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The peter-bird

Written by: Eugene Field | Biography
 | Quotes (2) |
 Out of the woods by the creek cometh a calling for Peter,
And from the orchard a voice echoes and echoes it over;
Down in the pasture the sheep hear that strange crying for Peter,
Over the meadows that call is aye and forever repeated.
So let me tell you the tale, when, where, and how it all happened,
And, when the story is told, let us pay heed to the lesson.

Once on a time, long ago, lived in the State of Kentucky
One that was reckoned a witch--full of strange spells and devices;
Nightly she wandered the woods, searching for charms voodooistic--
Scorpions, lizards, and herbs, dormice, chameleons, and plantains!
Serpents and caw-caws and bats, screech-owls and crickets and adders--
These were the guides of that witch through the dank deeps of the forest.
Then, with her roots and her herbs, back to her cave in the morning
Ambled that hussy to brew spells of unspeakable evil;
And, when the people awoke, seeing that hillside and valley
Sweltered in swathes as of mist--"Look!" they would whisper in terror--
"Look! the old witch is at work brewing her spells of great evil!"
Then would they pray till the sun, darting his rays through the vapor,
Lifted the smoke from the earth and baffled the witch's intentions.

One of the boys at that time was a certain young person named Peter,
Given too little to work, given too largely to dreaming;
Fonder of books than of chores, you can imagine that Peter
Led a sad life on the farm, causing his parents much trouble.
"Peter!" his mother would call, "the cream is a'ready for churning!"
"Peter!" his father would cry, "go grub at the weeds in the garden!"
So it was "Peter!" all day--calling, reminding, and chiding--
Peter neglected his work; therefore that nagging at Peter!

Peter got hold of some books--how, I'm unable to tell you;
Some have suspected the witch--this is no place for suspicions!
It is sufficient to stick close to the thread of the legend.
Nor is it stated or guessed what was the trend of those volumes;
What thing soever it was--done with a pen and a pencil,
Wrought with a brain, not a hoe--surely 't was hostile to farming!

"Fudge on all readin'!" they quoth; or "that's what's the ruin of
Peter!"

So, when the mornings were hot, under the beech or the maple,
Cushioned in grass that was blue, breathing the breath of the blossoms,
Lulled by the hum of the bees, the coo of the ring-doves a-mating,
Peter would frivol his time at reading, or lazing, or dreaming.
"Peter!" his mother would call, "the cream is a'ready for churning!"
"Peter!" his father would cry, "go grub at the weeds in the garden!"
"Peter!" and "Peter!" all day--calling, reminding, and chiding--
Peter neglected his chores; therefore that outcry for Peter;
Therefore the neighbors allowed evil would surely befall him--
Yes, on account of these things, ruin would come upon Peter!

Surely enough, on a time, reading and lazing and dreaming
Wrought the calamitous ill all had predicted for Peter;
For, of a morning in spring when lay the mist in the valleys--
"See," quoth the folk, "how the witch breweth her evil decoctions!
See how the smoke from her fire broodeth on woodland and meadow!
Grant that the sun cometh out to smother the smudge of her caldron!
She hath been forth in the night, full of her spells and devices,
Roaming the marshes and dells for heathenish magical nostrums;
Digging in leaves and at stumps for centipedes, pismires, and spiders,
Grubbing in poisonous pools for hot salamanders and toadstools;
Charming the bats from the flues, snaring the lizards by twilight,
Sucking the scorpion's egg and milking the breast of the adder!"

Peter derided these things held in such faith by the farmer,
Scouted at magic and charms, hooted at Jonahs and hoodoos--
Thinking and reading of books must have unsettled his reason!
"There ain't no witches," he cried; "it isn't smoky, but foggy!
I will go out in the wet--you all can't hender me, nuther!"

Surely enough he went out into the damp of the morning,
Into the smudge that the witch spread over woodland and meadow,
Into the fleecy gray pall brooding on hillside and valley.
Laughing and scoffing, he strode into that hideous vapor;
Just as he said he would do, just as he bantered and threatened,
Ere they could fasten the door, Peter had done gone and done it!
Wasting his time over books, you see, had unsettled his reason--
Soddened his callow young brain with semi-pubescent paresis,
And his neglect of his chores hastened this evil condition.

Out of the woods by the creek cometh a calling for Peter
And from the orchard a voice echoes and echoes it over;
Down in the pasture the sheep hear that shrill crying for Peter,
Up from the spring house the wail stealeth anon like a whisper,
Over the meadows that call is aye and forever repeated.
Such were the voices that whooped wildly and vainly for Peter
Decades and decades ago down in the State of Kentucky--
Such are the voices that cry now from the woodland and meadow,
"Peter--O Peter!" all day, calling, reminding, and chiding--
Taking us back to the time when Peter he done gone and done it!
These are the voices of those left by the boy in the farmhouse
When, with his laughter and scorn, hatless and bootless and sockless,
Clothed in his jeans and his pride, Peter sailed out in the weather,
Broke from the warmth of his home into that fog of the devil,
Into the smoke of that witch brewing her damnable porridge!

Lo, when he vanished from sight, knowing the evil that threatened,
Forth with importunate cries hastened his father and mother.
"Peter!" they shrieked in alarm, "Peter!" and evermore "Peter!"--
Ran from the house to the barn, ran from the barn to the garden,
Ran to the corn-crib anon, then to the smoke-house proceeded;
Henhouse and woodpile they passed, calling and wailing and weeping,
Through the front gate to the road, braving the hideous vapor--
Sought him in lane and on pike, called him in orchard and meadow,
Clamoring "Peter!" in vain, vainly outcrying for Peter.
Joining the search came the rest, brothers and sisters and cousins,
Venting unspeakable fears in pitiful wailing for Peter!
And from the neighboring farms gathered the men and the women,
Who, upon hearing the news, swelled the loud chorus for Peter.

Farmers and hussifs and maids, bosses and field-hands and niggers,
Colonels and jedges galore from cornfields and mint-beds and thickets,
All that had voices to voice, all to those parts appertaining,
Came to engage in the search, gathered and bellowed for Peter.
The Taylors, the Dorseys, the Browns, the Wallers, the Mitchells, the
Logans,
The Yenowines, Crittendens, Dukes, the Hickmans, the Hobbses, the Morgans;
The Ormsbys, the Thompsons, the Hikes, the Williamsons, Murrays, and
Hardins,

The Beynroths, the Sherleys, the Hokes, the Haldermans, Harneys, and
Slaughters--
All, famed in Kentucky of old for prowess prodigious at farming,
Now surged from their prosperous homes to join in that hunt for the
truant,
To ascertain where he was at, to help out the chorus for Peter.

Still on those prosperous farms where heirs and assigns of the people
Specified hereinabove and proved by the records of probate--
Still on those farms shall you hear (and still on the turnpikes
adjacent)
That pitiful, petulant call, that pleading, expostulant wailing,
That hopeless, monotonous moan, that crooning and droning for Peter.
Some say the witch in her wrath transmogrified all those good people;
That, wakened from slumber that day by the calling and bawling for Peter,
She out of her cave in a thrice, and, waving the foot of a rabbit
(Crossed with the caul of a coon and smeared with the blood of a chicken),
She changed all those folk into birds and shrieked with demoniac venom:
"Fly away over the land, moaning your Peter forever,
Croaking of Peter, the boy who didn't believe there were hoodoos,
Crooning of Peter, the fool who scouted at stories of witches,
Crying of Peter for aye, forever outcalling for Peter!"

This is the story they tell; so in good sooth saith the legend;
As I have told it to you, so tell the folk and the legend.
That it is true I believe, for on the breezes this morning
Come the shrill voices of birds calling and calling for Peter;
Out of the maple and beech glitter the eyes of the wailers,
Peeping and peering for him who formerly lived in these places--
Peter, the heretic lad, lazy and careless and dreaming,
Sorely afflicted with books and with pubescent paresis,
Hating the things of the farm, care of the barn and the garden,
Always neglecting his chores--given to books and to reading,
Which, as all people allow, turn the young person to mischief,
Harden his heart against toil, wean his affections from tillage.

This is the legend of yore told in the state of Kentucky
When in the springtime the birds call from the beeches and maples,
Call from the petulant thorn, call from the acrid persimmon;
When from the woods by the creek and from the pastures and meadows,
When from the spring house and lane and from the mint-bed and orchard,
When from the redbud and gum and from the redolent lilac,
When from the dirt roads and pikes cometh that calling for Peter;
Cometh the dolorous cry, cometh that weird iteration
Of "Peter" and "Peter" for aye, of "Peter" and "Peter" forever!
This is the legend of old, told in the tum-titty meter
Which the great poets prefer, being less labor than rhyming
(My first attempt at the same, my last attempt, too, I reckon!);
Nor have I further to say, for the sad story is ended.



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