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The English Midlands, before 1620
I follow the oxcart as it rolls south toward the Devil's Points, through orchards and the wrecks of old beehives. The sun speckles through fruit trees; the apples are ripening well, the pears better. Master Jacobs walks ahead of the cart. He's as mindful of the oxen as a baker is of spiced bread. The oxen and milk-cattle are his great pride-he holds close to Plato's right haunch, watching the roll of muscle under the good tawny flank. After we leave the orchards there are only brambles and thistles by the side of the road. Wheels creak, dusting the air, and my skirts, and scrub trees.
This is the last market before harvest, so we have no grain. Instead the cart is filled with all our summer's work-coppice poles we cut in from cropped stumps in forest clearings; two casks of malt, steeped and sprouted, dried on haircloth over a killframe; chickens I axed behind the lean-two, this morning. A headless hen rolls, leaving a spot of blood on a bundle of coppice. All these things I made. All these things might be mine.
Here's a question, I say to Patience.
What? she says. She's half my age and must take three steps to my two.
If you were going to the city and could buy anything you wanted, what would it be?
A back-laced bodice, she says.
Her legs flurry like leaves.
Priscilla Miller told me that ladies in the city always have their bodices laced down the back, she says. Where they can't reach the laces at all. They need a servant for the task.
So you want a servant as well.
And why should I not? she says.
There's no point to it, I say gently.
But I think to myself that she might as well. Myself, I want something that will make me notable. But nothing over-dear, that would be talked on. Just something to make me look well. Should I not look well, if I can? Something like a green ribbon for my hair, for after harvest-when my hair will be free from my coif, and seen.
Cho-ha, Master Jacobs calls out, stopping the oxen. They stand shifting, stupid, dimly sure from habit that they'll soon be goaded again. Jacobs stands beside the road, thistles and brambles around his best boots. He rubs his fresh-trimmed beard, peering off to the side of the road like he's never before noted this place. He has drooping eyes, a thin face, a slim small body, and I'm some taller than this sore-boned fox.
Like all those in the village, Jacobs names himself a Saint. Not in the same way as saints in the Romish Church-the village Saints do not claim any particular individual holiness. But their community, their congregation, follows the form of the first congregations described in the Book; and the Book says that any congregation in such form is blessed, and its members thus named Saints.
Look at that, there, he says, and gestures into the crammed green tassels.
If this was my first time here I'd not know where to look. But he stops here nearly every market day, or at least says a brief word to note the place. Still I peer in false confusion, forcing myself to be patient, giving him his wants.
Behind a cat's cradle of thistles and thorn and hopeful fern, behind stooping, elderly mandrake, through the stubborn dead-man's digits of a few poor trees, huddle the remains of an old fire. Once-thick posts, long since burned to tapers, point tentatively heavenward. But they're cowed beneath the bracken, trapped under ruins of a spider's city. A dozen gingerline butterflies seek through. They light for moments on the posts, the points of thorns, and the leaves of scaled vines.
I bite my cheek, thinking that at night this'll be a hideous place. At night, all will be infested.
That's where the old tavern was, Jacobs says with quiet satisfaction. Before the husbandmen came and burned it all out.
I well know it. Though the charring coals are now shielded under the scrub of bad land, this old burning was the cause of my being put out with him, the source of all the years of my servitude. Those as lived here were all driven out and away, forced to the road south after they lost this tavern, their sometime home. And in their cowardice, those that fled left me, then only an infant, in the grass by the side of the road. None of the Saints would take me, then, for a foster child. But the Jacobs would take me for a servant-in their mercy.
My mother may have been among those who fled. She may have died on the tavern floor-she would not have been the only one who died in panic, though the Saints had intended only threat.
If she was killed then it was murder, whether by intent or no. Always I look at this place; always I wonder.
For a moment I close my eyes against the sun; and even more, against the sight of the ruins. But when I do, the sun's heat seems to redouble, aided by another burn-an echo of the old embers, that fell from the roof thick as hail, scorching, scarring, killing. And with that echo is another, the breeze softly twisting to a scream. I shake my head and open my eyes to the day.
I've rarely seen John Jacobs in such good humor. Often he notes this spot with only a few words-there, that's the site of the old tavern-as we trod by on the road to market. It's a wonder to me he never tires of it, but he always acts as though he's forgotten that he has shown us before. That's little better than a lie. It's one of his constant lessons-he thinks it necessary to show us the place. What happened here's important to him, as the Lord knows it is to me.
I can't think what might account for his added pleasure in the site this day. He gazes at the burned posts like a thirsty man afore waterfalls. Perhaps he passed good words this morning with Mistress Jacobs before our departure. Perhaps he's been reflecting on the healthy calves the kine dropped last spring, or upon his own coming increase-Mistress Jacobs is well into her carrying. Whatever the cause, I'm full willing to use his mood for mine own good.
That, sir, must have been a fine day.
A necessary one, sure, he says. His voice is pious, rightly judicious. They were only doing what needed doing, he's telling me. They took no pleasure in it, beyond what they would in any work of the Lord.
It's a good thing to think on, he says. Ah, I near forgot-you'll thank Sarah for me? I think that Frances is much improved, her force some restored. You'll likely see Mistress Hawkens before I've occasion.
I'll thank her, good sir, certain, I say.
A blue field bird lights on a post's tapered tip. It seems a sign to me and it picks at the post with its beak-quick, jabbing taps.
I wonder, sir, if I might take a bit of my pay early. There are some small things I would purchase, this market.
He glances at me, but his sharp eyebrows do not quite pull into the feared frown. He looks painstaking thoughtful. For an instant I think he'll stroke his tuft of beard.
We're not even to our harvest. It is very early, to think of pay. Have you naught left of the last?
I struggle not to laugh. My pay from last year vanished with two small trips to market. None of us are paid much and he pays less than is usual. He uses the pay to keep us separate-paying us makes us servants, not foster children. But I mustn't make it seem I think I have a say.
You should be more careful with it, he says. There is a lesson to be learned here, Melode. What the Lord gives us is not to be squandered. You should be more sparing with your money.
I will be, sure, good sir, I say. I know he'll agree. He enjoys dispensing punishments, lessons, and small indulgences, sometimes in equal measure. The only difficulty is keeping myself distant, whether he's imposing hardship or some small, fine grace. And that's a mountain to swim. It's an ocean to climb.
Master Jacobs wants to set his price; he's hopeful that this will be a good year, and desires the advantage that early bargains may give him over other sellers. Thus he's sent me to find his particular grain-buyer from the south among the swelter of the late summer market. I wander through people sitting on blankets, leaning on open oxcarts, sidling through the bustle with bundles on their shoulders, balancing on barrels to cry out their wares. Behind the trampled mart stand the market points, eight stones standing in a great half circle. They reach high as the collar of an open hall; their roots run deep as a well. Some say the Romans set them with curious engines. Others say they're fairy stones. Those people think the stones are not set deep, but rather raised up shallow, charmed out of the earth, meant for some kind of warning to us that live in the sun. Master Stradling says it was the men who came here with Japheth, Noah's son. I don't know. Once all called them the Devil's Points, but many think it no longer right to prolong that name-surely, were he asked, King James would be among those to condemn it.
There's a flash, sharply bright, in the corner of my eye. A man sells small, wood framed looking-glasses, something I've not seen at market for many years-it takes a hopeful man to offer looking-glasses to husbandmen. Though he sees my interest, to me he calls out no encouragement, and as I pick up a glass his mouth's a pinched line.
I've rarely seen my face, and when I did it was in still pools at the side of the river, my forehead and cheek stabbed through by reeds. Or else with my eyes shattered in mica on the back of a stone, or my nose warped and ears atwist in Master Stradling's turned windowglass. In the mirror, every brown hair escaped from beneath the tight bounds of my coif stands out perfect. My lips are fuller than I'd thought, my cheekbones higher, though my face is nearly round. For an instant a lazy animal stares back, some plump cat or mouse-dog. It's like listening to an echoed voice, recognizable but surprising, and when I part my lips for a look at my teeth-solid, not yet gone to brown-I force a smile, and the change is like a pebble in a pond. Somehow it's near shameful to think that no one knows my face less well than me. What ill have I done through the years, who have I unwittingly insulted or flattered, never imagining that I mapped my feelings wrong on my face? How have I been mistook, my intent twisted? I press my lips, one to the other. The merchant stares.
If I am to buy your wares I must see them first, I say.
I can't see you'll have means to buy, he says.
You'll risk that? I say. You talk so to a woman, and expect to earn your keep selling looking-glasses. Well.
After a moment he seems to decide that he'll take the chance, and leans back against his wagon. Again I look closely at the mirror, at myself.
Now the first surprise has faded, and I'm not so horrid on the eyes. I'm far better than that I smile, and my smile comes brightly. If a friend looked so I'd think her beautiful. I hold the mirror closer to my face. Now there is no coif, no hair peeking beneath it. There's only flesh to fill the silver surface.
A fine reflection, says the merchant. He's decided to treat me as a customer.
It is, I say absently.
Mayhap there's a fellow should like the changes a mirror'd prompt.
I turn my head a bit. The seller's words sound good-natured, a kind of flattery-but they return me to thoughts of my station. You'd never know I was different, to look at me. You'd never know I was different from any of the Saints. And neither would they, if they could look without cold judgments that wrap me like lover eels. The surprise of my appearance is not all pleasant; if I look thus, why must they think me so low? I chew my lower lip; the girl in the glass gnaws hers....
I shove the looking glass into the startled hands of the merchant and walk quickly away through the market, hoping that I seem to look vacantly for the blue plume of Jacobs' London grain-buyer.
Dogs snuffle the packed and dusty ground. Men sell sageale, mint-ale, scurvy-grass and sack, wormwood-ale that turns the world blue. The Saints cannot know they're saved. They cannot know they're among the chosen; they cannot know I'm not. They cannot know I'm not the best of them.
Very fine, this market wine, this market ale. So cheap and fine, all this. I'd thought to have a mere glass of what there was, but one brought another, and another after that, and this is none of the weak beer that at home I drink by the gallon. This is the better stuff, aged, steeped with wicked-weed. There's a dull fire under my hair. I see the market through warm glass, children rolling on the ground warped by the waves of the glass' turning, and I wander through it all trying to take pleasure.
Miss would you care to take a chance? says a dice-man. He's blind in one eye and leaves that wrinkled gray grape open to the world. Likely he thinks it mysterious, and I'm careful to look at both eyes in equal measure.
And why not, I say. After all I've not enough money left for another drink, and with a win....
The rules of his table call for three of a kind and a one to be rolled, out of six dice altogether. Uncommon hard, but the payback is well enough. For a long moment I grip the dice tightly, warming the cut bone, willing in my wishes. The dice scurry, then still. I count three threes. A four, a two. A one. I cry out my triumph, but almost before the dice have settled a pig's-bladder ball spills them about, sending the numbers awry.
No winner here, the dice-man says.
It was, it was, I say.
Nothing I can see, he says, and winks his dead eye.
With a growl of disgust I bend for the ball. Four boys scarce old enough for man's clothes stand behind me, keeping their laughter until they have their toy safely back.
And this piss bag cost me the last of my pay, I say.
'Twas an accident, one says.
We'll have that back, says another.
It's angering, but what can I do? I'll not keep their poor ball to scorn them. I step, kicking as hard as skirts will allow. The bladder flies like a goose, finally splashing into an open tub of milk, spraying a man standing beside with a ladle. The milkman turns, yelling like a boar. Likely it's a show for the customer. But the boys see only that he's scarce smaller than his carthorse, and scatter without excuses.
Though the milkman thought the boys to blame, the lanky, splashed fellow looks directly at me, holding a slight smile. With a start I recognize Adam Stradling-son of John Stradling, our own village minister. A thin scar traces a line from temple to chin. I recall, vaguely, that it's from the time he teased Henry Singer's dog-near ten years ago-seeking to bind its paws together. Finally it lost all caution and snapped him, leaving him crying in the road. Now, as I think of his father, Adam's smile seems a sneer.
He brushes droplets from a dusky green jerkin and pale orange trunk-hose, long past due another dyeing. Then he comes to meet me, his mouth pursed tight. But as he nears I see he's only trying not to laugh. Relief loosens me. Still I look direct at his eyes-the drink lets me do what I might normally shy from, out of wariness if not humility.
Melode, he says.
Mel, most commonly, I say.
Mel, then, he says. You against a pack of children in a game of ball. More of them, but then you've the hindrance of your skirts. How did the contest end?
In triumph, I say. We played to a single goal.
You found that one well enough, he says, and looks to his damp clothes. I think you've found the ale man, as well.
And should I not? It's mine own pay, I say. Though my voice is steady, nearly teasing, I'm inwardly wary-almost as though I face his father.
But he smiles again. Though his eyes are brown, the smile lends a shimmer and defeats any threat of dullness. That was your only fault, he says. Next one's with my coin-if you've found one with wares you like ...
I have, I say.
Well then. Let's wander to him, he says.
Soon we sidle through the crowd gripping new mugs. It's afternoon now and the points cast shadows across the wares nearest them-butter, bacon, coneys and cranes, ducks and eels. An old woman sits silently with the crowd streaming about. She's selling brown jugs with scowling faces etched into the necks and ragged beards hanging down over each belly curve. There are onions smelling of saltmarshmushrooms, carrots, cabbage, and turnips, almonds and walnuts and pears. City buyers appraise bushels of early wheat, sniff, and walk away on green shoes. Then they return, and they buy. There are all grades of bread, manchet and cheat, raveled and brown. Dancers from the south, jugglers from the west, husbandmen all, come to market to fling clubs at each other or themselves through the air. I watch it with pleasure as we walk through the smoke of roasting beef-belly and between blankets heaped with farm-ware.
Excerpted from Strange Saint by Andrew Beahrs Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Beahrs . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 19, 2005
Reading Strange Saint is a marvelous, visceral experience of our original continent and the people who risked everything to settle here. Seeing this thrilling wilderness through the eyes of Melode, is strange and wonderful. The physical world is overwhelmingly intense and sensual. Reading feels like an immersion into a pre-modern time, a time closer to the mythical pagan, feminine era. The story feels like a powerful voice calling from that time to ours.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.