Bouten Hassen is one of those little fixtures of my mind which refuses to be buried by the patient working of time. Such memories are like those small irregular left-overs which a worn broom leaves in its path, resistant to the abolition of the years. We all have such remembrances; little things; no particular reason for their permanence. I dip myself in the warm afternoon sun of my boyhood and Bouten is there.
He was a neighbor, a farmer in the small rural hamlet where I grew up. Ancient when I first met him, he was a small man; pared lean to barest physical necessities by years of manual toil. Bouten was not designed to arouse precipitate passion. He assumed no elegances: his face corrugated and seamed; his hand-rolled cigarettes lip-wet after the first draw; his beaten bib overalls; his sweat stained snap purse out of which he would, with knobby stiff fingers, laboriously count coins at the local grocery. Even then, before I knew the word `atavistic,’ I knew he was that; like some remote human ancestor.
When I awoke in the mornings of late spring, I would focus sleepily out of my bedroom window and there he would be in the hay field across the road, a small pile of denim crowned in straw. Beginning in a corner with a weather-bleached scythe, he would begin. Like a metronome of earthly time, his tool swung to an ancient mark, counting off the moments of the centuries.
At noon, shy the time it took to have a quiet smoke and to reshape the failing edge of his blade with a whetstone, he was still at it, the burden of the field gradually yielding to his persistent labor.
By evening it would be done.
Given sunlit days, he would be back forty-eight hours later; raking the hay by hand, turning it to dry.
Another two days would pass and I would be roused by the crackling and snap of broad black and metal tack as he guided his horses and hay wagon to the field. He gave them no commands; it wasn’t necessary. They had been many years in partnership with the old man. It was this day that amazed me the most.
Moving through the rising mist of first morning, he would begin to patiently fork the hay onto his wagon. The stack grew higher and higher; the throwing harder and harder. But despite his years and the obvious effort required, I never saw him short a load. Whenever he returned the wagon to the barn, the hay always sat even with the side-racks.
Why did he work so when all around him had machines and hired hands? Money played a part, I suspect; and this is the way he had always harvested, reluctant to give up the familiar. His father and grandfather – and his father – had harvested this way, and so on back to the times when man came in from the forests and ceased to wander; and first planted his hopes and his crops in the richness of the earth.
Bouten Hassen. Atavistic. Sleep well.