Aster’s father was in a box in the root cellar. He’d only been contained in there for four days, but Aster knew that he would never come out. When the bandits demanded dinner and he descended the ladder into the cellar to gather potatoes, his nose was slammed with the sickly smell emanating from the wooden box. He fumbled in the darkness for the tubers fearfully before hastily returning back to the upper level, goosebumps covering his body.
Not that things were better up there. Frail Aster, always too weak to work in the fields, had been dubbed by the bandits as the “boy-wife.”
“Boy-Wife, fetch me my pipe,” the bandit with the overly groomed face and the small dick drawled lazily the moment Aster’s head popped out from the trapdoor. Aster complied meekly, lest he risk the sting of the whip or a brutal raping. He often found himself on the receiving end of those regardless of how well he obeyed.
He brought the groomed bandit the pipe, his father’s pipe. The one perched between his teeth while he read bedtime stories, but also while he smirked after cruelly dismembering Aster’s self-esteem and character with his axe-words. He knew how to find the weak spots, the chinks in the armor, and drove in his blade there. And if Aster feebly attempted a rebuttal, an argument would ensue. He had no way of knowing what his volatile father would do in his anger, so he merely stayed silent as his father jabbed him.
“Boy-Wife, where’s the food?” growled the bandit with the scruffy, scarred face and the massive dick.
“I’m working on it,” Aster replied timidly, tipping the cubed potatoes into the pan. His little sister was fussing from where she was sitting at his feet, so he nervously began to try and calm her. “It’s alright, it’s alright, shh…” He didn’t want the bandits to do anything to her. If only their mother was there, she was so much better than him at caring for his sister. But she was under the ground in the forest, hands too decayed to soothe any baby now.
Aster made a well in the fried potatoes and cracked eggs into it. As he did so, he got a flashback to when his father ordered him to make him eggs, only to complain of their coldness when he didn’t come to eat them in time. Aster would never forget his smug, mocking face as he made a show of dumping the eggs on the floor for their eager dog. If the bandits were displeased, Aster’s punishment would be far worse than that.
Aster remembered how much that incident had caused resentment towards his father, how much it’d made his heart wrench and twist. But now, there was also guilt there. Maybe it had been his fault, right? Maybe he should have forgiven his father for all the time that he’d screamed at him, called him names, teased him mercilessly. Not as smart as his father, so how dare he suggest anything. Too feminine, too weak, too chubby; it continued long after Aster had hid his hair under a scarf even inside and ate a fraction of what he had before until he could see his ribs.
Aster dished up an egg and some of the potatoes onto a wooden plate after seasoning them.
How many nights had Aster prayed that his illness would go away so that he could be a better person in his father’s eyes? Pinched the flesh of his flimsy arms until they bled?
And most regretful of all..
How many times did his father go to town and Aster wished, deep within the shadowy recesses of his soul, that he wouldn’t come back home again? How horrible that seemed now that his father was in that box in the cellar, the one that was only four feet long even though his father was six feet tall.
“You cooked the eggs too long,” the scruffy bandit said with a smile, then Aster had the wind knocked out of him and felt the straw-covered, packed-dirt floor hard on his knees and palms. He laid there, not daring to get back up, and watched as the bandit scarfed down the food anyways. When he was done, he yanked Aster up by the hair.
“Smile, love,” he said, and Aster had a very close view of his rotten teeth and the pieces of yolk stuck to his scraggly half-beard, glistening in the flickering candlelight. He forced the corners of his mouth to lift, and it quickly turned to a grimace as the bandit laughed and his rank, hot breath washed over him. “You’re so sensitive, just like a woman,” he mused, and Aster didn’t reply as he avoided eye contact. His hungry sister released a pitiful cry. “Shut that thing up, Boy-Wife, before I do it for you.”
Aster crawled over to her, clutching his bruising belly. He scooped her up in his arms to rock her and tried to gather up his thoughts enough to mentally calculate how much longer winter would last, how long before the snow would melt. He wasn’t quite sure… It felt like since the bandits had arrived, the season had dragged on for years and years at a snail-pace. Hopefully, it would all be over soon and his brother would come back from the other side of the mountains. He could drive away the bandits, make sure they never, ever returned. Aster was too sick to do it himself, and he knew he would be overpowered easily. He didn’t want them to kill his sister to teach him a lesson.
He knew what a stab to the heart by a bandit’s knife looked like now and he refused to see it happen again; a fresh spurt of scarlet blood burst out of the chest with each pulse, slower and slower until it stopped entirely. The eyes were wide, the mouth too- the frame gradually relaxed and crumpled to the ground.
It was too abrupt, the opposite of how it had been with his mother. Aster remembered how his father had pointed his finger towards him at first for his mother’s disease. It soon became clear that her symptoms were not the same as Aster’s chronic condition. For months, she withered away like a corn husk. They buried her in the fall.
That was around when Aster’s brother had left to look for work. It felt like so long ago now- a distant, half-forgotten dream. Carrying all of these thoughts in his head, Aster gave the scraps left over from the bandits to his little sister. His stomach growled, but he had taken to only eating every other day. The food in the cellar was in desperate need of replenishment that it would only receive when spring-time came again. They hadn’t been prepared for two strangers to come and eat as much food as they desired without a care for rationing.
After the sun had lazily sunk below the horizon that night, Aster lied on his cot and stared up at the ceiling. His belly continued to protest against its emptiness, and he hoped it wasn’t loud enough to wake his sister who was curled up beside him.
Aster held up his stuffed toy so that the moonlight from the shuttered windows would illuminate the rabbit’s face, with its cleft lip and heart-nose. Emotion became swollen inside of him, and it leaked from his eyes when it overflowed. He remembered when his father had given him this cloth rabbit three harvest-festivals ago. It smiled at him with an innocence that Aster had lost, black bead-eyes glittering.
How could Aster’s father, who gave him not only this, but the very gift of life, be the same person who Aster had been too untrusting and frightened of to speak to? The man who used to make Aster special pancakes in the shape of animal faces, but also dumped Aster’s dinner on the floor for not making enough food? Aster’s regret pulsed painfully as he recalled sun-stained memories of his father towering over him like the grand figure he was back in those days, teaching him the names of all the little bugs and flowers, picking up and spinning him around, playing along with Aster’s silly games that neither of them were able to remember now.
Aster should have tried harder to mend their relationship, to make some sort of peace. It was too late now. Aster’s father was so close in a physical sense, but was now utterly unreachable. It didn’t feel real.
Aster squeezed his rabbit tightly, then unlatched his sister’s tiny arms from around his leg. He stood with determination and then tiptoed across the floor, past the snoring bandits and the scratched-up table. It still bore a dark bloodstain that looked like tar in the darkness, and the floor beside it had an even larger patch.
The trapdoor was a yard away now, its gleaming rings looming in the darkness. Aster fumbled for the candleholder, lit the stumpy wick. He took a deep, shaky breath and kneeled to grasp the handles of the trapdoor. The wood creaked as Aster lifted it up and shifted it to the side. The black pit gaped like the mouth of a snake, jaw unhinged. The odor coming from within was already nauseating, but Aster knew that he had to do this. Had to see.
His eyes were tearing up from the incredible stench, even worse than when he’d ventured down for dinner ingredients. He bravely pressed on, descending the rickety ladder awkwardly as he clutched the candle. In the distant past, he’d watched his father smooth the branches, cut them to size, and bind them together to make the ladder. How mystifying the process had seemed to little Aster.
Aster’s bare feet touched the hard earth; it was warmer down here than it was in the house. The tiny flame cast golden light onto the low ceiling and cramped walls, over the shelves that were nearly barren. The box was on the floor, and Aster covered his nose and mouth in a vain attempt to guard against the revolting smell. He took a step towards the box, then another.
Something wet touched Aster’s foot, and he froze. Heart racing and panic levels climbing, he slid his line of sight downwards to see trickles of fluids seeping from the box through its cracks. He followed the rivulets with his eyes to see it pass under the sole of his left foot. Disgust. Horror. Aster swiped his foot against the ground to try and wipe off the sticky substance, but the dirt only clung to it. Panting and stomach roiling, he squeezed his eyes shut.
When he’d pulled himself together enough to move again, Aster took care to avoid the wet patches of coagulated fluids. And then there he was, the box inches from him. It sat there, pinewood lid slightly ajar. Aster stretched out his pale, shaking hands and hooked his fingers under its edges. He placed the candle-holder on the ground. He strained and moved the unwieldy lid, then his grasp slipped and it fell to the floor.
What lay within the box was the single most putrid, most horrifying thing that Aster ever had and would lay his eyes upon.
There was his father, but not as Aster had known him. The familiar clothes were stretched taut over bloated, oozing flesh, save for the torn area on the upper left chest where maggots wriggled. The jaw hung slack, and the rotting eyes were sunk back into their sockets. The legs had been hacked off below the knee so that the body could fit in this box, and they were jammed in on the side, the skin a mottled greenish and ruptured.
Aster looked towards the obscured heavens and sobbed. How could this have happened? He blearily blinked away thick tears and when he glanced down he noticed ruffly bits of something attached to the defensive knife wounds on the body’s right arm. Fear leaping inside his veins, he leaned in to see mushrooms fastened to the decaying limb. Deadly ones.
Aster suddenly felt a change within himself. As it ebbed and flowed, it soothed him from foot to head. It was akin to the tide erasing lines drawn on the lakeshore.
What was there to be afraid of? It was just an empty corpse. It couldn’t hurt him. With delicate fingers, Aster closed his father’s limp eyelids. He gathered up the mushrooms and deposited them safely into his pocket.
With new-found strength, Aster picked up the lid and replaced it. Without a single glance back over his shoulder, Aster picked up the candle once more and snuffed it once he reached the ladder. He climbed up. Once he had pulled the trapdoor back over the entrance, he strode straight to the door and went outside.
The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon in the east, bathing Aster in pink and orange. He breathed in deeply, and the cold air felt so crisp, so cleansing in his lungs. It permeated his thin nightgown, refreshing and freeing as it touched his skin.
The snow was beginning to thaw, and patches of the fertile soil were beginning to show. The ground would soften soon. Aster spotted a splash of purple. Once aware of it, he saw more of them, and then bits of yellow. Crocuses.
A cluster of white ones, still closed and budded, poked up through the snow near Aster’s feet. The sight of them sparked a flutter of hope in Aster’s chest, and he lifted his chin to look at the lightening sky.
He heard a stirring from within the house, and then,
“Boy-Wife, where’s breakfast?”
Aster patted his pocket to ensure that the mushrooms were still there, and they were.
“Coming!” he called, and smiled with genuine joy.