Love’s Labors

You’ve heard this story before, I suppose.

Well, what is there for me to do but tell my side of things? By laying out the facts, one may find that I was the victim in all this.

The start was hard. We grew in a time of famine. You cannot imagine the things a man will do for hunger.

There were too many of us already. She was the last. Father endeavored to spare her the worst of it so she grew up spoiled, not knowing a day’s work. She had hair of gold and skin so translucent you could count her little ribs. Father died with her name on his lips, not a word for the other nine of us.

Oh, she knew work after that. I made it my mission to see that she did.

I had always been the one unpleasant labors were pushed off to. When another child arrived I had hoped it would alleviate my burden, but no, it doubled. Suddenly I was to care for this insipid little wisp so that she could run and play, something none of us ever got to do. She didn’t even know how to spin by the time she reached womanhood, probably expecting to get by on her pretty charms. How loathsome to think she was right in the end.

The man she married was just as stupid as she.

He was the type most would have described as “poor but honest.” A kind way to describe a man who would settle for life as a woodcutter. I knew when he came mooning about our home that no good would come of it, and I was ultimately right.

I had no more word of her until she died. Then the wretch came begging to me like a starveling dog, hat in hand. They’d had two whelps. Twins. Two mouths from one birth, a terrible sign as any.

I suppose I only said yes because I wanted the opportunity to prove myself better than she. And almost immediately, I set that household to rights.

The twins(blond, of course) had been born in a time between famines. To them, life was abundance, ripe for the picking. I put a stop to their idle ways immediately. The girl I set to hard tasks, like combing burrs out of the wool I would spin. The boy I sent to help his father, until I learned the coward was excusing his son and doing it all himself. I could see my sister in their faces, a resemblance I could not thrash away with willow twigs.

I really was fighting uphill. It’s a wonder I didn’t give up. But I made it my life, time and time again, to remind them that the only guard against hardship was labor. I had a lock fashioned for the pantry and kept the key on my person at all times.

The idiots formed a cabal, whispering away from me all the time. They never once said a word against me out loud, only whispered behind my back. I rationed their food strictly, daring them to speak out, but not even that milksop I married raised objection. They bore up under their burdens like whipped dogs.

The famine continued. We were stocked, but for how long? I took accounts and found one way we could be sure to stretch the stores.

I told my husband he was to sell the children into labor.

He would not hear it, rolled over in bed as if I wasn’t even there. He had not touched me once since my arrival, anyway.

I told him the children had been sneaking food in-between meals, and would soon eat us out of house and home.

He said that he would work twice as hard to cover anything they had lost. And besides, didn’t I have the only key to the pantry?

I had to think on that one. Finally, I asked him if he would rather watch his children starve to death, slowly. He had no retort, so I went on. At least if they went somewhere else, they might find better fortune than this miserable hovel. And if he would not sell them, better to set them free?

He took some time. I chipped away at him a week before he broke down.

In the end he took the children with him to the deep woods, sniveling all the while. He came back a broken man, and would not respond to me until shouts came from the trees.

They’d found a way back. The boy, blue cunning in his eyes, had found a way to mark the path. No idea where he got that from.

I had to work another week before their father would try again. I gave them barely a morsel on each plate, mixing sand in the bread and mud in the porridge.

Finally, he hitched up the oxen and left.

It was dark when he came back. Alone.

I had prepared a slightly larger dinner as reward. His face assumed a look of such pain I assumed he had stuck himself, the clumsy beast.

He asked where I had been hiding it.

I replied that I had not hid anything, we were merely able to consume bigger portions now that our burden was gone. The man wept like an animal, rubbing his head against the door lintel.

He came toward me, so I grabbed the poker to defend myself. Damned if I would die at the hand of an imbecile.

He asked me if I had ever loved them.

Love? I told him that if love was a cake, perhaps his wife would have been able to prevent her death from malnourishment. Love had nothing to do with survival, it did not guard against famine or war or illness. Love was the idiot’s opiate, the thing he dosed himself with to ignore the world.

His face fell. He said he needed to get firewood and left.

I stirred the fire with the poker and contemplated simply ending it, feeding him the toadstools that grew in the garden. If I was to be defamed in my own household there was nothing else for it.

He called to me. There was a stick holding up the logs he wanted, wedged in such a tight space his own hands could not reach it. Would I please, please come out?

Leave it to the man to bungle something simple as firewood.

He seemed oddly tragic, waiting with his cap in his hand at the woodpile. Probably still moping about his children.

Just up there, did I see?

I could not, so I mounted a log and leaned into the crevice.

The wood shifted. There was a sudden crack and a sharp pain in my head and I fell.

I shouted at him that he was an idiot, and that he had hurt me. The wretch had nothing to say, just wept and wept. When I was done giving him the sharp side of my tongue I left him there, sobbing like a child, and went in. I was no longer hungry for dinner, and tried to warm myself by the fire. I couldn’t get warm enough because the idiot had not brought in firewood. By the time he came back in, earth all over his hands, I was already abed.

You know what happens next. They came back, with riches they probably stole. They babbled something about a witch and an oven, but I know their propensity for tales. Their wretch father embraced them while I asked him how long he expected their findings to last. They ignored me. He told them I had been ill. Ill? A poor excuse for their behavior.

In celebration, he knocked the lock off the pantry and they glutted. I told him if the food was to last more than a week, I should prepare it, but he did not listen, would not respond to my hand on his shoulder. They supped and spoke and drank while offering me none.

Here it has stood since that day.

We are no longer hungry. The children had brought back enough that their father no longer needed to labor. They pass the time by telling stories at the fireside instead. I am never warm enough, because they take all the best places at the hearth and shut me out. They have all taken up ignoring me, the one whose pragmatism kept them from self-destruction so long. I hold my tongue now. No better justice than leaving them to their own selfish gluttony.

Sometimes the girl slips away. I follow her, expecting some reedy paramour to whisk her away and start the cycle of poverty all over again, but she only goes to gather cowslips and lay them on a great mound of earth in the garden. The pile is crowned by a crucifix clumsily fashioned from alder twigs. I wonder if it is the witch they spoke of.

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