The Shadow Punishment, Justin Newland

It was a warm, cloudless day as Gerhard the Gleeman stood below the bridge strumming his lute and singing a song of safe haven. In his mind, he was relishing the prospect of chasing a flaxen-haired Bristow maiden. Next to him, enjoying his sea shanty was a fair maid of the four-legged variety – Betsy the mule.

His Captain, one Otto Strasse, asked, “You taking care of my mule?”

“I am, Capt’n,” Gerhard said. “And when we get ‘ome to ‘amburg, you promised to give me her as payment for my services.”

“I know,” the captain replied, “but I’ve a hold full of dragon’s eggs to unload, so put her to work.”

“Betsy’s no good at carrying stuff.”

“Just because she’s got no head, that’s no excuse!” the captain muttered.

“I know that,” Gerhard said, “but I doubt poor Betsy does.”

“Don’t argue. Get on with it!”

“Yes, Capt’n!”

The noose he tied around Betsy’ stub neck kept slipping off. Genius that he was, Gerhard had this marvellous idea to tie a reef knot over her shoulders and behind her front legs. That way he could guide her.

*

The cargo unloaded, Gerhard found an inn, and in that inn, a cider-wench by the name of Charlotte. She was that pretty; Gerhard lost both his head and his heart to her. Charlotte harked from Frome.

“How d’you pronounce that then?”

“Rhymes with broom,” she said, and then asked, “What ship you on, then, luvver?”

The Teutonic Knights,” he replied.

“Related to them ‘dark nights’ are they?” she added with a chuckle.

*

On his return to the ship, Gerhard smelled the garlic before he passed two merchants strolling down the gangplank.

“What they want?” he asked.

“To do business,” the captain replied. “Change of plan. Spain has wine and Hamburg needs wine. Gleeman, pipe us a Spanish melody. We’re off to Cadiz!” “But you promised we’d go ‘ome after Bristow,” Gerhard complained.

“If you don’t like it, resign,” the captain snapped.

“Then I do. I’m ‘orf.”

“Go then, but Betsy stays,” the captain sniffed.

“Nah! She’s mine. Gimme Betsy.”

“You can have half of her!” The captain called his henchman, who wielded a shining sabre above his head, and then smashed it through Betsy’s midriff, splicing her in two.

“Noooo!” Gerhard neighed.

To his surprise, Betsy seemed untroubled by her newfound freedom, and her two halves began walking – well, it was more like staggering – one to port and one to starboard. When the effort to stay upright proved too much, the two halves fell in a heap.

“You can have the half with the ass-hole!” the captain scoffed, provoking gales of laughter from the crew.

“I want justice. I’m gonna tell the Sheriff of Bristow,” Gerhard said.

*

The case was heard the next day. Gerhard told his story to the sheriff.

“Me an’ the Capt’n had a deal,” he said. “I was ‘is gleeman from ‘amburg to Bristow an’ back, an’ he’d pay me in kind with Betsy. Now he’s off to Cadiz and he’s cut poor Betsy in two. I want her back – well, more like her front, since I’ve got her back already. I want all of ‘er!”

“Tell me, Captain,” said the sheriff, “where did you make this agreement with the gleeman?”

“In Hamburg, Saxony, Germany, M’lud,” the captain replied.

“Then the case must be tried according to Saxon Law,” the sheriff said, “in which, it so happens, I am an expert.”

“What’s that mean?” Gerhard scratched his head.

“It means – you’re in trouble,” the captain sneered.

“’ow’s that then? You’re the one who owes me.”

“I know Saxon Law too, you wait and see,” the captain replied.

“My ruling,” the sheriff said, “is that you, Captain, owe the gleeman for both legs of the voyage, so the whole mule. Yet you cut her in half and for that you must be punished. I will conduct sentencing tomorrow morning on the quay.”

*

The unusual case had drawn every disreputable in Bristow. The harbour side was heaving with drunken stevedores, one-armed pedlars and two-legged cut-purses.

To cheers from the crowd, Captain Strasse sauntered down the gangplank. Gerhard and Charlotte were shooing flies away from the two halves of poor Betsy, both propped up against a wall. The smell of congealed flesh was rancid.

The sheriff announced, “To weigh up the sentence, I consulted the Saxon Law Book, the Sachsenspiegel, or, in your tongue, the Saxon Mirror. It says that a gleeman, being the lowest of the low, has no legal rights. So I can only impose a lenient penalty on the Captain.”

“What’s that then?” Gerhard groaned.

The sheriff said, “It’s called the Schattenbusse or Shadow Punishment.”

The captain broke into a broad grin.

He’s just been sentenced, so why’s he smiling? Gerhard wondered, and then asked,

“What’s this Shadow Punishment anyway?”

“I’ll show you,” the sheriff said and then added, “Now take this stick.”

“Good. Let me at ‘im,” Gerhard brandished it like a Teutonic Knight.

Nonchalant as you like, the captain folded his arms and planted a smug grin on his face.

Gerhard was about to crush the captain’s head when the sheriff yelled, “No, no, no! You don’t punish him.”

“What? Then who do I punish?” Gerhard asked.

“His shatten. His shadow. That’s why it’s called Shattenbusse, Shadow Punishment.”

Gerhard opened his eyes wide. “His shadow! You takin’ the piss?”

The captain stood at arm’s length from the wall, pointing to his shadow, and said, “No, he’s not. The sheriff’s right. You beat my shadow.”    Gerhard’s shoulders slumped. “I’ve bin’ duped!”

“Go on! Do it anyway,” Charlotte urged.

Whenever Gerhard thrashed the wall, the captain flinched with each mighty blow, as if he was suffering actual bodily harm. To vent his anger, the gleeman knocked lumps of brick and mortar out of the wall.

“Phew! We never knew Saxon Law was so hilarious,” a drunk said, tears streaming down his cheeks.

When the gleeman beat the shadow in the belly, the captain doubled up in mock pain, clutching his stomach. The crowd were in hysterics.

Charlotte whispered something in Gerhard’s ear. He nodded.

“Good idea,” he said, and threw away the stick. Being from Frome, she gave him a broom.

This one had limp brushes only good for sweeping away cobwebs.

Gerhard pawed at the wall with the soft broom like a cat paws a trapped mouse.

The mood of the crowd changed when the drunk shouted, “Capt’n, now you must be hurtin’ real bad!”

The captain frowned.

Gerhard gently wiped the spindles of the broom down the shadow, drawing every last morsel of humiliation from Captain Strasse. The crowd rolled around on their backs, holding their sides and begging for it to end. The Sheriff was merciful, “That’s enough,” he said.

The punishment ended, the captain scuttled up the gangplank. The gleeman whipped out his flute and Charlotte sang a rhyme to his tune.   “Half a mule,  What a tool!

Half a mule,

What a fool!”

As The Teutonic Knights set sail, Charlotte called to Gerhard, saying, “Look at this.” She stood by Betsy’s hind quarters.

Gerhard couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “The two ‘alves have rejoined,” he said. “She’s whole again. Well, except for her missing head.”

Charlotte kissed Gerhard, saying, “Love is the most miraculous glue!”

 

 

***

 

 

Boy of Sand and Sky (a short story) by Laura Matthias Bendoly, 2017

The one child born in the village of Sommêt-les-Rochers that year was Gabriel deLuce, named for both the miracle of birth during a plague year and for the angel’s breath that filled his lungs ten minutes after pronouncement of his death.

Unlike his broad-shouldered brothers, Gabriel was a spindly child with greenish skin like the bronze St. Christopher that stood at the village fountain. The lad’s eyes were pale and wide like he was perpetually in shock. Gabriel was smart, though, and shrewd, knowing at age six every trapdoor on the village square and never finding his ear seized in the vice grip of the baker whose leftovers he was prone to swipe from market.

Though he hiked and climbed like any boy raised among mountains, Gabriel was not a talker. It was established at age four that he was mute. But at ten, he made letters. Boys were needed in the scriptorium after the last of the holy order perished. Relying only on imitation, Gabriel’s writing was as fine as a bishop’s. As the ink left his brush it glowed, his mother observed, spreading particles of light to the parchment edge. She would clasp her hands wondering at her son’s arabesques. She had never learned to write. “He is blessed by angels,” she would say. “Great things will come of him.”

But her son was still muttered over.

“He’s too small.” And “Had no breath in the birthing room for ten whole minutes.”

“Children shouldn’t be … green.

They’d wrapped him in death’s shroud, the neighbor women, and left with quiet prayers. Even the midwife took her leave. All hope gone from the bedside.

And yet somehow he lived.

Seeing the lad upon the path in his eleventh year, making faces at a skinny cat, writing letters in the dirt, it made folks cross themselves. Something was different about Gabriel. Mutism had never come to Sommêt-les-Rochers before. He had been touched. A sign of God’s mercy, yes, but he wasn’t to be trusted. To villagers cut off as they were by mountains, ‘touched’ meant the same as cursed.

Gabriel left his work in the scribe’s cellar at seven bells, his hands black from ink. In the basin of his mother’s house he scrubbed his fingers with ash and soda. They pinked a little, but were hardly clean.

He and his mother bent to their soup – cabbage and carrot — which they ate nightly from winter stores.

His mother frowned. “Did you wash your hands?”

Gabriel lifted his spoon and nodded.

“Do those marks never come out?” She indicated the purple black on his index finger, like a pirate’s death mark. “You should ask the master what he uses. Bees’ wax, perhaps.”

Gabriel shrugged.

“Well, so you know, Denis and Luc are both installed at the village stable. Your brothers will make good at that apprenticeship. Do you think you’d like to join them? Learn to tend fine horses?

The boy held out his right hand. Yvonne bent closer. Did he have something hidden in his palm?

“What is it, son?” She put down her earthenware spoon. “I don’t see anything.”

But on that grey, stained skin, there was something. It took shape gradually, the ink smears merging into an elongated bell.

Yvonne gasped. “Is that  . . a flute?”

“Judgement’s coronet,” he whispered.

She closed her son’s fingers and pushed his hand away. Gabriel hadn’t spoken a word in five years. When he’d last done so it had been just as mysterious.

“Faith!” he had declared. And nothing more.

She cleared the bowls and put them in a bucket for washing later at the well. She wanted to clear the hearth of its tenebrous feeling, the not-rightness of a child speaking like a prophet.

“I’ll get you to the monastery early tomorrow.” She dried her hands on her skirt. “If I speak to the master, he might let you work with the church animals. Or maybe the carpenter, Poulard, who’s mending the vestry.”

Gabriel didn’t appear to have heard. He moved to his chair by the fire and took up his Bible. Though he couldn’t recite as the other copyists did, he read the verses nightly. Yvonne couldn’t sound out more than four of five words of Latin, but like her fellow villagers, she knew the songs of mass. Reading was the purview of the clergy and their dealings – long cellars, cold beds,  dark mornings – was that really what her son wanted?

“I don’t know, Madam deLuce,” the scribes’ master clasped his hands. “Without his father or an uncle to vouch for him, I’m not sure I can put him with the livestock. He’s bookish. I’m sure you know. And he’s gifted with the stylus. I was thinking of finding him a place with the illuminators in Arles if the abbot ventures this high in search of novices.”

“But, Monsigneur.” Yvonne deLuce called every member of the clergy by that title, never mind that it was reserved for cardinals. “My child is in love with his work!”

“Isn’t that a blessing, to love what one does? Few villagers can say that of their work, especially if it’s toil in a stony field or amongst sick chickens.”

“What I mean, sir, is he gets strange ideas from those pages. Mystic ideas. I think he…” She hesitated, “he believes himself a personage in the manuscripts.”

“Personage?”

“An angel, or a saint,” she whispered, afraid to look at the monk. The audacity of it! As if he, a peasant boy, were equal to God’s highest order. They’d be shunned if news got out. Men and women had been burned just eighty years ago in Sommêt for crimes as slight as braiding laurel leaves in their hair.

“Ah. A young man’s passions.” The master smiled. “It is his age, madam. Like his father once, perhaps. He saw a young woman among the cherubs. A sweetheart in the shoulders of God’s angels.”

“I suppose.” Yvonne nodded though she knew it wasn’t so. Gabriel had no interest in bodies, girls’ or boys’. He forgot he owned one, sometimes. He’d left the house completely naked last year in the thick of winter. He didn’t appear to feel cold or heat. He could go three days without food or water and he had several times burned himself on the cook pot and came away unmarked.  He had not once become sick, never overslept and suffered neither boredom nor melancholy. His brothers teased him for it, tried to tickle and torture him, but he just blinked at them as though their harassment were happening to someone else. They were incapable of causing him pain or indignation or sorrow.

Under his mother’s insistence, Gabriel tried his hand at the stable. He was sent to shovel manure, but he upended a full cart into the water trough by mistake. He fed the horses straw instead of hay, he gave them holy water to drink, and he tried to make the goat stable with the donkey, which resulted in a black-eyed ewe and a bite taken from the back side of a horse.

Gabriel was quickly removed to the carpenter’s care. Poulard was replacing timbers in the vestry at the east arm of the church. Dry rot had gotten into the paneling so the old beams had to be replaced. Poulard was old but careful.  He spent his days on a scaffolding of his own making, carefully measuring, numbering sections, then ordering new timber to fit the repair. It came in from the valley forest by way of the cart road.

Gabriel watched Poulard’s measurements but didn’t feel called by it. The old man seemed to spend ages doing exactly the same thing – stuffing a new wedge into a slot where a previous of the same dimensions had been. No invention. No variation. Why would anyone chose that profession — alone in a cold room and nothing to read all day.

His mother made him carry Poulard’s tool chest every day, just the same. “To get you accustomed to the instruments,” she insisted. “There’s a trade out there. Waiting. You just have to be patient.”

So Gabriel tried. He sorted and cleaned Poulard’s chisels. But he never developed a fondness for woodwork. Not with the way Poulard’s hands looked, all rough and calloused, the constant wood dust and splinters.

It wasn’t long before the angels called Gabriel back to the page.  He heard them singing before he woke in the morning. Their voices weren’t human and they weren’t animal. They were like plucked harp strings, like the swirling finger on the rim of a lead goblet. Sonorous as a well of icy water. Were angels made of glass? Gabriel didn’t think so. In the illuminations they were made of feathers and gold leaf with mortal skin on the hands and face. It was hard to say what matter made an angel. They all held something as an attribute. A flute, a bow, a lily, a standard, a sword. His namesake angel was the messenger and he often blew a horn. This, Gabriel believed, was the coronet. Its sound was what all mortal souls would hear on judgement day. That made it the most important of instruments. It was this symbol, the coronet, that appeared on Gabriel’s palm the night with his mother, when his fingers were stained in scriptor’s ink.

While cleaning ink bottles for the master a few days later he filled six vials with water at the church well.  He swirled clean the inside of each ink well with a half cup of water, to help draw the dried clumps of ink from their sticking places. But as he finished cleaning his sixth ink well, Gabriel knocked the five clean bottles into the well with his elbow. All but one precious ink vial was gone. He couldn’t even see them in the depths of the cavern.

He clenched his teeth together. Don’t cry! he ordered himself. What would Saint Paul do? Or Nicolas the Stylite — alone at the top of a column? Gabriel reached for the water bucket’s rope. He had earlier drawn up water on this cord, from the wooden bucket. What if he’d knocked the five ink wells into that bucket? It was extremely unlikely they’d fall so precisely. But why not at least see?

St. Paul, please help me.

He pulled.

Angel Gabriel, can you see me?

Faster and faster, hand over hand. It was a long rope, like the rigging on a three-masted schooner. With just inches left to pull, the church bell started ringing. Not the slow tone of the hour but the joyful peal of a feast day.

His arms were trembling but up swung the pail, shining with silver water and in its center, five unblemished ink wells, spotless and still stoppered. Not a scratch on them.

Gabriel didn’t tell his mother about the bottles. He knew it was extraordinary. If she heard, his mother would cross herself twice and hold his head to her chest like he was four. He really couldn’t bare it.

But then there were the chickens, the stable chickens that shared a yard at the village livery. They became lethargic. They wouldn’t lay. The rooster wouldn’t crow. They gathered on straw bales and didn’t kick dust or peck fleas. They’d become the bird equivalent of waterlogged worms.

And so Gabriel was called, a figure of mystery as well as literacy, endowed with special powers. “Bring those ink wells,” the fowler asked him. “Or well water,” someone else suggested.

He did neither. He simply walked up to them and peered at their feathers. Gabriel had no idea what made a hen lethargic. He stroked the feathers of one and looked at the wing of another. They smelled awful, but that wasn’t unusual. Two days later he had a dream in which an egg appeared in the bedroll of the stable-master’s serving girl, a fourteen year old named Filene. He went to his brothers that morning.

“Look at the serving girl’s bed.”

They did so. Sixteen eggs were in her bed. Six had hatched, and ten were still whole.

“Has she been stealing?”

She had, but only “to raise ‘em for my family. We’s poor as rats, in them hills. Nothing growing in those rocks.”

They let her take three chicks to raise and held back wages to make up the difference.   Gabriel told no one about his dream. He assumed it was normal to dream about missing eggs.

The rest of this story will appear on this page after its four-month print run in a fantasy

anthology in spring, 2017.

Sacra Furta

Chapter one

The storm blew down half of Aylsham. It was Saturday, two days before St. Helene’s day, the martyr who was almost my namesake. But Mother named me Lucy in the end, after she finally unclenched her eyes. Helene would have been a good name. Maybe better than what I was christened with. St. Lucy had her eyes plucked out by Romans.

The noise from that spring storm could have driven snakes from Ireland.  I hid with Mother, June and Clothilde under the platform of our bed. The crash of breaking trees was worthy of a battle —  though I’ve never seen men fight in anything but a brawl outside the public house. I did hear a squire drop his master’s armor on the high road once. That was a crash, I’ll tell you. Poor lad got a wallop with a gauntlet for slip-fingery. No armor, though, could clamor like those skies had done the eve of St. Helene’s day.

When the gale finally blew over, trees were scattered like God’s own chambermaid had shattered all her broomsticks. Several barrows used for market were overturned on rooftops, worktables were stripped to kindling, and bits of fence and feeding troughs were damning up the river. Our Lord had clearcut us a village green.  But I hadn’t seen such mess since the Earl of East Anglia raided to press gang Aylsham men to save Jerusalem.

What God left us the next damp morning was the guildhall, the church, and portions of the cottages. Like our Aylsham neighbors’, our house was built from mud and horsehair. It still clung to its timbers, but the southern wall was gone.

“God giveth and He taketh away!” Father Bledelawe murmured at the next day’s mass. It was a short service and badly attended. Most villagers were home with their injured.  Four neighbors had died, Rose the fuller, two shepherds, Robin and Catherine Wheeler’s son, Eric, and the one of the masons, James the Younger, who’d gone in search of his mare.

My brother, Stephen, who lived south of the village among the Benedictines, was well. He had been at matins. He and his brothers had given shelter to those who’d lost their way in the crypt of Dodnash Monastery. I’ll go and light a candle of thanks when I have a moment. Please God – let me remember. I can get sore distracted when it comes to prayer and contemplation, which we fourteen-year-old girls are supposed to be good at. If we’re to be suitable for marriage. Which I’m not. And that’s just fine with me since I’m going to make my own way as a fisherwoman or a saint.  They’re in short supply – saints. They don’t ever die, or not properly. They’re incorruptible. And they work miracles. People come from miles around to see our saint – St. Audrey – whose arm is cased in silver in the church. If I become a saint I hope my face outlasts the grave. It’s a nice face, though it’s freckled. I could work miracles for people with no noses or with skin that’s falling off.

Father missed the storm. He was visiting Conesford for their spring festival. Their harlequin had smashed his elbow. Father serves as understudy. He’s been a mummer/actor/entertainer since the age of nine, when his own Ma shooed him out to earn his keep. Rather than split firewood like she’d asked or skin a rabbit or carry water, he’d juggled chestnuts and made little plays with pinecones.

I can’t skin a rabbit either (though Clothilde can peel one, nose to tail, faster than St. Audrey’s church can toll six bells for evensong). I do have some of Father’s skills, myself. He taught me to tumble and make a clay ball appear behind a child’s ear. With him I learned to read the Greek and Latin on the mystery play handbills. Even though some think entertainers are wastrels, I’m proud of Father. He knows more about the world – about volcanoes and poisons and maps and calligraphy and cogs and wheels — than the Bishop. Mother thinks he should pray more.

It was a near miracle that we survived that gale. June gashed her leg and a ceiling beam scratched Mother on the face. She’d shrieked, “It’s Judgement Day!” and stuffed us in the crawlspace underneath the bed. She kept us calm reciting prayers and when the wind took off that wall, and June began to cry, we recited parts of the treadle loom.

“June, stop blubbering. Tell me what’s a back beam?”

June’s lip quivered. “It’s the bit of wood the warp threats pass over.”

“Good. Feel better?”

Thunder rattled the door and the cat, Ravenous, flew across the room. June grabbed Clothilde hard.

Mother pulled the blanket from on top of the bed and wrapped it as best she could around us. “Clothilde, what is the heddle?”

“The . . . the handle.”

“Heavens, now.” She sighed. “Lucy. The heddle?”

I was hiding my face between my knees, but I did my best to satisfy her. “The heddle keeps the warps in place.”

“More or less. June, take my apron if you need a hankerchief. Wipe your cut with it.” She returned her eyes to me. “The heddle keeps the weft threads separate. And it’s made of . . .”

“Cat gut?” June suggested.

Clothilde jumped in. “Or cord.”

The roof shook, and a surge of storm water splashed inside through the south wall’s gaping hole. Would we need a boat tomorrow? There wasn’t one in the village that I knew of. Just carts, and they were very rough quality. Chinks and gaps between every board.

We didn’t speak much for a pace. I think Mother was worried about the thatch roof flying off. I wondered if the community loom we rented time on would still be in one piece tomorrow. Even with Mother’s skills, we were nothing without that devise.

I woke to the sound of purring. Ravenous was curled around my arm, deadening the feel of it. I shook him off and realized the storm had passed. We were alive. It was the Sabbath. We shook out our joints and silently set off for church. It was so automatic on a Sunday, we didn’t even pause to see if the hens were still in the yard. Which they weren’t, the fence having been smashed by a rolling cart wheel.

I was nervous approaching St. Audrey’s Church. It was the tallest building in Aylsham, with a steepled bell tower that I often climbed. You could see two counties from up there – as far as the sea on a clear day. That remains the farthest distance I have seen. All of it, God’s kingdom, except for what belongs to our landowner, Lord Houghton, and his superior, the Earl of East Anglia. So much of God’s work had fallen in the night. I wondered if there was more left to fall as we sat helpless in the nave.

At the doorway we met widow Scarsham. She seemed unsure about whether or not to go in. As she was old, I offered her my arm.

“It’s no good!” she wailed. “The saint is gone. Our relic has disappeared!” She was a pious woman and a cousin a few removes from Lord Houghton. “We should have locked it away better. We are cursed, now, for sure!”

“Why are we cursed?” Clothilde whispered to Mother as we took our seats inside. Twigs and fallen leaves littered the aisles, even the pulpit, which Father Bledelawe, a nice but not very educated man, was dusting with his cassock. With all our fidgeting, he ended up herding the congregation to the churchyard where the open air made everyone less nervous. We set up a service area with overturned barrels.

“If St. Audrey’s relic is really gone,” Mother whispered, “There’ll be no pilgrims.”

We had all grown up with Audrey. The forearm and shoulder of the saint were said to have straightened my pigeon toes and cured June’s lisp. I used to have nightmares that Audrey’s arm would swat me for leaving the washing in the rain. No one but the clergy had seen her remains up close. They were too holy for laypeople and were locked in the crypt along with the rest of the church’s valuables. In fact, Audrey’s bones only came out of the crypt on her feast day in her jeweled silver arm. It was a little ghoulish, venerating a disembodied arm, but people fell on their knees before it. Its weirdness even appealed to people. More pilgrims came to see Audrey’s arm than to see the gold reliquary box at my brother’s monastery a few miles south of here, or to see the bust of St. Mary of Costlany on the other side of Norwich. Audrey touched people. She helped them reconsider problems. You prayed to Audrey, and a peasant’s poverty and debt seemed a little less appalling afterward.

“People have come today,” I said to Mother. “Maybe they don’t mind that Audrey’s gone.”

“Then they don’t know. When they find out, they’ll stop coming.” Mother tightened her lips. “They’ll find a better church.”

Despite the trauma of the previous night and the rumor of our relic’s theft, our preacher seemed quite cheerful. Father Bledelawe wasn’t melancholy like the widow or defeated like my mother. He was right there on his mark.

“Brave citizens of Aylsham! We are here today as survivors. Like Noah after the flood. I saw this morning what you have endured. You are frightened. You are wounded. You are cautious to enter this church and to go home and go to sleep. I know.  Portions of this sacred roof are still creaking above my head. But good St. Audrey is still among us.”

“We hear she was taken!” The widow shouted back.

“She is here, I say. With you, Widow Scarsham. With you, good wife Atwood. With you, too, Brother Fowler. Why would He leave us in our time of need? Did God leave our Savior on the cross? No. Not for one moment. And Audrey will not leave you, either. She is among us. Missing, maybe. But not for good.”

“We do not understand you, Father,” the Tom Baker said from the back of the congregation.

“I will explain. A thief used the cover of storm to rob our sacred crypt.”

Another murmur wove among the congregants.

“Saint Audrey, our patron, was stolen from the crypt. I know this because here,” he held up a bit of broken metal, “is the lock that secured the crypt door. It has been cut!”

“No!” Mother whispered.

The lock was neatly sawn in two. Some cruel instrument had been put to the purpose. Master Fowler crossed himself. The man behind me said a rude word.

“Blasphemy!” Said old mother Skinner a few rows back.

“Yes, yes. I feel your outrage too,” The priest threw his hands up. “I feel the anger and the urge to take and to strike and to have my vengeance meted out. May God have mercy on the sinner. But we must be careful. We must not point fingers or let wickedness spread among us.”

“How will we reclaim our saint?” Asked Valerie Atwood from the second row. Her mother clapped a hand over her mouth as she spoke the words. As hysterical sounding as Valerie’s question was, we were all thinking this same thing.

The priest sighed. “First, we will take the sacrament. Then we will go home and tend our sick. We will rebuild our homes and fix our broken fences. We will post notices for any who have seen a wanderer with a silver reliquary hand. We will pray for its safe return – offer a reward, even. And we will continue. We will hold St. Audrey’s feast in two weeks as planned. . .”

We were stunned. But Father Bledelawe raised his hand, insisting.

“In fourteen days’ time, we will hold our annual parade. We will not let storm or theft tear us from devotion. Now in His name let us say together the psalm, ‘you shall not be afraid.’”

You shall not be afraid of the terror by night,
Nor of the arrow that flies by day,

 

Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness,
Nor of the destruction

that lays waste at noonday.

Though my Latin isn’t as good as Stephen’s, I took pains to pronounce the ‘timore nocturno’ with extra vigor. I was pretty sure I’d get the night terrors when I next lay down, seeing as a bear or miscreant could get me just like they’d gotten Audrey’s arm. Especially since we were missing that southern wall on the house.

We left the service a bit bewildered. The priest wanted a festival two weeks after the village had been swept clean of its poultry and pigs, several buildings and six villagers.  He wanted a parade without the village saint. What would we put on the procession bier? A dovecote? Maybe some knight would find the thief who had taken the holy arm, and return it .  But within a fortnight? I didn’t think so. A smart villain would sell the thing. The bones were worth a fist of gold. Or salt or butter or pork or armor, or even horses. Indeed, that saintly arm had bought the church for Aylsham.

”Couldn’t the priest find us a new saint?” I asked Mother on the way home.

“They aren’t just lying around. They have to come as gifts from a pope or bishop. They’re not like bartered cloth at market. We must pray for Audrey’s return.”

“But we pray all the time already. I prayed three times yesterday and God blew our house down anyway.”

“If the priest says pray, we pray.” She put her hand to her head wound and dabbed a piece of cloth against it. It wasn’t healing well. It had yellowed around the edges. “Our Earl is dishonest. There are charlatans amongst us in the village. If we don’t account for our wickedness, we’re due for worse. Mark me. God is seeking out redress for unaccounted wrongs. Without Audrey, there’ll be no pilgrims. And without them we will soon be destitute.”

Mother enjoyed spinning out disasters, though I couldn’t see the point. I knew we had our trades to fall back on even if Aylsham went broke. We had Father’s mummer’s wage and our weaving trade. Mother wove fine wool broadcloth at the guildhall. I didn’t mention it right then, though. Mother wanted To Be Vexed, as she does when she has a headache. Or her courses. Or hasn’t slept well, or has a debt to settle.

I let her go on a pace. As I waited for Clothilde to catch up, I kicked a yellow pebble. It made me think of haloes. And then, again, of the female saints.

I’d never thought much of  St. Audrey. If I were making pilgrimage, I wouldn’t come to Aylsham. I’d go to Spain. To see Saint James at Compostella. I’d heard tell of that Cathedral at the Norwich market where we sold cloth. The Santiago cathedral had a sensor the size of a horse cart that the priests swung down the nave like the hand of God parting the Red Sea.

Our local saint, though loved, hadn’t done much. She had been pious and joined the nuns, but she didn’t have any serious miracles. St. James’ body washed up uncorrupted in a stone boat on the Spanish coast. Audrey’s fame was to have remained a virgin even after being married twice. Seemed to me a proper saint endured suffering – had her tongue torn out, her eyelids removed – and certainly she should have stigmata. St. Francis had stigmata all the time. He has his own monastic order, now. And St. Catherine was martyred on a wheel! Those Italians really knew about torture. Or maybe she’d been Egyptian. Anyway, no one suffered like those old time martyrs did.

I’d make a good saint. I thought I had stigmata once. But Clothilde said it was warts. If I got the chance, though, I’d be racked and smashed and have my nails torn off. That is if Stephen didn’t beat me to it. Which he probably would just to show me up. He was always showing up at dinnertime with texts he’d transcribed and illustrations he’d gilded. His Latin was pretty good, but he didn’t have much sense of adventure any more. Not like Father.

“Pray Mother hasn’t hit her brain,” Clothilde whispered as we trotted back to our wounded house. “It makes a person really cross.”

Mother was already crosser than a plucked cockerel. She said when you have three girls you’re allowed to have a temper. She also hated my father being away – which he was most of the time. That left her with the gardening and cleaning, the weaving, the child-minding – not to mention the upkeep of the house, the organizing of our labor for the Lord and for the church and the toll to gather for the guild captain and the tax man. All those tolls gave Lord Houghton a heavy purse. And even with that money, he had been too lazy to go on the Crusade. I thought that was cowardly. So did the king, folks say. His bailiff had excused him as having been “busy with landholdings.” As with those other five Norfolk villages, he owned Aylsham outright, along with everyone in it, even the priest.

Mother wanted us educated in case we girls were ever pious enough to become nuns, which we probably wouldn’t be. I told too many rude jokes (Father’s fault) and Clothilde liked sweets. She just swam in honey anytime the bee-keeper was at the market. He had a soft spot for her – another reason why Clothilde was probably not going to become a nun. The bee man, Mr. Turner, was widowed and, according to Mother, too old to flirt like that with a fifteen-year-old girl. But I think Clothilde liked it.

“There’s Father!” I shouted as Clothilde and I neared the village well. It had been a week since we’d seen him. I gave him a fierce embrace. He was brackish and unshaved, typical for back-to-back shows. He had the harlequin’s patchwork tunic on today. He’d stuffed it with wool to bulk himself up. Underneath he was actually quite thin.

Mother came up for a quick peck on the cheek. “You missed service. You’ll have to go for evensong to make it up.”

Father raised an eyebrow toward our house. It was easy to see the damage from here. The gaping hole where a wall and good thatching had been. “What about this wall? Did you speak to Giles or Rafferty about fixing it?”

“With what they charge? We’ll have to do it in trade. But not until they find their geese. Rafferty lost them in the storm, and Giles will be in the alehouse by now. He usually is the moment mass ends.”

Clothilde and I snuck off after lunch. Mother’s porridge rarely satisfied us and the baker’s wife might have a bite of bread for storm victims.

When she saw us coming, though, she closed the shutters tight. “Not today!”

My sister sighed. “T’would full of pebbles.”

She was probably right. The flour we received got too few rounds between the mill stones. It remained course, even after baking. Some of my neighbors had lost teeth on grit that mixed into the dough.

We continued to the river. It was full of storm debris – much that had floated from upriver market. Broken eggs, spoiled meat, shards of crockery, soaked linen, and a dead dog. It smelled awful and with all the dross our usual fishing hole was next to ruined.

“Let’s clean it up. If there’s fish that didn’t blow away, we’ll give them something better than festering dog.”

Fishing, though officially illegal, was the way Clothilde and I got extra food. Aylsham’s part of the Wensum River belonged to Lord Houghton along with the woods and fields. Nothing in town was not his property. Our very house was his, though his servants never visited or cleaned it. I found it right strange to live one’s life in the ownership of someone else. But Mother said it had never been else.

Clothilde picked up a stick and moved a clog of slimy linen from the river’s edge as well as some putrid straw. Then we set about looking for fishing poles and twine. Real string was hard to come by – put to use in home or animal care the moment it was made. So we usually made do twisting coils we pulled from water reeds. Then we gouged earthworms from the dirt and curled them on the end of a our twine.

That day, our hands were clumsy. We dropped the worm and broke a reed and had only a single pole by the end of it.

“Give it over.”

I wound our fifth worm on the twine and attached the wooden bobber. “You’re pulverizing it!” My sister made a face and snatched the pole and lure away.

“Was not. You’re pulverizing. Look how you’re mashing that worm.”

“Hello girls!” Came the voice from somewhere up the bank.

“Mr. Turner,” Clothilde said, kicking the fishing pole into the woods. “What are you doing here?”

“Pushed out of the house by my sister. She’s cleaning up after the storm. That was a mistral if ever there was one. Belinda won’t have me underfoot, though, so I’m on my stroll.”

“Probably a few homes could use your help,” I said.

Clothilde nudged me.

“What?” I cleared my voice. “The parsonage has lost its chimney and old man Shepherd is dead. His children barely have a roof on their house. Seeing as you have some free time, you might . . . ”

“I’m past pushing rocks up hills,” Mr. Turner said, fingering his neck. He had rolls there like Lord Houghton had gold. His sister cooked for him and he had no children. He also had the one and only honey trade, so his income let him eat white bread and duck and sleep on a feather mattress.

“Father Bledelawe says he still wants to hold the church festival,” Mr. Turner said. “He’s putting up the bier and everything. I’ve agreed to supply the feast and even a batch of meade.”

My eyes drew wide at that. Honeyed ale was delicious. Strong, but very fine. And any feast this man might hold would be of very fine quality.

“You marching in the parade this year?” Mr. Turner’s eyes were on my sister. “You could win queen, Clothilde, all grown up as you are, now.”

Her ears went a little pink at that. I could tell she was fighting not to smile.

I wanted to throw that man in the river. His eyes had gone all weepy and his neck fat was wiggling. If this was what love did to a man, I’d have none of it. I cleared my voice. “We’ll go, Mr. Turner, if Mother’s head wound heals and our little sister’s leg gets better, if we can get enough to eat between now and then and fix the broken wall and the fallen roof beam.”

The bee man nodded quickly and repositioned the money purse on his girdle. It was a low belt, nearly hidden underneath his stomach. But there were coins in there. I heard them jingle. “Until another day, Mistress Webster. I’ll set aside a honeycomb at the market.”

We walked home without a fish and I in a foul temper.

“What’s the matter with you, Lucy?”

“I don’t like that man.”

“Why?”

“He has stratagems.”

“He has what? Stratagems? That’s not even a word.”

“Is too. I’ve heard Father use it.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well.” I put a hand on my hip. “If you have to know, you act different around that man.”

She laughed. “Around Mr. Turner? I do not.”

“You shouldn’t talk to a grown man like that.”

“I don’t talk like that. And anyway, I’m the older sister!”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“You’re just mad no one looks at you!”

“Who’d want an old man looking? At that age they have boils!”
“You gonna talk like that when lovely Lionel Fletcher comes a-calling?”
“He’s not lovely and he has never come calling!”

“That’s not what I hear. Evelyn Tanner told me she heard you saying Loves Me, Loves Me Not to a fist of daisies with the name of Lionel on your lips.”

“That double crossing, scaled-up, piss splashing . . .”

“She’s your best friend!”

“I hate her!” I ran the rest of the way home, fell once over a bucket, and slammed the front door after me.

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