Side Story: Mother
Editor(s): Speedphoenix, Joker
It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun, which loomed up above, filled the world beneath it with a gentle warmth while the crops around us fluttered in the wind.
“It’s this way.” Nell took my hand as she led me down a wide dirt path adorned with farms on both sides.
“A-alright.” After swallowing the lump stuck in my throat, I timidly began following her lead.
The village was beautiful. Fields upon fields extended as far as the eye could see, with the only interruptions being the occasional house or old farmer. Though not all the plants were necessarily familiar, the peaceful sight reminded me so much of the Japanese countryside that I began feeling a bit homesick. I guess farms will still be farms, even in other worlds, huh?
“There isn’t really much to see here. The only thing we have is farmland,” said Nell.
“Yeah, I figured.”
The village that Nell was raised in was located just outside the capital; it’d only taken us about three hours to arrive. It was, for lack of a better term, average. The noble that governed the territory didn’t define it, as he wasn’t particularly greedy, nor particularly benevolent. Like his lands, he too was an embodiment of the ordinary.
According to Nell, the village did grow a self-proclaimed local specialty in the form of a fruit that was more or less a mandarin. But that said, identical crops could be found all throughout the kingdom. Ehhhh… I know they’re not actually special, but we might as well grab a few while we’re here. You know, as souvenirs and whatnot.
“You really don’t need to be so stiff. Relax,” giggled Nell. Glancing at me had evidently informed her of my restlessness.
“You see, I would, but I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to call your mom,” I groaned. “Do I go with her name and call her Noira? Or would it be better if I went with like Mother in Law or Madame or something?”
The question I posed was one of the biggest reasons that my nerves had yet to settle. I’d been stuck deliberating it ever since I first realized that I was going to wind up in the encounter. I’m really starting to wish I had a mentor or something, someone to help me figure out everything I’m supposed to be doing here before I actually have to dive in.
“Hmmm… that’s a good point. I’m not really sure what you should be calling her either.”
“Starting to see why I’m on edge now?”
“Mhm.” After another moment or two’s worth of contemplation, Nell once again broke the silence. “Mom was never really one for any formalities. She probably would’ve just awkwardly laughed it off if you addressed her formally. I think she would’ve liked it best if you just called her mom.”
“Alright, then mom it is.”
After replying to her, I realized that Nell had been referring to her mom in past tense. But rather than poking deeper, I simply decided to continue following after her, her hand in mine.
Our arrival was accompanied by surprise. We ended up finding ourselves not in front of a house, but a church. Wait. What? I could’ve sworn she mentioned that her mom raised her all by herself, so she couldn’t have been an orphan, right?
“Over here, Yuki.”
Nell picked up the pace and began tugging at my hand before I could clear up my doubts. She led me behind the building, to a spot resting in the shade of a large, ancient tree. It was a quiet place, a space in which time itself almost seemed to slow down.
A gentle breeze blew by, rustling the tree’s leaves and allowing a few glimpses of sunlight to poke through its canopy and shine upon the white plaque that lay right beside the tree’s trunk.
“When… did it… happen?” My throat had gone dry, so I only barely managed to croak out the words after a brief delay.
“Around two and a half years after I started training. About a year before we first met.” She spoke with a quiet voice, her eyes fixed upon the name engraved on the tombstone all the while. “Mom… mom worked really hard to raise me. She was always pushing herself to the brink exhaustion. She didn’t want me to worry, so she made sure she didn’t let it show. But that only made it worse. She collapsed soon after I was recruited by the church.”
“Sounds like she was one helluva mother.”
“She was. Mom always did her best for me. She always smiled, and she was always really, really patient, no matter what I did, even though she had to deal with all the stress of working from dawn to dusk every single day.” Her voice slowly lost traction. Its volume, which had been low to begin with, decreased further and further until she ended up in a whisper. And then, she paused. Not to lament in sadness, but rather to smile as she basked in nostalgia. “She had a really cute side to her too.” The brunette once again began speaking with energy. “She would always put everything she had into her cooking, but no matter what she did, she could never quite get it right. That was why I had to learn how to cook.”
I understood. I understood that the only reason Nell’s mother had collapsed as soon as her daughter was recruited by the church was because she had finally stopped putting up a front. She recognized her role had been played to its end, that Nell had finally gained the ability to sustain her own livelihood, even if she stopped working herself to death. Only with that knowledge did she finally allow herself to cave in to all the exhaustion that she’d bottled up over the years, the exhaustion she had sacrificed many, many years of her life to accrue. All for the sake of her daughter’s future.
“I wish… you could’ve met her before she passed.”
“Yeah. Me too.” I frowned for a moment, then asked a question I was expecting her to dismiss. “I-ve been meaning to ask you something, but I’m not sure it’s really appropriate.”
“That’s okay,” said Nell. “What is it?”
“So uh… where’s your dad’s grave? I know you said he passed a long time ago, so I was kinda expecting to see it here, but…”
Couples were normally buried together, but Noira’s grave had only one name on it, and there were no others in its vicinity.
“Dad’s grave is in a country far to the southeast. He was a soldier. Mom said he died fighting a war. Once she heard the news, she decided to emigrate so she could give birth to me somewhere safer. That was how we ended up here.”
That… couldn’t have been a decision she made lightly. She must have known that moving to a foreign land she knew little about without anyone to rely on would be far from easy, and having to jump right into working was only sure to make the transition even more difficult. But she did it anyway. For her daughter. For Nell.
I could imagine all the hardship that she went through. I could practically see all the sweat, blood, and tears that had fuelled her efforts. But I couldn’t put it into words. I simply didn’t know how to describe something on the magnitude of what she had endured.
“I know where his grave is,” after pausing briefly, she continued in a lonelier tone, “but I’ve never had the chance to visit it. My work keeps me too busy.”
“Then how about we go together when you finally wrap everything up and call it a career? We could treat it like something like some sort of retirement trip or something. Chances are, it won’t be just us though. Everyone else’ll probably end up tagging along too.”
“That sounds like it would be plenty of fun,” she smiled.
“Yeah, I know, right?” I chuckled as I joined her in imagining it.
Any trip involving the dungeon’s other residents was sure to be a lively one indeed. That said, I wasn’t exactly all that keen on leaving the dungeon mostly unattended in its current state. My pets were certainly tough enough to get rid of any would be intruders, but I just couldn’t help but worry about it regardless. Time to put reinforcing the defences back on the todo list, I guess.
“How do humans normally pray for the dead?”
“Like this. You place your hand against your heart,” she said, as she demonstrated. “It’s meant to show them that you’re thinking about them, even though they’ve already passed on.”
I followed her instructions and placed a hand against my chest whilst also getting onto my knees and sitting on my legs, as the Japanese often did in formal situations. Once I was in position, I closed my eyes and began to pray.
So uh… Hi, mom. I’m Yuki. I would like to apologize in advance, as I know that this is totally coming out of nowhere, but your daughter and I are going to be getting married.
I smiled a bit as I mused about the fact that, for her, the announcement really had come out of nowhere. She had no idea who I was, or that I’d even been seeing her daughter.
Nell’s doing great. She’s been working hard, and it’s starting to show. She’s grown to be incredibly brave. A lot of things still scare her, but she always finds it in herself to stand up to her fears. That isn’t all, either. She’s also been unbelievably kind. Nell always does her best for everyone around her. You’ve raised her into a wonderful person.
I know that you must be worried, especially given the nature of her work, but please, be at ease. I promise you that I’ll live up to your legacy. I’ll always love her and be good to her. And I’ll do everything in my power to make sure no harm ever comes her way. No matter what.
Thank you for everything that you’ve done for her and for raising her to be who she is. Thank you. May you forever rest in blissful peace.
“…Alright. That’s that.” I opened my eyes, patted the dirt off my legs, and stood up as I reaffirmed my resolve to protect Nell. I was ready to do anything for her, even if that anything involved putting myself on the betting board.
“Are you done talking to mom?” The brunette, who had also been praying, lowered the hand she had pressed against her chest as she turned from her mother’s gravestone to look at me.
“Yeah. I just finished begging for her forgiveness after telling her that you weren’t my only wife.”
“That certainly does sound like something she should find out now and not later,” she said, with a giggle.
“What about you? You sure you’re done already?”
“Mhm. All I wanted to do was introduce you to her and tell her about how much of a weirdo you are.”
“Weirdo? What do you mean, weirdo?”
Nell and I turned from my mother-in-law’s final resting place. But right as I began stepping forward, a sudden gust of wind blew past me and prompted me to spin my head around.
As I looked to my rear, I found myself face to face with a smile, one that, like Nell’s, was filled with nothing but kindness and warmth. She was translucent. Ephemeral. And as I blinked, she faded, as if to bid this very world her final farewell.
“Yuki? Is something the matter?”
“It looks like she approves.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, just, you know. Something.”
Nell stared at me in visible confusion, but I laughed it off as I took her hand and began walking back the way we came.
“I know we gotta go soon, but can you show me around a bit more? I’ve been wanting to see your house.”
“Mmk.” She nodded. “But there isn’t really much to see. It’s not anything special. I come visit every once in a while so I can keep it clean, but it’s been a while since my last visit, so it’s probably gotten a bit dusty.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “What do you say we spend some time cleaning it up together?”