July 8, 2009

“A Cottage Near the Town of Wendenshire”

There stood a cottage in a meadow. It was a simple little home, with three rooms and a hard-packed dirt floor. A large iron cauldron heated to red rests over a roaring fire. Young Jane Augustine is hunched over, preparing rabbit stew. The smell of the stew drifted outside into the crisp autumnal air. This particular meadow lay in the foothills of a large mountain range. Every night the sun disappears behind the mountains. Before the moon’s dominion would rise, the mountains would cast long shadows over the cottage.
In this fading twilight, Ernest Augustine returns home daily from work. He works in the foundry in the village below. The village of Wendenshire is situated on the wide, lazy river, the River Seism. It was the district capitol and the center of life for everyone in the foothills of the mountains. It served mostly farmers and peasants, and the few wealthy families who lived in the great estates surrounding Wendenshire.
The walk to the cottage was one of considerable distance, but Wendenshire provided the best opportunities for Mr. Augustine, as he was an uneducated man. Working in the village provided better wages for a common laborer than could be expected as a farmhand. The cottage lay on a large tract of ancestral lands, granted to his grandfather as a young man in the reforms of the 40’s of the prior century. The soil was not fertile however. The loam was very shallow, and a plow would bite into clay and rocks. Successive generations of the Augustine family had tried and failed to work the land. Each generation prior to Earnest had turned that clay, and spilled sweat onto the unforgiving ground, in hopes of fruits for their toil. But, lo, they were unsuccessful. Ernest was raised on that land, and all it could provide was grass. The food in the Augustine’s mouth was provided by Ernest’s labor in Charlottain’s Foundry.
Through this land ran a small stream. Lying west of the cottage, the stream lay in a small valley, accompanied by a cluster of diligent maples and willows. The Augustine’s young son Balthazar would often be found on the banks of this stream. He had a willow branch fishing pole and a basket of worms obtained from digging around the outhouse. The worms that he found there were thick and glistening. It was common to find them the thickness of a man’s thumb. The stream’s fish population was sparse, as it was swift and fast moving. Its source lay several miles up in the mountains. The water was bright and clear as it bounced over the large rounded rocks of its bed. Vegetation grew thinly, or not at all in this environment. Balthazar would dip his willow pole into the water and lay on the bank, watching the darkening sky.

* * * * *
And as the autumn wind picked up, with mist filling the valleys of the mountains and rolling down over the town of Wendenshire, Ernest Augustine returned home from his drudgery at the foundry. Before he could divest himself of his accoutrements the smell of the rabbit stew overcame his work-starved constitution, and he hustled towards the fireplace and the hunched back of his wife. She had not herd him come in and was surprised by a sharp pinch on her bum.
“Ernest!” Jane screamed, “Can’t you see I’m trying to finish this here. I near burned myself in surprise.”
“Sorry ‘oney, It’s was just out there.” Ernest turned his palms skyward in mock piety and remorse, and shrugged his large rounded shoulders.
But Jane wouldn’t accept his apology. “Should be sorry, look at you, you’re tracking in a mess. I don’t clean the house so you can make it dirty again. Take that filth off.”
Ernest walked back toward the door and removed his thick heavy oil coat, hanging it on a hook by the door. His large hobnail boots came off too and he tramped towards the bedroom in his stocking feet. “Rain didn’t come today did it ‘oney? I wore that coat here and back again, but no rain. Shouldn’t of listened to you, and your old tales.”
“The chickens were roosting, that means rain, I’m sure of it. Maybe it’ll be tonight.” Jane was now talking to his back as he walked into their bedroom and removed his top shirt and undershirt.
“‘Oney, the mule was out in the meadow eatin’, not worryin’ one bit about the rain. I tell you, I’ll take a mule over a bunch of chickens any day. Where’s the boy?”
“O, he’s down fishin' again. He never catches anything, but he loves it down there. I tell you, there’s something odd about him.”
“The boy’ll be alright. Just give him time.”
Ernest stooped over the washbasin trying to scrub the accumulated coal dust off his forearms. The dust mixed with the sweat from the intense heat of the foundry and caked onto the copious hairs of his arms. This mixture was resilient and he stood there for several minutes scrubbing his arms as he labored at the grime. Ernest walked back into the common room in his stocking feet, with only his plus fours and suspenders on, his barrel chest and round shoulders set in contrast to his spindly legs. Grabbing his wife from behind around her ample bosom, he leaned and gave her a kiss on her cheek. “‘Oney, go get the boy, I need to fill my stomach right away. I’ll finish up here.”
Ernest headed to the chest to get out the pewter bowls for the stew, and a knife to cut the hearth bread that had been baking over the stew, and rummaged through the chest to find the bag of vitamin salt the apothecary said he should take when he ate. While he was leaning over the chest trying to find the salt, Balthazar ran past Jane in excitement. “Father, Father, look what I caught.” In his hands was a small pike fingerling, no more than five inches long.
“Boy, you should have thrown that back. It’s too small to eat; Poor thing never had a chance to live. Best thing you can do now is give it to the cat.”
Balthazar was disappointed. Ernest could read it in his face. “Son, don’t worry, some day you will catch the biggest fish in the sea. That pike is just the start. Now wash up boy, Jane here has cooked a fine rabbit stew for us.”
“But father, when will I be a real fisherman?”
“Someday, Balthazar, you can work the docks on the Seism, or on one of the trawlers that sweep the river. In a few years, I can get you a position as an apprentice fisherman. I know some of the men. But you’re young yet, just dix-et-un as the French say.”
“But Father…”
“Balthazar, wash up.” Both returned to their respective rooms, Ernest to put on his nightshirt, and Balthazar to wash up. In his room, Balthazar took out a small cigar box containing the accumulated treasures of his childhood. The lid said “Perfecto” in an ornate script, and the rest was decorated with fine curlicues in gilt ink. Some of the gold coloring had chipped away, leaving a dull, lusterless sheen next to the fine gleaming gold. He opened the box, and in it, there was the spool from the thread Jane used to sew his jacket he wore to his first communion, there were several small pebbles he has collected by the stream in the meadow, and there was a handful of small copper coins that his father had a habit of giving him when he had gone out drinking. Brushing aside the dirt and few brilliant feathers at the bottom of the box, Balthazar grabbed a photograph.
The photograph showed a picture of his family before he was born, His father and mother smiling into the camera, and both dressed in their Sabbath clothes. His father look younger than he did now, with large bushy side-whiskers and the flat topped straw hat that must have been fashionable at the time. He looked like he could have been one of the young men who attended the university in town, but he had the solemn look of a seminarian.
Next to his large father, his mother looked like a child. She almost was when they married. She was pale and sickly. Her white skin was pulled taut against her cheekbones, and her eyes were sunk deep within her head. A cascade of long blond hair, which was piled high up upon her head, obscured her heavy brow ridge. With her hair, she was almost as tall as Ernest, but not quite. Her stomach had a slight bulge, Balthazar knew this was he, and it was the only picture he had of himself. He was a slight bulge in his mother’s stomach, and nothing more.
He snapped out of his reverie by the sound of his father yelling in the next room. “Get in here boy, the stew’s getting cold!” Balthazar threw the fingerling into the box and snapped it shut. He placed it back on the shelf by his bed and ambled to his washstand. He stared at his bronze crucifix while he nonchalantly rubbed his hands together and splashed water on his face. Rubbing his hair down over his forehead, he walked back into the common room.
“Sit down and bless this food, son.” Ernest entreated. Then Balthazar stood behind his chair while Jane and Ernest Bowed their heads and clasped their hands together while Balthazar said the grace before meals.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which through thy bounty we are about to receive through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” While he was reciting the blessing that he knew by heart, Balthazar was looking at the small, calloused hands of his father. While they were small in relation to Ernest’s upper body, they were propionate to his legs. Balthazar thought that his father would be almost dainty if it were not for his muscular trunk and those hands. Those hands, with the red knuckles and the large white callous on the heel of each palm betrayed Ernest to be the workingman he was. Those hands, with the palms clasped together like that, made the cables on his forearms stand out. They could have been wrought of the same steel his father helped churn out in the foundry down in Wendenshire.
“With those hands,” Balthazar thought, “He could crush a man’s skull.”
The small family ate in silence in that small little cottage in the meadow, with its simple dirt floor and the thatched roof overhead and the cobbled stone fireplace. They each ate in their own silence. Ernest’s was one of fatigue, of the sore shoulders and aching back of the laborer. Balthazar’s was one of disappointment. He wanted to be big and grown like his father. He wanted to be a fisherman on the big trawlers that swept the Seism for trout and salmon in the spring, crappie and pike in the summer and into autumn, and river eels in the winter. All he could do now was put his willow pole in the stream, and hope. Jane’s was the silence of the domestic servant, whose own work is not respected by those around her. No one had said anything about the stew, and she simmered with anger at the disrespect shown to her.
Balthazar broke this silence with a question. “Father, what was mother like?” Jane turned and looked at her husband, knowing the question brought him to precarious emotional territory.
She spoke, “Forgive him, Ernest, he knows not what he does.”
“‘Oney, s’alright. She was a right fine lass, God rest her soul.” Ernest struggled to go on, “but she was called home eleven years ago, and we can’t be angry about that, can’t we? ‘Sides, I have a wonderful son from her. Balthazar, as long as you’re around, she will never be completely gone.” With that pronouncement, he turned to face the fireplace, and put his empty spoon to his mouth. The silence returned to the family, and Balthazar hurried up eating his stew, and the bit of hearth bread he had cut up. He finished eating and gave his father a gentle hug on the way to his room. When Balthazar turned to close his door and light a lamp, he saw his father staring intently into the fire, and Jane steadily watching Ernest, sucking on the spoon, and staring into the fire under the big iron kettle.
That night, Balthazar was kept awake by soft murmurs and loud moans. These were the sounds of Ernest and Jane’s lovemaking.

* * * * *

The next day was the Sabbath.
The Sabbath day meant washday. Jane would drag in the heavy tin tub and fill it with water, running multiple trips outside to the pump to fill a large bowl and empty it into the tub. Balthazar would spend the early part of the morning running to the stream in the meadow collecting twigs and sticks to stoke the fire in the cobbled stone fireplace. In the large iron kettle, they would heat water for the bath. The early morning this Sabbath day was misty, and Balthazar loved running through the meadow and the tall grasses, through the field where the cows grazed and down through the streams. He avoided the mule’s pasture, as the mule was not a creature with an even temper. His father would be busy doing some of the household chores.
In his running around, Balthazar, saw his father going into the chicken coop to collect some eggs, he saw him take oats out to the mule, which he tied up on a stake by the entryway to the house. They would need him later, as the family would pile into the mule cart for the journey into town. He knew also that he would have gone out to the smokehouse to get the ham for Sunday dinner, but Balthazar did not see him do this.
After Balthazar was done with his last trip, he was ready to crawl back into bed and sleep an eternal slumber, but his father was frying eggs in a skillet. “Boy, how many eggs you want?”
“Just two father.”
“How you ever going to be a fisherman if you don’t eat nothing? I’ll fry you up three. You can do three, can’t you?”
“Yes sir”
While Jane was bathing in the common room, Balthazar marched into his room to lie out his Sabbath clothes. Digging through his wardrobe, he found his tattered and torn communion jacket. The elbows had been worn out by Balthazar’s repeated leanings on them. It would be on the rail of the mule cart, or the back of the pews at church, or any surface he could find. Jane was always admonishing him for this habit, as she had had to patch those elbows four times since he took his first communion. He picked at a hole that was developing on the cuff of the jacket, and pulled at a thread. The functional life of the jacket was nearing its end. Balthazar’s movements were already constricted in it, and he was afraid that the back would rip out every time he clasped his hands to pray. He gathered the rest of his outfit, but he couldn’t find a sock.
Balthazar ran into the common room, clutching a sock in his diminutive left hand. Just as he ran in, he was embarrassed to see Jane emerging from the washbasin. Both were stunned for a moment, but Balthazar’s gaze was locked on his stepmother. She had large breast falling down to her rotund belly. Between her thick thighs was a tangled mass of dark hair that slipped into the crease between those two trunks. Her skin was the color of a crab, all flushed out from the heat of the tub. Her black hair fell free from her head, and brushed over her breast. Balthazar couldn’t help staring, and he lifted his left hand, and pointed at her vagina with his sock. “What’s that?” he asked.
Jane turned to Ernest with an entreating look. She didn’t know how to answer her young stepson, who was still old enough to be her own little brother. “Boy, you’ll find out in time, now get ready for your own bath. You need to scrub down, after all that time you spend in the woods down there by that stream.” Ernest answered for her.
He bathed and returned to his room. He got dressed, and found his missing sock under his bed. He splashed some water on his face, and rubbed his eyes thinking about the dark mass of hair between Jane’s legs.
Balthazar had examined between his own legs while he was taking a bath. He didn’t have the sort of hair down there that Jane did. He wondered if he was different in some way. He also wondered if maybe Jane was different in some way. But, he figured that if Jane was different, he would know about it. His father wouldn’t marry someone who was different, would he? Standing there at his washstand, he undid his pants to examine his penis again. He still had the same small sausage thing sticking out, and its companions, the large raisins that hung below. “Just what are the large raisins for?” He spoke softly to himself, “I’ve never used them for anything. You pee out of this one.” Balthazar gently fingered his penis in curiosity, but nothing happened. He pulled his pants back around his waist and walked back into the common room to eat his breakfast.
On the way to the table, he passed his father who himself had just finished bathing. He stood there with his large towel around his waist. The towel had once been a gleaming white, but had faded in time to a brownish off white. His father placed his hand on Balthazar’s shoulder, and looked down onto him with his dark emerald eyes, eyes that they shared. “Boy, now don’t go askin’ any more questions. You’ve gone and upset Jane. Hear?”
“Yes sir.” Balthazar responded, but he couldn’t look his father in the eyes when he was being admonished. He bowed his head and mumbled his answer.
“Boy, look me in the eyes when I’m talking to you.”
Balthazar summoned all the strength in his body to raise his head. He knew his father might smack him across the check if he didn’t do as he was told. He raised his head, hoping to hide his shaking hands, and repeated, “Yes sir.”
“That’s better, now you go and eat some of those eggs I fried up for you. They’ll make you big and strong, like me. You want to be a big and strong fisherman, don’t you?”
“Of course, sir, I do”
“Then have at you, eat some eggs.”
A decanter of maple syrup and a teapot stood on the table. He poured some of the maple syrup over his eggs and then poured himself a small cup of tea. After eating a quick breakfast, Balthazar found that he needed to relieve himself, so he did just that in the outhouse.

* * * * *

The Sabbath day also meant churchgoing.
They all loaded up in the mule cart and made the journey down into Wendenshire. The traveled in silence, except for Ernest’s frequent commands to the mule. Jane worried that they might be late to the mass, but after navigating the narrow streets of the old town, they were able to tie up the mule in the courtyard of the church.
The sermon that day was about the virtues of the Virgin, but Balthazar was at best disinterested. This day, like most other Sabbath days, he spent looking through the Old Testament, finding out about men who lived to a thousand. He read about giving up his birthright for a meal of pottage. He wondered what it would be like to be the prodigal son, and to eat the fatted calf. Later he turned to the end of the bible. Balthazar though that this was the best part. He might experience this part of the book. Everything else had happened in a time long past which he couldn’t fathom. The thought that he might live to see this frightened the young child. He was afraid of the wrath of the lamb, but curious what the pale rider would look like. “Would he be like the ghost riders in the fairy tales?” But no, the ghost riders are just fiction, stories made up to scare little kids. Revelations is god’s word handed down. Would the pale horse be scary, and have the big teeth like his family’s mule? “The pale horse must have fangs.” Sometimes he would want to ask his father these questions, but every time he turned to look at him, the man was deeply involved in the sermon, or involved in the hymns or the homilies given by the rector. His father knew all about God and his ways. The Bible was the only book that he had ever seen his father reading from, but that was on a limited basis.
When the hymns were sung, Balthazar stood and tried to sing along in the places. He would raise his voice when everyone else did, and lower it on cue as well. He had trouble making out some of the words, so when these came along in the hymnal, he would just hum. Jane had attended convent school as a child, and learned to sing real pretty. Balthazar would listen to his stepmother’s voice sing high and shake the rafters with its melodious music. His father’s voice was rough and gravely, and broke often. When Balthazar was younger, he asked his father why Jane’s voice was so pretty and his was so bad, his father answered, “Boy, Jane was born of angels, while I am a child of the dirt.” Balthazar didn’t know what to make of such pronouncements, which sometimes spewed forth from his father’s mouth. Balthazar just guessed that sometimes fathers were like that, and that someday he would be the same.
After the service, his father and mother mingled with their fellow churchgoers. He sat around waiting for them to be finished, as he couldn’t wait to get back home and out of the restrictive church clothes. The communion jacket choked him, and the collar of his shirt had grown to small for his developing body. He felt like a man in fetters, chained to the wall of a cave. His parents weren’t in any rush. Jane hardly ever had any time to be sociable with anyone but her family, and this was the one day of the week that she could escape her silent brooding and become the gregarious, carefree youth she once was. His father on the other hand, worked twelve hours a day, six days a week in the foundry. Although he had the opportunity for fellowship and communion with his coworkers all throughout the week, on Sundays he didn’t have the injustice of a foreman watching his every move, and listening to most every utterance.
So, Balthazar waited around for the good part of an hour waiting for the conversations to die down and to head back on the way home. While he waited, he watched the service of the Catholic Church end too. He watched as the church divested itself of its patrons and he wondered what was the difference between his family and the Catholics. Their church was a rather small, with a high ceiling, and made of wood. The Catholic Church sat in the middle of a square in the old section of Wendenshire. It was made of stone and covered with ornate carvings of goblins and gargoyles, while his own church was unadorned.
What had made him a protestant, what was he protesting? Again, questions rose in his head that he had no answer to. It was simply that they went to their church, and the Augustine’s went to theirs. Once, they had passed the church when the doors were open. The smells that came out of the Catholic Church were much different than the ones that were in his church. The smell was more pungent, and sickly sweet. He had looked in and saw everyone on their knees in the pews. They didn’t do that at his church, and he couldn’t guess why the Catholics did that. They have their ways, I suppose. “Churches must be a lot like fathers,” he though “They have their differences, but they’re all one and the same, in the end.”
Finally came the time when the crowd was thinning out and the time was nearing when they would go back home. His father was laughing with some coworkers of his from the foundry, and Jane was standing around waiting for the conversation to come to a natural stopping point, as she too, was growing anxious to head home. His father and his friend Frank Philomel were talking about getting together later that night for a game of chess. Footsteps shuffled on the stairway leading into the courtyard, and Ernest turned to watch his wife heading off towards the mule cart.
“’oney, give me another minute,” and turning back towards Frank, he said, “I’’ be up there about six, if I can ever get a hold of this woman.”
Frank laughed heartily, “I understand, Ernest, I really do. I’m lucky enough that Mary is with child so that I can do what I want. You know I’ll have to ask her about this, but she’ll come around, she always does. You want I should prepare a plate for you?”
Ernest looked quickly at his irritated wife. Turning back towards Frank he gave him a quick and said, “You know, I’ll et at ‘ome, but thanks. I’ll see you at six”
Hastening towards his wife, he grabbed her around her waist. “What’s wrong with you?”
“My nerves are bad today. Yes, bad. Stay with me.” She paused a minute, and looked deeply into Ernest’s dark emerald eyes. Her own gray eyes were developing lines around the edges, the crow’s feet stepping all over her as she ages.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.” Ernest entreated of Jane. She was rarely like this, but her maudlin attitude could overcome even the brightest gaiety.
“Never mind, hold me for a minute.”
“I never know what you are thinking.”
“It doesn’t matter. Darlin’ I hope you enjoy your game of chess tonight.”
“I suppose I will. Frank is good company to keep.”
And the small family ambled towards the mule cart, with Ernest untying the mule and driving them home. They ate a hastily prepared meal of smoked ham and roast potatoes before they all went their separate ways. Ernest went over to Frank’s house for his game of chess. Balthazar changed quickly and headed out with his willow pole towards the stream in hopes of catching a fish before it was too dark to make his way home safely and Jane came out to start looking for him. Jane moved silently towards her own bedroom and grabbed her knitting basket and sat down on the foot of her bed, and started counting stitches.
That night, Ernest returned under a half moon obscured by clouds that were threatening rain. His son and wife had long since passed to sleep, and he slid into his bed half dressed and smelling of whisky. Jane rose enough out of her slumber to form a cup against him while he wrapped his arm around her. That night Ernest Augustine drifted off to sleep fondling his wife’s left breast.

* * * * *

The next morning, their cock Chanticleer, crowed early and he crowed often. The house rose to life slowly. Balthazar lay in bed, not wanting to rise out of it. The mornings after the Sabbath were always the hardest. A small pain in his stomach reminded him of the reason to arise. He was hungry. But still, the bed remained an alluring alternative for him. He had to choose between gluttony and sloth, both sins having equal pull on his frail constitution. He could hear the sizzling sound of bacon in the common room, but couldn’t smell it. His smell was overwhelmed by the smell of fish slowly decaying. He got up and pulled on his day shirt over his mused hair, and went to his cigar box, the one with the word “Perfecto” written in ornate gilt lettering on the top. He opened the box and tried to remove the fish. The fish fell apart in his hand, and he realized that the fish, in his haste Saturday night, had been thrown atop the photograph of his father and his mother. The decayed fish flesh obscured their likenesses. He felt a sense of sadness at this, but couldn’t express it in words.
Balthazar gathered what he could of the fish, and walked out of the house through the common room. He walked around back and threw the mess in his hands into the ditch under the boards, and walked back into the house. He washed his hands at his washstand, and walked back into the common room for breakfast, rubbing his eyes to prevent the tears that were waiting to be released. Ernest had already left to go to work at the foundry, and he left a small handful of copper change with Jane to give to Balthazar. Ernest sat down at his place, and Jane heaped a mess of bacon and eggs on his plate. He barely touched them, and Jane noticed his sorrowful demeanor.
“What’s wrong, darlin’?”
“Oh, the fish rotted.”
“Don’t worry about that, hun. It was a tiny little thing anyways. Someday, when you grow up, you’ll catch fish by the basketful. Just you wait. There will be plenty of other fish.”
“I know, Jane.”
“Well then, you eat up so that you can grow big and strong like your father, and be the best fisherman on the River Seism.”
“Ok.”
“Oh, here, your father wanted me to give these to you.” She reached out her hand and dug in the pocket of her apron. When her hand emerged, she had produced six copper coins, of small denomination. “And he wanted me to tell you that he loves you. In fact, he insisted that I tell you.”
Balthazar barely registered these actions, as he mechanically put the change into the pocket of his day shirt. He finished his breakfast while Jane went outside to work on the chores around the property. He looked outside the window and say that a light mist had begun to fall. Balthazar was not in the mood for fishing anyways, so he stayed inside that morning and drew absentmindedly on a slate with chalk. The rest of the morning passed uneventfully.

* * * * *

The morning passed uneventfully. The mist lightened, and Balthazar decided to start out towards the stream. First, he had to dig for some worms, which was the most hated task of the fishing process. The best worms came from the ditch around the outhouse. He took his little spade and dug into the mounds of filth and excrement. When his little jar was full, he grabbed his willow pole and headed down to the stream. The filth on his hands and feet revolted him, so once he was down at the stream, he stripped naked to wash in the stream. The cool, fast-moving water refreshed him and invigorated his soul. His sorrowful attitude of the morning was washed right from him as he emerged from the water to be heated by the falling sun of the Indian summer they were experiencing. He laid himself down on the soft grass on the edge of the bank, where the water meets the earth, and stared at the sky. He fell into a light, dreamless sleep.
Meanwhile, two men were riding towards the cottage in an open carriage, pulled by a troika of black horses. They arrived at the Augustine’s house swiftly, and announced themselves with a clatter of hooves pounding the trampled dirt near the garden gate. Jane emerged from the house with a quizzical look on her face.
“Can I help you?”
“I believe so. But first allow me to introduce myself. I am Constantine Charlottain. This gentleman is my associate, Gustavous Constance. We work at my father’s foundry down in Wendenshire.” With this news, Jane’s face dropped. Inside her soul, she knew that such an arrival from two well-dressed men at her home could not be bearing any good tidings. “You are Mrs. Augustine, I presume.”
“Yes, but please, please, call me Jane.”
“Alright Jane, I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“What sort of bad news, Mr. Charlottain?”
“There has been an accident.”
“An accident?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“A bad accident?”
“Yes, I don’t want to get into any details…”
“And Ernest, is he ok?”
“Ma’am I’m sorry but…”
Jane cut him off. “He’s ok, right. Tell me Mr. Charlottain, he is ok.”
“I can’t do that ma’am.”
Jane started softly whimpering the word “No” repeatedly under her breath. Mr. Charlottain took off his hat and firmly gripped Jane by the shoulders. Gustavous Constance stood two yards away with his own hat hanging down by his thighs and his head bowed.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Augustine, but your husband is dead.”
With this final pronouncement, Jane let out a loud, high-pitched shriek, and fell down onto the ground in convulsions. The sound carried far enough that it awoke young Balthazar Augustine from his light, dreamless sleep on the bank of the clear, fast moving stream that flowed into the River Seism. He awoke and took off running towards the source of that shriek. He ran through the mule pasture, over brambles and into the meadow before coming upon his mother twitching on the hard-packed dirt by the garden gate. Standing over her were two solemn men dressed in black. In the background, he saw an elaborate carriage, and three kingly horses harnessed to it. One man was fanning his stepmother with his hat, and the other was standing aside. It was when he drew near this scene that he realized his own nakedness. His feet and shins were cut up from the brambles and the stones along the path. Balthazar felt shame at his nakedness, and retreated to the sanctuary of the house. He watched from the window of the common room as the two strangers revived his mother until she was sitting straight up on the ground. The two men took their leave of Jane as she regained consciousness.
Jane stood up and walked through the door. She passed Balthazar in the common room, and turned to look at her. There was an emptiness in her soul that her eyes expressed. She grabbed Balthazar’s shoulder, and said to him, “Your father insisted that I tell you that he loves you.”
She said nothing more and turned to walk in her bedroom. She locked the door and sat on her bed, and began to lightly sob. These muffled weeping could be heard through the door, but Balthazar was powerless to do anything. He decided the best thing to do would be to return to the stream and retrieve his clothes.

* * * * *

Ernest’s Augustine’s body lay in state for three days. Sawhorses held up the rough pine coffin. They were salvaged for the occasion from the outbuilding. Jane threw her bed covering over the sawhorses to make the scene look more presentable. The Charlottain’s donate an excessively large funeral wreath to help the mourning proceedings. The entire set-up consumed most of the common room. Various friends and acquaintances passed through the humble little cottage in those three days. They all offered their condolences, and Jane would nod towards them in acknowledgement. For three days, she wore her plain black widow’s vestment, and Balthazar sat at the table staring off into space. He had to wear the hated communion outfit for three days, with the strangling shirt collar and the restrictive suit jacket. He stared out into space and dreamed that instead of his dead father lying in the middle of the common room, he were on the bank of the stream, with his willow pole sunk into the fast-moving water. His father was dead, and so was his mother. All he had of them now was memories. The rotting fish he had thoughtlessly thrown on top of the only picture he had of the two four days before destroyed it.
Ernest Augustine was buried that Friday in St. Woland Cemetery Outside the town of Wendenshire. Including his son and the priest, there were five people in attendance at the service.

* * * * *

Three months later, the family was destitute. The small financial help the Charlottain’s gave had been extinguished. Most of Ernest’s savings had gone to pay for the funeral expenses. The last month had seen the family subsist on a watery oat gruel, occasionally supplemented by a small fish fillet that was Balthazar’s contribution. During this time, the void that could be seen in Jane’s eyes was never filled.
One by one, Jane was selling off the family’s property. The first to go were the chickens. Then she had to get rid of the rooster, Chanticleer. The cat had wandered off sometime before because it had not been getting fed. As desperation grew, she unloaded her mother’s silver, which had been a wedding gift from her own father. In quick succession, she unloaded her mule cart, and then the mule. The house was emptied until there was almost nothing left except for Balthazar’s cigar box, but even the handful of small copper coins was no longer in the box. They had been used up in the daily toil of life.
Finally, there was no choice but to sell the land. In Jane’s desperation, she accepted half of what the land was worth in exchange for payment up front. Thus, the cottage still stands, but the Augustine family no longer dwells there. On the land that had a clear, fast moving stream that Balthazar would sit on the bank and dream, on the land toiled by his father, and his father before him and so on, strangers now live.
With the money from the sale of the land, Jane and Balthazar moved their few remaining possessions to a sparsely furnished room in the Jewish section of Wendenshire. They lived on the second floor overlooking a squalid street filled with filthy children. Balthazar would not join these children though. From the back window, there could be seen a little section of the bank of the River Seism. He would pass his days sitting in the room’s lone chair staring out at the river. Sometimes a large trawler would pass in his vision, and he would smile.

* * * * *
In early March, a few weeks after Balthazar’s twelfth birthday the sun was setting. Jane rose up from her bed and alit a green lantern that she placed in the front windowsill. She changed into a white silk robe, yellowed with age, and reclined back on the bed. Balthazar sat in the chair and scribbled on his slate by the smoky light of an oil lamp. Darkness wrapped itself around the town of Wendenshire, and raced itself to all the foreign lands that lie west of the great mountains that used to cast shadows over the cottage in the meadow.
There was a knock on the door, and Jane rose to open it. Ernest’s old friend Frank Philomel stood in the entryway with his hands in his pockets.
“Frank!” Jane couldn’t conceal her surprise. “Oh, do come on in.”
“I heard this was a place that you could…” Frank trailed off, not knowing how to express himself in front of his late friend’s wife.
“Of course it is,” Jane stated matter-of-factly, “didn’t you see the lantern?” As she said this, she untied the silk belt binding her robe together. Her large breasts fell heavily against her belly and Frank’s eyes fell along with them, to the shock of black hair nestled between Jane’s thighs. “It will be ten Thallers, you do have that, right?”
Frank’s eyes lit up as he reached for his pocket. He slid out a handful of bills to show that he did have the money. Jane smiles, and walked backwards toward the bed while Frank undid his pants. She slid up to the head of the bed and spread her legs. Her large breast retreated somewhat into her body as she lay down, and her vagina glistened in the dim light of the room. Frank climbed atop her so that Jane and frank were face-to face. He was about to begin the act when he turned to look at Balthazar scribbling on his slate. He returned his gaze to Jane and asked, “What about the boy?”
To this question, Jane replied, “The boy’ll be alright.”