Everything was quiet in the morning, and Sylvie said, listen, it’s over, even though the night before our shelter rattled so the sandbags up above split. Ma said we had to go anyway, even if the war was over, which it wasn’t, we had to go. She’d had enough. Even the Queen had sent the girls to Windsor. And what with the docks during the day and Home Guard most evenings Pa wasn’t around to agree or not agree. We packed our cases and our gas masks in their boxes and out we bustled, the sandbags ripped apart like broken eggs. Goodbye sandbags! Ma didn’t bother to lock the door. Whatever they wanted, it was theirs. She always said that but if anything went missing it was Sylvie or me that got the blame, not the bugger who filched it. Goodbye door!
The tube was buggered up at Tower Hill so out we got. All over it was barbed wire, in case the Huns came looking, wrapped round whatever would take it. I threatened to push Sylvia into it and she cried and I told her it was a joke. Ma said there was no humor in being cruel and perhaps the folks who took us in would succeed in teaching us things where she failed. But who is going to take us in, cried Sylvia and the faintness in her voice made me want to take Ma and stick her on a roll of the barbed wire and push her along until every inch of her hurt for what she was doing; and all she said was, do you remember how to curtsey, and made Sylvia prove it on the street right in front of the moat of the Tower of London which had been planted with onions and carrots. Sylvia tripped and Ma laughed and said good thing there’s no need for ladies where we’re headed and when she asked again where? Ma took her in her arms and said, Darling Sylvia this is all for the good. Don’t you want your ma back in one piece. When Sylvie shook her head Ma went on, Don’t you want your ma to be happy again? And laughing like she used to? Sylvia didn’t say anything. Ma stood up and gave her a deep hug like she meant it and maybe she did too, then she lighted up a coffin nail and took Sylvia by the hand and we were off again, lugging our suitcases and gas masks.
Paddington was a fair way still. We walked along the parks and all the railings were missing, turned into armaments to keep us alive, but the gates remained and at night the groundsmen still called all out at closing time then solemnly shut the big iron gates even though anyone could stroll in right around them. Where there used to be lawns, there were now great heaping trenches to jump into when the bombs dropped. Sylvia lagged behind and I lagged back to meet her and Ma said if we didn’t hurry all the best families would choose other children who managed to get there on time. It was cold enough to see our breath and Ma looked like a distant mountain.
The barbed wire went on, on and on surrounding allotments that used to be lawn. There was a military band playing as we passed and I thumped my feet in time. The pavement thumped back and Sylvie grabbed my hand as I lost my balance. Then we marched by the National Portrait Gallery though everything was emptied out for safety’s sake and I could feel its hollow breath. Then more trenches and this one had great massive barrage balloons springing up and WAAF women’s huts clustered about the anchors. Parliament was sandbagged and the palace was missing windows, great dirty boards nailed up. Ma said they should get the glass fixed and they don’t deserve to live like the rest of us despite the Queen saying she was awfully glad she’d been bombed because now she could look the East Enders in the eye. Overhead a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt were in a dogfight and Sylvie crouched low. I said what are you doing and she said it’s what they taught her in school and I said, if there’s a desk above you or a table. Even then they always made us go into the shelters, which were just huge concrete sewer pipes sunk into the playing field and scattered about so if one was hit only the kids in that pipe would die. We passed so many signs for Public Air Raid Shelters with great big arrows as if they were adverts for Brylcream and Sylvie said she preferred the Phoney War, even though everyone else was bored she wasn’t. She was happy and happy seemed so far away now.
Ma yanked her hand and we passed the anti-aircraft guns behind sandbags nearly forty feet high firing away trying to hit their plane and not ours. And there was more barbed wire. Sylvie said it was hideous and I said it was to slow down the invaders when they came and she said she knew that but it was hideous all the same and I said but would she rather be raped by a Jerry or look at some ugliness and Ma said we were aging her and wouldn’t it be grand when she had peace and quiet when we were gone and I said, peace and quiet? Peace and quiet! There’s a sodding war going on. I had to yell because the guns were going right by our heads but Ma still wouldn’t go into a shelter even though we’d passed more. Sylvie said I don’t want to go. I don’t want to! She started crying again.
We reached Paddington and the nice WVS ladies helped us up into the train. Sylvia still crying and Ma lighting another coffin nail. We waved out the window and slipped our name tags over our necks so when we arrived wherever we were going they’d know who we were and take us in. Sylvie said something but I couldn’t understand a word and the kid next to us said, aye can’t you belt her up. I told him she’d belt up when she was good and ready and he said well then he’d belt her up because he was good and ready now. I shoved a bit of rubbish from the seat next to me down his throat and the conductor had to come and get it out. He was old enough to be dead many times but he separated us and we listened though we could have knocked him over with a feather. Sylvia wouldn’t stop crying and it was making me mad and I tried to calm her but she was screaming now and nothing could stop her, and I thought this was what the world would always sound like; there would never be another sound but this.
The farmer said we were to call him Uncle Noel and his wife Auntie Pearl but I wouldn’t do it, so I didn’t call them anything. Sylvie said it but she hated it. Every night she cried, but he put us in separate rooms and he wouldn’t let me go to her no matter that I told him at home we shared a bunk in the shelter. The Lord would not permit such relations, he said. But she’s crying, I said and pointed at her door. And she’ll learn, is what he said with the wife staring over his shoulder and grasping her dressing gown strangle-tight around her throat.
During the day we could speak but Sylvia mostly wouldn’t say a word because of the time he called her a rotten slapper and I told him to belt it and he slapped me across the face so I slapped him back and then he wrestled me to the ground, which hurt more than I expected, and forced the two of us into the abandoned aviary and left us in there with only a bowl of water which we were to drink from like dogs. Ruff, ruff, I barked at him when he came near to let us out and in we stayed longer until Sylvia’s teeth were chattering and no amount of cuddling could warm her tiny hands so I called out, Sorry, sorry, sorry and he set us free. The wife seemed sorry that it had to be this way and snuck us warm milk when he was out in the field and made us swear never to tell him though she got our promises without words. This is your home now, she said, over and over, quiet-talking, clutching her jumper to her throat. Later I heard Sylvie locking herself in the lav saying this is not my home, this is not my home, this is not my home, this is not my home, this is not my home. I knocked on the door to give her a fright and she went silent like a tiny mouse and I said with a laugh, it’s only me. But she didn’t open the door and she didn’t laugh back through it.
We’d never seen farm animals before except for Mr. Hodges’ horse, Mickey, who would bring us our milk in the morning. Here they had pigs and sheep and goats and cows and chickens. Sylvie was afraid of the goats and the cows but she was forced to milk them every morning before the sun was up. It was cold in the barn but the cows were warm because they were crammed so close together their shoulders touched; they didn’t much like it when Sylvia had to pull on their great long teats and make them give up their milk. The cows moaned, long and sad like the moon was slowly dropping, and the goats kicked and shrieked and Sylvia was afraid to go near them even wrapped in her coat and beret and woolen scarf and woolen gloves because she was afraid that they hated her and hated what she was doing to them and that they would hurt her. I told her no they wouldn’t, they were lonely and locked away and they were more afraid of us than we were of them and all she had to do was say nice things and give their bellies a nice rub and they would gladly give their milk to her, but she said please come with me. I was supposed to be cleaning out the horses’ stables and feeding the chickens and caged rabbits and chasing the sheep into circles so they’d know where home was and not to run away, but I went with her and I talked to the cows one by one putting my hand on their fuzzy foreheads and telling them that Sylvie was a special witch sent here to make it so they weren’t lonely and to make it so they didn’t hurt so much all the time with that extra milk inside them; then I talked to the goats who were frisky and wouldn’t look me in the eye, but I told them the same thing about Sylvie’s witchery and they seemed to listen. Then Sylvia started milking and the cows moaned and the goats shrieked, but they let her take their milk and I said, they’ll get used to you and it’ll be better soon and she said she didn’t want them to get used to her, she wanted to go home. She wanted to go home. And I told her, let’s try to drink milk right from the cow’s teat and I grabbed one, long and hard and hot, and pointed it at her mouth and off it squirted, some on her tongue, some on her cheek, some over her shoulder and she laughed for the first time in ages. Then she tried me and missed though I got some on my tongue as well and I laughed too. Back and forth we went, squirt, squirt, squirt, until he walked in because he heard all the commotion and saw the milk on our faces and over our shoulders and the buckets not all full yet and said that we were to finish filling the buckets then off to the aviary we were to go with our bowl of water. God didn’t create cows and goats so that young rapscallions could amuse themselves degrading one another by wasting the riches of His creatures on nonsense when so much work still needed to be done. How much work can we do locked in the aviary, I said. You can do God’s work wherever you are as long as your heart is pure, he said. But what if we like our hearts just as they are, I said, and he wrestled me again. This time I held out longer. With my heels set firmly in the ground I could resist his weight, and I thought I might win, until he grabbed a harness from the wall and struck me across the back with it. The shock alone caused me to drop my defenses and then we were off to the aviary again, my back hot and throbbing.
Out in the Cotswolds it was as if the war wasn’t happening. Even though the windows were taped and we bought food with ration coupons and the lamplighter didn’t come by here either to light the street lamps at night, the skies were empty and all the homes were still standing and all you could hear were the animals shifting; not bombers and fighters zooming in, not crashing bombs, not shrapnel dropping, not the worried cries of mums and it was easy enough to forget the rest of the world and just think this was the world.
And now it was nearly Spring and Sylvie was so thin you could barely see her so I snuck her extra bits of eggs and cream from the larder and pears that I stole from the greengrocers when He sent me there, or biscuits from the biscuit tin at the grocers that I tucked inside my trouser pocket while town ladies said, “half a pound of gingersnaps, please,” and the grocer weighed them. But Sylvie wouldn’t eat any of it or she ate it then tossed it up as if it never existed leaning into a cloud of butterflies. I talked to the wife who wanted us to call her auntie and said my sister is in trouble we must find help and she pulled her jumper round her neck as if someone was trying to rip it off her the other way and said Uncle will take care of all of that and I said no he won’t, he’s not and he won’t. She told me I mustn’t speak that way about such a good and loyal and earnest man. I wanted to tell her he was none of those things but I could see in her eyes that she already knew.
On Sundays first thing they supervised our letters to Ma and Pa and made sure we told all the nice bits about them taking us in. Then they trotted us out to church, first for morning mass, then morning prayer, then evening prayer, then, if we were not redeemed, compline. In between we walked back home and sat stiffly in stiff cane-back chairs around the sitting room and listened to the other exhale then inhale. He said he was saving us with his worthiness and diligence and that without his kindness and benevolence we would be banished to hell. Sylvie said she missed Ma and Pa and he slapped her face and told her to repent. She said she missed Marley Junior School and sleeping in a bed that didn’t have bugs creeping through it. He slapped her along the other side so I pulled his arm and he hit me with his fist across my nose. There was a great crashing pain and then silence and then a grinding I could hear inside my ears. The wife was comforting me with a rag under my nose and guiding me toward a settee and sideways I saw Sylvia, her mouth frozen around an o. I saw the wife’s eyes which were normally big and round, bigger and rounder, drawing her fabric-hand to her neck and gurgling what should be words. He said God doesn’t tolerate disrespect of one’s elders especially when aforementioned elders took in someone no one else wanted and this was true; when we arrived at the train station with all the other kids and the people who would take you were waiting in the main hall, no one would pick Sylvie because she couldn’t stop crying. When they tried to pick me I wouldn’t leave my sister. Some of them yelled at me and said I had to go and I said no I didn’t and even if I did I wouldn’t so we were the last ones sitting there with our name tags and cases and gas masks. Then he came along and said we were welcome into his home and he was God fearing and he hoped we were as well. Sylvie didn’t say a peep, so I said yes we are full of fear for God. He looked at me as if weighing a sheep, testing my muscles and peeking inside my ear. But he and she brought us home.
They’d put me to killing their rabbits, one for every Sunday, and when I protested he pulled out the harness. I was to wring their necks, and the first time he watched. He handed me one and I petted its soft head and whispered its name and how sorry I was and tried to hide it from the view of its family so they wouldn’t have to see it die, but he said I was a stupid fool and they had no feelings of any kind and God only gave feelings to humans. It squirmed in my hands and I could feel its heart beat and its feet flutter against my chest and I soothed its ears, but he swatted away my hand. I tried twisting its neck, with my eyes closed, the way he showed me and there was an awful crack and its head sat sideways now on its body with its eyes bulging but it was still alive. The rabbit made a high-pitched sound and when it pushed into me with its large soft bunny feet I was startled and let it go and it hopped around with its head on sideways, going in circles while the other bunnies watched. My stomach felt sick, but he smacked me across the head and told me not to play my idiotic games on the day of the Lord. I said it wasn’t no game, but he bashed me again and the rabbit brushed against my feet. He made me grab it again and the bunny pushed into my chest as if for protection. I wanted to hide it inside my jersey but he handed me the knife and I was to lay the bunny out on the wooden block already stained with blood and cut its head from its body. The rabbit squirmed and its sideways head looked at me and I had to hold its hind legs with my elbow and its sideways head with my hand and I could feel its heart leap and around me the rabbits made fretful sounds and he gestured over and over in the air the strike of the blade and so I did, with my stomach sick and my heart frozen, and once was not enough, still the bunny moved, so I did it again and he went still. But I did it again now and again, until he grabbed my hand and yanked the knife away.
Now skin it, he said, handing me a small knife, like you might use to peel an apple. And he left me alone in the damp sorrow of the hutch. I was sick in the corner, then all the rabbits went quiet as I hung it from a hook, slit it lengthwise down its warm stomach, and removed the fur, my hands hot with blood, my jersey damp with blood; then off I chopped its twisted head with its open eyes looking at me. I was sick one more time. Sorry, sorry, sorry, Snowflake, I said, for the bunny was white and Sylvia and I had named them all, and this one’s name was Snowflake.
Jane Ratcliffe’s short stories have appeared in New England Review, The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, NER Digital, Literary Orphans, The Intima,and Knee-Jerk Magazine. “You Can’t Be Too Careful” was selected as a Best American Short Stories Notables 2013. Her novel, The Free Fall(Henry Holt), was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the most notable books of the year. She has written for numerous magazines and websites including Vogue, The Huffington Post, Vh-1, Interview, Guernica, The Manifest-Station, Tricycle, ROAR, The Detroit News and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood—and has an essay anthologized in Lost and Found: Stories from New York edited by Tom Beller. She has an MFA from Columbia University.