Mothers, a petulant Artemis decided, were the bane of basic human dignity.
Mother insisted onâ€”the like of these outings, theseâ€”these debaucheries! They were ridiculous!â€”utterly and irrevocably absurd! Did Mother expect him to derive some sort ofâ€”perverse enjoyment, some particular pleasure, someâ€”fun from such frivolities? It wasâ€”recreation, pure, irrational, useless recreation, distraction!â€”
Artemis sighed inwardly as the Bentley stilled. And yet, he was helpless against the coercive power of his parents. Despite all his best efforts, they still had a stranglehold on his life, from the idiot school he attended to the places he frequented. The day he was free of them, the day he was free of their presence would be one of supreme happiness, he was sure.
Mother had already slipped from the Bentley, and was observing the conditions outside. Artemis sniffed disapprovingly. Sunshine. He had been hoping for clouds, or at least a stiff breeze, to perhaps encourage an earlier departure. The weather would be another thing to look into; climate controlâ€¦
Artemis sighed, and folded his laptop up with only a longing glance at the Feynman text he had downloaded. So much to read, so little time. Already at ten years old, he could feel the inevitable creep of mortality upon him, the first step: the awareness of the finite life, the fear, and the resulting desperation: Life is short! and yet he would waste it on a beach promenade?
Butler opened the door for him; a good man, Butler, always did as expected of him, with a certain mindlessness Artemis appreciated, for all his ideals of autonomy and . Artemis stepped out of the Bentley gingerly, already fearing for his Armanis, and inspected his surroundings more carefully.
Irish beaches were hardly of theâ€¦ popular variety. Though the Gulf Stream had warm waters lapping at its shores, as well as providing a famously mild climate, it was still hardly enough to justify the crowds of, say, Cancun. Furthermore, the same Gulf Stream weather led to frequent cloud cover and drizzle, hardly decent fodder for the tourist department.
The sand beaches lacked that picturesque contrast of colors as well. They were drab things, by and by, with colorless sand, pale skies and gray water. Even the driftwood was silvered, and the rushes a strained sort of gold.
Indeed, the brightest thing on this beach was Motherâ€™s dress, a navy blue somewhere between serenity and severity. Father didnâ€™t like it when Mother wore her really bright dresses, Artemis knew, the ones with the scrawled floral prints and the careless brush strokes of lucid colors, though he didnâ€™t know why. True, they were untidy things, but aesthetics were a subjective thing, and if she wanted to wear tattered flowers then she could wear tattered flowers. It wasnâ€™t as if many would associate her with the Fowl name. Father so rarely brought her to the parties, anymore.
â€œTimmy?â€ she said aloud, though it really wasnâ€™t a question. â€œTimmy, do come out. Itâ€™s quite fine, really, quite balmy…â€
She trailed off when it was made apparent that she was only talking to someone in her mind. She then turned to Artemis, still standing on the asphalt parking lot, but the strained blue of the skies silhouetted the tight bun and the lines of her face. â€œArty? Can you fetch my shawl?â€
Artemis turned to Butler and made a gesture; Butler went to the trunk of the Bentley. Mother, saying it was balmy out but then requiring a jacketâ€¦
Mother turned away from him again, and began walking out onto the sand; but not before Artemis caught a pained expression on her face. Looking down, he saw that the knife of her heels sunk into the sand, leaving her off-balanced; that must be why.
Artemis tugged at his suit as the final door of the Bentley opened; Father. He had been finishing the business section of The New York Times. â€œFather,â€ he prompted.
Father inclined his head in acknowledgement. â€œArtemis. I suspect youâ€™re wondering how long this littleâ€¦ endeavor will take?â€
Artemis nodded, surprised. Father was not usually so blunt; he had always preached subtlety. â€œYes, Iâ€”am, admittedly.â€ He smiled. â€œIt is a Thursday, after all.â€
â€œQuite so,â€ Father said, nodding approvingly, and shading his eyes against the pale glare of the sun on the waves as he looked out across the Atlantic. â€œTell your mother that we will not be long.â€
Artemis turned to him with a frown. â€œFatherâ€¦?â€
Fatherâ€™s face was clouded; with memory, or pain, Artemis couldnâ€™t tell, though he was quite sure it was only one. â€œTell her, and then return. There areâ€”matters we need to discuss.â€
Artemis blinked, surprised, then turned and began walking briskly across the sand. He felt the first sand particles begin to work their way through his Chanel socks; alpaca and silk, no less. It would have to be washed by hand. Pity; Butler was better put to use in other affairs.
Mother stood, though her placement in front of a large piece of driftwood indicated she would like to sit down, but feared for her dignity. She stared out to sea, eyes unfocused.
She turned to him, blinking rapidly as if to dispel the sudden water in her eyes. The sand, in all likelihood. â€œYes?â€
Artemis dressed up the words; otherwise, they seemed so hideously bare and uncivilized when faced with nature. â€œFather would like me to inform you that we will be joining you shortly for the promenade.â€
Motherâ€™s mouth twisted. â€œTell him I appreciate the courtesy, but that I will not be long either.â€ She turned to the sea; though there was no wind to bring more sand into her eyes, the irritant was obviously increasing. A sloppy bit of wetness rolled down a bare cheek. â€œIt is a terrible day for a promenade.â€
Artemis nodded, choosing not to remark on the fact she had seemed remarkably keen on beaches just a few moments earlier. He wondered if it had something to do with Father, this morning: he had come to breakfast this morning, instead of having it delivered to his study, and he seemed to smile more. He had gathered that there was an important transaction completed the night before, which led him to attend to less important affairs, such as family.
But that made little sense. Mother, being one for family values and the like, would surely appreciate a more attentive husband to both her and her son, even in such a menial place as the breakfast table?
By the time he returned to Father, he had managed a state of curiosity normally reserved for his books. Father had evidently dismissed the Major, who now scanned the horizon for potential threats from a nearby dune crest. Whatever was to be said, it was meant for a Fowlâ€™s ears only.
â€œMother says she will not be long either,â€ Artemis reported obediently.
Father nodded, his eyes unfocused much as Motherâ€™s had been, but without that shine. Father must be more careful about getting sand in the eyes.
Artemis stood there for several moments, waiting; but he had not learned patience yet. â€œThere was something you wished to speak to me about?â€
Father smiled, and finally turned to him. â€œYes, there isâ€¦ and before I begin, I must have you understand that these are not my words, for they were taught to me by my father; nor his, for they were his fatherâ€™s, and so forth. What I will be telling you isâ€¦ an old thing, a graced thing, something that transcends even the Fowls. These words you will one day teach to your son, as well; and to his son, and to his, until an End comes, and there will only be what has transcended us.â€
Father paused, waiting for Artemis to absorb this. When he was satisfied with Artemisâ€™ expression, he continued. â€œWe stand on a beach, today, with the sand below us, the sea before us, and the sky above us.
â€œYou see, a stone, once broken from the cliffs, will be shattered into smaller stones by the inevitable action of the waves, pounding these innumerably stones against each other. The stones shatter into smaller and smaller pieces until they become this sand, smooth, uniform, a mere background for the stones yet to be shattered into sand.â€
Father bent and took a stone in his hands with an embryonic or sepulchral drift of sand beneath it, gray on gray. â€œAnd we are all stones, my son. We are stones, our genesis only another shattering of one shard from a greater one, and that is what we do: life itself wears us down, breaking us in all inevitabilities until we are mere sand. The shards of our lives may be seen, perhaps, and may in turn change the wear of another stone, but in the end it is only sand, it is so little that it is nothing.â€
Artemis watched as the sand slipped through his fingers until only the stone remained, smooth and gray in the cage of Fatherâ€™s pale fingers.
â€œBut all stones are not equal. Some are larger than others due to mere consequence of genesis, and will in all likelihood fare longer as a stone before it turns into sand. Those that are smallerâ€”are of little consequence. They will wear at you, my son, as any other stone might. There are others that are more pleasing to the eye: perhaps they sparkle in the sunlight, or they have a pleasant grain. Never concern yourself with these, unless the aesthetics also function as an indicator to other qualities.â€
Father had held his gaze to the stone in his hand for much of the time. Now, his eyes met Artemis with that particular urgency of truth. â€œAndâ€”there are other stones, other stones of different substance, harder stonesâ€¦ and we are harder stones. We are of a different substance than these others, for the waves do not break us as easily, nor are the shards of our lives so easily forgotten. We are Fowl, Artemis; and you must always remember this. We are Fowl, and though it is inevitable, we must always fight off the day when we become mere sandâ€¦â€
Father took the stone and, carefully, folded it within Artemisâ€™ hands. It felt cold, almost icy,
â€œWe fear to be forgotten,â€ Artemis whispered slowly, â€œas the Norse fear their Ragnorak.â€
Father smiled with all the warmth of the winter sun, looking out to sea once more. â€œIt is a hopeless task, but that is what we do; we fight, for the struggle is all there is, and in our struggle we wax and waneâ€¦â€
â€œCamus,â€ Artemis said promptly, â€œor Sartres.â€
â€œShall I say it in Latin?â€
â€œBut I thoughtâ€”â€
Father laughed, low and resonant. Artemis hadnâ€™t heard him laugh like that since he was too young to separate fantasy from reality. â€œAurum potestas est is mere derivation, I am afraid, for these modern times.â€
â€œIt has been modern since Caesar, then.â€
â€œCaesar was the first modern man.â€
Artemis blinked. De bello gallico had hardly struck him as â€˜modernâ€™. â€œBut Father, what ofâ€”â€
Father waved his comment aside. It was as if a burning brand had been passed over Artemisâ€™s eyes; there was a sudden wrench in his belly when he realized the tone he had addressed Father with, the camaraderie, the frivolity. Artemis could not tell if it was shame or disappointment; he was of that age when such particular emotions are exquisitely hidden behind the bright doors of pain and pleasure, good and bad, right and wrong. â€œYour mother is waiting, I am afraid. Come.â€
Father began walking; from his dunetop the Major paralleled him. Artemis had to walk indignantly fast to keep up with Fatherâ€™s long stride as they waded through the sea of sand and onto the hard crust of asphalt.
Mother was still on the beach. With an idle gesture Father sent Butler to fetch her before the Major arrived and opened Fatherâ€™s door. Father settled in his seat and picked up his newspaper once more.
Artemis stood there on the black asphalt on a gray day, watching as Butler approach Mother with tact: facing away, several steps behind, head lowered, hands behind his back. Respect, from mountain to the sea.
Mother turned to Butler; Artemis watched as her slow, unsteady gaze found its way to the car and she began walking. He watched her stumble, once, twice, Butler offering to help but being refused out of dignity. Pride is the best cure for intoxication, after all. Artemis briefly wondered if she had touched the liquor cabinet, as he had read many woman with uncertain husbands did.
He blinked as curious new gears began to click and clink in a smooth, greased procession, as inevitable as the waves, as only a blind-divine watchmaker could create:
She was a stone, she was wearing into sand too soonâ€”
Father was wearing her down, Father, Fatherâ€”
He stood very still.
Mother arrived; Butler opened her door, and then Artemisâ€™. Mother climbed in unsteadily, her gaze lowered to inspect the creases in her military dress of navy blue, and her hand; reaching down and straightening them, from habit, almost a comfort, almost a penance.
Artemis raised his gaze: eyes as fathomless as the sea roamed out across the gray beach, following the smooth contours of the sand and stones on and on and on to eternity, andâ€”pastâ€”
Artemis blinked, and entered the Bentley.
In his hands he clutched at a small gray stone.
Dedicated to The White Lily, http://www.fanfiction.net/~thewhitelily. Written as a Christmas present to her. Used for the fanfic100 prompt of ‘parents’ and the 12LH prompt of ‘Artemii’.First fic here… testing the waters. Originally posted at my fanfiction.net archive. Also posted at AFC.