Previous Part found Here.
Part Two – Between a Hawk and Handsaw
After a hard night’s sleep, Brown shakes me awake and offers me some course clothes that have the appeal of being less dirty than mine are, though of course, they don’t smell as good as they look. They have all their buttons and lack the inconvenient ventilation, too. I put them on, banking on them airing out a bit over the day. The threadbare pile of garments also includes a pair of boots. They are well worn, but decent- they even almost fit. For my breakfast, I manage to scarf down some bitter cereal grains- they taste like the flatbread from last night.
It is still early, just dawn and Brown goes out to hitch up the gigantigoat and finish plowing. My offer to do it for him is immediately accepted- and by immediately I mean as soon as I can get him to understand my attempts at signing, which are feeble at best. Plowing to give his old man’s back a break is about the only thing I can offer to repay his kindness, so I am eager to do it (plus it’ll get me out of the moldy smelling house, away from Brown’s own fragrance, too). It takes some practice and goat cajoling but, by the middle of the bright morning, the gigantigoat and I are like a well-oiled machine. At the far end of the field, surrounded by a small grove of trees, there’s a little brook- a picturesque, babbling brook- where I water the goat and myself. Later, I reward myself with a good long soak in its shallow water, washing both me and my new clothes before heading back to Brown’s little house as the sun sets.
After a dinner of mostly flatbread, Brown takes me under his linguistic wing and starts teaching me his signing. This is problematical at best because, while he can teach me nouns and certain verbs, I really didn’t have the head for learning it. There seems to be more than the shape of the hands and little wiggling movements to it- like timing is a part of it- rhythm changes the meanings in some way I can’t quite get a hold of.
I pass nigh a week helping Brown get his crops sown, his roof re-thatched and getting done a bunch of other odds and ends that he must have been putting off for months on account of not having enough strength anymore. It is perplexing to think of him as old when I was born about a thousand years before he was- unless I’m just delusional for thinking I’m here in the future or maybe for thinking that I used to be in the past, in which case being Old Brown’s elder is the least of my problems. My signing has gotten a might better over the days, but really I am never gonna be that good at it- I just don’t have the grace.
Farmer Brown turns out to be an all right fella despite the smells. Heck, I can hardly fault him for stinking with no sense of smell. That would be like making fun of a blind man’s fashion sense. So one night, when he’s trying to get me to make a sign that I’m thinking must mean big house or maybe houses, I cotton on that what it means village or maybe city. Since the sign for where was one I’ve mastered, I ask it- “Where village?” With a peculiar little wrist wiggle and a careful two beat pause in the middle. Brown seems surprised by the question. Maybe he thought that was where I’d come from, but he drags me outside, points past the grove of trees with the picturesque babbling brook and signs day five times. Five days walk isn’t that bad a prospect if it means finding someone to talk to, so I bid Brown a thankful goodbye and leave the farm the next day.
I kinda miss Brown’s company, now that I’ve been away from him a few days. If I don’t find the town he says is out here by sundown, I’m starting back for Brown’s farm with first light. Brown’s hospitality aside, there was no reason for me to stay with him but, if I go back, it’ll be because there’s nothing out here for me either. I’m also more than half through the provisions that Brown insisted I take along on my trek, so heading back makes a might more sense than looking for a place that maybe ain’t there- maybe never even was.
The more time passes, the more unsure I am that the world I remember- the cities and the civilization and the whole wide world of before the flashitty-nashitty isn’t my imagination. Maybe I’m Brown’s demented son who’s forgotten how to sign and fancies that he hears and tastes and smells when nobody ever had any senses other than sight and touch. Brown sure functions well enough without them. I’m almost convinced I oughta get myself home to Brown and hope for a fatted gigantigoat in welcome, when I see oddly low and thin, cloud on the horizon. Then the wind shifts and I can smell it- a cook fire! I hustle up, hoping to make the village or whatever the place with the cook fire is before nightfall.
It is a small village built in the ruins of something that once was much bigger- like a small city or a dense suburb- a town center. The cooking smells are strong, but the stench of humanity is even stronger. Still, they have food and when I get nearer, a big fella- maybe some kind of watchman for the village- he comes out to me. He’s got a big old spear and a gruff look and he signs what I think is a greeting, so I give the funny finger waggle that Brown taught me to say hello with and then sign the name that Brown gave me, which makes the big man laugh and cuff me across the side of the head. Come to think of it, I never did get a translation as to what that sign exactly meant- Brown must have had a laugh at my expense, too- the old goat. The watchman turns and walks back to towards the village and I guess I’ve been judged harmless and trot after him.
I follow the big fellow back to the village- he never looks back to see what I’m doing behind him or even if I am still behind him. He’s completely discounted me as a threat, which I hope is good because maybe that means that the villagers will take in the poor idiot- maybe they’ll feed me. As if cued by that thought, my stomach growls. Again, the bitter and earthy smells of the cook fires hit me and I wonder if maybe I don’t want them to feed me. They might not eat any better than Brown does.
The old ruinous buildings don’t seem to be in use, instead there are about half a dozen grass and mud huts in a circle around a much longer and slightly taller one. It reminds me of a field trip to a reconstruction of an American Indian village when I was in Sister Mary Augustus’s third grade.
After we have entered the low wall that surrounds the village, I see the Big Fellow go into the longest hut and hear a rise of odd, barking laughter, which I take to mean that the people inside now all know the name that Brown gave me. The Big Fellow steps back out from the door and beckons me inside.
Inside is warm from the large wood burning stove that sits in the middle of the room- a great cast iron thing that is lumpy in a way that tells me it was made by someone without much skill. The chill of the night settling in had felt much better that this warm did. The heat was uncomfortable, but more than that, the smell of the place- of the people there- it hits me like a wall of gym socks and fart when I am two steps inside the door. There is no possible way that these people have a sense of smell.
A stooped old mother comes over to me, offering a bowl of something that looks great, but is putrid just the same and I sign bread using the sign that I used with Brown and she leads me over next to the fire and hands me something akin to a bun and offers the bowl again. I wave her off, sit in an empty spot as far from the oven as I could get and eat the meager gift of my bitter bun for dinner.
Three days I’ve been in the village but it just doesn’t get easier to be here. The food is still inedible and the stench is still too strong for any comfort, but at least the natives aren’t helpful. I’ve been trying to find out if there is a larger town or even just a different town that I can maybe get pointed at, but they don’t seem to want to really help me learn to sign the way Brown had tried to and they don’t or can’t or maybe won’t understand my attempts to ask those kinds of questions.
I have also noticed that there’s an odd boy- maybe sixteen, maybe a little older- that they all but ignore, too. They feed him and sometimes the Big Fellow and the other men push him around and rough him up some, but mostly they ignore him. He sits far from the fire in the long house and sits outside a great deal. Oh and he’s covered in mud and sticks and such- they don’t even wash him off. At first, I was sure he was the village idiot- a concept that I’d never actually seen in real life before (not that I ain’t never met an idjit before, just not one that functioned as the Village Idiot). It’s a might funny to see how they treat him. Funnier still to see how they treat me near the same, when I wince back from things they can’t smell or taste or hear.
Ya see, he winces, too- not at everything, mind you, but at enough that I reckon he can hear. I just haven’t figured if he’s a bit hard of hearing or if he’s trained himself to ignore it all to fit in better. I’ve settled near him during the evening meals for the last two days- believe it or not, coated in gunk, he smells a might better than the rest of the villagers. I’ve set next to him for the dinner each night and it’s made keeping my bitter bread and the sour berries that are the only foods I can stomach- setting next to him’s made keeping my food down easier. He fakes not hearing me as I talk to him and I’m about as sure as I can be that neither he nor anyone else in this time understands a word I’m saying, but I keep talking anyway.
“So listen, Mudboy,” I continue, “I’m wondering how it is that you manage to survive on the little bits that we eat? Personally, I’m missing the protein, myself. You got some secret stash of eatable food hidden ’round here somewhere that keeps your coat soft and shiny?” I know he ain’t answering me, even if he does have a few nuts squirreled away somewhere, he can’t know what I’m saying. I just can’t keep the mouth from running anyway.
“Too bad you ain’t giving me a shot here, ’cause if you did, I’d be able to teach you a few things- how to sing for your supper, how to tell a decent knee slapper, how to chat up a girl,” I offer, nudging him with my elbow. He gives me a cross look and goes back to his food.
“Guess I don’t blame you. This is all you know, ain’t it? Never met another hearing, smelling, tasting, talking person, have you? Wonder if that means that we’re the only two?” I think on that a moment. “Nah- can’t be just the two of us. I never got the plague and you don’t seem like you got it neither- bet there’s a whole mess of us spread ’round- bet you’re all thinking we’re the onliest ones who can smell a hawk from a handsaw because you never have gone off looking for others, have you? Have you?” I nudge him with my elbow again and he doesn’t even look up at me this time. I give up for the night, figuring Rome weren’t built in a day and try to decide what tack to try with him the next morning.
So, this morning I wake to find that Mudboy isn’t anywhere around. I hope that his absence means that he’s off somewhere at his stash of good stuff- there is just no way he ain’t got one- he looks too healthy to have grown up on the little bits of grub that is stomachable round here. I’m thinking that maybe I can convince him to share or at least follow him to see where the good food grows so I can gather for myself. I go into the long house to scrounge some bread and berries for breakfast. The Old Mother who first fed me is there, stirring something heinous in a big soup pot over the fire. I resist offering her some eye of newt for her cook pot and try signing, Where’s Mudboy? She ignores my question and serves me a bowl of her lumpy potion. I refuse as gently as I can and leave unfed, but not really hungry anymore. Outside, I make a search of the village for Mudboy, but have no luck.
About mid-day, Mudboy comes into the village. The men razz him some and I am about to jump to his defense as they get a might physical, the Big Fellow especially- pushing him around and such- when the Old Mother comes from inside the long house and stops them. The men go back to their work and I walk up to Mudboy and say, “You all right?” He doesn’t answer. (Surprise, surprise.)
At dinner, I resume my post sitting away from the fire and next to Mudboy. He ignores me and I babble on and on to him about how much I miss real food- “Donuts, tacos, crumpets, chocolate cupcakes, vanilla cupcakes, lemon cupcakes, even carrot cake cupcakes, pizza, those really good hard rolls you can only get at the Italian deli, Buffalo wings, apples, jelly babies, peanut butter and fried chicken- we used to have this saying- it tastes just like chicken, because, see you’d be trying to get you buddy or somebody to try something a might strange and maybe it was a lie, but you’d still say- try muskrat, try llama- it tastes just like chicken. You, my friend, have not lives until you’ve had southern fried chicken with thick goopy gravy- God, I miss home.” And by home, I mean home before it all went to hell with the plague and the world economy collapsing. Once I’d hit twenty-one or so and the plague started really affecting the world markets- that food what was available was getting hard to swallow- even that food would have been better than what all I’ve been eating for the last days- weeks if you count my stint as Brown’s farm boy.
Now, I know he don’t know what I’m saying, but just the same, after a while he gives me a sidelong glance, lets out a mighty sigh and pulls his bundle up from where it lay between his feet. He burrows his hand deep inside the layers of cloth- it’s not a bag as much as a wad of old cloth- from deep inside the bundle he produces a handful of some kind of nuts- maybe hazelnuts?
“I knew you were holding out on me,” I tell him, reach into his palm for the nuts and pop a few in my mouth. Yes, they are hazelnuts- the first familiar flavor since the flashitty-nashitty and I could just cry. “Thanks,” I say around my mouthful and he gives me a quick smile before dropping his head and getting back to his sour berries.