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A COURTYARD FULL OF WOMEN
When he came through the gate, Heriot found the kitchen courtyard was full of women, but that did not surprise him. During the terrible wars vaguely called “history” in which Hoad and its neighbors, the Dannorad and Camp Hyot, had advanced, clashed with one another, and retreated bleeding, Heriot’s family had lost most of its men. His cousin Nesbit, a survivor of the last battle, was the farm’s oldest man at thirty. On this occasion, however, the courtyard was not altogether without other men. Heriot could see a very small male cousin, a baby in his mother’s arms, and the Traveler men, along with a tomcat so sure of himself he had stayed behind to watch the visitors after other cats had fled. Strange and glittering in the sunlight, the Traveler men wore padded jackets and round hats made either of sheepskin or quilted silk, hung with enameled beads and tin charms, clothes more suitable to the mountains they had crossed two weeks earlier than to the plains. Around their strong throats hung chains, strung with mirrors the size of coins, beads of agate, carnelian, and tiny irregular fragments of lapis lazuli.
Great-Great-Aunt Jen stood among them, pointing and gesticulating. A cap with flaps coming down over her ears covered her gray hair, while her calm face, as round as a loaf of bread, brown and crusty, too, wore the expression of someone utterly accustomed to obedience.
“You’ll be our guests tonight,” she was telling the Travelers. “We’ll kill and cut up a sheep, and we’ll set up a fire in the big hall. I’ll send for the men out in the hills. You’re very welcome, I can tell you. It’s good to have you back.”
Heriot watched her with uneasy pride.
“There’s no need for it,” said one of the older Travelers. “No need for any special bother, that is. We’ve just come to see the tokens and the words, carrying on the custom, like.”
“We always welcome the chance for a party,” Great-Great-Aunt Jen replied, a little sternly, as if he had made light of her hospitality. Her dark, unexpectedly sad eyes fell on Heriot.
“You! Heriot!” she said to him. “Run and tell Nesbit and the others that the Travelers are here.”
The Travelers’ spokesman looked at Heriot with interest.
“He looks better these days,” he said.
“He was never sickly… well, not exactly,” Great-Great-Aunt Jen replied casually, though Heriot saw she became cautious as soon as his old trouble was mentioned. “He’s getting over it, whatever it was. Off you go, Heriot. Quickly, now.”
“Run fast!” said another Traveler. “I’d say it was going to rain.”
“Heriot could help to bring wood in,” cried Baba. “I’ll run for the men. And he hasn’t told the eggs yet.”
“What do you mean, he hasn’t told the eggs?” someone— a woman—asked from behind Heriot. “Told them what?”
“It’s a gift he has,” Great-Great-Aunt Jen replied, and once again Heriot saw on her broad face that familiar trace of—what was it—doubt, distaste? “He can tell which eggs will hatch cocks and which hens, and say how long ago they were laid.”
“Oh, he’s that way, is he?” said the speaker, as if she knew all about such talents. “He’s one of those. I thought you farmers had lost the gift.”
She stood in the gateway through which Heriot himself had entered a moment earlier… a young woman in the long, striped skirts and black short-sleeved smock, fastened down the front with buttons of bone, that all Traveler women wore. As they turned to look at her she came forward, walking freely in spite of her long skirts, while those skirts and the petticoats under them made a silky, sifting sound against her hidden legs.
“Azelma, our wise woman,” said the Traveler leader proudly, jerking his thumb at her. “She’s only a girl, but she has some of the old gift. She can see through walls, read closed books, and tell the future in patches. Even read minds. Of course she’s too bold, you can see that, but they do say that those who carry the gift burn up with it.”
“Heriot hasn’t got any gift,” Baba said. She hated to hear anyone else praised. “He’s slow.”
“I’m not slow,” Heriot protested. “I’m on my way now.”
“Not slow in that way… ,” began Baba. Heriot could see her straining to be off and away, over the fields and up the hill. His head filled with images of long waves and a dark island. His sister was longing to see the sea.
“What’s got into you, Baba?” Great-Great-Aunt Jen cried impatiently. “I’ve told you what you have to do. Now do it!”
“Great-Great-Aunt Jen… ,” began Baba, but Nella, who was married to Radley, Heriot’s older brother, tucked her arm under Baba’s, shaking her head. Heriot found his own arm taken and looked up, startled, into Azelma’s face.
“Here,” she said, talking across him to Great-Great-Aunt Jen and shaking his shoulder slightly as she spoke. “Do you know what you’ve got here? Does anyone out in the world know about this one? This one can read thoughts.”
“He’s not reading anything from anyone,” said Great-Great-Aunt Jen. “Off now! Off!” She clapped her hands in Heriot’s direction, and edging out from under Azelma’s hand, Heriot made for the gate.
“Well, talent or not, you’ve made a mistake this time,” he heard his mother saying. “He’s just an ordinary boy.”
“Ordinary?” Baba’s voice cut in. “He sees crooked and he has fits.”
But the disputing voices died away as Heriot ran, leaving behind not only the courtyard, his family, the Travelers, and the disturbing Azelma, but that past self… the one who dreamed over and over again of sitting on the window ledge, looking between rich hangings at a bed with a twisted fur coverlet, and a boy with mouse-brown curls, staring back at him from odd-colored eyes… one blue and one green. He had stared back with fascination and fear, as if Heriot, that dreamer on the wide window ledge, were not another boy but some sort of monster, and sometimes his lips had moved, but Heriot, dreaming, had never been able to make out what he was saying. Sometimes the boy had pointed and seemed to yell. Sometimes he had hidden his face in his pillows and refused to look out at Heriot. But that was all over and done with. It had to be.
© 2009 Margaret Mahy