The Red Wheelbarrow

The Red Wheelbarrow

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Image by Jen on Adobe Stock

Something was different when Danny closed the wooden picket gate behind him at Aunt June’s. The first thing he noticed was an odd smell, something mixed in with the pines along the path.

Skittering and grunting came from behind the woodier part of the large garden, from the section with Uncle Warlock’s campfire, the campfire where Danny had been allowed to stay up past bedtime the summer before while the adults had talked, sung songs and drunk Warlock’s beer from a cooler sitting in his wheelbarrow. Warlock was a funny man, Danny’s most funny relative, full of stories and jokes, many that seemed to be about things that the adults felt Danny was too young to hear. So often on those summer evenings, a grinning Warlock would be in midtale, the hand not holding a bottle darting in the air, as if casting a spell, until he would look at Danny’s mother, give Danny a raised eyebrow and a pirate’s wink, and change the subject. Soon after, Danny would be sent to bed. But he was a year older now, nine centimeters taller. Maybe they’d have a campfire again after supper.

When Danny and his mother had visited the previous summer, Warlock had expected them and had concealed his wheelbarrow in the bushes just inside the gate, so that Danny’s mother could use it to transport their cases on the earthen path to the house. He’d even left two wondrously chilled cans of cola in the cooler with the barrow, a real reward after the jerky bus ride from the station, which always made Danny feel slightly ill. This time Danny couldn’t see the wheelbarrow, and his mother’s face told him that she too was disappointed.

His mother in the lead, their plastic suitcase dragging her arm straight down, they walked past the trees towards the clearing with the small pond, where he’d once seen tadpoles swimming, but never any fish. The case was too heavy for Danny, but at least he could help by carrying her shoulder bag. Made of woven palm leaves, it bulged from the tin of biscuits she had baked. The bag also held the stuffed animal that Aunt June had sent Danny when their neighbor’s cat, the closest thing he had to a pet, had died. The toy was expensive, Momma had said, and Aunt June had been nice, and she would be happy to see him play with it.

His mother walked slowly, stepping onto the flat stones in the center of the path rather than onto the earth itself, which still showed signs of the summer rain that had pelted their train earlier that morning. Danny was tempted to run ahead and check if Warlock had filled the pond with fish, like he’d said he might, but he heard more clickety-crickety noises from behind the trees.

What were those sounds?

He turned around toward the gap in the trees that led to the campfire and moved his foot off the path to Warlock’s house onto the damp grass.

‘Later.’ His mother tugged at his hand. ‘Help me bring our bags to the room and then we’ll eat. Aunt June has prepared lunch.’

Plates on the dining table held cold, sliced burger on brown bread, which smelled freshly baked, with potato-and-cabbage salad, Danny’s favorite. Desserts, always good at Aunt June’s, were on the sideboard, a choice of apricot tart or apple pie. His aunt normally had a scent of powdered sugar and butter, but when Danny found her in the kitchen, he smelled onions and fresh meat. She still wore her apron, and it was stained in red and brown.

‘From making the burger,’ Aunt June said. Her face was pale, and against her skin the thin mousy slashes of her eyebrows appeared shades darker than her short hair. She looked tired, and a lot older than Danny’s mother, but Aunt June worked five days a week at the department store, always standing up, his mother had said, and he imagined how her feet must hurt.

Danny’s uncle was busy, Aunt June said, working, and couldn’t join the meal, but they would see him later.

Warlock didn’t install bathrooms like his brother or have a normal, office job like Danny’s dad. He somehow didn’t have to work like that. He’d told Danny that he’d been shot by a witch and freed from slavery. He’d said that with one eyebrow raised, a trick neither Danny nor his father could do, and he’d been Warlock for Danny since.

Danny’s father had told him later that what Warlock called ‘a witch’s shot’ was what other people called pain in the lower back, not a curse at all – but that it did magically produce a doctor’s letter that said Warlock could stay at home in his garden.

Last summer Warlock had been breeding snails to sell to restaurants. He’d feed them with unsold lettuce or cabbages from the local markets, never having to pay a penny, he’d told Danny with his eyebrow raised.

One afternoon during that summer holiday, when his mother was to visit Aunt June at her work, Danny had been allowed to accompany Warlock on ‘his rounds.’ In the market square, Warlock had pushed his wheelbarrow between the stalls, occasionally asking Danny to pick up discarded damaged cabbages, but mostly he would talk to his favorite stallholders, raising his eyebrow, making jokes. The women would giggle sometimes, and one, with a halo of frizzy sandy hair, had gone all red in the face and stretched like a cat. The wheelbarrow filled to overflowing, and Warlock, like he had promised, never had to pay.

Warlock’s rounds only took several hours and weren’t even every day. The rest of the time he could sit in the garden with a cooler of beers in the wheelbarrow and watch the snails eat.

Had those sounds been coming from the snails? They had to be gigantic!

The burger tasted of black pepper and onions, and a bit like the forkful he’d tried of his father’s goulash the previous weekend, but nicer.

For helping with the lunch dishes, Danny was given portions of both desserts. He ate quickly and, before his mother had her usual idea of telling him to take an afternoon nap, he ran to the campfire clearing to see what Warlock was doing.

Warlock wasn’t there. Nor was the hammock that Danny had often swung in, nor the blackberry bushes that Aunt June picked for her jams. Instead, Danny discovered an enormous cage, taller even than his father, divided into dozens of compartments – each with huddled hairy, bulging animals, the size of pit bull terriers, but shaped like fat rats. With long flicking tails, twitching white whiskers and pairs of orange teeth, they looked like they came from a TV cartoon. Animals he had never seen before. The strange sounds from earlier? Claws on the metal bars and teeth munching watermelons.

The combined stink of animal poo, fur and something sweet that he couldn’t identify was unpleasant and he held his nose as he watched the animals.

He was startled by a rhythmic thumping behind him: Uncle Warlock, pushing a red-spattered wheelbarrow, in which lay five large watermelons, a claw hammer and shears. The fingers of his yellow plastic gloves were as red as the barrow.

‘Would you like a necklace of their teeth, Danny? None of your friends will have anything like it,’ Warlock said, his left eyebrow arching upwards on his nut-brown forehead. ‘Or your Auntie June can braid a cool armband with a tooth in it, as a lucky charm, for your birthday. I have lots of teeth, and you’re my favorite nephew.’ He raised a gloved hand and pointed at the cages. ‘Aren’t they marvelous?’

Danny studied the closest animal. Did their giant teeth fall out like his milk teeth were doing?

How had Warlock transformed snails into... ‘Giant rats?’

‘Some people call them nutria,’ Warlock said as he stepped to a pile of dented and punctured watermelons. ‘For me, they’re swamp beaver.’ He hit a melon with the clawhammer and levered it open.

The stuffed animal Aunt June had sent was a beaver, but it had a flat tail. ‘My toy, that’s a bea—’

‘A different animal, Danny, but they don’t make stuffed toys of swamp beaver. Not yet.’

Warlock sliced into a broken chunk of watermelon with the shears until he held a handful of smaller, dripping pieces. He wedged a small piece into his mouth, licked his lips like a clown and winked at Danny. ‘Yum. You’ll get some later.’ He unlocked a cage housing three large animals. ‘Good furs and good meat, but they’re breeding too quickly for me. I spend all day driving around looking for food for them.’ As he threw pieces of melon into the cage, the animals scuffled, making noises that mixed grunts, Danny’s father’s snores, and TV-cartoon baby wails. Once each animal had found its own portion, all Danny heard from them was chewing. Animals in the neighboring cages, however, had noticed and skittered to congregate at the front of their cages.

Danny watched them, fascinated by the flashing teeth. The two at the front had to be for gnawing wood. Were the ones they chewed with also orange?

 Aunt June appeared in the clearing, wearing a tan raincoat and carrying a shopping bag. She tapped the watch on her pale wrist.

‘The Starks,’ she said to Warlock, ‘are coming to dinner, with their two girls.’

Warlock said nothing. A black melon seed slid off the end of the shears in his hand and fell to the ground.

‘Did you get any food in the market for tonight? Or just melons?’ She seemed irritated.

Warlock shook his head.

‘None of your girlfriends were generous then.’ Aunt June didn’t sound so nice now. Danny thought of the women who’d been friendly to Warlock the last summer, especially the one with the frizzy hair. Didn’t his aunt like them too? ‘Not even—'

‘She wasn’t there.’ Warlock shook his head again.

‘Of course she wasn’t. She had the baby yet?’

Warlock shrugged.

He pointed the shears at a cage with two animals, both furs identical shades of caramel brown, as if they were twins.

Aunt June shook her head once, frowned.

She reached for the wheelbarrow and tipped the melons onto the existing pile.

Warlock opened a cage that held a single, large swamp beaver. ‘This girl, Danny, is one of my favorites, so well behaved, almost tame. She gets pregnant as if by magic.’ His eyebrow lifted. ‘Most of the boys here now are her sons or grandkids.’ He smiled, but it wasn’t the cheeky smile Danny was used to. His eyebrows were straight.

 Warlock lifted the animal by the neck, ruffled its fur and placed it flat into the wheelbarrow. Its claws clacked on the metal. A tin drum but fast and in stereo from both back feet.

 Aunt June leaned past Danny, close to the barrow. She raised her arm suddenly and he noticed the clawhammer in her hand. She brought it down hard, ktuh, on the animal’s skull. The clacking stopped.

Aunt June killed... one of Warlock’s favorites?

Aunt June dropped the hammer into the wheelbarrow next to the swamp beaver’s body. She ducked by the melons and a second later picked one up that he saw only had a small triangular dent. ‘Dessert.’ She threw it into the wheelbarrow, where it rested against the swamp beaver’s hind legs.

Danny felt a squirming in his belly that reminded him of the unpleasant winding bus ride from the train station. He looked away, tried to imagine nothing in the wheelbarrow other than harmless chilled colas.

Aunt June daubed at her hand with a paper handkerchief and turned to Warlock, her lips tight across her teeth.

‘His mother’s napping,’ she said. ‘You can put it in the kitchen until I get back. My bus will be here soon.’

She walked through the trees in the direction of the gate in the picket fence.

‘Do you want to bring the barrow to the kitchen, Danny?’ Warlock was looking at the cages, not the wheelbarrow. ‘I need to feed the younger ones.’ He sliced the rind off a watermelon and pushed dripping red fruit through a feeding flap into a cage holding seven or eight smaller swamp beavers. ‘They’re old enough now to survive without their mother.’

Danny couldn’t think of anything to say as he stared at the wheelbarrow. The animal within still looked plump and warm, but it was somehow more dead than the neighbor’s cat in the street where the car had left it. The cat had been a lot smaller, legs splayed and flat, like something else from a funny cartoon, although he hadn’t been allowed to get close to it.

Dead, its orange teeth no longer visible, the swamp beaver now reminded him of the stuffed toy his aunt had sent him.

‘Your Aunt’s trying out all sorts of recipes. The meat has a good amount of fat, perfect for burgers. You liked your lunch, didn’t you?’

Danny thought of Aunt June’s red-stained apron and the smell of onions... did his mother know what they’d eaten? That Aunt June killed animals, just like that, as fast as a car? Why hadn’t she told him?

Warlock pointed at the dead animal, then when Danny didn’t move, took one of Danny’s hands, pulled him closer to the wheelbarrow, and placed his hands on the black rubber of the handles. Without planning it, Danny’s arms tugged the barrow off the ground.

‘Pork’s become so expensive. So has beef.’ Warlock’s eyebrow rose. ‘I bet’ya restaurants will love to put these guys on their menus. Everyone loves their portion of meat.’

The barrow wobbled under the animal’s weight. Danny struggled to stop it from tipping over.

‘You’ll manage on your own next year. You’ll be bigger.’ Warlock gripped one side of the barrow with his red and yellow fingers and walked alongside. ‘You can help us with them.’

Danny’s fingers were sticky on the barrow’s handles.

About the Author

Carsten ten Brink

Carsten ten Brink is a writer, artist and photographer. He was born in Germany and raised in Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. He lives in London and studied at the University of Cambridge. Stories have recently been shortlisted and/or published by Fish Publishing, Jerry Jazz Magazine, The Master's Review, and also previously in The Write Launch. He is currently editing two novels and working toward a collection of short stories.