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Russula’s Wake

They hadn’t been naming the barn cats, now that Ainsley and Devon were old enough to know the difference between taking care of and caring for something. In the afternoons, when the school bus doors opened to release them, the children hurried through all the feeding and mucking and cracking and cutting, then closed up the barn and left the animal world to manage itself until morning. By then, the table would be set for dinner: cheap mauve plates for the two older children, blue porcelain for Jane and the baby.

For herself and little Rosemarie, Jane made roasts and casseroles, sometimes quiche. But the older children followed Paley family rules, and the substance of their meal was always the same. While they nourished, Rosemarie would pick at her food until getting up the courage to ask after the barn cats: had they been good, had the new kittens been born yet, was there still any milk in the dish she’d left? Ainsley and Devon would smirk, they would giggle; sometimes, if they thought Jane wasn’t listening, they would whisper false stories of dead cats hung from rafters. From across the kitchen, scrubbing pots and pans, Jane would let herself glance only momentarily at the faces that Ainsley and Devon hid from their teachers and schoolmates. Later, tucking them into bed, she would have to avert her eyes. When her lips brushed their foreheads, she would try not to flinch.

She always said goodnight to Rosemarie last. Mothers did not have favorites, certainly Jane did not have a favorite, but Rosemarie wouldn’t still be Rosemarie by the end of the year, and that made her precious. A Paley woman would doubtless have said that Rosemarie was thin-skinned, fragile to a fault, but Jane was not a Paley by birth and she had always secretly felt that Rosemarie was not really a Paley either. Ainsley and Devon, on the other hand, were Paleys, true Paleys, and Jane was afraid that in the end maybe there wasn’t much difference between a cruel child and a Paley child.

The less Ainsley and Devon cared for the animals, the more desperately Rosemarie loved them. In the mornings, while the older children collected their belongings and hurried out to the waiting school bus, Rosemarie stood solemnly at the window facing the barn, her chin propped on her hands, a field guide to edible mushrooms splayed open on the windowsill in front of her. When the bus doors closed, she climbed down from her perch and slipped into her rubber boots and waited for Jane to open the barn. Jane could not remember when exactly she had begun allowing this, only that it had been a while ago and yet she still felt a sort of secondhand embarrassment at seeing Rosemarie on the floor with the feral cats that lived in the hayloft. Rosemarie didn’t know yet, not to get attached. But that was only because Jane had neglected to tell her.

When the letter came from the school in March, Jane knew she had waited too long. The interval of time between the now and the then had shrunk down almost to nothing. The day the letter arrived, she stood with the mailbox hanging open like a black unhungry mouth, and looked at the letter, and looked at her daughter, who was kneeling in the mud with one of the cats. Russula was a saggy-bellied calico with a missing eye, who had been named, for reasons apparent only to Rosemarie, after a rare red mushroom that grew only in deep seclusion. She was the most hideous of all the barn cats, and Rosemarie loved her more than anything else.

“Someone sent you a letter,” Rosemarie observed, seeing Jane look into the mailbox.

“Yes,” Jane said.

She was afraid Rosemarie would ask who or why. They received mail so rarely. But Rosemarie only frowned, screwing up the corners of her mouth, and asked, “Could we send letters?”

“If we wanted to,” Jane said. “Who would you write to?”

“I don’t know,” Rosemarie admitted, as if the possibility of an addressee had only now occurred to her. She looked at Russula, seeming to hope the cat might provide inspiration. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t live here.”

Jane knelt and slowly trailed her fingers down Russula’s spine—not because petting the cat’s matted fur remotely appealed to her, but so she would have some reason to stay beside Rosemarie, to leave the letter in the open mailbox, to suspend the moment into a year. “Is that all right with you?” she said. “That you don’t know anyone. Are you lonely?”

“No,” Rosemarie said, but she paused a moment first, to decide.

“Let’s go inside,” Jane said.

“Can Russula come?”

“You know the cats don’t come in the house,” Jane said, but already she knew she could not refuse Rosemarie anything then. Rosy-cheeked from the warmth of the barn, her breath sweet from eating pancakes instead of nourishing as her brother and sister did in the mornings, she was impossibly good; she was perfect. Nothing as wonderful as her could remain.

Jane made a fire in the hearth, though the morning was warm, and then tore open the letter and read the entire thing twice, holding the paper at a distance. Rosemarie was six years old, nearly seven, the letter said, as if her own mother wouldn’t know that. Federal regulations require that children aged seven to seventeen be enrolled. Jane had dreaded this letter when it came for Ainsley and again when it came for Devon, but she had known already that she would send the older children to school. She had not been tempted by the empty checkbox at the bottom of the page, with its promise of reprieve from the devouring school bus doors: I will be homeschooling my child. Now she covered the checkbox with her fingers. She made herself look at Rosemarie, who was sitting cross-legged on the rug with a pencil and a sheet of lined paper. Russula lay nearby, resplendent across the back of an armchair, batting halfheartedly at a sunspot. Rosemarie was drawing a picture of her, Jane saw. Already she’d copied down the cat’s name from her field guide to edible mushrooms, writing in broad crooked letters that looked like runes or carvings.

Jane folded the letter and tucked it back inside the envelope and told herself: you have a month, and only a month, and then you will tell her. And she did not throw the letter into the fire, even though she wanted to. But she tucked it inside a drawer, which was almost the same, and she let Russula stay indoors for good even though Devon and Ainsley protested. She wasn’t catching mice anymore, Ainsley pointed out. She slept on Rosemarie’s bed, Devon reported. She had fleas. She was dirty. They wanted to hurt Rosemarie with those words. Sometimes they succeeded. Jane did not intervene, but she also did not send the cat back to the barn.

If Rosemarie’s father were alive, a barn cat couldn’t have come near the house, much less into a bedroom. But the painted letters spelling PALEY on the mailbox were fading into illegible scratches, and the homework that Ainsley and Devon carted back from school promised them things that no Paley child used to desire. Walter Paley had died four years back, an epoch in the lifetime of a child. With no other Paleys around, sometimes Jane could make herself forget that the Paley rules were rules for a reason, that they were supposed to protect the people who followed them.

Ainsley condemned Rosemarie’s cat to death at the dinner table, kneeling on her chair with her homework spread out across her place setting. She gnawed on the end of her pencil, wrote the answer to a math problem, then set aside her work and proclaimed, “That one-eyed cat has tumors in its belly.”

Jane paused with her fork halfway to her mouth and looked at Rosemarie, who was picking at a baked potato.

“She doesn’t know what tumors is,” Devon said. “She’s a baby.”

Rosemarie forgot the potato and glared across the table at him. “I do know.”

“Her belly will blow up,” Ainsley said triumphantly. “Like a balloon.”

“That’s enough,” Jane said, knowing they wouldn’t listen. Feeling, as she often did, a sort of low-grade horror in the face of her children. “The cat will be fine.”

“No,” Devon said. “It’s really dying.”

“I know it is,” Rosemarie said, a lump audible in her throat. “I already know.”

“Sorry, Rosemarie.” Devon would always backpedal when the point of tears had been reached. “It’s an old cat anyway, you know.”

“You could get a different cat,” Ainsley agreed. “Like a kitten. That won’t die soon.”

“But they’re not Russula,” Rosemarie said.

“You love her,” Jane said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. If you’d like, we’ll have a funeral where you can say goodbye.”

“Like at a church?” Ainsley said, scrunching up her face. None of the children had been to a funeral; their father, like his ancestors, had been buried on the property. “We’re taking the dead cat to a church?”

“They won’t let us. They’ll make us get out,” Devon said.

“A wake then. At our house,” Jane managed, before the children could go any further. Already, Rosemarie was sniffling, her eyes red-rimmed. “She’ll stay inside with us, Rosie. We’ll take good care of her. Until—”

To Jane’s relief, neither Devon nor Ainsley finished the sentence. But later, as Jane extinguished the candle at Ainsley’s bedside, out of the dark came the words: “Do you think something else will die, the day that Russula does?”

“You don’t have to worry about it,” Jane said, because she didn’t know.

Ainsley reached for her hand and grabbed hard, her fingernails pressing Jane’s palm. “I know the cat will be dead, it won’t matter,” she said, “but I don’t want Rosemarie to see us nourish on Russula.”

“Don’t use the cat’s name,” Jane said, harsher than she meant to, and winced as she felt Ainsley’s fingers slip out of hers. “If it comes to that, you’ll just miss a day of school. I’m sure your friends have stayed home sick for much sillier reasons than that.”

Ainsley said nothing for a moment, then, “A wake for a cat is silly.”

Only a Paley child would have said that, Jane thought. She had numerous memories of childhood pet burials: Labradors and tabbies committed to the earth with bunches of wildflowers and off-key hymns and a first shovelful of dirt flatly smacking the surface of a cardboard coffin, almost like how they’d buried Walter except that the Paley children hadn’t cried as much as Jane used to.

Jane stood to go, feeling at an impasse; how could she explain grief to a child who seemed constitutionally incapable of it? Then Ainsley sat upright in bed. “Rosemarie made us send a letter for her today,” she burst out, with that tattling lilt which Jane hated. Jane could see the satisfaction on her daughter’s face, a sort of hungry frantic pleasure. “She made us. Devon found the address, and I said we shouldn’t, but Rosemarie didn’t care.”

“That’s enough,” Jane said, moving decisively to the door. She knew already that Rosemarie had been addressing letters, dozens of them, to the chicken coop and the pasture, writing to the animals in those spiky peculiar runes which all the time grew more legible. A sign of kindergarten readiness, the district would have said. A sign that she was likely to do very well in school, that possibly she should not have been held back a year.

At the doorway, Jane hesitated; she always forgot how the darkness blurred Ainsley’s features until they looked almost like those of an ordinary child. From here, she could love her daughter. “You’re kind to your sister, aren’t you?” Jane said. “You don’t give her a hard time when I’m not there?”

“I love Rosemarie,” Ainsley said, in the same flat unrepentant tone which she had used to discuss the dying cat. “But she’s going to get everyone in trouble.”

Russula died without making a sound, but Rosemarie, being a Paley, knew what death looked like on an animal. She knelt on the floor beside the pillow that the barn cat had appropriated as her own, and released, after a moment, a stifled little sob.

“Go out and check the snares,” was the first thing that Jane said to the older children, who stood in the doorway watching Rosemary look at the cat.

“There’s nothing,” Ainsley said, scowling. “We looked when we got home from school.”

“Look again.”

Ainsley sighed a disgusted pre-teenage sigh and went out, Devon following. Jane mentally tallied up the children’s absences. One last month, two in March—the school district would make trouble if they missed too much. But tomorrow would have to be another sick day, because Rosemarie was swaddling the dead cat in her tattered old blanket, sniffling, saying, “Can we have the wake now?”

“We can do that,” Jane said. “Of course. But don’t you want to keep your blanket?”

Rosemarie looked down at the cat, then shook her head.

“All right,” Jane said, fighting a ridiculous attachment to the ratty piece of cloth. None of her children had ever successfully attached to a stuffed animal or security blanket, but Jane mourned even the deaths of their second-tier toys. “Let me get him ready.” They would need a coffin, and a grave dug. She went out to the garage and scratched the old label—Devon’s toys—from a cardboard box so she could write the name Russula, her marker hanging in the air above a birthdate that she didn’t know and couldn’t write, because no one had cared about the barn cats back then. She took some small comfort in being able to note the date of death.

In the ferns at the back of the house, Jane dug a hole three feet deep, a foot across, eyeing the box periodically to check the size. She hadn’t buried an animal before. After Ainsley and Devon finished, there was never enough left. The scraps went into the compost, and the rest she scrubbed out of the cheap dishes that she’d bought just for nourishing. Jane was still digging, listening to the children’s footsteps loud and rough in the undergrowth as they returned from the snares, when a truck came rolling up the road. Jane didn’t recognize the car, but she knew the man who got out.

“Henry,” she said, dropping the shovel and wiping her muddy hands on her pants so that her husband’s cousin could shake her hand. She had not seen him in perhaps ten years. She had not even been certain she had his name right until he nodded.

“I was sorry to hear,” he said. “Real sorry.”

The children emerged from the trees like deer, big-eyed and faltering, and stood there until Jane made all the introductions. “You heard?” she asked, once each of the children had said their shy hellos. “Who told you?” Her children knew no other Paleys, although sometimes Ainsley or Devon would ask after cousins or grandparents, the family members that their schoolmates must mention. Jane could map out the Paley family tree from memory and she still had the addresses of the other family properties from an old book of Walter’s, but she couldn’t say for sure who was still alive. Only now there was Henry, and he was standing in her backyard in a funeral suit.

“The children wrote to us up north. After Loretta, I’m the last one there, you know.” Henry knelt down and addressed Rosemarie now, as if she couldn’t hear him from an upright position: “I’m glad you wrote. I should have been here for Walter.”

Walter would have been a sore point between Jane and the Paleys, if only any of them were near enough to be sore at. After he died she had written to them, she had even gone into town and found a payphone, emptying a roll of quarters into a string of calls that no one answered. Paleys knew how to disappear. And precious few of them had landlines. Paley rules dictated that no one besides family set foot on Paley property, and that included workers from the phone company.

“Well. You’re here now,” Jane observed, waiting for an explanation.

“Do you mind my being here?” Henry said, but his tone indicated that of course she didn’t. He had been a child here, set up secret forts in the same patch of woods where Ainsley had her plywood hideout and eaten breakfast at the table where Devon dawdled in the mornings. Jane wondered if he wanted the house back, now that Walter was gone. She almost wished that he would take it back, turn them out, force her into the clean safe un-Paley world, but only almost. She knew what losing the farm would do to the children. Besides, Henry could have taken the house four years ago, if he’d wanted it, and he hadn’t.

“Let me get the body,” Jane said, the last word under her breath as if Rosemarie wouldn’t still hear. Rosemarie was standing between her siblings like they would protect her, the fingers of one hand curled around Ainsley’s wrist, the thumb of her other hand stuck in her mouth. Another habit, like naming livestock, that she’d have to kick before kindergarten.

When Jane came out of the house with the cat, she knew already that there had been some misunderstanding. Henry stood with his arms crossed while Ainsley talked and made indignant faces at him. The conversation died before Jane got there, but she kept her eyes on Henry’s face as she lowered the cat down into the makeshift coffin. The embarrassment she always felt when Rosemarie teased the cats into tameness had swollen into something that heated her cheeks and shortened her temper. If Henry said anything, if the older children made any remark, Jane already knew she would come back harsher and meaner than they deserved.

Henry said nothing, and neither did Ainsley or Devon. After the wake, they went into the house and the children sat down at the table while Jane made dinner. Henry ate the meal she served, but when he’d cleared his plate, he stood and said, “I’d better get myself something before I drive back.”

“There’s nothing,” Devon said sourly. His unfinished book report, pointless now that he wouldn’t be in school tomorrow, still lay across his place at the table.

“In that woods? There’s a whole host of things. But I don’t know why you didn’t just—”

“That was a pet,” Jane said before he could finish. Rosemarie might already have guessed that the cat would have worked for Ainsley and Devon the same way that sheep and goats and rabbits did, but Jane thought there was a chance that she didn’t know, and she didn’t want Rosemarie to see Russula’s one-eyed scowl every time she had to nourish. Kindergarten was only a handful of months away.

“Who does the hunting, if you don’t use the farm animals?”

“We don’t hunt,” Ainsley said with pride. “That’s savage.”

Henry looked at Jane, and she nodded. “Sometimes the farm animals die of natural causes, and then we use them. Other times, we find animals in the woods.”

“We have a bread snare, and a trap snare, and a whole bunch of others,” Ainsley said.

“Snares? How many animals do you go through?” Henry frowned.

“Ten a week, that’s all,” Jane said. The number sounded worse like that, too countable: ten times four, forty animals a month. And how many per year? She could see Henry adding.

“Ten a week? What are they doing, going off the property so much?”

“School,” Jane said, turning her back, scrubbing dishes that didn’t need any scrubbing. “They need school if they’re going to make something of themselves when they get older.”

“Paleys have always been schooled at home.”

“What they need for real life, I can’t teach them here.”

“You think third grade is worth this? You think a cat funeral is worth this? You know what it’s like, digging human features out of an animal?”

“That’s enough,” Jane said. She didn’t worry that Ainsley and Devon would believe anything that Henry said, but Rosemarie didn’t know for herself yet. Rosemarie was fragile, grieving for an animal that should have nourished someone tonight. “This is what Walter would have wanted for his children.”

“What Walter would have wanted?” Henry said, incredulous, then stopped himself and turned to the children. “Ainsley, Devon, why don’t you show me those snares?”

Jane was reluctant to let them go, but she sensed that anything she said now would only give Henry sway over the children. She could too easily see Ainsley and Devon living in that word savage, styling themselves as apex predators, butchering calves and wringing the necks of rabbits. “Don’t let them hunt,” she said instead. “No killing.”

Henry couldn’t understand because he had grown up a Paley, but having the snares wasn’t the same as hunting—not in the way that mattered. Ainsley and Devon didn’t see the animals suffer or die, they didn’t choose their marks, they didn’t deal out death. Really, they weren’t killing; they were only using dead materials to make the mammalian faces that the school day demanded.

They said goodbye to Henry on the porch, sometime after midnight. Afterwards they stood watching his truck roar dustily away until he crossed the property line. “Bedtime,” Jane said, but the children didn’t move except to shift closer, nudging into her side, and Jane would not push them away.

“It’s not a school night,” Ainsley said, her voice muffled in Jane’s shoulder.

“We don’t even have to go to school, ever,” Devon reflected with something between wonder and horror. “How come we go?”

“Henry doesn’t know what he missed,” Jane said. “Your father’s family goes years without leaving their farm. Avoiding the world. But you can’t grow up that way.”

Jane felt sorry for Henry: never-married, childless, farming his patch of land alone, emerging from his hideaway for what he’d thought was the special occasion of a niece’s funeral and getting instead a barn cat’s wake. A Paley who flinched from nourishing—and nearly all of them did, and she couldn’t comprehend why—could never be anything but Paley, the hermit with the property encircled in birches, the eccentric who conducted all his business at home, the ancestral landowner whose yields shrank every year until they were too meager even to sustain him. Jane could see where the Paleys were headed, and her children weren’t going there.

She could see nothing Paley in Rosemarie at that moment, so bright and sharp and awake standing barefoot on the porch, asking earnestly, “When do I get to go to kindergarten?”

“You’re still a baby,” Ainsley said.

“Don’t say that,” Jane said. “Soon, Rosie. Next year. After you start nourishing.”

“I could nourish now. Next year is too long.”

“It’ll go quick.” Jane could see the cat’s makeshift tombstone from here. Summer would end as soon as it began. Another generation of barn kittens in Rosemarie’s lap, another generation of barn cats on the older children’s plates. And then on Rosemarie’s, too.

She sent Devon and Rosemarie to bed after a while, but held Ainsley back. That hungry look was on her daughter’s face again, snarling and ruthless and twisted. Ainsley hadn’t nourished since morning, and the school day mask had receded, ending at her hairline and the hollow of her throat. She was fully Paley now, and Jane was frightened by the loathing that she felt when she looked at her daughter.

“How could you let her send that letter?” she said.

“I told you,” Ainsley said. “I said that she was sending letters. She made us find the addresses. She invited everyone. The whole family. It’s just that only Henry came.”

“She’s six years old,” Jane said. “Only six. Think about that.”

“She’s old,” Ainsley said bitterly, looking at her feet. “Older than I was when I started nourishing.”

The morning after the wake, Jane overslept: past sunrise, past breakfast time, well into midmorning. She opened her eyes and rolled over to look at the clock on the wall, a rare Paley concession to batteries. She was surprised no one had woken her. Even on days when they didn’t have school, Devon and Ainsley never slept past dawn. They would have been up for hours by now, their chores finished, the barn doors shut. She should hear their shouts outside, the older children’s hollering interspersed with Rosemarie’s little shrieks.

Jane put on her bathrobe and work boots. Downstairs was still and yellow with sunshine; she was surprised to see a stack of dishes in the sink. Three plates, no silverware, no cups, blood glistening on the rim of each dish. She lifted her eyes to the window and then could only stare. The barn cat’s grave had been dug up. A pile of dirt lay mounded beside the hole, the wet mangled remains of the cardboard box on the ground nearby. Devon’s toys. She didn’t have to look to know that the grave was empty, the cat was gone. Three plates, not two, she thought.

Her voice went hoarse screaming for Rosemarie, but Jane already knew where she’d gone. Their old clunking truck, practically unused since Walter died, would hold up long enough to reach the school, and she didn’t care about the way back.

Jane could see into the playground from the school parking lot, but at first she didn’t see Rosemarie. The number of children at play overwhelmed her, so many small bodies wrapped in colorful new clothes. She could not remember at what point the unPaley world had begun to feel so loud and big and chaotic to her. At last her gaze landed on Rosemarie, dressed in her too-small best dress, her hair maneuvered into lopsided ponytails. If Jane looked hard, she knew, she’d see blood on Rosemarie’s mouth, unless Ainsley had remembered to wash her sister’s face as well as her own before getting on the bus.

She’d come to the school intending to drag the children out of class. Rosemarie first, then Devon. She’d retrieve Ainsley last. She’d haul the three of them partway home, then stop on the side of the road and make them stand in a row until the mammalian features melted from their faces and in their hideous natural forms they repented, for their Paleyness, for everything.

But Rosemarie was standing at the top of the playground, looking unbelievably human. Screaming in delight, shoving a boy down the slide: joyful, exultant, savage. Jane sat for a moment, watching her, then turned the key in the ignition and guided the truck back onto the road. She only had a few hours before the children came home, just enough time to ensure that something found its way into the snares or succumbed to age and disease. They would be needing three animals each day now. That was twenty-one per week, eighty-four per month. How many per year, Jane didn’t want to guess, but she was their mother and she would take care of them.

About the Author

Kay Chronister is the author of the collection Thin Places (2020) and the forthcoming novel Desert Creatures (2022). Her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, The Dark, and elsewhere, and her work has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Awards. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.