The Curmudgeon


Saturday, June 23, 2012


A Tale

In the chill of dawn the woman rose and swept the ashes from the fireplace, while the man grunted and turned to face the wall. The woman pulled on her boots without lacing them, and draped her coat across her shoulders without putting her arms into the sleeves. Carrying the dustpan full of ashes, she opened the door just far enough to let herself through.

She emptied the dustpan and crossed the yard to the outhouse, sucking in the cold air. The smell of the man’s breath coated the inside of her mouth and throat. She locked herself in the outhouse and sat almost doubled over, her elbows on her knees. The outhouse had a window through which the mountains and sky could be seen, and the field and a splinter of the disused road. The woman stared past the window at the stains on the wall.

On the way back she saw that something grey had sprouted in the yard. When she moved closer she saw it was a slate which had fallen from the roof in the night. She looked up at the roof but couldn’t see the gap. The woman picked up the slate and carried it into the house.

The man was shaving over the basin, as he did every morning whether the water was short or not. The water had been short for a week or more now, and the blade scraped thirstily against the man’s face while the cranleys squirmed in the rack opposite. The woman felt the scraping noise at the back of her throat, where the stink of his breath had been.

She put the slate on the table. The man looked around, glanced at it and then at her. "West side," she said, and sat down on the bed to pull off her boots.
"The wind must have blown it down," said the man.
"I didn't hear any wind."
"The wind must have blown it down," said the man, and the woman shrugged and went over to the fireplace. The wood took time to catch and gave forth grey billows, and for a moment she thought the chimney might be blocked. Then the wood kindled, and she hung the black pot over the flames. The remains of yesterday's cranley were still inside, along with some thickened water.

The man and the woman dressed themselves, and the woman rolled up the bedclothes while the man folded the bed into the wall. The woman took two plates and two cups from the shelf above the basin, while the cranleys wriggled in the rack. She put the plates and cups on the table, then took a third plate to the fire and spooned the remains of yesterday’s cranley onto it in a wet heap. The cranley was flaccid and swollen from soaking all night and there was very little movement left in it. The man and the woman shared it between them, chewing silently until nothing was left.

The man picked up the slate from the table and went out into the yard, leaving the woman to shut the front door after him. Standing at the basin she saw him walk out into the field. His head was down, watching the hard ground. He was still holding the slate.

The woman worked the pump handle over the basin until a thin trickle emerged from the spout, along with a few bits of ice. She stirred the water with her hands until the ice dissolved, then washed the plates and cups. She scrubbed at them with a stiff brush and dried them on a stiff cloth, while the cranleys' little eyes stared from the rack. The woman watched the man tramping about the field, or else she looked at the plates she was scrubbing or at the grey spatters on the window pane. She did not look at the cranleys.

Later the woman heard the ladder being propped against the west wall and the man climbing up and moving about on the roof. Occasionally his footsteps slid, and she thought of him falling off and wondered how the breaking bones would sound.

When she had swept the floor and fed the fire and scoured the black pot and patched the man's other shirt, the woman stood over the basin again and took a cranley from the rack. The cranley squeaked and squirmed in her hand and its eyes bulged. The woman took a blunt knife and sawed at the cranley's limbs. There were joints in each limb and she sawed at the joints and then broke the limbs off in segments and arranged the segments neatly beside the basin. With the rounded end of the blade she gouged out the cranley’s eyes, then placed them in the cranley's mouth and forced it to swallow. It was awkward working with a blunt knife, but a sharp one might have killed the cranley too quickly and lessened its pain and hence its nutritive value.

The woman put the writhing cranley into the black pot and pumped a little water over it, then scattered the pieces of its limbs on top. She hung the black pot over the fire and resumed mending the man’s clothes and sharpening blades, while the second cranley watched from the rack and they both listened to the hammering on the roof and the struggling in the black pot.

In the chill of evening the man came back in. The woman set out the plates and cups while he pulled off his boots. "We thank thee, Lord, for thy bounty," the man said, and the woman said "Amen." They sat, and with the sharpened knives they cut slivers from the cranley which they ate in silence while they watched it twitch.

While the woman cleared up, the man sat before the fire and smoked. When the fire was nearly gone they unfolded the bed from the wall and unrolled the bedclothes. The next day would be cold, and the day after that colder still.


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