Shel’s childhood always felt dangerous. He lived in a small shed with his mother Audrel and his grandfather Samuel. Audrel and her father always seemed on the verge of a dangerous argument. They had never argued, at least not in front of Shel, but a sense of great disappointment existed between them, and as Shel grew older, this sense became irrefutable.
Straw covered the shed’s floor and a dark iron stove dominated its center. Globs of blackened grease sealed the stove’s chimney as it poked through the slanted roof. The same grease filled the edges where the roof met the walls with less effect. When rain came, the rain sheeted down the walls and drained through tiny holes, which Samuel hammered in the floor for this purpose.
Two sleeping pallets surrounded the stove. Shel slept with his grandfather on the smaller one. The only other furniture in the room was a heavy chest, over five feet long, which rested a few inches from the far wall opposite the door, and over which Audrel had placed a thick canvas covering.
Audrel had many rules—or disciplines, as she called them—for Shel. As a young boy, she had taught Shel two of her most important disciplines. The first involved not touching the stove when filled with burning wood or droppings. Shel had made that mistake as an infant, and had a small ugly burn on the outside of his right palm. As his hand grew, the burn stretched until it resembled a curved sword. Shel enjoyed showing off the scar to the other children in town. He felt the scar made him different, setting him apart for what he thought of as a special personal destiny, which he would find outside his small life, which existed inside the walls of the small shed and the wider walls of the town.
The second discipline—and Audrel seemed to feel that this was more important than the apparent dangers of the stove—was that under no circumstances was Shel ever to touch or talk about the covered chest. This seemed strange to Shel, particularly since he felt the chest would have made a great table for meals or place to store his things. But Audrel’s temper with him was quick, and Shel made a point of not bringing up his plans for the chest.
While Audrel did not set disciplines on Samuel, at least not in front of Shel, Samuel ignored the chest’s existence, and when he did deem notice it, he seemed surprised to have seen it and made a religious sign with his thumb and forefinger, his remaining fingers curled up tight, as if the chest’s contents might hide away evil. This only fed into Shel’s interest in the forbidden chest.
It was the rainy season, and for the third week, every day brought a new drenching rain. The rain tapered off each afternoon, but once it turned dark and throughout the night, the rain would pound steadily on the wooden roof. It was morning, and the rain poured down the inside walls of the shed in steady sheets. Samuel sat on the floor eating a fried egg, with two more eggs on the stove. While waiting for his egg, Shel followed Samuel’s gaze and was surprised to find him not studying the dripping walls, as was his usual practice—he was always dreaming up new ways to stem the flow of the water—but instead he stared at the chest with hungry regret in his eyes. Shel watched him closely and looked for a hint of what Samuel saw or knew when he looked at the chest.
“Isn’t it time you sold that thing?” Samuel asked Audrel and pointed with his chin toward the chest.
Audrel waved her half-empty tankard of ale in Samuel’s direction. She had brought the tankard home last night from the Pretty Beak tavern, where she worked each evening, serving drinks (only mostly to her customers, Samuel always chided). Upon waking each morning, she would take a deep drink. She said it helped clear her mind—but of what her mind needed clearing, she was never forthcoming, and Shel never could figure. “You know I can’t do that,” Audrel said before taking a deep drink from the tankard.
“You and the boy agreed not to talk to it. I never made such promises. I see us living in this hovel, with the walls leaking, and in a part of town I don’t like Shel wandering about, and knowing what’s in the chest—why not just sell it and be done with it? We could find ourselves a much better place and have better to eat than these week-old eggs.”
Audrel was a large woman. She drank heavily and not just in the mornings. There were many fat women in town, and Shel would not put his mother in the same category. She was as large as any one of those women, but her size, to him, looked more solid, as if her bulk was evidence of great strength and not just girth. When he had asked his grandfather about it, he had told Shel that Audrel had not always been that large, that growing up, she was always tall, but she had been a slight, almost delicate, woman, like her mother. It was not until she had gone away that she had gained her size. When Shel pestered Samuel with questions about where she had gone away—before then, he had always imagined that Audrel and Samuel had lived their whole lives in the village—his grandfather closed up, and would not talk about it again, telling Shel that such nonsense was not worth knowing, that there was nothing outside of the village that he should worry himself over. Samuel had a very low opinion of the world outside the village. “Indigestion and pain,” he would say. “That is all you find past the borders of this town.”
Besides her girth, Audrel was a handsome woman. When she allowed it, Shel would watch her work in the tavern, and the men she served seemed to take pleasure in her company. Shel did not like the attention they gave her, but he learned not to worry, for, however fast the men in the tavern were with an attempted pinch or slap or off-color comment, his mother was twice as fast fending them off. For a woman as large as her, when she wanted, her movements were fast, precise, and sometimes violent. She had explained to Shel that she only made examples of those men passing through town who thought to take advantage of a serving wench. “Even large wenches,” she had told Shel, “sometimes hid an iron core.”
“We have a nice enough place,” Audrel answered Samuel, after a loud burp that smelled of oats. “I bring home food and drink, and we have clothing for the winter. What is in that chest is as always off limits. You might as well not think to it, especially in front of the boy.” She took the iron pot with her frying eggs off the stove and tilted it until one egg fell on Shel’s metal plate, and the other on her own plate. Shel attempted to make himself seem smaller, urging them silently to forget about his presence and continue talking about the chest. He had so many questions about it, and his mother and her travels and perhaps his grandfather’s travels—for he had come to believe that the chest held the explanation for everything, perhaps, he imagined, containing the treasures or ransoms they had collected during their years away from the village. And, he would think more secretly, perhaps an explanation of who his father was, and what had happened to him. Where his mother outright forbid any discussion of the chest, the topic of his father was not even acknowledged as a proper topic, as if Shel came to be from Audrel, and it was ridiculous to think another person was involved. His grandfather only too eagerly supported Audrel on this subject. For a boy Shel’s age, however, it had become increasingly difficult for him to swallow their mythology.
Shel wished they would get on with their conversation. He backed up almost to the wall before edging forward after a stream of water ran down his back. He cut the egg with his knife and scooped up the piece on his knife’s edge. The egg tasted bitter and chewy, but he swallowed it and used his fingers to scoop up the grease off the plate.
“This place is nice enough,” Samuel grumbled. “If you count a tavern’s storage shed as nice.” This was the closest to anger Shel had ever heard his grandfather get when talking to his mother. Shel was not a stranger to argument. Of the few friends with two parents, he had witnessed some violent disagreements, one of which ended in a deep cut with a dining knife. His family, while always feeling dangerous, never seemed to have the energy needed to get past the simmering stage and open up fully with the anger. His grandfather’s response was the first he thought might push the edge. After waiting for it for so long, Shel was not sure he wanted that edge breached. Perhaps it was better that his family remained teetering, and their arguments hidden away and never brought out. The walls seemed too close and too thin to hold such conflict.
Audrel drowned the tankard and slurped her egg. “Enough. Boy, finish your egg and get to the river with the dishes and pan. Your grandfather and me, we need to talk alone.”
“Breakfast is not yet done,” Samuel said. “And look at how deep you’ve fallen in your mug. What you have to say, the boy should hear. And besides, you drink too much, daughter.” Samuel dropped his plate and walked over to the chest, touching it over its canvas cover.
Audrel let loose a deep, rumbling laugh, which shook her body and set the walls shaking. She didn’t appear drunk, and Shel doubted a single tankard of ale could set her off, but he could not explain her reaction any other way.
“Which part do you find funny?” Samuel asked, almost screaming. “The part about drink?”
“Or the part about daughter?” Audrel cut off Samuel with a bitter twist in her rasped voice. Her body had stopped shaking and her face crinkled into a disappointed expression. She stood leaning toward her father, as if she planned to pounce him at any moment. Shel caught his breath. He knew that they were arguing, but he wasn’t sure about what. This had gone too far. He had hoped that during their argument, they would let something slip about the chest, but he now felt they had gone too far, crossed a line that they never should have crossed. He had always thought it unusual that they were so civil to one another, but now he wanted them to forgive him for jinxing their relationship. He knew he had only himself to blame for the arguing and screaming and pain he had caused.
“What did I say about the river?” Audrel spun around and said to Shel. Shel scrambled for the breakfast dishes, grabbing the tin plate from his grandfather before running from the hut into the rain. He wanted to stop their arguing, explain that it had been his fault that they argued, and ask for their forgiveness. But mostly, Shel wanted to ask Audrel what good washing dishes in the river while it rained would do. He thought better of both questions, and made his way through the rain and mud toward the river. As Shel looked back at the scene in the hut, it was not Audrel’s face that had not sent him running; instead, it was the look of horror in his grandfather’s face, as if whatever truths Audrel had planned to tell him once Shel left, would be too much for him to bear.
Word count: 2,007
Words remaining: 47,993
Caffeination: Tall mocha drank halfway through the entry.
Feeling: Beginnings are hard. I feel like I have so much to say and it’s difficult to know where to start, or how I will manage to get from one idea to the next. I forgot how many words 2,000 are. After ripping through the first 1,000 words, I became stuck, and dragged through the remaining half. I spent too much time polishing and not enough time writing new words. I’ll hopefully get back into the proper, diarrhea-style writing tomorrow.