Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Secret

Hi all, today, to celebrate the first daffodil that just showed up in my garden, I'm giving you a short story that I recently wrote. It's a mystery snippet, and it's just a bit creepy. Enjoy! 
Image by Sue Farrant

The Secret

I woke to find mother already dressed and bustling around the kitchen. 
  She was wearing her good red skirt and embroidered blouse, with her best, white kerchief tied around the fat knot of hair at the back of her head. She hummed while she put water and roasted bread over the open hearth. There was a big jar of honey on the table, and a generous slab of the salty butter I’d churned the night before. The honey shone golden in the sunlight.
  “Get up, Lillemor,” Mother sang, “Get up, and hurry, I need to go to the forest today!”
  I remembered: when she’d crossed the yard on her way back from the stable and I’d seen the thin sliver of the new moon playing hide-and-seek with the wind and the clouds. It was the day.
  “Mama,” I sat down at the table, my nightgown wrapped around my knees and feet to keep them warm against the early morning chill, “where do the babies really come from?”
  Mother’s shoulders drew together. “You know that, silly Lille,” she said softly, “I don’t have to tell you again, do I?” She pointed at the open window with her chin. “The stork brings them. They grow on the clouds, and when they’re ripe the storks pick them up, and bring them to the meadow in the forest where I go to find them and bring them to their families. You know that! You’ve watched me go every season, ever since you were a little girl.”
  Of course I knew that. For the past few years mother had allowed me to tag along all the way to the edge of the forest, but not one step farther. The forest wasn’t for everyone, she always had said, only a very few were permitted to enter. It was a dangerous and protected place, a place of mystery and secrets. 
  Twice a year mother went into the forest, and she always came back with a new baby, and sometimes, two. Once there had been three, and stepping out of the forest she had laughed, her eyes shining, her hair plastered to her head with the effort of carrying three infants. I’d hurried to help her, and that had been the first time I’d ever felt the surprisingly solid, little body of a new baby. You’d expect them to be fragile, light, nearly ephemeral, but they aren’t. They’re  little humans with strong lungs and lusty voices, and tiny hands that they know how to ball into fists even though they can hardly open their eyes yet. Like kittens, they were like new kittens. Hardly out of… 
  “Yes.” I spread butter and honey on my piece of bread, “But Mama, why are kittens and calves born from their mothers’s bodies, and humans, not?”
  “That is a mystery,” Mother replied, pouring tea for us, “And it’s useless to ask because there’s no one who can supply the answer. Now eat, and I’ll sit with you for a little while, but then I must be on my way.”
I glanced over Mother’s shoulder and out the window to where the forest stood, silent, dark, its secrets hidden in the shade of its ancient trees. 
  “Can I come, this time?” I asked, “Please? To the meadow?”
  “No, sweet child.” Mother reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “You can’t. No one can.”
  I knew that one day I’d find out. Bringing out the babies had been  the task of the women in our family for as long as history could be remembered, and I knew that one day it would be my turn to discover the secret the forest and my mother guarded so well. 
  “I’ve never seen storks with babies fly over the trees.” I hid my face behind my mug so she couldn’t see my warming cheeks, “Shouldn’t we be able to see them, when they bring the babies?”
  Mother opened her mouth and then closed it again. I was asking too many questions; in a moment she’d tell me to hush and go muck out the pigsty, and that would be it for the day. I’d come out smelling like a pig myself and then I’d have to walk all the way down to the river for a bath.
  But all she said was, “Patience, little mother. Your time will come. You’re just past childhood. You should sing, and play, and dance with the young folk from the village, and not worry about those deep mysteries. Not yet, Lille.”
  Little mother she had called me, and that went down my back like a caress. My name. It was my name, little mother. That’s what Lillemor meant. My mother’s name was Moren. She was The Mother, and that was her name. 
  It had always been just the two of us; I had no brothers or sisters, no grandparents, no father. For as long as I can remember, it had been Mother, and Little Mother. 
  “I must leave now.” Mother stood up. She straightened the pleats of her skirt and checked her kerchief. “You can come to the edge, if you want, and wait there for me. I have a feeling that today will be…” Her words trailed away, she turned her head. I could see the tiny, stray curls on her temples glint silvery.

We set off, mother and I, at a slow pace, chatting softly about the coming winter, about how the leaves on the trees had changed color, and how the meadows leading up to the forest had been mowed and the hay stored in the barns. We came to a spot where a big, flat stone served as a bench, just outside the shade of the forest. That was where we had our lunch. The march up the hill was longer than it looked. We sat there, napkins on our laps, munching the bread and cheese we’d brought, drinking tea from the flask, watching the smoke rise from the houses far below. 
  “Who will have a new baby today?”
  Mother didn’t respond for a while. Nodding, she looked down toward our village. 
  “Bethe and Emil have wanted a child for a long time now,” she finally said, “So it might be for them. But Orna and Ben have asked for another, too. Their little boy is so sickly after having fallen off the top floor of their barn. I’m not sure.” She shrugged, and began putting away the remnants of our meal. “I guess we’ll know soon enough.”
  She walked away and was soon swallowed up by the shade under the trees. 
  I sat there in the mellow fall sunshine, my legs stretched out, letting my mind wander. 
  After a while, sleepy boredom overtook me. I wished I’d stayed behind and mucked the pigsty after all. Even that odious chore would have been better than the boredom.
  I’d just decided to return home when something in the air changed. 
  Where it had been mild and fragrant a moment before it was now cold, and smelled of moss and decay.
  “Lillemor,” the trees whispered, and then again, “Come. Come, Lillemor.”
  I sprang up and stared. The sun was still streaming down from a teal sky, a gentle wind ruffling the leaves of the trees. 
  Almost certain that I’d fallen asleep and dreamed it, I sank back down on the stone. 
  “Lillemor,” the forest sang, and this time it wasn’t a dream. “Come, Lillemor.”
  My feet moved without me having even decided yet. I walked toward the forbidden forest.
~~~        
It was different than I’d expected. 
  From outside, the forest was a dark, forbidding wall that kept out everyone and everything. I’d often sat on that stone bench, my back to the village below me, and stared at the dark, silent trees and wondered how mother could find her way in there. I imagined her creeping through the thick, unwilling underbrush, twigs and thorns snagging in her skirt and hair, resenting her presence. 
  This time, though, it occurred to me that she always returned walking upright, not a hair out of place, and the infants in her arms, unharmed.
  “Come,” the wind whispered, the boughs sighed, and I took my first step into the shade. It wasn’t that the trees moved, or the underbrush vanished. It was more as if, once I’d crossed that barrier of darkness, I’d entered a realm that had been hidden before. I walked on emerald, spongy moss, across sun-drenched glades that were alight with flowers and butterflies, along a brook that sparkled and glittered over marbles and pebbles in all the colors of the rainbow. Silver fish darted through swift currents, dragonflies hovered over nodding reeds. 
  I could hear wildlife: the soft tread of deer, the rustle of rabbits and even smaller animals, the snuffle of something with the plodding of a ponderous cow.
  There was no path; yet my feet seemed to know where they were supposed to go, gently guided by the forest. Up I went, deeper into the woods, always following the brooks meandering trail, until at last I could see green shade and the reflections of a pond through the trees.
  Dread crept up my arms, my neck. 
  There was mother, on her knees, bent over the still, dark water of the pond. Her hair was loose, flowing around her like a veil, and she was naked. She had stretched out her arms, her palms down, and she was chanting a phrase over and over again, the same words flowing into each other like the cadence of a waterfall. “Jord, Mormor, Moren, Lillemor…” 
  Over and over she chanted this while blood dropped from her wrists into the pond.
  I wanted to rush to her, scream at her, shake her out of the trance, but somehow I knew that I couldn’t. So I stood there, silent like the trees around me, waiting.
Mother fell silent. Her arms fell to her sides. She sank into the moss, exhausted, and wiped the last drops of blood from her skin.
  “Come here,” she said, her voice dry and rough, “Now you must do the rest.” She sounded like a very old woman. 
  I hesitated, not sure that she’d meant me.
  “Come, Lillemor.” This time she sounded impatient, urgent.
  I knelt beside her. The water was no longer still. Something moved in it, deep down in the darkness. 
“There is no meadow,” I said. 
  “No.”
  “There are no storks,” I said.
  “No.”Her hand moved to point at the water. “Watch. Listen. Learn. This will be your task from now on. I can go home. Mother Jord is calling  me.”
Jord. The goddess of the Earth. 
  “You are not Lillemor any longer. You are now Moren, The Mother.”
  Through the surface of the pond a bundle rose, a small, white bundle of humanity, an infant girl, pale, her eyes pinched, her head covered with the same black hair that mother had, and I.
  “She is Lillemor,” Mother said, “She is your daughter now. Teach her. You are now the Mother.”
  Carefully she picked the baby up, held it for a moment, and then laid it in my arms.
  One last smile, one last breeze of a kiss on my brow, then she stepped into the water and allowed it to swallow her. 
  The infant opened her eyes and looked at me. They were my eyes. They were mother’s eyes. They were the eyes of every child born from the pond. 

“I will take you home now,” I told the little girl, “I am Mother.”

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