The Boxcar Children, Part III

Previously in this series.

The roosters crowed and the hens clucked; the farmer's wife began to prepare breakfast, and the four children slept on. Dinner time came and went, and still they slept, for it must be remembered that they had been awake and walking during the whole night. The roosters and the hens grew old and died, as did the farmer's wife and eventually her farmer. The children of those first hens and roosters moved into the main house and took a turn at raising farmers and farmers' wives. They were clumsy about it at first, and made a great many messes in the kitchen, but hens are naturally tidy creatures, and dashed about pecking up whatever they spilled until eventually the kitchen floor looked every bit as clean as when the farmer's wife had tended to it herself. 

They kept the farmers in a paddock out back, and the farmers' wives ranged freely all over the woods and hedges and meadows of the property, roosting always up in the trees behind the barn at night, tucking their aprons behind their hips and crooning softly to one another.

In the mornings the farmers' wives paced around the paddock gates, butting their heads against the posts and grunting softly until the farmers woke up. Each of the farmers was given a little blue mug, to make him feel more comfortable, and each of the farmers' wives would pantomime pouring coffee into it. They would turn and bow to one another, stretch their hands out as if strewing seeds, then scatter into the various corners of the paddock and turn up the soil with their heels. 

The hens grew huger with each successive generation – eyes the size of tea-cups, then eyes the size of dinner-plates, then eyes the size of table-runners. Eyes so big they could barely close their eyelids all the way around them. They tore down the house and built a bigger one, and threw up huge moth-nets all around the prophecy. (Moths had become a terrible blight in the new era. Thirty to forty feet tall, they shuddered wildly from farm to farm, drifting into trees and knocking down eaves, drinking wells dry and catching up the spring boy-calves in their great clacking mandibles, carrying them off, black and wriggling, against the sky.) 

There were mistakes. Of course there were mistakes. The farmers all developed hip dysplasia by the time of the F3 hybrid, and were physically unable to mount the farmers' wives without assistance. Hens, not having hands, found rendering said assistance a near-impossibility. A female moth laid a clutch of eggs in the cistern, and the larvae drowned in it as soon as they were born, poisoning the water. There was talk of building a highway over the grazing-fields. Farming never was an easy life. 

It was into this world that the children woke. It was nearly seven o'clock in the evening when they stirred again. 

"You 'wake, Jess?" said Violet, speaking very low against the wall of hey. 

"Yes," Jessie said. 

"Henry, too?" 

"Henry too," came his cheerful answer. 

"The world smells different," Benny said. 

"I'll bet the grandfather is still in it," Violet said. "I'll bet even if we slept for another hundred-hundred years, and everything else died in shouting and violence, the grandfather would still be in it, and still looking for us." 

"If all it took was a few hundred years' of sleep to lose the grandfather," Henry said, "I expect Mother and Father would have done it a long time ago." 

"Henry," Violet said, scandalized. "Don't say both their names at once. You'll get their attention, or worse."

"I don't care about any of that," Benny said. "I'm hungry."

"Oh, Benny," Jessie said. "I'm awfully sorry. There isn't anything to eat." She stole a worried glance at Henry. They had always been able to feed Benny before. No one quite knew what a hungry Benny would do.

Benny began to cry. His shoulders jerked back and forth.

"The bag," Violet said. "Jess, your bag – wasn't there bread in it?" 

"There was," Jess said. "But I can't hold on to it. See –" She drew out the fragrant loaf of bread, still warm, cut it with Henry's jackknife into four quarters, then tried to offer a piece to Benny. By the time he groped a hand out to take it, the bread was gone. She reached for another, but it crumbled and burst into a clot of ants under her fingertips. The ants burrowed into the hay and after a moment were gone from sight too. 

"I want a drink of water," announced Benny, and suddenly the haystack vanished around them. A giant hen in overalls cocked its massive head to the side, fixing one of its dinner-plate eyes on them. 

"I want a drink of water," Benny said again. The hen blinked.