“HIS NAME IS FIRENZO OOBAHR,” Firenzo Ebli said. “And he needs to find himself. Please – let it be in your employ.”
Prosatio Silban put on his most polite face. “I am honored that you thought of me, but I am not certain that I am the one to help your son,” he said. “I have always worked alone, and to be frank, there is little room in my galleywagon for more than one cook. I am afraid that we would get in each other’s way – the more so, since he won’t know what he or I am doing.”
“Then he could learn a lot from you just by observation. I implore you to consider this. Do not make me beg.”
The pair were conferring outside the cook’s galleywagon, parked today in cosmopolitan Soharis’ sprawling-yet-congested dockside marketplace. They were old friends – to be more accurate, longtime professional acquaintances – and Prosatio Silban had watched Firenzo Oobahr from afar as the lad grew from a gangling adolescent into an awkward young adult.
“You need not beg,” he said, and sighed. “I will do this only for you – and only for a week.”
“Thank you,” Firenzo Ebli said. “You will have no regrets over this. And who knows? You may even learn something.”
* * *
I am learning to regret this, Prosatio Silban thought. Into how much more trouble can this young man stumble?
Their initial meeting hadn’t gone well.
Their initial meeting hadn’t gone well. Firenzo Oobahr, tall and uncertain, appeared at the galleywagon after his promised arrival; in fact, when the cook-errant was battling a frenetic morning rush.
“Sorry,” the young man said, and not for the last time. “Let me help you with that!”
He grabbed the laden tray from Prosatio Silban’s hands, sliding three delicately balanced breakfasts onto the table-and-chairs occupied by a trio of waiting customers. Had the plates landed there, no harm would have been done; however, their trajectories terminated in the patrons’ laps. Loud protests followed, as did three abrupt exits accompanied by disavowals of future patronage.
“Sorry,” Firenzo Oobahr said.
He said it again when he broke Prosatio Silban’s coin jar, when he dropped a platter of beans on the cook-errant’s instep, on knocking over a carafe of hot yava, and twice after spilling an order of dumplings and gravy on a woman’s expensive sarong.
And this was all before lunch.
Prosatio Silban, a patient man by nature, also had his limits. What am I to do? he thought. I will run out of either crockery or equanimity before this day is done!
“Firenzo Oobahr,” he said with detached calm after the final grumbling customer had left. “Come. Let us speak together.”
“Sorry,” the young man said. “Sorry. I seem to be making a mess of things. Sorry.”
“On that we can agree,” Prosatio Silban said. “I applaud your wanting to help, but you might do better to watch how I do what I do, without trying to assist. How does that sound?”
“I don’t want to sit here like a frog on a log,” Firenzo Oobahr objected. “I want to do something. That’s all I want to do with my life – something. But I don’t know what!”
“It is important for a man to be and feel useful. In all honesty, you first need to see if what I do is what you want to do. You mean well, and I will not judge you lazy if you take your ease while I work. Pay attention. Observe. Contemplate. Give yourself the chance to make an informed decision.”
Firenzo Oobahr brightened. “I’ll do it your way!” he declared.
Firenzo Oobahr brightened. “I’ll do it your way!” he declared. He stuck out his hand, and although he meant it to be shaken, he presented it with enough force to strike the cook’s belly. As Prosatio Silban doubled over in pain, he thought, O Muraki, Goddess of Restrained Impatience, dispense to me of your sacred and treasured bounty. Because I really, really need it.
* * *
Three days of Firenzo Oobahr’s attentive scrutiny had passed in relative quiet, save for the occasional, small, and in retrospect almost preventable, disaster. At this point, Prosatio Silban was ready to expel his mishap-prone observer, fatherly friendship or no.
The young man watched as Prosatio Silban boiled wheat-threads for a lunch party of six,
ladled some of the noodle-water into a ceramic cup, then lifted the bubbling pot from the stove, intending to pour its roiling contents through a colander.
Then he sneezed. Twice. Mightily.
Prosatio Silban lost his grip, tried to regain it, and plunged his hand into the scalding water. He emitted a terrible shriek, and the pot clattered to the floor, splashing water and scattering wheat threads all over the cook’s legs. He screamed again.
Quick as a thought, Firenzo Oobahr grabbed Prosatio Silban under the shoulders and dragged him away from the steaming puddle. He retrieved from the coldbox a large jug of cow’s milk, removed his tunic, and tore the garment into rags which he soaked in the cooling liquid. These he applied to the cook’s angry red flesh, accompanied by soothing murmurs, then raised his voice in urgency.
“Help! Someone! Please help!” he called through the door. A moment later, one of the customers peered in, jaw agape.
“By the All-Mother!” she exclaimed. “What’s happened here?”
“There’s been an accident,” Firenzo Oobahr told her with matter-of-fact composure.
“There’s been an accident,” Firenzo Oobahr told her with matter-of-fact composure. “This man has been burned by boiling water. Please – fetch one of the marketplace Sacreants at once.”
The customer vanished. Heartbeats passed, during which Firenzo Oobahr swapped the milk compresses for gentle and generous smears of rose-honey from Prosatio Silban’s pantry. Meanwhile, the cook’s breathing slowed and became less labored. His eyes, which had been shut tight with pain, opened and cast a grateful look at his benefactor.
“How did you learn to treat burns so well?” he asked through gritted teeth.
Firenzo Oobahr blushed. “As you can imagine, I have had my own share of, well, home accidents,” he admitted. “Some of them have even … ah, the Sacreant.”
“Been messing about with hot water, have we?” the rainbow-robed holywoman asked, kneeling. “Let me see.”
She took brisk stock of the scene, noting Prosatio Silban’s injuries as well as Firenzo Oobahr’s ministrations. “This isn’t so bad as it could have been. You won’t even need a healing-prayer. Are you comfortable?”
“I am now,” the cook replied. “For which I am much obliged.”
The Sacreant rose and turned to Firenzo Oobahr. “Did you treat him?”
“Yes,” he said. “I did what I thought was necessary.”
“And he did it well,” Prosatio Silban put in.
The Sacreant nodded. “He did do it well,” she said. “That took quick thinking, resourcefulness, and a certain measure of proficiency.”
“Thank you,” the young man said, looking at his sandals.
She caught and held his eyes for a moment, considering, and when she finally spoke, it was with decision. “This is a complex marketplace, holding many hazards,” she said. “Every day, someone requires the healing arts. Your talents could supplement our own. We cannot admit you to the Sacreanthood – you are too old for that – but we can offer you careful instruction, and if you are competent, a position of some responsibility. Think of it … as an opening.”
Firenzo Oobahr swiveled his head from the Sacreant to Prosatio Silban, then broke into a broad grin. “An opening is all I want,” he said.
Prosatio Silban returned his grin. “An opening,” he added, “is all you need.”