ERIDA

by Aldus Baker

CHAPTER I

The banging startled Erida, shattering his contemplation of the dying fire. The boy hesitated, unable to gather his wits and decide what the sound meant. The pounding came again, louder.

“Father, I’m coming,” called Erida. Finally, he’s returned. He hurried to the cabin door, but he paused before lifting the latch. His father knew how to work the mechanism. He would not need to knock. Not unless he was in his cups. Erida’s mind went to his escape plan. He had no desire to face his drunken father.

“This is Practitioner Misner. I demand entry in the name of The Society and in accord with The Covenants,” said a man’s voice from outside.

Erida let his hand fall from the latch. “What?” he said. The question made him sound like an idiot. He had no idea who the stranger was or what he wanted.

A second stranger spoke, “This is Sheriff Braxon. The Practitioner has requested aid in his search for a rogue. You have to open the door or we will break it down.”

“Wait,” said the first voice. “He’s not here. He’s this way! Hurry!”

Booted feet pounded away from the door. Erida sidestepped to the window and peeked out through a gap in the shutters. Four mounted men with lanterns waited for two others to mount. The first to gain his saddle spun his horse away and galloped from the yard. He road as if in full daylight, careless of the unseen hazards. The five others followed close behind. Their lanterns bounced and swayed. The light dazzled Erida’s eyes and created odd shadows. It was impossible to identify any of the men.

His heart thumped as he stood rooted at the window. With the lanterns gone, Erida saw nothing. He heard only his excited breathing and the occasional gust of wind. The night had swallowed the horsemen and he hopped whoever they pursued as well. Erida peered through the gap, finally satisfied the men would not return. His agitation eased. He vowed to ask his father to get a dog.

He knew his father’s answer. They had no need for another mouth to feed. But his father had not been the one home alone with strangers at the door after sundown. Perhaps that would make him reconsider. Erida thought of his knife where it hung at his hip. He doubted it would be much help against six men. At least a barking snarling dog might make strangers think twice. Of course, his father could have taken him along instead of leaving Erida behind. Then he would not care what stranger came to the door.

He remembered his last conversation with his father. They finished loading the wagon with a dozen sacks of beets, cabbages, and turnips.

His father climbed into the driver’s seat and said, “I’ll be back in a day or two after I sell it all.”

“Why can’t I go?” said Erida as he looked up at him.

“We talked about that. I’ll be sleeping at the market under the wagon. With the weather turning colder, you’ll be better off here where you can have shelter and a fire.”

His father’s weathered face wore a serious expression. His tone said he did not want to discuss it further. Erida worried there was more to it, that sleeping rough on a cold night was only an excuse.

“You’ll be back?” said Erida.

“Of course I’ll be back. I’m not your mother.” His father looked off into the distance, frowned and quickly sighed. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He looked again at Erida and pushed his lips into a smile. “Look for me. Two, three days at most. I might talk to a man about some work, or maybe find us a place while I’m there.”

“We’re really leaving?” said Erida.

His father’s smile slipped and he said, “There’s nothing here for us anymore. A man in town’s offered to buy this little plot of dirt. In Shantown we can both find work. And you don’t have to live alone with nobody but me for company. Plenty of people in Shantown. You’ll make friends.”

As Erida wondered what it might be like to have a friend, his father shook the reins and started off for town.

Erida frowned and turned away from the window. He looked for anything out of place, anything his father would expect to be cleaned, tended to, or put away. The washtub sat in its corner. The cutlery and utensils lay upon the narrow shelf above it. The tall thin cupboard door was shut and latched. Two spindly chairs rested on opposite sides of the worn barren table. A table so narrow that the two chairs almost touched each other beneath it. The iron rack holding the wood Erida split earlier sat beside the hearth. In front of the hearth, the water bucket rested close enough to keep it from freezing during the night.

Erida’s gaze drifted back to the fire. He watched it until his eyes stung. He blinked, rubbed them, then stretched and yawned. With a sigh he lifted the iron hearth shovel off its hook. It, the poker that also hung there, and the wood rack were a set, a wedding gift according to his father. He felt the weight of the black iron shovel and wondered, not for the first time, how often his mother had held it. Not many times he guessed. He could barely remember her. She left so long ago, long enough that he had not thought about her all day.

He bent down and used the shovel to push the glowing coals and bits of burning log together. He built up a wall of ash around them before sprinkling a blanket of the fine gray powder over the coals. Satisfied the fire would keep till morning, Erida hung the shovel next to the poker. He squeezed his eyes shut as he yawned again and turned his back to the hearth. When he opened them, the well banked fire gave too little light to see.

Placing his fingertips lightly on the table, he made his way around it by touch. He raised his hand before him and counted six short steps before he felt the doorway to the other room. When he opened the door he could see nothing at all.

He imagined the layout of the space. Before him, pressed longways against the wall, was the bed he shared with his father. To the left of the door, his nightshirt hung from a wall peg. Erida pulled the door shut behind him. He pulled off his shirt and pants, then exchanged them on the peg with his nightshirt. The chill air gave him goosebumps as shrugged into the cold garment.

In bed, the blanket pulled over his head, he realized he could have brought his clothes with him. There was plenty of room when he need not squeeze in next to his father. The shirt and pants would be warm in the morning. But now that he had burrowed under the blanket, he could not force himself to climb back out and get them. Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow.

Erida’s body gave an involuntary shake. He lay on his side with his knees pulled up toward his chest. He slipped his hand beneath his pillow and felt for the broken necklace he kept there. With his fingers wrapped around it. He knew it was something his mother had touched, something she had worn, some piece of her that was still his.

#

Erida woke in darkness, groggy and confused. Something hit the floor with a bang in the other room. No pounding at the door this time. Someone was inside. The fear induced by the sound immediately focused his mind. He felt his heart hammer as he slid out of bed. More sounds of movement made him worry that his drunken father would stumble blindly into the tiny bedroom and collide with him. Desperate to avoid that fate, Erida hurried toward the meager starlight that gave away the location of the window. His toe slammed into something solid. He bent over as he squeezed his eyes shut and shook with the effort needed to stifle a scream of pain. He forced himself to keep moving with shorter steps, worried that he had already given himself away. As he felt around, Erida found the peg where his clothes hung. He pulled them to him and edged closer to the window.

Panic threatened to undo him before his shaking fingers could find the latch. He pushed at the window as he heard his father fussing with the bedroom door. No longer caring about stealth, Erida dove head-first through the open window. He almost screamed when something brushed his trailing foot. He hit the ground and rolled, but it still hurt. Clutching his shirt and pants, he made a limping dash into a deep shadow where even the starlight did not reach him. When he looked back, the silhouette of his father leaned out the window, head swiveling as he searched for Erida.

Dream memories of creatures chasing him merged with the night around him. Erida scurried through the shadows to escape the rising terror of being caught. He had made a plan after the last time, a way to escape and a place to hide. Using memory and touch, he found his way into the barn. He paused to pull on his pants and work his shirt down over his nightshirt. He got his bearings and took cautious steps toward the ladder with arms outstretched, searching for it. When he found it, he clambered to the hay loft. It took a moment to locate the moth-eaten old blanket he had spirited out of the horse’s stall. He pulled the worn blanket around himself and squirmed into the hay. The sweet scented dust he stirred up made him want to sneeze. He fought the urge as long as he could.

When his sneezing stopped, Erida lay still and listened intently. He worried his father had heard. More bangs, even sounds of breaking wood, reached Erida in his hiding place. He wondered if his escape had only made things worse. But what did his father expect? Did he think Erida would always wait around to be abused? Erida was not as little and helpless as he used to be. And when he was older, he would find a way to make his father stop. He would be strong enough to keep him from drinking, and yelling, and hitting. He would fight him if he had to. He would do whatever it took to stop him.

The heat of Erida’s anger held off the encroaching cold for a time, but as his outrage eased the chill bit down hard. The ragged blanket seemed good enough last summer. Now it was little better than nothing, although without it the dry dusty hay would make him itch twice as bad. A shiver shook him and Erida consoled himself by planning what he would do when morning came. First, he would light a fire and get warm. Then he would search for a better blanket.

Judging by the noise coming from the cabin, things must have gone very wrong in Shantown and his father tried to drown those troubles in a bottle. Erida scolded himself for expecting anything else. No matter how good the harvest had been, or how well things had gone, it was only the calm before the storm. He had been a fool to think it might be different this time.

There had to be a way to stop his father from drinking. If Erida was smarter, stronger, or older he could do something. Maybe if he had been a better son his mother would not have left and his father would not drink. There had to be something he could do to make it right. He drifted in and out of sleep, waking chilled and miserable time after time, burdened by the puzzle of how to fix things.

#

After freezing through the night, Erida’s teeth rattled as he approached the half open cabin door. He shook his head and pushed the door fully open then stood paralyzed by shock. The room could not have looked worse if a whirlwind had torn through it.

The small table had toppled over. One of the wooden chairs lay in pieces on the floor. The iron rack lay tipped forward, the wood tumbled out before it. The tinderbox sat on the other side of the room with its contents of twigs and dried moss spilled around it. His father had knocked things over before and occasionally broken something, but he had never rampaged through the room.

Aching with cold, Erida felt devastated by the work left for him to do while his father languished in bed with the ugly mood he always had after indulging in drink. There was nothing for it but to start. He righted the table to clear the space near the hearth. Once he had the wood rack and its logs back in place, he used his frigid fingers to rake together the tinder and put as much as he could back in its box.

Checking the fireplace, Erida thanked Fortune that his father had not disturbed the banked coals. In his drunken frenzy he could have scattered hot embers and burned down their cabin. Instead, Erida used them to start a new fire within the safe confines of the hearth.

Crouched before the newborn flames, he refused to think or move until the growing heat drove him away. No longer shivering he turned to allow the warmth to reach his back. He stretched as knotted muscles relaxed. With his greatest discomfort eased, he looked for the next task as his stomach growled. The door of the tall thin cabinet they used as a pantry hung by one hinge. To reach the cabinet, he had to step around their washtub and cooking utensils scattered on the floor. A crock of lard sat on the otherwise empty cabinet shelves. What happened to the flour? Where are the oats?

Leaving their home a wreck was bad enough, but hiding the food brought Erida’s anger to a boil. He stormed into the tiny bedroom ready to shout at his father and merry be the consequences. The pallet he and his father shared lay on its side with the mattress thrown across it. Clumps of straw pulled from the mattress dusted the pallet and floor. The unexpected sight stopped him in his tracks. It took several dazed seconds to realize his father was not there.

Erida looked out the open bedroom window at the corner of the barn and the empty field. He pulled the window shut and rubbed his head as he puzzled over what happened to his father. He was here. I saw him. Or had he only seen someone, a stranger or a thief? His father told him if he misbehaved someone would come in the night and take him away. He also remembered his father’s other favorite saying.

“You’re not worth the food I feed you,” said Erida in a drawled imitation of his father.

It seemed the thief agreed because he took the food and left Erida. His stomach growled again. By this time of morning he would have made flat bread with flour, lard, and water. But he only had lard.

Looking around, Erida realized he had little choice about what to do.

#

Today, four days after his father left, Erida could either wait longer in a warm cabin with no food, or start walking to Shantown to find his father. Perhaps his father was already on the way back home and they would meet along the road. Erida had no desire to remain alone. The sheriff and his men may have meant no harm, but the thief that came later nearly caught Erida sleeping and then ransacked his home.

Last night Erida blamed every hardship on his father’s drinking. This morning things looked different. Erida needed to find out what had become of his father. Where were the supplies he said he would bring? Had he found a new place for them? Erida would not get those answers by staying put.

Erida hunted for his boots. Whoever took the food had taken them and his knife too. A sense of frustration welled up in him, strong enough that he fought with the urge to break something. A small voice in the back of his head warned him not to be like his father. He gritted his teeth and balled his hands into white-knuckled fists. He wanted to attack something, or run somewhere, or be any place else.

It took several minutes before his pulse slowed and his breathing approached normal. The boots were gone. Erida could do nothing about it. Someone – his father or a stranger – had torn his home apart like wild dogs fighting over a rabbit. He only had whatever scraps they left behind. If he had money, perhaps he could replace his boots. He bit his lip and hesitated a moment before wrestling the pallet frame off the loose floorboard. He told himself his father would understand. They were leaving anyway. It was better that he brought anything of value with him in case the thief returned.

He used the knife they cut vegetables with to pry up the floorboard. He laid down and pushed his arm into the opening all the way up to his shoulder. At the farthest extent of his reach Erida felt a bit of fabric that he managed to catch and pull back. When he drew his hand out he had snagged a small cloth pouch. Inside it he found three copper coins. He knotted the drawstrings of the pouch to the hem of his nightshirt and tucked it all into his pants. If there had been anything more beneath the floorboard, the thief or his father had already taken it.

Erida went out to the barn and found an old leather sheath he mended last summer. A traveler traded it for bread. Erida had fashioned a new belt for the sheath using a leather cord. He tied it around his waist and slipped the cutting knife into it.

Satisfied that he had equipped himself for the walk to town, he had only his hunger left to appease. He returned to the broken cabinet and choked down as much lard as he could stomach before he banked the remnants of the fire and walked out the door.

He looked back when he reached the road. The cabin looked even smaller from there, a gray ramshackle structure with an old and weathered thatched roof that was one good storm away from leaking. He turned away blinking, already missing home.