by Eugene Marckx
There was once a farmer who had two sons. John, the older son, worked hard. He was as dependable as any father could want. But the old man couldn’t let himself favor him, not with a smile or a pat on the back. John was to inherit everything, and as he improved the farm the old man turned jealous, although he’d never admit to such a thing. Yet his holding back, when a kind word was needed, spoiled what good they might have shared.
Nestor was not so serious about work. He loved to play and make up jokes. If there had been a sister... but no. The mother died long before. John and the old man grew touchy around Nestor’s jokes, his music and dancing. He was a featherbrained idler. But he could make music with anything, even a blade of grass, and his imagination ran to telling such stories that his brother and father lost trust in pretty much anything he said.
The day came when Nestor turned away and took to the road. The farm went on thriving, with cabbages and cows, but the house got chilly. The old man often stared out where his son had gone. Over the years his whole face shriveled into a wizened squint, as if somewhere was a mistake he hadn’t caught, and it was too late now to set it right.
Meanwhile John kept working. His face took on depth. In a certain light it had character, at least in the eyes of some young women. But when John’s father died and people came to the viewing, that old dead face looked so crushed. And there were whispers that John’s face was hardening that way as well. It should not be left to go on.
So in the course of a couple of church holidays John found himself courting a woman after all, a woman who knew quite a few things without having to go on and on about them. John liked her quiet calm. So they married and started a family, a happy one in spite of John’s serious ways. Boys and girls were doing chores and rambling about. Their father made sure they worked hard, and their mother made sure they felt loved. It might have gone on like this.
But one afternoon a man came hobbling up the road, right into the backyard of the house. John was in the barn. His wife saw the man, bedraggled and bent, coming onto the porch. It took her a long moment. Ah, Nestor. She brought him in and sat him down to coffee, bread and soup.
When John came in he stood gaping, as if his brother were a ghost. Nestor smiled up from his chair. But for John a smile was a difficult contortion. Nestor stood up and the two shook hands, a bit formally, and John led the way to the barn. Together they cleaned up a stall for Nester to keep himself. There he could take his time to get back his health.
It wasn’t long before Nestor, with his bent back, was running alongside the big Belgian mare, urging her as she plowed the back forty for winter wheat. And at apple harvest he climbed a ladder and picked with the best of them. In the woods he showed the children good mushrooms or roots and leaves you could steep for a tea to cure a cough. He’d give out a whistle and a bird would call back and fly in. At supper the children kept telling what Nestor showed them. John listened and his face began to pinch.
Later his wife took John’s hand. “We send food out to your brother. Maybe you could invite him to our table for supper.” She knew enough not to say more.
John stared at her and then took a deep breath. “Maybe...”
Nestor got to be great fun at the table. He limped and made faces in telling tales and the children laughed. But John’s face pinched up as if he were looking to cut Nestor’s kite string.
But this didn’t happen. Instead Nestor left, without a fare-thee-well. At the discovery John’s wife said, “You’d better go after your brother—right now.”
He was about to count off all the work he had to do before dark. He opened his mouth, but looking at her the only words that came out of him were “... before dark.” His father’s old winter coat still hung as usual beside the door. He slipped it on, saddled the Belgian mare and rode off in a canter. Farmers in their fields saw him on the road and waved. He was a rare sight away from his land. He rode on past noon and came into town.
An old lout at the general store called to him, “Saw yer brother this mornin’... kind a down at the heel. Must a been shamblin’ all night. Jest kep’ a’goin’... likely off to the gorge.”
John nodded and cantered on. It was late and windy when he came to the bridge over the gorge. In the middle Nestor sat perched on the railing, ready to jump. It was a long way to the rocky stream below. He saw John and shouted, “Don’t come near!”
The mare slowed in her canter but kept on. John closed in, leaned far out and gripped his brother with both arms. In that grip—that moment—the two of them knew if Nestor jumped he’d take John with him. But Nestor collapsed and John pulled him onto the saddle before him.
Then he turned the mare around for home. Into the night Nestor talked, on and on. He had seen foreign lands, learned foreign tongues, entertained kings and queens. There was one king wanted to keep him and put him in a cage—like a bird. He began to wither. He had to be funny or be put to death. When he escaped his back was mangled.
His voice rose. “Once I got home I started to heal and get back to myself. Then your face beat on me like a stone. But where else can I go? My back’s mangled, and joking just leads to a bad end.”
John didn’t speak. If he ever had any words for feeling they were lost to him now. He began to weep. His tears welled into sobs and wetted Nestor’s back. A breeze was blowing, and Nestor started to shiver. John wrapped himself and his brother into the old winter coat, and held him in a way he had never done. Huddled in that coat with a strong-arm hug, he silently vowed to take it easy with him at the family table, and to help Nestor build a place of his own on the farm. And this thought made him want something from his brother right now.
“Nestor, could you say something funny?”
In his brother’s grip, Nester shivered. He felt caged again. He took a deep breath, and this opened John’s arms. His eyes went upward. “Well, look at that moon. She’s grinning down on a couple of knuckleheads blubbering in the night. At this hour she likely favors the wits of the horse.”
John looked up and grunted. His lips parted and just barely curled.
Nestor shifted. “And besides, your fingers are tickling me in the ribs!”
John all of a sudden let go. Nestor fell off the horse, and the old coat ripped apart. The mare stopped and Nestor picked himself up. He looked at the torn fabric. “Now you’re in for it, brother. What’ll you tell your wife when she’s got to sew you a new coat?”
John cocked his head. “I’ll just tell her it’s your doing—for starting a tickle fight!”
Nestor gasped and laughed. “What’s that? Did I live to hear my brother make a joke?”
John started to grin, but it sagged downward. “I’ll never hear the end of it!”
Nestor stifled a snicker. “Brother, you can trust me. I’ll never tell a soul!”
“Yeah, you won’t miss a chance. The whole county’s gonna know.”
“But so, they’ll expect you to give it all you got. You’ve got to work on that dry cough. Most likely they’ll take it for a laugh, like you’re in on the joke.”
“There goes my reputation.” John dropped his half of the torn coat on the road and gave Nestor a hand up into the saddle. “Sad, I’m just so sad to see it go.”
“Yeah, that’s the tone. Won’t anyone keep a straight face if you talk like that.”
“You mean...make a show of myself? No one will trust a word I say.”
“Brother, that’s why you need that dry cough. It’ll make them want to be in on it too. They’ll all get to thinking you’re not just another farmer.”
“Well, if I lose my reputation...won’t be so bad to gain another one in its place.”
“Sure, it’s a hot business, keeping folks guessing. But, whatever the heat, John, you and I will be in on the joke.”
“Yeah... I’m starting to like that.” His head was right up next to Nester’s as they rode.
Hearing her husband from a long way off in the night, John’s wife could barely recognize his voice. From then on it came at odd moments around the farm. For weeks and months she marveled at the change in him. And life around their table held plenty of back-and-forth surprises between these brothers, the light humor and the dry.