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Authors: K. M. Grant

Belle's Song

BOOK: Belle's Song
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Title Page
Author’s Note
Selected Timeline
Also By K. M. Grant
To MS, with love

London, August 1387

It happened in that season that one day
In Southwark, at the Tabard …
Tragedy and opportunity, conspiracies and compulsions. And love. Unexpected love. Once-in-a-lifetime love. Love as real and true as I am. I’ll find it hardest to tell of the tragedy, since it was partly—no, entirely—my fault. And it was a real tragedy, at least for my father. It altered his life and not in a good way, although, like most tragedies, the actual tragic event was not the end of the matter. The opportunity, indeed, emerged from the tragedy, and love sprang from the opportunity. How can anybody wish opportunity and love away? Yet the opportunity and how I live now doesn’t make the tragedy less tragic. Life’s a bit of a muddle like that, I find.
Why tell my story? you may ask. That’s easy. Somebody should know the whole truth. People know parts, you see, but only one person knows everything and I’m frightened that he’s dead. So if I die too, and of course one day I will, then nobody will know everything except God, and he won’t be telling because he’s only interested in his own story. If you’ve got a story, better tell it yourself.
So, here goes. My father was a bell founder: that is, he made bells, which is a difficult profession involving large weights, hot metal, and hairbreadth calculations. Until the tragedy, he was always busy. London, where we lived, was greedy for bells, and the bells my father made pealed proof of his talent and diligence several times an hour. If my father was downcast or worried, my mother would stand outside our door, hands on flirtatious hips, and identify each individual tone. “St. Martin Vintry, St. Jude’s, St. Mary’s on the Wharf, St. James Garlickhythe, St. Michael at Paternoster, White Friars, St. Paul’s, St. Mary Overie.” My father would pretend he wasn’t listening, but as her litany drew to an end he’d throw out long arms to catch her waist and then whirl her about until she had to remind him that whirligigs cannot make dinners. Their love reminded me of a bell. It resounded, if you know what I mean.
I was an only child, which, for a bell founder, is an unhappy circumstance. It’s really a family trade. I was also the wrong sex, being a girl, although this did at least allow my father to call me Belle, which was the kind of joke he liked. “Sound the bell, Belle!” “Peel your apple, Belle!” “Belle, get your clapper swinging!” when I lingered in my bed. He denied himself no pun, no wordplay, no easy joke. As my figure grew more bell-like, others took up the chant. My name, I have to say, has been a trial.
Nor, to my father’s great disappointment, did it generate an interest in bell founding. Not then and not now. I’ve never been a practical girl. I’ve no feel for the workman’s lathe or even the domestic broom, which is why, after my mother died, our house was a mess.
I can see now that the loss of his love nearly killed my father, half through grief and half through anger. For months, tears streaming down his face, he raged against a God who decreed that a good woman, his woman, and a woman who, incidentally, had already survived the plague, should be unexpectedly and hideously carried off by a stupid pox. No priest could supply the answer. Nor could I fill the ache in his arms for the feel of her waist or even cheer him with the bell litany. I had no gift for that. My gifts were all to do with the made-up, not the real. So we fell into bad habits, he and I. After my father’s tears had dried into a salty riverbed of wrinkles, his rants were directed not at God but at me, as though the dirty pots and disheveled laundry were somehow a betrayal of my mother’s memory. I’m afraid I simply took no notice. I mean, what did the house matter? It was just an extension of my father’s workshop, and without my mother to fill it with light and baking, just a place for eating and sleeping. More and more, I lived in my head and, by and by, through my compulsions.
If you’re also a life-in-the-head person, you’ll know
that it’s half joy, half trouble. I found it made me few friends, and I could hardly complain. If, most of the time, you’re pretending to be somebody else, people soon lose interest in who you really are. Indeed, I didn’t really know who I was myself and concocted a variety of persona, sometimes human, sometimes animal. Goddesses, ermine, and unicorns were my favorites. Sometimes I even imagined myself a knight, although I didn’t want to be a man.
Worse than my imaginings, so far as my father was concerned, was the undoubted fact that when you’re a goddess battling with the devil or a unicorn caught in a thicket, you just don’t smell scorching bread. Nor, when you’re an ice-white queen straddling the back of a blood-red horse or a dear little ermine snug against a knight’s breast, do you bother about soiled linen or remember to feed the chickens. Chickens! I only ever fantasized about them in a pot.
My most pressing compulsion began as a game and became serious only after my mother died, probably because she wasn’t there to laugh it away. Not that the compulsion was sinister, unless you find the number three sinister. I’d say it was more of a nuisance. It began by my having to do a kind of three-skip bounce before mounting our pony and progressed to cutting all my food into three or multiples of three and going up the stairs only in threes. With eight stairs, this meant that
at the top or the bottom I had to put in an extra step so that there were nine footfalls. If I forgot—well, I never forgot. I couldn’t really, because the counting was soon accompanied by bargaining. Once, for example, it came to me that if I didn’t see three gray ponies by the time I reached the end of our street, something bad would happen on my way home. I did see three, only one of them was really a horse. On my way home, a woman emptied a bowl of slop onto my head. Another time, I saw two one-horned oxen and had to scour the city to find a third, because if I didn’t, the next visitor to the house would bring bad news. Luckily I did find another and the next visitor to the house was the apothecary, who told my father the plague was not expected to return. Had I not seen that third onehorner, I know the news would have been different. Then there was the morning I had to catch three leaves between the first toll of the compline bell and the last. If I failed, God would take three days off my life. I did catch a third leaf, but only just, and it had another leaf attached to it. I’m still uncertain whether this was a good or bad sign. I think I may live three extra days, but I’m pretty sure that the last one will contain a surprise. In my experience, bargains have to be very precisely kept.
Why three? I don’t know, except that three is the number of the Trinity, the number of tasks a knight
usually has to perform on a quest, and the number of curses an old beggar woman once showered on me to make me give her three pennies.
I might as well tell you now that life-in-the-head and my obsession with three weren’t my only peculiarities. For my twelfth birthday—my second motherless one—I wanted a company of musicians to follow me about. Not the tiddly-taddly horn and drum offered by every tinker in every marketplace, much as I loved dancing to jolly rhythms at the midsummer fair or during the Christmas feast. No. The music I craved was as yet unwritten for instruments as yet uncrafted—music, so I rather pompously told my father, to wrench tears from the driest of eyes and swell the soul even of the godless. In other words, music to go with the stories I inhabited. My father, who, despite his grief and my domestic failures, had tried hard to make my birthday as my mother would have made it, listened with some patience and was not unsympathetic. However, since a perfect bell peal was the only music he really liked (I’m fond of triple peals, any others make me nervous), I know he didn’t fully understand.
He did understand, though, that the house was a pigsty and, birthday or not, told me that if he came across yet another rotten egg, never mind swelling the souls of the godless, he’d make music like the devil. We ended that birthday with a row that contained no
music of any kind, and though I found I couldn’t leave him without an embrace, it was three cold kisses that I planted on his cheek before we parted for the night.
Later, when the poxy strummers who played at the Tabard Inn next door struck up their chorus, I crept out and hurled six rotten eggs through their window. The rest I dispatched into the brothel farther down the road. How dare those ladies be happy?
Now to the tragic event itself. I say only one thing in my defense. I was so sorry afterward I thought I might die and I must have relived the moment a million times, pinpointing the very second, less than a second, before which everything was normal and after which nothing was normal again. I would lie awake, rubbing the doll my mother knitted for me against that special place between the bottom of your ear and your chin, and as I rubbed, would rewrite the moment, rewrite the whole day, then go on to rewrite my whole life so that I was a different person, a nice person, a daughter of whom my father could be proud. But rewriting would not change the facts. Indeed, the only thing to change was Poppet, who I rubbed so hard that all the features of her face were scoured away. Soon, just like me, she didn’t know who she was anymore. In the end, to stop her vanishing altogether, I covered what was left of her face with a washcloth.
I think it was the day I covered her face that I took to
rubbing my shins with a pumice stone. It was a surprise, the first time they bled. I’d started with the pumice stone before, taking one from my father’s toolbox to help get rid of the smoky stubble that was beginning to speckle my legs. Hair should only be on your head, although the priests want even that covered. They say it leads a man to sin. That’s ridiculous. No man would be led to sin by my red tangles. Nevertheless, the priests are right about one thing: only a man-God would allow hair to grow where no girl wants it. Anyway, after the tragedy, as well as the hair on my legs, I rubbed away my skin. It was an accident at first, and I was frightened by the blood. It was also a curious, biting pleasure. After that I couldn’t stop myself. Every time my flesh tore, part of me was horrified, but a greater part rejoiced in the ugliness and the pain because it obliterated everything else. I suppose a gallon of wine would have done the same, but I didn’t like the taste. For several years now I have tried to keep the pumice out of reach. I’m not always successful. Even as I write this, I’m tempted, and when I’m tempted, I sometimes rub my ankle for a second or so. Ankles bleed a lot.
BOOK: Belle's Song
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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