To weave a life of the authentic is Jophiel Balerais’ challenge as he confronts twelfth century obstacles of social upbringing, the deaths of cherished ones, of foreign languages, wars and religions while traveling the path of deepening through love, mind, heart, and spirit.
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Of Fire Of Water Of Stone
By Zoe Keithley
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 Zoe Keithley
All rights reserved.
I am three years old, barefoot, and peering out the door of our hut open a crack into the dark murky air that raises goosebumps on my flesh. Men, long-armed and stoop-shouldered, lurch toward me, their heavy footfalls muffled in the dirt eternally encrusting our paths and hovels. Terrified, I suck in my breath as if to preserve myself.
But no, they pass me by, smelling as always of worn-out flesh, tattered clothes and something salty like hardened tears. And down a foot worn trail they disappear, under a great red-stone arch and into the city I will come to know as Exeter, shire of Devon, in this mighty and miserable kingdom, our England. The year would be 1121 Anno Domini. Oh, but ever after, these men haunt my nights, and when I was younger, their cold miserable forms would wake me screaming.
"But nay, gran'son," Gran'mam Mamoon would soothe, "these be but our own cotters and off to work now. A mite of a lad, they give you such a fright you even see them in your dreams." And I confess those men come yet to me. And there's no running from them. And one time their coming marked the first great turning point in my life.
I was thirteen, then. Parents dead. Brother and sister gone off, and me man-of-the-house for my Gran'mam Mamoon a full year when one night dreaming, the bitter cold of those dark men passed directly into my body and set it to shaking so hard it woke me.
Usually heat from the hearth warmed the loft where I slept, for Gran'mam, lying next it, kept it going the night. Teeth chattering, I reasoned she had been called out, for she was the neighborhood midwife and healer. I chafed my arms and legs; yet the fierce chill prevailed. It was then, and with a great reluctance, I opened my eyes, pushed up onto one elbow and peered down through the slats of the loft, expecting to see Mamoon's covering thrown back and her pallet empty.
But no, there my Gran'mam lay, stretched out full, her head thrown back, dark and silver hair spilling over the pillow.
"Mamoon," I called out. My voice roused her always. Yet on she slept. "Mamo-o-o-n," I tried again, with more force, and with no results. And it was then, all on its own, that my body began to shake while my heart hollowed out as if sucked dry. "Mamoon?" I tried a third time, but more to myself; for all at once it seemed plain enough that during the night the dreaded Angel of Death had come.
I fell back then into a sudden coldness greater than that of any winter; and fled eagerly toward that huge and terrible chill, as if into the great Nothingness at the very edge of Time; and filled with the deepest of loathings ever to enter Time again. And my very body felt dissolved, disappeared; and I gave this no concern. What use had I now for a body?
After seasons, after centuries, and the early light crawling through our shutters, neighbors' voices and rims of carts' wheels cutting punishing pathways across my brain, and altogether against my will, my hands and feet began to reappear. More time, and my feet of their own sought first the ladder rungs, then the dirt floor below I must now cross to her pallet, each step huge and punishing carrying me to what I somehow dreaded to see.
Standing there and looking for her bosom to rise and fall, I reached out for her hand. Oh, hard as wood it was, though it seemed yet to carry some memory of warmth that I felt my Gran'mam had saved for our parting. I settled upon the floor, my knees against her pallet; and wanting one last time to experience its power through my fingers, I took up a swatch of her long hair, dark and silver and always so cool, rich and alive, to pass through my fingers. But no, dry as straw it was. And with that surprise came the dawning that the least part of the Mamoon I knew, of my Gran'mam who daily embraced, laughed with and schooled me, was her body. All the rest, so vast, so deep, warm and wise, I saw now was naught but spirit.
So must it be, then; and with each of us. Well, and the wonder of that learning sank into my deep heart and my soul, and then never again could I see people in quite the same way.
Oh, and I took my time; for when I sent for Uncle Anthony, my father's brother, Gran'mam would no longer be my Mamoon, but belong to the Church and to the earth; for by law, she must be in the ground before sundown. But never again to see her open her eyes nor draw a breath: That indeed was bitter to my soul!
I smoothed the skirt of that gown I knew so well, and drew from its coarse-woven cloth all of what had been our days together. Then there came, so sudden and unexpected, a sense real and deep that my Mamoon was with me still, and would protect and never leave me. And so as I had trusted her who had guarded me all my young years from the brutality of my family, I trusted her now even in death; and then felt her love penetrate me. And a new strength as of a warrior spirit was breathed into me. And it was at that moment I felt myself to become a man.
Then my eye was drawn to her apron folded upon the stool. From its pocket I took her kerchief, scented with herbs. I did not need to close her eyes; but as her mouth lay open in an awkward way, I pulled the chin strap of her cap tighter so that she bore a comely air. Then I knew that all was right; and I went for my uncle.
That night in a dream real as life, Mamoon pulled me onto her big lap and against her bosom. And I smelled that fragrance of woods and hearth she always carried, and rested against the firmness of her body while she rocked and rocked me until we two were blended; and in this way she joined with me in my life for whatever I must endure. And after that, whenever I had very difficult times to absorb, she would come to me that same way, even after I was a grown man and very experienced in the world, and thought that I had no need of such a thing anymore.CHAPTER 2
In the early days, Mamoon apprenticed me in remedies and healing.
Together, and always led by butterflies, we'd descend the hillock behind Rougemont Castle to the long brook announced by the calls of Blue Tit, fluting Thrush and the chirping voices of the creek waters. Then up, again, until below us thatched roofs hung like animal fur above the alleys within the arches of Exeter's gates. And I would spot the ashwaddler dragging his box through the narrows of the streets and calling, "Ashes? Take yer ashes t'day?"
We'd cross the wide brook on stones, then climb again, lifting our eyes past the riot of trees to those swelling hills cradling ponds with swan and kestrel; then on to the red cliffs beyond, ancient lords of earth and sky!
Mamoon always wore a vert about her neck, a wooden license with the owners' insignia of permission to enter the forest of our betters where she regularly gathered herbs for noble households, and so was free to mount the stile for our needs as well, and without worry of the Warden.
I remember her hands like butterflies touching the green growing things. I tell you I believed then and do to this day that the plants and rocks spoke with her, and she with them. And I remember she would school me then about the "Old Ways" of Nature spirits, of elves and fairies that unbelievers could no longer see.
And settling upon a log, she would pat a place for me beside her.
"When folk stopped taking their food from the wild and made farms, Jophiel, they cut the very threads weave us into life. And 'twas then that we humans gave up our footprint as just bein' there and equal with all the others, a wrongful thing and a sorrow canna be helped now." Her voice would come ancient as an oracle's; and listening, I would tremble inside fearing that I could neither grasp nor hold the great words she spoke; yet knew I dared not lose them. Mamoon would peer to see I was listening, then go on, her eyes solemn, her voice all shadows.
"This is how we lost the way of our own knowing," she would pat over her heart, "and our seeing of Nature's spirits right here amongst us, and with us yet, Jophiel, do you know? For they are tuned to us as a lute to its player. So if a man be in a black humor, they will take on that part and act it upon the fields; and the fields will bring forth poorly then. And so the man will blame the earth, though truly for all he has brought upon it and hisself. Us it is," she would jab her finger at the log, "disturbs the earth, Jophiel, and no other. We turn dark, and so bring storms and plagues upon our own selves." And she would give a deep nod, and with a little grunting sound climbing to her feet, point out wild parsley or violets to pull.
Mamoon told me there was no Heaven like they preach in church. "And Hell, why 'tis right here, lad. And 'tis us and nobody else makes it. And a waste they tell us to wait 'til we die for Heaven, when Heaven be here now and we in it, right in Nature's own bosom. So, 'tis our part to be happy as we can while we be here, Gran'son; or how will we know happiness after?" Then she would pause to eye me, fondly. "I give you the good I know, Gran'son, that it may help you one day." And she'd nod deep.
Our cotter's hut, like many others outside Rougemont Castle, was mostly poverty and violence. My father tormented my mother; my sister and brother tormented me; and with no person but Mamoon to protect me. So small myself those days, Mamoon was to me big hips, big breasts, big bottom, big lap--oh, and everything to be trusted and to stand upon.
But even she had ways I could not grasp.
By the time I was fourteen, everything at home had changed: Father dead in a sword fight outside a tavern, my mother Iheld perished from some street disease, my sister married, brother a teamster in Crediton; and myself living then with my Uncle Anthony who had brought me to a place far different from what I had known.
Mathilde, his wife, big-boned, but with brown tresses and a particular softness about her face, had laughing blue eyes and a steady manner very comforting to me. With four children, the house was already full, so a sleeping space was made for me upon a doorless cupboard where Aunt stored foodstuffs and herbs she wanted kept dry next the hearth. My pallet being short, I must sleep knees drawn up while the crackling wood below brought upon its rising warmth wonderful odors from the spices and foodstuffs stored below.
Oh, and I felt I had the best bed in the house!
Aunt, from way up north, was part Scottish, and very interesting with her accent and special ways. Day and night, little ones and cats rustled in and out of her skirts as she moved about cooking, cleaning, or at her sewing. Very spare of discipline with her brood, she would sing to one and all, and to the very day itself in a big lilting voice I loved. And for Aunt, gardening was neither magical nor mystical, but simply the tending of growing things for the family. I can tell you she was very clear about what she wanted done in that garden, for she kept it healthy as you would any child; and so week after week it filled our bellies, and cured our illnesses small and large.
My Uncle Anthony was held to be extremely bright and was under the political protection of Lord Cornwall, and later of Lord Galton. And when a blacksmith in a neighboring village died, Uncle would buy up his shop and take on more apprentices. So after a time, he became a kind of overseer, managing smithies and customers in two or three villages besides Exeter where his own shop near South Gate was by far the biggest and busiest of all.
And it was because of his business judgment that he was set aside from being owned by a lord or the king, but my uncle was a free man. Well, he got along with those above him and with such an enviable repute for honesty he was called to the Moot Hall, our common court, as a primary witness or judge to resolve trade conflicts. And because of all this, he would gain a place for me in the school of our betters.
But before that, I was eight and in my second year in the Common School in the old stable on Catherine Street, and learning to read, figure numbers, to write, sing psalms, and speak simple French. It was then Uncle opened to me the world of his blacksmith shop where he paid me for fetching and sweeping so that I had money to take home to Mamoon. I believe he felt badly about how Teewaye, my father and his older brother, treated my mother Ihelde and us three children. And so Uncle Anthony became the person in the world after Gran'mam I could trust.
Extravagant-looking, and with a ruddy face, Uncle Anthony commanded attention wherever he went. His hair, a blondish red, very bristly and wild, was all over his body. And he looked for all God's kingdom, except for size, like one of those wood elves Mamoon and the old women tell stories about.
Another thing was his hands, very big, pink and red. And fleshy. When I was small and the comfort of his presence made me bold with him, I would call him "Sausage Hands" to make him laugh. And with such hams, I could not grasp how he created such finely wrought work, and out of the heaviest of metals! Gruff of speech and manner, yet he labored to catch himself in the midst of any curtness and turn it to something humorous or harmless. And I had no experience of someone managing himself so artfully, for when my father was gruff, well you just had better get away, that was all! And while both came from the same rough home, my Uncle Anthony found ways to rise above it.
So, not at my lessons or helping Mamoon, I would come down High Street to turn toward South Gate and the blacksmith shop where it stood there just at South Gate.
I liked the noise, the clatter, the testing, the raw display of human strength. I loved the fire turning the workspace into leaping light and shadow, and washing everything with red and gold. And how all the workmen there appeared to live in Hell, their bodies steaming from the flames and the heavy lifting, and the anvil ringing like some great eerie Keeper of Time. I loved all that, and took on a taste for the smell of metal cold, red-hot or cooling in the water barrel.
One day sweeping out a stall, a scream froze the very air in my lungs. A small chip of white-hot metal had exploded into a man's face as he bent over a bolt he heated. He had fainted dead away, his eye, a mass of blackened pulp, slipped down his face on a sleeve of blood. They rushed him outside. I leaned against a wall to vomit. Sweeping up my mess, I realized I had one hand pressed against the same eye as the man lost. And all anyone could do for him was find a surgeon. Some will return to a smithy with one eye. This man did not.
In those days I had a head full of butterflies, trees and jumping brooks. In my first school, the cleric, fists dug into his tunic and eyebrows bunched up, would stand over me. "Well, I see our Jophiel has left us again." He'd tap my empty slate for everyone to laugh. And more than once at the smithy I would wake from daydreams to searing burns. I learned about ash-paste and leaves of plantain for soothing and healing. And I finally saw the need to harness my mind.
As I was the logical person to spare for errands, Uncle would send me a mile and a half down London Road past the Alms House for mead I'd carry back across my shoulders in two foaming buckets swinging, slopping and dribbling into the dirt, never mind how carefully I walked. And the men at the smithy would keep a sharp eye out. As I staggered onto Magdalene Road, their great cheer would go up to fill me like a good meal!
So young, I got the jobs others didn't want. An animal might relieve itself in the midst of a shoeing; and "Jophiel, darlin' boy," the men with their big sweating chests would saunter over, "here's a pretty just fer you. Fetch the shovel afore it goes stale." And indeed I must come running! But as I grew, I would learn the forge, the bellows, the tongs and hammer, the anvil, the water barrel. And one day I would see a boy younger than me on the shovel; and there I would be trimming the curled hooves of cattle, sheep, goats--and horses, of course.
Excerpted from Of Fire Of Water Of Stone by Zoe Keithley. Copyright © 2016 Zoe Keithley. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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