Read Tales from the Tower, Volume 2 Online

Authors: Isobelle Carmody

Tags: #Young Adult Fiction

Tales from the Tower, Volume 2 (2 page)

BOOK: Tales from the Tower, Volume 2
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I was given some inkling of what she might have meant when we attended the local market, which was held every Saturday in a field beside the church. It wasn't a grand affair, just a modest collection of stalls set up mainly by farmers, there to sell or barter excess produce. Over to one side I noticed a group of people who hardly seemed to belong in the valley. They certainly
different from everyone else: the men dirty and unshaven; the women greasy-haired and slovenly.

‘Who are they?' I asked Gretel, pointing in their direction.

She snatched my hand down. ‘Tinkers and horse traders,' she said in a half-whisper. ‘They live at the very end of the valley. No one mixes with them unless they have to, so don't stare. Don't meet their eye.'

But it was too late for that. One of them – a middle-aged brute of a man, and their leader as far as I could tell – came sauntering over. Ignoring me completely, he gave Gretel a half-bow and touched the knife at his waist in a strangely chivalrous gesture.

She responded with a wary but otherwise friendly smile, and I had the impression that a spark of understanding passed between them.

‘All continues well with you?' he asked.

And she: ‘Yes, nothing has changed.'

He glanced briefly at me, and back to Gretel. ‘So our pact holds?'

‘It holds.'

‘Then go in peace,' he said, and bowed again before returning to his people.

I waited until he was out of earshot.

‘What's this about a pact?' I demanded.

She shrugged. ‘He's a trader, remember. It's their way of talking.'

‘Yes, but what was he talking
? What sort of pact?'

She hesitated, and then nodded, like someone relenting under pressure. ‘I've agreed to attend the tinker women if I'm needed. That's all there is to it.'

‘So why the big mystery?'

‘Because I don't want it generally known. It could harm my standing in the community. Also, I don't want you involved. Not yet, anyway.'

I would have asked her more, but she had already walked off. Again I glanced over at the tinkers. A young woman – barefoot and with mud up to her knees – saw me looking and gave a leering, gap-toothed smile. Was it a lewd invitation, or a warning to keep clear? I didn't wait to find out, but hurried off into the crowd in search of Gretel.

After that I didn't see much of the tinkers for some months. Occasionally I glimpsed them during our daily rounds, sharpening tools in a farmer's barn or tending sick horses. Once or twice we encountered one of their dilapidated wagons on the open road. Otherwise, our paths didn't cross – not, that is, until an evening in early spring, when a loud knocking sounded through the cottage.

I was upstairs at the time, so Gretel answered the door. From the upper landing I heard a childlike voice say: ‘We need you. He says to come at once.'

Gretel had closed the door before I reached the downstairs landing.

‘Who was it?' I asked.

‘The tinkers,' she explained shortly. ‘I've been called to a birthing. Can you hitch the horse up for me?'

‘Only for you?' I said, surprised. ‘Aren't I coming too?'

She turned her face aside, though not in the usual fashion. ‘That won't be necessary. Not tonight.'

But I wasn't taking no for an answer. ‘Listen,' I said, ‘do you think I haven't noticed how unwell you are? What if your strength gives out? At the very least you'll need me to drive you home.'

She couldn't really argue with that, and ten minutes later we were seated together in the buggy, she slapping the horse's rump to urge it into a trot.

We didn't talk much during our starlit journey. I had never been to the far end of the valley, and I watched in silence as the neatly cropped pastures gave way to fields of tussock and thistle. These in turn were soon replaced by rough, broken country in which only gorse flourished. Then, as we neared the rocky crags that closed off the valley – almost in the shadow of those crags – I picked out the vague outline of a dwelling. Close up, it proved to be a tumbledown affair, more a hovel than a house.

The leader of the tinkers, as squat and brutal as I remembered him, stood waiting in the starlight.

‘You've come,' was all he said, and motioned her inside.

She held back for a moment. ‘What am I to expect?'

‘The same as always,' he said, his voice taking on a hard edge.

She made no attempt to hide her impatience. ‘This is too high a price to pay! Why don't you control these girls more?'

‘And why don't you control those menfolk out there?' he countered.

She snatched the obstetrics bag from me. ‘Let's get it over with then,' she said, and pushed past him into the house.

I made as if to follow, but he barred my way.

‘Not you!' – the words barked out in a tone of command.

‘He's right,' Gretel agreed. ‘Wait out there. I'll call if you're needed.'

And the door was closed in my face.

Left to myself, I sat in the shelter of the porch and drew my coat closed, for it was a cool night. Through the flimsy planking of the door, I could hear people coming and going, and voices. A little later the shrieking began – terrible screams the like of which I had never heard before – and I blocked my ears with both fists and willed myself to sleep.

Gretel woke me an hour or so before dawn.

‘What of the mother?' I asked.

‘She survived,' she said, and handed me a bloodstained sack. ‘Don't look inside,' she added quickly. ‘Just go and bury it.'

But I had already looked, and despite the darkness there was no mistaking what the sack contained: a jumble of monstrous infant limbs, and an even more monstrous head.

I drew back, appalled. ‘My God, what is it?'

‘Don't ask,' she said. ‘Just do as I say, and then forget this happened.'

‘But we have to register births and deaths,' I replied stupidly.

‘In this case we register nothing!' she shouted, her voice cracking under the strain. ‘Now, if you have any affection for me, any sense of trust, stop all these questions and bury this thing.'

So I did. We always kept a shovel in the buggy, to dig out the wheels on muddy roads, and I used it to scrape out a shallow grave. I was still trampling down the loose earth when Gretel and the tinker reappeared.

‘My thanks to you,' he said, and gave one of his formal bows.

‘And mine to you,' she answered with a sad smile.

‘What of her?' he asked, meaning me.

‘She stands apart . . . for now.'

‘Ah yes,
for now
.' A hint of melancholy flitted across his brutal features. ‘That invisible clock of yours, how it ticks and ticks and carries you along with it.'

Then, without further comment, he left us.

Back in the buggy, the horse plodding wearily ahead, I had so many questions I hardly knew where to start, but she brushed them all aside.

‘I'm asking you to trust me in this matter,' she said, much as she had before. ‘Believe me, all this will be clear one day. When the time comes.'

When the time comes.

I guessed what she meant by that, and I didn't have the heart to press her further. Not then, nor later. Because the truth is, I did trust her. I had even come to love her, in my way, as the mother I'd never had. So I left her in peace through the remainder of our journey, and on into the days and months that followed.

In all the time I spent under Gretel's roof, she was less than kind to me on only one occasion. It was a short, upsetting episode, soon forgotten, and I mention it here not to diminish her in any way, but because of its bearing on subsequent events.

Some months after our unhappy visit to the tinker hovel, I started seeing a young man, a local farmer. I won't pretend I was wholly serious about him. Aside from mutual attraction, we had little or nothing in common. Yet the body, like the mind, has its needs, as any twenty-one-year-old woman knows. Also, he said he loved me, which I found flattering.

Although not yet lovers, we had begun to keep regular company. Word soon got about, as it must in small com- munities, and arriving home late one evening we were waylaid by Gretel. Feeble though she was, she dragged me down from the buggy and sent my suitor packing.

I was momentarily incensed. ‘What right have you to interfere in my private life?' I shouted at her.

‘Every right!' she shouted back. ‘Like it or not, I'm here to remind you of your responsibilities. As a professional, you have to stand apart from these people.'

‘Have to stand apart?' I took her up angrily. ‘Are you my keeper now? Was this the condition of my coming here?'

She answered with disarming honesty. ‘Yes, it was.'

I stared at her in astonishment, too taken aback to speak.

‘You are here because of me,' she went on. ‘I chose you – I alone – and I can
choose you if I so will. Remember that.'

I rushed up to my room and very nearly packed my bags there and then. Except where was I to go at such an hour? By morning, of course, I had cooled down. Lying at length in my bath, it struck me that there would be ample opportunity to look for a husband after she had gone. Not that I longed for her death. Quite the reverse. My fondness for her had deepened, in spite of her attempt to control my life. After all, no one else had ever bothered about me enough to try. Then, too, there was the fact that I genuinely respected her. She knew her job, she loved the people she served, and she still had a good deal to teach me.

So, as on the night of the secret burial, I decided to bide my time.

I'm glad I did, because soon after that she went into a slow decline. Day by day more of the work fell to me, until eventually she grew too frail to leave the cottage. I did the rounds alone then, and on my return she was always eager to hear how this or that woman and child were faring. She never lost interest in our work; never complained; never felt sorry for herself.

‘In a week or two I'll be up and about again, you'll see,' she assured me more than once.

It was an elaborate pretence, and we both knew it, but it kept us from becoming maudlin and gave a welcome veneer of cheerfulness to our lamplit evenings.

All along I knew we could not go on like this indefinitely. Yet still it came as a shock – a body blow almost – when I returned to the cottage one afternoon to find she had suffered some kind of seizure. It was probably a minor stroke, though it's hard to be sure because she wouldn't hear of sending for a doctor.

‘But I have to!' I urged her desperately. ‘If I don't . . . !'

She placed a finger on my lips and gave that characteristic turn of the head, refusing to meet my gaze directly even then. ‘What would be the use?' she said in a whisper. ‘We both understand what's happening. How can a doctor help?'

‘He can give you more time!'

She managed a half smile. ‘A day maybe. A week.'

What was I to do? Go against her wishes? Fetch a doctor whether she wanted one or not? She must have sensed my indecision and pitied me.

‘You can send for one later,' she said. ‘Sit with me for now. That's my dearest wish.'

It was a hard request to refuse, and for the rest of the afternoon I remained at her bedside, her hand in mine. Thankfully, she seemed to improve a little as the hours passed, and by evening she had slipped into a peaceful sleep.

Careful not to disturb her, I disengaged my hand and went downstairs to prepare an evening meal. I had barely begun when there was loud knocking at the door. The way it sounded through the house reminded me of an earlier occasion, and I half guessed what awaited me on the porch. It was a small boy, one of the tinker clan, his face thin and pale, his wretched clothes damp with sweat. In one grubby hand he still held the bridle of the horse he had ridden bare-back. The horse itself, standing just beyond the porchlight, humphed and pawed the ground as if impatient to be off.

‘It's her,' the boy blurted out. ‘She's bad. He says the other one . . . the old one . . . she has to come.'

It was more or less what I was expecting.

‘Tell him I'll be there as soon as I can,' I said.

He gave me a pinched, doubtful look. ‘It's the old one he wants.'

‘Never mind what he wants,' I said shortly. ‘Just go back and deliver my message.'

With a scowl he sprang onto the horse and wheeled it about. ‘He won't like it!' he shouted as he galloped off into the dark.

Having collected my coat and bag, I ran upstairs to check on Gretel. She was still asleep, or so it seemed, but as I turned to leave, her eyes flicked open.

‘You're going to them, aren't you?' she said. ‘The tinkers. He's called you to a birthing.'

I nodded. ‘Don't worry. I won't be gone long. Try to rest while I'm—'

BOOK: Tales from the Tower, Volume 2
7.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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