0008 – Stem & Cap: Idyll, Part 2

Gigantic moths fluttered around the tiny lamp, casting enormous shadows on the half-height walls of the empty sty. It had been vacant for weeks now, and though Clod had been Cap’s pet primarily, the normally diligent Cap had completely neglected the important duty of cleaning it out since Clod had disappeared.

Having lain unused, the sty wasn’t terribly dirty – especially since Clod had never used it to do his business anyway – but as a matter of parental discipline, Cap had been told he wouldn’t be “allowed a new one” until he’d seen to the all important task of half-heartedly brushing the floor.

He sighed, leaning on his broom, staring out beyond the little pool of lamplight into the darkness beyond, filled with insect chirps and other subtle noises carried in the evening breeze. If he turned around, he would see the lit windows of the comfortable little house he shared with his sister and mother. He might even see them eating dinner together, laughing and smiling, just as Stem had described when she had taunted him earlier.

Cleaning out the sty really wasn’t a big job. Clod had been a low-maintenance pet, overall. It was simply a matter of brushing some old rushes out into the compost, and replacing them with new ones. Obstinate children can make any task seem like a mammoth obligation.

Cap knew he’d better get back to the job at hand. Aside from anything else, his stomach was rumbling. As tempting as it was to simply brush the old rushes down the ramp and into the water, he knew that they would simply bob around pointlessly for a while before diffusing all around the shore bordering their garden in an embarrassing cascade of filth.

Inside their cosy house, Stem was indeed eating her dinner, although she wasn’t smiling and laughing. Their mother, considerate by nature, had foreseen the length of Cap’s task by preparing an evening meal that would be just as enjoyable cold as it had been when hot. Which was to say, barely enjoyable whatsoever, at least in Stem’s book.

She sulkily pushed a pile of bland mushrooms around on her plate. The motion was not unlike Cap’s morose, enervated sweeping.

“Don’t play with your food, dear.” Said Stem’s mother. She had long since cleaned her own plate, knife and fork pushed neatly together on the bare, juice-stained porcelain. She had been staring out of the window for some time, watching her son at his task. She hadn’t even turned around to see her daughter’s miserable display of obstinance. The obnoxious scraping of the fork on the plate was enough to tell her what was happening.

Stem sighed. “Why do I have to suffer just because my stupid brother left his chores to the last minute?”

“Eating my cooking amounts to suffering?” The question was posed in what their mother had clearly intended to be a neutral tone, with a slight undertone of dramatic hurt. She was bad at concealing her amusement.

“No!” Stem nonetheless responded defensively. “It’s very good. Just not this… mush, or whatever it is.”

Her mother laughed a little, and turned to look at her. The woman’s large, dark eyes, devoid of any malice or guile, made it impossible for Stem to keep sulking.

“I’m sorry.” She said. “There’s cake for afters. But be a good girl and wait until your brother is finished, okay?”

Stem’s face brightened. “What kind of cake?”

Before her mother could answer, she’d bolted to her feet, shoving the chair back behind her. Due to the close quarters of their little kitchen, this simply resulted in it tilting its top half back against the wall at an angle, legs sticking dangerously out towards Stem’s ankles. She was already moving, aiming for a brisk little run to where she suspected the dessert may be hiding, and this tripped her up, sending her small body crashing to the floor face-down. Her fall was thankfully broken by a thick old rug, a plume of dust rising around her prone form.

This time, the laughter that rang out from their mother also rang out from Cap, who was standing in the newly-opened doorway, the bottoms of his trousers covered in dust and mulch.

“Shut up!” Stem shouted, pulling herself up into a sitting position, cross legged, dusting off her clothes.

“It wasn’t there anyway. I wouldn’t put it anywhere you could find it!” Said their mother, with a wink.

“Put what anywhere we could find what?” asked Cap, whose perfectly timed entry had deprived him of the earlier conversation.

“There’s CAKE!” Stem enthused. It was amazing how the promise of sweets could melt both pain and humiliation in a moment.

“There’s CAKE??” Cap echoed, momentarily united with his sister in heart and mind, bonded by the prospect of eating something soft, moist, and spongy.

“There is.” His mother nodded. “After you’ve finished your dinner. You need your strength after all that work, after all.”

His grin slowly fell into a disappointed, morose frown as he finally noticed the full plate of bland, white, cold plant matter, laid expectantly with knife and fork on either side. His sister’s knowing, pitying glance caught his eye.

Cap took his place at the table, resigned to his fate. Stem seemed content to remain seated on the rug for now, delaying the inevitable.

It was soft, moist, and spongy. But it was bloody awful.

“Can we get a new one now?” Cap asked between labourious mouthfuls. “The sty’s clean. Please?”

For just a moment, there was something sad in his mother’s soft, brown eyes. The warmth never went away, even then. She smiled, nodding her head. “You’ve been a good boy,” she reassured him. “We can get a new one.”

The prospect of cake had aroused the siblings to raucous enthusiasm, but the prospect of a new pet elicited a contented sigh of relief. They’d always miss Clod, they knew, but it just didn’t feel like home with the sty outside sitting empty and bleak.

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