The first sign that trouble was about to descend on the peaceful empire known as The Boreen came in Spring. It arrived in the form of a cloud obscuring the usually chatty, and on occasion effervescent, Mountain. At first, Empress thought it was just a passing weather front. But the cloud stayed, dark as mascara-smudged cotton. It wasn’t forming anything other than a thick ugly splodge against the azure sky and she couldn’t be expected to ‘read’ through that.
Three horribly long days passed, then one week, then two. This had never happened before. Her ‘people’ had always been able to read The Mountain through the ever-changing cloud formations around its summit. It had given accurate and timely bits of gossip, news, and suggestions on how best to manage the people of The Boreen. But this new development had Empress jumpy, anxious. She couldn’t resort to her drug cabinet. The situation with the cloud was bound to change, she thought, it just had to, and if she was too medicated for the call to action, then what? Instead, she sat on the floral-patterned couch in the kitchen of her massive estate surrounded by fields and hedges, deeply, deeply worried.
She stretched her long legs, folded her large hands across her lap, and tried to think back on happier times. Simpler and more fruitful times, rich and sweet as one of her granny’s Christmas puddings, when The Mountain’s gleeful issue of information through all those wonderful whipped cream clouds, made it so easy to keep everyone in line. The Boreen was Empress’s entire world. If this continued, she would lose her standing, her power in the community. And if that wasn’t bad enough, that stupid ‘Christmas Pudding Whipped Cream’ thought had made her hungry.
Immediately, an inspired thought. She would take her son, whom she referred to as Son, to Mialoni’s for dinner that evening. At a time like this she needed to be among the people, for the people needed to not suspect anything. She had to act as if everything was business as usual. And besides, didn’t Son deserve a night out. The only one of her six offspring who had stayed. Such a good, good boy. Loyal and humble and kind. Quieter than she would have liked but sure, wasn’t his father a quiet man before he went off with that young one from the West. At thirty-two years of age this gem of a lad, still here by her side. Nothing like those deserters he called siblings.
She rang Son. He was in town in the midst of paint cans, charts, and flustered shop assistants, trying to create just the exact shade of Primrose for Empress’s boudoir. He had been there most of the day and was now exhausted. The phone photos had gone back and forth for hours, him sending what he thought would be the correct color, her sending back a look that said, “no and don’t come home until you see a yes.”
Empress and Son arrived at Mialoni’s, the Italian restaurant at the foot of the silent Mountain as the last light of day was pulled from the sky. The big dirty cloud hadn’t moved. She emerged from the car, smoothed her long black skirt that hung poorly on her straight hips, adjusted her loose-fitting purple blouse. She had applied fresh face powder, a thick coating of red lipstick and dyed her hair for a second time that week, finally settling on deep burgundy.
Mialoni’s was the hub of all activity in The Boreen serving as community hall, post office, shop, petrol station, pub, undertakers, and occasionally a Garda outpost. If something was about to happen, happening, or had already taken place it was doing so at Mialoni’s. Owned by the Pucketts, blow-ins from somewhere North, no one knew exactly where, it was the only eating establishment within a twenty-five-mile radius. The co-owner, Matthew P. Puckett opened when the only eateries in the area were a Potato Café (since turned into a football pitch) and a mildly tolerable Asian dining-hall (since shut by the Health Authorities). The menu was small, the food average, but regardless, it did a slamming good business.
Milantas Puckett, Matthew’s voluptuous blonde wife was dressed elegantly for a weeknight. Statuesque in folds of shimmering aqua, which wrapped around her ample frame and trailed behind her, half-mermaid, half-Grecian goddess, she swiveled and floated around the room like a ballroom dancer. Seldom did any of the locals come out to dine until week’s end, and as she showed the two guests to a table by the large window, Empress thought this to be the second sign that things were not right. The Mountain had failed her. Something was about to happen.
“Milantis, dear,” she said, cocking her head while placing a delicate painted fingertip to her mouth, which she realized was much too thick with lippy. “You look glamorous this evening.” She stopped. Her lips were beginning to stick together. She quickly took a sip of water leaving a big red smear on the glass’s rim before continuing, “tell me, is something special happening here tonight?”
“Empress haven’t you heard?”
Empress tapped on the white tablecloth and trying to appear completely normal, replied, “don’t be ridiculous sweetness, I have. But tell me what you’ve heard.”
Milantis gently folded her fleshy arms under a heft of cleavage, her face full of secrets.
“Well, it seems Strangers from The City are arriving by Turbo-Tractor this evening. And,” she continued, her voice heightened with excitement, “they are coming here for dinner. Imagine that.”
Empress’s mouth tightened, the candlelight reflecting in her narrowing green eyes. Strangers arriving from The City, she thought. This can’t be good. And what would they be doing with a Turbo-Tractor anyway? City people only drive cars. SUV’s. Bicycles. Was it one of Webley Fry’s Turbos? Was Fry speaking to them or worse, conducting business behind her back?
“I see,” she muttered calmly, hoping her concerns weren’t showing through her well-powdered face. She shot a look across the table at Son who spluttered and coughed.
Milantis gestured towards outside, in the direction of The Mountain and said, “but surely it told you everything?”
“Of course The Mountain did,” she lied. “But the people of The Boreen must report to me. You know this Milantis. I was merely testing.”
Hands placed elegantly on her ample hips Milantis said, “well, we only received word a few hours ago and it has been mayhem around here trying to prepare. Besides, maybe you should have told us.”
“Humph.” Empress said nothing more. She lifted the velvet-covered menu opening it quickly. Seeing this, Son did the same.
Milantis continued, “and rumor has it the reason for their visit is not just about dinner.”
Empress could feel her face turning an unflattering shade of red. Surely, it was clashing with the color of her hair. This was a double disaster. First and most distressing, she hadn’t been told anything. Nothing about this situation but somehow Milantis knew. Secondly, it was obvious that Milantis was happy with this news. It meant outsiders were hearing about Mialonis. It could mean newcomers. Blow-ins over and above the Puckett’s, who she only allowed to be here because they served a necessary community purpose. If she allowed this, pretty soon they’d all start moving in thinking they could take over. Something would have to be done. She kicked Son under the table as a start. She stared at Milantis and her glowingly smooth complexion.
“Something from the bar Empress?” Empress returned to the menu, ordered a bottle of Mialoni’s finest Champagne. She needed time to think. Milantis nodded primly, turned and headed towards the bar. She returned shortly with the champagne, took their orders and disappeared into the kitchen.
Empress decided it would be best to treat the lull in activity as a bit of R and R. A holiday of sorts. She would wait for the arrival of the Strangers and see if any information could be gleaned from their presence. She hated to resort to such an archaic way of behaving, but what could she do. She sighed and sipped lightly at her flute of Champagne, savoring its sharp bubbles as they melted against her tongue. And, she thought, even if The Mountain did start speaking to her again, she couldn’t read in the darkness anyway. More diners arrived, most gesturing in respect but none actually approaching her table. They all knew better than that. Milantis delivered their order; grilled salmon with lemon rice for Empress, a large plate of spaghetti Bolognese, side salad, and plate of chipped potatoes for Son.
While the diners dined evening settled its dull color over the land and the sweet, rich smell of slurry rose from fields far and wide. Webley Fry sniffed, coughed, and jumped down from his silver Galaxy 500 Farm Ship. A fine machine of his own making. More hovercraft than tractor. He had just completed his rounds saturating the nearby fields with his latest invention, a home blend slurry; stronger smelling, faster acting, a million times more potent. He had worked hard; toiling feverishly to come up with a recipe he hoped would be the answer to the problem of over farming. There hadn’t been any decent grass in his fields for years now and income was dropping. Without grass there would be nothing to feed the food animals. He couldn’t cut the fields to make silage or haylage or even hay. The situation was desperate.
He looked at Gal 500 (his little term of endearment for the giant machine) patted it gently and thought of how easy she made his work. Hundreds of spray jets splattering gallons of slurry per minute. It was like magic. All he had to do was press a few buttons and float. No more dragging those leaky tanks behind a groaning old tractor. No sir, this was progress. More fields sprayed faster equaled more grass equaled more produce and ultimately more money.
As he moved his blocky frame towards the house, hoping his wife Nat had put on her usual meat and potato spread, he felt a sudden wave of nostalgia. A nagging sadness thinking about his dead relations and how rich they had been. How stinking rich and how none of that richness had ever made its way into his pocket. But that was all right because Gal 500 and his other history making inventions, The Turbo Tractor Series and Sensory Controlled Chain Saw Series, would make him wealthier than all them heaped together.
“Webley Fry,” he said to himself, “just focus on the future.”
He ran a greasy hand through his overgrown hedge of brown hair, wiped his face. He crossed his arms over his chest and not knowing why, cast a nervous glance towards The Mountain. He had noticed the heavy, stagnant, dirty cloud earlier but hadn’t paid it much attention. The clouds, the Mountain – they were Empress’s business. He had no cause to worry. But for some reason he was.
It was always this way in the Fry family. All of them throughout the generations, putting up a front of optimism but secretly fearful of saying or doing or thinking the wrong thing in front of the great Mountain. He needed to have a little faith, he told himself. The future would be grand and it was all because of the wisdom that poured like liquid gold from Empress’s mouth. She had told Webley he was different. Smarter and more talented than the rest. She had seen it in a low hanging cumulus cloud many years ago. He was the one to bring back the land. Empress knew what he needed to do with his inventions but could only tell him, she said, on a need-to-know basis.“Sure, didn’t she say I was a genius?”
As he neared the front porch, Nat came running from the house, screaming, “Webley come quick. I think Young Fry has swalleed a pencil.”
“Oh Jahoots sweet saviour! What is that boy doin’ eatin’ a pencil?”
“He was forecasting again. Said somethin’ about The Mountain, that he was receiving information to do with the situation,” she pulled at his slurry splashed shirt, trying to drag him inside, “you know how he concentrates, must’ve chewed the pencil down to a stub.”
“Quiet! We’ll talk about this inside. Don’t need anyone hearin’ about this and blabbing it to Empress. We think we’re in trouble now.”
‘Where the Wild Tractors Roam’ (c) 2023 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved
Boreen – a small country road
Silage – fermented grass
Haylage – grass that has been cut earlier than hay and left to wilt.
Slurry – cow manure and water. A fertilizer dangerous to the environment and to people.