Babes in the Wood

1 Aug

Part 3 of the Pilgrims Series

Once upon a time I had two children. Fairy-tale children. Perfect children. Skin as smooth as moonlight, hair as black as obsidian, lips as red as arterial blood.

And their names were Jessie and Max, and the kingdom loved them dearly…

But in the end that didn’t count for much.

The Sickness took them quick, the way it strikes the young. Fevers of 101 the first day, grand mal seizures the next. By the third day, when they were hallucinating, I knew it wouldn’t be much longer. It was before they put out pamphlets saying this strain of influenza is particularly harmful to children, watch for signs of illness, do not let them out of your sight, wash your hands. But parents are intuitive, as animals are. I did not need to be told these things. What they might as well have said was every child under the age of 5 is dead. Deceased, gone, kicked the bucket, croaked, might as well be pushing up daisies even now.

After they died I spent hours in the Ogonwa County library, my tall frame hunched gracelessly in the pastel-colored children’s chairs. The Kids’ Corner was as silent as a morgue. No parents lucky enough to have surviving children brought them out in public anymore. The risk of contagion was enormous and rising every day. It meant no more heads bobbing above the pint-sized bookshelves, no muted patter of Keds and Mary Janes on the floor.

It meant just me, Saul Paez, the only reader in a room full of books likeWhere the Wild Things Are and The Giving Tree.

Beautiful in their simplicity, I discovered. They calmed me. I had tried the adult section, but my hands kept straying to medical books. I learned facts I had never wanted to know.

I learned that rigor mortis lasts for 36 hours.

That flies are incredibly sensitive to the smell of decomposition.

That it takes 50 days for a body to decompose completely.

Better to be reading Shel Silverstein.

But my favorites were the fairy tales. That’s what Jessie, four and a half when the Sickness took her, liked to hear. Please, Daddy, tell me the Twelve Dancing Princesses again. The Frog Prince.Cinderella. Her café-au-lait skin creased against the pillow, eyes bright. Please, just one more story.

On a foggy November day, I found a fairy tale I had never heard of before. A strange story.Unsettling. It was called Babes in the Wood. It went like this:

 Two children are taken in by their uncle when their parents die. Tiny things: fingers pencil-thin, wrists ringed with fat, feet so little they can barely support the children’s bodies. The uncle is the opposite. Lean, sinister, evil.  The quintessential villain dreamed up by centuries of goodwives. And he doesn’t much like the idea of taking care of his deadbeat sister’s kids. So what does he do? He hires two hit men to take the babes out into the woods and kill them.

But one of the hit men turns out to be a bleeding-heart humanitarian at the last second. He convinces his partner to leave the children in the woods rather than kill them. So the kids, hand in hand, wander the forest. They hear the robins singing somewhere far-off, their voices as illusory as the mist wreathing the trees.  A night passes. Then another day. Their flesh strains over their little bones. When they cry, no one hears them. And so they finally lie down in the shade of an elm, feet worn and bleeding, and clasp hands. And die.

But this is the part that makes me read it over and over. The robins cover them with leaves. They bury the children in ash bark and dust. They immortalize them, there in the woods.

No one lives happily ever after. It’s not that kind of story. But it comforts me.

Check out other entries in the Pilgrims series:

Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts

The Angry Feminist Manifesto

© 2012 Elizabeth Ballou

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2 Responses to “Babes in the Wood”

  1. Ms. Nine August 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    What a way to show mood! Great stuff!

    • elizabethballou August 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

      Delighted that you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by!

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