Jobic and the King of the Tundra
by Helen Middleton Amos
ONCE LONG AGO in a faraway country there lived with his grandparents a young boy named Jovic, and every evening after chores he would linger beside the crude corral in back of the sod house and talk to his pony, Serah.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with that pony,” Jovic’s grandfather would say, shaking his grizzled head and pursing his lips thoughtfully. “First thing you know, the king will be coming. We’ll have to hide her then!” He would look about him at the flat grassland, with the hills purple in the distance. Jovic knew his grandfather was wondering where they could hide a boisterous little pony like Serah who, he was sure, thought she was a horse.
“The king won’t come till spring,” Jovic would say comfortingly. “Maybe we can think of something by then.”
Jovic’s grandmother clicked her tongue against her teeth when she heard this. “Nobody knows when the king will come,” she declared. “I remember once when I was a little girl, he came in the dead of winter! Seems there had been distemper among his horses that all but wiped out his stable, and he came to buy more, even if it was out of season.”
Jovic stood beside the corral fence one late November evening. The wind was chilly, and he pulled his shabby jacket closer about him. Serah never seemed to feel the cold. She shook her dark mane and whinnied hopefully.
“Sorry I couldn’t bring you anything for supper,” the boy told her. “We had only cabbage soup, and how could I bring that?”
In answer Serah threw back her head and trotted to the far end of the corral and back. Jovic caught his breath at her beauty. In his mind, not one of his grandfather’s purebred mares could compare with Serah. He recalled the day a band of Gypsies had come by a year ago, and grandmother had shared fresh-baked bread, and before they left they had given Jovic a thin, sick, sad-eyed little black pony. Grinning at her now, he could scarcely believe it was Serah. He and grandfather had nursed her with love and tenderness. The small creature had responded by slowly putting on weight and regaining her strength. Now she frolicked about with as much energy as the others.
Jovic sighed. The king wanted only the best of horse-flesh, good bloodlines and built-in strength and speed. He patted Serah’s forehead and turned toward the house. Before spring came, he and grandfather would think of something.
They had no time. To Jovic’s dismay, the very next week a runner came breathless to the sod hut to tell them the king and a large party were riding that way on the morrow and to tell them to have their horses groomed and ready. Grandfather shrugged his shoulders. Nobody questioned the king. If he was coming tomorrow, the horses would be ready.
They talked about it that night at supper. “Once I saw the palace,” grandfather said, munching on coarse bread. “It was in the morning, and the first light glistened on the minarets and the towers, all silver and opal, and the stone walls were pearly in the mist.”
Jovic could not imagine such splendor. “We’re fortunate the king and his father before him liked our breeding,” grandmother said. “We’d starve if it wasn’t for the sale of our horses.”
Jovic wished he could do something to help, but he knew his duty was to stay in school and study hard and be a good grandson.
Jovic tossed on his straw pallet that night. He had to think of a place to hide Serah. By the time his grandmother called him to a breakfast of porridge and black tea, he had it – the perfect place – one the king would never dream of visiting. Now, if his grandparents would agree….
At mid-morning they spied the royal party cantering across the plain, the king on a snow-white stallion, his men on gray horses, pennants flying in the cold breeze, the sound of hooves tat-tatting on the frozen ground.
Grandfather, his pink face scrubbed almost raw, bowed low while grandmother, in her good white pinafore, curtsied, and Jovic made a nervous little bow. The king was so grand with his crest of golden hair, piercing blue eyes, and scarlet cloak! Jovic was almost overcome at the unexpected grandeur but walked sedately beside his grandfather to the corral where the mares pawed on frosty, wilted grass.
The king looked at their teeth, patted their flanks, asked a few knowing questions, and directed his guard to pay grandfather in gold coins. Then he did something he’d never been known to do before. He asked to warm himself a little beside the fire in the hut. Once again grandfather bowed low, but Jovic could sense his uneasiness. There was nothing else for it, though, but to lead the handsome king, who had to duck his head to enter the low doorway, into the earthen-floored dwelling.
Grandmother, who was making soup in a big iron kettle, almost dropped the few carrots and potatoes in astonishment as the king smiled at her and settled himself on the low wooden bench in front of the fire. He looked at the handmade wooden table, the few provisions on a shelf in the corner, the small pile of wood stacked neatly, the hemp-like curtain that divided the main room from the sleeping quarters. He stretched out his strong hands toward the flame and smiled benevolently upon the trio.
“You raise fine horses,” he said pleasantly, “good high-spirited stock. I’ll come again in about two years.”
“Your Highness,” grandfather murmured, “I still have my two broodmares, and my neighbor in the village has his good black stallion.”
“Splendid!” beamed the king. And then they heard it. Plainly and clearly came an inquiring whinny from behind the curtain.
The king’s royal head went up. “What…” he began, and then, “Do you by chance keep another horse… in the house?”
Fear gripped Jovic’s heart. It had seemed like such a good idea to hide Serah in the hut, where the king had never come before, but now he might be displeased at grandfather for feeding a mere pony. Jovic took a deep breath and spoke, to the amazement of all present.
“Your Highness,” he said, “I-I have a little pony the Gypsies gave me, and I asked if she could be put in the bedroom until after you left.”
The king turned his piercing gaze on the boy. Outside, horses pawed at the hard ground, and the murmur of the guards could be heard through the earthen walls.
“But why?” he asked quietly.
“We don’t have much pasture or feed for the winters,” Jovic explained carefully. “It was good of grandfather to let me keep Serah, but I was afraid you mightn’t think it was right.”
The king scratched his head. “Bring the pony out,” he directed, and Jovic went in and untied Serah from the rough bedstead and led her into the main room, prancing happily, gleaming and shiny and proud.
“Why, she is a beautiful pony!” the king announced. “You’ve cared for her well, boy!” He paused a moment, then said, “If you would sell her, I would give five gold coins.”
Jovic’s senses reeled. Five gold coins! These, together with what grandfather’s horses had brought, would see them through the winter in fine style.
“But, Sire,” grandfather protested weekly, “she has no pedigree. The Gypsies gave her to the lad sick unto death. It took us weeks to get her to stand on her feet.”
Jovic blinked back tears. Dear grandfather. Knowing how much Serah meant to him, he was trying to persuade the king to leave her here.
Resolutely, Jovic spoke. “Maybe she’s only a pony,” he blurted, “but she thinks she is a horse! She was raised with the horses and is sure she is one herself.”
To Jovic’s surprise, the king threw back his head and laughed, a big booming laugh that sounded through the tiny hut. He clapped his hands on his knees and chuckled. “A pony that thinks she is a horse! I must have her for my daughter’s birthday. She’s just a little girl, but she could learn to ride this Serah. Fetch my head guard.”
The burly man with the money bag came towering into the room at grandfather’s bidding. “Pay the boy five gold coins!” the king ordered, smiling widely, “and get this pony out of the house.”
The king rose to his feet and patted Jovic’s shoulder. “You’re a good lad,” he said gently, “and you’ll miss your pony. As soon as the weather is fit, I’ll send a man to bring you to the palace for a day or two to visit with her.”
The king strode out into the cold sunshine; there was a clatter and flash of the departing retinue, and suddenly the three were alone the quiet of the hut.
Jovic’s eyes shone. The palace! The story-book castle of pearl and opal where Serah would be the adored pet of a real princess, and where he was to be allowed to visit! Maybe not once, but many times. His dreams took wings. Perhaps one day he’d ride straight and tall with the king, and his grandparents would never want for anything again.
Jovic felt much older than he had the night before as he walked over and put the five gold coins in his grandfather’s calloused hand.
The Wishing Well
by Helen Middleton Amos
MOTHER SPUN AROUND from washing dishes at the chipped porcelain sink. “What did he say?” she demanded, “a wishing well? Here – in the front yard? Have you taken leave of your senses, Dan?”
Papa put down the day-old paper he’d gotten from Mr. Prevost earlier. His faded blue eyes held an unfamiliar gleam of determination. “Always thought I’d like one,” he said mildly. “Been collecting materials for a while. Some boards and a bag of cement, and I’ve been saving the nicest stones from the back field.”
Mother looked dazed. “But whatever for? Who do you think will use it? Are you fixing to get right collecting the coins? I haven’t seen any busloads of tourists out this way. Have you?”
Elmer and I suppressed a giggle. The idea of tourists coming out from town on the narrow dirt road to stop in front of our rundown, grey house and drop money in a wishing well was just too hilarious.
“Now, boys,” Papa admonished. He always called us boys or children; never kids as the neighbor men did. Mother had hinted once that Papa had come from upper class parents and had done well himself before the Depression forced him out of his insurance business and onto the rails. He had bought this impoverished little farm with what he had been able to salvage of his savings and never looked back. Ashamed, she said, to have his people know how we lived.
When Mother was upset, she had a habit of using big words. She had been teaching in town when she met Papa, but of course once they were married, she was expected to resign so a single girl could have the post. “Preposterous!” she said now, her voice rising. “Of all the things in this world we need, Dan, a wishing well isn’t one of them.”
“We’ll see,” Papa murmured. “Guess I’d better check on Daisy.” With that he took his old straw hat off the hook by the door and ambled out into the April dusk. Elmer and I knew that meant that, by hook or crook, Papa would build that well. We shivered in anticipation. Maybe, for once, we’d have something nobody else had.
Papa worked the farm with a skeleton of a horse, a walking plow, harrows, and a wagon he built himself from neighbors’ discards. Besides the horse, Lucy, we had a thin and aging cow, Daisy, who in spite of all expectations managed to yield an astonishing amount of rich milk, morning and night. Papa grew some hay, a little wheat, potatoes, and a few strawberries. A dozen hens scratched in the barnyard, and a couple of pigs wallowed in mud after every rain. Not much, by today’s standards, but we were never hungry as so many were during those grueling days. Mother sold eggs at the market in town Saturday mornings, as well as some of her own baking and berries in season.
In addition to this, Papa did odd jobs whenever he could find them. Usually, if there was a little lumber or bricks or whatever left over, he’d be told to help himself whereupon he’d hitch up Lucy and fetch the load home in the creaky wagon. This, we knew, was the wherewithal for the wishing well.
Papa didn’t make a big thing of it. First, he dug a hole in the middle of the front yard and was pleased when water began to seep in slowly. When Mother had stopped fussing about the first phase, he climbed down, and Elmer and I handed him bricks, and he fashioned a casing of sorts to keep the earth from caving in.
A man from the other side of town wanted a barn reinforced so Papa was busy for a day or two, but as soon as he was free, he went back to his project.
Elmer and I took a good bit of teasing from the other kids at school. There was no bus service then, and we trudged a couple of miles or so to the old brick schoolhouse with its bell tower and outhouses. “What’s yer old man makin’, anyway?” the class bully bellowed at recess. “My dad says maybe he’s diggin’ for buried treasure, or hopin’ to find China, ‘cause no farmer fiddles around like that and spring seedin’ to be done.”
I drew myself up to my full ten-year-old height. Elmer, who was only six, cowered behind me. “He is making,” I said slowly, as the whole yard full of children stopped in their tracks to listen, “a wishing well.”
The bully’s roaring guffaw brought Miss Rice quickly to the front door. “Come!” she called. “Recess is over.”
We filed dutifully into the musty room, redolent with the smell of chalk, books, and footwear. I knew by suppertime the news of the wishing well would be told over every oilcloth-covered table in the area.
We began to have company. Women on their way to town would pull their horses to a stop and peer curiously from the buggies. If Mother happened to be outside, they’d tsk-tsk and flap the reins, sympathizing with her misfortune in having such a dolt for a husband. The men were bolder. They’d troop right in and stand over us as we worked. “What’re ya wishin’ for, Dan?” they’d ask and jab each other in the ribs. I hated them! It was nobody’s business but his own if Papa wanted to have something grand in our front yard, a reminder, perhaps, of the life he’d left behind.
What with the farm work and his odd jobs, Papa didn’t have much time to devote to his well, but he worked steadily when he could. I noticed little drops of sweat on his forehead when it wasn’t even warm out, and he seemed to tire quickly. He was pale, too, and once when he didn’t know I was looking, I saw him cough up some blood into his handkerchief.
Mother appeared not to notice. She was busy with the everlasting housework, gathering eggs, mending, and working the little vegetable garden beside the back door. Evidently she had decided to dismiss the whole affair as some quirk of Papa’s that, as long as it didn’t interfere with is “real” work, could be tolerated.
Papa finally got four posts up and a slanted roof over the wishing well. “Now, boys,” he told us one evening. “tomorrow being Saturday, maybe we’ll have time to start putting the stones on damp cement all around the outside. Won’t that look nice?”
We never found out. Sometime in the night, Papa hemorrhaged, and by the time we realized what was going on, he was in the sanatorium ten miles away, and Mother, for the first time in our memory, was crying.
Mr. Prevost took us to visit Papa the next week in his rattly old Model T. When we got there, Elmer and I were not allowed in and had to sit in a dreary waiting room until Mother came out, biting her lip, and we all climbed into the car for the long ride home.
A startling sight met us as our house came into view. Half a dozen neighbor men were crowded around Papa’s wishing well, and when we got near enough to see, we discovered they’d finished it! There it was just like in a picture, exactly as Papa had imagined it. The little roof was shingled, the stones were evenly set in the cement, and someone had even hung a wire basket of flowers under the eaves. I was happy, and yet hot tears strung my eyes. Mother was, for once, speechless. She just wrung the work-worn hands, but her brimming eyes spoke volumes.
Papa never saw his wishing well. He died six months later. Mother sold the farm, and we moved five hundred miles away to live with is people who sent a warm invitation as soon as they got the letter telling of his death. Mother got a teaching position and eventually remarried – but that’s another story.
Last summer I drove the familiar road out of town, paved now and lined with modern bungalows. Our sway-backed house and barn were gone, and a sprawling rancher occupied the site. But sturdy and true, in the midst of an impeccably manicured lawn and brilliant flower beds, stood Papa’s wishing well. A monument, I thought, eyes misting, to a good man who made the best of what he had and, in spite of everything, clung to his dream.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene; display type is Goudy Text. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 390 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770