Monday, October 30, 2017

The Three Heads of Irving Jefferson by Martin Kingfisher

When a farmer loses his head fleeing from a hog, he is forced to consider some changes to his lifestyle; by Martin Kingfisher, beautifully illustrated by Max Ink with colour by Flor de Canela.

Head 1

At dusk on the last day of October, 1823, the farmer Irving Jefferson walked through his pumpkin patch, rolling a pumpkin along the ground with his foot. Irv hadn't always been a pumpkin-roller. He'd once stood tall like his customer, the innkeeper F.J. Cooper, who walked next to Irv carrying a 30-pound pumpkin in his arms. Irv's plow had hit a lot of rocks over the years, and he'd got so his back twinged whenever he stooped to pick a pumpkin, or stood to carry it above his waist.

A boar grunted a warning as the men passed Irv's apple orchard. The boar stalked the men along the orchard's edge, dipping in and out of the shadows as if he knew Irv's old eyes couldn't follow him through the dark.

"You want to scare off my last customer, Rufus?" Irv asked the boar. "Git!" Irv kicked his pumpkin so hard it left him hopping, thinking he might have broken a toe. The pumpkin skipped toward the boar, then rolled and settled in a hollow. The boar stepped forward, sniffed the pumpkin, and nuzzled it back into the orchard.

Irv's apple orchard hadn't always harbored wild boar. Irv had planted the orchard years ago, so he'd have crops he could pick without bending over. But when he stopped tending his pumpkin patch, he stopped repairing his hog pen, too, and eventually the hogs escaped through a loose slat. They decamped in the orchard, guarding the apple trees, and gorging on pumpkins after the vines spread from the pumpkin patch into the orchard.

Then men reached a wooden cart labeled COOPER'S INN. Coop set his pumpkin in the back of his cart, and pointed to Irv's front porch. "If I'm your last customer, who's that?"

Irv squinted and took a few steps toward the porch. A tall young man sat in Irv's rocker, reading a thick, leatherbound book.

"Nate?" Irv said. "Whatcha doing here? Shouldn't you be fishing?"

Nate set his book down. "Fish aren't biting, Uncle Irv."

"They don't, less your line's in the water."

"Don't worry, I caught you something." Nate stood and walked to the Morgan horse he'd tied to Irv's porch pillar. He opened his saddlebag and pulled out a lake trout.

Irv brought the trout to his face. It was a beaut - supple, clear-eyed, and almost odorless. Which was more than Irv could say for himself.

"Well." Irv lowered the trout. "Least it ain't a pumpkin."

"There's two more in my saddlebag. How many apples can I pick for all three?"

"Many as anyone else." Irv laughed. "Many as the hogs'll let you. None."

Nate strode back to Irv's rocker and picked up the book he'd been reading. "This book's got the solution to your hog problem."

"That the Bible?" Irv asked. "We're going to pray for my hogs to leave?"

"It's a spell book. I bought it for magic class."

"Magic class? What fisherman has time for a magic class?"

Nate shook his head. "I need a new line of work, Uncle Irv. This lake's just about fished out."

"You said the same thing when you were a lumberjack."

"I only state facts. You see much forest left round here?"

Coop dropped another pumpkin in his cart and came over to Irv's porch. "Evening, Nate."

"Evening, Mr. Cooper."

"Any chance you could help me load pumpkins?"

Nate tipped his head toward the orchard. "How about I help you pick apples?"

Coop looked at Irv and raised his eyebrows.

"Nate's been takin' magic classes," Irv said, "least a month. He'll make those hogs vanish into thin air."

Coop looked at Nate.

Nate shook his head. "I can't make hogs vanish. But I can put them to sleep for a piece."

"How long a piece?" asked Irv.

"Not sure. In class we only practiced on a muskrat."

Irv turned to Coop. "You best stick to pumpkins."

"Give the boy a chance," Coop said. "If he can get us in the orchard, I'll buy every apple we pick."

"You heard the boy, Coop. Nate's never put a hog to sleep in his life."

Nate looked into the orchard. The hog that had stalked Irv stared back, lifting its tusks.

"That's Rufus," Irv said. "He's the gatekeeper."

Nate stepped forward gingerly. "Hey, Rufus. Hey, big fella." Rufus snorted. Nate raised his hand, and Rufus followed with his eyes as Nate drew a star in the air. Nate touched his nose, then sang softly in a language that Irv had never heard before.

Rufus curled at the base of an apple tree and shut his eyes.

Nate turned round and smiled.

"Not bad," Irv said. "But will he stay down?"

"If he does," Coop told Irv, "I'll come back tomorrow for bacon."

Nate stepped into the orchard, and after a minute he sang again.

Irv pulled three peck baskets off his front porch. He blew dust out of them. "I ain't going in there on foot." Irv whistled, and his old plow horse, Chunk, sidled up to the porch so Irv could mount her more easily. "I suggest you don't, either. Nate!" he hollered into the orchard. "Come back and get your horse." He lowered his voice and resumed talking to Coop. "Horses'll keep us above the hogs. And we can make a quick escape if we need to."

Coop unhitched his cart horse, and Nate came out to untie his Morgan horse. They followed Irv into the orchard. The low branches of the apple trees made twisted shadows in the dusk.

Irv couldn't make out much, but it was his orchard and the trees were still where he'd planted them. "Skip the pippins. They'll be mealy by now." Irv led Nate and Coop to the back of the orchard. "These are the russets." Irv stopped, picked an apple and bit it. "Still crisp in October."

Irv handed a peck basket to Coop. "No time to waste. Best start picking."

Coop counted: "One, two. I'd forgot how peaceful your orchard can be." Crickets chirped. "Three. When it ain't swarming with hogs."

"Four," said Irv. "They're still round. Five. Even if they ain't swarming. Six, seven."

"I'll go and find them," Nate said. "Haven't cleared this part of the orchard yet." Nate rode away from the russet trees."

"Ten, eleven," said Coop.

"Twelve, thirteen," said Irv.

A sow squealed, a few tree rows away. "Hey, little lady," they heard Nate murmur. "You like music?"

"Sixteen, seventeen," said Coop. "That boy's a self-starter. Eighteen."

Irv stopped picking, and peered into the orchard. He couldn't see Nate, which would have concerned him if he could see anything else. "Starting's not Nate's problem," he said. "Nate's problem is sticking with it."

"Twenty-two, twenty-three. He sticks with this, you'll get your orchard back."

"Fourteen. Maybe so. Not sure what I'll do with it."

"Twenty-six. You can always sell. Twenty-seven."

"No one wants a farm like this. Sixteen. Too rocky, short growing season. Seventeen. All the young folk left for Missouri Territory."

"Thirty, thirty-one. This basket's full."

"There's more on the front porch," Irv said.

Coop left the orchard, and Irv kept picking. "Twenty, twenty-one." He paused, thinking he'd heard something. "Twenty-two."

There it was again. Rustling in the pumpkin leaves on the orchard floor.

"Coop?" A twig snapped. "Nate?"

A hog lunged out of the undergrowth, squealing, lifting its tusks. Chunk startled and broke into a gallop. Before Irv could duck, an apple branch struck him full in the face.

Everything went black.

Chunk galloped across Irv's pumpkin field and into her barn, where she stopped in her stall, trembling. Irv tried to back her out, but it was so dark inside the stall he couldn't find the opening. Irv dismounted, turned Chunk round, and felt his way out of the stall. He felt his way along the barn wall and led Chunk out the door and into his pumpkin patch.

But even outside, Irv still couldn't see. That's when he realized: the apple branch had knocked his head clean off.

Irv tried to curse, but nothing came out because he didn't have a mouth. He listened for Nate, but he couldn't hear an answer because he didn't have ears. He took Chunk's reins and did his best to walk straight across the field, but when he reached the orchard he couldn't be sure of the spot where his head had come off.

Irv dismounted and bent over. He felt a twinge in his back. He fell to all fours and crawled along the edge of the orchard, feeling the ground. Finally he touched something big and round. He picked it up and screwed it onto his neck.

Still he couldn't see. Feeling grooves in the round thing, he realized it was a pumpkin.

Those of you who been to high school might be wondering how Irv was having these thoughts without a head. Well, Irv hadn't been to high school. Irv hadn't gone past the third grade. Irv did what men did in those days. He thought with his hands.

Irv felt the ground some more, finding nothing but pumpkins. A hog snorted, so close that Irv felt its hot breath on the cold stump of his neck. Irv stood and backed away from the orchard. He decided he'd start fresh in the morning. Then he stopped. He realized something: without his eyes, morning light would do nothing to help him find his head.

And what if the hogs found it first?

Irv needed help. He mounted Chunk and turned her toward the road, more or less. He tried to cluck, but couldn't, so he gave Chunk a kick and let her take him into town.



Head 2

Chunk stopped in front of Cooper's Inn, and Irv climbed off of her. He wandered around the porch, bumping into things, until someone came out and took his elbow. Whoever it was led Irv inside, took him to a table, and eased him down into a chair. When whoever it was saw that Irv couldn't speak, whoever it was put a slate in Irv's hands with a stub of chalk.

Irv couldn't see what he was writing, so he kept his message simple. "HeaD," he wrote. Since he couldn't see, his letters were crooked and all different sizes, though of course Irv couldn't see that at the time.

Whoever gave Irv the slate didn't respond for a minute, then patted Irv's hand and disappeared.

Irv sat waiting and kinda lost track of time, the way people do when they can't see in the dark. Irv felt hungry, and it seemed to him he waited half an hour or more. But it could have been just a few minutes. Irv wasn't sure.

Finally someone came back and set Irv's hands on something. Irv felt a wooden bowl, and inside it he felt something big and round. It was wet but it had a nose and a pair of ears with hair sprouting out of them. Irv took the pumpkin off his neck, lifted the head from the bowl, and screwed it on.

It felt kinda like his old head but it was heavy and wet. The eyes were cloudy, and Irv could barely make out his surroundings. He saw he was in the tavern on the first floor of the Inn, and he'd been put at a corner table, well apart from the other guests. He saw guests milling around the bar; he assumed they were drinking cider, but he wasn't sure.


Next to his bowl stood a glass of cider. Irv sipped it, but the cold hurt his teeth. He couldn't swallow and cider spilled out of his mouth.

A hand reached out and wiped the cider off the table. Irv looked up and saw a slight man with a dish rag.

"Who're you?" Irv tried to ask, but his tongue was heavy and his lips were loose, so his words came out something like "Har yuh?"

"I'm Eddie, the cook," the man answered in a high, meek voice.

"Warguhuh?"

"I don't understand, sir. Please don't put a spell on me."

Irv reached for his slate. "WHeRe GeT hEaD?" he wrote.

"Mr. Cooper dropped it off, said if somebody asked for it, give it to them. It's good, right? I boiled it in beer."

"wHaT??" Irv wrote. "wHY??"

"I'd never cooked a head before, but it had a hard shell and soft insides, so I reckoned I could cook it like crayfish. Do you like it?"

"nO!" Irv's chalk scraped the slate furiously. "hEad RuINED dOn't cOoK hEaDS!"

"We have another one, sir. Shall I get you that?"

Irv shook his head, then sighed through his soggy lips. "fINe," he wrote.

"Just to make sure," asked Eddie: "you want this one raw?"

A few minutes later, Eddie came back with a fresh head. It wasn't cooked, but it had a little green apple in its mouth and a sprig of parsley tucked in each nostril.

Irv unscrewed his old head and screwed the new one on. It felt light and dry. He took a bite out of the apple. The teeth worked great. The nose worked great, too; he could tell because everything smelled like parsley. Irv swallowed some cider and it stayed down.

The eyes, though - the eyes were the best. Irv hadn't seen so well since his youth. The Inn looked clear and bright even though it was only lit by a few whale-oil lamps.

"Thank you," Irv said, relieved to have the power of speech again. His voice was deep and clear now - not his old, reedy voice, but comfortable and somehow familiar.

"Of course," said Eddie. With his new eyes Irv saw that Eddie was very young, almost a boy, with hair above and below his lips but none on his chin.

Eddie's finger trembled as he pointed to where Irv's old head lay on the table. "You going to eat that now?"

"What?" Irv said. "No!"

"I'm sorry." Eddie picked up the head. "Would you care for something else?"

"Got any trout?"

Eddie shook his head. "Our fish guy didn't come today. We got lots of pumpkins?"

Irv shook his head.

"Chicken and dumplings?"

Irv sighed. "That'll do."

When Eddie left the table, Irv enjoyed his new eyes by looking around some more. The Inn was decked out for Halloween. Sprigs of pumpkin leaves hung from the ceiling, next to paper bats that flapped their wings whenever the door opened.

Irv was feeling right peckish by now. He'd have eaten at dusk if he'd had a mouth at the time, and it seemed to him Eddie was taking as long to make chicken and dumplings as he had to make either head.

Irv pulled over the bowl of beer broth that his old head had been boiled in. In the broth he got his first look at his new reflection. To his surprise, he recognized it: big Adam's apple, cleft chin, spiky red hair.

It was about the last head he wanted to see right now. It belonged to his nephew, Nate.

Irv pushed the bowl away. Nate owed him a head, he figured, and in fairness it should work better than the one he lost. Irv thought about chewing chicken and dumplings with his new teeth, then going home to lay his new young head on his comfortable old pillow.

Eddie came out of the kitchen, and Irv's mouth moistened when he saw Eddie was carrying a plate. But Eddie took the plate to another table, and returned to the kitchen. Irv pulled the beer broth over and looked at his face again. He couldn't get used to it. It was Nate's face. It would never be his.

Irv left a coin on the table, and headed for the porch.



Head 3

Nate lived on the lake, in a gray shack at the end of a pier next to the Red Rock Cliffs. Irv knocked on the door, but it wasn't Nate who opened it.

"Coop?" Irv asked.

"Nate?" said Coop. "No, Irv! But why're you wearing Nate's head? What happened to your'n?"

"He boiled it in beer."

"What? Who?"

"Eddie, your boy cook. I asked for a head, and he thought that was my order."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Coop threw up his hands. "I guess he's kind of a simpleton."

"You're the simpleton." Irv pointed. "You hired a boy to do your job while you were off playing blind man's bluff."

"Now, wait a minute. I'm the one found your head on the ground. You were out cold. A hog was sniffing your ear. I threw an apple to run him off. He'd be eating your brains right now if it weren't for me."

"Not sure that'd be any worse. What about Nate?"

"I found his head not far from your'n, screaming. I had to put an apple in his mouth to shut him up."

"Where's he now?" Irv asked.

Coop stepped aside. Nate's body lay in the hammock by the window. An oil lamp sat on a little table next to where Nate's head should be. But instead of a head, on top of Nate's thick neck sat a boulder.


"I found him picking up one boulder after another by the edge of the lake," Coop said. "Looking for his head, I suppose."

Irv stepped forward and knelt next to the hammock.

"I hate to see you like this, Nate," said Irv. "Even if you did kinda bring it on yourself. And on me. But I don't blame you, Nate. You were trying your best. You always do."

Irv put his hand on Nate's shoulder and a tear trickled down his cheek. "So what I want to say to you, Nate, is stop trying. Just don't try no more. All right?"

Nate's hand reached out and stroked Irv's cheek.

"Just catch fish, Nate. Don't try nothing new."

Nate stuck his fingers up Irv's nose. Coop set his hands on the base of Irv's skull, and eased his head off.

Irv fell forward, hit the floor, and slept.



For a long time, Irv's empty neck didn't give him any dreams, but toward morning he dreamed he was soaring over the lake, toward the Red Rock Cliffs. The cliffs got closer and closer until he was almost upon them, when he woke.

He was lying under the hammock. His neck felt stiff. He rose to his knees.

Sunlight streamed through the window. The clouds were orange with early sunlight.

Now just a minute, Irv thought: if I can see clouds, I must have eyes.

Irv looked at the hammock, but it was empty. Outside, waves lapped the pier.

Now wait another minute, Irv thought, if I can hear waves, I must have ears.

Maybe Nate didn't take my head after all. Maybe he took it, but felt bad and returned it.

Irv opened the shack door and saw Nate casting off the pier. Coop stood at a little fire pit on shore, frying perch in a cast iron skillet.

Coop raised his eyes. "Nate," he said, "look who's up."

Nate looked at Irv and smiled. "I can't believe it. That crazy spell worked."

Irv could see Coop and Nate at the same time, without turning his head. He saw Coop on shore with his left eye and Nate on the dock with his right.

What kind of eyes are these? Irv wondered. He put his hands in front of his face and drew them slowly apart and backward. He could still see both hands, even when they went behind his ears.

Irv touched the top of his head. There was hair, which was a pleasant surprise since his old head had been bald for years.

He touched his chin. There was hair there, too.

He touched his forehead, his cheeks. There was hair everywhere.

Or not hair, exactly. More like feathers.

Coop peeled the perch from the skillet and set it on a tin plate. "You hungry?"

"Starving." Irv reached up to wipe his mouth. But instead of a mouth he felt a hooked beak.

"What am I," Irv asked, "an eagle?"

"I don't think so." Coop peered at Irv thoughtfully. "Nate, what would you say Irv is?"

"Looks like an osprey to me," Nate said.

"An osprey?" said Irv. "So this ain't my head at all."

"It's not your old head," Coop said. "But it's something."

"It's more than I was hoping for, frankly," said Nate. "I never tried that spell before. It's advanced."

"You can see," Coop said brightly.

"You can talk," Nate offered.

"You can eat." Coop held the plate out and gave it a little shake.

Irv nodded and took the plate. He forked up a hunk of perch and worked it round in his beak. He swallowed to be polite, but the perch seemed dry and flavorless. He set the plate down on a post.

"Something wrong?" Coop said.

"This sounds peculiar, but I might prefer it less... cooked."

Coop set down his spatula and sighed. "There's not much I can do about that," he said. "If you wanted it more cooked, I could put it back in the pan, but less cooked...?"

"I can reverse cooking," Nate said. "There's a spell for that."

"Aren't you full of surprises?" Coop said. "Now you can bring fried fish back to life."

Nate laughed. "No, but I can uncook it a little. Here." He reached out and Irv handed over the plate. Nate squished his fingers into the perch and murmured something. He handed it back to Irv.

Irv tasted it. "Still too dry for me. Can you uncook it more?"

Nate shook his head.

"Can you catch another fish?"

"When one bites."

Irv looked at the water and saw a perch under the surface. "Move your line a foot to the right." The perch glowed a shade of violet Irv had never seen before, a shade he doubted he could have seen with his old eyes.

Nate moved the line. The perch took the hook.

As Nate reeled in the perch, Coop reached for Irv's plate. "Let me see that."

Irv handed the plate across, and Coop flipped the perch. "I can't believe this," he said. "I charred the skin in the skillet, and now it's not black any more. Nate, can you uncook anything?"

"Most things." The perch dangled from Nate's line. Nate grabbed it and pulled the hook out of its mouth.

"A well-done steak, you could make it rare?"

"Medium." Nate slapped the perch against the dock. "Maybe medium well."

"Or a hard-boiled egg, you could make it..."

"Medium boiled. Not soft."

"Hey -" said Irv.

"I could really use you down at the Inn," Coop said. "You have no idea how often a guest says something's just a little overcooked. Drives me crazy. It's like tossing out half a day's rent. But if you were in the kitchen...."

Irv clapped his beak for attention. Nate and Coop turned toward him.

"Hey, Nate," he said, "can you uncook my head?"



Coop opened the door to the Inn and ushered Nate and Irv inside. An early riser was sitting at the bar, mopping up egg yolks with a hank of bread. Irv gagged when he saw the eggs. His pointed gray tongue thrust out of his beak.

Eddie stood behind the bar at the washbasin, scrubbing the inside of Irv's skull with a wire brush.

"Eddie," Coop said, "what are you doing?"

"Serving breakfast," Eddie said.

"No, with the skull."

"Oh." Eddie set the skull on the bar proudly. "I thought it would make a nice lantern. Put a candle inside it, it's perfect for Halloween."

"Eddie." Coop picked up the skull. "This is a man's head."

"You told me to give it to whoever asked. I did. He sent it back."

"I didn't mean for you to cook it."

"How was I supposed to know that? This is an inn. I'm a cook."

"Are you?"

"I gave him another head, and there it is." Eddie pointed at Nate. "He looks fine."

"That isn't the man whose head you cooked." Coop put his arm around Irv. "This is the man."

"Why has he got a bird head?"

"Because you cooked the head he was born with!" Coop handed the skull to Nate. "Nate, can you do anything with this?"

Nate shook his head. "There's no meat on it."

"Where's the meat, Eddie?"

Eddie looked away. His hand touched his stomach lightly.

"You ate it?"

"Not all of it. The nose was chewy, so I gave it to the dog."

Irv's beak fell open. The guest at the bar pushed away his eggs, stood, and left the Inn.

"I can check the dog bowl," Eddie offered. "See if there's anything left?"

Coop looked at Nate, who stared back blankly.

"I have an idea!" Coop pushed through the swinging door to Eddie's side of the bar. He put Eddie in a half-nelson, cupped Eddie's chin, and tipped it up toward Irv. "You want Eddie's head? I'll pop it right off for you."

"No, thanks," Irv said. "I'm wiser as a bird."




Irv left the Inn, and the door fell shut behind him. He climbed on Chunk and gave her a vicious kick. Chunk galloped about a quarter mile toward the lake, then fell into a trot, then a walk. Irv kicked again. Chunk ignored him.

Nate pulled up on Irv's left, riding his Morgan horse. Irv tried to turn his head away, but his left eye had such a wide field of view that he couldn't make Nate disappear.

And as he turned his head, his right eye spied Coop riding up on his plow horse.

"Irv," said Coop.

"Uncle Irv," said Nate.

Together they said, "We're so, so sorry."

Irv turned his head, but no matter where he looked he couldn't put either of them out of view.

"How can I make it up to you?" Coop asked. "You want a room at the Inn? We'll cook and clean for you. You won't have to do a thing for yourself."

"That sounds horrible," Irv said. "And I'd see Eddie every day."

"Eddie's moving on," Coop said.

"Mr. Cooper offered me his job," Nate said. "Are you headed for my shack, Uncle Irv? You can have it. I won't need it, now I'm working for Mr. Cooper. You'd like living by the lake. Lots of sunshine. Plenty of fish."

Irv saw that he was indeed on the low road to Nate's shack. He pulled the reins and turned Chunk onto the high road, the one that led to the Red Rock Cliffs.

"Can't afford your shack," Irv said. "Can't afford nothing. Till yesterday, I hadn't sold an apple in two years."

"That's all right, Uncle Irv," said Nate. "Your credit's good with me."

"Don't believe in credit," Irv said.

"Then sell your farm," Coop said.

"No one wants that farm. It's overrun with hogs."

"I can take care of that," Nate said.

"Too dark, too rocky, too cold. No farmer wants land like that any more."

"Don't sell it to a farmer," said Coop. "Sell it to me."

"What are you going to do with a farm?"

"Sleep guests there. Inn's bursting at the seams. Your place can be Cooper's Annex. Cooper's Inn and Orchard."

Irv followed the path into the woods. "Do I have this straight?" he asked Coop. "You buy my farm, then I turn round and give the money to Nate."

Coop shook his head. "You'll have money left over. Your farm is worth more than a fishing shack."

Irv dismounted and walked to the edge of the Red Rock Cliffs. He looked down at the water and leaned forward on his toes.

Nate put a hand on his arm. "Uncle Irv," he said gently, "don't jump."

But Irv wasn't listening. His keen eyes had fixed on a big salmon, glowing violet deep in the water. Irv jumped, turned in the air, and plummeted toward the water, beak first. He kept going after he hit the water - three, four body lengths down. The salmon turned and tried to escape, but Irv seized it with both hands. He slowed in the water, turned upright, and kicked toward the surface. The sun looked cold and small through the dark water, but it grew warmer and brighter as he rose.

When he broke the surface, Irv held the salmon above the water and kicked himself to shore. He tossed the salmon onto the rocks and climbed out of the water. The salmon flopped on the rocks. Irv looked downshore and saw Nate's pier jutting into the water.

"Uncle Irv!" Nate yelled down from cliffs. "Are you all right?"

"I been worse!" Irv yelled back. "How much you want for that shack?"

4 comments:

  1. A work of art! The hilarious mysteries of the doing of deals and beating natural forces - sort of. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fantasy mixed with humour, horror, the absurd; what next? Loved the illustrations!
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read the whole post and got some of the idea of the article but it was really difficult to understand the most part of it. Somehow it went good and I got the point.

    ReplyDelete