The people all around him swirled in an endless cacophony of colors, smells, and sounds. For a boy of his age, it was nearly too much to handle. He scrunched up his face, unsure whether to cry or scream or giggle as the wave of movement washed against him.
But the hand that held his, dwarfed his, kept him steady and comforted him as the people went about their business. He looked up at this person, this...woman, yes, that was it- and squinted as the sunlight reflected off some passing mechanics and obscured her features, like the fogginess of a long-forgotten memory.
He heard her utter a name, and this person he was very familiar with. she began to walk faster and faster, and her voice grew louder as she saw him in the distance. He tried to keep up with the woman, his pudgy legs stomping as fast as he could make them, but his hand slipped from hers, and before he could cry out or tell her to stop, she had disappeared into the crowd.
And all around him, the people still walked, still spoke in their myriad tongues, and peddled their wares. He kept running, his breath coming out in shallow pants and huffs, but without the relative safety and bulk provided by the woman, the crowd closed in around him tightly and he tripped and fell.
The boy cried out, offered a scream and a whimper, but his voice was drowned out among the others and he soon stopped, realizing nobody could hear him and nobody cared.
But then, like a beacon of hope, far off in the distance, the man showed his face.
“Father,” he called out. the man turned around, almost as if he heard him.
The man turned back around, and the back of his head began to mingle among the others, a mere brown blob among the seething throng.
The boy shot up in bed, his throat dry and sore. Strange- had he been shouting? He rubbed the back of his head and came away with cold sweat.
“It's funny,” he rasped into the empty room. He smiled bitterly. “It’s almost like you never left.” He sat there, staring at the wall as his breathing slowed, wondering if he’d be able to get a few more winks of sleep. Then a couple of warm, brown eyes looked in from outside and a friendly, but insistent lowing drifted through the shutters.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so, either, Beth,” he spoke softly through the window, letting loose a slight chuckle, “I’ll be out soon, just sit tight old girl.”
It took him some time to get the fire stoked with his numb hands, but soon he had the cauldron in place, and in it, several buckets of clear water from the well. One skinned pheasant, pinch of herbs, and careful dollop of precious cream later, and he had the makings of a fine stew brewing.
This done, he warmed his hands over the fire one last time, wrapped his hands in the remnants of last winter’s coat, and made his way to Ole Beth, the family milking cow.
“Easy does it,” he cooed softly, gently patting her snout, “atta’ girl. Let’s get you feeling better, OK?” He took a quick peek underneath and winced in sympathy; it’d been a wee bit since her last milking. Her belly had grown, too- another calf on its way. He couldn’t afford it- he’d have to sell it at the next farmer’s market, like the others.
Another life, another mouth to feed. It was a phrase his m other often said, sadly all too fitting. He knew he should have fixed his fence to keep the neighbor’s bull away, but that was not at the top of his priorities...he placed it firmly at number 39 on his ever-growing list of things he had to do.
As he prepared the bucket and milking stool, he went over this to-do list, sorting them by urgency and ease of accomplishment.
He muttered to himself while he worked, listing off the various chores planned for that day.
“first, I have to feed Ole Beth- shouldn’t take long...next, there’s a leak in the roof, so I gotta hack out some planks, then chop some more firewood to replace the logs I used...”
He took the buckets of fresh, warm milk and dumped them into the funnel of the defrother, then wound the crank as fast as possible, keeping a careful eye on the spigot and nudging an empty bucket underneath.
As with every time he used this machine, he marveled at its deceptive simplicity. Despite its ease of use, he couldn’t even pretend to understand how it all worked. He watched with satisfaction as the finished milk poured into the bucket, free of a majority of the fats and other unmentionables.
“...and later, once the fats cool, I’ll come retrieve the butter,” he added to his muttered list of errands. All he’d need to do was churn it using the handle on top of the machine for around ten minutes, collect the buttermilk with another bucket under a second, smaller spigot, and pull out a tray containing several good-sized lumps of clean, fresh butter.
A perfect addition to the hunks of bread I managed to buy at market, he thought with a smile, very much looking forward to the veritable feast he’d planned that afternoon.
When he was finished processing the milk, he grabbed the bucket and a freshly-cleaned cloth from the clothesline and covered it. He deftly tied the cloth to the bucket’s rim with a bit of twine before setting it in the shade behind the toolshed.
This done, he walked over to Ole Beth’s run-down pen, waited for his lone customer to sidle over, and yanked at a bag of feed. His muscles pulled and strained, a couple of his joints popping as the sudden exertion worked out the kinks in his arms and neck. With each strenuous pull, the massive bag moved only a few inches.
“Damned thing!” he cursed as, with a final gargantuan effort, he barely managed to get it close enough.
He rested for a short bit, looking over his device with more than a little disdain.
His personal contribution to the family farm wasn’t born out of necessity like the other various inventions his relatives had made, but because he simply wasn’t strong enough to lift the bags of feed himself. His contraption would never be featured at the Inventor’s Fair or remembered by anyone but him, and wasn’t even constructed of proper metal, just scraps he nicked out of the town’s communal rubbish tip.
It featured a simple pulley and lever system attached to the feeding trough, something which allowed him to lift the bag of feed up and over the fance. Ole Beth got fed, he didn’t get injured- a win-win in his book.
He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, moistened his grip, and with every ounce of strength he could muster, lifted the bag up and over the inch-high lip of the contraption’s scooping arm.
Finally, he thought in relief as he grabbed the winch, now comes the easy part. With this, he grabbed the other handle firmly, squared his shoulders, and started to turn it.
With surprising ease, the device’s pulleys began to turn, the twine growing more taut as he heaved.
Perhaps I’m growing again, he mused, somewhat pleased that a task that had once been somewhat difficult had gotten so much easier, then again, not surprising considering my occupation, after all, I-
The rope that had started to raise the arm suddenly broke, causing the rusted arm, feed bag and all, to hit the ground with tremendous force, causing the bag to split open, feed to fly everywhere, and several pulleys to bend crookedly. The arm itself, not exactly constructed of the finest material, bent under the sudden pressure, and, somewhere, he could hear a sickening crack shudder through the mechanism.
He’d stumbled back when everything fell apart and tripped, falling on his rump as he stared at what used to be the machine that had taken him hours to build and had served him well for many months.
He couldn’t believe it, he simply couldn’t- it hadn’t been much, but this was HIS device, and now it was ruined.
He crawled over to the broken heap and shakily examined it, trying to find out why it had failed so spectacularly. The pulleys, other than the ones that had gone crooked, were all relatively intact, the arm, though cracked now, hadn’t been last time he used it...
Then he found it. The rope, that had to have been what broke first. He looked closely at it, and noticed that, although some strands were obviously broken and frayed due to stress, many were cut almost cleanly, like someone had cut it with a blade, or-
“Damned rats! Confuddle and concarn them to hell, the vermin!” He let this, along with an entire catalogue of curses and taboo adjectives, pour from his lips as, for the first time in a while, he let his stress and frustrations out in a tantrum of epic proportions.
“First, I have to invent things to help me take care of this damned farm,” he ranted, “then the damned cats won’t do their job, and now!” he pointed at the broken machine and the very amused girl sitting on top of the fence behind it, “You have to be a piece of sh-”
He stopped and looked back at the fence, then squinted and wiped at his eyes. He opened them, closed them-
There was no mistaking it, she was really there.
He felt heat rise to his cheeks as he realized he’d been cursing up a storm in front of a lady, and quickly took his hat off in respect.
“Erm, hello, there, miss, didn’t see you arrive,” he half-mumbled towards his feet. He looked up at her through half-lidded eyes and, to his surprise, she was laughing. He cleared his throat and raised his head, determined to revive some of his lost dignity.
“Miss, you- you prolly shouldn’t be near that thing, see, it- it broke recently and it might, um-”
She finally couldn’t take it anymore and let her silent laughter peal out in its clear, innocent tones as she hopped off the fence and skipped around the busted device before coming to a bouncy stop in front of him.
“I like you,” she smiled, “you’re pretty funny. what’s your name?”
He stepped back about half a step and looked her up and down, a bit thrown off by her blunt approach. He tried to look tough and inscrutable as he took her measure, unsure what to say or really how to react.
“What’s yours?” He finally drawled, slowly and suspiciously.
“Poppy,” she chirped, “Poppy Algernon.” Once again, this was delivered without hesitation. He cleared his throat again.
“Mine’s Wink,” he said as gruffly as he could, “Wink Hardly.”