Animals Could Get In
by Roz Ray
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill went tumbling after.
The summer had been a dry and difficult one. The barley grew knee high and spindly and the corn became so brittle stocks cracked in half under the weight of their cobs. Mother and Father slaughtered the cows and pigs halfway through the summer, rather than see them waste away to nothing. They dried the meat and tanned the hides. They slaughtered the dogs and cats at the end of the summer, and trapped as many mice and caught as many fish as they could manage. This was how the family would survive the winter.
As the heat of summer shrank into the doldrums of autumn, Mother and Father became increasingly sparing with dinners and suppers but they could only bear to withhold so much for their children, Jack and Jill, had growing yet to do. Even so, Jill’s cheeks began to hollow, and Jack ceased to grow taller. Jill, who had always been the keen quick-witted one, grew silent and somber. Jack, who had always been the hearty bombastic one, grew thoughtful and humble.
Now it was winter and the morning light shone thin and brittle as if the whole world were ill. Jack and Jill did not doubt that it was. Bears still huffed around the forest though it was the dead of winter; wolves stood stock still in the middle of fields. Father came home just the other week from the village with the latest news:
“Old Farmer Sprat just got attacked by a swarm of honeybees!” he said. “He and Mrs. Sprat were walking home from Sunday market, and when they passed the bee hive on that old oak out near his house? Whole hive got up and swarmed him. Left nary a piece to be buried!”
Today Mother tasked Jack and Jill to carry water back from the well. They took their pails, looked out the window for signs of danger, and left to fetch the water.
The ground outside was frozen so solid God himself would surely have cracked his teeth on it. Two buzzards circled above the apple orchard. Half of the trees were good for nothing but kindling, but Mother and Father still chopped scrupulously, ever hopeful to see a thread of green life coursing through the heartwood. None had yet yielded such evidence.
Jack and Jill walked the switchbacks up the hill to the well.
“You pull first,” said Jill. Jack hooked his pail to the rope and dropped it down. The pail splashed, Jack waited a moment and pulled it back up. Five black pollywogs swam in the pail.
“Now you,” Jack said. Jill hooked her pail to the rope and dropped it down. The pail splashed, Jill waited a moment and pulled it back up. Ten black pollywogs swam in the pail.
Jack and Jill heard a howl from behind them. They turned around to see a pack of wolves standing stock still at the base of the hill watching them. One padded two steps forward and sniffed the switchback. Another stepped forward and another.
“What should we do?” Jack asked. “We can’t stay here!”
“They’re blocking our way back home!” Jill said.
“We can run to the cider shack!” Jack said.
Two more wolves took two steps. The lead wolf hunkered down; its nails screeched against the barren rock of the hillside.
“We can make it!” Jack said. Jill looked from the wolves back toward the shack, dropped her pail and took off running. Jack jumped, let go of his pail and hurriedly followed his sister. Behind them they heard snarling and a great thundering of feet. The winter cold had hollowed out the hill and given it a fearsome resonance.
Jack soon caught up to Jill for he was the faster runner. Halfway down the hill however, Jack’s foot struck a stone and he fell, cracking his head on a rocky outcropping. Jill watched her brother fall and by watching, caught her own foot on a rock and fell. Jill tumbled down the hill and staggered to standing and kept running toward the cider shack.
Jack meanwhile, dazed, seeing stars, dragged himself onto his feet and hobbled after his sister. His eyes stung as blood from his forehead dripped down and his ankle was wrenched awfully. He looked behind him. He didn’t have much of a lead and the wolves gained. One wolf stopped to lick the rock where Jack’s head had struck. Another wolf shouldered the first out of the way and Jack ran on.
By the time Jack got to the cider shack, Jill had already fastened the door shut. He clambered up onto the roof and dropped down through the hatch at the top.
“Are you hurt?” Jill asked.
“My head,” Jack said, “and my ankle. Are you?”
“No,” Jill said and went to fetch some wool to bind Jack’s ankle and head.
Scraping and snapping and sniffing reverberated from outside the shack. The wolves were pacing outside the door.
With his wounds tended to, Jack limped to a patch of straw and sat down.
“Perhaps a stray bottle of cider has been left behind for us,” Jill said, and began hunting around the shack.
“We did not have enough apples to press this year,” Jack said.
“It would have to be from the year before, then,” Jill said. “Ah-hah!” She held aloft a dusty, musty bottle. “It rolled behind the fermenting barrels.”
Jill came to sit near Jack, and they waited.
The wolves persisted and were not long alone. At sunset Jack and Jill heard the chittering whine of a fox. A raccoon began barking at twilight, and by the time they saw the moon—gibbous through the roof hatch—they could hear the snuffle of a porcupine along the north wall, the buzzing hoot of an owl on the roof, the buzzards’ keen around the eaves and the frantic, perfunctory call of turkeys knocking up against the south wall. And still, at the door, the wolves.
“We’ll be safe here as long as we don’t leave,” Jill said.
“What if the animals figure out a way in?” Jack asked.
“Animals are stupid creatures,” Jill said. “They will never get inside.”
“But we can’t stay here forever,” Jack said.
“Why not?” Jill asked.
“Because we have no food and only that bottle of cider to drink,” Jack said. He rubbed his ankle and winced when he touched his fingers to his forehead. Jill watched him do this.
“I’m sure something will come up,” she said.
Jack and Jill fell asleep.
Jack woke to find Jill dismantling the cider press.
“What are you doing?” Jack asked.
“We need wood for a fire,” Jill said. “You have always been the chubbier one, so maybe you don’t feel the cold, but I’m liable to freeze to death after one more night of this frost.”
“I feel the cold,” Jack said, “but that’s Father’s cider press! We still owe thirty gold pieces on it. If Father can’t make extra cider, how will we repay the loan?”
“We,” said Jill in a mocking tone. “Father’s debts are his business, not ours.”
“But he bought the press to make us more comfortable!” said Jack.
“And now he shall finally succeed!” replied Jill. “Help me stack this wood.”
That night they had a fire which did not make the animals go away but did warm the shack up. Jack and Jill opened the bottle of cider and each took sips.
“Whew!” said Jack. “That’s strong!”
“Well, it’s sat since summer before last, dummy,” said Jill, “of course it’s strong.”
“Jill,” said Jack after they had drunk a while longer and put the cider away. “Why did you start running before me when we were on the hill?”
“Because I knew you were the faster runner and I wanted to get a head start,” Jill said.
“But you made the wolves chase us, and if I hadn’t started running so soon, I—”
“Well, we’re both here now,” Jill said, “and as long as we stay here, we’ll be safe.”
Jack and Jill fell asleep to the sounds of the animals scratching and clawing at the walls in chorus.
Jack awoke to find Jill tearing apart their mother’s loom.
“What are you doing?” Jack asked. “We still have wood left over from the cider press, and we still owe thirty gold pieces on that loom.”
“I don’t want to run out of wood halfway through the night,” Jill said, “and Mother’s debts are her business, not ours.”
“But Mother bought that loom to make us more comfortable!” Jack said.
“And now she shall finally succeed!” said Jill.
That night they made a fire and drank more of the cider.
“Jill,” Jack said after they put the cider away. “Why did you not help me up after I fell and hit my head?”
“I had fallen as well, Jack,” Jill said.
“But you were unhurt, and my ankle was twisted and my crown was broke.” Jack fingered his bandaged forehead and Jill watched.
“What does it matter?” Jill asked. “We’re both here, and as long as we stay in here we’ll be safe.”
Jack and Jill fell asleep to the sounds of the animals cackling and growling at each other.
Jack awoke to Jill sharpening a blade on a stone.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I want to be ready in case any of the animals get in,” Jill said.
“But you said they couldn’t,” Jack said.
“I just want to be sure,” Jill said.
That night Jill let Jack have the rest of the cider.
“It makes my stomach upset,” Jill said.
“Then we shall save it for when your stomach is no longer upset,” Jack said.
“No, no, dear brother, you drink,” Jill said. Jack drank.
“Jill,” Jack said as he drank. “Why did you lock the door before I arrived?”
“I was afraid the animals would get in,” Jill said.
“Did you think I would not make it?” Jack asked.
“No, no, I was sure you would make it,” Jill said. Jack rubbed his ankle and Jill watched.
“Then why did you not wait?” Jack asked.
“I was afraid, that’s all, but we’re both here now, and as long as we stay inside, we’ll be safe,” Jill said. “Now drink up.”
Jack sat back so that the firelight touched only part of his face. He brought the bottle to his lips but instead of drinking, he secretly poured the cider into the pile of straw next to him a little at a time. Jill watched him drink and the fire made her eyes glint like pieces of metal.
When the bottle was empty Jack tossed it toward the fire. It landed at the edge, its base buried in the coals. Jack settled back, looking for all the world like a village drunkard content at the end of his night.
Jill watched Jack for quite a long time, and Jack did not move. Outside the animals had found each other, and were fighting.
Jill rose and carefully walked to where she had set the knife. She tested the edge with her thumb and crept quietly toward her brother, her pinafore making the slightest rustle, barely audible above the scrabbling and shrieking outside.
Jack lay curled up next to the fire. Jill crept up behind his rounded back. Just as she bent over him, knife in hand, Jack’s arm snaked out, grabbed the cider bottle from the coals and hit Jill square in the arm. The hot glass scorched through her dress and sizzled next to the skin of her arm. Jill shrieked and the knife clattered to the floor.
“I knew it!” Jack said, “You lied!”
“What?” Jill screamed. “I’m not a liar! There was a spider on your throat, I meant to kill it before it bit you!”
“Lies! Lies!” Jack yelled. “You meant to kill me and eat me!”
“I would never!” Jill said.
Jack scrambled to his feet. “Oh, so you meant to feed me to the animals while you ran away home!”
Jill picked up the knife in her other hand. The neck of Jack’s bottle, though it had not been in the flames, was quite hot and Jack’s hand began to smoke.
Jill lunged; Jack parried. Jill jabbed; Jack slashed.
“How can you say such awful things about your sister?” Jill asked, her face contorted and rageful. She circled Jack darting here and there, slicing and weaving as Jack swung the bottle with his smoking hand. Jill finally slashed Jack across the forearm and he dropped the bottle. Jill pointed the knife at Jack and backed him up toward the door.
Jack hopped ahead and grasped the door handle. He undid the lock. Jill’s eyes grew wide.
“What are you doing?” Jill asked.
“I’m leaving,” Jack said.
“But, if you leave, animals could get in!” Jill said.
“The animals out there are not half so terrible as the animals in here,” Jack said, and before Jill could utter another word, Jack flung open the door.
About Roz Ray
Roz Ray is a working writer, born and raised in Seattle. Her work can be found in Hobart, Tahoma Literary Review, Easy Street Magazine, and Geometry. When she’s not writing she remodels houses, rows, and teaches in public schools. She is currently finishing her first novel, a historical thriller set in Seattle’s red light district in 1889. Her work can be found at www.rozray.net.