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For a moment, all that exists in the world is the smell of the rain.
The air has a peaty scent to it, the smell of mushrooms and clover and gentle wood rot whipped up by the approaching storm front, carried through the forest and to our window. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, listening to the patter of the raindrops as they dash themselves against the jagged edges of the broken windowpanes.
For a moment, the earthy scents are enough that I forget the acrid reek of the fouler fungus worming its way through the walls of our cottage. I forget the crowded stink of bone and blood and the miasma of the six unwashed bodies which call the tiny space our home.
The reprieve doesn’t last. A familiar, stale-breathed stink drifts into my notice and drags me back to reality. I open my eyes as my brother sidles up to my place at the window and shoulders me aside, bending his own nose to the cracked panel of glass just above the mildewed sill. He sniffs, bobbing his head with exaggerated gusto, as though the action itself will make up for the deficiencies of his senses.
‘He’s been gone for ages,’ he snarls as he leans back from the gap and half-turns towards me. ‘When’s he going to get back?’
I tell him I don’t know.
‘I don’t know,’ he repeats in a high-pitched, infantile voice. The mockery would be laughably childish without the threat shining behind his darting, narrow eyes. He turns back to the window, those same eyes combing the dark trees beyond. ‘Useless beta.’
As he speaks, a flash of lightning splits the greying sky. The sudden light outlines my brother in sharp, unforgiving relief, highlighting his sallow cheeks and his wiry, elongated frame. In the wan light, he looks almost sickly; there is no sign of the strength I know he has. I rub my right knee in reflexive, remembered pain.
When I look back up, I sense that the focus of his attention has shifted, though his gaze remains fixed on the forest outside. Realising my mistake, I follow his gaze and pretend I can’t feel the pressure of his peripheral vision bearing down on me.
Soon enough, another flash of lightning arcs across the sky, followed by a crash of thunder overhead. I jump at the sudden sound, my arms and neck twitching as I pantomime my surprise, as though I hadn’t smelled the earth lifting to meet the sky; as if I hadn’t heard the pre-strike energy buzzing and building in the air before the flash.
Behind us, my sisters yelp at the sound of the thunder and burrow further into our mother’s skirts as they huddle together on the cold dirt floor. Lena, the youngest, squeals as a snaking puddle of water seeps towards them and touches her calf.
‘Quiet!’ my brother roars over the increasing sound of the storm. ‘How can I listen for Father if you frightened bitches are making such a damned noise?’ He shakes his head and catches my eye. ‘Pathetic.’
I can smell the bait, but the sobbing of our sisters is too loud in my ears; I can smell the fear coming from them, and I know the storm isn’t its entire cause.
Perhaps, I tell my brother, the storm has delayed our father. He might have taken shelter elsewhere to ride it out.
He scoffs, as though this is the stupidest statement he has ever heard.
‘You think he can be beaten by a little rain, karzel?’ he turns and drops his sneering gaze to my knee. ‘He’s not as weak as you are.’
The patter of rain on the broken window intensifies, and my knee aches anew. It’s been nearly a year since the cold, autumn day when we had all—except for our father, of course—been foraging for mushrooms, fruits and nuts in the forest. We’d gone a modest distance when I began to smell the metallic tang of rain on the air. I’d looked up, peering through the foliage and watched as the heavy clouds gathered in the east, a biting wind blowing from them; a storm’s vanguard.
‘What is it?’ Mother asked, noting my fixation and stepping beside me. She lifted her own nose, so alike to mine in both shape and sensitivity, and sniffed the incoming breeze.
We should go before it hits, I told her, and she nodded. She reached down and tousled my hair, then turned and called to the other children. The girls stood up, brushing the dirt and mossy detritus off the front of their pocketed dresses, now bulging with the day’s spoils.
My brother also stood. He brushed his barely dirtied hands together; his pockets were empty.
‘You’re making the decisions now, are you karzel?’ he said softly.
‘Szalen,’ my mother began, but he raised a hand to cut her off.
‘The bitch wants to speak for you, karzel. Is that what you want? Is that what you are? A little puppy suckling at her teat, unable to speak around her nipple?’
I’d been foolish. It had been such a peaceful day, filled with birdsong and the gentle sighs and smells of the forest. That morning, the sun had filtered through the trees to warm our feet as we tracked them through the steaming forest floor. I’d let myself get caught up in the beauty of the natural world and had forgotten the shadows of such a place still hid predators.
I told my brother no, I was not a puppy. And no, I didn’t presume to speak for the family in Father’s absence. I told him I had simply smelled the rain and didn’t want us to get caught in the downpour this far from home.
Szalen had exalted in my answer. He’d swept his arms wide and turned in a circle, looking at the sky as though inviting the rain to bathe him there under the trees, in that very moment.
‘The little karzel—the little runt—is scared of the rain! He thinks we are like rabbits, who run back to their burrows when they are afraid.’ He’d dropped his arms and stepped closer to me and my mother. She’d reached down and wrapped a defensive arm around my shoulders, but when he stepped closer again, staring at her with the promise of violence in his eyes, her hand had dropped and she’d shied away. He’d come before me, leaning forward to bring his face level with mine, and there was no trace of amusement left in his eyes.
‘Then run, little rabbit. Run home like prey.’
Another crack of thunder draws my attention back to the present. I blink, banishing the remembered sounds and smells from the deep forest, and the wretched stink of our hovel claws its way back into my sinuses. I cough, and look around, reorienting myself in the space. Szalen is watching me from his place by the window. His lip curls in a cruel smile, and I wonder what memories he recalls while looking at me.
It’s getting worse, I tell him, gesturing to the storm. Even if Father returns tonight, he might not be able to bring anything with him.
‘Father is strong,’ Szalen replies, as though this is the answer to everything. Another gust of wind rocks our walls, and the timbers inside the daub creak. My ears twitch; in the forest I hear another creak and groan, this time accompanied by the sound of snapping twigs and the crash of a hollowed trunk. The girls gasp from the centre of the room, but I see no sign on Szalen’s face to indicate he has heard it too.
‘Come away from the window,’ Mother cautions, reaching a hand towards us. ‘Come here, where it’s warm.’
Szalen catches my arm as I move towards the embrace.
‘You stay here, karzel. You tell me when he’s coming. When we eat.’ He swings me around, and I collide roughly with the windowsill. Part of the fragile wood crumbles under my weight, the faded flakes of yellow paint unable to hold it together any longer. A damp, unpleasant variant of rot wafts into my nose as I settle at my place by the broken windowpane. Now that its seal has been ruptured, the dank odour of the fungus infecting the windowsill fills my nose and makes me dizzy. I run a finger along the remaining paint, once so gaily coloured. What would Grandmother think if she could see her bright, happy home now?
‘Well?’ Szalen hisses, bending to my ear. ‘Is he far?’
I tell him once more that I don’t know; I can’t tell. The storm is too strong, and the wind is too laden with the scent of rain and wetness. It’s not possible, even for me.
Beside me, Szalen growls; a deep, gurgling sound. My breath shortens as the icy grip of fear closes around my chest. The growl didn’t come from his throat—it came from his stomach. He’s hungry. Too hungry.
‘You’re lying!’ He snarls, baring his teeth. ‘You know where he is! You always know where he is! You think I don’t see how you sniff and turn up your nose at us? You think I don’t know how this house stinks; how we stink—you think you don’t stink too, little karzel? You make me want to vomit with your pathetic, womanly odour—that weak, half-scent that barely carries to the edge of the forest! There’s no way you can’t smell a proper man, the strength of a man, when you have to. So which is it? Are you lying to me, or do I need to send you out there to go and find him?’
Lightning flashes, and the trees outside the window groan as they rub on one another. The sound of rain driving against the remaining tiles on the leaking roof intensifies, and I remember the last time I was lost in the storm-wracked woods.
The wind rushed through the leaves of the trees around me as I stumbled through the night. Mud sucked at my feet, trying to drag me downwards as I struggled forward against the sleeting power of the storm. I’d spent too long hobbling through the storm-black darkness—the scent trails of my mother and sisters, and even my hated brother, had all but faded from the forest, obliterated by the fury of the rain.
I stumbled on an unseen tree root and fell to the mud. A rock jabbed into my right knee, right where Szalen had broken it, and I howled in agony. The cry was completely lost in the unmatchable fury of the storm.
‘If you’re going to think like prey,’ Szalen had said, ‘then you can act like prey. Only wolves run with the pack—prey runs home when it’s injured.’
I struggled for hours, pulling myself through the sodden muck until, shaking, I finally found it—the unmistakable reek that decades of human stink imprinted on the otherwise pristine wilderness, caught by the howling wind and blown towards me. The scent of home.
By the time I reached the rude beaten path to the door of the hut, the heavy clouds were lightening with pre-dawn glow. Exhausted, I heaved myself to a sapling on the edge of the forest and used it to pull myself to my feet.
As soon as I did, my right knee exploded with pain and crumpled beneath me. I hit the ground hard, and the edges of my vision fuzzed with unfocused darkness.
A new smell wafted over me—a meaty musk overlaid with the tang of dried blood and urine. My father stepped into view, looking down on me with naked distaste.
My head reeled; his scent was overpowering. For a moment, I wondered how I could have missed it before he got so close, and then somehow through the hazy fog of pain, I understood. He’d stepped into my field of view from upwind. How long had he been stalking me through the woods, deliberately outside my notice, watching me struggle without offering help?
‘Pathetic,’ he growled, as he delivered another kick to my injured knee. He disappeared from my sight as the darkness took me.
I come back to the present with the memory still lingering in my nostrils.
‘Well?’ my brother says. ‘Are you going to tell me where he is or not?’
I draw a shaky breath and realise our father’s scent isn’t only coming to me in my memories. I strain my ears, and between the hissing of the falling rain, I imagine I can hear the trudge of burdened footsteps on the track outside.
My brother must have seen the change come over my face. He launches himself away from me with a shove, whooping in excitement. ‘He’s here!’
In the centre of the room, Mother pulls the girls closer as they whimper. I raise myself from where Szalen’s shove has sent me, and I meet her gaze. I see my own terror reflected there. Has Father brought food, or has he returned alone?
The door slams open. Father’s bare shoulders heave as he pants, the exertion of carrying his prize through the storm catching up with him now he’s home. Behind him, the sky lights up with flashes of lightning, and in the jagged brightness I see his hair, wild and matted with the deer’s blood, pasted to his skin by the rain. I see the outline of his kill; an old, sickly animal held together more by the pitiful skin around it than by meat and sinew. And as the light curves around him, I see his eyes. My throat catches. He must have come directly home, charging through the storm to feed his brood. He hasn’t stopped. He hasn’t eaten. The madness is still on him.
He steps inside, knees almost buckling under the weight of the emaciated beast. He turns his shoulder and throws the broken deer to the packed dirt floor. Its hind legs twitch, and for a moment I wonder if the creature might be alive. But it’s only a trick of the light; nothing could survive with its intestines hanging about so loosely, oozing out of the finger-shaped claw marks that have ripped through its belly. I look up and see Father swaying in the doorway, watching our reactions to his accomplishment while he sucks the blood from his gore-slicked fingers.
‘Thank you, husband,’ Mother begins. ‘You’re too generous to us. We—’
‘Is this all?’ Szalen interrupts, prodding at the carcass with disgust. ‘It looks half eaten already; where’s the meat on it?’
The sound of the storm outside seems to fall away from the moment. Hanna, the elder of my sisters, draws a sharp breath in horrified anticipation. Lena squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head, as though she can banish the inevitable through sheer force of denial.
I watch as Father squares his shoulders and draws himself to his full, sinewy height. His lip curls, baring his teeth at Szalen who, unnoticing, is still squeezing sections of the deer to find the plumpest portion of meat.
‘You ungrateful little brat,’ he snarls as he reaches down to lift my brother off the game. I scuffle backwards across the bone-littered dirt floor, putting as much distance between me and them as possible. But instead of Father sending Szalen hurtling through the air, the unthinkable happens. Father stumbles as he reaches to clasp my brother’s wrist; the day’s hunt and the night’s struggle to return amidst the storm has sapped him of his strength. And, of course, he has not yet eaten.
Szalen looks up just in time to witness Father’s moment of weakness, and his posture immediately changes in response. His ropy muscles gather into tight coils, and his head tilts as he half turns to watch Father’s outstretched fingers wrap around the arm he is using to test the deer.
Before Father can tug on Szalen’s arm, the fourteen-year-old explodes out of his crouch like tension releasing from a coiled spring. He leaps onto our father, tearing at him with tooth and nail. The older man howls in pain and surprise, and the children shriek into our mother’s skirts. Thunder rolls as another pulse of lightning cracks the sky, and in the frantic flash of light I see Father has clasped both of Szalen’s arms, holding them away from his eyes. Szalen leans forward, bearing down with all his strength, and Father sinks to one knee. Sensing victory, Szalen roars; a wordless sound of fury that echoes the storm raging outside.
In my peripheral vision, I see a subtle movement. Crouching beside Mother, Hanna snakes a hand across the fetid floor, feeling the shapes hidden in the darkness. She draws her hand back, and I see a dull white sliver of fractured bone gripped within. Her eyes remain locked on the fight and her breathing quickens as, now armed, she waits for her moment to act.
I rise to my own haunches, testing the strength I feel there. Laughably small in comparison to the clashing titans before me, but perhaps just enough that, between the two of us . . .
Before I can finish the thought, Hanna gasps in surprise and pain, unheard by the males struggling by the door. I look back and see another, quieter test of strength playing out in the shadows at the centre of the ruined cottage. Mother clasps Hanna’s wrist in an uncompromising grip, knuckles whitening to match the improvised bone dagger as the two women fight over its control.
‘Foolish girl!’ Mother hisses out of the corner of her mouth, barely audible. ‘Do you wish to end up like your grandmother?’
Hanna doesn’t answer, but the muscles of her jaw twitch. She and Mother continue to stare resolutely forward, maintaining the facade that the fight before them is consuming their full attention. Hanna’s grip on the bone shard slackens and Mother wrenches it away, tossing it unnoticed into the darkness behind them. A flash of lightning briefly illuminates the scene, reflecting wetly from Hanna’s cheeks.
The darkness that follows is more than I can bear. I scramble across the filthy floor towards them, and for the first time Mother looks away from the battle on our literal doorstep. She holds an arm out for me as I approach, and I burrow into her embrace, hot tears of shame running down my face. She strokes my head as I sniffle, cooing gently to her three children as she rocks us gently back and forth. She sings louder as the battle between father and son grows in intensity, and familiar and unfamiliar scents of sweat and human blood grow thicker in the single-room space. From the imagined safety of Mother’s embrace, I turn my head to assess the progress of the fight.
I can sense the madness as it pulses from them—duelling storm fronts all their own. By now, both combatants are bloodied and desperate to grapple an advantage over the other—but it’s obvious that the adult, whilst exhausted from his day’s trek hunting and forging through the storm, nevertheless has a supreme advantage over his challenger. He lets out a deep and wordless howl as he repositions and lifts the boy off the ground. Kicking and thrashing, Szalen is helpless as Father slams him against the heavy oaken door frame. And slams him again. Again and again, each crunch of bone and cartilage against the unyielding wood sounding more sickening than the last.
‘Stop!’ Mother cries. ‘Stop it! Can’t you see that it’s over? Stop.’ She covers her face with her hands, and I feel her body shake as she sobs. Beside me, Hanna and Lena look on without expression. No matter who wins, they lose. And they know it.
Father whirls to face us, and at first there’s no sign he recognises who has spoken to him. The madness dancing in his eyes and slaver dripping from his unnaturally elongated teeth make him look more feral than human. But then Szalen coughs; a wet, hacking sound that bubbles towards the end. Father looks back at him and tosses the broken boy to the dirt with a familiar distaste. When he looks back to us, his teeth have returned to normal and the madness in his eyes has retreated to its customary place—lurking just below the surface.
‘What do you think I am, woman? Stupid? Do you think I’d leave your little pet cub as heir to you and the bitches?’ He spat a commingled gobbet of saliva and blood on to the prone, shakily-breathing Szalen. ‘He’ll live,’ he said, finding my eyes. ‘He’s strong.’
As if to prove the point, he bends and grabs the beaten boy by his ankle and drags him to the door. He kicks it open and swings the body outside to slap into the mud, then shuts the door and bolts it. For a moment, he stands there, his shoulders heaving as he rests his weight on the closed door. His legs shake with either fatigue or the unspent energy of the fight. The muscles in my hand twitch, but my mother rests her hand atop mine and the sensation fades.
When he’s composed himself, Father turns from the door and gestures to the still body of the deer.
‘Well?’ he says. ‘Let’s eat.’
Hours into the night, as I huddle in the cold corner of our unheated cottage, I hear it. The halting, stuttering sound of Szalen sobbing in the mud is impossible to mistake.
I turn to face my back to the wall, feeling a ball of ice forming in my gut just as surely as if I was out there with my brother, freezing in the dark and the cold, without even the moon visible through the laden clouds.
Tomorrow, I reason, Father will return to the forest to hunt. That won’t be too great a problem—after the events of today, Szalen’s convalescence notwithstanding, it’s unlikely he’ll be gone for anything more than a few hours. But one day, weeks or months from now, he’ll return to his regular routine. And we’ll be alone once again with my brother—a humiliated boy with a point to prove.
I look to the door, and I wonder just how hurt he is. It would be easy out there, in the rain. The sound of his muffled cries as I press his face into the mud would never carry to the ears of our father. In the cold light of morning, it would simply look like the storm had been too much on top of the beating.
But then I look at the shadowed shape of my mother amidst the crumpled rags in the centre of the room, and in the darkness, I see a glint of reflected light as she looks back at me. And I know that whilst Father might not, she—whose senses are as keen as my own— hears everything her son is suffering in the storm outside. And even if she couldn’t rise from his embrace to stop me, she would hear when those sobs ceased. She would know.
And it’s clear to me that my brother is right. That my father is right.
I’m not strong enough for that.
Thank you for reading In The Woods of Granny’s House! by Terence MacManus. This is the Standard version, which does not include the author’s reflection on the piece. You can unlock the Premium version of the publication for FREE by subscribing to Terry Talks Fiction using the link here.
Subscribers not only get access to the author’s reflection—where I describe how my archaeological approach to fiction writing influenced the choices I made in this story, and how one’s past work can be a treasure trove of ideas and elements ripe for excavation—but also get access to an .epub version of the story for easy offline reading, and access to the full back catalogue of short stories published to the site throughout 2019.
Special thanks to my extremely talented wife Mikayla for her excellent photography on the front cover, and to our eldest son for his modelling services! You can see more of Mikayla’s work on her Instagram page.