-New England, 1636-
A new family in an old time...or is it an old family in a new age? Hard times, suffering, young bones under frozen earth, endless cold, and then a stranger comes asking for help. They abide the odd, hunched old man, using up some of their precious stores to feed and clothe him. Such a gift, to be generous in such a hard land. They agree to house him instead of leaving him to languish in the barn like any other common passerby. He settles himself at the far end of the table. He settles himself into the bundle of blankets in front of the fire. He settles very nicely into a newly vacated chair. They seem to settle as well, despite themselves.
A funny smell binds itself to their clothes. The hours run off kilter. It’s hard to keep track of how long they’ve let him stay. Just as they are at their wits end and are ready to draw lots to see who will be the one to ask him to leave, small gifts begin to appear: replenished firewood, fragrant cooking herbs bloom where only weeds had sprouted. Then larger gifts: ailing joints spring like new, an old cow produces milk again, a nearly hollow coffer begins to brim. Such gifts. Everything is sweet and good, so good. They are drunk with prosperity while their guest remains sober and watchful.
The odd man slowly stands straight, moves gracefully to sit at the head of the table. A frail body fills with muscle, becomes potent and desirable. A gruff and matted beard is knifed away to reveal a strong jaw and healthy teeth. The shriveled barn animals begin to glut themselves. The depleted stores overflow. Their marriage bed once cold becomes laden in their combined sweat.
They love this man and his odd scent and odd ways. They hope he will never leave taking away all the gifts he's given. They begin to forget what life was like without him. They forget anger and bitter tears. They forget whole days, familiar faces, their names. They forget to speak, to bathe, to stand on two legs. Hair falls out, teeth crack, skin sags, toenails split. Despite how much they eat and drink they wither and wane. The fattened barn animals cackle at them. Migrating birds swoop low from overhead and dance along the eaves. Wild dogs prowl close and scratch their claws along the fence line if they wander too far.
The man seems to own the house now. He must. Something so fine could never have been theirs. He sleeps in the newly packed feather bed. He eats from the well-waxed table. They coil against each other in the barn. The other animals keep well away and stamp hooves if they crawl too near. Remember when we used to have fine clothes and hair that streamed down our backs? Yes, remember when our teeth were solid enough to snap root vegetables clean in half? Remember the grainy feeling of hot marrow spooned from the roasting pan, the flow of salted stock running over our fat tongues? They scratch in dark earth, rich with manure, and fight one another for unearthed worms. They whisper to themselves a sacred chant:
The man, the house, the barn.
All is his what once was ours.
The man, the house, the barn.
They love him and the dark corner of dirt he has given them. Such a wonderful gift.