Monday, September 26, 2011

It'll Do You A Blessing Some Day

The white with the prominent ruff shook its comb at me as I entered the coop. I ignored it and moved towards a hen roosting in a box in the corner. I gently pushed my hand underneath, feeling for eggs, all the while watching the rooster out of the corner of my eye. It knew I watched and was wary. I pulled two eggs from the nest, moved on to the next hen. The rooster stood still, staring.

When I was within arm’s reach of the rooster, I lunged, grabbed it by the neck. It screeched and the hens in the coop set up a loud burst of squawking. Gently clutching the five eggs I had gathered against my chest, I walked from the coop, the rooster crowing and flapping its wings. I gave its neck a squeeze.

Yershi watched from the back of the hut.

I walked toward him. Wordlessly, he took the eggs from my grasp and placed them in a bowl. He turned and walked into the house. I followed, the rooster still in my grasp, still flapping its wings.
“Wait outside,” Yershi said.

I waited.

He emerged. Stopped three feet from the back door, and waited.

“Kill the chicken,” he said.

The rooster flapped. I killed it with a quick twist of the neck.

“Fine,” Yershi said. “There is a bucket of hot water there, on the bench,” he said. “I assume you know how to pluck a chicken. Be quick about it.”

I doused the dead rooster in the hot water, let it soak, then began pulling feathers. It was a handsome beast, with a long, flowing tail. The tail feathers reminded me of the quills the monks used to illuminate their manuscripts when I remembered to fill their pots with ink. I remembered stroking the quills, bunching them up and running them through my fingers, when I brought the ink and the monks were at lunch.

I also remembered sleeping on a thin mattress stuffed with straw and feathers, crawling with lice, in the mining camp where the lucky ones were allowed to sleep underneath the stars, rather than in dead shafts below. I shuddered. Surely, I thought, pulling feathers, Yershi the Mild will take me on as an apprentice. Then, I thought, I can really begin living.

I brought the chicken to him, where he sat at a rough table in the hut’s back room. He took it gently, cradling its naked body in his arms. “Wait here a moment, and do not attempt to follow. I will know if you do, and if you do, you will be shown the door,” he said. He marched not to the pot boiling in the fireplace, but to a trap door in the room’s floor. He opened the door and walked down a steep flight of steps, closing the door behind him. I heard the snap of locks and rattle of chains.

“Mind the water,” he said. “Don’t let it boil over and put the fire out.”

I swung the pot on its arm from the fire as Yershi worked in the odd darkness below.

I have good hearing. I was always the first at the mining camp to hear the owls calling to each other from one edge of the clearing to the other. I could always hear the thunder long before the rest heard it, and was the first to the best shelter.

From below, I heard the clinking of glass jars, the pop of corks, and an odd, sizzling sound that made the air taste faintly of tin.

After a few more minutes, the chains and locks rattled at the door again and Yershi emerged with the chicken, clean, ready for the pot. He put the bird in the pot and pushed it back over the fire. He walked heavily to the table and sat with a thump.

“Ginger-root and mandrake, with an infusion of lavender and sage,” he said, half to himself, half to the hands with which he covered his eyes. “Activated with St. Elmo’s fire. Still nothing,” he said. “Still nothing.”

He muttered to himself quietly. The pot boiled gently.

I cleared my throat. “Yershi,” I said, “Or master, my name . . .”

“Quiet,” he said. “I am calculating. I need quiet when I calculate.”

Guard your name, I remember Jans at the mining camp telling me. Guard your name, young one, and those in power can never have power over you. He was a stupid, superstitious man, but a man you wanted on your side at the mining camp because he made the others leave you alone. He did not want to know my name, but called me Hoot, after the owls I could hear so well. No one at the camps used their real name except for Jans and except for Ilkwhite, the camp master, who prowled the perimeter at night and never seemed to sleep and lived to capture a hapless miner trying to escape under cover of darkness and the coal dust we never completely washed away.

But I have a name. An important name, my father said. “It’s the name of kings, that one, lad,” he said. “Never be ashamed of your name, and it’ll do you a blessing some day.”

So I fantasized I was the forgotten son of a king, sent to dwell with a simple peasant family so some unnamed duke or earl could not find me and kill me, the rightful heir. Boys will fill their minds with all sorts of wild thoughts when the nights are long and cold and hungry and when their fathers leave to hunt and do not return, even long after the last embers of the last fire they light have burned out and the cold rays of the winter sun peek in through the thin thatch of the roof to shine on a boy curled in the corner, waiting for the father who never returned.

“It’ll do you a blessing some day,” he said.

He and I shared the name. It was ours. It was also his father’s.

It had not done any of them any bit of good.

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