There was one day that was good. I could see it for years after, clear as eels in the mill pool. Looking back on it, I suppose it was the finest day of my life. And look back I did. What else did I have?
My Elizabeth was pregnant with little Luke, but she was still feeling fine. Marie was in her first year and I’d just been granted my assart. I remember I felt like I could do anything. Here I was, a man with a fine wife, a beautiful little girl, another on the way, and the means to double my land with the sweat off my back. ‘Course we didn’t know Luke was going to be a boy. If I’d known, I suppose I wouldn’t have been able to bridle myself.
I remember Marie that day. She was lying there on the hay, naked as a fish. It was already dark, but she was not for sleep. She lay there reaching out with both hands and laughing. I said she must be practicing pointing so she could tell everybody what to do when she got older. Elizabeth said, “No, John—”
Sorry. No, I’m fine. Just let me…
Elizabeth said, “No, John, she ain’t pointing. She was grasping.” Elizabeth, she knew fine words. “Grasping for what?” I said. “Our little girl, she’s a saint, Johnny,” Elizabeth says. “She can see things normal folks can’t. Look at her, Johnny, she’s grasping at angels.”
It weren’t too long after that that Luke started hurting my Elizabeth. And it weren’t too long after that that I lost them both.
The sun was too bright. It blinded and blighted. The wind, it pushed me aside. My body was too heavy, though I was light as a twig. My arms couldn’t lift and my legs wouldn’t move. People raked hay in the field around me, folk I had known all my days, but if I’d dropped down dead where I stood, aught they would’ve done is barter for my rake. All the world was a cow pen and I was gated out.
On the day I buried my Elizabeth, Pinderbroke Village changed to a hateful place—like Hell on Suckling Tom’s church wall, where those what vexed God got dragged down by devils and fed into a mouth the size of the tithe barn. Or maybe it had been that way all along, and only Elizabeth’s sweet smile made me see it any other way.
“Hie, John Green! Do you reckon you have until Michaelmas to rake this field?”
That was Jack. He always talked in that pig whine. That stick he hit me with was his counting staff. He was reeve again that year and he made much of it, though all men knew it was only because no one else with enough land wanted the job. He and that idiot Andrew (who Jack had made pinder) haunted the fields like the dead on All Hallows’ Eve. But I always thought he took special care to stay close to me so he could get the most out of his white stick.
Many men talk about having a true enemy, one who would do them in if only no one would know it, but I surely had one. It didn’t trouble me, though. Jack could break that stick on my back, and a cartful more, but he couldn’t never change the one thing that soured his belly: Elizabeth chose me over him. If he was truly going to gut me, he should’ve done it when he could’ve taken Elizabeth to his side. But Jack was always a coward.
Still, I decided to take on like I’m afraid of him. Jack always liked that. The one thing he could do to hurt me would be to keep me late to do extra work. I couldn’t let that happen. I had to go to Ruth’s to pick up my sweet Marie, then we had to get out to the assart while there was still any light. So I gave Jack what he wanted, to get what I wanted. I pushed on like the devil himself was behind me.
“Don’t go so fast!” Andrew yelled. He didn’t have no stick. “You’re raking hay not chasing the Christmas goose. Jack, hit him again so he’ll slow up.”
Jack came after me all right, but then he saw a rider by the wagon and he broke off. He knew he’d better take care when the steward was about. He and Andrew went off to look shrewd for Steward David, leaving me to finish my work.
Young Timothy ran up to me when they were away. Tim was a strong boy, like his father. He picked up one of my hay bundles and stood by. “I saw Jack hit you,” he said. “What’d you do?”
Why was it that something always ruined my best foul moods? Just when I got the pot bubbling—with how much I missed my Elizabeth and my child I never knew, and with Jack and his stick, and how the whole world would sooner be done with me—something just a wee bit good always spoiled the stew.
Timothy wasn’t my boy, he wasn’t even my kin. But, bless me, I did love the lad. Truth be known, I had a soft heart for all little ones. It was when they grew into the likes of Jack and Andrew and Suckling Tom that I couldn’t abide them.
“I did the same as I always do, Tim,” I said. “Just kept to myself and minded my own affairs.”
“So why did he hit you?”
The way he said it—sore amazed—made me laugh. “For that you’ll have to ask him.”
Tim handed me something from his breeches. It was a corncob doll. “Here, I told Marie I’d make her one with a kirtle.”
It wasn’t very artful, carved just enough so one could make out that it was a she doll and not a he, but I knew it would make my little girl right merry. It made me laugh again, and all at once I felt just a handbreadth closer to Pinderbroke Village and its folk. “Many thanks, Tim. Anyone what does a kindness to my Marie is, to my eyes, like a saint.”
Tim said it weren’t so, but I could tell he was pleased that I should say it.
The afternoon passed slowly. No sooner did a loaded wagon pull away than the other one returned empty. Me and the others worked as steady as the June sun and the poor ale let us.
Jack put me at the rake, then loading the wagon, then driving it, then back to the rake again—with a lash from his stick whenever no one was looking. One day I knew there really would be no one watching. On that day, who could say what would happen?
At last, Paul—he was hayward that year—blew his horn and we all started home.
This used to be the dearest time to me: a long day of work was done, husbands and wives would find each other from where they’ve been in the field, old friends sang old songs. But it had no place for me anymore. I put my rake on my shoulder and moved past the others as fast as my sore feet would carry me.
I had two lovely things waiting for me ahead: my daughter and a piece of land all my own. They both needed my care. One needed feeding, the other tilling. But as long as I had those two lovelies, I had the thing God had tried to take from me when He took away my Elizabeth: hope. A future and a hope. I never liked to think about it, especially toward compline, when I’d be sleeping alone. But Tim’s gift had upset my cart.
Do you want to know what Suckling Tom told me when my Elizabeth was hurting? He was our priest, you know. He stood before God’s face and held the magic bread. I knew Tom was a fool, but I still thought speaking the Mass would teach him something about the ways of the Almighty.
When our baby was hurting my Elizabeth, Tom said a devil was smiting her because of something I’d done. “Make a sacrifice,” he told me. I didn’t have no sacrifice. All I had was our two oxen and a hen. But Elizabeth was screaming and little Marie was crying and the women were all shouting. And Tom was saying, “Make a sacrifice!”
So I stepped out into the garden and what did I see? I saw a dove caught in the thatch. Now you know we couldn’t never touch Lord Morrow’s doves—nor all the foxes, deer, geese, squirrels, or pheasants that walked through our village and right into our houses—but this I thought was a sign from God.
I took that dove and I wrung its neck. I cut it up right proper—though I didn’t know sacrifices from the King of England, if you take my meaning. Then I made a fire and burned it. I even said what pieces of my prayers I could remember.
If it made the demon go away, I never could tell. My Elizabeth’s screams were quieter, true and true, but only because she was so weak. The women told me she called my name when I was outside doing the dove, but when I got back to her she never opened her eyes again. I missed saying goodbye to my wife because Suckling Tom told me I could save her with a sacrifice.
The next day Jack and Tom rode to my home together. Jack took away my best ox for the death tax, and Suckling Tom took the other for his mortuary. There I stood, who was to have been husband and twice father, but who was then widower, only parent, and without beasts of burden. That was when Jack—happy as you please—said he was bringing charges against me to Steward David because someone had told him I’d been poaching the lord’s doves.
“Dada, Dada, Dada!”
I saw her coming, the dearest thing on God’s hard earth to me. I saw Marie all the way across the glen, running for me from my sister’s home. I saw how small she was, how easily broken, even after almost three years. She had her mother’s way about her, but—bless her—she had the look of her father. Blue eyes and fine skin. Where she got those thick brown curls from I never will know. And that smile what turned a cottar’s hovel into a lord’s great hall, well, that was a gift from Mother Mary herself. I couldn’t rein myself in. I dropped my rake and ran, too, sore feet and all. I caught her up and spun her around in the air.
This was my joy now. This was how I rose before the sun every day and slept alone every night. This was how I went to Tom’s Mass every Sunday and endured Jack’s stick on the rest. This was why I borrowed my neighbors’ oxen to pay my rents and why I hurried home to work the assart every day before dark.
“I was running for you!” Marie said, pressing her face against my neck.
“I saw you. You’re so fast now.”
“I said, ‘Dada, Dada, Dada!’ You running for me, too.”
My Marie, thank the saints, had Elizabeth’s way with words. I swear she knew more words than her father. And she used every one every day, all in a line.
“Oh!” she said, her mouth falling open. “Know what I did?”
“I show you!” She wriggled down and ran for Ruth’s home. I picked up my rake and followed her.
Ruth was my sister. She married William, Anne’s boy, and she had a babe at breast. She watched my Marie when I was at the field.
“Hie, John,” Ruth said when we’d come in.
“Ruthie.” I could smell her stew and decided to ask me and Marie over for dinner. But first I had to see what Marie was pulling my hand over to.
“Look!” she said, pointing to a pile of smooth stones. “I find money!”
“Ah, so you did, you wee thing. You found us a right treasure, you did.” Marie liked to play that one thing was another. A stick was a fish, a fly was a falcon, and rocks were gold coins. Which put me in mind of something. “Marie, I saw young Tim today.”
Her eyes got big. She loved her Timmy. “He say, ‘I gun get you.’” That was one of Timmy’s games with Marie. He used to say he was going to get her then he would tickle her till she wet herself.
“He gave me something to give you.” I bought out the corncob doll and handed it to her.
Marie’s face could change from cloudy night to dawn sun just like that. She took the doll to her cheek and squeezed it tight.
“Wook, Aunt Wooth, wook!” Marie, she didn’t say all her sounds just right yet. The lake was a ‘wake’ and every rock was a ‘wock.’
“I see it, Marie. It’s so pretty.”
“It’s pwetty, Dada. It’s so pwetty!”
“Just like you, angel.”
Marie showed the doll to Ruth’s babe, lying on the thrushes. I set up Ruth’s trestle, though Will was due in any time.
“Staying for stew, I see,” Ruth said.
“If we could. But I need to work the assart while I can.”
“Marie can stay here.”
“I want her with me,” I said. “Marie, want to go help Dada on the land?”
“The new land?” Marie asked, like she always did.
“Eeee! Oh! Sure, I bring…” she held out the doll.
“What’s your dolly’s name, Marie?” Ruth asked.
Marie looked at the doll like she was buying a sow at market. “Dolly’s name…Mama.”
How could a word hurt a grown man? Knock him to his face? That simple name and the way she held that doll tight, it was too much. I had to go outside. I could hear Marie behind me, all worried.
“Oh! What happen to my Dada?”
“He’s all right, Marie,” I heard Ruth say. “He just misses your Mama.”
Little eyes poked out from Ruth’s door. “Dada?” She walked to me and wanted up. She put her small hand on my cheek. “You miss Mama?”
I couldn’t do nothing but nod. Someone must have broke the millpond upstream in my eyes.
“Oh! Dada. Here.” Marie gave me her doll. “Here my Mama. She make you happy. Don’t cry.”
I just held her tight and let her comfort me the way my Elizabeth always did. I got my face and Marie’s clothes right wet. A minute later I saw Will on the lane. He waved.
That’s when I changed my mind. I decided not to work the assart that day. I would just stay there and drink up kindness from the only family I had. That wasn’t right, I know. Suckling Tom would’ve called me a wretch for caring only for myself. But Suckling Tom was an idiot. And his God made the sun too bright.
* * *
Marie was asleep now. I could hear her breaths.
Me, I was alone on this hay mattress I’d made for Elizabeth and me almost four years before. It always felt too small back then. Now what I wouldn’t have given to have her push me off the side.
It was that empty bed that gave me the heavy feeling. It meant I had no one to bring Marie up with, no one to be there beside me when the crops fared poor, no one to be with in the way of a man with a woman, no one to tell when I saw a black bear was cub or the first lily of Spring. With me, until I got home and told Elizabeth that a thing was happened, it was like it had not truly happened yet. Now nothing could happen. I had two years’ worth of things that couldn’t all the way happen because I couldn’t tell my Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, she died bearing me a child. Turned out it was a boy. Luke. It wasn’t enough that I lost my wife. God wouldn’t even let my Elizabeth trade her life for Luke’s. The midwife got him out, but he was blue and still. Still as his mother.
Oh, but he was comely! A full head of black hair like Marie’s. Great large hands. My son! Ah, how I miss that child! I know Elizabeth would know my heart, would miss him bad too, but she was gone. I felt this pain alone. No one else saw it my way. For Elizabeth, folk were sorry. But for that boy, for my son, they had not a care.
Should have lost the child but saved the wife, they said. And I said aye, but what of that child? Shouldn’t set your heart on no crop nor no child till it comes of age, they said. Aye, said I, but how when I don’t wait? How when I put all my love like I have for Marie onto that child, even before he be birthed, and open myself to have him into my bosom? How then, when he is born blue and still? Just move on, they said. But I said no.
I wanted to hold that boy on my shoulder! I wanted to pat his little behind. I wanted to see him stand to his feet, to see him look at me like Marie did, to hold his sweet hand. He was supposed to be my boy and I was supposed to be his Dada.
But Suckling Tom’s God took away my Elizabeth and He took away my son. And then Suckling Tom himself came and took away my livestock.
I stopped going to confession. I stopped saying my prayers. I only went to Mass because Tom would have had me whipped if I didn’t. God didn’t have no care for me, and I didn’t have no care for Him. We both went our own ways.
Outside I heard Anne and Peter having their nightly row. A while before Ben Ash had unhitched his cart, hot to get inside to where his new wife lay waiting. The crickets, they were singing. I even heard a wolf calling for its mate. Everywhere there was sound and life and things being with other things and carrying on about it. Here there was only my cave of quiet.
But I could hear Marie’s breaths. So maybe now I could sleep.
Next day Ruth and Marie brought lunch out to us in the field. Marie was the village favorite. Everyone she passed greeted her and got a smile in return. She didn’t even know the joy she cast about her. I’d already talked to the midwives about teaching Marie the healing arts. She carried a blessing.
Me and Will ate hard cheese with our noble ladies in the shade by the road. Ruth’s babe was sleeping on the grass. We were just finishing up when I spotted a rider bearing Lord Morrow’s arms. He flew by us at a fair pace. Will said it were just a messenger, carrying papers. I said I didn’t know. Then that rider came back with Steward David neck and neck. It must’ve been something big.
“Do you think it’s the Welsh?” Will said.
Ruth picked up her baby. “They can’t come all the way out here, can they?”
“What happen, Dada?” Marie said, over and over.
“Hush, Marie,” I said. “We don’t know yet.”
Marie hugged my leg. “I want to hold you.” So I picked her up. “Those children being mean?”
She was asking me about something that had happened months ago. She’d seen some boys yelling at a doe and her fawn that had come out of the wood. Since then that was the meanest, scariest thing she could think of. I believe she had dreams about it.
“No, child, those children aren’t being mean.”
She nodded like she’d known all along. “Maybe they run away.”
I saw what it was that was coming. “Marie, look! Watch right there. Can you see that wagon?”
She sucked in a breath, even though I knew she couldn’t see anything yet. She trusted me to tell her how to look at something. “What is it?”
Will shaded his eyes. “I don’t see a thing, John. Let on, what is it?”
The first wagon topped the hill and was followed by another, then another, then another. Riders rode between the wagons. Lord Morrow’s livery was everywhere. More wagons kept coming over the hill. By the time we saw Jack and Andrew huff out to the train, the whole field of workers knew what was in the air.
“Lord Morrow!” I heard someone shout. We all dropped our rakes and lunches to come see.
I stood Marie on a branch. “Do you know what all these wagons are here for?”
She was worried. “They coming to take me away?”
“No, no. Where’d you get a notion like that? Marie, you know that big house way over back by the village?”
“It not a house,” she said tartly. “It a cassul.”
“Right, a castle. Well, all these people are going to go to that castle and stay there.”
“And sleep there?”
“And sleep there, right,” I said. “And do you see that wagon that’s on top of the hill now, the big red one?” Marie nodded. “Well, inside that wagon is the man what lives in that castle. His name is Lord Morrow.”
“Yes. Do you see those boys riding over there?” I was pointing to the lord’s two worthless sons, who were just then headed to the hay cart, scattering peasants before their chargers. No doubt with trouble on their minds.
“They go vewy fast,” Marie said.
“Lord Morrow is those boys’ Dada, just like I’m your Dada.”
She nodded. “They not have a Mama.”
Whenever it hit me, I wasn’t ready. I guess I was never ready. “No, Marie, they do have a Mama. Her name is Lady Morrow.”
“Right. She’s probably in that red wagon with Lord Morrow.”
“Marie not have a Mama.”
“I know, child.” I felt Ruth’s hand on my back, keeping me level.
It had been almost two years since the Morrows had been here. They seemed to like their other manors better. Or maybe they just trusted David to run things for them. He was a steady hand, that David. Maybe it was so hard to get all this train loaded up that they just said wherever they were was fine enough.
By now the first wagons were passing us. For me it seemed they held aught but what nobles needed to keep serfs like me nose to the ground. But for Marie, these were like those ships from the East our stories told about, full of spices and black-skinned devils. I watched her watching, and it almost was that I could see it her way.
I saw the falcons on the trainers’ hands. I saw the hounds and heard their call. I saw the colors—more reds and yellows, and blues as blue as Marie’s eyes. I saw the men-at-arms with their spears and their chain, and for once they didn’t look like brigands, but heroes the likes of which England hadn’t known since Arthur. I saw the gold and brass and silver on a wagon, and today it didn’t look like what had been stolen from me and mine, but like booty due a prince. And when the Morrows’ coach passed and I looked inside, I didn’t see a salty she-dog and an old buffoon, but a heavenly queen and king.
Lord Morrow’s oldest son, Charles, called to the wagon. “Mother, look!” He was standing in the hay wagon throwing hay out onto the ground. “I’m helping, Mother.”
Lady Morrow called from her coach. “Get away from them, Charles! Don’t let them touch you. And come down before you fall.” Then she said something loud in Norman French, as if she didn’t want us peasants to know she spoke our low-born tongue.
“Yes, Mother.” Charles left the wagon half empty when he climbed down. He mounted his warhorse and charged away, trampling baskets dropped by people trying to get out of his path.
The other son, Edward, stood by. He didn’t do what Charles did, but he didn’t stop him, neither. I saw him standing by our men. Maybe he said something to Old Dan, I couldn’t tell. Anyway, he took to his saddle and joined the train, leaving Dan and the others to refill the wagon.
Jack and Andrew set upon those as were watching. “Back to your rakes!” they said. But no one moved. Even Paul was watching from a tree, and he was hayward.
Marie’s eyes looked like they wanted out of her head. “Dada, know what I sawd?”
“What did you see, child?”
“I saw a neegul!”
“You saw an eagle? Oh, bless me!”
“It went…” she squawked and flittered her hands in the air.
It made me laugh. “That was an eagle all right, if I’ve ever seen one. All right, Marie, you help your Aunt Ruth take this lunch back to the house, you hear?”
She hopped down and hurried around like a flood was coming. “We go back and do spinning!”
“That’s right,” Ruth said. “Always more spinning.”
“Like this,” Marie said, spinning around and around and around, like a flower in the stream.
The wagons were still waiting to get into the castle ward when my Marie was tiny down the hill. Will and me took up our rakes and went with the rest back to the hay.
Old Dan was swearing like a Dane when I got over to him.
“I guess Charles knows a better way to put hay on a wagon, eh, Dan?” I said.
“That’s how it seems, John.”
I helped him lift a bushel to the wagon. “Did Edward say something to you about it?”
Dan took his straw hat off and wiped his bare head. “Aye. I thought my ears were bewitched when I heard it, too.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he was right sorry for what his brother did.”
Now there was a wonder. A noble what took a care for the likes of us. “Never. What did you say?”
“I said it was all right. I said boys play on boys’ day. I said please do it again. What do you think I said?”
I shook my head. Maybe both Morrow’s boys weren’t best drowned in a bucket, after all. It didn’t make my life no better, but it kept it from being that much worse.
“Say, John, I been thinking,” Dan said when we were raking in a new spot. “You know my boy Joseph?”
We all called Dan ‘Old Dan’ because he was old, over thirty-five years. And that was a big load working the land like we did. His wife Hannah, she didn’t bear Dan no sons. Five girls, he had—and I said that was a fine thing. But five years ago Hannah gave Dan his boy. It was no small thing to be the only son of a freeman.
“Sure I know Joseph,” I said. “Fine boy by all accounts.”
“One day Joseph’s going to need a bride.”
“That’s a fact,” I said, though why he was worrying about it now I didn’t know. Dan’s mind must’ve had to go down roads mine didn’t even know about.
“You know how close Hannah and your Elizabeth were.”
“They were close,” I said, and the memory pinched me inside. I saw in my head Elizabeth and Marie in our wedding. Both with white flowers in their hair. Both smiling so hard you didn’t know which one was getting wed.
“Well, as I say I been thinking. And Hannah, she’s been talking. And you know how much Hannah loves your Marie.”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
We had to keep quiet until Jack strolled by. He watched us like he thought we was stuffing hay into our clothes. Maybe he thought Lord Morrow had spies in the field, checking up on how many times he beat us.
I couldn’t divine what Dan might be getting at. It sounded like he was leading up to something, but I couldn’t see what. Maybe he was going make an offer for my assart. Maybe all this about Elizabeth and Marie and Hannah was just to make me take less for it. What he didn’t know was that I would never part with that land, not so long as it was the best chance for my Marie to move closer to what Dan already got.
“Let’s make a pact,” he said when Jack was gone.
“When the time comes, your Marie marries my Joseph.”
I just stared at him. I think I would’ve dropped my rake if all my body hadn’t been stuck. Folk like us didn’t arrange their children’s marriages. Not anymore. That was one of the few ways we had it better than our betters, if you take my meaning. We were free to marry for love and friendship, while they all had to marry for money.
But mayhap Dan, since he was free and, so, closer to that shelf, had to think like nobles, too. It didn’t make no sense, though. If he had to marry his children for land or gold, then my Marie was the wrong choice.
My hands were wet. My head got all clumpy and my knees were locked too tight. There was a thing about it that was making me swoon, and that was what it would mean for Marie if she married Dan’s boy. At least for as long as Joseph lived, and maybe beyond—Dan would know—my Marie would be free.
Free from tallage days owed on the lord’s fields. Free from three days a week owed to Lord Morrow. Free from sitting at court. Free to come and go. And freedoms fall upon freedoms, if you follow me. One stacked upon another until the free man reached the sky. Old Dan was a good sort, but in truth he was far above a serf like me. So his offer was rich as rich could be.
“Dan, I… You should not offer such a thing. Not to me. Find a freeman’s girl for your Joseph. Find someone who will give you lands on another manor, then move away to a house in the hills.”
Dan laughed at me. “What would I do with a house in the hills, eh? Work. I’d get sheep. No, John, I will die here. But Joseph—and his bride—well, maybe a house in the hills would do for him, eh?”
I nodded real small, like a man asleep.
“You think it over, John Green. As for me, I know you to be a right good man, and that’s saying a measure, if you know me. Marie would make a fine bride for my boy, and it wouldn’t be only Hannah happy to have her in the family.”
* * *
“Wook, Dada, I jump on you head.”
Our shadows were long. Marie, always with more life in her than her father, hopped around on the shadow of my head as we walked out to the assart. I had Will’s axe and my hoe over my shoulder. Since I hadn’t worked yesterday, I knew I’d better work hard tonight.
I always enjoyed this walk. It was time alone with Marie, but more, it was the only time during the day I got to do whatever pleased me and no one else.
The piece of land I was trying to take from the wild was out past the hay meadows we’d been working in and on the very edge of the waste. My assart weren’t large, not more than an acre, but it was all my own. Here I could grow whatever I pleased, while on my other strips I had to go with the village. When I finished it, this land could support a family almost without strips in the main fields. But with those other strips, almost everything this assart produced could be sold at market.
The thought of it shook me. It goaded me to work hard. Imagine! More grown on my fields than Marie and me could eat. I would never have to cut her meals down again, and I would nevermore go without. It was a stroke of pure wealth.
I already had the first two or three years’ profits spent, in my head. The first year we would just eat until we were fat. We would give food at the Lammas feast instead of taking it away. We would invite our neighbors for a feast, instead of always begging in at others’ tables.
The second year would be the year of blue. I would buy Marie and me new clothes—bright blue as a bird’s egg. Maybe I would buy two work tunics, just to show off. And Marie would have three Sunday dresses. Blue. And I would have a black velvet cap for court days, just like the reeve himself. Jack would be hot.
The third year, because I will have been saving all the rest from what the assart brought in—or maybe the fourth year, if crops were bad—I would walk up to Clyde Castle at the head of my tithing and lay down my blood price. I would buy my freedom, and Marie’s freedom—and Elizabeth’s and my lost child’s, if they’d been here. I would buy our blood by the work of my own hands.
I would be a freeman, for ever and all time. Marie would be free the whole of her life. The gift I then gave to Marie I would be giving to all her children and her children’s children. Because of my work here, I would save my whole line. I never remembered much of whatever Suckling Tom said when he talked to us in the King’s English—which was about as often as a visit from the Pope—but I did remember that story about Joseph saving all his family. I would be my family’s Joseph.
We were passing the end of the hay meadows now. We were on the highest hill in Pinderbroke. From here I could see other hills. I knew the names of the villages on a few of those hills—I’d even been to some. I’d heard tales about the lands beyond, but I didn’t know if I’d ever want to see them. Strange and terrible they seemed, with two-headed men and griffyns and giants walking all about. Pinderbroke may not have been grand, but I knew it full well.
Something, probably a roe dear, made a racket in the underbrush by us. Marie fairly climbed up my legs. I held her to me, having a care to steady the axe and hoe.
“What was that!” she asked me. My Marie had such a way of speaking, like her mother had, where she did more with the way she said a word than what she truly said. This now, this What was that, didn’t just mean for me to say what made that sound. It meant that she always gets scared this far from everyone and at this late hour, that she would rather be at home, that she felt mighty small, but that she would make herself take courage so to be with me.
“It was only a coney, Marie.” I knew it was no rabbit, but she was scared of anything bigger than her, even roe deer.
She was calm now. “It hopping? Like Marie?”
“Maybe it hop on you head, too!”
“I hope not!”
She hopped the rest of the way to the assart.
There it was. My land. Working mostly alone for three years, I hadn’t done much more than clear the trees and brush—and those kept trying to come back. But every year I gained ground. Last winter I even tilled the soil. Will let me bring his oxen out here to fertilize every day we could. I’d been spreading their manure and whatever lime I could afford on just one part of the assart, an area no bigger than just one of my tracks on the main fields. I would be working that all this coming year. With what I would make at market, I could afford to hire workers—men like me but without no assart—to work the rest into farm shape. Then it would be not long until fat year, blue year, and free year.
“Oh!” Marie said, meaning ‘I know this place and I have good times here.’
This day I was breaking up knots of earth. Marie found a stick and went at the work like a beaver. I long ago quit trying to keep her from helping me in her way. I believed she had made this land hers, too.
“Dada, know what I sawd?”
“What did you see, Marie?”
“I sawd a neegul!”
“That’s right. You saw some falcons.”
“And those children being mean, and throwing out all that… all that… gwass.”
“Yes, that young man was not very nice, was he?”
“Know what I sawd?”
“I saw gagons. One, two, fwee, four, ten gagons!”
“All those wagons. You’ve never seen so many.”
“Know what? Marie not like gagons vewy much.”
“Oh! That man being mean? What happen to all that gwass? It came out?”
“Yes, child. But we put it all back in. It’s fine now.” I guessed I’d never know why she didn’t like ‘gagons.’
I worked, and Marie worked and played, until the sun went down. I made good speed. I was about ready to start for home, but I had a notion troubling me to get out.
“Marie?” I said.
“I Eve,” she said.
She was thinking of Adam and Eve. Whenever Marie heard a story, she always found somebody in it to be. It was usually something small, like a child, but that story had got no child, so whenever she thought about it, she said she was Eve.
“Eve,” I said.
“Fine. Eve, Adam has something to ask you.” She listened better when I played her game. “Eve, could you ask Marie something for me?”
“You want ask Marie sumping?”
“Yes. I want you to ask Marie if she knows a little boy named Joseph. You know, Old Dan’s little boy.”
“Jophus a big boy,” she said, stretching out big.
“He’s bigger than you, it’s true.”
“No, he bigger than Marie! I Eve.”
“Right, sorry. Eve, does Marie like Joseph?”
She thought about it a good long time. I felt base to push her like this, but I was only asking a question. It made me wonder, if she was arranged for Joseph, would I still work the assart? Did I ask Marie this for her or for me?
Finally Marie shook her head. “Marie not like Jophus.”
“You don’t?” Why did that make me feel better?
“No. Jophus not nice. Jophus push Marie down.”
“Uh oh.” It was probably something that really happened. Marie had her mother’s memory. “Did Marie cry?”
“Yes, a widdow bit.”
It was set, then. I would tell Dan many thanks but no, not now at least. You see, being free was not just a matter of not paying tallage. Being free meant you’re not made to do nothing you don’t want to. I couldn’t give my Marie her real freedom, not yet, but I could give her a taste of it so long as she was in my care.
“Come along, child. Dada wants to be home before dark.”
She found my hand. “I wuv you, Dada.”
“Don’t you mean Adam?”
“Oh! I fogot! I wuv you, Adam!”
“I love you, too, baby girl.”
I didn’t want to wake her. She was so fair, so like an angel. Her eyes, closed so soft like she was carved of wood. Her mouth open just so, like her mother always slept. Her cheeks, round and soft like the sweetest pear. One hand tucked under her chin. Her hair was a wonder. No child in the village ever had so much at this age, nor until long after. It was long and a little curled—the women swooned for it—and the color of a wet branch. I was better at shaping it now, but I would have to take her to Ruth before Mass. Ah! Why did I have to rouse her to take her somewhere I didn’t want to go?
I sang the song I’d made up for her when she was just born.
Where’s my baby?
Where’s my girl?
Where’s my baby?
Where’s my baby?
Where’s my baby?
Come to me.
It was the gentlest way to wake her I knew. A little bit into the song she opened her eyes.
“Hie, Dada. I wake up.”
“So I see.” I picked her up. It was the only time of the day anymore when she would lay her head on my shoulder. She let me stroke her hair. I loved the smell of her.
“Not now, Marie. We have to get ready to go to the church.”
“See Caffy?” she said, excited.
“I think Cathy will be there. We’ll see.” Cathy was the woman who watched the children during Mass. Like so many, she loved my Marie.
I set Marie down at her place at our table. The cheese and bread and milk were there. I sat across from her and we ate without talking. I loved to watch her eat when she was not really awake. After a moment she caught me watching her, and she smiled, her mouth full of crumbly bread. I smiled back and we both laughed.
Mornings were hard. I don’t know how Elizabeth would’ve had it, but Marie always cried when I dressed her. The saints in heaven themselves would hear it if I ever tried to do her hair. She cried enough when Ruth did it. Today at least my part of it would be easier, because Marie got to wear her dress.
While Marie was finishing up her goat’s milk, I opened the chest that Elizabeth brought when we wed. It held what treasure we owned: our Sunday clothes, the brass pendant and iron dagger my grandfather brought back from fighting the Picts, our heavy cloaks, and Elizabeth’s wedding things.
I pulled out what we were going to wear to church, but for some reason I took out the wood box that held my Elizabeth’s wedding ring. I opened the box. The ring was a silver circle, but tarnished and dull. The box also held a lock of my wife’s light brown hair. It was hard now, like it might break apart. Everything was fading.
“Dada, I all done.”
I shut the chest. “All right, Marie. Come here so Dada can put your dress on you.”
She got that look in her eye. “But I don’t want to go to church.”
I didn’t say Neither did I but I thought it. “Marie, sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. Now come here, this is your pretty dress.”
This was our one sticking point. I liked to see her when she felt strong and like she could try new things, but sometimes the “new thing” she wanted to try was to be the noble lady and command her little villein—me. She had her mother’s stubbornness, bless her, and her father’s love of making the rules. But as her father, I got to win.
“Marie, come here.”
She pushed through the door and ran outside. It was only five steps or so before I grabbed her wrist, but already she was laughing. I tried not to laugh—somehow that would let her win—but I ended up laughing, too. The rest of our dressing time went well.
When we stepped outside again, the road was already thick with folk headed to hear Mass. More than one had to greet my Marie—and me, too, of course. Much as I hated listening to Suckling Tom every Sunday, I did love being with everyone somewhere besides the fields. Sundays we got to see folk that didn’t work the fields, too, like Michael what caught birds and Robert the miller. Not that anyone much liked Robert.
Young Timothy tapped my shoulder and spun me around. “Who you looking for, ol’ man?”
“You,” I said, hugging the boy’s neck. “And I am not old.”
“Ha! Hie, Marie.”
Marie pressed her face against my leg, which didn’t really work as we was trying to walk in a crowd. Then Marie’s mouth dropped open. “Oh! I fogot Mama!”
I pulled us off the road to let the others pass. “We don’t need your dolly now, child.”
“I have to get her!”
I looked at Tim. “‘Mama’ is what she’s calling that doll you gave her. It is dear to her.”
Timothy bent down to my Marie. “Know what? I think your ‘Mama’ should stay at the house today. She needs to make us a fine meal for lunch. Don’t you want it ready when you get home?”
Marie wasn’t sure, but she nodded.
“Many thanks, Timothy,” I said. We heard the church bells ring. It was a truly fine sound, almost as fine as the sound of my little girl’s voice. “Best get to your folk, boy. We’ll see you inside the church.”
Marie led me up to Ruth’s door. I could hear Nathaniel crying inside. Will came to the door, a lump of black bread in his hand.
“They’re here,” he called inside. “Good morrow, John. Good morrow, Marie.”
“But,” Marie said, worried, “what happen to baby Nayfun?”
“He’s just crying, Marie,” Will said.
Marie nodded. “Maybe his tummy huwt.”
“My tummy not huwt.”
Ruth came to the door holding their child. Ruth was a beauty. I could see it, my sister though she was. I always thought Ruth was born wrong, if you follow my meaning, like she should’ve been born to the Queen of England and not to a cottar’s wife in Pinderbroke Village. Though I could’ve drowned her as a child, today I was happy I hadn’t. More than a sister, Ruth was my friend.
“Good morrow. Hello, Marie.”
We were all out the door now, walking to join the crowd. It was a pale blue day, with the sun not yet too hot and the church bells singing with the robins. I could smell the morning and the manure from the fields.
“Well…” Marie said, holding her place with that word whilst she thought of what to say. “Well, you not fix my hair yet!”
“I haven’t had the time yet, Marie,” Ruth said. “If your father would carry you on his back and if Nathaniel’s father would carry his boy, maybe I could work on your hair while we walk.”
And so we did.
* * *
Lord Morrow had brought his family to hear Mass. The whole front of the nave was taken up by Lord and Lady Morrow, their sons (Charles already looked asleep), and the others of high birth what were with them, including David the steward. I could see Jack and Andrew and their folk, nosed as close to the Morrows’ fine red cloth as could be. The rest of us sat atop one another behind them or else stood in the back.
Suckling Tom was at the front. I could hardly hear the sound of his voice. Though it didn’t matter if I heard him loud and long, I’d not never know the words. Mayhap it was that the Christ was born in that faraway place that God talked in a strange tongue. Tom was wearing his Christmas robe and he was using all three of his candle boys. Wanted to look good for his Lord and Lady, I supposed.
It was a bright day, and there was so much candle fat burning around us, that for once the church was alight enough to see inside. I could even see Old Dan and Hannah—the backs of their heads, anyway, since they were so close to the front. Maybe after Mass I could talk to Dan about not arranging any marriages. I hoped he would understand why I didn’t want to push her. Who knew? Maybe Marie wouldn’t always be sore at “Jophus” for shoving her when they were small.
I knew I should be keeping my thoughts on the Holy Virgin, but, bless me, my heart was harder than the ground of my assart. Which thought, by turn, brought me to look about for someone whose plough-team I might borrow next week. I’d picked out two or three likely men before I divined of a sudden that Suckling Tom was speaking in my own tongue.
He never even faced us in the Mass, much less talked to us in English. He was really using all his tricks to enter the Morrows’ favor. Mayhap afterwards he was planning to ask them to pay for a new roof for the church.
I called him Suckling Tom. I don’t know that anyone else did. See, Tom was one of us by birth. His mother was sitting somewhere around me. Tom had learned his letters when he was altar boy. He said he’d taken a special liking to God’s Holy Church and so went on to take his vows. But I thought what he took a liking to was a priest’s soft robes and the tithes we had to pay him. Couldn’t say as I blamed him, though. He was looking for a way up, same as me.
What pricked me about Tom, and why I called him what I did, was that he was a babe. He didn’t know how to ride—not a horse, not a mule, not nothing. He didn’t know how to drive a plough nor a wagon. Or so he said. A carriage took him to Clyde Castle whenever David needed to make a writ, and the carriage brought him back. He didn’t cook, he didn’t build, he didn’t hunt or work in the fields. He commanded folk to do whatever he could make them do, mostly work he could do himself. Just like a babe in need of a beating. About the only man’s thing he did was take women to bed. It was no riddle why there was four or five sucklings in Pinderbroke with his same round face and black eyes.
One day Tom’s voice, soft and smooth as river weed, wouldn’t remind me of that day my Elizabeth died. But it was not that day today. He was reading from Holy Writ, stammering about as he made the change to our low tongue. He’d have read it in French if he could.
“Our Lord saith unto Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?’ Peter saith, ‘Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.’ He saith unto him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He saith to him again the second time, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?’ He saith unto him, ‘Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.’ He saith unto Peter, ‘Feed my sheep.’ The Lord saith unto him the third time, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?’ Now Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, ‘Lovest thou me?’ And he said unto him, ‘Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.’ Jesus saith unto him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
Tom gave his Book to a candle boy. “Gentle Lords and Ladies, freemen, villeins, serfs, and cottars: the Lord God hath said that the man who loves Him will feed His sheep. Now these things speak about more than just the sheep on our hills, what we shear for their wool. For Holy Scripture haveth alway two meanings. One meaning any fool can see. But the other needs what they call discernment. That means that only men what have taken vows and learned their letters may know it, them being priests and bishops, and we tell it to you. I speak to you today about the duty we owe God.”
I wondered how long Suckling Tom could go before he began to sound like a dolt. The farther he got away from the way it said it in his Book, the less he sounded like he knew what he was about. I took a last look at his lumpy hog’s chin, wondering how any man but a noble could get fat, and turned my eyes to the carved ceiling.
I used to love coming to Mass. Just stepping into the building would lift my spirits. As a boy I came every time I could. I came when no one else was here, whenever Father Matthew—him that went before Tom—would let me in. I’d look long at the figures on the walls. I’d dog Father Matthew to tell me what they meant. I had great love for the Virgin and her Son. Sometimes it would hurt my chest how much I loved the Blessed Babe. I used to cry great pools of tears when Father Matthew would tell about the Cross.
My mother said I had it in me to be a priest. She wanted me to be an altar boy and learn my letters. Father Matthew even said I’d better come learn with him or I’d wear out my knuckles on his door. But of course Father wouldn’t let me. What need had I to learn my letters when the strips needed turning? If I became a priest, he said, who would work the land when he was gone? And he was right.
Beside, where would I be if I’d gone on to be a priest? I’d never have married Elizabeth. (Though Tom had never married—according to the law for priests—I doubt he much slept alone.) If I’d never married Elizabeth, where would I be? And if I’d never married Elizabeth, I wouldn’t have my Marie. Mine was the better life for having not become a priest. At the bottom, too, I believed it would have been a hard thing to serve as priest and hate God the way I did.
You can’t tell nobody what I just told you. I have gave you a thing that could end my days ten years too soon. It’s well there really is not no God, for if there was, He’d surely have turned me to a pillar of salt two years ago and many times since. So forget I said it and just listen to that fool Tom.
* * *
It was well that my assart was so far from the village. Being Sunday there was no one in the fields to see me. Not that many would care that I was breaking the ban against working on Sunday—most in the village needed the spare time every so often. But word would the more easier get back to Tom. It still might, but I didn’t care. If the price of a half day’s work on the assart was being called down in Mass next Sunday, then it was a fair trade.
When I left the church, Tom had been too busy chasing Lady Morrow to notice someone as poor as me thieving away. I would’ve liked to have stayed to watch Tom run, since the Lady was more hot to yell—in French, of course—to her two boys, who were on their chargers before the bells even had done ringing. But Ruth was pleased to care for Marie, so I came here at full dash.
David (the serf, not the steward) and his boy were set to bring their ox team here tomorrow. Mass was still good for finding someone when you needed a thing. If I worked hard this ban day, I could have another good piece ready for the plough in the morning.
As I was breaking up clumps and tossing stones, my thinking took wing to who knows where. A good kick sent a rock far, and it put me in mind of football. Pinderbroke Village played Waterleigh every year after harvest—except on those years when Lord Morrow’s father and Lord Keene’s father had made war with each other, but that was long back. All the men of both villages took part. It was a merry time. The year I married my Elizabeth I even kicked a goal. This year the game was to be in Waterleigh, so them robbers would likely win. It would be a good day in a life that didn’t get many.
I thought about other matters, too. Or else I didn’t think at all. A man in my place didn’t get much time to be thinking about nothing. If I wanted me and my Marie to make it through the winter, I couldn’t float on as other men might. But winter felt long off right then.
I don’t know how long I’d been working, to tell you the truth, but it must’ve been a good while, as there was either a grindstone in my belly or I was a hungry man. The ground looked good—at least the part of it I wanted David’s team to turn. Tomorrow would be the best day in a long time.
I took my time on the walk home. If I was seen now, I could said I was just out with all the good things the Lord God made. There was even a little shrine to the Virgin on a post by the hay meadow. I could say I’d been there for prayer.
One other thing I didn’t have a bushel of was time to myself when I was not working. I love my Marie, but still I like to be my own man once in awhile. On the other end, my thoughts didn’t always like to be alone with me, if you take my meaning. They didn’t leave me long without bringing in my Elizabeth.
I believed I had to forget my wife. Not forget her all the way, if you follow me, but just enough so I didn’t always think of her. The way I carried her in my thoughts—it was not what a man with both oars in the water would do, or so I’d been told. My problem was that I laid hold of things too tight.
Father Matthew used to talk about a life with no ending. Those what got into God’s good graces would never die. (Suckling Tom talked about that life, too, but more he liked talking about those what didn’t get into God’s graces; or else about Purgatory.) In a life with no end, a man would never have to let go of his wife. A babe would never die before it was born. In a life like that, a man who lays hold of things as tight as me wouldn’t be a fool, but wise as a hermit.
But I didn’t live in that life, did I?
I stepped out from the trees along the road and onto the wide glen. Some boys were shooting arrows at hay targets. I could see Jack’s girl with her geese. It looked like Deaf John was fixing his cart again. A pack of dogs split apart to go around Lord Morrow’s boys on their chargers, and became a pack again on the far side. It was the finest Sunday we’d had since before the raking.
Just as my eyes found Ruth’s home, I saw the thing my heart most loved. A tiny little girl in her pretty dress, running like a fairy over the grass to give her Dada a hug. With a shout and a leap I put myself into a run. I could hear her laugh, and the sound made me forget I was bound to the earth. Though we were still far apart, I could already feel her arms around me, if you take my meaning. I could already smell her long hair and feel her good weight in my arms when I would swing her around and around.
That was when I saw the horse. It was coming full on. Charles Morrow was looking over his shoulder at Edward’s slower horse. He didn’t see my baby.
I saw it! I knew what would happen. “No!”
The rest happened so slow, like we were all underwater. Marie saw me change. The most wonderful look came to her face, like she thought I was up to some game. She stopped and watched me. Then she saw the horse. It was almost upon her. Her little hands rose up. “Mama!”
Charles looked then, but there was nothing to be done. No horse liked to step on anything, but a warhorse could be trained. My Marie fell under its legs like an ear of wheat. I heard a thump. Her hair got hung on the horse’s hoof. It dragged her along like a cloth, until its rear legs speared her to the ground and left her behind.
I was to her before she’d rolled to a stop. The whole world was gone except for my little baby. Her body was broken. Her dress was ripped and going bright red. There was something wrong with her face. Her eyes didn’t look at me.
I took her up in my arms and ran, shouting like a madman. All I could think was to get her into the village. The healers! The midwives who’d worked on my Elizabeth. Someone would know what to do. How far was the nearest physician? Why didn’t I know?
Marie hated to be carried, but now she was letting me. Her arm hung and bounced loose. People were around me now. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. “Help me!”
I sat down. I laid my baby down. I held her in my lap. I was bloody. Elizabeth would be angry that I’d soiled my good clothes. Why was my baby sleeping? She had such pretty hair, you know. We didn’t know where she got it from. Look at it now. See how the wind blew it? Even the breeze knew to treat my Marie gentle.
Why was the sun so bright?
* * *
They buried my Marie on Monday. I think there were many people there. I think they said kind things to me. I think there was much crying. Or maybe that was just me. I think I sat on the dirt and wailed like a baby.
How could such a thing happen?
Some time passed. Maybe a day, maybe ten years, I couldn’t tell. I slept here in the church cemetery at night. A fox came every night to eat the food somebody would leave for me. I soiled myself. The only thing I roused myself for was to drive things away from my baby’s grave. Things or animals or people, I didn’t care. I knew I was mad, but I didn’t care about that, neither.
Somehow a thing finally soaked through to where I was hiding inside, to that place in my head where I could still hear the voices of my Marie and my Elizabeth and my Luke. I didn’t know who’d told it to me, but it had probably taken days for it to reach my ears.
Somebody had told me that Charles’ horse had broken its leg on my Marie’s body. They’d had to kill that horse what cost so much gold. But when Lady Morrow asked how it happened…(I think it was Jack that told me this; now why would he do that?)…when she asked how his horse broke its leg, Charles told her it had tripped over one of the peasants’ dogs. It was a whelp, he said, that should’ve been penned up. The dog was killed too, he said, but no matter because dogs bred like peasants and could easily be replaced.
I got up then. I didn’t know what day it was. It was night already. There was a half moon. I took the first step on the journey that would take me out of Pinderbroke Village forever.
If there was a God in such a world, I was going to find Him.
And if I found Him, I was going to spit in His face.
I wrote this prologue and three chapters in 1998, when my own daughter was the age of Marie in the story.
It was important to me that I get to the end of this part of the story while she was at that age. In a way, I was capturing her essence and I needed to do so before she grew out of that stage.
When I had these chap-ters finished I shopped the project around to all the major Christian publish-ers. Almost without ex-ception they said, "This is great writing, but we can't possibly publish it."
One editor said, "CBA isn't ready for the Christian Braveheart."
And so it continues to exist in its hermetically sealed condition. I like that these chapters stand as a short story unto themselves, and function as a great Act I for what will one day, I hope, be a wonderful story.
One note: I originally wrote this in present tense, which is unusual but gave me the intima-cy I was after for John's viewpoint. I was advised to change it to the more palatable past tense, but you can still see artifacts of the translation here and there.