Five-year old Jenny Barnes awoke to the sound of a commotion. It was not much of a commotion by Charles Barnes’ standards, but like the early, May morning, he was just getting warmed up. Her father’s voice did have a way of filling up the wider spaces around him. Charles was not a tall man. He was of average height, but stocky, like a bull, his bulging gut and graying hair telling of his own forty-four years on the farm. Time passes differently there. Days are slower, years are longer, and seasons tend to be hard.
Jenny’s day began when Dawny opened her eyes. Dawn, her four year old sister, was sleeping in the twin bed next to hers. Dawn was nothing if not lively. Her chubby, round, cheeks were flanked by thick, blonde hair that had never been cut and had grown to almost waist length already. And when her eyes were open, the bright blue fairly jumped out of them and lit up the room. Dawn was the youngest of seven and she was everybody’s baby. In fact, she was often called ‘the baby’.
Conversely, Jenny was a plain child, dark hair shorn off to above the shoulders, bangs cut too short and hanging crookedly into the bargain. She was more than a bit thin with eyes that were given to a soft grey that spoke of fierce intelligence and determination.
The room around her was plain too, but it suited her. Peeling wallpaper, aging vinyl tiles chipping off of the floor, and a broken, curtain-less window on the far wall of the monstrously large, hundred-year old farmhouse were just part of the landscape. It went like that around here. As she closed her eyes and stretched her biggest stretch, she could feel the warmth of the sunshine streaming through that same window. Could you really call it broken then? It seemed to Jenny that it was doing all that a window should do.
She could hear Daddy yelling in the other room but could not make out his words. Impossible to tell what Daddy was upset about. With all the stealth she could muster, Jenny climbed out of bed, and tip-toed the few steps to Dawn’s bed. Placing one thin finger to her lips to signal ‘quiet’, she put her other hand gently over her sister’s mouth. Dawn’s eyes flew open, first with sleepy surprise and then wide-awake delight as she saw her sister standing above her.
“Shhh,” Jenny whispered and removed her hand.
“We gonna go now?” she whispered. “You promised.” Dawn was still not able to pronounce her r’s so it sounded more like ‘you pwomised’. Jenny loved her smile.
Still dressed in pajamas, Jenny took hold of Dawn’s pudgy hand and led her out of the room. They passed into the Spartan dining room and crawled through the legs of a chair and underneath the well-worn, oak dining room table. The table was large. Come dinner time there would be twelve hungry people sitting around it, counting the family itself and the hired men who ate with them. For now though, the chairs were empty and a secret world lay beneath. Crawling was the way they traveled through this room. Always under the table--it was an unwritten rule between the two.
“Are they here today, ya think?” Dawn asked. “The angels?”
“I dunno, let’s try and see,” Jenny answered. But she knew they were there. She could feel them.
It would have been hard for anyone else to notice two little girls crouched under that table. It was a hard and fast Barnes family rule that as soon as a meal was finished, all chairs had to be pushed in until the backs rested against the edge of the table, ready for the next meal.
Jenny reached out, grabbing one chair by the front legs and pushed it until it slid about a foot away from the table. The two waited and watched with the patience of those who know the reward won’t be long in coming.
Within the space of a minute, the chair slid itself back into place, seat and front legs back under the table.
“And here they are!” Dawny giggled, clapping her hands. “I love the angels, Jenny, don’t you?”
“Let’s do it again,” Jenny laughed.
For the second time, she reached forward and slid the chair out. Again they waited. This time, however, the chair slid another foot away from the table first, before spinning around in one complete revolution and stopping again for a moment. It then slid back into place under the table.
“Good one!” Jenny cried, giggling even harder now.
“Can we go see the puppies now? Can we, Jenny? Please will you take me now?”
Remaining on all fours, the pair made their way out of their hiding place. As they crawled into the old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen, Jenny was able to make out some of her parent’s words. Daddy was talking with Mommy out on the wrap-around porch just off of the kitchen. She could see them now, through the almost floor-to-ceiling windows.
“That bitch! She’ll learn to mind her own damned business!”
“Well, what did she want?” Mommy asked. Like Charles, Annette was smaller in stature, but rugged, her own dark hair cut short and interrupted here and there by streaks of gray.
“She wanted to know why Ruth Ann missed school again yesterday. She must be puttin’ in some overtime comin’ out here on a Saturday.”
Mommy was quiet. The two little girls were quiet. Ruthy was expected to get her chores done before she could go to school. If the chores ran long, school was out of the question. There was no arguing that point with Charles Barnes.
“By the Jesus, Annette!” He always said it just like that—‘by the Jesus’--as if Jesus was merely an object. He said it as if Jesus was a noun but not a proper one.
“You get on that goddamned phone and call up the school! You tell ‘em we don’t need no god-damned school nurse pokin’ her nose around here. Christ! I got work to do and I ain’t got time to be pissin’ around with her.”
“So what did you tell her?” Mommy asked.
“Tell her? I didn’t tell her nothin’!” Jenny could see his self-satisfied look through the dirty glass of the lowest pane. “I put the water hose over her head, that’s what I told her!”
“Oh, good Lord!” Mommy gasped. It came out almost as a whisper. Jenny could see the flight in her eyes. Annette could take a punch, but given the choice, she’d rather not. “Where is she now, Charles?”
“Hmmph—,“ he sputtered, “She got in her goddamned, school nurse’s car and lit out of here like her school nurse’s ass was on fire, that’s where she is now!” Charles chuckled. “That’ll learn her a thing or two!”
Charles and Annette moved toward the front door and the girls decided to move on. They slipped quickly out the back door just as Charles was really getting warmed up.
“Ruth Ann!” he bellowed. “Get your sorry ass down here right now.”
Ruthy, at fifteen, was the eldest child of seven. Charles was proud of that number. For him, seven children represented his sexual prowess. He liked to brag that he was going to keep having babies until he had enough for his own baseball team. They were called, respectively: Ruthy, Callie, Elizabeth, Bonny, Mark, Jenny and Dawn, all ranging from one to two years apart in age.
“By the Jesus! Things are going to change around here, starting right goddamned now!”
It sounded as though Ruthy had better come quickly if she knew what was good for her.
Daddy’s voice began to fade as the two little girls skipped across the side yard and headed for the barn. They were free now, at least for a little while. No one would be looking for them before lunch time. The sun was bright and their hopes high. They were going to visit the puppies. There were actually three, grown dogs living on the farm and two of them had delivered litters this spring. Fourteen mixed-breed puppies had arrived on the farm within two weeks of one another. Even now they were snuggling happily together upstairs in the sweet smelling hay mow.
“Will they be waked up yet?” Dawn asked breathlessly.
“Dunno,” Jenny answered, “We’ll find out when we get there.”
It took several minutes to cross the wide expanse of the front yard. The farm, save that it was in such ramshackle condition, was an extraordinary piece of real estate. It was comprised of three hundred and sixty acres of rolling pastureland nestled in a valley, in the midst of the mountainous terrain of Central New York. It was, in fact, one of the largest homesteads around. The family was cash poor, but did not lack for assets. A river ran through the property, though by no means a lazy one. The driving water, hammered through the Barnes’ property, bringing life-giving moisture to the crops. It took a great deal of corn and hay to feed the one hundred fifty- plus head of cattle that were housed on the farm. Additionally, there were seven horses, several pigs, chickens, a couple of young sheep in a pen out back, and all of the various barn cats.
As for buildings, the farm didn’t lack for those either. There were several large out-buildings and equipment sheds and a massive two story garage behind the house. The barn itself was the size of a small estate with several wings, and those two stories tall. When the wintery weather called for it, all of the cattle could be driven inside. The hay mow was large enough to keep an entire season’s hay within. In direct contrast to the condition of the rest of the architecture, the milk-house was spotlessly clean and modern. This was a dairy farm and pipelines carried mass quantities of milk to a huge, stainless steel, bulk tank. Likewise the tractors and other farm equipment were top notch.
As Charles liked to point out, “A job worth doin’ is a job worth doin’ right, and by the Jesus, Annette, I can’t do the job right without the right tools!” Any money the farm made was quickly spent making the farm better.
The house was also gargantuan, boasting three stories and twenty-five separate rooms. There were seven bedrooms alone in the place and a large apartment upstairs that was currently being used as mother-in-law quarters for Grandma Barnes. It was she who was supposed to be watching out for the little ones while Charles and Annette ran the farm. Grandma was a pious and austere woman though perhaps not very thorough. Most days she could be found sitting in the battered recliner in the downstairs living room, tatting lace. This she did until her eyes bled a milky, white liquid which ran down her cheeks like tears. The strange eye condition was an old affliction, harmless, and one she was well used to. She kept a white, cotton hanky tucked in the sleeve of her sweater with which to wipe the bothersome stuff away.
That was exactly where Grandmother was today when the little girls burst through the sliding doors of the hay mow. Bright sunshine followed them in and illuminated the dusty mow. It was a warm and sweet smelling place. The puppies were wide awake, having just nursed, and were yipping playfully and wrestling with one another in the open center-portion of the building. Peaches, their mother, lay in the hay nearby.
The puppies were somewhat confined to this space as the two large areas flanking it contained hay bales stacked mountainously high. Stairwells led up to wooden platforms on all sides, by which the uppermost bales could be retrieved.
The instant the puppies saw the girls they rushed to greet them. During the course of the last month, all of the seven children had visited as often as possible given the extensive chore list each was responsible for. They had divided the puppies up between themselves and each of them claimed ownership to two of the energetic creatures. They had of course, all been named and spoiled in turn.
The girls wasted no time jumping into the fray. Throwing themselves belly down into the loose hay, they giggled uncontrollably as fourteen little bodies crawled and jumped all over them, licking their cheeks and nipping at their arms and legs.
Dawn, sitting up now, picked up a spotted puppy and jammed her forefinger into its unsuspecting mouth. “Don’t you love when they suck on your fingers?” she asked. “It tickles a lot!” Her face was shining with happiness.
“Yeah,” Jenny answered. “They’re so cute!”
“I love puppies, don’t you?” Dawn asked.
“Yeah. They’re just about the nicest things in the whole world.” Jenny replied.
“Kitties are nice too.”
“Yeah, kitties are nice.”
“I wanted the black one that Bethy got.” Dawn often wanted whatever one of the other children got.
“Dawny, you got the two cutest ones! I thought Mark was gonna—“
“Shhh! I’m puttin’ him to sleep.” Dawn commanded. Indeed, she had the wriggling puppy cradled in her arm, on its back. “Now I lay me, down to sleep—“
“Dawny! He doesn’t like that!”
“Shhh! I pray the lord, his soul to keep. If he should die—”
The sound of Charles’ voice broke the lazy peace of the hay mow. “Let’s go, Girl! Double-time!”
Jenny and Dawny exchanged horrified glances. Peaches raised her head and emitted a low growl. She’d heard this sound in Charles’ voice before.
Dawny set the puppy down on the floor and began to back away. Jenny looked furiously around for a place to hide. Spotting the stairwell to the loft, she grabbed Dawn’s hand and ran for it. They managed to climb the short stairwell and duck behind a bale of hay just as Charles burst through the door.
Charles was followed by Ruthy and the other four Barnes children hurried after. Jenny could barely even say 22 Magnum but she knew what one looked like and that was exactly what her Daddy had slung across his arm. In the other hand he held a course, brown burlap bag. Ruthy carried another. Charles leaned the gun against a hay bale.
“Where are you taking them, Daddy?” Ruthy was crying. The other children were crying too. Excited puppies gathered around the family’s feet. Peaches was nervously sniffing the shotgun.
“I’m sick and goddamned tired of feeding all these worthless friggin’ mutts,” Charles yelled. “I’m getting rid of the damned things.” He scooped up a puppy and threw it roughly into his sack. “Go on then, help me catch ‘em.”
“No, Daddy,” Ruthy pleaded. “I’ll take care of them. I’ll get a job somewhere and I’ll pay for their food.”
“I’ll help too,” Mark chimed in. Tears ran down the six-year old’s face. “I can mow some lawns.”
Charles said nothing. Snatching up another puppy he threw it in the bag, on top of the first. Both puppies began whimpering. Charles had wanted sons—big strapping sons to help him work his farm. But while other men’s wives delivered labor for the farm, Annette just gave him more mouths to feed. Four thin girls were born to the Barnes. And then, finally, a son! But this one was as thin and pale as the girls. Thinking that he had the formula though, Charles had increased his reproductive fervor over the next few years, only to be handed two more whining little girls. Well, so much for that plan.
Ruthy dropped her bag and attempted unsuccessfully to grab the other out of Charles’ hand. “No, Daddy. No!” she cried.
“Please, Daddy,” the other children chorused. “Don’t do it, Daddy! Don’t kill the puppies!”
Mark grabbed one puppy and then another, holding them in a near death grip so his father couldn’t take them. Callie, Elizabeth and Bonny followed suit. The girls huddled together in a frightened circle, clutching the puppies and each other.
Up in the loft, Jenny and Dawn watched helplessly while puppy after puppy was thrown into their father’s bag. For the second time that morning Jenny’s hand was pressed firmly over Dawn’s mouth. Dawn’s tears dripped onto Jenny’s hand like raindrops.
“Get some puppies in that bag,” Charles shouted at Ruthy.
Ruthy couldn’t. Instead she crossed her arms stubbornly and stated, “I ain’t gonna do it, Daddy. I ain’t gonna—“
Ruthy didn’t get to finish her sentence. Charles threw down his bag, prompting a chorus of whelps and whimpers from inside, and slammed the back of his hand across Ruthy’s face. Ruthy fell to the floor as the puppies scattered. Her resistance shattered, Ruthy could do no more than lie there and cry. The other children cried harder.
Frightened and confused now, Peaches was running back and forth between Ruthy and Charles, sniffing the bags and whimpering.
“By the Jesus!” he screamed. “You’ll do whatever the hell I say you’re going to do!” He picked up his bag and began gathering puppies once again. “Now quit your goddamned crying and get up and help me or I swear I’ll give you something to cry about!”
Ruthy rose tenuously to a kneeling position. Her sobs quieted now, but the tears still ran. “Come here, Mr. Black,” she sniffled. She gently picked up the puppy that came to her. Cuddling it for just a second, she kissed it on the forehead and placed it in the bag. “Come here, Lil Bit.”
Her resignation frightened Mark who, still holding two puppies, ran for the door. Charles was quicker though and was able to catch him by the shirt collar on his way out.
“Little shit!” he hollered, pulling the child backwards and up off his feet. He planted him firmly back on the ground and spun him around. “Give me those sons-a-bitches!” Charles snatched the two puppies from Mark and tossed them into the bag with the rest. Jerking him by the hair and pulling him right up to his face, he shouted, “Goddamnit, Boy! I’ll kick your scrawny, little ass, right here and right now!”
The pair was eye-to-eye now, Charles’ anger searing hot, his teeth clenched in fury. Mark, who weighed all of fifty pounds on a good day, was visibly frightened.
“You got a problem doin’ what I ask you to this morning? Say?”
“Hmmph! That’s what I thought!” Charles sneered, shoving the boy to the ground.
It was Mark’s turn to be on the floor crying. Charles pointed at the door. “Get your ass back to the house you worthless, little son-of-bitch! Christ! I oughta put you in a home where you belong.”
He was referring to a home for ‘bad boys’, of course--wayward children. It was too much for Mark who jumped to his feet and ran for the house.
Charles looked at the three girls who were still huddled together. “Put. The puppies. In the bag.” he said. His voice was tight, strained, and he paused momentarily between the words for emphasis.
The three girls stood frozen, staring at their father.
“NOW!” he yelled.
One by one the girls approached Ruthy. As Ruthy had done they planted a kiss on each of the puppy’s heads, whispered a quick ‘Goodbye, Puppy’, and God bless you, Puppy’, and placed them into the bag. When the last puppy was placed inside, they ran too leaving Ruthy alone to help her father finish the task.
Jenny and Dawn remained silent in the loft.
“Let’s go,” Charles commanded, having gathered them all. Ruthy followed him out the door. Peaches was hard on their heels, alternatively wagging her tail and then growling.
They had been gone mere minutes when the first gunshots rang out. Pop, pop, pop—he fired in rapid succession. Jenny and Dawn could hear the puppies yelping. Another crack followed.
“Run you little sons-a-bitches!” Charles shouted gleefully, and fired again. “You can run, but you can’t hide!”
Pepper, the other mother dog heard the commotion and came running. Jenny heard barking and then growling and then two more shots as the mother dogs were put down. She couldn’t listen any longer. Taking Dawn’s hand, she descended from the loft and the two began the long walk back to the house.
“Meany!” Dawn said quietly and looked up at Jenny, her tear-streaked face twisted with grief. “Meany...”
Jenny walked on.
At that moment, deep within the bowels of the old house, something stirred.