The flames in one of the fireplaces were the only light and sent leaps of red reflection on the drying sheets that hung from hooks normally reserved for herbs and flitches of bacon.
Father Pol, a mousy little man, and mousier than ever tonight, crouched on a stool, cradling a fat black cat as if he needed its comfort in this place.
His eyes met the nun's and then rolled in inquiry toward the figure of the housekeeper.
"We are ready for you now, Father," the prioress told him.
The priest nodded in relief. He stood up, carefully placed the cat on the stool, gave it a last pat, picked up the chrismatory at his feet, and scuttled out. Sister Havis waited a moment to see if the housekeeper would come with them, saw that she would not, and followed Father Pol.
Left alone, Dakers stared into the fire.
The blessing by the bishop who had been called to her mistress two days ago had done nothing. Neither had the all the convent's trumpery. The Christian god had failed.
She began to move briskly. Items were taken from the cupboard in the tiny room that was her domain next to the kitchen. When she came back, she was muttering. She put a leather-bound book with a lock on the chopping block. On it was placed a crystal that, in the firelight, sent little green lights from its facets wobbling around the room.
One by one, she lit seven candles and dripped the wax of each onto the block to make a stand. They formed a circle round the book and crystal, giving light as steady as the ones upstairs, though emitting a less pleasant smell than beeswax.
The cauldron hanging from a jack over the fire was full and boiling, and had been kept so as to provide water for the washing of the sickroom sheets. So many sheets.
The woman bent over it to make sure that the surface of the water bubbled. She looked around for the cauldron's lid, a large, neatly holed circle of wood with an iron handle arched over its center, found it, and leaned it carefully on the floor at her feet. From the various fire irons by the side of the hearth, dogs, spits, etc., she picked out a long poker and laid that, too, on the floor by the lid.
"Igzy-bidzy," she was muttering, "sishnu shishnu, adonymanooey, eelam-peelam . . ." The ignorant might have thought the repetition to be that of a child's skipping rhyme; others would have recognized the deliberately garbled, many-faithed versions of the holy names of God.
Dodging the sheets, Dame Dakers crossed to where Father Pol had been sitting and picked up the cat, cradling and petting it as he had done. It was a good cat, a famous ratter, the only one she allowed in the place.
Taking it to the hearth, she gave it a last stroke with one hand and reached for the cauldron lid with the other.
Still chanting, she dropped the cat into the boiling water, swiftly popping the lid in place over it and forcing it down. The poker was slid through the handle so that it overlapped the edges.
For a second the lid rattled against the poker and a steaming shriek whistled through the lid's holes. Dame Dakers knelt on the hearth's edge, commending the sacrifice to her master.
If God had failed, it was time to petition the Devil.
Eighty-odd miles to the east as the crow flew, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar was delivering a baby for the first timeor trying to deliver it. "Push, Ma," said the fetus's eldest sister helpfully from the sidelines.
"Don't you be telling her that," Adelia said in East Anglian. "Her can't push til the time comes." At this stage, the poor woman had little control over the matter.
And neither do I, she thought in desperation. I don't know what to do.
It was going badly; labor had been protracted to the point where the mother, an uncomplaining fenwoman, was becoming exhausted.
Reproduced with permission of Putnam Publishing. Copyright © 2008 by Ariana Franklin All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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