Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Tale of Hubris, Part I

I’d have been better off had nan not been so bookish.

But because she ran offt and married the wandering book-seller and not settled in the village as the wife of the cobbler’s son, the life I lead is . . . well, nan calls it interesting.
I call it a bother.

But it’s partly my fault. I’m the one who sat by the fire and listened to nan tell her stories while the more sensible members of the household slept or sneaked out once the moon set or earlier if the wind blew.

Nan’s hearing was never all that good, and she had one eye clouded and milky, so when the wind blew or the light dimmed, she had trouble counting those around the fire. Still she knew. She knew when they slept or when they sneaked off, and always had a sharp word for them come morning.

Yet I’m the one she named Hubris. Explain me that.

Oh, but the tales. The tales nan told. Stories of adventurers seeking their fortunes, seeking lost loves, seeking revenge. Revenge! Those were my favorites. Because once the adventurers found their fortunes, well, they had to cart it all home, didn’t they? The tellers of tales never told the returns, filled with highwaymen and lavish nights at the inns and adventurers and heroes slinking back home in rags without a penny in their pockets. But those who sought revenge! White-hot at the moment they found it, glorious and streaked with blood and making thrones of the skulls of their enemies! Those are the tales that kept me ‘round the fire and often caused the nightmares that made me roll into the fire once I did finally fall asleep.

And nan always cackled as she beat and kicked out the flames.

“Stupid boy,” she’d say. “Last one I’d take on an adventure. You’d be the one to fall down the hole where the goblins live, or get lost in the enchanted forest or be imprisoned by the Dark Lord. And you’d deserve it.”

But when she learned a new tale – and you could tell when it was fresh, for the milky eye would glow and you swear you could see the tiniest of black pupils at its center as it roamed independent of the other – she made sure mother shaved my head and that I’d had a good ducking in the river before she told it, so afterwards when I rolled into the fire gripped in a nightmare my clothes would only smoulder a bit and I’d only lose my eyebrows. Eyebrows grew back quickly, nan said.

And she’d put on her pointy boots.

Father – as in many of the tales nan told – was dead. Died right after I was born. Dead of disappointment, nan said, for up until then he’d had only daughters and wot not to do with a son. And Mum worked hard washing laundry and taking in sewing and worked us hard in the garden and in the woods looking for berries and stealing firewood, often complaining of the hard life she led despite being the offspring of a bookish woman such as nan.

“Books have done me a lot of good,” nan said.

“Saved you from a life of prosperity as the wife of a cobbler, no doubt,” Mum retorted. Indeed, when knew nan’s former beau had made his fortune and moved to the city and had stables of cobblers making shoes for the lards and ladies there. Her own husband, the book-seller, died in a binding accident when Mum was only six days old.

“I’m happier with books,” nan said. “Who needs money?”

“Money buys food!” Mum screamed.

“I’d like to see you wipe your bottom with money!”

That’s usually when they began throwing things at each other. Not that we had much to throw. But Mum and nan collected rocks and rotten turnips for such occasions, and hid them round the house.

This is when I usually left.

Usually. Because if I showed so much as a burnt eyebrow outside the hut, my sisters, they got unpleasant with me.

‘Baby! Oh Baby!”

Merdy typically started it, as Merdy was the one who rarely ventured past the garden gate. Said she was tending the potatoes . Probably eating half the crop, raw, fat as she is. She’d been the youngest until I came along and resented my accident of birth.

“Nan says it’s always the youngest in the family who finds her fortune, reaps her rewards, finds her prince! You came and mucked it up. Though you’d probably like a prince, wouldn’t you, Baby?”

That was her standard speech. And as she was too fat to leave her spot in the garden, that’s typically as far as she got into it before I was out of the house and running down the lane, singing one of nan’s filthy songs to drown out Molly’s voice.

I liked her the best of my sisters. Her weapons were words, and nan’s tales always said that words could do no harm unless the victim were a complete and utter clod and dullard who bothered to think about what was being said by an enemy who used only words as weapons.

Some days, though, I’d run too far and –

Hagg always tripped me near the briar patch, near a fresh pile of horse dung, or near the poison ivy. One could say I could avoid such obstacles, but Peg cultivated both briar and ivy, and collected fresh dung by the bucketsful and always varied the location of her traps.
I had bruises on my shins from the ash branches she used to foul my legs.

“Stupid Baby, you smell like a horse!” And she’d croak out a laugh.

I never saw Hagg. Only heard the voice, like a frog tired of eating flies.

I’d have hugged her out of revenge, (Oh, revenge!) but it never paid to linger where Hagg set her snares.

Where Hagg was mostly passive in her aggression, Jaundice was overt, always had her hair in a severe bun and her fists balled up, and almost always waited until I’d nearly picked all the briars out of my face or brushed off the worst of the manure before she began beating my kidneys. And where nan’s beatings were generally enjoyable because the dogs joined and soon enough were tugging on opposite sides of nan’s shawl and she was batting at them and I could dart away, laughing, Jaundice aimed to end the fight quickly with blows that would fell a troll.

She never spoke at all – frighteningly quiet, our Jaundice. I never knew why she hated me so, though I suspect she didn’t really need a reason.

But even if she landed a few blows, I knew once I was past her and my wind was back, I’d be free. Free to run and spy and laugh and throw rocks over fences until I was hungry and I could go home unmolested.

Because nan always said the evil stepsisters – even if they were flesh and blood – should always be happy to see the innocent return, so they’d have chances to be evil all over again.

“Treat him poorly enough, he’ll flee. And then he’ll come back, bringing a fortune back to us all on his return, one of these days,” nan said. And the rest of the family believed her. Because that’s how it always was, in the tales she told.

So one day, when I was about thirteen or fifteen – both good ages to run away from the unpleasantness to seek one’s fortune, nan always reminded me – I did run off.

And my life got a lot worse.

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