A short story by Barbara Godfrey
Between the stunted apple trees in the orchard 50 mink ran up and down in their wire cages. Their slinky brown bodies twisted and turned, their bright eyes darted restlessly over the wire looking for the neat round piles of fish offal they expected every evening. But the wire was clean except for a few fragments of stale food encrusted in the corner of each cage, where an occasional fly buzzed, attracted by the smell. One mink whistled shrilly, then another.
In the morning I went to see my mink.
Hungry, little fellows? Never mind, well fix you up soon.
But I knew it wouldnt be so easy to fix them up, for in these troubled times when pollution had wrecked the food chain fish was almost impossible to obtain.
I went back into End House, a huge brick labyrinth that scowled at the country road from behind a jungle of stinging nettles and waist-high brambles. The oldest part was Tudor, but the house had been extended by various owners until it was a warped, musty place of odd corners and draughty passages. Some of the rooms were civilised, others were festooned with cobwebs and smelt of dry rot and woodworm and I left them shut up.
Despite its sinister appearance End House seemed to fascinate people or else I did. Acquaintances and even inquisitive passers-by used to drop in for a cup of tea in the chaotic kitchen with its uneven stone floor.
It was while one such visitor was gazing round with shameless curiosity that my idea came to me. I was so overcome with its brilliance that I hustled him out of the door, inviting him to come back in a weeks time and see round my estate.
After he had gone I rang up a well-known firm and ordered the largest mincer on the market. When it arrived I had it installed in my fish house in place of the ordinary mincer Id been using.
That night I was too excited to sleep, and when Albert, my new friend, knocked at the door two days later I welcomed him effusively.
I meant to ask you the other day if youd like to bring your wife along, I said.
Im not married, actually, he replied. In fact, Ive got no relatives at all. Just the way to live, free from all ties.
Yes, I thought. Just the way to live and . . .
He interrupted my musing. I hear you keep mink?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I have to get their food ready. Want to watch?
Albert came with me to the fish house.
Heavens, what on earth is that? A concrete mixer? He pointed at the shining new mincer.
That, I replied proudly, is my mincer. See, Ill switch it on and you can have a closer look.
I pressed a switch. There was a swooshing yelp and then a monotonous hum as the huge cutters rotated in the deep basin. Albert was taken aback for a moment when the metal monster screamed into life, but his curiosity was stronger than his fear and he took a closer look.
Fearsome thing, isnt it? he ventured. What do you feed the mink on?
Im trying a new diet from today, I answered.
The mink ran up and down in their cages. Their strong bodies twisted and turned, and now and then one animal snapped viciously at the shadow of another. Hungrily their beady eyes darted over the wire,then turned towards the house. But still the food didnt come.
Flies buzzed and danced over the wire, drawn by the pungent smell of the food from the day before. But only the smell remained,no fragments were left, for the mink had almost chewed through the wire in their frenzy to eat every scrap of the new food Id served.
I went to look at them and they whistled with fury when their meal did not appear.
Sorry, boys, the larders empty again. But Ill see what I can do, I told them.
Tomorrow came and still the larder was empty. I sat sullenly at a front room window staring at the solitary passers-by and kept my fingers crossed, but no one came in, though one or two slowed down and stared at the house.
For an hour I sat. Then I had an idea. I found a piece of cardboard and wrote on it Eggs for sale, 50p a dozen. I knew that was a much lower price than neighbouring farmers were asking.
I put the notice by the gate and went back to my lookout post. I didnt have to wait long. A dowdy woman with an atrocious hat hesitated when she saw the notice, then came in.
She peered at me through her thick spectacles and I greeted her with my oiliest smile.
I dont remember seeing you before, I said. Do you live round here?
No, she snapped as she stumbled short-sightedly into a puddle. I live beyond the post office, but Ive passed by once or twice. I didnt know you sold eggs, she added accusingly.
I didnt until today. You are my first lucky customer. I suppose your husband told you about the eggs?
Oh, no, he doesnt even know I was coming this way.
By now we had reached the fish house and I held the door open for her. I closed it softly and turned the mincer on.
The mink licked their paws and the clouds of flies buzzed angrily because there were no morsels left for them. One mink sank its teeth savagely into my coat through the wire.
Hey, you vicious brute, let go, I grumbled. I wasnt too cross as I had noticed how big the mink were growing, how thick and shining their fur was.
I can see you like your new dinner, boys, I said fondly.
Back in the kitchen I was humming Ive got sixpence when I heard a car roar into the yard. It was my cousin Gerald with his French girlfriend Antoinette. I fancied her quite a lot.
I invited them to stay for supper and suggested they should go for a walk while I got the animals their food. I didnt want the pair of them nosing around, but Gerald insisted on following me when I went into the fish house to fetch the cats dishes.
Lord, what a whopper! he gasped when he caught sight of the mincer. Big enough to take a man, what?
He peered into the mincer and I suddenly remembered how he had put his arm round Antoinettes waist and smiled at her with his fat suggestive smile. I knew then that I hated him.
When Antoinette asked at supper where Gerald was I said hed followed a blonde down the road and hadnt returned.
A few days later I was standing by the lily pond pondering the food problem when a small polite voice at my elbow said: Excuse me, Sir, but may I camp in your field?
A tiny Boy Scout with bright red hair was gazing up at me.
Of course, little chap, I said patting him on the head. And Ill show you my mink if you like.
He beamed and said his schoolmates would be green with envy when they heard he had seen some real live mink. His name was Harry and I took him by the hand and led him to the orchard, where the mink were standing on their hind legs staring ravenously at us as we approached. There was a flurry of evil excitement, then a bedlam of disappointment.
Golly, breathed Harry, sticking his finger through the wire. I snatched him back just as a huge mink was about to close its jaws on his finger.
Hey, we dont want you gobbled up by these little brutes, I joked.
Harry trotted with me across the field, pointing out all the trees he was going to climb. Suddenly he spied my cats. Pussies White and Yellow had always been fed on mink food and were thriving on their new diet, becoming unbelievably efficient as hunters and terrorising all the cats and dogs in the neighbourhood.
Oh, what lovely cats, shouted Harry. He ran up to Pussy White, who purred, rubbed against Harrys leg and then scratched him on the wrist. I scolded the cat, who lurched off sulkily in the furrows of the field to stalk a fat partridge.
I sent Harry to play in the field. Off he ran through the thistles and I saw him examining birds eggs in a patch of long grass and peering through the hedge at the turkeys next door.
At dusk I called him in and asked him: Now, how would you like to do your good turn for the day?
Harry was a good lad. He seemed quite willing to do his good turn.
One of the mink escaped from its cage by biting through the wire something which had never happened before. For two hours I ran round in the undergrowth in the compound, now and then glimpsing a streak of fur. I was just about to give up the hunt in despair when I heard a discreet cough, and there stood a scraggy man in Scouters uniform.
Perhaps I can give a hand, he said helpfully.
Together we continued the hunt. It was now dark and I fetched a torch. Everything took on the shape of a mink, and twice I flung myself at a shadow and found it was only a tree root. My language didnt improve as the evening wore on, but my Scoutmaster friend remained as jolly as ever.
Haw, haw! he panted. Its a long time since I had such fun.
The other mink were making such a row that I couldnt hear any sound from the escaped animal. Once I heard a crackle in the corner of the compound and saw a stealthy shadow. I pounced and was rewarded with a painful clawing from Pussy Yellow. Finally, in a cluster of daffodils, we trapped the mink.
It was now quite late and I invited my new friend to join me for scrambled eggs. He looked tempted, but refused.
I shouldnt really have stayed so long, he explained. Im looking for a Scout who is missing.
I had a nasty moment until I remembered another lad had been camping in the farmers meadow next door. I knew several people had seen his tent there.
Okay, thanks, he said when I pointed him in the right direction.
He threw a last searching glance at my scrambled eggs and reluctantly moved to the door.
I do admire Boy Scouts, I said. Theyre so keen to do their good turn.
He fidgeted with pleasure at my praise for his lads and his enormous spectacles glinted eagerly in the light from the porch.
We always do our best to please, he said. Any time I can help you again, let me know. Im often round this way.
I looked at his skinny legs and said I dont think Ill need to call on you again, thanks.
With a final flash from his spectacles he faded into the darkness. A few days later I heard that the farmer had been taken away for questioning about the disappearance of a Scout.
I made stronger cages for the mink. They could now chew as hard as they liked, they still remained squealing prisoners. But one animal seemed to be ailing and didnt even stir at feeding time when the others were turning somersaults in their water bowls with savage joy and the fat flies raided the mounds of food until the snapping jaws got too close.
I phoned Hargreaves, the vet, who came at once to examine the sick animal. He took longer than usual and looked puzzled as we walked back to the house.
He asked: Have you changed their diet? The others are thriving, I can see that, but it doesnt seem to suit this one. I need to see a sample of their food.
Before I could stop him he went into the fish house and started spooning a bit of the minced up food into a jar.
Pity, I thought sadly. Poor old Hargreaves, he was a good friend.
The ill mink recovered, and I felt so exhilarated that I spent a couple of hours at the piano my favourite relaxation running through Chopins preludes. I was in the middle of the passionate 24th prelude when the phone rang. It was Mrs Hargreaves worrying because her husband hadnt come home for tea.
He left here hours ago and was going on to see Carruthers about a sick calf, I told her. Why not give him a ring?
I hated Carruthers because he had once let down my car tyres for fun in a car park. I smiled and went back to Chopin.
Another friend of mine called next day. He was managing director of the big fur company who bought my pelts. Proudly I showed him my animals and laughed at his astonished expression.
Why, Ive never seen such pelts, he exclaimed. Theyll fetch at least double the usual. How the devil did you get them in such excellent condition and so huge?
Trade secrets, old boy. I smiled enigmatically. But Ive found a new diet to counteract the fish shortage.
Well, I feel sure one of your pelts will be chosen to represent British mink at our international show. Why, this could put every other breeder out of business unless, of course, you share your secret with them!
Better and better, I thought. The other poor blighters had to hunt for every scrap of fish or meat to feed their starving animals, while my food literally dropped into my mincer.
Which reminded me the larder needed replenishing. No. I stopped my hurrying thoughts. Not my fur company friend. That would never do, with the promise of high prices and glory at the fur show.
Regretfully I waved him goodbye as he drove off.
It was getting late and I sat in the darkening kitchen with my fingers crossed. I watched Douglas, my pet spider, making his way to the oil painting of my great-aunt, where he lived. Then, as it was my birthday, I treated myself to an extra pot of tea.
An hour passed and still no one came. The mink were shrilling so loudly I thought their lungs would burst. The full moon had risen and was staring resentfully through the grimy window. Patches of moonlight were nailed to the walls, the corners of the room were inky, and an owl hooted unexpectedly down the chimney.
Impatiently I went into the silvery garden and was rewarded with the sight of a shabby old tramp with a yellow beard and gaping boots. He was shuffling around looking for a cosy hedge for the night, so I invited him for a cup of tea.
Ta, guvnor, he said, and his toothless grin of appreciation charmed me. We chatted for an hour and old Ned, his eyes streaming with merriment and his matted beard waggling in his saucer, entertained me with scandalous stories about people from the village.
Then, sighing with pleasure, he brushed three tea leaves off his beard, wiggled his black toes that were popping out of his boots, and fell asleep, wheezing and twitching gently.
I let him sleep for half an hour. Then I shook him by the shoulder and steered his unsteady steps to the fish house.
More and more I thought of Antoinette. She had visited me several times since Gerald left but I wanted to see more of her than that. I was sure she found me attractive in a peculiar kind of way. She seemed to like my secretive pale face and haunted eyes and even my sour manner with other people did not shock her, because to her I was charming and attentive. I used to smile at her with the burning look Id practised in front of a mirror and was pleased with the effect, for Antoinette blushed and tossed her dark hair provocatively.
One night after she had gone I sat in my room. The wind moaned down the 22 chimneys of End House, the drab curtains flapped against the rotting casements, and the fir trees outside writhed in agony as the gale tormented them. Suddenly I felt lonely for the first time in my life.
Next day a heading in the local paper caught my eye: Mystery disappearance of eight people. No reference was made to End House, of course, but it had come to light that some of the missing folk had been seen in the area.
A thunderous knock echoed on the back door and a grizzled head appeared, followed by a slouching body. The stranger sat down while I made tea and the conversation eventually got round to the house, the grounds and the village.
I hear there have been some odd goings-on round here, he said.
Yes, Ive been reading about it, I replied brightly. I expect theyve all turned up by now.
They havent. The sharpness in his voice surprised me and for a moment I wondered if he was a detective. Then he told me he was the reporter who had written the article.
Im just nosing around hoping to get a lead, he explained as he idly watched Douglas lowering himself from behind my great aunt for his morning foray. By the way, you keep mink, I hear. Interesting job I must come and write you up soon.
With a last grunt he turned for the door. Next thing I knew he was staring through the fish house window.
What on earths that? He was jumpy with curiosity.
I tried to move him on but he sidestepped and was inside examining the mincer before I could stop him.
Wow! Is this for the mink food? What do you feed them on?
Offal? But isnt there a serious shortage of fish? I thought . . .
Oh, I manage to get enough, I said quickly. Come on, now. I was getting annoyed.
But he was mightily intrigued. Ive never seen a deadlier object. Why, its big enough to take a horse, or even a man . . .
He broke off. When he turned towards me his eyes had a calculating expression.
Stranger things have happened, he muttered to himself as his hands twitched with excitement.
I didnt like it at all and decided not to take any chances.
If youre looking for a story youve got one, I sneered. Only its a pity you wont be able to write it up.
Like a python I wrapped myself round him. He was stronger than any of his predecessors and I had a struggle. But I managed to overcome him, to his discomfort.
Next week people wondered why the News and Advertiser didnt come out.
I laughed and laughed because no one could catch me. My skins were selling at incredibly high prices and other breeders pelts looked moth-eaten in comparison, especially as their animals diet was deficient. I had orders from every land and my bank balance was a source of amazement to my bank manager, but still I lived mainly in the kitchen in a social whirl of cups of tea.
Antoinette came more often and made an effort to tidy the house a bit. One evening I looked at her glowing eyes and asked her to marry me. Of course, she said Yes.
We were married two weeks later. No honeymoon, I told her. I cant leave the animals.
She didnt seem to mind and after the wedding we drove home in my shaky old car. I had a brief vision of my late cousin Gerald with his smug smile fading as he saw me carry my gorgeous bride over the dusty threshold.
Ill just feed the animals, sweetheart, I said. Then well have a cosy supper.
Out I went into the fish house, and there I remembered what I had forgotten in the days rush. There was no food. I swore and for a moment I thought of using the cats but dismissed the idea as cruel. Something else would have to be found.
As usual I was lucky. A late egg customer appeared at the door. This time it was a snuffly old lady with a snuffly pug that looked like her younger brother.
Half a dozen eggs, please, she said. And hurry up. Chou-Chou doesnt like those frightful cats glaring at him.
In my slimiest voice I invited her into the fish house. I shooed Chou-Chou into the garden and watched him vanish into the bushes with Pussies White and Yellow gleefully hanging on to him.
I turned back to the fish house. Pale and silent in the doorway stood Antoinette. I stared at her in horror. Despite her wild eyes she looked lovelier than ever, but when I went towards her she recoiled.
I felt sick, but I had to do it. I had no alternative.
I sang merrily in my bath Ive got a mincer, a jolly little mincer. At least, I tried to fool myself I was merry. But deep down I was sad. Only a month ago I had Antoinette almost. Now I was alone again.
The days were long, the nights even longer as the birds scratched and quarrelled in the eaves and the bad-tempered sow in the far field grumpily rattled her chains.
At least the mink are superb, I consoled myself. Success after success in the fur world was mine, and next week a party of Canadian breeders were to visit End House to see my ranch. I laughed to think how they would gape to see my great strong animals with their glistening fur and savage snapping jaws. They looked like a new breed now.
After a leisurely supper I sauntered out to the fish house to get the mink their evening meal. I had some unminced food stored from the day before, when a chubby policeman had wandered in and failed to wander out again.
I switched on the mincer and was about to start operations when a peculiar noise caught my attention. The faint murmur grew gradually louder and now it was a snarling sound, a throaty rumble, unlike anything I had ever heard.
All at once, in the semi-darkness outside, I saw gleaming points of light scattered all over the paddock moving points of light like cats eyes, coming nearer. The snarling sound was growing louder and suddenly, with a sickening lurch of my heart, I knew what it was.
I flung myself against the door and bolted it with shaking fingers. Then I remembered a window pane was broken. Grabbing a sheet of metal, I swung round to block up the hole but I was too late.
Already a twisting brown body was sliding through the window then another, another. I saw sharp white teeth that had bitten through the wire of cages and compound, mad eyes triumphant with new-found freedom.
I tried to scream, but only a hoarse rasp came from my throat. I backed away from the animals pouring into the fish house, animals, I knew with horror, that were ravenous for their feed.
No, no, I yelled, my scrabbling hands vainly trying to beat off three mink that were already worrying my feet.
Then it happened. I stumbled backwards against my humming mincer. Frantically I tried to save myself. But I toppled in.
Last thing I heard was the screaming anticipation of 50 mink preparing to start their evening meal.
© 1998 Copyright by Barbara Godfrey
The story The Mincer is an original work protected under copyright law, and may not be reproduced or adapted without the written permission of the author.
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