“Our little village of forty souls boasted some fifteen children of various ages and sizes. We never knew how old we all were of course, simply because none of us had ever celebrated a known birthday. We were just born or had just arrived and that was it. But sadly some of those babies did not or could not survive. Many being later claimed and taken away by consuming illnesses and diseases that seemed to come really from nowhere. The only special day of those past years I still remember was very long ago concerning the duke’s birthday, then on that day none of us in the village would be expected to toil in the many fields or orchards or labour in the many damp cold castle workshops and stables.”
He paused perhaps relieving those days of turmoil and suffering in his youth. Then when composed he drew breath slowly and continued: “One morning my mother dispatched me as usual into the forests to search for berries or anything edible to be added as part of our first meal of the day. Usually if located to include them with the leftovers from the evening meal – if any from the night before were left on the table.
She was always very concerned when she watched me leave in the early morning. Simply because some years before her husband my father had silently departed to that same forest to search for the same nourishment for his family and sadly never ever returned. I was never sure if he had stumbled into one too many quagmires and drowned or had just left us in search of a new family. Who knows? It does happen more times than you know about.”
Karen had noticed as he gathered his random thoughts: “It was an early May morning and the light was particularly bright. And I had been fortunate to fill my sack with gooseberries, some cloudberries and apples and plenty of elderberries as they had always been my favourites whenever I saw or tasted them.
Then to my surprise, a kind almost inaudible voice behind me spoke a few soft words: “Greetings young Sire” arrived a warm salutation.
It was my first introduction in meeting and making the acquaintance of ‘brother’ Jerome. Amazingly I had not heard his quiet arrival behind me either.
The first thing I noticed about him was his height. As a small boy, all adults obviously seemed tall to me, and most of the men in our village were of ordinary height.
He was well over six foot and the addition of an almost floor-length well patched black cloak also contributed to his lean height. His sturdy leather boots had certainly seen previous better times as had his breeches and jacket along with his felt creased wide-brimmed hat.
His clutched wooden oak staff, being almost his height bore the teeth marks of many previous attacks on him by dogs and wolves and later I was informed by him from bears. He himself had not suffered even a scratch he laughed when he told about his many exploits on his many travels in the weeks ahead. The thin shadow of a beard was the only noticeable feature on his almost unlined youthful face.
But it was the two heavy full-sized canvas army packs placed around each shoulder as well as one placed around his neck that lay across his chest that showed to me somehow that he was a man who had travelled far and wide. And now it seemed he had arrived – for some unexplained reason – into our hidden hamlet. I wondered for what reason and what purpose.
He strode towards me with an outreached right hand. I was at a loss of how to respond, simply because I had never shaken another person’s hand or seen it performed on others. I knew nothing of its universal friendly significance.
He reached for my hesitant hand and shook it vigorously saying: “I am brother Jerome and your name?”He waited with a smile for a response, but I had none to offer simply because I had no name. I was always just referred to as a boy. In fact, none in our village answered to any personal names or had ever been offered one.
He was in his late 30s or early 40s and no rings or jewellery decorations were seen on display that I could remember. If there were any morning birds all welcoming the new dawn in the song I just didn’t hear or see them either. He took up all of my interest.
“Then I shall name you Rory, who if you didn’t know was the last true king of Ireland” he quietly announced, patting me affectionately on my head.
Both that unknown king’s name and that country I really knew nothing about or had even heard anything about either and just caused me to say nothing.
We children had never had any formal education, in fact, the only schooling we had ever been subjected to was from the duke’s unpleasant Sgt. at Arms, who informed us that we must always address our betters as Sire, and to always look down at our feet when anyone in authority in the castle called us and addressed us. And we were to turn quickly away if any knight of the realm rode by us and never to make eye contact. If not a sharp slap directly around the head would reinforce this brutal order as I well remember too often. And yet the duke’s favoured groomed beautiful Friesian horses all had been rewarded with names and were housed in a better fashion than we in the village ever were. I recall their names were painted above their stall’s. I could not understand them of course. But when no one was looking I would trace my forefinger around the words for some reason trying to understand their meaning and try and remember them. But not I’m afraid with much success. Even the duke’s many hunting dogs always ate well and were pampered far better than we ever were or expected to be.
But of course, we knew nothing else because this simply was the way it had always been and none questioned it.
And every new year in our village we were all obliged to assemble in the great hall of the castle. Each of us was offered a small cup filled with mead. And all of us were forced to wish the duke a happy and prosperous new year. And usually followed by that sneering sadistic Sgt. at Arms, usually quietly stepping forward calling for three cheers for the duke at the prompting of the duke’s detestable half brother Wilfred whom we all feared. Announcing as he shouted the desire and hope that the duke would prosper even more so in the coming year. You know the aroma of that liquid when it manifested itself in the years ahead has always made me nauseous ever since.
“Now young Rory please if you will take me to your village to meet the head man,” he said, placing a protective arm around my shoulders and off we went.
I also now felt very proud of this new unusual name he had given to me as well as his confidence in me.
Because none of us had what we call Christian names in my village. Each man or woman was named after the work that he or she performed and always had been. Our town elder was then named appropriately “Tree” obviously because of the work he did when he could as he had toiled in the forests felling trees and kindly arranging winter kindling for the elderly sick villagers.
We both talked as we walked briefly to each other, with him asking the questions and controlling the conversation. And I was rather nervously trying to answer all questions and trying to keep pace with him as well.
By the time we arrived at the home of dear old man “Tree” most of the children and others were following us. And all amazed by this unusual stranger who had almost appeared out of thin air and was now standing like an apparition in their bewildered midst.
Dear old “Tree” was sitting outside his abode as usual on an upturned wooden bucket puffing and enjoying his favourite cob pipe. He slowly stood up and watched us walk towards him in suspicion then surprise: “Greeting dear sire” said the brother offering his free hand.
“Tree” looked perplexed at this unknown gesture offered to him, so I simply said rather loudly because he was very hard of hearing: “He wants to hold your hand and shake it,” I slowly explained to the confused old man. It’s just a friendly greeting it seems from where this man hails from,” I explained and emphasised the word hand.
This he slowly did so causing all the crowd around us also to imitate this unknown gesture most laughing and shaking each other’s hands rather too vigorously.
Some of the children offered their little hands to him with hesitation towards the brother and he kindly shook every hand. Then the brother said with a smile, “Wait.”
Then he slowly reached into that canvas bag and still safely secured around his neck and produced a handful of small wrapped objects in shiny red paper. He offered one to each of the excited chattering children informing them to carefully place them when opened into their mouths and just munch and then enjoy. I later learned from him they were a very popular sweet delicacy named Nougat that had arrived a long time ago from a country called Turkey, a rather unusual name I thought. Then for some reason, he did not offer one of these Turkish delights to me. Well not then anyway, only later offering me two!
Most of the villagers toiled in or around the castle walls. One such was a woman we all knew and called simply “Washerwoman.” She was an awkward unpleasant plain woman who had somehow easily found work in the busy castle laundry with later important personal responsibilities in the private bedchamber of lady Louise. She had become very proud of her then favoured position that became almost an obsessive passion for her. She was also able to obtain many of the kitchen leftovers that she would quickly take home and eat everything herself and had never wished to share with anyone else. Only then later being forced to depart the favoured castle washrooms and naturally the royal bedchamber. And very reluctantly at that, I recall when she was suddenly unable to work in the castle compound anymore owing to a painful spinal injury sustained after a serious stumble on the great hall’s greasy stairs.
Now she was watching what was happening with suspicion concerning the sudden arrival of this tall unknown stranger.
She quickly decided to walk with some difficulty to the castle and inform and warn the Sgt. at Arms of what was happening and ask him to notify the duke and lady Louise.
He then immediately trotted towards the royal suite of rooms and there informed the lady in waiting for lady Louise of this unexpected village news. Then when the lady Louise was informed of this news she seemed almost uninterested. And briefly replied: “Do nothing for now. The duke is away with Wilfred. Have this stranger brought to the castle in a few days time,” then adding as an afterthought, “if he is still here that is … now go!” she said abruptly dismissing him with a wave of both hands of which she was very proud of their beauty. And then returned to her always favoured crosspoint. She was at the moment carefully constructing a country scene depicting a happy laughing pair of escaping foxes featuring a half knowing smile on both faces. Because now both had happily outfoxed the hunters and baying hounds as they rode furiously into another direction.
One of her earlier creations was of a zoo, but this time the barred cages had been occupied by humans – some being employees from the castle – with all the liberated laughing animals peering in at them gleefully and with curiosity. Some even with openly displayed contempt etched around their alerted eyes. She was enjoying working patiently in threading this imaginary depiction and always for her own unusual amusement.
She now had little time for any introspection but this unexpected and surprising news of this mysterious stranger now in the village, and how he has apparently helped the sick had sharpened her interest. She now wanted to hear much more and hopefully benefit herself from his announced ‘healing skills’ that she had learned about from her gossiping ladies in waiting (many of these unique unusual tapestries it seems had survived and can be seen on request in the Deutsch museum in Auckland).
After talking and listening to the ‘brother’ old man “Tree” kindly decided that the stranger could be offered to stay in the now-empty cottage of old man “Smithy” who had died painfully some weeks earlier of an eye infection received from a steel splinter.
Once inside the empty cottage I brushed out the dirt and snagged away the crafted cobwebs because old “Smithy” kept most of his tools in the cottage. There were many shelves that had also adorned the walls, many used and new horseshoes had been collected and used and had been placed there by him. It would be ideal for the brother and his heavy luggage now placed around his booted feet to later place his own personal items into their new home.
“This will be just perfect for me I rather think,” he happily commented looking around as he tousled my hair yet again.
“Now I think it’s time to be acquainted with your dear mother,” he announced but now looking rather exhausted but quickly adding, “and I’m looking forward to it.”
He followed me as I excitedly led him to meet my dear mother and wouldn’t she be surprised when the ‘brother’ stepped into our humble cottage that would later change all of our lives forever.
To be continued…
(C) Copyright G. Patrick Battell