This story is by Ken Frape and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Flies buzzed lazily around sun-crisped grass blades and settled on the parched earth. The late Summer sun blazed down on the hard – baked soil. Huge cracks had split the ground where this year’s barley should have been almost ready for gathering in but there would be no Harvest celebrations this year. The crop had failed again. Instead of plenty there would be hunger and instead of feast there would be famine.
In the old, isolated barn under a dark night sky the meat cleaver seemed to get heavier with every stroke until Harold smashed down one last time into the final chunk of the lifeless carcass. It crashed through flesh and bone with a crunch and a wet thud, scattering hungry flies in its path. He was exhausted by his efforts. It was as much as he could do to resist the temptation to cram some of that bloody, uncooked meat into his mouth. He had not eaten for two days but he must wait his turn. Others needed it too. Just after 3 o’clock in the morning, the Barn Owl had given up watching the human activity below and gone night hunting. The owl would not go hungry. The tall, broad-shouldered figure gave one final, furtive, glance around the barn to satisfy himself that he had covered all obvious signs of his illegal activity. Discovery would surely mean the hangman’s noose.
Twenty minutes later, with the contented sigh of the returning lover, he slipped into the nightshirt that hung loosely from his spare frame and crawled quietly into bed beside his lovely wife who stirred and smiled, only half awake as he tenderly wrapped his arms around her. Her sleepy eyelids fluttered open briefly as his lips gently brushed her velvet neck and then, within moments, he was asleep, exhausted by his night’s labour as their blond heads rested together on the pillow.
Tomorrow there would be meat.
At 6 o’clock, after just a few hours of dreamless sleep, Harold was suddenly awakened by his excited seven year old daughter, Daisy, as she burst into her parents’ bedroom. Far from being angry, Harold was instantly awake and he reached out for his giggling and squirming little girl and dragged her into the space between her mother and father.
“Daddy, Daddy, chase me,” she pleaded as Harold leapt from the bed and chased her around the room. Then, having made a game of trying to catch her, he carried her back to the bed, blowing raspberries on her neck and tickling her ribs while she squealed with delight. A while later, game over, the still giggling Daisy had been dispatched to collect the free range eggs from around the cottage and to distribute them to their starving neighbours. Harold and his wife then had half an hour of leisure to make love and after, they basked in the naked joy of each other’s arms, still breathing heavily from their exertions.
Harold looked down at his wife Amelia’s naked body. Still a beautiful young woman, she had, like most of the villagers, lost too much weight. He could clearly feel every rib as he ran his hand across her flat belly and upwards to cup her small breast. The thought of her and his lovely, innocent daughter starving to death hardened his resolve to carry on providing fresh meat for them and for his friends and neighbours. Whatever the risk.
Harold and Amelia cherished such moments. All around them in the tiny cottage that had been their home since their wedding day 10 years ago, people were suffering and starving. Most were farm workers, living in tied cottages. Their Lord and Master was Sir Humphrey Stephenson, a tall, thin and angry man with patchy, balding pate and pock-marked skin. He had inherited his title from his late and lamented father, Sir William, along with 2000 acres of good, rich Cheshire farmland and a herd of over 300 prime beef cattle. Sadly, he had inherited none of his late father’s good nature, noble bearing or patience.
Sir Humphrey was a heavy drinking man but worse, he was imprudent. He refused to heed warnings to build up a surplus to cover crop shortages or poor livestock sales. After two failed harvests, the final straw was a further outbreak of the dreaded Cattle Plague. He refused to listen to advice from his farm workers or even from his fellow landowners. He had little use for the opinions of ignorant peasants and farmhands and even less interest in farming.
Sir Humphrey ranted that it was his workers’ lack of steadfastness that caused the Cattle Plague. However, history would show that the disease came through the port of Hull in 1850 and spread through many counties but Cheshire was the most badly affected. Having blamed his farm workers for his problems, Sir Humphrey then decided to punish them so he stopped paying their wages.
Harold had been born on the estate and he had grown up in happier days under Sir William’s benign regime. Now, he was employed, like his own father before him, as the head cattle manager and estate butcher. Once the plague had gripped the herd, many cattle were infected and had to be burned in huge fires. The fires burned for days and the sickly-sweet smell of burning flesh hung heavily over the farm. As word spread around the county, beasts from infected farms were no longer allowed to attend the weekly market and a deep depression settled upon the county. Harold was saddened to see the once prosperous farm languishing due mainly to Sir Humphrey’s ignorance and willful neglect. The dull, hungry eyes of his friends and their children angered him.
The villagers’ salvation arrived unexpectedly in November that year when Harold gave the monthly accounting to his master. Another five head of diseased cattle had died and one was showing early signs of the cattle plague. In order to save himself from the inevitable tongue lashing when this sixth animal also died, Harold announced that six were already dead.
Harold stood there, as usual, head down, hands at his side, whilst his master stamped his foot like a petulant child and berated him for his poor animal husbandry, his parentage, his morals and even his right to breathe the air around him. Harold’s strong hands that so skillfully butchered the farm’s animals, that managed the heavy farm implements and also tenderly held his daughter’s tiny hand, could so easily have squeezed the life out of the irascible Sir Humphrey in moments but they remained passively by Harold’s side as his drunken lord and master ranted on.
The small but deliberate counting error was not noticed by the impatient landowner, who showed little interest in the daily workings of his farm and barely listened to the news. Thus, the bonfire of diseased cattle contained only five carcasses not six. A week later, however, the sixth animal was showing signs of making a full recovery as some infrequently did. Harold knew that this change, although good news, would be seized upon by Sir Humphrey as a further sign of Harold’s incompetence. So that night, Harold made a momentous decision which, once taken, he could never retract. Under the blanket of darkness and to ensure that the tally was correct, Harold led the sixth animal into that isolated barn and there he carried out the familiar task of butchering the beast.
The following day, Harold amazed his starving fellow villagers by leaving a surprise parcel of meat for each one. Nothing was said but the die was cast. If discovered, this theft would inevitably lead Harold to the gallows. The threat of imminent starvation kept the secret secure within the village and would continue to do so, at least until the meat had been consumed. The villagers’ gratitude was pitiful to behold and they now regarded Harold as their saviour.
Amelia was shocked and alarmed at first to learn what her husband had done but she, like her fellow villagers, had no love for Sir Humphrey. The villagers had empty bellies, no income and hungry mouths to feed and so they feasted on the stolen meat and when they were not feasting, they kept their mouths firmly shut.
A whole month passed, the meat had all been eaten and the villagers grew hungry again and impatient for more. They began to ask Harold when they would have meat again. One villager, Old Granny Tasker, a woman with painful arthritis and a temper to match her waspish tongue, looked askance at Harold one day as he was going about his daily tasks.
“Some more meat would be nice, Mr. Harold. It would be a shame if Sir Humphrey found out what you’ve been up to, wouldn’t it?”
Harold shuddered at the thought of the noose around his neck, his wife a widow and his daughter fatherless but by now, there was no turning back.
Thus, another accounting error took place and another healthy beast disappeared from Sir Humphrey’s herd and another month passed as the villagers feasted. And then another and another and this tided the villagers over the worst of the winter weather. Sir Humphrey grew increasingly irate about the diseased cattle burning in his fields and the lack of winter stores but he had neither the wit nor the inclination to count the carcasses for himself. He focused his ire on Harold and on several occasions, he came very close to striking him with his riding crop. Harold maintained his outward calm although inwardly, he was seething with suppressed fury as he clenched his fists.
The final straw came when Harold next went to give his account to his employer.
“How many more have you killed this month,” shouted the landowner, accusingly “how many more have you allowed to die this time?”
At the mention of the word “killed” Harold thought that the game was up but he answered just as he had planned.
“It is four, Sir Humphrey,” he replied calmly, adding on one for the villagers again.
“ Four!” bellowed the landowner, raising his crop and striking Harold a stinging blow across his face. “Get out of my sight, you sniveling wretch!”
He lifted his hand again but the blow never landed. Harold’s gnarled fist caught Sir Humphrey’s soft, pink hand and riding crop and held them in a vice – like grip. Sir Humphrey was shocked and angry but his bloodshot eyes opened wide in surprise and then fear as he saw the look of naked hatred on Harold’s face.
“How…how dare you touch me!” he blustered as he struggled to free his hand but Harold pulled him close until their faces were inches apart. Ignoring the foul stench of his master’s Port – soaked breath, Harold spoke clearly and slowly,
“No Sir Humphrey, you shall not strike me again.”
That night, Harold worked late to cut up the meat for the villagers and the following day he quietly distributed the parcels around the village. The pigs had their share of the feast too, gorging themselves until nothing was left. Nothing was wasted.
Old Granny Tasker complained about the quality of her piece but grudgingly accepted it nonetheless.
“It’s too fatty, too stringy” she moaned, examining the cloth – covered lump of red meat in her hands.
“I’m sorry it’s not to your liking, Granny Tasker” said Harold calmy, suppressing a secret smile, “I selected this piece especially for you.”
“Well, just you make sure you carry on delivering my meat, Mr. Harold, do you hear?”
“You wouldn’t want to get found out by Sir Humphrey now, would you?” Her crone’s voice crackled with malice.
“Oh I don’t think he’ll be too bothered,” said Harold quietly to himself, fingering the vivid, red welt on his face. “No, he won’t be bothered at all. Not now.”