TRIGGER WARNING: Animal cruelty.
‘Welcome, welcome. Leave your bag at the door. Don’t be shy. Come on in.’ The Gift Master fiddled with his gunslinger moustache. ‘Every guess is a good guess, and the right guess buys your freedom. Do you need me to tell you the rules?’ He towered above Anna, muscular form filling his tailored black suit.
‘Yes Sir, yes please.’ Anna brushed tendrils of greasy hair behind her waxy ears.
‘Your token, please.’
Anna Bunn reached into the pocket of her threadbare tunic, grubby fingers grazing past the hole developing at the seam. She lifted out the piece of laminated purple card with her name printed across the centre, surrounded by golden curlicues. The man took it, careful not to touch her fingers, making her conscious of the coal dust under her nails. This month’s soap money had gone towards the tokens.
‘First thing is to find a gift with your name on it, Anna.’ He took the token and dropped it through a slot in the top of a padlocked metal box. ‘Go on, don’t be shy.’ He nodded towards an overburdened shelf.
Anna placed her small, yet bulging duffle bag at the door and glanced around in the candlelight. Oak shelving units ran back and forth across the room, maybe eight rows of them. She figured she could reach the top shelves if she stood on tiptoes, but she’d rather not try. Reaching up might expose the fact that the ill-fitting waistband of her trousers was separating from the yoke. No thread money either.
Her eyes settled on the second bay of shelves where the gifts were wrapped in red and gold. Colours her mother talked about when she recalled the Christmas celebrations of her childhood. The season was turning. Anna wished there was a celebration round the corner, but knew there would only be darker nights and colder mornings. She mooched round the edge of the first set of shelves and approached the second, eyes wide.
Most of the labels meant nothing, the unfamiliar letters blurred into unrecognisable combinations of lines. She hid her embarrassment to hide her illiteracy. After examining about 25 gifts at eye level, she spotted an ‘A’ on a label on the bottom shelf. Bending down revealed that a lot of the gifts at this level began with A, so the search for two ‘n’s began. After a couple of ‘Anne’s threw her off track and she started to think it an impossible task, an ‘Anna’ appeared, and relief swept over her.
‘I choose this one, Sir. If that’s ok?’
The Gift Master strode across the floor. ‘Let me see. Yes, yes that’s a permissible choice.’ He handed it back to her. His manicured nails grazed a smudge on the back of her hand. He wiped the tips with his hanky, then brushed them on his lapel.
‘So, now you must guess what it is. You are allowed to hold it, touch it, sniff it, listen to it, whatever you like, as long as you do not unwrap it.’ He twiddled with his moustache. ‘You have three guesses and must guess with rough accuracy. For example, if you believe your gift is a foodstuff you must say which one. But saying “bread” will suffice, you do not need to specify “Farmhouse” or “Granary”.’
Anna stared at her gift. It was about the length of two of her hands and about as wide as her palm at its widest point. It tapered, getting narrower towards each end, and was quite heavy for its size. It looked the same on the back. The wrapping was such that the exact shape was obscured, but it didn’t seem to be deliberately masking anything. Her first guess came quickly to mind, and she spoke before thinking it through.
‘Is it a cross?’
‘A cross? You mean a religious symbol?’ The Gift Master puffed out his cheeks and thrust his hands onto his hips as Anna’s stomach sank. ‘You do realise that whatever your gift is, if you guess it correctly, you have to use it for the purpose for which it was intended?’ He tapped his foot. ‘In all my years of granting gifts to peasants I have never had one of them guess I had provided them with a banned artefact.’
Anna shrank away from him and her back caught the shelf behind her. She jumped, not wanting to disturb the rest of the gifts.
‘And well you might feel ashamed.’ He shook his head. ‘But rules are rules. You may guess again.’
Anna ran the gift over each shaking hand. What was the shape of a cross but not a cross? She had never even seen a real one, but it dawned on her that the Gift Master would assume she had. Her mother had drawn them for her in secret. It was when she had explained the history of how Slateville Town had been taken over by the Authorities when she was a child and had eventually become Slavton. Slave Town.
‘Well?’ his tone didn’t seem so welcoming now. ‘With only a purple token all of your party must guess correctly for you to be released from Slavton. Green is just two out of three, and gold is only one. But purple. Purple leaves no room for mistakes.’
Anna’s mother had warned her about this rule, but the chances of ever getting a green or gold token were so slim that they had to try with the purple.
‘Do your best my child, but don’t feel bad if something goes wrong. Remember not to rush into anything, I know what you're like.’ She’d stroked Anna’s tangled hair. A little grease and grime had never been enough to stem her affection.
Anna flicked images through her mind of all the objects in the family cave, searching for a cross that wasn’t a cross. She felt the gift again and noticed that the shorter part of it was rounded but the longer part of it was flatter, and possibly pointed at the end. It pulled up a dim memory of her late father. He used to go hunting and fishing and he had one of these. A knife! A hunting knife. Anna took her time. Another mistake would be costly. Were there rules against hunting knives? Were there rules against hunting? She glanced at her bulging knapsack against the door. It doesn’t have to be specific. Just say "knife".
‘Is it a knife?’ she cowered a little as she spoke.
‘Well, well yes, you are correct. It’s a dagger, but close enough.’ There was no celebration in his voice. ‘And by sunset you must use it for its proper purpose. Failure to do so will demonstrate your ingratitude to the Authorities and result in severe punishment. Your party will not be permitted to leave, even if they all guess correctly.’ He nodded towards the door. ‘Now unwrap your gift and collect your things. You must wait for your family in the holding room.’
Anna peeled the edges of the tape away from the wrapping paper and cautiously lifted the sticky strips until the red and gold wrapping came away. She’d never had anything wrapped before, but her mother had explained how it worked. Once the dagger was free, she folded the paper into a neat square, hoping she could keep it for her mum. The Gift Master did not object and she examined her gift as she shuffled back towards the door.
The holding room was cold and sparse. It was divided down the middle by a red velvet curtain that swept along the floor. There were three chairs on the side closest to the door, and no other furniture. Large windows on one side looked out over the lush river valley that separated Slavton from Market Ganton.
Anna could just see the platform where the train would come in to take them across the valley and to their freedom, assuming her mother and Freda also guessed correctly. From this empty room she could not see Slavton at all. It was as if the bleakness and filth of her home had been erased. After all, no one from Market Ganton wanted to look at poverty. It was much better off hidden away from the rich, and the free.
Anna opened the worn drawstring of her backpack and peered inside. The rabbit was still there, legs still bound, still struggling a little. She breathed a sigh of relief that no one had searched her bag. She’d only trapped it that morning and it would feed the three of them for 2 days if they could find a way to cook it later.
The dagger glinted in the sunlight that streamed in over her shoulder. It was soon resting, point down, inside her bag, increasing the number of things she owned to six. She tapped the butt of the leather handle with two fingers before she pulled her bag closed. She’d have to carry it carefully. The drawstrings also formed the carry handles and were getting very thin in places. Having a functioning bag was vital until her mother found employment and they could rent a home.
Home. It was said that the free people in Market Ganton lived in real houses. They were made out of clay bricks, with doors and windows, even carpet, like the Authority buildings in Slavton.
The door to the holding room swung open and Anna was snapped back from her daydream. There in the doorway, knapsack in hand, was Freda.
‘Why are you crying, little sis?’
‘Oh, Anna, it was so scary. The Gift Master shouted at me, and wouldn’t let me choose a gift. I had to have the one he gave me. I dropped my gift and he called me ungrateful and asked if I was from a home of Christians, and I didn’t know what he meant so I said “maybe”, and he got mad.’
Anna’s face flushed with fear. She ran across to Freda and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her into a heartfelt hug. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’ Anna stroked Freda’s hair and caressed her back. ‘I think I said something stupid, I may have made this bad for all of us.’ Hot tears hit the floor as bile rose in Anna’s throat.
‘And he said I have to use my gift by the end of the day or none of us can leave.’ Freda sniffed. ‘But we’re trapped in this room, and I don’t think I can use it in here.’
Anna remembered that rule. She had a dagger, what could she use it for by sunset? In this room? She released her embrace of her sister and stepped round her to the door. It was locked. She tried the windows, they didn’t open.
‘What’s your gift?’
Freda put her stained knapsack on the floor and opened the drawstring. ‘I saved the paper, it’s really pretty.’ She drew out a folded square of bright orange wrapping with a label on it that simply read “Freda”.
‘It’s this, it’s cord. Though he said it was “rope”.’ She brushed a grotty sleeve across her wet eyelids and drew out a long length of white cord from her bag. ‘What’s yours?’
‘A knife, but he called it a “dagger”. Look.’ Anna produced her gift from her bag. ‘But it has to be used for its intended purpose and there’s nothing here to use it on.’ She glanced around the room. There were narrow metal beams crossing the roof space. The word “rope” sounded familiar, and those beams brought back a memory. ‘They string them up with rope,’ she whispered. ‘When they try to escape. They make a noose and string them up with rope.’
‘What does it mean? What's a noose?’
‘Oh Freda! We must find ways to use these things, our own ways. Safe ways.’
‘What else is in your bag?’
‘Just the paper from my gift, my pocketknife, my shawl, that rabbit I caught this morning, and my other tunic.’ She opened her bag to show her sister.
‘Your bag is breaking. The string won't last much longer. We can use my cord to fix it.’
Anna grinned and hugged her sister again. ‘Yes! Yes, we can. Pass it to me.’
'Shouldn't we wait for Mum? She said not to rush anything, take our time.'
'It's going to go dark! We don't know how long Mum will be, and if we can figure this out on our own it will help her.'
The sisters worked quickly and replaced the fraying drawstring with strong, new cord. It was a lot thicker than the original, and difficult to thread through the loops, but that was good, it would last a fair while. It was also a little longer than needed.
‘Let’s cut it off with your dagger.’ Freda said. ‘Then we’ve used that too.’
‘I’m not sure that’s the intended purpose of it. But we can try.’
Within a few minutes, the cord was cut to length and Anna opened her bag again to see the rabbit, still alive. ‘I've got an idea.’
Anna took her bag behind the curtain, out of Freda's view. She lifted the buck out into the room, and slit his throat. Blood spilled on the floor, but it was covered with a layer of something shiny that would be easy to clean. And if she didn’t do this, she risked them all being dead, anyway.
'It's going to be ok now.' Anna stepped back round the curtain.
‘Now all we need is for Mum to guess hers.’ Freda was grinning at the prospect of seeing her mother again.
‘And for us to think of a way to use it without killing anyone.’ Anna’s face stayed stony.
Laura Bunn entered the room with an hour to go before sunset. Her face was wet and smudged and sweat was forming on her reddened forehead.
‘Mum!’ Freda ran into her arms.
‘Why are you shaking?’ Anna placed a gentle hand on her mother's shoulder.
‘Oh girls, girls. I am so glad to see you. I was so scared you wouldn’t both be here. Well done for guessing! Now, let’s think about our gifts, and we can work out how to use them safely.’
‘What gift did you get Mum?’ asked Freda. ‘We’re running out of time.’
‘Well, the Gift Master wouldn’t let me choose.’
‘Me either!’ said Freda. ‘Anna chose a dagger, but he gave me a rope.’
‘He handed me this.’ Laura opened her own bag and pulled out a small green bottle with ribbed sides.
Anna recognised it immediately. Poison.
Laura took a deep breath. ‘Well, we can kill Anna’s rabbit with the poison, skin it with the dagger and then we just need to find a use for the rope.’
‘We already used the rope to fix Anna’s knapsack.’
‘Well, that’s great! My clever girls!’
‘And there’s something else.’ Anna hung her head as she pulled the dead rabbit out from behind the curtain. 'What are we going to do?'