Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thys Endris Nygth

“You have a choice,” Yershi said. The first snow of winter fell that morning, portending a long winter as it fell before the last of the apples dropped from the backyard tree. He at the washtub cleaned the breakfast dishes. He never let me wash dishes. He did them in a certain order: cups, bowls, plates, earthenware; and in a certain way: dip, scrub, dip, scrub, dip, rinse; and with a certain swishing motion in the water that he did not have the patience to teach another. For him I chopped the wood and fetched the eggs and water.

“Your choices are these,” he said. “You leave” -- this he said every morning – “second, you hide in the woods nearby for a fortnight, or, third, you pretend to be a mute while my guest is here.”

He would not tell me who the guest was to be. When I pressed, he raised his eyebrows and pointed out through the back door to the world.

I went mute that morning.

At dinner, he said, “You are a good mute. Not a sound. You would do better to lower your eyes, to shuffle rather than stride. To be more meek. My guess, I surmise, will expect such from a mute house-servant. He is an insufferable fop, I am sure. Do not look him in the eyes. If he kicks you, just get out of the way. You do not need to suffer a beating, but striking servants is what he is used to. I will know what he does, how he behaves, even if I am not around when he mistreats you. Fear not,” he said. “He will not be here long.”

That night, Yershi unrolled a thick bearskin from some hidden corner and spread it on the floor, covering the trap door that led to his den below. Daggers and a crumbing mace appeared on the mantelpiece. He silently rolled my bedding and bade me stow it in the chicken coop, where I knew I would be spending the nights while his guest slept on my pallet.

I grumbled a bit as I shoveled manure, spread straw in the coop.

“I hear you,” Yershi called from the darkened house. “He will too. A mute is not allowed to grumble.”

He fretted over his squirrels. For weeks now, he tied apples and small pumpkins and squashes and carrots from strings and dangled them from the branches of the apple tree. The squirrels came in droves, leaping from the tree branches to the ground to snuffle among the snow and leaves to eventually find the vegetables and fruit and dance and stretch and strain and climb to eat what hung there. Many mornings he sat at the table staring out the open Dutch door to the apple tree, laughing at their antics.

“He will not understand such frivolity, from a killer,” Yershi said. “What credibility I have could flee with those squirrels. Cut the strings.”

I cut the strings and tossed the fruit and vegetables to the pigs. The squirrels scolded from the treetop, but soon turned to the apples still on the branch.

A grand carriage arrived as the sun set. I watched from a naked beech across the lane; Yershi bade me disappear until morning. The carriage was black and trimmed with gold and burgundy. The horses, too, were black and clad with black leather. The footman was silent, obsequious. He thrust a wooden step below the carriage door, adjusted it, adjusted it again, then rapped smartly on the door three times. A voice from within shouted. The footman pulled the door open. After a long pause, a figure emerged. Tall. At least a head and a half taller than I. He would tower over Yershi, squat and fat. He stalked towards the house, crunching leaves and twigs under his impossibly small feet. The footman and carriage-man lowered bags and a trunk from the roof of the carriage, carrying them one at a time into the hut so as not to soil their bottoms in the dark snow.

The conversation was quiet, but I could hear the occasional shouted word or phrase. Rough road. Slow. Complaint. Tell. Never. Hanging.

There was much going back and forth from the hut to the carriage. Packages and bags, boxes of stuff. Yershi might have to roll up the bearskin and sleep in his den for want of space, I chuckled from the treetop.

With a trot of hooves and rattle of livery, the carriage left. The footman calling loudly to the carriageman: “This Yoshi will have a rough time with The Pup, no question of that.” They both laughed.

A cat wandered down the lane, sniffing at things, stepping over the frozen ruts.

Though it was cold, I stayed in the tree, silent as an owl, watching the stars come out. That milky band of stars and dust stood out like salt poured on a black cloak. The Evenstar rose, higher and higher. My breath came in billows, but still I perched in the tree, recalling the lullaby, the lullaby I know my mother sang to me as a babe:

Thys endris nygth
I saw a sygth,
A stare as brygt as day;
And ever among
A mayden song
Lullay, by by, lullay.

As I hummed the words silently, another voice joined in. The voice rose and fell, gentle as a mother cradling her infant. The stars seemed to jump and dance at the melody. The cold fled.

“Hush that row, fool! I’ve had a long day!”

The voice stopped. A breeze rattled the bare breech branches. Owls hooted to each other in the distance.

Yershi emerged silently from the front door of the hut, stared up into the sky. He glanced this way and that, then stared up at the beech, at me, through me. In the cold night, I heard him whisper: “That is one.”

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