Runner Up: To Disappear Around Here

The donkey was blind—of that, there was no longer any doubt—and a pink and black tumour swung from its underside like the pendulum of the family’s grandfather clock.

The donkey was blind—of that, there was no longer any doubt—and a pink and black tumour swung from its underside like the pendulum of the family’s grandfather clock. Already four seasons had passed since Ilka last attempted to harness the animal to the cart. It did nothing these days but eat, shit, and sleep. Ilka did not know its age, only that its arrival in the world predated her own. The ass, like her two twit brothers, had always been in her life.

When the morning sun was in back of the solitary pine that grew, slanted, from the rocky peak of the distant ridge, Ilka took herself down into her drainage ditch on the edge of the wet meadow. Thinking came easier with a tool in hand, especially a large one. Her shovel became an extension of her body; the throbbing in her biceps accompanied the beat of the shovel’s blade, the squelch of its repeating stabs in the mud. Sweat dripped from her brow like the drops of an intermittent rain. Some of these drops landed on the shovel’s wooden shaft, dotting it with little damp smudges, as if the shovel itself were perspiring. The steady rhythm of her attack on the boggy earth lent itself to considerations, deliberations, and resolutions.

When she emerged above ground again, the sun had climbed away from the pine, the ditch was three feet longer than it had been before, and Ilka had decided the time had finally come to shoot the donkey.

The air smelled faintly of onion.

Steps from the barn, she was intercepted by a sniveling Armin. His shirt, more yellow now than white, was wrinkled and untucked, and his brown pants were worn pale in the knees. His shoes were floppy, worn half on his feet, and the laces were loose. He reached for Ilka’s shotgun and curled his fingers around the barrel. His cuticles were immaculate.

“You’re up early,” she chided, gently.

“I haven’t even been to bed yet.” He said this like he was imparting an item of obscene gossip about someone other than himself. His curly hair was oily. His plump cheeks wore a dusting of black and white stubble. Flecks of black stained his cracked lips. Cherry wine. “I’m sorry.” Two decades had passed since the cholera took their mother and father, but Ilka knew Armin, perversely, still missed their censure.

She attempted to summon an angrier tone. “Shame on you.” Her shoulders and arms ached. She had so many other things to do.

Armin brightened. He released his grip on Ilka’s shotgun and scratched keenly at a spot behind his right ear. “You won’t really kill him, will you?”

“I won’t. And for the thousandth time, he’s a she.”

Ilka turned from Armin, from the barn, and crossed the yard. She kept her head down, her eyes on the pallid, dusty earth; she didn’t need to look at the house to know the window shutters were rotting, that the roof was pitted with fissures and needed repacking. These jobs—and others—pressed on her. They gave her headaches and moments of panic. They kept her awake at night, wrapped in her scratchy blanket, devising ways to work faster.

Stepping inside the kitchen, she caught Marcell jabbing a grubby index finger into the cake she’d baked earlier that morning; an indulgence she’d allowed herself today, on her birthday, but a task she’d undertaken long before there’d been a hint of light in the sky. From behind the fan of his black whiskers, Marcell presented a gallant smile. With his eyes flitting between her face and her gun, he casually withdrew his finger from the cake. He pivoted elegantly on one heel, emitted a lusty fart, and exited the kitchen.

Marcell’s flatulence was as rank as any animal’s, but he was fond of acting the way he imagined the man of the house should. Their parents had not been in the ground a week before he took over their bedroom as his own, shutting himself in there at night, infesting it with his stench. 12-year old Ilka had been left to console a hysterical Armin in the dark, in the bed the two boys had until then always shared.

One night, amid Armin’s incessant weeping, Marcell burst into the room. “Enough!” he growled. The flame of his candle flickered beneath his chin; the combination of shadow and light made him resemble a demon, accentuated by the moustache he had begun to grow, which at that time was no more substantial than a caterpillar squashed to his upper lip. “There is to be no more of this night nonsense! Ilka, get yourself out of that bed!”

“No!” cried Armin.

“He’s beside himself, Marcell. Have pity.”

“Pity is for the weak. Father and Mother are gone and this house is mine now. What I say is the law.”

Ilka couldn’t stop herself from snickering. Even Armin’s red, tear-stained face brightened for a moment.

Marcell stomped his foot and raised his voice even louder. “I am the man of this house and Ilka is the woman. The man and the woman sleep in the big room, together. This little boy can sleep in here. By himself.”

A cramp materialized in the pit of Ilka’s stomach. “Don’t talk nonsense, Marcell. And Armin’s no little boy: he’s older than I am.”

“That’s enough out of you,” Marcell roared. “The woman obeys the man, and the man says shut your mouth and get yourself into the big bedroom.”

Ilka’s stomach ache intensified and she felt herself begin to tremble; she could not bear to allow her mind to acknowledge what Marcell was suggesting, but her body had grasped the danger. She slipped from the bed and slogged toward the bedroom doorway. Marcell looked pleased with himself. He stepped aside to allow her to pass. When she was abreast of him, Ilka turned and blew out his candle. In the pitch dark she aimed her foot toward his crotch: when her kick connected with its target, his breath hit her face like a hot wind.

Hurriedly, she felt her way down the stairs and into the kitchen. She padded about for the handle of the drawer and for the big knife inside it, and she hunkered down in a corner of the room, ready to spring should Marcell come after her.

She woke in the morning with the sun in her eyes. She found herself curled up on the kitchen floor, with her back to the wall, unmolested.

But he came for her later that day, while she was pitching hay in the barn. Quiet as a cat, he had snuck up from behind. He slipped his arms around her waist and squeezed her like a vice. “Good afternoon, m’lady,” he purred, pretending to be gracious. “I do believe the hay is particularly soft today.” While his voice was all decorum, his breath was dank on the back of her neck. Frenzied, Ilka squirmed and quaked. Without looking, without aiming, she struck behind herself with her pitchfork. Her first swing met only empty air, but her second attempt found a meaty mark. One of the pitchfork’s outer tines had sunk deep inside Marcell’s left thigh.

Still brandishing the pitchfork, she watched him wash his wound with clumsy splashes of whisky from their father’s flask, interspersed with hearty swigs from the same. It was only after he had backed out of the barn, limping, his pants soaked with blood and liquor, hissing We’ll talk on this later, that Ilka noticed the thunderous clamour of her own heart pounding in her ears.

He stank of whisky and his own gasses. With his every inhalation and exhalation, the stubble down his neck rustled against the steel of the axe edge.

That night, she waited until the small hours to creep into their parents’ bedroom. Marcell’s snores sounded like a hog’s grunts. Noiselessly, Ilka crawled onto the bed. She pressed the edge of a sharpened axe to her brother’s throat. Marcell’s eyes snapped open, wide, but he didn’t move. Only breathed. He stank of whisky and his own gasses. With his every inhalation and exhalation, the stubble down his neck rustled against the steel of the axe edge. It sounded like grass blown by an afternoon wind.

“Know this to be true,” she had whispered next to his ear. “You’ll wake one night drowning in your own blood if you so much as lay a finger on me again.”

They all convened at six o’clock, for a birthday party, out by the old weeping willow in the west field. Armin, barefoot, led the sightless, hobbling donkey to the tree and left it facing away from them. It promptly dropped four steaming knobs of dung onto the grass and went to sleep standing up. Ilka’s brothers took turns dipping their cups in the pail of cold beer she’d lugged to her own party. They would never leave home, she knew, as long as she kept brewing it. As long as she kept stew in the pot. Butter in the churn. But was she supposed to deprive herself, too?

She laid out a plate of mealy apples and hard bread, but they ate the birthday cake first; it was collapsing in the setting sun, the white icing dribbling like snow in spring.

From inside his jacket, Marcell produced their father’s pistol. Ilka stiffened. Armin, tipsy, giggled. With nonchalance that Ilka knew was contrived, Marcell pointed the gun high above his head.


The shot rang out like a thunderclap. The donkey brayed and kicked at the air with a back leg. It tore off. Marcell whooped and chased after it. Armin followed, tripping on his pant cuffs, licking icing from his thumbs. One after the other, the donkey and the men plowed into the copse of skinny birches that lined the far edge of the field.

How easy it was to disappear around here; into the trees, over a grassy hill, or by simply walking far enough away from the house and barn to become too small for the others to see.

Ilka approached the pail and dipped her own cup. She gulped the beer straight down. Serenity seeped into the empty spaces her brothers and the ass had left behind. She dipped and drank again, slowly this time, enjoying the bitterness of the beer and the glow of the alcohol. The gentle whistle of the wind was in her ears. Somewhere nearby, a cardinal called. Armin and Marcell were nowhere to be seen, and, for the moment, Ilka knew, she was invisible to them, too. How easy it was to disappear around here; into the trees, over a grassy hill, or by simply walking far enough away from the house and barn to become too small for the others to see.

On the darkest, coldest mornings, options like these were as instrumental in stirring Ilka from bed as were hunger and thirst.

The sun had dipped behind the tops of the birches; filtering through the leaves, it looked like an orange inferno. Ilka filled her cup one last time but did not immediately drink it. She set it down, carefully, in the grass. Then she yanked her skirts up just above her knees and stood astride the beer pail. She let her skirts down again, draping the pail with them, and perched upon the lid. The steel rim was ice cold against her bare skin.

Armin and Marcell would be back before long for more drink. They had produced no birthday present for Ilka, and nor would they. The sight of them thirstily swilling fouled beer would sustain her for a little while anyway.

In the dimming light, a tiny, glowing dot—yellow—appeared before her: the first of the evening’s fireflies. Ilka held still and watched it flit and dance in the air. With her eyes fixed on the travelling point of light, the willow and the grass and the birches beyond became shadowy and blurred. The cardinal called again, unseen. Without warning, the little light blinked out, and the firefly vanished; as if it had slipped from this world to another, to one where she might have belonged.


“To Disappear Around Here” is a luxuriously written, brilliantly compact story that falls somewhere between the rural gothic of William Faulkner and Isaac Babel’s sensitive explorations of human cruelty. Despite the pall of menace that hangs over these characters, every image, rendered in exquisite and precise language, feels not just vivid but resolutely hopeful—a “little light” amid all the darkness.

About the author

Mark Paterson is the author of three short story collections, most recently Dreamers and Misfits of Montclair (Exile Editions, 2019), in which he introduces the town of Montclair, a fictional yet familiar suburb of Montreal. He is a past winner of the 3Macs carte blanche Prize and Geist’s Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. His story “What Have You Done?” appeared in Issue 33: Spring 2016 of The Puritan. Mark lives in Lorraine, Quebec.