Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Christmas Story

Madonna and Child
The Book of Kells

Christmas was coming around again, nothing new about that. School was out for the holidays. The familiar Christmas tightness had begun to envelope the boy. There would be plenty to eat that winter. That was not the problem. The winter staples, potatoes, shucky beans cabbages, apples, canned tomatoes, had all been stored away. Daddy had sold the pig they were going to butcher late that fall to pay the lease on the small farm. The crops had been short that year. It would be bunnies, squirrels, and maybe a turkey or two for meat that winter.

"Better than ground hog," he thought.

The family house was small, the rooms were in a row starting with a small front porch, the living room, dining room, and  kitchen. Off the kitchen, a  narrow hall that led to a pair small bed rooms occupied by he and his parents. He was their only child. Near his bed was a small window looking out over the pasture, stream and  low foothills beyond. The first things the boy saw when he awoke everyday were the cow, birds. turkey, and hills... with leaves, or no leaves. He liked leaves better. The lifeless winter morning sun and brown hills weren't his favorites.

The small back porch off the kitchen had a hand pump that pulled water up from the cistern, a hand built concrete and brick tank covered by a concrete slab. Water gushed into the tank from the gutter system on the roof. That was the water supply, generally adequate, but two dry summers had compromised the system.  The boy's  daily job was to bring water from the spring, some 1/4 mile down the hill with his goat cart and Big Billy Goat Gruff in old milk cans. He made this trip with the goat, every day, rain or shine hot or cold.

The new 15 acre farm his father leased was nestled in a small valley. The house had no stairs, it made things easier on his Mama. She had broken her ankle 5 years ago and walked with a slight limp. She  complained a little in cold weather and could tell when rain was coming. Daddy said the doctor didn't set it right...since they didn't have any money. The boy's family were pretty typical of the rural Southern foothill community; no nonsense, hard working people. who dealt with adversity on a daily basis, always keeping an eye out for each other.

His Daddy worked in the community, doing day labor of every sort. He worked at the saw mill until they shut down and moved on. He worked the cattle sale at the stock yard The boy loved to go to with  his Daddy to the stockyard on sale day  when not in school.  He loved the smell of the barns, pens of cows and the rattle of the auctioneers gavel. He would sit on the  the loading chute and watch the loading and unloading of cattle. Organized chaos. He was also  doctored animals. People said he had "the gift".

Daddy's  passion was painting buildings and signs.  When he could find a house, barn, building or shed to paint, he was in his best mood. Everything his Daddy painted always looked grander.He especially loved to paint the intricate "gingerbread" with colors to accent the rest of the house.

Their were many barns with “Argo Starch” the big red box, and big white letters, or “Chew Bloodhound” with the red Bloodhound dog on the package. The letters were always straight and neat. Most of the sings on the stores in town were painted by his Daddy.

. Winter for his 9 years were always the hardest for the family. He would watch his Daddy come home, cold and quiet, eat his dinner in silence, then go sit in front of the wood heater, rubbing his cracked, red  hands with lanolin and holding them to the stove. The smell of warm lanolin filled the house. The boy would never forget that smell.

His Daddy also  played the fiddle, and the boy loved to go to sleep listening to the lively fiddle tunes. It was mostly in the warm times he played. Sometimes in winter his Daddy played a slow, mournful, wild, music that spoke of places far off in the boy's mind. He asked his Mother about "that music". She had no answer. "It just comes out of him," she said.


The fiddle resided in a dresser drawer, wrapped in a towel. The boy wanted to bring the fiddle out, but he was told many times not r disturb it, for fear it would be broken. It stayed in the drawer.

The next morning, he sat in the goat cart, B.B. Gruff walking slowly, holding the cart back on the gentle grade. He usually led the goat, but today the cold made him sad...leaves gone off the trees, no birds singing, brown grass and weeds rustled from the path as they made their way to the spring .The boy wondered, as he sat in the cart, if he could make money, somehow, to help make winter easier for Mama and Daddy.

As they approached the spring, he heard the rustle of feet, and stood up in the cart in time to see a small man scurrying away with a  pail of water. He shouted a " hello", but the fellow took no notice and soon disappeared in the brushy sides of the creek bank.

He told his mother about the man, and she said he probably a neighbor just getting water.. He knew better...the little man was not a neighbor...he had seen all the neighbors since they moved there in early spring. That was no ordinary man.

The next day, he left Gruff at home and went to the spring alone. He sat cradled by the roots of the huge old Cucumber tree and waited. He felt the little warmth of the December sun in his little nest, and must have dozed off.

He was awakened by the sound of voices in a language he had never heard. Over the roots of the tree, he saw two small, odd looking men, shouting at each other in high pitched voices.

 "You fill the bucket this time, and carry it back".

" NO", said the other," you  fill it yourself,  'twas you that kicked it over, spilled it, you did, and YOU shall bring it out again. They stood beard to beard, red faced, puffing at each other like small steam engines.

 "I'LL NOT"! The smaller of the two little men  stamped his  booted foot on the ground with such force the ground shook...

“A mighty stomp for such a little man”, the boy thought from his hiding place.

The arguments proceeded until the boy laughed out loud..

Both the men jumped around as though they had heard a shot. They gazed at at him silently with mouths ajar. One, the taller of the two, said out of the corner of his mouth, in perfect English. “I think this one is not kin to them with horn, though he visits with them...he does not feel dangerous, but be wary.”

"Wary of what? "said the boy.

"Oh, don't play your rigs on me, you know very well WHAT." said the larger of the two.

"No really, I don't. Tell me."  He was not the least afraid of the odd looking pair.

" Oh, THEY are much scarier than YOUcould know. Their Great Horns they blow incessantly. The constant snorting and eating dirt...frightful mannered beasts, swishing their lethal battle axes from behind themselves. Huge dark eyes they have, that stare right through you. Always stomping and kicking, throwing their massive horned heads causing  all manner of biting, stinging, flying things to attack from every direction. Fierce and wild, they are.

" Are you talking about cows?" said the boy.

 "Cows, he calls them! He is in league with them! I knew we should never have left Under the Hill ," the  smaller one moaned.

 "Why are you afraid of cows, they are very gentle for the most part...you aren't from around here, are you?” said the little boy.

“Ah, its no use to hide the truth, you look harmless enough," said the the taller of the two, “and 'its said three heads are better than two.

“I am Shatar, the elder, and this is my apprentice Ringtorn. Now listen...and say nothing, I will tell you who we are."

“Forty days ago we were given a task by the King Under The Hill to come to this place in search of the white liquid called "Milch." The old ones spoke of it in the Book of  Other and Yon.

"Our King fought and killed a terrible wizard  long ago, and a curse was put on his first born; be it boy or girl, it would never grow to slay another wizard. The curse statedt he child, in it's forth year, would shrink smaller and smaller, finally growing into the ground  and be turned into thorny briars. The King's daughter has begun the grow back. It is our task to reverse this "grow back".
We are the two men entrusted to study the Book of Other and Yon. 'Tis an ancient book, given from generation to generation. It contains the knowledge our people have aquire over the ages. In the book we discovered a cure for our princess.

It was given in the Book that to cure "Grow Back, Administer Milch".

We did not know what Milch was, but the Book did give directions to this place. The book spoke of Bovines. Strange creatures, it warned, who held milch in pouches under their fearsome belly with four keys to lock it away.

We have found these beast to be all the Book described and more. Our attempts to gather this substance from these "cows", as you call them, have proven near fatal for Ringtorn and myself. The Bovines hold 4 keys, vigilant guardians of the pouch containing their milch. . We fear we may be too late to save our Kings little daughter.

Milk? Is that all you want or need? Milk ?" the boy laughed. “I can get it for you... all you want, whenever you want it!”

“You laugh as though this be the simplest of tasks, you must not make light of our quest, or  we will... we will.

"Look at him, Shatar...he laughs at our anguish! What can we do to him,?  The impudent thing! He laughs!"

"Laugh with him," I think." said the Shatar... he must know the secret to the dyes. So laugh they did, roaring “Milk...all you want is Milk!" "All you need is Milk?"

Milk they wanted, and milk they got.

The next morning,  the boy and goat Gruff came to the spring with their cans, and a quart jar of milk. He sat by the tree, the goat grazing nearby, and waited. A small voice spoke  from the old tree, "Does the cow bite"?

Gruff is NOT a cow," said the boy, He's a goat, and I have brought you milk."
The two little men appeared out of the tree, eyes wide at what they beheld. "Is that Milch?", they said in unison.

"Sure is, straight from old Bossie, our cow" replied the boy, "still warm, want to taste it?”

Timidly, they tried it, licking their lips after each sip, “Why, it's quite refreshing, very interesting, almost taste the curative powers in it.”  said Shatar,

Such wild dancing the boy had never seen. “He know the secret of the keys. they sang. The little men hugged his legs, cried tears of happiness and nearly fainted away in their joy having obtained what they never hoped get.

Shatar stopped his rejoicing directly, sat down, regaining his composure.

"And what be your price for this  milk?"

“Nothing , I give it freely, as the cow gave it to me." answered the boy.

“Freely, we have never heard of Freely, what is Freely? We have not brought this Freely with us,"  Ringtorn wailed.

"You don't owe me anything," said the boy, "you can HAVE the Milch, as you call it."

"OURS? for nothing? Oh, the boy is quite mad.” said Ringtorn, and began to dance again.

Finally, Shatar  looked up to the boy, and in a solemn voice, spoke.

"Such generosity we have seldom known, for all we get, we pay. You will receive payment for your kindness. I have seen you have a troubled mind. We will help you resolve your trouble.

“You have free and giving spirit.  In return for the generosity you have shown, you shall find at this spring, by this tree, on this day, every year, a small bag of gold. It will pay for the little farm you and your parents live on.

"We will see to it." said the ringtorn, and wrote in a small book.

“Your mother will become better with time. Her limp will go away and she will find her old vigor.

“Your father, an honest worker, shall prosper at what he likes to do best in this world. He will always have a house to paint.”

" You will work by your father's side, but your greatest reward with be the joy youfind as a fiddler. You will learn from your father. Your skill will be come known far and wide. You and your father will play the happy tunes, at home, for celebrations, dances, and weddings. You must never charge a fee, other than your dinner. Music is a gift to you and you must in turn give it “freely”, as you say.”

The wild, lonesome, "winter music"  of your father comes from a past he does not know, for his spirit has traveled far, forgotten much. That music you will also play. It comes from the soul. You will  play tunes you do not know except in your heart  when the days are cold and short.

"You will see in those musical journeys, the land from which we come. That will be a time we will cherish also. Your music will call the longer days of the year to come creeping slowly, as dogs who seek to sit by the fire to warm themselves at their Master's feet."

Our Princess will know that through your generosity, she lives. She will smile at the sound of your fiddle...for even she will hear it."

" The horns of the STUPID cows, will be quieted by your playing. " They both laughed at this.

"More we could grant, but your heart says you need nothing more...and in a flash, Shatar and Ringtorn were gone.

In their place on the ground lay a small brown carved wooden case.. The boy opened it and found a pair of violins. Carefully carved on the back of one, an image of Shatar, on the other, Ringtorn.

All they said came to pass.

At this time of year, when the days are short, and nights are long and cold, warmth of generosity does not go unrewarded in the hearts of those who give. Giving has it's own reward. The music of the fiddle will weave it's magic as you gaze into a fire,and the music will take you to small places you see only in dreams. Working always  at what you love is still the best gift of all...and makes the cold more bearable.

They have seen to it all, have Shatar and Ringtorn

Merry Christmas from old Bossie 








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