Monday, February 28, 2011

Slaughter


Ruth Rosen did not have the heart to make any drastic changes to her life after the war ended.  Once the soldiers had left, she continued to work on her Uncle David’s farm, tending to the livestock.  Though much of the town had been pillaged, Uncle David had been able to save his farm by bribing the Unit Commander with much of the fortune he had accumulated over his lifetime.  Many of the other townsfolk resented him for consorting with the enemy, but Uncle David simply considered himself resourceful.  Ruth made no great objection to his actions, as the existence of his farm gave her a place to work and live, as well as good food to eat.  Indeed, life for Ruth after the war was, in many ways, no different than it had been long before she’d even heard of the Halberd Revolutionaries - before internal struggle had left much of her country ravaged, and before the war had taken the life of her only daughter, Sarah.
Ruth tried not to think about Sarah’s death.  Dwelling in the past was unhealthy with the future still so uncertain.  The Monarchy had retaken the country, but there was still so much rebuilding to be done that she could not afford to dwell on the gut wrenching pain of her daughter’s death.  For now, she could only focus on her work on the farm: tending the livestock, slaughtering the cattle and sheep and preparing the meat for sale in town.  Soon, her husband Robert would return from service to the King and she would have to deal with the pain of having her family torn apart.  He would help her get through the pain of their loss and together they would move on with their lives.  Until then, she would work just as she had before the war as though nothing had changed.
Sitting in the cool of the barn, Ruth examined the spring lambs, seeing which ones would soon be fit for slaughter and sale and which ones needed more time.  She had learned as a young girl to detach herself from the process.  At one time, she cared deeply for the lambs, the young calves, and even the ducks.  In those days, she would cry and throw fits when it came time to slaughter them.  It seemed cruel to her that these animals that she loved had to die only to serve her Uncle’s fortune.  As she matured, however, she learned that all this had its purpose.  All things lived, died, ate, and drank.  This was life in her world, in her town, on this little farm. 
Ruth stopped in front of a particularly large lamb and looked it over briefly.  It had grown well in just a few months and was ready for the slaughter.  She stuck her brush into the small can of tar that she held in her right hand and dabbed a little black mark on the lamb’s head to signify that it was ready.  As she turned away to check the next lamb, the little marked creature let out a thin bleat.
“Maaaa,” it cried softly.  Ruth stopped for a moment and looked back at the little lamb.  It looked directly back at her, its eyes wide and innocent.
“Maaa,” it bleated.  Ruth grew cold.  She looked into the lamb’s eyes and felt that old sadness that she felt as a child.  The moment was fleeting.  Shaking it off, she moved on to the next lamb.  Another one ready for the slaughter, she thought to herself.  This will be our best stock in many years.  Without another thought, she left the barn and walked down the little path out to the cattle pasture where Uncle David was milking.  He looked up as she passed and called out to her.  Reluctantly, she stopped and turned to him.
“Good morning, Uncle David,” she said quietly.  He set his pail aside and approached her, his wide frame rocking back and forth as he walked. 
“One of the cows got into the onions,” he said, shaking his head.  “I’m going into town to get some supplies to mend that fence again.  I need you to finish up the milking and check on the chickens.  Mr. Hauser is coming to dine with us tonight, so pick out a good plump chicken and get it ready.”  He finished with a warm smile, placing his half filled bucket down beside the fence.
“Yes, Uncle David,” Ruth answered, turning her eyes to wide green landscape.
“Is there anything you need in town, Ruth?” David said. 
“No, thank you,” she replied without pause.  David’s warm smile melted into a concerned frown.
“Something wrong, Ruth?” he said as she leaned down to pick up the bucket.
“Nothing,” Ruth muttered.  David frowned as she turned and walked away towards the cattle pasture.
“It’s ok to talk about what happened,” he called out to her.  “I know it was painful, but keeping it to yourself isn’t going to help you any.”  Ruth stopped for a moment, but did not turn around.  She closed her eyes against a hot tear that sprung from her eye and rolled down her nose to her lip.  Fighting off a cold shiver, she took another step towards the pasture.
“I can help, Ruth,” David said.  Then, his voice thin and weakened, he continued: “I just want to help.”  Ruth shook her head and resisted the wave of sadness that threatened to bring her to her knees.
“Robert will be home soon,” she said.  “Everything will be back to normal again soon.”  She took a deep breath to compose herself and lifted the latch to the pasture.
“Robert can’t change the past any more than you or I can, Ruth,” he said, but his last plea fell on deaf ears.  Ruth closed the gate to the pasture and walked away.  David turned away with a sigh and made his way up to the farmhouse.  He disappeared into the garage and a few minutes later, he was sputtering down the road.  Ruth could hear his car coughing up exhaust for about a mile or so until it disappeared over a hill and all she heard was the sound birds and the occasional mooing of the cattle.  She paused only for a moment to contemplate his words.  In the end, however, they meant nothing.  He could never understand what she had endured.  Few could.  None of that matters, she thought to herself.  All of that is in the past.  I have to move on from that dark place and soon Robert will return and we will get past this together.
Ruth milked for about an hour before she finished and brought the milk up to the farmhouse.  She took the long way to the chicken coop, deciding to walk down to the small stream that ran through her uncle’s property.  When she was little, she used to play in the waters with her brother when they visited Uncle David.  That was many years ago, though, and her brother had long since died in the war.  Now when she visited the stream, it was only for the sound of the running water.  It was not so much comforting as much as all-encompassing.  When she stood by the stream, the sound of the water drowned out the other farm sounds that were a part of her life every waking hour of the day.  Down by the stream, for just a few moments each day, she could ignore everything else in the world but the constant rush of the water.  Today, as she did from time to time, she felt a strong urge to lay down amidst the stones and let the water flow over her, breaking her away from this world.  Hearing nothing; seeing nothing; feeling nothing.  And how would that be any different? she thought to herself.  She stood by the stream a few moments longer, and then made her way over to the chicken coop.
Ruth kicked herself as she entered the coop, realizing she had come without the butcher’s knife from the kitchen.  I could bring the chicken back to the house, she thought.  But the mess would be terrific.  With a sigh, she elected to simply kill the chicken by hand.  It was just a matter of breaking its neck and letting it run around a bit in the hay.  She could drain the blood into a basin.  No problem.
Wading through the mass of chickens, she picked out a plump one and took it out of the coop.  Placing it in the hay, she turned back to close the wire door.  As she latched the coop, she heard a thin, panicked voice.
“W-what’s happening?” it stuttered.  Ruth turned around with a start, but saw only the plump chicken looking back at her.  It cocked its head quizzically as her eyes darted across the landscape.  A trick of the mind, she thought.  A feeble little mind.  She scooped up the chicken and held it in her lap as she sat down on a nearby stool.  It struggled a little as she brought her hands up to its throat.
“W-what’s…happening…?” the voice repeated, now terrified.  Ruth froze for a moment as the bird fought to escape her grasp.  She did not believe what she had heard.  She did not even know what she had heard.  Her mind could not think.  Ruth grasped at the bird’s throat.
“Wha-” The chicken’s neck snapped like a twig.  Ruth held on to the struggling body for a few moments, before her arms slacked to her side and it tumbled into the hay.  Tears streamed down her face and her whole body shook as she stood up and ran away from the coop as fast as she could.  She did not know where was going until she got there and stumbled to a halt beside the stream.  The rushing water covered the sounds of the farm and blocked out her painful thoughts.  She dropped to her knees in the cold shallows and felt the water pull at her.  Ruth longed to let the water take her and be rid of it all.  Think of Robert, she told herself.  Robert will be home soon. 
Dragging herself out of the water, Ruth walked back up the hill to the chicken coop.  She picked up the dead chicken and walked back to the farmhouse.  When she arrived at the house, she left the chicken in the kitchen and changed into a dry house dress.  She washed her face and fixed herself up, and then returned to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.
Ruth worked away the rest of the day without much event.  An hour before nightfall, Uncle David returned with Mr. Hauser in the passenger seat of his car.  Ruth met them at the front door and welcomed Mr. Hauser to the farmhouse.  Mr. Hauser was a thin, well dressed man of forty-eight.  A business partner of Uncle David’s for several years, he handled many of Uncle David’s investments.  Uncle David owned a portion of two factories near the coast and another small farm a few miles on the other side of town.  Since Uncle David could not easily visit all these places and still manage his own farm, Mr. Hauser took care of the traveling.  Uncle David was not Mr. Hauser’s only client, but he was his most profitable and, thereby, his favorite.
“Well, the house looks as fine as ever, David.  My Ruth!  You do a fine job keeping this old man in order,” Mr. Hauser said, finishing with a haughty laugh. 
“Thank you, Mr. Hauser,” Ruth replied, shyly. 
“Ruth,” Mr. Hauser said with a smile.  “How long have we known each other?  Fifteen years it must be now.  Call me William!”  Ruth forced a polite smile and led him into the dining room where dinner was already laid out for them. 
“A wonderful presentation, Ruth,” Uncle David beamed.  “You certainly are a prize.” 
“Aye,” William agreed.  “But a prize well won by Mr. Robert.  I fear an old bachelor like myself shall never be so lucky as him.”  The sound of her husband’s name struck Ruth like a blow to the chest.  She had been strong for two years while he fought in the war, but now she longed for him more dearly than ever.
“Speaking of which,” William continued, “when will young Robert be returning?  The war has been over for months now.  I am certain his presence is greatly missed.”  Ruth averted her eyes, trying to hold back her tears.  Uncle David nodded.
“Yes, dearly missed,” he said.  “But he should be home any day now.  We received a letter last week saying he had just been discharged.  It has been slow going though, I’m sure.  The rebels did a lot of damage to the railways.”
“Aye, a terrible thing, the war was,” William said gravely.  “Terrible.  So many lost so much.”  Uncle David nodded again and took a bite of his dinner.  Ruth tried to choke down a piece of chicken, but any mention of the war made her sick to her stomach.  After just a few bites of dinner, she excused herself and took the stairs up to her room.  In the dining room, David and William continued to talk, discussing the war, business and the happenings in the nearby towns.  Ruth threw herself down on her bed and covered her head so that their voices were reduced to soft murmurs.  She cried deeply again, sobbing into her pillow and trying to cover the sound with her pillow.  She thought of the stream and the chicken and longed for sleep to overtake her.  Outside her window, the wind began to pick up.  It rattled her window pane as she huddled under her covers.  As the sun disappeared over the horizon, the shadows stretched across her room, reaching out to her with their blackness.  Darkness filled the room and she was enveloped.  Ruth Rosen slept.  Ruth Rosen dreamed.
Sarah was running across the green fields when her mother came out to call her to dinner.  Ruth watched quietly as her daughter played, blind to the pain and misery all around her.  She wondered how long it would last.  A scene flashed before her eyes.  The soldiers moving in on her; their hands all over her.  They had cornered her on her way to the market in town and now they would have their way with her.  Ruth shook the vision from her mind.  I will not let that happen to her.  No one will touch my daughter.
Sarah continued to play without a care, unaware of the horrors going on around her.  Ruth sighed.  They should be safe.  Uncle David had made a deal with the revolutionaries.  They should be safe. 
Ruth started at the sound of a rifle shot in the distance.  Sarah stopped in her tracks and looked in the direction of the shot.
“Mommy?  Who’s that?” she called out to her mother.
“Come back to the house,” Ruth shouted in a panic.  “Come back here now!”  Sarah did not move.
“They’re in uniforms, Mommy!” she said excitedly.  “I think it’s Daddy!”  Ruth broke into a run towards her daughter. 
“That’s not your Father!” she shouted as she sprinted towards her daughter.  “We have to get back to the house!”  When she reached her daughter, she scooped her up and ran back to the house.  She threw open the door and slammed it behind her.  She heard the voices of the soldiers across the fields as she rushed to the cellar door and ran down the stairs.  Sarah struggled a little as she rushed her into the back corner of the cellar.
“What’s happening, Mommy?” she said, her voice thin and panicked.
“Nothing, honey,” Ruth whispered.  “Just stay quiet.  Be a good little girl and stay quiet.”  She shifted nervously at the sound of the soldiers growing closer.
“But what’s happening?” Sarah said as quietly as she could.  Ruth shushed her daughter as the soldiers began to pound on the door.  Their voices were muffled, but their intentions were clear.
Pound!  Pound!  Crash!  The house shook as the front door was torn off its hinges and clattered to the floor.  The sound of stomping feet filled the house.  Ruth shuddered as the dream grew darker.  Sarah was screaming as the room disintegrated around them.  Ruth clung to her daughter as tightly as she could. 
“What’s happening, Mommy?” Sarah screamed.  “Aiyeeeeeee!”
Sarah struggled in her arms and she held her tighter.  She could hear the men pound on the door as the room faded away.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” she whispered to her daughter.
“Mommyyyyyyyyy,” the voice grew faint.  “Maaaaa…”
Ruth awoke soaked in a cold sweat.  Throwing off her covers, she rolled out of bed and wrapped herself in her robe.  The morning air was chilly and she pulled the robe around herself tightly.  Down the hall, Uncle David still snored quietly.  The sun had not yet risen, but outside the cows were beginning to whine for their milking.  She walked into the kitchen and put some kindling into the woodstove as she did every morning.  Stoking the fire, she turned to the little pump that drew water up to the sink.  As she reached for the handle, she heard a creek on the floorboards in the hall.
“Up already, Uncle David?  I’m sorry I left so early from dinner last night.  I was tired from the day’s work.”  She waited a few moments, but no answer came.  Confused she turned around to see the silhouette of a large man filling the doorway to kitchen.  The man took a step closer; it was certainly not Uncle David.
“Robert!” Ruth cried out.  With a shout of gladness, she ran to her husband and they embraced.
“You’re home!”  Tears streamed down her face as she felt him squeeze her to him.  Robert laughed heartily.
“I arrived late last night,” he said.  “You were already asleep.  David said you had a rough day so I let you sleep.  I missed you, Ruthie,” he said with a smile. 
“I missed you too, Robert,” she replied, still crying.  “I was worried you might never come home.  It’s been so long since you left.  You were gone so long…”  Her voice trailed off into his shirt as she buried her face into his chest.  Robert held her tighter, but his smile began to falter.  A serious expression crossed his face and a tear appeared in his eye.
“I only wish poor Sarah were here to greet me.  When I got Uncle David’s letter, I was heartbroken, but it did not become real until now.  Seeing this house and seeing you.”  He choked and had to pause for a moment before he could continue.  “I saw a lot of horrible things in the war, but nothing so terrible as the knowledge that my little girl…,” Robert sobbed.  They stood together in the kitchen, holding each other tight and crying deeply as the morning sun peaked over the hills and flooded the house.
Ruth and Robert spent the morning together, never leaving each other’s side.  Uncle David generously offered to do all the daily chores, giving them as much time as they needed to catch up on the last two years. 
“Was it very frightening?” Ruth asked softly, as she and Robert lay side by side at the base of a small hill.  “The war, I mean,” she continued.  Robert shifted a little in the grass.
“Nothing was more terrible than the thought that I may never see you again,” he said, his gaze drifting off into the sky.  Ruth was moved for a moment, but then grew perturbed. 
“But what of the war?” she pressed.  “Was it as horrible in battle as people have said?  Was it all as terrible as it was here?”  Robert lay silently for a few minutes in growing discomfort. 
“There were many things that happened,” Robert said, his voice beginning to shake.  “I wasn’t ready to tell you just yet.”  Ruth took her husband’s hand in hers.
“Tell me, Robert,” she said softly.  “I’m your wife.  I can help you.”  Robert heaved a heavy sigh and looked up at the sky.  Closing his eyes, he spoke in a slow, quiet voice.
“It happened early on in the war.  I had been sent with a young man named Arnie to scout the enemy’s position.  We found them just fine, but on the way back, we were ambushed by a small group of rebels.  We were able to fight them off, but Arnie was shot in the stomach.  He couldn’t walk, so I laid him down at the base of a small hill.
“’I’m dying,’ he told me.  ‘I’m not going to make it back to camp, am I?’  I did not know what to say, so I tried to comfort him, but he would have none of it.
“’A stomach wound is one of the slowest ways to die,’ he groaned.  ‘I do not wish to lie here in agony with no hope of survival.  ‘Please,’ he said.  ‘Finish me off, so that I can leave this place in peace.’”  Robert choked on his words and paused for a moment.  He took a deep breath to compose himself and continued.
“I didn’t know what to do.  I knew what he wanted from me, but I could not wrap my head around the idea.  ‘I can do this,’ I told him.  ‘I can’t just kill you.’  He looked up at me with his eyes cold as steel and said: ‘of course you can, Robert.  We have both killed men in this war.  Plenty of men who did not want to die, but took the risk.  I’m going to die anyway, Robert.  Just don’t let me suffer.’
“The cold look in his eyes was terrifying.  I could not even think.  I just pulled out my pistol and loaded it; cocked back the hammer and closed my eyes.  He was dead in an instant.”  Robert fell silent as he stared off into the sky.  Ruth’s heart was racing.  She thought of Sarah and the men who had come for them.  She thought she might be sick.  Her body began to shake as Robert broke the silence.
“Once I had composed myself, I got up and walked up the hill to find someone who could help me move his body.  When I got to the top…” Robert coughed and gagged on his words.  “At the top I…”  He paused for a few moments before he could continue.
“I got to the top of the hill and looked out to the south and I saw…the camp.”  Robert’s words sputtered out painfully.  “The camp.  It could not have been more than a hundred yards away.  I could even see the flag on the medical tent.”  Roberts voice was drowned out by his own sobs as he began to cry heavily.
“I could have saved him.  He could have lived.  I had lost track of how far we had traveled back.  I could have saved him.  I’ve regretted it more than anything I’ve ever done.”  Ruth’s face grew hot as Robert’s voice trailed off.  Tears began to sprout from her eyes and she turned away from her husband to hide them.
“But we’re together again, Ruth. We can get through this together.”  Ruth felt her husband’s hand on her shoulder and something inside her shook.  She felt cold.  She has been waiting for this day for two years, but now that it had come, she felt withdrawn from it.  Her husband’s touch was little comfort as he pulled her body closer to him.  The strength of his hands and the heat of his body reminded her of them.  Flashes of her brutalization overtook her and she let out a gasp.  Breaking out of her husband’s arms, she rolled away and scrambled to her feet.
“What’s wrong?” Robert asked.  Ruth turned away to hide her face.
“I-I’m sorry,” Robert stuttered. 
“I know,” Ruth replied.  “I just…Excuse me,” she choked out the last words and started back towards the house.  Robert started after her.
“Wait!  Ruth!”  She broke into a run and Robert stopped, dumbfounded.  “Ruthie?”  Ruth didn’t turn around.  She ran headlong towards the farmhouse, deaf to her husband’s calls.  As she reached for the back door, it opened and Uncle David emerged.  She stopped in her tracks and turned away.
“What’s wrong, Ruth?” he asked, his face a portrait of concern. 
“Nothing,” she replied.  “W-where were you headed?” she asked, hoping to avoid any discussion of her own condition.  Uncle David looked at her hesitantly for a moment before answering.
“Well,” he said.  “I figured some folks would probably be comin’ from town to welcome Robert home and it’s quite an occasion as is.  I thought maybe I’d slaughter one of the spring lambs to have for our meal tonight.  What do you think, Ruth?”  Ruth looked back over her shoulder at the rolling hills beyond the farm.  Robert had not yet appeared.
“Yes,” she said calmly.  “That would be a grand idea.  You have been so kind to me, Uncle David.  Why not let me take care of the lamb and you rest?” she finished with a smile.  At first, Uncle David looked unwilling, but upon further thought, he relented.
“Well, I am very tired,” he said.  Ruth forced a smile and patted his shoulder. 
“You have a nice rest.  Robert will be along shortly.  He’s enjoying the grounds alone for now.”  With that, Ruth turned away from her uncle and made her way up the path towards the barn.  She passed the cattle in their pasture and kicked the dirt a bit as she passed.  Things will get better, she thought.  Robert is back.  Even if I’m not ready yet, things will still get better.  I know.
Ruth pushed the door to the barn open and stepped inside.  She walked dispassionately past the other sheep until she reached the last one she had marked the day before.  It was a perfect specimen.  Plump and strong, but not too strong or too fatty.  It would be perfect.  Just perfect.  She looked at the mark on its forehead, her face frozen in a blank expression.  The lamb looked back at her with wide eyes said:
“Maa…”  Ruth stared back at the creature for a few moments, and then turned to the lamb beside it.  The other lamb cocked its head to the side.
“Maaa?” it bleated.  Ruth sighed.  They both looked deep into her eyes.
“Maaa…” and something inside her broke.
Back at the farmhouse, Robert was pacing slowly around the kitchen.  Disturbed by the footsteps, David came down from his nap.
“Ah, Robert,” he said.  “I see you have returned from your walk.”
“Walk?” Robert replied.  “Is that what she told you?”
“Aye,” David said.  “Is something wrong, Robert?” 
“I don’t know, David,” Robert said with a sigh.  “I don’t understand.  We were talking about the war earlier.  When I touched her, she recoiled as if disgusted.  Is she angry that I left?  That I was not hear for her?” 
“Well,” Uncle David replied.  “When such a horrible thing happens to a person, it can change them.  What they did to her, she just needs some time.”  Robert shook his head.
“What do you mean?  What who did to her?” Robert said.  David looked at him, puzzled. 
“Those men,” David said.  “The Rebels who came into town; the ones who attacked her.”
“You mean the ones who killed Sarah,” Robert croaked, tears spouting from his eyes.  David nodded sadly.
“Yes - as if they had not already done enough - they came back for Sarah.”  Robert was confused and startled.  Something in what David said made no sense to him.
“Came back for Sarah?  What did they do before?” he said, panic growing in his voice.
“I-I thought she’d told you.  I thought she’d written you when it happened,” David replied.
“When what happened?” Robert shouted.  “What did those animals do to my wife?!”  Robert was shaking with an uncontrollable fury that caused David to step back.
“My God, Robert,” he gasped.  “They brutalized her.  They forced her…they…”  David’s voice was lost in his throat.
“They what?!” Robert cried out, fear and anguish gripping him.
“They raped her,” David said, his voice thin and frail.  “Just two days before they came to the house, they cornered her on her way into town.  I thought you knew.”  Robert let out an anguished cry.  He swung out his arms and sent a chair sliding into the wall.
“Where is she?” he growled.  His furious expression melted into pain.  “Where is my wife?” 
“In the barn,” David replied.  “She’s choosing a lamb for supper.”  Robert kicked open the back door and ran up the path.  He passed the cow pastures at full speed, stumbling up the rocky hill.  When he reached the barn, he threw open the door and rushed inside.  At first, Ruth was nowhere to be seen.  When at last he spotted her, he froze.
Propped up in the corner of the barn, Ruth Rosen sat in a daze.  Around her lay three dead lambs.  A fourth struggled to escape her grasp.  She had her arm around its neck, pinning it too her chest.
“Ruth?” Robert said, utterly dumbfounded.  “What’s wrong, Ruthie?”  When he spoke, her head jerked up to look.  She tightened her grip and the little lamb squealed.
“Just stay quiet,” she whispered.  “Be a good girl and stay quiet.”  She squeezed the lamb’s neck and it struggled violently.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” she whispered. 
“Ruth, what are you doing?” Robert shouted.  She stared back at him, her eyes wild with fury.
“I won’t let you hurt her!” she shouted, pressing down hard on the lamb’s neck.  Robert rushed to her side, but she kicked him away.  She let out a bloodcurdling scream as the lamb thrashed in her arms.  With all her might, she squeezed the lamb until it made a sick cracking sound.  The body stopped thrashing and Ruth let out a sigh.  She looked down at the body of her little daughter and sighed in relief.  Try as they may, they could never hurt her baby.  Ruth smiled and leaned her head back against the cold wood of the barn.
I’ll never let them hurt you…