“What a chimera, then is man! What a novelty, what a monster,
What a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy!
A judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth,
cloaca of uncertainty and error,
the glory and shame of the universe!”
Part One: La Forêt
November 1095 - Ides
WHAT, then, is GOD?
Such an opening!
What one thinks when God has failed them.
Tíbald, the Norman, killer of men, how dare he think it? Should he unsheathe his sword and chop heads? He thinks it now. Thinks it many times with fingers raised as if to grasp it passing out his head. He’s allowed to think. Even more this dank morning, standing on his single wooden tower. Standing on his tower? O’ fie! Castel des Bȃtons, Castle of Sticks, guarding not a thriving city, protecting not a travelled road, commanding instead Saint Cecilia en-Caux, a village barely heard of much less known . . .
THE CHILD IS DEAD.
A girl. A little, little girl.
Are they not immortal? Least till innocence lost? And in Tíbald the suggestion of conscience – “you must care” . . . I do not . . . I do not hope to care . . . As if I should . . . Such is my privilege. They cannot make me. As if every heart mattered. It does not. Regardless what they say, it does not . . . Have I privilege? Most certainly by the Blood, and they know it. Feckless villeins.
How low the sun. That Saint Cecilia should miss its shine. God’s answer? Death on the wind pulling at Tíbald’s nose. The iron smell. Slaughter time for pigs. The intermittent lamb. One too smart and the other very stupid. They die in silence – a blow to the head, the jugular clipped, and the still beating heart spewing. Do they sense it coming? Ego sum pastor bonus et cognosco meas et cogoscunt me meae – I am the good shepherd: I know mine and mine know me. They do, the villeins, with gentle husbandry. O’ the blood, it pools. And the villeins without pity as one does not pity a living tree when fell and hewn, as the spider does not pity when consuming the beetle, and it too when the lizard gulps it down. If God had made Man a four-legged beast, it would be a pig ejected from Eden. Indeed, a pig with two legs. And yet, by repentance, it can transmute . . . to a sheep.
The little girl’s face, Tíbald imagined as he scanned his crop-heavy fields half harvested. The sun circumspect and the November sky flint. Everything late. The villeins make it late. Their reaction. Their forever reaction. And this, this toddler, this Nyneve, gnawed like a mutton joint. See, the fate of lambs . . . Another excuse. What’s a seigneur to do? What should he do? And for all this, she’s in a better place . . . Aside from the pain . . . Aside from the terror, her chaste soul, baptized at birth, certainly in Heaven. Plucked just right, this Nyneve, who might’ve grown to a harpy or a whore, this child. This little, little child . . . But they’ll have their vengeance, the villeins. What they do. They. Them. In her, their every wound. A dungeon of wounds, real and imagined – the Ether of Memory. They see what they see and hear what they hear. And none ill-used as them. O’, that she’d have drown or fallen down a well. That her own father beat her to death. That, they would not care as they drub and club each other . . . Does the monster even exist? If not, they would make it so, the villeins. Silly, silly villeins.
Non est Judæus, neque Græcus: non est servus, neque liber: non est masculus, neque femina. Omnes enim vos unum estis in Christo Jesu – “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
They blame Tíbald.
He looks at the sky. YOUR doing? How dare him again? If not Your doing, then by Your consent for You see all, know all, and touch everything.
But what of the Devil? The dog they kick. The Devil encourages it and creeps, smoking thoughts and nesting on the tongue. He hides in plain sight – supple, malleable, and diverse in many guises. Why manifest at all? Le diable cochon the villeins call the giant boar. Pig-Devil. Is it so? It is so because they say it’s so. And did not the boar act like a boar when it immerged from the Wood and caught the child walking in the turnip garden? Can the villeins not see it? Not with their eyes. God saw and allowed. And something happened. We fall off our rhythms . . . Nay, tis our rhythm, the fall, and the Devil there to keep us to it.
Out in the fields, the mowers struggle. Too much rain. Too much crop, wet and heavy. They grumble. Things worse than they’ve ever been. A curse of abundance. That too from God. Sublime, His punishments.
The child did not die straightaway but lingered like the drooping barley.
Dark days coming.
Come Noël. Overcome the darkness. Come bébé Christ and make things right.
Tíbald, fidgety, retreated down the creaking steps for the solace of his chapel. Would God fail him there?
“You will hunt the boar?” Aile, his wife, caught him on stairs, her voice a clap to his head. In her arms, a bundle of rushes with her veil and circlet a tussle.
His mannered pause – “I will.” How pretty her pea-shaped face with its even features.
“They complete the harvest?”
That comeliness could be so hard. “Yes.” He moved away from her.
“They must bring it all in.” Her tone steely.
“Knowing does not change it. They’ll dawdle till the pig’s dead. You know them.” That one so small could be so fierce. “If the grain is left in the fields, what becomes of us? The stores are not full enough for a hard winter.”
“There will be enough.”
“If you’re not going to kill it, you should be out overseeing them . . .”
“I do not oversee.” More steps.
“You’re lax,” she called. “Make them feel your hand, for their own good . . . For the good of us all.”
The chapel was bright. Brightness flattens. Like doffing one’s clothes. No place to hide. That Tíbald hide. Here, in God’s room. And yet that he should retreat from Him from under His sky . . . He crossed himself. “Pater-noster-qui-es-in-caelis-sanctificentur-nomen-tuum-adventiat-tegnum-tuum-fiat-vluntas-tua-sict-in-caelo-et-in-terra-panem-nostrum-quotidanum-da-nobis-hodie-et-dimitte-nobis-debita-nostra-sicut-et-nos-dimittimus-debitoribus-nostris-et-ne-nos-inducas-in-tentationem-sed-libera-nos-a-malo. Amen.”
The Gloria next.
There – the crucifix and the candles, Alpha and Omega. Christ here? Is He? Who owns Him? The truth of Him? The bishops and priests? Latins or the Greeks? The Common Folk? The Holy Roman Emperor? Henry IV would say it’s so . . .
Noises, on cue, awakened: a whoosh of ether in and out his ears, a moan from the planks with every footfall. An itch on his heart like ants crawling on the ventricles, nobbling with feelers to get at his blood . . . Up he jumped and scurried from the chantry to returned with a reliquary of a palm-sized box. He kissed its patina lid.
“Holy Appollonia,” his voice mounting, “intervene on my behalf. Pray for me to the Lord, Our God, that I serve Him well. That I be brave in battle and vanquish His foes. That I be a good seigneur to my family and village. That I defend holy Church and subject myself to her laws and instruction. That the Lord protect me from the snares of the Devil. From the stranger . . . until the return of Jesu Christi. Amen.”
He rose and there, Aile in the doorway.
“I was praying,” he said like a child caught.
“Indeed.” She eyed the reliquary – a piece of Saint Appollonia.
“For a moment.”
“That I could pray for a moment.”
“You can, if you wish.”
“And the grain would remain in the field.”
Better to hold his tongue.
“The villeins don’t care,” her voice hardened. “If the harvest is poor, they take from our share and hide it.”
“I will watch over them.”
“And how can you do that in here?”
“Only a moment.”
“I will not starve.”
“You will not starve.”
“So, you say. You’d be starving now if not for my diligence. In the summer, you’re on campaign. I am here, alone.” She pointed toward the village. “With them.”
“May I not pray?”
“I pray,” she scorned. “I pray many times a day . . . as I oversee the kitchens. As I watch over the servants as they clean the wells. As I keep account of the meats, the casks of ale, the flour sacks. I pray to God every day and ask Him for His blessings. I beg Him not to let us falter and lose what we have. But I do not have the luxury to break my day to sit in the peace of the chapel. That I could . . . That I could be a gentlewoman of leisure. That I could wear iron and go off like a man . . .
“You do not want me to pray?” He touched her shoulder.
“You do not want me to pray?” his voice lilting.
“I do not want to be hungry.”
“We will not be hungry.”
“So, you say.”
He touched her again.
“You’re no better than me because you kneel in this chapel. The Scriptures say Martha loved Jesu as well. You’re no priest. You needn’t instruct me.” She slapped his arm. “If I was seigneur---”
“You’d be a fearsome seigneur.”
“Who’d be high in Curthose’s esteem . . .”
A punch to his gut. He blinked.
And bapped her.
A flick on the mouth. His hand did it. Not hard. Though her face turned red and her pretty jaw clinched. She balled her fist, her eyes fierce, yet wounded standing she-wolf to he-wolf.
He pushed past her in retreat. Out to the bailey. And Aile, with good sense, did not follow.
In the yard, a servant pitched straw from a cart as another shoveled dung. A kitchen girl emptied a bucket on the compost heap and a village boy slopped the hogs; he goaded them to fight over their final meal. So raucous their squeals, the man shoveling dung paused to clout him and toss in the slops. In the stable, two boys bickered over mucking out the stalls. A shout. A punch. Then quiet. Rainald, Tíbald’s brother, and Ivo, the chief man-at-arms, worked with a carpenter on the timber palisade. At the gate, a sentry, one of Tíbald’s fifteen soldiers, leaned on his spear lackadaisical. No enemies here. A happy family, and Tíbald fil DeGoselin with his shabby fortress and wooden walls, and his little hamlet, Saint Cecilia en-Caux – one hundred souls in their thatch-and-waddle homes with their goats and children . . .
He looked back at the tower and strode out the gate.
“Dómini.” The blacksmith paused in his labor with a bowed head. Tíbald nodded. “God keep thee, dómini,” a milkmaid said, her chin dipped. His nod again. How generous. The villeins cleared, but they whispered. They always whisper. He didn’t care. Tis his privilege . . . to their benefit if they’d only see it. But never look him in the eye . . . Aile looks him in the eye. So too, Robert Curthose, the duke in Rouen. To look is domination, something you do when you take a man’s life. Tis a fearful thing to take a man’s life. Tíbald has killed ten men. The last one, this summer. A harried blow with a mace in a Haute Court melee; the man died poorly, lingering for days, crying out to God with puffy breaths . . . Death is rarely quick. It consumes. Better to strike the blow and ride away. Better not to see.
Something at his back. He turned, his expression hardening.
A peasant woman startled, a bushel of turnips in her hands. “Dómini?”
“Dómini?” Her voice trembled. “These are for your kitchen.” Her careworn face pleaded.
Over her shoulder the tower loomed with its vacant window. His eyes narrowed. Strike the blow and ride away.
“Go on then, mother.”
The villeins looked . . . To him.
The boar--- Yes, a boar. A boar is a boar is a boar. Why a monster? They must be making monsters. What else? What else? They must have something else. They MUST . . .
The fox-sized mouse and blind to what truly plagues them . . .
Another glimpse at the keep and a wisp of blue gown at the window.
And I should fear God, he thought. If He not exist, women would rule the world. They do now, decrying their oppression . . . And me, a titular seigneur until blood must be shed and then I’m fit for knocking heads---
A shriek! A soul-shaking shriek – the kind on campaign, in back-alley crimes, to shock the spine, jumping like fire, raising others to mix in.
Puers with pitchforks charged from the stable. Rainald mustered the men-at-arms. Mowers rushed from the fields, scythes at the ready.
Murder? Rapine? Fire?
At the well, Saint Cecilia’s very heart, a woman howled incomprehensibly, and about her an ever-widening crowd.
“My Lord! My God!” she screeched, clawing herself.
“Hold her down!”
“I saw it!” her shrieked.
Hysterics. Contagion. All began to wail. The Ether hummed.
Tíbald, like water swept to a rushing fall, buffeted through the crowd, knocking them aside without thought. What madness. In a moment, he’ll grab and shake the woman whatever the cause. But he knew her – the wife of the charcoal-burner who lived at the edge of the Wood. Nyneve’s mother.
Woman, his involuntary thought, control! Children die! . . . All the time! More than the old. You’ve lost others. We’ve all lost others . . . But do not children ground us in life? Her face twisted like the stone creatures on the cathedral in Rouen and Tíbald, hand to his throat, cried, “What did you see?”
“‘The Monster’?” his own rage convulsed. “Where’s this monster?”
She raked her cheeks. “It came from the woods to root in our garden! Fire in its eyes! Blood on its chin! The blood of my Nyneve. It looked at me and spoke with her voice! And you . . .”
“Me? . . .”
“You!” she defied.
All eyes looked.
“I cannot restore your child.”
“Restore my child?” The mother crazed.
“Kill the boar, dómini!” someone shouted.
“Kill it, dómini!” another.
“We cannot return to the fields until we are safe!”
“You were not there to save my child!”
“You must be safe,” said younger brother Rainald a hand to his heart. The villeins turned to him so handsome and well-formed, as if he could know their pain. “I will---”
“You will do nothing,” Tíbald recovered. “I will kill it . . . I will hunt it down and butcher it like the swine it is. God has charged me with your care, and in His name, I will do it. I’ll hunt it down and share its meat.” The villeins with a beat; boar was for the nobility. In truth, for the duke. All game belonged to the duke. “I’ll hang it till it’s flesh is tender and surrenders to our teeth. Then you will have a Christmas feast.”
The village headman, a bald, round-headed fellow, known to Tíbald since his youth, stepped forward. “And when will the dómini hunt the boar?”
A sudden gust on cue out of the north and with it clouds, thick and slate and heavy with snow.
Tíbald swatted his ear. “When I will.” Even so, their eyes upon him. “Tomorrow.”
They gathered the mother up.
“Thank you, dómini.” “Thank you, dómini.” “God be with you, dómini.”
And there, beyond, Tíbald gazed at the forest.