Get a Haircut
The late summer flowers were
starting to bloom along the verges, bursting into bright yellows,
blues and reds between the footpaths and forest and at the bottom of
the low hedgerows that lined the fields. The birds and insects
chirped proudly in the midday sun, hidden from the heat under the
lush canopy of the forest, which 'shushed' serenely throughout the
lengthening days, as if to calm all of the babies born that spring. A
cool breeze still lolled down from the mountains occasionally, as the
summer heat had yet to reach their high, snowy peaks, and rolled
lazily through the valley before disappearing out over the plains. In
the fields, the simply-dressed labourers pulled the weeds from
between the quickly growing corns and grains, the older children
running around with slingshots and stones to frighten off the hungry
As the town bell rang to signal an hour after noon, the start of lunch, everyone downed tools and sat along the banks of the river with their packed lunches of meats, bread and summer fruits, the cool air wafting from the water the only respite from the current heat. The children all ran up the well-trodden path through the thin belt of trees to the town and up to the temple, where the priest handed out cold berry juice and crushed ice: it was difficult enough for an adult to work in this heat, the little ones deserved a treat.
As the children ran off, back to their parents for feeding, a merchant approached the priest. He looked about the painted wooden walls and carvings, faded from the years, with all the interest of a shopkeeper on a slow day, lingering a little on a familiar mural before speaking.
“Is the ice only for the children?” he enquired, thumbs hooked around his belt.
“Adults have to pay.” the priest reported with his usual friendly smile.
“What do you have?”
“I'm here trading chickens.”
“That's rare for a Badger.” the priest noted.
“It's good business.” the merchant shrugged “You Foxes aren't the only ones who like to trade them.”
The priest chuckled knowingly, considering the trade for a moment as he put the lid back on the small wooden barrel to keep the ice cool. He struggled with it a moment, betraying his age and frailty, drumming his long fingers on the wood as he crunched the numbers.
“I'll trade one chicken for five cups of ice.” he offered.
The badger considered a moment as well, flicking back his small ears, then nodded, sealing the deal.
“I'll have to fetch the chicken from the stock.” the admitted “Do you want it killed?”
“You transport them live?” the priest asked, surprised “Isn't that inconvenient?”
“It is, but meat spoils so quickly this time of year. Chicken feed doesn't cost as much as rotten meat.”
“Ah, I see.”
“I'll be back in ten minutes, then.” the badger informed him, waving a little as he went back to the market.
The priest waved back, watching the badger walk away before going to the back of the temple. Behind the small carved pulpit, right next to the door that led to the living quarters, a large, black iron ring lay on the ground, revealing the entrance to the basement. The priest took the ring in both hands and pulled it up with all his might, the frigid air wafting up at him as it opened.
“Junya?” he called into the gloom, muscles complaining from the effort “How are you doing down there?”
“Flipping cold!” the young man inside laughed, poking his head around the stair support “What do you need?”
“One of the merchants is trading a chicken. I'll prepare the vegetables, so please get five cups of ice ready before going to see the Lord.”
“Right you are.” Junya agreed.
The priest closed the hatch, leaving Junya in the gloom of the lamplight. The young man breathed on his hands before picking up his axe again, taking chunks off the battered block of ice before him. He never knew how it came to be so cold down here, especially this time of year, but since it meant they could keep ice in the summer he couldn't complain. Even the Lords house couldn't keep ice.
The cold, whatever caused it, seemed to radiate right off the compacted dirt walls and up through the roughly laid stone floor. The wooden constructs that lined the basement were always wet to the touch, and Junya supposed the cold was the only thing to stop them from rotting. They had to be pretty sturdy, as the round, flat barrels they held up were pretty heavy, especially when they were full of ice.
Once the five cups were filled, Junya prepared the Lords regular order, wrapping it up in the leather cloth. At his fastest, he could count to seven between the time he pulled off his thick work clothes and ran up the stairs to the warm, but he had to be careful not to slip (the priest telling him off would be more painful than the twisted ankle). Between the Lords order and the cups of ice, he counted to twenty before he was out of he basement, freezing his poor tail off. He nudged the trap door closed with his foot, the loud 'thud' of its closing alerting the entire temple to his presence.
“Ah, just in time.” the priest greeted, ignoring for now him slamming the door closed, limp chicken in one hand “The ice is for this merchant here.”
“Oh!” the badger exclaimed, taking his thumbs out from under his belt “Goodness! Isn't it cruel to lock such a pretty young lady down in the cold cellar all day? My dear, you look frozen!”
The priest covered his smirking mouth subtly with his sleeve. Junya just smiled as he walked over and handed the merchant his ice, using his now free hand to wipe his long fringe from in front of his face.
“I'm a man.” he informed him, putting on his deepest voice.
The merchants mouth dropped open and he started to stutter, ears falling back against his head unhappily. Junya and the priest just laughed as he flailed, trying desperately to find the words to take back his compliments.
“Don't worry, sir, you're far from the first.” the priest told him, patting his large arm reassuringly.
“And I doubt you'll be the last.” Junya sighed “What is it about me, anyway? I'm pretty tall, you know!”
“You're very slim for a man, even for a Fox.” the priest supposed “And you do have a feminine face.”
“You're killing me, boss.” the young man laughed “I'm a man in the prime of his youth! How am I meant to find a wife if people keep saying I'm pretty?”
“Worry about that after your delivery.” the priest suggested “You know the retainers will find any excuse not to pay.”
“Right, right, I'm on it.”
Junya grabbed the leather satchel from next to the door behind the pulpit, slipping the Lords order in and fastening the straps tightly. The merchant, utterly embarrassed, slinked away quietly. The priest let him go to save his blushes, turning his attention to Junya.
“Dinner should be finished by the time you get back.” he informed him “I know it's chicken, but please don't run.”
“Sure, of course.” the young fox promised half-heartedly as he pulled on his outside shoes.
“I mean it.” the priest urged “Please don't.”
Junya stood, smiling reassuringly at the priest.
“I won't.” he promised again “I'll be back soon.”
How like the priest to worry, but Junya wasn't a child any more – he knew how much his poor leg could take before he couldn't walk any more.
The labourers were just getting back to work, pulling themselves from the cool bank and bidding a friendly hello to Junya as they passed on the path that ringed around the town, saving them all from navigating the windy streets between the buildings. The canopy cast a shadow along the riverbank, where the children played with their feet in the shallow water until the last possible second before returning to the fields. Soon enough, it was only the sound of cicadas that travelled up the stony path to the crossroads with him.
As he climbed the hill, he came to the gap in the trees that gave the best view of the town – he could see the market bustling now that lunch had ended, full of badgers, crows and his fellow foxes milling around, trading and playing chess outside of the wooden buildings. He thought that the priest could make some good trades if more of the visiting merchants knew that he could make such good ice, but the priest insisted that then he'd have none left for the children.
From here, he could also get a good look at the house he grew up in, spying it by its wonky thatch roof: a new family lived there now, two parents and three small children. They looked happy whenever he saw them in town, and they kept the house nice – his mother would have been happy. Tearing himself away from the view, he continued up the hill.
The Lords house stood at the top, where the hill ended and the mountain began, hidden behind a high, lime-washed wall and expensive looking stained mahogany gate. Needless to say, it was the biggest building in town, since it served as the centre of the town government as well as a private home, standing at two stories and a basement tall with a heavy tile roof instead of thatch. Junya knew better than to try and get in the front gate, instead venturing around to the unsteady side path, which was only just wide enough to get past to the side gate before falling down the heavily wooded hill.
The rickety gate was unlocked, as always, leading to the shabby little courtyard, currently full of sacks and crates with errant straw across it cobbles. They must have just had a delivery: Junya sure didn't want to be the person whose job it was to carry those crates along that path. Remembering being lectured before, he shut the gate behind him before jogging up to the single wooden door, feeling a little twinge in his leg.
“Delivery!” he called, knocking on the open top part of the door.
The cook poked her head around, smiling pleasantly as she wiped her hands on her apron.
“Afternoon, Junya dear.” she greeted “You're just in time, as always. We've got our hands full here, I'm afraid, would you mind taking it through to the cold room for us?”
“No problem.” he agreed, pushing open the bottom half of the door and wiping his feet thoroughly on the mat before entering.
The cook insisted on popping a gooseberry into Junya's mouth before letting him proceed from the kitchen, warning him to watch his step on the freshly waxed floor. The entire household was in a flurry, darting to and fro with flowers, silverware and fine fabrics. Knowing where the cold room was, Junya danced around the busy servants, along the winding halls and down the basement stairs, where one of the retainers frowned pompously at him, looking obviously at his pocket watch.
“You were supposed to be here at 2.15.” the retainer barked “It is now 2.17. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I thought it unwise to run through the house.” Junya replied airily, more than used to their ways “Since the floor was freshly waxed. And it would have been most ungentlemanly of me to leave such heavy ice with the elderly cook, and you retainers are so busy.”
The retainer scowled at him as Junya opened the cold room door, the frigid air creeping into the hallway. Being a good merchant, Junya wiped down the long slate to get rid of yesterdays condensation, pulling the ice from his bag and laying it on top. As there was a little ice left from yesterdays delivery, he placed that on top.
He stepped aside knowingly as the retainer pulled out a wooden ruler and proceeded to measure all sides of the ice, nose wrinkling in dissatisfaction to discover they were all perfect. Junya merely held out his hand, not trying to hide his smirk as he was payed.
“I must know.” the retainer grumbled “How do you get it from the temple to here without losing an inch of it?”
“Trade secret.” was his reply, making a note of counting his coins before he put them securely in his pocket.
Any idiot could figure out that Junya cut the ice too big, so it could melt a little on the walk up and still be the right size when he got here, but retainers were a special kind of idiot. With nothing left to do here, he ambled back up the stairs, stepping aside as more people ran past, arms laden with this, that and the other. What was all the fabric for, anyway?
It must be getting close, he thought, to the young Lady's wedding. All this fuss and bother... they were sure to order a ton more ice for the big day, what with all the well-to-do guests that were sure to come. More bread too, and probably some cake. The whole town would probably benefit from the money they'd bring in.
Wondering back through the house, he greeted the rushing staff properly between getting out of the way and peaking at all the colourful things they were carrying.
“Junya!” an excited young woman called above the general hustle “Oh, Junya!”
He looked around, knowing the voice well, and smiled as the young Lady of the house ran up to him, skirts hitched up in her hands. He was never sure if it was 'proper' for the young Lady to wander around the servants halls and back rooms, but supposed it would get very lonely in the fancy part of the house with only pompous people to talk to. She grabbed his hand playfully as she caught up to him, her maids just looking on, used to her friendly ways.
“Junya, you must see my wedding dress, it's wonderful!” she exclaimed “It's finally finished and it's a real thing of beauty!”
“I mustn't stay too long.” he insisted as she pulled him along the hallway.
As they went through the door to the main house, anything that could remotely be called 'useful' disappeared, replaced by the luxurious and expensive, things that looked absolutely gorgeous, but would probably break if looked at too hard. Junya always felt uneasy around the glass fronted cabinets and fine crockery from lands far away, but the young Lady pulled him past all of them quickly, on to one of the drawing rooms.
So this was where they were hiding – all those foreigners, swanning about the Lords house. You could tell they were foreign since their hair was a rainbow of dark and bright reds, whereas the local foxes were more of a sandy colour, occasionally blonde in tone, but certainly not bright red. They all gave Junya a disapproving look as the young Lady pulled him past, but he didn't mind them. They never ordered anything from the towns traders, anyway.
The young Lady pulled him into one of the drawing rooms with the glass doors, the fancy tables and chairs pushed to the side to display the elaborate scarlet gown, embroidered in classic mythological themes along the bottom in rich golds and browns. Junya wasn't exactly an expert in dresses, and he wasn't tailor, but he could tell the gown was far fancier and (he didn't doubt) more expensive than the ones the townswomen wear at their weddings.
“Isn't it lovely?” she enthused, finally letting go if his hand and cooing over her dress “Come touch it, it's so soft!”
“I'm afraid I'll get it dirty.” Junya confessed.
“Oh, don't be silly.”
They looked around as the door opened behind them, revealing that fancy man Junya had seen once or twice in town. His hair was a particularly bright red, far too over-styled in Junya's humble opinion, and he dressed in silks and cottons to match. He examined Junya in the way all high bloods examined those below them, managing to look down his nose despite Junya being taller.
“A mixed breed?” he growled, disgust barely concealed on his face.
“Darling!” the young Lady greeted, dashing to the fancy man to embrace him “Darling, have you met Junya? Don't let those pretty blue eyes fool you, I can assure you he's 100% fox: he's the son of my old nursemaid, we practically grew up siblings. Junya, this is the man I'm going to marry! Isn't he fetching?”
“A pleasure to meet you.” Junya lied.
“And you.” the fancy man equally lied, his high-bred disgust only slightly lessened by Junya's pure breed status “Will you be at the ceremony, Junya?”
“Alas, I have nothing to wear.” he answered, knowing full well that he wasn't actually welcome at such a fancy event, despite what the young Lady may say.
“That's too bad.” the fancy man played along, voice rich with the accent of some place far away “I suppose you'll miss the Lady when she leaves to travel home with me.”
“As much as my own sister.”
“We even look alike, don't we?” the young lady laughed, not picking up on their tense exchange “All the other children thought we really were siblings. Blue eyes are so unusual on a pure-breed fox, it was the only way they could tell us apart: I wish I had something pretty like that to help me stand out.”
The door opened again, cutting off the young Lady's chattering. Junya bowed his head a little as the Lord walked in, looking older than he had the last time he saw him, hair starting to grey around the edges. He seemed surprised a moment, then put on his usual official expression.
“Junya,” he greeted “What brings you here today?”
“The young Lady just wanted to show me her wedding dress.” he confessed “It's most exquisite.”
“I wanted to make him try it on.” she confessed, hand still on her fiancés chest “Then you both came along and spoiled my fun.”
The Lord sighed in an irritated manner, but smiled in that fatherly way of his.
“Now my dear, you must stop taking advantage of him.” he chastised “You aren't children any more.”
“Oh father, don't you think it would be funny?” she laughed “Junya's so pretty, I'm sure he'll be so elegant in my dress!”
Junya and the Lord chuckled awkwardly, while the fancy man just looked confused.
“Junya, why don't you come with me?” the Lord offered mercifully “We'll need a larger order of ice for the wedding and I'd like to get a quotation.”
“Certainly, my Lord.” he agreed, not eager to be dressed up as a woman.
“You're no fun.” the young Lady pouted “See you soon, Junya.”
He bowed to her a little as he followed her father from the room, the Lord leading him back towards the servants entrance.
“Please excuse her.” the Lord said “She's been so giddy the past few weeks.”
“Oh, I'm used to her.” he pointed out “It's strange to think she'll be married soon.”
“You've both grown so fast.” the Lord agreed.
They stopped at the door that led to the back rooms, the Lord turning to him. He examined the young man a moment, smiling in that fatherly manner again.
“It's been a while since I've seen you.” he figured “Have you gotten taller? You're starting to become a fine young man: your mother would be proud.”
“Thank you, my Lord.” Junya blushed “Although I've yet to outgrow this feminine face of mine.”
“A sensible wife won't mind it.” the Lord chuckled “Have you found a sensible woman yet?”
“Not yet.” he admitted “But I am looking. I think my gangly legs put girls off.”
“You know, a man can't support a family on an ice sellers wage. Have you thought about some other vocation? I'm sure the priest finds you very useful, but you must think about your future.”
“I'm not sure what use I'd be for anyone.” Junya confessed “I'm so skinny, and with my bad leg I'm no good for physical labour. I'm too uneducated for trade.”
“You can read, can't you?” the Lord recalled.
“Only just.” he admitted.
“I recall that you have a charm with people. Perhaps, once my daughter is married, I might find some employment for you here. I'm sure you'll also find a more suitable wife here than down in the village.”
“That's very kind of you, my Lord.”
“Not at all. Now, you best be off before the priest misses you.”
Junya returned to the temple just as the labourers were leaving the fields, trudging along with their tools over their shoulders. The air had cooled, only the food and drink stalls remaining open in the market, although the sun would not set for several hours yet. The younger children still seemed to have some energy, chasing after butterflies and greeting their parents coming in from the fields.
As Junya got to the temple door, several children rushed in past him. He just chuckled, following them. The stew was ready, as promised, and the priest served up dishes for them all. The children continued to chat and play as they ate, stopping just long enough to say grace and running from the table to play outside the second the last one was finished. The priest chuckled at their antics and cleared away the plates while Junya poured the hot water from the kettle into the sink.
“What kind of work do you think the Lord will give you?” the priest asked, passing him the dirty plates.
“I'm not sure.” Junya admitted as he started scrubbing “I think he just wants to keep me around since I look like his daughter.”
“Oh dear.” the priest teased “However will you get a wife? Perhaps you need to cut your hair.”
“That's your answer to everything.”