Maudie wants to kill a hare. Even in her bell-clear moments she hangs onto the idea with something like a death grip. Maudie’s in a death grip now herself. Death’s grip. The doctor and the people from the hospice take turns telling me it’s just a matter of time now — as though for the past 66 years it had been a matter of something else.
I sit by Maudie’s bed, sometimes all night. She heaves herself and thrashes and calls out to Thomas and to Mama and to me. “Make him give me that ax. Make him let me do one.” And then when she’s awake, she reasons with me, slivered in between the fretting and the rambling. She couldn’t kill a rabbit. She couldn’t heft a kitchen knife. I saw her try to pull a comb across the fuzzy tufts of down that have just started to grow back. She can’t lift a thing. I feed her. Have for weeks.
“Let me kill one rabbit,” Maudie says.
“When you get your strength back.”
“When you’re rested.”
“When you’re fresher.”
Maudie scowls at me. My sister’s not a fool.
I kill all the rabbits now. I have been killing things for my whole life. Time was we had pigs and ducks and geese and tame game hens, but nowadays all the fowl that lays in plastic cellophane down at the A&P comes here in big mud-splattered trucks from warehouse stores in other states. You don’t know if those chickens ever were alive. So nowadays it’s just the rabbits that stand in all but pure defiance between us and total expendability.
Rabbits. Lapin. Until she got sick, Maudie hand-printed the labels: LAPIN, in black calligraphy. I kill and clean and package them in cellophane and drive them into town to sell them to the Frenchman. He sells hard bread rolls and liver spreads and salads, ready-made, in what was the hat shop, next door to the bank. He buys our rabbits. Lapin. That’s his word. Gives us $3 a pound, sells some in the store, ships out all the rest.
When our brother Thomas was sick for the last time, Maudie and I phased out the birds. Maudie begged me, Don’t you tell Thomas the birds are gone, he’ll get his mind in one huge uproar, and carry to the grave the worry we might starve, which even then I doubted seriously. I think worry is the first thing a person doesn’t carry with him when he goes. I cannot make myself believe a person dies and then the next day wonders about who will pay the light bill or the money to the feed store. I think a person looks down from heaven, shrugs his shoulders, figures everything will probably be all right.
Or it won’t.
“Just one puny rabbit.” Maudie’s voice gets whiny, like it did when we were girls.
Maudie’s never killed a thing. Papa let her go off in the house every time we did the hogs, and she would crawl underneath that metal bed and lie straight as a board until I ran upstairs singing out, “It’s finished. They’re all done,” as I moved slowly around the room, pretending to search bureau drawers and closets until I found her always in the same place — moving slowly, leaving in my wake my scent, that smell of outdoors and animals and blood. “You can come out now, scaredy-cat. I know you’re there.”
It’s evening now. Maudie’s time of day. This whole day’s got away from me somehow. The kitchen’s gone all dark while I’ve been sitting here, but when I pass out through the screen door to the back porch, there’s still light enough to see the wind move through the trees. I drop down on my Richmond chair beside the railing and lean way back to look up at the sky.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence cometh my help?
I read that verse a thousand times before I ever saw the question mark was there.
I groan the words out a second time, out of habit more than anything. I know where’s my help tonight. She’s dying and for sure there is no succor residing on any mountain I’m aware of.
When Maudie and I were small, our father would take us up that big hill, there, behind the slaughterhouse. The ground was full of rocks, all sizes, so there was always a firm piece jutting out to make your footing sure, a thousand different sharp or rounded steps to make the climb secure. At the top was one big rock, as wide across as three or four fat sows, all fed up ready for the slaughter, and my father told us, Maudie and me, that our grandmother was buried underneath that stone. He told us that was why no one in our family could ever leave this place, because we could not move away from her. He said it was a two-way street. We kept faith living here, and this woman, dead long years, watched over us, protected us from every ill and evil.
Maudie told me one night as we lay in bed that that dead grandmother was what all the killing was about. The animals we killed were sacrifices, Maudie said, appeasements to her spirit. The next day she showed me a verse in the book of Hebrews that said without the shedding of blood, there could be no remission. I asked her what remission was, and she gave me a look and said what did it matter what it was. For a time I had it worked out that remission was that part of the tractor that made it go, but then Maudie told me that was transmission. Trans, which I heard as trance, which only served to muddle me up further.
Off and on for years Maudie and I would argue the particulars. Like two old Jesuits or Jews. Discussed the thing to death. I knew that in the Bible Israelites had sacrificed goats and sheep and doves to God. Not rabbits, though. For sure not pigs. No cloven hoofs. Unclean. I knew that no Jew, not even one in West Virginia, could eat a pork chop or a piece of bacon even if he starved to death. So it hardly figured that my father butchered swine for sacrifice to his dead mother; in addition to which, this woman wasn’t God, which, I argued, would make her an idol if you did sacrifice to her, which would mean hell for certain, and very likely extra punishment on top of that.
Personally, I think the reason Maudie hid underneath the bed every blessed time there was a slaughter was her sheer and certain terror that one day my father would decide to make a switch to human sacrifice and grab him any person who happened to be handy. He had a certain fiercesomeness.
My own concerns were otherwise: I worried that at any time the old grandmother buried on the hill would take it in her head to roll the swine-humped stone away and come tearing down the mountain hell-bent for leather — or perhaps retaliation, long-considered, even justified. I saw her in a long white nightgown, hair in two thick gray braids, and in her hand a torch like the Statue of Liberty. So if it took the sacrifice of a few chickens to keep that woman happy and contented to stay put lying there, well, to my way of thinking, that was livestock well-invested.
I give my head a serious shake. I came out here tonight to think of Richmond — not dead grandmothers, not dead lambs or pigeons. Richmond. I’ve had my mind on Richmond just about forever now. Sweet Richmond. I look down at my lap. It’s dark now. I can’t even see me. But I know that I’m still right here.
I get me up and walk inside; I let the screen door slam. The last one who would care was buried years ago. Maudie used to slam the thing a hundred times a day. I light a fire and put the kettle on.
It was in the third grade that I got this thing for Richmond. Before that, I was going to Africa to be a foreign missionary. Then Mrs. Lowe, the new librarian, moved to the farm just up the road. Mrs. Lowe hated that farm like malaria, and every Tuesday when I would go in to change my books, Mrs. Lowe would tell me about Richmond, her hometown, the place she was a stupid fool to have ever left. I made my mind up that same summer to go off to Richmond the second I was grown, and did my worst to make up Lucille Harris’ mind to go with me.
I dump some dried sassafras in the teapot and splash the scalding water on.
I was in high school when my mother first started in with her nerve problem. By the time I graduated, we were calling it M.S. Miss, we always said. Like, I wish this Miss had missed us, say, or, How’s the Miss today?
And what do you think? Lucille Harris ended up in Richmond. Married a salesmen, like in the stories, a man from Richmond. Lucille lived there all her life. She told me once when she was home to visit, that Richmond wasn’t what you’d think. Now what would Lucille Harris know about what I would think?
“Go for a visit,” Mama would say. “Go see the place.”
But I didn’t want to dip my toe in, I didn’t want to see it just from the outside. I wanted to belong there, to go and live forever. I pour some tea and catch a whiff. I love that bitter smell. When Mama did, after forever, die — I was just 32 — I sat down and wrote Lucille Harris one long letter, and I said, would she consider a paying houseguest, just till I could get set up on my own. Lucille never answered me. I never heard from her again. I saw her cousin in the post office late last year; she told me Lucille had just died. A fast cancer, the cousin said.
After Mama, someone was always getting sick and dying, or getting sick and recuperating, which would take even longer. My brother Thomas got T.B. — was sick with it for 20 years — then Papa, who begged and begged me not to leave. He always did hang onto everyone. Kept his own mother underneath a rock, and I remember Mama saying once, toward the end, she wanted so to die, but Papa never would let her go anywhere.
But I’m not nearly 70. I read a story in a magazine about a lady who at the age of 67 met up with her childhood sweetheart after he was widowed, and she married him and had a rich, full life. No children, of course. Of course no children, but a rich, full life. Now myself, I don’t have any childhood sweetheart to meet up with. No one in my family ever had much luck in that department, but anything gets possible once I start to think of Richmond.
“It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all.” Maudie is all tangled in the sheets. She is sweated wet.
“Nancy will be here today,” I say. “The nurse you like. The one with good bones, Mama would have said. I made the custard you’re so partial to.”
“Just one stupid rabbit.” Maudie’s drifting off again. “Just one, Papa.”
“It’s not unusual to get these ideas at the end. To get fixated on one thing. Go along with her as much as possible,” the doctor tells me. Dr. Julio, who is without a doubt the shortest grown-up person I have ever seen, not counting any dwarfs. “She can take the medicine for the smallest reason. I’ve told her that. She acts like she needs to make it last, to stretch it out. And don’t forget the aspirin.” He shuts the door, and fresh cold air moves in to take his place.
A person dying can be like some child who commences in to whine at breakfast time and has the wherewithal to keep it up all day. That bored tenacity, that cumbersome embarrassment of time.
Myself I think a person has a right to peevishness when she’s caught up in dying. She’s got a right to lightning-white outrage, if it comes to that, and rancor, and frank spite, and brittle incredulity. Besides, if you can concentrate yourself on one small single fret, it might supplant, or at least, for the time, forestall your bumping blunt and inadvertent up against the idea of your beginning now to end.
“Oh dear Lord in heaven,” I say to myself, “What am I going to do?”
In fact, I know exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to sell up after Maudie’s gone, clear out the rabbit hutches and blunt axes and chopping blocks and 12-inch knives. A lifetime of possessions, four lifetimes, five, if you count mine. I’m going to sell up the lot for hard cash and move myself to Richmond. Desire waits a long time, the thing can travel underground for years. I’ll never once look back. Not like the story in the Bible of Lot’s wife. She’s the one I always wanted the most not to be. I would be Job with boils, or Samson without a lick of energy before I would be her. When Maudie dies I’m moving to Virginia, just like I was supposed to with old Lucille.
“How’s your sister?” everybody asks.
“Fair,” I say. “Just fair.”
I first get the idea of the guillotine from a mention of the French Revolution in a magazine, and the next time I take in a load of rabbits, I ask the Frenchman and he draws me a careful diagram on a torn-off piece of brown wrapping paper. He doesn’t even think the what-for question. A foreigner, a person from another place, will take you at face value every time. He has had to take entirely seriously any number of queer, harebrained ideas to get where he has come to be.
We have a whole shed full of hardware, old wood, and blades to every purpose, but the manufacturing of any contraption, the simplest apparatus, will never once conform to your idea of how the thing’s to go. First off, the blade is not supported properly and drops and nearly takes my hand off at the wrist. Then the wood frame lists to one side so the blade jams halfway down. I finally finish it well after midnight, working against time, or up against its brevity.
You’d think a person would be all wore out after that, but I am wide awake. I’m not a fool. I know full well what Maudie’s on about with all her fretting. Fixing it so she can kill the rabbit is just the same as pulling out the plug on one of those hospital life-support machines. This is the last night my little sister and I will both occupy this planet. She still believes the stories we made up to scare ourselves. No surprises there. A person’s childhood can hang on for dear life, cling clawing like some sharp-toothed creature that you can’t shake loose, no matter how you try.
I know I will not sleep tonight. It is my sister’s wake. That’s what the word means. I wander room to room. Maudie’s snore follows me, an ugly rasping thing. I go into the room we slept in when we were just girls, before our lives. It’s cold, damp smelling. I walk over and bend down beside the little bureau Mama painted that sad shade of blue, a bureau with a single drawer that Maudie has kept locked for her whole life. I used to say at routine intervals that she could stop with all the secrecy and protest. I told her that I had already looked inside and seen her stupid treasures there. For ages then she’d wear the key to the bureau drawer on a chain around her neck, till finally, in the end, the thing got lost. I bet that drawer has sat there locked up 30 years.
I go fetch the screwdriver that I keep for the sticky window in the bathroom, but when I go to pry the darn drawer open, it slides out easy, opens with a touch. It wasn’t locked at all, a fact which for some reason makes me spitting mad. At Maudie? At me? I get down on my knees to have a look inside. My heart does the little thing it does.
And what was all the fuss about? Her stupid treasures. A little pink leather change purse with a click clasp and four pennies inside: 1921, 1917, 1914, another 1921. A white bead bracelet my mother wore, an empty book of savings bond stamps with an unshaved Uncle Sam glowering on the wrinkled cover, a blue marble, a little tablet of paper with the picture of a bird on every page, a feather, a couple gray stones, a 50-year-old pine cone, a blue ribbon with JESUS SAVES in blood-red letters. I pull the drawer out, upend the whole thing into the trash. I am that disappointed. An old blue envelope falls to the floor. I pick it up. June 11, 1959, the postmark, and the return address reads Mrs. Lucille Harris Wilson, 209 West Winton Street, Richmond, Virginia.
I pull myself to standing. The basket slips out of my hand, spilling Maudie’s trash across the floor.
I open up the letter:
My dear friend,
Of course you can come, yes come. You can live with us forever. Bill says so too, and bring a pillow for yourself. You write when you’re coming. We’ll be ready. Love you,
Your friend Lucille
I turn the envelope over, and written in Maudie’s tight round hand: Forgive me. It’s like writing a note to God in the hopes He’ll find it on the morning of the final judgment day. Hoping it catches Him in a forgiving mood. Now whatever made Maudie keep this souvenir of treachery?
There is secrecy and there is treachery and they are not the same, they are not distant relatives. Violence can be such a quiet thing, one slender little sin that keeps another person from her life.
Maudie would have known that I’d be on the midnight train the day the letter came. Maudie, Maudie. You’ll need more than the blood of rabbits for that one, old girl. More than the blood of many rabbits for remission of that sin.
Suddenly I’m all played out. I’m sleepy, sleepy like I’ve had a sleeping pill. I fall into bed still fully clothed.
As I drift off, I imagine I will dream tonight of fitting Maudie’s skinny neck into the guillotine with not an inch of space to spare and letting fall the ax blade weight to take off Maudie’s head.
“It is a fitting punishment.” I hear those words. I’m running down an empty street and crying this. I’m all alone in a big city and it’s the middle of the day, but the whole town is vacant.
I shout out loud, but there is no one left alive to hear, and then I realize it’s the end of the world and I’m the last person left alive. Up in the distance I see something black that moves across the road. A raccoon, I think, but I run up to it to find it’s only Mitsy, the cat we had when we were girls. A fat cat, raccoon-shaped, and pregnant half the time. “Oh, Mitsy.” I try to pick her up, but off she goes, and I am running after her so fast it hurts my side, and then I’m at the farm, back home, and I see Mama hanging out the wash, Papa cutting wood, Thomas circling on the gravel on his old green bike. “I thought the world had ended,” I cry out. “Oh, no,” Mama says. “It didn’t end. They just changed it.” And I run into the house, screaming, “Maudie, Maudie.” I thunder up the stairs. Somehow I know she’s hiding. Underneath the bed. “Maudie, girl, come out now. The world didn’t end. It didn’t end at all.”
The dream circles the kitchen while I make tea. I dress, then I wrap Maudie up and wheel her to the shed. There has never been a slaughter in the house. There won’t be one today. The ground is rough, the paving stones uneven. Once, the wheelchair tips and all but empties Maudie on the ground.
“Now you just pull out this wood support when I say. I’ll hold the hare,” I say.
“Quit telling me. I understand,” Maudie says. “Don’t tell me anymore.”
I wheel Maudie across the raised wood frame of the threshold, a bounce and drop proposition.
“I’ll get up,” she says.
“You sit,” I tell her.
In the end she has to raise herself and take two steps ahead while I lift the metal wheels across the frame.
“Now sit,” I say.
I wheel her over to the table.
“That’s it?” she says.
“That’s it,” I say.
When Maudie was a little girl, she said “Humph” just like it’s written out, as fully formed as any word. I haven’t heard her say it in I bet 40 years.
Maudie struggles and stands.
I grab the fattest rabbit, sluggish, old, and hold its head beneath the blade, and Maudie raises up out of the chair and reaches out and grabs the ax from the table at her side. She can’t support the weight. The metal head drops like a two-ton anchor pointed at the ground. She stands there without moving, then lifts the old ax inches at a time and brings it down with one clean cut across the rabbit’s neck.
“Fair’s only fair,” she says and slumps back in the chair. She looks awful. She looks dead.
“I ask forgiveness, but I am not sorry.” Maudie glares at me. “I’d do the same again.”
She makes a noise that I don’t like the sound of. Her next words come as gasps, in little puffs of putrid air. “All I ever wanted in this lifetime was to keep you near. Now you go.” She shuts her eyes. “You hear me?”
I look down at the dirt floor and then at the ceiling beams. I don’t look at the rabbit.
“I said, you hear me?” Her left arm starts its thumping twitch.
“I hear,” I say. “I hear.”
Another snippet of my dream. I’m standing on the stone that keeps my dead grandmother firmly underground, up on the mountain out back, and it is the highest mountain in the world. I can see the whole Earth at one time, the splashing ocean, Richmond — a little flyspeck on the plain — and then our farm and it’s enormous.
I float down from the mountain, closer to see me and Maudie sitting with our heads together on the back porch steps. Maudie is about 10 years old, which means I’m 8 or 9 depending on what month it is. We’re dressed in red-and-blue plaid cotton dresses with round white collars and limp ties tied in back. Our shoes, brown Buster Browns, scuffed and dusty, our brown hair, straggly. We’re sitting with our heads together. Maudie’s humming, but we’re in dead earnest, sitting there. We’re making something with our hands. It will have been our lives.
Linda McCullough Moore is the author of the novel The Distance Between (2010) and the short story collection This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon (2011). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including O the Oprah Magazine, House Beautiful, and The Boston Globe. Her last story for the Post was “People in My Life” in the July 2014 issue. For more, visit lindamcculloughmoore.com.
This story is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.