The Blooding

Esoterica Blooding 01 230616

By Scott Pieschel,

“Excited for your blooding tomorrow?”

Shadows from the weakening flames in the hearth danced across my older brother, Tommy’s, face. He sat in the wingback chair opposite mine and watched me expectantly, as if waiting for a smile, a bounce of excitement.

“Is there a lot?” I asked.

“Of what?”

“Blood.” I hated that word. The sound of it, falling heavy from the speaker’s mouth like a stone, the sight of it oozing from a cut, its metallic taste when I chewed my lip.

He grinned. “Thirsty, are we?”

I gnawed the inside of my cheek.

“I remember the night before my first hunt,” Tommy continued. “Couldn’t wait to get into the covert, following the hounds as they drew a scent. The excitement when their first cries lifted on the breeze. Chasing them over fields and fences as they ran down the pest near the mill.”

I had only ever seen foxes from a distance while out on morning rides – their fluffy tails, pointed ears and swift movements.

“I think they’re quite handsome.”


“The foxes.”

Tommy’s forehead creased, as if trying to decipher a different language. He shook his head, dispensing the words from his memory. “Once the hounds kill it, Father will cut off its tail and use it as a brush to paint the blood across your forehead, like this.”

Tommy rose and reached towards me. I recoiled, but the chair’s stiff back stifled my impulse. He swiped two clammy fingers across my forehead. As he pulled away, I could almost feel the warm, sticky blood trickling into my eyebrows, down the bridge of my nose. I brushed the back of my hand across my forehead.

“You can keep the tail as a memento. I still have mine.”

I knew the rest, so I let Tommy’s words drift up the chimney like smoke. The following morning, with the black and grey tail in hand and the crimson painted across my forehead, the corpse would be tossed back to the hounds. When I was younger, I saw one of the cats that linger down by the kitchens catch a mouse. With the rodent trapped in its jaws, the cat thrashed his head back and forth a few times, and the mouse went limp. It had made me sick.

“And then you’re officially a man.”

“How often does the fox escape?”

“Sometimes, but the gamekeepers have been out earth-stopping today, so there’s no chance of them going to ground. If the nearby coverts draw blank, we’ll push north to Lord Enderby’s. Father will not permit tomorrow’s hunt to be a failure, not with this turnout.”

Tommy motioned his head to the room behind us, pulling my attention from the crackling logs and dancing flames. I peeked around the wing of my chair and absorbed the rest of my father’s lounge. Men in green smoking jackets mingled beneath a cloud of smoke wafting amongst the mounted stag heads, clinging to the thick velvet curtains drawn across the windows. Cigars nestled between firm fingers; tumblers of brandy cupped in strong hands. The drone of indistinct conversations was intermittently interrupted by the crack of billiard balls in the corner, or the tickling of ivory keys from a guest particularly proficient on the piano.

“That’s Major O’Loughlin in the corner,” Tommy pointed to a tall, slender man sipping brandy beneath a neat moustache. Medals adorned his left breast. “Recently back from South Africa. Led a company of Dragoons there.”

The Major towered above the rest of the party. He had the look of a man born in the saddle, unhappy unless
riding or shooting.

“And that’s the Colonel,” Tommy motioned to an old man with a mutton-chop beard seated alone on the parlor sofa. “Fought in the Indian Rebellion back in fifty-seven. He’s so old he shook King George IV’s hand!”

I had heard many stories about the Colonel. He was as much a part of this patch of England as the oaks growing along the lanes. He was so deaf most dared not try speaking with him anymore. While most of his body could no longer obey his iron will, his eyes still saw the world with an intimidating directness.

“That’s Lord Enderby talking to father. Looking fatter by the day. Not sure any of the hunters in our stables could carry him across a field,” Tommy chuckled.

Lord Enderby appeared to have just finished telling a joke. His red, chubby face exploded into laughter, followed by a fit of coughing. His two adult sons smiled ruefully, probably having heard the punchline innumerable times. They stood in a circle around Father, who smiled the way he does when he’s being polite.

Enderby’s roundness amplified the broad squareness of Father’s shoulders. His blonde moustaches contained more hair than the wisps remaining on Enderby’s head. Father brought his cigar to his lips. The tip glowed red before he opened his hard jaw to expel the smoke. His eyes found mine across the room. I desperately wished to still be concealed behind the back of my chair, but one could not look away from Father. His blue eyes were as transfixing as they were intimidating, and one never looked away when they were the object of his attention.
Holding my gaze, Father said something to the Enderbys, bowed his head and moved to the center of the lounge. He cleared his throat.

“Pardon me, gentlemen.” His booming voice bounced off every surface of the room. The billiard balls halted; the piano keys grew silent. Every face turned to the imposing figure.

“A kind thank you to everyone for joining us for a wonderful dinner and what will be a memorable hunt tomorrow,” my father’s voice reverberated like a cello. “The gamekeepers have assured us there is no shortage of foxes, so tomorrow should be an eventful day.”

“Here, here,” someone grunted. The Colonel brought his ear trumpet to his ear and leaned towards Father.

“Tomorrow’s hunt will be special for another reason.” Father motioned towards me. “My youngest, Johnathon, will be joining us on his first hunt.”

My face warmed, and I lowered my stare to the Persian rug below my feet. Hoots and cheers pierced my ears.

“Stand up,” Tommy whispered emphatically. I pulled myself onto shaky knees.

“I can already see hair sprouting from his chin,” Lord Enderby barked.

“Fox blood will do that,” another answered.

“I’ll be keeping him close tomorrow,” my father continued. “If all goes well, he’ll be in on the kill.”
I glanced up at my father, who studied me through narrowed eyes. I long believed he could read my thoughts. Maybe it was a skill possessed by all parents. Could he see the fear creeping across my face? The son of one of the county’s most prolific sportsmen, terrified of seeing a fox meet a gruesome death tomorrow. My shame forced me to look away.

“With that said, I think it’s high time you lads were off to bed. Tomorrow is certain to require all your stamina.”

I followed Tommy’s lead of bidding goodnight to the gentlemen anxiously awaiting the renewal of revelries, then traced his steps into the hall.


My father’s voice brought me to a halt beneath a painting of a fox hunt. A blue sky splattered with puffy clouds overlooked a lush copse of beech trees. A huntsman in a scarlet jacket, cheeks puffed as he blew his horn, followed the hounds as they traced a scent. The picture had always given me a feeling of serenity. Tonight, it loomed over me, ripping a foreboding jolt through my gut.

“Yes, Papa?”

“Is everything alright? You don’t seem yourself tonight.”

“Nervous about tomorrow, I suppose.”

He rested a heavy hand on my shoulder. “It’s just like any other ride. I’ve seen you jump higher fences and hedges than anything we’ll come across tomorrow. Your brother manages just fine, and if I can let you in on a secret,” my father lowered his voice, “You’re a better rider than him.” He winked.

“It’s not that.”

“Go on.”

I took a deep breath. Tears welled in my eyes and my voice quivered. “I don’t want to see the foxes killed, Papa. I don’t want a blooding. Can’t we just leave them be?”

I expected his face to darken in anger or embarrassment, but his expression showed neither.

“Son, a blooding is a rite of passage for every sportsman. Fox hunting, just like cricket or polo, is a way to build connections and standing within the community. We’ve been doing it for generations.”

“Why can’t we stop?”

“It keeps their populations under control. Helps the poultry farmers.”

I sniffled. “Why can’t the gamekeepers shoot them, like when you’re out stalking stags? Watkins says if you shoot a stag in the right spot, it’ll die without feeling a thing.”

The memory of Watkin’s words wafted through my mind. “If you shoot them just behind the shoulder, the bullet pierces the heart and both lungs. Kills them instantly, and saves the meat from being spoiled by fear.”

His melodic Welsh accent rang off my ears as I poked at the venison steak on my plate, the juices crawling towards the mashed potatoes and peas.

My father sighed. “You’ll have to steel your nerves and get through tomorrow. It will be part of your life whether you like it or not. I can’t shelter you forever.”
He patted my shoulder and returned to the lounge, leaving me to wander the dark halls alone.

The fire lit earlier by the maids warmed my bedroom. I climbed under the thick blankets of my canopied bed, trying to dispel the chill from my hands and feet. My forehead burned where Tommy had touched me, and I shivered at the thought of it happening for real tomorrow. I turned my mind to what I would enjoy about the morning. Thoughts of being in the saddle, the crisp air on my face as Theseus, my bay gelding, raced across the valley finally lulled me to sleep.

The silver light of a half-moon guided me as I dashed through the maze of glowing trees. Tangled branches grasped at my feet, slowing my pace to a crawl. The snapping and baying of hounds echoed through the woods behind me, moving closer. I tried to propel my legs forward, but the sucking mud made them sluggish. I could no longer move.
Out of the mist and darkness they emerged. Green smoking jackets, breasts adorned in medals, wellington boots slogging through the mud. Father’s guests surrounded me, fangs bared, drool flying my direction with each bark, hot breath reeking of cigars and brandy. I closed my eyes and shielded my face from the impending attack, when a familiar voice hollered from the shadows.


I peered out from beneath my arm. Two horses approached the circling men. Father and Tommy dismounted and moved towards me, ordering the guests away. Three fox tails were tied to Tommy’s saddle. Dried blood streaked across his forehead, running down his temples and onto his cheeks.

“Father, Tommy, thank God you’re here.”

Father leaned towards me, a depraved smile creeping across his face. He grabbed the collar of my jacket. The moonlight glinted off the dagger as he lifted it towards my throat.

I awoke gasping for breath. The first touch of daylight outlined the heavy curtains. My breathing slowed, but I could not dispel the pinch in my stomach, the tingle in my limbs. I stared at the ceiling for an hour before the maids arrived to open the curtains and start a fresh fire. I pulled off the blankets and stepped to the window. A thick fog hung over the frosted grass. In the distant wood, sparse brown leaves clung to the tips of bare tree limbs, grey like weathered bones.

“Looks like a damp one out there.”

I jumped, not realizing Tommy had come into my room. He stood over my shoulder. “The colder and damper, the better the hounds draw.” Tommy rubbed his chin, contemplating the dark clouds. “Looks like it might rain, though. Hurry along,” he smacked my back. “Let’s dress before the breakfast bell.”

The maid laid my clothes on my freshly made bed. I pushed nervous limbs through the brown breeches and long-sleeved white shirt. My frustration built with every failed attempt at tying my stock. My fingers fumbled through the fabric until I finally pulled it from my neck and threw it on the ground.

“Having some trouble?”

The door frame barely contained my father’s shape as he strolled in. He retrieved my stock from the floor and stood behind me. He tugged as he tied, my head bobbing in every direction.

“Remember what we talked about last night. Get through today however you need to.”

My lip trembled. Tears once again pooled in my eyelids.

“Enough.” My father stepped in front of me and grabbed my shoulders, squeezing to the bone. “I’ll have no more of this charade. No son of mine is a coward.”

I strained to keep my eyes open, allowing the tears to dry before escaping onto my cheek. “Yes, Papa.”

“There’s a good lad.” He patted my shoulders and left.
The November air stung my nose as I stepped into the courtyard. The gravel crunched beneath my riding boots, so polished I could see my reflection. Theseus stood composed as always on the lawn outside the stables, unfazed by the dozens of foxhounds circling the courtyard.

“Good morning, Theseus,” I stroked his blaze, “How are you feeling today?”

“Tip-top shape if I do say so myself,” Dawson, one of the grooms, handed me the reins.

“Thank you, Dawson.” I touched my nose to Theseus’ muzzle, his breath warm on my cheeks.

“Out of my way, mutts,” Tommy swung his boot at a hound crossing his path. He snatched the reins from the groom tending his horse, Attila, a half-Irish draught darker than molasses. He pulled himself into the saddle, buzzing in anticipation of the huntsman’s horn.

I took a deep breath before sliding my boot into the stirrup and vaulting into the saddle. A mess of hounds, horses and men moved around the courtyard like bees around a hive. I recognized many faces from the previous night. Enderby’s sons were mounted on their grey cobs to my left. Top hats rested on their heads. The tails of their fawn jackets draped over their horses’ rumps. Simmering pain and tiredness was etched across their faces. A side effect of too much brandy, Tommy once told me.

A red flash caught everyone’s attention. My father emerged from the stables, his scarlet jacket like a beacon, the first sight of blood. I watched his black bowler and broad shoulders glide through the crowd to his horse. Standing seventeen hands and a bright chestnut colour, Apollo was a magnificent creature. Sired from a derby winner, one of the fastest ever, father had said. Apollo grew too big for the track, but he could jump as well as any horse in England.

Apollo whickered, sending a billow of steamy breath towards the heavens as my father settled into the saddle. The huntsman, an older man also donning a red jacket, pulled up beside my father. They exchanged a few quiet words before my father addressed the crowd.

“Good morning, Gentlemen. I know many of you drank your fair share of brandy last night, so hopefully you’ve brought mounts that can counteract your sluggishness.”

The breath from a few muffled chuckles floated above the crowd. Attila stamped his foot.

“Huntsman, on your signal.”

The huntsman brought the copper horn to his lips. The hounds answered its report and dashed down the lane, veering across the grassy valley towards the woodland on the rise. Two whippers galloped at both sides of the pack. On their heels followed the huntsman and Father, then Tommy. I swallowed hard and nudged my heels into Theseus’ side.

My heart raced in rhythm with the thunder of Theseus’ hooves. The air burnt my cheeks. Specks of mud from the horses in front splattered my wool frock. The baying hounds ahead and the rolling cacophony of hooves behind deafened me. I closed my eyes and inhaled the scent of mud and rotting leaves. The surrounding noise faded away. I heard only Theseus’ grunts and pounding hooves. The hunt no longer existed. Theseus and I were beginning one of our rides through the countryside. I would have rode him all the way to the sea if I could.

Theseus veered left, and I opened my eyes as I felt him begin to climb. He followed the hounds and other horses taking a narrow path that veered away from the main ride and into the woods. I glimpsed my father further ahead, his jacket burning in the darkening wood. A pair of red grouse sprang from the bushes ahead, their wings lifting them away from the hounds.
The hounds’ pace slowed and their barking quieted as they drew for a scent. I trotted alongside Tommy. He nodded in assurance that everything was going to plan. My father bounced in his saddle ahead of me. He was himself in the saddle. His work as Lord Dombrandt troubled him, and his moods grew dreary on the days he was required to fulfill his duties. His countenance changed after his nightly brandy, or during his days of leisure, when he could pursue every sport imaginable. He was once a formidable cricket player. The best batsman they’d ever seen, I’d heard someone say.

The hounds to our left cried and dashed towards a meadow a hundred yards ahead. The huntsman’s horn echoed through the wood as he followed their line. I spurred Theseus forward, keeping pace with my father and the huntsman. Shortly before the path met the edge of the meadow, the hounds curved into a dry creek bed, beneath brush too thick for a horse.

“Hold-up,” my father shouted. The party pulled back on their reins, stopping beside the creek bed.
The huntsman leaned forward, watching the hounds funnel down the creek bed. “What now, sir?”

“There’s a hedgerow further back. Tommy, take everyone and jump it. See who amongst our guests came ready to ride,” Father smiled wryly. “That should give you easy access to the meadow. Johnny and I will cut back to the main ride, see if we can get a sighting there.”

Tommy nodded and turned Attila towards the hedge. The huntsman and guests followed.

“This way, son.”

I followed my father along the trail, converging with the main ride that split the covert in two almost equal halves. Damp, dead leaves squelched beneath the hooves. I kept pace as we dashed for the far side of the meadow. My breath quickened and my mouth grew dry as Theseus’ pulsing gallop ticked away the seconds until the kill. I wiped my riding gloves across my runny nose, the leather rough on my skin.

“Easy, now,” my father said, and Apollo slowed to a canter. I pulled up beside him.

“That huntsman may be one of the most experienced in the country,” my father said, “But he hasn’t spent his entire life in these woods like I have.”
I remained silent, unsure what he was trying to say.

“If there’s a fox in that meadow, he’s going to flee the covert when he hears the hounds. The quickest way is along the brook.”

My father pointed ahead, where a bridge extended across a small brook. He slowed his horse further, “Right there.” He stopped when a flash of colour caught his eye.

The fox emerged from a thatch of hawthorn just before the bridge, gliding over tangled, moss-covered roots. He was halfway across the ride when Apollo snorted. He turned our direction and froze. His ears perked, his nose twitched as he absorbed our scent. An almost human intelligence lingered behind the charcoal eyes that studied us, deciding whether we were friend or foe.

“What shall we do?”

My father’s voice broke the spell. I turned towards him. “What do you mean?”

“Do we alert the others?”

I swallowed hard. It was our responsibility to notify the huntsman of our sighting. Our cry of, “Tally-ho,” would echo through the trees, and the huntsman and whippers would send the hounds barreling in our direction.

“You’re asking me?”

“I’ll leave it to you.”

Was this a test to see if I had taken his advice? Steel my nerves and get through my blooding?

“I…” My emotions bubbled at the back of my throat, preparing to betray me. Queasiness seized my gut.
A raindrop landed on my pommel, followed by a scattering across my thighs. My father glanced at the low, leaden clouds.

“These clouds are going to open any moment. It’ll be a deluge once they do. If this fox crosses the brook and escapes the covert, the hounds will lose his scent. I dare say this hunt might end in failure.”

The fox continued to watch us from a dozen yards ahead, his sleek frame prepared to flee at a moment’s notice. The black tip of his bushy tail touched the earth behind him. I tried to envision the hounds running him down somewhere in the fields beyond, his tail being tied to my saddle.

The sound of the baying hounds moved closer. The fox twitched an ear in their direction. I contemplated what needed to happen next. Either the fox had to die, or I had to be humiliated in front of my father. In that moment, as I drew in breath to shout, “Tally-ho,” I loathed myself, my selfishness, and my cowardice for not doing what I felt was right. I hated my father, Tommy, and all our guests for turning me into the person I was about to become.

My father tapped his heels against Apollo’s side, and they lurched forward. It startled the fox, who darted into the brush near the brook.

I blinked, exhaling in pitiful bunches as I watched the fox safely disappear. What had my father just done?
The rain intensified. Fat drops pelted my cap and shoulders. Father turned and trotted his horse back towards me.

“That fox will eventually meet its demise, but today he appears to be safe.”

“What about your guests?”

“They’ll be fine. They’ve done this a hundred times, and they’ll do it a hundred more. At least you can wait a little longer for that blooding.” He pulled Apollo’s reins towards the commotion of approaching hounds.

Scott is an emerging writer living in Calgary, Alberta. His work has previously appeared in Spillwords Press and the Alexandra Writers Center Society’s Many Voices Monthly Writing Contest. He primarily writes historical fiction, and enjoys exploring how we are shaped by our relationships with those closest to us. He is currently working on his first novel.


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