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Like The Unlikely Ones, Pigs Don't Fly tells the story of a most unlikely heroine and her equally unlikely band of fellow...
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Like The Unlikely Ones, Pigs Don't Fly tells the story of a most unlikely heroine and her equally unlikely band of fellow adventurers--a blaspheming dog, broken-down horse, crippled pigeon, half-dead tortoise and flying pig. All Summer wanted was to settle down . . . and the amnesiac, blind knight was the handsomest man she had ever seen . . . . Original.
My mother was the village whore and I loved her very much.
Having regard to the nature of her calling, we lived a discreet distance away from her clients, in a cottage up the end of a winding lane that backed onto the forest. Once the dwelling had been a forester's hut, shielded by a stand of pines from the biting winter northerlies, but during the twenty years since she had come to the village it had been transformed into a pleasant one-roomed cottage with a lean-to at the side for wood and stores. Part of the ground outside had been cleared and fenced, and we had a vegetable patch, three apple trees, an enclosure for the hens, a tethering post for the goat and a skep for the bees.
Inside it was very cozy. Apart from the bed, which took, with its hangings, perhaps a third of the space, there was a table, two stools, hooks for our clothing, a chest for linen and a dresser for the pots and dishes. Above the fire was the rack for drying herbs or clothes, beside it a folding screen that Mama sometimes used when she was entertaining if it was too cold for me to stay outside—though as I grew older I preferred to sit among the pungent, resinous logs in the lean-to, wrapped in my father's cloak, thinking my own thoughts, dreaming my own dreams, where witches and dragons, princes and treasure could make me forget chilblains or a runny nose until it was time for Mama to call me back into the warmth and the comfort of honey-cakes and mulled wine in front of the fire.
Then Mama would sit in her great carved chair in front of the blaze—a chair so heavywith age and carving it couldn't be moved—a queen on her throne, me crouched on a cushion at her feet, my head against her knee, and if she were in a good mood she would talk about Life and all it held in store for me.
"You will be all I could never be," she would say. "For you I have worked and planned so that you may have a handsome husband, a home of your own, and a dress for every season...."
That would be luxury indeed! Just imagine, for instance, a green dress for spring in a fine, soft wool, a saffron-yellow silk for summer, a brown worsted for autumn and a thick black serge for winter with fresh shifts for each.... A man who could afford those for his wife would have to be rich indeed, and live in a house with an upstairs as well as a downstairs. Even as I listened the dresses changed colour in my mind's eye as quick as the painted flight of the kingfisher.
Mama's planning for me had been thorough indeed. On a Monday she entertained the miller, who kept us regularly supplied with flour and meal for me to practice my pies, pastry and cakes; Tuesday brought the clerk with his scraps of vellum and inks for me to form my letters and show my skills with tally-sticks; on Wednesday Mama spent two hours with the butcher and once again I practiced my cooking. On Thursday the visit of the tailor-cum-shoemaker gave me pieces of cloth and leather to show off my stitching; Friday brought the Mayor, who was skilled with pipe and tabor so I could display my trills and taps and on a Saturday the old priest listened to me read, heard my catechism, and took our confessions.
Sunday was Mama's day off.
She had other visitors as well, of course, besides her regulars. The apothecary came once a month or so, sharing with us his wisdom of herbs and bone-setting, the carpenter usually at the same interval, teaching me to recognize the best woods and their various properties, and how to repair and polish furniture. The thatcher showed me how to choose and gather reeds for repairing the roof, the basketmaker, also an accomplished poacher, instructed me in in both his crafts.
All in all, as Mama kept telling me, I must have been the best educated girl in the province, and she covered any gaps in my education with her own knowledge. It was she who taught me plain sewing, cooking and cleaning, leaving the refinements to the others. She insisted that as soon as I was big enough to wield a broom, lift a cooking-pot or heat water without scalding myself, that I kept us fed, clean and washed, and throughout the year my days were full and busy.
During the spring and summer I would be up before dawn—taking care not to wake Mama—and into the forest, cutting wood, fetching water, looking to my traps, gathering herbs and then home again to collect eggs, feed the hens, and weed the vegetables. Then I would milk the nanny and lay and light the fire, mix the dough for bread, sweep the floor and empty the piss-pot in the midden, so that when Mama finally woke there was fresh milk for her and a scramble of eggs while I made the great bed and heated water to wash us both; then I changed her linen, combed and dressed her hair and prepared her for her visitors. Once the ashes were good and hot they were raked aside for the bread, or if it was pies or patties I would set them on the hearthstone under their iron cover and rake back the ashes to cover them.
Once Mama was settled in her chair by the fire it was away again for more wood and water and once I was back there were the hives to check, a watch on the curdling goat's milk for cheese, digging or sowing or watering in the vegetable-patch and perhaps mixing straw and mud for any cracks in the fabric of the cottage. Then indoors for sewing, mending, washing pots and bowls, followed by any other tasks Mama thought necessary.
Once the gathering, storing and salting of autumn were over, my outside tasks during the winter were of a necessity curtailed, although there were still the wood- and water-chores, even with snow on the ground. There were the stores to check: jars of our honey, crocks of flour, trays of apples, salted ham, clamps of root vegetables, strings of onions and garlic, bunches of herbs, dried beans and pulses. That done, it was time for candle-dipping, spinning, carding wool, sharpening of knives, restuffing pillows and cushions, sewing and mending, mixing of pastes and potions and repairing of shoes.
Then came the time I liked best. While I dampened down the fire and made us a brew of camomile flowers, Mama would comb her hair and sing some of the old songs. We would climb into bed and snuggle down behind the drawn hangings for warmth, and if she felt like it my mother would either tell me a tale of wicked witches and beautiful princesses or else, which I like even better, would tell once more of how she had come to be here and of the men she had known. Especially my father.
I had heard her story many times before, but a good tale loses nothing in the retelling, and I would close my eyes and see pictures in my mind of the pretty young girl fleeing home to escape the vile attentions of her stepfather; I would shiver with sympathy as I followed the flight of the pregnant lass through the worst of winters and sigh with relief when she reached, by chance, the haven of our village, and my heart filled with relief when I re-heard how she had been taken in by the miller and his wife. Once her pregnancy was discovered, however, there was a meeting of the Council to decide what should be done with her, for now she was a Burden on the Parish and could be turned away to starve.
"But of course there was no question of that," said Mama complacently. "Once I had discovered who was what, I had distributed my favors enthusiastically to those who mattered, and all the important men of the village were well disposed to heed my suggestion for easing their ... problems, shall we say? Of course much was tease and promise, for there is nothing more arousing to a man than the thought of undisclosed delights to come.... Remember that, daughter. You had better write it down some time. Of course I was far more beautiful and accomplished than the other girls in the village, though I say it myself, even though I was four months gone. I still had my figure and my soft, creamy skin, and of course every man likes a woman with hair as black and smooth as mine.... You would say, would you not, child, that my skin and hair are still incomparable?"
"Of course, Mama!" I would answer fervently, though if truth were told her hair had grey in it aplenty, and her skin was wrinkled like skin too long in water. But she had no mirror but me and her clients, and who were the latter to notice in the flattery of candles or behind drawn bed-curtains? Besides, those she entertained were mostly well into middle age themselves and in no position to criticize.
"So by the time the meeting of the Council came round it was a foregone conclusion that I would stay. It was decided to offer me this cottage and food and supplies in return for my services," continued Mama. "Of course I laid down certain conditions. This place was to be renovated, extended, re-roofed and furnished. I was also to entertain six days a week only: Sunday was to be my day of rest.
"At first, of course, I was at it morning, noon and night, but eventually the novelty-value wore off and my friends and I settled to a comfortable routine. Your elder half-brother, Erik, was born here and three years later your other half-brother, Luke...."
Erik now was a man grown with a shrewish and complaining wife. Dark, long-faced, with tight lips, he had teased me unmercifully as a child. Luke I remembered more kindly. He was apprenticed to the miller and had the same sandy hair, snub nose and gap-toothed smile. It was obvious who his father was and he even resembled him in temperament: kind and a little dim.
And now came the part of Mama's story of which I never wearied.
"Some dozen or more years ago," she would begin, "your half-brothers were fast asleep and I was all alone, restless with the spirit of autumn that was sending the swallows one way, bringing the geese the other. It was twilight, and all at once there came a knocking at the door. It had to be a stranger, for there was fever in the village and I had forsworn my regulars until it had passed...."
"And so there you were, Mama," I would prompt, "all alone in the growing dusk...." Just in case she had forgotten, or didn't feel like going on. So vivid was my imagination that I felt the shivers of her long-ago apprehension, imagining myself alone and unprotected as she had been with the October mist curling around the cottage like a tangle of great grey eels, slither-slide, slither-creep....
"And so there I was," continued Mama, "determined to ignore whoever, whatever it was. But again came that dreadful knocking! I grasped the poker tight in my hand, for I had forgotten to bolt the door—"
"And then?" I could scarcely breathe for excitement.
"And then—and then the door was pulled open and a man, a tall, thin man, stood in the shadows, the hood of his cloak pulled down so I could not see his face. You can imagine how terrified I felt! "What—what do you want?" I quavered, grasping the poker still tighter. He took one step forward, and now I could see his cloak was forest-green, and the hand that held it was brown and sinewy but still he said nothing. Then was I truly afraid, for specters do not speak, and of what use was a poker against the supernatural?"
I gasped in sympathy, crossing myself in superstitious fear.
"I think that my bowels would have turned to water had he stood there silent one moment longer," she said, but of a sudden he thrust one hand against his side and held the other out towards me, saying in a low and throbbing tone: `A vision of loveliness indeed! Do I wake or sleep? In very truth I believe the pain of my wound has conjured up a dream of angels....'"
How very romantic! No wonder Mama was impressed.
"The very next moment he crumpled in a heap on my doorstep, out like a snuffed candle! What else could I do but tend him?" and she spread her hands helplessly.
And that was how my father had come into her life. At once she had taken him into both her heart and her bed—what woman wouldn't with that introduction?—and nursed him back to health. For an idyllic month, while the village still lay under the curse of a low fever, my father and mother enjoyed their secret love.
"He was both a courtly and a fierce lover," said my mother. A trifle unpolished, perhaps, but not beyond teaching. He was always eager to learn those little refinements that make all the difference to a woman's enjoyment...." and my mother paused, a reminiscent smile on her face.
"And what did he look like, my father?"
But here always came the odd part. Perhaps the passage of years had played strange tricks with my mother's memory for my father never looked the same for two tellings. At first he was tall, then recollection had him shorter. Dark as Hades, fair as sunlight; eyes grey as storm clouds, blue as sky, brown as autumn leaf, green as duck-weed; he was loquacious, he was taciturn; he was happy, he was sad; shy, outgoing ... I was sure that if ever I loved a man I would remember every detail forever, right down to the number of his teeth, the shape of his fingernails, the curl of his lashes. But then Mama had known as many men as there were leaves on a tree, so she said, and always tended to remember them by their physical endowments rather than their physiognomy. In this respect she assured me that my father was outstanding.
I hated the sad part of my father's story, but it had to be told. One frosty day, as my mother told it, the men from the village came and dragged him from the cottage and carried him away, never to be seen again. "They were jealous of our love," she said, and she had never ceased hoping that he would return, her wounded lover who came with the falling leaves and left with the first frosts.
He had left nothing behind save his tattered cloak, a purse full of strange coins, and a ring. Mama said the coins were for my dowry, but that the ring was special, a magic ring. She had shown it to me a couple of times, but it looked like nothing more than the shaving of a horn, a colorless spiral. "It would not fit any of my mother's fingers, and she would not let me try it on.
"He wore it round his neck on a cord," she said, "for it would not fit him either. He said it was from the horn of a unicorn, passed down in his family for generations, but it did nothing for him...."
She had tried to sell it a couple of times, but as it looked so ordinary and fit no one, she had tossed into a box with the rest of her bits and pieces of jewelry—necklace, brooch, two bracelets—where it still lay, gathering dust.
My days were not all work and no play, though I mostly made my own free time by working that much harder. I had two special treats. If the weather was fine, summer or winter, I would escape into the woods or down by the river, lie under a tree and gaze up into the leaf-dappled sunshine and dream, or sit by the river and dangle my toes in the fast-running water. This would be summer, of course, but even in the cold and snow there were games to play. Skipping-stones, snowballs, imaginary chases, battles with trees and bushes ... Away from the cottage I was anything I chose and could forget the confines of my cumbersome flesh and flew with the birds, swam with the fish, ran with the deer. Gaze up into the rocking trees in spring and I was a rook, swaying with the wind till I felt sick, my beak weaving the rough bundles they called nests. Dangle my fingers in the water and I was a fish, heading upstream into the current, the river sliding past my flanks like silk. Given the bright fall of leaves and I ran along the branches with the squirrels and hid my nuts in secret holes I would never remember. Winter and I sympathized with the striped badgers, leaving the fug of their sets on warmer days to search for the scrunch of beetle or a forgotten berry or two, "blackened into a honey sweetness by the frost.
But the thing I loved most in the world to do was write in my book.
This had grown from my very first attempt at writing my letters, many years ago. Now it was thick as a kindling log and twice as heavy. At first the clerk had formed letters for me in the earth outside, or had taught me to mark a flat stone with another, scratchy one, but as I progressed he had shown me how to fashion a quill pen and mix inks, so it was but a short step to putting my first, tentative words on a scraped piece of vellum.
As parchment or skin was so expensive I sometimes had to wait for weeks for a fresh piece, but I practiced diligently with my finger on the table to ensure I should make no mistakes when the time came.
For the Ten Commandments, my first page, the old priest provided me with a fine, clear page, but by the time I finished it was as rough and scraped as a pig's bum. My next task was the days of the week, months and seasons of the year, followed by the principal saint's days and festivals of the Church calendar. Then came numbers from one to a hundred. This done, the elderly priest dead and another, less tolerant, in his place—he never visited Mama—I was free to write what I wished, whenever I could beg a scrap of vellum from the clerk. Down went recipes for cakes, horehound candy, poultices, dyes and charms.
I do not remember what occasioned my first essays into proverbs, saws and sayings. It may have been the mayor, once chiding me for hurrying my tasks. "Don't remove your shoes till you reach the stream," he had said, and this conjured up such a vivid picture of stumbling barefoot among stones, thorns and nettles that down it had to go. Not that it cured me of haste, mind, but it was an extremely sensible suggestion. Then there were my mother's frequent strictures on the behavior expected of a lady: "Do not put your chewed bones on the communal platter; reserve them to be thrown on the fire, returned to the stock pot, or given to the dogs." Or: "A lady does not wipe her mouth or nose on her sleeve; if there is no napkin available, use the inner hem of your shift."
She also gave me the benefit of her experience sex; pet names for the private parts, methods of exciting passion, of restraining it; how to deal with the importunate or the reluctant, and various draughts to prevent conception or procure an abortion. Down these all went in my book, for I was sure they would one day prove useful, though she had explained that husbands didn't need the same titillation as clients. "After all, once you're married he's yours: you will need excuses more than encouragements."
When the pages of my book grew to a dozen, then twenty, I threaded them together and begged a piece of soft leather from the tanner for a cover and a piece of silk from Mama to wrap it in. A heated poker provided the singed title: My Boke. At first Mama had laughed at my scribblings, as she called them, for she could not read or write herself, but once she realized I was treasuring her little gems of wisdom and could read them back to her, she even gave me an occasional coin or two for more materials, and reminded me constantly of her forethought in providing me with such a good education.
"What with your father's dowry and my teachings, you will be able to choose any man in the kingdom," she said.
And that was perhaps the only cause of friction between us.
A secure, protected, industrious childhood slipped almost unnoticed into puberty, but I made the mistake one day of asking Mama how long it would be before she found me the promised husband, to be met with a coldness, a hurt withdrawal I had not anticipated. "Are you so ready to leave me alone after all I have done for you?" I kept quiet for two more years, but then asked, timidly, again. I was unprepared for the barrage of blows. Her rage was terrible. She beat me the colors of the rainbow, shrieking that I was the most ungrateful child in the world and didn't deserve the consideration I had been shown. How could I think of leaving her?
Of course I sobbed and cried and begged her on my knees to forgive me my thoughtlessness, and after a while she consented for me to cut out and sew a new robe for her, so I knew I was back in favor. Even so, as year slipped into year without change, I began to wonder just when my life would alter, when I would have a home and husband of my own, as she had promised.
And then, suddenly, everything changed in a single day.
Posted September 23, 2014
I did enjoy reading this book. I found the story engaging, as well as the characters. However, I felt that at some point near the end of the story, the author must have hit a wall, and was floundering for ideas. I felt that the story took a turn for the worse, and once I finished the book, I was left unsatisfied, and feeling cheated, that perhaps she just wanted to finish the story and be done with it.
Posted May 30, 2002
This is a great, great read. It is about a girl who has to face many challenges on her journey with the help of some animal friends that assist her. An odd ending to an odd lovestory.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.