study the problem, but reason won over and she complied with Christine’s wishes. Both fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
The next day, a light drizzle of rain awakened the children. A thin, unflagging ray of light shone painfully into Christine’s eye. She squinted in irritation and turned over once, then twice. She slipped out of the side of the bed from underneath the frail sheets and landed on the floor with a loud and prominent thud. The noise woke Nora who got out of bed in the same fashion. They made their way over to a stale straw basket in the corner, removed the creaking lid, and pulled out two pairs of long, loose fitting dresses, stained and tattered at the edges. Tired and cold they slipped them over their bodies. The rest of the girls woke from the noise. Once dressed, a handful found their way to the little furnace that heated the room and shoved a couple remaining logs into the wavering flame.
The eldest lads made their way outside with rusted axes and chipped saws. With their bony arms, they felled one tree after another until the ground was covered with logs. They hacked through the wood and reduced the grand trunks into sizable bars of wood. The younger boys took many trips to carry the logs into the house.
The younger girls scrubbed the floors and dusted the inside of the cottage while the older lasses tended to a small garden next to the domain to prevent the crows from eating it. Some of the others went out into the woods looking for roots and tubers.
Nora and Christine had the task of looking after the goat. Nora would be sure it was in good health and milk it while Christine would feed it and clean its pen. The goat was an old, stiff thing, but still at an age where she gave plenty of milk. She had been an important part of the children’s lives throughout her production. But now, inexplicably, she began to give less and less milk each day.
Christine pressed the hay down into the trough and started for the cottage when she heard the low sound of soft talking. Peeking past the corner of the small stall she saw Nora whispering to the goat. This was an outlandish habit her sister would often do. Christine knew Nora would want to be left alone, so she went inside without another thought.
A half hour later, the children returned to the old residence for breakfast. Bowls filled with a pale, pasty material were clumsily lined upon long tables. The food was good and hot when first set down, but that had been a while ago and now it was barely warm enough to stomach. Christine sat with the other children but hardly gave her meal any notice. She looked around several times but saw no sign of Nora. The milking surely wouldn’t have taken half this long nor would conversing with the goat.
The meal was soon done and the room drained of bodies. Christine remained and looked down the long table strewn with empty pottery. Only one bowl remained full, now stone cold. At last Nora came in, but with downcast eyes and a pail hitting her side. Nora paused her stride and looked up with a gaze of weariness.
“Well? Did she give?” asked Christine.
Nora lowered her head and held up the pail. Christine looked and saw that there was a little less than a liter of frothing cream.
“It gets less and less every day.”
“Yes,” observed Christine, “She is getting old.”
“No, no it’s not that.” Nora choked.
“What do you mean?”
“She senses something. It was as if she felt an approaching event and in time, her milk will be of no use to us any longer.”
Christine was purely unamused. “And you say she told you this?” she asked with disgust.
Nora’s legs shook. “That is how she acted. I stayed with her for a long time but she didn’t touch the hay.”
“Probably because you were there. That would make her too uneasy to eat.”
“She is dejected. I can see it in her eyes.”
Christine glanced at Nora grimly. She looked at the bucket of cream.
“We’ll thin it out so there’s enough for everyone.”
Nora nodded and sauntered to the kitchen. Christine started to leave when an unearthly scent pervaded the air. The smell was ghastly and Christine was overcome by its repulsiveness. She stumbled out of the house, her hands clasped over her nose and mouth so as not to breathe in the stench. Once outside, she deliberated where the appalling odor could have come from, but thought of nothing.
Later that evening, Christine walked through the rooms cleaning the windows and removing the hollow corpses of flies and wasps from the sills. She moved into the hallways to complete her work growing tired of how putrid the cleaning water had become. There were two boys with her washing the floors. They spoke to one another in murmurs. Christine was not particularly interested in what they were saying and only half-listened to the conversation.
“What do you think of the whole idea?” one asked, his thin eyebrows lifting from under his mop of black hair. From his dwarfish stature, it was clear he was the younger of the two.
The other shook his head and held his bony chin in his thin, pale fingers. “If you ask me, there’s bad news written all over it.”
“Do you think the milk is no good anymore?”
Christine stopped and perked her ears in interest.
“You fool,” said the elder boy, “This isn’t about the milk! Milk comes and goes!”
They then noticed how still Christine had become. Christine knew they had realized she was listening and turned to look at them.
“What are you two chattering about?” she inquired.
“The milk,” answered the bony faced boy who was as thin as a rail when he stood upright, “You already knew that. You were listening to us.”
“Should I not have?”
“No.” he answered plainly.
Christine rested the bucket of scummy water down on the floor and walked over to the two boys. They rose from their crouched positions and rubbed their hands, tired from the rigorous scrubbing.
“So what is this talk about the milk?” asked Christine.
The younger boy frowned. “Don’t you know? There was hardly any from the goat.”
Christine chortled. “Is that all? Is that what these worried faces are about?” several lighthearted chuckles followed.
“Listen,” she said in a gentle but slightly mocking tone, “The goat merely isn’t giving a great deal currently. There’s nothing to fret over.” She returned to her work sniggering softly, “I’d think young men of your age should know better than to make a fuss out of something as insignificant as that.”
“That’s not what we are concerned about.” answered the older boy angrily, “The milk was soured.”
Christine came to an abrupt halt. Her brows crumpled. She turned, perplexed. “The milk was what?”
“The milk was soured. It was completely unfit to smell, let alone consume.”
Christine looked at them gravely. “Who told you this?”
“No one did,” the older boy replied, “We saw it for ourselves. And we know beyond any doubt it was freshly milked not ten minutes before.”
Christine held a hand to her temple. She tried to form an explanation in her mind, but it collapsed before it could make any sense. So that was the foul odor she smelt earlier, but why didn’t Nora say something? “It doesn’t make sense.” she muttered perplexed, “Nothing that fresh would spoil so quickly.”
The youngest boy shrugged. “Sensical or not, the goat’s giving sour milk.”
“It’s a bad omen,” muttered the other, “A bad omen from top to bottom.”
Christine stated the lack of milk meant nothing, but she knew she was only trying to fool herself. This had nothing to do with milk. As the boy said, the lack of milk was a temporary problem. A great inconvenience granted, but still a temporary one. There was an underlying disturbance occurring, the milk served as a sign. That night she sat in her bed feverishly trying to think of a sensible reason. Yet try as she might, there was no answer and she knew there was something much larger and much more fiendish at hand.
It was a horrible thing, not to know. She couldn’t have possibly known what was to occur in the days to follow.