Oh, Brother Were-art Thou?
Eight days after the feast of all Saints, Gosha Astakhov returned to his mountain home from Kiev, where he found a farewell letter from his brother. Dear Brother, the letter read, I have been bitten by a wolf and gone into the woods to die. I hope you had a good time in Kiev. Please do not try to find me, I fear for your safety.
Gosha knew what this meant, they hadn’t finished preparations for winter, and without his brother’s help, he was sure to starve to death. But he must respect the wishes of his brother. Respecting wishes was the foundation of a good family.
The chicken coop needed mending, and he went to work, padding it with hay and fastening the bails in place with boards with nails. The flock had nearly frozen the previous winter, without them all would be lost. He worked quickly. And after a while, the nails seemed to drive themselves. He worked faster and faster feeling more confident that he could finish the job in time. When a nail slipped, and he hit his thumb cracking the bone under the hammerhead, there was nothing he could do to finish the coop, holding a nail was impossible. The coop would have to do as it was. If only his brother were there to help. Curse that wolf, but he couldn’t violate their trust.
Oh, Brother where-art Thou!
The field needed to be harvested. If he tied the scythe to his wrist, he could cut the wheat without worry of his thumb. It swung awkwardly. He would have to manage.
In the field, he began, and soon, toe to ring the chine passed through the wheat like cutting the air. Not so bad, he hummed. At least he wouldn’t go without bread on the cold nights ahead. He could do it.
With the rhythm of the swing, his thoughts fell to his brother when he stepped forward and sliced at the same time, off came his foot. The fields were his brother’s job and look what had happened, how he should have learned when he had time. If only his brother were there, but he couldn’t violate their trust.
Oh, Brother where-art Thou!
The cow needed milking, if he bound his wound, he could hop onto the field to milk the cow. He sat on a tuffet and with his one good hand began to squeeze, the milk flowed like a raging mountain stream. This was easier than he ever thought possible. Milking the cow was his brother’s job, he had it easy. Soon bucket after buck was full, but the cow was not running dry. How did he make it stop? The udder was hard to control, and he lost his grip, squirting himself in the eye. Blinded, he cried for help.
Oh, Brother where-art Thou!
Enough was enough, he wouldn’t make to winter without his brother. In his condition how could he make an attempt? He remembered his father telling him of an old man who lived with the bees not far away who gave good advice. Gosha set out at first light.
I’m coming to find you, brother!
From high on a hill in the lightning hollowed trunk of a tree a buzzing roared down across the moss-covered rocks. Gosha approached. Bees whispered in his ears and crawled down his tunic. “Hallo?” he said, entering the side of the tree.
Honey dripped down, and windblown leaves stuck to the inside of the hollow. He reached out to taste, but two eyes opened startling him in the afternoon light, and a mouth appeared below the eyes dripping with honey. “Gosha, my, how you have grown,” it said.
Gosha jumped back, the old man his father spoke of was there encased in bee’s wax and covered in honey. “You know me?”
Two honey and leaf covered arms rose up beckoning Gosha to come closer. “I was a friend of your father’s until we met your mother. From the looks of your condition I can tell you need advice.”
“I do. My…,” Gosha began to explain.
The old man stepped out from his wax casing sticking a honey covered finger across Gosha’s mouth. “Yes, yes, I know. The bees told me all about it. Hang chicken feathers above your bed to assume the form of your brother’s prey when you sleep. Find him and lure him here to me. I will take care of the rest.”
Gosha stepped out of the hollow trunk. The honey was good but the old man was a fool.
“Well?” the old man demanded.
“It’s some kind of advice. It’ll never work.”
“That’s your father talking, now do as I say, or you will be sure to die.”
Gosha returned to his cabin only to find all of the chickens gone, the cow had run off, and wolf tracks across the yard. It was no use, all was lost. He couldn’t find his brother, he couldn’t even try the old man’s foolish feather idea. He took a rope and tossed it over a tree branch. “What have I done to deserve such misfortune,” he shouted at the cross on his cabin wall. “Am I cursed?”
A clucking turned his head. Hidden under a basket on the porch was his favorite chicken Polina.
“Alive!” he screamed with joy, then wept with sadness. It was a sign, now he could find his brother. “Dear, Polina, I need your feathers.”
Sleep fell on him, and soon he was dreaming he was in the forest. Birds chirped high above. Squirrels rustled in the trees; he scratched and pecked at insects under the leaves, slurping delicious worms from the fresh earth.
When a howl of from behind the tree and rocks brought him back. A black wolf appeared, too big though. More the shape of a man. Run he remembered. Run to the tree with the honey.
Through brush, under logs. The tree. The tree. He must make it to the tree.
Gosha woke with a snap, his brother sat at the table watching him. “Welcome back,” his brother said. “I was worried that you wouldn’t wake, you’ve been out for three days. Come to the table, I’ve cooked you a meal.”
Gosha sobbed at the sight of his brother. “But I need help, the most terrible things have happened to me.”
“Don’t worry,” his brother said. “The old man fixed you up.”
Gosha got out of bed and stood, “I can stand. How is this possible?”
“See.” His brother nodded and pointed with his fork. “The old man treated you well. Not many could have done as good.”
In the dim light of the cabin, Gosha saw his missing foot was replaced with a chicken’s.
Chicken Kiev is a Russian dish that originates from France and has a Ukrainian city name. Before you bite into this delicacy, you better read the warning label. Hot butter has been known to spurt out when it is cut into, sometimes putting an eye out! I never worked in a restaurant that served this dish, it was before my time when popularity waned. I want to say, don’t think of chicken Kiev as ancient 1970’s history, take the modern approach, pop the Chicken Kiev song up on your computer, and get cooking.
6 small skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3 tbsps. finely chopped fresh dill
3 tbsps. finely chopped fresh parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 cups fine breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil, for frying
Mix the butter, dill, parsley, salt, and pepper to taste in a bowl. Scoop the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper and roll into a 1-inch-thick log. Wrap and freeze until firm.
Slice butter into 6 equal pieces one for each chicken breast.
Pound out the chicken breasts to 1/4-inch-thick with a heavy skillet or mallet. Then put a piece of herbed butter in the center of the chicken; tightly roll up the chicken starting at a long side and place in a tray fold side down. Place the rolled chicken in the fridge until it is time to cook.
Preheat the oven to 350.
Now, prep the breading station. First, put the flour in a shallow dish. Then whisk the eggs, mustard, garlic in a second shallow dish, and place the bread crumbs in a third dish.
Unwrap the chicken rolls and season with salt and pepper to taste.
One at a time, dredge the chicken rolls in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture and roll in the breadcrumbs to coat.
Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a skillet and fry the chicken rolls, turning them until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes.
Place onto the rack and bake until cooked through about 10 minutes.