Unraveling, by B. Balder

unravellingRitu’s son Johnny came home one day in tears. He’d gone skateboarding and the other kids had made fun of him because of his withered arm. They all outstripped him in balance and speed.

“Mom, why is my arm like this? When am I going to get better?” Johnny asked.

She didn’t have a good answer. There was no explanation, except bad luck.

To keep him safe, Ritu worked words into his sneaker laces, so he wouldn’t stumble and fail to brace with his weak arm. She whispered to his buttonholes, so he wouldn’t have to fumble longer than the other kids. Ritu hadn’t been able to unweave or reknit his fate. Hers were only small magics.

At eighteen, Johnny took up Parkour.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I know they’ll laugh at me, but I don’t care. I wanna do this.”

Ritu couldn’t just say, ” Johnny, I love you to bits, but your right arm just isn’t as strong as it needs to be. What’s wrong with long distance running?” It would feel like a betrayal of her unwavering attempts to make her son feel just like everyone else, wonky arm or not. So she said nothing and listened to him talk about his newfound purpose, the joy of running, of eating right, of building up muscle and stamina.

Ritu couldn’t tell this good, serious boy that he couldn’t do what he wanted the most. She just wanted him to feel normal. So she bought him good shoes, waved him out for practice. “Have fun, honey! Take care!”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Don’t fuss, mom. I’m an adult now.”

She watched him jump up a low adobe wall and somersault out of sight. Then she gathered her yarn and went out knitting. She had a lot of friends to visit and ask for favors.

Ritu twined magic into the yarn. She and her friends knit nets from it and strung them up over the streets and courtyards and alleys of the small town. As Johnny’s skills grew, so did the nets. Lawns, playgrounds, parks, wells, rooftops; all covered with invisible netting, so high up a tall person would never touch it. The holes were so big and flexible that the birds and the bugs, whom Ritu didn’t want to alienate, could pass through it freely.

The threads of her magic came together in the knotted necklace she always wore. She needed to know what Johnny was up to.

Johnny took up meditation. His grades soared.

One Sunday evening the knot started to burn against her skin. An hour later, Johnny came home with a rope burn on his cheek and a slight limp.

Ritu’s hand went to her heart. “Johnny! Are you all right?”

He looked down on her, his eyes dark with anger. “Mom. I fell tonight.”

Ritu sank down on her chair. “Are you hurt?”

He crossed his arms. “No, of course not. Because someone had just happened to string a net over the alley I would have fallen into.”

Ritu spread her hands. “So? Someone strings a net?”

Johnny re-crossed his arms, the withered one on the outside now. “And then I thought of you. So I jumped off the next roof.”

Ritu let out a little scream.

“And the next. And everywhere I went, nets had been strung. And old ladies looked out of windows and told me to say hi to you.”

Ritu gestured, unable to find the right words. “I wanted people to keep from throwing trash into the streets. That’s just so stinky.”

“Mom.”

“I thought. Because your arm, it’s not as…” She hadn’t meant to say that. Point out his difference.

“Just say it, Mom. My right arm is withered, okay, and short. Say it.”

“Your right arm is…different,” Ritu managed.

“See? That wasn’t so hard? I know you hexed my sneakers and my buttons, all to keep me from getting hurt or noticing I was clumsier than other kids. You never asked me if I wanted that.” He gestured at his sneakers. “I have two pairs of these. One pair to leave the house in, and one pair that I keep at a friend’s. So you can’t make them safe.”

“Do you want to break your legs in that stupid game?” She hadn’t meant to say that.

“That would by my fault, then. My own.”

He slammed the door on his way to his room.

“I didn’t want you to fall down and break your neck,” she whispered. “I love you.”

Ritu sat in her chair, fingering the warm knot around her neck, for a long time. Johnny’s stumbling around upstairs had ceased and she guessed he’d fallen asleep.

It wasn’t hard to see what she had to do, but it was hard to let go of the idea of protecting her child.

At last she stood up and rummaged in her drawer for a pair of sewing scissors. She could have unraveled the nets by simply snipping open the knot around her neck, but that wouldn’t have loosened the knot in her heart.

So she went outside, scissors and torch in her pocket, kitchen ladder under her arm. At the corner of the alley she set up the ladder and started snipping away at the first net. One by one the magic strands parted. A sigh wafted over the town roofs as Ritu let go her spells one by one.

Johnny was right. He should be able to make his own mistakes, take his own risks.

But that didn’t make it any easier.


B. Balder‘s short fiction has appeared in F&SF, Crossed Genres, Futuristica Vol. I and other places.


<– Shuttle, by Jessica R. Santillan

Men, Mice, and Trees, by Alex Benarzi –>

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