The Village 4
Mattie woke to the sound of chirrups from outside her dwelling. She sat up and spied the figure of an old man peering through the door. The old man’s noise irritated her. He sounded like a strange insect. She threw her wooden bowl and hissed. The old man moved away.
She had fallen asleep in front of the hearth. Her child was sleeping too. She checked the child’s breathing and covered it with a length of cloth.
The old man returned and his chirrups began again. Mattie got up and prised open the door.
He was a pitiful sight: bald, toothless, dressed in rags. The rain had stopped and the air was cool and fresh. She suspected that the old man wanted food but she had none.
‘Father’ the old man shreiked. ‘Come see…Father!’
Mattie didn’t understand what he was saying. He was beckoning her, pointing in the direction of the water mill.
‘Father’ the old man chuckled, his face contorting into a grimace. Curious, she left her dwelling and followed him.
The old man stopped outside the gaol, chirruping and smacking his lips. Mattie went inside.
The chains that had bound her father hung limply from the wall. Amongst the straw were tiny morsels of the food that she had brought him – bread, cheese, the bones of a fresh mullet. And she could smell him too – the acrid odour of the last few days, when, in defiance of the world, he’d refused even to rub a dock leaf across his wounded flesh.
She felt anger and sadness where she had always expected to feel none. Countless times the thought of being left alone appealed to her, especially when she was beaten, or whenever he touched her as a child. Now, though, the realisation of his escape was painful, for she knew that she would be held to account.
Mattie left the gaol and ran towards her dwelling, the old man, excited by what he had shown her, shouted after her: ‘Father! Father! Where father ?’
Once inside she wrapped her child and put food into her basket. She began to cry, more for herself than for her father. Her father was a troublemaker. He was to blame for the wretchedness of their lives. Now she was alone and saw only misery ahead of her.
As she wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her jerkin a sudden spasm of soreness erupted between her legs. She cupped her hand in that place and squeezed the muscles of her thighs. She began to sweat and her forehead began to burn. Then, after a few seconds, the pain disappeared.
With the child and the basket in her arms, fearful that she would be blamed for her father’s disappearance, she wrapped herself in a shawl and prepared to leave the village forever.
That night the Reeve’s son, Nicholas, tired of being confined to the great manor house, kissed his mother on the cheek and retired to his room. He had no intention of sleeping. The sky was clear and the moon illuminated the manor grounds. The youth could see the apple orchard and even the faint outline of the men guarding the village entrance at the bridge.
It had been a day of great drama in the manor house. In the afternoon the priest Robert Wyclyffe had called, clearly in distress, and demanded to see the Reeve. Having retired to an ante-room Thomas Blanford and the priest engaged in agitated conversation. The result of that conversation had been the Reeve ending his self-imposed isolation and accompanying the priest into the village, much to his wife’s distress.
Later Nicholas, overhearing a conversation between two of the grooms, discovered the reason for the priest’s anxiety. A man had been found dead in the forest - a man from a neighbouring village, a man known to be full of blasphemies and coarse words about the king. The man had helped Mattie’s father escape from gaol and the girl had been caught trying to leave the village with her bastard child. She was accused of aiding her father’s escape and was to be tried in the manor court. As punishment the Reeve had ordered her fastened to the village hanging tree where she was to stay without sustenance until morning. The grooms shook their heads at this and made the sign of
Such news was of great interest to Nicholas Blandford. His father had spoken to him about men and women who worked against the natural order of things. They had the devil inside them and met in secret to plot insurrections. And because he too expected to occupy high office he was curious to see this girl’s punishment. He knew that his father would forbid such a visit so he planned to go in secret and see the spectacle for himself.
Nicholas had carried out such subterfuge before. Many a night the youth had crept from his chamber and out into the village. He dreamt of a secret rendezvous with a princess. More often than not he became frightened and quickly returned to the safety of the manor.
He opened the door of his room. His father was reading aloud in the long room and his deep voice easily masked the sound of the youth’s feet padding the wooden floor. By following a stairway to a little-used back entrance, he was able to slip into the moonlit orchard, the scene of his imagined love trysts. As usual no princess was waiting, so he walked quickly through a bower gate and past the silent water mill. The rain had enticed pungent aromas to fill the night air and he stopped momentarily to look at the moon’s reflection in the murky water of the mill’s stagnant moat. The world, he thought, was a simple one. It was inhabited by beauty and ugliness. Beauty was everywhere - in nature and the love he felt for God and his imaginary princess. Ugliness hid itself away, revealing itself in the forces of insurrection.
His thoughts pleased him. As he walked towards the forest he continued to ponder on the make-up of the world. Beauty was to be cherished. Ugliness had to be defeated. The righteousness of God ensured that those pure in mind would ascend to heaven - Wyclyffe the priest told him so in church.
And his father, who he admired above all others, had proved that faith and diligence would be rewarded. Why, hadn’t he risen above others to the official post of Reeve ? Hadn’t God smiled on their family and blessed them with good fortune ?
He stopped. On the ridge of the hill, where the forest began, he could see the figure of the girl. She was tied to the great oak tree that marked the forest’s entrance – the same oak that bore the weight of those condemned in the manor court. The youth advanced cautiously. The girl’s hands were tied above her head and she had lost consciousness. The youth felt compassion for the girl. Was that a sign of weakness ? Wyclyffe had once told him that even the most despicable soul is worthy of compassion, although the boy’s father dismissed such ideas as blasphemy.
He walked closer – so close he could hear the gentle sound of her breathing. Holding up his lantern, the Reeve’s son noticed that the girl’s face had turned a deathly shade of blue and yellow. His father had taught him about anatomy – about how oxygen is important to invigorate the brain – and the youth wondered how much longer the girl would survive.
An owl screeched and he heard rustling among the trees. The rope had bitten deep into the girl’s wrists. With the lantern held close it looked as if the blood was being siphoned from the girl’s body. Why, even her legs were discoloured. Indeed, the girl’s bare feet were beginning to turn black.
He untied the twine that bound her wrists and she slumped to the ground. Then he wiped her face with a clump of damp grass. The girl moved and began to shiver. The branches of the great oak strained in the wind.
Perhaps the full moon was playing tricks. Instead of returning to the manor house he caressed the girl’s face and neck. Why he did such a thing was a mystery to him. But her flesh, contrary to its pallor, felt smooth to his touch. And Mattie, her face illuminated by the lantern, seemed in his eyes as pure as the imaginary princess he yearned for.
Her eyes opened and she placed her hand in his. The youth was frightened. It was the first time a woman other than his mother had touched him. She stroked his cheek and he allowed her to kiss him on the lips - whereupon the Reeve’s son drew back his head, wiping his mouth as he did so. Guilt surged through him. But why feel so ? Hadn’t he kissed his imaginary princess a thousand times ? Hadn’t he yearned in his dreams to defend beauty with all his might ?
He advanced on her again. This time he ran his fingers the length of her chest and watched as the fish-girl let slip her shawl, undid her jerkin and lifted her vest.
She lay before him, illuminated by the moon. But the Reeve’s son proved unwilling to cup the fish girl’s breasts, as he had done with the princess of his dreams. Covering Mattie’s body were large welts – some hard and brittle, others soft and porous – all of them the same black-blue hue as her ankles and feet. The youth knew instantly what the foul welts signified: they signified ugliness…they signified the devil.
There was a rustling of leaves. The Reeve’s son turned and shouted: ‘Who is it ? Who’s there ?’
Frightened – repulsed by the sight of her - he turned in readiness to flee. As he did so the figure of Mattie’s father emerged from behind a thicket. He was holding a knife.
The youth knew the man. He was the villein who had been imprisoned in the gaol - a coarse, Godless man who scavenged the market place for pieces of bread or fruit. His father had told him about the man’s crimes whenever the girl arrived at the manor house selling her meagre offerings of fish.
‘You dare to shackle her instead of me ?’ Mattie’s father said. ‘You dare leave her to expire like an animal caught in a trap ?’
‘My father the Reeve punished her’ said the youth. ‘My father is obliged to punish those who disrespect the king’s law.’
Mattie’s father didn’t answer. He held his daughter and rubbed her cold shoulders and legs. At last he said: ‘The dead soul lying in the forest helped me escape. Tell that to your wretched father, the Reeve.’
The youth watched as Mattie’s father poured water onto his daughter’s face. She tried to speak – became anxious, searching urgently for her child.
‘The child is asleep in the dwelling’ her father said. ‘Go and take her. Then we will leave this place once and for all.’
Mattie’s father stood and held the blade to boy’s neck, willing him to protest so that he could butcher him like a sheep.
‘Quickly! Fetch the child.’
But she was unwilling to do her father’s bidding. With the knife against his throat the Reeve’s son watched as Mattie, her face illuminated by the lantern, remained where she lay.
The youth felt rough hands take hold of his hair and pull back his head – felt the heat of the man’s breath on his face. Then came a shout – the raising of the hue and cry - and the sound of men of faith approaching.
Mattie’s father let out a curse, pushed the boy to the ground, and ran into the forest.