What he’d learned

Not long ago – it may be yesterday – there were two children called Alice and Bran. Now Alice and Bran lived in the last house at the end of the estate on the outskirts of a large town. You won’t have heard of this town, so it probably doesn’t matter what it’s called. Every day, Alice and Bran’s parents drove to work in the town and Alice and Bran caught to bus to school. At the end of the day they all came back home, did what they had to do and then went to bed.

On the other side of their house was a wood. Alice and Bran were told never to go into the wood because it was dangerous and you could lose yourself, so they never did. Instead, if ever they went for a walk they took their dog Cerberus around the estate and then came straight back home. And so it went on for some time.

One day, Alice said to her mam and dad, “It’s a small wood, you could never get lost in there, and it doesn’t look dangerous. Why can’t we go in there?” But her parents said, “No, Alice! You must never go there, nothing good will come of it!” Though she asked more than once they would never give her any reason why they couldn’t go into the wood.

There came a day when it was the school holidays and her parents drove to work as usual and Alice and Bran were at home all on their own. “Shall we go for a walk round the estate with Cerberus?” suggested Bran, but Alice said, “Maybe later.” Well, later came, and Bran called to Alice and said, “Shall we go for that walk with Cerberus now?” But there was no answer. Bran knew then that Alice had gone into the wood.

There was only one thing to do, though Bran was frightened. He called Cerberus and put him on his lead. Then he put on his own duffel coat. “Find Alice!” he told Cerberus and off the dog went, leading Bran into the wood. Inside it was darker than he thought it would be. The tops of branches looked as though they had been shaved straight by a giant’s razor, and shadows made the trees seem as though they had surprised faces. But Cerberus kept on sniffing out Alice’s path, and Bran kept hanging on to Cerberus’ lead.

Finally Bran and Cerberus came to the heart of the wood. Here Bran saw a most curious thing. It was a little man, as brown as tree bark, his limbs as twisted as twigs and covered in ivy. “What have you learned coming here?” he asked Bran, and his voice was like branches rubbing together in the wind. Before Bran could answer he said, “I’ll tell you what you’ve learned. If you do what you always do, then you will always do what you always do.”

Bran must have looked puzzled for the little man took pity on him. “We learn by taking risks, even by making mistakes. Your parents, your teachers, they never told you that. But Alice knew that, and now you know that too. So now you also have a choice to make, just like Alice has made her choice.” He asked Bran again, “What have you learnt, and what are you going to do?”

Bran thought for a bit about what the little man had told him. He considered what he’d learnt – that living was dangerous and that sometimes, even often, you would lose yourself. And then he decided what he was going to do, and then he did it.


Short fiction written for a creative writing course on Children’s Fiction

10 thoughts on “What he’d learned

    1. Calmgrove Post author

      Ah, you’re angling for information that’s not yet in the public domain! Seriously though, I wrote this exercise as a one-page homework, the brief for which was to write a modern fairytale based on an illustration of an anxious boy walking a dog through a scary wood.

      I tried to include traditional elements — the wild wood, the ‘chance’ encounter with a magic helper, the quest, the injunction, the underlying moral and so on — all told in language that evoked those originals without being slavishly the same.

      I’ve a mind to incorporate this into a children’s story, but we’ll see about that as this course module progresses …

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  1. Lynn Love

    I really enjoyed this Chris. Your knowledge of folk tales really shines through in the style and language you’ve used, in the way the narrator speaks to us – ‘You won’t have heard of this town, so it probably doesn’t matter what it’s called.’ and ‘If you do what you always do, then you will always do what you always do.’ Spot on. Their dog being called Cerberus suggests we may be being led into dangerous territory where a fearsome hound may be required and the fact your boy was called Bran just made me think of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books – all helping to build my expectations. Very fine children’s story. For what it’s worth, I think the children took the sensible route – and learned to take risks 🙂

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    1. Calmgrove Post author

      High praise indeed, Lynn, thank you so much — all the points you make are ones I was consciously trying to bring out without it feeling laboured, though I’d probably modify some of the phrases and adjust some of the emphasis.

      The only thing that had slipped my mind was Bran in The Dark Is Rising sequence. Living in Wales I was tempted by the name Bryn but went for the more mythical resonances of Bran. Alice is of course inspired by the one who went down the rabbit hole …

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      1. Lynn Love

        Not laboured at all – very smoothly done with an authentic feel to it. Enjoyed it very much. As far as Bran is concerned, that character is my only frame of reference for the name – certainly the first time I’d heard of it – so others will bring different perspectives to the name. And yes, Alice, of course. I wonder if she decided to stay behind or follow that rabbit? Be interesting to write an alternative version, where she resisted following the rabbit but was somehow haunted by the events that didn’t / should have happened to her.

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        1. Calmgrove Post author

          Bran (Welsh for raven, indeed any member of the crow family) is best known as the name of a giant in the Mabinogion, though I don’t think it’s as common as a first name as it once was. Bran’s sister Branwen is more popular.

          As for this piece, I’ve already starting thinking how I would incorporate it in a YA novel, where the Alice figure is a wouldbe writer writing herself into a tale …

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