About the Author
Douglas Nicholas is an award-winning poet, whose work has appeared in numerous poetry journals, and the author of four previous books, including Something Red and Iron Rose, a collection of poems inspired by New York City. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife Theresa and Yorkshire terrier Tristan.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Something Red CHAPTER 1
THE WHEELS WERE SOLID disks as high as Hob himself, and the wood was warped a little and wet with the snow now coming down hard and clinging in patchy lumps to the rims. The main wagon had the aft right wheel fast in a drift, and as Hob added his slight frame to the stamping, cursing struggle to free it, his foot plunged to the ankle in a depression filled with a freezing gruel of snow and mud.
It felt like stepping into fire. Gasping with the shock, he threw himself against the tailboard. A smell of sweat and woodsmoke and rosemary came to him from his left: Molly, her ample well-turned arms, white as mare’s milk, glimmering at the edge of his sight. Before his face loomed the weathered plank he forced his breast against. Nemain stood behind them and skimmed handfuls of ashes beneath their feet. At his right Jack Brown suddenly found purchase underfoot, his toes in the green leather boots stuffed with straw digging in, scrabbling in ash and ice and pebbles, and Jack’s grunting heave freed the wheel’s lip just enough. The ox trod forward again, steaming like a dragon, and Hob staggered as the wagon sailed away from him.
Hob stumped ahead, limping with the pain in his foot. Molly threw her cloak again around her shoulders, over the léine, that shift-like garment from her native Ireland, that she favored on the road. The cloak, and then a shawl, and she was ready to take the reins again: did she never feel the cold? The half-grown boy went forward by the ox and walked with a hand to the draw bar; the heat coming from the vast body was perceptible. He wished he could ride in the wagon.
The snow diminished, but in its stead came a malicious little wind that drew claws across the back of his neck. It found its way up the sleeves of his woolen shirt and between the flaps of his sheepskin coat.
The road wound through winter woods, upslope and down, the land rumpled and complex, with frequent outcrops of naked rock. The view was open enough near at hand, but within a few yards the overlapping trunks foiled the eye. Yews, pale slim birch, massive oaks formed a close horizon; the wagons moved between wooden walls.
Hob began to feel an unease of spirit, an oppression. The sensation grew swiftly till his bodily woes shrank beside it. He looked left at the slowly passing forest, rightward across the rippling, smoking haunches to the trackside brush and more trees, climbing away to the west. He felt breathless and ill. He felt like a coney in a snare, and he could not tell why.
THE CARAVAN HAD COME from Ireby, away by the river Ellen. There had been little enough for them there, despite the town’s sheep market, and Molly had planned to take them south and east through the mountain passes before the snows clamped down in earnest: this year, and the year before, had seen such cold and storm as not even the eldest village grandmam could remember. She hoped to make St. Germaine’s, the hill monastery, before nightfall. It was where all travelers who used the Thonarberg Pass had to stay: one could not get over in a day, and night amid the eerie gorges and overleaning crags was unthinkable. There were stories of bandits who lived in cave and ravine, savage as stoats; there were stories of trolls who slept amid piles of bones and knew neither fire nor clothing.
“Gesu!” He made a frantic sideways leap to escape a great cloven hoof: the ox had performed a peculiar sidestep. It gave a flat dismayed bleat and stood trembling in place, rolling its large lovely eye. Behind him a sort of ripple passed down the tiny procession as first the ass and then the mare started and veered toward the trees to the east.
Through the volley of curses and the snap of reins coming from behind, Hob was aware of a thin, sour cry that drifted to him from ahead and to the west. His heart seemed to freeze. He was aware that he had seized the rope of the ox’s bridle and was holding the big head, or perhaps just clinging to it. His eye was locked to the curtain of trees, and now he saw a flicker, a glint, of russet color: red as a fox, but tall, tall, high as a big man perhaps, but hard to judge, hard to tell from here, then gone as though it never was. A faint coughing snarl came down the wind, and the ox shoved hard against his chest, breathing moist heat through the folds of his sheepskin coat, its blunted horns to either side of his body. The huge beast was hiding its face against him.
He looked back along the road. Nemain, bent like a bow, labored to drag the ass back to the trail. Her thin wrists shone white as her grandmother’s where they emerged from the too-big sleeves; her hands, lost in their woolen gloves, hauled desperately at the rope. Farther back he could see Jack Brown holding the mare’s bridle and stroking her neck. But Molly, up on the main wagon’s seat, sat leaning sideways with a taut searching scrutiny, her handsome head flung up, her nostrils flared.
Hob stared at her. He had never seen her so alarmed, not even that terrible night when the false pilgrims had rolled out from their cloaks by the fire, cudgels in their fists, robbery and worse in their hearts. The shawl had slipped back to her shoulders and her heavy mass of hair, water-gray with gleams of ice-silver in it, streamed back from her ruddy face, stiff in the slight breeze as though in the moments before a lightning storm.
The breeze spoke in the creaking trees, but nothing else. The snow was all but stopped. Molly turned forward. Her blue eyes, wide set and a little prominent, skimmed over Hob. She made a brushing motion with a gloved hand to set Hob moving, and turned back in the seat. “Away on, away on,” she called over her shoulder in a low thrumming voice. It was one of her signals: that tone, and the twice-spoken command, meant everyone was to go quickly but make the least noise. Had she said it three times Hob would have left the ox and pelted off into the woods like a deer, snarl or no. Oh, she had them trained.
The wagons started up, the beasts weaving like drunkards from side to side as they tried to slew off into the woods where they sought concealment and safety, and the drivers pushed and pulled them back onto the middle of the track. There followed a lurching hustle through a gray-white nightmare.
Hob was later unsure of their passage through the forest valley. Blur, was what he thought, Blur, cold, afraid, near to pissed my braies, in after days, when he tried to remember. There was a sense of pressure on them all the time, like mice at the foot of the owl’s tree, as they hurried along the road that sank to the ford, then through the shallow ice-rimmed stream, Hob splashing shin-deep in the bitter current but too frightened to curse, and up the farther slope.
After what seemed a very long time the road gained the low swells of the foothills, and here came one of the few moments Hob could recall clearly afterward. A spur of black basalt ran down to the road and forced it to curve around the base. The rock loomed beside the track, twice as high as the wagons. As the ox came up to the bend, Hob hauled back on the lead rope. The corner he must turn seemed to radiate a silent malevolence.
Molly set the brake, reached back into the wagon, and produced a sturdy hazel staff. She climbed swiftly down. She strode forward past the shivering ox, and Hob took a pace back, expecting to be chastised; but she passed him by and strode up to the very lip of the shadow cast by the outcrop, and now here came Jack Brown, the long hammer used on tent pegs in his knotty fist. He had seized in haste what was nearest the wagon door. The lump of iron at the tip of the three-foot shaft was half the size of Hob’s head, and Jack’s forearm was bunched with the effort. With his ungainly rolling walk, his back broad as a hall door, he seemed a kind of troll himself, but Hob was glad to see him between the wagons and that sinister rock.
Molly’s palm showed pale in the gloom: she had flung her arm out sideways to halt Jack’s approach. She stood as though breathing in the forest mist, her heavy body up on tiptoe, the hazel staff thrust in the ground before her. All at once she rocked back on her heels and shouldered the staff. She motioned Jack forward.
The dark man shambled forward past the rock, making Hob think bear for some reason. Molly called Jack artan sometimes; Nemain had told Hob it meant “little bear” in the tongue she and her grandmother spoke to each other. The hammer looked hungry or thirsty, weaving from side to side like a snake over a dish of milk. Just past the bend, just within sight, Jack stopped still.
Hob felt the hair on his neck prickling. He held to the bridle rope and stood in the middle of the road, waiting for his life to show him the shape it would take.
But Jack darted forward with the hammer, and came back raising on its tip only a bloody rag, coarse gray cloth torn away at one edge, clotted and caked a reddish black in the center and stained in streaks to the edges. He brought it back to Molly and they stood in the road and considered it like two farmers consulting over a stricken sheep. Molly put a finger to the clabbered mess, raised it to her tongue with a curious delicacy for such an act. Hob turned away and rubbed behind the ox’s ear, a favorite spot with the beast.
FATHER ATHELSTAN had grown old; Father Athelstan could no longer keep a young orphan at the priest house. When Molly’s caravan had come through a year and a half ago, the bent and shuffling priest had seen a chance to clear himself of his last obligation to the world. From Maeve, come traveling out of Ireland across the Irish Sea, Maeve whom everyone but Jack called Molly, from her he had felt, as the young and the old and the unclever often did, the blunt tide of animal goodness that moved along her bones. The wagons left a few days later with Hob looking back past the high wheels at the tiny chapel, the miserable rutted mud street that ran past the handful of cottages, until that day the whole of Hob’s known universe.
Hob, who remembered no parents, who was too old to be mothered and too young for a lover, considered Molly with a confused awe that veered between love and fear. When he fell ill she wrapped him in skins and brought him heated mare’s milk and herbs. When, as on this evening, she grew fey and terrible, he could not bring himself to look on her. He stroked the curve of the ox’s coarse-haired neck and thought hard of warm stalls, clean straw, stout monastery walls, safety.
THE TWO CAME BACK, Molly plainly upset. With Jack it was hard to tell. Hob’s eyes slid to them, then away. He determinedly observed the ox’s wide neck; he kept his mind still and muttered Aves. Behind him passed snow-crunching footsteps, Molly’s bell-deep tones, Jack’s harsh gargle. On the road to Jerusalem, far away in the Holy Land, Jack Brown had taken a terrible wound in the throat and another to his ankle: a confused oval of smooth silver scar at the side of his neck as big as a big man’s palm, a ruined voice, a limp, were all the relics he brought back from that hot and haunted country.
“. . . oh there’s craft in it, it’s as bad as I’ve seen, I want us on as quick as quick.” Hob heard Molly’s footsteps returning swiftly. He looked up. She stood over him with a curious strained expression. “Stór mo chroí, you must lead on as fast as you may, and mind the road ahead. I’ll watch the forest, nor must you trouble yourself about it.” He nodded stiffly, and she turned away quick and crisp and hurried back to her seat, waving to Nemain to mount the second wagon.
She had spoken to him with an elaborate gentleness and kindness, as one spoke to a spooked horse. It was this that frightened him more than anything so far.
He caught the ox’s bridle rope; as soon as Molly was settled he pulled. Insignificant as Hob’s strength was, the giant stepped forward, obedient but with an unconvincingly furtive air, as it skirted the rock and followed Hob down the track. It had a kind of trust of Hob, after a year and a half in which he had mostly been the one to feed and groom it, and it followed him as one might follow a parent, a sight at once comical and piteous.
They hurried on, slipping on the iron-hard ruts and steel-colored patches of ice, the wagons swaying dangerously; in their tearing eyes the chill nasty wind, in their ears the creak and groan of flexing wood, the thud and clop of hooves on the hard ground, the harsh whistle of breath in the bitter air.
Now, adding to their troubles, the road began to rise steeply. The beasts began to labor, the brakes were set and released constantly, and the muscles of Hob’s calves and those along the front of his thighs began to burn and grow numb.
A pressure came to Hob. It rested behind his right shoulder blade. He could feel a hard cruel eye fixed on his thin boy’s body, clear as clear, crisp as the clamping grip the shire-reeve used on poachers, just above the elbow: that old painful grip, all lawmen know it, they probably used it on Jesus at Gethsemane. A gaze like a bailiff’s grasp had hold of Hob’s innards. Nor must you trouble yourself about it. He looked fiercely at the wretched path ahead; he took another step, the tension on the bridle rope increasing and easing as the ox fell behind, caught up.
In forcing himself on, Hob felt the lock on his soul ease a bit, but his thoughts were all awhirl, too scattered even for a coherent Ave. He could manage but a mumbled Holy Mary, Mother of God, in time with his steps. Soon the difficulty of the grade and the lull of the chant snared him enough to let him forget the amber eye behind him. How did he know it was amber? His flesh knew it.
Up and up the road wound: oak and yew gave way to fir and claw-needled pine; long ribs of frost-broken stone stood forth here and there; the grade steepened. The land dropped away on the west. They were climbing the western flank of Monastery Mount, that the peasants still called Thonarberg, and the road was narrowing and hugging the rocky slope.
He walked bent forward against the grade. He walked this way for a long time, his right arm stretched out behind him, pulling on the lead rope. Suddenly he woke to his surroundings, as though he had been pacing in his sleep.
Ahead the road passed between two high outcrops of rock. On the east a spur of naked granite, veined with frost, ran to within a yard of the road. On Hob’s right hand, where the slope plunged down into the rift between Monastery Mount and the broken crags and frozen rivers of Old Catherine to the southwest and the Little Sisters to the northwest, now mostly behind them, a spine of rock climbed out of the gulf and bent toward the road. In the portal framed by these two bourne stones stood a small knot of hooded men.
There were three—no, four—and Hob had a moment when he felt bathed in ice water, before he recognized the rough gray mantles, the closed sandals stuffed with dried mountain grasses, that marked St. Germaine’s Companions, the brothers of the Monastery of St. Germaine de la Roche, with their iron-shod staves, their reddened faces, their bodies hardened from plain fare and the highland winters. Their arms were scarred, their knuckles swollen, badges of their service to their oath: to maintain the safety of the road, from the crude gate the caravan now approached to the Thonarberg Bite, a point just over the crest of the pass that ran, threading through the mountains, along the western shoulder of Monastery Mount.
GERMAINE DE LA ROCH...
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