Tale #138: A Mother’s Love

My mother always said, “Well, you can’t complain.” But it turns out you can. You can.

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Notes:

1. Written in February, 2020

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Tale #119: Little Sparrow

Little Sparrow and her mother fled across the kingdom, and her father the king followed. For two years they ran, and the king and his armies could not catch them, for Little Sparrow and her mother were too quick. But eventually they tired, and so in the third year they hid, and hoped that the king could not find them.

For two months Little Sparrow and her mother hid there in the dark, drinking from the spring that bubbled up through the rocks, eating what little food they had in their packs, holding each other in the dark for warmth, singing to each other for comfort.

But in the third month, the waters in the spring froze, the food in their packs dwindled away to nothing, and the nights became so cold they needed a fire to keep from shivering to death as they slept. So each morning at dawn, and each evening at dusk, Little Sparrow crept from the cave and would flit from tree to tree, crawl through the long grass, and slip silently through the whispering mists of winter.

And like this, for two weeks Little Sparrow filled their bottles in the stream, picked mushrooms in the meadows, and gathered fire wood from the forest, all without making a sound, nor ever being seen by any living soul.

But in the third week, she lost her footing on the river bank one morning and slipped into the stream, and the sound of her splashing echoed through the forest, across the fields, beyond the hills, as loud as cannon fire, as loud as screams. Soon the woods were full of the king’s men, and it was long past sunset before she could find a way back to their cave unseen.

Alas by then it was too late. In the pale phosphorescence of the cave, Little Sparrow saw her mother by the cold ashes of the fire, the king’s huge silver sword plunged through her back and into her heart, her body cold and dead, the only sound the drip drip drip of her blood as it blossomed across the floor and trickled down the rocks to melt the waters of that icy spring.

For two days Little Sparrow mourned and wept. She washed her mother’s clothes with the last of of their water. She kept the fire burning by her mother’s side with the last of the wood. And she sang songs of love and remembrance through the last of her tears.

On the third day, Little Sparrow pulled the sword from her mother’s heart and went out in search of her father the king. The sword was so huge and heavy she could not carry it, and instead had to pull it along behind her, both her hands on the hilt, her back to the path as she walked. The tip of the blade cut a channel in the ground that led all the way back to her mother’s tomb.

For two days Little Sparrow dragged that sword across the kingdom. It was not hard to find her way to her father, for where Little Sparrow and her mother were quick, the king was slow, and where Little Sparrow and her mother were quiet, her father was loud.

On the third day she came to the King’s camp and stood before her father, his huge sword still held tightly in her hands.

“Little Sparrow, come home to roost,” he laughed. “Are you going to peck at me with that blade of mine? It looks a little big for you!”

“This sword is not for me, father,” Little Sparrow said. “I brought it back for you.”

She spun round once, twice, and on the third spin she let the sword go and threw it across the dirt towards her father’s feet. The king picked up his silver sword, and as he held it up with one hand towards the sun, Little Sparrow laughed.

“A coward’s blade for a cowardly king,” she said, and in his rage her father the king swung it down upon Little Sparrow’s neck.

But not even that great blade was enough to save him. For where the king was slow, Little Sparrow was quick.For while the king was furious, Little Sparrow was calm. And though the king was cruel, Little Sparrow was just.

For two hours she followed the trail of her father the king’s blood, as it trickled down the channel left by his sword, all the way back to her mother’s tomb. And in the third hour…

…well, who can say. Who can know.

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Notes:

1. Written between November 18th and November 20th, 2019
2. The first line is taken from The Gunslinger by Stephen King

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Tale #71: The Crow Tree

It is often tempting for outside observers to judge a society or community solely by its traditions, rituals and festivals, to bestow a significance and seriousness onto events beyond that which they hold for their participants, to see superstition and fear in theatre and frivolity. Equally, of course, the reverse can be true for those involved, leading to a refusal to recognise the serious intent that underpins their festivities.

The event which takes place at the crow tree is one of the community’s least talked about rituals, and consequently can be assumed to be among its most serious. Indeed, there appears to be no written record of the ritual at all, although there are verified accounts of the tree used in the ritual itself dating back to the 15th Century. While the community’s own folklore suggests the ceremony has always taken place, nothing certain about its origins are recorded, and no speculations about its meaning would be offered to me.

The ritual takes place on February the 29th, during the second leap year after the birth of a father’s eldest daughter. The distinction of it being the father’s eldest daughter is an important one, as it means no man can participate in the ritual more than once, whereas a woman might well be required to participate both as a daughter and later as a mother.

(The strict criteria can lead to several convoluted possibilities where the mothers of daughters are concerned. For example, a mother’s first daughter might not be the father’s first daughter, and in this case the ritual would not be required. However, this same mother’s second daughter might then be fathered by a different man, one who has not fathered a daughter before, and so it would be this child that would necessitate the ritual. And of course this hypothetical mother could have more daughters by more new fathers, and so on. Indeed, it is possible for a mother to have to participate in the ritual with each of her daughters, while another woman may never have to, regardless of the number of daughters she has.)

Due to the fixed date of the event combined with the unfixed timing of a child’s birth, the daughter can be anywhere between the age of 4 and exactly 8 when she participates in the ritual. A child born on February the 29th would be the eldest possible participant, and a child born on February the 28th during a leap year would be the youngest.

If the child, the father or the mother have died before the ritual has taken place then a lament is sung by the surviving members of the family at the edge of the field where the ceremonial tree, or crow tree, resides. In these circumstances it is not permitted for the survivors to approach the tree itself during the course of the day.

In recent years, due to the decline in births within the community, it has been rare for there to be more than one family needing to perform the ritual in any given leap year, and indeed in some recent leap years the event has not taken place at all.

In times of a more populous community, however, when multiple rituals were to be carried out during the same day, the participating families were ordered by the age of the child involved, with the eldest girl first and youngest last – a reflection, perhaps, of the length of time they had been waiting to perform. On busy days it was said that, despite there being no apparent communication between the families, each group would arrive in the correct order, equally spaced apart, and that all the rituals would be finished in good time, well before the sun had set.

The ritual itself is one of the most sombre in the community’s complex calendar. No work is conducted on the day itself, and it is traditional for everyone who is not directly involved to stay inside their own houses, although this is not compulsory. No costumes are worn, and the tools used are not ceremonial objects, instead being everyday household objects or workplace items.

The ceremony starts with the father leaving his house at dawn. He makes his way to the edge of the field and waits by the gate. The mother and daughter do not hurry, although usually they will arrive before noon, and always before dusk. The mother carries with her a pail filled with breadcrumbs, offal, fish guts, bones, butter. The daughter carries a length of rope and a knife. When they arrive at the gate to the field, the father wordlessly leads the way in and they walk together to the crow tree at the centre of the field.

The crow tree is a long dead oak, its trunk and branches bleached white as bone by the sun. Other dead oak trees dot the field, but the crow tree is the only one that remains completely bare of ivy or lichen. It is believed that the trees in the field were killed by the sea hundreds of years ago, although the field is many miles inland. The trees themselves are so cold and solid it is tempting to believe they are actually made of stone.

The father stands with his back to the tree. The rope is tied around his left wrist, looped round the tree, and then secured around his right wrist. The daughter pushes her knife into her father’s belly as deeply as she can.

“Speak,” she says, and her father speaks.

They listen. His words go unrecorded.

“Sleep,” says the mother, and, removing the knife from his belly, she slits his throat.

His body is cut down from the tree and dragged a short way from the trunk. The food from the bucket is spread in a circle around him. The knife is placed in the pail, and the women, hand in hand, leave.

Overnight the crows come down from the tree and feed, either upon the flesh of beasts or the flesh of man. In the morning, as the crows return to their roosts, the father is reborn.

Thus judged, some fathers make their way back to town, bucket and knife in hand, and return to their former lives. Others leave, and are not known to be missed.

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Notes:

1. Written in April, 2010
2. This appeared in the “Rituals” issue of Here Comes Everyone magazine, in January 2019

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My Malevolent Mother

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Notes:

1. Written in November 2012
2. While I was trying to be Edward Gorey
3. And failing, somewhat

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Tale #21: The Wolves In The Woods

In the woods a night of snow and howling winds and wolves at the wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our youngest son, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But he is our child,” and to that Father said, “We have two more.” So Mother threw her youngest son over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled around the boy and in the darkness they consumed him.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our daughter, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But she is our child,” and to that Father said, “We have one more.” So Mother threw her daughter over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the girl and in the darkness they consumed her.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our eldest son, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But he is our child,” and to that Father said, “We can always make more.” So Mother threw the eldest son over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the boy and in the darkness consumed him.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them yourself, so that I may escape.” Said Mother, “But I am your wife,” and to that Father said, “I can always marry another.” So Mother threw herself over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the woman and in the darkness consumed her.

But soon the wolves were back at his wheels. Father said, “They are getting too near,” but there was no-one left to throw, and soon the wolves had surrounded him, and Father was forced to stop. The wolves circled the man, round and round in the darkness. They began to shiver and cough and choke and one by one they spat out his children and finally his wife.

And his family circled round and in the darkness they consumed him.

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Notes:

1. Written on July 21st, 2014
2. Illustrated by Holly English
3. The last line is an echo of the last line in The Three Wishes

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