Lives, Lived and Unlived (Part 1 of 4)
Jeddos heard the rumours that she’d been and come back.
“Why didn’t you say anything to me before?”
His friend, Erngrod, told him – perhaps a little sheepish – “Well, you know how it is. And how you are. You’d have been wanting to go off and stop her or track her down or something.”
Well, surely, utterly. It could be dangerous out there, and maybe more so for a young woman out on her own. Especially these days. He would certainly have gone to her and told her he thought she shouldn’t go, and not alone and-
“Well, somebody should have said something.”
And the talk was that she’d gone to the hill witch. That she had the winning of some man’s heart or such on her mind, and she’d gone to the witch for a Seeing or a love potion. She’d come back, and she’d come back unscarred – so maybe the witch had been of some help to her?
If that was on my account, I could have saved you a journey. I could have told you the contents of my heart, and I’d have handed it over without the need for any potion.
But it wasn’t on his account. Jeddos heard the news soon enough. There was going to be a wedding. Krislyn and Bangrif. The news travelled Hurrendel from old well to new mill, from castle to outlying goatherder’s hut. The two of them would be married on the coming full moon, before the whole town.
His mother wouldn’t let him near go her.
“She’s making a mistake though. Can’t you see it?”
“She’s made a choice, Jed.”
“No, that old witch, she swayed her, she enchanted her.”
“That lad Bangrif, he’s a charmer, he has his dark good looks. I know like a mother knows that you’re the better man of you two, but I can see why he’d draw a young girl, and it wouldn’t take a witch’s doing.”
“He’s a mistake for her.”
“Maybe he is, but you won’t change her mind. Even less if the witch up there confirmed it. You’ll only earn the edges of her tongue for your efforts.”
And what could he argue? Only that it felt wrong. Not just a disappointment or jealousy – although he was steeped in all that – but a sense of the world being an odds with itself. A sense of truly not-meant-to-be. As if the stars were out of alignment. She belonged with him, his Krislyn, she just did.
Not that he had any especial right to call her his.
A dance or two by the fire on festivals. A walk or two back from the hills after mending fences. A few laughs, a few songs around the hearth of whoever’d brewed the freshest ale. She’d brought honeycakes and herb tonic up to his father once when he’d been ill. Precious few things to stake a claim on.
She’d danced with Bangrif as well. He’d seen them break open a fresh loaf between them to eat on a frosty morning. He’d seen Bangrif once teach her to fire an arrow. And Bangrif, of course, had found the courage to ask for her hand.
The wedding was attended by everyone. There could be no excuse for not showing up. And in honesty, he couldn’t say he wanted to. The occasion was laced with pain, but it would have been wrong to stay away, to not even see her safely into Bangrif’s arms and over his doorway.
On impulse he decided to carve them a gift. He considered momentarily a cradle, but that seemed too much, too intimate too pointed – and suppose they could never have a child together and one day somebody looked at the cradle and mused: was that witchcraft on the part of the giver? Surely the lord would put a stop to such talk – but the taint of rumour would hang in the air. And so no, it was better to make a small chest. To carve it with images of gentle plants and rabbits, swirls that had no particular meaning. He spent rare silver and a trip to the Elliosh fair to find cherry varnish for it.
In that chest he put his hopes, his misbegotten dream. He closed the lid, and told himself that he must move on. He had no choice except to let her go.
As the day came and went he stood on the sidelines.
Krislyn was dressed in green, a dress made of soft wool, and decorated in copper chains. Tin-rich bronze links were sewn into the wool, giving a glint of gold in the right light and at the right distance. And her hair was swept above her head, twisted amongst ribbons and spring flowers. She was the quintessential bride, and in Jeddos’ mind there had never been anyone lovelier. His heart tripled its beat, watching her.
If only. Oh, if only, if only, had he only been a tiny bit braver…
He’d never know.
And it was a torture of sorts to see her kneel at Bangrif’s side, to see her link her fingers in his, to see the smile that came over Bangrif’s face – an admittedly handsome face – as he saw her and as he touched her and as they each spoke their vows, and as each of their fathers gave a formal, solemn consent. Promises of lands were exchanged – the strips endowed to each by the others’ family, the land rights held in trust for future children.
A wrenching pain touched Jeddos hearing these words. It was something like grief, and in that pain there formed an image – a cradle with room for two, two swaddled babies packed amongst sheepskins, tiny woollen caps on each of their heads. And a scene like the one in front of him, two figures kneeling in the field. But this time not Krislyn and Bangrif, this time it was Jeddos with her, and she in a dress of mid-blue, daisies running down her back. The light in his eyes not Bangrif’s, the smile on his face.
The vision faded as quickly as it’d come. But its residue clung to his mind. He felt dizzy and short of breath, he felt as if his heart had been ripped out of his chest. As if he couldn’t stop bleeding. There was no describing it. He only wanted to run. To run, and keep running, to put this horror somewhere behind him. Or at least to scream at her – No, no, no, no, no – you can’t do this, you mustn’t – it’s me you belong with, I swear it!
Instead, he must be polite. He must take his place in line, kiss her cheek, present his gift, wish her luck and happiness and fruitfulness. Wish the same to Bangrif.
Krislyn whispered, “Thank you for coming.”
“But of course, I…”
“I know you looked at me.”
“A man can look.”
“More than once.”
“And a woman can choose.” He hoped the words were without bitterness. He mustn’t taint her happiness with any kind of ill-wishing. “I wish you both well, I do.”
“I wish you the same. You’ll find the right girl.”
He was sure, so sure, that he was standing right in front of that girl. But it was something he couldn’t say. And Bangrif was right there now, reaching to clasp hands. He could only say, “Take care of her, treat her well.”
“Depend on it,” and he tossed that diamond smile of his into the air.
You won’t, will you? Jeddos just thought that, didn’t know why. Too tired and heartsick to even think about whys and what nexts. All he knew with any certainty was that he wanted to get dark-drunk, to saturate his pain, to drink until it dissolved along with him – he only wondered if this wedding would have enough strong wine to get the job done.
Krislyn and Bangrif moved into a house in the village.
It was a small cottage, vacated by a widow who had married not long before the two of them. Only one room, an adjoining barn, a firepit out in front for baking. Jeddos lived a little way out of the centre of Hurrendel, along the grey-green ridge, where his family grazed goats and sheep. His daily wanderings into the meadows, his work amongst the grain, afforded him a view of that house, so that they were always on the periphery of everything he did.
His mother promised him: “Your heart will heal.”
And yet it didn’t. At all. And he felt as if it never would.
His own home grew more crowded when his aunt from a few villages down lost her husband to a fever, and her cottage to her greedy stepsons. She came up on the back of merchant’s wagon, and was taken in by his family.
That was exactly as it should be, but she brought with her two small children, and there was barely any room for them. Jeddos’ father came to him out in the fields and suggested that he petition for a few strips of land and a cottage of his own. A rundown hut on the east hills and not far from the river had been sitting unused for some time. It would need to be rebuilt, and the land would need to be cleared. They’d help him with that. He should go to the lord, request the tenancy – “We have the new calf we can pay with.”
Unsaid: that maybe he would find a girl, marry, have some children. At least the family would have more land, have an easier time of it feeding their new charges.
“We would never turn family away….” His father held his hands out helplessly, but the fields could only go so far, the stores were low, the two nieces growing and growing.
So Jeddos spent the winter and early spring out by the hut, digging, hammering, pulling thistles, clearing stones. He’d been granted the tenancy, and had his family and many others from the village to help. Local families – as well as his own – gave simple gifts of furniture; an iron pot, a wooden mug, a tight-woven basket. A girl named Sithria stitched together a sheepskin blanket, softening the underside almost to silk. She presented it to him shyly, with an awkward smile, letting her hopes shine out of her face. A pretty face, rounded, dark-eyed; and she’d brought him soup and bread while he’d worked through the season. It would have made such sense… except that his heart… Krislyn… he couldn’t let go of that.
She came as well, a couple of times, helping with the clearing, Bangrif beside her. There were only a few words exchanged. He watched her with her husband. Was she happy? Did he treat her right? It seemed to Jeddos as if he didn’t dote on her the way she deserved, that he shared his conversation too freely with other girls. He saw angry words fly between them once, and just thought: it shouldn’t be.
In the quiet and loneliness of his new home he watched the firelight play across the walls. And in that reflected light he saw images of another room, one that was busier and brighter, occupied by a woman, two small children, a baby in a crib. The woman was Krislyn, a few years older, her hair tied back behind her shoulder, a bowl beneath her arm as she mixed batter. It was this room, but changed, full of her touch. And for a moment that scene was clearer than day, realer than the sparse surrounding he sat in. Even after that moment, as the image faded away, it’s residue still haunted the air, flickers of what he’d seen.
More than imagination.
The life he should have had.
A year later. Krislyn’s belly swelled at last.
Some had gossiped that maybe she was barren, or that Bangrif shared his favours with some other woman, leaving Krislyn alone in her bed.
Her pregnancy quelled some of that, but Jeddos wondered at it. He tried to keep his distance, but the village was not that large, it was hard not to hear, not to know and notice the affairs of his neighbours.
He’d been avoiding her, he realised, without really intending to – just shying away from his pain and loss as if it were open flame. But when he encountered her one day out on the common, it was too late to turn away. She was huge with Bangrif’s child, and walked with some difficulty. It would have been terrible of him not to have helped with her basket.
She accepted his offer, smiling shyly, and there was awkwardness as they walked down the hill towards her house, long silences punctuated only by a few difficult, banal scatters of conversation.
In the end she said: “Look, I don’t like this. How it is between us.”
“I used to think you were a friend of sorts.”
“But now you try not to look at me.”
“Well that’s…” and how did he describe how that was?
“It hurts,” she said.
“Well, I don’t mean that. But you’re married now, and another man’s. I don’t want people to gossip, and I don’t want to cause friction between you and him.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’d be you-” and she stopped herself, eyes dropping to her feet.
“What do you mean?”
“No, what? Is he cruel?”
“No. No, of course not. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to let-”
She laughed. “Oh, I know that. I know. My mother brought me up right. Us – us women – we’d have him stripped and tied to the well if we thought he needed the lesson.”
It’d happened before. The women of Hurrendel knew how to take care of their own. He should laugh with her. But he found he couldn’t. And that seed of doubt took quiet root in his mind.
Weeks later. A child was born.
Jeddos learnt later that he hadn’t come easily. That Krislyn had screamed and bled, but that the baby had been born alive, and her strength was said to be recovering. He was glad not to have learnt anything sooner, not to have had to spend the night awake, fretting, wondering what chance there was she wouldn’t survive.
Instead he heard only the next day about a child born floppy and pale, a mother reaching for him, crying wildly, clutching him against her breast. The midwife wrestling him free to shock his breath back into him and then resting him warm, wailing in his mother’s arms.
Bangrif was said to be thrilled with the arrival of his son; his mother brewed ale for the whole village, a sheep was killed and roasted in vinegar, onions and pepper. A village-sized crowd sat outside the cottage, laughing and imbibing, sharing tall stories about childbirth and newborn babies. Bangrif fetched the child from inside and let some of the villagers hold him.
“Veldon. After my grandfather.”
“She’s in him, all over his face. And… and you too.”
Bangrif laughed. “I know my own blood. He looks like my brother did as a baby.” A brother who’d only lived a few weeks.
“He’s a fine child,” it seemed the right thing to say. And in the instant of saying it, for a moment, the scene shifted, the child became a pale, fair-haired baby, a wisp of a thing. Another child. A glimpse revealing a life never lived.
“Hold him a moment, why not? Generosity in victory.”
So you know my heart, do you? And his stomach twisted a little in realising that Bangrif did, but was too secure in his victory over Krislyn’s own heart to care. “Is she well?”
“Tired. And if this baby has her lungs… you’re lucky you live up hill. But look what she produced, huh?”
“But she’s all right?”
A toast was raised to this new child. Wishes of happiness of prosperity were spoken and cheered. The night was warm, convivial, full of hope and promise. Against the horizon a stubborn streak of red sunset held onto the hills. Beyond it, though nobody knew, darkness and violence where on their way to Hurrendel.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work.