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Fantasy Bedtime Kids

TW: abuse

Aidan didn’t know why he was beaten. He just was. 

Although he did get better at dodging his uncle’s sharp blows and his aunt’s resounding slaps, they seemed to rain down on him like an Irish summer storm. Their scads of children would laugh to see such a sight, pointing at him because he was dirty or his tunic torn. Not hard to tear a tunic in the potato fields, where brambles and thorns seem to seek out his thin legs and inflame the crusty sores on his shins with malevolent intent. 

It was far harder not to eat the potatoes he dug, knowing that would have earned himself another beating. To Aidan, it always seemed like he was hungry or lost in thought. It had been years since Aidan’s parents had been lost. Along with them, his former life of love, compassion and understanding had been replaced by one of indifference, apathy, and scorn. 

At a time when a young boy needed encouragement and guidance, Aidan was left to himself. When he wasn’t being forced to harvest food he wasn’t allowed to eat, he would steal away to the wood where the hustle and bustle of animals going about their business would calm his troubled heart. He especially loved to sit and watch the squirrels play, scurrying up trees and watching everything happening all throughout the wood.

On an early summer day when the earth seemed full of promise, Aidan left the hovel of his Aunt and Uncle’s and stole away to the wood. The loam was rich and sun-warmed under his feet. He loved skipping over the soft moss and picking up cool smooth rocks which seemed to greet him. He drank from a spring and found a fertile blueberry bush, gathering a generous harvest. A black walnut tree offered him a bounty for his feast, which he ate as he gloried in the speckled sunshine and the quiet. 

For a moment, Aidan found a bit of peace in the world.   

“Aidan,” a soft voice said. “I need your help.”

There are few things more disconcerting than being alone in a wood and hearing a disembodied voice. Especially when the voice knows your name. Maybe it was his innate goodness or maybe it was just because of his youth, but Aidan immediately responded.

 “I’d be happy to help in any way I can,” he said earnestly. “What can I do for you?”  

No sooner had the words left his mouth when Aidan was overcome by a feeling of ridiculousness. There was no one there but a small red squirrel, and Aidan knew squirrels could not talk. But in Ireland, things were not always so settled. 

“I’m down here,” said the red squirrel, flicking its tail. 

“Oh,” Aidan said, crouching down to its level. “What is your name?”

“I’m Ratatoskr, but you can call me Drill-tooth.” The red squirrel politely offered its paw, which Aidan dutifully shook. 

“I would like to help you, Drill-tooth.” 

“Then help me you will. I am to take the terrible things of the world from the eagle atop of The World Tree to the serpent under its root. I have seen you dig potatoes in your Uncle’s field. I need your help to dig for the serpent.”

“Is the serpent terrifying?” asked Aidan.

“The serpent is not terrifying. He only holds that which is most dear to us.” 

“I don’t understand,” Aidan said.

“You will. Come along,” said Drill-tooth, as he led Aidan to the base of a very old, very large tree. Around the base of The World Tree were very tiny claw marks that Aidan instantly recognized as the work of his new friend. 

It became quite clear why Drill-tooth needed Aidan. If the tiny squirrel were to be forced to dig alone, it would take more than one hundred years to reach that which was most dear. Aidan wasn’t sure why he had run into the squirrel or why the squirrel could talk, but he was thrilled to finally be using his skill as a digger. 

It never occurred to him as he set about digging that there might be a reward for him at the end of fulfilling the squirrel’s request. Pure of heart, Aidan simply felt akin to his fellow creature, happy to be of service. 

“I think I’ve found something,” Aidan said, as his spade hit something under The World Tree. “It’s metal.”

“Oh, that is indeed the serpent’s lair. Don’t knock on it yet, as I need to retrieve the terrible things of the world,” Drill-tooth sighed. 

“I can get them for you,” Aidan suggested. 

The squirrel gave a long look, appraising the young boy. 

“The terrible things of the world are at the top of this tree,” he said. “The World Tree is high, its branches are crooked, and the eagle jealousy keeps them in his possession. Do you think you can climb this tree, where the east winds will blow and the eagle may peck your hands?” 

“You said you needed my help, so I will try my best.” 

“Thank you, Aidan,” said the squirrel. “But do not look into the terrible things of the world. You must promise.”

“I promise,” Aidan said, meaning it with his whole heart. And with that, Aidan scurried up the tree, clinging limb to limb, as effortlessly as any squirrel. 

For a boy who had spent most of the last few years in bitter servitude, Aidan found the freedom of leaving the earth exhilarating. He was not the eagle and he could not fly, but he felt weightless just the same. 

Nearing the top of The World Tree, it occurred to Aidan that Drill-tooth had told him precious little about the terrible things of the world. He chuckled as he thought to himself that it must be his Aunt and Uncle waiting for him at the top of the tree. At the crest and with the ability to see more of the world than he ever thought possible, Aidan knew he couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Neatly tied in brown burlap and laying in the eagle’s nest, the terrible things of the world seemed ready to be taken down to the serpent. As Aidan gripped the bag and prepared to descend, sharp talons suddenly appeared, followed by an ear-splitting cry. 

Aidan feinted just in time to avoid the eagle’s deadly claws and quickly ducked to avoid its sharp beak. His time with his Aunt and Uncle had trained his reflexes well. Come to think of it, digging in his Uncle’s fields made him strong and hearty, so much so that Aidan’s climbing The World Tree was as easy as talking to a squirrel. 

As the eagle screamed his disappointment and flew away, Aidan adroitly clamoured down the maze of limbs, down to the ground where his concerned friend waited. 

“Did you look in the bag?” Drill-tooth asked.

“You told me not to,” Aidan said, puzzled. 

“You are a good lad,” the squirrel replied and took the bag. “It’s time to awaken the serpent. Are you ready?” 

“I am,” said Aidan, with more courage than he felt. He remembered the ancient Greeks told the story of Pandora, a girl entrusted with a box which held all the terrible things of the world. But, this was just a myth, for all the evils of the world stem from one only source which currently resided in the burlap bag that Aidan held.

“Don’t open the bag until it is time,” the squirrel warned.

“I won’t,” Aidan replied, wondering how he would know when the right time was. 

What Aidan also didn’t know was that Drill-tooth had been searching his whole life for the one who was selfless enough to be able to use the source to kill the snake. Aidan was the right boy and now was the right time. 

“Take your spade and knock it loudly against the serpent’s door,” Drill-tooth ordered. 

Aidan did as he was asked. 

“Louder!” the squirrel instructed.

Aidan used all his might and made a noisy clamor as metal spade hit metal door.

“Who disturbs the serpent’s rest?” came a very old voice. A very big reptile slowly slithered through the metal door. The serpent was twice as thick and three times as long as Aidan, who stood shaking, holding the small burlap bag.

“I am Aidan. I have the terrible things of the world for the serpent under the root of The World Tree.”

“Yes,” the serpent hissed. “I see you, Aidan of the Wood. What is in your small bag?”

“I do not know. Drill-tooth told me not to look.”

“Drill-tooth? You mean Ratatoskr,” the serpent explained. “We are old friends. Look in the bag.”

“Drill-tooth told me not to look,” Aidan said firmly. 

“Look in the bag,” demanded the serpent.

“I will not,” Aidan replied.

The serpent coiled around Aidan, squeezing his ribs harder and harder.

Resisting with all of his strength and with the knowledge of the importance of his quest, Aidan freed himself from the grasp of the serpent. 

It was at that precise moment he understood why he was chosen to defeat the serpent and rid the world of its terrible things. He instantly realized he was guilty of ingratitude. It was the hard life imposed on him that gave him the skill to dig, the dexterity to climb, and the strength to free himself from the serpent. 

At that thought, he was flooded with gratitude, not for his mistreatment, but for the opportunity of becoming better and stronger as a result. Aidan thought how ingratitude comprised all the terrible things of the world, as all of them could be remedied by a grateful heart. 

Drill-tooth smiled, as only squirrels can smile, knowing instinctively Aidan was now not only pure of heart, but also now sound of mind and calm of spirit. 

“Open the bag now!” the squirrel shouted. “Open the bag, but avert your eyes!”

Aidan closed his eyes tightly, opening the bag as the squirrel directed. A cold rush of east wind howled, as a chaotic whirlwind ascended from the deepest recesses of the burlap bag, writhing and screaming as it went. 

Soon, Aidan fell to the ground, struggling to catch his breath. 

“Open your eyes now,” Drill-tooth said, in a too familiar voice. To Aidan’s wonder and amazement, the World Tree, the eagle, and the serpent were all gone. 

Even Drill-tooth was gone. In his place stood his long lost father and mother. 

There were so many questions flooding Aidan’s mind, but they were all lost in his desire to hug his parents and to know they were real. The tears that streamed down his mother’s face onto his shoulders and the strong embrace of his father was all the proof he needed. 

While still in his parents’ arms, Aidan looked to the wood and whispered his thanks, for the experience of the terrible things of the world and the joy for the most wonderful. 

Aidan never saw Drill-tooth again, and he never again spoke with any other woodland creatures. But the lessons he learned from his short friendship were not lost on him. 

And the story "Aidan in the Wood" was told and retold from generation to generation around fires and at family gatherings, especially by mothers and fathers who gratefully tucked much beloved children into their warm beds.

 

 

March 24, 2021 19:13

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2 comments

Deidra Lovegren
19:20 Mar 24, 2021

This is so lovely. I would read this to my sons if they were still little. I am grateful for wonderful writers that write stories to make us feel less alone.

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20:15 Mar 24, 2021

How sweet you are. I can honestly say I write for people like you. It's a way to share and feel connected. Thanks so much. You are truly the best.

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