Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fergus and the Bountiful Farmer

Here's a story my father used to tell around the camp fire, about a tinker friend. Fergus was a perpetual optimist, always sure the Lord would provide - and often He did, although it was more often kindly farmers like the one in this story, whether they knew the extent of their bounty or not.

Once in Ireland long ago, there was a family of tinkers; himself called Fergus, herself called Shula, and a brood of children, each named after a Saint in Holy Catechism.
Fergus and Shule never bothered to count their children. On a bright sunny day when the young ones were out playing and the current babby lay crooning in a basket, they thought there might be less than ten – but on dark and rainy nights, when the whole family were huddled under the barrel-shaped roof of their caravan, they thought there might be a lot more.
Like most travellers, Fergus and Shula had a life of ups and downs. In fine weather, when the rabbits were plrnitful in the fields, they lived well. But there were times when there wasn’t enough food to go round, and no one needed pots mending or the clothespegs Shula made.
Winter was especially cruel. There came a Christmas when it was very cold, and the snow very deep, and they were stranded by the roadside without food.
``I’ll go out and look for a farm,” Fergus said. ``Maybe the farmer will give us a bit of goodwill.”
The children – and surely, Shula thought, they had so many now huddling under thin blankets, that some of them must belong to someone else – knew just what their father meant. Farms were wonderful places, treasure houses of milk, butter and eggs, and more riches than the tombs of ancient kings.
With the eldest children tagging at his heels, Fergus walked through the snow to the nearest farmhouse. He had to knock quite loudly to be heard above the merriment inside and when the door opened, a gush of warm air came out. A bluff old farmer stood there, and through his spread legs, the tinker children could see the kitchen table groaning under the weight of delicious food.
The farmer gazed down, not unkindly, but suspiciously, on Fergus and his brood.
``Please, sorr,” Fergus said, doffing his cap, ``would you be having any pots and pans to be mended? It’s the Lord’s own birthday tomorrow, and me with babbies coming out of me ears and not a scrap of food in the wagon. In the name of the Blessed Babe, will ye let a man work for a dozen eggs?”
The farmer, for all his suspicion, was a decent man. He looked back at his own well fed family, then at the poor wretches on the doorstep.
``I’ve no pots for ye,” he said. ``But in the barn yonder there’s some tools that need fixing.”
``Sure, and I’ll do a good job, sorr.”
``I’ll give ye a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread and a fowl for your trouble,” the farmer said. It was a generous offer, but after all, it was Christmas.
He took Fergus to the barn, and lying in the straw were rakes, hoes and shovels with broken shafts or blunt edges. Fergus dug out his sharpening stone and his knife from his pocket. With the knife he cut several long strong young branches, and soon he was hard at work, fitting new shafts and sharpening the edges.
While he worked, the children scampered about the farmyard, having snowfights. The farmer’s children wanted to join them, but no, the farmer’s wife said, tinker children have nits. But she called them over to the door, and gave each a cup of fresh milk and a slice of fruit cake.
The tinker children drained the tin mugs and gave them back to the good wife, but the cake they wrapped in large dock leaves to take back to their mother.
The farmer was well pleased with Fergus when he saw his tools again. They were like new, and he willing paid the dozen fresh eggs, still with the smell of the barn on them, and a loaf of new bread hot from the oven. The fowl was expertly strangled and handed over also.
Fergus and his children headed back to the caravan, and the farmer went back to the bosom of his own family, thankful for the four strong walls that enclosed them.
The ragged little tinker party made strange progress across the fields. Every now and then a child would dart away from the others and dig furiously in the snow. One retrieved a small sack of potatoes taken from the barn, while another uncovered a large square of butter wrapped in muslin from the dairy. Each of the children had buried a little bit bounty in the snow, while they had been playing around the farm.
That Christmas Fergus and his family feasted as royally as the ancient kings. Even the slices of cake were wrapped in the butter muslin and boiled up into a tasty Christmas pudding.
Above the snowy fields, bright stars shone down on no more contented family in all Ireland. Neither did they forget their benefactors.
``Sure that farmer will go straight to Heaven,” Fergus said, ``sharing his bounty with the poor like that.”


At 4:17 AM, Blogger Heather Blakey said...

This is a fabulous story Gail. If the camp archives fill with pieces like this it will be a joy to behold. I just loved the twist at the end. All those children proved useful.

At 4:36 AM, Blogger Gail Kavanagh said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful spot, Heather - I want everyone to know the billy is always on the boil and there's always bread and fresh soup for the weary traveller.

At 4:56 AM, Blogger Heather Blakey said...

It is a magical spot Gail. I half expect to see Robin Hood, Maid Marianne and Friar Tuck sitting by the fire, bread in one hand and an enamel cup full of soup in the other. I am sure that once the word is out there will be a regular stream of visitors.

At 4:57 AM, Blogger Imogen Crest said...

Gail this is just perfect for you! I can see this going to be a place full of wonders....might pop by for a billy when hermit life gets too solitary...great, great writing.

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Believer said...

Marvelous story, Gail. I think everyone has a fascination with gypsies and their way of life. Perhaps we all have a little gypsy blood in our veins.

At 5:21 AM, Blogger Karen said...

The storytelling tradition is so vital to imagination. I can picture you listening to this tale tucked up in bed as a little girl...

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Luna said...

Beautiful! What a generous lesson. I need to be reminded of these things. Especially when it's not Christmas.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Believer said...

Hello Gail,

I couldn't get your beautifully written and lovely tale out of my mind so I wrote a sequel--I hope you don't mind. The references to losing count got to me. I "gleaned" them as we say over in the Aluvial Mine.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Gail Kavanagh said...

Believer, I am honored by that beyond words - make your camp here so you can stay over often and share these tales with us.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Leonie Bryant said...

What a beautiful story and to have had a father who could sit and tell you stories like this. I am married to a man who tells lovely little stories and it is a great gift to his grandchildren - they love it.


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