(I may have been curiously absent from the blogosphere this month, but for good reason: many writing competition deadlines approach. I've had some pretty crazy coincidences involving one of my favorite annual competitions, hosted by Americymru, which perhaps I shall tell some other day.
This post is a teaser, just the beginning of one of my short stories, "Llansgi Roots." The full story is part of a novel I've been writing since 2008, when several trips to Tintern sparked a trio of interwoven stories. I hope you enjoy this excerpt.)
Llansgi, Wales, 2014
Her bones revealed she was 15 to 19 years old when she died of starvation, and they indicated that she had given birth. Her clothes had turned to dust hundreds of years ago; the archaeologist vowed it was a miracle the bones had been preserved at all, let alone so well. The speculation was that the shed had collapsed, buried her, and acted as a tomb, keeping air and sunlight out. There was sand – sand – on the ground under the skeleton; it must have been gathered elsewhere and stored in the shed. The sand’s presence could be the key, the archaeologist thought, to the skeleton surviving despite time and fate conspiring against her. How wondrous. This perfectly preserved skeleton, if contemporary to the metal jewelry and pottery in the shed with her, was at least 600 years old.
Llansgi, Wales, Late 1400s
She is a stranger. Everyone knows, of course, because everyone has known everyone else their whole lives. Not her; her face is new. She appeared in the village about three months back, in the middle of winter.
She stays in a barn on the edge of the village in exchange for milking the cows. She is skinny, and her clothes are little more than abbey rags. She spurns the advances of the men who proposition her, yet she doesn’t seek a husband. No one knows where she came from, who her family is, or what brought her here. She’s never been seen near the church. The only thing she is ever seen doing is walking.
She walks alone. She walks into the woods surrounding the village, avoiding the road. She collects herbs and flora, offering them to her farmer landlord for part of her rent, who sells them at market for a profit.
Word is that she is only ever seen walking to and from the abbey a few miles away. The village wives swear she is the consort of the fat monk in charge of the food stores. Their husbands reply, “Then she should have more meat on her bones,” which silences the gossip for a few hours.
She’s a stranger, which means that she will always be the focus of speculation.
But I know she doesn’t go to the abbey for rotund Brother Aurelio.
I found her, one day in the snow-swamped forest, before she had gone into the town, before the gossip had started. She was kneeling on the ground, hunched over some twisted root, digging it up. I cleared my throat from a few feet away, and she sort of rolled over, looking up at me.
“Hello,” she said.
“Are you alone?” I asked.
“Do your eyes generally work?”
I looked down at her sitting form, puzzled. “Yes.”
“Then it would appear that I am, no?”
“Do you always talk like this?”
“Only when I’m alone.”
“You’re not from here,” I said.
“You are,” she replied.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
She held up a twisted looking twig. “This root, when ground into a pulp, can help heal even the worst cuts and wounds.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I read it in a book.”
I laughed. There’s no way on God’s green earth that she could read. Only monks can read. Monks and nobles. It’s practically forbidden for anyone else.
She stood up, turned away from me, and started down the deer path toward the abbey. I picked up a root she had dropped. It smelled like damp earth and decay. I flicked it off into the woods.
Later that week, my poaching cousin got skewered by his antlered prey in the woods and the wound turned red and purple and started spewing pus. I went to the abbey and the monks directed me to a lay brother, Bernard, who tends the herb gardens and orchard near the woods. He has only been at this abbey for a few years, but his medicinal knowledge is already respected even by the book-learned monks. When I sought his expertise for my cousin, he spoke little, which was to be expected as the abbey folk are known for their reticence. He ground something into a paste he then handed to me. It smelled of earth and decay, the same rotten root the girl was gathering in the woods.
About a week after that, when I was poaching small game for my cousin’s family during his recovery, in the distance I saw Bernard and the mystery woman. He looked around hurriedly before handing her a thin object. She unrolled it, a scroll, and appeared to scan it. Her lips moved as she appeared to tell him what it contained. When she saw me, she didn’t even try to put it away. Bernard spoke more words then than I’d ever heard him speak.
“Please, she’s all I have. I need her.”
He explained that the monks thought Bernard could read and were slipping him scrolls and requests for tinctures and potions. Only, he couldn’t read. He was just a lay brother good with plants. However, his lord brother’s daughter could read, and his brother’s whole estate had been toppled in a skirmish last year. His niece alone had escaped alive and come here. He knew she couldn’t stay in the abbey forever, but he needed more time to figure things out.
I didn’t say a word, and shortly after that, she moved into the barn at the edge of the village near my own family’s land.
Months have passed since my mysterious neighbor moved in. Spring pokes out late this year, weak, cold, and dry. The farmers fret that conditions are horrible for crops. Food is scarce. Even poachers, like my cousin, can’t find game. The girl’s forest gatherings make up more and more of locals’ diets. No stew can be found without her herbs. I leave my own garden for a few hours every day to help her. She shows me what to look for in the wild, cues like minute color variations in berries that render one edible and one poisonous.
She rarely speaks, but when she does, she says too much, revealing knowledge she should not have. When she gives her finds to the farmer, she tells him too much about what the plants can be paired with and what their healing effects might be.
The other locals are growing suspicious. Could she be the cause of the cold weather, the lack of rain? Didn’t she benefit when their crops failed? God’s punishing them for suffering a nonbeliever. She has the nerve to offer them food when she’s denied them their hard-earned crops.
I tell her of these rumors, beg her to join me at church, to marry me. My wife died several years ago, in childbirth, along with our daughter, and though my garden is small, it yields enough to trade for the things I need. She could be comfortable with me. The gossip would die down.
She pauses at what has become our meeting spot in the woods, in front of two saplings reaching out toward each other. We have started training them, guiding their branches, helping them to lean on each other. I reach for her. She leans into me, her back to my stomach, her small shoulders fitting between my arms.
“Do you see these two trees?” she asks. “We are like them. If we become entangled with each other, our fates will be wrapped up in one another. We shall love, but we shall also lack. I will not be able to continue helping my Uncle learn medicine. I could die in childbirth. And you? You would be a pariah.”
“I don’t care,” I say, and I mean it. She kisses me then, loves me, and it is the death of her.
The cold spring turns into a cold summer which gives way to a bitterly cold fall. Snow freezes the few resilient crops before they can be harvested. The entire village relies on the abbey’s stores to survive; well, the abbey stores and the learned girl’s scavenging. She is remarkably adept at gathering herbs and plants regardless of the seasons; her knowledge grows with the scrolls and books Bernard sneaks to her. Along with her knowledge, her belly grows, too. She is swollen with our child.
“Be my wife,” I implore again. She kisses me and shakes her head no. She will belong to no man. She will accept no help with her lot in life. She will always choose her own path.
I find a twisted piece of scrap metal that the blacksmith, an old friend of mine, lets me keep, and I wrap it with twine to give to my lady, a necklace. It looks like a root.
“Because I understand, and I am yours, just the same,” I say. When she turns away and her fingertips brush her eyes, I pretend not to notice, but I am pleased she is so moved.
When her belly gets so big she can’t bend over to gather plants, she accepts my help. She agrees to let me do the gathering, then to meet me at our tree for me to give her the stuff for the farmer and her uncle. We meet in the early afternoon, when wandering eyes are distracted by grumbling bellies. A large almost-black cat has taken to following her around; since it’s killed the mice and rats, she doesn’t complain. I call him “Brother Aurelio,” on account of the cat’s massive size and lazy manner.
The village whispers about the cat, calling it her familiar, claiming its presence is the proof they need: the girl is evil. An enchanter, a lurer of fine Christian men. The townswomen shake their heads at Aurelio, at their husbands, at me, at anyone who gives the herb-gathering stranger the time of day. She seems not to care, continues treading head-on through this harshest of years. Meets me, every day, through fog and ice and thundercloud, at the two little trees bent like one heart into each other.
One afternoon, she doesn’t come. I run to her barn. There is blood on her bed. No sign of her.
I knock on her landlord’s farmhouse door, but there is no answer. I run into the village, where smoke rises from the center square. Screams and shouts pierce the air. Evening descends and more villagers gather, their desperation threading into chaos.
“Seized by the devil, she was!”
“Bride of Satan! The babe’ll have the mark, of course.”
“She’s already sacrificed it! There was no baby when the miller found her convulsing and covered in blood.”
Dear Lord, I think. What have they done with her?
“She’s the reason God froze us out! How could He provide us with bountiful harvests with that snake slithering in the grass?”
“Mrreee!” an unearthly scream pierces through the commotion. Brother Aurelio, the cat. Someone has grabbed him. He wriggles, bites, claws; someone has tied a rope around his neck. I cannot bear to watch. I turn back into the crowd, searching for any sign of her.
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