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Snowflakes
Author: Ruth Ware

 

 

When Father began to build the wall, we didn’t understand at first. We thought it was to keep something in—not Woof, for he had free range of the island, just as we did. But the chickens, perhaps, who were apt to wander off into the woods and lay their eggs in makeshift nests under hedges and trees, or to get eaten by foxes. Or maybe to stop May from wandering. After her fall she was never the same, and she couldn’t always be trusted to look after herself. She would sleepwalk too, and Jacob and I used to worry that she would walk herself over the cliffs or fall into the well.

It couldn’t be to keep anything out. There wasn’t anyone on the island but us.

But as the wall grew higher and higher, we began to wonder.

There’s stone aplenty on the island, but not much around the farm, for all the stones worth building with had already been taken for the cottage or the barn. So when Father ran out of stones to build with, he pulled Jacob and me off our usual chores and told us to go seek rocks. Big ones—not stones you could kick with your foot. “Nothing smaller than your head” was how he put it.

Father had already scoured the fields and woods around the cottage, so we had to go far afield, down to the bay, where the rough sea had carved out as many boulders as you could carry. Cain let us have one of the ponies, but the steep path down to the beach was too narrow for the cart. We had to pull the stones up on a kind of bier, Jacob pulling and I pushing from behind, until we got the stones up to the rutted track and could load them onto the cart behind patient Flick.

By the end of that first day, my hands were so blistered and full of splinters that I could not hold my knitting needles, and Woof whined and pawed at my skirts, for he could not understand why I would not scratch him behind his ears as I usually did, but Father said nothing. The next day he bound up my hands with sacking and told me I would get used to it by and by.

I suppose that was true, in a way. It never became easy, but like the frog in the pan, you can get accustomed to almost anything.

“Why can’t we use wood?” Jacob asked. I knew he was thinking of the thick pine woods to the east of the cottage, and how quickly we could cut down a dozen trees and haul them back to Father.

But Father shook his head.

“Wood’s not strong enough for what’s coming.”

What was coming? We knew better than to ask Father, but we talked about it on the long walk back from the bay, Woof trotting obediently at our heels and Flick plodding along in front of us, the cart creaking beneath the weight of the stones we had gathered.

“It’s the war,” Jacob said. He looked over toward the mainland as he said it. You can’t see the mainland from the island—even on a clear day, it’s too far, over the horizon of the sea—but sometimes at night you can see the orange glow of the fires reflecting back at you from the clouds, or see the planes flying far overhead with their payload of bombs and gas. “It’s getting closer,” he said, and I nodded.

I don’t remember much about the war or the mainland—just the few nightmarish weeks before we fled. I was only four or five, but still I remember seeing news about bombs on the television, footage of children my age with dusty faces, crying in the rubble of their bombed-out houses. I remember not being allowed out to play because it was coming closer, Father and Mother arguing, arguing, arguing all the time. The schools closed, and Father explained that life was getting harder for people like us, that our freedoms were getting chipped away at and that soon we would not have any rights at all—and then one awful night it happened. I woke to the sound of fists thumping on wood. Father was shaking me gently, his hand over my mouth to stop me from crying out. He helped me to dress, shivering in the cold. The banging came again, setting everything in my bedroom jangling and jumping with the force of the blows, and when I peeked from my bedroom window, there were men in dark uniforms at our front door.

Father was ready. He grabbed the bags he had packed for just this eventuality and hustled us out of a window at the back of the house, over the fence, and into a waiting car with a blacked-out license plate. As Father turned the key in the engine, I heard a terrible loud bang like a gunshot, and the car leaped forward like a startled animal, and we were driving, driving through the night, Father glancing in his rearview mirror every few miles to check that we were not being followed.

We could not leave the country by any of the main ports or airports—they had been closed long since. But Father had seen this coming, and he had a boat ready for us, filled with supplies, in a little fishing port too small to be monitored. We got out just in time. “By the skin of our teeth,” Father said afterward, though I never did understand what he meant, because teeth have no skin. They are hard and white like bone. Did he mean that we did not get away completely?

Perhaps that is what he meant. For it was only when we got to the island that we realized Mother was not with us.

May noticed it first. She began to cry as Father unloaded her. “Want Mama,” she wept, and I looked around for Mother—and then I realized. She was not there. “Leah,” May wailed, putting up her arms to me, louder now. “Leah! Want Mama!”

“Where’s Mother?” I whispered to Cain, and he shook his head. “Jacob, where’s Mother?”

And then Father told us.

Mother had not made it. She had been killed by the soldiers. That was the shot we had heard as we drove away.

 

When I woke up the next morning, it was still dark, but I could tell it was close to dawn, because I could hear the cows mooing to be milked. Woof raised his head and barked softly, but the cows were Jacob’s task, not mine, so I turned over in bed, feeling May’s warmth to my left and Woof on my feet, the coziness made all the sweeter by the fact that I had only a few minutes longer.

My morning task was to rekindle the kitchen fire downstairs and have hot porridge ready for when Jacob came back from the milking shed and Father and Cain got out of bed. May used to help me, before she had her fall. Her job in those days was to go out into the yard and hunt down the eggs the chickens had laid, but now I did that too, and May stayed up in her room, knitting the coarse wool from the sheep and, when she could, cutting paper dolls out of the precious scraps of paper Father saved for her. Through it all, she sang the songs that Mother used to sing to us both when we were little. She had started to forget the words, mixing them up in her head with other songs and nursery rhymes. “I’m a dancing stream,” she would sing. “Strong and sweet, I am severing.”

“Seventeen,” I told her once. “It’s only seventeen, not severing. And it’s queen, not stream.” But she turned her wide, puzzled eyes on me, as if I had scolded her, and I didn’t try to correct her again.

Now I lay, listening to May’s gentle breathing on the pillow next to me, and feeling the ache in my bones from pushing the cart. My shoulders hurt. My hips hurt. Even my wrists. But there was no use in complaining to Father. He worked harder than anyone.

The muscles in my back cramped as I forced myself to sit up, and I sat for a moment, letting them stretch out, before the feeling eased. Then I swung my legs out of bed and put my feet to the cold boards, searching for my slippers with my bare toes, wincing as I felt the frost.

Outside the cows mooed, waiting their turn, and I thought of Jacob huffing into his hands in the cold milking shed. I didn’t envy him, but I was glad of the milk he’d be bringing in.

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