The Cruel Mother

The old woman stirred the stew in the pot, a single ham bone providing meaty flavor to the potatoes and carrots and radishes. It all happened, she thought, because I was young and stupid.

She had been seventeen, the daughter of a minor noble, and the clerk had been handsome. She had known nothing of love except that she felt it for this man. And at first, it had seemed to be enough.

He had returned her feelings, or at least it seemed that way to her. Then after a year and a day, she’d gone to tell him she was pregnant, and that was it. He’d stopped speaking to her altogether, shunned her as if they were strangers, as if they’d never shared a bed.

She had worn clothes to carefully hide her pregnancy. Having a child out of wedlock was a shameful thing in the Kingdom of Sighs, and the longer she could hide what she had done, the better.

She’d known right away that she couldn’t take her babies to an orphanage, and if she’d gone to a midwife and asked for the special tea to bring on her monthly courses, there would be Rumors. Rumors could kill.

She’d had the poor twins in the woods—two little boys—and then she’d done the only thing she could do. She buried the tiny bodies under a stone, cleaned the blood off of her little penknife, and wept.

It was on her way home that she’d had the vision of two boys playing ball. They were the ghosts of the infants she’d had to kill to save herself, and they’d told her that when she died, she would have to be purified for seven years in the flames of Hell.

When one is eighteen and pious, one is utterly terrified of Hell. But then, she hadn’t died right away.

Fifty years. Fifty years she had kept her shameful secret, and married, and had other children who got to live. And then those children had had children of their own. She’d told them the story of the Cruel Mother as a warning against handsome older men, but as if it had happened to someone else long ago. In a way it had; she certainly wasn’t the same girl she’d been at eighteen. And she’d made up more punishments, to rhyme nicely:

Seven years as a bird in the wood,

Seven years as a fish in the flood,

Seven years as a warning bell,

And seven years in the flames of hell.

Fifty years of cooking, cleaning, spinning, and weaving. Fifty years of kissing bumped knees, blowing little noses, of guiding young ones to be different than she had once been. The dead children were a distant memory now, but one that still stung.

The village children were singing the song of the Cruel Mother now. A sort of chorus had been added after the second and fourth lines of each verse:

Oh bonny boys, if you were mine

Hey the rose and the linsey, oh

I’d dress you up in silks so fine

Down by the greenwood sidey-oh

It stung. She had been a cruel mother to her firstborn twins. She had left their tiny bodies to become dust instead of strong young lads. They’d be fifty themselves, now, with children and grandchildren of their own, if they’d lived. But was she really destined to be only remembered as the Cruel Mother? She had been good and kind to the children who’d lived. She had done penance every day of her life for her crime. And the bitterest part was that the same people who hated the Cruel Mother loved her, never suspecting that they were one and the same.

She sighed as she sat down on the bed. She was tired, so tired. Perhaps she should rest a while. Yes. That sounded good. Just for a moment…

Two little boys entered the room. For a moment, she thought they were her great-grandchildren, a pair of dear four-year-old cousins. But they weren’t blurred in her aging eyes; they looked crystal-clear as if she were seeing them with the eyes of a young maid.

“Mother?” Recognition lit the old woman’s eyes. These were her boys, the ones she’d killed and buried in the woods fifty years ago.

“My boys, my dear boys,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. She reached out her hands. “I am so terribly sorry for what I did to you.”

“We know, mother, we know,” they replied. “The price must still be paid.”

“Seven years in the flames of hell,” she whispered. “I know.”

“Are you ready to go with us then, mother?” the boys asked. They were so lovely, with their golden curls. Just like her great-grandchildren… If only she’d kept them, borne the shame of what she’d done…

“Yes, boys,” she said, stepping out of the body which fell to the bed. “Let’s go. I’ll see you again at the end of it.”

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