Chapter 3: Father's Friends
And so the day came… the time of their departure was close at hand. Ava knew that it would ultimately come. She had never allowed herself to ponder it consciously. But she knew. She had seen it as if in a dream, as if she had lived this moment once before.
From the first day when Stranth and Onar had introduced their mother to the cave, they had made numerous visits.
“Let’s keep the cave a secret between ourselves, shall we?” Ava quietly suggested when she went outside to check on the boys’ progress with the rabbits they had caught on their return from that first outing to the cave.
“You mean you don’t want us to tell Father, right?” Onar asked.
“Aye; it might be fun to have a secret hide out.”
“It might even be essential, some day,” Stranth quietly prophesied without looking up from gutting the last of their quarry.
Their mother quietly returned to the cottage. She knew lingering outside would only arouse questions and hasten the unavoidable argument. Ava was always eager to prolong the peace and delay the onset of the ritual dispute for as long as she could, knowing that at some point, some minor infraction would serve as an excuse for the inevitable eruption.
“Do you think Father is turning into a numan?” Onar asked his brother after their mother went back inside.
“Why do you think that?”
“I didn’t say I think it. I’m asking you what you think.”
“I think he’s never here; and I don’t know what he’s doing, or where he is when he’s gone, or why he’s gone so much.”
“Do you think Ma thinks he’s turning into a numan?”
“What do you even know about numans?” Stranth replied irritably.
“I know they’re dangerous.”
“Everybody’s dangerous,” he mumbled to himself, not really paying attention to his brother. He was listening to what sounded like his parents arguing inside the little hovel. He slowed his work.
After a few moments of overhearing bits and pieces of a heated discussion, Onar sighed and made this observation, “Ma usually puts a bigger portion on our plates when Father is here.”
“Then I guess we should be glad he’s here,” Stranth sullenly suggested.
“Why do you think that is?”
Stopping to look his brother square in the eye, he flatly stated, “I don’t know. Maybe she wants him to think we eat like that all the time.”
“Why do you think she wants him to think that?”
“Why do you think I know the answer to all your questions?” was his petulant reply.
Onar paused for a moment to think. Then he asked another question. “Why is everyone always so cranky when Father is here?”
Stranth slammed the tip of his knife down into the flat surface of the tree stump where they had been working. “I’m not in the mood for endless questions.”
Rising to take the skinned animals into the hut, he knew the answer to his brother’s last question. He wasn’t going to dwell on it tonight. He would wait until his father went away again to ponder its implications. Sometimes the truth is too ugly to confront and more comfortable to ignore.
Onar sat for a few more minutes staring at the bloodstained surface of the tree stump. He didn’t understand why everyone got so ill tempered whenever his father came back. He thought they should be glad to see him. But gladness was hardly the feeling that gnawed at him at that moment. It felt more like fear and dread. He wondered why. He wondered how they would ever know what became of his father if a fowl devoured him on one of his journeys. He continued to ponder the situation as he went to draw another bucket of water from the well. He may as well start cleaning the skins. He would enjoy that more than the arguing still going on inside the cottage. His father would probably send him back outside anyway. He couldn’t remember the last time his father just stopped what he was doing to talk to him and listen in return. He was pretty sure there was a time when his father used to do that. But those memories were fading, like maybe they were just a wishful dream that didn’t really happen. He was no longer sure. At the moment, he imagined that he was skinning the carcass of a mountain lion as he worked, playing out the battle with the beast in his mind.
After handing the rabbits to his mother, Stranth was ordered back outside by his father. He walked over to his favorite spot on the wall to sit and think. He was just far enough away to be out of hearing range of the argument inside the cottage. It was also a perfect vantage point from which to watch the show his brother was putting on.
Onar, in his imaginary world, seemed oblivious to his presence, as well as to the discord inside the hut. Stranth needed the diversion his brother provided. At first, he tried to lose himself in his own thoughts. But he found Onar’s playacting too captivating. He was unable to look away. Once he realized that his brother was probably fighting an imaginary mountain lion, a smirk found itself scrolling across his face.
Quietly, he climbed down from the wall and tip-toed around to the backside of the cottage. He peeked out from behind the rough corner. Waiting for his brother to turn his back fully to him, he silently dashed behind the cart parked beside the smoke-hut. Crouching down behind the front wheel of the wooden cart, he watched and waited for his opportunity. About the time that Onar threw himself to the ground on his back, Stranth came rushing toward him with a loud roar. Onar, feigning surprise, let out a high-pitched scream.
“You squeal like a girl!”
Squealing turned to laughter and near loss of breath as the older brother pounced on top of his younger brother. Stranth assumed the role of mountain lion, and the two carried on in their play until, at last, their mother quietly came and stood over them.
“Ma, save me!” Onar could barely manage through his laughter and intermittent squeals.
“You boys get washed up for supper,” she said without commenting on their game. Quietly, shoulders stooped, she went back inside.
The boys stopped playing and sat up to watch her go. Stranth was the first to get up. He offered a hand to his brother. The two washed up without a word and silently went back into the hut.
Ava often replayed that day in her mind as the weeks followed. Les stayed only the one night. The next morning he was up and packing his satchel with provisions of cheese and turkey tack. He evidently wanted nothing more than a clean change of clothing and some food. He had gotten what he came for and was preparing to be off again. Ava went out to the shed for the improbable chance that he would allow some hint about his destination.
“What direction you headed?” she dared to inquire in as light hearted a tone as she could manage.
“Depends on the wind,” he said with an air of self-satisfaction, not even turning to look at her. The long habit of extended absences from his family had slowly diminished any emotional attachment he might have once felt for his wife. That she was a beautiful woman of fair complexion, offset by dark wavy hair, no longer allured him. Ava turned to go when he yanked her back by her hair.
Glaring into her watery blue eyes, “Don’t let me come home to an empty house again,” he snarled. “I don’t want to have to wonder if you’re still alive,” then added even closer to her face, with a sarcastic grin, “or run off.”
“What did I do to deserve this treatment?” she dared to demand.
Les paused for a moment, taken aback by her sudden bravado. He seemed to be at war within himself, wanting to inflict more pain, but still wishing he could muster something like compassion for her. Finally, he spat the words, “You stopped lovin’ me—”
“You killed my love one lie at a time!” she retorted.
What he wanted to say, but refused to admit to himself, was that he hated her for being strong enough to survive without him— not only survive, but seem to thrive. And yet, looking into her eyes aflame with both fear and passion, he loved her still for her spirit and beauty. His conflicted emotions flashed across his countenance only briefly. Ultimately, he simply released her with a sneering smirk.
Did Les plant that thought there, or had he read her deepest thoughts, which until that moment, she wasn’t even aware she entertained? Regardless, thoughts of running burst on the forefront of her mind the moment she saw the shadow. Maybe she did know on some intuitive level that the day was approaching; maybe that is why she had frequently allowed the boys to side step a chore here and there to make regular trips to the cave. She always went with them, of course. And they usually took extra supplies that never seemed to necessitate a return to the hut. They had made the trip so many times by now that they no longer even looked for the markings in the trees. The landscape had that familiarity that comes from frequent travel. The cave was becoming a home away from home. Well supplied with torches, grit, drinking gourds and water bags, even fur skins, and homemade pillows, Onar frequently hinted that they should camp out over night.
“Perhaps someday soon,” his mother would answer, “but not today.”
They counted the days after each visit from their father, careful never to go after a fortnight of absences, for he might return at any time after that. They wanted to be found at home and all their chores completed upon his arrival. The less he had to fuss about, the more peaceful they vainly hoped his brief visits would be. They actually found themselves looking forward to his return with anticipation after about the fifteenth day; at least the boys did. But they were just as eager for him to leave once he arrived. No matter how hard they tried, he was always able to find fault. His demands for silence from a threesome accustomed to boisterous laughter made his visits of more than a day or two especially tiresome.
Fortunately, the longer visits were rare. Unfortunately, his brief attacks on his wife were becoming more violent. From yanking her by her hair, to grasping her by the throat, he seemed to be struggling with a desire to go further, inflict more pain. Yet, an inexplicable restraint seemed to be holding him back, although his attacks were escalating, leaving bruises that she would have to somehow hide or explain away when her children noticed them.
They took full advantage of those first two weeks each time he was gone, however. They found making the trip took less time than it did at first. They would prepare for the next day’s journey the night before and rise extra early to depart. The early departure afforded them more time to scout out the land in the surrounding area. They discovered a tiny waterfall not far from the cave entrance as they surveyed the rise toward the parting of the hills. The sound of trickling water drew them to the spring while they explored, and they were delighted to find another spray of the mysterious white flowers growing on the side of the fountain spilling down the hillside. The water from this spring was unusually sweet, unlike the water from their well at the cottage. They spied a great valley that lay between their hill and a distant mountain range in the east. How the boys longed to know what was on the other side of that mountain!
“I’d like to see what’s out there, Ma,” Stranth confessed to his mother one day as they were filling their gourds with refreshment.
“Why don’t we just go?”
“Aye, and what do you think your father would do if we went off on a trek across the world?”
Turning his gaze away from the distant mountain back to his mother, he flatly answered, “Enjoy the quiet.”
Ava couldn’t help but laugh at his response but caught herself smiling and forced the smile away.
“Why do you always do that?”
“Stop smiling so quickly.”
“Aye, how come?”
She thought for a moment and then confessed, “Your father once told me that I have ugly teeth. One day I saw my reflection in a bowl of water, and I smiled at it to see what they looked like. Until then, I never noticed how huge the gap between these two teeth really is,” she said, pointing at her teeth, then looked away wistfully. “When I saw my reflection that day, I realized I’m not very pretty when I smile.”
“Maybe in your eyes,” said her oldest son, “but in my eyes, you’re beautiful.”
He stepped across the little stream and bent down to kiss his mother’s forehead, who was seated in a patch of white flowers across the stream from where he had been standing. She reached up to cup his face in her hands, a face that was becoming chiseled with the features of manhood. She looked deep into his eyes that were sometimes blue, sometimes green. At the moment they were blue.
“I can see myself in your eyes,” she said, smiling. “Perhaps you’re right.”
Laughing, they turned at the sound of Onar coming around the bend. In his hand, he held a hollowed out gourd in which he had transplanted some of the tiny white flowers.
“I’ve already tested it! They add a nice bit of light to a corner of the cave.”
“Then we’ll need a few more,” his brother encouraged.
“Will do!” he said with a grin, and off he went, back to the cave.
Extending his hand to help his mother up, “I know,” he interpreted her expression.
“Let’s help,” they said in unison.
As the three quietly worked together at the mouth of the cave transplanting more flowers into three other gourds, Onar confided, “I wish we could live here.”
After a short pause his mother began, “Perhaps someday . . .”
“. . . but not today,” her sons finished for her.
They took their gourds inside. Placed in various corners and crags, the flowers illumined the cave with a soft, subtle glow, filling the entire cavern with their fragrance. Onar reclined on a bearskin padded with straw underneath.
“All the comforts of home,” he said.
“Don’t get too comfortable. It’s time we head back if we’re to make it before nightfall.”
“Father’s only been gone for four days, Ma. Couldn’t we spend the night, just this once?”
“We have plenty of food for the night, even tomorrow, if necessary,” the elder offered.
“And what if your father does come back?”
“When was the last time he came back in less than two weeks? In fact, he’s usually gone for a whole month!”
“It’s awfully risky, boys. And what about the animals? How would we explain them all being devoured? I need that goat for milk and cheese.”
“Actually, Onar told me he planned to ask you if we could spend the night, so— I put the animals in the shed.”
“You did what?” she cried. “Just think of the mess they’ll have made being cooped up in there all day.”
“So we’ll clean it up tomorrow. I left them with plenty of food. Come on, Ma. It’ll be fine.”
She looked at her two boys who were silently pleading for just a little more adventure. She could tell she was yielding by Onar’s expression. There could not be a sillier grin anywhere on this earth. “We leave at first light,” she informed them.
“First light!” she repeated for emphasis.
As time went on, they began to take the first night or two after Les departed to camp out at the cave. After a time or two, they began to add more days to their holiday until they found themselves staying a full week, and bringing the goat along with them.
And so it went for perhaps a year or more. Les stayed away for longer and longer periods of time. On his last visit, prior to the occasion when Ava had spied his tattoo and the shadow, Les did something very uncharacteristic and unexpected. He brought two other men home with him. Neither of the boys could remember their father ever having done that before. They did not like his friends. They had a wild, beastly look about them; their arms and necks were riddled with tattoos. They behaved as ill-mannered lords inspecting their peasants’ productivity.
While the strangers complimented their father on the appearance of such fine, strapping boys, they poked and prodded the two brothers as if they were buyers examining a prospective mule. It took every ounce of restraint Stranth could muster to refrain from impaling one of them! They ordered his mother around all afternoon, jeering at her and speaking roughly and disrespectfully to her. One of them constantly leered at her with irreverent eyes. He reached out to touch her hair as she passed him more than once. Not satisfied with the intense discomfort his overt attentions garnered from her, he tried to grab her and draw her into his arms. Ava narrowly escaped by grinding her heel into his toe, eliciting a crude laugh from the filthy stranger. Stranth and Onar approached her as she went outside to pluck the feathers off a catch of pheasants they had brought home.
“I don’t like the way those men speak to you, Mother,” Onar began.
“I don’t like the way they look at you,” Stranth added, noticing her trembling hands.
“I don’t like it myself,” their mother admitted, fighting back tears. “We just have to hope they leave first thing in the morning.”
“We can take them out,” Stranth confidently offered.
“And then, what?” his mother asked.
“And then we make for the cave,” Onar suggested.
“With your father following us? Do we really want him to know about that?”
“Know ’bout what?” the man called Griff asked, gazing at Ava with a sick grin on his face as he stepped from behind a tree several yards away.
Stranth picked up the hatchet leaning against the stump and strode purposefully toward the man who had apparently been spying on them. His mother grabbed the back of his tunic and pulled back as hard as she could. Stranth was stopped by respect for his mother, rather than her physical strength.
“You get back in that house with your drinking buddies, if you want to live, and don’t you speak to or look at my mother again!”
Ava moved in front of her son, facing him, gently urging him back without making eye contact with Griff. Stranth’s eyes burned with fire as he continued to stare the man down. Griff let out a howl of laughter.
“Who-wee!” Griff wailed as he stumbled back toward the hut. “Les!” he hollered out, reentering the cottage, “you got yer’self a couple of stallions out there in them boys!”
“What’d I tell ya? Didn’t I tell ya so?” their father shouted.
When Stranth relaxed his stance a little, Ava looked at Onar. Only then did she realize that he had been pointing an arrow at the vulgar visitor. She sat back down on the stump to finish her work. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably. The boys helped her pluck and gut the birds.
“You’re not going back into the hut tonight,” Stranth announced.
“I have to, Stranth. I need to get these over the fire.”
“I’ll do that. Onar will stay out here with you for protection. The three of us can sleep in the shed. We can bar the door from the inside, and we’ll keep our weapons at hand.”
“I don’t want to escalate this situation, boys. I’m more concerned for your safety than my own.”
“They’re drunk, Mother,” Onar spat. “We can take them!”
“You know what will happen if you go back in there, Mother.” Stranth said.
She knew exactly what he was saying. And she knew he was right. Still, she didn’t like the idea of sending her son into the cottage with those men either. Anything could happen. She could spit fire, she was so angry at her husband!
Retrieving a sword for her son from the shed and grabbing a spear for herself, the three walked toward the cottage door together. She plunged the spear into the ground before the entrance and strapped the sword to her older son’s waist. He was clenching the blade of a dagger between his teeth, his hands occupied by the birds.
“You whistle at the first sign of trouble, and we’ll be inside in a blink.”
Ava pulled the spear out of the ground and pointed it at the door, bracing herself with a wide stance. Onar pulled an arrow from his quiver and set it in his bow. Jaw set, eyes flaming, Stranth opened the door and went in. He set the birds on the skewer and placed them over the pit to roast.
“You can turn them yourselves,” he announced, moving toward the door.
“Wait a minute there, boy. Where’s that pretty mama of yours?” Griff mocked, rubbing his belly in an exaggerated manner as he stood up.
“She won’t be coming back into this house again until you’ve long gone, and my brother and I have gotten rid of your stench.”
The other man just snickered.
“Now hold on there, boy,” Les shot out of his chair, nearly stumbling.
Stranth had already pulled his sword and was on guard with a weapon in each hand, his dagger raised above his head. “Please don’t, Father. I’m prepared to do whatever I have to do this night to protect my mother.”
Les looked at his older son as if he was seeing him for the very first time. He scoffed, like this was all a bad joke that had been taken far too seriously.
“Ain’t nothin’ but a thang, son,” his father mocked. “You boys leave my family alone now,” he ordered, kicking Griff, and snickering as he sat back down, nearly tumbling back out of his chair.
Stranth backed away toward the door, still on guard until he closed the door from outside. Noticing his drawn sword, Ava nearly lost her breath.
“Stranth!” she managed to croak, racing towards her son.
“It’s all right,” he said. “They’re out of their minds. And they’re definitely no match for us in their drunken stupor. Still,” he added, “we’ll want to bar the shed door from the inside.”
The three made their way to the shed and spread some fresh hay in a corner. They huddled up together with their weapons close by. They were still and quiet but a long way from falling asleep in the chill of the night. After a long while, Onar began to hum. His humming brought a smile to Ava’s face and a smirk to Stranth’s. Before Onar could ever talk, from his very infancy, he had always sung himself to sleep. He calmed their spirits and lulled them to sleep as well. It was a restless, fitful sleep.
In the wee hours of the morning, a violent rattling shook the shed door.
“Hey! You still alive in there?” Griff shouted through the slats.
He began to walk around the shed, knocking and banging on the wooden plank walls.
Les could be heard laughing close to the house. “Come on out of there. We need to get our horses saddled.”
“And I’ll be wantin’ a kiss good-bye!” Griff joked, still rattling the sides of the lean-to.
The quiet man came toward the shed with a torch in his hands. “Let’s burn ’em out,” he barked with a raspy sounding voice. Apparently, he was meaner sober.
Onar let loose an arrow through a gap between slats. It pierced right through his wrist. The man immediately dropped the torch and let out a string of howling curses.
“Ho!” Griff guffawed. “Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the hay pile.”
Les and Griff went over to check on their injured friend. Ava and her sons seized the moment to turn loose their horses and toss out their saddles.
“There’s your gear,” Stranth called out. “Now, get on down the road!”
“Now just a minute there, boy!” Les began to move toward the shed. An arrow whizzed by his head close enough for him to feel a breeze. Shocked, he stopped dead in his tracks to see his younger son aiming another one at him through the gaping slats.
“I missed on purpose, Father,” Onar called. “I don’t want this to go any further! Please— take your friends and go!”
The cursing man let out another string of anguished expletives when Griff broke the arrow off and pulled it the rest of the way through. His eyes became black pools of rage. He barked all manner of threats against Onar, who had never seen such a transformation. The man’s face was contorted with suddenly grotesque features. Griff did his best to turn the man’s face away from the family of spectators. He stood between his injured companion and the ignorant mother with her over-protective progeny.
“Rein it in there, now,” he soothed. “All in good time. All in good time,” he repeated. “Today is not the day.”
Les brought some bandaging cloth from the hut to Griff, then gingerly walked over to the shed where his family was still barricaded inside the lean-to.
“You better teach those boys some manners by the time I get back,” he hissed at his wife. “This was uncalled for.”
“Was it?” she asked.
He responded with an icy glare. Saddling the horses while Griff patched up their companion, he mounted his own and brought the other two reins to his friends. Mounting his ride, Griff trotted over close to the shed. Bending down in the saddle to look through the gaps at the nervous group, he gave a slow nod.
“Thanks for the hospitality,” he said, wearing a cruel, sick grin.
Finally, the three galloped off into the murk. Stranth was about to open the shed door when Ava put her hand on his arm and slowly shook her head, no. She met his eyes for only a second before looking down and turning back to the corner. She curled back up on the pile of hay and reached one arm toward her boys, beckoning them to her. They drew near and knelt in the hay with her, one holding each of her hands. They lay down on either side of her and waited for her to fall asleep.
When Ava awoke, she went looking for Stranth and Onar, who were no longer in the shed with her. She found them packed and ready to go to the cave. The hut had been thoroughly swept and cleaned. The sparse furnishings had been brought outside, sanded and oiled and returned to their positions. Even the homemade cushions had been washed and dried over a pit with burning eucalyptus. The various skins had been hung out, beaten, and rubbed down with pungent sprigs of rosemary from Ava’s garden.
“You boys have been busy,” she said from the doorway to find them putting finishing touches on their sprucing.
“We didn’t want any sign of them ever having set foot in this place,” Onar explained.
“So, you’re packed and ready to go to the cave tomorrow?
“Today, actually,” Stranth hoped aloud.
“It’s getting pretty late. We don’t want to get lost in the dark.”
“We won’t. I put petals along the path. Even if it does get dark, we’ll be able to find our way.”
Ava did feel an urge to run from this place, even though it looked clean and smelled nice. She just plain felt an urge to run.
The boys let out shouts of glee. They quickly quieted when they saw the look of utter exhaustion on their mother’s face. The trip took longer than usual. Ava seemed barely able to put one foot in front of the other at times. It was quite a hike. Darkness closed upon them as they were making their way up that last steep rise. The glowing petals showed them the way. Stranth was careful to take up each one after they reached Fowl Rock. Rather than taking the vine quickly to the bottom of the ravine as had become their habit, the boys went slowly down with their mother, offering her a steadying hand along the way.
Once inside the cave, Ava immediately lay down on a bearskin and covered herself up with a quilt. Stranth brought her some water from the trickling fountain just up the way. Onar brought in the four gourds with the transplants from the outside. They always put them back outside before they returned to the cottage, covering up the planters so that it would not be evident that anyone had been there, in case someone stumbled by their hideout. He plucked a stem to give to his mother. She took one sniff before she gave a faint smile and fell asleep. They had never seen her that quiet for so long.
The boys sat outside on the boulder, listening to the owls and crickets.
“I don’t want to go back,” Onar confessed. “Ever.”
Stranth did not answer. He fixed his gaze upon the triangle patch of eastern sky. For a brief moment, he thought that he saw a tiny dim light twinkling in the midst of the patch and then quickly fade away. He stared for a long time wondering if he had really seen a light or had imagined it. He said nothing.
“Do you think Ma is ready to stay here for good?” Onar asked his older brother.
“I don’t know, Onar. I think she’d rather be here than at the cottage.”
“Why do you think she would even want to go back?”
“You think she’s afraid of what Father will do to us if he ever finds us?”
“No. I think she’s afraid there’s something worse out there.”
“Worse than fowls and father’s friends?
“Yes, worse than those.”
“We can protect her.”
“She’s more afraid for us than for herself.”
After a long pause, Onar asked, “Did you see the tattoos on their necks?”
“Scorpions, left side. I saw.”
“I didn’t see one on Father. Did you see if he had one, too?”
“I didn’t see one.” He had on a high collar.
“I’m not scared.”
“Maybe we should be a little scared.”
“Are you scared, Stranth?”
“No,” he answered thoughtfully. “But, I think we need to be— cautious.”
“I’m not scared,” Onar flatly reaffirmed.
“I know you’re not,” Stranth smirked, and then sighed. “Come on; let’s turn in.”
The day was fast approaching.