The homesteader did not understand what she’d done wrong. Whatever it was, her husband was angry. He viewed the woman as vile, a rat to be expelled, especially after she’d lost her job. She was as afraid of him as she was of the strange men who had watched her all summer sawing, and splitting, and piling next winter’s fuel, who took pictures of her swinging an axe, who masturbated in plain sight.
On this August morning, hiding from the husband behind a tool shed, between rolls of barbed wire, she waited to hear him leave for work. He knew she was there, for the horses poked their noses over the fence at her.
The woman had her own work, beginning with rebuilding the firewood lean-to. Prowlers had sledge-hammered it just hours before, by moonlight. There’d been a thwack, and another, and the rumble of her neat stacks tumbling.
Although the husband had dashed outside one night with a two-by-four, he usually left it up to the woman to defend the property. It was, after all, her fault. With police making up stories, unwilling to help, the woman had tried, and failed, to stop the gang by herself. She had also failed at something else—to get the tall lean-to back up that afternoon, a two-person job, and worried excessively about the husband’s wrath upon his return. She hoped his roving eye would keep him away until late, but he came home early and ripped into her. When his outburst was over, while she was washing the dinner dishes, he said:
“The kids and I will be at a hotel this weekend. There’s a concert. You’ll be fine.”
The woman knew what her husband meant. She knew he’d smile as soon as he looked away, for he always smiled after delivering upsetting words. The fact was, he hadn’t been to a big city or a concert in over 20 years, and wanting to go now, with the farm under attack, was no coincidence. And for him to take Friday off when he often worked through celebrations – even their wedding day – was no coincidence either. So it wasn’t paranoia that told her he hoped she’d be killed on the weekend, alone in the firs. He wanted her gone for bringing chaos to their home. He’d been plenty clear about that.
Kissing the children goodbye that warm Friday morning, wishing them fun in the city, the woman got busy with chores. The soil and shovels and gardens were prized; the woman was proud, living honestly in the bush. But this day felt different, like waiting for an execution. She thought about how a husband should not give his wife to brutes.
When the prowlers came early, double in number, along padded-down footpaths, the woman presumed she would not live much longer. Yet she wouldn’t have left if there’d been a thousand of them, at least not at first. The livestock had been solace and sanity when it seemed the whole world hated her. To each animal she owed a debt of gratitude.
From her window seat atop the washing machine, the woman watched the horses trotting nervously up and down in anticipation of being cornered and clubbed. She hadn’t got the dogs inside in time; for the men always came after dark, except for this evening, and now the dogs were frantic, unwilling to come in, unable to protect their home from a swarm of predators.
She watched a man on the sundeck jump on a picnic table she’d built for the kids, and from there jump to the sundeck rail, and from there to the roof, pulling a wisteria vine down as he clambered. She wondered if he could fit in the chimney, and what he was doing up there; if others would throw gas cans to him.
Crawling beneath the windows, from room to room, a magical spot eluded her – the one not to get shot in, the one to disappear in, the one with an uncut phone line. She realised the hunters were playing: thumping the walls, and rapping the windows, and jiggling the doorknobs when they could easily smash a glass door and step in.
Hearing the hosepipe running, the woman screamed at the thought of another hen being drowned, of cats being drowned; and the man on the roof whistled and stomped. She screamed as loud and long as she could, hoping someone would save her. But she’d bought the place because of the forest. The silence had been a religion to her. No one would hear.
Cursing herself for leaving the truck in the orchard – they’d caught her off-guard, collecting windfalls – she crept inside a cupboard to see if a claw hammer could rip the floor up and drop her into the crawlspace. Then she heard the men in there too.
With a farm mutt now yelping, thoughts of retreat evaporated. The woman, who was going to die anyways, crawled to the nearest door, put her mouth to the crack, and pleaded for King, the dog, to come. When a black snout appeared, she grabbed it and hauled him in; fastened the deadbolt, and dragged her friend into the bathroom. Wrapped in towels, he looked at her and stopped breathing, only to begin again.
They sat together on the bathroom floor while lines of men slapped the frosted pane with their palms. Examining the blade on her pocketknife, the woman imagined tearing to the truck with King on her shoulder. She imagined piercing the face of whoever grabbed her, and tried to find the courage that would take.
Hesitating – and despising herself for it – the moment of reckoning came and went. There’d be no getting away now. The men, proving themselves to be lock pickers, were telling jokes in the house. They were on the roof, in the crawlspace, at every wall, at every window, in the kitchen.
Placing one hand on King’s lovely head, the woman stared at the knife again, relieved that it was long enough to slice far into a heart. She poked her chest hard, and again, and again, making a blood map through her pink cotton blouse. She practiced all night and through the first glimmer of dawn, prepared to fatally stab herself when the time came. She thought about her bareback rides along the lake at sunrise, and prayed her old horse was okay.
In the brightness, the men were leaving quickly. The game was ending, and she waited to be taken, waited for the moment to stab her heart. She watched a man-shape descend a tangle of wisteria vines by the window – for the plant engulfed the house – and wondered if he would be the one to open the bathroom door; wondered if more men were on the vines. She listened to cars crunching on gravel, retrieving the men, readying to whisk her away to be butchered. But the car doors banged, and the crunching faded. The gang was gone, but not really. Some would be in the firs, and some would be driving by, as always.
The woman with a bashed-in dog sat on the bathroom floor until the silence she loved revived her enough to consider the horror of what her husband would do if anything had been broken. Confused at being untouched, and surprised to find the kitchen as neat as she’d left it, the woman was forced to replay the night in her mind, trying to –hoping to – make it a dream. But her shirt was ripped, and she was wounded.
Still clutching the knife, the woman dared to go outside, where she stood among the hazelnut trees, unable to think straight—unable to think at all—as she gazed at the aftermath of the attack. Pulled-off siding from the tool shed lay in jagged pieces on the grass, and paint was spilled on the porch. The old horse looked dead on its feet, and some dogs were missing. She wished the men had taken her.
Cleaning up and fixing up as best she could, the woman wept as she’d never wept before. Burning her bloodstained clothes and the dog’s bloody towels in the woodstove, she tried to make it all look fine. She considered life without her kids, leaving them with a miserable father. So she decided to stay.
As soon as the husband got home, he tore into her for letting the men take over while he was having fun at the concert.
“I couldn’t help it,” she said. “There were so many.”
The husband stopped speaking to the woman. He did not want to hear what had happened, and he did not want her to eat, or talk, or be seen, expecting that his loathing would eventually make her bolt. But she couldn’t. Not even for an hour. Not yet. Not while she felt so empty.
Her spirit had left when the men had broken into the kitchen. Or maybe it was her soul that had been cast off. It was a sensation from the heart, of essence flying, vacating its shell, a surreal feeling of being hollow but alive. She could only speak in a whisper. Every noise made her panic, and she stopped sleeping.
After one full moon, sick from something, the woman did go. Opening the vegetable garden gate, she stumbled to the red plastic tub that held her peach-tree seedlings, emptied it, and turned it over. Grieving for all she was about to lose, she wondered if the seedlings would die, and if all her hard work had meant anything. She rolled the tub to her big truck, stood on it, and slowly pulled herself up to the steering wheel. Then she drove off; unwilling to put the children through her final decline, tired of being despised for whatever she’d done wrong.