Hi guys, okay, so firstly thanks so much for all your kind words and support. I honestly expected to announce this to the world to deafening silence and maybe a polite cough in the darkness, so the fact that so many of you have said you’re willing to follow this story means the world to me. So, starting from today I’m going to be posting one chapter every Thursday that’s not a review day. But to get the ball rolling I thought I’d do three chapters so that we can actually get pretty far into the story and establish the setting and a few of the main characters, particularly Marie and Luke, the daughter and the hangman (seeing as they are kinda important). Alright, so, here we go.
THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER
PART 1: THE HANGMAN OF ST ANNE
CHAPTER 1: MARIE
Marie was six years old when she saw the rabbit. She had been lying in a meadow on her stomach, her legs kicking forward and back, making little podgy white “L’s ” that rose, stood straight, sagged, stood straight and fell, over and over, like pendulums. The sun was in the sky because, as her father had told her, the sun loved France, and hated England, which was why all they got over there was rain. And that, he would tell her, was another reason why France would win the war, don’t worry my love they’ll never come to the village and it’ll be like this always I promise you that my sweet little red bird. Her hands propped her head a foot or so above the grass, the stubby fingers and broad palms completely covering her cheeks, so that any beetle who chanced to look up to better see what was casting this great shadow and blocking the warm sun would only have seen a nose and a mouth squashed between two great continents of hand, over which, just above the tips of the fingers, peeped two great green eyes, with the whole edifice crowned by a great and unruly silk stack of curly red hair. And Marie would shrink and grow as she lay there, looking down one moment at the grass, lowering one great eye down to an inch above the ground until the mass of green blades looked like a great forest, the daisies like mighty vines strangling anything foolish enough to come near, and the little scurrying, spit-polished beetles, glinting like new boots, were the natives, glancing up in awe and terror at this great red-haired goddess in the clouds. And she imagined them building temples to her in the steaming depths of that jungle, the little black beetles dancing, waving all six legs frantically, desperately praying that she would not smite them and the thought delighted her so much that she kicked her legs in sheer excitement, the bare feet thudding on the silky blades and soft loam, Ls birthing and dying like mayflies in summer. And she felt quite huge, massive and powerful, she felt every hour of her six years. But then she would shrink when she cast her eyes up to the blue sky, and see nothing but a great cloud, whiter than milk and snow, larger that a city, cruising across the blue curve. And then she understood how the beetles felt, and, young though she was, knew that she was small. Very small, invisible almost, and if God could see her, he must have the eyes of a hawk. But then, since he had made the hawk’s eyes, his own must be at least as good, and if it was not disrespectful to think it, he had probably kept the best eyes for himself. She turned her head downward to look at the beetles again (or, to be honest, to look at their jungle, there were no beetles nearby except the ones in her mind, still toiling away at her altar) but the thrill was gone. The beetles, in all probability, were laughing at her.
“Oh, you think so? You think you’re big? We’re all in the same boat. Our young tease the mites, until they see you. There’s some giant watching you right now. And someone watching him, and someone watching him…”
Marie became quite caught up in this line of reasoning, imagining an endless string of giant watchers going off for ever and ever and ever, and the idea made her feel a little dizzy. Then came something that blew the beetles, the temple, the giant watchers, the whole universe to pieces and out of her mind like broken china swept out the hall door. She had seen the rabbit.
It moved liked a rocking horse, its front and back seesawing up and down as it ambled over a little tuft of wild grass and into her view and soul. It was, to anyone who had grown jaded by rabbits, nothing at all to make a fuss about. It was a yearling, dull brown, quite scrawny, and its coat was neither glossy nor fine. Its eyes were large black balls of pure potential panic, and there was a chunk missing from its ear, lost to a stoat to whom it had been very lucky not to lose a great deal more. It was a rabbit no different from the millions that had hopped and rocked over the green fields of the earth since the dawning of the rabbit era, and inferior to most of them. But, to Marie, lying in that field in France which the sun loved, a goddess to the beetles below her, a beetle to the cloud above her, it was the most amazing thing that had ever been. Her large green eyes took in every inch of him, every breath his scrawny little chest took, every twitch of his ears and sway of his haunch and she loved the little creature. Half of her wanted to run for it, catch it and never let go, let it scratch her skin to ribbons, she’d hold it tight. But there was enough sense in her head to know that, just as prayers never worked if you said them with your eyes open, just as the fairies that she knew were running amok in her room and hiding her shoes so she couldn’t find them the next morning would disappear the second she lit a lamp, so would this little miracle vanish if she made the slightest movement towards it.
This was the best she would receive. She must be content.
She watched it eat a cowslip, the yellow flower getting drawn up into its mouth by the incessant and rapid nibbling.
It nibbled. Amazing.
Marie was shocked, amazed and deeply awed by the nibbling.
Time wore on, and the thrill of first seeing the rabbit matured into a contentment to simply watch him as he went about his business.
And so absorbed was she with watching the rabbit, that she stopped seeing it.
So it was a long time before a rather simple fact trickled down into her mind, distracted as it was by rabbits, and nibbling, and the nibbling of rabbits and such matters. And that fact was that the rabbit had not moved in…
How long had the rabbit been standing there, perfectly motionless, brown fur glinting in the yellow sun, without so much as a nibble or a twitch of the nose?
And suddenly, Marie’s mind was finished with the rabbit altogether.
How long had she been here?
Hours, definitely hours. Unable as she was to tell the niceties of time the child knew enough to know that she had been here far longer than she should have been. If she had been away a long time her father would be angry. If she had been away a very long time her father would be worried, which was of course infinitely preferable to him being angry. She now faced a dilemma. Return immediately before her father got very angry, or wait until he was too worried to be angry with her when she finally came home?
The rabbit, having grazed contentedly beside her for goodness knows how many hours, suddenly decided that she was a threat to life and limb, and bolted.
She looked up at the sky. The cloud was still roughly where she remembered it, and it was too bright to be evening, but still she could not shake the impression that she had been lying in the meadow for hours and hours. Eventually, she decided to risk it. The Ls straightened into pale and lumpy Is, stained green in the centres from the grass, and marked here and there with tiny brown scars, trophies from her mighty odysseys through brambles patches, rocky outcrops and the treacherous, mossy beds of clear tumbling forest streams. Picking herself up, she made off for home, leaving the beetle devout without their goddess, and leaving the great white cloud without its little red-haired care and treasure.
Her father was camped over the stove, stirring a pot of thick brown soup with a wooden spoon. Every so often, great orange chunks of carrot would surface and then sink down again, as if they were grabbing mouthfuls of air before diving back down to the bottom of the black pot. He looked up startled as his six year old daughter burst through the door like a small crimson hurricane.
“Sorry sorry sorry!” she wheezed breathlessly.
“Why? What have you done?” he asked, too amused by her abrupt entrance to sound as stern as he meant to.
She stared into his large blue eyes, which were smiling inquisitively at her. Her father was a tall man, with a broad chest and lean, strong arms. He wore his hair like a man of the woods, long and unkempt around his shoulders, and while it bore a little of the red that made his daughter’s hair look like a Mayday fire it was tamed by a darker brown. His mouth was largely invisible under his long full beard, but Marie had learnt to trust to other facial cues to see when he was smiling, his eyes being the most important. Those eyes, which could seem to burn with blue fire when he was angry, and that was more often than either of them would have liked, (she was not always an easy girl to raise), were now smiling merrily at her.
“What have you done now, Marie?” he asked.
“Sorry for being late” she mumbled, wondering as she did why in God’s name she was drawing attention to the fact.
“Late?” her father asked and laughed “You can step out of the house for half an hour, Marie.”
Marie was young, and hours and half hours were still nebulous concepts, but she understood that something strange had happened. She had thought that she had been gone for a very long time, and her father seemed to think she had been gone for too short a time to even bear noticing.
“Are you hungry?” her father asked her, as he doled out a ladle-full of soup into the flat black soup bowls.
The two sat across the table from each other, the tiny red-haired girl, and her great bear of a father.
Like most children her age, Marie hated food with a passion, and would only take the tiniest sips of her soup.
She looked up at the sound of a massive slurp from the other side of the table. Her father gazed back at her with a look of mock chagrin.
“Pardon me.” he said contritely.
“You are excused.” she said in a wonderfully haughty manner, even waggling her nose in the air to indicate her distaste.
They both knew what would come next. They were two old actors, going over the scene they had done a thousand times before, and the lines were as natural to them as every breath they took. They knew how long every silence had to endure to the last second.
Marie had finally gripped the spoon as if she had an intention to use it in some kind of assertive way. She slowly filled the crater with the brown sea of the soup, and she could see little circles of grease winking rainbow on the surface. She put the spoon to her lips, and drew out a long slurp like a cellist drawing out a pitch perfect note.
“I do beg your pardon!” she exclaimed with such mortification that her father, though he had seen this performance almost every day for longer than he could remember, still clapped his great hands and barked heartily.
The game continued as it always did, each slurp getting longer and more elaborate with every turn. By the end of it, their bowls were empty just as always, and just as always, Marie had utterly failed to realise that her father had once again tricked her into eating a dinner she hadn’t really wanted. After dinner she briefed her father thoroughly on her encounter with the rabbit, giving him a description so complete that he could have picked the animal out of a police line up (had such a thing existed) by the time she was finished.
Then, as was their custom, he lit a fire and he sat in the old rocking chair, while she curled up on the hairy rug like a large red-haired cat, staring into the flames, which stared back at their tiny reflections, painted emerald and dancing away in the sea of her great green eyes. Normally they would simply sit in silence, her father letting the flames perform their mesmerism on his daughter, and once she was asleep, he would take her up in his great hands, and bring her to her cool white bed and lay her down to sleep. But tonight, Marie wished to speak.
“Papa.” she said, and her voice was like a weary traveller, tramping through a marsh of fatigue.
“What are you?”
The question baffled him momentarily.
“I’m your father, Marie.” he said.
“I know that, stupid.”
Ordinarily, Marie would never have been so brazen with her father. Around the fire, however, the rules were relaxed. Marie continued.
“I mean, what are you?”
“Why do you ask me that, robin?”
“Olivia asked me. She says her father is a farmer. And Sylvie, her father is Monsieur D’Arbe, the blacksmith. And Bernadette-who-smells-like-cack…”
“Her father keeps pigs, yes I know.” her father said “You don’t tease her about that, do you?”
“No.” she said. Not compared to everyone else, she thought.
“And they asked me what you were and I didn’t know.” she yawned massively “So what are you Papa?”
Her father weighed his options She was just on the verge of dropping off. He could simply wait in silence for her to fall asleep and that would be that. But the fact that he wasn’t answering her might rouse her from sleep long enough to ask what was wrong, and re-state the question. He briefly considered curtly telling her to mind her own business but instantly rejected it on the grounds that firstly it wasn’t the poor girl’s fault, and secondly, that it would break the hallowed unwritten rule that when they were gathered around the fire, there would never be anger, only warm contentment. It was a law he valued every bit as much as her. So, he decided on the most morally responsible reply, and lied to her.
“I’m…a soup maker.” he said, after casting his mind around for a likely profession, remembering that he was a terrible liar, catching sight of the soup bowl and grasping at it like a drowning man grasping at an inflatable bowl of soup.
There was silence for a few seconds.
“A soup maker?” she said.
“Yes.” he replied “A soup maker. I’m a soup maker, I make soup. You’ve seen me make soup, haven’t you? Well there you go, I’m a soup maker.”
There was a long pause. Her father waited for the inevitable barrage of questions which would reduce his pathetic lie to broken timber and powdered rubble.
But the only reply from his daughter was a high, purring snore.
He breathed a sigh of relief, and bent over, lifting her out of the yellow circle of the fire’s sphere like she was a feather, and laid her to sleep, where she dreamt of riding a rabbit through an endless field of daisies, while above her in a pure blue sky, beetles watched her in amazement from the safety of a milk white cloud.