by Nora Boydston
(Inspired by a strange little fragment from Grimm, Nora Boydston’s “He Knew” plumbs the deep forest of European fairy tales to reveal an unsettling parable of love, loss, and what the modern reader may identify as abuse.
Regarding his striking image of the rose-bearing changeling, Fabulist house artist Adam Myers notes: “I’ve been re-reading all my old Sandman comics, so I think some of Dave McKean’s great cover art from that era may have seeped into my head. Ironically, the rose I used for the picture was from my mom’s Mother’s Day bouquet.” — Editor.)
The boy knew. Ever since he was very young, he knew.
He lived with his mother in a tiny house on the edge of a great forest. His father had gone away a long time ago to work in the town. At first his father had sent letters and a little money when he could. Soon the letters stopped, though, and then the money too. He never came back.
At night, his mother would hold him and cry in a quavering voice that made the little boy feel weak and queasy. As soon as she had cried herself to sleep, the boy would wriggle out of her clinging grasp and curl up on the floor. It was hard and uncomfortable, but it hurt him more to be in her arms, because he knew, and this is how it was every night.
Every morning she would wake, and when she realized that he was not there she would panic. She found him as always, curled up on the floor next to the bed, and she would be angry. Because she knew she was smothering him. Because the little boy was all she had left.
She would get up and shove him awake with her foot.
Every day she sent the boy out into the forest to gather wood. He could have collected enough from the edge of the forest and come home quickly, but instead he took long walks. He loved to walk, to feel the moss beneath his feet, the bark on his fingertips, to hear the birds calling from the treetops.
Most of all he loved to be alone in the teeming damp of the forest. He could not suffer being shut up in that little house with his mother.
It would be nearly dark when he’d come home, and his mother would ask what had kept him so long.
“What did you see? Did you meet anyone in the woods, my son?”
Even though the boy knew that his mother wanted him to, he would not tell her about the forest. He said that he had seen nothing, met no one. Which was true. His long walks were utterly solitary; he never encountered anyone. Every day was the same, nothing ever changed.
The boy knew what would happen then. His mother would become sad, and begin her nightly ritual.
She would turn away from the boy, undress and stand silhouetted against the dying light of the fire. Then he would look away. Long ago he’d grown tired of this. Still, she would wait until she was too cold and then she would slowly put on her nightgown and take his hand. She would undress her son and he would stand before his mother. She would look at him, but still he would look away.
Tired and cold, the boy would ask for his nightgown and she would give it to him, and watch as he slipped it over his head.
She looked at him that way every night to see how much he had grown, how much he had changed, in order to measure in her mind how much further he had moved away from her. Then she would pull her son close and hold him tightly against her body.
She would carry her son to their bed and lie down with him in her arms. He felt cold and distant, his face turned away from her, his eyes closed. She would hold his body against hers and try to warm him to her, but he remained cold. She would begin to cry then, softly at first until she could no longer hold back. As she cried her whole body would shake, and the boy’s teeth would clatter together in his mouth. When she could cry no more, she would fall asleep.
One day the boy walked further than he had ever gone before, and he realized he did not know where he was. He became worried and decided to turn back.
The sky above was beginning to darken when he saw a little girl standing in a clearing.
At her feet was a large pile of wood, bound together with a fallen vine. The little girl smiled softly and stared at the boy. Without a word she hoisted the bundle of wood onto her back and began walking through the forest.
The boy followed after her. Darkness fell rapidly, but the little girl kept on walking faster and he could not keep up.
Before he knew it he had arrived back at his home, but the little girl was nowhere to be seen. The bundle of wood was sitting on the doorstep.
The boy went inside and sat down at the table where his mother had set out their usual dinner. She asked what had taken him so long.
“What did you see? Did you meet anyone in the woods, my son?”
For once, the boy needed to talk, but when he tried he found he did not know what to say. He tried to tell her, tell her that he knew, that he had always known. But he could not find the words.
Instead, he told his mother that he had met a strange little girl in the forest, and that she had helped him carry the wood home and then disappeared.
His mother was surprised. He had never spoken so plainly before. She thought: he must be lying. He must be hiding something. They finished their meal in silence and went to bed, the same as always, except the mother looked at her son even more sadly.
The next day the boy walked more slowly than usual. In the same place as before, deep in the forest, he found the little girl. In her hand she held out a blood-red rose, a type of flower that did not grow in that area.
He did not want to take it, but he knew he must.
When his mother saw him coming with the flower, she was overcome with love. Her son had never brought her a flower before.
“Where did you find such a beautiful flower, my child?”
The little boy looked closely at the rose. Its soft velvet petals were tightly pursed together.
“The little girl I met in the woods gave it to me,” he said. “When the rose is in full blossom she will come again.”
His mother did not understand, but placed the rose in a jar of water on the windowsill and joined her son for dinner. He would not look at her, only at his hands folded on the table before him.
She was hungry, but she could not eat. Instead she lay down in bed and began to cry.
The boy was sorry. He tucked himself into her arms to comfort her.
In the morning he set out into the forest the same as always, gathering wood as he went, but he did not see the little girl. When he came home in the evening, the rose had already started to bloom, the petals gently loosening.
The mother awoke with a start, as she did every day. She nudged the boy with her foot to wake him and went to the fireplace to rekindle the coals from the night before.
The boy did not get up.
She called to him and still he did not respond, so she went and shook him by the shoulders. His body was stiff and cold.
At that moment she remembered what he had said and looked at the rose in its jar of water on the windowsill. Sure enough, it was in full bloom; the velvet petals had opened fully into a sensual, red blossom.
Before she even had a chance to cry out, she heard a creak on the doorstep.
[Inspired by “The Rose,” by the Brothers Grimm.]
Nora Boydston is the founder of Cartwheels For Justice and the Prose Editor of LIT magazine. She received her MFA in Fiction from the New School.