Little Fictions 2 – This is my Truth, Tell Me Yours

Someone once told me that all good stories start at the end.

End the at start stories good all that me told once someone.

I remember the first time I learnt that some people read the last chapter of a book first, to know what’s coming, to know which characters are worth investing in or perhaps, just because they are chaotic evil. We aren’t meant to know what’s coming – unless you’re a time traveller, and I’m still not convinced that’s wise, or even possible. If it was possible, this story wouldn’t exist. In all likelihood, neither would I.

There are so many lists of ‘best first lines’ in novels – there is a truth universally acknowledged, last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, the list goes on. Last lines though, they’re more nebulous somehow. Less memorable. Think about the last book you read. Can you remember the last line, those final words, the parting gift? I bet you can’t.

So here we are. This is my story, and it starts at the end.

Here I was, running again, but this time, it was just me. Barefoot, I avoided tripping over protruding roots or crashing into the beautiful, tall, majestic trees that surrounded me. My mind was focused on one thing, and one thing alone – getting out of that forest. I didn’t know much that wasn’t the forest, and I had to guess at the way out. Long gone were the stones we had left to guide us, picked up by other travellers or kicked to one side by passers-by. As long as I kept running, away from the house, away from her, I might be safe.

I remember when I was young, once upon a time, and we would run through the woods. I remember running through that forest, or maybe a different one – all forests are alike, really – with my family. My father ran ahead, fast enough to win but slow enough that I still thought I could beat him. My mother was behind her, hand in hand with my little brother who was at the age where every fallen leaf, every twig on the path is utterly fascinating. I envy him that now, now that I’m running without noticing, without stopping, my one thought being of getting away from the witch and her house, the only home I have known for the last ten years. The paradise that became a nightmare.

You’ve probably heard a version of this story before, but with each retelling, the teller adds their own embellishment until it has become almost unrecognisable. This is my truth.

I remember my younger brother being born, three years after I was. I remember our mother dying, a year or so later. I remember our father telling us she had died of a long illness. I don’t remember her being ill. I remember our father remarrying. I remember his new wife. I remember her dying too. I remember our father hitting us. I remember running away with my brother.

I remember remembering.

I’d finally escaped the witch’s house, but not until after she had killed my brother. Some versions of my story say that she ate him, but that isn’t what happened. I’m still not sure whether that would have been a more palatable version. It is neater, for one thing. It gives a strange sense of purpose to his death. There’s even a version where he gets put in an oven. It makes a good story with a moral, I’ll give the teller that. The truth though, is not so neat and tidy – it never is. After eight years in the witch’s house, eight years of cooking and cleaning and sweeping and tending her flock of sheep, one day, I woke up and he didn’t. We shared a room at that point, and when I saw his lifeless body, I couldn’t help but scream. There were no signs of injury, or illness. No signs of foul play. It was as if he’d just dropped dead during the night, while we slept.

I remember my brother. I remember his smile. I remember teaching him to read, as our mother had done for me. I remember his fascination with the witch’s cat, and its fascination with him. I remember that in the evenings he would often be found playing with it, after our seemingly endless jobs were done. I remember him being the only human being I trusted. I remember being the only human being he trusted.

I remember remembering.

It was just the two of us for a long time. Even when our father was there, and later, even when we were with the witch, it was us against the world. Well, us and the cat. When we still lived with our father, before we’d run away, he seemed almost frightened of us. I still don’t know why. He wasn’t a natural parent – even when we were young and our mother was still alive, he would rather be drinking in the local pub with his friends than be home with his family, with us. And when he drank, he would often become violent.

I remember the first time he hit me. I remember the first time I saw him hit my mother, my brother, his new wife. I remember it going from being something irregular and rare, something he seemed ashamed of, to near daily. I remember that the violence wasn’t the only reason we left but that was the easiest part to explain.

I remember remembering.

We left so we would be safe, and at first, we were. Walking through the woods together, we kept our hunger at bay by scavenging what we found. Our mother had taught me what was safe to eat and what wasn’t, and later, our stepmother had done the same. It wasn’t the most exciting diet; there were no cakes or sweets, but I knew how to prepare meat and so, on the rare occasion that we came across an animal, we had a special feast. Mostly though, our diet consisted of the berries and mushrooms that we picked. Sometimes we would pass a farm, and then we might be able to find eggs, milk or – and this was our favourite thing – cheese. Once or twice we were discovered by an angry farmer who chased us away. Now that I’m a farmer myself, I understand the anger, but if I ever find small, hungry children on my farm, I offer them a warm bed for the night and a hot meal. It may not be much, but I remember when that was us.

I remember when we had to wash in streams. I remember when we were so tired that we couldn’t talk to each other. I remember creating mental pictures of our surroundings so that we could find our back if we needed to. I remember leaving stones to try and mark our way, even as I knew that was pointless. I remember stopping to pet every cat and dog we passed. I remember trying to persuade the creatures to follow us, and I remember that some did, but I also remember that most of them stopped once they realised that we didn’t have any food for them. I remember eventually finding the witch’s house.

I remember remembering.

Of course, we didn’t know she was a witch at first. Her house had a fire inside, so just smelt warm and inviting. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been warm – at night we would usually just sleep under the stars, with only our shared body heat for comfort. But here, there might even be a real bed, one for each of us if we were lucky. We might even be able to eat something that we hadn’t foraged or killed ourselves.

Her house wasn’t made of gingerbread – I don’t know who made that particular embellishment, but it certainly wasn’t true. It didn’t rain much in the forest, but I can’t imagine gingerbread being the most practical of building materials, particularly not when two hungry children stumble across your house. I don’t know how long we’d been walking for or how much distance we’d covered – it’s easy to lose track of those things when you’re hungry and tired – but I remember thinking it was a strange place for a home, in the middle of the woods all alone. We hadn’t seen another building in what felt like forever. In reality it was probably only a day or two, but nevertheless, it felt strange and otherworldly, even without being made of gingerbread.

I remember looking at my brother, and silently agreeing that taking our chances here was better than any alternative. I remember taking his hand in mine as we stepped up to the front door of the cottage. I remember waiting, for one minute, then two, then a third. I remember that just as we were about to give up and leave, the door opened and revealed the witch, cat on her shoulder. I remember it jumped down as soon as she had fully opened the door and rubbed itself our legs, first mine and then my brother’s, before jumping up on the witch’s shoulder again.

I remember remembering.

For the first few weeks, we were treated like royal guests and given everything we needed and wanted. Warm beds with fresh sheets, new clothes to replace the ones which were falling apart and that we had been wearing since we’d left our father’s house. It didn’t occur to me at the time to question where these clothes came from – I’d never seen the witch sewing and I had never thought to ask. The best thing though, better than the clothes and the warmth and the beds, was the food. However much we ate, it never seemed to run out. There was meat and soup and bread, and even cake – I wasn’t sure whether to wolf down everything we were given or eat slowly and cautiously, as if at any moment our luck might change and the endless food would stop, or we’d be thrown out to continue making our own way in the forest. The witch’s hospitality seemed as endless as her food, her generosity as great as the beds we slept in. I was so overwhelmed by her kindness that I forgot to question where all the things she gave us came from, why she lived so alone and isolated, and even what her name was. I still don’t know any of those things, years later.  I was under her roof for ten years and she never told us, although I don’t think I ever asked.

I remember things changing, so gradually we barely noticed. I remember we wanted to do something to help, to make the witch’s cottage feel more like our home, rather. I remember desperately wanting, needing even, the three of us to be a family. I remember offering to help and I remember that offer being accepted, eventually. I remember things starting off slowly, and then it wasn’t long before we were doing everything, but I told myself that this was a small price to pay for a warm bed and square meals. I remember thinking that whatever happened, it was far better than being in our father’s house or in the forest.

I remember remembering.

And then, my brother died and everything changed. I still think she killed him, although I don’t know how, but by that point I had seen so much death, I was almost numb to it. Numb to it apart from him. He had always been a constant, for almost as long as I can remember. He hadn’t been ill, not as far as I knew. It was as simple as one day he was there, and the next he was not. My theory is that she poisoned him – I don’t know if she tried to poison me too, or if was just him. Somehow, this reassures me more than him just dying – that would be almost too pointless to bear. If he was killed, at least there was some thought in it.

Of course, this leaves some unanswered questions – why did she wait so long? Had he simply outgrown his usefulness? Was there more going on than I realised, something he hadn’t told me? It didn’t seem likely – we told each other everything. It was us against the world, always and forever. After his death, I don’t remember anything. For a week, I existed in a kind of stupor. I barely left my room, not to eat or clean or even wash. Eventually, I must have realised the danger I was in, and decided that I had to leave. Despite everything, I was left with a sense of sadness about leaving. Our last few years had been hard, but without him it would be unbearable. I wanted and needed to take my chances on somewhere new, where I wouldn’t be reminded of my brother at every waking moment. I needed to remember him but not to be reminded. So I left, one night.

I remember leaving, for the second time in my still short life, only this time I did it alone. I remember running, again. I remember feeling that if I couldn’t feel safe there, I couldn’t feel safe anywhere. I remember being wrong.

I remember remembering.

This time, the walk through the forest didn’t seem to take as long. Perhaps it was because I was older and could go much faster. Perhaps it was because I didn’t stop to look at every animal or flower I passed. Perhaps it was simply because I walked to forget I was alone.

But I was alone.

Eventually, I reached the edge of the forest, and left it for the first time since my brother and I had entered it so long ago. Leaving it was so different to arriving. For one thing, I was older. For another, I was alone. But I was still running from something, and I felt like I always would be. Always from, never to.

I remember stepping out of the forest, into a world that was not surrounded by trees and ground without roots. I remember feeling weak, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten. I remember trying to walk, but my body had given up, from tiredness, from lack of food, from the exhaustion of finally finding my way out of the forest.

I remember remembering.

I woke up in the hospital. Only a few days had passed, but I was alive, and all things considered, well. My father was still alive but I didn’t go back to him. After recovering enough to be allowed to leave the 24/7 care of the hospital, I moved into sheltered accommodation nearby. I was only permitted to leave the hospital on the agreement that I went back for checks, at first once a week and then once a month, until eventually I didn’t have to anymore. For three months, I didn’t say a word, but gradually, things returned to normal. Returned is the wrong word really. Everything was completely different, and completely wonderful.

And I lived happily ever after.

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