Last year’s unfinished NaNoWriMo decided to be a bit of fantasty/SF. The working title Bangs and Whimpers was an effort to get away from the first title I came up with, Fission Chips.

Rano Simon awoke well before dawn and picked up his packed duffel from beside the door to the bedroom he shared with his brother.

The duffel contained an extra pair of sandals, a small repair kit, a change of clothes from walking to meeting with the Lord and some extra layers as the weather this time of year was unpredictable. He would don the nicer outfit after bathing in the river which ran two kilometers from the Manor’s entrance.

The room had no windows and so he left the room by touch. A single narrow window let a sliver of moonlight into the house’s main room by which he could see a package of food prepared by his mother and left by the oven. A hunk of bread, a few slices of cheese and a skin of small beer would see him the 22 kilometer walk to Thatch Manor.

The Simon family had made their goodbyes to one another the night before and while Mrs. Simon would have liked another few words with her son, he didn’t want to wake his parents and delay his leaving the time they would insist on spending with him over tea and breakfast.

His mother had also put out a plate of late summer strawberries. The white fruit would make the first part of the journey a little sweeter. He put these in with bread and cheese.

Rano looked about the room as if he wasn’t sure when he’d return. The round trip would be two days give or take, less if Lord Thatch denied him a corner to sleep that night. No reason at all to think he’d not be participating in the rest of the harvest.

He tied the skin and the bag of food to his belt and shouldered the duffel, trying to take care not to carry it in such a way that the clothes would wrinkle too much. “Damn these formalities. We’re just men. I work harder than he does for being one of the peasants. Who knows whether he pushes his brain hard enough to account for the difference in our stations.

The moon hung at just over a waning half and was low on the horizon leaving him an hour by starlight before the sun decided to peak out. Rano’s mouth watered at the thought of the strawberries, but he figured they’d make the morning of his journey a better place. He set a good pace for the manor in hopes it wouldn’t take him too far into the afternoon. The landscape was rough once he cleared the farm and made his way around the hills that surrounded the bay.

He had taken this road two years before, when he and the others in his year had presented themselves to Lord Thatch. There were four other boys born the year he was  – three minors and one other major. Petr and Karl Benson had spent the better part of the journey imploring the Yarrow twins and Bill Raynard not to embarrass them in front of Lord Thatch. That they were going in order to make a good impression and keep the village of St. Xavier in Thatch’s good graces. Rano didn’t really think the minor boys would make a problem, but expressing their superiority kept everyone in their places. At least that’s what he thought. The fact was, the Yarrow boys knew the woods and hills between the village and the manor far better than anyone else Rano knew and he was lucky they didn’t decide to do a runner and embarrass the major boys.

That hike had been quite a good one, the weather was fine and despite the heckling Rano and Karl gave the other three, they made the journey in good time and arrived together. He told his brother after, “They may be minors, but you underestimate them at your peril. There’s no differences to be seen and they may well be smarter and more capable than either of us. It’s a difficult row to hoe in this village, but if I learn nothing else this year, it’s not to think them lower than we are.” Petr just said, “I know you’re bigger and older than I am and you must be smarter, I think that’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard today.”

That attitude of his brother’s hadn’t changed in the intervening years and this is why, Rano thought, the Simon name sits so poorly with Thatch. I think I made a good impression when we presented ourselves. Each of us got the same pat on the head, so there’s no real way to tell.  And who knows if two years later he’ll even remember the time the Yarrow boys and a Benson, a Simon and a Jame presented themselves. He sees a few of us every year and. Rano continued to rumble the possibilities in his head but realised that the only way for these arguments to make sense, for his head to have any satisfaction in the matter, would be to actually know Lord Thatch. And he wasn’t going to know Thatch any better on his journey to the manor, and probablyt won’t know any more about Thatch in this lifetime that will make me know how he’s going to greet me today.

Rano looked at his feet and then at the path ahead and tried to recall just what was up around the bend, but all he had was the knowledge that there was only one path and that Xavier boys, or Thatch, or Thatch’s man Mayo trod on it, what, at least eight or nine times a year. The path with that many people coming along it that often should stay clear. The trees on either side were tall at two or three meters, and the shrubs, this late in the year were pretty bare. Some of the other boys took the goats up here to graze when it rained, and they didn’t want to let the goats wander on their own.

Rano knew about planting and harvesting, but very little about goats or why they came back from grazing. The minor girls who did most of the work with the goats didn’t share their secrets. Female goats, one girl told him when he was very young, are like young men. You tell them to come back, they come back. Especially if you give them a reason.  You’ll get this when you grow up, little Simon boy, you’ll get this. Later on it made sense that they’d go off and graze and come back to be milked. That nothing was going to empty their udders but the milking girls. Pain makes you return.

Rano thought about the girls who insisted that they follow the goats when it rained. It would make sense though, that they’d fill themselves, rain or shine, and come back when they needed a milkmaid to take care of the rest. And he wondered too about the pain. The discomfort gets a little much and they come back to the milking quarters, but they’re just coming back to the one causing them the discomfort. Can goats figure that part out? Or is it just food/pain/ease of pain/food?

This occupied Rano’s thoughts for a good part of the hour before the sun peaked up. He had long practiced the different ways to keep his mind going about some subject or another while he worked in the fields or couldn’t sleep. Meditate on something, anything real, and the mind will keep itself busy enough that passing into sleep or bugging a row of crops or harvesting the row once it was ripe, or covering the distance through the hills that separated Xavier from Thatch Manor would go by before he had to think twice about what was going on in the world or about the soreness in his feet or the scratches from the nettles that grew occasionally over the path.

His main idea when going off into thoughts goat grazing and why they come back when the rest of the world has so much more interesting grazing than that by Xavier was the strawberries. It made a little sense to put a few kilometers between himself and his house before enjoying that treat. Stretching these things out made them the sweeter.  But if he didn’t occupy his mind with something other than strawberries, the time would pass with painful slowness. As it stood a few memories and thoughts of goats with filling udders were enough. By the time he put the goat arguments away, the sun was peaking up and he extracted the first white strawberries from the pack at his belt.

There were nine of the fruits which would just about fit in a cup made of both of his hands. He pinched the pale green stem off of the first one and flicked it away, and then bit into the top of the fruit. He wanted to make sure each would last two bites – one with almost no flavour and the second, the tip of the berry with the hint of sugar in the heavy moisture. The first one bite, he though, was almost perfect for being the top half of the berry – the seeds had almost no flavour, and there was none of the bitterness that an under-ripe berry offered. He looked closely at the tip of the remaining half of the berry. Nice – it’s full size – the seeds have spread out – none of that crunch of the bitter seeds all scrunched together. This bite was sweeter than the first. The hint of sugar and no bitterness at all. Bite and bitter. He chewed the sweet fruit and though of Biting and Bitterness and how those words must once have been the same.  But he didn’t want to think about bitterness at all – if the word were in his head, it might take up residence in his tongue where there should just be the sweetness of the strawberries his mother had left. The pale sweetness made the trip’s uncertainty a little easier to bear.

He decided to make the berries last a little longer by eating a hunk of bread with a little cheese in between the first ones and the others, but he regretted it. After the sun had been rising for an hour or so, he ate the cheese and bread, but something in the cheese was left on his tongue and made the next berry taste weird. Not bad – the fruit wasn’t off. And it wasn’t bitter either. Just strange – not the way a ripe strawberry should taste on an autumn morning in the woods. The thing was, he didn’t know how that should taste either. He finished the berries anyway, even though they weren’t so nice as they should have been. I won’t tell mother about that. She’ll only say that I should know these things. Cheese doesn’t go with anything but bread. Or something like that. Rano figured people who talked that way only said you should have known because the lesson he was bringing by telling the story was one they were only learning in the moment he said it. Even his mother, he guessed, hadn’t eaten strawberries after cheese since she was a little girl and she didn’t remember learning the lesson any longer either. So she would say as if teaching the lesson herself, of course you don’t do that. Draining all the sweetness out of the retelling. So he retold it only to himself as the sun rose a little higher and he figured he must be about a third of the way to the Manor. He looked at the sun as it rose of the short trees around him and tried to calculate how high the sun should be before he ate any more of his breakfast. Knowing that the sweetness of the berries was lost, he opened the skin and took a couple swallows of the bitter small beer.