Illustration by Anto
Today's story is blue, frosted with sharp prose and a child's innocence. It was published in our very first WINTER issue in January 2013, and it's stuck with us ever since. Here it is, in honour of National Short Story Week.
The cow blew up the morning after the storm. I guess the wind ripped the fence. I didn’t see the cow explode, but my brother Yan did. By the time we got to the field after school, fresh snowfall had covered up most of the red, the pieces of flesh and hide and bone. Old Marek strung up some new barbed wire and re-painted the sign.
Minefield, it said. Extreme Danger.
Yan laughed because cows can’t read. He said it was time to carry out his plan. He’d first mentioned it when the soldiers left Old Marek’s farm. We’d been standing in the tanks’ tire tracks, watching Old Marek hammering down the posts for the barbed wire fence. Mother said the land could never be tilled again.
‘Think of it,’ said Yan, kicking at the churned up earth. ‘A field of death. I can lead unsuspecting enemies there.’ He looked at me sideways, his eyelids drooping, like they always did before he tripped me up or pushed me into the bushes.
I jumped out of range. ‘What enemies?’
‘What enemies? Baby brother. You’ll see.’
Yan never told me what he was plotting - he was twelve that year and I was only nine. When his gang played soldiers, I was the enemy who had to take cover in the forest. They hunted me through the firs, chanting my name: Sash-a, Sash-a. Once they chased me into the branches of a beech tree and danced around the trunk.
After the dead cow reminded Yan about his plan, my stomach felt cold. If I was going to be the enemy again, how could I hide in a minefield? Besides, we’d have to get past Old Marek’s dog. Half-dog. The other half was wolf.
Wolf guarded Marek’s farm, growling and barking and scaring the children away. That summer, the dog had bitten Yan when he tried to take a shortcut down to the river. The scar stood out like a crimson half-moon on his right thigh.
Then Yan told me he’d stolen some shears.
‘I’m going to make a hole in the barbed wire,’ he said. ‘Round the field of death.’
‘That’s dangerous. The wire’s not going to explode, idiot.’ He cuffed the side of my face, so my left ear throbbed. It was no use talking to him when his eyelids were weird like that.
The next morning Yan went out early, before breakfast. He hadn’t come back by the time we were supposed to leave for school. Mother twisted her apron in her fingers, frowning at his uneaten porridge.
‘Take his books, Sasha,’ she said. ‘See if you can find him on the way.’
I took his red school bag and my blue satchel, one on each shoulder. I wanted to run, but the snow was coming down hard. When I got to the farm I called Yan’s name, but it disappeared into the white air.
Then I heard a howling noise ahead. Something big and grey was stuck halfway through a hole in the barbed wire fence around old Marek’s field. Wolf. A pair of shears lay next to him on the crusty snow.
I crept up behind the squirming animal. Through the blizzard I could just see the shape of my brother, working his way along the inside of the fence on the left edge of the field.
‘Yan! Be careful!’ I thought of the chunks of cow, burst scarlet under the ice.
Wolf yanked at the fence and tried to turn his head towards me, but he was stuck fast.
‘Sasha?’ My brother’s voice carried through the snow. ‘That bloody hound came at me before I could finish the hole.’
‘Wait there – I’ll get help.’
‘No, don’t fetch anyone! Push Wolf! Shove him through the fence!’ My brother waved his arms. ‘When he runs across the field he’ll blow into a million pieces!’
I dropped the bags and approached the dog. He was barking, struggling in the barbed wire, his rough grey coat stained with red. Under his fur, his skin must be scratched like my arms had been when Yan shoved me into the brambles.
I put my hand carefully onto the dog’s back.
He stopped barking. I stroked the scruff of his neck. He stiffened and made a low noise, deep in his throat. I tried to make the same sound as he was making.
‘Hurry up, fool,’ called my brother.
Wolf raised his head and snarled.
‘No, Yan,’ I said. ‘You’re the foolish one.’
I picked up the cutters and clipped the wire biting into Wolf’s flank, pulling the barbs out of his skin. He yelped and struggled against me.
‘Ram him into the field,’ called Yan, stepping forward onto the mined ground.
‘Get back!’ I shouted. ‘Hold onto the fence and come to me – it’s the only way out.’ If my brother exploded, the blizzard would cover him up straight away. He was so much smaller than a cow.
Yan lowered his head and started to make his way towards us, around the edge of the field. I leaned across Wolf’s flank, put my arms around his neck and eased him out of the fence backwards. He stood rigid, watching my brother climb through the gap in the barbed wire.
As soon as Yan got through the hole, he lunged at me, his fist raised. I stood my ground, bared my teeth and growled. My brother dropped his hand to his side. Wolf barked, but I held him back. There’d been enough fighting in this place. I picked up my bag and led the dog away from the minefield, towards old Marek’s farm.
Jac Cattaneo is an artist and writer who teaches Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) Fine Art course. Her award-winning short stories have been published in a wide range of anthologies and journals, including Riptide, Litro and International Flash magazine. Jac graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University with distinction and the Kate Betts Memorial Prize. She is currently working on a novel as part of her PhD in Creative Writing.