Ruth rubbed her eyes and looked up from her lesson plan. Once again, Eli was staring out the window. “Eli, have you finished your maths?”
Eli sighed. “I can’t, Mum. It’s just not working today”.
Zeke sniggered from across the desk. “Have a cry, Eli.” Despite being 2 years younger, he was years ahead of his brother in most of his school subjects.
“Shut up, Geek!” Eli kicked out under the table and was rewarded with a sharp cry.
“Boys, enough! What have I told you about fighting?” The boys glared at each other. Their mother sighed. “Ezekiel. I want you to write me a one page essay on dyscalculia explaining its effects on learning, and then offer Eli a full and detailed apology. You know he has no control over this, and needs our support to overcome it.”
“Can I use the computer?”
“No. Hand-written, A4 page. Eli: 100 lines. ‘I will not kick my brother’”.
“No ‘but’s or I will have your father kick yours when he comes home. BOTH of you know better than this, I honestly don’t know what’s gotten into you two. All three of you, in fact. Where is your sister? She left for the bathroom 20 minutes ago. HANNAH!” Ruth looked out the window and caught a glimpse of colour through the casuarina trees. Once again, her youngest had run off into the bush surrounding their new house instead of returning to her desk. Ruth strode out onto the wraparound verandah. “Lord, give me strength,” she whispered. “Hannah! Come inside! You still have English and Reading to finish before playtime!”
Hannah turned towards her mother and wandered back toward the house. At five, she was the baby of the family and generally the least trouble. Her running off into the bush was a new development, one that left Ruth perplexed. “Sweetie, what were you doing out there? You know you’re not allowed out until you finish your work.”
“I was looking for the Wood Elf.”
“The what?” Ruth stopped brushing the needle-like leaves from her daughter’s leggings.
“The Wood Elf. I want to play with him.”
Ruth sighed. “OK sweetie. How about we go back inside and finish your schoolwork and then you can go and look for the Wood Elf afterwards.”
Ruth watched her daughter go back inside and sit at her desk. Princess Periwinkle, Hannah’s old imaginary friend, didn’t want to move to the new house because there was too much dirt, and no shops. A Wood Elf was much better suited to the bush.
The two boys were scribbling madly, racing to finish their disciplinary assignments.
Only two o’clock, thought Ruth, and sighed. I need a break.
She walked around to the front of the house and surveyed her new home. Tall eucalypts and stringy bark trees hid the world from the large house on three sides, interspersed with wattles, bottlebrushes and other assorted Australian flora. At the front of the house, the trees dipped slowly in some places, sharply in others, into a small ravine where a small trickle wound its way across the front of the property. Hard, rocky dirt protected the house from being overrun by trees and provided safe passage for vehicles up the long driveway to the large, 12-car garage. Leaves fluttered in the cool autumn breeze. It was such a nice change from suburbia. A little tough for the kids – four weeks and they were still unsettled – but better for them in the long run.
A shrill scream broke Ruth out of her reverie. She raced to the front door and through the hallway towards the source of the sound. Eli was on top of his brother, punching and screaming incoherently.
“Stop!” shouted Ruth. At 14, Eli was far too big for her to pick up and place in a corner. “Enough, I said!”
Eli turned to his mother, wild eyes brimming with tears. “He sa– “
“I don’t care WHAT he said, Eli. This kind of behaviour is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it. Your father will deal with you when he gets home.”
“BUT HE STARTED IT! IT’S NOT FAIR!” Eli turned back to Ezekiel, screaming, “I HATE YOU, YOU LITTLE SHIT!” and ran out the back door, slamming it on his way out.
Ruth sighed, and turned her attention to her other son. “Don’t think you’re off the hook for this. I know how you stir him up, and it takes a lot for him to get worked up like this. Your father will deal with you later as well. Now both of you go play. I need some quiet.”
Ruth watched her two younger children make their way out the door and out of sight. Of all the adjustments their new lifestyle required, allowing the children to run free without supervision was probably the easiest. The hardest was having the two younger children home-schooling until the next school term started. Six more weeks of this, thought Ruth as she cradled her head in her hands. Lord help me.
Rock after rock crashed heavily to the ground below Eli. He stood upon a large boulder protruding from the side of the slope, facing the trickling river below. The rock, dubbed Ayer’s Rock by the children, was Eli’s quiet place. Turning his back on the house and drama, he could spend hours hauling rocks over the edge. The heavy thud of a large rock embedding itself in the dirt below, or the splash of the smaller ones filling the creek, had an almost meditative quality.
A sudden crashing broke Eli out of his trance. He spun toward the sound. A small wallaby was bounding across the slope on the other side of the creek.
Bloody nature, thought Eli, heart pounding. Give me a heart attack, why don’t you? He watched the animal disappear into the bush, then turned his attention back to his immediate surroundings. The rocks were becoming quite scarce, now. Time to reload, he decided, and started along the trail to find more prosperous grounds. Minutes later he stopped atop another large boulder protruding from the mountain. He peered along the path, searching for some loose rocks. A movement on the ground below caught his eye.
“What’s that?” he muttered, straining to see below.
A tiny bundle of fur wobbled out from under the boulder.
Huh, thought Eli, it can’t be more than a couple of weeks old. “Stay there, kitty. I’ll be down in a sec.” Eli used rocks and trees to control his slide down the short slope. He searched for the kitten, which was making slow progress towards the creek.
“Hey there big fella, where you going?” Eli picked up the small kitten and gave it a pat. It meowed and struggled weakly.
“What, are you thirsty? Hang on.” Eli placed the kitten next to the creek. It lapped up some water and turned back toward the boulder.
“You wanna go back now? Let me help.” Eli gently scooped up the kitten and walked back to the boulder. Settled on two smaller rocks, it appeared to have a small cave underneath. A pitiful meow drifted out from the darkness.
“How many of you are there?” Eli placed the first kitten on the ground and reached into the cave. One at a time, he removed two more kittens and placed them by his side.
“Any more?” he whispered. He reached a little further into the cave, and found something furry. He stroked a small leg. “You’ll have to help me, you’re a little far back”. The kitten didn’t move. Eli grabbed the leg and pulled. The kitten slid easily along the dirt floor. “OK, little further…Aah!” Eli dropped the leg with a yell. The kitten was dead – and something had started eating it. Eli looked warily at the remaining kittens.
“I really hope that wasn’t you. Let’s go.” He wrapped his furry passengers in his jacket and followed the creek, looking for an easy ascent with his fragile load.
The pasta was ready, and the Bolognese sauce just needed to thicken. Ruth unwrapped the garlic bread and put it back into the oven to crisp.
Better call the kids. She walked out the front door and over to the rusty iron triangle hanging from the top of the verandah. It took a bit of getting used to when they first arrived, but now she found it invaluable. TING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LINGGGGG!!! The triangle announced to the children (and half the population of the Southern Hemisphere, she suspected) that dinner was nearly ready. Soon they would trickle in from their games to sit at the table, grubby and hopefully worn out from the afternoon’s adventures.
Zeke admired his new masterpiece. It had taken days to find the right branch, but with minimal tweaking he had managed to make a decent slingshot.
Just one more minute, he thought as the ringing of the dinner bell faded into nothing, I just need to test it. Standing in the back corner of the garage, he surveyed his surroundings. His eyes settled on a pile of boxes stacked half-way up the garage. He loaded a marble into the leather pocket, drew it back as far as he could and let go. It was too dark for Zeke to follow the exact path of the projectile, but he heard it ricochet off the roof somewhere in the middle of the garage. Oops! Maybe I should build a target ne…
“Ow, what the hell?”
“What was that?” demanded an angry voice.
Zeke chuckled. Looks like I found a target after all!
“I’m gonna kill you, Geek!”
“Aww, have a cry, Eli. It was an accident!”
“Uh-huh. Just like me breaking your nose will be an accident too.”
“Yeah? You’ll have to catch me first!”
Eli stepped out from behind a pile of boxes. “OK.”
Zeke loaded another marble into his slingshot as his brother charged towards him.
“Ow! Dammit!” Eli rubbed his arm where the second marble had connected. Seeing that the slingshot wasn’t going to stop his brother, Zeke started to run.
“Too slow, Geek!” Eli shoved his brother, sending him into the bicycle rack. Zeke grunted, picked up a helmet and threw it at his brother. Surprised, Eli stepped back and Zeke took his chance. Holding his slingshot, he punched Eli in the face and headed for the garage doors. Eli chased after him, blood streaming from his nose, and picked up a broom. He swung the wooden handle as hard as he could, catching Zeke in the side of his head.
Little Hannah was the first to arrive back at the house. “Hi Mummy.”
“Hi sweetie, did you have a good afternoon?”
“Yes. I played with the Wood Elf.”
“Really? What did you play?”
“We played Hide and Seek – I didn’t find him for ages. Then we made a cubby house. I cooked chips for dinner.”
“Ooh, sounds tasty.” Ruth froze. “Honey, who did your hair?” Hannah, who left the house earlier in the afternoon with dark hair flowing, was now sporting an interesting hairstyle, with sticks and small flowers woven into what was presumably an attempt at a braid.
“Oh, that was the Wood Elf. My hair kept getting into my eyes, so he fixed it. Do you like it?”
Ruth’s blood ran cold. She and the rest of the family had assumed that the Wood Elf was a rural replacement for Princess Periwinkle, who hated nature and couldn’t follow Hannah to her new home.
Who is this Wood Elf? How old is he? Oh God, what else have I missed?
“Sure honey. Now, who is this Wood Elf? What is his name? How big is he? How did you meet him”
“Ummm… I don’t know his name. He is bigger than me but smaller than Zeke. I was just playing one day and he was watching me so I asked him if he wanted to play too.”
“Baby, I’m going to need you to stay away from the Wood Elf until Daddy and I can meet him.”
“But I don’t think he wants to meet you.”
“Did he say why?”
“No, he doesn’t talk.”
“Then how do you kn-”
An almighty scream interrupted the conversation.
“WHAT NOW?” shouted Ruth as she ran out into the gathering dusk.
Shit, he thought shit shit shit “Are you alright, Zeke?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt yo-”
“I said, fuck OFF!”
“Ezekiel James Francis Reid! Watch your language!” Ruth stormed into the garage, Hannah in tow. “What is going on here?”
“He shot me-”
“He hit me-”
“STOP!” Ruth took a deep breath. “Hannah, honey, can you please turn the lights on?”
Eli inspected his shoes as Hannah wandered over to the corner, climbed onto a milk crate and flicked a switch. Everyone winced as the fluorescent tubes flickered on and off before settling a harsh white over the garage and its contents.
Ruth glared at her sons, noting the bloody nose and bruised eye. The silence was deafening. She paused for a moment, mind reeling.
Where do I even-
“Meow.” Three startled heads turned towards the source of the noise.
“Stay where you are” commanded Ruth, and she strode over to an opened packing box. Looking inside, she saw three tiny kittens on a pile of woollen blankets. “Who did this?”
Zeke and Hannah looked at their siblings. Eli looked deliberately at the ground.
“Eli. Where did these come from?”
Eli’s eyes remained locked on a spot on the garage floor. “A cave” he muttered.
“And what are they doing here? Where is their mother?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know’.” demanded Ruth. “Kittens don’t just appear out of nowhere, and these are too small to be away from their mother. Were you thinking at all? What are you going to feed them?”
“I don’t KNOW, but at least I’ll feed them.” growled Eli. “One was already dead. I was THINKING that I might save them!”
Hannah let out a sob. Ruth knelt down pick up her daughter and glared at Eli, who stared back defiantly. She started back towards the house with Hannah in her arms. “I need to check on dinner. Eli, bring the kittens. I will deal with you when your father gets home.”
The weary group trudged through the back door. “You know the drill. Wash your hands and set the table.” Ruth set Hannah gently down on her feet. “Go wash your hands sweetie, we’ll talk more after dinner.” Hannah sniffled and walked to the bathroom. Ruth turned her attention back to the kitchen. A tendril of smoke wafted out of the oven.
You’ve got to be kidding me. Ruth rushed over to turn off the oven and opened the door. Smoke billowed out of the oven, setting off the smoke detector. Ruth let out a frustrated growl.
“WHO PUTS THESE DAMN THINGS IN THE KITCHEN ANYWAY?” She dragged over the stool and pulled the battery out of the smoke detector. The kids stood in the hallway, watching.
“No garlic bread tonight, sorry kids. Just sit at the table.” Ruth picked up the spatula to stir the Bolognese sauce. A thick layer of burnt sauce, previously stuck to the bottom of the pan, was now mixed throughout the sauce.
“I give up. I GIVE UP!” Ruth threw the spatula on the bench and joined her children at the table, head in hands.
The front door slammed shut.
“Honey, I’m home!” bellowed David as he strode through the hallway to the kitchen/dining room. “I’ve had the worst day – I should’ve just stayed home.” He saw the scene at the table and stopped. “What did I miss?!?”
I wrote this as part of a short story-writing unit last trimester. As people who know me may recognise some elements of the setting, I feel I should include an excerpt from my exegesis (mainly because I hated writing it, so it’s gonna be useful dammit!):
“The purpose of this piece was to explore the stress involved with raising children in an isolated environment. The setting is inspired by an 8-acre bush property that I lived in between the ages of 10 and 15. For a time, my stepmother was homeschooling seven children between the ages of 4 and 12 while my father, a firefighter, worked long hours in the city.” (As a mother myself now, I don’t know how she did it!)
“The interactions between the children were based on an amalgamation of my siblings, including myself, under pressure. Almost everyone in my workshop commented on how realistic it was, and how much it reminded them of children that they know or have known, so I feel that I have not crossed any ethical boundaries because the interactions that have been portrayed are universal.” (NOTE: this does not mean that we ran around bashing each other with brooms and shooting each other with slingshots – though we did try to build some – but we did have our differences from time to time, and it did get physical – particularly when I was involved.)
I feel I should also note that while we did have cats for a while, the kittens were incorporated into the story because earlier that day I’d read about how cats will eat their kittens if they don’t have enough food for them (or if they’re not ready for motherhood) – a fact I found equally disgusting and fascinating and thus had to share.
I hope that you enjoyed it. Feel free to leave feedback if you have any.