4. The Thousand Nights and One Night

cockfighting hen
“They’re vicious, egg-eating bitches,” says Brutus affectionately, “Bred and raised for cockfighting.”

Now that there are two mouths to feed, Lucius sends Inglorion to buy a half-dozen pullets, saying, “Lots of people sell them around here, but I’d recommend this fellow Brutus. He sells a few from his flock every now and then, and I think you’ll find him interesting.”

And so Inglorion walks a few miles through a city blurred by neglect, thick with high weeds and shattered pavement. Burned-out and boarded-up structures alternate with urban homesteads with a picturesque and improvised air.

Brutus’s lot is surrounded by a high fence made of rust-nibbled mine screen. The gate is latched but unlocked. Behind it, Inglorion sees a row of raised planters and a tiny arts-and-crafts bungalow. A man is sitting on the porch sketching in a notepad.

He’s absorbed in his work, and seems not to hear the gate, or Inglorion’s footsteps on the walkway, which is mulched with wood chips. As Inglorion approaches, he sees that the man is pale and fair-haired, and wears a queue. His size and strength are impressive even though he’s seated. He’s a few hundred years older than Inglorion — solidly middle-aged for an elf. He looks up, and Inglorion sees that his face is elaborately tattooed with black and red warpaint.

“Good morning,” he says. His manner is quiet and unhurried. Inglorion thinks, He’s not a civilian. He felt a presence, and chose to look oblivious. 

Inglorion says, “My son Lucius sent me. He said you might be willing to sell us some pullets.”

“I have pullets, but only for barter. I don’t have any use for cash.” He stands up to shake hands. He’s a head and an half taller than Inglorion, and his eyes are strikingly dark. There’s something familiar about his face and bearing. Inglorion prolongs the handshake; he sees poorly in the bright morning light, and the man’s tattoos make it difficult to pick out his features.

“What did you say your name was?” the man finally asks.

“I didn’t. It’s Inglorion.”

“I go by Brutus. Come on back, Inglorion. Are you looking for chicks, or pullets?”

“I’d prefer pullets, but I’ll take a look at whatever you’ve got.”

Brutus gathers up his notebook, pencil and coffee cup, and leads Inglorion into the house. It’s small — a few hundred square feet, made up of a combined sitting room and kitchen, with a curtain drawn over the door to the bedroom. It’s cool and dim, with a slight scent of fresh tobacco and coffee. Once Inglorion’s eyes adjust, he sees that the walls are equipped with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

“Do you want some coffee? I was about to have a second cup.”

“Yes, please.”

As Brutus washes and dries a second cup, Inglorion drifts over to the nearest bookshelf. Three shelves are given over to volumes on practical subjects like water harvesting, wastewater plumbing, mulching and livestock management; two are dedicated to an an antique edition of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Above that, there’s an assortment of poetry, philosophy and political economy.

Brutus hands a cup to Inglorion. “I’ve given you honey. There’s no cream.”

“Thank you. You have a fine library. I’ve never seen an unabridged edition of Burton.”

Brutus looks amused. “There was a university in this area at one time, so it’s possible to find relics like that. Have you read Burton’s Thousand Nights?”

“No. I’ve heard of it, of course, and read about his life.”

“His translation is excellent — vigorous, candid. You can take a look at it later, if you like. We should go back to the chicken coop now, before the heat becomes intolerable.” They step out the back door. The lot is large — just shy of a quarter-acre — and surprisingly lush. It’s a mesquite bosque, with widely spaced, gnarled trees, their boughs heavy with tiny green leaves. In the shade of each tree, he’s planted an assortment of herbs, vines and vegetables. They’re watered by an elaborate series of basins shaped out of stone and earth, designed to capture and channel rainwater. It’s noticeably cool under the canopy, and the air is full of birdsong.

The chicken coop and run are at the very back of the property. “I’d like to free range them,” Brutus remarks, “But the coyotes are relentless. I’ve had them strike in full daylight.” They duck to enter the run, where a half-dozen hens are scratching and pecking: Pretty, slim, crimson laying hens, and even smaller dun-colored birds with red heads and black tail feathers. Inside the coop, there are two hefty, blond hens, each minding a set of chicks.

“I’ve got both types,” he says. “The red ones are further along, but I’d recommend waiting for the brown ones. They’re vicious little egg-eating bitches, but I’ve never lost one to a predator, and they’re laying machines. Small eggs, of course.”

Inglorion peers at the brown chicks. They’re just starting to take the shape of birds instead of dust bunnies. “You haven’t sexed them?”

“No. You’d have to take potluck. I sell the roosters, or cook them at three months. You don’t want more than one of those fellows. They’re bred and sold for cockfighting. They’ll beat you up for your lunch money and take your girl.” He says this affectionately.

“Nice. We’ll take a half-dozen, if you have them to spare.”

They walk back to the house, bartering pleasantly. Though Inglorion can’t make out Brutus’s features, his manner and voice are intimately familiar. Brutus seems intrigued, too. At least, he’s in no hurry to drive the bargain to closure.

“A quarter-cord of mesquite sounds about right,” Brutus says finally. “It’ll be a hassle to get it over here, but that’s a solvable problem.” They drift through the house, and onto the front porch. It’s been less than half an hour, but now the sun feels merciless, harsh.

Brutus asks, “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Not at all.” Inglorion’s expression of longing is almost comical in its intensity.

“Do you want me to roll you one?”

“God, yes. Lucius will be pissed. Supposedly I’ve quit.”

“It’s a filthy habit,” Brutus says mildly, “but sometimes you need a little filth.”

He seats himself at the little table where he was sketching, rolls two, sealing each one with a swipe of his tongue. The ritual is familiar and comforting to them both — freighted with the promise of pleasure. He lights them from a single match, hands the second off to Inglorion. The sun has crept up the stairs and halfway across the little porch, so they lean against the wall, sheltering from its brilliance.

Inglorion takes a drag. “Oh, fuck,” he says after a moment. “That never gets old.”

“Vice never does. I’ve got it down to a couple a day, but I’ll never quit.”

Inglorion shuts his eyes, blocking out the sun and the sight of Brutus’s tattoos. He’s listening to Brutus’s voice, a soft, melodic tenor, slightly smoke-roughened. Partly to keep the other man talking, he says, “I’m new to the area. The way you have everything laid out is impressive.”

“Thank you. It’s taken time to understand the climate and soil. It’s a unique place.”

“It’s daunting — the heat, the lack of rainfall,” says Inglorion. “But it’s beautiful.”

“Really?” says the older man. “Most people hate it, think it’s hostile.”

“Funny how people mistake indifference for hostility. No land is hostile.”

“We’ll see how you feel in a couple of months. It’s not for everyone, certainly.” He takes a deep drag, blows a series of smoke rings. “You’re part Drow, right? That’ll be hard in the desert.”

“Yeah. My son says that during the summer the solar loading is so intense that everything looks white-hot at midnight. And yet he loves it here.”

It’s midmorning. The heat is rising, and the birds have fallen silent except for the occasional mourning dove. The air is still and bright. The street in front of them is deserted. The houses nearby have been boarded up. Their yards are barren and hard-packed, or given over to weeds.

Inglorion finishes his cigarette. Already the sun dazzles him, floods his vision. “I should let you get back to it. It will be a hot walk back,” he says. “Three weeks for the pullets? I’ll get the wood over here in the meantime.”

“If you have trouble setting something up, let me know. A couple of people around here with wagons owe me favors.”

They shake hands again. It’s impossible for Inglorion to make out the other man’s features in the general ambient glow. The sense of familiarity is piercing: The timbre of his voice, the scent of his house, borne on a stream of cool air from the door standing ajar behind them. And there’s something beyond that — the carnal impression of his height and bulk and grace, the animating intellect and temperament.

Now Inglorion’s discomfort is acute. He’s strongly drawn to this man. He’s forced to keep his gaze strictly lowered, but the rest of his senses strain to determine if Brutus feels an answering pull. He can feel the other man’s gaze passing over his averted profile: his cropped white hair, damp with sweat; his pale skin with its faint bluish tint; his slender wrists with their filigree of scars.

It seems for an instant as if Brutus is about to speak. He removes the cigarette from his mouth, and Inglorion hears a slight intake of breath. The pause stretches out, and Inglorion thinks he must have imagined it. Certainly everything here has the quality of hallucination or omen.

Not since childhood has Inglorion felt so abashed and tongue-tied. He turns abruptly, awkwardly, with a piercing sense of disappointment. He passes under the trees, through the gate, into the street, into sunlight so strong that it dazzles and deafens him.

“What did you think of Brutus?” Lucius asks when Inglorion returns. He watches his father’s face carefully.

“I hardly know.” Then, apparently at random, he says, “Do you know he has an unabridged copy of Burton’s Thousand Nights and One Night?”

Lucius gives a polite nod. He’s an indifferent scholar.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

 

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