Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter One

July 25, 2006

Once upon a time, in a small village on the leeward side of a really tall mountain, there was a comfortable middle-aged woman with ten kids who lived next door to her parents across from the park.

Her husband had gone abroad to seek his fortune, soon after the last child was born, saying he would return with wealth and comfort for his family as soon as he could. That was ten years ago.

And in those years, his eldest son and two eldest daughters had finished school, married well and moved away. But they always sent money home for their mother, saying: all these years she cared for us, now it is our turn to care for her.

But their father received nothing because he was gone.

The next two children were twin boys: fine strapping lads, with winning ways and easy smiles. They both worked down at the market, carrying, lifting and otherwise making themselves very useful. They did not live at home anymore, but they came home every Sunday for dinner and worked around the yard fixing things for their mother and brother and sisters.

But their father did not get any help, because he was gone.

Then came three girls, all in a row. One was tall and willowy with brown hair and blue eyes, one was comfortable looking with dark blonde hair and green eyes, and the third was going through an awkward stage and hated her red hair and brown eyes.

All three girls walked to school in the morning on weekdays, ate lunch with their friends, and strolled home in the afternoons, stopping by the market to see their brothers and get groceries for their mother.

One girl had a lovely singing voice. One girl was skilled at art. One girl had a way with words that could charm even the most cantankerous old fuddy-duddy.

But their father didn't know these things about them, because he had been gone for so long.

The youngest boy was clever and funny, and looked up to his brothers and appreciated his sisters who often cared for him while their mother was out. He liked to build things, and had made his mother shelves and chairs and a footstool to keep her feet off the cold floor in the winter.

But he had never been fishing with his father.

The youngest child, a bright child, full of sunlight and laughter and the understanding of the world around her was blind. Blind in her eyes, but not in her heart. And in this child dwelled wisdom and love for everyone who stopped to visit.

But her father did not know these things, because he was gone.

One bright day, when the flowers were perfuming the air, and the birds were composing a symphony in the back yard, the youngest girl and the youngest boy went for a walk around the neighborhood.

Every so often, the boy would guide his sister's hands to the trunk of a tree so she could feel its texture; or pick a bloom for her to smell. She was developing a lovely bouquet when she stopped still, a strange expression on her face.

The boy looked quizzically at her, and squeezed her hand slightly by way of a question.

She turned to him and said, "There is a strange smell in the air. Not quite like smoke, not exactly like dinner cooking, not unpleasant, but very strange..."

Her brother turned to her and sniffed experimentally at the air -- "Sister, I do not smell anything different, but perhaps your nose is smarter than mine. Shall we go on or go home?"

"Home, I think," she replied. So they turned around and started walking up the little hill that led home.

As they turned the corner onto the lane on which they lived, they noticed a cart in front of their house. It was a poor cart, with two wheels that looked as though they had rolled over every pebble and hole between the mountain and the sea. In front of the cart stood a tiny donkey with a drooping head and tired expression. It looked like it was ready for a nap.

The girl exclaimed, "This is where the smell is coming from!" and her brother put his hands up to his face and said, "It sure is!"

The front door to their home stood open, as it always did, welcoming family and friends, neighbors and strangers, to stop by and visit.

The brother let go of his sister's hand and she grasped the banister to go up the steps. From inside, came the sound of sobbing -- and their twin brothers' voices speaking urgently.

"Mother -- we really want to do this! Father has been gone so long, and you have shouldered all the work for all these years. Why shouldn't we go out and try to find a better life and be able to let you live in style."

The two children stood uncertainly in the doorway, unnoticed by the older family members.

The woman sat miserably by the cold fireplace, staring into the ashes under the kettle. She hunched her shoulders, as if to ward off a cold breeze, and shifted in the chair.

The bouquet of flowers in the girl's hand hung limp. The boy's mouth turned down at the corners. They shuffled their feet uncomfortably.

Their mother turned at the sound, her eyes full of tears. She held out her arms, and the two youngest children came to her.

"My dear children!" she sobbed. The twins looked at each other and shrugged. "Mother, you know we don't want to hurt you, but it is time for us to start to make our way in the world. Why shouldn't we earn our fortunes?"

The mother held up her hands. "It is not that you shouldn't, but that I fear for you. Your father went away and was never heard from. What if something happened to him? What if something were to happen to you?"

The little girl gave her mother a hug. "I will go put these flowers in a vase for you, Mother, then we can make some tea. Things are always better with tea."

The little boy stood staunchly in front of his brothers. "What do you think you're doing? Can't you see you're breaking Mother's heart?"

He looked past his brothers into the street. "And, where did you get that cart? And why does it smell that way?"

Their Mother looked up suddenly -- "Cart?" She stood up and walked slowly to the door. "Where DID you get that cart?"

"Oh Mother, a man came to the market today -- he looked very poor, and he asked us if we wanted to go make our fortunes. He offered us the cart for free."

The mother sagged against the door frame, a hand pushed to her forehead. "Children, that cart is the one your father left in."

The three boys exchanged glances, and the girl came into the room with the vase of flowers. "Mother, can you set this where you want it?"

"Of course, dear," said the mother as she walked to her daughter's side. She turned again to the twins, who were sitting in disbelief on a small bench. "What did the man look like?"

"Well," said the twin who was slightly plumper in his face than the other, "He was a little shorter than we are, with a long gray beard and a hat that looked like the ones we wore when we were little."

The youngest brother moved to his mother's side again as she gasped, "Where did that man go?" and sat down again by the fire, the vase of flowers still clutched in her hands.

The twins looked at each other again... their expressions growing more and more dismal. "He said if we changed our minds, we could find him at the Inn until tomorrow."

The room was filled with silence. A lone song sparrow on the rose by the front door broke into song. The afternoon was getting warmer and the light was beginning to come in under the porch, warming the cat who slept on the railing.

The little boy glanced at his mother's face and turned to his brothers. "Why did you think Mother would be pleased to see you leave?"

The little girl held tight to her mother's shoulder. "Perhaps our brothers could go to the Inn and bring this man home, Mother, it sounds as if needs a good meal -- and perhaps he has news of Father, since he has the cart."

"No," said the mother hesitantly. "I think I should go to the Inn. Boys, see that the donkey is fed and watered and has a nice spot to rest in the stable. I will put the tea on before I leave, but you will need to help your sister when it's ready. Don't wait for me."

Standing up, she set the vase of flowers absently in the middle of the mantle and put on her sun hat. She stopped by the cart and inspected its contents, then walked resolutely toward the edge of town.

Meantime, the three sisters who went to school were on their way home. They laughed and chattered about the classes and their friends, complained about the homework they would need to do, and stopped several times to visit with ladies and relatives who were in their front yards. They too noticed the cart as they arrived home, and wondered how it had arrived, since the donkey was already resting comfortably in the cool stable.

Walking in just as the kettle whistled, they went straight to the kitchen and bustled about, looking much like their mother as they set the tea to steeping and the dishes out. Their youngest sister listened intently to all they had to say, soaking up every scrap of news and tidbit of gossip.

Their brothers came in, dusty and hot, and were immediately shooed out to the well house to wash up. Finally, the three girls quieted down and sat, ready to pour the tea. "Where is Mother?" the brown-haired girl asked suddenly.

As their sister carefully explained the day's events to them, the brothers came in and sat down. Two extra places were hastily set and extra tea made -- just in case.

The siblings started to pour the tea, and the cat walked through the kitchen, looking in the corners for anything interesting that might have wandered in by accident.

Meantime, their mother arrived at the Inn, and stopped to chat with the owner and his wife. "Well, yes," said the man,"A man of that description is staying here, but as he said he couldn't pay for his keep, he offered to work in the stables in exchange for room and board tonight. You'll probably find him near the well house where it's nice and cool this time of day." And his wife added, "He looked familiar to me, but I couldn't quite place him."

"Oh, but -" the wife paused,"I would be careful talking to him -- he seemed... " she looked at her husband, "A bit peculiar."

Thanking them, the mother walked slowly through the courtyard of the Inn and around the side toward the stables. A moment more, and she was in the cool shade near the well house.

There, in the shade, on a stack of hay bales next to old cart parts and harnesses lay a man asleep.

The mother walked slowly up to him, quietly and carefully so as not to disturb him. He looked so peaceful there, his scarred hands still yet strong.

She stepped gently on a twig, and he opened his eyes. "May I help you Ma'am?" he asked in a gentle tone.

She dropped to her knees beside him. "Why did you give my sons a cart? Do you want to steal them from me? Haven't the children and I suffered enough? What more do you want from us?"

The man sat up and looked into her eyes. "Because, Ma'am, they looked like strong, energetic, capable young men. As I am no longer going to be traveling, I wanted to give someone else a start in life."

She sat down beside him and shook her head. "Did you go away for all those years, leaving us alone to wonder with no word or sign that you were okay? Why have you come back now?"

He was silent. His head hung down and his hands picked up a length of rope. He twisted it into a knot and tossed it aside.

The children finished their tea, and started clearing up the dishes. The youngest daughter fed the cat and started out to bring in the wash from the line. The sun was starting to go behind the big tree across the street, and her feet patted softly on the dirt as she walked, sending up small puffs of dust.

The youngest boy pulled out his knife and started carving a handle for a new ladle. The three girls sat down and began going over their notes from school.

The twins went to the street and began looking over the cart, more carefully this time, inspecting all the nooks and crannies, wondering how far it had traveled, and what it had seen.

Softly, the man reached for his wife's hand and caressed it. She started to pull back, but then relaxed. She leaned against him and let the tears fall.

"My darling," he began, "I have missed you so. I have many tales to tell you, and a trunk full of letters that I could not send."

"I wanted, so many times, to come home. And every time I began..."

He shook his head silently. His body wracked with sobs. "I was afraid -- I didn't know..."

She put her hand gently on his mouth. "Shh." Standing up, she pulled him after her into a solid hug. "You are welcome home. Now, or whenever you are ready. You have missed so much."

At home, the cat stretched out on the Mother's chair. A little dog sauntered in, wagging his tail and flopped down next to the chair. The youngest child finished folding the laundry in neat piles. The twins finished wiping down the cart and looked underneath to check the axle. The sisters put their homework away and picked up their instruments for practice. The boy moved into a new patch of shade and continued carving.

The man and his wife started for home, walking along in companionable silence, knowing that there would be time for explanations later.