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The Cairn by Aerial Douskos




I buried my face in the crook of her neck, breathing in honey and blooming yeast; a waft of piss, rising from the squirrel in her hands as she yanked the skin over its shoulders. She tossed it onto the baker’s table. With a thud, the rusty-grey tail was flocked in a smudge of flour.

“Now his trousers,” she said, peeling off the bit at the rump.

That was my wife, my Jenny, rinsing her little flayed man in the basin and packing him into the brine. “Hour or so and he won’t be gamey. Check the traps and fetch us another one. That’ll do for the both of us.”

She was a pretty, young thing with a head of black curls. I was the same once, before I went sparse and white, but never as lovely. It was her eyes that did it. One was so brown it was black, like molasses; the other was pinched shut, with a pink sliver round the bottom that was always tearing or crusted over. I grew to love it, not for what it was, but what it meant for me. With two of them, she might’ve had her pick of the lads. But she was happy enough with me.

I kissed her cheek and made off with my coat. Slate grey tartan, veined red and muddied at the hem, a breath of fire still fresh on the collar. At my heels, our senior collie, padding over the cobbles.

“Get on now,” I said, shooing her into the brush. And she went, weaving around the thistles. There was too much hip in her gait. Fat, courtesy of Jenny, but she’d done that to us both. I couldn’t blame her; it came in swiftly with the greys.

Off the path, I kneeled in a patch of brambles. Tucked behind was the last of my father’s traps: a rusted old thing too fussy for Jenny to handle. There had been nine left to me when he died. That and the property. I had a dozen more made in town, and ran the trapline deeper into the woods. That was the way it had always been, before the war. Before dad was left with a stump at the knee and he couldn’t scale the terrain. Shale jutted from the hills, the earth came away at the edges where the roots couldn’t hold it, and the animals left pits to catch our ankles. He stopped taking help from mum and I. Instead, we lived off of what he could snag near the house. We calmed our bellies with bannock, and boiled veg slopped next to our potatoes, and let him enjoy his pride until it killed him. He had left before sunrise, and it was noon before I found him: good leg mangled, skull blown out the back.

Of course, mum had wanted that trap gone, so it hung in the shed for three months until I lost her. Then, it lived over dad’s grave, where in its jaws, sticky and bent backwards, was dinner. Scrawny bastard, all ribs and no meat to him. That there was a soup rabbit.

Lately, that was all there was: a bit of flesh to thicken the broth. Once the bones came out, Jenny could shred up a few spoonfuls at most. I didn’t need it so much. As far as I was concerned, even if the traps were fruitful, I’d still have only veg.

I reset the trap. A light bleating sounded in the distance, lost in a mess of yapping.

“Christ sake, Tilly. D’ya lose one of mam’s sheep?”

I hiked up to the noise, thistles biting the wool of my socks. The weight of the rabbit bounced against my thigh, rattling my belt chain.

I couldn’t tell my Jenny. No. I’d have to skin ‘im mesself, an tell her it’s fawn. But even then she’d know.

They were hers, her little flock. Came with her when we married. She spun wool and sold it in town with her handicraft. Socks, mittens, what have you, but she wanted more from them. Come February, all her ewes would be ripe, and she’d get to go name the babbies. She’d be happiest while they were new and floppy, but that sparkle would last the year. I’d pretend I didn’t see tracks in the house, and she would care for me with a smile only they could give her.

I checked the trap by the yew tree: a clean grin, undisturbed, and let it be. I would have thought that Tilly had found a live one then, whisked away from the herd. Only she wasn’t with them, she was here, standing on her hind legs, pawing at the yew. Closer, I watched as her snout jabbed up at the fork, speckled tongue lapping at a tiny, pink face.

Skidding down the hill, I fought with my buttons one-handed. I stuffed the baby down the front of my shirt and ran. Arms crossed, holding my coat tight, with a chill searing into my flesh. I had to keep it from being shaken, cradling the head in my palm as I jumped over knobby roots and loose plates of shale. There were tremors, now and then, before I reached the doorway.

“The kettle, Jenny, the kettle.”

“What have you got, dear?”

“The kettle, Jenny. Now!”

  Her hand slipped under my collar, pulling it down. “Christ have mercy,” she said, “get that thing out of my house.”

“And let it die?”

“It was meant to die, it’s a bloody changeling. Out!”

“But, Jenny, we—”

She struck me across the face; my cheekbone stung where her fingernails grazed it. “Did you not bloody hear me?” she said. “Get on with it.”

It never crossed my mind that I could’ve hit her back. A welt on the temple, perhaps, or inky splotches ‘round her good eye. Anything that might’ve changed what both of us knew was coming. I unclipped the chain from my belt, tossing the rabbit at her feet. And I went back.

A changeling. The head was rosy, with a fine thatch over the scalp, wiry chest hair seeping into its parted mouth. I held it tight to my chest, sitting beneath the yew tree. Rocking slightly, as the sun trickled through the branches. The tartan, dappled with shifting light; our faces marked with golden kisses. The grass grew long, twinkling with dragonflies plump as black currants, wings of broken glass. But quiet. No birds singing, no crickets underfoot, only the rhythmic huff of Tilly, chewing at her paws.

“I suppose I should tell you a story,” I said, clearing my hair from its cheek. “Not a nice story, I’m afraid. You see, sometimes, they come in the night. The fairies. And they make off with our little ‘uns, leaving broken ones in their places. Little yellow babbies. Babbies with snub noses, or club feet. Twisted little things.” I pulled back my shirt to reveal the limbless child, curled on my chest like a maggot.

I let the air at it. The cold seeped in, and the life pattered out beneath my fingers. Only as it went limp did it feel like it had any weight to it.

“But they’re not ours,” I said, “and we have to give them back.” I tucked the body back in the fork, turning, and walking down the trapline. “Come, Tilly.”

She sat there, head cocked at the trunk of the yew.

“Get on, Tilly. Go home.”

She stood, staring through me. Black eyes like rosary beads, gleaming. And for a moment, in their depths, I was sure that He was glaring with her.

“Aye. All right then,” I said, making the sign of the cross.

I clawed a hole in the ground with my fingers, raking out stones and flecks of bark. My nails were ragged, packed with dirt, lifting with every pass. I had Tilly finish it off. The hole tapered off into a narrow scrape, spliced by a hard, black root. But it was deep enough for the baby.

I lifted it out of the fork, leaving a streak of dirt on its cheek, as I shrouded it in my button-down. I swept dirt over the gauzy lump, packing it down with my hands. The shape of my palms remained, darkened by the shadow of the tree.

I knelt on hands and knees, leaning to kiss the mark. It was cool to the touch, and my beard came away with loose dirt that fell as I stood. I gathered flat stones from the hillside, filling my pockets. The largest I held in my palm. I pressed it into the mound, and arranged the rest in a circle, staggering one atop the other until my pockets ran dry.

I left it.

An ache bloomed in my chest. Back home I stood in the doorway, looking at Jenny: her glassy eye, her hand on her belly. It would be easier to think that the changeling had died; that our little one was off somewhere, sun-kissed and barefoot. Running, dancing, crafting with the fairies.

“I buried him.”

“I knew you would,” she said, gripping the fleshy, pink rabbit. Its beady eyes slicked over, blood dripping onto the floor.

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