The Castle (16)
After the uncertainty and trepidation of Fairfax’s entry into Falmouth the atmosphere in the market square changed. It seemed that the inhabitants of the town were not, after all, about to experience the terrors of brutal occupation. The opposite seemed to be true. Young Roundhead soldiers moved amongst the crowd, casually speaking with old men and women, showing off their muskets to children, flirting with the young maidens who were scouring the stalls for a cheap cut. One even took a liking to Bethsany’s chickens. He haggled with her over a price, quipping with Maben that a soldier’s life was best of all. ‘You’d do your mother proud serving Parliament’s army’ the soldier said. Maben squirmed under the young man’s gaze, clung to Bethsany’s sturdy legs. The soldier, unsure about this silent boy, graced Bethsany’s palm with a coin. He left them with the chicken hanging from his bandolier.
As the crowd thinned and the day grew cold Bethsany and Maben packed their wares and began the slow walk home. The boy carried the rolled blanket, skipping up the steep hill; Bethsany, weighed down with unsold goods, trudged behind at a distance. A little over half way from the hill’s crest, Bethsany called out. Maben turned and ran back to where she stood. She indicated another, much narrower, road to their right, which led to an old stone cottage.
Bethsany had brought him to this place before, and the memory of it disturbed him. He grew anxious as Bethsany ordered him inside, refusing at first, screwing up his face in a determined effort to show his displeasure. Bethsany, though, insisted, scolded him for his disobedience. Eventually she took a tight hold of Maben’s arm and pulled him in the direction of the cottage’s front door.
She didn’t hesitate to enter the place without warning, pushing open the door with a brusque slap of her palm. Inside, a thin, elderly woman was sitting beside the hearth. On the floor before her sat a girl eating fish and bread from a wooden bowl. The girl looked up. She had the same barnyard hair as Maben, though it was longer and in places matted; and she had the same pale skin, though a bruise could be seen on her neck. Maben looked at her with a suspicious eye, as if trying to recall a previous uncomfortable encounter. He turned to Bethsany who merely nodded in the girl’s direction, encouraging him to make the girl’s acquaintance. Maben edged towards her. He watched the girl’s hands scoop fish from the bowl, push the broiled flakes into her greasy mouth. Her eyes were darkly ringed, as though someone had smudged dirt around them. Her woolen jerkin was caked with muck; her long skirt and ankle boots were torn at the seams.
He sat down opposite her. The elderly woman passed him a bowl. Bethsany pulled from her bag a chicken she had withheld from sale. The old woman took it, placed it on a lobster pot next to her which she used as a table. She then poured a cup of strong ale for Bethsany who thanked her and she sat for a while cradling the cup in her large, work ravaged hands.
No more words passed between her and the elderly woman. Indeed, no words passed between Maben and the girl. They sat eating their bread and fish, occasionally looking at one another. If Maben had been able to speak in a coherent manner and ask who the girl was, he would have been surprised to learn that she was his twin sister. It had been nine years since the twins’ parents had drowned in their scully boat, nine years since Ann and Bethsany had taken the boy and the old woman and her husband had taken the girl. Now that her husband had died and she had slipped into ill health, she was dependent on the girl to run her errands. Bethsany offered the woman charity on market day when she could.
Maben soon grew irritable. He had eaten the contents of his bowl and wanted to explore. He did so without comment from Bethsany, darting out of the front door and making his way to the rear of the house into an overgrown garden that reminded him of the forest.
He stood in the long grass, chasing out the bugs and flies that lived there, cupping them in his hand. He examined each one, taking in the delicate structures of their wings, the other-worldly proptosis of their eyes, the dazzling colours of their bodies and legs. Maben wondered what it would be like to fly between the tall grass; wondered that if he climbed the tallest tree in the forest and spread his arms he too would be able to sweep through the air in the manner of a damsel fly. Beetles were his favourite. He found one hidden beneath a rock – as big as a small stone and shiny black in his hand, its shell magically refashioning itself into a dark streak of blue. It sat obediently in his hand, its long antenna probing. Maben decided he would take it with him. He would keep it as a pet, house it in the empty dwelling of Elowen’s grandmother and visit it each day.
Suddenly he turned; the girl was standing behind him. For a moment he seemed to understand their relationship, was able to acknowledge that she was as much part of him as Ann, Bethsany and Elowen. The girl stood and stared for a long time – so long that Maben extended his palm so that she was able to fully appreciate the creature he’d discovered. The girl gently touched the beetle’s shell with her finger. Maben did the same, careful not press lest the great force of him caused the beetle pain, because Anne had once explained to him how great a person was in relation to the small things that inhabited God’s earth. The girl reached out, aligning her palm with Maben’s, and the beetle was shunted from the plateau of one hand to the other. The girl smiled, her teeth black and chipped in places; then she took hold of the beetle between her forefinger and thumb – lifted it above her head as Maben looked on. He gazed at the creature’s underside, giggled as the spindly legs stretched themselves in the air. Then the girl lowered her hand until the beetle was above her eyes. She closed them and opened wide her mouth – promptly dropped the creature in. She began to chew, splintering the shell, until a dark yellow pus began to dribble onto her lips. Maben cried out - the same high-pitched cry that he made when the footman came into view. He turned and ran – ran through the tall grass, into the cottage, his sister’s laughter ringing in his ears.