Author: Nico Heard
Content Advisory: Violence, Adult Themes (Addiction)
I grit my teeth as I shovel another pile of horse poop into the dump. The smell is nauseating, nearly causing me to gag. Flies buzz everywhere, flying into my ears and biting my legs. The horses whinny and trample the moldy hay. I wipe the sweat off of my brow and begin to shovel again.
It’s not much, but I have to get the money. My father isn’t going to earn any steady income, and he takes most of the money that me and my mother earn. I always keep a few coins hidden from him, but it isn’t enough. I keep shoveling, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever earn enough to go to school. Lost in thought, I step backwards straight into a pile of horse poop.
“Ugh!” I yell, looking down at my bare feet. That’s disgusting! I shudder. But I keep working. I can’t leave a job before it’s finished.
Hours later, evening brings an end to the day. I finish raking all of the green, rotten hay into a corner, and then put the tools up. The stablemaster lounges on the front porch, guzzling water. My head aches for a taste of the cold, pure liquid. With all the tools put in their place, I walk up and ask for my weekly pay.
“Lemme see,” the owner of the stales stands and walks into the building. After looking around a bit, he turns to me and says, “Eh. Decent job kid. Here you go.”
“My name’s not ‘kid,’ you know,” I say. “It’s Ferdinand.”
“Whatever.” He throws me a few copper pieces. “Now beat it,” he spits at my feet. I grab the coins and leave the smelly stables. On my way home I stop by a vendor and get a loaf of dry, crusty bread, two under-ripe tomatoes, and some cabbage. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.
I continue my walk home across the city. I pass under the shadow of Ropolz, the mountain floating a mile or so above the rest of the city. There are three such mountains: Glycil and the Capital float higher up, and more to the south and east. What I wouldn’t give to be able to get a schooling at Glycil, where the university is, in a few years. But I’ve never been off the ground.
I head into the slummy suburbs of the northeast, close to the Chasm, and make my way through the narrow, haphazardly twisty back roads, finally coming to a small side alley. I turn left and enter a small, rotting cottage that most would think uninhabited. I squeeze through the unhinged, rotten door and enter the front room. A table, cabinet, and three wooden chairs are the only things in this small room. My father sits at the table, drinking brown liquid from a glass bottle. When I walk in, he calls out to me.
“Hey, you got money?” He holds out his hand, palm up.
I nod my head but stand firm. “I’m not giving it to you, father. You’re just going to go waste it. I’m trying to save it up.”
He growls and stands up, swaggering for a moment. “I don’t care about your stupid dreams, boy. You’re only twelve years old, you’ll do as I say! I haven’t kept you in this shack because I love you. Now gimme your money!” He grabs me, striking me in the jaw. I fall to the ground, tears mingling with the blood on my face.
He reaches down and snatches my coins up from the ground. “That’ll teach you to disrespect me again, Ferdinand Stoneroot. I’m off, and you’re staying here if you know what’s good for you.”
He leaves through a hole in the wall. I sit down at the table, trying to hold back tears. I reach up and brush my hand against the left side of my chin, feeling a warm, wet liquid. I tear the corner of my tunic off, using it to dab at the wound. Trying to figure out a way to bandage the wound, I untie one of my shoelaces from my boot. Using the string, I tie the cloth to my chin. It will at least absorb some of the blood.
A few hours later, after the sun has set behind the horizon, my mother stumbles in through the offset door, several paper bags in her hands. I stand and run to greet her, nearly tackling her in a hug.
“Ferdinand,” she says with a tired yet joyous tone. Dark rings are prominent under her eyes. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too, mother,” I say in response. My mother leaves for days on end, trying to find work and earn money for our family. It’s easy to see that she is weary and beaten down, but somehow, she still radiates and aura of protection and love. She and I go into the next room of the cottage, which has a broken, straw-thatched couch. She sits down, and I sit next to her.
She looks at me, first noticing my bandage. “Ferdinand, what happened here?” She reaches over and removes the cloth, observing the wound. “I’m so sorry, sweetie,” she whispers, gently caressing the injury with her thumb.
She takes a handkerchief out of her pocket, also removing a water canteen from her shoulders. She empties the last of the water onto the fabric, and then begins to wipe away the blood. “This should help, honey,” she says as she cleans my face.
“Thanks, mom.” I grin. It still stings a little, but somehow it’s easier to ignore the pain.
“Here,” she says as she shuffles through her paper bags. “I brought this home for you.”
I take it from her hand, emptying the contents in my palm. A small, metal puzzle falls into my outstretched hand.
“Wow, thanks!” I fiddle with the puzzle, attempting to separate two entwined metal pieces.
“I’m glad you like it,” she says with a smile. “Keep the wet cloth on your jaw, it should keep it from bruising to badly.” My mum rises off the couch, and then kisses me on the forehead before going into the dining room to unpack her bags.
I sit on the straw couch, struggling with the metal toy for a while. Mother and I each have a meager meal, and with a relatively satisfied stomach, I curl up under my blanket in one corner and drift to sleep.
During the entire time I work at the stables the next day, I can’t decide if I want my time to go faster or slower. I’m sick of the smell of horse poop following me everywhere I go, but I don’t by any means want to hurry back to face my father again.
As the sun is setting and I make my way down the alleyway to the shack, I walk in through the door, bracing myself for what’s to come. I see my father at the table, chopping vegetables. “Father?” I say cautiously.
He turns to me, his eyes clear. “Son,” he kneels, outstretching his arms.
I walk forward slowly, cautiously. But when he pulls me into a hug, my apprehension melts away. I reach my arms around his back, squeezing tight.
He chuckles. “I’m so happy to see you, my boy.”
“But…you saw me yesterday.”
It takes him a moment to respond. “No, son,” he says. “No, I didn’t.”
He stands and continues to work at the table. “I’ve prepared a little surprise for your mother, when she gets home.” My father has prepared a supper of some assorted vegetables, bread, and even a small portion of cooked meat.
“Wow,” I stare in awe. My stomach rumbles in hunger and surprise. I never expected this act of kindness from my father. “Thanks, dad.”
A smile of the purest warmth spreads across my father’s face. “You’re welcome, son.”
Later that evening, my mother comes home to the surprise of a sober husband. We sit at the table, laughing and eating supper. My mother and father exchange warm smiles, and get along for a change.
Later in the evening, my mother is cleaning the cottage and I’m working on my metal puzzle. My father seems to have something on his mind, sitting down in one spot before standing and moving to sit down somewhere else. Eventually, he seems to decide on a matter. He stands, and begins to leave the cottage.
“Dratham, where are you going?” My mother asks, concern in her voice.
“Never mind where I’m going, woman,” he growls back.
“Stop,” she runs to the door and grabs his arm. He snaps back at her, backhanding her in the face. She stumbles backwards, clearly surprised. He snorts in contempt, before heading off towards town. My mother falls to her knees, crying. I sit in silence on the couch. I want to help, but I don’t know how. I continue to work on my puzzle. I wonder if our family will ever be free of these bonds, or if we are just as stuck as these pieces are entwined together.
I rise the next morning only to find my father hasn’t come home yet. With a great sigh, I leave the cottage to begin another day of drudgery.
I enter the city streets and begin my walk to a long workday. Several vendors are just setting up their stalls. The smell of fresh baking bread reaches my nose, filling me with warmth. Many of the merchants call out to me, trying to attract me with their goods. I notice an older peddler trudging down the road with a dangerously overloaded wheelbarrow. It wobbles from side to side as he tries to push it, threatening to topple. He pushes it a little bit further, and then it falls with a loud crash. The man bends down, attempting to gather all his goods. As he bends over, he grabs his back and yelps. I walk over to him and bend down.
“Here, let me help you,” I say to him. I raise him to his feet and guide him to a nearby stone.
“Much obliged, sonny,” he says with a smile as he sits down on the stone. “But I gotta get my stuff.” He begins to rise but then sits back down with a groan.
“I’ll do it sir,” I say quickly. I get on the ground to retrieve all of his goods. After a few minutes, I stand back up, all of his merchandise in the wheelbarrow. I take off my belt and begin to tie the goods onto the wheelbarrow so that they won’t fall. I push the cart over to the man, who stands up.
“Thanks so much, boy. Let me give you this for helping me,” He reaches into a small pouch and withdraws three silver coins. The pouch has a crescent moon design and is lined with golden trim. He hands me the coins. “You’re a good lad, son.”
“Wow!” I yell. “Thank you, sir.”
He chuckles and then continues walking down the road with his wheelbarrow. I put the silver in my pocket, determined not to let my father take it away from me. I then continue my journey to the stables for another day at work. I know I’m in for a beating when I get there. I’m over half an hour late, but I don’t regret it. Helping that man made me feel good inside, and I want to continue doing these little acts of kindness.
The stablemaster is standing on the porch, waiting for me with a belt in hand.
“You’re late,” the owner growls at me. “Get in there!” He yells and whips me on the back.
I feel the strike draw blood, but I bite my lip and quickly begin to rake up some hay. I look over at the horses, and notice that one with a brown and white fur coat is panting heavily. I put the rake down, and fetch some water to put in their troughs. I fill up the horse’s trough and it guzzles the water, looking at me with a thankful expression.
“There you are, horse,” I pat the horse on his muzzle. He whinnies and sniffs my hair. I chuckle and pat him on the shoulder. “I’m going to call you… Authest,” I say to the horse. I know it’s a dwarvish word, but I don’t know what it means. It sounds nice, though. I can almost imagine that the horse smiles when I say that, and then Authest clops away to eat some hay. I continue to work for several more hours, grooming the various horses, refilling water troughs, and raking the leaves. Although it’s not one of my jobs, I attempt to get the flies away from the horses’ eyes.
After work that day, I arrive at the tiny cottage. I see my father sitting at the small table, counting a bag of silver pieces.
“Where’d you get that, father?” I ask him.
He looks at me with a glazed yet angry expression. “It was in an alleyway, and it ain’t your place to ask questions, boy.”
I walk over to the table. “You stole it from someone, didn’t you?” I walk over and observe it more closely. It has a crescent moon design and gold trim. “Hey, I recognize this pouch!” I yell at him. “You took it from a poor old peddler!”
My father stares at me. “So what if I did? What’re you gonna do about it, huh?” He goes back to running his fingers through the silver.
I stand there for a moment, fuming and enraged by my father. Maybe I should be scared, but right now, I’m just angry. I jump onto my father, attempting to pummel him with my fists.
“Aaaaagh!” He yells in fury and punches me in the gut. He rises from his chair, grabbing me by the hair and forcing me to my knees. He raises his fists, and begins to hit me. I try to shield myself from his blows, but he just keeps pummeling me. Tears mingle with the blood on my face. I plead for him to stop, but it only seems to encourage him.
“Dratham!” I hear my mother say from the opening in the wall. “What are you doing?” She clambers in through the wall, dropping the goods she was holding. “Get away from him!” She yells with panic in her voice.
“Don’t give me that crap right now, woman,” he growls at her.
“He’s just a child, Dratham!” My mother screams, running over and grabbing my father. “Let him go!”
He recoils and slaps her on the cheek. She stumbles backwards, falling to the floor. “I’m teaching the kid a lesson! Now back off!”
I run out of the house into the alleyway, tears streaming down my cheeks. I crouch behind a pile of trash. I hear loud yelling come from the cottage. I curl up in the alleyway and bawl. I cry until my tears seem to have carved trenches down my cheeks. I have no idea how much time passes, but suddenly I’m aware of mother kneeling down next to me.
“It’s okay, mommy’s here,” she whispers as I dampen my sobs into her shoulder. Again, I lose track of time, only aware that she is there to comfort me. Finally, my tears nothing but dry, cold streaks on my cheeks, she lifts my chin.
“I love you so much, son. Chin up. No more tears, Ferdinand, not today. Come on; let’s head back to the cottage,” she says. I nod and slowly stand. She puts her arm on my shoulder, leading me back.
When we enter the cottage, I see my father bent over in a corner, crying in choked intervals. He holds an empty bottle in his hands. He takes the bottle by the neck, smashing it against the ground. I cautiously approach him, putting a hand on his shoulder. He glances up at me for a fraction of a second before shrugging me off, turning and leaning against the wall as he doubles over, sobbing.
Mother gently takes my hand and leads me into the other room, where she wraps me in my blanket. I look up at her. “Why is he crying?”
She looks down at me. “He’s crying because he hates himself. He was a good man once, Ferdinand, he just has a problem.” My mother tells me to go to bed, and deal with it in the morning. I go to my room and settle down for a restless night. All night, all I can hear is my father sobbing and my parents arguing. Even after they’ve both gone to bed, the sound of my mother’s desperate voice and my father’s equally desperate sobbing keeps replaying itself in my head.
After a long, exhausting workday, I trudge towards the cottage only to witness hell on earth. I hear horrible whacks, and a scream of pain from my mother. I rush inside the house and step onto one of several empty glass bottles, all lying broken on the floor. The table and chairs have been overturned, the table missing a leg. My father is standing there, the look of drunken insanity on his face. He’s holding the broken leg, and using it as a club to beat my mother. She screams and pleads for my father to stop, tears mingling with blood on her face. My father doesn’t stop, yelling like a madman as he continues to attack her.
I scream, running forward to protect my mother. “Leave her alone!” I cry, yelling at my father, punching him with my fists as fast as I can.
His focus shifts to me. He looks over, giving me a hard jab in the stomach. I slam against the wall, falling to the ground in pain. I clutch my midriff, doubled over in white-hot pain. I’m forced to witness my father brutally assault my mother, beating her until she can stand no more. She collapses to the ground, a look of grief on her face.
“Ferdinand,” she moans. “I—”
The table leg comes down on her body once more, making firm contact with the side of her head. A sickening crack is followed by my mum’s head twisting into an unnatural pose.
I can’t say anything. For a moment I’m in complete shock. I emit a cry of absolute grief. I curl up on the ground, sobbing my heart out. My father walks over, giving me a firm kick.
“Get outa here!” I scramble to my feet and scamper out of the cottage, not sure where I’m going. Anywhere but there. I stop in an alleyway with several crates, pausing for a moment. And then, the realization that I’ll never see her again hits me. I cry for hours, sitting in that alleyway for the entire night.
No more tears, Ferdinand, not today. Those were the last words she said to me last night. But I can’t stop crying.
I eventually withdraw the metal puzzle that my mother gave me. I sit there in the darkness, playing with it. It’s the only thing I have remaining of her. When the sun is starting to rise, I have a revelation. I can’t sit down and expect the problem to solve itself. I have to take matters into my own hands.
The metal pieces clink as I finally separate them from one another.
* * *
Once the sun has risen, I walk back into the house. My father is sitting at the table, already drinking ale, choking, and crying all at once.
“Oh, you’re back,” he says, trying for a glare. “Go get me some grub.”
I burn with anger, every vein in my body courses hatred. “No,” I say to him.
“No?” He looks at me. “Would you rather go meet mommy?” He pats the club set on the floor next to him.
I almost lunge at him for saying that, but manage to stay composed. “I’m done with this, father,” I say gesturing to the rotting floor and broken walls. “I’m leaving, but I have to take care of you first.”
My father eyes me cautiously. “Eh?”
I whistle loudly. “Guards!”
My father stands abruptly, but is instantly confronted by three trained city watch guards of the city. He bashes one of them with his club. The other two shove him against the wall. The injured one picks himself up and handcuffs his hands to two guards on his right and left. He tries to rush forward at me, but they keep him in check.
“You filthy piece of crap!” He yells at me, violently trying to escape. “I’ll get you for this, Ferdinand!”
“Only if I visit the prison you will,” I say in response.
His shouts turn to sobs as the guards drag him off towards the city jail, leaving me alone in the shack. I sigh, feeling a weight I hadn’t realized was there lifting from my shoulders. Dawn is breaking over the horizon. I walk into the city streets, towards fresh, free day. No more tears, Ferdinand. Not today.