Set in very early Christian times, Colman is a spellbinding fantasy of a faraway age, when the mystical and the commonplace walked hand in hand. The healer, Juniper, and her apprentice, Wise Child, are accused of witchcraft and forced to flee their small town. Wise Child’s devoted cousin, Colman, escapes with them. This is his story of their arrival to the land of Juniper’s birth, where she is, in fact, a princess.
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Known in her homeland of England in many roles—journalist, biographer, novelist, feminist, and activist—Monica Furlong was best known in the United States for her award-winning novels, Juniper and Wise Child. Monica Furlong died of cancer in January 2003 at the age of 72. Colman is her last work.
From the Paperback edition.
Four of us escaped on Finbar's ship after Juniper's trial as a witch—Juniper, Wise Child, Cormac, and me. There had been so much fear for all of us except Finbar, a terrible walk across the island for Juniper and Wise Child, and then suddenly we were all sailing across a peaceful sea, safe at last. It was only a few weeks since Juniper had lived at the white house, had taken care of my cousin Wise Child, and had helped the people of the village with remedies for their sicknesses and accidents. Then came the accusation of black magic, with the sequel of torture and possible death, and Juniper, who had been arrested and imprisoned, had only just escaped in time.
And now there the five of us were on the ship, along with Finbar's men. It was a beautiful evening. Juniper and Wise Child sat in the stern of the boat watching the sunset and recovering from their ordeal, Wise Child small and dark, Juniper with her arm around her. Juniper's long black hair blew wildly about until she put her shawl over it to tame it. Cormac stood staring over the stern with his scarred, damaged face, seeing the island grow smaller and smaller. I guess he had few regrets for the place where he had known great unhappiness. Me, although I felt bad about leaving Mam and my brothers and sisters without saying goodbye, I was very glad to get away from Dad and his belt and to have started an adventure with the people I loved best, not counting my family.
It was terribly exciting to be on a ship like Finbar's. It had sails, something I had never seen before. The. island boats were small and light and made out of wicker and hide, whereas Finbar's boat, like the birlinns on which I had very occasionally traveled to the mainland with my father, was made out of wood. And now, with the wind behind us, we had begun to move rapidly and would sail for distances I had barely dreamed of. Already we had passed islands of which I did not even know the names.
I followed Finbar about, listening to him giving orders and imagining myself as captain of a ship. Soon Finbar suggested chores I could do like a proper sailor. One of the men showed me how to coil a rope, and Cully, the ship's cook, got me peeling vegetables in the galley.
That first night was a joyful one. Finbar broached some wine, and even Wise Child and I were given a generous amount with a splash of water. It was too soon to start asking any of the difficult questions about where we would go and what we would do. We were all just glad to be together and to be safe.
I did notice that Wise Child seemed a little shy of Finbar. Although he was her dad, he had been at sea for several years, and she had looked forward to his return for so long. I think she was surprised to find that he seemed like a stranger to her. Perhaps his sheer size was intimidating. Finbar was a very tall man with a beard and strong, handsome features. He had black hair and brilliant blue eyes, just like her own, along with wonderful pale skin.
We enjoyed our feast—we were all really hungry—and then Finbar found beds for all of us. He turned out of his bunk and put Juniper in it. Wise Child he put in a little made-up bed on the floor. He slung hammocks for himself and for Cormac and me on the deck. I did not go to sleep for hours—it seemed a pity to waste my excitement in sleep. I loved watching the movement of the stars overhead and feeling the gentle movement of the ship.
I fell asleep at last and slept well, but was awakened in the early morning by shouting. A strong wind was blowing, and the sea had become much rougher. The sailors were clambering up the mast and along the yardarm, pulling in sails and tying them into place.
I hastily did up my trousers and folded my hammock, wanting to be part of it all. We were passing through a channel with land on both sides.
"That's Ireland!" one of the sailors shouted to me, pointing to starboard. "They call this the North Channel!"
Before I could offer my services as a sailor, Finbar ordered me down to the galley. Cully was already at work gutting some fish, and I helped him clean up afterward.
"Fancy a bit of bacon, boy?" he asked when we had finished.
"The sea hasn't put you off your breakfast, then?"
I thought about it. No, my stomach felt fine.
"I'd like your help. There's a lot to do on a ship on a morning like this, and it's important not to get in the men's way.”
It occurred to me later that Finbar had asked him to tell me this in a way that did not hurt my feelings.
"Have you washed?" he then surprised me by asking.
I shook my head.
"Must keep clean on a ship, ’specially when you're a cook." He nodded to a flagon of water in the corner with a cloth beside it, and under his eye I washed my face and hands. I had not realized sailors were so fussy. Then I started chopping onions until the tears ran down my face. I had just started on a mound of cabbage when a sailor appeared at the door.
"Cap'n sends his compliments and would like to talk to you, sir," he said to me. "He's at the wheel."
I was so overcome at being called "sir" that I just mumbled, "All right," but Cully prompted me quietly: "Aye, aye." I duly echoed him, then followed the sailor above deck.
Finbar made a fine figure at the wheel and for a few moments did not speak to me. Finbar, I was to learn, was a man of long silences.
"We're having a council of war tonight, Colman," he said at last. "All of us, to decide where to go, what to do. But I wanted to talk to you first.
"It seems bad luck that you have got caught up in all this and dragged away from your family. I dare not let you go back, however. They would certainly suspect you were involved in the escape because of your friendship with Wise Child. "
I nodded. If I went back, there would be endless questions, and my dad would do his best to beat the truth out of me. I was much more frightened of him than I was of Cormac's brother, Fillan, the priest who, during the time of famine and the smallpox epidemic, had roused the people against Juniper. There was little hardship for me in going on a voyage with my favorite people.
The effort of explaining all this felt too great. I grinned instead and said, "I don't mind!"
Finbar looked at me in a searching way with eyes that were so much like Wise Child's. Then he shook his head slightly and laughed. "So be it!"
It was not till I saw Wise Child and Juniper in Finbar's cabin that evening that I realized that though they had escaped, the ordeal was not over for them. The previous night they had seemed calm, serene. Tonight, however, Juniper looked pale and drawn, entirely unlike her usual rosy self. There were shadows under her eyes, and she kept propping up her head with her hand as if she was too exhausted to hold it upright.
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