More lady-lessons. I let my mother instruct me but once I leave her I plan to do as I please. The pig who wishes to wed me liked me well enough when I did not walk with my eyes cast down and hands clasped. God's thumbs! If he doesn't like me to grab up my skirts and run, he can send me back. Oh that he would!
The Hours of Vespers, Later This Day:
I once had a nightmare that I was lost in the woods in the fog and I could not find my way out and I could hear a boar rutting in the bushes, coming closer and closer. When I woke, I found it was no dream but true and I was lost in the woods. This day is like that. I have been walking in a bad dream since Robert's wedding when the pig first laid his eyes on me, and now I wake to find it is true.
A messenger arrived this noon. Shaggy Beard will be here before September is over. We will be formally betrothed and will ride north together to be married in the church at Lithgow. I accepted his silver. I consented. The bear is safe and I am doomed.
My father rode to London yesterday but will not be gone long, wanting to be back before the baby is born. My mother is so thin and frail to heave her heavy load around. If it would not make her sad, I would wish this baby away.
My mother has labored for two days to birth her child but it will not come. Morwenna is with her now. She sent me to rest but rest I cannot while my mother suffers so.
Her torment began Sunday morn when all were in church except my sleeping mother and me left to tend her. Suddenly her pains began. I comforted her as best I could and then ran for someone to send to old Nan from the village. Nan drinks and stinks and stumbles but her babies mostly live.
Everyone was still at Mass, except for Odd William snoring by the fire like a pig in the sun. I woke him roughly and told him how to find Nan. He refused to go, saying he was just writing of how the great King Arthur led the Britons against the barbarian invaders and was not at a stopping place. Corpus bones! I slapped him so hard I spilled his ink but still he sat by the fire talking of the dead Arthur while my living mother labored upstairs. The knotty-pated, clay-brained clodpole!
I went back to my mother and sang and bathed her face until Mass was over and the manor came alive again and old Nan could be fetched.
My mother labored all day and night and day and night again with no result, but this morning we could see the top of a tiny head. Nan, fearing for the child's life, baptized it while the rest of it stays stuck in my mother. Although I made her a drink of wallflowers in warm wine and untied all the knots and unstopped all the jugs in the manor, no more of the child has come forth yet and I am terribly afraid. Dear Saint Margaret, who watches over women in childbirth, help my mother. She is gentle and good and does the best that she can with the beast my father and her difficult children.
Our baby was born last evening, a dear beautiful scrawny little girl. I cleaned the spittle from her mouth and the blood from her body, wrapped her in clean linen, and laid her next my mother, who wept from joy and exhaustion.
Since then my mother suffers greatly with a fever. I rubbed her back with an ointment of wild poppy and oil of violets and gave her some in a goblet of honeyed wine. She rests now.
The baby sleeps in a cradle near my bed and I pretend she is mine. I have hung garlic and rowan about the cradle to ward off witches and am watching her closely to make sure she breathes. She does. She lives.
My mother's fever is worse. O dear Saint Margaret, who cares for women in childbed, dear Blessed Virgin, most especially dear God, please save my mother! Nan has gone back to the village, saying there is nothing more she could do, but I will not stop trying. Morwenna and I bathe her face with cool linen and pour goblets of wine down her parched throat. We have stopped all the windows and built up the fire but still her fever rages.
I do not know how she can be so hot and not consume herself and the bed linen and the whole manor in flames. I have not slept nor Morwenna since the baby was born. Bess from the kitchen has taken her and feeds her with the same milk and the same love she feeds her own babe. Dear God, I can do no more for either of them. Morwenna will not let me back in my mother's chamber until I rest and eat, so I am pretending to do so while really I write this and pray.
My mother worsened and we sent for Father Huw to ease her dying. And then my father came home.
He threw Father Huw down the stairs, opened the window in the solar, cast all of us out, and stayed there with her pacing and whispering and shouting until dark. He came out the, face gray but eyes shining, to say she lives. And will live. I thank you, God, and the Virgin Mary, whose birthday this is, and my father, and most unlikely agent of a miracle that I know. I think he just battled the devil and won.
She still lives. And the baby also. My mother demanded that the cradle be moved back into her chamber, so I have made a bed on the floor near them. I must keep them safe. We will call the baby Eleanor Mary Catherine.
Now that I am about to leave, I feel how dear this place is to me. I sat in the field next to the village this morning, trying to memorize the sounds -- the squeal of cart wheels and the bawling of babies, the shouts of children and peddlers and cross old women, the hissing of the geese and the roosters' crow. The dogs were barking, the water wheel splashed, and the smith's hammer rang like a church bell. I took it all into my heart so I can play it like music whenever I need to.
I am painting on my chamber wall God holding baby Eleanor in his arms. What I think about God is that He is not some old white-haired man. If God can be anything He wants, why would He choose to be an old man? Thomas Baker's grandfather is an old man; he has no teeth and coughs and spits painfully. John Over-Bridge is an old man. He hobbles from his house to the woods to piss and is barely able to hobble home. I think God would not choose to be an old man. Or a woman -- God's father would probably marry Him off to some pig in pants. No, I think God is like a young king, clean and shining in his armor, with long legs and soft eyes, mounted on a white horse, singing and smiling. And that is how he is on my chamber wall.
I am excited, saddened, and confused. I cannot talk to Aelis about this, for it is she who confuses me. We met in the meadow this morning. I waited there until the sun was high and a thousand new spots popped out on my nose before she finally arrived. Her color was bright and her breathing labored, and not just from the heat and the climb, it appears. Her father has told her she is to wed my brother Robert!
I fell upon her in tears, babblings about how we were in the same barrel of pickles and could run away together and give puppet shows at fairs and to Hell with Shaggy Beard and his silver and my promise. Aelis just laughed and put her hand over my mouth.
"Hush your chirping, Little Bird," she said. "Wedding Robert is my idea."
Then she sang on about his shining eyes and strong hands and lusty laugh. Robert! She must have been enchanted by some witch with a mind to jests. Robert! I tried to tell her of his abominations and his utter beastliness but her cheeks grew pink and she laughed and said, "Yes, I know, Robert is a true man." God's thumbs! Robert!
So I am excited that Aelis will be my sister, saddened because I will not be here to enjoy her but will be prisoner to some pig in the north who sends his bride a toothpick and a sewing kit. But mostly I am confused. Why would Aelis marry Robert? What about George, whom she vowed to love until she died? And who is Robert, the beast I see or the lover Aelis sees? The rascal he acts or the young man who found a home for a shabby bear to please his little sister? I think sometimes that people are like onions. On the outside smooth and whole and simple but inside ring upon ring, complex and deep.
I sought Robert after dinner and asked if he weren't still grieving over his poor dead wife and their babe and how could he think to wed again so soon. He told me to keep my beak out of his business and grinned. He had lost a front tooth. Good.
Today I finished painting baby Eleanor's face on the mural in my chamber. Mayhap when she grows older, it will be her chamber and she will think on the sister who lived and slept and painted here.
Only five days to Shaggy Beard.
We gathered nuts today -- walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, looking especially for the double nuts that protect against rheumatism and the spells of witches. As we gathered, I imagined eating them, in sauces and cakes and roasted in the fire on a stormy November night. I cannot believe I will not be here to share them.
Four days until Shaggy Beard.
Three days to Shaggy Beard.
My mother let me look today in her mirror of polished silver. "I must know how I look right now," I told her. "I must see myself as myself once more before I become the unwilling Lady Shaggy Beard." She unwrapped the disk from its velvet covers and held it before me. My eyes are still gray, not blue, and my hair brown, not gold. The sunspots are still there, dotting my nose and cheeks like speckles on an egg, though my mother says I look none so bad when I am not squinting or sulking.
I have the opinion that longing to be blue-eyed and golden-haired like the maidens in songs profits me nothing. Easier, I think, to change the songs than my face. So I have begun a new song:
Her eyes were gray and brown her hair
As she went down to Bartlemas Fair.
With her rumpled clothes
And spotted nose
No blue-eyed beauty could compare.
I will finish it some other day.
Morwenna and I have packed my gowns and robes this day. I have wandered the manor since, saying goodbye to the barn cats and the chickens, to Perkin's goats and Sym's pigs, to Meg in the dairy and Gerd at the mill and Rhys in the stables. When I reached the dovecote, the doves put me in mind of myself, raised only to breed and to die. So I let them out and shooed them away. I have no doubt they will come back -- doves are none too bright -- but for now they are free.
And I let my chamber birds go as well, taking each to the window and wishing it Godspeed as I opened the cage door. Goodbye to Dittany and Clubmoss, Wormwood, Saffron, Sage, and all the others. I who must be caged could leave them no longer in cages. So I set them free -- all but the popinjay, who could not survive on his own. I gave him to Perkin, as well as the other half of my pouch of silver so he can buy his way free from his obligations to my father and find a way to become a scholar. I have no doubt he will do it. Perkin is still the cleverest person I know.
One day to Shaggy Beard.
The day after I last wrote, riders from Shaggy Beard appeared at our hall. While they were closed away with my father, I ran to the high meadow to say goodbye to Perkin. When I reached the road, however, instead of crossing over, I turned north, I was fairly crazed with fear, like a best pursued by dogs, thinking only to get away. Then I saw a picture in my mind of my aunt Ethelfritha winking and telling me to run to her next time. By cock and pie, I thought, I will do it! Uncle George I am not sure I but Aunt Ethelfritha will help me! I tucked a sprig of mugwort in my shoe so I should not tire on the journey and set off for York.
I was two days on that road and mugwort or no mugwort arrived looking like a dying duck in a thunderstorm. I had taken not a penny nor a crust and I was afraid to be seen, so I dared not ask for food. My stomach worm gnawed all the way to York. I slept outside in haystacks and, thanks be, had no rain until the last afternoon. By the time I arrived yestereve just after supper I was so hungry and weary and footsore I could not walk an ace farther.
My uncle George was from home for the night but there was my dear Ethelfritha, a little more broad across the narrow but merry and warm. She put me in mind of Morwenna, for she made me wash and comb my hair before she would let me eat. If she had said, "Have some cheese. It will keep your bowels open," I would have sworn it was Morwenna. Finally she fed me with herring pie left from supper and a parsnip pudding while I told her my troubles.
We huddled in her great bed until very late making plans for my deliverance. "Ireland," she said first. "Across the water to Ireland where sure there are relatives of your lady mother who will hide and protect you."
Ireland seemed no easy escape to me so I proposed London, where I might make my way by . . . what? Embroidering? Hemming sheets/ Brewing remedies for ale head and swollen legs?
No Ireland. No London. We fell asleep still unsettled. Before dawn I was awakened by a screech and a face full of chin whiskers right next to mine. Ethelfritha.
"Of course," the face bellowed. "Cathay! George must know merchants who trade there. We could disguise you as a slave girl being sent as a gift to the great khan and carry you muffled in veils on the back of a camel. The trip is three years over snowy mountains and blazing deserts so for certain no one would find you there.
"Or dancing girls," she cried. "We are slim and supple dancing girls from some Saracen court where we bewitch the sultan with our beauty. Or I will ask my sons the king, the pope, and Saint Peter to help us . . ." and she was off somewhere on her own, no longer Ethelfritha but some personage of her own making.
God's thumbs! My aunt Ethelfritha is as mad as the moon! She had forgotten herself against just when I needed her. I could see she would be no help. I was alone in my troubles and I alone had to conceive a plan before George came home so I could convince him it would be worth the trouble to help me.
Sitting beneath a pear tree later in the drizzling rain, I thought about my choices. I have no desire for three years of snowy mountains or some Saracen court. I cannot be a monk shut off from the world. I cannot be a crusader riding over the bloody bodies of strangers I am supposed to hate, or a wandering minstrel unconnected to any place or anybody. I cannot be like Odd William, involved only with the dead people he writes about while the living swirl in joy and pain around him. I cannot be like Aunt Ethelfritha, who, in being anyone she chooses, forgets who she really is.
Suddenly I saw the old Jewish woman saying, "Remember, Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked 'Why were you not George?' or 'Why were you not Perkin?' but 'Why were you not Catherine?'" And it came into my head that I cannot run away. I am who I am wherever I am.
Like the bear and the popinjay, I cannot survive by myself. But I also cannot survive if I am not myself. And who am I? I am no minstrel and no wart charmer but me, Birdy, Catherine of Stonebridge, daughter of Lord Rollo and the lady Aislinn, sister to Robert and Thomas and Edward and little Eleanor, friend of Perkin, goat boy and scholar.
I am like the Jews in our hall, driven from England, from one life to another, and yet for them exile was no exile. Wherever they go, they take their lives, their families, their people, and their God with them, like a light that never goes out. I imagine then somewhere in Flanders eating their Jewish food and talking their hoses' talk and loving one another and their God. At home even in exile.
Just so, my family and Perkin and Meg and Gerd and Aelis and the barn cats and even my father are part of me, and I part of them, so even in my new life I will not be far from home.
I realize that Shaggy Beard has won my body, but no matter whose wife I am, I will still be me. Mayhap I can do what I must and still be me, still survive and, please God, even thrive. I have girded my loins like a warrior from the Bible and am going forth to do battle with the enemy. He shall not find it a comfortable prize he has won, this gray-eyed, sun-browned beauty. Amen.
After dinner my uncle George came home, surprised but pleased to see me. His mouth smiled and his eyes almost did as I told him of the mad plans of Ethelfritha and how I decided I cannot escape my life but can only use my determination and courage to make it the best I can. He will take me home tomorrow. We will ride, which suits my feet just fine.
We leave in one hour. In George's garden I saw a toad, may it bring me luck. And as Morwenna says, luck is better than early rising.
I am home again. Such ado! I was kissed and slapped and lectured until my ears turned inside out. I told my tale and then sat to listen to theirs.
It seems God is indeed watching over me. Or else toads really are lucky. How I know is this:
The riders from the north did not say that Shaggy Beard comes for his bride, but that he is dead, killed in a brawl over a tavern maid. His son Stephen is now Baron Selkirk, Lord of Lithgow, Smithburn, Random, and Fleece, and wishes to honor the marriage contract in his father's place. He sent me an enameled brooch of a little bird with a pearl in its beak. I am wearing it now.
My lady mother and the beast my father think it no better and no worse that I marry Stephen instead of Shaggy Beard, but for me it is like moving from the darkness into the light, like coming in from a cold gray mist and seeing the fire make a warm and golden glow in the center of the hall, like the yolk of a boiled egg or the deeper gold in the belly of a rose.
As I sit here in my chamber watching the sun set, I realized that the fear that drove me this half year is gone. Shaggy Beard is gone. I think I do not truly even remember what he looked or acted or sounded like. Mayhap Shaggy Beard was never so bad as I imagine him. Or mayhap he was.
In any event, I am, if not free, at least less painfully caged. I am filled with a trembling that feels like feathers fluttering in my gut but I think is hope. All I know of Stephen is that he is young and clean, loves learning, and is not Shaggy Beard. For these alone I am prepared to love him.
I have been making a list of names for our children. I think to call the first one George. Or Perkin. Or Edward. Or Ethelfritha. Or Magpie. Or mayhap Stephen. The world is full of possibilities.
I leave in October. Only one month until Stephen!
Here ends the book of Catherine, called Little Bird or Birdy, of the Manor of Stonebridge in the shire of Lincoln, in the country of England, in the hands of God. Now I leave it to you, Edward, to judge whether this exercise of yours has indeed left me more observant, thoughtful, and learned. God's thumbs!
*Hallo!!! I feel so honored 4 U 2 have read this whole thing typed up by me! On the other hand, U might not have read the whole thing; maybe U just came 2 this page and scrolled down 2 see what was there - sly, obtuse morons. Anywayz, click here 2 journey 2 a page filled with stuff related 2 The Gum Chewer Series . . . enough said.