Pennsylvania, October 1895
There is enough tea left in the can for three more cups. There is the end of a loaf of bread on the shelf, as big as two of Ida’s small fists, and one potato. Six matches. Eleven bullets.
Ida doesn’t sleep in her own bed anymore, but in Momma and Papa’s bed, alone. She doesn’t change the blankets the way she knows she ought to. There doesn’t seem to be much point. Momma is gone, and Baby Joe. There’s no one else to catch sick, and Papa, well, don’t know what happened to Papa.
During the night she began to whisper a song to herself as she lay unsleeping again. Bheir me o, horo van o . . . It felt like the right thing to do—people need songs, small things—but then she heard a rustle from outside, over by the fence where the old mule is heaped, and she stopped. She’s tried not to make a sound since. She’s started coughing though—the thick, gut-deep coughs that Momma started having just before the rashes, and the teeth coming loose. When she feels one coming, she presses her face as far into the pillow as she can and she tries to swallow it back. When she brings her head up from the bedding, she holds her breath and listens closely to the silence for any snapping, any shift of the air outside, in the woods. There are creatures out there waiting for a sound to tell them that Ida is still here for the taking. Ida does not know what they are, or where they came from, but she knows that they are there, just beyond the trees.
If she were brave like Momma, she’d set out down the mountain with eleven bullets and one potato and the end of a loaf of bread, and she wouldn’t stop until she found a doctor, or a woman with a kind voice, who’d put a damp cloth on her forehead and sing to her all the old songs until she’d fall asleep. But she is not so brave, and besides, she knows better. No safe path down the mountain exists.
Even though the sun is up at last, Ida stays under the quilts on Momma and Papa’s bed, one eye on the rifle that leans by the door. Eleven bullets: that’s ten to spare for those creatures, and one to keep for herself, if only she could figure out how to hold it right.
Ida wakes and for the first time in many days, she feels more hopeful. The snow, which had begun just a day or so before, fell heavily in the night.
It’s a good sign, Ida thinks. Snow means that things are hibernating, settling in for long sleeps. After all, she hasn’t heard a thing outside since Momma died. Even the low pat pat of the flakes hitting the windowsills is something she only imagines.
She has a few bites of bread. It’s gone stale, but Ida doesn’t mind so much.
After eating, she stands naked and goose-fleshed before the mirror on the wall, pulling at her eyelids and touching the corners of her mouth. She passes her hands over the buds that would be breasts in a year or two. She’s as white and smooth as the day before, and the day before that. Another good sign—no rashes. Perhaps the sickness won’t take her. To be safe, she’s been changing the blankets on her little bed in the corner by the stove every night. Though she’s burned the sheets from Momma and Papa’s bed, she can’t burn the quilt, the one Momma made when she was still full-bellied back in Scotland, waiting for Baby Joe to come. The quilt waits on their mattress, to be cleaned or maybe buried. Ida’s not sure yet. She dresses quickly in the cold.
Slowly and silently, Ida opens the window shutters above her parents’ bed and looks out at the yard. Though a little snow is still coming down, the sun is beginning to glow through the early morning clouds for the first time in many gray days, like a lamp lit behind a curtain. The smooth ground is shining white beneath it.
If the sick ones are sleeping too, like all other animals, Ida can wrap herself in her mother’s wool coat and walk the many miles down the mountain to Pitchersville, where perhaps her father has found help. Maybe she’ll meet him coming back on the way, and he’ll hoist her up into the wagon and together they’ll head back across the mountain and down the long road to that port town, full of people with strange smells and strange voices. She hadn’t liked them before, when they stepped off of the ship into another sea, one of outstretched hands and sneezing, snotty babies—she’d been afraid—but she’s not afraid of those people anymore. They were just like her and her family, someplace new. She knows now why those people might have wanted to stay there on the docks, without a home and without work, now that she’s seen what’s here in the mountains of this strange country. She and Papa will go back across the sea to Ayrshire county, and to her Nana, who’ll tell her stories and sing her songs, and they won’t talk about this place, ever. They’ll light candles for Momma and for Baby Joe, and that will be the end of all this.
But first she’s got to make sure. Ida pulls on her mother’s coat, and folds the sleeves up above her wrists. The hem drags on the floor.
Ida knows how to load and shoot the rifle, even if it’s too long and heavy for her to hold up proper. She puts two bullets in—twelve, eleven—and drags it by the butt to the doorway, the barrel bumping against the wood floor and out the kitchen door. Ida sits down on the stoop, and the cold layer of fresh snow melts quickly under her. She rests the butt of the gun between her knees, the barrel pointing up towards the sky, where a few more snowflakes are twirling down, like they’re trying to catch up to the yard before the sun chases them away.
Until Momma died, Ida had been hearing the creatures out there every day, waiting. Snaps and footsteps, the scratch of rough skin against bark. But that was three days ago, and in that time, Ida hasn’t heard anything but her own breathing. Maybe it means they think there’s nothing left here, and they’ve moved on.
Sitting outside the house, Ida feels braver, feels like testing the air.
Hello, she whispers, even though she knows there’s nothing out there that would understand even a simple greeting. Ida feels as though the fresh snow needs to be acknowledged, that the woods might need to hear a kind word. That, and it feels so very good to speak.
No sound. The flakes hitting the ground are like embers falling out of the stove that go dark and die on the floor. Ida scans the yard, the empty coop, and the ashes of the fire pit on the far end of the fence. Behind her, her little bed grows colder without her in it.
Hello, she says, a little louder. Blood thrums in her ears.
There is no answer. Not a rustle, not a snap, not a sigh from the woods.
Ida hasn’t cried, not very much. But now, just thinking about those creatures gone at last, and about Papa coming along the clean, snowy path, up on the wagon behind Little Ness, the mule, she begins to cry right there on the stoop. The gun drops to her feet and she hugs her knees in and she cries a cry that would be close to a laugh if she didn’t miss her Momma so much. She’ll go in and collect some things, she decides. She’ll wrap up what’s left of the bread and the potatoes and she’ll tie the rifle to her back, just in case there’s anything still stirring out there. Yes.
The snow has ceased falling and the sun begins to shine, as though holes are being torn in the gray curtain of clouds.
She stands up and begins to turn back into the house, but then, facing the kitchen door, she looks around the corner to the back end of the yard, toward the drift of snow over by the fire pit. Now that the sun’s up and casting shadows, she can see footprints there. They are not hers. The bread and potatoes are forgotten as quickly as she’d resolved to pack them. The creatures have been back, circling the fire pit, perhaps even as she’s been sitting here. Sniffing around. How could she not have heard them?
Of course. The snow.
Ida looks around the yard, but sees nothing moving. She crouches back down on the stoop, taking the rifle up. Ida struggles to lean the butt of the gun against her shoulder and reach the trigger. She rests the barrel on the top of her right knee, and can aim it all right that way. She is breathing hard, and doesn’t know whether to stay, and wait for something to move, or to turn her back to go inside, as quickly as she can. She grips the heavy gun.
Just then she hears a branch give and snap against the weight of something moving steadily toward the house, near the fire pit, where the tree line gives way to low hill, rolling down to the yard. Ida will be brave. She sets her shoulders, her finger folded around the trigger. She hears wet, uneven rasping breaths and she sees black matted fur through the bushes. She shoots.
The gun kicks, hitting her sharply to the side of her breastbone and knocking her backward on the stoop, and she screams in surprise and pain. The scream, as well as the shot, echoes in the trees and in Ida’s ears.
The creature is still moving, and before Ida can raise herself up, it comes pushing through the low branches and topples over the low bank until it comes to a rest against the fence. Ida scrambles to get into the house, dragging the rifle with her, and once she’s over the threshold and in the kitchen, she peers out and sees that the form by the fence is Little Ness, Papa’s mule.
Even from the kitchen door, Ida can see that she’s been hurt by more than just the bullet, which tore into her right front leg. Her dark gray flank’s been slashed and bitten in a dozen places. Some of the wounds look infected and yellow, as though they’re a few days older, but she has a large scratch on her neck that looks fresh, perhaps only minutes old. As the mule snorts her last breaths there past the yard, her eyes are red and glazed.
Ida sits on the floor, her heart the loudest noise in the house. She is unsure what to do. She cannot take that scream back, nor the shot. The wounds on Ness’s heaving, sick body are sure proof that the creatures in the woods are still out there searching for weakened food, and now they have heard her.
Ida sits at the kitchen table, her hands in her lap. She does not eat. She is sure that she is the only thing left alive on the mountain.
Smoke from the fire in the yard is drifting over the empty coop, the trees, and into the sky. Perhaps someone down the mountain will see it before the sun sets, and will send help, but it’s unlikely. It’s getting cold now, fires are common.
Ida unwraps the apron on her arm and throws it onto the flames, where it billows for a moment as it catches alight. The charred forms under the cloth, burnt and re-burnt, are unrecognizable, and Ida thanks God for it. She wishes she could stand here next to the flames, despite the smell of sickness, and watch the mass that was her mother turn into ashes and blow away.
She wants to say something, a prayer, out loud. As young as she is, Ida knows about things like ritual. But she also knows she can’t stay outside for too long, and she turns to the house. She kneels by the door and washes her hands under the pump with a bristle brush until they are red and stinging. She scrubs and scrubs until they’re raw, and only then does she let herself wipe her eyes and nose. Her arms ache from dragging Momma, bundled in sheets and that bolt of blue paisley that Papa had bought her, out to the yard. Momma was going to make herself a church dress out of that fabric one of these days, to wear in the coming winter months. Papa was going to take them all down into Pitchersville to spend the worst of the winter. The splash dam would be frozen, and no one would need to be on the mountain to keep it up, not until the spring. Papa was going to get a town job, that’s what he said, and Momma had been so happy. They’d go to church every Sunday. Ida figures the paisley is as close to a prayer as Momma can have.
Everything outside the tiny house is silent except for the fire. The birds are missing. Ida thinks that there ought to still be animals around, rabbits, a fox or two, their coats turning silver and white to match their teeth and the morning frosts; at least that’s how it had been in Ayrshire, when the winter crept into the highlands. But Ida hasn’t seen a breathing, moving thing but herself since yesterday.
The fire is so loud it terrifies Ida. It is the only sound she can hear, and she’s sure that if there are creatures nearby, they can hear it too. Papa’s gun is on the ground next to her, but she’s not sure if she would be able to grab it, and brace it against herself in enough time to shoot anything. The paisley is all gone, and everything that had been underneath it is char and ash and bone. Smoke trickles up into the sky.
In the trees behind the column of smoke, Ida thinks she sees something move. She picks up the gun and runs to the kitchen door, bolting it behind her.
The box of bullets sits where she left it earlier on the shelf. Ida counts them again, taking them out and lining them up on the big table, where they roll and settle into grooves in the wood grain. There are twelve. She puts them back one by one. She counts them again. Later, she will try to sleep, but she does not know if she will succeed.
Ida sits on the floor in the corner made by the stove meeting the wall. There is nothing burning in it, and the cast iron is cold against her back. Ida has been watching the sheets on the bed move every so often, when Momma tries to bring air to her lungs. Ida is waiting for stillness.
Momma is thirsty and can’t stop scratching the rashes on her arms and chest. Ida brings food and water to her bed, and sits next to her as she writhes, biting the pillow and tangling the quilts. Her mother’s skin shines with sweat, a sheen over the places where her nails have made red marks. Ida is frightened, but she doesn’t move. Her mother has always been a careful, strong woman, a still woman, and Ida tries to be still for her. For now Momma is like a trapped cat. Momma has a fever, a bad fever, and she doesn’t remember that she has to stay quiet. When Ida sees that she’s about to yell, she holds a bunched-up sheet over her face and hopes that it doesn’t smother her. Under the folds of fabric, she can feel her mother’s hot breath, smelling like old eggs. Momma coughs under Ida’s hands, and when Ida pulls the sheet away, there’s blood, blood and a single tooth. Your Papa, Momma says, her voice like the creak in a door, he can’t . . . But Ida does not know what it is that her Papa can’t do, for Momma coughs again, and falls quiet. Ida gathers the tooth in a corner of the sheet and tosses it into the stove.
In the morning, Momma has a rash on her shoulder and her neck. Ida makes tea, and Momma tells her not to hand it to her, but to leave it on the table, and to go sit across the room. Don’t come near me, she says, and Ida does as she’s told, without a word. She knows that her mother is not upset with her, but still she feels as though she is being punished.
The missing rooster shows up finally, dropped a few paces from the fence, its legs and backside torn off by the creatures. Ida and her mother can smell it from the house, like sulfur, fish and shit.
We have to get rid of it, Momma whispers. Her face is ashen, and cut into stripes by the light through the wooden window shutters.
It’s outside the fence, Momma. So close to the trees.
But Momma says to shush, which means Ida’s got to be brave, and grabs a kerchief to tie around her mouth and nose. Give me that apron, she says. Ida does as she’s told, and takes the apron off its peg and gives it to Momma, who uses it to bundle up one hand. They destroyed the gloves already in yesterday’s fire. Momma didn’t feel good enough about washing them. Have to make do with something else, and then always get rid of it after. With her free hand Momma grabs a match, puts it in her pocket, and takes up Papa’s rifle from where he left it leaning on the wall. Her eyes are cold, and her voice flat, as if by wavering, it will shatter.
You stay here. Try not to breathe in until I’ve got it burned.
Ida nods, knowing better than to argue. No matter how much she wants Momma to stay in the house with her, she doesn’t want to think about what will happen if they let the bird stay out there. They can’t leave it. It’s a scent so putrid that those things will come in packs.
She stands by the door, covering her mouth with her hand, and watches as Momma walks slowly towards the fence, pausing between each step to listen. The closer she gets to the carcass, the worse the smell must be. Ida sees Momma close her eyes and cough through the kerchief. Momma reaches out with her bundled hand and picks up the remains of the bird. Holding it far away from her body, Momma crosses the yard and throws the dead rooster on the pile of char and soot already waiting there.
Before she lights the match, though, she coughs again and, to Ida’s horror, lifts the kerchief from her mouth, gagging. Ida bites her hand to keep from crying out. Momma is gasping, doing just what they both have taught themselves these last days not to do: Momma is breathing in. Ida runs from the doorway and grabs the match from her mother’s hand, strikes it against the fence, and throws it onto the mound. As the rooster catches fire, the smell begins to fade away and is replaced by the scent of burning feathers, flesh and wood. Still Ida keeps one hand over her mouth, and tries with the other to help Momma cover her own. The fire pops and crackles and echoes in the yard.
Ida fills a bucket from the pump outside the kitchen door, holding it at an angle so the water runs in the side quietly, and doesn’t slosh. She takes care not to let the door creak as she heaves the bucket inside.
Momma is waiting by the mirror, undressing. Her shoulders are broad, though she’s not a large woman. They dip comfortably where they meet her neck, and Ida remembers what it is like to be held, to put her own head just there, in that hollow. Momma stands before the glass on the wall and pulls at the skin of her neck, her face. She lifts one breast, then the other. She nods to herself as though everything is as it should be. She pulls her heavy brown hair around the side of her neck.
Ida, my back, she whispers.
Ida eases the bucket onto the floor by her mother and climbs onto the stool so that her head is level with Momma’s shoulders. She holds her hands, fingers outstretched, just above Momma’s skin, almost touching her, and she searches Momma’s back for any signs of the same yellow rash that Baby Joe had, using her fingers as a guide.
She steps down backward from the stool and squats to get a good look at the backs of Momma’s legs. Her thighs are like pillows, where the stuffing underneath is bunched and worn. Momma’s got spider veins in the curves behind her knees, and Ida peers at these longer than everything else. It’s hard to tell if anything’s different there.
Momma nods and turns around.
Your turn, baby girl.
Ida hangs her own dress on the peg by the fireplace and stands naked on the stool. While Momma looks at her back and her legs, Ida stretches her arms out in front of her and turns them over and over. They are skinny and pink and freckled, and they look just like a pair of arms should. They are thin. They are not very useful.
Ida and Momma take turns dipping the washcloth in the bucket of cold water and washing the ash off of each other’s skin. They didn’t find much of little Joe over by the fence, but they made a fire anyway.
Momma doesn’t leave her bed all day. Ida heats them a potato each to eat, aware of every sound she makes: the sharp moan of the stove door, the slide of the knife against the food, and the wood of the table. Afterward she sits by the stove, poking at the coal in the grate. They will have to try, from now on, to be much quieter.
It is evening. Momma wants to bury the baby in the ground instead of burning him. Ida helps dig the hole over in the far end of the yard, away from the garden. They’ve wrapped Baby Joe in the small cotton cloths from his cradle, and as Momma kneels and puts him in the ground, Ida can see one little hand peeking though the folds.
Ida has never seen a dead thing before today. Chickens and geese and fish don’t count, not now. Before, when he was dead in his cradle, Ida looked close at Baby Joe, his yellow sores and his red-tinted eyes. She looked at the way his wispy curls lay matted on his forehead, and the rash that started on his chest, but had bloomed over half of his miniature face, hiding his left eye in a yellow crust. She knew she’d never seen anything this terrible before in her life, and if she was real lucky, she never would again.
When they are done, Momma makes some tea and warms them each a slice of bread. Ida sits on her bed, afraid to speak, afraid that one noise would be like a pin in the thin orb that is her mother’s composure.
Small things, Ida, Momma says as she holds the toasting fork over the stove and waits for the kettle to warm. That’s all we can do until your father comes.
Ida understands this, though she wishes she didn’t have to.
The sound of a branch snapping echoes outside the house. Momma makes a little crying sound as she whips her head towards the window, her eyes wild. Ida doesn’t want to see what’s out there, doesn’t want to know, but finds herself following her mother to the window, where they peer through the shutter slats.
It is sitting at the tree line, its unseeing eyes rolling toward the house and the yard. Suddenly Momma’s hand is around Ida’s mouth.
Don’t, don’t, Momma hisses. Ida wants to scream. Momma presses Ida’s head against her chest. Maybe it doesn’t know we’re here.
The smell of Ida’s baby brother is still in the air, and the thing knows it. Its nostrils make the sound of a wet foot on a wooden floor as it sniffs, searching. It crouches like a man, stands like a man. But it is not a man. Ida doesn’t know what it is. She can only assume that this land of crowded ports and dark, pine-filled woods is full of such monsters. For a moment, an awful moment, Ida resents her father for bringing them here, away from the secure village and the broad moors in Ayrshire, where Ida never saw anything more frightening than a wildcat.
It comes closer to the yard, creeping forward on two feet. It’s alone, which is strange. Even from the window Ida can smell it, the same stench multiplied, congealed into its very skin.
Don’t breathe in, Ida. Do not breathe in. Momma whispers it so quietly Ida would swear she hasn’t said anything at all, and they are simply sharing the same thought.
It is no longer sniffing around—it has found its prize. It stays low along the fence, grasps the fresh earth with its claws, and begins to dig. Ida watches through the slats, frozen, until she sees the creature’s arms coming up out of the hole. She can’t look anymore, she sits down against the wall. Above her, Momma, still staring through the window, places her hands over her eyes and opens her mouth as though she is keening, but she lets no sound out. It seems to Ida as though so much time passes before Momma lowers herself to the floor and stays there, making no sound, her head in Ida’s lap. They stay there in silence for much, much longer.
The morning after Papa leaves, Ida can see that her mother feels much better. She seems to have steeled herself for a time, and Ida is glad for it. Now that he’s gone, they have to be strong, and the sight of Momma sad in bed scares Ida more than anything she’s seen, even the creatures that killed the chickens. Momma puts on an old dress, stained from many years of work—planting, building, and travelling along with Papa, Ida knows—and tells Ida to get ready, they’re going to clear the yard.
Momma ties a cloth around Ida’s mouth and nose after putting on her own, and Ida complains that she can’t breathe.
Good, try not to, says Momma.
They go out into the yard and over to the chicken coop, where everything is quiet. The hens don’t look like hens anymore, as if dying has twisted them into forms of sticks and bark with feathers pasted on. A breeze lifts the edge of a wing from one body and plays with it, and on other forms feathers twitch for just a moment. The breeze hits Ida and Momma and brings with it that stink that the illness causes. Ida feels her throat close up and she wants to be sick. Momma grunts quietly in disgust. Momma points to a corner of the fenced-in yard, away from the house. We’ll do it there, she whispers. She opens up the sack she’s brought from the kitchen and Ida begins picking up the stiff, feathery bodies of the hens and dropping them in, her hands covered by the folds of her apron. Momma leans her head away as she holds the sack open, and shuts her eyes as if she can’t bear to see its contents building up. The hens’ eyes are all red around the edges and their beaks are covered in a yellow crust.
The rooster’s not here, Ida says.
Then just pray it doesn’t show up.
Ida and Momma take the loaded sack to the far corner, and Momma puts some sticks and dry grass over it. Momma is brusque, determined. Ida knows this means that she is being brave. Ida tries to be brave too as she holds her breath against the smell of the bodies gathered in the sack.
Go inside, now, Ida, and give the baby some water, Momma says before she strikes a match and, holding her hand to the cloth covering her face, tosses it onto the pile. Wash your hands first.
Inside, Joe is crying. Ida rushes over to his cradle to quiet him. Be brave, baby, don’t cry. But then she sees that he’s wet himself, and the piss smells like the chickens did, only fainter. The rash has spread, quickly, to his neck and with his tiny little nails, he’s been scratching at it.
The only way down to Pitchersville is through the woods, and Papa wants to take the wagon to get a doctor. Ida’s momma cries and cries and wraps her fingers around Papa’s arms, clenching them.
Please, please, please don’t do this, don’t do this. She’s afraid that Papa won’t come back. Ida is quiet, and sits on her stool with Baby Joe, whose breathing is slow and wet. Ida has never seen her mother like this. Momma always smiles at Papa like she’s happy to see him, even if he’s only been a short walk away, down at the splash dam all day, herding logs down the river like floating cattle. Momma always has a smile for him. But today she hits him, on the arms and the chest, over and over, and she won’t stop crying, like everything she’s ever been afraid of is happening all at once, and she’s angry at him for letting it. Ida’s afraid too, but only because Momma is.
There’s nothing else to be done. Do you want him to die?
You could take us with you!
You’re better off here, in the house, than all of us out there in the trees.
Ida’s mother wails. Ida wants to ask her father, who will keep us safe while you’re gone? But Momma asks it for her.
Stay in, Papa says. Keep quiet. I’ll leave you one of the rifles.
Ida hears her mother whisper, useless coward, as Papa begins to pack. The words are like those stones in the river near Papa’s splash dam, the ones that can cut Ida’s feet before she even knows they’re there. If Papa hears these words too, he doesn’t let on.
As he stuffs some food and one box of bullets into a sack, Ida cannot help but ask him about the creatures.
What are they, Papa? Are they the Irochees?
Don’t be daft. He doesn’t look at her, goes to grab his coat. I told you, the Iroqouis are men, nothing to be afraid of. Those things are not men. Ida can see that he is angry, maybe angry at her for being daft, maybe angry at the baby’s sickness, maybe angry because he doesn’t know what those things are, if they are not men. Ida is not angry, only frightened.
He drives the wagon away from the house without even a wave, and then he is gone, the trees swallow him up.
Momma takes to her bed and is quiet for a while. Ida stays at the window and looks out at the yard. This is what she imagines a battlefield looks like. Covering the grass, all the way past the fence to the tree line are the feathered bodies, some still whole, but just as dead. The yellow mess is everywhere, and it stinks. Ida wants to clean it up, in case the things come back for what’s left, but Momma, her voice muffled by the sheets on the bed, says that she needs some time.
Ida goes to Baby Joe, who sits in his cradle crying and sucking on his hand. She picks him up and braces her elbow against her ribs to hold him. He’s getting big, and Ida always seems to be staying small.
In the morning, Ida and her Papa notice that the chickens’ eyes are all turning red around the edges, like they’ve been bleeding, and they’re making sounds like their little gizzards are saturated, too hot and wet to get a good breath. By the end of the day, their beaks are sealed shut with a yellow crust, and they’re giving off a smell that seeps through the yard.
There’s something spreadin’ bad air out there, Papa says in the kitchen as Momma stands at the window, watching the trees. Dunno what it is.
They eat dinner, a thick potato soup, in silence. Papa reads out of his prayer book before they all go to bed, but nobody can sleep, because the baby keeps crying. Finally Momma gets up and walks over to the cradle, and lifts him with one arm while she pushes one shoulder of her nightshirt aside with the other. Ida gets out of bed and goes to the stove to sit next to her mother. The house is dark except for the blue of the moon through the window and the low light of glowing coals. Soon the baby stops crying and begins suckling instead, and Ida leans her head against her mother’s knee.
It is in this moment that they all hear it, a crunching of many dead leaves at once, and the licking of many lips. Papa sits up in bed and reaches for his gun.
God, what is that? Momma gasps. Ida stands and goes to where Papa is leaning toward the window, looking out at the chicken coop. As she gets closer, the smell of the sick chickens grows and she coughs, trying to get the stench out of her nostrils, her throat. She holds her small hand over her mouth and nose and looks out over the mossy sill.
A great many things are coming out from behind the trees.
They have slim, upright bodies, and are as tall as Papa. They are dark, as if they have black fur, but they do not look soft at all. Their skin is like charred wood, and covered with glistening yellow sores. At first they walk on two feet towards the fence, but Ida sees a few of them trip as they come, catch themselves on their front hands, and then they continue straight, walking on all fours like animals. Their noses are lifted up, and they are sniffing, sniffing the air, their heads wagging from side to side as they focus on the scent. Their faces are small and round, and they have short sharp teeth. Their eyes are a soupy gray with no center.
Lord, they’re all blind, Papa says, and three of them closest to the house look toward the window, ears perked. Ida shrieks and Papa smacks the back of her head. Shush. Shut your mouth.
The creatures find what they’re looking for at the chicken coop and they converge upon it. Several of them climb the side or jump onto the roof. The few that looked toward the house forget Papa and Ida’s voices in the rush to the chickens’ waiting bodies. A few of them reach into the coop and begin pulling the birds out, now limp, already dead and easy to find, easy to collect.
Papa lifts his rifle as a group of them closest to the house begin to change their path and creep toward the open window. He shoots, and hits one in the center of the head, between its cloudy eyes. All of them in unison begin to scream; a shrill, angry cry and then they all back away, leaving most of the chickens untouched. Two of them fall upon the body of the one that Papa’s just killed, and drag it with them, gnawing at its arms. As they go, they seem to cough, to hack up a yellow phlegm that sticks to the ground and the stones, as though they’re marking their territory.
The scream echoes as they disappear into the dark. Papa’s face is white and he looks old, very old, in the moonlight.
Ida brings Papa’s lunch, a pack of dried apple stack-cakes wrapped in a cloth, to the splash dam, where he is checking the cribs, making sure everything will survive the winter in good shape. The smell of the apple cakes fills her nostrils.
Do we have to go? she asks, as the stream burbles next to them. Ida likes the mountain, its closeness and its dark, compared to the moors of Ayrshire. Do we have to go to town?
Aye, in just two weeks time.
Papa says she’ll like town just as much. People, he says. You’ll see more kinds of people than you thought existed. Papa tells her there’s still a camp of Iroquois near Pitchersville.
What are those?
Just people. Good men, for the most part. Been here longer than any Scot. Dark skin, hair, everything.
Ida is a little frightened, but she just nods, not letting her Papa see.
There’s a lot of things been here in this place longer than you or me, or even the town itself, he says. But there’s nothing but good creatures out here, Ida. Ida nods.
You help your mother? Her cue to head home, to stay out of Papa’s way. As Ida walks the path from the stream and the splash dam to their own little house, she tries to imagine what kinds of strange people she might see. If Papa says there’s nothing to be afraid of, then she’ll believe him.
At the house, Baby Joe is waddling around the chicken coop as Momma watches from the door. Soon he’ll be too big for his cradle. He chases a chick and, trying to grab it, falls down and starts crying. Ida rushes over to him, sits on the ground, and hoists him into her own small lap. She sings him a song Momma taught her all the way home in Ayrshire, from before Papa brought them to these mountains—
Bheir me o, horo van o,
Bheir me o, horo van ee
Bheir me o, o hooro ho
Sad am I, without thee
—and Joe stops crying. Ida doesn’t know what the words mean. Momma says that she did, once, when she was girl, but that no one speaks the old languages anymore, and a person forgets everything after a time, except how pretty the words sounded.
Joe reaches to the ground and picks up a handful of feed in his stubby fingers, which he shows to Ida proudly. There’s a film on the feed, a sort of crust. Ida doesn’t think much of it.
Good job, Joe. Now drop ‘em.
He doesn’t drop the feed, but starts to shove it in his mouth, grinning.
Ida hoists him onto her shoulder and walks down the fence and into the house, where Momma tells her to put the baby down and help her cut wood to add to the wagon. It’s getting colder, and the people down in Pitchersville will need their firewood stocked for the winter soon enough. Papa does well enough with the logging, but a little extra, Momma says, for those who’d rather buy good mountain firewood than cut it themselves, will help them get through the winter in town in comfort. Coffee, Momma says with longing. Real coffee. No damned winter’s worth it otherwise.
But Ida likes the winter. She looks forward to the hush of the snow on the mountain. At night she can hear animals gathering, preparing for months of sleep. Ida doesn’t want to go to town with its strange people, she likes it well enough here. Here, the woods are full of the sounds of good creatures, small things.
Cate Fricke is a writer of fiction, book reviews, and plays whose work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Sycamore Review, Tin House’s Open Bar, Slate, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Her fairy tale play In the Forest Grim is available for licensing from Stage Partners. She has an MFA in Fiction from The Ohio State University, and currently lives in State College, Pennsylvania.