Corbray could not stand the coughing any longer. He knew his father might need help, but he had to get away from the house. The constant hacking had become too much to bear, as had the blood that father spewed when he did it. Seizing his opportunity, Corbray snuck out as soon as he finished cleaning after dinner, and ran off into the nearby Chetwood.
Growing up, he had heard stories aplenty about ruffians and vagabonds and all manner of dangers in the forest, but tonight, he cared little. Corbray craved the quiet of the wood, its serenity and its solitude. So he ran. He ran and he ran, deep into the forest, even as the dark of night settled and the light of the stars and the moon but trickled through the thick canopy above, until at last he came to a fallen tree which lay across a narrow creek. There he sat, atop the trunk, alone in the dark and the silence, and let out a sigh of relief.
For months, his father had the cough, and it seemed ever to grow worse. Where at first it came and went, now it had grown relentless, and his father had begun to cough up flesh and blood with each fit. So had it been with his mother, up until she died the previous year, and every cough reminded Corbray of her. He could not stand the sound of it anymore, to remember that she was gone, and that so too would his father be.
He listened to the water flowing gently by his feet. Around him, nature played its midnight song as the wind whistled through the rowan branches, and frogs hopped about in the dark. Yet, for all the peace and beauty offered by the wood, the weight in Corbray’s belly brought his thoughts to home. His mind dwelt on his late mother, her smile, her laugh, the sound of her singing to wake him in the morning and the smell of her fresh-baked cookies wafting to his room. He thought as well of his father, before the cough had come. A giant of a man, his father had worked for many years for Combe’s lumberyard, and had been among the strongest of men in the town. But age and illness left the man weak, and the past few months had been hard. His father could not work at the lumberyard anymore- he could barely even walk there, and though he helped where he could, most of the work around the house fell to Corbray. The youth also found what work he could around Combe, barely earning enough to feed them both.
The knot in Corbray’s stomach chastised him for leaving the house. He knew his father needed him, and the wind had brought with it a chill besides. At last, Corbray stood, the soles of his shoes sinking slightly into the mud below, and he left his creekside sanctuary for home. The journey back seemed twice as far as the journey to the creek, but he remembered the way well enough. Before long, he stood atop the western hill, the Chetwood at his back and the lamplights of Combe ahead.
He arrived to find the door still ajar, and no light within the house. Corbray’s knot became a stone, and both his breast and belly felt crushed beneath its weight. The anxiety that had led him to flee home in the first place gave way to panic, and he burst into the dark room. Looking around, he found a lamp, fueled but unlit, lying nearby on the dining room table. Lighting it, he saw that nothing was amiss, no cabinet doors were open nor belongings strewn across the floor. The house had not been robbed in his absence. Yet, even so was his heart disquiet, and he went to his father’s room.
There he saw him, the old lumberjack, lying on the floor. His father was curled on one side, and in his hand he clasped a blanket, ripped from his bed nearby. Only then did Corbray mark the smell, the foul stench of death which hung on the air like thick perfume, and the boy’s fear turned to guilt and pain.
Corbray sat atop the tree trunk, straddling the creekbed as the red gold rays of sunrise shone through the green shroud of the forest canopy above. He did not remember dropping the lamp as he ran from his father’s room for the Chetwood, nor did he remember the golden glow nor smell of smoke from the burning house behind him. Hot tears ran down his face, and joined the stream below.