The Queen’s Wood, part 1

Story no. 43. Uh. . . just trust me, okay? I will catch up with the illustrations. Okay, don’t trust me. YOU SHOULDN’T TRUST ME AT THIS POINT, because I am a lying liar who lies about getting watercolors done. DRAMATIC SIGH.


 

The new arrivals were thin-faced and more than a little haggard. Their English was mediocre and their Irish nonexistent. They had come, they said, all the way from the western foothills of the Alps. To avoid the nuclear drift they had gone south until they reached the coast, where they had built a raft that they could navigate along the coastline. Once they had passed the strait, though, the open ocean became too much for their improvised vessel, and they had had to go south again, until they could find and bargain with one of the remaining fisher villages there for passage on a craft to Ireland.

Auntie didn’t ask what they had bargained, or how long they had been on the journey, or how many people their group had comprised when they started. Gwen privately thought that the shadows echoing in the face of the small blonde woman suggested more rather than less, longer rather than shorter, and rather more than the three bedraggled refugees now standing under the Big Tree.

Auntie had the two women and one man searched for weapons (nothing except a few short knives), looked over for obvious diseases and injuries (nothing too severe, though the older of the women looked to have some broken toes), and given white armbands to significant their foreign provenance.

“If you take these off,” the old woman said, touching the armbands and then tapping the new man on the chest lightly, almost lovingly, with the tip of a machete, “I will beat the ever-loving shit out of you. Comprenez?” She gestured in a way that took in all three of them. They nodded.

Gwen, unsurprisingly, was told to look after the younger woman, while Auntie (rather unsympathetically, she thought) sent the other two to the dormitory and Uzba’s tender ministrations.

Gwen was nominally Auntie’s apprentice in clay-work, as a half-dozen other young people were nominally her apprentices in weaving and spinning, wood-carving, stone-laying, and cow-minding and cheese-making, and as nearly the entire young population of the village and its satellites, some fifty-odd people between the ages of sixteen and thirty, were required to follow Auntie’s dictates during the three intense months of harvest and pickling-season.

The truth was that Gwen had learned almost everything she could from Auntie, whose knowledge was broad but not especially deep, and was now mostly engaged in making dozens of earthenware cups, bowls, and jars during the afternoons, while she experimented with different clays and different tools to create the great amphora of her dreams in the evenings. In the mornings she chased the goats, and fought with them over pieces of wood she could use for the end-of-week lighting of the kiln.

This she explained to the new woman in great rushing waterfall of speech, the cataract of words only occasionally checked by pauses to clean bilberries off the path to the biggest pit by the stream where she collected clay. (She had occasionally thought of packing a rucksack and taking a cow and two buckets to hunt further afield for different – maybe better – clays, but it was the sort of expedition that Auntie would insist needed to be carried out in a group of four and bows and camps with hidden tripwires, and all of it gave Gwen a headache.)

The new woman accepted handfuls of bilberries to eat, staining her mouth and hands purpley-black without seeming to notice (Gwen approved.) Her name was Camille, and she had had a garden with lavender and grape vines in it. Or, wait, no (she scrambled over English like a great heap of fallen slate that could slide away in all directions at once) she had seen a garden with lavender and grape vines in it, when they had been on the north coast, a garden with walls, you understand? It had been warm there. She wished she could have some grapes of her own – could you have grapes here, on the island – that was what she meant? She had seen something like grapes, they looked like – she wasn’t sure –

The conversation proceeded in these intermingled overflowings of words. Gwen very quickly found herself feeling terribly, fiercely tender toward her new charge; Camille struggled over both voids of language and voids of heart-darkness with equal stubbornness (“the thing – the thing that is with circle pieces on the bottom, that you put many things in, and the animal pulls,” “when we were still at home.”) Gwen showed her the clay-digging pit (one side had fallen in a bit, and after a bit of grumbling she pulled off her leggings and stepped in to shore it up with branches and stones,) and they filled the bucket she had brought together.

“You seem very lonely,” Camille said as they walked back to the pottery shed, and Gwen felt both touched and annoyed.

She had to petition Uzda, and then Gula, for extra bedding for Camille. Gwen had a room at the end of the pottery shed, a lumpy added-on in granite and sand. She had found the pieces of wood for her window and door lintels herself. Auntie had been trying to build a glass-melting furnace for several years now, but given the twenty-mile walk to the coast for sand, and the risk inherent in crossing McKenzie lands, it had never been much of a priority. The village still did not have glass windows. Instead Gwen had tacked up a prized bit of linen coated in beeswax, which she carefully took down every week to mend, and a wool curtain.

Camille was startled by the huge stack of tiles in the corner, and Gwen proudly told her that by year’s end (all things going to plan) she’d have made her room a new, waterproof, easily-taken-care-of roof. Thatch was all very well, but it took a whole field to thatch a roof properly, it was messy to do over, it was subject to fire, and it attracted nesting birds. This, in turn, provoked a long discourse from Camille about the different roofs she had seen on the southern coast, and the very steep incline one had to build if one had snow to throw off.

Gwen fell asleep while listening to her speak, and dreamed of bombed-out cottages covered in grape vines.

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