44th Thread: Don’t you touch that book!
My mother was worried. She was always worried.
– We do not have enough hands.
– The children will help.
– They are still so young.
– I will work for four.
Near the hills lived a cousin of the wife of Father’s nephew. Further down the river had settled Mother’s brother. Both had expanded their land, hired sharecroppers, bought domains with their large, beautiful villas. My father was eaten up with envy. Once he had convinced my mother, they borrowed, they negotiated for hours with old peasants, they paid the deacon to bless the new fields, the tools. Harvests were good two years in a row. Father reimbursed his debt, copper bit after gold coin. The third summer, Father hurt his foot. The fields were insufficiently maintained, weed overgrew, the few ears were puny, the sun refused to appear.
They sold part of the fields, the best tools, the animals. The farmers knew they could offer little as the bailiffs were at the ready, hook in hand. There was not enough to pay back. There was not enough food. Mother and Father looked at us and whispered. I was scared. What if they took us deep into the forest to get rid of us, as in the stories told by old women?
Soon I learned what they were talking about. From a neighbor.
– Don’t act so proud when your mother has auctioned herself to the best bidder.
I rushed home to ask my big sister. She laughed at me. But she followed me when I ran to Mother who was bringing home our only goat. It was true.
– Why is Father not being auctioned, why you? screamed my sister.
– Men don’t sell well because they are difficult to control. Father is stronger than I, he will take care of the fields.
– What about us? What about me ? asked my sister.
– The goat ?! We could sell the last goat, I added.
– You need milk.
– You are not worth anything? Less than a goat? What about auctioning me ? said my sister.
– You’re too small.
– I’m not small. You know all the work I do, I wash, I cook, I milk, I mow.
– Stop it! I told my sister, I do not want to be a slave.
– We do not sell our children, Mother said as she started milking the goat and fell silent.
The deacon bid the highest price. He could afford it. We were worried, because he was known to be nasty, greedy, violent.
In the village, people patted me on the head:
– You have a good mother who sacrificed herself for her family.
I was proud, even if I missed her. I did not want to be sold. But my sister begged my father, who brooded over his wife’s absence. There he was, head in hands, in front of the burnt oatmeal I had prepared.
– Father, we are all unhappy, let’s sell the goat, let’s sell the remaining fields. We will live in the forest, we will gather, you will hunt. What can we be worse than losing Mother? asked my sister.
He slapped her.
On Sundays I would pick strawberries in the woods and bring them to my mother. It was far. I had to get up at dawn to be back home before dark. When I arrived, my mother opened the window of the priory, a beautiful window with colored glass tiles. I was so afraid of the deacon, who was old and strong and big, with a toad’s mouth and dirty gray hair, I quickly climbed through the opening. She would scolded me for coming. Then she would kiss me and cut me a thin slice of the bacon which hung inside the fireplace. She asked me:
– Does your brother still cough?
– Did your sister make him a drink with the herbs I sent with you?
He died a few months later, my mother came back to bury him.
– You will have to do it, she told me.
– She will not let me boil water, she says the pot is too heavy, I would burn myself.
– I’ll see if I’m allowed to bring him here, perhaps he can sleep in the kitchen too, it’s so warm at night. Did your father manage to harvest all the cereals, did you help?
– We worked every day, even Sundays.
– Heavens. Hopefully the deacon has not heard of it.
– Is he nasty ? It he mean to you?
– Shh, we do not speak so of a clergyman. The cook is teaching me to read! Come on.
We entered a large room. It was full of the strangest furniture, painted and sculpted. Except for the carpets on the floor, it looked like a wealthy church. Mother took a strange block on a pulpit.
– This is a book, she said to me, all smiles. The cover is ivory.
She opened it, put her finger on the first page.
– The B-i-b-l-e.
She turned to me.
– I’ll teach you too. Look.
High up on tiptoe, I admired as she leafed through it.
– This is an L for Lord! And here A for Apostle! And S for …
Suddenly the door opened, and the deacon entered. The cook had told us he was at a passing.
– What are you doing with this Bible? he yelled.
He headed toward us. He wore a long satin tunic and a heavy gold chain with a wide crucifix that beat his stomach. I was scared, I crouched down. He snatched the book from my mother. Having first looked at the cover from all angles, he opened the first page.
– You hag! You must not touch the books, they are sacred!
My mother bent in an awkward curtsy.
– Excuse me, my lord, I will not do it again.
He raised his hand and hit Mother, who fell under the force of the blow.
– You primitive peasant, you belong to the fields, the cattle, the dirt!
– Yes, my lord, replied my mother, head bowed.
A red mark sprawled on her cheek where he had hit her. Tears flowed from her eyes. The father sat down on a daybed covered with cushions and velvety fabrics, caressing the pages of the book. He gazed at the colorful pictures my mother had shown me.
– What a beautiful book, what most excellent work. I had to sell land to acquire this treasure, as it came from the East, but it was worth it. The images of the apostles and their holy actions appease my soul.
He lifted his head and bared his teeth.
– And you, what are you doing here? Do you work for me?
– Forgive me, my Lord, this is my daughter who brought me news of my children.
– Go back to your shack, I do not want your kind of woodlice in my house.
I was terrified. My mother whispered to me:
– Go away!
I could not move.
– Are you deaf or stupid? roared the deacon.
– Reverend sir, would you like some mulled wine? stammered my mother.
That seemed to soothe him.
– Yes, serve it spicy and well honeyed.
He was lying on his side with his back to us. I ran away as fast as I could, without even kissing my mother goodbye.
Throughout his life, the peasants feared the deacon, he never spared them a penny for their baptisms, communions, field blessings, funerals. Sometimes he didn’t perform the rites that were part of his work, because he was tired, or had overeaten. Instead, he threatened the women with hell if they did not donate the church with their meager silver jewelry, if they didn’t unroll their best fabrics at his feet. He forced the men to repair his buildings right in the middle of harvest. He came from a noble family, no one could refuse him.
When the deacon died of apoplexy, many came to the funeral. His body lay straight as a nail in the open sarcophagus. He would never reenter the body of his mother. His will was read in the church after Mass, according to tradition.
“I leave half my estate to the church, which will guarantee me a mass per quarter for the salvation of my soul. The other half of the usufruct will be distributed to the Christian poor of the parish. As for my slaves, they will all be freed, in recognition of their good services, with no other condition than their gratitude. They will receive a purse of five gold crowns as well as their clothes and bowl. My books and tools shall be shared between the monks of the monastery and the abbey of … ”
My sister was sobbing so loudly, that the abbot had to wait before he could continue.