In the second year of no harvest, 1507 Tierkinddorf, Germany
It was a winter to make bitter all souls. So cold the birds froze midcall and our little fire couldnt keep ice from burrowing into bed with us. The fleas froze in the straw beds, bodies swollen with chilled blood.
We were hungry.
It had been a poor year for grain, like the year before, and the blasted field was now covered with snow. What game there was starved too, their ribs plain as kindling. But soon enough we ate all of those and there were no longer claw marks leading us along their little paths.
The lords mill, which Jost ran, hadnt been in use for years. When I looked upon the mill wheel a fortnight ago, a cobweb stretched from the hub to the teeth. No one had any grain to grind and so our barter was based on next harvest. Last year, the lord had released the vassals from obligation and we had all walked the furrows of the tilled earth many times, seeking a scrap thought useless before, even chaff, something to put into our mouths. The soil was as if salted. Seeds went into it only to fester and wither. We did all manner of things to change our fortune. We prayed in the way that the priest asked us to, with the Lords Prayer, raising our eyes to heaven as we spake of the daily loaf God might grant us. Incense cloyed our throats as we prayed again and again, asking Marys help as well. We became as gaunt as the saints carved onto the boards of the altar.
And we also did what the priest asked us not to do. Facing to the west, where the sun sets, we slaughtered beasts and poured the blood onto the soil. We dabbed blood into the middle of our palms to represent the harvest we wished to hold. We sang the old songs, our voices hushed so that the ancient music would not drift back to the church. We could not eat the meat of the ritual beasts, and so with tears in our eyes we burned the goats we might have eaten. We watched the smoke drift with the cold wind, incense the earth might prefer to the sweetish cloud from the censer.
We scolded the fields as if they were children; we threw the silt at the sky in a dusty haze and screamed. Künne Himmelmann slept with a clod beneath her pillow.
And nothing changed.
Nothing changed except that snow fell.
My son, Jost, and his wife, Irmeltrud, never spake in jest anymore; never did they laugh. No one did. I felt worst for the young ones. I had already had a lifetime when food was plentiful and neighbors bantered with each other, but they had not known lightness, only heavy, stolid days. I tried now and then to tell funny stories to Alke and Matern, my grandchildren, stories my parents had once told me, of old Lenne kissing her brother by mistake, deep in her cups, or the year the maypole came crashing down and all the girls were cross for thought of the bad luck it brought. But I was the only one who made such effort, and after a time of watching the moveless faces of my family, I ceased myself. Alke and Matern were always solemn. Because they were so thin, they didnt have the strength to race each other into the woods as children should. They played their games close to the fire, and oftentimes their shoulders were joined. I knew they sat that way to keep each other warm.
Alke, the elder, would have no doubt been the prettiest one in the village if only there were color and plumpness to her cheeks. But her blond hair, which should have shone like poppy oil, was lusterless. She had not much spirit to her. In several seasons, she would be marriageable, but would she be able to flirt at Mayfest to gain a lover, as Künne and I had done so shamelessly when we were her age?
And Matern, the boy, was made like a girl by these circumstances. Tears came to his eyes easily and he was hurt by the smallest slight. The idea of him cleaving to a woman and taking care of all the households needshunting and wood gettingseemed an impossibility. Matern would always be helpless, an eternal child created by the absence on the table. And so we all did our best to exist in the same cottage without food, letting the silence fall upon all of us. If my Hensel had been yet here, hed have made them merry, but he died when Jost was yet a child, turning the world upside down like a plate.
Excerpted from The Witch's Trinity by Erika Mailman Copyright © 2007 by Erika Mailman. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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