Thursday, May 6, 2010

#friday flash - For Bella

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.

For Bella.


  1. OMG Cathy your stories always draw emotion but.. and you know you can make me cry on command almost. But.. where did this come from. My heart aches for the children and this woman. I am horrified. Sad.... so very sad. I feel slightly ill. Strong imagery. Shocked. So many things. WOW.

  2. When I got to the end I realized I wasn't breathing, just holding my breath till the ending came. This is quite an amazing piece on many levels.

  3. This is a most amazing piece of writing!

    Difficult subject matter but you handled it with a simple touch, just letting the story be told.


  4. Wow, your gift is obvious. This tore heartstrings.

  5. I can't even conceive of anyone killing that many children, much less their own. Just horrifying.

  6. so much emotion - oh the kids.
    Well written.

  7. I have this vision of the mother drawing strength up into herself from the earth itself as she stands up towards the end and turns to face her husband.

    Powerfully written. It gripped this reader from the start and didn't let go.

  8. Powerful and emotional. Great handling of difficult subject matter. You're getting closer to the dark side of horror...

  9. I shudder to think where this came from with your dedication. Powerful emotions here.

  10. "as neat as cutlery in the kitchen drawer..."

    You have a way with description that makes this heartbreaking piece even more powerful. I held my breath, too.

  11. Wow. That was intense and awful Speechless.

  12. What a wonderful, terrible story!

    "They were so good, Esther, so good." So simple, yet so haunting.

    I kept hoping there was going to be a twist. I thought maybe the children were not children at all, but, rather, herbs.

    No, really. I actually thought, "Oooh, maybe the children are herbs!"

    So, thanks for making me go into complete denial...

  13. Fantastically chilling. I cannot conceive what it must be like to hold your child down below water, seeing them struggle and holding that grip in place. And not once, but seven times. A real pathology. You could if you wanted to, really expand this.

    Fantastic. Best I've read this week.

    Marc Nash

  14. There are some very good turns of phrase in here, like "crying wordless tears."

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  16. I stopped breathing, too. And what Mark said.

    That's some gift with words you have there. This story is completely stunning, and the end was perfect.

  17. Yeah, I'm with Mark on this one. I wanted so badly for it not to be true, that he hadn't killed them, but then the descriptions. Truly heartbreaking!


  18. Excellent. So well done. Thank you.

  19. I think you captured his character very well -- how he's confused and repeating himself -- everything about him just feels so raw and real. Very well done.

  20. Bella is my late grandmother on my father's side.
    She was the baby her mother was carrying.
    It's a true story... sort of... a story nobody in my family talked about very much, for obvious reasons. I have no details: i don't know how many children were actually drowned in the rain barrel, or what happened to the father. But Bella's mother did go into town, only to come back to discover her husband had drowned all the children in a rain barrel.
    If it's any solace to people who are thinking I am the spawn of a killer, let me just clarify something: my father was adopted!
    Bella was already an old woman when I was born but I am told she was tall and dignified, a good wife and a fine mother.
    Her story fascinates me. I wish I had known her.
    To my sister, Liz, who chides me for my story choice, I have only this to say: I don't choose stories as much as they choose me.

  21. He didn't get enough of what was coming to him. Wow, this was powerful writing. Well done!

  22. Man... I almost couldn't finish it, Cathy... Not because it was bad but so damn powerful. Shivers...

  23. Great stuff, Cathy and very true. Love the fact there is a family connection and the choice the mother makes, not to kill, but to bring new life and make sure something good comes out of it is a wonderful one.

    Strangely enough, this is the topic of my second novel - if I ever finish the first. I found the way the dad laid the corpses out very believable, I've sort of got that idea in my head too.

    Great stuff.

  24. Not to start a family feud, but I beg to differ...
    This was exquisite. Raw emotion is a powerful force in writing, more often it is the darkness in humanity that motivates it.
    As you stated, Cathy, the subjects pick us - not the other way around.

  25. Sad. Raw. A solid punch in the stomach. And the end? What a coward...

  26. Holy hell, powerful punch from a mother's worst nightmare. This story chose you and chewed ME up. Intense and tragic, but somehow.. uplifting? That the mother went on - tough. I like her. I love you.

  27. Just for those who are interested, I've never heard about this part of my family history, obviously Cathy has. I would have chose not to know actually! But like the rest of you I love reading Cathy's blogs, happy or sad. You obviously didn't read the line I wrote stating: "GREAT WRITING!" She has a true gift and I think she should quit blogging and write a book cuz I know she'd make a rainbarrel of money out of it!!! Sorry, couldn't resist!

  28. Thanks, Liz ... ask Mom about the rain barrel... and thanks to everybody who commented this week. I really appreciate everyone's comments. Like Jon Strother says, they're better than chocolate.

  29. Cathy, this was difficult to finish which means you were doing your job as a storyteller. I really respect the way you stayed committed to the end as opposed to letting the reader off the hook. Sometimes there is no escape, and boy did you ever show us that with this story. Also, the cutlery description is one of those I read and immediately wished I had written it. Well done, my friend.

  30. Hey, Cathy, I was intrigued to read the other winning stories for the Muskoka short story contest, and found this link through your tweet. Yay! A fellow weblit writer! A fellow *Muskoka* weblit writer! But holy crap, you don't go light on the subject matter, do you? Man alive.

    Fave line: "They were laid there by their father, as neat as cutlery in the kitchen drawer." That says it all.

    The thing that these male familial suicide/murder cases seem to have in common, in my observation, is that the man seems to think that the children are his possessions, so that he has as much right to end their lives as his own. Eradicate that sense of ownership and these horrors would cease, I think.

    Anyway, well done. And congratulations. Hope to meet you at one event or another.

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