Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Wheelwright’s Daughter’ by Eleanor Porter.
The Wheelwright’s Daughter
Marcle Ridge, 1570
We would sit on the ridge, Sunday afternoons. On bright days, the shadows of the clouds sauntered over the fields bigger than churches, with no weight or noise at all, making their way wherever they wished and no one to stop them, not night nor hunger. ‘Look, Owen,’ I would say, ‘there’s the whole world lapping at our feet,’ and he would believe me.
Often the men would be at the butts by the chapel, practising with their bows, and sometimes in the summer there’d be dancing, though like as not we’d be down with them then, watching the boys vie to dance with Aggie. They passed me by – spiky Martha Dynely, skulking by the hedge – but that was no matter, Owen was as handy for a partner. Once in the set you take what hand is offered you.
I loved to dance. I loved the whirl and the stamp of it, especially in the open air, with the line of the hill steady above and around you like a mother’s arm. The boys could go hang. They laughed at me because I had a way of closing my eyes to my partner, of being alone with the fiddle and the steps. One time Jacob Spicer put out his foot to trip me as we weaved the Black Nag. The grass bounced me back and I laughed in his face, then I grabbed Owen’s hand and we ran off towards the slopes. We didn’t look back till we were out of breath, till the crowd was none of them bigger than my thumb. How close we dance to the graves, I remember thinking, and I did not like the thought, so I turned away to the hill that sat heavy and still like the frame in one of the paintings at the Hall, bounding the scene and fixing it for ever. If I close my eyes I see the picture: folk around the chapel at their jigs and talk, me and Owen running up the slopes, with the ridge and fields piled about us.
It was all I had known since I was a tenderling, when my grieving father had brought us here. Every day I trotted after my grandmother and she taught me the names of plants and how to use them. It was only after we had laid her in the earth that I began to notice the world and our footing in the village. I was unhappy, but my unhappiness felt as familiar as the red soil that lined our nails and stained the hems of our garments brown as old blood. I dreamed of escaping the fields and flitting over the horizon; I had no sense that the horizon itself would fall. That I might bring it down.
When I think back I don’t know where to begin. The slip did not happen all at once; there was some pulling at the stitches before the cloth gave way. One night in the last month of the year I lay down in my bed and called on my dead mother and woke to the noise of a terrible rending. I threw on my cloak while my father lit a lantern, then we hurried outside. The noise had gone as if it had never been, but through our feet we felt the earth softly shudder. The wind blew out the lantern and we saw it: the road ripped open. The earth itself had come undone. I felt in my heart at that moment that I was answerable for this undoing of the earth. I had picked at the threads and they had come loose.
A curse unpicks God’s work. That’s the truth of it. Words pelt out of our mouths and we think they are gone when the sound dies, but they are not. They hang in the air, or puddle at our feet, biding till they can start their cankering. Some trickle into the earth itself, joining whatever evil lingers there; some flow back to the sayer, smiling as they sour the blood. That autumn was full of rain and cursing. My father’s cursing as he blundered drunk through the workshop, marring his work, and my curses that I threw at the air and at my neighbours. The curses I called out in the chapel.
* * *
It was November, Accession Day, the twelfth since our queen had come to the throne. Owen and I had gone up to the ridge to watch the world and get away from our fathers. The chapel bell rang out the holiday, but there was no chance of dancing. The ground was too wet. Besides, Father Paul did not like it. Owen pointed him out below us, hopping between the men.
‘Ain’t the Father like a great black fly, Martha, like a fly on an apple?’ And he pulled himself tall and straight and put on a grim face like the priest and began to ape the sermon.
‘There is a worm, mark you.’
‘I mark you, Father Owen.’
‘Mark me, there is a worm. It curls around your heart, it creeps through your veins, it is eating away your flesh.’
‘You’ve got him, Owen, word for word.’
‘Silence! Do you think yourself handsome? Do you think yourself fine? I tell you, the worm is within you. You are riddled with decay.’ He raised his arms just as Father Paul did and lifted his eyes to heaven.
‘Oh, Owen, Owen, the devil will have you,’ but I could not stop laughing. I did not like the priest, though Aggie and the other girls called him handsome, with his fine hair and his beautiful clean hands. It was true that his voice was like music. It mixed itself with your own breath, with the rise and fall of your chest. The words of the Bible tasted rich as sweet pastry when he spoke them. ‘By the waters of Babylon,’ he said, and I repeated it, over and over. It did not matter what it meant. The words had melodies in them that promised like a dream of gold. If I had been bolder I should have liked to talk to him about the verses. If I had been somebody else’s daughter he might have looked kindly on me, but I could tell he didn’t think much of my soul.
My father wanted none of him. He scoffed at the priest’s flapping arms and declared that he fed off the rottenness he railed at. He said it low, of course, but I feared how his tongue might work loose in the alehouse.
When I’d done laughing at Owen I looked down for my father amongst the men, though there was little point. He’d have been on his way to the tavern by the Cockshoot an hour or more since, intent on losing all his wages on slidethrift and dice. No doubt Father Paul would have nosed out Walter Dynely’s absence and noted it on the tables of account that lurked behind his pale eyes. I took Owen’s hand and pulled him further along the top of the ridge.
Winter was not here yet, but it was gathering, giving a thickness to the clouds. The land was brown and grey, clagged with the recent rains. Come St Agnes’ Day there would not be enough food. We sat down on Green Hill and Owen huddled close to me to keep from the bite of the wind. He stood as high as my shoulder now, but he was nothing but bones. It struck me that, at eight, he was the age I had been when he was born. My grandmother had helped at the birth. I had stayed below with Aggie. We held hands when her mother screamed and we tried not to catch her father’s eye, for he scowled at the fire as though he wished to beat it with his fists. ‘My baby brother,’ Aggie said when the women shouted that a boy was born. My brother too, I thought, when they let us see the baby and he reached out his tiny hand and grasped my finger. We recognised each other, even then.
‘Look, there’s my father,’ Owen said now, pointing down at the archers, though they were too far off to make out clearly. Sure enough, one of the figures would be Richard Simons, doing his duty. No cursing at the tavern for him. He’d be straining at his bow, his mouth a thin grim line. He was a worthy man, everyone said so, but his wife was with child again and likely to lose it, as they had lost all the others save Owen and Aggie, and it was a miracle Ann Simons had not gone too, her body wrung out with bearing and nursing and the line of small graves in the litten.
Below us lay the straggle of the village and the lane that led to the Hall where Sir William lived with his grown-up daughter. Most of the land belonged to them, most of the people too. We could make out the lines of Miss Elizabeth’s beautiful garden, with its patterns of clipped hedges that in the summer were filled in with roses. It seemed only a jump to those paths, to where the gentry walked between the blooms with little steps, stooping to breathe the scent on summer nights. Owen said that if he didn’t get sent to school he should like to be a gardener at the Hall. He’d bring me a rose every day, he said. He’d tuck it under his doublet so they wouldn’t see.
‘You’d get pricked by the thorns,’ I said. ‘You couldn’t bear it.’
‘I could too. You don’t know what I could bear, Martha.’ He was put out, so I smiled, patting his hand, but then I looked at his thin, delicate face and felt afraid, and turned my gaze away.
Past the Hall, the land stumbled on to the great straight road that the Romans had built. The road that leads to Gloucester, where a vast cathedral lifts itself up to heaven and tall-masted ships jostle at the docks. One day I was going to follow the road all the way there, just as my mother did. She was sent for to be a servant in a great house. My father said she was dark like me, but beautiful. When I got to the city I would find the house where she worked and the lady would open her door to me for the love she had borne my mother. In spring, just as soon as the days grew long again, I would do it, and the red clay would fall off my boots with every step. When I was rich I would send for Owen and together we would buy oranges. The vision was so strong it was a while before I noticed him tugging at my sleeve.
‘Martha, quick, there’s Harry Stolley coming up, with two of the others. They said after the service as they were looking for you. Harry said you’d put a curse on him.’
‘It was a scrap of nothing, Owen. All I did was pass a note to him on the way to chapel. That’s all. Don’t look at me like that with your big ninny eyes. He deserved it. He said my father plucked my mother from the stews—’
‘You should have let it pass.’
‘—and that she died of a pox from an Irish sailor.’
‘But what if he shows Father Paul your cursing, writ in your own hand like that?’
‘Ha. Let him. It was nothing. Sanctified words – I took them from the Bible. The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. Leprosy can’t look worse than Harry’s pocky face. If they beat me for a line of scripture they strike the word of God.’
Owen got to his feet. ‘I’ll stand with you, Martha. Three against two: that’s not so bad. I’ll not desert you.’
Owen, I thought, they could floor you with a finger; you’re as spindly as the barley beneath that shock of barley hair. They could snap you.
‘I know you’d never desert me, ninny,’ I said, ‘and I’ll never desert you neither, but go on home. I’ll be quicker running without you, and your father will forbid you from school if you mar your clothes.’
He would have argued, but he knew I talked sense and so he left me. The boys were hidden for a moment passing Little Hill. I might avoid them yet. I paused a moment while Owen scampered off down the side of the hill and then I picked up my skirts. The sun had come out for the first time in days and shone hard and yellow to outdo the clouds that ran along with me, buffeted by the same wind that smacked at my cheeks. The path flung itself down, knobs and stones, knolls and slitherdowns. My breath caught in my chest but I could not stop; I could outdo anything and anyone by running. Yet how far away the village seemed, pegged in its mire.
Along by Little Puckmore they spied me. Lucky for me they didn’t come up quiet. I heard their whooping and took to my heels again, skittered and slid through the slurry from Nuttal Farm down to the Noggin. Each time I glanced back they were there, three of them, holding out the bit of paper as though the marks on it would burn them. The marks I’d made. Their sheep had more chance of reading it than they.
I would have outrun them if the thrill of it hadn’t made me bold. I clambered a bank where the hedge snicks and it felt so good to be looking down that I turned full to face them. That stopped them dead for a minute, all in a thrumble below me, like yapping pups. I looked at the mud on their breeches and their panting cheeks and I laughed.
‘How are you feeling, Harry? Takes a while to come on, you know. You better not go to sleep. Little by little you’ll feel it. Like goblin nails scrit-scratching at your skinny legs, reaching up till they get your skinny throat.’
‘Damn you, Martha Dynely, damn you and your devil’s marks,’ he shouted back, pop-eyed, pointing at me so that I stepped back in spite of myself, till I felt the hawthorn pricking at my neck. He took heart, then, seeing me bayed into the hedge. ‘I ’ent afraid of you. Your mother got you in a ditch. You ’ent nothing but run-off. You take this paper back, or else we’ll stick it down your throat. Maybe I’ll have myself a look if you’re just as brown underneath that kirtle.’
That set them all grinning. Gorrel-bellied striplings – their chins were as hairless as a plucked turkey’s arse. My mother was a white dove; nothing of their filth could touch her.
‘I’ve got a little doll of each of you,’ I said, as I edged sideways towards the gap, heedless of the thorns snagging my cloak. ‘I made them out of tallow and straw. You say that again about my mother and I’ll put a flame to them tonight.’
Harry blinked at that all right. The other two tugged at him. I had no call to be afraid of them I thought. They were clowns, no different from the clay that caked them. They’d never dream higher than a hedge. I sucked up, leaned over and spat.
All at once they went for me, scrambling up the bank. But I was through, into the field. The turf was sodden, water-logged. More than once I was near sent sprawling, but I knew the chapel was not far. Every step brought me closer. I was a good half-chain clear when I reached it. They came up as I wrestled with the great oak door, but they daren’t grab me, not there. I turned to grin as the door swung open and a great dollop of mud hit my hair, and slid slowly down my cheek.
‘Lady Muck!’ they shouted. ‘Your mother kissed the warts off pedlars. You’ll be going down on your back in the dykes soon enough. Ain’t none of your writing will help you then.’
Then I was the other side of the door, held safely by the thick stone and the silence.
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