They had become as father and son.
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From Mink he had learned all he knew of the lore of nature. Through his boyhood and early adolescence the Indian had come to him several times a year, often from many miles out of his way. Now Mink had not come in five years. Ase grieved and longed for him. His second oldest friend was the gypsies.
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He thought of them collectively, as he did not single out one grape from a cluster or one marsh marigold from a field of marigolds. The gypsies had been coming since he was six. They came every summer, camping by the willow stream or near the cold flowing spring by the log cabin. For the few days of their camp he was one of them. He came then as close as was possible, for him, to neglecting his chores. As a boy, he ran with the gypsy boys. As a young man, he sat with the elders, danced and sang and ate and drank at their summer nights' festivities. Of late, he had been closest to the matriarch of the tribe, the Old One, the queen; to her husband and to their daughter Elissa.
Elissa stirred his blood so that when he touched her in the dance he trembled like a colt. She was an unlit bonfire ready for the spurt of his match. The Old One looked on with approval, and he did not understand why or how he had abruptly turned back with Elissa from the hemlock shadows toward which he had been leading her on a soft June evening. The gypsies had not appeared the summer before. Ase was fearful that he had offended the pride of the girl, even more, perhaps, that of her mother, the queen.
His third friend was Tim McCarthy. No king had sired McCarthy, no queen had borne him. He was a drunken little old Irishman from the bogs of Aran, a hired farm hand by necessity, a fiddler by the grace of God and to the glory of man. Ten years ago he had drifted into the neighborhood with his fiddle under his arm, a bottle in his pocket, a dirty white she dog at his heels. He had hired out first with Hiram Linden.
He had lasted until his first spree, when he reeled into the house, singing and fiddling the bawdiest of Irish ballads. Amelia had had him off the premises before the sun went down. Meantime, he and the lad of eleven had become fast cronies. The little man, full of fables, his music and his dog fascinated the boy in equal measure. The Wilsons, the Lindens' nearest neighbors, two miles to the east, had taken Tim on for a while.
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He was now reasonably settled yet another mile east, to be near his young friend Ase, with a farm family who put up with his instability in satisfaction over the lower wages he was willing to work for. The little dog was dead, replaced by a male of her progeny as white and dirty and devoted. When sober, there was no better hired hand than Tim McCarthy. At all times he was kind and gentle, and wise, save for the drink, which had him.
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He had the Gaelic gayety and melancholy, like the streaks of fat and lean in Irish bacon. McCarthy had given Ase the flute, which he counted also as a friend. Tim's fiddle had stirred the hearts of many a man and woman in two lands and on the sea between them, but he had never induced so rapt an absorption as in the thin, solemn boy who had such trouble speaking. It seemed to McCarthy that Ase found the music another and a richer language, one that spoke familiarly and in which he might find tongue. He tried to teach him the violin, but the boy's hands, already huge, were fatally clumsy, and while he managed the bow well enough, his already gnarled fingers could not touch one of the delicate strings without impinging on another.
McCarthy said finally, "Me boy-o, 'tis hopeless. Watching Ase piping one day on a willow whistle, McCarthy lifted a finger and said, "Whoosh now. I've an idea born to me. He prowled the marsh for the proper hollow reed, and carefully, his blue eyes intent, his cheeks rosy with excitement, ruffling his white hair now and then in exasperation, he made with his pocket knife a serviceable flute with half a dozen stops. The day was Sunday and he worked from noon to sunset. Give a blast.
The boy had learned the crude, sweet instrument as though a young bird learned to sing. McCarthy deprived himself of his drink for several months, disappeared for five days, and having walked the twenty miles each way to and from the city of Trent, appeared again still sober and triumphant, with the gift for Ase of as fine a flute, ebony and silver, as money could buy. On his next month's wages he became magnificently drunk.
Before he collapsed, to be driven by Ase to his place of employment and put to bed in his loft, the old man and the boy had played fiddle and flute together in the hemlock woods until the birds flew close to listen, and they looked up to see the Linden sheep flocked in a semicircle before them. Tim had been so taken by laughter that it made an end to the playing and he gave himself to finishing his jug. Now Ase was twenty-one and McCarthy was in his late sixties, and Ase was master of his flute. The pair was called on for their music at all the country gatherings and dances.
It was Tim who did the trotting back and forth between the two farms, to visit. Two evenings seldom passed without Ase's finding the little man and his dog waiting for him at the barns when chores and supper were done with. From the coldness of the Linden house Ase had walked with these friends into strange worlds, warm and golden.
The world of Mink Fisher had most nearly fed and satisfied him. It was primal, enriched by Indian myth and legend of bird and beast, of cloud and wind and spaceless sky. It was an amplification of the earth he knew and there was nourishment in the stars. The Romany world dazzled him with its freedom and its brightness. It was spangled and embroidered, Oriental, exotic, the open road its lamp and its god.
Its songs around the camp fire came from far away and long ago, songs of feuds and castles, of roving minstrels, of dark deaths and gypsy passions. McCarthy's Celtic world was fey, peopled with leprechauns and fairies, with red-bearded kings and gold-haired queens who never had been and never could be. There were fierce battles here, and a deal of bitter injustice and the righting of it, and from behind the mist that shrouded the green and silver landscape there came the sound of a mysterious laughter. These glimpses into distance, these few steps into magic places, left Ase still the onlooker, still hungering to share more deeply, to become a part of even farther realms and stranger people.
He had no friend of his own age.
His longing for closeness to his brother absorbed him. It did not occur to him to seek a brother among his schoolmates or the neighbor lads. Benjamin was the spring from which he must quench his thirst if it was to be assuaged at all. He was stirred and touched by the generosity of his three friends, taking their affection as a gift past his deserving. He did not guess that they recognized in him imagination and spirit like their own, a bigness of mind, a rare understanding and tenderness that warmed them, too, made them feel valued, as they valued him.
He knew only that he was a stranger and they took him in.
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They spoke to him and he was a little able to speak with them. He found voice fully in his flute alone. Of the friends and the flute Amelia disapproved with all the sting of her acid tongue. Mink Fisher was a slinking savage, likely to murder them in their beds. The gypsies were roisterers and thieves.
McCarthy was a common Irish drunk.
It was further proof of the stupidity of her younger son, his unfitness, that he made bosom companions of the scum of the earth, foreigners to boot. She succeeded in imposing on him a certain sense of guilt when he slipped away, as he must, to meet them. Otherwise he was unshaken. He cleaved to his friends with quiet stubbornness. They were of a noble goodness, he knew, and the core of his integrity was impregnable to his mother's malice.
Her outright forbiddal of the flute puzzled him. She was not a religious woman, save in a hard, perfunctory fashion.