“Layke, pass the salt, would you?”
Layke looked up, seeing a woman looking at him. “Yes, of course ma’am.”
The salt was passed and all seemed peaceful until Layke’s sister said something.
“How long did it take you to chop the firewood?”
“Five hours,” Layke responded without thinking, quickly adding up the time he had been at the meadow and the time he had spent actually chopping the wood. His sister’s nose crinkled.
“Five hours? Are you sure? That’s a mighty long time to be spending chopping firewood.”
Layke almost slapped himself. How could he have been so stupid? “Well, I chopped some in the afternoon, then some in the evening.” He tried to stick as close to the truth as possible.
This time it was his mother’s turn to look confused. “But, Layke, I didn’t see you outside at all during the afternoon.”
Layke feigned surprise. “You didn’t?”
His mother nodded. “I didn’t. In fact, I looked everywhere for you. My friend wanted to know where you had gotten the tea from, but you were nowhere to be found.”
“I must’ve been partially hidden, then,” Layke said, waving it away as if it were nothing of importance.
“Layke,” his mother stared at him, her blue eyes grinding into his brown ones. “I don’t think you were chopping wood at all.”
Layke bit his lip, bringing blood. He still played innocent, though. “Whyever not?”
“I looked everywhere for you. You weren’t in the house, nor outside. I had thought you had run away. You weren’t chopping firewood.”
Layke said nothing, and the silence seemed to stretch on forever.
“Pass the pepper,” his father said, breaking it. He reached his hand across the table, bringing a gasp at his unsightly manners, and Layke put the pepper in his hand. “I’ll just go and refill it.” He left before anyone could see that it was full already.
“Your husband’s manners are very poor,” one of the women tittered to Layke’s mother. She sighed, looking down into her lap.
“I’ve tried time and time again to refine him, but he just won’t take up the ways of a gentleman.”
“That’s ok, Mrs Tramears.” A lady dressed in a patterned garment patted Layke’s mother’s arm reassuringly. “He might change as the years go on, eh? Keep hope. At least he’s a good househusband.”
Layke’s mother nodded. “He’s not the best, but he’ll do until I find another one.”
Layke stared at his mother. Surely she wasn’t implying that she’d marry another man? A woman could lawfully have three husbands at a time.
“You’ll just have to hope that he lasts,” the patterned-dress woman said.
“I am,” Layke’s mother said, then went back to her meal. Layke was glad for his father’s interruption, for it seemed that the interruption had gotten them distracted off the topic of his whereabouts. Unfortunately, it was not to be so.
“So, Layke,” his sister struck up the conversation again. “Where were you today?”
“Doing housework about the house,” Layke answered casually.
“Not in the afternoon, you weren’t.”
Not this again, Layke thought, desperately trying to get out of the situation. “No, you’re right. This afternoon I was outside the house.”
“And what exactly were you doing?” his sister asked. She’s smarter than I thought, Layke thought.
His mother’s eyes watched him like a hawk watches its prey. Waiting to for him to say something which condemned himself. He wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of that.
“Work to benefit the house,” he said, trying to be vague. The answer seemed to satisfy his mother’s friends, but it didn’t seem to satisfy his mother and sister.
“Like?” his sister pressed.
“Ok, ok,” Layke said, as if admitting something. “I wasn’t, I admit. I was collecting herbs.”
“Herbs? We have more than enough already,” his mother criticised. “I doubt that that was what you were doing.”
“I have a feeling that my earlier comment about you playing with your friends was closer to the truth than what you just said,” Layke’s sister said.
Layke swallowed nervously. They were getting too close for comfort. “Playing with my friends?”
There was another long stretch of silence during which his mother stared at him.
“Face it. You were in the meadow, weren’t you?” his mother finally said. Layke started shaking his head frantically, before realising it was no use. They knew. Better to play the guilty child act. He hung his head.
“Sorry mother, sister. I didn’t mean to let you down like that,” he murmured, trying to tear up his eyes.
“Head up, boy, and look me in the eye.”
Layke raised his head to look at his mother. He was shaking.
“Apologise for going away to play with your friends, you useless brat.” His mother’s voice was cold and hard.
“But I wasn’t playing, mother. I was just --”
Layke stopped talking. His mother stared at him, fury barely concealed.
“You dare to talk back to me like that one more time, and I’ll...”
“But mother, I wasn’t playing. I was trying to find --”
Layke felt a sharp blow to the side of his face. He felt the breath suck out of him, and he stared at his mother. He gingerly felt his face, and it stung. There was something liquidy there. Something that came away red. The shock made him dizzy.
One of the ladies sitting next to his mother rushed up to Layke, clucking to him. Layke didn’t listen; it was all a swirl of meaningless words to him.
All those words … all the sound … all those people...
“Mrs Tramears, control yourself! What have you done to your child? He’s bleeding!”
So that’s what it was, Layke thought vaguely. The throbbing in his head increased, and things blurred together.
“He’s an insolent thing, and deserves to be slapped like that.” His mother’s voice remained cold. The woman scolded his mother, but he didn’t hear any of the words.
“I hate you,” he whispered under his breath, then he passed out.