Suffer the Children - By John Saul

One Hundred Years Ago

The surf was high that day, adding a backdrop of sound to the late summer afternoon. High above the sea, the same wind that built the waves seemed only to stroke the grass in which the child played.

She was a pretty thing, eleven years old, the cornflower blue of her dress matching her eyes, and the blond hair that only children possess cascading down her back and over her shoulders as she bent to examine one of the tiny creatures that shared her world. She poked at it with one small finger, then pulled the finger away almost before she heard the tiny snap that signaled the beetle’s ascent into the air. She watched it fall back to earth, and before it could scuttle away into the grass she poked it again. Again it snapped, rose into the air, and fell back to earth. She smiled to herself, then picked up the beetle and put it in her pocket Through the heavy material she could just feel the movement of the struggling insect; its snapping sounds were completely muffled.

She glanced toward the house a hundred yards away, then toward the road that wound down the hill and out of sight She half expected to see a carriage coming up the hill, and her mother waiting expectantly on the porch. But it was too early, much too early. She wondered what her grandmother would bring. She hoped it would be a pet. The child liked pets.

Her attention changed as a gust of wind hit her, and she turned to face the stand of woods that separated the field from the high bank of the ocean beyond. For a long time she stared into the wood, almost as though she saw something there, something that was almost within her range of vision, yet hovered just beyond the edge of sight. She felt an urge to go to the woods, to step in among the trees and ferns and lose herself from the house behind her. She knew she shouldn’t She knew the woods were beyond the limits, that there was danger there. But still, it would be nice to wander in the trees …

Perhaps that was why she began to follow the rabbit.

Within the forest, hidden by the foliage and the shadows of the trees above, a man sat staring out into the field. His eyes never left the child, never glanced to the side or farther out to the house that loomed across the field. It was as if he were hypnotized, part of the scene, yet somehow separated from it.

He watched in silence as the child looked first toward the house, then to the road, and finally turned to look directly toward him. For a long moment, as she seemed to examine him, seemed to look into his soul, he was afraid she was going to turn and run. His muscles tensed, but he felt nothing as he stared out of the darkness. Then the moment was over. The girl turned away, and the man relaxed. His hand reached for the bottle propped against a rock next to him, and he took a long drink.

It was a small rabbit, and the child knew it couldn’t have been more than a few months old. It peered at her from beneath a bush, as if it knew that it was visible but hoped that maybe no one would notice. For a long time it held very still as the child approached it, but when she was still ten feet away she saw it begin to twitch its nose. She knew that it was about to bolt Still, if she held herself completely motionless, maybe it would relax again, and then she could creep a little closer. She waited until the rabbit’s nose stopped moving, then inched closer. Another foot. The nose began twitching again. She stopped. The rabbit sat up and cocked its ears. The child held still. Carefully, the rabbit eased back down to all fours, and it laid its ears back, as if to disappear entirely into the brush.

The child moved forward once again, and the rabbit bolted. Startled, the child jumped a little too, but her eyes never left the rabbit.

She saw that it was crippled.

One of its hind legs was much weaker than the other, so that when it leaped, it veered a bit to the left. And it seemed to be slow.

Maybe she could help it.

She began following, creeping as close to the rabbit as