Bone House: A Novelby Betsy Tobin
Gothic, elegant, and suspenseful, Bone House vividly evokes seventeenth-century rural England. It is the tale of two women. One is Dora -- large, voluptuous, and charismatic -- a prostitute to whom men are drawn for pleasure, women for friendship. Her strange death in an icy ravine affects everyone in the tiny village: her enormous, slow-minded son; an/i>… See more details below
Gothic, elegant, and suspenseful, Bone House vividly evokes seventeenth-century rural England. It is the tale of two women. One is Dora -- large, voluptuous, and charismatic -- a prostitute to whom men are drawn for pleasure, women for friendship. Her strange death in an icy ravine affects everyone in the tiny village: her enormous, slow-minded son; an embittered midwife; the hunchbacked lord of the manor; his decaying mother; and an itin- erant portrait painter, whose arrival in the village unearths secrets and passions beyond anyone's expectations.
The other -- young, slight, and solitary -- is a dutiful chambermaid to the mistress of the manor until Dora's accident begins to distract her from her daily tasks. Her quest to uncover the truth about the prostitute's mysterious life and sudden death leads her to a terrible discovery, and the beginnings of a future.
A novel about murder, flesh, fertility, desire, medicine, and art, Bone House transports readers to stratified Elizabethan England, where the body -- or "bone house" -- had a primary role in deter-mining one's destiny. Sensual, sophisticated, and fiercely compelling, this is an uncommonly assured debut.
Robin Maxwell author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and The Queen's Bastard Betsy Tobin draws us deeply into the seldom illuminated world of the Elizabethan underclasses. Her characters who, in other novels, are generally rendered in broad strokes -- the prostitute, the midwife, the lady's maid, the village idiot -- are here painted in vivid hue and detail. She has captured not only the language but the harsh reality experienced by the majority of England's population. A seventeenth-century Upstairs, Downstairs.
Margot Livesey author of The Missing World and Criminals From the opening pages of Bone House, I found myself utterly engrossed. How deftly Betsy Tobin transports us to the seventeenth century and how lucidly she spins her complex tale of obsession and superstition. This is a beautiful and suspenseful novel.
The New York Times A gripping narrative?shimmering with psychological depth.
Los Angeles Times A surprisingly delicate murder mystery, tempered by great detail and remarkable control.
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Her death has made us numb. Dora, the great-bellied woman, lies frozen in the ground. And like some part we've lost to frostbite, our minds still reach for her. The men of the village wear a wandering look in their eyes. They forget their work, leave their tools lying idle, drink to excess, then roam like dogs until they drop in the mud. Even the women are uneasy, for though she was one of us, we could never hope to fill her shoes. The great-bellied woman, with her door-wide hips and plate-sized breasts, was more woman than we could ever be. We even envied her belly: her great, laden belly, filled with the fruits of her whoring.
She left behind the boy, the giant boy, her only child. He is built like an ox, just as she was, though he is slow of speech, and some say also of thought. But this is unfair for he is not yet a man, but a boy of eleven trapped in a man's body. She christened him Johann, a name from her past, but from the beginning she called him Long Boy. Yesterday, when she was laid to ground, Long Boy trembled and nearly broke with grief. He collapsed, sobbing like a child, but it took four strong men to carry him home. I do not know what will become of him now that she is gone. And neither do I know what will become of us, for some people are the center of their world, and others are the spokes.
She came across the water, blown like a seed and touched down here. In the beginning there was talk she'd killed a man across the sea, though she never spoke of it and no one dared ask her, no more than they would ask the queen. But if she did he was probably deserving. Dora lived by her own rules, but they were not unjust. I admired her for this: she was not bound by superstition, nor by fear, nor by other people's prejudice. She did not justify herself to anyone, no more than she sought the whys and wherefores of those who pitched up on her doorstep. These were mostly men, but women came as well, for different reasons. She gave counsel freely, offered food and shelter, and sometimes even money to those who needed it. But mostly she gave of herself, her big, bounteous self, and those who sought her bed paid handsomely for it.
Her death was sudden, a freakish accident. They found her frozen, her belly to the sky, at the bottom of a ravine. She'd taken a shortcut through the forest and had slipped on snow-covered rocks that were slick with ice underneath. She would not have died except for a blow to the back of her head from a sharp stone that edged the creek. She'd clearly tried to stop herself; in her death-grip was a sapling torn from the banks as she fell. But with her great weight, it would have done little to slow her. Her feet sliced through a pool of ice at the bottom, and it held her fast up to the thighs. In the end it was the chisel that set her free. Her blood was everywhere, they said.
I saw it later, a dirty spray of ink across the snow.
I was five when she first came to the village. She was great-bellied even then, but she carried her burden easily, not in an ungainly way as so many of the village women do. One day at market I was scrambling in the dirt while my mother haggled over the price of carp. Thinking I would hide, I crawled under the fishwife's cart. At length I heard my mother calling me, her voice impatient. I did not go at first, but kept my place and listened to her calling.
I remember hearing her voice climb and swell, like birdsong when it builds at dusk. It made my pulse race as it became more shrill; the sound of her fear pleased me. But when she finally screamed my name my stomach lurched, and I scrambled out from under the cart, only to collide headfirst with Dora's rock-hard abdomen.
She did not even flinch, but reached down and lifted me high. And as I scaled the heights of her body, I found myself staring straight into her eyes, pale blue, with speckled flecks of brown, like pigeon eggs. She said not a word, only handed me to my mother, whose face by now was tight with fear. My mother gave a brief nod of thanks and took me from her, squeezing me so hard that I burst into tears. Then Dora laid her own hand gently on my mother's arm, and in an instant I saw the fear and anger ebb from my mother's eyes, as if Dora had siphoned it away through her outstretched fingers. Suddenly I felt my mother's grip release. I stopped crying and we stood, the three of us, for a moment. Then Dora let go of my mother's arm.
"They say you are a midwife," she addressed us haltingly. My mother nodded, her eyes dipping for an instant to the woman's swollen belly. "I am in need of you," she continued. Her voice was low and thick, and her accent strange. She spoke slowly and with care, as if plucking fruit from a tree. My mother nodded, her own voice failing her at first.
"Come to me at dusk," my mother said finally. Then Dora smiled and turned away, and I watched her disappear with long strides through the market crowds.
When she came to us that evening I was already in bed, but I watched from behind the curtain as my mother kneeled in front of her and spanned her belly with her hands. I saw her chest rise and fall and heard the sound of her breathing, hard and regular, like a horse's. The air was heavy as my mother worked her hands around the globe of her abdomen, turning her palms at different angles, pressing and probing, then smoothing the taut skin beneath them. She leaned forward and pressed an ear to her belly, her outstretched hands resting gently on each side of the sphere. At length she rocked back on her heels.
"It will be soon," she said.
"This is not the first," my mother ventured, looking up at her.
"The others?" she asked cautiously. Dora gave a brief shake of her head. My mother acknowledged this with a circumspect nod. If she taught me one thing as a child, it was the importance of discretion where women's secrets were concerned.
"You will be staying in the village?" said my mother.
"Yes," she replied decisively. "Here I will live."
Dora moved into the miller's cottage. He had died of cholera only weeks before, as had his wife and only son before him, and the cottage remained empty. She cleared it out, burning his furniture and woolens in a huge pyre of flames, a gesture of extravagance that many thought unnecessary. She then proceeded to make her own, hauling timber herself from the forest. She had arrived on horseback laden with her belongings, and within a few weeks she had sold the horse and built or purchased the few remaining things she needed. It was clear from the beginning that she had come to stay, and after a short time, no one questioned her presence.
I do not know when she began to trade her body, or how it happened, or indeed whether she had planned it so. Only that it seemed both right and natural. As a child I used to play outside her cottage. Men came and went, and always they were cheerful. When I asked my mother why Dora had so many visitors, she told me that the house was a shop, selling things that people liked but did not need. This I took to mean food, and for a time I imagined a secret cellar full of rare delicacies and sweetmeats. But when I asked whether we could not taste the things she had for sale, my mother said they would not appeal to us. To me this meant food from the sea: oysters, cockles, jellied eel, and the like, which I have always disliked. When I asked my mother whether this was the type of fare Dora served, she paused and said it was much the same. So I came to think of her house as a sort of tavern, where men could come and gorge like kings, and feel contented. Later, when I was old enough to know the truth, I wondered at my mother's explanation, for it seemed to me that the men who crossed her doorstep did so as much out of need as desire.
For life was often hard, and there was little enough to relieve it. In winter there was famine and sickness and bitter cold to contend with. In summer, there was fever and pestilence. When I was five nearly half the village succumbed to plague. My mother did not let me out of the house for weeks on end, and I remember watching through the cracks of the doorway as the bodies were taken away on horse carts to be burned in fields outside the village. Throughout my childhood Dora plied her trade, entertaining both the men of the village and those passing through on the road to London. It dawned on me eventually that my mother did not have such a need, for as long as I could remember she preferred her own company to that of others. She was not reclusive, only purposeful: when she did keep company, it was with women, and these were usually great-bellied. Her work was her life, and even I felt incidental to it at times. My grandmother had birthed children, and her mother before that, and as far as I knew my own mother had done nothing but reach into wombs since she had come of age. That she'd once been a child herself seemed unlikely; that she'd actually conceived one was unthinkable.
But this was not the case with most of the village. As soon as I was old enough to understand, I kept track of those who visited Dora's house. I have a good memory for a face, and an even better one for a voice, and a great deal could be heard through the cottage walls. At one time or another, every able-bodied man in the village came her way, as did a sizable proportion of those who were not-so-abled. She did not discriminate but welcomed all of them with an easy smile and a ready hand. And as I have said, the women came as well, their baskets full of new-picked apples and just-baked bread. They came less often, but to me their need seemed just as great. They were drawn not by lust but by the desire for her presence. For Dora had chosen to bestow herself upon us: she gave us grace and generosity and compassion. And, for me at least, a glimpse of what might lie beyond our small horizons.
That is why we are now stricken by her death. Even my mother is bereft. Perhaps especially my mother, for Dora was the closest thing she ever had to a friend. Yesterday, during the funeral procession, my mother stumbled on some loose stones and nearly fell. She pitched forward suddenly, grabbing my arm for support, and for an instant I was reminded of the moment we had first met Dora. My mother again gripped me so hard I nearly cried out, though she appeared not to realize it. But this time, there was no one there to carry off her anger, nor her loss. My mother clutched my arm all the way to the gravesite, so hard it later brought blood marks to my skin, but still it did not raise Dora from her grave.
After the funeral, I took my mother home and put her to bed. These past few months age has made its mark upon her, a process only hastened by the events of the last three days. I heated some broth for her to eat but she refused, sinking down into her bed with a raspy breath. My mother has been a party to death more times than I could number (in some years, more babies are born still than live), but she has always distanced herself from its impact. Yesterday, it seemed as if all those deaths had finally caught up to her, and that she could not bear the weight of them another second. I built up the fire and sat in front of it until I thought she was asleep, but when I left I was not certain, for her face was to the wall.
Then I went to see Long Boy. When I arrived at Dora's cottage, I found him crouched in front of the fire wrapped in blankets. His eyes, large and round like his mother's, were swollen from crying, and his tangled mass of dark hair stood on end. In his hand was a loaf of bread, and on the table more loaves were piled of various shapes and sizes, together with plates of meat, gifts from the women of the village. His appetite was legendary; his mother often joked that he was the only male in the village whose hunger she could not satisfy. He took great bites of bread, chewing rhythmically, absently, his eyes glued to the fire. The act of eating seemed to calm him.
I was surprised to find him alone. What had become of the four men who returned with him, I wondered? And the others, the ones with plates of food? Where were they, now that she was dead? The cottage had been emptied not just of her, but of all of them, for I sensed that they could no more tolerate his presence than do without hers. He was a strange child, unlike other children: he would appear from nowhere, and disappear just as suddenly. He rarely spoke, and when he did, it was to ask a question, often an unsettling one. When I entered the cottage he looked up at me for an instant, then turned back to the fire. He was accustomed to seeing outsiders enter his home. I laid my things on the table with the others: some hard-cooked eggs, a knuckle of bacon, a lump of butter. I drew up the only other chair in the cottage, and sat down next to him. He bit off another huge bite of bread from the loaf in his hand, his jaw working hard up and down, the cords of his long neck bulging as he swallowed. I sat with him for several minutes, and when he'd finished the bread, he stared down at his empty hands.
"Johann," I said, leaning forward. He did not respond, so I waited a moment, then tried again. "Long Boy." He looked up at me and blinked, rubbing his face with the palms of his hands, then his eyes wandered toward the pile of food on the table. "What will you do?" I asked.
He reached for another piece of bread.
"Will you stay here? By yourself?" I said.
"Who will stay with me?" he asked. I looked at him a moment, then shook my head.
"There is no one," I said. "But there are places you could go. You could find work. You're nearly grown." My words were ridiculous: he was almost twice my size. He shook his head and took another bite of bread. We sat for a few minutes in silence. He continued to eat, and only when he was through did he turn to me, his eyes blurry with confusion.
"Why did she fall?"
I looked at him and hesitated. Why indeed, with all her strength and grace and spirit, why would she succumb so easily to death? I closed my eyes and in an instant she appeared, shaking free her lion's head of nut-brown hair. When I opened my eyes, Long Boy was staring at me, mouth wide with waiting.
"I do not know," was all I said.
Copyright © 2000 by Betsy Tobin
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