It begins. Light fumbles through clouds over foggy fields.
“Hey, they are waiting, ” Charles says.
“Hm, be blunt,” I mumble in my wake.
A moment passes.
“Get that flea out of bed now,” Charles says, then slips grey wool socks onto my feet. “Don’t make me come up there.”
Charles, that little boy, it won’t be long now until he too is out there with us. Pity.
My joints crackle as I roll over while grimacing.
I walk to the dining room in a haze.
My father, Claude, sits at the table’s short side, as usual, gawking at my entry. His menacing gaze, burn marked neck, and scar stretching from mouth to ear catch my eyes, they tend to have that effect. A few stubs of hair are all that’s left on his head, unlike his long grey beard. His attire is, like usual, the same brown linen pants and black cotton shirt.
Annabel Weatherstone sits close to his right. Her long yellow, curly hair -without a single grey strand from dye -resting on a green draped dress. All kinds of jewelry sway as she eats, like a shining outer shield to her midlife misery.
The birds are chirping right outside the window, grasshoppers do their thing, and we ours.
I take my seat, still holding onto a sliver of hope that this might be a quiet morning, free of any bickering and arguments.
My father asks me how the fields are doing, about my health, and if I read any new books. All of the things a father should concern himself with for his son. Annabel proceeds on the topics of craft, dreams, love. I answer their every inquiry, and in return, my father tells us another story from his servitude in the cold-hearted legions.
What happens instead is that I take my seat, steeling my nerves for what is to come, knowing that it won’t be pretty. We have all been slightly on edge since that incident.
I gaze over at Annabel, and Claude following my spoons trajectory; perhaps, they are expecting some different result deviating from it entering my mouth. Nothing outside of the ordinary, as of yet, that’s good.
“Had your fill?” Claude says. “Get out!”
I grab the bowl and pour the soup down the hatch.
His mistress Annabel stretches her lips for a split moment.
With soup still working its way downwards, I stretch my lips back at her, then look over at the last bowl more meat than soup, unlike my own, and awaiting my brother, Terry Weatherstone.
I get up and walk outside.
My family’s fields stretch far into the valley. A gift by the Duke on merit, or so they claim. I have never laid eyes on the deed, let alone read it; either way, it won’t be mine, being the second born has that effect on things.
Short at hand, my father -two nights ago -brought a fresh batch of recruits from the nearby militia.
On my way to the fields, these new faces appear in rapid succession, bearing pale white skin, drooping eyes, and crooked backs.
I have studied their kind through the previous batch: rowdy bunch, some whacks, and a couple of quirks -nothing unusual -and for lack of whatever they are missing, well, our personalities will fill those blanks, for the better; or for worse, until death do us apart.
“Good morning, Ben, how are you doing?” I ask the first familiar face to join us.
“I am fine,” Ben says and positions himself at my right-hand side. His appearance, likewise, to our band of merry farmers wearing patchy hemp in the color khaki and brown.
I shake my head and say, “Fine, you say? Almost mistook your eyes for sun draught tomatoes.”
“Potatoes, tomatoes…” Ben says. “What’s the difference?”
“How was the moonshine?” I ask.
Ben looks over at the fresh batch of recruits while grinning. No doubt, there’s some unspoken past between them.
A worker grins back, “The finest in the north.”
Another worker taps Ben’s shoulder, “Top of the line.”
“Well, now you all got the chance to sweat it out,” I say, then smile.
“Ai,” says another farmer, planting his face into his palm.
“Right, you are there young master Quin,” the same farmer says in a teasing tone.
“Let’s get to work,” Ben says.
I smile at him, and he replies in kind.
In the fields, I plow my fair share while my mind drifts elsewhere. First, to the other men performing similar tasks with little to no coordination while admiring their enthusiasm and lousy repayments, for this, my father deserves some recognition.
A book I have read on a soldier’s life describes the standard unspoken practice to pile the dead enemies and allies alike in the same hole. I find that to be ridiculous. They expect them to continue the battle in the afterlife? No, sir, the past is the past, I’ll rather die in peace. If I can’t rest in my grave, then, where can I? The life of a soldier is not for me. I’ll rather be a second born farmer’s son. And so, by stepping into the farmer’s shoes: it must be better, by far, than having their heads lopped off, everything seems to make sense.
At midday, my muscles give in. Jim and I, we begin to shovel some fertilizer. It reeks, and it stings inside my nostrils. “Might pay a pretty penny to have people observe the process of their gourmet in the making,” I murmur.
“Hey, Jim, you think the harvest will spring before the snow falls?” I ask while looking over at him.
“A dry season,” He says and straightens his back. “The soil lack nourishment and the river waters’ shallow.” He draws his shoulders up and turns his palm; likewise, blowing on his mustache.
I shake my head and say, “That’s not an answer to the question.”
“It is what it is,” Jim says.
I crack a smile, “Almost noon, let’s settle in the forest clearing.”
We gather outside the view of the household; therein the shade, the foreman Skipper’s gaze greets mine. Sweat seeping into my eye crooks as he stuffs his pipe.
The chit-chat stops.
“Quin, you see the lady over there?” Skipper says, and his index finger aligns well with nowhere in particular.
“Don’t see squat,” I say while a soggy sensation slips into my palm.
They all giggle like a bunch of small girls.
I wipe the dung off on Skipper’s shoulder.
“I know a light-footed ox over at Riley’s farm,” Ben says.
“Are you sure?” I say.
“His skin is black as night, and he only grunts in the company of fair cows.”
“Sounds too good to be true, but you got my blessing,” I say.
The others nod.
Ben pokes me with his elbow, “Didn’t ask for your blessing, but keep this under the rug, will you?”
“Sure will,” I say and pat his shoulder with my dirty hand.
“Well then, what are we waiting for,” Skipper says while making his way towards Pristine.
We string along his tail like ducklings following their mother.
On the road, the farmers tease Skipper for confronting my father on their terms of employment three nights ago.
“Hey, what did he say?” Ben asks.
Skipper shakes his head and opts out of the conversation.
I quote out loud, “A man and his plow.”
“That’s all?” Jim says.
“Loud enough for everyone sleeping in the main-household hear him,” I say. “And Skipper, the poor sap, had to hide out in the forest for two whole nights.”
“That’s your father in a nutshell, alright,” Jim says. “His reputation is well deserved.”
Jim’s words awaken a lot of memories, of how my father often banters us on work ethic: ‘Calluses, blood, tears, sweat. Now, that’s a natural part of life.’ He has said that sentence so many times by now that I stumble across it wherever I go. That nutty fruit basket must know that those words haunt me now; more than ever, that I’m about to slack off while stringing them in every possible combination.