Beth stared at them from the doorway. Jessie had spotted them from inside and sent Beth out to see. Outside, the two rabbits were on their backs with only their heads and tails intact, the rest of them bitten back and hauled away. Behind her, Jessie clattered at dishes in the kitchen, talking, though Beth could hardly make her out. Yesterday evening Beth had seen the rabbits pottering around the hutch, nose to the wire, proud and fat in the dusk, studded with feints of oncoming rain. The bobs and twitches of them as they watched her, or so she supposed. And now, look. The three hens kept veering towards them, wanting to peck, but Beth clapped her hands to make them scatter. The rustle of feathers, the clucking, fussing, the flies buzzing, rising, landing again, and her own self in the middle of it.
There was the van, coming down the lane.
“Man’s here,” Beth called through the open door.
“He’s late,” came the reply. “And the rabbits?”
“It’s bad,” she said. “It’s…” But what struck her was the odd prettiness of the place: the feathery heads of the hens, their skitters across the yard, the yellowy fullness of the grass, the billowing down, and even the red parts of the rabbits, dusted in pollen. It turned her ill as she thought of Jessie, who even this second might be working her way around the kitchen, heading towards the little window that opened a crack onto the garden.
Too late to hide the rabbits as the van turned towards the house. She saw the driver glancing at the rabbits, the hens, then her. Jessie ordered the same thing from them every week; it was usually the same driver who brought it. Beth shrugged over the carnage, what can you do, and he nodded at her as he parked.
He disappeared into the side of the van. It had rained in mists throughout the night. By morning the rain had moved on, leaving the sun rolling low towards the house. With that came the sour smell of bloodied fur drying on bloodied grass, and the musty flightiness of the birds. He emerged with the crate of food, too big for its dreary little load of bread and meat and milk and cheese. Some apples this time. An orange. “Were they fighting?” he asked, nodding to the birds.
Beth thought about this. “You mean…?”
“My cousin had a hen that went for the dog. Rooting around the eggs, you see. But one knock from the dog broke its neck.” He risked one look. “So maybe not.” He walked to the doorway with the crate, and paused, as always, on the front step.
“Tell him to come on in with that,” Jessie called. The driver stepped into the house. Beth paused and glanced around the yard. The hens were riled up again by what was left of the rabbits; skittish, after the blood, preparing to leap. She went inside and closed the door, grateful for the coolness of the hallway.
“I suppose you saw those stinking things outside,” Jessie said to the driver as she took the crate from him. The big shape of him in the kitchen towered over Beth, though Jessie in her heels was nearly as tall as him.
“You know,” said the driver, “My cousin had a load of chickens. Dozens. He told me last month that he opened a window and there was this smell. Something got into the coop and tore them all up. They fought back, like. It was a mess in there. He had it all cleaned up but then no hen would set foot in it.”
“What was it?” Beth asked.
“He never caught it. A dog, he thought. Might have been the same.”
“Oh sure, a real monster,” said Jessie with a brittle kind of laugh. This was a sound that Beth heard more and more often as the thing that was Jessie seemed to become more fractured by the minute, by the uncut lawn, the weeds sprouting up beside the flagstones, the sound of the rain hitting the roof. “Thanks for this. How much do we owe you?”
It fell to Beth. She ended up peeling the rabbits off the ground with a plastic bag. She thought they might be stiff, but they tore and fell apart when she touched them and what she got at she scrabbled for. Beth envied the monster for having the easier job of destroying the rabbits, then leaving the clean-up to her.
The hens got in her way. They kept lunging and she shouted at them, as she had never done before. Horrible, raggedy things, bringing spite with them into her garden. Stamping her feet to scare them back, disliking herself and her thoughts, hating the heat of her body rising as she worked. Then, feeling sorry for the hens again, tiptoeing past their yellow eyes, their red faces, their watching of her. In the end all she could pick up were the slivers of the rabbits’ ribcage and the hanging fur, which she stuck unceremoniously into the hollow beneath the weeds and kicked over with dirt.
She headed back into the house, tramping through the hallway and to the kitchen. Waxed green apples were spilled across the table. The woodpile next to the stove was gleaming. The sun came halfway up, then fell away, against the walls, unable to get further into the deep, dull dark of the house. Dust everywhere. A pile of dishes – nearly all of them, in fact – were in the sink.
“What a lovely day,” Jessie said without turning around.
It was Jessie who had insisted on having the house, even after the point of her heel punched through the bottom stair on the first viewing. Rot, Beth thought. Jessie persisted and, once they were in, retreated, leaving Beth to drag the rest of her scattered parts into the house: Jessie’s combs, brushes, scarves, shoes, all boxed away in the rooms she rarely used. Beth was used to being kept by the doorway of the kitchen as she talked, looking in. Jessie preferred it that way.
“Shame about the rabbits,” Beth said.
“Your man forgot the drinks,” Jessie said. She stood with her back to Beth. “I wanted three bottles. There’s always something.”
“Whatever it was must have been big,” said Beth, thinking turn around. “Some mad, vicious thing. Bigger than a dog, your man said.”
“Did he? I didn’t hear him say that,” Jessie said. “You get less and less for all this packaging.”
“Have you still some ammo for that gun?”
Jessie did turn this time, stooping back over the kitchen counter to look at Beth. She pursed her lips before she spoke. “Somewhere. What are you going to do?”
Jessie had once offered to teach Beth to shoot: Beth did it for the afternoons with her in the spring, firing at sticks and cans, until she had missed her mark and shot a nest out of tree. The two of them looking for the eggs, not finding them. Walking over them, maybe, without noticing the crunch of the eggs beside the crunch of the leaves. Taking the crow they saw for the mother, looking down at them. That had been before the move, and the gun got put away with everything else.
“See it off,” said Beth.
“Maybe.” Beth was uncomfortable now. “If that happens.”
“The gun’s too old,” said Jessie. “It’ll blow up in your hand. Try poison.”
A sneaky, underhanded thing, poison: saying nothing, looking away. “I’d rather just get it done.”
A long time ago Jessie might have agreed to help her. Might have even, as the better shot, offered to do it herself. But she said nothing to Beth as she looked at her, up and down through her large, sleepy eyes. Beth couldn’t read her expression and stared back. It was the first time in a while that Jessie had stopped to look at her, and for a second Beth thought that perhaps she really would offer to help. And then Jessie slowly turned and went back to her bags. “Help me put this away,” she said at last.
Midnight on the front step and Beth felt ridiculous, tensing at every sound, taking aim once at a noise from the other end of the garden, not able to see clearly. Nothing. She was rigid, trying not to shiver. She had asked Jessie to sit with her while she waited, and Jessie had not replied. That had been hours ago. Now Jessie was inside, possibly thinking about Beth, most likely not. Beth could hear knocks from inside the house as Jessie moved around, searching for something, maybe, or just picking things up, putting things back, moving everything around, tidying nothing away in the languid way that she did things. When Beth thought about heading back inside, back to where it was warm and where she could put the gun away, she heard the knocks and knew she would not.
She didn’t know what had happened between them. She knew a little. She felt, in the quiet, as though she was the only thing in flux for miles around. Not quite, for this thing had come and torn into her animals, and that was new. And yet, nothing. Meeting the thing head on in the dark with a gun that might not work was pointless, but she wanted to see it. See what it was. She couldn’t picture it clearly: a muscular thing, taut, wound up and let go. She could go out and find it, bring it to Jessie, say to her look. But then again, she might just sit here and watch it come and then let it stalk off into the night again, to return, or not, and say to herself see? One thing or the other, or both, why not?
Her hands were stiff with the cold and she laid the gun across her lap. Despite the weight of it, it seemed less real in the dusk than it ever had been before. She’d known Jessie had kept it, but the idea of it had become as familiar as the house, stuck away and shut up, as harmless and shapeless as anything else stuffed into boxes and forgotten. She’d suspected right away that it was past its usefulness. One good shot in it, maybe. After that and the thing might just jam and never be shot again. That’s if there was anything to shoot at. More knocks from inside the house, then Jessie was still. It was a clear night and Beth could see to the far end of the yard, where the lane began behind the trees, and it was there that she expected a shape to emerge, and there that she kept her aim, then just watched. She couldn’t see them, but she could hear the three hens clucking quietly in their coop, passing the night kindly in their ignorance. What was it to them, anyway?
The door opened behind her and Jessie appeared, smelling of perfume, wrapped in scarves. “I put away some things,” Jessie said, though Beth suspected that she’d left everything else lying around. She had done things like this before, cleaning a corner while the rest of the room was in chaos, until Beth came in to fix it.
“No sign of anything,” Beth said, keeping her back turned.
“No,” said Jessie. “Come inside, then.”
“A little longer, maybe,” said Beth. “Just in case. You know.”
Jessie seemed to hesitate on the brink of saying something, and for a few dizzy seconds Beth held her breath, thinking that she might actually step out of the house, even just down onto the step. She had never asked Jessie why she no longer left the house, for it had happened so gradually that it was like it had always been that way. She didn’t want to go to Jessie, whose shape in the hallway light cast a long shadow over her and down the steps, further than the two of them had been together in years.
“I don’t like this,” said Jessie. She was quiet for a moment, and Beth let her be. Beth didn’t like it either: she was stiff, tired, cold, hungry. Angry all of a sudden at the thought of Jessie on the threshold of the house, even now.
“Let’s go into town tomorrow,” Jessie said after a moment.
“Not much longer,” Beth said, turning now to face her. Angry, still, and now at herself. The hallway light wracked her eyes after so long in the dark, and she could hardly even make out Jessie’s silhouette.
Beth turned away again and studied the darkness, though she could see less now than before. “Maybe.”
The door shut slowly behind Jessie as she went back inside. Beth, staring at the ground, heard her walking slowly up the hallway as though she thought Beth might still follow her. After a moment she heard the click of the light switch, and then Jessie’s slow, heavy steps upstairs, into nothing.
Beth relaxed a bit. Maybe the thing wouldn’t come tonight after all. She thought about this, and wasn’t content with the unknowing: she was less and less certain of things every day, and it wouldn’t do now. It occurred to her that she could stay out all night if she liked, watching until dawn when the hens would stir and hop gossiping back into the world, golden, red, black. And then she could do it again, to keep the big beast from rioting on them. Every night, if she had to, until she was sure. Jessie would watch her from the inside of the house while Beth stayed outside, and then look away. After all that, who knew what could follow. Look. See?