Hedger And Ditcher

One of my uncles was a hedger who had his own ditch, and another uncle was a ditcher who laid claim to a hedge. That’s the thing about being a peasant, it can be mightily confusing. When I was a tot I always used to get the hedger uncle and the ditcher uncle mixed up. Their brother – my father – tried to teach me which was which, though his pedagogical methods were rather unusual. He seemed to believe I might learn to tell a hedger from a ditcher by penning me in a pig sty among the many pigs from dawn till dusk, with slate and chalk, and a sort of metal harness on my head, a contraption he had beaten out of a broken churn.

My father, you see, unlike his brothers, was a peasant with ideas. Few if any of them were sensible ideas, nor were any of them the fruits of rustic wisdom, handed down through the ages. No, my father’s ideas sprang fully-formed into his head. It was an odd head, a bit too large for his body, plum-coloured, and topped with an extravagant bouffant that might better have suited a maestro of the opera house. Somebody had once told my father that his head had to be a bit too big in order to contain comfortably his gigantic brain. That they were joshing him never occurred to Papa. He really believed, in the absence of any X-rays or probes or scans, that he had an enormous, and concomitantly powerful, brain.

When he died I took it upon myself to remove the brain from his skull, using a saw, and I discovered it to be no bigger than the average adult human brain. If anything, it veered towards the smaller size. I put it in a jar filled to the brim with brine, screwed the cap on tight, and then released his body to the priest for burial, but not before gluing the top of his head back on to conceal evidence of my unauthorised sawing.

He was the first of the brothers to go, so when I held a little wake, after the funeral, both my uncles, the hedger with the ditch and the ditcher with the hedge, were present. They were leaning against the pig sty fence, glugging grog from tin beakers, and muttering to each other in their guttural barbaric peasant argot. It made no sense to me, as one of my father’s mad ideas had been to bring me up to speak as if I were a person of consequence in the world. Thus my speaking voice, in addition to my slate and chalk and my metal head-harness, marked me out from my fellows and made of me something of an oddball.

Now that Papa was dead I felt I should get to know my uncles better, or at least well enough to tell the one from the other. I thought they might be interested to see the brain in the jar, so I took it from the shelf in the barn where I kept it and approached them at the pig sty fence.

“Hello, uncles,” I piped up, in my hi-falutin voice, “Look what I’ve got here!”

They turned, the hedger and the ditcher, from gazing at the pigs to gazing at me. In their eyes I saw thousands of years of stupidity and rustic ignorance, and at once I knew I would never be able to make myself understood to them. The hedger, or possibly the ditcher, grunted, and the other belched.

“This is Papa’s brain,” I said, waving the jar in front of them, “You see, it was not so huge after all.”

Then they both spat into their beakers, and each mussed my hair, or as much of it as they could muss through the metal harness, and they trudged away, the one to his hedge or ditch and the other to his ditch or hedge.

Oh, it was all so long ago. I think of them now, my uncles, as I slump at my desk in my ivory tower, surrounded by fat dusty books in incomprehensible languages, and up there, on a high shelf, sits the jar of brine containing my father’s brain. It has shrivelled over the years, until it is a tiny thing, a tiny thing indeed.

NOTE : I suddenly recall that I wrote an earlier piece with the title Hedger And Ditcher, which is also preoccupied with my father. It is worth noting that the fathers in both pieces are wholly fictional, and if they bear any resemblance to my real father at all, it is a lopsided resemblance born in my brain.

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