June and August—Clark Humphrey
June and August
by Clark Humphrey
June and August were always seen together. They were together whenever strolled through the little town to the little school, the little church, or the little shops. She always wore her blue crested little hat and he always wore his crimson red coat. Their clothes, hands, and faces were always clean.
When they spoke to grownups, they kept impeccable manners. They always said “please” and “thank you.” They addressed even the town beggars as “sir” or “madam.”
They spoke in perfect harmony, almost in unity. They often finished one another’s sentences.
People who didn’t know them usually mistook them for a sister and brother. They were actually from adjacent lands out on the Cedar Crest Road.
August’s family, the Trulys, lived in a small but comfortable cottage at the side of the road. They had a well-maintained garden and a few acres where they raised hogs and chickens.
August’s father and mother had sometimes also worked, respectively, as the field foreman and the cook to June’s family, the Forresters. They lived in a far larger house up a long path from the road. They owned a large tract of land directly behind the Trulys’ land. And, for a while, the Forresters had earned a good living on that land.
But the Forresters’ fortunes had become precarious in recent years. Their land was too large to effectively plant and harvest without a large field staff, and too valuable to lie fallow.
Then the two families, whose lives had been intertwined for years, planned to become intertwined in fact.
Thus August was destined to marry June once they both came of age. The Trulys would gain not only a daughter-in-law but the Forresters’ holdings. The Forresters would gain not only a son-in-law but the solution to their financial problems.
The children’s respective parents reared them to be complimentary in both heart and mind. As June showed early abilities in sewing, August was taught about building furniture. June was trained on the piano, August on the fiddle.
June learned, by necessity, the strict art of making and adhering to a household budget, and the related disciplines of a level head and a wary eye. August was permitted to be more imaginative, to let his mind wander a bit (but not too much).
On the day of our story, June had become a sensible, practical young lass of thirteen years. August was now a fresh-faced, wide-eyed innocent of twelve years. Despite June’s having grown into her maturity sooner, as girls tend to do, they both remained the best of friends, an inseparable duo, separated only when they were at their respective homes.
One midsummer’s morning, August’s mother came to speak to June’s mother, with an urgent request.
August’s father had assigned August to deliver three chickens to the Young Widow Noore, who lived out on the Cemetery Road. A witch, some said she was. A caster of spells, a concoctor of potions, a manipulator of simple minds. Even worse, she was rumored to be a corrupter of youths, tempting young men down the dark path toward vice and disobedience.
August’s mother said she didn’t really believe the rumors. But just in case, August’s mother asked, could June keep her sensible watch on the young and distractable lad, to make sure he would not fall prey to the Young Widow’s wiles?
June’s mother immediately agreed to the request. She called for June to emerge from the kitchen, where she had been learning the proper way to prepare a pheasant. Within minutes, June was dressed in her best hat and coat. When June told August’s mother how she’d mended the coat herself, August’s mother praised her, saying the work was so well done you couldn’t tell it had been mended at all.
Before long, June was walking side by side with August along the narrow country roads. They each had a hand holding up the large wooden cage which held the live chickens within it. The chickens’ squawks and cackles meant their presence could be heard well in advance of their arrival at the Young Widow’s cottage. It was a small stone house with a thatch roof, solid and well kept. Several smaller, more rickety out-buildings stood nearby.
As they first saw the house, the Young Widow had already stepped out onto her front porch to greet them. June whispered to August that the woman looked not one bit like a “witch.” Her countenance was lithe and graceful. Her dress was slim but modestly long.
In a lilting voice, she greeted the girl and the boy and the chickens. She curtseyed down to talk to the chickens through their wooden cage bars. “And don’t you look FINE today?” June looked toward August with a look of bewilderment. The Young Widow then rose to shake the free hand of each child.
“You must be young August. Your father says you’re quite the little dreamer. A young man with his head in the stars.” June was dismayed to see August beaming with pride at all the attention.
“Oh, and you must be his friend June. An industrious litle child, they tell me. And so pretty!” The Young Widow patted June on the head as if she were a toddler. Instead of letting her irritation show, June politely smiled and remained silent.
The Young Widow beckoned the children and their chickens to enter the house. It was dimmer inside there than in either of the children’s own homes. Despite the main room’s small size, it had corners and alcoves that were bathed in nearly complete darkness. The room’s lighting devices all had candles, not the oil lamps used in June’s and August’s homes. Heavy bookshelves bore heavy old books, whose covers bore obscure Gothic-text titles and even more obscure artistic symbols.
The Young Widow bade for June and August to set down the chickens’ cage on the floor, and for themselves to sit on a sofa made from dark-stained oak.
The Young Widow knelt in front of the chickens’ cage. She asked June and August if the chickens had names; she appeared disappointed when August said they did not. She proclaimed she would name them right then and there. “The white hen looks like a Prudence, yes she does. And this proud red cock-of-the-walk, you have GOT to be a Terrence. And the shy girl in the back: why, she reminds me of you, June. I’ll call her Juney. Hello, little Juney! How are we today?”
The chickens stood or sat in the cage, silently. For all the cackling they’d made while they were being carried along the road, they now seemed docile, even content with their looming fates.
August sat there speechless, in awe over the Young Widow’s apparent influence on the birds. June simply stared in bewilderment at the chickens’ change of mood, and also at the way the Young Widow had leant over just enough to reveal a significant portion of bosom toward August’s direction. August, to June’s partial relief, had not seemed to notice this.
The Young Widow stood and explained that “it is good to welcome every creature one brings into one’s home, including those one will soon bring into one’s body.” June really didn’t appreciate the sound of that statement, but again remained silent.
The Young Widow then bade June to join her back in one of the out-buildings, where “a special recipe” was simmering, and also where the money for the chickens was kpt. June gave a wordless glance at August as she stood. August glanced back, acknowledging her trepidation at being left alone with this woman, but then became distracted by the sight a large stuffed bird standing on a pedestal in one of the room’s darker corners. As soon as June and the woman were out of the room, August stood and walked over to examine the preserved creature.
June followed the Young Widow outside, along a path of paving stones, toward and into one of the out-buildings. It was a little more than a large wooden shack, at least on the outside.
Inside, however, she was astonished to find a full working kitchen. Actually, it looked like a hybrid between a kitchen and an apocathery’s laboratory. Something was indeed simmering, inside a covered cast-iron kettle on top of an iron woodstove. Its steam smelled like something appetizing and abhorrent at the same time.
The Young Widow soon produced a leather sachet from a locked cabinet. June heard coins rattle from within it. Some of the coins sounded heavier than others.
The Young Widow offered, then insisted, to show June around the place. The woman said the girl would appreciate the delicate care that went into creating what she caled “village medicines.” The chemists in the cities, she said, had been trying of late to re-create the beneficial effects of these medicines from completely different formulations, formulations the chemists could then legally patent. But the making of a truly effective medicine, she insisted, was like the making of a truly satisfying meal. Factory automation, the repetitive chores of hundreds of machine-tenders inhaling that horrid factory coal smoke, could never match the disciplined wisdom of an herbalist such as herself, re-creating formulations passed down and tweaked to perfection over the generations.
The woman instructed June to take her time examining the various vials and bottles posted on shelves around the shack, whose labels claimed efficacy against sleeping disorders, rheumatism, stiff joints, women’s pains, fevers, and more. June became so engrossed in all of this, and in all of the other strange objects around her, she did not notice when the Young Widow left the shack.
August, meanwhile, had become so engrossed in the stuffed crow, and in all of the other strange objects around him, that he did not notice when the Young Widow returned to the house. She snuck up behind him and softly said, “And how do you find my lovely things?” He was startled for just a moment. Then he turned around to see her pale face and dark hair haloed by the light from the window behind her. She moved slowly and gracefully as she handed him several coins from her sachet.
“I see you’ve met Clement.”
“My beautiful crow.”
“He was the late Mr. Noor’s best friend. I like to keep him here. I can feel the late Mr. Noor’s presence when I pet his feathers. You try it.” August petted the stuffed bird and felt only a soft stiffness. “Nothing.”
“His spirit must be wandering right now. You know that’s what they do, don’t you? Our spirits are encased in these bodies of ours; when our bodies die, our spirits return to the universe, except for those with unfinished tasks down here. Mr. Noor, alas for him, still feels a need to keep watch over me. I keep telling him he doesn’t have to.”
August stood there, eyes staring and mouth partly open.
“Or maybe you just aren’t attuned to the spirit world. You seem like you could become attuned, though. You have that restless quality within you, don’t you? I can tell.” She moved slightly closer, holding out a hand toward his face but not touching him.
“Oh, yes. Yes indeed. You have it within you. You long to see the vast world beyond these woods. But I can assure you, there is also a vast world WITHIN these woods. The trees; the plants; the animals; the air and the water—it all teems with life energy. It flows, it pulses, all around us. You can learn to sense it, to feel it, even to direct it. Would you like to learn? Oh there is so MUCH I could teach you.”
The Young Widow had barely touched a long, delicate finger to August’s chin when June entered the room from the back. She said she and August had to get back before the rains came.
The three of them went back to the out-building, where they moved the chickens into the Young Widow’s wire cage. The chickens remained quiet and peaceful during this. June and August gave their formal, polite goodbyes to the Young Widow. She curtseyed and bade them well on their journey home.
June and August set back out on the road, under gathering clouds, carrying the now empty wooden cage. They heard brisk steps behind them. They turned to see the Young Widow Noor running toward them, as swiftly as her long dress allowed. They politely waited for her to catch up to them. She handed a sealed envelope to each of them,. She said her goodbyes again. This time she added, “And may all the world’s blessings come to each of you.”
June and August resumed their walk home. The first raindrops of an impending storm began to fall on and around them. August took the empty cage’s handle with both hands, so that he and June could walk more swiftly.
They passed August’s house, to get June home first. As they approached her house up the side path from the road, June opened her envelope. August then did the same. There was an extra coin in each envelope, and a note written in purple ink. They read both notes together.
Each note repeated the Young Widow’s thanks for the company, and invited each of them back any time, with or without their parents’ knowledge.
June’s note added a postscript: “Should you and your young friend wish to practice being Man and Wife, you may do so here, now or at any time in the future.”
June and August looked at one another. Not knowing what to say, they resumed getting June home.