‘The Innocents’ by Caroline Misner

Innocents

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Ted placed his face in his hands and closed his eyes. He needed a moment to think. Perhaps two. Perhaps more.

The day had been a disaster from the beginning. Sylvia had awakened that morning to the howl of Nicholas in his cot and she had been in a foul temper ever since. Usually a good mother, despite her wild mood swings that rocked the household from time to time, today she had no patience for the baby or his sister Frieda and least of all for Ted.  He’d become accustomed to her behaviour. Sometimes, all it took was an innocent remark or a gesture that made her feel slighted to send her into a fury.

They had already planned on a day’s outing, somewhere they had never been before, a day’s exploration, preferably to the beach. It was a glorious warm day in late May 1962, perfect for a picnic somewhere beyond the farms of Devon. But Ted had balked at continuing on with their plans so Sylvia had taken matters into her own hands and tossed both babies into the back of the car and revved the engine. Fearing she would do something crazy; Ted had no choice but to accompany them. He let Sylvia drive.

For hours they drove, Sylvia clutching the wheel, her blazing hazel eyes darting across the countryside, heading west and seeking a route to the coast. Ted sat with the map unfolded in his lap and tried to navigate. The roads meandered through hills and farmland, never quite reaching the sea and that had enraged Sylvia even more. He managed to talk her into stopping at a small village to purchase food for the children—a humble meal of biscuits, bread and marmalade and a few bottles of milk and apple juice. The respite from the drive seemed to mollify Sylvia’s frustration, albeit only temporarily. Back in the car, she raged and pounded her fists into the wheel.

“Why do you Brits always keep the roads so far from the shore?” she shouted. “Back in the states you can get to the beach in no time.”

The tone of her voice had set Nicholas to howling again and even little Frieda had tears in her eyes. Ted had tried to calm them as best he could. Sylvia ignored them.

They finally arrived at the base of a jagged coastal cliff hedged in by oak woods and brambles. The shore still seemed a long way off, accessible only by a single path that wound between crops of scraggly brush. Sylvia cut the engine and sprung from the car, slamming the door behind her. Ted followed, hauling babies and grocery bags. He found a small clearing between the beach and the woods and spread a threadbare blanket across the rocky sand.

The tides sparkled brilliantly in the sun, low waves crashing and creaming against Sylvia’s shins. She stood with her back to them, staring out to sea, the hem of her skirt drawn up between her legs and tucked into her waistband. A lone scruffy hound worked its legs up to a gallop as it crossed the beach to chase the gulls that rose, squawking, in the tepid breeze. Ted fed the children and they ate heartily but soon lost interest. Not yet able to stand, Nicholas crawled after his mother, his small hands and knees leaving criss-cross trails in the sand. Frieda padded after them, her milk and biscuits forgotten on the cloth. Ted sat with his head in his hands and wondered what to do next.

It was no use trying to talk sense into Sylvia when she got like this. She was the most brilliant and yet the most stubborn woman he’d ever met. The best he could do was watch the children and wait for Sylvia’s mood to pass. Sometimes, these tantrums lasted for days and the only way to calm her was with the little white pills he kept locked away and doled out as needed. He regretted not bringing the pills with them today.

He lifted his head and saw Sylvia trudging up the beach; Nicholas was perched upon one hip and Frieda’s hand clutched her mother’s. The beach was not what she had expected and the disappointment would likely set her off again.

“I want to go for a hike,” Sylvia said as she plopped the babies onto the blanket.

“Don’t you like the sea?” Ted asked.

Sylvia scanned the undulating water, the pebbled shoreline, the cracked furrowed rocks that lay scattered like uncollected ruins in the nooks and crooks of the inlet. The gulls screamed overhead, safe now from the dog that had abandoned his chase and scampered off to other adventures.

“I hate it,” Sylvia said. “This is not an ocean. Not like the ones back home –too flat, too pale. Where are the big waves, the colourful umbrellas, the lifeguard chairs?”

She headed off into the woods without another word. Ted scooped the children up in his arms and followed. There was no trail to guide them; twigs and acorns cracked underfoot as they made their way deeper and deeper into the woods, Sylvia sweeping branches out of the way with her arms. The roar of the sea faded and a mossy coolness enveloped them, a welcome respite from the heat on the shore.

“Look.” Sylvia paused and pointed into a mound of brush.

A rabbit trap sat nestled beneath the leaves, its sharky jaws yawning open and its teeth gleaming uncorroded; a copper chain snaked round a tasty French bean morsel on the bait plate. It was all too familiar to Ted, having been raised among the farms of the Calder Valley in Yorkshire. As a youth he’d prided himself in being quite the huntsman and had set many similar traps himself. His prey had filled many a Sunday stew pot.

Silent rage-filled Sylvia until she seemed to burgeon—Alice in Wonderland after sampling the bottle. Dull light reflected the mania in her eyes. Without a word, she grabbed the trap and hurled it into the trees, a brown cord whipping behind it like a tail.  The trap snapped shut on impact with the ground and the French bean sprung from it and landed in the brush.

Ted stood aghast at what she had done. It was a desecration, an affront to everything he held and believed in, knowing some poor farmer had probably set the trap in anticipation of his evening meal. But Sylvia wasn’t finished yet. She spotted another trap and another, each tethered together with the same frayed cord as the first. She threw the traps, one by one, into the woods, her face reddening from the exertion and her fury.

“Sylvia!” he gasped. “Stop that! What are you doing?”

“Murderers!” she screamed, tears glazing her ruddy cheeks. “You’re all murderers!  You’re killing the innocents!”

Ted let the babies slide from his arms where they huddled terrified round his knees.  Sylvia was beyond reason. All he could do was let her fury wind itself down. She sobbed, bunching her fists against her eyes once the last trap had been thrown.

“Murderers!” she wailed. “Cannibals! All of them.”

“It’s the way of the land, Sylvia.” Ted tried to sound reassuring but he knew he failed.  “Most people in this county can’t afford fresh meat every day. The traps are a necessity.”

His instinct told him he should reset the traps. Perhaps the farmer who had set them would never suspect. Sylvia raked her fingers down the length of her face; thankfully her nails left no marks. She raised her bloodshot eyes as though beseeching some unseen deity.

“Why is it always the innocents who have to die?” she whimpered.

Ted had no answer to that. Sylvia heaved in a deep breath; her shoulders loosened and her shaking ebbed. The storm was blowing itself out. It would pass soon. But for how long? How long before Sylvia’s grief would overtake her again?

“Oh, Sylvia,” he whispered. Sylvia stepped into his arms and he held his wife close, the warmth of her body as familiar to him as his own skin. Below them, Nicholas and Frieda clutched their parents’ legs as though trying to climb up the trunk of a tree.

And there they stood, in the cool woods beside the sea in Cornwall, a young family, clinging to one another. Ted detected a stir in the brush; leaves rattled. A young brown rabbit scampered through. It paused and regarded them warily. Its whiskers twitched and it scurried on, leaping over the inert snake of the trap’s cord.

 


CAROLINE MISNER‘s work has appeared in numerous publications in the USA, Canada, India and the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit.” In 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series “The Daughters of Eldox.” Her latest novel, “The Spoon Asylum” was released in May of 2018 by Thistledown Pressand has been nominated for the Governor General Award.

Copyright © 2019 by Caroline Misner. All rights reserved.