The Peasant Child

by Lita Kurth

Honorable Mention, 2022 Fiction Collections
Nominated for a 2024 Pushcart Prize

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(after Montaigne)

I watch the pink baby gorge at my mother’s breast. His beautiful cradle sits in the center of the room, an altar. I run to Mama and claim the other breast.

“No,” she tells me, kind at first, then stern. She pushes me away, her gaze turning to him, Milord-baby. “Now you must suck from the nanny goat,” she says and leads me outside to the tan and black goat. I cry.

Angry days pass. Papa is gone to the war. Milord-baby stays. His satin-lined crib is always washed. When Milord-baby cries, Mama stops the spinning wheel; she stops stirring oats for our supper and rushes to feed him.

But now Nanny knows me. When I fall and hurt myself, she looks up from her grazing, ready to butt. When I’m hungry, I call her. She comes and stands, gently chewing while I suck her teat, clutching her short, rough hair. Her foreign yellow eyes regard me and mean me well, stranger though I am. Anyone who dares hurt me will feel her horns like stone on wood.

Today a man in a beautiful uniform came on horseback. He gave coins to Mama. Coins will buy a cow, Mama says. Coins will bring a priest to teach me letters. Cold coins. I wait while they grow in a leather bag.

Fall comes. Milord-baby has a cough. All through the night his weak voice wails, and Mama whimpers prayers, puts a cool wet cloth to his forehead.

When I come near, she shouts, “Go away! Go away!”

I slam the door and cry and wet my worn pants. I go out to the shed where the goats and tools are sheltered. Nanny ambles over to see if I’m okay. She has hardly any milk, hardly any hay.

In the evening, a man comes that I’ve never seen before. He swings down from his horse with a black leather bag. He leans over the crib where sweat flattens Milord-baby’s gold curls. Mama gives the man coins she has saved in the bag.

A day later, Milord-baby kicks his feet. Mama eats again and smiles at me. I turn from her and run to the barnyard.

Spring comes and Milord-baby crawls, looking for me with his big eyes. He makes a loud sound when I walk in the room. I look in his big eyes and whisper, “Stupid baby.” He raises his arms and shouts with joy. Stupid baby.

Gorgeous in silk and velvet, he toddles in a silly, bobble-headed way, and mimics Nanny’s “Baaaa.” It makes Mama laugh. I laugh too.

Out in the yard, Milord-baby sees me nursing from Nanny and wants to nurse too.

“No!” I say ferociously. “She’s my Nanny!”

Mama lowers my fists, but for once she doesn’t let Milord-baby have what he wants. She offers him her breast, but he cries.

When she goes to tend the garden, I say “No!” again sternly and glow with happiness when he sits down and cries.

Summer passes. Milord-baby calls out my name. I dance in front of him to make him laugh. I give him a stick to dig in the ground. When Mama isn’t looking, I take some of his special food, his honey-bread, his meat. He watches me with happy eyes. I give him a clam-shell I find by the creek. Joyfully, he bangs it on his silver plate.

Now Milord-baby can make his way to the toilet pail and pull up his pants by himself. He wants to follow me to the creek when I go to fetch water, but Mama says no. Once when Mama was busy, I let him carry a wooden bowl and help me feed the chickens. “Chick, chick, chick,” I say, flinging the crumbs so they fall wide, and he says, “chick, chick, chick” and flings exactly like me.

Autumn comes and frost. Milord-baby has soft, warm clothes with fur edging, and shoes. I wear my wooden clogs. Mama makes me a woolen cloak, dark blue. Milord-baby wants one too. I swirl my cloak and stare at the buckles on his shoes. “No,” I say.

Mama says, “Be good to Milord-baby.”

One day, a beautiful carriage rumbles up, shiny doors and shining horses jolting across our yard. Nanny kicks her heels and scampers away. Men in beautiful clothing step down. One drives the coach, one holds the door and leads the horses, one talks to Mama and carries Milord-baby’s cradle and dishes and clothing out to the carriage.

 I stare amazed at their uniforms. The last one gives a heavy bag of coins to Mama and takes Milord-baby’s hand.

Milord-baby pulls away, frantic, reaches for Mama.

“Hush, Milord-baby,” she says, “hush. You’re going for a ride. Look at the beautiful horses.”

The horses stamp; their harnesses jingle. The sunlight catches the brass. How I long to go where Milord-baby is going. “Can I go too, Mama?”

“No, my son.”

I stare with hate at Milord-baby and the carriage I’ll never ride in.

While Mama is talking to the coachman about the bridge, Milord-baby bolts across the yard. Attendants chase him, catch and carry him to the carriage. I smile. They put him in and close the door. He stands on the seat and pounds at the window, screams in his silks, wails. The carriage wheels grind and thump over small rocks and tree roots and then the horses’ hooves pick up a faster rhythm and the rumble erases Milord-baby’s wail. We watch the carriage until it disappears beyond the hill, and all we hear are chickens clucking, Nanny’s “Maaaaa,” the wind in the trees.

I stand beside Mama, holding her skirt tight in my fist. “Will Milord-baby come back for supper?”

“No, my son.”

I run outside and call for Nanny. I put my arm around her neck, and we walk to the creek.No one toddles after me. Something cries out from a tree above the water. But it’s only a bird.

end of story

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