I finally felt like I could relax and not worry about how others saw me. These women had lifted me out of the ice chamber with praise and encouragement. They all smiled when I said I wanted to do it again because they too felt the same way. And just as I had been dunked into the ice it was me now who held the wooden lid shut as the rest took the plunge. “Hold down with all your weight.” A few said as I placed my palms on the wood in bated breath. I was pressing down with all my strength as the old lady scratched against the lid. I could feel some sort of exhilaration building in me, heavier than the fear I felt in the well, that lingered on the edge of my mind. Pushing me to think unnatural things; hold it just a little longer, just a few seconds that’s it.
I followed the crowd out into the garden. The stretch of land carried on until the red berried trees faded into a black line of woods that threatened to prick the sky. Birds chirped and the warmth from the sun pressed down on us heavy. A table had been prepared; At each seat was a large tankard of beer, one crystal shot glass, and a chopping block of white wood. In the center of the table was a dark oval bowl. As I sat down at the seat with my name I could the large bowl centerpiece was adorned with apple shavings and various sprigs of herbs.
‘Is it lunch time already?’ I asked Bay who was sat beside me. She was rolling her sleeves in preparation for the food. Bay stared at me for a few seconds, as if she was trying to read my face, and raised her shot glass to me.
‘We are preparing for the feast Aspen. Drink with me.’
I raised the shot glass to hers and slipped the drink down quickly. Aniseed washed over the tongue with a sweetness that plunged to bitterness quickly. Bay was already calling over Lily to pour another.
‘Another?’ Lily said already pouring the clear liquid back into the glasses.
‘Of-course, the girl needs strength.’ Bay replied. She slapped the table and Yarrow jumped from her chair in shock. ‘Yarrow is a bag of nerves!’ Even covered in a robe Yarrow could not hide her muscular frame. She had been quiet all morning, simply watching from the back for most of it. When it was her turn to drop in the well the others moved aside. Yarrow had plunged into the water and after a moments pause I saw her arm stretch out from the brick and slide the lid shut. When she was done she dragged herself out on her accord.
‘You want to play slaps with me while we wait?’ Yarrow smiled and I was reminded of those grinning cowboys in westerns. That smirk right before they pulled the trigger.
‘No she does not. Yarrow will smack the skin off your knuckles. Trust me.’ Lily chimed in as she poured a shot for Yarrow.
‘What is it you do Yarrow?’ I asked trying not to glance down at her forearms.
‘Sports?’ I asked.
‘Wrestling. I made it to Olympics in freestyle before the weight category restrictions. You ever tried it?’ I felt as if Yarrow was leading me down a path where I was going to end up knocked out on the ground.
‘I’m surprised. I trained with your mum all the time when we were younger before…before you that is.’
‘How was she? I couldn’t imagine her-’
‘She was a cocky shit. But good.’ Yarrow laughed. ‘It’s a shame she isn’t with us. I’d like to see if she still has the moves.’
‘When are her and Cora heading over.’
‘Yvonne and Cora have to take it easy. The babies and all.’ Yarrow spurted out.
‘Babies?’ I asked unsure if she knew something I didn’t. How could she?
‘Baby, Yarrow, it’s just the one I imagine. But Hentan’s are known to come out in twos.’ Bay replied in place for Yarrow. Yarrow raised her hand annoyed slightly.
‘Then Aspen here will have to drink for her sister and Yvonne. Ready…get that glass in your hand. Here we go. Cheers.’ I downed the clear mixture and thought that it tasted less bitter this time around.
I couldn’t handle another but before I could protest Lily lurched over and poured another.
‘Oh here we go. Time for work.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked but noticed them looking behind me. I turned from my seat to see three women carrying small wicker baskets in their hands. One of them smiled and placed the small bundle on the chopping block infront of me.
‘We honour our own strength this weekend. We prove we can fend for ourselves like those before us.’ Bay said as I tried to look through the tightly knitted basket. My fingertips dragged across the basket surface numb almost. The baskets had been placed on each of the guests seat. I could smell wafts of hay and fruit.
A hand gripped my shoulder jolting me. It was my mother smiling at me. A warm smile but like she was consoling a crying child.
‘Ladies. We are never given mercy so we must hunt for ourselves. This is how Dando taught the very first ladies of Hentan and we give thanks for that. Show Dando we can look after ourselves. Raise the lids and prepare the feast.’ The women lifted the lids off quickly with me following. As I slid the basket lid off the dropped it down onto the lawn as my stomach sank.
The rabbit twitched it’s head to the side and with black pearl eye stared at me. I glanced over to Yarrow to see her snap her rabbits head back. Bay had her fingers placed over her rabbits head as she quickly slit its neck. Mum squeezed my shoulder harder. She was urging me not to make her look bad infront of the others. Her sisters. My family. I had the runt of the litter – in an act of mercy to not have me slip up and let it run. The brown speckled rabbit did not twitch as my fingers nestled into the soft neck folds. My mothers hand drifted over my other hand and guided me to the knife. Bay and Yarrow and so many others were whispering me encouragement. It’s heart tapped against my thumb to a quickening beat. Drifting the knife over I wavered but Yarrow cheered me on. The whole table smiling at me like it was my first baby steps. I wanted to talk to you little rabbit. To place you on the grass and let you run free. To say a hundred sweet calming things as I did to the pets I owned as a child. But the knife was already parting your throat and your warmth was spraying out across the nestled hay. That tick tick ticking was now nothing but warm punctured meat.
When I looked back my mum had already left without a word. I continued to stroke the rabbit.
‘There is love from this Aspen.’ One of them, I think it was Bay, said to me. ‘You must honour them. Never let them go to waste. That’s the meaning of the hunt. Now turn them on their back and pinch the skin so your knife can make a slit easier.’
A few had already flung the skinned rabbits into the large bowl in the center. I followed the instructions and Yarrow helped hold it in place when I tugged at the flap of skin over the legs. Cutting through the sinew and strings. Into the dark oval bowl I placed it. Amongst it’s own as my own wiped their hands on paper towels and raised a glass. The deed was done. I scraped the purple viscera from my nails and downed another shot.
‘Now we de-core the apples and snap the rhubarb. Our work is never done.’