Not sure about this one. It’s a little off-color, I suppose. But it’s the sort of thing that happens when I start writing late at night:
There is nothing quite so comforting as stew for dinner. Of course, that’s an easy thought to think when you haven’t got anything to make stew with. The old woman gazed around her tiny kitchen.
There was the stewpot, hanging neat and clean on the wall. The fireplace had logs aplenty, as if waiting for her to put the stew on. And a few sad carrots and onions waited, wilting on the table. There were a few stale, old slices of bread ossifying in the cupboard. And there were assorted spices, hanging dry among the rafters of the little shack, teasing her nose with their scents, almost as if they knew she had no way to use them.
She sighed. You do what you can with what you have. Dinner, she supposed, would be a bit of hard bread, with a bit of hard cheese, if she could beg some from the neighbors.
Unless… unless the boy could bring something home from the forest? A rabbit, perhaps? Rabbit stew would be delicious. Hell, she’d even settle for a squirrel.
But he wouldn’t. The boy couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a slingshot. But that wasn’t the issue. Not really. The thing was that he wouldn’t. The boy wouldn’t hurt animals at all. And he certainly couldn’t bring himself to shoot one.
It hadn’t been a problem when his Mama and Papa had been alive. His Papa, her own son, had done the hunting. And the carpentry. And whatever else needed doing. He’d sold off the extra in the village – whatever toy he’d carved or shelf he’d made from spare wood. And there had always been enough. His Mama had done the sewing and the mending and taken in laundry when the occasion called for it.
Things had been good, when they’d been alive. But a few winters back a fever had swept through the little village, taking with it her son and daughter-in-law, and a dozen others besides.
And she was stuck with the boy.
That wasn’t fair.
She shouldn’t say she was stuck with him – would never say it out loud, lest he hear her. She loved the child, after all. But life with him wasn’t exactly easy.
She sighed and went back to counting her carrots, somehow hoping there were more of them than there’d been the last time. Maybe the boy would bring back some wild mushrooms or berries. It would be better than nothing, anyhow.
The carrots seemed to wilt further beneath her gaze. She decided to look away from them, just in case it really was her gaze causing the damage – just in time to see the boy, breathless, run through the door, slamming it shut behind him.
Except he wasn’t alone.
Running in with him, tail beating madly against the boy’s leg, was a large brown hunting dog.
That was the boy’s name. She rarely had cause to use it. Actually, she rarely had need to call him anything at all – usually he was the only one within earshot anyhow. But when she did use it, it emerged angry and pitched, like a teapot whistle.
“Will-yum!” she said again, in her angry teapot squeak. “What have you done?”
It took the boy a few moments to catch his breath, but after that, they came spilling out, tumbling one over the other.
“I wuz in the woods, see? An’ there wuz this man huntin’ with th’ dog. And he looked cross an’ I wuz abou’ to come up and ask ‘im if I could help ‘im an’ … an’ he starts kickin’ at his dog! And the poor sweet little feller wuz just a-takin’ it. An’ … an’ I couldn’ help it. I felt so bad for the poor thing. So I grabbed ‘im an’ I ran. I just… I just couldn’ leave th’ dog with that awful man, y’know?”
She wasn’t sure she believed the whole story. There were some details she’d be sure to suss out later. But the part about taking the dog away because the man was beating it… She believed that rightly enough. Poor thing was skin and bones. But it was friendly enough. She bent to take a closer look and it licked her face.
She scrunched her nose, wiping away the dog drool with the corner of her apron.
“And the man just let you take it?”
She stood, hands on him, and stared him down.
“No…..” he scuffed a worn boot against the floor. “I called th’ dog and he just came to me, see? And then I ran, but…. I think he’s followin’ me.”
Well, crud and crustaceans.
“Go,” she said, the tips of her lips turned downward, bringing out the wrinkles in her face.
William looked up at her. Surely, his own grandmother wouldn’t kick him out of the house over this?
“Go hide out by the well and I’ll come get you when it’s safe to come back.”
They slipped out the back door, no doubt trampling over her small patch of garden. Not that it mattered. Hardly anything ever grew there anyway.
Crud and crustaceans.
What was she going to do now?
Surely, the man would find her little shack. It was the one nearest the woods. And the boy wasn’t so fast as to get more than a minute or two head start.
Sure, the dog didn’t belong to William. But now, it belonged to him more than it did to anyone else. And she’d as soon cut off her own pinky finger than give that dog back to the man who had abused it.
But it turned out that she didn’t have very much time for thought.
The banging on the door broke through any thoughts she might have been having.
Plastering on her brightest smile, she opened the door.
“Where is he?”
The man was large, tall as well as broad, with a mop of blonde hair and a respectable-sized beer belly. Immediately, her estimation of him shrank even further. She didn’t mind a man who ate well. But a man who ate well and kept a skinny, sad-looking dog like the one she’d just seen – she didn’t fancy those at all.
She eased the door open farther and dropped the smile, replacing it with a confused look.
“The boy!” he practically roared in her face. “The dratted, wretched boy who stole my hound!”
“Yes, my hound! Keep up, you stupid woman.”
“Beg pardon, sir,” she said. “But how does a boy manage to steal a hound?”
The man seemed unsure if she was mocking him, but either way, anger seemed to be the appropriate response.
“I was hunting in the woods and the little idiot stole my dog!”
The look she gave him begged further explanation, or perhaps he understood that he wasn’t getting inside without it, because he continued.
“My hound had led me farther astray in these woods than I’d meant to go. I’d meant to hunt the woods around the inn, but the damn fool dog led me miles astray… And perhaps I got a little upset, with the dog, you understand. And so, out of anger, I may have kicked the thing.”
“You kicked the dog for leading you astray?”
He glared at her.
“And that little thief ran out of the trees, scooped the dog up and ran away with it. I saw him come this way. I want my dog back.”
The last sounded almost like a threat.
“The only boy hereabouts is my grandson,” she told him. “I’ve yet to see him today and I’ve no idea when he’ll be coming back.”
“Then I’ll wait,” the man said, shoving his way through the door and into the little house, as if expecting to see the boy cowering behind his grandmother’s skirts.
The man tramped in, leaving muddy footprints in a broad path from the door to the table, where he levered his heft into one of the two chairs there.
He sat scowling in silence for a moment.
“Haven’t you got anything to eat?” he asked.
“Not much, sir.”
“I haven’t eaten since I left the inn this morning,” he told her. “I’ll take whatever you’ve got.”
She sighed deeply and reached into the cupboard, pulling out a piece of bread. She chopped up a carrot and handed the food to him, almost like a peace offering.
“This?” he said. “This is all? This isn’t food. This belongs in a trash heap.”
He threw the pieces of carrot on the floor, but deigned to gnaw on the bread, seeing as he had nothing else.
The old woman examined him, sitting in her kitchen like a giant lump of coal. She hadn’t liked the look of him when she’d opened her door. And she didn’t like the look of him any better now.
Horrid man. A man who beat his dog wouldn’t hesitate to treat his wife or children the same way, she knew. Nor would he particularly differentiate between the three.
She forced the smile back onto her face before speaking again.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “It’s about time you offered.”
She bustled around the little house, taking a pinch of dried herb here, breaking off a twig there, filled the kettle with water and put it on the small hearth.
Within a few minutes the man held a mug of tea, his large hands making the mug look somehow tiny.
He took a few sips, pronouncing it ‘not bad.’ And then a few more. Soon enough, the whole mug had been drunk.
She said nothing, merely stood watching him as he sat, eyes half-closed and sleepy with the warm drink in him.
She did nothing, merely stepping out of the way as the man tumbled off the chair and lay still, dozing on the floor.
She wiped her hands against her apron as she gazed down at him, lying prone, chest rising and falling in sleep. He’d better be asleep. The herbs she’d slipped into his tea were the same ones, in the same quantities, as she used to put a horse to sleep before a surgery.
Walking around him with small, measured steps, she examined him carefully.
A slow smile spread across her face.
She pulled her sharpest knife out of the drawer and wiped it across her apron.
You do what you can with what you have.
Maybe there would be stew for dinner tonight, after all.
Writing Prompt Courtesy of: