HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
Brought up Right
‘Youse kids! The bloody wood box is empty. Whose turn is it to fill up the bloody kindling?’ As usual, Father’s shouts reverberate through a house sleep-warmed, closed off from the soon-to-be new day. Any remnant slumber has been shattered.
There are no turns in this house, no roster charts with lovely ‘gold star’ rewards, nor an unwritten accord that one child has specific tasks. Everyone does every job. More so now, with Mum recovering from a stroke, plus the departure of my two older brothers. ‘Call it a working holiday driving all the way across Australia? Being bums, I’d call it,’ had been our father’s response to Robin and Greg’s loading all their possessions into the Torana, to head east through the wheat belt and out across the Nullabor. Even before the three bedroom house Dad built began to empty, turns were only mentioned when a victim was sought; rather than take the strap to all of us, our father seeks the object to blame. No-one ever admitted to anything being their turn.
‘Get outta bed. Ya bloody lazy, useless articles. Get some bloody wood for a man to get breakfast.’
So out into what seems like sub-arctic temperatures we stumble. Deathly afraid of our father’s wrath; the belt. Without slippers, we trundle up a dew-wet path to the shed. It’s still dark, and we haven’t brought the torch. While we trip and tremble, chilled fingers attempt to find a few dry twigs. Only moments pass before an ominous human cloud darkened the shed even further.
‘Yers can’t see a bloody thing, ya stupid idiots.’
My sister and I cower even further under the new attack.
‘Jeez! Ya Da thought yers had enough brains to bring the torch.’
A beam of light bites the back of our retinas.
‘Where’s the wood bucket? Up at the bloody house, of course. Empty as always. How was yers gunna carry kindling down?’
These questions are statements rather than requests for information. We are silent, motionless, except for unstoppable shakes. I glance across at my sister and know we are both stunned into a stupor. I feel the warm spark of our shared experience.
‘Here!’ He passes me the tomahawk. ‘Chop some.’
The flat side of that little axe hits my chest with enough force to knock warm breath into a cloud, but I dare not cringe away from his commands. Even a second’s delay and that huge hand might follow the tomahawk’s impact. He loads my younger sister’s arms with small, dry pieces of wood and sends her back into the darkness, towards the dull light of coming dawn. My arms will be loaded too, but not before Dad grabs the axe, mumbling ‘…bloody useless article…’ He shows me the correct way to chop kindling. Mine is too large and thick. His efforts are paper thin, as tiny as match sticks, something I cannot achieve out of fear of amputating a finger. He keeps that tomahawk, his one-time competitive wood-chopper axes and the cross-saw’s teeth all razor sharp.
It rains again while I return to the house.
‘Hurry up, the bloody wood‘ll get wet!’ he yells, as long adult legs stride past me.
I fall on wet cement, dropping my load – a vomit of sticks about the back door – while he stands waiting on the steps. I feel blood fill my mouth; I must have bitten my lip as I fell. I won’t cry; I mustn’t cry.
‘Jeez, bloody Christ! Ya can’t do a bloody thing right.’
Tears spill out as his huge hand makes contact with my cheek.
I pick up a few pieces of wood from the puddles. But he has gathered up most and gone inside, slamming the door, which only just missed my head.
In silence he has built a fire. When smoke hangs about the stove, he begins to mumble. Complaining about wet wood… ‘useless articles…stupid kids…can’t do anything right…who brought them into the world, who brought them up?’
My sister has pieces of bark, dust, charcoal and debris from her load of wood stuck to her nightie. She stands staring and shaking before the embryonic fire. I feel my leg tremble from the impact with the path, damp and cold seeping. I sniff.
Little flames leap, promising warmth and hot food.
Our father turns to look at his two wretched offspring. ‘Get yer bloody selves cleaned up, and stop that stupid blubbering. Or I’ll give you something to really cry about.’
KAREN LETHLEAN is a retired English teacher who just finished 15 years teaching students in their last two years of secondary education. Her fiction has appeared in the Barbaric Yawp and Ken*Again. Black, Red and Yellow was runner up in Wild Word’s 2015 Summer solstice writing competition. Walk on the Wild Side appears on the South Coast Writers Centre website. Karma appears as part of Pendulum Papers, Bum Joke was commended for #22 Best of Times competition. A flash fiction piece Cenotaph was also runner up for the Ink Tears, UK. In her other life Karen is a triathlete and has done the Hawaii Ironman championships twice.