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A Short Story by Richard Smith
Really, I should feel guilty for killing the old man. He gave us shelter and food for almost thirty generations. Well, there you are, I can’t unbite what’s been bitten, not that I’d want to, and there’s never a right or wrong time for that sort of thing. Also, you know, it was mostly his own fault anyway, with his drinking and his childish tantrums.
We should probably have found a better way of surviving. There have been so many of us, one shrew after the other, one year after the other. We should have been able to get along without the help of the old man, is what I mean, although what we are to do now, I’m sure I can’t say. My mother told me before she died, of her suspicion that he believed us all to be the same one shrew, which is a ridiculous notion in my opinion. He was a woodsman. He would have known how long shrews live, how many children we have, and how often. If I’m honest, and this is as good a time as any for some honesty, if he cared where the rest of us were, he never showed it. His lack of curiosity, in itself, didn’t surprise me, him being a man. I have found men, in my experience, to be generally uncluttered by original thought. When they do have them, unpleasant thoughts are the rule more than the exception, with most men.
What did surprise me, given what I already knew of him when we met, was the gentleness he was capable of. When the weather turned last year, when the ice moved down from the edge of the woods, following the stream, creeping up to the old man’s porch, when I was a heartbeat away from surrendering to the cold, as so many of us do, he showed me great kindness. He picked me up, cradling me in his giant calloused hands, blowing on my fur to warm me through. He would have cared for me the whole winter through, if he hadn’t died so suddenly. By which I suppose I mean, if I hadn’t killed him.
Being so large, he could cover great distances when he chose to, and as someone who scurries everywhere, I was jealous of his huge stride, the ground he could so easily leave behind him. My own size is an impediment to me, making many things impossible, or nearly so. Eating, would be a fine example. It’s almost impossible for me to eat enough. I am always hungry, to the point where I have occasionally eaten some of my own children, when I would have otherwise starved. This is embarrassing to me, as I’m sure you’ll understand, but I state in my defence, I have only ever eaten the boys, the girls being necessary for the making of future generations. For us to survive, it’s a simple mathematical fact, that men aren’t needed as much as women, which makes it a wonder to me, how there are so many of them.
I needed the old man, though. Last winter, even when I was afraid of him, I needed him, as did all the generations of mothers before me. He was a fearsome giant of a man, and dear Lord, those huge rough hands which wrapped me round whenever he chose. He would spend most of his winter days, trapped in the cabin as the snow fell silently outside, rocking back and forth, his brow knitted together, his teeth gritted behind his cracked lips. With knuckles whitened by his grip on the arms of the chair, he would speak over and over, of how there was no other way for it to end. Into the warm stillness he would say the words, until eventually he would end his ramblings each time by laying the blame firmly elsewhere, shouting, ‘It was her fault, not mine.’
Well, to a tiny mammal such as myself, the only one there to hear him each time, his outbursts were as terrifying to me as I’m sure they were to my mother, to all the previous mothers who had endured his company through their winters. If I had been the first, I might have run from the spectacle. I only knew there was no need to run because I knew, as we all did, the story of the first mother, the very first shrew. Her unbelievable courage. To walk right up to where he was sitting, to stand right in front of him.
How tall and broad, how enormous, he must have been to her.
What he made of her, I can only guess from the story, which tells of how he stopped his rocking and his shouting, and puzzled, leaned forward so that he could get a better look. Many people might have thought they were looking at a mouse, but being an outdoorsman he knew the difference.
‘A shrew,’ he said. ‘By God, a shrew.’ Then after a moment, he told her, ‘You are a brave one. I could stamp you flat and yet you sit there and stare at me without a care.’
Which wouldn’t be exactly true. As I heard it, she was scared of this huge man, but she was more afraid of the hardness of winter, which had started to seep through her fur, into her bones. I have intimated how we shrews fare very badly in the cold. We don’t hibernate. In our efforts to see through those hard months our bodies become smaller and more fragile. Many stop having children, which is a great sacrifice for us, and put all together, this explains why that first mother simply stared at the old man, willing him to accept her into his home. Until, in the end, he did just that. Picking her up, peering at her on his palm, close enough for him to fancy he could see right into those two tiny black eyes gazing at him, he said, ‘Well now, look at you, all small and pretty. I wonder my wife didn’t send you to torment me. Is that so? Did she send you?’
When she didn’t answer, he must have realised how ridiculous he sounded. Getting up out of his chair, he laid the tiny shrew on top of the cooling stove, while he bent to add more logs.
‘I suppose,’ he said, picking her up again, ‘you’ll need bugs and spiders and other like things. Well, there’s plenty enough in here. I’ll start you off with the heap of scraps I’ve been sweeping into the corner, since my wife went away.’ Saying this, he moved the shrew to a pile of dust and insect carcasses, where true enough, there was food for weeks.
After this first encounter, they quickly fell into a routine, where she would sit by him, in her brief resting times, and he would watch her eat, watch her sleep, and over the days and weeks that followed, he came to feel very protective of that tiny animal. More protective of the shrew, than of the woman he’d married, God forgive him. He often wondered again, over the winter months, as he had the very first day, whether it was somehow his wife’s doing, the appearance of this animal who kept him good company, where his wife had failed in her similar duty.
‘My wife,’ he would say sometimes, ‘was small and pretty too. And she had eyes as black as yours. Eyes that shined as much as yours, like polished coal.’
‘She was a beautiful woman,’ he would say. ‘But she had much more poison in her than you do.’
‘You wouldn’t believe it,’ he might mutter, staring into his past. ‘You wouldn’t believe, how much venom one woman could have in her small body.’
It wasn’t unusual, after he had drunk a full jug of beer, as he was often inclined to do, for him to follow these confidences by crying and telling of how his wife, though beautiful, had a tongue so sharp she could have put a hole in a tanned hide with it. His tears, on those occasions, seemed to be real, not just for himself. ‘If only she had been kinder,’ he would say. ‘If only she had just once come to me peaceful, instead of always fighting. It was the sharp words and the fighting, you see. That’s what broke us in the end.’
While he was saying these things, the shrew knew well enough to remain silent, of course. She didn’t want to provoke him, and listening, as she did, to this man unburden his conscience through all this self-pity, as men are often inclined, was a small price to pay for a warm home and plentiful food. She wasn’t of a particularly harsh disposition, but she did entertain the notion that if the dead wife had been foolish enough to vex such a giant of a fellow, well, any unhappy ending must have been partly of her own making. That first mother shrew who shared his home in those days, had no experience of spitting sharp words, or anger for that matter, towards any of the men who fathered her children. She would never dream of it. Male shrews were in her life too briefly to be of any account to her, and the bearing of children was too important for her own feelings to matter. It’s true that we shrews have our own venom, but we are wise enough to use it only for killing our prey, or in furious defence of our lives, as was the case, I like to think, when I did eventually bite and kill the old man.
Well anyhow, because men are fond of justifying even their most base actions, he told her, as he went on to tell all of us in turn, what he had done. ‘My wife broke me,’ he said, ‘and when she did, I picked her up and I broke her.’
‘She looked so peaceful afterwards,’ he said. ‘She could have almost been in a deep sleep. It was the most peace either of us knew, in our whole time together.’
Then he stood and walked over to the window which faced the woods, and looking out he said, ‘I hope she isn’t cold. I didn’t bury her very deep. The trees were too close together. All those roots.’
So there you have it, and so it has been each winter since our first mother shrew took shelter with the old man. For these last thirty years or more. Realising that the man’s despair at his own actions, his need for absolution, meant a safe haven for a shrew who was prepared to listen in patient silence, she stayed that whole winter through. Silent, and safe. In the spring, when she moved back out onto the land, into the new year’s warmth, she passed the story on to one of her daughters, who passed it on to one of her own daughters, and so on, so that every winter, one of us has come here so we might remain safe and protected.
As long as he didn’t stamp us flat in one of his rages. As long as we didn’t speak, and in so doing, interrupt his pitiful begging for forgiveness.
Because it’s clear from his wife’s fate, that the old man did not take kindly to women who spoke too much.
So we didn’t speak at all, not any of us.
We sat and listened, and in return, we were fed and kept warm.
Such a small price, silence. Yet in the end, it was too much of a price for me to pay. Especially so, in the face of his fearful drunken rantings. I could never bring myself to place my trust in him the way the others had, and more than this, the longer I spent with him, the more I didn’t trust myself not to speak. There was so much I wanted to say to him, woman to man. Tell him he wasn’t making a fool of me with his self-pity, and his wandering story of how it was all his wife’s fault. Tell him he should be man enough to admit to what he’d done without passing the blame onto a dead woman.
Well, there you have it. It became too much of a burden, having to listen to it all in silence. In the end, I felt broken by it too. Which brings me back to the here and now, when there is so much food I rightly worry about it going to waste. I didn’t realise you see, when I bit him, how much venom I had stored up, with not having to kill my own prey for so many months. He was a lonesome man, so will probably not be missed by the townspeople, who I think might struggle to find his cabin even if they wanted to.
I’m glad I bit him. It lifted a great weight from me, when he fell to the floor, and I realised he would never get back up. For the first time, I realised I could look forward to a future without worry. I am excited about how different next winter will be. None of us will have to rely on the kindness of a wretched old murderer. None of us will have to worry, the whole winter long, whether he will drink more beer than is good for him, and stamp us flat in a rage.
This year, I will tell the story of the old man, including the truth of his much deserved demise, to all of my daughters. Then, when the ice creeps down from his wife’s shallow grave, when the cold moves into her buried bones, as it moves into our living bodies, I will reward the courage and strength of the first of us, by bringing every one of my children here to the old man’s cabin, where we will feed off his plentiful corpse.
Author: Richard Smith has been writing for fun for over ten years. After some success in various competitions he is now studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Keele University. He hopes to complete this, and his first novel in the next couple of years.
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