Benevolence

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Ah, benevolence! It warms one’s heart enough to see it flitting about like one of the blue fairies, blessing the poorer souls that surround us. When it landed on me, however, my heart sang with rapturous humility.

It began late this past winter in the Great Hall, shortly after classes commenced and the Students began to find and form their familiar habits that come as they settle into the new period.

The Great Hall is my favorite on campus. With its vaulted black ceilings, its intricately wrought sconces and chandeliers, and its hollow tap stone floor, it reminds me of the Cathedral where I spent my youth; though to be honest, I have not seen it since then. Even the lectern stage looks like a chancel, but without the choir. Instead of pews in the sanctuary there are wooden chairs for all of the Students.

I was never welcome there, truthfully, but I couldn’t quite stay away. The Professor, though usually occupied, would compel me to leave the room if he happened to notice me. Yet I would slink back inside after all the Students had left.

One day, during one of those clandestine trips, I found placed neatly side by side, two perfectly good cacao beans next to a chair. I took them! Now, you may think that odd. You may not be in the habit of snatching morsels from the floor beneath you; but for one such as I, these discoveries are positive treasures. In my state, one relies on the kindness and excess of others more than any well-fed onlooker can comprehend. Hey, the Good Lord helps those who help themselves, right? I just help myself to whatever is available.

The first time this happened was exhilarating! The second time was only slightly less so. When it started occurring every day after class, I began to wonder who my Benefactor was. For these were surely meant for me! No?

Look, did you ever find that a certain turn of the wind was construed just for your favor? Did a timely rainbow or a fortuitous cloud ever make you feel more than just a little bit lucky? It was like that. Each time, there were two perfectly whole beans without blemish, placed like an offering at the base of a chair. They were never by the same chair, but seemed to be randomly placed all around the Great Hall. Still, I could not escape the compelling notion that they were meant for me and me alone. That, of course, led to another conclusion.

My Benefactor had seen me, had noticed me, had given thought to my situation. I’ve never been the sort of which anyone took active notice. Yet my Benefactor had beheld me and seen fit to bless me with two cacao beans every day. What satisfaction they must have derived from such generosity, I could not fully imagine; nor did it ever occur to me, as it must to you, what an absurdly symbiotic arrangement this was.

I determined therefore to discover this Person’s identity.

Braving expulsion from the room should I be discovered, I crept in before class started and positioned myself well behind the lectern where I could watch the Students and still avoid detection. Then I waited for class to start. I searched their faces carefully, analyzing each Student’s behavior and habit.

It went like this: Goggled Dark One picked his nose enthusiastically and so only left detestable offerings on the floor. Flaxen Hair with Black Lips never opened her bag once.  Tall Gangly One with boots didn’t even bring a bag. Balloon Shaped One was constantly eating throughout the hour, but never cacao beans. So was Blue Hair Girl, but always it was celery. I detest celery, contrary to rumors.

On and on it went! There were many dozens of them. After a few days, though, a thought occurred to me that truly highlighted what a little brain I have: Why were the beans always in a different location? The Students were creatures of habit like any others. My Benefactor must be one of the last ones to arrive, after the Hall was full.

With this new intuition, I was able to spot her. Her hair was the red of hard cinnamon wrappers. Is that even possible? Her face was a soft oval with steel blue eyes set widely apart from a sharply pointed nose. Beautiful, as far as Students go. I instantly felt a deep bond with her, she who had seen me and felt compassion toward me, a stranger. As class ended, I watched her reach into her brown leather bag and removed a small white pouch. She drew out two beans and arranged them carefully on the hard floor. She looked about. Then she ambled away, a contented smile on her face.

At last I knew. I don’t know when she had noticed me, or what had moved her to be kind to me. But she did, and she was.

Sadly, one day as I rushed over to where she had been sitting, I discovered not beans, but a small pile of grains. I sniffed them. Cacao powder?

What on earth? Had she gone mad? Did she think I ate them right then and there? Golden pieces of providence like those could not be devoured as if I were starving. I had taken them home each day to be savored, nibbled bit by bit throughout the day. No, this would not do.

I left the powder there and trudged home after a bit of reflection. As I entered our home, my wife’s round ears perked up.

“Where have you been, Leaf?” she said playfully, nuzzling her whiskers next to mine.

“Oh…going to and fro about the earth, seeking what I may devour,” I answered. “Alas, it seems our fortunes have turned. There will be no more beans.”

Her tail drooped a bit.

“What a pity.”

 

A Bend in the Moonlight

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“It’s so dark in here, Bee!” the little voice cried. “Bee, I can’t breathe! Oh, it hurts! Don’t leave me here, Bee!”

Albie shot up in bed and saw only the blackness, heard only the wind rushing under the eaves outside her window. This time she was sure she had peed the bed, it was so soggy with sweat.

Suddenly a light flickered in the hallway. It approached.

“Albie?” It was her mum, graying blonde locks streaming over her black flannel gown.

“I could hear you again.”

“He was calling me again, Mum. I have to go to him. He needs me!”

“That’s impossible, girl!” she growled. “I won’t hear you speak of it again! He’s gone! Three years gone now, so let it go! I forbid you to go near that place!”

***

It was almost midnight the following evening when Albie shimmied down the trellis outside her window. She had made sure she could hear both of her parents snoring, her mum’s high whistle and her dad’s troubled rumble; then she waited yet another hour.

Rose was waiting in the nearby hedge. Even in the moonlight her fox-red hair burned brightly and her milky blue eyes glowed.

“Took you long enough!”

“Not my fault the fogeys go to bed so late!”

Albie charged off immediately for her destination, the Derrymill Boardwalk, five miles away.

“Slow down, Albie!”

“Shhh! Keep it down. What do you suppose the sheriffs would do if they found two wee lasses like us out traipsing through the dark?”

“Wee lass!” Rose grunted. “I’m fifteen this October.”

“Come along quickly,” Albie cut her off. “We haven’t got much time.”

“Albie, why are we doing this?”

Albie grimaced quietly. Rose would never understand. Never understand having someone you love disappear without a trace, in a matter of seconds. She was supposed to be watching him. A tear began to tumble down her freckled cheek as she trudged along, Rose trailing behind.

“He calls to me, Rose. I know that sounds mad as frogs, but he does.”

“They’re called nightmares, Albie.”

“Not these! Not this! To hear him, as if he’s still there, waiting for me to find him. What if he’s there still?”

“That’s impos—” Rose started, but the wildly desperate tone that had crept into her friend’s voice made her think otherwise.

“Well, we’ll just see, won’t we?” she offered instead.

***

Two hours later they arrived at the Derrymill. Locals called it the Deadmill. Over the sixty years since its building, no fewer than a dozen souls had gone missing, mostly children, sometimes a suicide.

One only had to step out a few yards onto the bog the wooden path snaked through to find a final resting spot. The villagers of Ballinfort and Dargh had built it together, made use of it together, and borne the losses together as well.

“The last curve is coming up,” Albie declared. Even after three years she still remembered every span of that walkway.

Up until that moment they had used only the moonlight to guide them. Now Albie fished out a small copper lantern she had stashed in her knapsack. She set it alight and held it out in front of her as they slowed their pace before the final bend.

“Just a few more yards,” she assured Rose. “It was the northernmost bend where Mum had told us to –”

She froze.

“—wait.”

Impossible. Laying on the boardwalk was a child-sized gray felt cowboy hat with a crimson feather affixed to its black leather band.

“Is that –” Rose began to ask.

“It’s his hat,” Albie sputtered.

A hot stream came raging now, stinging droplets of anguish and guilt.

Rose knew that hat all too well to deny what she was seeing. When he was a wee tike, Albie’s brother Sam had yearned to be a Texas cowboy. His dad had ordered one shipped in all the way from the Lone Star state, to the verdant shores of Ireland, so that Sam could live out his dream.

Albie went to pick it up.

“Wait!” Rose protested. “What if this is some sick joke? Lots of people knew about Sam and his silly hat.”

But Albie was already holding it, feeling its velvety contours, stroking the feather with her fingers.

“Bee,” came a whisper.

“Rose, did you hear that? Rose?”

Rose had stayed back. She was crouching now, covering her face.

“Rose, did you hear that?!”

“Bee,” came the voice again, somewhat louder now.

Albie shined the lantern toward the beckoning bog but could only see a few feet.

“Sam, I’m here now! I’m coming to get you.”

“No, Bee!”

She could hear Sam’s thin voice clearly now.

“Stay on the boardwalk.”

“But you called me here,” Albie cried, bewildered. “Why did you call me?”

“I didn’t, Bee.”

“But the dreams. I heard you. I came to rescue you.”

“No, Bee. I came to see you.”

“What?” Albie could still see nothing.

“It wasn’t your fault, Bee. I didn’t listen to Mum.”

“No, Sam! I was in charge of you! I was supposed to be watching you. My bonnet flew off. I should have let it go, not go chasing after it. I’m so sorry, Sam!”

“Did you make the wind blow, sister?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then it wasn’t your fault.”

“Sam…” Albie wept.

Then a young boy stepped into the light, still wearing the green chaps and yellow jacket from that hapless day. He bent to kiss Albie’s forehead, slick and matted with her black locks.

“Don’t cry, my sister. I’m not mad at you. I love you forever, Bee. Goodbye.”

“Sam, don’t go!”

But he had turned already and drifted rapidly out of sight.

Albie crumpled onto the wooden planks and cried softly.

She felt Rose draw near to her.

“Albie, look!”

There in her hands, instead of her brother’s hat, was the bonnet.

The lantern flickered out.

A Recipe for Non-Egalitarian Beans

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You will see in a moment why I call them this.  First I present to you the ingredient list.  It is short, which ensures two things: there is little danger of boredom while reading it; and there are few enough ingredients such that leaving even one of them out might have drastic effects, a result for which I will claim no responsibility.  You have been warned.

1 ½ lbs. Pinto Beans

Salt, lots of it

A generous slice of salt-pork*

One large tomato, coarsely chopped

One small onion, very coarsely chopped, large pieces or rings are better

One half bell pepper, thinly sliced

One or two jalapenos, sliced

Garlic **

Cumin

Cilantro***

Chili pepper

Black pepper

*This may be omitted at your own peril, though I personally find it inconceivable.  The heart of this dish’s taste is its pork flavoring.  You may be forced, for Kosher considerations, to use a pork flavoring substitute.  You will not need very much as the salt pork is generally removed halfway through the process.

**There are multiple strategies to using garlic: a) use garlic powder as a cheap and easy alternative…I do this at times;  b) use a couple of cloves of garlic, peeled, and remove them before you serve the beans; or c) throw in a small amount of minced garlic and consider it part of the meal.  It’s up to you.

***This is also known as Chinese parsley.  There is no substitute for fresh cilantro.  If no fresh cilantro is available, you will just have to use dried but I don’t really know what that would do.  It is essentially an herb that adds a fresh flavor to the beans and cools the edge of any hotness introduced by the jalapenos.  If you do not live where this herb is readily available, then I sincerely hope you know where the local farmer’s market is.

Step 1:  Sort and wash the beans

We are no egalitarians here.  The weak, the crippled, the halt and the deformed must go; even the beans of unusual size.  Spare none of these when sorting the beans, coldly, methodically, and without mercy.  Take only the unblemished ones (generally 98% of them).  The reason for this is that they only get worse in the cooking, so getting rid of the imperfections makes for a more presentable dish down the road.  Then wash the beans in a colander with warm water by hand.  The truth about beans is that they are dirtier than they look.  You will discover this if you cook them without washing them.  They do not need to be soaked overnight; I never do this and don’t know anyone who does.

Step 2:  Start them up!

Roughly 5 quarts of water ought to do this.  You can bring the water to a gentle boil first and then dump the beans in.  Bring it back to a boil and cover with a well-fitted lid.  You will need to lower the heat, just enough to keep a very gentle boil for the next hour while stirring occasionally.  Adding a generous amount of salt at this time is advisable.  Beans are like potatoes; they absorb a lot of salt.  It is almost impossible to accidentally over-salt beans.

Step 3:  Order

I like to cook with order.  You probably do as well.  Generally I have cooked the beans by themselves up to this point with only salt added.  Now I add the salt pork and cook for an additional hour and a half.  Remember to maintain only a gentle boil while covered.  Unless you have a see-through lid, this can only be ascertained in the first few moments after you open the lid, so good luck with that.

We are now two and half hours into our beans.  They are smelling okay but there is something missing.  Seasoning.  At this point remove the salt pork.  Add more table salt, some black pepper, a decent amount of chili powder, a smaller amount of cumin, the garlic powder (or whatever you scrounged up), and the jalapenos.

Cook one hour.  I feel compelled to remind you that only a gentle little boil is permitted.  Something like two or three little steady bubble streams would be good.

Now add tomato, onions, bell peppers, and fresh cilantro.  I sincerely hope you are very careful when chopping up your vegetables.  It is good to use a freshly sharpened knife for best control.  (I wouldn’t want you to lose a finger, which might not be so bad if you happened to already have six fingers on your hand.)  Cook for one more hour. Gently boil, gently boil, gently boil! Covered.

Why gently?  It just has to be like that.

I had a roommate in college who made beans in two hours under much higher heat than I would ever have used, using a pressure cooker of some kind.  They were awful and I let him know it.  He said, “Well that’s how my mom makes beans.”

And I said, “Well your mama don’t know how to make beans!”

Let me tell you, them is fightin’ words.  Feeling brave, I also told him that the Wolf-brand chili schlock that his mother calls “enchiladas” is a joke and that MY mama said only lazy people cook enchiladas in a casserole.

Well… It didn’t quite come to blows and I resolved to afterwards not burst any more of his bubbles (except for pointing out that his Camaro with a 6-cylinder engine and automatic transmission was not a real sports car, technically, and thus there was no reason for him to have his hand on the gear shift all the time; and that putting on a leather duster, cowboy hat, jeans, boots and a giant buckle didn’t make him a cowboy, especially since he’d never worked a day in his life on a ranch….but really I think he already knew that.)

Anyway, my mama said it has to be a gentle boil.  Pinto beans are delicate and the texture that is created by this method is wonderful.

By the way, strictly speaking this is not a soup, but it will eat like one.  It is generally served in a bowl.  You can put bits of tortilla chips if you like, or add salsa to make it spicier, or add grated cheese (mild cheddar or monterry jack).  It goes well with rice.

Extra: to make refried beans (remarkably easy and a perfect compliment to over-easy eggs for breakfast), you simply heat up a little vegetable oil in a saucepan, add beans with enough of the broth to barely cover, none of the vegetables, and heat to a medium boil.  Smash thoroughly with a smashing utensil (I prefer the bent wire kind as opposed to the perforated plate) and then simmer gently until it thickens.  Refried pinto beans are unbeatable when they are homemade.  That stuff in the can can stay there. (I like setting off grammer-check.)  Use them as a side dish, for breakfast burritos, chalupas, tortas (a large French roll split in the middle and layered with hot refried beans, chopped seasoned meat, mashed avacado, sour cream, chopped tomato and lettuce, with salsa to taste), or wherever you like.  Be careful not to let them dry out when refrying them; you will quickly discover the right consistency for the various applications you wish to make.

You are done.  Taste broth for correct saltiness.  Adding salt to a bowl of beans is a no -no, so get it right while it’s in the pot.  Cooking times vary.  Failure to boil in the first hour will mean longer cooking time and perhaps damaged beans.  Too much boiling at any point means beans at the
bottom may burn or disintegrate.  There are many hazards to cooking beans.  But the rule for Mexican cooking is to cook with love, not lunacy.  I have an aunt who does the latter, but that is another story…