By Laura Marden

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Themes of death, including non-violent animal death

It was Siobhan’s turn to milk the goats. The family started chores early so they would have ample time to get the kids ready for school and her alarm was set to go off well before sunrise, but as Siobhan peeled her sleep-logged eyelids open, a glance at the digital display next to the bed showed that it was much earlier than she was supposed to be awake. She rubbed her eyes to clear her vision of sleep. The face of the clock was red and a small message below the numbers blinked, ANOMALY DETECTED IN BARN.

The strip of LED lighting running around the top of the room began to glow dimly. Her wife stirred on the bed next to her, and Siobhan hurried to keep it from getting any brighter. She whispered, addressing the smart home system, “Hazel, dim light to ten percent.”

The light softened until only the silhouettes of the furniture remained visible. Groaning, Siobhan pushed aside the thick duvet, instantly feeling the gooseflesh rising on her bare arms and shoulders.

“What’s going on?”

Siobhan leaned across the bed to brush the thick black hair away from her wife’s face before kissing her temple. “Probably just the heater acting up in the barn again. I’ll do a manual reset. That fixed it last time. Go back to sleep.”

Siobhan stood and stretched, feeling the chilled floor through her socks. Hastily pulling on a pair of flannel-lined pants and a sweater, she left the bedroom and tiptoed her way down the hallway. She passed the closed doors of the children’s rooms and entered the kitchen; the heart of the home. At the sound of her footsteps, there was scrambling and a jar full of dried apples slid to one side with a hollow scraping sound.

“Jago, get down from there!”

The lithe, brown body of the marten slithered to the edge of the counter and stood upright. He stared defiantly with tiny eyes, the stub of a front leg where his paw should have been twitched as he examined her. She rolled her eyes; the kids must have been sneaking treats again for him to have grown so bold.

She was annoyed when Olimpia brought the little creature home from her veterinarian clinic. Siobhan was a firm believer that humans and non-domesticated animals should never mingle. However, a well-meaning hiker found Jago as a baby and dropped the abandoned kit off at Olimpia’s clinic on his way out of town. It was impossible to say whether Jago may have wandered away from his nest or if his mother rejected him, but by the time he reached Olimpia, he was weak and sickly, missing a leg, and needing around the clock care. His plight got the better of both of their judgments. Now here he was, living proof of their theft from Mother Nature, knocking things over with his bushy tail and getting fat on mice from the barn.

Jago saw her hand close by and sniffed it. Siobhan indulged in scratching the fur behind the creature’s small round ear before lifting him from the counter and setting him on the back of the couch. He chittered and ran to his treehouse in the far corner of the living room to sulk.

Siobhan spoke to the smart home again. “Hazel, what’s the temperature outside?”
 
A neutral recorded voice replied. “The outside temperature is negative seven degrees Celsius, feels like negative thirteen point five degrees Celsius, with clear skies and seventeen kilometer per hour wind. Sunrise is in three hours and seventeen minutes.”

Siobhan stifled a groan as she walked towards the mud room. She stepped into her insulated boots, stitching the laces tightly closed around her foot, and donned a handmade hat and water-resistant gloves. Lastly, she shrugged into a white, downy, winter jacket that zipped up to her chin. Siobhan was a bipedal marshmallow when she pressed down on the latch to open the back door.

Biting wind blasted in off the lake, spinning the blades of the home turbine standing in the middle of the farmyard. In the darker winter months, the family relied on the wind to augment their electricity supply while the overcast skies filtered away sunlight and the micro hydropower system in the nearby stream was frozen solid. They would probably see some sunshine today, she hoped, noticing that there wasn’t a cloud in sight overhead.

She made it a few steps away from the house, neck still craned to the sky, and gasped when she saw the aurora borealis decorating the icy morning above. It was a rare and precious sight, those ribbons of green light tearing across the crystal clear canopy of stars. The dancing light show reflected on the home’s solar panels, making the roof shimmer like it was shifting into another dimension.

In the backyard, depressions and turbulence in the snow where the children, Cesar and Gabby, had played the day before, building ice forts and having snowball fights. The outlines where they laid on their backs and thrashed their arms and legs back and forth looked like a host of angels, gazing up at the heavens in joy; a silent audience to the glorious display above.

Siobhan would have liked to plop down in a snowbank herself and stare until the sun rose. Once she reset the sensors in the barn, she could try to wake the children, but the reality was that the lights would likely be gone in a few minutes anyways. Tearing her eyes away from the sky, she struck out in the direction of the barn. Her footfalls interrupted the sanctuary stillness of the morning, sinking and squeaking in the snow.

Siobhan followed the narrow trail she and Cesar had carved through the knee-high snowdrifts. She entered through a side door and the movement triggered the automatic lights to flicker on. The barn wasn’t large, but they were able to fit everything that needed storage. At one end, a section of the barn served as a tool shed and workshop area. Next, there was a smaller room for grain storage and—though it hadn’t been the original intention—a mouse mall.

Mother and father mice could shop for groceries and gather bits of hemp fiber sacking for their homes while their teenage mice children hung out in the food court and presumably gossiped about each other. The humans had created a very convenient one-stop-shop. Often, when Jago was feeling restless, he would stalk the grain room and cause a little carnage. After his brief reign of terror, however, the rodents would reemerge and return to their pilfering ways.

Siobhan hesitated and listened for the heater. There it was, a low thrumming from the corner of the storage room and she could feel the hot air pumping into the room when she stood underneath the ceiling duct. She shed her scarf and gloves as she tried to think of what else could have set off the alarm system; maybe it was time to think about replacing some of the sensors.

While she puzzled through other possible errors, Siobhan decided to get a head start on her chores. Crossing to a stack of hay, she yanked the string from a corner of a bale and pulled free an armful of flakes. The animal inhabitants of the barn occupied the right half of the building. A wooden partition wall sectioned off the warm, straw-heaped pen that housed the family’s three goats, and on the opposite wall, a wire cage and tower of nest boxes contained a dozen chickens. Both sets of animals had their own summer homes on the farm, but it was easier and cheaper to only heat one outbuilding during the long, frigid winter, so they all had to share for a few months out of the year.

The chickens began pulling their heads out from under their wings. The hens glared sideways at her, their scaly red wattles trembling with every jerky head movement. They huddled together on their roost so closely that they looked like a single, feathery, multi headed beast. They didn’t move from their perch; their turn would come in a few hours when the mothers would send Gabby and Cesar to collect eggs before breakfast.

Turning towards the goat pen, Siobhan’s brow wrinkled in concern. There was something different, but she couldn’t put her finger on it right away. Two of the goats, Ema and Fox, were nervously nibbling at the leftover stalks at the bottom of the feeder. Their wide open, golden eyes stared at her between their floppy, pendulous ears, and the overhead lights gave a slight sheen to their smooth winter coats. When they saw the fresh hay in her arms, they bleated and trotted towards her.

Glancing around, Siobhan looked for their third goat, Keon. In the corner of the pen, Siobhan saw a brown flash of fur. A drift of straw partially hid him from her view and he didn’t get up to greet her. She stood on the bottom edge of the wall to get a better look. Keon was utterly still, flat, and lifeless.

“Oh no,” said Siobhan, under her breath.

She shook the hay loosely into the wall mounted basket to distract the attention of the two females, and stepping back around to the gate, Siobhan opened the latch and then pressed it shut behind her with a metallic click. She realized how warm she had become and paused to strip off her jacket, dropping it over the side of the pen where curious goat teeth couldn’t tear a hole in it.

She knelt beside Keon, tears filling up her eyes. Reaching out a hand, she stroked his neck. She hoped that she might be wrong and that she would feel his skin twitch. He would lurch to his feet, and trot over to eat with the others. But, beneath her palm the body was cold and stiff.

“Hazel,” she said, already hearing her voice cracking. There was a digital chime as the smart system let her know it was ready for her command. “Wake up Olimpia.”

Siobhan continued to rub Keon’s neck, petting it gently as though she could comfort him. All she could think about was how he had passed away in the dark while she was sleeping peacefully. Ema and Fox must have been so confused when their pen mate wouldn’t move, no matter how they nudged him with their noses.

“What is it?” Olimpia’s sleepy voice echoed over the intercom.

“Hey, babe. I need you to come out to the barn. Keon is dead.”

A pause while the news sunk in. Siobhan heard her wife take a deep breath. Then there was a sniff and the sound of the mattress shifting under Olimpia’s weight.

“I’ll be right out.”

Siobhan settled in to wait for her wife. Her mind returned to when she had woken up, Siobhan thought again of the warm cocoon of her home, the dreams of her children behind their bedroom doors, and the reverent solitude of the frozen morning full of dancing lights. She wiped the tears from her eyes only to have them replaced by more. They were coming so quickly now that she gave up trying to dry them and just let them run down her cheeks. The dead goat beside her had shaken her normal sense of security.

As she sat there, the door opened and closed quickly. Siobhan was relieved to feel the presence of her partner. Olimpia’s own tear-streaked face appeared over top of the wall. For all her years as a vet, Siobhan knew that the death of an animal never got any easier for her wife.

“Did you just find him like this?” Olimpia asked, her teeth were chattering; she had dressed carelessly. Jago, the little marten, was slung across her arms as though he were laying in a hammock. He turned his ears in the direction of the grain room, nose sniffing hungrily. He flipped his long body free, pounced to the floor, and disappeared from sight among the grain sacks.

Olimpia unlatched the gate and sank to her knees in the straw. Siobhan pulled her close, bringing her hands to rest on Olimpia’s shoulders as her wife ran her hands across the goat’s corpse, trying to find some evidence to explain what had happened. When she could think of nothing else to check, Olimpia sat back on her heels and leaned into Siobhan’s embrace.

They cried quietly together. Siobhan became acutely aware of every little thing. The straw poking through her pants and the tip of her nose, still cold from the glacial wind now whistling across the roof above her. Low clucking emanated from the disturbed chickens. The two female goats ground mouthfuls of hay between their teeth, swallowing it now only to regurgitate and ruminate the food later. They would still need milking.

“Should we wake the kids and tell them?” asked Olimpia. Ever practical even in the face of her own sorrow.

Siobhan straightened and wiped the last of the tears from her face with the heel of her hand. She didn’t want to have to think about that part. Cesar and Gabby had been exposed to death, of course. There were often sick chickens, and they always found dead mice and birds around the farmyard, but it would be different helping them say goodbye to Keon.

“Let them sleep for now,” Siobhan said. “Help me get Keon out of the pen. I’ll milk Ema and Fox to get that out of the way, and you can make some pancakes. I think we could all use a little treat.”

“That sounds good,” said Olimpia.

Together they carried Keon out into the middle of the barn and laid a tarp over his body. As they finished, Jago came bounding out of the grain room. He ignored Siobhan, still angry that she had interrupted his kitchen counter climbing earlier and ran to Olimpia. She gathered him against her chest, petting his fluffy tail as he prodded her face with his little wet nose. Siobhan walked with them to the door, and the two humans paused to take a last look at the sky.

Siobhan wrapped an arm around Olimpia's waist. “Remember that spring when we thought it was a good idea to try and raise that orphaned calf?”

“Poor thing was so scoured.” Olimpia leaned her head sadly against Siobhan at the memory.

“Yeah, but at least the kids were too young to understand back then.”

Olimpia nodded softly. Wiping away another onslaught of tears, she stepped away from her wife’s embrace to traverse the snowy farmyard. Siobhan watched her go and turned her eyes up once more to the aurora tracing its paths along the starlit sky. Siobhan could already feel the dread churning in her stomach; this was going to be an emotional and chaotic morning, but at least she wouldn’t be going through it alone. Part of her acknowledged the sweetness of the task ahead of her, a rite of passage as she had to learn the words to teach her children about loss.

At the same moment Olimpia reached the shelter of the house, the northern lights dissipated. The spell broke, and Siobhan was suddenly aware of the cold creeping back into her limbs. With a soft click, Siobhan closed the barn door, her pool of golden light narrowing and disappearing in mirror image to the home’s back door across the churned-up drifts of snow.

THE END

Laura Marden (she/her) is a sci-fi and weird fiction writer. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine, and her short stories have been published in Starward Shadows Quarterly and on Creepy Podcast. She lives in Maryland with her family and their two dogs, and finds that the best time to write is when they’re all asleep. Find her social media on Twitter @LauraJMarden or Instagram @lauramardenauthor.


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