0004 – Stem & Cap: Idyll, Part 1

The bright, still morning was drawing to a close. Noon was approaching, the sun overhead at its brightest and boldest. On the edge of a happy little hamlet, beneath the shade of a huge old tree, a little boy lay snoozing. His name was Cap, and he was considered to be something of an idiot. At least by his sister.

Cap, in reality, was actually rather a clever boy. His sister, Stem, was a clever girl too. This didn’t matter. The belief young siblings have in each other’s stupidity is a constant between every culture that has ever existed.

Stem kicked him. Not very hard. And on his shoe, where she was absolutely sure she could inflict no pain whatsoever, while nonetheless pretending that she had come at him with the earnest intention to murder.

“OW!” Cap overreacted. He reeled up into a sitting position immediately, slumber forgotten, clutching his foot. It didn’t hurt whatsoever.

She grinned, and sat down next to her brother. Their mother had dressed them in impossibly twee matching outfits, hers red and his green. This sort of thing, Cap had inwardly marked, would definitely not be tolerated once he was a big boy. Which he would be, just as soon as he turned eleven.

“Mum’s going spare, you know.” She informed him, gleefully.

“Let her.” He remarked. “I’m not doing it.”

She poked the side of his stomach. “You are. She’ll make you do it even if you come home after dark.”

He swatted her hand, turning away, faking nonchalance as he lay on his side, his back to her. “I won’t do it then, either.” Cap said as he inwardly screamed at the incredibly plausible mental image of being forced to clean out a sty in the dark. Denial is an important part of every young boy’s ability to live in the moment.

“Oh, you wii-iii-iiill.” She taunted him, half-lying next to him, leaning up and over him in glee, her eyes upwardly turned slits of schadenfreude-fuelled malice. “Me and mum will be inside eating supper together, and you’ll be out in near pitch-blackness shovelling filthy straw! Filthy boy!”

She demonstrated just how filthy he was by scooping up a little of the rich, soft, springy mud beneath the tree, and smearing it on his face. He reacted by instinctively punching her in the stomach.

If you were supposed to cry and wail in pain when you got gently bopped, you were definitely supposed to react with unflinching toughness when a fist connected with your diaphragm. Those were the rules. Stem was obeying them now. “I won’t help you, either, filthy boy!” she shouted, springing to her feet. This witty insult was worthy of a refrain, to be sung repeatedly as she danced around the tree.

“Fine!” Cap exclaimed, standing up suddenly. “Then I won’t help you when… when…”

The problem with this threat of mutually assured destruction was that his sister rather liked all her chores, and she was also quite good at doing them alone.

He reached. “When the LURKERS come for you!”

Her response was matter of fact. “Lurkers don’t exist.”

“Don’t they?” he asked. His faith was unshaken. He was simply testing hers.

“They don’t. Only babies believe in them.”

“Then what happened to Clod? Everyone knows a lurker got him.”

“Clod was old and smelly and didn’t scare anyone anymore.” Stem informed him, eager to play the part of the clever elder sibling, despite the pang of pain that insulting their old, beloved family pet sent through her heart. And despite the fact that she was only older by about three minutes. “I bet mum put him out of his misery.”

“He wasn’t smelly!” There were tears in Cap’s eyes. He wasn’t easily provoked by her, as a matter of habit, but he was a sentimental boy. “He was lovely.”

Stem opened her mouth to respond with the requisite mockery, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She had loved Clod, too. “He was.” She agreed.

“And that’s how I know a lurker got him.” Cap nodded. He wasn’t trying to tease his sister now. This was honestly his theory. “Everyone in the village loved him. Especially mum. Nobody would have wanted to hurt him. And he’d never have run away.”

She had to concede that he had a point. The scraggy old thing had clearly met his end somewhere, unknown to the villagers, and had never been found. The mental image of his poor, hurt body lying still in the mud, or drifting in the cool water, nearly made her cry. Unlike many children their age, Cap and Stem knew what death looked like.

After a short silence, the two children found they were staring out into the distance together, down over the low hills and the small, flat lake.

“What if he did run away?” It was Stem who voiced it.

“I’ve thought about it.” Cap confessed.

“I have too.”

It wasn’t that their lives in the village were bad. Far from it. They were loved by their mother, provided for kindly by everyone they knew – but wanderlust is in the nature of youth.

“Mum would probably come and get us, even if we went all the way to the sea.”

She laughed. “Probably.”

“If we became fish, and swam away, she’d come and fish us back again.” Cap grinned.

“Or if we were birds and flew away, she’d…” Stem couldn’t think of an example. She didn’t know how you actually caught a bird. Not without killing it.

The air between them had been pregnant with the suggestion that they give it their best shot. But not now. They were holding hands. Very tightly. Their mother may have been at home, fussing and busying herself, but she was here in spirit with them both, and they could feel it even more strongly for her physical absence. The absence of noise and motion left only the love to feel. Nobody in their little family would get lost. Never again.

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