We’re delighted to publish the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize winning entry for 2017, a moving tale of grief and redemption from author Annie Whitehead.
His hand is on hers, fingers curling around her palm and encircling it. He blinks, quickly. There is moisture in his eyes and she knows that he is anxious not to let it spill. The breeze, or perhaps it is the downward draught of her exhaled breath, lifts his hair and his brow relaxes. He is cooler now, and the globs of sweat sitting on his forehead will stop tormenting him, begin instead to soothe. She gives him back his hand, stands up and moves away so that he can look, once more, at the sky. His breathing is easier; his chest moves with a steady undulation. A single cloud, little more than a wisp, passes overhead and he lifts his head, neck sinews protruding. Sometimes she thinks he is trying to levitate his whole body, away from the ground, towards the sky. He wants to ascend.
She takes the wooden mazer, running her thumb along the carvings on the rim, shaped for her with love, and tips out the dregs before placing the drinking bowl in her leather drawstring bag along with her herbs and unguents. He has swallowed her infusion of agrimony, and she is pleased. The ancients used it for healing wounds, but Juliana administers it because he occasionally clutches his stomach, and his cough is worsening. She looks skyward as she shoulders her bag. The sun is bright, but lower in the sky. Soon it will be harvest time and then the nights will draw in; there will be dewy mornings. He cannot stay outside when the summer is over.
Too near to ignore, Brother Adolphus is by the edge of the pond, lying down, cavernous sleeves rolled up past his elbows as he leans on one arm while he reaches into the water with the other, tickling the trout. Not much sport, she has always thought, to catch already captive fish. The fish are just there in the holding pen; the monk is showing off by making it look like such an art. He pretends he has not seen her.
A glint on the water draws her eyes into a squint. The monk will think that she is scowling at him. Well, let him. It’s no secret how she feels about him, nor why.
Adolphus sits up, shakes his hand and wipes it on his black robes. The wet fabric does not discolour; it is as if he has made the water vanish. He pats it dry as daintily as if he were at a high feast and using a napkin. She can see, even under his habit, his rounded belly. He stands, returning her stare.
He disapproves of her methods. But the soldier wants to be outside, he craves to see the sky, and seems not to want the monks near him. And so they have made a shelter for him where he can heal under the warmth of the sun, and Juliana can tend him. She walks, deliberately languorously, past Adolphus, wishing that every step could send a rumble through the earth to bruise him.
Adolphus sniffs his disdain. “What have you given him?”
“A brew of agrimony. He must have it morning, noon and night. I will come back later.”
“Folk accord agrimony magical powers; it is against Church law to claim the attributes of deity. Your soldier needs proper medicine. And prayer.”
“Prayer does not work and your medicine does not save everyone.”
He hisses at her. “This too; you show contempt and a lack of reverence.” But then he glances away. And when he opens his mouth to speak, she cannot listen.
She speaks before he has a chance to offer his apologies. No, never that. His excuses. “The soldier will die if you take him inside. He needs to breathe the clean air; to be nearer to God.”
A new word, for old sins. She begins to move off.
His voice rings high and clear. “We are sorely depleted. Three monks now do the work of ten.”
He can call her blasphemer and sinner, despise her for being a healing-woman. But he cannot say that the battle was her fault; that the monks who returned to Cluny left because of her. She stops and turns round slowly. “As well, then, that he stays outside where I can tend him.”
“Why must you be so insistent?”
“You know why.”
He glares at her. “Disputatious.”
Ironically she will not argue with that.
She walks through the great gate, past the newly converted Chapel of St John. She avoids looking across to the hospital. At their house down the lane, Martin is waiting for her, wood shavings in his hair as always. They sit by the cooking fire. Successive bad harvests have seen them eating bread made from bean flour, and even Martin, the town’s wood-turner, cannot put bacon in the pot along with the onions and cabbage.
Martin is no fool. “Words were spoken. Your mouth is all pinched.”
She shakes her head, not to deny, but to flick hair from her eyes. A strand floats onto the table and she picks it up and twists it round her finger, noting that it is black at one end, grey nearer the root. “He spoke to me of Church law.”
Martin raises an eyebrow.
She nods. “As if I needed such a sermon. We abided by his Church law.” Their son was placed on the care-cloth at their wedding and could henceforth no longer be called bastard. “I did my penance, before witnesses, in church. No more was needed, under law.” She laughs, though the sound is discordant. “Adolphus only wishes he had rolled in the hay when he was fifteen. And in his lustful envy he would have me set to work for being a lewd woman but he cannot; I am a goodwife.” She releases the tight coil of hair from her fingertip and watches the blood return. She says again, “I was given my punishment.”
He clears his throat. “How is the soldier?”
“Adolphus wants to take him inside.”
“And you said no.”
“The sky gives him peace. Inside, the windows are high and narrow. He will wither; his soul will shrink. But…” She knows that in some ways Adolphus is right. She cannot bring herself to agree with him. She looks up. Her husband understands.
Martin stands up and stirs the pot. He says, “The battle was in May. The only men left in the hospital are those who lost limbs. Your soldier is whole and yet he is not healed. Will he ever recover?”
“He must. He has to.”
He releases the ladle, turning to face her. His brows are drawn together, deepening the lines on his forehead. His nose wrinkles and he bites his lower lip. And she knows her expression is the same. She begs him not to speak, by shaking her head. If either of them speaks she will weep.
She walks back across fields where shadows are short, returning just after nones, when the monks will be eating their dinner following devotions. This way she knows it will be quiet and she can dispense the agrimony. ‘The battle was in May.’ The king was captured, the barons won. And now, in August, there is barely a trace within the priory. Up on Offham Hill the damage was worse, and is still visible. The villagers speak little as they continue, in these dry months, to rebuild their cottages. Here in Lewes, while the king and the prince Edward were holed up inside, Simon de Montfort, his banner flapping crimson and silver, sent blazing arrows which set the priory church roof afire. Beyond the walls, many men drowned in the marshes, their bodies never to be found. St Pancras looked out over the priory dedicated to his memory, and did nothing. St Pancras, himself martyred at the age of fourteen, patron saint of children, not soldiers. But some of these soldiers were boys. Not all boys are soldiers.
She dressed his wounds in May. A superficial cut to the left knee, a purpling angry lump above his right eye. Bruises like squashed berries sat red, blue and belligerent over his torso for weeks. She applied ointment made from fat and elder leaves, she bandaged, swaddled his ribs tight, waited for the bones to mend underneath. Every morning she gave him elderflower to drink, to purify his blood. Lately she has treated with feverfew, a favourite of her mother who used it against hysterical and nervous complaints. Today she thinks she might try heartsease.
She wipes his mouth with a cloth. “To mend your heart.”
As usual he eats only bread. Beyond the fish house lies the orchard, but the apples are not quite ready, and sour fruit will do no good. He will not eat flesh; he seems not to like the blood.
“Shall you have a wash?” She helps him down to the water, not the river but Cockshut stream, shallow, safe. As they pass the pigeon house he is startled by a noise. It is not loud, sounds like a flurry of feathers and attempted flight, but he flinches and begins to sweat. His hand goes to his chest and he begins to tremble. She has grown used to these episodes, knows that he is easily startled, always wary of perceived threats. Cupping his elbow, she guides him back to his bed. The shape of the blanket alerts her; he is holding his stomach and she knows the pain has returned. But neither this, nor the headaches, nor the chest pains, are the result of his wounds. The heartsease brew is still warm. “Drink.”
He settles back and he talks to her, of home. He comes from a place she has never heard of; Southwark. His river is not like the stream here. Boats come and go across the water and it stinks. And he talks of houses close together. “They all have roofs that…” And he trails off, having difficulty concentrating. His hands curl into balls of anger, and he punches the ground. He breathes noises like the Seaford waves; he thinks he is choking. He sits, rigid, and a rivulet of sweat trickles down his temple, wetting the hair above his ear.
Juliana reaches out, stroking, soothing. When he lies down he smiles. “All I can see from here is the poppy against the sky.”
She puts her head to one side but has not the same vantage point. She shakes her head.
He says, “Here. Look.”
She lies down next to him. With her head on the ground she too can see the poppy, bobbing red and delicate against a firmament washed in cloudless blue. Her body throbs warm as it takes his heat, her breath synchronises with his. She smells his essence, fragrant, fresh. It is a long time since she has lain thus. Her index finger twitches; she longs to brush it across his cheek. Her heart beats faster, her breasts ache.
She twists her knee in her hurry to stand. But she runs home and Martin moves from his bow-lathe, abandoning the abbot’s commissioned chess pieces. He does not speak, does not raise even an eyebrow in query. She lifts her skirts and they make love as if life depends on it. Because life does depend on it. The soldier smells clean, Martin smells of stale sweat and toil. She thinks also of Adolphus, washing so fastidiously. She wants to be dirty, wanton. If she could do this with the monk watching her, she would.
As she goes back to the priory, shadows are lengthening in the fields. The monks will be at vespers and then they will eat their supper. She will stoke the soldier’s brazier and make sure he is settled for the night. But Adolphus comes running.
“The boy is in extremis.”
Did he say that? Why would he be so cruel as to repeat those words?
He clicks his tongue. “The soldier. You know who I mean. Come.”
At first it doesn’t seem so bad. He is sitting up on his elbows, staring at the darkening sky; he is quiet. But then she sees terror in his eyes. They are wide, the centres flicker. He is looking across the sky, searching. What for? It is as if the answer is up in the heavens. In Heaven.
The sinking sun is bright. Most would shield their faces but he stares directly into it and she sees the sheen of wetness upon his cheeks. He reaches out, grasping, and thus unbalanced, he topples back onto his bed roll. His head is straight but his gaze flicks from side to side. The brothers from the infirmary who have come running simply stand and stare.
“He is not dying,” she whispers. “He is reliving.”
She knows it is not the pain of his wounds piercing him. His body healed many weeks ago. Now she must use the dried leaves and flowers of St John’s wort that will treat the disease in his mind and act as a sedative.
While she prepares the brew his fingers clutch at the blankets, picking up the coarse woollen fabric and twisting it tighter and tighter. In the fading light she can see the spreading darkness where his hands begin to bleed as he grabs and squeezes. Adolphus wrings out a cloth; she can hear the excess water cascading back into the bowl. She reaches behind her, and he places the cloth in her palm. She lays it on the soldier’s brow and holds it there, exerting gentle pressure so that as his head turns first to one side and then the other, her hand moves with it. His heart is beating too fast and has lost any sense of rhythm. He pants, as if he is suffocating. She can smell that he has vomited at some point this evening.
Now he shouts. “No. No, no more.”
This is a pain that cannot be healed. She knows about such anguish.
And Adolphus insists. “He must be taken to the hospital.”
“No, he will die if he goes inside. He cannot.” She stands, turns to look at the holy man. “I cannot.”
Adolphus nods. “Your hatred for me is clouding your judgement. This is not your son.”
For a moment, she cannot speak. His words, like a punch to the stomach, have stolen her breath. She has been dancing around the beast that is her grief, tiptoeing past the bear but never daring to poke it. Now it is awake and threatening to rip her lungs out with the roar of tears. She wriggles her toes to feel the ground beneath her feet, solid, steadying. Then she answers him.
“No. My son is dead.”
“Yes. And I am sorry.”
“Liar.” Her nails press into her palms. It is her turn to relive; her boy, fourteen years old, nearly a man, but succumbing to fever. Dying in Adolphus’ hospital. Her beloved boy, who in the eyes of the monk was naught but a sinful woman’s bastard. And the well-fed monks survived. “You let him die.”
“It was God’s will.”
“No.” Her voice breaks on the rack of her sobs.
He urges her again. “This soldier is different; he has a sickness of the soul. He must come in.”
She sniffs and wipes snot from her nose to the back of her hand. “Different, yes. No fever.”
“But look at him. You can do no more for him.”
She says, “His sleep is tormented by nightmares. His terrors stalk him even in wakefulness. He suffers because of what he has seen.”
“No, not seen. What he has done.”
Adolphus puts his hand upon her arm.
“Please,” he says.
She has allowed him to lead her away while the brothers keep vigil. The stone bench in the herb garden chills her buttocks but she tries to concentrate.
“When the battle began, Prince Edward’s cavalry chased the rebels onto Offham Hill.” Adolphus shakes his head. “More than two miles.”
“I know what happened, what was done to Offham.”
“On their way back, Edward’s men found de Montfort’s baggage train. De Montfort was holding hostages, merchants. Edward ordered them killed.”
Her hand covers her gasp. “Killed by their own side? How do you know this? You were at the priory with Abbot William.” Realisation washes the blood cold through her veins. “That is what the soldier saw.”
Adolphus shakes his head again. “He told me, yes. But he was the one who carried out Edward’s order. To slash those merchants to death. He will not come in because he thinks he is beyond redemption.”
She can smell the evening primrose as it unfurls and bobs its sundown dance. She reaches to grasp some rosemary and rubs it between her hands, inhaling the calming fragrance. She sits back. Has she misguidedly hindered his healing? He sought solace in unobstructed views of heaven, but has not found peace. Perhaps absolution requires, after all, the brothers’ help. By saving him, she thought she could undo the wrong done to her, to her son.
Adolphus speaks. “I sat with him all night. I prayed for him.”
She looks at him and has the words of gainsay ready in her mouth.
“Both of them,” he says. His blink pushes an opalescent tear down his cheek.
And she knows that he needs her to acquiesce; redemption and forgiveness come in many forms. She does not know if the trembling that makes her drop the picked herbs is dusk-induced shivering or timorousness. She cannot go inside the church that let her down so badly, but she can let the soldier go. She answers with a nod and walks back to the sward by the fishponds.
Someone has stepped upon the poppy. It is crushed but its seeds will take root. She must await the spring, for new life. They must all heal.
Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready, kings who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, won the 2012 New Writer Magazine Prose Competition, and To Be A Queen was voted finalist in its category in the IAN (Independent Author Network) Book of the Year 2017. She is a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018. Find Annie on Facebook and Twitter.
A Poppy Against the Sky will also be published in the December issue of Whispering Gallery – the magazine of the Dorothy Dunnett Society.