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Sister and Brother

David Payne

In the North of the Black Forest an aged man was living in a cabin with his two infant children: a boy and a girl, whose mother had died shortly after their births. The old man mourned for his wife deeply and sadly waited out most nights on his porch where he whittled and smoked -- his son and daughter inside. He avoided his children almost completely because of the pain it caused to see their innocent eyes look at him as their mother's once had. He also refused to teach them, for he'd had a tired and melancholy life, and decided that educating them to his ways would only ensure that they too live out unhappy lives.

           At the bend of the first winter since his wife's death, a heavy snow fell, forcing the old man to remain indoors and keep the windows shuttered. At this time he had grown somewhat accustomed to his loneliness and wife's passing, and decided it was necessary to resume his life and keep company with his children. After winter went, after the man had whittled many a block, and smoked many a pipe, on a whim, and for no thought out reason, he picked up his daughter for the first time. He laid her in his lap where she wiggled and looked about the room, then he grew a little uncomfortable and placed her back in the cradle. She then cried a little, which made him think that perhaps she wanted something -- perhaps she was less than content to just remain lying there as she had for her entire life, wiggling and looking about. This thought soon passed but the man came back to it a day later when his baby boy began to whimper.

           I know that these children could never want a life like I have had,the man thought to himself, but maybe they would like to chance to grow up and have experiences of some kind or another.

           After pondering this for many days, the old man decided to teach the children a lesson; and so he taught them envy. He welled up all of the jealousy he felt for the world, and demonstrated this emotion to his children. And the next day they acknowledged him when he was eating a bowl of milk and barley. He had barely finished half of it before the children crawled upon him and seized the bowl. This success entertained the father and he delighted in watching the children overtake his dinner with such avarice. But something disturbed him about the way the brother and sister would just lie there motionless after devouring their father's food. Once the dregs of the bowl had been licked, the babies would flop to their backs and look about the room silently. This especially annoyed the father so he made sure to eat a dozen times a day to keep the children active.

           A rather warm afternoon, the following summer, the man looked at himself and to his children, then back at himself, and realized that he had grown quite gaunt, while they had grown pretty fat. The man mused on this for several weeks and came to the conclusion that the education of his children was not complete; he decided to teach them further, and so he taught them guilt. He gathered together all of the feelings of guilt he kept in his tired, sad body and demonstrated this emotion to his children. The next day he acknowledged that after fighting with him and each other over his breakfast, rather than roll back and lie motionless, the children would contort their faces with displeasure and crawl off to the cupboards to hide. This allowed the father a deserved amount of time to eat his own meals without the aggravation of the little thieves. Sometimes they would remain in the cupboards, silently, for days.

           But sure enough, just when the man begun to forget that he was a father; when he would sit down to eat in solitude, the little tikes would leap out of the cupboards and lunge upon the table of food. They would battle each other and bite at the old man's protesting fingers until every crumb was gone. Then they would look up at each other, and down at the empty plates and retreat in a whimper to their cupboards as quickly as they left them.

           This condition worsened and after no more than a year, the children, now gaunt, were scarcely seen by the old man. He would spend weeks at a time leaning back in an old chair, rubbing and pulling at the hairs of his enlarged belly and eating course after course, with no reminder of the children except their guilt ridden whimpers resounding from the woodwork. It didn't take long before the man began to regret the lessons he had taught the children. He was tired of living in solitude.

           The following spring he took the time to teach them more. And he taught them curiosity. He reflected on all of the curiosity he had ever known and made up a song to describe its virtues. And this he sang loud and in earnest. After some time, he noticed little fingers sticking out from the cupboard doors, and little noses too. The man waited patiently to see if his efforts were successful. After a few hours of this, the children sprang from their hiding places and ran about the cabin, exploring corners and crevices they had never looked upon before.

           They did not look to their father even once. They were too busy playing in the flour, climbing on the hearth, and wrapping up the furniture in bed sheets and yarn. The old man was very proud.

           'Such creative, wonderfully inventive children I have. He thought, and retired to his chair to smoke.

           It was while he was smoking happily in his chair that he noticed the children had managed to pry open the window and escape into the yard. At first he was pleased because they had not really spent any time in the wooded areas around the cabin; actually, he couldn't remember a time when he had taken them outside at all. So in his curiosity, he went to the door to watch their behavior. It was the end of the sixth winter since his wife had died and the snow had completely melted. A nice vernal wind came through the door as he opened it. Upon looking outside, the man's feelings of pleasure left as he found that his children were no where in sight. He walked out into the yard a few steps but retreated in when he found that the ground was colder than it appeared. His stocking feet were damp and he stepped profusely and cursed to warm them. He then reproached himself for teaching children so young about curiosity.

           "A rather dangerous ailment it is to be curious," he concluded, and began immediately to plan a new lesson to teach them.

           He thought long and seriously to ensure that he would not worsen his children's characters. He changed his socks, and lit another pipe, and continued thinking. He cared deeply for his children and reprovingly spoke against his ability to save them from the troubled life he had lived. To give them an education that would ensure their happiness would mean he would have to have a key to the pulse of happiness himself. This thought troubled him for some time.

           It was in a dream, many nights later that he decided what he should do. He rose immediately from bed, put on his robe, and devised a song that he would sing into the open air. It was a song to teach them shame. The old man wrote on a tablet while drinking a beer and eating broth. By dawn, he had the words he would give to his young ones. Opening the door let in the sad bluish light of dawn and the old man perched forward and began to sing. To no avail he offered the story of shame to the morning -- to the wood, until his words grew more firm and deeper.

           It was after an hour of his hoarse and virile crooning that he saw the tops of his children's little blond heads approaching from the tree line. They were hunched over, watching the ground as they came for the cabin. The man stopped singing and stood akimbo, erect and proud, as his children came to his feet and clutched his legs in tired, rueful whimpers. The boy held his fathers left leg firm and let his body drag as his father retreated into the cabin. The boy's sister held the man by his right leg; both were silent, neither looked up. Standing in the smoky cabin that smelled of cedar and leather, the old father patted his daughter's blonde head and stroked his son's pale neck. He was quite glad at what he had done. He had taught them to go out into the world and to return again. He had taught them well what they needed to know to live long, and strong, and happy. And with a languid smile, the man tapped the ash from his pipe and took to slumber in his chair.

           When he awoke, it was well into evening. His young ones were still clutched to his legs as they had been when he fell asleep. They were not sleeping though, and he wondered if they had. His daughter was chewing on her lip and rubbing her ear against her shoulder as she stared sadly at the floor. Her brother appeared as though he was going to cry but remained faithfully caressing his father's leg all the while.

           These great loyal creatures, the father thought, lighting a pipe, Why should they look so sad? I have given them envy, which allows them to desire life; I have given them guilt, which keeps them from abusing others with such desires. I have given them curiosity, which lets life continually unfold with perennial interest and allure; and I have taught them shame, which keeps their curiosity from developing into destructive and wanton lust. What more do I need to give them so they can be happy?

           This thought the man shrugged off for a time. He finished his pipe and ate a little; he drank beer and he whittled -- then he thought, This cannot go on much longer; my legs are beginning to hurt; I'm sure I have red marks from their little fingernails -- come on!

           The man pried his daughter from his thigh and patted her bottom to send her away, but she just collapsed in tears.

           I have to educate these children -- I will teach them to have pride

           And with this decision, the father welled up all of the pride that was in his aged body and demonstrated this emotion to his children. And it was almost immediately that the young ones drew off and walked to the corner of the small cabin smiling and pleased. The daughter sat on a small rug and sang to herself. Her brother found some wooden blocks and began to play -- happily throwing them at the wall and the hearth. So pleased were the children and so pleased was the father who sat watching the success of his lesson.

           Now my children have the world, and they have themselves -- and I can say that I have done my job

           The old man looked again at his happy children and fell peacefully to sleep.

           The weather had warmed up again and the old man delighted in spending his evenings on the porch, whittling and smoking. It was an idyllic late spring and the perfect time, for the mosquitoes had not yet hatched. Cedar smoke billowed from the chimney and the young children played happily indoors. Occasionally he would beckon the young ones to accompany him on the porch in the early evenings but they preferred to stay on the little rug or on the hearth, keeping themselves amused. Regardless, the man was in good spirits; he had the summer awaiting; he had a nice home; and he had two content and intelligent children.

           Thus the summer passed. The old man watched the rhododendron buds bloom and wither, dry and fall on the berm beside his porch. The children grew quickly and their healthy bodies began to take the shape of adolescents. The boy's voice deepened and his awkward limbs sprouted hair. The girl's breasts were forming and her father noticed that she began to display the playful and sexual nature of a young woman.

           When winter came, the father again resorted to spending his evenings in the cabin. So delighted he would have been to do so if his children remained at his side, playing and laughing beside a blaze in the hearth. But after the first snow, the children ventured into the woods, and despite their father's warnings, stayed out till very late into the night. So in worry, the old man tarried through each day wondering when the children would return and how he could entreat them to spend theirs at his side as they had for their entire lives. The man realized that it would be impossible to restrict them from leaving him, as they would neither look at him nor speak to him.

           This pride I had taught them long ago is a burden that I will carry and a vice that will certainly lead them to ruin.

           A damp wind came through a crack in the old cabin one morning the following spring as the man spoke to himself, looking to the tree line, awaiting their return. Another season was spent smoking and lamenting in his chair, and the old man was growing lonely to the point of despair. One afternoon in August, the man whittling on the porch was surprised to hear his children enter the cabin. They had not been home for days and he had begun to think the worst. In hope he stood at the doorway, seeking acknowledgment from the lad who stood across from him looking on after his sister. The man then looked to his daughter who leaned over the counter in the kitchen, pouring fresh water into a jar. She was wearing a summer dress that he had not seen; her form was graceful and her now developed body stood so feminine, her eyes cast softly downward upon the cascading water flowing from the bottle against her breast -- for the first time, he saw her as a woman.

           The old man looked again to his son and back to his daughter. Emotions fluttered despairingly upon him and the moment became crucial. The girl finished pouring, and turned to her brother to leave with him.

           "The pride I have taught them long ago is a burden that I will carry no more."

           The old man raised his voice to them with the decision to teach his children more. And without hesitance or further thought he began to speak to them of compassion. His words came quick and in earnest, and the two children stopped at the door where they listened in silence. The father offered his children everything he had come to know of compassion and with his trembling words, the children turned and looked into his eyes for the first time. He did not approach them. They came to him; and he cried freely. The daughter set the jar of water down and stood beside the son who caressed his father's hand. When the old man had finished speaking, when his honest words had ceased and the tears gleamed in his eyes, his children knew all about compassion.

           And while his son, from the table took, his father's whittling knife, and pushed it deep into the man's stomach, the daughter covered her brother's eyes, so he would not have to watch his father die.

© 1999 David Payne, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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