Arielle dripped duckweed into the yard, a cowl of nutria round her neck strung up by their angry orange teeth. She’d pulled them from traps sunk along a stretch of marsh she had no right to be in keeping her body low in the water so old Larnaudie, spit-polishing ball bearings by the landings couldn’t get a whiff of her and set to. Every so often, a frog mistook her skirt ballooning across the bubbling algae, for a lily pad and she scooped it up, thudding its head against the alder roots that held the river bank and stuffing it into her knickers, for she knew that snaring water rat was one thing but there was no forgiveness for frog gigging these days.
‘Give me that twine’ her mother said, taking the marlin spike from her mouth, setting it down on the halved cognac barrel that her father had used as a makeshift work bench before he’d left ‘to make his fortune’. Arielle unhitched her brace of vermin, pulled the nylon cord out from under the limp bodies and handed it over. Her mother licked the ends and twisted the splice into the lengths of the skep she was working. It would be the fourth she’d made, the others swinging from the paltry coppice beside the pig huts and the bees yet to colonise any of them. Arielle flinched at the fervour of this fruitless industry when there was so much more to be done; how were they to pay next month’s rent? She was young but she sensed this was a type of craziness deeper veined than Thierry Begoux barking at the few automobiles that growled through the village, or Mathilde the seamstress sewing nightdresses for her kitty.
‘Your brother can practise on those’ her mother said to Arielle’s catch, re-arming her mouth with cow horn ready to de-pith and strop the bramble suckers for the binding. Arielle gathered the wet shag of pelt by the tails and crossed the yard for the house, kicking at the tufty mole-hills sprouting in the lean spring sun. The warmth was welcome, the winter had been raw and with her mother too dafty to oversee the planting, the brassicas and onion sets Arielle had sowed, had rooted shallow, only to curdle in the first hoarfrosts. They’d lived the latter end of the season on pickled cucumbers from the summer harvest, saving the softer conserves – the syrup blanched persimmons and duck fritons for Mother who had stopped eating but Arielle made her suck them through hollowed oat grass.
Her brother Felix was in the larder sharpening knives on the whetstone for his new job at the abattoir, his face churned pink with effort. When Arielle picked up the pretty pearled handle of a tripe knife, he snatched it from her and ran its serrated edge across the downy cut of her jaw. Arielle did not move. She knew that to do so would only flame her brother’s frustration that Mother’s old knives were past honing and that he had to work in the abattoir. She listened to the dull blade scissor at her skin, a sound like crepitating straw. Felix stopped when he saw the coypu and Arielle bolted to the attic stairs shouting back that Mother had said to flush them out good before hanging them.
In the attic, she lay on her mattress tracing the welts rising on her cheek. She closed her eyes and thought of her father who had never sent word, had never sent the money he promised and wished there was someone to help her, knowing she would have to coop the chickens and pull Mother from her canes and baskets before the dew fell. It was then something slipped warm against her abdomen. Reaching under her skirt she pulled out a frog. She held it up by its webby hands and it did not struggle, just hung there, its pale throat pumping. ‘What a wise thing you are’ she said and kissed it, and kissed it knowing for the first time that flush of hope madness brings, and the frog blinked, her eyes as glistery as shining armour.
MARY-JANE HOLMES has won amongst others: the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize and the Dromineer Fiction Prize. She has been published in places such as Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2018, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, and The Lonely Crowd. She is Chief Editor of Fish Publishing, Ireland.
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