Chapter 11: A Letter From Pappy?
“Where did you go Mammy?” Ho asked as soon as Mammy’s tired feet plodded onto the front verandah.
“I went out Ho,” Mammy groaned. She did not feel up to explaining the fiasco that took place at her brother’s place.
“You’ve been crying Mammy. I can see it in your eyes. They are all swollen,” Ho said as he helped his mother get out of her twisted shawl.
“Yes Ho, I have been crying.” She noted that her eldest son was not as gloomy as he had been since his Pappy left. Could there be some good news? She doubted it. There will not be any good news in this household until the day that Pappy comes home.
“Why have you been crying Mammy?” Ho asked with concern.
“I was missing your father,” she sighed. It was true enough. There was no need to talk about Uncle Egbert.
“We’ve all missed him Mammy. Even Kiddo and he isn’t even old enough to have a brain yet!”
They walked into the living room where Hum and Kiddo were both napping in the playpen. Mammy at once went to them. She picked up the slumbering Kiddo and cradled him in her arms. Even his slight weight was enough to cause a spasm in her back. How was she to look after them on her own? She looked onto Kiddo’s features and saw how his eyes flickered within dream. What could a little one like this dream about, she wondered. She started to put him down into the playpen. The movement was enough to agitate the baby. His eyes opened and it looked like he was about to cry. But they gradually began to lower. Out of his mouth came a yawn instead of a wail.
“They’ve been sleeping ever since you went away,” Ho remarked as he brushed his hands through Hum’s wavy hair.
“Then they have been no trouble?” Mammy asked.
“No. They never are for me. It seems that they listen to me,” Ho said. It was true now as it would be in later years when the four Robinbreast children became grown ups. Ho would always be the leader.
Mammy walked into the kitchen and poured herself a cool glass of water from the ice ewer. The water felt good going down her parched throat. Ho followed her into the kitchen. “Well, are you going to ask me something or not?” the boy asked. His voice betrayed his newfound inner mirth.
She turned and looked at her son. She saw that twinkle and spark that had been missing since Pappy embarked on his mission. What could have brought this sudden change in the lad?
“Aren’t you going to ask?” Ho repeated.
“Er …” She had no idea what the boy wanted her to ask.
Ho could no longer contain himself. He was a brindle of joy. “We got a letter from Pappy!” he exclaimed in boyish excitement.
“What?” Mammy cried. A letter from Pappy? She had never expected any correspondence from her husband at all. It was not in Pappy’s nature to write letters. It was not that he wasn’t caring. It was just that he was always a bit too busy to sit down and write a letter. She could not imagine where he would have found the time to write a missive on his present journey. Perhaps, they’ve been traveling by coach across the continent and he had grown weary of watching the endless countryside drift by through the window. That might explain the letter.
Ho produced the missive. It was still in its sealed envelope. On it in rather infantile scrawl was written her name and address. As she looked at it, Mammy suddenly realized that she did not recognize her husband’s handwriting. He had learned to write on his own and never became a master of the pen. It showed in the almost chicken-scratch style of the characters on the envelope. No wonder he hardly wrote. His writing was atrocious.
She took out a knife and began to carefully open the envelope’s seal.
“What does it say Mammy? What does it say?” Ho squealed like a piglet at supper.
“Easy Ho. Let me get the letter open first.” She pulled the folded parchment from the envelope. Her eyes flared wide as the dismal penmanship painfully rented her vision. She swore that as soon as Pappy gets back she would give him some handwriting lessons.
“What’s it say Mammy? What’s it say?”
“Ho, please!” she mumbled. “Let me read it first by myself and then I will read it for you. Okay?”
Ho hushed right away. Had Mammy not been so intent upon reading the letter, she would have noted that this was uncharacteristic of her son. Normally he would have kept up his excited chatter until she read the whole thing to him. Perhaps her boy had an understanding that sometimes it was best to allow an adult to filter the information prior to it being revealed to a young mind.
She started to read the letter. She had difficulty making out the words here and there. The letter, as best as she could interpret, read:
Everything on our trip is going well. Tala Bobs is a verry funny elf. He has had me laffing all the way. Fender Appel is not so funny. He is always a sourpuss. I wish he did not come with us.
We have gone a far distance already, but we still have a far way to go. It is taking long because we are walking. My feet hurt so bad that sometimes I think that they will start to bleed. But don’t worry about me Mamy. I’ll be alright.
I wish someone in my family would have come along with me because I miss you all very much. I don’t think that this trip is going to be dangerous and I think that maybe you should send Ho to accompany me. He can go with Gabby Gibbon and meet us in Spane. I think that the boy will like this trip very much and I know that it was a mistake not to take him along when I first left.
I miss you very much. Please send Ho.
Mammy could not believe what she had just read. She reread it once and reread it again. This letter just didn’t make sense. It was not in Pappy’s character to request that his son should be shipped out to him. Even if Pappy should wish that Ho would accompany him, he would have certainly provided more detail than just merely ‘meet us in Spane’.
There was something fishy about this letter. She reexamined the envelope and noticed that it did not have a return address or a stamp upon it. Even elves were not so magical as to get their post delivered for free. Perhaps a messenger had brought it, although that seemed unlikely. Who would Pappy meet along his travels that would be going to Woodhaven?
“How did this letter get here Ho?” she asked her son, her eyes studying him carefully. She had her suspicions.
“It was delivered in the mail,” Ho replied. It seemed like he was ready for that question.
“But there’s no postage on it Ho. If it were to come in the mail it would have a stamp on it.”
Ho’s face reddened. “Maybe the stamp fell off?”
“Not likely Ho. How did this letter get here?”
“I don’t know. I found it in the mailbox.”
“Ho, are you lying to me? You know that lying is one of the worst things that you can do.”
The chirping glee left the boy’s eyes. It was replaced by an expression of apprehension.
“How did the letter get here Ho?” Mammy was starting to get cross. “Did you write it Ho?”
Ho had learned to write last year. The letter that she held in her hands could very much be his work. It would explain the infantile scrawl and the countless spelling mistakes. It would also explain to her the depth of her son’s profound sense of loss for his father. In a sense, this was a letter asking permission to run away from home.
“Did you write the letter Ho? Don’t lie to me!”
“Why can’t I lie? You lied!” Ho charged.
“I did not!” Mammy declared, feeling herself sink lower as new lies compounded themselves upon old lies. She was now even lying to her son. If ever she started to hate herself, it was now. There was a growing list of breeches to her reliability because she was too stupid to admit that she had done a stupid thing. Her lips were burned because she had carried a candle dish in her mouth. Nothing but black fire had come from her lips since. She had lied to her husband. She had alienated her brother and now she was lying to her son.
“You did lie, Mammy. I know that you did! I found Great Uncle Hickory’s corn pipe in his chest after you had said that you threw out into the field.”
Suddenly any wrath and anxiety that she was feeling disseminated as she realized the length that Ho had gone to protect her lie from being discovered. The child had risked a severe punishment from his father just so her trust would not be questioned.
“Come here Ho,” she said softly. The elfin boy was somewhat reluctant to comply. Perhaps he feared a penalty for having called her a liar. “I’m not going to hurt you. You have been a good boy.”
Ho nestled himself into his mother’s arms. He could feel the very real presence of the new baby within her belly.
“Thank you Ho for protecting me,” she said in a melancholic tone.
“I didn’t want Pappy to get mad at you,” Ho sniffled. He felt his eyes moisten.
“Pappy has the right to be mad at me for what I have done. I hope you realize that your Mammy is not the perfect being that you might have thought she was,” she sighed and felt her chest go tight. Tears were trickling down her face.
Ho was about to make a reply when she hushed him. “No, you don’t have to say anything Ho. I’ve been wrong and I have done wrong. I can’t ask for your forgiveness, son, not until you think that I have merited it. It has been especially hard on you ever since your Pappy left. You have done more than your best to help me and your brothers out. It’s forcing you to grow up much faster than I think is good for you and it seems to me that you are starting to realize this yourself. Why else would you write that letter?”
Ho mumbled something but it got lost in the thickness of his tongue and his heart.
“You want to be with your Pappy very much – that I can understand. You need not have written that letter to tell me. You deserve so much more than what you are getting and I know that some day you will be rewarded for all the sacrifices that you are now making.
“I am ashamed about the way that I have neglected your needs, Ho, and I know that I cannot say to you that you have to stay home here with me and your brothers. If you feel truly in your heart that you should be with your father, then, all I could say is that I will try to help you reach him.
“But before you make up your mind, you should know that I need you now more than ever before. These next few months are going to be the most difficult I will ever face. There are things going on inside of me that are making me almost too weak to face the day. If you were to go I don’t think that I could make it.
“But Ho, don’t let my needs influence you too much for don’t forget that I am the same imperfect mother that has lied to your father and has done very little to help take you out of your present misery. If you feel that you should be by your Pappy’s side, then you must go. It will leave a bitter taste in your mouth in leaving me but sometimes these bitter things are good for you.”
“It’s like green stomp, isn’t it?” Ho smiled lightly.
Mammy wiped the tears from her eyes. “Yes, it’s like green stomp!”
Ho’s face broke into a tangle of despair. “Mammy, I can’t leave you! Ever! You’re still the best Mammy on this Earth even if you did lie to Pappy. I will stay with you and I will work hard for you. You don’t have to be afraid of anything because I will be there. I don’t know why I wrote that letter. I never meant to hurt you. It’s just that I’m so worried about Pappy being with that nasty Mr. Apple. I don’t trust him at all!”
“Your Pappy doesn’t trust him either and because he doesn’t trust him, you don’t have to worry about your Pappy. He’s a clever elf and will be ready for any tricks that Mr. Apple may have up his sleeve.”
“Do you really think so?”
Mammy laughed aloud. “Well, don’t you think that your Pappy is smart?”
“I don’t think that there is anybody smarter than Pappy. Well, maybe you Mammy!” Ho kissed his mother’s cheek.
“Then you have nothing to worry about Ho.” Mammy returned the kiss. Her nosed wiggled. “What is that I smell?” she said with a start.
“It’s supper. I didn’t know when you would be back so I decided to start on my own. I’m making green stomp!” Ho said proudly. The twinkle in his eye was back.
Chapter 12: At A Cafe
The city of Vienna was churning with robust music. Everywhere along the bricked streets people in gay attire were milling about, content with the unexpected warm temperatures of late autumn. Everywhere could be seen young men and women strolling; their faces amused by the organ grinders and urchins that gathered at every street corner. The swelling of powerful chords wafted through the air, making knees light and feet fancy. Vienna was the city of musicians and artists. The whole continent looked upon it for inspiration and for the stirring of souls.
Pappy remembered all the stories Uncle Hickory had told him about this musical city. Added to these were the mirthful tales of Talla Bobbs. Throughout the three-day coach ride that had taken the two of them and Fender Apple from Woodhaven, Talla had regaled them with his wistful conjuring of his past visits to the city.
The fat elderly elf loved Vienna. He was enchanted by its food, its music, its drink and the beautiful Viennese. He had visited the city often in his travels and always found it difficult to leave.
Fender Apple, on the other hand, had been to this city only once. That time, he had come at Talla’s beckoning and where Talla had found charm and elegance, Mr. Apple found only squalor and decadence. He said that he had a Mediterranean heart while Talla’s was alpine. Fender’s musical taste twisted toward the simple folk songs sung by the Spanish lasses traipsing along the beaches. Talla preferred the ribald, the brazen and the powerful lilt.
During the coach ride, Fender frequently interrupted Talla with cool remarks that were contrary to what Talla had opined. In Pappy’s mind, the picture of Vienna was not as magnificent as Talla’s but not as downtrodden as Fender’s.
If Vienna had not been en route to Castelo Branco, Portugal, Pappy would never have permitted this layover in this city. But now as he sat in a street café, he was glad that Talla had convinced him to stop.
Vienna was ever much as beautiful as Talla Bobbs and Uncle Hickory had expressed. The cathedrals alone were enough to take one’s breath away. Their tall spires stand proudly over the city like erect protectors of the precious souls beneath. The museums were the pinnacle of human civilization. The art that they housed paled Hickory’s comic homespun sketches. Such rapturous beauty coming from the harmony of hand and mind! Who said humans could not perform magic? The royal palace and the courts of the aristocracy were every bit as much witnesses to man’s championship of the continent. It was outlandish that such wealth should be concentrated in the hands of so few. The aristocracy and the upper middle class flaunted their riches and it was understandable why there was the low murmur of discontent among the less well off. Pappy, however, could not get himself stirred about political and economic issues. Just seeing this wealth was a treasure to behold.
He ordered another round of ale for Talla and himself. The two of them had been chugging most of the afternoon. Fender Apple sat across from them with his usual dour face. Fender declined to drink, saying that at his advanced age, it was foolish to be playing with beverages that might as well be labeled as poison.
“Oh, posh on you Fender Apple!” Talla Bobbs had replied. “You have not lived long because you have never lived!” And then Talla went on with his café-chair tour of the waltzing city, pointing out this and that. In every direction that his fat finger pointed, there was an anecdote or tale to be told.
At length, Pappy began to tire of the stories. His mind stopped listening to Talla Bobbs. He was thinking of his family hundreds of miles away, back home in Woodhaven. He missed them and in his thoughts had never left them. He wanted this journey over with so he could join them again. Even though it had only been three days since he left, it seemed like an eon already to him. He could not bear to think that he had to wait still at least three months, a quarter of a year, before he would see them again. It might as well been a millennium. He would miss Kiddo’s first words and he would miss the birth of his new child.
He could barely tolerate hanging around here in beautiful Vienna waiting for a coach that will leave tomorrow afternoon and take him and his companions into the heart of France one week hence. And still he would barely be halfway to his destination. This journey had already been endless and it just barely gotten underway. Pappy sighed and took a long draught from his warm ale.
A shadow came across the table. Pappy looked up. His eyes beheld a thick, glossy black leather belt that was fastened tightly around a sea-blue waistcoat. Looking further up, he realized that this waistcoat was in fact a uniform with milk-tasseled epaulets.
Looking down at him was a heavily mustachioed man with eyes of coal and a grin that was hard to interpret.
“You are little folk!” the man laughed with a thick mucous-laden voice. It was the roughness of the throat that Pappy noticed first. It didn’t dawn on him that this heavyset man had spoken in French. He should have been speaking in German. This was Austria.
“Our size does not preclude our strength,” replied Fender Apple menacingly. He had also spoken in French.
The man looked at Fender with the same spritish glare a cat displays just before it pounces on the mouse. “Strong boy, eh?” the man sneered.
“We can fend for ourselves,” Talla Bobbs said, his head weaving in a drunken manner.
The man’s charcoal eyes fell upon Talla. He grinned maliciously. “How is it that boys like you have the heads of ugly old men? Are you freaks? Are you from the circus?”
“Of course we are from the circus!” Fender Apple said haughtily. Pappy recalled that many elves that travel among the world of men go under the guise of circus clowns. Elves were not too particular about revealing their racial ancestry to men. Too often trouble would ensue.
“What is your act? You cannot be clowns because I do not find you particularly funny!”
Pappy felt a chill run along his spine. He didn’t know what this man was up to but he was sure that his intentions were not good concerning the elves.
“I assure you that we are circus performers. Our company has just come to this fair city from Milan,” Fender Apple said. Pappy wondered why Fender was so determined to pass for clowns. Only a bad trouble could come out of this.
“Eh, Enrico!” the man bellowed, turning his head toward a group of similarly uniformed men. “These boys are from the Circus de Milano. What do you say that we get them to do a little performance for us?”
The men, soldiers?, came to the elves’ table, their hands laden with steins of beer. One of these drinking men, a short thin man with a large dirkish nose, grabbed hold of Talla’s tunic. “Emil,” he said to the first man, “these are not circus performers! Look at the way they dress. They are cursed paupers too poor to achieve the height of true men!
Talla was struggling to pull himself free from the man who held his tunic. Enrico, for that was who this short man was, tossed Talla down. Talla Bobbs slipped from his chair and fell hard against the cobbled sidewalk.
“A lively midget!” Enrico laughed to the others.
“Go ahead Enrico!” one of the others jeered. “This is finally your chance to pick on someone that is smaller than you!”
“Yeah, go ahead Rico! Let’s see if you have learned anything about beating someone up!” another soldier laughed.
Enrico glared at the others. It was apparent that he was the kicking boy for the other men. Pappy knew that he knew what it was like to be small in a world of the tall. He felt sorry for Enrico but he was not going to let his pity to allow him to be Enrico’s kicking boy.
“You leave Mr. Bobbs alone, I warn you!” Pappy got up from his chair and began to roll up his sleeves. His tiny hands were balled into fists and his elbows were bent. He was going to defend the struggling old elf.
Enrico rolled up his sleeves as well. His comrades jeered more than cheered him along. Pappy sensed the apprehension in his opponent. This was Enrico’s one and only chance to finally prove himself to his companions. He did not want to blow it.
At that moment, Fender Apple stood up and said, “Gentlemen, please, I assure you that we mean you no harm. We will give each of you a free pass to tonight’s performance.”
“Sit down, freak!” Emil sneered. He shoved Fender down hard back onto his seat. “We are getting a far better performance here than we would ever get at some stupid silly circus. Come on Rico, get in there and fight!”
Pappy took his eyes away from Enrico and glanced at Emil. “This would be a far better world if there were no bullies like you in it. Someday you will get your …”
Enrico was upon Pappy. He had abandoned fisticuffs and was trying to get a headlock hold on the elf but Pappy’s reflexes were too fast. He pulled out of the hold and quickly drew his opponent’s arm up into his shoulder blade. Pappy was a tough scrapper and had uncommon strength even for an elf.
Elves are deceptively strong. Pappy knew well that Enrico had made a mistake to challenge him. He never stood a chance yet the little Frenchman was not about to give up. He stomped his heavy boot upon Pappy’s toes. Immediately they throbbed in agony. And in that moment, Enrico had broken free of the hold and twisted around and rolled up Pappy’s head to his waist.
Pappy’s hearing was muffled by Enrico’s waistcoat but he was still able to hear the little Frenchman’s companions laugh and jeer. This made him mad. Even in this, Enrico’s big moment of glory, they were still mocking him. Enrico would never match the demands placed on him. Win or lose, Enrico was always going to be a laughing stock.
In one quick acrobatic motion, Pappy kicked back his legs and somersaulted overtop of his opponent, snapping free the grip that had him pinioned. Once loose from Enrico, Pappy sprang onto Emil, the man that had started all of the trouble in the first place.
He landed square on the big man’s head and sat over it the way a raccoon drowns a hound. Emil’s hairy hands clutched Pappy but were unable to purchase any grip. Meanwhile, Pappy’s hands found the waxed ends of the soldier’s mustache. These he began to pull. He drew Emil’s thick lips out like those of a snarling dog. Emil tried bucking, hoping to shake his mad antagonist off. But Pappy clung as tenaciously as a leech.
In the background, he heard one of the observers catcall, “You’ve found yourself a true midget wrestler Emil!”
Emil continued to struggle but was unable to break the smothering hold. Finally, he began to cry, “Enough! Enough!”
Being the honest sportsman that he was, Pappy released his hold. He leapt from Emil’s shoulder, did a somersault in the air, and landed on his feet.
All the men around began to cheer and rave at him. “Such big strength in such a little package!” one man laughed.
“A true fighter in any weight category,” another commented.
Pappy looked at his two opponents. Emil was on his knees, his face red from coughing. Standing next to him was Enrico. The little man was trying to show concern for the larger man but Pappy could plainly see that Enrico was pleased that he had fared better than his larger companion. If Pappy had not beaten Emil, Enrico would always have been the target for his companions’ taunts.
“You fight well!” Pappy said to Enrico. “Much better than your blow heart friend! I cannot believe that the French Army would enlist such a poor fighter!”
“Don’t mock Emil,” Enrico said. “He is a very brave soldier. He has saved my life more than once through our campaigns.”
“What campaigns be they?” Talla Bobbs asked. He was restored to his seat and his beer. If he had been shaken, it was something long forgotten.
“Emil and I and the others here are in the service of General Espicier,” Enrico said with a boast.
“Who’s he?” Pappy asked.
All the uniformed men began to murmur. Their faces held incredulous expressions. It was as if Pappy had said one of the dumbest things ever uttered in history.
“You have not heard of General Espicier?” cried Enrico. “I am surprised at such an utterance from a good fighter like you! A good fighter should be aware of the other good fighters around especially one who has made such a mark as Espicier!”
Pappy shrugged his ignorance. He looked at his two companions to see if they knew of this Espicier. If Talla knew him, it was well cloaked by the sphere of beer that he had consumed.
“We have heard of General Espicier,” Fender Apple spoke up. “We were just not aware that his campaigns have brought him to this dismal land.”
“Dismal land?” Talla Bobbs chirped. “Fender Apple, sometimes I think that you would be happier in the fires of Hell than the fields of Heaven! How can you call Austria and in particular Vienna dismal? It goes against nature to find fault with this city and this breathtaking land.”
Pappy, for one, was very tired over this constant bickering about Vienna. To Enrico he whispered, “I am sorry but I am afraid that I have never heard of your general. Please don’t be insulted.”
“No insult is taken. It is just that I am astonished that one could live on this continent and not be aware of the general.”
“I come from a remote and inaccessible place,” Pappy replied. “News does not often wend its way into the valley where I live.”
“Where is it that you live?” Emil asked. His belligerent nature had apparently subsided with the beating that he had taken.
“Don’t tell them!” Fender Apple snapped.
Pappy looked at the elf, saw him shrivel his eyes and slightly shake his head negatively. Whenever elves travel among the world of men, they always keep secret the place of their families and ancestry. That is why nary a human has set eyes upon the simple rustic beauty of Woodhaven and its surrounding countryside.
“We come from a land far away to the east,” Pappy responded, hoping that his vague answer would satisfy. He heard Fender Apple sigh more in disappointment than relief. Even a broad general direction was too much for Fender.
“To the east?” Enrico questioned. “To what crowned head do you owe allegiance? To the Tsar?”
Pappy realized by the nature of Enrico’s enquiry that he was going to play a cat and mouse game with him. He would continue to ask until he had narrowed in onto the place where the elves hailed. Perhaps Fender was right in disapproving even a broad direction. That would eliminate three quarters of the broad directions immediately. Maybe it was best to leave them a decoy.
“Yes, it is to the Tsar that we are pledged,” Pappy said figuring that Russia was a big enough land to hide behind. He didn’t realize the immensity of the mistake that he just made.
For all at once appeared half a dozen sabers, each pointing at him and his two elfish companions.
“Then you are our enemies!” Enrico said icily. “Consider yourselves prisoners of war!”