Letters from Armorica- The Strays (10 January 35 AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

We had two unexpected visitors at the shop today, two quite different visitors; and yet, there's a certain similarity between them.

The most recent storm passed yesterday afternoon, leaving the sky clear, the air still and cold, and the homes of Bois-de-Bas nearly buried in snow. There is nothing so quiet in my experience as a small village in the early hours when the snow lies thick on the ground. Certainly I heard nothing like it in Yorke, a city which is never, ever quiet, not at any time.

But perhaps because of the shrouding snow, some noises travel more easily: laughter from my workshop, and an odd knocking noise from the roof over our heads. The knocking was accompanied by another, softer noise I couldn't quite make out.

The laughter was easily parsed. It was Bertrand, of course, come to see Luc; in the merriment there was a deeper tone with a bit of a catch that I'd come to know quite well over the summer on L'Isle-du-Grand-Blaireau. Lying there in bed I could even detect that furtive note that indicated that the boys were trying (and failing) to be quiet. I knew if I went down I'd find the two of them sitting on the floor by the pot-bellied stove, telling each other stories and drinking my tea.

This was a not infrequent event, though the reasons for it had changed. Part of it was simple friendship, of course; the friendship the two boys had forged on the island was as strong as ever. But on the island, Bertrand had been the Head Boy, the chief of all the others, and while Jean-Marc was his lieutenant, Luc had constituted his general staff. Bertrand gave the orders, and relied on Luc to be sure that they were the right orders. Here in Bois-de-Bas, though, the boys had all returned to their homes and their parents. Bertrand was still chief among them, more or less, but they were no longer on detached duty in the field, as you might say, and the superior officers were now firmly in control.

But independent command can be hard to relinquish, and where Bertrand used to come to Luc to ask for advice, now he comes to ask for sympathy. I gather from the little I have overheard that he finds his father demanding, arbitrary, and unwilling to treat him as anything other than a child. "It's all right for you," he’d told Luc. "You get to work for M. Tuppenny. Mon père thinks I am still a little boy."

And so Bertrand's presence in my workshop was not quite a surprise, but the hour was most unusual. He always has to come early or late, of course, for both boys are fully occupied by their chores and other duties during the day, but this was early even for him. I suspected that M. Laveau, Bertrand's father, must have committed some supreme enormity (in Bertrand's eyes) to drive him to our house in the cold of the very early morning.

Neither Luc nor Bertrand has ever applied to me for help in this matter; nor have I spoken to M. Laveau but once, last Novembre, when I praised Bertrand to him on our return from the island. I have been resolved not to meddle unless they asked; but now I thought that I should perhaps have a quiet word with him.

As I lay there, pondering what to do, the knocking sound on the roof grew more insistent. Amelie rolled over and said in a sleepy voice, "Cher Armand, you must go see what it is." This was easier said than done, for it took me some time to prepare to go outside, and then when I got outside I immediately had to go back inside for thicker gloves and a shot of liquid courage.

When I stepped outside the house, that soft noise I could not quite make out clarified into a high-pitched nasal bleating: the chilling sound of an angry goat. I did not delay, I did not investigate further, I did not venture out into the snow, but instead I beat a hasty retreat into the house in search of any protective gear I could find. At last I had to settle for my oldest clothing: not as warm as what I had been wearing, but the least loss if rubbing against the goat's hide tore them to shreds. Then, and only then, I went back outside.

The goat was on the roof, straddling the ridge line. I recognized it immediately by a patch of white and gray on its forehead: it was one of the ewes from Marc's small herd that I'd first met while tending the goats on Onc' Herbert's farm, and then had had to milk regularly on L'Isle-du-Grand-Blaireau for the sake of Amelie and my little Anne-Marie. In civilized countries like Cumbria and Provençe I understand that it is often the farmer’s wife or the dairy maid who milks the cows and goats; but in Armorica it is man's work, and justly so. And sometimes the goat wins.

When the ewe saw me, it—for I cannot bring myself to call it "she"—gave a long piercing bleat, then vanished down the back slope of the roof where the snow drifts were deepest.

I ran back onto the porch and opened the door to the workshop. The two boys looked up in horror at being caught.

"Luc," I said, "find me a bucket, tout-de-suite. Bring it to me here. Bertrand, we have a goat problem. I shall need you to take a message to M. Frontenac."

Their eyes widened; the horror remained. No one, not anyone, fails to take Armorican goats seriously.

By the time I close the door the goat was upon me, butting me with its head—not in anger, but also not gently. There is nothing gentle about Armorican goats. I managed to keep my feet, and was able to take the bucket from Luc when he thrust it through the barely open door.

"Now fetch me a rope!" I said.

Fortunately the goat was eager to be milked, which is not to say that the process was easy or quick. But I got it done with only a few bruises and the loss of one trouser leg, and by that time dawn had brightened the sky and Bertrand had gotten his warm coat back on. With his help I managed to get a loop of rope around the goat's neck and tie it off to a post at the corner of the house.

"Now, Bertrand, I need you to go tell M. Frontenac that I have his goat."

"Oui, M. Tuppenny. But mon père…."

"I shall let him know," I said. "But be quick—that rope won't hold the ewe for long."

I sent Luc with a message to M. Laveau; and in due course Marc and Elise drove up in their sleigh with a length of leather-clad chain suitable for leading a recalcitrant goat. We had them with us for the noon meal, and then finally Amelie, Luc, and I were able to get on with things—I with a small limp, but I counted it cheap at the price.

Tomorrow morning I shall have to visit M. Laveau in person.

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