To the cows of Hesse-Cassel it was a world of eating, drinking and deficating. To Baron Johan Karl Fredrick Jungen von Edinger in the Chalet on top of the hill it was an economy of fertilizer. To the workers in the valley below the hill which was made to look like a mountain, it was a world of shit. But to Hans Muller, barely well off enough to have TWO names, the hope that it would be about something else emerged behind his tired, yet still optimistic eyes.
“Saint Stephen’s Day,” the rapidly aging, smoothed-faced twenty-something peasant said with eyes fixed on the sun as it edged its way up the backside of the mountains that delayed dawn in the morning and stole the magnificence of sunset at the end of the day. “Saint Stephen’s Day as we are God’s instruments in turning cow droppings into golden manifestations of His Goodness.”
“We shovel shit so that the Barons and Barroness’ in Berlin can have pretty flowers, get richer, and continue shitting on us,” Albert Stein grumbled back. “We were both born to shit, and we will die in shit,” he continued with a bitterness far in excess of his two decade-long ‘life’.
“But we don’t have to BE shit,” Hans retorted as he shoveled another pile of manure onto the cart. He pushed it into neat piles with the rusted spade and then his hands, in keeping with the Bergermiester’s new rule of keeping the piles compact, shipable and tidy. “If we work hard enough, we too can get to live on the top of the hill one day, God willing.”
“Oh, yes, ‘God’ again,” Albert slurred out of a mouth that cursed the bosses from a distance and smiled to them from up close. But not enough to be promoted from shit shoveller to hay bailer, or perhaps even the one who got to drive the cart into town, the highest position reachable for someone born to his station and situation. “God takes care of those who take care of nobody but themselves,” he continued. He wanted to scream it, but if his whisper would be heard, it would surely result in another flogging on his back, or in more tender and reproductively valued places.
“Work sets you free,” Hans asserted, trying to believe it himself on yet another day of futile labor that led only to more futility, trying to sculpt the square piles of manure into the most perfect statues he could see inside his tortured imagination and ever-evolving intellect. “There is mastery in servitude,” he continued. “The greatest honor in the smallest of places…In our imaginations man can be as gods…And in the noble tasks done in the lowliest of places we are God’s instruments in creating the Kingdom of Heaven…and when Don Quixote slew the windmill in defense of an ungrateful whore, he really DID defeat the Devil and caused the Angel inside Dolcinea to emerge into an Eternal magnificence.”
“Maybe in those books that you read,” Albert laughed, loud enough to be heard by all the workers and, IF he was listening, God. “Or had read to you by your mother. That crazy witch who was—”
Albert’s well intended muse, and sincerely meant warning was met with a pitchfork to his throat. This time, held by Hans rather than Foreman Richter.
Hans meant it this time, or so he thought he did. Yet Albert saw into Hans’ Soul, once again. Hans was too moral, smart or cowardly to follow through with any of the threats he made to his only real friend in the world. Even when Albert insulted the woman who blessed Hans with birth, then cursed him with an intellect that he could not use in the world. Then wound up in an asylum for knowing too much herself.
“Keep your brilliance to yourself, if you have any smarts at all,” Albert warned with his firm yet patient stare as the shit-permeated odor of the air gave way to tension and the aroma of fearful human sweat from his longest living, and perhaps only, friend
“I can’t…I know too much..and want to know more,” Hans related in the conversation they had so many, many times before, sometime with words, sometimes with gestures, sometimes with means of communication that seemed mystical and familiar. “I will not die a shit shoveller or as a piece of shit,” Hans continued with a downward glance, the salty taste of terror in his parched throat.
“You will, unless you learn to shit on others,” Albert’s silent reply, with an arch in his back that showed off his superior musculature. “Or turn the shit shovel back on the pieces of shit.”
True to his word, Albert opened his mouth, sensing the need to deal with more practical situations. “Foreman Richter, Sir. We were practicing.”
“Practicing what?” the overseer who saw nothing except what the Baron told him to replied.
“Practicing our combat skills,” Albert smiled proudly, not caring if Foreman Richter saw that he neglected to shave his upper lip this week.
“For what purpose?” Richter’s double chin grew even more indentations, his overfed belly bursting over his belt. Said belt contained two loaded pistols that could fire only one shot each, yet it kept twenty workers half his age and twice his size obedient and, when not drunk, civil. “For what purpose do you practice these ‘arts of war’?” he continued, knocking the pitchfork from Hans’ clenched fists with the flick of his hand.
“Why, to fight for the Prince of Hesse-Cassel, Sir, when and as he calls us to service,” Albert’s reply. Albert demonstrated the imaginary ‘drill’ and Aryan skills of warfare with the pitchfork so easily taken from Hans’ sweat soaked palms. A swerving action against an invisible opponent which to the observer seemed very real. Particularly when Albert stabbed him in the chest, then head, then in a ‘gentlemanly’ way, carving up the invisible opponent’s organs of manhood. All the military moves named correctly, though horribly mispronounced.
Albert’s display impressed the twenty dirty poor men working on shit shoveling duty, whose stubble faces had more crap and dirt on them than hair.. It evoked the condescending eye roll from Richter, as he twirled his large mustache, allowed to be had by a man of his station. He knew that no one in the ‘shit brigade’ would ever have the balls or the brains, to actually join the Militia of Mercenaries being raised by the Prince of Hesse-Cassel to fight for King of England in fight to preserve freedom for his loyal subjects across the wide waters. Besides, the Baron’s permission was required, and for the moment, shit was the most valued commodity in the dirt poor province of Hesse-Cassel. But Albert’s skill and pinache did arouse the admiration of one person whose life was not born to shit, those eyes noting his display of courage, skill and bravado in low places from as high a place as one could get to at the ‘Shit Farm’. She was in ‘transit’ today, from one location that everyone in the Shit Brigade knew, to another they could only imagine as she walked to her carriage.
Maria von Edinger had at least five names between the first that reflected her beauty and the last one that indicated her position. She frequently watched the shit shovellers, presumably because she liked cows. But Albert and Hans knew differently
“She likes you,” Hans said to Albert, in the ‘work whisper’ voice they had gotten so accustomed to when they were allowed to return back to their (according to Calvinist Richter) ‘Soul saving’ labors.
“Yes, but she loves you,” Albert replied to his less muscular, less-colorful and less confident friend.
No more was said, except of course in the private conversation between Maria’s longing eyes as she smiled at Hans, avoiding her father’s watchful stare as they got into their carriage. Only Hans and Maria knew about the private conversations they had when she got ‘lost’ riding on the estate, mind to mind, and heart to heart. Albert knew that each of the two lovers wanted, needed and deserved more. Maria was betrothed, most probably, to someone else. But perhaps that day would be postponed. Perhaps one day Hans would put down his books, take up the goblet of wine or beer which was allowed each worker AFTER labors were done, and get drunk. Lose himself in the elixor which the self-proclaimed-scholar said was the ‘drink with which the people on the top of the hill keep people on the bottom of the hill involved with mischief rather than revolution’. Perhaps he would indulge in the kind of mischief with Countessa Maria that would consumate their love, lust and vitality.
But in a world of shit on the bottom of the hill, and piss coming from the top, ‘possible’ was as good as one could get. It didn’t keep you Alive, but it kept you from dying.