Authors: Starla Huchton
Edited by Jennifer Melzer
Always believe in fairy tales.
Never discount the impact of the smallest kindness.
My mother disagreed with me on that. She begged me, for once, to let go of my grandfather’s advice and come away with her: away from the brutish drunkard that was my father. There were many, many times since then when I wished I’d done so, but as I was stubborn even at nine years old, she couldn’t sway me. After all, with my mother gone, who would see that my father ate or bathed, or that the livestock not be left to starve in their pens or fall ill? It was kindness that caused me to stay, and I’ve often wondered what would have been different for me had I left with her that day.
But, when you’ve denied kindness once, it only becomes easier to do so in the future. My grandfather taught me that as well.
And so, there I was, up to my elbows in filth as I cleaned out the shack of a barn that got one step closer to falling down every day. If nothing else, the pair of cows we had left appreciated my efforts. They mooed at me pleasantly when I came to feed them, and didn’t give me a minute of trouble in their lives.
I could say that for the cows, but not my own father.
Later, I watched him as he guzzled down the watery soup I scraped together for supper, thoughtlessly taking the last two pieces of stale bread before I’d even had one. With a suppressed sigh, I kept my irritation to myself. Saying anything about it would only earn me a blackened eye or fat lip for complaining about his generosity. His idea of “generosity” was allowing me to live there after my mother gave up on him.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and belched loudly when he finished. “I’m going to town,” he said as he pushed away from the table.
As though I needed him to tell me. He went to town every night.
“Fixing Mr. Brayton’s squeaky door?” I asked as I lifted a spoonful of broth to my lips.
“Something like that,” he snorted back the reply as he grabbed his hat off of the wall peg.
“It must be a large annoyance to his customers,” I said, “what with all the traffic the pub gets.”
The door slammed behind him. At his departure, the tension eased from my shoulders, but I knew he’d have more than words for me when he stumbled back sometime before dawn.
Preparing for the inevitable, the moment I finished my meal I set about locking away what little we had that he could break in a drunken tirade. The entire process was such habit that I didn’t need to think through it. Instead, I let my mind wander down paths paved with what-ifs.
What if I’d left as he slept the day away?
What if he staggered off the bridge over the river on his way home and drowned?
What if I’d put aside kindness and left when my mother begged me to?
Securing the last of the cups and saucers, I sighed to myself, realizing I could never fully protect myself from him. Tired, but in need of a moment to clear my head, I stepped outside and took a few deep breaths of cool night air. I turned my face to the sky. A thousand glittering stars gazed down at me, sweeping out in great sparkling swaths of luminescent clouds across the darkness. Crickets chirped at me as I crossed the yard to a large rock my father never got around to removing, and I sat there, leaned back and counting the few constellations my mother told me about. The stars brought me comfort no matter how troubled I was. Their unchanging cycles marked my years, reminding me that there were dependable constants in life. I admired the peace they had, drifting quietly alongside their twinkling brethren.
After allowing myself a few minutes to soak up the respite, I retreated to the little room we slept in, preparing myself for his return. I pinned my chestnut hair to my head in tight curls, knowing they were harder to grab than a simple braid or bun, and slipped my arms into my thick, suede overcoat before crawling into bed. While the coat certainly didn’t shield me from his fists and feet, what dexterity he could muster with a switch would be dulled by the extra layer. All of these things I did on the off chance he came home before Mrs. Jacoby’s rooster woke me for chores. Many nights there wasn’t a need for all the ceremony, but, for the others, I was always glad I’d gone to the trouble.
Several hours later, I awoke to the sounds of my father banging on the front door, cursing at me for letting him leave his key behind. I scrambled out of bed and through the other room, opening the door as quickly as I could. He fell through the entrance, barely able to get to his feet. When he turned to me, I balked at the sight of his battered face.
“What’s happened?” I said, reaching for him.
His arm flew out, slapping my hands away. “Get the cows! You’re taking them to the Breen market as soon as it’s open.”
I staggered back a step, sure I’d misheard him. “I’m what?”
“It’s a six hour walk. Get going.”
I stared at him. “You’re not serious. How will we eat? We’re barely getting enough money with the milk I sell to—”
A hard strike with his open palm against my cheek sent me reeling into the wall.
“Don’t talk back to me you stupid girl! I’ve a debt to pay, and that’s how we’re taking care of it.”
I braced myself against a little wooden table, staring at all the deep scratches and dents he’d given it over the years. “You should’ve fixed the door instead of running up your debt more,” I muttered under my breath.
He grabbed my shoulders and spun me to face him, the rancid smell of ale and sweat and vomit assaulting my nostrils as he leaned in close. “If your useless mother hadn’t left me with an even more useless girl to care for, I wouldn’t have cause to drink. If I were you, I’d start walking now before the only way you can get there is to crawl.”
“We’ll starve if I sell the cows.”
His hands fell away from the lapels of my coat, but only so he could hit me again. My ears rang as I propped myself up on the floor, and the tang of blood coated my tongue.
“Fine,” I said into the dirt.
A boot to my stomach sent me sprawling again, coughing splatters of red onto the ground.
“What did you say?” he yelled down at me.
Sucking in a deep breath, I tried to form words before another blow came. “I said I’ll do it! I’ll sell them!” Coughing overtook me, and I clutched at my stomach, bracing.
“That’s what I thought you said.” A cloud of dust flew into my face as he kicked the filth at me. Even with that, I was grateful to hear his steps retreating to the bedroom. By the time I could lift myself off of the ground, he was snoring loudly.
I sat there for several minutes. In the back of my mind, I knew I should be crying. Without the cows, there’d be no milk to trade with and no new calves to sell off in the spring. What little came from the garden I’d scratched out of the yard might get us by until fall, but there would be nothing when winter set in. I’d tried to teach myself how to hunt, but rabbits didn’t even bother with my garden and birds were too fast and small for me to hit with my rudimentary archery skills.
He was going to starve us to death in a few months to pay off his bottomless drinking habit.
After years of trying to help him, to keep the two us alive, what was it all for? I should’ve been sobbing at realizing it was coming to an end. It should’ve been my breaking point.
Instead, I picked myself up and dressed for the walk. At least on the trip to Breen I’d have time to think through it all and figure out what to do. If nothing else, the cows wouldn’t have to endure any more of him. Selling them to another farmer was likely the greatest kindness I could do them.
I was shielded from the worst of the heat for the first few hours of my trek. As the sun came up, however, my steps slowed. The humidity was already enough to make breathing more difficult. The beating my father inflicted on me wasn’t the worst he’d done by any stretch, but knowing that didn’t make the pain in my ribs any duller.
An hour after sunrise, my body demanded I stop. My father undoubtedly wanted me home before he needed another drink, but I simply couldn’t muster the strength to continue. Halfway through the Cormiran Valley forest, I led the pair of cows off of the road and through the trees. The sound of water was loud enough to assure me the little stream that led to the Taringale River wasn’t far.
Sunlight broke through the leaves just enough to shine on the clearing along the bank. After bribing my protesting body with the promise of a rest, I managed to water and tie up the cows before propping myself up against a small boulder to catch my breath. Beside me, a sprig of tiny flowers had grown through a crack in the rock, bushy clumps of seeds gathered where blossoms had been.
Make a wish, Jack.
The memory of my mother’s voice startled me. She was always looking for little things to pin her hopes on, though it took me years to figure out why. By the time I was seven, however, I fully understood her motivations. Without those sparks of hope to cling to, no matter how minuscule they were, it was easy to give up on living at all.
But what did I wish for?
I plucked one of the tiny stems, pausing when I thought I heard a note of music on the breeze. When nothing else presented itself, I turned my focus back to the sprig of seeds. If I could wish for anything, what would that be? Any number of things occurred to me: sobriety for my father, help tending what he hadn’t sold of our land, a roof that didn’t need constant repair, a room to myself…
Those were only parts of a larger wish, though. They were symptoms of the thing I lacked more than anything else.
The light pink tuft of seeds before me, I took a breath and held it.
“I wish for peace,” I whispered to it. Opening my eyes, I blew at the tiny sprig, the entire bunch scattering away into the air. Again, I thought I heard the faintest tinkle of music, but it vanished quicker than I could confirm it.
My deepest hope sent on the wind, I relaxed back against the boulder. The warmth of the sun and the gentle trickle of the stream soothed me. As the night before, I tilted my head back to watch the sky, envying the wispy clouds that lazed across the bright blue expanse. What must it be like to drift along, content to follow the breeze? My thoughts floated with them, and, before long, I slipped into sleep.
Unsettling quiet woke me. Unsure of why I was so uneasy, I sat up, at first checking the time. At nearly midday brightness, the sun threw me into a panic. How had I slept so long? Maybe I was as stupid as my father said, as I could think of no other good excuse for my horrible mistake. After a quick gulp of water from the creek, I spun away to untie the cows…
I realized then what woke me. The animals were gone, no longer tied to the tree, vanished as though they’d been lifted into the air. Not so much as a hoofprint led away from the clearing, leaving me no way to track the thief responsible.
Trembling, I sank to my knees, unable to fully comprehend the horror of my current predicament. Without the cows, I had nothing to sell. With nothing to sell, I’d have no money to give my father. And if I returned with no money…
I shuddered. I’d be a fool to think he’d be understanding. Compassion was never a trait I’d accuse him of having. How could I return empty-handed and not expect the worst?