It's an old story, children, and you must listen very carefully, for not everyone gets to hear it. I only know it because my grandmother told it to me, and she cautioned me, it isn't to be told lightly because some might be frightened or just too young. But I think you're all ready.
Once, a hundred and another hundred or more years ago, when the world was simple and colors were pure, there was a child. His name is lost now, but we can call him Aye, so we can keep track of him. Aye had a brother, and together they ran out into the world on a warm spring day.
Their mother watched them go, worrying as mothers do--you know this; your mothers worry when you are late to return, or when they know you are going to fall, right? Their mother watched them go, and she knew that two boys out together might look for trouble. Not on purpose, because they were good boys, but children, you know what it is like to be curious, do you not? To see something new and wonder, can I touch it? Can I taste it? And so it was with Aye and his brother.
When their mother stopped watching, for she was busy with work of her own, they saw exactly such a thing. The air grew thick overhead as they piled stones in the creek to make a deeper pool, and when Aye looked up, hundreds of tiny creatures were around them, purple and blue and iridescent in the rays of sun filtering down through the trees that surrounded the water. Their wings fluttered quickly to hold them in the air, and that was the only breeze, for the air was otherwise still.
Aye watched them for a long time, wondering that he had never seen them before, and he wanted to ask his brother about them, but his brother was absorbed in the task at hand. He kept moving the stones from place to place, and didn't notice the creatures until Aye poked him and said, look about you.
And being, as he was, a child, when he did look up he reached for the fluttering wings of the nearest. Aye told him no, he mustn't hurt it, but he had no such intention, and he reached anyway. He didn't know the creature would be fragile, and he didn't know his fingers would crush it.
And he didn't know the others would mourn. You know how that is, too, I imagine, when you cause a hurt you never meant to and wouldn't have if you'd known? And how you wish you could call the moment back? This is how Aye and his brother both felt, the brother because it was his hand, and Aye because he was the older and maybe he should have known better, but they didn't know how to explain--how would you explain to someone with whom you had no common language that you only wanted to touch one small thing? The creatures cried with purple and blue sorrow, and the air around them went red and angry, but Aye and his brother still had no words to explain, and so they didn't try. They watched the red air shimmer and swell, and they let the heat of it wash over them until the creatures, a few at a time, lifted away.
They ran home then, and tried to explain it to their mother, but she had a headache and their story felt heavy and complicated and they didn't know how to come out and say what they had done. It was all a jumble, each of them talking over the other, and eventually, exhausted, they went to bed.
In the morning, it felt like a dream, and each of them thought, maybe, maybe it had been. Maybe it had been the kind of dream that feels so real you wake and don't know whether you should move.
Or maybe they only hoped.
Their mother's headache was worse the next week and worse still the week after that, ever increasing until their father's face pinched with worry when he left for his job and there was no longer time to play in the woods. Both boys stayed close to home, planting the garden and helping to harvest and in the summer when their mother got too sick to stand, because they were good boys, they learned to play with the baby and tickle her belly, and they learned to help her step up on a stool and down off a chair.
By the fall, they had forgotten about the winged creatures they had seen in the woods, except that neither of them wanted to go to the creek even once the harvest was done and their mother was feeling a bit better, even when they might have had time to play once more. Instead, Aye learned to spin the wool into yarn and to knot the yarn into warm blankets, and his brother, young as he was, learned to make flour and water into biscuits over the fire.
In the spring, they planted flowers near the house to make their mother smile, hardy ones that wouldn't need much attention and some delicate ones near the door that their mother could love. They didn't consider the creek at all except to bring water and to check the traps upstream for food.
When the summer came, they tended their crops and watched them grown. In the fall, they harvested and preserved. In the winter, they patched their clothes and waited for the spring, and in the way of things, each season bled into the next and each year they planted another bed of flowers, because it seemed to help. You know how that is, when you feel ill and all you want is some small thing, and it isn't important except to you.
In the third summer, Aye watched the crops scorch when the sun was too hot and the water too scarce, and he told his brother they needed to go with their father in to town and see if they could find work.
They didn't want to leave their mother with the baby, but you know how that is, too, when none of the choices are good, and if they found work, there would be no choice. And so, they set out, hand in hand, across the too-dry fields toward the town on the other side.
This time Aye saw the creatures arriving, bright in the sun and still iridescent, and he gripped his brother's hand tight, but they both had grown, and even though they were afraid and even though they were still sorry, they didn't leave, and they didn't say nothing, this time. They told the creatures with all the words they knew, and watched them turn golden and soft, and as they stood there together, rain started to fall and their dry earth soaked it up.
Aye pulled down the hat on his head, and his brother pulled up his jacket around his ears, and together they turned back for the house, where their mother sat waiting on the step, a smile on her face as she felt the rain.
You may be thinking, now, that because they confessed and apologized, all was well, but this isn't how things work. Not when the hurt is great, anyway. Sometimes all the apology in the word doesn't repair the damage, even when there is forgiveness, and then, consequences remain.
This is why not all children get to hear this story; some parents like for children to believe that if they say they are sorry, all the hurts will be erased, but you know, do you not, that it's more complicated than just that.
And so, despite that their mother felt better, she still coughed blood and died in the winter, and despite that the rain returned, the crops were poor. But Aye and his brother, and the baby who was now big enough to help with the weeding, they went on, and they planted their mother's flowers every spring until they never died. You can see them still, in the forest where they lived. If you know where to look, of course, and that isn't a thing I can tell you, because that, too, is lost.
And then, when they were men grown, they moved on, into town, perhaps, or across the river. This is the way of things, and I cannot say how their lives changed, for better or worse, but I know they did. Because they met strangers twice, in the woods, and there was nothing they could do once the harm was done.