Mr. Allbones' Ferrets: A Novel

Mr. Allbones' Ferrets: A Novel

by Fiona Farrell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429968775
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/04/2009
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 372 KB

About the Author

Fiona Farrell is a New Zealand author who won the Montana New Zealand Book Award and was nominated for the international IMPAC Award. She received the Bruce Mason Award for Playwrights, the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, and was an inaugural recipient of the Rathcoola Residency for New Zealand and Australian writers and artists.


Fiona Farrell is a New Zealand author who won the Montana New Zealand Book Award and was nominated for the international IMPAC Award. She received the Bruce Mason Award for Playwrights, the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, and was an inaugural recipient of the Rathcoola Residency for New Zealand and Australian writers and artists.

Read an Excerpt

Mr. Allbones' Ferrets


By Fiona Farrell

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Fiona Farrell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6877-5


CHAPTER 1

He stands in the dark, shoulders hunched, hands shoved deep in his pockets, the air poking chilly little fingers through rips and tears to bare skin. He wriggles his toes in thin boots, keeps a sharp ear cocked for the snuffling of a dog, the rustling of dead leaves that could mean detection: that he's been spotted and stands at that instant like some unwary beast, poised between the beads on the foretip of the keeper's gun. Beyond the crowd of trees just breaking into leaf a bird calls, over and over, a peculiar plaintive whoop whoop he does not recognise. The stars hang brilliant between the branches, a wide daisy-field of light. Bright enough to see by, though the moon has dwindled to a scraping. Bright enough to make out the belly hump of the warren among fronds of bracken and the pale web of his nets, knitted, he hopes, to cover every exit.

He stretches full length and, with his ear pressed against the swelling of the earth, he can hear the usual murmurings: things growing and things easing through narrow crevices, mingled with the rush of his own blood and the soft footfall of his own beating heart. And then, from somewhere yards below as he lies listening like a baby at the breast, there rise other sounds: the brush of something squeezing through a shaft, its fur burnishing clay, the sudden thump thump thump of the alarum, a rapid scrabbling, a muffled chorus of squeals, the drumming accelerating to a frantic tattoo.

Down there in the dark there's something approaching fast, red eyes glistening down the length of a tunnel, and there is no alternative but flight, abandoning offspring like a cluster of pink cherries in the nest, to bolt for the open or, if that is too distant, to scramble into the nearest stop, head wedged against a blind wall, haunches to the intruder. Safe, the rabbit hopes, from attack. Brain and eyes tucked securely beyond reach.

But in Pinky, the rabbit has met its match. Pinky, her tail brisk as a brush with the pure joy of killing. Pinky, bred small to squeeze through the merest gap. Pinky, who can reach the goal denied other more massively built members of her kind: the base of the skull or the glistening circle of the rabbit's eye, protuberant with terror, where she can wriggle close and deliver the death thrust, neat and sure. Where she can claim the delicacy prized above all others: the creature's brain, soft and fragrant as whipped cream, sucked from the cranial bowl. With the promise of such pleasure, Pinky will not be deterred should the rabbit be jammed tight. If there is indeed no gap, even for her slight frame, she'll simply scrape every vestige of fur from the creature's rear and make a start while it still lives, severing the tendons connecting the spine to the back legs. She'll nibble a little perhaps, just for the taste, then move on, leaving the rabbit paralysed, trapped and bloody while she attends to whatever else lives in the bury, bolting the lot for the freedom they assume lies only in the open air, at the surface.

Allbones can hear her at it, sleek and swift, twisting and turning in a tight tunnel as if her body were not composed of bone but were sinew alone and malleable cartilage. She moves with speed and daunting purpose through the vast network below ground, for the warren is ancient, a kingdom of dark tunnels stretching for who knows how many acres in the light, dry soils. Once it was tended, for the silvery rabbit skins earned a good price from hatters in London, but fashions change, and the rabbits have had it to themselves for years now, laying claim to a wide territory, their burrows stretching so far beneath furze and bracken that no one can quite say where they might end.

There's a frenzy of scratching, of scrabbling, of distant squealing, the high pitch of terror rising toward the surface. Allbones straightens quickly and leaps to his feet in a single bound as the first rabbit hurtles forth from the earth and tangles in the net. The pegs hold, driven in as hard as he could manage and booted home. And the drawstrings run true, pursing as they are intended to, around a big buck. Allbones makes a grab for him before he can tangle his net into a bramble thicket of muddied hemp it will take hours to sort. Stinking of fear, hind legs flailing for purchase, claws extended, the buck screams, his call curiously identical to the cry of a frantic child. Allbones takes swift hold of the legs and feels for the light bones of the neck. A stretch, a twist and it's done. The buck gives one final mighty kick, then flops into a twitchy death. But already there's another, bolting from a hole a couple of yards distant beneath the roots of an old oak, so Allbones lets the buck drop (a good weight, not too old, and the thin membrane of his ears has torn readily so his flesh will still be tender) and takes the second. A doe at the very point of kindle with a cargo of kits seething in her belly, and she is shrieking as if tonight were Armageddon, which in a way it is, from the rabbits' point of view.

The tug, the twist. A scrabbling at his feet and there's another. And another. They're running in all directions, dragging at his nets. It's a mayhem of thrashing bodies, all rabbits from the sound of it, no indigent rats driven from borrowed sanctuary and primed to bite, as only a doe rat can, at an unwary hand. No fox seeking sanctuary in the bury, no wild cat thinking herself safely curled away from marauding toms to give birth to her young. Tonight is all rabbits. Allbones runs from one to another, the sweat breaking outbeneath his heavy coat, his breathing becoming laboured as he tries to muffle all their cries before the sound can carry to the groundsman's ears, for sounds carry far on such still nights in early spring when there is a lingering memory of frost in the air. He tugs and twists and, when he has time, disentangles each creature, then drops it into one of the pockets sewn into the lining of his coat, until the garment hangs warm and heavy from his narrow shoulders.

The flurry begins to ease.

One more rabbit, under the brambles.

A pause.

Another.

Then silence. No more scrabbling, no budging at the net.

And where is Pinky?

It is time to move now, to furl the nets quickly into a figure of eight around finger and thumb, then a neat twist of the drawstring to tie them fast for another night. It's time to count them all off, to make sure none have been missed in the dark, before slipping them one by one into his pockets, along with the pegs and the graft he uses for digging. Everything stowed away safe from inspection beneath the bulky worsted of his old coat. The rabbits lie cradled between death and that lifetime of sweet nibbled grass on dewy mornings, play on a twilit hillside, the soft nest of milky kits. He smooths the earth where he has been at work this evening, carefully bending back the fonds of bracken to conceal his activities, and all the while he is keeping an eye out for Pinky.

Where is she?

It is time to be off, with full pockets, before it is too late and the luck of the evening runs dry. The big house beyond the trees stands empty — has been empty for over a year, according to Mother Mossop, fount of all gossip. Ever since old Mr Aubrey's demise. 'And not before time,' she had said, squinting to fill a quart bottle with a thin trickle of her beet brandy. 'He were that near, he'd not part wi' his own droppin's.'

The house may be unoccupied but some staff have stayed on, including the groundsman, a short-legged former infantryman with some Irish regiment who had learned out in India to shoot fast and accurately. Allbones has seen him once or twice about Ledney, keeping himself to himself and meeting nobody's eye, and he has no wish to make his closer acquaintance. Particularly not tonight. He kneels again and places his ear to the ground, but there is no sound.

Silence.

Pinky is not normally given to lying up, casually devouring her kill below ground while he hops from foot to foot overhead in his thin and leaking boots. He has had her from birth and she has never let him down. He has taken pains with her, gentled her, fed her on dabs of his own spit which she lapped from the palm of his hand, and in return she has rewarded him with rabbit and rat and never once left him as she is leaving him tonight, target for the groundsman. He has been careful always, of course, and never entered her to the warren without taking the precaution of feeding her well first. Tonight she has had a plump rat, taken fresh from beneath Mother Mossop's pigpen. He nipped off the tail to preserve her from the mange then gave it to her and she sighed and squeaked with the pleasure of a warm cadaver all to herself. He gave her water, too, a full measure, as it is hot work below ground, killing. He has never subscribed to the theory that a ferret will work better on an empty belly, though there are plenty who do: Fowler Metcalfe, for example, who sends his ferrets in hungry with their lips sewn shut in a makeshift muzzling. Fowler boasts that his tallies speak for the efficacy of hunger. But Fowler has always been a fat boaster and a liar to boot. Allbones doubts his reports, his three hundred and eighty rabbits in one night from a single warren over Brinkton way, his one hundred and twenty rats in half an hour.

Allbones feeds his ferrets well and his ferrets bolt rabbits, rather than lying up to feed below ground, and he has never lost a single one.

Until, perhaps, tonight.

Pinky has had her rat and she has been watered well so it is unlikely she is down there feasting. Not that she would pass up the chance of a kit or two, naked and succulent and sweet as mother's milk. But they would not detain her long in the joy of the chase. A quick gulp in passing, as a man might snap a handful of plums from a wayside tree.

Allbones kneels in the starlight, his breath misting to a little cloud about his shoulders. The air about the warren stinks of blood, musk, fear, a smell so pungent that it could surely alert an attentive dog a quarter mile distant. It's a good half-hour since the last rabbit bolted into the web and his waiting hand. From beyond the woods he can hear the dull clang of the Ledney clock. He counts off the strokes. Eleven. Time to be gone. He presses his ear to the damp earth and hears nothing. Silence. The silence that falls when a crowded room has emptied suddenly. The silence that falls over a bloodied field after battle.

He wishes desperately for his white hob. Pompey was big and strong and trained to the line. With Pompey in his pocket he could have taken action now: he could have entered him into the warren to search, dragging the line between tree roots and broken rock through the network of tunnels below ground. Pompey would have sought out Pinky. He would find and stay and, after a few hours of desperate digging, Allbones could conceivably have traced them both, drawn them forth and brought them home again.

But Pompey has gone. Or, more correctly, he has been taken. The white polecat hob for whom Allbones traded half his stock one afternoon at the rat pit at the King's Arms. Pompey was admittedly no fighter. He proved himself timid in the pit up against a big buck rat that fought savagely and beat him off, along with two other hobs, before one of Fowler's sluts dealt death like a dancer. Allbones wanted the white hob nevertheless and afterwards, as the bets were being settled, he got him: a breeder, vigorous to mate, who had to be removed from the barrel when the sluts were in season or he would forget to eat and lose condition entirely. Who mounted them all, every slut in the barrel, not once but several times over, then took the young hobs too, and kits so young they still had their eyes closed so that they left the nest already impregnated with the seed which, when they were old enough and when the season was right, burst into young. Pompey mounted them all, chattering happily for an hour or more at a time while paws and teeth scratched bare patches in their fur, and anchored so firmly by his thrusting prick that the pair could be lifted clear from the floor yet remain coupled. Allbones held them in his hand and observed the hob at close quarters. Pompey's eyes glazed with lust and his body rippled in ecstatic spasm. Allbones observed his ardour with wonder mixed with not a little admiration.

The big white hob had repaid Allbones' investment by fathering a numerous brood of kits as lithe and strong as himself and, as often as not, pure white. A rich creamy white easy to spot out in the woods on a dark night, a white that made Allbones' kits the best of their kind for miles around. By ruthlessly culling any sandie or poley, Allbones had achieved perfection: a stock of pure whites, noted for their strength, agility and beauty, and the whitest of all, the most elegant, the most perfect, was Pinky. Sharp of muzzle, fearless, fierce and generally reliable.

But not tonight. Allbones stands abandoned in the dark, the trophies of the evening stiffening in his coat pockets, and curses. Curses the loss of his white hob, curses himself for drawing Pinky from the barrel tonight, rather than Flick or Fluff. He had been eager to make a start as night fell, to escape the cramped room where the littl'uns had squabbled and tumbled underfoot all day, no matter where he had tried to sit to mend his nets. The cramped cottage hummed with restlessness after days, weeks of rain: rain like the rain that had caused them to build the ark in the Bible. Forty days and forty nights of grey rain driving in from the east with the chill of the steppes still on its breath, rain that swelled every ditch to a stream, every stream to a mighty torrent, rain that melted lanes to knee-deep mud and flooded fields so that the cattle stood lowing piteously for rescue on diminishing islands as the water took back what it had surrendered only a few decades before to the inventive engineer.

Rain that made all outdoor employment impossible. Allbones, like all the other day labourers and bankin-men, sat idle, the banks and ditches where they earned their daily keep drowned and barely holding their own against the churning floods of muddy ochre. Rain gurgled in the gutters; no work, no pay. Rain drip drip dripped through every hole and cranny in wall or roof so that nothing could be kept dry. The flour would swell and rot, the walls would sprout a furry coat of mould, and soon the coughing would start, the Ledney Carol: a paroxysm of spit and suffocating phlegm followed as like as not by pallor, wasting, and the spatter of blood flowering like poppies on the pillow.

But today, a miracle! Mid-afternoon, the rain ceased. A pale shaft of sunlight fell in the door when it was opened to the yard and the littl'uns tumbled out to meet it, into a world new-washed, webbed with raindrops and gloriously muddy. Allbones, too, made ready, eager for the silence of the woods, for the night wind furtive among the branches, for the scratching of rabbits tangled in his nets. And eager, too, for meat. Meat boiled, meat fried. Liver and kidneys and brains and plump thighs and bones to suck bare after weeks of turnip filched from the barn behind the church, or potatoes lifted one at a time from Mother Mossop's jealously guarded store. And nothing to lend them savour except a few thrushes taken from their sodden nests in the hedgerow, their boney carcasses exuding the merest hint of sustenance. All afternoon Allbones' mouth had run wet at the thought of meat. His tongue had swollen thick at the thought of meat. And just as soon as the sun wavered down between racks of uncertain crimson, he was off, thrusting his hand into the barrel behind the door where he had moved his ferrets from the yard after Pompey's mysterious disappearance. And he had drawn forth Pinky.

She snapped at his hand as she usually did, not liking to be woken from her warm straw bed, but he placated her with the rat and tucked her into his coat pocket, the tiny slup slup slup of her teeth gnawing at a bone a happy accompaniment as he escaped the clamour of the cottage for the solitude of Ledney Wood.

Standing out here in the dark though, he wishes his hand had alighted on one of Pinky's siblings: Flick or Fluff were not as brave as she, being older and more cautious, but they were utterly reliable. They would never leave a fellow in the lurch, target for any shotgun that happened to be in the vicinity. He should have taken Flick.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Mr. Allbones' Ferrets by Fiona Farrell. Copyright © 2007 Fiona Farrell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Mr. Allbones' Ferrets 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
frisbeesage on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Mr. Allbones' Ferrets is the story of what happens when a wealthy natural scientist, Pitford, and and a poor, but intelligent peasant, Allbones, join forces to help New Zealand conquer its rabbit problem. Enter Eugenia, Pitford's delicate, beautiful, but also curious and intelligent granddaughter. Then Fowler an enormous, evil bully gets in on the game. Part natural history, part social commentary, part love story this slim novel manages to be many things at once. Its gruesome at times with graphic descriptions of ferrets hunting rabbits. Then it turns pastoral with young love in fields full of butterflies. Yet even with this breadth the story flows nicely and the characters always seem natural. I really loved this book! The unique story line and beautifully descriptive writing style kept me hooked. I loved the characters and was immediately interested in where they would end up. Mr. Allbones' Ferrets is literary fiction at its best.
brooklynj on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Not usual part of any genre i would read, though suprisingly i loved it.it was a refreshing change for me and i loved the storyline and the development of the characters. I think the setting for me was most probably what shunned me at first but the vocabulary used transformed me to the time era.Great read and reccomended to those who like character driven storylines.
kmaziarz on LibraryThing 6 months ago
In this slender historical tale of romance and natural science, Walter Allbones, a low-born breeder of ferrets and rabbit poacher, encounters wealthy scientist Mr. Pitford and his granddaughter Eugenia one evening when returning from a profitable night¿s poaching with a sack full of rabbit carcasses. Pitford and Eugenia were impressed by Allbones¿ knowledge of natural science, however unlettered he might otherwise be¿he has spent most of his life rambling the woods around his home and observing the wildlife, and much to Eugenia¿s delight was able to direct the pair towards the den of a badger with young cubs.Pitford, a naturalist of the old strain who fancied that mankind¿s measured interference would necessarily be for the benefit of new ecosystems, hires Allbones to procure a large quantity of stoats, ferretss and weasels to be introduced into the ecosystem of New Zealand in order to control the rabbits that Europeans had already introduced with disastrous results. Throwing himself into the task, in no small part because of the beautiful eyes and smile of Eugenia, Allbones soon finds himself recruited to accompany the ferrets across the ocean in order to make certain as many of them as possible survive the trip. On board the ship, Allbones and Eugenia grow ever closer, until a disastrous secret threatens to drive them apart.Slight, and relying too much on stock types rather than fully-fleshed out characters, ¿Mr. Allbones¿ Ferrets¿ is neverthless an intriguing window on 19th century England and the arrogance of a breed of scientist who believed not in studying nature, but in changing it.
karynwhite on LibraryThing 6 months ago
I enjoyed this novel. I liked the idea and I liked the ending, though I wish it went on a bit more so I knew what happened. I didn't like the conflist between Allbones and Fowler - I didn't like Fowler. Quite an easy read.
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
Mr. Allbones' Ferrets is the story of what happens when a wealthy natural scientist, Pitford, and and a poor, but intelligent peasant, Allbones, join forces to help New Zealand conquer its rabbit problem. Enter Eugenia, Pitford's delicate, beautiful, but also curious and intelligent granddaughter. Then Fowler an enormous, evil bully gets in on the game. Part natural history, part social commentary, part love story this slim novel manages to be many things at once. Its gruesome at times with graphic descriptions of ferrets hunting rabbits. Then it turns pastoral with young love in fields full of butterflies. Yet even with this breadth the story flows nicely and the characters always seem natural. I really loved this book! The unique story line and beautifully descriptive writing style kept me hooked. I loved the characters and was immediately interested in where they would end up. Mr. Allbones' Ferrets is literary fiction at its best.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In the late nineteenth century in England, ferret whisperer and breeder Walter Allbones meets naturalist and rare bird collector Mr. Pitford and his lovely granddaughter Eugenia when his pets poach rabbits to bring to him from the nearby estate owned by the scientist. They sort of catch him in the act. He agrees to provide Mr. Pitford with ferrets to be shipped to New Zealand to control the out of control rabbit infestation. Walter is attracted to Eugenia and as much to the money he can make selling his ferrets. The pair chaperoned by grandpa begins an international trek to sell his ferrets. As their journey continues Walter believes he loves Eugenia, but fears her reaction would end their friendship. He does not understanding she begins to reciprocate his feelings in spite of his emitting the stinky odor of ferret sweat to her olfactory sense. This is an interesting amusing historical tale with a wonderful romantic subplot that enhances Fiona Farrell's satirical homage to Darwin as mustelids and ferrets play matchmakers, but not the way readers would expect. The story line is whimsical with solid characters having differing personalities. Fans who relish something different and do not demonize evolution will enjoy this irreverent look at relationships, human and otherwise, that both highly respect in awe and cheekily mock also in awe Darwin. Harriet Klausner