Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Winter Tale

 A Winter Tale
Patrick Shields

Christmas was coming again, nothing new about that, happened every year in December.  School was out for the holidays, but the Christmas break brought no real joy to the boy.  Christmas was the beginning of the real cold and lifeless winter for him. Oh, there would be plenty to eat that winter.  The winter staples, potatoes, shucky beans, cabbages, apples, canned tomatoes and fruit had all been stored away. The boy’s father had sold the pig they were going to butcher late that fall to pay the lease on the small farm. It would be bunnies, squirrels, and maybe a turkey or two for meat this 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 the kitchen. Off the kitchen, a narrow hallway 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 hills; with leaves, or no. He liked leaves better. The lifeless winter morning sun on brown hills weren't his favorite landscape. Brown and gray were not his favorite colors.

There was a small back porch, off the kitchen, where a hand  pump pulled water up from the cistern below. The cistern was built of brick, and plastered with concrete to keep it from leaking. The top of the tank was covered by a concrete slab. Water gushed into the tank from the gutter system on the roof when it rained. Two dry summers and numerous leaks had compromised the system. The walls of the tank needed re plastering. It was a mid summer job, his Daddy had said.
The boy’s main chore was to bring water from the spring down the hill in an old milk can in his goat cart. Big Billy Goat Gruff was the power source, and smelled the part. He stopped momentarily in his harnessing the goat, and stood remembering how the late night thunder storms in spring would wake him, the sonorous rush of the water spilling into the tank above the roar of thunder. It was a joyous thing to see the tank full. There would be no trips to the spring for a week or two until the tank leaked dry.
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 of stiffness in cold weather, and could tell when rain was coming. Daddy said the doctor didn't set it right. The doctor had said it would take time; that she needed to rest the ankle and let it heal. That was not an option.
When not farming, 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 had a weekly job at the cattle barn on sale day.
The boy loved to go with his Daddy to the stockyard on sale day. The smell of the barns, pens of cattle, horses and pigs, the rattle of the auctioneer’s gavel, and playing with his friends were a highlight in his life. They would hand onto the fence above the loading chutes and watch the loading and unloading livestock. It was loud, organized chaos. 
Painting is what his Daddy dearly loved. He painted signs, building, barns, roofs, silos, anything that needed painting.  He was in his best mood when he was hired to paint a house, barn. Everything his Daddy painted looked grander.
Painting huge advertising signs on barns were his favorite things to paint. Companies would paint a land owner's barn for free, if the company could use it as a billboard. A red and white “Argo Starch” sign, or the black and yellow “Chew Mail Pouch”, or “See Rock City” adorned barns and roofs around the county. His Daddy was paid well by the company for painting and lettering the barns.
Winters for his 9 years he had been alive 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 hold them to the stove. The smell of warm lanolin filled the house. The boy would never forget that smell.

His Dad also played the fiddle. It was mostly in the warm times he played. The boy was allowed to pull the bow over the strings, standing between his Daddy’s knees. Sometimes in winter his Daddy played a slow, mournful, distant music that spoke of places far off in the boy's mind. He asked his Mother about "that music". She had no explanation. "It just comes out of him," she said, reflectively.

The fiddle resided in a dresser drawer, wrapped in a towel. The boy asked to bring the fiddle out, but he was told many times by his Mother, not to disturb it, for fear he might damage it. When his mother went to the neighbors, and Daddy was gone, he would take the fiddle out of the drawer, and draw the bow over the strings, and try to play what he had heard his Daddy play. The boy was always careful to put it back exactly as it was, but his Daddy knew. He never said anything. He was secretly proud the boy was interested.

One cold December morning, he sat in the goat cart, heading for the spring. B.B. Gruff walked slowly, holding the cart back on the gentle grade. He usually led the goat, but today the cold and lifeless landscape made him sad; the 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 on the old milk can in the cart, what he could do 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 oddly dressed 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 it was probably a neighbor just getting water. He knew better... the little man was not a neighbor. He had seen all the close 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 by the spring, and waited. He turned his face to the little warmth of the December sun in his little nest, and must have dozed off.

He was awakened by the sound of voices. Over the roots of the tree, he saw two small, odd looking men, shouting at each other in high pitched voices.

 "You WILL fill the bucket this time, AND carry it back"!

“No!" said the other. “You fill it yourself,  'twas you that kicked it over, spilt it, you did, and YOU shall bring home again for your careless ways.”  
The pair stood beard to beard, red faced, puffing at each other like small steam engines. They were dressed in green with smart fur tunics against the cold, black boots and funny looking fur hats.

 "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 at the pair.

Both the men jumped as though they had heard a shot. They gazed at him silently, with mouths ajar. The shorter of the two said, out of the corner of his mouth, in perfect English. “I know this one. He is in league with them bovines, I have seen him talking to them.”  Me thinks he is not dangerous, but be wary, Shatar.”

“Wary of what?” the boy questioned.

"Oh, don't play your rigs on me, you know very well WHAT." said the small one.

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

“Them Bovines!” said the smaller man.  “You, a big strapping young fellow have nothing to be afraid of.  We are not so big and strong as yourself. When the bovines blow their horns, snort and eat dirt, they fill me with dread”!
 “They flail their awful tail like some dragon! Huge, dark eyes they have, that stare right through you. They stomp and kick, throwing their massive heads causing all manner of biting, stinging, flying things to attack from every direction. Fierce and wild, they are. That’s WHAT”! The little man stopped, his face bright red.
“Are you talking about the cows?", said the boy.

 "Cows, he calls them! I told you he is in league with them", wailed the smaller man.

 "Why are you afraid of cows, they are very gentle, for the most part”, said the boy.
“Ah, ‘tis no use to hide the truth," said the taller one.  “I am Shatar, the Elder, and this is my apprentice, Ringtorne. Say nothing until I am finished, and I will tell you who we are, a why we are here.”
“Forty days ago we were given a task by the King of the Land 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 Places and Yonder.
We are the two men entrusted to study the Book of Other Places and Yonder. 'Tis an Ancient Book, containing the story of our people, and all the knowledge acquired over the ages. In the Book we discovered a cure for our princess.

"Our King fought and killed a terrible wizard long ago, and a curse was put on his first born; be it boy or girl. The curse stated the child would never grow to slay another evil wizard. It was stated the child, in it's forth year, would begin to shrink smaller and smaller, finally growing into the ground,   to become thorny briers. The King's daughter has begun the “grow back”. It is our task to reverse this process.
There was given in the Book, that to cure "Grow Back”, one must find and administer a measure of Milch before the victim become the age of 5 years". Our Princess is now a moon from her fifth year”.

“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 beasts to be very terrible and protective of the milch. Our attempts to gather this substance have proven near fatal for Ringtorne and me. We have suffered many bruises trying to unlock the keys. We fear we may be too late to save our Kings little daughter”.

“Milk? Is that all you need? I can get you milk, all you have to do is milk the cow”, laughed the boy

“You laugh as though this be the simplest of tasks, you must not make light of our quest, or we will... do something awful to you? Look at him, Shatar... he laughs at our anguish. What shall we do to him?

"Laugh with him, for methinks he knows the secret of the Bovine Keys.”,  said Shatar.
So laugh they did, roaring “Milk...all you want is Milk?" 

Shatar and Ringtorne laughed and danced ‘till the woods rang and the ground shook!

Milk they wanted, and milk they got.

The next morning, the boy and Goat Gruff came to the spring with their can for water, bringing a jar of milk. The boy sat by the tree where the two little men had appeared to him the day before. The goat grazed nearby.
 A small voice spoke from high in the old tree, "Does the bovine bite"? 

Gruff is NOT a cow, or bovine, as you call them" said the boy, “He's a goat.  I have brought you milk."
The two little men appeared to float 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, "It’s still warm, want a taste?”

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

Such joy over a jar of milk the boy had never seen. “He knows the secret of the keys”, they sang. The little men hugged the boy’s legs, cried tears of happiness, and nearly fainted away in the joy having obtained what they never hoped get;  a jug of milk.

Shatar suddenly stopped and 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 any freely with which to pay for such a treasure." wailed Ringtorne.
"You don't owe me anything," said the boy, "you can HAVE the milk”.

"Have it?” “You give it, for no price?” “Oh, Shatar, the boy is quite Mad.” said Ringtorne. “This is a trick, Shatar, I told you no good would come of this! He has some evil bargain to play on us!”
Shatar held up his hand, stood looking at the boy for some time.Then in a big  and solemn voice, began to speak.

"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 troubles.”

“You also seem to have free, giving spirit. In return for the generosity you have shown, you shall find by this tree, on this day, every year, a small bag of gold. It will pay for the land you and your parents now live upon.

"We will see to it." said the Ringtorne, writing in a small book.

“Your mother will become better with time. Her limp will go away and she will find her old vigor “.
“We will see to it”. Ringtorne wrote in the book again.
“Your father, an honest worker, shall prosper at what he likes to do best. He will always have a house or barn to paint. You will work by your father's side, and as he grows older, you will climb the ladder, and paint with a steady hand. 
Your greatest reward will come as a fiddler. You will learn from your father. Your skill will become known far and wide. You will bring joy to all who listen to your fiddling, as you bring joy to our people for the gift of milch to cure our Princess. You must never charge a fee other than your supper when asked to play for weddings, dances and other celebrations. Music is a gift to you and you must in turn give it freely, as you say.”

  " Once a year , at Mid Winter's Eve, when the wild, cold, lonesome winds of winter blow, you will be called to come to the hills, and play for our mid winter feast. You will have no choice in this. Never fear; it is a joyous occasion. Your music will call the longer days of Spring to come forth, as dogs who come creeping close to the fire to seek warmth at their Master's feet."

 The tunes you learn will come on a spring breeze, a rippling stream, or in the flight of a bee. They will come to you suddenly, and you must learn them. They will flow from your fingers. No other fiddler will have ever heard these tunes. You will see, in those tunes, the land from which we come. Our Princess will know that through your generosity, she lives, and grows. She will smile at the sound of your fiddle whenever she will hear it."
Ringtorne, butted in, “and may the “horns” of your “cows” be silenced by your playing.”
The all laughed at this.

“We will see to it, wrote Ringtorne, once more.

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

In their place, on the ground lay a small brown carved wooden case. The boy opened it and found a pair of elegant fiddles.One with his name , one with his Daddy's name.

Daddy never asked the boy where the fiddles came from when he brought them home. The boy suspected his Dad knew more than he told, but an occassional glance told the boy where the wild, forlorn music of his father played might come from.

All Shatar spoke came to pass. Ringtorne had written it so.

I end my Winter's Tale with a hope that with good friends and family around, the sound of a fiddle will weave magic into your heart as you gaze at the fire. Let the music take you to places only it can. 

May that be the Mid Winter’s feast, and may you meet Shatar, Ringtorne and the Princess in the Land Under the Hill. Give them my best wishes!

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