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Mothers and Son

by Charles C. Cole

While still a boy, Cecil recognized — and was confused — that he felt aloof to his mother, the woman who had raised him. He observed other children clinging affectionately to their parents, but he never felt similarly inclined and never glimpsed a twitch of the impulse from her.

He loved his mother, Tempest, but he couldn’t relax around her, perhaps because she was a hardened soldier, a commanding officer who rarely had anything gentle to say. The soldier was admirably brilliant as a combat tactician but, having lost her parents at a young age to disease and having seen many comrades die in war, she had, with foremost self-protection, ceased participating in intimate relationships.

Tempest was, however, proud of her remarkable intelligence and often teased the boy into challenging her, always knowing the most arcane facts, never panicking and never pausing to question her version of the truth. When Cecil came of age, a singularly mature 13 years, he suspected he had a riddle to stump her. Tempest never shied from a challenge.

“There is no such thing as an unanswerable question,” said Tempest. “If I can’t answer correctly, then you may have two wishes for anything you desire. On my word.” The soldier meant it, for she was honorable if nothing else.

“Very well,” said Cecil. “Why do I feel so little love for you?”

Tempest put up her nose as if, for a moment, she smelled something burning in the kitchen, then she guffawed with the long, forced boisterousness of someone caught off-guard, effectively postponing her answer.

“That’s easy,” said Tempest. “And here I thought you had ambushed me, my little guerilla. Simply, you have no love for me because you are not my son. I should have told you long ago, but I didn’t want to make it unnecessarily important. I did not give birth to you, in the classic sense. In fact, I abducted you as a baby from your mother. Part of you must remember and resent me.”

“You’re a terrible storyteller!” protested Cecil. “Who would give up her baby to a coldly calculating warrior with no natural skills in mothering?”

“Is that how you see me?” asked Tempest, catching her breath, grateful for the privacy of her war room.

“You’re a national hero,” said Cecil. “No one can take that away from you. But you’re also an infrequent visitor to our home. I can’t understand why you bother housing and feeding a child who contributes so little to the success of battles.”

“But you’re the reason I fight,” Tempest explained. “Your continued safety is my abiding motivation.”

“I’m sorry,” said Cecil, “but I find that doubtful.”

“Suppose I tell you a darker story,” said the soldier, “one of your humble beginnings.” She gestured Cecil to a tall stool near her wall of maps showing conflicting borders and troop movements.

“There once lived a very sad woman on the edge of our little village, with no relatives, no husband and no job. She was destitute. Her flame of life had withered. She was so poor and malnourished that she couldn’t care for her child. One day, exhausted by her daily struggle and profoundly saddened for the opportunities her infant son would never have and too proud to seek help, she stood quite deliberately on the edge of a tall bridge over the river that runs through town.”

“Maybe she wanted to be seen, to have someone stop her,” said Cecil.

“We’ll never know,” said Tempest, continuing. “A crowd gathered and blocked our way. Typically, we were in a hurry, as troops are. But we are also in the business of saving lives. I called to her. With one hand, she held the child tight against her breast, in a perverse imitation of motherhood: for she was about to jump and let the river decide both your fates. I approached, offering to take you, so that her last act would not follow her to the grave and doom her before her righteous neighbors.”

“You saved me?” asked Cecil.

“I’ve always been a soldier without the domestic luxuries of a husband and children. Our country — if you could have seen it — was too unstable for me to find myself in the vulnerable position of a prolonged pregnancy. Raising a toddler was a fanciful notion for me. I had servants and stability and could give you everything she couldn’t.

“But the frail woman, a victim of our times, saw me as a marauder and an opportunist. She jumped, perhaps because it was the only decision nobody could take away from her. At my signal, one of my loyal lieutenants followed and saved you, but the woman, who had tied herself to a sack of rocks, was quickly lost.”

“That’s awful!”

“You are the child of two mothers, relayed from one to the other. One bore you and the other protected you from harm.”

“I’ve always thought of you as my mother,” said the boy.

“I am and I’m not,” said Tempest. “It was a clever, mostly believable disguise, one I’ve enjoyed more than you know.”

“I never suspected,” said Cecil.

“Never,” echoed the soldier.

“So why would I ever hesitate in loving you wholeheartedly as the other kids do their mothers?”

“Because you remember.”

“I don’t think so,” said Cecil.

“Because I’m a soldier?”

“Not just a soldier, a hero,” said Cecil. “I don’t think that’s it, either.”

“I’m stumped,” said Tempest. “Children confound me still.”

“That’s even sadder,” said the boy.

“You win,” said Tempest.

“May I have my wishes?”

“Of course.”

“I want you to insist for the rest of my life that the story you've just told me is a complete fiction.”

“Very well.”

“I also want a hug every time you leave the house, every time you return, and every time you put me to bed.”

“It would be my honor,” said Tempest. And she made good on both her promises.

Copyright © 2013 by Charles C. Cole

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