The Grumbling Farm Boy by Lanin D. Thómasma is third place winner of the Short Story Land 6-Month Contest 2019.

Once upon a farm, there was a lazy boy. Now, there are two kinds of lazy people. The first kind
find ways to accomplish their tasks quickly, leaving all the more time to woolgather. The second lack
that sort of imagination, and so they trudge slowly through their work, and as a result, end the day with
no time at all for dreams and quiet rest.
Sadly, this farm boy was the second sort of lazy. When his father told him to milk the cows, or
clean out the barn, or feed the animals, or bring the sheep in for the evening, he would plod through his
tasks with a glum face, thinking about how unfortunate he was.
“Why, my life is no better than that of the animals here,” he thought to himself. “Just look at
them all. The cows have to work so hard making the milk we need. Our poor sheepdog has to be
constantly running about to keep the sheep in line. Even the cats have to hunt all day. Why can’t we all
have an easy life, and just do whatever we please?”
Thoughts lead to words, and so it wasn’t surprising that the boy would come home each
evening and fill his poor parents’ ears with complaints. The farmer and his wife had no idea what to do
to change their son’s disposition. His father scolded him sternly, and his mother made him his favorite
foods. Then his mother tried scolding him sternly, while his father sought interesting hobbies for him to
do. Nothing worked, and the boy continued bewailing his poor fate.
Finally, the boy’s mother decided it was time to take drastic measures, and so she went to a
small cottage on the edge of the forest. The woman who lived there was was known for being able to
treat most ills. Some considered her a witch, but everyone came to her when it looked as if nothing else
would do. The mother explained her dilemma to the woman, who nodded understandingly as she
listened.
“So your boy is dissatisfied with his life,” she said. She looked absently ahead as she thought.
“If this keeps up, he might grow to be a stingy, bitter young man. And we have enough of those.” The
woman stood and walked over to a cabinet which was full every sort of dried plant and seed
imaginable. “I think this might call for something special.” She searched through the cabinet until she
finally found a small bottle containing a strange yellow fluid.
“Now, I want you to be very careful with this,” the woman said as she took a tiny vial and filled
it with a few drops of the liquid. “There are folks who think I’m a witch, did you know that?”
The mother stammered a bit. “Well… yes, but… well, I – or, I mean, we’ve never …
“It’s not true,” the woman said with a smile. “The cures I make are completely natural. Most
people know about a few plants with healing properties. I’ve found hundreds more that they don’t
know about, remedies for any kind of ailment. But this,” she stoppered the vial and turned it in her
fingers. “This comes as close to magic as I’ve ever seen. I got it from an old acquaintance who dabbled
in alchemy. It’s very potent, and its effects can be quite surprising.”
She handed it to the mother, who held it gingerly in her hand. “What will it do?” she asked, her
eyes fearful.
The woman smiled. “No worries. It will be strictly temporary, and whether it does him well or
ill shall be up to your boy. Now, when you give him his next bath, place two drops of this into each ear.
Wait five minutes, then be sure to wash his ears thoroughly. Four drops is all you have, and four will be
all you need. But you must promise me one thing.”
“Anything,” the mother said quickly.
“Whatever your boy tells you, you must believe,” the woman said. “Do not doubt his words,
however tempted you are to do so. Do you promise?”
The mother promised, and went on her way, the vial tucked firmly in her basket. When the time
came for his bath, she did as the woman had instructed, then sent him off to bed.
When the morning came, the boy struggled out of bed as he was wont to do, and slowly made
his way to the barn to milk the cows. When he walked in the barn, the first cow in line looked up at him
and said, “Oh, good, finally you’re here. Do hurry and milk us, would you? We’re all mighty
uncomfortable right now.”
The boy dropped his milk pail in shock, then ran pell-mell back to the house. “Mother,” he
shouted in panic. “The cows! They spoke to me!”
The mother was about to chastise her son for making things up when she remembered the
promise she’d made, and quickly bit back her words. “Now, is that so?” she said instead, giving her
husband a meaningful look. “And what did the cows say, dear?”
The boy thought a bit. “They told me they were uncomfortable, and I should hurry up and milk
them.”
The farmer, glancing for a moment at his wife, nodded his head. “Well, there’s certainly truth to
that,” he said. “You might not have noticed before, but after a long night’s sleep, they’re full to the
brim. That’s why they’re so anxious each morning.”
“I would suggest, my boy,” his mother said, “that you hurry up and ease their discomfort.”
The farm boy gave his mother an astonished look, then bolted out the door and back to the barn.
He recovered his pail and quickly set to work.
“Ah, that’s a relief,” the cow said. “Thank you, dear.”
“But don’t take your time,” the second cow in line said. “The rest of us are in the same boat
she’s in.”
“I’ll be right there,” the boy said, quickening his pace. As he worked, a thought occurred to him.
“Say,” he said, “isn’t it a poor life you live here? I mean, there’s nothing to do but make milk for us to
take away again.”
“And what else should we be doing, dear?” the second cow with what almost sounded like a
chuckle.
“Now, hush,” the first cow said, then turned her head back to the farm boy. “I understand what
you mean. Naturally, it’s lovely to save our milk for our own calves.” The other two cows murmured
their agreement. “But once they’ve grown, it takes no extra effort on our part to make more. It’s an
ancient trade we made long ago. We help nourish you, and you give us food and protection.”
“But wouldn’t you rather run free?” the boy asked, moving on to the next cow.
“Whatever for, dear?” the third cow responded.
The boy thought for a moment. “Well, to see what’s there. Past the fence, outside your normal
pasture, you know.”
“We have simple needs, dear,” the first cow said. “Some of us have ventured out once in a
while, but nothing good ever comes of that. No, as long as we have what we need, we’re content.”
‘Of course,” the second cow said with a deep chuckle, “That includes someone to milk us when
we feel too full.”
The boy set back to work, and finished his milking in record time. The cows thanked him and
he hauled the milk out of the barn and towards the house. He was just setting the milk pail by the door
when he heard another voice.
“Say, once you’re done there, would you mind letting the sheep out? They’re anxious to start
grazing.”
The boy looked around, and spotted the sheep dog standing by the pasture fence. The dog spoke
up again. “That was a fine job of milking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you move so fast. Still, time’s awasting,
so let’s get that milk put away.”
A little dazed, the boy brought the milk can into the house. “Mother,” he said. “The dog just
told me I need to let the sheep out.”
The farmer looked up at his boy. With a glance at his wife, he nodded. “Well, he’s right. They’re
headed for the north pasture today.”
The boy nodded absently, then went back outside. He looked at the dog bemusedly. “Father says
they need to go to the north pasture.”
“Right, then,” the dog said, hopping up. “Open up the pen. I’ll get them together.”
The boy did so, and together, he and the dog began to herd the sheep toward the north. The dog
was a blur of color as he darted back and forth, heading off strayed sheep, encouraging the stragglers to
keep pace, and generally keeping the herd moving in the right direction. Occasionally he’d dash back to
the boy to check on his progress, then he was off again around the herd. Before long, the boy reached
the gate to the pasture in question, and opened it to allow the sheep to pass, the dog nipping at the last
few to keep them moving.
“That was fun,” the dog said, panting. “How are you doing?”
The boy shook his head. “I’m exhausted just watching you,” he said. “I don’t think you stood
still for a moment.”
“I don’t suppose I did,” the dog said as he rolled on his back in the grass. “Keeping those sheep
in line is full-time work.”
“Then how can you talk about fun?” the boy demanded.
“Because it is,” the dog said happily. “Look at what we’ve accomplished. The sheep are all
there, every one accounted for. It’s a fine day, we have a little time to roll in the grass.” He sat up and
looked at the boy. “And best of all, I get to spend some time with you.”
“Me?”
“Of course,” the dog said cheerfully. “You’ve been down in the dumps for a long time now, it
seems. It’s good to have you back.” He jumped to his feet. “Say, I don’t supposed you could throw that
stick by your foot there? I could use a good run.”
“Oh, all right.” the boy said, and did so. The two played for a while, then sat once more to catch
their breath.
“Now, doesn’t that feel better?” the dog asked, panting. “Nothing like a good romp to get the
spirits up, I always say.”
The boy nodded. “I guess I do feel a little better,” he said. He wrapped his arms around his
knees. “How do you do it? How do you always seem so happy? I mean, all you do all day is guard to
the sheep. Doesn’t that get boring?”
“I’m never bored,” said the dog. “There’s too much to do. Sure, the sheep need to be watched,
but there’s plenty of time to explore. And there’s always something new to find, if you keep your eyes
and your nose open.” He scratched his ear a bit. “Of course, I’m a shepherd breed, so we’re kind of
restless by nature. We like things organized. But that’s just it. It’s that satisfaction that makes the work
worthwhile.” He rolled back in the grass again. “Nothing feels finer than to lay your head down after a
day’s work, knowing that you’ve done your best, and your flock is safe.” He shook himself and settled
back on the ground again. “If you ever hear a dog sigh at the end of the day, you’ll know that’s why.”
The boy sat for a moment. “Do dogs sigh?” he thought to himself. “I’ve never noticed that
before.” He suddenly had a thought, and stood up. “I suppose I ought to be getting back. Father always
has something for me to do.”
“You mean there’s always something that needs to be done,” the dog said, not moving.
“Yes,” the boy started off, then turned. “What was that?”
“It’ll come to you,” the dog said languidly. “Go on. Just be sure you’re back by sunset.”
The boy walked back to the house, lost in thought. “Things that need to be done,” he thought.
“Of course they need to be done. I guess I’ve never thought of what happens if we don’t do them,
though. If we don’t milk the cows, they get too full. We tend the sheep, because they’re sheep and can’t
look after themselves. Even the dog needs us in his way.”
As he walked along, he spotted one of the cats sitting on a fencepost. “Say, there,” he called.
“Good morning,” the cat replied.
“Can I ask you,” the boy said, “What do you think about your job? Do you like hunting mice
for us?”
“For you?” the cat replied in mild surprise. “That’s a delicate question. I can’t count how many
mice I’ve brought your mother, and she never seems interested in them at all. I sometimes think we
only hunt for our own amusement.” His body remained still, but his tail began to whip back and forth.
“But we do love to hunt. It’s what we’re made for. And your mother is kind enough to leave us a bowl
of milk every morning, so I feel it’s common courtesy.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like if you weren’t here?” the boy asked.
“I should think that would be obvious,” the cat said. “There would be more mice around.” He
gave a long stretch and turned his gaze on the boy. “Unless you think you can catch them all yourself.”
The boy thought for a moment, then sighed. “I don’t suppose we could, no.”
“Besides,” the cat said, flicking his ears, “you’re the one calling it a job. I don’t think of it at all
that way.”
The boy frowned. “What else would you call it?”
“An arrangement,” the cat said. “Mutual benefits. We get shelter, a nice dish of milk every
morning, affection when we want it, and you get protection for your grain, and our delightful
company.” He stretched his head toward the boy. “Say, I have a little itch on the back of my head. I
don’t suppose you’d… “
“Oh, of course,” said the boy, reaching out to scratch behind the cat’s ears. “I guess it would be
good for us both, the way you put it.” He thought. “One of the cows called it a trade.”
“Ahhh, right there. That’s lovely,” the cat purred. “And don’t think we’re not grateful. I was
born in the city, and that’s a hard life. Nothing but brick to sleep on, digging for scraps in back alleys,
nothing to hunt but rats, and some of them are big enough to be hunting you.”
“Father’s taken me along to the city a few times,” said the boy. “I never saw any places like
that.”
“I daresay you wouldn’t,” said the cat. “Cats are natural explorers. We can’t help but poke
around to see what we can find. Some of you people are explorers in the same way. They can’t rest
until they’ve seen everything around them. And they’re the ones who discover the most wonderful
things.”
“You don’t think I could do that?” the boy asked, feeling a little offended.
The cat shook out his fur and considered him a moment. “Well, I’ve yet to see it,” he said. “You
don’t seem curious at all about what’s around you. If all you do is what you’ve always done, it’s no
wonder you never discover anything new.” He arched his back to meet the boy’s still outstretched hand.
“But don’t they say curiosity killed the cat?” the boy asked.
“Yes, they do,” the cat replied. “But they also say that a cat has nine lives. So put them both
together, and what do you think that tells you?”
The boy stopped his petting for a moment. “I’m – not sure,” he said.
The cat nudged his head under the boy’s hand to prompt him to continue. “It means that
curiosity doesn’t always kill. Think about it. Nine lives to one death. For us cats, those are pretty good
odds. For you… well, that becomes your decision, doesn’t it?” He stretched his legs and gave himself a
final shake. “That was quite nice. You’ll have to do that again sometime. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
And he was off into the high brush.
The boy made his way back to the house, his mind awhirl with thoughts. As he passed the barn,
he noticed his father inside, repairing a harness. “Father,” he called out, “I’m back from the north field.
Is there anything else that needs to be done?”
The farmer blinked, not having heard his son ask such a question for some time. “Well,” he
said, “You can feed and water the old mule. Just take care, he’s being extra cantankerous today.” He
watched his son run off, shook his head bemusedly, and went back to his mending.
The boy hurried excitedly off to the stable. “I wonder what the mule will have to say to me,” he
thought. “He’s been here so long, I suppose he must be awfully wise.”
As he reached the stable, he shouted out a greeting, but there was no response. Going inside, he
looked over to the mule’s stall. Sure enough, there he was. “Hello,” the boy said a second time. Still no
response. “I’m here to get you fed and watered.”
“Well, aren’t you special?” a gravelly voice responded. “Well, what are you standing there for?
Get on with it, you’re so eager to feed me.”
The boy started, then grabbed a bucket to fill with oats. “I’m sorry. I suppose you’re pretty
hungry, aren’t you?”
“Not particularly,” the mule sniffed. “But it’s feeding time, so we might as well get it over
with.” The boy set the bucket down and let the mule tuck in. After a few moments, the mule looked up.
“You’re still here,” he remarked.
The boy blinked. “Well, yes,” he sat on the straw by the mule’s stall. “I thought you’d talk with
me a while.”
“Talk?” the mule said, his mouth still full. “Talk about what?”
The boy looked around. “Well, about your life here,” he said. “What you think about the farm,
that sort of thing.”
The mule snorted. “What I think about the farm? It’s a bore, that’s what I think.” He went back
to his eating. “One day’s pretty much like another. Sun up, pull something, graze a bit, pull something
else, sun down.”
“Don’t we treat you well?” the boy asked, puzzled.
“And why shouldn’t you?” the mule retorted. “You need me to pull something, I pull it, don’t
I?”
“Not always, no,” the boy said. “Sometimes father has to pull you along to persuade you to
move.”
The mule snorted again. “Well, when I feel like it, then. It’s pretty rude to expect a creature to
work when he’s not in the mood.”
The boy leaned forward a bit. “It could be worse, you know,” he said. “Other farmers beat their
animals to get them moving. Father says he’d rather encourage you to move than punish you for
standing still.” The mule remained silent, and the boy sat back again. “If you dislike the farm so much,
I’m surprised you never try to run off.”
“Run off?” the mule scoffed. “Why should I? I can’t imagine it’s any less of a bore anywhere
else.” He muttered sourly almost to himself. “Besides, it’s too dangerous. Every night I hear the noises
out there. Hundreds of them. I wouldn’t last long out there, I’m sure of it.” He shuddered. “Might as
well stay where I am. Living here might be a bore, but there’s no use trading bad for worse.”
The boy stared, amazed. “I can’t believe you,” he said. “You’ve got yourself so convinced that
the world has it in for you, that you can’t see all there good there is around you.” He had a thought.
“Say, you’ve come with us to the city often enough. Surely you have something good to say about our
visits there.”
“Never saw anything there,” the mule said stonily. “Kept my eyes on the ground in front of me.
Best way to stay out of trouble.”
The boy shook his head. “What a life you must lead. Never content, but too afraid to think of
what else may be out there. The cows may not be any more curious than you are, but at least they’ve
made their peace with it.”
The Donkey snorted again. “Well, I like that coming from you,” he said. “How are you any
different? All I’ve heard from you lately is complaints. Grumble, grumble, grumble. Nothing here
pleases you, and yet you’re still here, just like me. So what makes you so different?”
The boy opened his mouth, but try as he might, he couldn’t think of anything to say. The
Donkey gave a final snort, and without another word, went back to his eating. The boy sat for a while,
not really looking at anything, his mind turning with everything he’d heard that day. After some time,
he stood, and with a final look at the donkey, left the stable.
It was a quiet boy who, without his father’s bidding, returned to the north pasture to return the
sheep to their pen. The dog, busy with his work, had little further to say, and once the sheep were safely
closed in, both boy and dog returned to the house. The dog finished a few scraps in his bowl, then
curled up on an old blanket in his corner. He laid his head down and let out a deep sigh. “There it is,”
the boy thought. “Just like he told me.” He remembered the dog’s words. “Nothing feels finer than to
lay your head down after a day’s work, knowing that you’ve done your best.”
The farmer and his wife couldn’t help but notice their son’s distracted mood at the dinner table.
As happy as they were to be spared his normal grumbles, the silence made them uneasy. The few
questions they did ask were met with single words or nods. The boy went to bed early, but in spite of
his silence, it was a long time before he finally fell asleep.
The next morning, the boy shocked his mother by springing out of bed, grabbing the milkpail
and heading right out to the barn. “Good morning,” he called out to the cows, but to his surprise, he
heard no response. He tried again. “I hurried right down here. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.” The
cows all looked at him with interest, and the first cow let out a moo.
The boy tilted his head, puzzled. His shoulders dropped a bit in disappointment, and he tried to
work out why he couldn’t understand them, but a slightly more urgent moo interrupted his thoughts,
and we set to work milking. “You don’t seem very different from yesterday,” he said, still hoping the
cows would respond. “I wonder why I could talk with you then.” As in answer, the second cow mooed
imperiously. “All right, I know. I’ll get to you soon,” the boy said, and then chuckled. “I guess you’re
just naturally impatient, aren’t you?”
As he was milking, he felt something brush up against his leg. Looking down, he saw the cat
he’d spoken with the day before. “Hello,” he said. The cat meowed in reply. “I suppose you can’t talk
today, either,” he said sadly. “What a curious day yesterday was.”
The cat rubbed his head against the boy’s leg again, and the boy reached down to scratch the
same spot he’d done before. “I assume this is still your favorite spot, one way or another,” he said, then
went back to his milking. Playfully, he squirted a bit of milk at the cat’s face. The cat jumped back,
licked his face, then returned to the same spot and meowed again. “Oh, you liked that, did you? Well, I
suppose you can have some more,” the boy said, and thought to himself, “It’s funny that I can tell what
he wants even without him telling me. I guess I never paid attention before.”
In a short time, the boy had finished his task, and the cat, seeing no further treats in store,
scampered off. “That’s more milk than Mother gives you,” the boy called after him. “Make sure you do
your part, and catch us a nice, fat mouse in return .”
He started to carry the milk up to the house, when he spotted the sheep dog lounging by the pen.
Setting the milkpail down, he called the dog over, and ruffled his neck fur affectionately. “I hope we’ll
still be friends, even if we can’t talk together the way we did.” The dog licked his face, then bounced
playfully on his front legs. “Sorry, pal,” the boy said. “I can’t play just now. Mother’s sure to have
breakfast ready, and she needs this milk. But afterwards, we’ll get out and have a good romp, okay?”
With that, he toted the milk pail on into the house.
From that morning on, the farmer and his wife noticed a marked change in the their boy, a
curiosity they’d never seen before. His grumbling was now replaced with questions. Some questions
were of the kind that no one can really answer, but many of them were about the farm itself, and in
trying to answer them, the boy and his father discovered ways of accomplishing their tasks more
quickly.
Often, after working diligently to finish his chores, the boy would ask if he might take the old
mule and do some exploring. When asked why he needed the mule, he’d give the most curious answer.
“I want to show him some of what he’s missing,” he’d say.
It’s unknown whether he ever managed to change the old mule’s attitude, but on one of these
expeditions, the boy discovered an old cottage on the edge of the woods, and a woman who seemed to
know everything about herbs and plants and their medicinal properties.
Thanks to that meeting, and many more following, the boy grew to be a font of medical
knowledge. As a man, he set up a practice in the city, and became known throughout the land as a
doctor and apothecary. He’d often tell his friends and patients about his days on the farm as a young
boy.
“My father told me that I used to be grumbler,” he’d say. “But one day that all changed. I don’t
really remember what happened, but I’m certainly glad it did.” He’d close his eyes let out a deep,
satisfied sigh. “Nothing feels finer than to lay your head down after a day’s work, knowing that you’ve
done your best.”