This week's story is about a protective mother. (Maybe I should have delayed this a week?)
Bran grew into a fearful child, hesitant to do anything without his mother’s approval. He was a homely boy with pale skin, a sub nose, and tiny eyes. He was terrified of insects and dirt and became ill if he stayed in the sun for more than fifteen minutes.
When he reached school age, his mother dragged him out of the house, tears in her eyes. He begged her not to leave him, but she continued on her relentless trek, her mouth a grim line. She marched him down to the schoolhouse and spoke to the teacher in a hard voice.
“You watch over this boy like he was your own child. Let nothing happen to him. He is not to go outside at all. I will be back to pick him up at day’s end.”
The teacher, unprepared for such an assault, made no response. Bran’s mother nodded in approval, turned on her heel, and headed back the way she came. Bran stood there, sucking on his finger, bewildered. The teacher very kindly led him over to where the other children were playing, but as they drew near, Bran pulled back. He had never seen anyone his own age and he found them frightening. The teacher attempted to coax him toward his classmates, but Bran let go of her hand and pressed himself against the wall. Another parent and child arrived at that time, saving Bran from his new teacher’s attention. One child approached him, but he turned his face away and ignored her until she went away. When the time came to sit for class time, Bran chose a space at the back of the room, as far from the other children as possible.
This established his role in the years to come. Children are often cruel to those they perceive as different and Bran was certainly that. When they weren’t ignoring him outright, they teased him. One child pushed him once and the wrath that was visited upon him by Bran’s mother was enough to make them all afraid of her. Bran’s classmates, seeing his mother frowning at them every morning and afternoon, learned to give Bran a wide berth.
Bran grew older and his mother’s paranoia became more severe. She wouldn’t let him leave the house by himself and would show up at his school unannounced, panic in her eyes. Once she saw that he was okay, she would leave again, but she’d return at least once more before the end of the day.
Only once did he ask her about his father. It was a quiet winter evening and the fire was burning nicely in the hearth. His mother had seemed in an unusually contented mood and Bran got up the nerve to inquire what might have happened.
His mother’s eyes were faraway. “He was taken by the monsters of the forest.”
Bran’s mouth was open. “Was his skin torn off?”
His mother did not answer for a moment. Then she fixed her eyes upon his. “There are many kinds of monsters, my son. Some hunger for children. Others hunger for men. Your father was foolish and did not heed the dangers, but you will never need know of them as long as your feet stay on this side of the tree line.” There was great sorrow in her voice as the firelight flickered in her dark pupils. Bran never spoke of his father again.
In Bran’s thirteenth year, he began to notice the female members of his class. He noticed the way they moved and the way they spoke and the way they never noticed him back. He longed to be someone else; someone brave and outgoing and well-liked. He wondered what it might be like to have a friend. He thought about what it might be like to kiss a girl. Even as Bran reveled in his daydreams, he heard his mother’s voice through the open window, arguing with his teacher.
“I don’t care that he’s in class right now,” she screeched. “I just want to see him.”
“You can see him after class. I will send him directly home,” the teacher promised.
“Send him home? You’ll do nothing of the kind!” Bran winced as his mother’s voice rose in volume and pitch.
“The boy is thirteen,” the teacher pointed out. “Many of the other children travel back and forth from home to school on their own.”
“I don’t care what other children do,” hissed Bran’s mother. “Bran is my child and I will make the decisions regarding his safety; not you. Now, I am going in there to take my son home. He obviously has nothing more to learn from you.”
“Please…,” the teacher began, but Bran heard footsteps and his mother appeared in the doorway. Her face softened marginally in relief when she saw he was alright, but the hard mask returned a second later as she called him forward.
Ears burning with shame, Bran rose and walked to the front of the room. He could feel every eye on his back and he knew that there would be a flurry of chatter the moment they left. Sure enough, as his mother whisked him past the dumbstruck teacher, he could her voices whispering in excitement. His mother was whispering a diatribe of her own.
“Self-important, stuck-up, no-good woman. Has she any children of her own? No, of course not; that’s why she thinks she can lord it over mine. Well, she’ll not have you to boss around anymore, that’s for sure!” Her hand encircling his bicep, she hauled him back to their cottage. “From now on, I’ll be your instructor. I can teach you just as well as anyone and you’ll have no distractions from any other children.” Satisfied that she had made a life choice for her son, she released him and brushed her hands upon her apron. “Go to the table and prepare for your first lesson in your new school.”
Bran did as he was told.
He rarely left the house after that. For three years, he remained isolated from the world, locked into routine. In the mornings, he would wake and they would break the fast together. Then he would take care of small household chores while his mother ran errands in the village. Midday brought another small meal, after which they would begin lessons until suppertime. Surprisingly, his mother was a good teacher indeed. She imposed upon him the importance of reading and writing. She taught him to sew and cook, to keep the house and garden. “For there will come a time when you must do for yourself,” she warned. “I will not be around forever.” It lit a fire of terror inside him when she spoke of such things and he worked even harder to please her. They had very few visitors, for Bran’s mother was not a popular woman and the village folk had little reason to come to the small cottage on the outskirts of town.
Until, one day, while his mother sought a new woolen cloak at the village market, Bran was weeding the small garden when a shadow fell over him. He whirled, gasping, and met the eyes of a handsome woman smiling down on him in the sunlight.
“Hello, good sir,” she said.
Bran said nothing.
“I am sorry to bother you, but I am looking for a runaway hen. She ran this way. Have you seen her?”
Bran still said nothing. The woman possessed an odd confidence that belied her soft appearance. He couldn’t help looking at her mouth; her lips were pink and wet with the slightest of dimples at each corner. These dimples almost disappeared when her mouth turned downward in confusion.
“Perhaps you’re unable to speak?” she inquired.
“N-no,” Bran managed.
Her freckled cheeks lifted in a gentle smile. “Well, then, would you be able to help me?”
Not trusting himself to speak, Bran nodded.
“Thank you. I’m Tess.”
“Bran,” the boy whispered.
“Bran, have you seen my hen?” Tess asked.
Bran shook his head.
“Well, I know she ran this way, but I cannot seem to find her. Perhaps she ventured into the forest?” Tess gestured toward the tree line.
Bran’s nostrils flared and his eyes widened. He was still terribly afraid of the dense foliage. In his mind’s eye, he could see the many monsters his mother had warned him of dancing there among the woods, but Tess thrust a hand in front of his face. “Here.” He stared at it for a moment before realizing that she was offering to help him to his feet. He reached out and gingerly took it, her sweaty palm sending a thrill up his arm. He wobbled to his feet. “Shall we?” Tess continued, starting to pull him toward the forest. His mind was screaming at him to stop, but his feet stepped forward on an inexorable course from the warmth of the sun into the cool shadows. Bran shivered.
“She must have gone this way,” said Tess, picking her way among the roots. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you, but you see, she was our only hen and her eggs fetch a pretty penny on the market. My husband charged me with her care and he would be furious to know that I had lost her. We aren’t a remarkably poor family, but we certainly can claim no sense of wealth. Anyway, I’m sure you must feel quite silly walking through the forest with a strange woman searching for a hen, don’t you?”
Bran wanted to say that he felt scared, but she still had a hold of his hand and he was reluctant to do anything that might ruin the camaraderie he had shared with anyone who was not his mother. He shook his head.
“Not at all? My goodness, but you’re a brave one!” Tess kept up a steady stream of talk as they ventured further and further into the forest. Soon, Bran could no longer see the tree line behind him, but he found that he didn’t care very much. His fears were starting to loosen the tight hold they had around his heart and he began to notice, for the first time, how beautiful the forest truly was. Dappled sunlight tickled the bark of the trees, the patterns shifting with the breezes that skipped through the woods, rustling the leaves on their way. He could hear the soft sounds of bird and animals as they went about their day and they were so natural that he automatically relaxed.
Tess pointed out things along their route, drawing his attention to tracks and plants that might have gone hitherto unnoticed by Bran’s untrained eye. “There’s the nest of a yellowbellied thrush.” She pointed toward the canopy. And a moment later: “Those are deer tracks!” Her head was focused on the dirt to their right.
“You’ve been here before,” he suddenly blurted out.
She nodded. “I have been in the forest many times. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Beautiful,” he repeated, but he was not speaking of the forest. She caught the intention and blushed fetchingly.
Still, she never let go of his hand.
Bran had no idea how long they had been walking, but suddenly, he realized that the sun was sinking, turning the leafy canopy a burnished golden color. Panic flared in his heart.
“We must go back,” he choked out.
“We cannot,” said Tess.
Bran was horrified. “You- you don’t know the way back?”
“I know the way,” said Tess, “but you cannot travel it.” He didn’t know how to respond to that. He started to pull his hand out of hers, but she held tight. “You mustn’t let go of me,” Tess said. “If you let go, I will leave and you will be lost forever.”
“What…?” He couldn’t bring himself to complete the question.
She gripped his hand more firmly and said: “You don’t want to get lost here. There are dangers in the woods.”
Bran swallowed hard and looked around at the darkening forest. “So my mother was right; there are monsters.”
“No, Bran,” said Tess. “There’s only me.” Her eyes glowed with hunger.
“What – what do you mean?”
Tess let out a small chuckle. “Your father was the same way. Didn’t realize what was happening until it was almost over. Never fear, it’s almost over for you too.”
“My father? How old are you?”
“Old enough,” she said, drawing a knife from between her breasts. “Your father thought to make a sport of me. He was a greedy man. Already had gotten a wife with child, but he wanted more and he was willing to do whatever it took to get it. Afterward, he showed regret and begged me not to say anything, but I had no forgiveness for a monster like that. I ran straight to your house and showed the bruises to your mother, but she would hear none of it. She couldn’t believe that her precious husband would ever do anything violent. He denied it and she took him back.” Her eyes blazed with hatred. “She chose him over her own flesh and blood.”
“Yes. Your mother’s younger sister. How I have watched you, my nephew, growing into manhood, looking every day more and more like him. I swore never to let his progeny live. I swore it before her.”
“My mother knew?”
Tess sneered. “She tried to keep you protected, but I knew you’d attend school someday. I would have taken you from there and taken care of this a long time ago, but my damned sister was ever-watchful. Finally, I had to delay her on my own.”
Bran felt a new sensation building inside of him: anger. His mother was all that he had. “What did you do?”
Tess shrugged. “Nothing permanent. Just a little knock to keep her out of the game long enough for me to get to you.” She raised the knife.
The thought that this woman had done something to hurt his mother was unthinkable. His anger roared forth and he hauled on her hand, spinning her off-balance. He reached out with his other hand, trying to grab the knife, but only succeeded in slicing his palm. Hissing against the pain, he tried to ignore the blood dripping and brought his arm around her body, trying to use his weight to bring her down. She snarled and tried to pull her hand from his, but he wouldn’t let go. He brought his arm down on her wrist and she gasped, dropping the knife into the soft loam. He lunged for it, his momentum carrying them both to the ground. They rolled, goring the forest floor in the struggle to pull themselves toward the weapon. Bran rubbed his bloody palm in her face, smearing the fluid across her eyes and blinding her. She shrieked. He took a chance and let go of her so he could grasp the knife in his good hand, but as he did so, she wiped the blood from her eyes and reached for his throat. Her hands were small, but strong and he was quickly losing air. In desperation, he slashed upward and felt the satisfying, but sickening crunch as the knife lodged itself in her ribs. She coughed, red liquid pouring from her mouth and onto his nose and mouth. The smell was overpowering, but he realized that if he was smelling it, it meant he could breathe again. Her grip on his throat had loosened and her eyes closed as she topped forward on top of him. He rolled over, pushing her off, and promptly vomited the contents of his stomach onto the forest floor.
She lay as though she were sleeping and Bran was loathe to move her. Still, he searched through her pockets, hoping to find something that would help him. He vomited twice more before he found anything worth using: tinder and flint. He made a small fire to ward off the night and only then, before the crackling flames, did he start to sob. He sobbed for his dead father, for his forsaken mother, for the death of his aunt by his hand, and for his own relief at no longer being afraid of the forest. He knew he had a long night to get through, but he was starting to feel the strange stirrings of quiet confidence that comes from necessity. He knew he would make it to morning and then he would start back toward the home he had left, but it would no longer be the life he had known. He would walk through the cottage door, hug his mother and tell her:
“I have slain the monster.”