Authors: Katie Ward
Tags: #General Fiction
Hugo—and this is your sword.
She forces a stick into his fist and picks up her own; hers is longer and straighter. He inspects their tools. His would make a useful walking cane and he tries it out.
This is the way we kill them.
She swishes her stick into the foliage and lacerates the leaves. Fleshy specks fly.
Boys are predisposed to destructiveness, so this game appeals to little Hugo. He has no idea of the romantic saga constructed around them; rather, he copies Esther (bossy girl) and their friendship strengthens—out of mutual hatred for nettles, out of shared enjoyment for smiting them. Heads of leaves chopped off, torn up, never to harm anyone again.
for all the bumps and rashes, for terrorizing the villagers with fire, for eating maidens. The children are ruthless in their work. The stems snap, excreting sticky resin—dragon’s blood. Slice, poke, stab. Two small bodies doubled over like farmers, heads bobbing with effort, their sticks could be sickles harvesting the overgrowth.
A villager, unaware she has been liberated by the brave adventurers, approaches. It is Hugo’s mother, her clogs kicking up dirt with each step. The knight and her attendant, the nettle-vanquishers, punish their prey without pause until she interrupts them.
Hugo’s mother moves her lips. Hugo moves his lips. She moves hers again and Hugo stares at his toes.
Esther cannot fathom it.
The woman flares her nostrils at the little girl, her expression uglier than before. More lip movement.
Hugo, as though pulled on a string, waves good-bye to Esther and goes home.
Esther watches them leave and a familiar loneliness descends on her. Whenever she thinks of a good game, whenever she finds someone her own age to share it with . . .
She seeks solace in her task with more violence than before, but the spirit of Saint George deserts her. The dragons fade; the malevolent weeds take their place and counterattack with invisible teeth, biting the backs of her fists, her bare legs, making her skin sore and scratchy. She bashes them down,
but they are winning. Without her friend, the battle is futile.
It is not fair. It is not fair.
And there is something else that hurts her horribly: how can Hugo—who is slow and unimaginative and needs commands and leadership—do this remarkable trick that Esther cannot?
Geertje is making pastry, sleeves rolled to her elbows, hands deep in the mixing bowl. She rubs the fat and flour together, lifts it up, lets it fall. This is the delicate process her mother showed her and she has shown Esther—who comes home. Her daughter’s skirt has new stains on it, her hands and ankles are red and patchy, she is on the verge of crying. Geertje brushes off her fingers, wipes them on the cloth so she can sit with Esther, troubled child.
Now tell me what is wrong? I am sure I can make it better.
Esther recounts what has happened, leaving out some parts, but Mother can guess them.
Like this? Mother stills her hands and opens and closes her mouth like a trout.
Then Geertje explains. You and I, we talk differently to other people. It is nothing to be sad about. God has simply decided that some people will talk using actions . . . and some people will talk with mouths. However, it often causes confusion. When we cannot understand each other’s words, it can be very irritating. So we have to be tolerant, you see? We learn to manage and make the best of it. That is all we can do.
Does God not want everyone to talk to each other?
Yes, he certainly does. Yes, he would like that very much—which is why he made your father, who is especially talented and can do both kinds of talking.
Esther does not understand; she does not feel different from other people.
You are, my love.
The girl must check this with Father.
Christiaan is in the smithy, hammering a glowing bar with controlled force on the anvil, sparks escaping. It complies with his modulated strength, the blows softer, harder, softer, responsive and accurate. Esther stands clear as she has been taught her whole life to do, the wall of savage heat keeping her at bay. Christiaan slides the worked metal back into the furnace, a blade sunk deep into hellish, fiery jaws.
Am I different?
The little girl implores the blacksmith to correct the mistake, to flatten it out, to reshape it. Yet if Mother is wrong about this, it will be the first time in Esther’s life she has been wrong about anything. Geertje is commonsensical. Her ability to master the mysterious and fearful was one of the main reasons Christiaan married her.
Black. In her dreams, Esther sees a figure arriving at their village carrying a rake. It shuffles along passing the church, passing the well, passing the mill and the modest houses. It is not a man and it
is not a woman. It is a creature. Old and covered, crossing an erratic path, touching walls and doorframes, windows and cradles, hearths and pillows. It touches what we touch and is guided by moonshine. Its robes are miasmic, seeping into cracks and crevices. It blows poisonous breath into lungs, on the napes of necks, under armpits and dissolves stout hearts into nothing. It hears neither prayers nor argument. It sways with each step; it is bent, it is evil, the most efficient killer with the lightest caress. It leaves behind black footprints.
And Esther dreams of a land populated with skeletons. Skeletons that trip over fields, ride in wagons, crouch in boats, climb trees. They chase and hide and tumble. Bonfires are set alight in their names. They clatter their bones, they gnash their teeth. How quickly their abominable numbers swell, doubling doubling doubling.
All are equal, are leveled.
The blacksmith’s forge is cold. Only one kind of work to be done: the ghoulish business of digging ditches and filling them in. Christiaan’s arm is strong; he shoulders his spade and joins the volunteers. They improvise masks, communicate in single-word sentences. Here. More. Stop. Mounds appear beyond the boundaries of consecrated ground. Whole families laid waste, including Hugo’s. People say, perhaps the whole village . . . ?
Geertje cannot hide the lumps under her arms and in her groin for long—she is bedridden in hours and dead within days. The brightest and kindest are as susceptible as any, and returned to the earth in a putrid heap.
The visions and smells and sounds penetrate Christiaan’s mind, attractive to the demons that Geertje’s strength had kept at a distance. He recognizes their advancing shadows and approaching tread. Their warnings.
Miraculously some do survive. Life grows back, gradually, like
ivy, clinging on, breaking through. The peculiar blacksmith and his deaf daughter are long gone.
Where are we going?
You always say that. We passed a church this morning. We passed two yesterday. Churches abound. Do you really know where we are going? If you have lost your way, you ought to admit it and not be so proud.
I think we should go home.
Yes, we can. Mother would want us to.
No. She would want you to have a future.
We can go back to the smithy and I will take care of you.
She would want you to have a husband and a family.
Maybe I will, one day. But if that happens, I will still be your daughter and look after you. We can turn around and go home, right now, if we want to. I could even find work.
Not safe there.
Safer than on the road. Safer than having nowhere to go.
We are going to church.
And what if the same thing happens when we get there? It might. It could. Who knows, it might even be worse.
Do you have the pain?
Are you sure? You promised to tell me when it comes. You made a promise.
No pain, and this is the way.
It must be some church, if we are going to all this trouble.
* * *
They arrive in Amsterdam. Suddenly they are walking along canals and through side streets and by the IJ Bay itself. Esther is in awe of the assault on her senses.
Here are the whalers, the shipbuilders, the sugar merchants, the fishermen, the customs officials, the innumerable networks of contracts and dealings, the constant braying and barking of beast and hawker. Here are ropes, crates, and kegs slung with force from deck, to slipway, to cart, from man to man. Faces and arms cracked and browned from exposure to sun and salt.
Chinese porcelain held up and admired for its decoration and translucence; silk from Bengal; tea from Ceylon; Japanese gold and silver; cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, precious pepper from the Moluccas, the Banda Islands, Malabar, and Sumatra; coffee and rice and opium and camphor: jealously guarded treasure. Even souls are bought and sold, written up in a numbered column by the slave traders.
The glitter of currency counted out of the port and immense wealth counted back in. Warehouses filled and emptied and refilled. A signature. Hefty mariners straining with physical work, men in expensive robes surveying progress, barefoot children chasing and climbing in dangerous places, prostitutes competing for trade. Boisterous inns. The rowing boats pass, and the shouting and the whistling, farewells and greetings. The pong of decomposition on the breeze. Flick of sails and twirl of smoke. Here in the grime, in the dipping and rising of vessels on the tide, in the maps of secret routes across the oceans, in the firm handshakes, in the bureaucratic structures,
is the most powerful agency in the world at work.
When they find the right church, it is on a shabby lane and indistinguishable on the outside from other Amsterdam houses. Hidden, as it were.
Esther will never know for certain whether this was Father’s
last action as a sane man or the first action of a madman. But she will always be thankful for the day he brought her to a room noisy with conversations she could understand; will cherish the discovery that a place existed where people use their hands instead of their tongues for speech.
She tells him he is the cleverest of all fathers, he has got them here and now he can rest. But he is withdrawing into himself before her eyes, turns away from her entreaties, folds into a crouch on the floor.
Excuse me, lass, is your father all right? Would you like some help? You bring that chair over, we will pick him up.
Christiaan’s imagination burns hot yellow and red; the iron of his personality is smelted. What is left is scorched and brittle: debris, the rubbish. His wife protected him when she was alive but now, after he has buried her in unconsecrated soil, the fiends are coming for him in hordes. It is Sunday again and they are here—the grotesques have come to stare at him and torment him (they demand their entertainment, they have paid their entrance fee). They wear civilized clothes and speak in refined voices but are plotting all the while, and will eventually drag him into a hole that is at once dark and aflame, smelling of rot, slithering with worms that will crawl over his flesh, eat him alive. He can feel them on him, in him.
His distress is amusing for the visitors. They find it hilarious when he makes funny gestures, waves his distracted hands in the air. What is he doing? Pumping pretend bellows? Carving with a pretend chisel? Striking a pretend nail on its pretend head? They believe he is miming the smithy he fantasizes about. They do not know he is trying to communicate with the daughter he pines for.
The mute maid who has been taking care of Jurina’s stepson must go and that is final. There was a period of grace following the wedding—Jurina
Bos is no tyrant. But that was almost a year ago and her baby is due any day. It is, she thinks, unseemly for a lady of her quality to have servants without the requisite skills and abilities. She has been charitable thus far, gracious in her acknowledgment of the maid’s diligence and cleanliness, and yet the time has come—
Pieter Janssens Elinga, the painter and the husband, acquiesces. His adolescent moneyed bride shall have her way. He is beholden to her. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary anyhow, following the death of his first wife, Beatrix van der Mijlen (whom they do not talk about). Esther, barely more than a child herself, was cheap to employ and all he could afford. An investment that enabled him to woo and remarry, for he was disadvantaged as a suitor: poor, widowed, a young son to look after. All he offered Jurina Bos was the prospect, the hint of a prospect, that his talent might be recognized in Amsterdam one day and prestige would follow. Will it do? Then he will give her as many children as she wishes to have, one or twenty or none, it is up to you. Is it enough for you, my sweet? He was artistic and persuasive.
More than enough. For Jurina this is a love match, and she is glad to share her wealth with him. With
children, in the home of
making, with servants of
choosing. She is a diplomat, has waited tactfully for the appropriate occasion. To be clear: the birth of her first child is the appropriate occasion.
Notice has been given to the girl despite Young Pieter’s tantrums (that Elinga’s son sometimes prefers sign language to speaking normally has grown tiresome). She is a benevolent mistress, intends to help Esther secure a post in a different household, a household more suitable for her.
That is all there is to it. Let it be done, let the matter be closed. For goodness’ sake!
The labor starts.
The venerable doctor (handpicked by Jurina on account of his position within the surgeon’s guild) does not hurry when called for. In this, at least, he turns out to be right. It is difficult, protracted; two nights go by and the baby does not arrive. Jurina has no choice but to be attended to by the silent, inexperienced maid, who blends into the background. The lady sinks in and out of consciousness, barely feels the flutters of attentiveness, licks the water drops on her dry lips, has her hair pushed back from her forehead, squeezes the skinny hand holding hers. Unbearable. Agony. Exhausted, Jurina starts to pray. Not the prayers of the past nine months (let it be a son, let it be a strong, bouncing son, let him be tall and gifted and rich). Those prayers no longer matter. A new prayer entirely erases all the old utterances: Please, God, if you have any mercy, let it be over.