Note: You may want to read Being Born first.
Their chores done, Mam sent them out to play in the woods. “Just stay out of my hair. And out of trouble. I don’t want the neighbors dropping by with news about what you’ve been up to. I’m talking to you, Rafe. You’re older and you should know better.”
Rafe stood tall and still had to look up to meet her mother’s eyes. She hated being eight, old enough to take the heat of her mother’s tongue if things went wrong, but too young not to get saddled with babysitting. “They will not get into any trouble. I’ll keep them in line.”
“It’s not them I’m worried about.” Mam stepped back onto the porch and returned to warping her loom. “And have fun.”
Now Rafe, Jenna, and Ducky were out in the woods to the west of the river, playing “Feral Sheep.”
“You won’t have my child, you raddled old sheep.”
Rafe dodged and barely avoided Jenna’s alder pole, threatening to conk her on the head. The wig Jenna had provided slipped over her eyes and she shoved it back onto her head.
Rafe’s job, in this game, was to play the Feral Sheep. Jenna played either the mother (or father, Rafe had no idea which), who would defend infant Ducky to the death.
Jenna, full of five-year-old fury, shoved Ducky behind her and knocked an apple out of his hand.
“What would I want with that snotty little whelp?” Rafe paused. That wasn’t quite the right attitude. She waved what passed for a clawed hand, brushing away the accusations, and tried again. “The poor babe was hungry. See, he scrabbles for that tasty apple you wasted on the ground.”
“I know who you are, old woman. You’re the Feral Sheep, come to steal children from properly fearing townsfolk.” Jenna took another swing with her pole.
Rafe tore the wig and kerchief off her head and flung it on the ground where the apple had lain moments before. “No,” she said, shedding the guise of the Feral Sheep and returning to her role as older sister. “If you’re going to insist on playing ‘Feral Sheep’ you might just have the sense to stay fooled for a bit. The game is over as soon as I’m caught. If I were really the Feral Sheep, you’d never recognize me so soon.”
Jenna picked up the wig and handed it to Rafe. “Come on. Please. You’re supposed to be looking after me and Ducky. Ma said to have fun, and we can’t have fun if you’re not going to play the Feral Sheep.”
“She told us all to have fun. I can’t have fun if I’ve got no chance to fool you. How about hide and seek?”
“No. ‘Cause you’ll just practice sword fighting and never come look for us.”
They both looked at Ducky who said nothing and munched his apple. At three, he was smart enough to stay out of his sisters’ squabbles. “Never mind,” said Rafe. “He won’t be able to hide by himself anyway.”
Their dickering was interrupted by a scream. Rafe picked up Ducky and flung him on her shoulders. She and Jenna took off toward the sound, all at once joined in purpose. They headed up stream, toward the old quarry, both of them sure footed. Rafe hiked up the skirts that Jenna had made her wear. Already she was planning on how she might use them in case of a genuine emergency.
Unburdened by either costuming or a child, Jenna had snaked ahead of Rafe through the trees. Rafe saw her stop, skidding on the wet leaves and fall to the ground clutching her belly. It was a moment before laughter, and then cursing, though not, Rafe thought, her sister’s, came floating downhill. Rafe set Ducky on his feet and told him to follow.
At the top of the rise, she, too, fell to the ground in laughter. Bouncing from the end of a birch tree, was a stout man, long hair streaming toward the ground. Coins and bits of rubbage rained out of his pockets with every bounce, and he was swearing up a storm, shaking a fist at the two girls.
“What’cha doin’ up there?” asked Ducky when he came close enough to see.
“Trying out the newest Festival ride. What do you think, you little woods’ rats?”
“Nope.” Ducky stuck his thumb in his mouth for a solemn suck. “That’s Pauly George’s snare. It’s caught you.”
Jenna looked at Rafe and quirked her head in a question.
Rafe set her lips together, shaking her head. “Mam said I shouldn’t.”
“You know you do it anyway. When it suits you.”
“He’ll tell. And so will Ducky.”
Jenna looked at the man suspended above them. “If we get you down, do you promise never to tell how we do it?”
“Of course. Anything. Just run along and get some help.” The man moved more and bounced more, and was turning quite green.
“I’m not sure you understand. We’ll get you down now. Right now. But you’ve got to keep it a secret.”
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
“Swear on your hair. We’ll cut it off if you tell.”
The man quit moving and gathered his hair in his hands. “I swear on my hair. It will be forfeit to you if I tell.”
“Do it,” said Jenna to Rafe.
Rafe started to hum.
“You’ll want to start doing a sit up if you don’t want to land on your head,” advised Jenna.
Rafe opened her mouth. A small sound emerged, not quite a whistle, not a scream, and no longer a hum. The tree began to vibrate. She swiveled her head and aimed her sound at a knot in the tree. The tree popped and spit as if struck by lightning. The man and the branch hit the ground together.
“Well done,” said Jenna. “And you didn’t even break his glasses.”