Note: This piece was never finished, but it ends in a decent place. For the life of me, I can’t recall what the “battle” was meant to be other than I am 99% certain it was a slight overstatement (maybe more than ‘slight’) to call it a ‘battle’. Or very bloody, for that matter. It was mean to be an unmitigated chaotic disaster. Probably involving moonshine…
In reading through it five years later, I thought it displayed a sense of humor you don’t typically see from my more serious “poetry face”. I’m not nearly as morose as one might think, based on reading my recent writing.
©2016, 2021 Michael Raven
Feargus couldn’t rightly say how he’d managed to get on his Da’s bad side this time, but it probably had something or another to do with Uncle Lochie’s arrival and the subsequent escape of Mad Jessie.
The family’s addled milkcow was convinced she was one of the many feral cats that plagued the outskirts of New Place, and a certain gate he probably should have secured when Uncle Lochie swagged up the rough path to the run-down shack the Lusk family called home had been found open when his Da went out to milk the cow in the morn. He could have sworn he’d looped the wire loop of the gate over the post, but had to admit he could have been a little distracted by Lochie’s arrival, enough that he might have overlooked those particular kinds of details. If so, one could hardly blame his excitement at meeting a real sea merchant, even if he was related to the merchant and saw him every six months or year. And, as Feargus tried to point out, one of the Hobbs boys could have pranked him and let her out as payback for one of the many pranks he’d visited upon them recently.
Upon discovery of the insecure gate, Feargus was put in charge of finding which brood of cats Mad Jessie had traipsed after, trying to convince felines she was one of their own, echoing the mournful meows with her own lowing.
When he finally found Jessie, she had made it to the far end of New Place with cats mewing and fighting over access to one of her teats dripping with the contents of her swollen udder. Jessie was attempting to purr, a sound more hideous than Feargus thought possible coming from a cow. He kicked away some of the braver or hungrier tabbies and threw the loop of a hemp rope around Jessie’s neck, who continued to try to purr, and his muscles grew taut as he struggled against her as she plodded after the cats, digging his heels into the drought-cracked dirt and finding little purchase. The feral cats had raised the volume of their mewing, not quite ready to give up the treat of warm milk. Jessie had moved back to her lowing after pausing long enough to plant a fresh cow-pie, and then turned to the closest cluster of cats with a sharp turn of her head. It just so happened that her abrupt change in direction caused Feargus to nearly fall face-first into her recent gift of fertilizer. His arms windmilled as his feet finally found purchase and it was only but sheer will and vigorous arm-waving that he managed to avoid the indignity of coming to rest in the still-steaming shit.
When Feargus finally found his balance, Jessie had wandered over onto the edge of the Coburn property and the cats had already gathered around her teats, catching drips of milk in their mewing mouths before they fell to the dirt.
“You goddamn harlot, I’m apt to butcher you rather than milk you when I get you home,” he threatened rushing to her, but it was plain Jessie could care less. After all, who would bother to butcher a cat.
He once again showed the cats the underside of his worn leather boots and even caught a few with his toe, much to his satisfaction. Once he’d cleared out the worst of the hoard, he reached out for the rope he’d looped over her neck and tried to once again get the crazy beast to come home, but she was busy lowing for her cats and couldn’t be bothered with such petty details as compliance.
It was a battle he would have lost had his mate Munro not happened to walk out of the house to take care of the few chores his mother made him do every morning.
Munro rubbed the sleep from his eyes and blinked as the scene of a cow with a young man dragged behind, with mournful lowing as it pursued mewing frenzied cats expertly skirting between hooves as they risked the odds of an early death in search of warm milk. He rubbed his eyes and looked hard before realizing he wasn’t still asleep dreaming.
He cupped his massive hands to his mouth outlined with the first mangy wisps of a beard. “Oy, Fergie,” she shouted across the yard. “Did Mad Jessie make another escape?”
Feargus hoped his groans sounded more like he was straining against the wayward cow’s progress than what they were really uttered for. “Nope,” he replied as calmly as shouting a reply can sound. “I decided it was time to take her for a walk to stretch out her legs a bit and she was mighty insistent that we come visit her wayward children on this end of town.” He strained against the rope again to see if Jessie had a mind to let him guide her back home. By her tugging in a direction opposite of the one that’d take them home, Feargus was under the impression she had other plans.
Munro stared at Feargus blankly and it was obvious, even over the distance between them, that little wheels were working inside his head to puzzle it all out.
Feargus tried to bring Munro back to the present. “Lovely day for a stroll, ainnit?” he called out over the lowing of the milk cow. Munro was solid when it came to getting a mate’s back, but he was not known for having the swiftest of minds. His skills trended more toward adding yet more bulk to his already massive frame.
Munro snapped out of his reverie and looked up at the sky. “I dunno,” he said, putting out a hand to test for the presence of raindrops, “Looks like it might rain any moment, you ask me.”
“Just what I was explaining to Mad Jessie, but she’s determined to keep going, the trooper that she is. I don’t suppose…” said Feargus, pausing for dramatic effect. “I don’t suppose you’d be of a mind to help me convince her it was time to go home, do ya?”
Feargus nodded toward the rope hanging near the door of Munro’s house, hoping he’d take the hint. Jessie was trying to purr once again and, based on the results of the last effort, Feargus was getting anxious to not test fate once again. “That is,” he shouted, “if you ain’t busy with something else right at the moment.”
Munro nodded. “Sure, I can help ya,” he said, grabbing the rope and striding through the thin, pale yellow grass in front of the house towards Feargus. Lumbering might have been a more apt term, as Munro rarely rushed his large frame anywhere. He put a finger to the side of his nose and blew a booger out of the other as he made his way and then cleared the other nostril about the time he reached Feargus and Jessie. The few remaining brave spitfires scurried away as he came up astride the milk cow and put the looped hemp over her head on the right side and dug his heels into the ground. The cow’s front legs reared up a bit when the slack was gone. Munro hadn’t even slid an inch.
“Good gods, Munro, how much exactly do you weigh these days? You stopped Jessie in her tracks.”
Munro shrugged his broad shoulders in response. “Can’t rightly say anymore. I don’t keep track.”
Jessie tugged on the two ropes holding her from following the cluster of cats to whatever den they retreated to whenever the village elders thought it might be time to cull the beasts. Each time, they would return in greater numbers after the elders gave up trying to reduce the population.
“Naw, Naw, Jess, Fergie says it’s time to start heading back.”
The milk-cow gave another plaintive moan and then turned around and let herself be guided back to her stall back on the Lusk homestead.
“Thanks to the Nine,” said Feargus out loud, relieved to be on their way home. “I’m already in for a hiding, but it’d be worse if Jessie made it out of town.” He reached over the cow’s back and slugged Munro’s upper arm affectionately. “Thanks, man. I don’t think I could have stopped her without you.”
Munro shrugged. “Friends help friends. That’s what friends are for.” He suddenly looked at Feargus, eyes mischievously peeking between unruly blond locks of hair that fell in front of Munro’s face more often than not.
“Hey, I was gonna stop by later to see if you might be up for a bit of deep thinking this evening.”
Feargus smiled. “You steal some of your da’s hooch?”
Munro returned the smile with something he thought resembled a smile, but looked more like he was constipated than full of mirth. “Fresh from the still. It’s still cooling in the creek out back,” he said, nodding to Ribbon, a small creek behind his family’s home that was dry as often as it was wet. This season, it’d been a thin trickle, but a trickle nonetheless, of pure snowmelt from the nearby Dragon’s Teeth.
“I don’t know how you manage to not get caught,” Feargus said with real wonder. “You’d think he’d notice at one point or another.”
People were starting to trickle out of their homes as the two young men led the cow down the path cutting through the village.
“Nah, he secretly wants a drinking buddy when I get older. He makes it easy to pick up a jar here and there. He doesn’t want to drink with a lightweight, so he’s building up my tolerance already.” Munro waved at the gaggle of girls already more energetic than anyone had a right to be this early in the morning, skipping to the market as the hawkers started out over the morning air. “Mornin’ ladies!”
The cluster of girls smiled, a few giggled and several others waved in response as Munro continued to wave. “But he makes it look like theft in case mum notices. She’d put him in an early grave if she thought he was giving me hooch at my age.”
Feargus added his wave to the mixture, but only received friendly, half-hearted responses in return. It was nice knowing he was already promised to one of the most beautiful girls in town, but he felt a bit robbed that everyone knew this and respected, or feared, Etain too much to return anything nominally akin to flirtation. Nor was Etain much inclined to flirt with him either, though they’d been promised a few years already. Ever since he could remember, their conversations had been as passionate as a wet towel and Feargus fervently hoped she was a closet sex fiend or he might find himself resentful of the arrangements his father had made on his behalf a few winters back. The Nine knew he was very likely a sex fiend himself and he imagined they would enjoy each other’s company tremendously if she was as well.
“Man,” Feargus said, shaking his mangy brown mop, cut in the current high-fashion of the highland backwaters, “You’re ma’s getting as tight as my father. A little hooch never hurt no one.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” nodded Munro in agreement. “Everyone needs a snifter to unwind at the end of the day, I say. No reason all the fun should be kept to adults.”
Feargus’ mouth watered as the smell of bacon pouring out of the Merry Widow and his stomach growled in protest as he forced himself to pass by the front door without stepping in to buy a rasher. Or two. He considered turning back to try begging off a slice or five from Miss Hanna. The old matriarch had a soft spot for him because he reminded her of an old lover, decades gone to ground. But Lillian, her daughter and owner of the Merry Widow had warned him off with a butcher knife the last time she caught him taking advantage of the similarities he shared with the beau and he wasn’t keen to see how well she kept her promises. She hadn’t inherited the “Merry” part of her mother, though she had managed the “Widow” part just before she took over her mother’s inn.
Lillian couldn’t mutilate him for enjoying the smell, however, and Feargus let his head linger around the corner to draw in a deep breath while his legs followed Mad Jessie and Munro.
“Ouch!” someone yelled from under him as he stumbled over something all arms and legs. Soon, his lankier arms and legs joined the jumble and he managed to get a mouth full of something he hoped was only dirt when his face kissed the ground. Small fists began to pummel him as he tried to disentangle himself and spit out dirt and might have succeeded if one of those fists hadn’t found one of the tender areas around his ribs, causing him to suck in some of the dirt he was trying to spit out and set him to choking.
The sharp little punches continued. “You. Big. Troll. Of. An. Oaf.” Each word was punctuated by another balled fist, all expertly aimed at the more tender bits between his legs, all of which he thankfully managed to avoid as he disengaged him from the demon he’d landed on, bruising his thighs instead. He curled himself into a ball for protection but it proved unnecessary except for the delayed kick to his kidneys for emphasis, though the force behind it was greatly diminished from the earlier punches.
A different frosty voice joined in. “That’s enough. You’ve punished him enough, Niamh, for what was obviously an accident due to inattention.”
Feargus knew exactly what he had to do: cower in an appropriately craven manner and beg forgiveness for all of his transgressions, those recent and in the past. Any progress he might have made with his future wife would evaporate like the morning mist over Endless Lake, the pond that stretched for about half the length of the west end of New Place.
“Nee-nee, you are so very right, I am both a troll and an oaf.” He looked up and shuffled on his knees to where the twelve-year-old tempest Niamh stood with legs spread and fists on hands. Her plain dress was torn in a number of places from their little scuffle from what little he could see staring at the ground and he winced when he imagined the report his father was likely to receive later on in the day from Mrs. Faolan, Niamh’s mother, and decided he needed to add another layer of grovelling for forgiveness if he wanted to be able to sit sometime in the next week, so he bowed in the dirt road far enough to kiss the ground in front of her feet. Munro made a rude noise, but would keep his comments to himself until they were out of earshot of the Faolan girls.
“No one’s called me that since I was about five,” Niamh informed him and then let him grovel some more.
He began to wonder if Etain and Niamh had walked away and considered looking up when Etain spoke up. “Gods, Naimh, you can be such a tyrant at times. He apologized, accept it gracefully.”
“But he hurt me and,” there was a frustrated noise, “he ripped my dress.”
Feargus watched and winced in anticipation as he watched her tiny foot draw back for another kick but then Etain spoke up.
“Niamh, I said that’s quite enough. Accept his apology so we can get on with picking up what we were sent to the market for.” Feargus relaxed and let the breath out.
“Okay, future brother-in-troll. I forgive you.”
Without anything further to add, the two little feet stomped in the direction of the market. Etain gave him a hand as he stood up and called out after her. “I’ll be right there Niamh, just give me a few moments.”
When Feargus looked in the direction of the walking she-devil, he saw she didn’t turn around, but instead made a dismissive gesture with the hand not carrying a basket that had also become a victim of the collision. Munro made another rude noise very similar to the first one he made, but tried very hard to make it look like he was clearing his throat.
Before Feargus could turn back to Etain and apologize to her for the whole incident, she spoke up. “Mad Jessie got out again?” she asked, though it was the only reasonable excuse for the cow to be coming from the far side of town opposite the Lusk homestead.
“Aye,” he confirmed in a low voice. “She’s done run off to play the matriarch to her cat family once again.” It was one of the few largish words Feargus knew and he made a point of using as many as he could around Etain when rumor got to him she softened up around well-read people. Feargus wasn’t well-read (or read at all), but he pestered the druid Aodhagan Aedan for words he might use to impress her when his monthly circuit brought him to New Place. ‘Matriarch’ was one of the more recent additions to his vocabulary. So far, however, it hadn’t thawed out Etain’s attitude toward him but he hoped it might soon so their future marriage might be a little more, well, full of love. Or at least not the glacier it was at the moment.
For once, Etain seemed at a loss for words at his response. “Umm, well… I should go,” she said as she followed in the direction Niamh had walked. She turned back and looked into his eyes with her own sky blue ones and followed up with, “I’m sorry about Niamh kicking and hitting you like that. It was uncalled for, but she’s really developed quite the temper lately.” She looked at the ground and added, “I hope she can manage it better in the future, or at least do something more positive with those emotions.”
And then she walked away without waiting for a response.