Winter whistled through the thin gaps between the windows of the house, creating ill music to accompany dinner. They chewed through the last pieces of salted meat and rotten potato. Hamish noticed the look the boy gave his father, who had not said a word through dinner. The boy’s father glanced at Hamish. Not in the eye, but at Hamish’s torso, then slid down the length of Hamish’s arm before hiding back in the safety of his sparse dinner. Hamish gripped his fork tighter, grinding the tines across the porcelain in an unfortunate scrape. The father shifted in his seat; the kid began tapping his own fork against the table. Hamish felt unwelcome for the first time since winter had landed.
Hamish and the kid had killed the cow last month. Hamish had held the axe above the cow’s head, ready to drop the death-blow, but stopping at the hesitation in the kid’s eyes.
“Are you sure?” he asked the boy. “She is your last cow.”
“Have to,” the kid said, swallowing a dry lump of saliva and scuffing the moldy hay at his feet. “It’s us or her.”
This was true. He and the family had eaten all their stores. A few potatoes remained, and their last skinny cow that could no longer provide milk. Winter had set in early this year, and refused to leave. The family survived as they had done every year, storing the autumn harvest below the house in the cold storage, and feeding the few cows, goat, and chickens from the hay in the barn loft. They would slaughter a few of the animals and salt the meat, but the rest of the stock provided milk and eggs and the family would survive on that and what vegetables and grains made it through the winter without rotting.
But this year was different. This year they had rescued a lost and starving stranger and taken him into their home. Him. Hamish hadn’t asked for their help, but instead had floated to their doorstep semi-conscious, near death from starvation, without the strength to say no. The kid had found him sleeping in the barn, hidden behind the goat pen. Hamish had shooed the kid away. This barn was nothing more than a stop on the road to oblivion. The kid had run for his dad and the two of them had carried Hamish into the house and nursed him back to health. They asked him once how he had arrived there, to which he responded, “I am a magician without magic.” The questions faded.
Three weeks after the discovery of Hamish in the barn, the first storm of winter hit, making escape impossible. The kid watched Hamish closely for signs of magic. The kid’s father avoided the subject and instead expected a hand now and then, once Hamish recovered, with chores around the farm. The kid told Hamish how his mom had died in childbirth along with an unnamed younger brother. The elder brother had left the farm the year before to work at a pulp mill closer to the city. Now only the kid and his dad kept the farm.
Hamish had killed the last cow with a blow to the neck, the kid holding a basin beneath to catch the shower of blood. The kid stripped the cow once she had bled out, well-practiced with the butcher knife. He’d done this before, Hamish noted. The kid glanced at Hamish, mid-skinning, catching his eye. After they consumed the meat from the cow, the three of them would have nothing.
Hamish retired to his room after dinner, determined to leave in the night. He had no belongings and therefore nothing to pack. He would take the coat the father had loaned him, and the pair of old boots, wrapped in burlap. There would be no food to carry. He should take a knife. Hamish lay in bed listening for the sounds of the other two preparing for sleep… sounds which never came.
Hours later Hamish crept through the silent house to the kitchen. The father and the kid sat at the kitchen table, their empty plates unmoved since dinner. Hamish‘s eyes shot to the empty place on the wall that normally housed the butcher knife, then back to the kid who now held it. The blade of the family axe glinted at the father’s feet. Stillness dominated as the blood raced to Hamish’s head, the pounding of his veins drowning out all other sounds in the room. Hamish knew that none of them was in any shape to fight, but that any of them was hungry enough to kill. He pointed at the father, hoping to instill fear, reminding them that he was a magician, knowing that he was without magic.
“Don’t,” he squeaked from behind the absent power of his finger.
The kid cut first, a damaging slice to Hamish’s outstretched hand. But the upward motion left the kid exposed and Hamish slammed his booted foot sideways into the kid’s fragile ribs, crushing them. The kid slumped back in his chair, the butcher knife skittering across the floor between Hamish and the kid’s father. The father emitted a sound halfway between shock and rage. He rose from the table, gripping the axe at his side. Hamish fought the instinct to bolt, instead running at the father who now held up the axe to defend himself. Hamish gripped the axe between them, and while the father grew distracted by the tussle over the axe, Hamish drove his head into the man’s skull, knocking him out. Hamish felt the axe come free in his grip, but before he could step away a dull burning sensation filled his lower back. His legs gave out and as time froze the sound of the kid’s wheezing swelled beside Hamish’s ear. Hamish felt the cold edge of the butcher knife rest glide through the soft skin of his throat. He savoured the taste of his own blood, a last meal before his power faded to nothing.
“Goodbye, Magician. Take your winter with you,” the kid rasped.