Forget-me-nots in our front yard
“I killed ’em, honey,” Martin said.
He was drunk, slumped over the farmhouse kitchen table with an empty upturned whiskey bottle and a loaded shotgun laying in front of him.
Esther felt the blood leave her body. She steadied herself against a chair.
“What have you done, Martin?” she asked in a rush. “What are you saying to me?”
He raised his head slightly, looking at his pregnant wife through blurry eyes.
“I told you. I killed ’em. The children. All of ’em.” He buried his head in his hairy muscled arms and sobbed. “You have to shoot me now, Esther,” he roared, the words muffled from underneath his shaggy head. “I can’t live another moment with what I done.”
Esther stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending.
Then she stepped forward and hit him as hard as she could with, both fists flailing down on him, screaming, “Where are the children, you bastard? You tell me where they are, right now. Now!”
“They’re out back,” he sobbed. “By the rain barrel. Oh Esther, you have to shoot me.” He struggled to his feet, reaching for his wife’s hands.
She slapped his hands away, picked up her long skirts and started moving fast towards the back door. It wasn’t quite a run, not when the baby was just a month away, but almost. Through the dark, narrow hallway she went, skirts swishing, eyes dark, mouth set in a hard line. She arrived at the door and hesitated. She didn’t want to open it.
She glanced back into the kitchen.
Martin was moaning her name. “Esther, I’m sorry, Esther, Esther...”
She looked up the staircase towards the bedrooms. “Thomas?” she called. There was no answer, just Martin’s blubbering from the kitchen. “Mary Margaret? Rose? Patrick?”
She looked down at the floor. Tears started to blur her own vision.
“Ellen?” she whispered. “Michael? Sean?”
There was no answer.
She screamed at her husband. “What have you done?”
“Oh Esther,” he bawled, staggering down the hallway towards her.
“No!” she said, grabbing the doorknob and pulling the door open with all her might.
The afternoon light filtered into the dark house, where Esther was silhouetted in the doorway, her eyes wild with tears.
She could see the rain barrel from where she stood. An old barrel with gray weathered oak, held together with rusted metal bands. Next to the summer kitchen, where it could collect rain from the downspout for Esther’s herb garden.
She shaded her eyes against the sun and she saw the bodies of her seven children lined up in the grass.
“Oh sweet Jesus,” she said and walked towards them, her feet barely touching the ground, as if in a dream.
They were laid there by their father, as neat as cutlery in the kitchen drawer, from tallest to shortest, oldest to youngest.
Sixteen-year-old Thomas was first. His eyes were open, angry, staring off into nowhere, a ragged cut across his forehead, his nose flattened and twisted at a strange angle.
“I had to punish him,” Martin said quietly, at Esther’s side. “He wouldn’t go into town after you, like I asked him. He backtalked me, said you needed to be away from me for a while. Called me a lousy drunk, his own da, a lousy drunk.”
“So you hit him,” Esther’s voice was flat as she gazed at the body of her eldest, her most cherished son.
“He made me mad. And when I hit him, he tried to hit me back. We was fighting here, Esther, and I wasn’t thinking, I was just mad, and I pushed his face into the rain barrel, yelling at him to apologize. And he drowned.
“It was an accident,” he said.
Esther looked at her six other children. “What about the rest, Martin, what about the
rest? Were they an accident, too?”
Fourteen-year-old Mary Margaret, almost a woman, lay on her side, staring at her brother with empty eyes. Her dress had blood on it.
“Well,” Martin began, “yes and no. Mary Margaret must have heard what was going on and came outside, and she must have seen me pushing Tommy’s head into the rain barrel because she tried to stop me. I pushed her out of the way, she was screaming, Esther, screaming, and when I got done with Tommy I grabbed her and put my hands over her mouth to shut her up, but she was kicking and fighting, so I drowned her in the rain barrel, too.”
Esther knelt down beside her children, crying wordless tears.
Martin continued his terrible confession.
“And then I don’t know what came over me, Esther. I had to finish it. That’s all I can think of how to describe it. I went into the house and called all the other big kids into the kitchen. The twins, they were napping upstairs. Rose and Patrick and Ellen stood there and I talked real calm to them. I told them we were going to play a game and they just had to close their eyes and I would lead them outside, one at a time, for a different kind of hide and seek. I think they knew something was wrong. They looked scared, but they did as they were told. Just closed their eyes. They were so good, Esther, so good.
“I took them outside, one at a time, Rosie first, then Pat, then Ellen. And they kept their eyes closed. They struggled a bit when they went underwater, but only for a bit.”
Thirteen-year-old Rose’s eyes were shut, like she was sleeping.
Ten-year-old Pat looked up at the sky.
Seven-year-old Ellen had a sweet smile on her face.
Beside her lay the twins, only three years old, Michael and Sean, laying side by side, just as alike in death as they had been in life.
“Then I went up to our room and fetched Michael first, then Sean. They really didn’t even wake up, maybe stirred a little when I picked them up, but that’s it. They barely noticed.”
Esther stroked their small faces.
“Esther,” Martin said. “You have to shoot me now. I don’t think I can do it myself. I need your help.”
She looked up at him, saw him swaying under the weight of too much whiskey, too much cowardice and too much guilt.
She hated him. That much was clear. The rest was murky and hard to understand. In a way she felt as though she was drowning, too. She was tempted to take the shotgun from her husband’s hands and turn it on herself but she had one more baby to birth and she was not going to let this one die.
She stood up, awkwardly, pushing Martin out of the way when he tried to help.
“I blame myself, Martin,” she said coldly. “I should never have gone for a walk and left the children alone with you in a drunken state. It was just selfish and this is how God chooses to punish me. I’ll never forgive myself, Martin, and I’ll not be shooting you.”
She started walking away from her pathetic, murderous husband and her seven dead children. She put her hands around her thick belly, cradling baby number eight, and she walked down the laneway towards town.
She heard Martin crying and mewling until she got too far away and she couldn’t hear him anymore. Just the sounds of the southern Ontario countryside, cows lowing, spring peepers singing, red-winged blackbirds calling and the harsh chatter of crows.
Esther was about half a mile away when she heard the shot.