Cast of Wonders 483: Armed With Such Stories, I Roamed Into The Woods (Staff Picks 2021)
Armed With Such Stories, I Roamed Into The Woods
by Evan Marcroft
Never trust a wolf’s promise, Atticus, my mother once told me. Remember the tale of Smiling John and Baron Icepelt. They lie between fangs, and their promises will only ever lead you into their belly. She was full of such morsels of wisdom. There was a fable for every lesson I should know. Not all pertained to talking wolves, but this was most relevant to my task. Remember how Smiling John escaped. If you should find a wolf at your heels, throw meat behind you. Wolves are clever but lazy creatures. They will stop for the easier meal.
Armed with such stories, I roamed into the woods to save her life.
The depths of summer had stretched the days out long and roasting. In the sunlight that lanced between the boughs overhead I could see each and every insect dancing on the breeze. Flowers swayed between the toes of every tree—boarsroot, specklehand, ruby-‘o-the-glade. There was power in each, according to my mother, who preserved them as powders in her medicine chest, but none were of use to me. It was fairymead I sought: the most elusive of all.
I walked for fruitless hours before I arrived at the stream, as far into the woods as I’d ever ventured. Any further, and I feared I’d lose the way home to our cottage. But thus far I’d failed to find a single bloom of fairymead, with its pillow-soft, sun-yellow petals. I did not think three blooms such a burdensome demand of the forest, and yet. I decided to rest in the shade of a moss-furred crookvine tree to eat. Besides a skinned coney in case of wolves, I’d packed myself a lunch of rye and pickled snake-radish. I still had time in the day to search, and it would be easier with my spirits renewed.
I ignored the whisper in my head reminding me that while I may not have lacked for time, my mother certainly did.
Just as I was sitting down, a splash from down the creek made me jump. I looked again, and my blood flushed cold as I spied a man crouched on the opposite bank. So filthy was he that I’d mistaken him for underbrush. I could tell at second glance that his shirt had been white originally, his trousers fine until he’d raked them through mud and brambles. A wide-brimmed hat was screwed down on a mane of sallow locks. Beneath that, he was horse-faced, dirt-striped, a week unshaven. As I looked on, he snarled and shook water off his hand; if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he’d just tried to snatch a fish from the stream.
Before I could decide whether to flee, he looked sharply at me, though I’d made no sound. His eyes were the blue of a suffocating face.
“Ho there, boy.” I flinched as he stood. I was no more than twelve, and though he was as lean as a starving dog, he’d have looked down on the biggest man in town. “Where’d you come from?”
I hesitated, but gave him the name of the village. I’d been raised to answer when an adult asked me questions.
“I don’t know that name. Where is it?”
I motioned vaguely behind me, too dumbfounded to consider if I should. An outsider, like my mother. I’d never met another. We villagers knew the names of other places past the woods, but they were too distant to be fully real. What did his appearance mean for our town? What new things might he bring us?
“What’s got you all the way out here in these godforsaken woods?” the stranger inquired.
“I’m looking for fairymead,” I replied. “It’s for my mother. She’s sick.”
The stranger smiled, his teeth a mosaic of black and yellow, corn rotting on the cob, and I shivered despite the swelter. Curiosity curdled into apprehension. “Well now, that’s funny. See, I passed by a big patch of that not an hour past. ‘Course, I was coming the other way.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve been out here an awful long time, and as you can see, I ain’t too good at fishing. Now, I can’t go into town myself and it don’t matter why, but if you could bring me something to eat, why, I’d be happy to show you all the whatsit you could ask for.”
“What do you want to eat?”
“I’d kill for a baby,” he said. “Fresher the better. Go get a plump one and bring it here. Do that and I’ll help you save your mommy.”
The unease that had festered coldly on the nape of my neck exploded into icy gooseflesh. My every hair stood to attention at the drumming of my heart. At once I recognized what I’d encountered in these woods. Just as Baron Icepelt had shapechanged into a man to trick Smiling John, so too had this wolf adopted skin that would let him get his fangs in me.
To my credit I did not go rigid in fear. Rather, I turned smoothly and ran.
Behind me, I heard the Stranger curse filthily and come crashing through the underbrush in pursuit. Were it not for the narrow creek, I’ve no doubt he’d have caught me in moments. I glanced back, and sure enough, his grasshopper legs had carried him quickly over the water, though he’d lost a shoe in the crossing. My heart whipped my body like a balky plow mule, but my young limbs could move no faster.
Remember the tale of Smiling John, I heard my mother say. Remember the story, how Smiling John escaped.
I fumbled with the coney I’d hung on my belt, but I’d tied the knot too well. In desperation I unsheathed my knife and sliced the cord, then flung the raw carcass behind me. The Stranger’s next step came down upon it and went awry. His feet traded places with his skull, which came down upon a pointed stone with a dull, wet sound that would forever infest my memory like a worm.
He did not come up again, and soon I’d left him well behind. Nevertheless, I fled all the way home to my unconscious mother’s bed, where I at last collapsed, too drained for tears. I knew that I should despair at my failure; my mother ticked one day closer to death. But that required strength. Instead, I could only be glad to be alive.
I was not stingy with my wild story. I told half of Bellinsdorf the following morning as I went about my errands, and everywhere, from Willith the butcher to Johanna the shoemaker, I was met with the same derision.
“A wolf in the shape of a man?” scoffed Alvis the baker. “Come off it, lad. You must’ve nodded off in the heat and had yourself an overcooked dream.”
“I know what I saw,” I insisted, to his amusement. “He chased me halfway home. I’ve got the nettle-welts to prove it.”
Alvis took the pail of goatsmilk from me and slopped it into his own clay jug. “If you’d run into a wolf you’d know it,” he said, “because you’d have been its supper. And four legs would’ve served it better than two, now wouldn’t it? That wicked mother of yours has gone and filled your head with nonsense.”
I was old enough to remember how my mother had once cured his niece, Mila, of the deadly shiverpox, but I couldn’t afford to bite the hands that fed her. Instead, I bit my tongue while Alvis filled my basket with fresh loaves.
“There’s an extra piece of roggenbrot in there,” he said. “Don’t starve on your mother’s account.”
I could only thank him for that unambiguous kindness and leave.
My home lay outside Bellinsdorf, beyond the grassy hill where young lovers met in secret, across the brook where come the spring the trout would fly like silver arrows. A stone cottage with a cellar and a pen for goats, not a pebble’s toss from the hem of the woods. My mother was awake when I arrived. I quickly dropped my burden to bring her food and drink, before the illness reclaimed her for another span of hours or days.
I sat by her bedside, ladling water between chapped lips. Her weakened throat would easily choke on anything more than a sip. “I couldn’t get the flowers yesterday. I’ll try again tomorrow. I promise.”
“I’d like to tell you that you needn’t work so hard,” my mother rasped. She managed a wry half-smile. “But I’d rather be honest. This is quite trying.”
“Save your voice. I need to drink anyway.” I kept my voice even. A kinked wire held straight between pinched fingers. At least one of us needed to stay strong.
How ironic for Old Mariah to take ill, the villagers had remarked. They had not said it kindly. My mother had been their medicine woman since before my birth. Though she had come from beyond the woods, she’d been accepted into Bellinsdorf for her live-saving esoterica. It was only when my father, a born villager, up and vanished, that their suspicions were free to descend like hungry rooks. They’d shunned her from good company; only I was tolerated in town, to trade our goatsmilk for bread, and even then, Alvis would burden me with ill wishes to take home to her.
When she’d contracted the dreamfever, she’d instantly become a premature memory.
Even to me she was half a ghost, her flesh fraying to spirit before my eyes. Once, she could have heaved the coach gun mounted above her bed. Now, she could hardly lift an eyelid.
“Talk to me,” my mother said between morsels of bread. “Tell me something. Ask me anything. I’m so dreadfully tired of being asleep.”
“What’s it like on the other side of the woods?”
My mother groaned. “Never-mind, I misspoke. I’ve told you so many stories already.”
I couldn’t tell her what I’d encountered out there—the worry could well kill her. Still, I was curious. The Stranger had come the other way, he’d said, which meant the way she’d come, all those years ago.
“Tell me something real then.”
My mother relented with a grimace. “It’s different than here. Bigger. More complicated. It’s dangerous, and it asks that you be dangerous too. I was a different person there than I am here. I could never have been a mother.”
I’d received this sort of non-answer before. A lie would never escape her lips, but the truth was its lifelong cellmate. “That doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Correct, my son.” She patted my hand with hers, so terribly light. “It does not.”
“Why didn’t you ever want to go back?” I asked. “The people here, they’re—”
“Small? Ungrateful? Surely, but that’s not so bad. It doesn’t hurt to be hated, and they could do worse.” She looked away as if distracted by a flitting memory. “This is a good place. For you, if not me. Find me that fairymead if you can, but don’t go wandering too far.”
A coughing fit overtook her—a sign that the sickness was dragging her under. I finished feeding her and tucked her in just as her eyes fell shut. No time for parting words. No time for small talk or laughter. As ever, I was left alone in our quiet house with the lurking terror that I would never hear her speak again.
“Tell me, Old Nan. What should I do?”
Though her beard was long and silvery, Old Nan kept her wisdom closely guarded, giving only an unblinking look for me to interpret. I sighed and returned to shoveling dung, letting the goat wander off to nibble at some crabgrass just beyond the pen.
To be honest with myself, I’d begun to wonder if the townsfolk weren’t right to doubt me. I could not deny the heat of the day, that I’d been weary, or that I was young and my mind not yet an inflexible block of facts. I knew what I’d seen, but it was not necessarily real. And if that were so, there was no reason I should not return to my search in the woods.
Yet as I walked through those imaginary wilds, my stomach twisted itself into tighter and tighter knots. The woods were vast and infinitely deep, but if the Stranger were real, I was sure beyond reason that any path I took would lead me to him, just as a story could only travel linearly from beginning to bloody conclusion.
The other goats bayed needily, prodding me with their stubby horns. The day was growing long. Sweat dewed fat upon my neck. Tomorrow, I had a choice. Today, I had chores.
I planted my shovel in the goat pen and went to fetch the ripened sugarfigs that would sweeten their milk. When I returned, the Stranger was stomping through the meadow between my house and the woods. The sugarfigs fell from my fingers and sank into the scat and piss.
“You little shit,” the Stranger growled as he stepped ungracefully over the fence. “You cocked-up fucking abortion. Get over here.”
Pinned between truth and fantasy, I did not think to run. Four knuckles struck me across the jaw and set the world spinning. The Stranger snagged my collar before I hit the ground and pulled my face to his. His unholy stink of unwashed groin and sun-ripened corpse was suffocating. I breathed in to scream and felt my gullet touch something sharp.
“That’s a knife,” the Stranger growled. “Scream, and you’re a patch of dirt in the woods. Got it?”
I nodded as shallowly as I could.
“Good,” said he. “I ought to gut you right here and see if goats really do eat anything. But that would take time, and I can’t be out of them woods for long, see? Ain’t your business why. So, count your blessings and listen; I’m fixing to stick around these parts a while, and that means you got work to do. You got newspapers here? I want some of those. And I want soap. God, I smell like hell. Can you get that baby?”
Despite the steely tickle at my throat, I still shook my head no.
The Stranger grumbled under his breath. “Fine, any meat then. Younger the better. And cheese. And first light tomorrow you’ll take it to where you was damned to meet me.” His other hand lunged into view, and indeed, his knife was longer than a stakefly’s sting. “And if you don’t, let me show you—”
With a sudden shout he released me. I dropped to my feet and saw that Old Nan had come to my defense, driving her horn into his calf. Buttocks in the muck, the Stranger howled a string of curses. Then, as I looked on, his rage ignited. He seized Old Nan by the neck and twisted. Fragile bones went crickle-crackle; old Nan crumpled like a house of cards.
The Stranger stood, impossibly. The hole in his leg had stopped bleeding. In fact, there was increasingly less hole. In the afternoon light I witnessed that wound pucker like a rashy mouth and then fold into itself, leaving only pink, new skin.
The Stranger heaved the goat onto his shoulder and shoved me to the ground. “This’ll do for meat,” he said. “But you best get the rest. And don’t tell no-one, or I’ll eat your eyes and piss in your skull.”
Halfway to the woods he looked back and hollered, “And bring some booze too!”
Then he was gone.
I remained where he’d left me, afraid that any movement would bring him back. My mother had shared with me dozens of monster stories. Geist stories, dragon stories, wolf stories especially. Narratives of unkillable beasts outfoxed by sharp-witted boys. In three acts, a twist and a chase, everything would be resolved. Monster dead, boy wiser.
In none of them had the monster ever followed the boy home.
I’d never heard of a newspaper, though I could gather its meaning. When folks wanted to know the goings-on of town, they either knew already, or they asked. The Stranger’s other demands were not hard to fulfill. My mother had a stash of coinage in her medicine chest, which purchased a cheese wedge, a lump of soap, and a bottle of potato vodka from Alvis, who made the stuff on the side.
I delivered them in the morning, as ordered. It was the furthest thing from my desire, but I’d lost more than a drop of blood to his threat’s sharp tip already. Old Nan’s bones jutted from the ashes of the Stranger’s campfire like the legs of a dead spider. He slugged down half the vodka in front of me and let out a rancid belch. “That’s good stuff,” he said, swirling the remainder appreciatively. “Bring more tomorrow. And a new pair of socks.”
My feet itched to turn and flee before the drink reawoke his hunger. My heart forced them to stay put. “I’ve done what you wanted,” I said. “Tell me where you found the fairymead.”
“The what now?” The Stranger threw back his head in a raspy guffaw. “Boy, I ain’t never heard of what you’re looking for. Now get, before I get mean.”
I ran with cheeks sizzling in shame, having realized too late that I’d become a slave.
I brought him his things the following day, and the next as well, and the one after that. Each time we met I tried something from my mother’s stories to drive him off; if he would not let me go, then I would rid myself of him. He was not a wolf in a man’s skin, but his true nature remained opaque. He failed to notice the mixture of salt and rust I scattered at my feet, said to frighten off dustgeists, and neither did he crisp like bacon in the presence of a half-melted horseshoe the way a hillhob should. It seemed my mother’s bedtime bestiary was missing pages. I wondered if she’d torn them out herself.
“You look like a runaway nightmare,” Alvis remarked, when I stopped in on the fourth day for supplies. He was not smirking the way he did when disparaging my mother.
I was sure I did, and sleep was not all I lacked. “Another bottle,” I muttered, clinking a few of my remaining coins on the counter. My mother’s stockpile was verging on depleted. What would I do then? Break in and steal what I needed? And while I was running errands for my survival, my mother was shriveling ever deeper into her pillow.
“Is she really drinking all this?” Alvis asked.
“It helps with the pain.” Lubricated by desperation, the lie slid easily onto my tongue.
Alvis reached under the counter and slid me two bottles. “I don’t want your money,” he said, his expression flat and impenetrable. “Get on home, and quick. Unless my eyes are darkening prematurely, a storm is on its way.”
“Mother, I need you to wake up.”
I asked as sweetly as I could with my maturing voice. Not to my mother, but to whatever higher force administrated miracles and their application. But my mother did not stir. Perhaps that agency could not hear my wish over the clatter of the rain outside, the pitiable wailing of the wind as it beat itself against our walls. As the sun had slid over the world’s rim, the black tempest Alvis had foreseen came barreling over the woods and set our little house adrift in the night.
I asked again, worrying her frail hand in mine like a rabbit’s foot, milking it for a wish. “Please. I only need you for a moment. I’m scared and I don’t know what to do. I want to be strong, but I’m just too young.” And wasn’t that the crux of it all. Too slow to run, too small to fight, too new to the world to know all its safe paths. Want meant less than will. The future loomed like the dark edge of the woods, a wall that I could not see over. Not without her help.
My father had disappeared when I was too little to keep lasting impressions. The details of his face shifted with each recollection. I’d adapted to his loss so long ago that I could not remember missing him, becoming acclimated to my lopsided life as one born without a leg. But if I lost my mother, it would be a bloody amputation, and I would be left to crawl, easy prey for anything that might come hungrily along.
I jolted at a rapping at the door. The plank of rough oak flexed inwards with each blow, its hinges straining. I clenched my mother’s hand with white knuckles and held my breath.
“Hey. Boy. Are you there?” The Stranger’s voice carved through the door like a rusted saw. “I know you are. I can smell you. Come here and let me in.”
He’d been drinking. I could hear it in the way he teetered from one word to the next. There was silence for a few hanging moments. When the Stranger spoke next, it was from the shuttered window of my mother’s room. If not for the wall, he could have reached out and turned my face backwards the way he’d done Old Nan.
“It’s raining,” he whined. “I want to come in where its warm and dry. Let me sit by your fire a while. Do you like stories? I can tell you all sorts of stories. Things I’ve seen. Things I’ve done.” A dreadful, swelling pause, a breeding pit of horrific possibilities, and then—
“I’d really like to meet your mother.”
Suddenly my mother was gripping me.
“Hand me my gun.”
I did as ordered and pulled her coach gun off the wall. She made sure that it was loaded with two payloads of buckshot and then levelled it at the window. I could not say from where she was withdrawing that strength, but I knew she would have to pay it back with dividends.
“Is that the saintly woman I hear now? Pleasure to meet you, ma’am. My name is—”
“I know what you are.” My mother’s voice was a knife brandished with her tongue. “Leave this place at once. Try to come inside, and I’ll pop your face off.”
A low, carnivorous chuckle. “That won’t kill me. And then I’ll kill you.”
“Maybe,” my mother replied. “But I reckon you’ll be going about with no eyes to see and no mouth to breathe. You’ll stumble blind in the woods and your skin will grow back over worms and splinters. That’s nothing I would suffer.”
The Stranger fell silent. Whispering, I spoke up. “Mother, what is he?”
“I might have told you once, in a story,” she muttered back, her gaze unwavering. “But stories are just skins we drape over frightening things. Scary costumes still less fearsome than the truth beneath. They protect us from it, but sometimes it from us as well. My son, I’ve done you wrong teaching you how to run from wolves. I should have shown you how to shoot.”
The teeth at the window gnashed, inhaling storm and breathing venom, “Bitch. Sick, old whore. I smell rot setting in. I’ll eat you when you die. Best hope your boy buries you deep.”
A finger poked through the crack in the shutter, then another. Both fell to the floor, jaggedly sawn-off at the knuckle. The Stranger’s message was immediately clear to me.
I can come in as I please.
My mother and I remained in portrait stillness, the coach gun squared at the window, myself crouched low, until a quarter-hour passed with no sound from the Stranger, and we could be confident he’d gone. At that point the gun tumbled from my mother’s hands and she collapsed back into her bed. “Alderweem, stumpcaul, and boarsroot,” she said. “Two parts, four, and three. That’s something real.”
It was indeed. I instantly grasped her meaning. I bent to pick her gun up off the floor, but not to put it back on the wall. “Go back to sleep,” I said.
“You’ve given me all I needed.”
At the break of morning, when every leaf still cupped a sip of dew, I went to deliver the Stranger his vodka. The prospect chilled me—no telling what mood I’d find him in—but the plan I’d cooked up demanded the risk.
I came across the Stranger curled beneath a lean-to of branches roofed with leaves. He’d built it too small, so that his feet stuck out one side; the new socks I’d brought him were soaked through. Under other circumstances, it would have been a pitiable scene. “Here you are sir,” I said, laying the bottles and other provisions at his feet.
The Stranger replied with a bearish groan and rolled over, pulling his hat over his face. “Fuck off, little boy. I’ve got a hangover that would split your skull.”
It seemed my luck had turned with the weather. I’d come expecting punishment for my mother’s slight. “This should help,” I said. I turned and made my way briskly home. There I retrieved my mother’s gun and climbed into the goat’s pen. My mother was asleep where I’d left her, propped up inside the hutch, liberally smeared with mud and dung. I joined her there, coating myself with same, layering goat-stink over boy-stink. Nothing to do then but wait and watch the invisible hours steer clouds across the sky.
It would happen today, or perhaps tomorrow, but either way it would happen, and it would be done.
I awoke to the sound of a distant howl, whose agonized tenor strummed my spine like a fiddle string. I shot upright, clutching the coach gun to my breast, and listened. It came again: this time louder, nearer. Not an animal. Not a man, either. I shrunk down into the mud and squinted through the slats in the hutch.
There. A darkening amongst leaves.
Movement at the edge of the woods.
The Stranger emerged into the meadow, moving briskly but unsteadily. I couldn’t make it out from this distance, but something was wrong with his right leg; it now jointed contrarily to his left, pushing him sideways rather than forward. His right arm hung lower than the other and curled stiffly towards his sternum. When he spoke, his throat seemed to twist his voice into something inhuman, the way a horn could monstrify a whisper into a boom, as though his throat too had spiraled like an overgrown nail.
“Boy, boy, boy,” he seethed with every hobbling step. “You’ve gone and made me so happy. You’ve found my very last straw. I get to do all kinds of things to you now. You’re gonna be a real pleasant afternoon for me. Come on out and let’s get busy.”
Alderweem, stumpcaul, and boarsroot. Two parts, four, and three. I had not a millionth of my mother’s medicinal expertise, but she’d schooled me in several useful herbs. Those powders put together were a poison potent enough to kill a bull and salt the earth it died on. I’d hoped it would be enough for whatever the Stranger was. It seemed my hope had spoiled the recipe.
From my hiding place I listened to him rampage through the house, cursing all the while. I winced at the splintering of wood, ceramic and glass, guessing he’d found my mother’s medicine chest and smashed every precious vial inside. That final act of destruction seemed to convince him the house was empty, however. He came stomping outside and stalked around the house to where I’d left the cellar doors ajar. The shadow that splayed across the grass beside him now bore only a trivial resemblance to mine; its protrusions and flanges corresponding to no feature of the human body.
Imagining that my every step was on eggshells, I crept from the hutch and followed. I hugged the corner as he descended the rickety cellar stairs. The coach gun seemed to shrink in my hands, a suddenly inadequate weapon. Yet, as my mother had taught me with the story of Prince Mouse and the Demon Cat, the smallest thorn could fell the largest of monsters, if leveraged properly.
Creak, creak, creak. Each step he took was an opportunity for my frayed nerve to snap. Every shallow breath I dared was another that he might smell. Creak, creak, creak. Then, finally, the crunch of boot on dirt. The Stranger had reached the bottom. It was now or never.
My nerve held. I leapt into the doorway, planted my feet, and pointed the coach gun down the stairs. My mother had never taught me to shoot, but I’d observed the weapon’s potency against foxes and squirrels. My heart recoiled at the sight of what the Stranger had become, crushing my lungs flat and empty between it and my spine, but framed as he was by the cellar doors, I could hardly miss. Our eyes met, but the understanding that should have flashed between two mortal persons failed to spark. It was like seeking humanity in the mouth of an inferno.
My finger flinched against the trigger, and two shells of buckshot smeared away that nightmare face like a thumb through wet ink. Then, before the report had faded, I threw down the gun and slammed the cellar shut, sliding the coach gun between the handles as a slipshod lock. I had no idea how long it would hold him, and so I ran very, very fast.
A small crowd awaited me as I came sprinting over the hill: the townsfolk and shopkeeps closest to Bellinsdorf’s edge, with Alvis at the fore, a rolling pin clasped in his meaty hands. “We heard gunfire,” he said. “What’s going on over there?”
“A stranger came out of the woods,” I replied. “He tried to kill me, but I ran away.” I took a folded kerchief from my pocket and let its contents verify my claim. “My mother is still there. Please help.”
Alvis and the rest took one look at the two severed fingers and set off ahead of me.
By the time my meager posse, armed with the most convenient tools of their respective trades, reached my house, the cellar doors had been torn from their hinges and flung across the grass. The Stranger—or rather, the unspeakable thing he’d become—was displayed for all to see as he crawled paw over claw towards the woods. Hardened men and women turned white at the sight of that flesh, attempting to be wolf, yes, and a dozen other monstrosities besides. Far too much to be reduced to a bedtime story. And yet, for all that, he was unable to stand on his hind two legs, and his half-healed skull was a broken cup. His body language was unintelligible, but the haste with which he scrabbled on his belly betrayed an all-too human desperation.
In other circumstances, it would have been a pitiful scene.
In his injured, inverted state, the Stranger was no match for a dozen strong men and women. He was beaten with hoe and mallet into a bindable shape and then hauled to the top of the hill, where a hasty pyre was erected. The Stranger screamed as he burned, and he burned for a long, long while, his restorative abilities no match for pain, poison and flame. None in Bellinsdorf had seem him with his human suit all buttoned-up. When the fire finally died down the villagers departed his ash-heap bearing no guilt of murder, only the leaden satisfaction of an unhappy deed done well.
The villagers wanted answers. I had none, so I created them. I explained how it was the Stranger who’d vanished my father all those years ago, and that made sense to them, having seen him first-hand. Perhaps they realized there were worse things out there than whatever they imagined my mother to be. In any case, Alvis and two young men accompanied me the next day into the woods, where we found ample blooms of fairymead. They stayed to repair our cellar while I administered the medicine, but hurried off when my mother awoke.
“As I said, they’re not so bad,” my mother remarked, nibbling from the roggenbrot that Alvis left for us.
“I suppose not,” I admitted, tipping broth to her lips to help wash it down. I’d misjudged the people of Bellinsdorf. They were like old maple trees. Outwardly scabrous and immovable, but ripe with syrup in the core.
My mother swallowed, grimacing, as though I’d made the soup too bitter. “I should tell you I’m sorry, Atticus,” she said, her gaze deflecting from mine. “I went and filled your head with stories when I ought to have filled it with knowledge.”
“It’s fine,” I said, being too drained to have this conversation.
“Not particularly,” she said. “Not after what it brought you. But that’s nice of you to say.”
At her insistence I let her take the bowl and finish it herself. Much of it spilled into her sheets, but it was a proud effort. “I thought that if I populated the woods with talking wolves and hillhobs, you would want to stay here, where you’d be safe. Where the monsters are only words. It’s truth, not time, that ages us, I think, and I believed… well, I believed I could keep you a little boy forever. Isn’t that a perfectly silly thing to do.”
Abashed, her cheeks darkened. I smiled to see any color return to her. “I’ve seen the world in my time. I came to this place because it’s too small to hold all the things out there that can hurt me. I don’t think I’ll ever leave. But you? You haven’t had my life. If you can slay such a beast as that man, then I suppose there are many things less fearsome outside of Bellinsdorf, and few things moreso. Perhaps you will fare otherwise than I did, should you choose to venture beyond the woods.”
She glanced up at me and then, flinching, cast her gaze aside, lest, I believed, she see me as her little boy, and let that stay her tongue. “Would you like me to tell you some real things?”
The me of a week past would have said yes. The present me stood, taking her empty bowl with him. “Another time,” I said, kissing her cheek. “The goats need tending. For now, you should rest. Just don’t fall asleep.”
I fetched the bucket of sugarfigs and ambled out into the sunshine. As ever, the woods observed me from across the meadow, each swaying bough a beckoning hand. And yet, never had the summer-spiced air of Bellinsdorf smelled so sweet. No, it was not so bad here in this haven of space and time, where the world was comfortably finite. It would be a happy life, here.
But I would forever remember that glimpse of what waited beyond the woods. And though it would surely wake me screaming in nights to come, I would always wonder what else was out there. What horrors that might be wonders once I’d grown a little taller. What more there was to overcome. And, how long it would be before this little house grew cramped, and that sweet meadow scent became cloying?
The goats jostled around me, angling for my pail of treats. I relented and stooped to feed them. It was not as though I could go running off just then anyway. The goats needed milking, my mother needed care. And, frankly, I was still very small.
Tomorrow, I had a choice. Today, I had chores.
About the Author
Evan Marcroft is a half-blind yeti-person with a sideways foot and an allergy to the sun. When he was a child he dreamed of writing important works of Earth-shaking beauty and settled for writing fantasy and science fiction instead. You can find his other works at Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Metaphorosis. You can reach him on Twitter at @Evan_Marcroft and contact him for any reason at Evanmarcroft@hotmail.com.
About the Narrator
Elie Hirschman is a voiceover artist and voice actor who has worked with Darker Projects and Dream Realm Productions and is also involved in Cool Fool Productions, turning bad audio scripts into intentionally bad comedy gold. He’s currently still active in all EA podcasts (including Cast of Wonders) and also appearing semi-regularly in the No Sleep Podcast. He doodles constantly but doesn’t draw enough and moved from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere against his will and better judgment (but has never been in the Southern Hemisphere).
Elie was born in New York City and raised just outside of it. He started down the voiceover path in 2004, with formal voiceover and marketing training by Creative Voice Development Group. His professional voice work ranges from children’s educational material to real estate advice website audio, with a scientific article and a guided tour of a Polish salt mine thrown in for good measure. In his free time, Elie enjoys cartooning, listening to old-time radio drama, and referring to himself in the third person. By this time next year, he will also have mastered speaking in future perfect tense.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.