In which a father decides not to repeat the same tale.
Photo credit: Abhlsek Sarda
Jad knocked the dirt off his travel roll before shuffling over the threshold. His happiness at seeing his wife lasted two steps, fading into chagrin at the sight of his son. He could guess what had happened from the state the boy was in.
Sulking in the corner, barelegged under his tunic, Daera’s face flushed red. Anger, or embarrassment, or both. And his ears! Oh, holy hands, but those ears were pink. The boy rubbed his backside, grimacing.
It looked like Daera wouldn’t be getting the sweets Jad brought home after all.
Suraen glanced up from her mending and snapped at their son. “Leave it alone. Rubbing will only make it worse.”
With his last strength, Jad leaned over to kiss his wife before plopping onto the bench. His daughter brought him a cup of ale, smirking and stealing glances at her brother. Jad was about to ask Suraen about Daera when she deflected him.
“How was the market, dear?”
Ah, so they were ignoring the boy. Well put. How was market? Noisy. Crowded. Hot. Smelly. Jad remembered clamoring to go to the market as a child. Any excuse at all to go to the city. It felt so bright and exciting then. Now he saw it through a father’s eyes, through a trader’s eyes. Enough danger on the roads that you couldn’t camp in the forest anymore. You paid a bucket for stable space, and slept with a bunch of filthy lowlifes. All day long, sellers screaming in your ear. Each bite of food so expensive, each cup of ale smaller and more watery than the last. And the thieves—by the hand, had it been that bad when he was young?
He shook himself, remembered to sip his ale. “It was fine. We brought less than half a bushel back home.”
“Good.” She peeked at her younger son under her lashes. “And how did Taelatenn do?”
Rubbing it in with Daera that he couldn’t go. His wife had the right of it, as usual. “Taelatenn was a great help. He behaved himself very admirably.” Of course Taelatenn behaved himself. He always did. So careful, that boy was. And so distant these days. Jad remembered when Taelatenn looked up at him with those huge green eyes filled with unquestioning admiration. Now that Taelatenn’s eyes were almost level with his own, his eldest always seemed to be watching him warily. Waiting for him to make errors, keeping track of each stumble, giving him that side-eye sneer when he wasn’t up to the measure.
That left three children who didn’t hate him. Yet. He had plenty of time to mess those up too. Doing pretty well with this one, so far.
Jad motioned with his cup toward the boy in the corner. “Grandmother Jona again?”
“What was it this time?”
Cauna giggled, all sass and smirking. “Show Father your mouth, Daera.”
Daera scowled at his older sister, but when his mother waved him on, he stuck out his tongue. It was bright blue, along with the rest of his mouth.
Suraen frowned, but Jad spotted the grin his wife was trying to hide behind it. “Blueberry honey sticks. Cursed. Specially prepared for him.”
“I told him not to, Father, but he wouldn’t listen. I saw him, I did!”
Jad sighed. They spent half their lives getting their children to tell them the truth, and the other half getting them to keep it to themselves. Jad was still formulating his response when his wife beat him to it.
“Cauna, dear, we’ve talked about this. It’s your duty to give true witness against another when called upon, yes. But it looks ill if you take too much pleasure in it.”
Cauna nodded solemnly, seeming contrite. When her mother glanced away, she flicked her tongue at Daera. Jad pretended he hadn’t seen. The boy deserved it, and more, for all those times he’d caused his sister trouble.
Everyone’s eyes turned toward the door as Taelatenn walked in. He stopped abruptly and scanned the room, sighing loudly when he got to Daera in the corner. He greeted his mother, nodded to his father. “Donkey’s up. Cart too.” He glanced at his brother again and shrugged. “I don’t want to know. I’m going to bed.”
Jed waited until Taelatenn had closed the door to the other room behind him. “So, did you…?” He nodded in the general direction of Jona’s house.
“As soon as I saw. Brought her a few meat pies, too.”
“So she’s….?” Jad didn’t notice when he’d stopped completing his sentences around Suraen. At some point, he no longer needed to.
“Calm now, but…” Her shrug indicated that the damage was done.
“Could we ask..?”
Suraen shook her head.
No, she was right. There were two other witchers in the village, but neither of them would reverse something Jona had done. “We’ll just have to wait, then.”
Daera sniffled, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
Jad clucked. Cauna hadn’t made this much fuss when she broke her leg last summer. “Head up, boy. It won’t last forever.” He assumed, that is. It was one thing for the boy to walk around like this for a few days or a few weeks. But for the rest of his life? He flared his eyebrows at Suraen, suddenly frightened.
She twitched her nose and shook her head quickly and briefly.
Ah, not permanent. That was a relief.
“But Faaaaather, wait for how looooong?”
The boy’s moaning was wearing down Jad’s sympathy. “As long as it takes for you to learn your lesson, I hope. How many times have we talked to you about stealing, son? Maybe an embarrassing punishment will finally turn your head around.”
“It’s not fair! She can’t do this to me!”
“Apparently she can. And she did. And you deserved it.” If the boy would act even somewhat penitent, this would go much faster. “You know that in your heart. Don’t you?”
“No, I— But I— It’s that nasty Grandmother Jona. She’s a mean old hag.”
Suraen clapped her hands so close to Daera’s face that he jumped back. “Don’t you ever talk about Mistress Jona that way, never. You hear me, boy? If it weren’t for her, you wouldn’t even be alive.”
Jad might not be, either, since Jona had been midwife for his mother as well as his wife.
“But, I…” His shoulders collapsed and his whines turned to sobs. “I wasn’t going to do it. I tried not to. Really.”
“He was showing off for Orenn.” Cauna cooed, teasing her brother.
Of course he was. Again. That boy Orenn was a bad influence from the start. Jad knew Daera was old enough to get crushes, but why did it have to be that troublemaker?
“Was not! He was just there, and, and, and…” Daera’s protest ended in a harrumph.
Cauna pretended to swoon. “And he said, oh no, Daera, I’m dying of hunger. If only I had a honey stick! Whatever will I do?”
Suraen narrowed her eyes and pointed at Cauna, who was smart enough to stop talking for once. “Dear, did you bring Cauna anything from the market?”
Jad fished in his bag and brought out the three peanut pies, only slightly squished. “Now, this one’s for Ellnae. She can have it when she wakes up tomorrow. This one’s for you.” He handed it to Cauna. “And this one was supposed to be for Daera, but you and Ellnae can share it.”
Biting into her peanut pie, Cauna beamed. “Mm, thank you, Father. It’s delicious.”
Daera grumbled. “It’s not fair! Taelatenn got to go to the city, and I had to stay here, and now I don’t get any sweets from the market either?”
Suraen tsked. “You won’t be getting any sweets at all for a while. Part of the punishment.”
Jad joined in. “And it’s exactly because of these antics that I don’t trust you at market.” Stupid boy. Almost as stupid as he’d been at that age. Always smashing his own toes to spite his foot.
Suraen bit off a thread and held up the pants to examine her work. A new opening was cut out of the back of the pants, with a tie at the top. “Come over here and try these on, Daera.”
When Daera turned to put the pants on, Jad saw the full extent of the problem.
The twisty tail was even larger than Jad had feared. Worse, it stuck straight out behind poor Daera’s bottom. No chance of tucking it down into his pants.
When Daera tugged the pants on, the tail caught, bouncing back up like a spring. Daera gulped. Jad hid his smile behind his cup. Oh poor boy, that was too funny. The other children were going to be brutal. Jona must have really been angry this time.
Suraen tied the pants up over the new protuberance. “There you are, not a bad fit. If you sit far enough back on the bench at school, you’ll be fine.”
“I still have to go to school?” Daera’s face went pale.
“And temple too. Temple even more often, I should say.”
“But Mama, everyone will laugh!”
“Yes, I do believe that was Grandmother Jona’s intent.” She tucked a hair behind his ear. “And it will be terrible. Absolutely miserable. But then you won’t misbehave again.” She straightened, her hands on her hips. “Or I’ll make sure it’s worse next time.”
“Nothing could be worse than this! Nothing!”
“Don’t pout. And don’t ever tempt fate by saying nothing could be worse.” She looked at Jad and grinned.
A wave of panic hit him. She promised not to tell the children, not until they were older, at least.
“For instance, you could have a donkey’s ears and a donkey’s tail. Much, much bigger.” Her grin threatened to reach her ears.
Jad grimaced, cursing his sister yet again for telling Suraen that story. Eventually someone would have, he knew, but not so early on. She might have changed her mind! It was only a matter of time before the children heard it, too. Maybe Taelatenn already had.
Seeing Daera today was like going through it all over again. He remembered how furious his father had been, stomping off and not talking to him for days.
Jad pulled Daera onto the bench, helping him ease his tail over it, and put his arm around his son. “Are you sorry you stole the honey sticks?”
Daera nodded, mutely.
“Are you going to apologize to Grandmother Jona tomorrow?”
After a few heartbeats, he nodded again, still staring at his hands.
“Maybe it could be worse, but it’s still bad, I know. It’s supposed to be. Grandmother Jona was right to do it.” She was right this time, and she’d been right back then, too. “But be strong, be patient, and learn from it. You’ll come out the other side.”
Daera sniffled, but it sounded more repentant than his earlier sniffles. That was a start.
“And if you behave yourself for the next two months, and prove that we can trust you, you can come with me to the city for market day.”
Daera looked up, his eyes shining. “You mean it? Really?”
Jad remembered that feeling.
Suraen clucked, but she was smiling. “You did hear that ‘if’, didn’t you, boy? We’ll be paying close attention, don’t you doubt it.”
Jad leaned down and whispered in Daera’s pointy pink ear. “You can do it, son.”
Submitted (in part) in response to Dan Alatorre’s “Toughest flash fiction challenge: 4-way dialogue,” although I had a rough draft of “Pig Boy” and meant to get back to it some day anyway. Thanks for giving me the push in the butt to do so, Dan!