TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains depictions of sexual assault and violence which may be triggering to survivors.
We are thoroughbreds, all of us, designated for greatness. Our school was built in the age of kings, or by a king? We are not sure. Bluff regality hangs about as surely as the velvet curtains dividing the dining hall from the Corner House.
We hold this greatness in our shoulders. We use our shoulders to propel other great boys across fields in scrums on Sundays. Our shoulders are resting places for our arms, swung around one another as we chant our school song at The George. Last year, we stole the statue of our rival school’s founder. We carried the marble man on our shoulders, dumped him in their fountain, chipped his nose off.
As men, we’re just getting started. We know whom we are up against. We have a history master we do not like. He comes from nothing and will go nowhere. His ties are cheap, his shoes badly made. Don’t ask us how we know this, we just do. His voice doesn’t carry over our songs. It cannot. We hum our school song under all his lectures on the Tudors, on appeasement, the Boer War. His textbooks are like family albums to us. We don’t need history. He apologizes. Around his collar, he starts to sweat. He is nervous. We hate him most for this.
He lives on campus, in a small hut in the forests beyond the cricket grounds. There is a disused well in his back garden and his front door is cabbage white.
On Halloween night, we stole Commedia masks from the theatre department and hid in the trees surrounding his house. Silent we stood, almost invisible among the oaks, frost dampening our shoes, trying not to laugh as the master drew back his curtain.
On the master’s desk is a photograph of a girl. The photograph is black and white but we know her eyes are brown. The first thing we notice is her beauty: the freckle above her left eyebrow, the plump mouth. We regard the photograph as we did the rival school’s statue: with hatred, desire, and an instinctive understanding of its pricelessness.
“Who’s that, sir?” we ask.
Cheered by our interest in his life, he smiles and tells us it is his daughter, Holly. Like us, she goes to boarding school, far from her father.
We replace the photograph on his desk, smile at the master.
By day, we share our dreams of Holly. We want to know how Holly laughs. We want to kiss Holly on every part of her face. We want to lay her upside down so her throat hangs redly open over the bed. We want to force ourselves into her mouth. We want her to scream, gasp, bleed and cry. We want to insert things into her, watch things come out.
The master tells us Holly will visit him over the Easter break. Her school has different holidays to ours, so we will be on campus while she is here.
From then on, we run our hands over our dreams, feeling the lumps and gummy knots and sinews, knowing we can make them come true. Over the weeks spent cultivating our plan, we ask the master questions.
“How long is Holly staying, sir?”
“Is Holly staying with you, sir?”
“How is Holly getting here, sir?”
“She’s coming by train.”
“How old is Holly, sir?”
“Just turned thirteen.”
With every question, he relaxes, swings his feet up on the desk, leans against the wall, even laughs. One day, he takes off his glasses and rubs them on his chest so hard a nose pad comes off and rolls between the desks. We retrieve the pad, hand it to the master with a smile. “Here you go, sir,” we say.
“Thank you, boys,” he says. “Thanks.”
The night before Holly arrives, we hold a meeting in The George. We order nothing, daring the barmaid to question us as we chug great pints of tap water and crumble beer mats to pieces. The ice clinks against our teeth, grazes our throats as it slips down our gullets. We chew on lemon slices, the rinds mashing to bitter crumbs in the backs of our mouth. We don’t speak much. When we do, it is to remind each other of Holly’s arrival.
We leave The George at eleven, swiping a bottle of tequila from the bar as we go. The barmaid follows us out, her half-hearted cries following us over the fields leading to our school. We don’t turn around.
We take Holly to the chapel. It was built in 1324 and is the oldest part of our school. We lay her on the altar. She is asleep now, dozed from three hour’s drinking. She is more beautiful in person than in her picture, with arms dusted in light, custard-colored hair and a small, perfect roll of fat on her stomach.
We took her from the master’s porch. Around her wrist is a bracelet of woven strings – pink, orange, purple – the kind girls wear for friendship, or for luck. Lifting off her shoe to shake out a pebble, she turned, saw us, and we waved. She waved back. After that, it was easy.
In her sleep, she hiccups, the little sound echoing about the chapel walls. In the high windows, the sun hangs low and pink. Saints are entombed here. Noblemen are buried under our feet. We try not to imagine Holly’s life.
She slumps down the altar, dress riding up over her hips, revealing a milky pinch of belly button. Still she doesn’t wake, save for a murmur, a new frown. We part her legs. We don’t have long. Outside, we can hear her father calling:
“Holly! Holly! Holly!”
We put our hands everywhere, and she is cold everywhere. Earlier tonight, she told us about her love of horses. Our faces hover over her. One by one, our breath joins with hers as fog.
Notes from Guest Reader Emma Smith-Stevens
This story grabbed me from the start, and the ending absolutely gutted me. Jenkins’ vivid and crisp prose, her concise and unexpected language, and her use of the first person plural for the narration are all masterful. Every word is essential—as is the depth of insight this story allows us into the very heart of misogyny.