Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Uncommon Man

"Modern emancipation has really been a new persecution of the Common Man. If it has emancipated anybody, it has in rather special and narrow ways emancipated the Uncommon Man. It has given an eccentric sort of liberty to some of the hobbies of the wealthy, and occasionally to some of the more humane lunacies of the cultured. The only thing that it has forbidden is common sense, as it would have been understood by the common people."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Common Man.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Chapter Seven: The Flood (Part Four)

At that moment, a loud, harsh croaking came from above their heads.

"Haugh! Haugh! Haugh! Thornbriar! Bear! Haugh -Haugh -Hello!"

Tilting up their faces, they saw a large, black raven flapping in a wide slow circle above them. The elf waved his hand.

"Hello! Hello! Come on down for a minute!" he called. He turned to Bear. "It's the Old Raven of Ravenhome, from the other end of the valley. Maybe we can get some news from him."

The old bird landed with a flurry of black feathers, and perched precariously on one of the salvaged chairs. With its heavy beak, bald head, and wide ruff of dark feathers around its neck, he looked like an old parson standing at his pulpit.

"Damp weather for flying," he croaked. "Dash it, what are you fellows doing out here? Dangerous, I'd say."

"We didn't mean to be here," said Bear. "We were out berrying and the rain caught us."

"Yes, we've been waiting for the water to go down," said the worried elf. "It stopped raining hours ago, but there's no sign of the flood slacking, is there?"

"None as I can see," said the raven, ruffling his wet feathers. "In all the eighty-eight years I've lived in this valley, there's not been a flood like this. And I know why, too."

"You do?" asked Bear. "Well, what's the story then?"

"It's that greedy old fool, Grimfold," said the bird. "He's got a farm up the valley side, where Rushwash Stream comes out of the hills. Last year he gets the bright idea to dam the water and charge the folks to let it flow again. He made a parcel of money, too.

"Well, along comes the rain, and he waits, see, 'cause he doesn't want to give out the water. And he waits and waits until finally, when he sees it's too dangerous, he can't let it out. There's nothing of the farm to be seen now, and no Grimfold, either. I suspect me and my kinfolk might have a little business with Master Grimfold when the waters go down and he comes to light again," he added, with a dry chuckle.

Thornbriar and Bear suppressed a small shudder. They had no illusions what a raven, as a carrion bird, did to get its food.

"Anyway, the dam's still holding, but it's leaking and letting out enough water to feed the flood. And over the winter, the farmer dug channels and re-directed rivulets to get more water, so runoff from the higher reaches is spilling into the flooded farm like a cauldron into a kettle. I suspect the dam could fail at any second."

"Good heavens!" yelped Thornbriar. "If it does, we'll be washed away! We're only about two feet above the water line right now!"

"It's no so much a matter of if, as when," said the raven calmly. "If I were you two, I would start thinking about a way to leave this place."

"We could think about it all we want, but we won't be leaving unless we can find a boat," growled the bear. "Or at least a ... hey!" he said, suddenly inspired. "How about a raft, Thornbriar? Look! We could use all this stuff I've salvaged!"

"I don't know," said the elf, looking critically over the pile of wooden junk. "Even if we've got enough, how do we hold it together? I don't keep a hammer and nails in my coat pockets, you know."

"We could lash them together," said Bear, suddenly on fire with his idea. "How about your fishing line?"

Thornbriar shook his head. "Not strong enough, I'm afraid. One bump into something, and anything we'd tied together would burst apart."

"I say," croaked the raven. "Could you fellows use some rope? I saw a length of it snagged on a stump. I dare say that if I grab one end, I could tow it through the water easily enough."

"That would be very helpful," said the eager bear.

"Very well," said the old bird, and, with a flurry of flapping, he spread his black wings and headed back up the valley.

The two friends began sorting through the pile of wooden rubbish, trying to find lengths and cuts useful for their purpose. They had a stroke of luck when a huge barn door came floating by. It was so heavy they couldn't pole it out of the water, and the bear had to plunge into the sweeping stream and guide it to their little island. The door was about twelve feet square, and the elf declared that it was just the thing to use as the base for their craft. The elf and the bear had a plan of action by the time the old raven returned with the thick, wet end of the rope clenched in his beak and the rest of the rope trailing in the water behind him. He landed and spat it out distastefully.

"Ugh," he said. "There you are."

"Thank you very much," said Thornbriar, pulling the rope out and beginning to coil it around his arm. "Excellent. There must be almost twenty-five feet here." He turned to the old bird and nodded his head in grateful acknowledgement. "You may very well have saved our lives."

"Think nothing of it," said the raven, flapping his wing back and forth, as if to brush the elf's thanks away. "You lads have always been good neighbors to me and mine."

"Do you think," asked Bear anxiously, "That you could fly over to the dam and see how it's holding up, then come tell us? It's giving me a creepy feeling knowing that it's going to happen, but not knowing when."

"Certainly." the raven said, spreading his wings. "I meant to go have another look myself. But don't wait for me. I'd get started right away if I were you."

"True," said the bear, but spoke to empty air, as the old black bird was already away, and flapping heavily up the valley. The big bruin turned to where the elf was measuring out lengths of rope to cut.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Chapter Seven: The Flood (Part Three)

Bear woke up the next morning and stretched stiffly, wondering what had become of his comfortable bed and pillows. Then he was wide awake, full of the wretched knowledge of having lain on a slate floor all night and having no prospect of a good breakfast. He got up, stretched again, and ambled over to the open door, where the elf stood looking outside.

"Good morning," Bear began, then stopped in wonder. All about them, as far as the eye could see, stretched a broad expanse of roiling, muddy water: churning along branches and debris. The hill on which the shepherd's hut stood was an island in the middle of an angry river.

"Hello, Bear," said Thornbriar glumly. "I've been watching the water for an hour now, and it hasn't got any lower or slower." He pointed to a line of sticks protruding from the water's edge in a progressive row. "In fact, it's risen by almost half-a-foot."

"Gosh," said the bruin. "I guess that means we're stuck here for awhile."

"Yes," said the elf. He stared brooding out at the waters for a few moments, then shrugged. "We'll just have to make the best of a bad situation."

"At least we have all these dewberries to eat," said Bear.

"To tell you the truth," the elf said ruefully, as he turned to go back into the hut. "I'm sick to death of them already. To think that just yesterday I was looking forward to baking some of them into a cobbler. I'd give my bag of marbles to have a jug of tea and a plate of butter bread right now."

The friends ate a few sad handfuls of berries and returned to the water's edge. Overhead, the sky was still iron-gray with storm clouds. They paced up and down, watching the wrack and ruin floating by, for about ten minutes before the bear snorted in disgust.

"Bah," he said. "We need to think of something to do until this flood subsides. I can't just pace and twiddle my paws."

"Yes," said Thornbriar. "We might do something useful." He thought for a moment. "Well, we've used up all the wood inside. Maybe we could salvage some of the timber that floats by. We can replace the wood supply for whoever owns this hut, and we might need it ourselves."

"That sounds good," said Bear.

They found a couple of long poles near the side of the hut and spent several hours hooking flotsam and stacking it against a sheltered, far wall. After they collected a sizable pile of wood, Thornbriar put down his pole and quit, but the bear continued to snag floating junk for sport and to pass the time, usually picking out man-made objects. He had a pile that included a couple of chairs, a henhouse, and a wicker birdcage.

"Why are you bothering with that stuff?" asked the elf nervously. "It's of no possible use, you know."

"I need to do something," said the bear. "Besides, I find it interesting. Don't you wonder where all this came from?"

"What?"
"I mean, someone must have made it and used it, and now it's far from home. It'd be gone if I hadn't fished it out. I know it's just like a game, but I feel like I've saved them."

Thornbriar smiled, then nodded. "Yes, I think I can understand what you mean. We elves try not to become attached to things, because we usually outlast them all. But we remember what we know for thousands of years after they are gone, and it's like saving them from being forgotten, or had never existed at all."

"I never thought of that," said Bear. "I sometimes wonder how you elves can stand living such a long time."

Thornbriar laughed. "Like anyone lives their life--one day at a time."

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Chapter Seven: The Flood (Part Two)

Bear was deep in a dream about chasing a butter-and-honey sandwich as big as a barn door. He had caught the sandwich and was beginning to eat it, when it seemed he was surrounded by a gentle whisper of soft applause, like many hands clapping. He looked around, but could see nothing. The applause grew louder and louder, and suddenly he felt something cold and wet plunk directly onto his nose.

With a snort and a jerk, he was awake. But the clapping sound was still all around him. It was a muddled second before he realized that the sound was rain, pattering on the myriad leaves above him. The old tree was so high and thick that only the occasional drop found its way to the ground beneath.

The bear reached over and nudged Thornbriar. "Hey, wake up," he said. "Wake up! It's starting to rain."

The elf started up in alarm, rubbing his eyes. "What the--" he cried, springing to his feet. "Oh, great," he said. "Just great."

The two friends looked at the rain. It was falling in a silver curtain all outside the perimeter of the tree, and was so thick that the nearest trees and hedges were only blurry shapes. The sky was uniformly dark grey, as if an iron bowl had been clapped down over the earth. From far away, came the deep, warning brool of summer thunder.

"We'll never get the berries home through this," said Thornbriar. "We'll just have to wait here until it lets up."

"I don't know," said Bear thoughtfully. "It looks like its setting in to stay for a while."

The elf hauled out his pocket watch and popped the lid.

"It's a quarter past three," he announced. "If it hasn't let up by five, we'll head for home and do our best, rain or no rain."

"Agreed," said Bear.

The next hour or so was spent in little scraps of conversation; elf tidying up the picnic basket over and over again while Bear hummed the same three tunes, both of them cautiously keeping an eye on the endlessly falling rain. As it grew later and later, it got darker and darker, and the clouds showed no sign of moving on.

At almost five o'clock, there was finally a lull in the rain. It didn't actually stop, but it was reduced to a few drops driven by a high, freshening wind.

"I guess it's now or never," said Thornbriar. "We'll have to make a dash for home."

"Right," said Bear resolutely, hitching up his pottles. "Are you ready?"

The elf grabbed his own load of berries. "Let's go."

They started at a fast pace, and struck out for the valley pass. It was hard going, because the paths had all been churned into squelching mud by the pounding rain, and the extra burden of the heavy pottles slowed them down. As they hurried along as best they could, they saw ahead of them a frowning wall of black clouds rushing inexorably over the low hills, quivering with lightning and sweeping the country beneath it with a torrent of falling water.

"We'll never make it," gasped Bear. "When that hits us, we won't be able to see. And there are streams flooding all around us. One false step..."

"I know, I know," said Thornbriar. He desperately looked around, then pointed. "Look! Isn't that a house over there?"

Far off to their left, they could just see the wet glint of a slate roof on one of the low foothills.

"Looks like an old shepherd's hut," said the bear. "It ought to be abandoned at this time of year."

"I think we can just make it," said the elf, turning from the muddy path and setting out towards the hut. "We can wait out the storm there, if we must."

The pair hurried through the wet, whipping weeds and tall grasses, running with determination and fear. Every now and then, Thornbriar cast an anxious glance up at the lowering storm front to gauge its progress.

They had reached the foot of the hill and started to climb when the rain struck, as suddenly and fiercely as a wave. They groped blindly uphill the last few yards.

Thornbriar had nearly run into the hut before he finally saw it; its gray, rough stones almost invisible in the slanting rain. He dashed the water out of his eyes and located a door.

"This way!" he yelled, and Bear nodded blindly, following his friend's voice. The elf felt his way along the wall until he reached the door, then, finding it by feel alone, he grabbed and turned the latch.

The door burst open, and Thornbriar lurched inside. The bear followed a few seconds later; water streaming from his fur onto the bare slate floor almost as if he were a small rain cloud himself. He threw his pottles down and shut the door against the howling wind.

"Brrr," he shivered, automatically shaking himself like a dog and scattering water everywhere, including onto the elf, who had just removed his hat and cleared the water from his eyes.

"Hey!" he said.

"Sorry," said Bear, thumping down onto a dry spot on the floor.

"It doesn't matter, I guess," said the elf. "I can't really get any wetter, I suppose."

"It sure is dark in here," said Bear, straining his eyes around the hut. "Can you see anything?"

"Hang on," said Thornbriar. Elves have good darksight, but in the last, dying light of the heavily overcast sky which glinted feebly through the window, even Thornbriar had a difficult time making anything out. After a moment, he managed to get a match and candle stub from his tinderbox (which, mercifully, was still dry) and struck a light.

By its slowly growing glow, the two friends could make out the interior of the little hut. It was only one room, maybe twenty feet by twenty feet. The walls were mortared stone, with one window covered with a semi-transparent, horn board. The roof and floor were fitted slate, and opposite the door was a rough chimney, a pile of wood, and little else, except for a few hooks on the wall.

"At least we can get a fire going and dry out," said Thornbriar cheerfully.

He walked over and stuck the candle on the mantle-piece and began piling the wood onto the grate. After a few touchy moments, he got a fire going, and its rosy glow soon filled the little room. The elf took from one of his pockets a reel of fishing line and strung it from hook to hook on the wall, so that it hung near the fire. Then he placed his wet clothes along it to dry them out.

Outside the rain still fell steadily, and the wind howled down the chimney. Blasts of lightning shattered the air and sent rumbles of thunder that the two friends could feel even in the stones of their temporary shelter.

Eventually, as clothes and fur dried, they began to relax and feel that they had well escaped the ferocity of the storm. They began to talk and tell stories, and reminisce about old times. Thornbriar lit his pipe, and Bear consumed one of the pottles of berries.

It was past three in the morning before the worst of the thunder finally seemed to be over, and they lay down to sleep. Bear instantly dropped off, but Thornbriar lay a long time with his head propped against the warm, furry flank of his gently snoring friend, gazing up at the roof, while outside the rain fell on, quietly but steadily.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Chapter Seven: The Flood (Part One)

"Have you filled up your pottles?" asked Thornbriar.

"Just about," the bear called back to his friend from where he crouched hal-hidden in the undergrowth of thick, tangled bushes with only the big brown hump of his back showing.

A pottle is a kind of thick round leather bottle with a cork lid. A pottle will hold about two quarts of whatever you put into it, and what the elf and the bear had been putting in their pottles all morning were dewberries. They had started out before five o'clock that morning and tramped far afield to get to where the dewberries grew, and now, at almost eleven, Thornbriar was topping off the last of his pottles with a final handful of the delicious, raspberry-like fruit.

He picked a few last leaves and a bug or two out of the berries, then plugged the cork.

"That's the last of mine, he announced. "Meet me at the tree when you're done."

"Almost finished," said Bear.

Thornbriar walked to the spreading oak tree where they had sel their loads of berries. With satisfaction, he plunked down his last jar where all the other pottles sat like a clutch of brown eggs in the shade of the tree. He rubbed his hands together in glee as he thought of the dewberry jelly, wine, and hot dewberry cobbler that they would prepare in the next few days. He sat back in a comfortable corner between two spreading tree roots and pulled nearer to him the picnic basket they had packed that morning. He began to rummage around in it.

Outside the shade of the tree, it was blazingly hot. As far as the eye could see were fallow fields, divided by hedges, with gigantic trees dotted here and there like oases in the desert. Grasshoppers ticked through the high grass and bees tumbled from flower to flower. At the bottom of the field, with a quiet chuckle and murmur of water over stone, flowed a large stream which was almost a young river.

Bear came panting into the shady shelter of the tree's wide limbs, dust shaking out of his fur with every ponderous step. He collapsed next to his friend, fanning himself and puffing and blowing as if he had just escaped some great danger. He flung his last pottle down with the others as if abandoning an anchor that had almost dragged him down.

"Woof, it's hot," he panted, tongue lolling. "Did you save any food for me?"

"I haven't even started," replied the elf, pretending to be offended. "I think that we both need first is a cold glass of lemonade."

"Then hurry up and pour us some before I die of thirst," said Bear, in a mock piteous tone. "Just a drop and I'll get back to work. I promise I will, governor."

"Don't be such an ass, you lazy old thing," laughed the elf, pouring out a huge glass from a sweating gallon jar. He passed it to the bear. "Here."

Bear took it in both paws and greedily stuck his nose in, gulping the tart, yellow lemonade in large drafts, until the glass was empty. He sighed with satisfaction. "That hit the spot," he said, licking his whiskers and holding his glass out for more. "I may live yet."

The next half-hour was devoted to the emptying of the picnic basket. There were sandwiches of many kinds, from simple butter and jelly to deliciously squashy bacon, lettuce, and tomato. There were pickles and salted nuts, deviled eggs and oatmeal cookies, and more cold lemonade and root beer in a tinny jug to wash it all down. When the last crumb and drop had been devoured, the two friends sat back stuffed, feeling less inclined than ever to heft their load of berries and leave the shelter of the friendly tree.

"I guess," said Thornbriar, stifling a yawn. "I guess we'd better get going soon."

"Yes, I suppose so," said Bear drowsily, a moment later. "What time do you think it is?"

There was no answer. Thornbriar was asleep beneath the wide brim of his blue hat; his breath whistling in and out of his long, pointed nose. Bear waited idly for an answer, not noticing that his friend slumbered. In a moment, he too nodded off; rumbling softly several tones deeper than the drone of the busy honeybees that still moved dreamily through the heavy, hot air.

Elves and Bears

Friday, April 15, 2016