The Cole Trilogy: The Physician, Shaman, and Matters of Choice (10 page)

BOOK: The Cole Trilogy: The Physician, Shaman, and Matters of Choice
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One morning when he tried to blow the Saxon horn, instead of merely a hiss of air the full sound emerged. Soon he proudly marked their daily way with the lonely, echoing call. As summer ended and the days grew increasingly shorter, they began to travel southwest. “I have a little house in Exmouth,” Barber told him. “I try to spend each winter on the mild coast, for I dislike the cold.”

He gave Rob a brown ball.

Juggling with four balls was not to be feared, for he already knew how to juggle two balls in one hand, and now he juggled two balls in each. He practiced constantly but was forbidden from juggling while traveling in the seat of the wagon, for he often erred and Barber wearied of reining the horse and waiting for him to clamber down and collect the balls.

Sometimes they came to a place where boys of his age splashed in a river or laughed and frolicked, and he felt a yearning for childhood. But he was already different from them. Had they wrestled a bear? Could they juggle four balls? Could they blow the Saxon horn?

In Glastonbury he played the fool by juggling before an awestruck gaggle of boys in the village churchyard while Barber performed in the square nearby and could hear their laughter and applause. Barber was cutting in his condemnation. “You shall not perform unless or until you become a genuine juggler, which may or may not occur. Is this understood?”

“Yes, Barber,” he said.

They finally reached Exmouth on an evening in late October. The house was forlorn and desolate, a few minutes’ walk from the sea.

“It had been a working farm, but I bought it without land and thereby cheaply,” Barber said. “The horse is stalled in the former hay barn and the wagon goes into that shed meant for the storing of corn.” A lean-to which
had sheltered the farmer’s cow kept firewood from the elements. The dwelling was scarcely larger than the house on Carpenter’s Street in London and had a thatched roof too, but instead of a smoke hole there was a large stone chimney. In the fireplace Barber had set an iron pot hanger, a tripod, a shovel, large fire irons, a cauldron, and a meat hook. Next to the fireplace was an oven, and in close proximity was an enormous bedstead. Barber had made things comfortable during past winters. There was a kneading trough, a table, a bench, a cheese cupboard, several jugs, and a few baskets.

When a fire was on the hearth, they rewarmed the remains of a ham that already had fed them all week. The ripening meat tasted strong and there was mold in the bread. It was not the master’s sort of meal. “Tomorrow we must lay in provision,” Barber said moodily.

Rob got the wooden balls and practiced cross-throws in the flickering light. He did well but eventually the balls ended on the floor.

Barber took a yellow ball from his bag and tossed it on the floor, where it rolled to nestle with the others.

Red, blue, brown, and green. And now yellow.

Rob thought of all the colors of the rainbow and felt himself sinking into the deepest of despairs. He stood and looked at Barber. He was aware the man could see a resistance in his eyes that had never been there before but couldn’t help himself.

“How many more?”

Barber understood the question and the despair. “None. That is the last of them,” he said quietly.

They worked to prepare for winter. There was enough wood but some of it needed splitting; and kindling had to be gathered, broken, and piled near the fireplace. There were two rooms in the house, one for living and one for foodstuffs. Barber knew exactly where to go to obtain the best provision. They got turnips, onions, a basket of squash. At an orchard in Exeter they picked a barrel of apples with golden skins and white flesh and carried it home in the wagon. They put up a keg of pork in brine. A neighboring farm had a smokehouse and they bought hams and mackerel and had them smoked for a fee, and then hung them with a bought quarter of mutton, high and dry against the time they would be needed. The farmer, accustomed to people who poached or produced what they ate, said wonderingly that he never had heard of a common man purchasing so much meat.

Rob hated the yellow ball. The yellow ball was his undoing.

From the start, juggling five balls felt wrong. He had to hold three balls in his right hand. In his left hand, the lower ball was pressed against his palm by his ring finger and little finger, while the top ball was cradled by his thumb, forefinger, and middle finger. In his right hand, the lower ball was held the same way, but the top ball was imprisoned between his thumb and forefinger and the middle ball was wedged between his forefinger and middle finger. He could scarcely hold them, much less juggle.

Barber tried to help. “When you juggle five, many of the rules you have learned no longer apply,” he said. “Now the ball can’t be popped, it must be thrown up by your fingertips. And to give you enough time to juggle all five, you must throw them very high. First you toss a ball from your right hand. Immediately a ball must leave your left hand, then your right again, then your left again and then your right, THROW-THROW-THROW-THROW-THROW! You must toss very quickly!”

When Rob tried, he found himself beneath a shower of tumbling balls. His hands stabbed at them but they fell all about him and rolled to the corners of the room.

Barber smiled. “So here is your winter’s work,” he said.

Their water tasted bitter because the spring behind the house was choked by a thick layer of decaying oak leaves. Rob found a wooden rake in the horse’s barn and pulled out great heaps of black, sodden leaves. He dug sand from a nearby bank and spread a thick layer in the spring. When the roiled water settled, it was sweet.

Winter came fast, a strange season. Rob liked an honest winter with snow on the ground. In Exmouth that year it rained half the time, and whenever it snowed the flakes melted on the wet earth. There was no ice save for tiny needles in the water when he drew it from the spring. The wind always blew chill and dank from the sea and the little house was part of the general dampness. At night he slept in the great bed with Barber. Barber lay closer to the fire but his great bulk shed a considerable warmth.

He had come to hate juggling. He tried desperately to manage five balls but was able to catch no more than two or three. When he was holding two balls and trying to catch a third, the falling ball usually struck one of those in his hand and bounced away.

He began to undertake any activity that would keep him from practicing juggling. He took out the night soil without being told, and scrubbed the stone pot each time. He split more wood than was necessary and constantly replenished the water jug. He brushed Incitatus until the horse’s gray pelt shone, and braided the beast’s mane. He went through the barrel
of apples one by one to cull out rotten fruit. He kept an even neater place than his mother had kept in London.

At the edge of Lyme Bay he watched the white waves batter the beach. The wind drove straight out of the churning gray sea, so raw it made his eyes water. Barber noted his shivering and hired a widowed seamstress named Editha Lipton to cut down an old tunic of his own into a warm kirtle and tight trousers for Rob.

Editha’s husband and two sons had been drowned at sea in a storm that had caught them fishing. She was a full-bodied matron with a kind face and sad eyes. She quickly became Barber’s woman. When he stayed with her in the town, Rob lay alone in the large bed by the fire and pretended the house was his own. Once, in a sleety gale when cold wind found its way through the cracks, Editha came to spend the night. She displaced Rob to the floor, where he clutched a wrapped hot stone, his feet bound with pieces of the seamstress’s buckram. He heard her low, gentle voice. “Should not the boy come in with us, where he can be warm?”

“No,” Barber said.

A short while later, as the grunting man labored on her, her hand drifted down through the darkness and rested on Rob’s head as lightly as a blessing.

He lay still. By the time Barber was finished with her, her hand had been withdrawn. After that, whenever she slept in Barber’s house Rob waited in the dark on the floor next to the bed, but she never touched him again.

“You don’t progress,” Barber said. “Pay heed. The value of my prentice is to entertain a crowd. My boy must be a juggler.”

“Can I not juggle four balls?”

“An outstanding juggler can keep seven balls in the air. I know several who can handle six. I need only an ordinary juggler. But if you can’t manage five balls, I’m soon to be done with you.” Barber sighed. “I’ve had boys in number, and of all of them only three were fit to be kept. The first was Evan Carey, who learned to juggle five balls very well but had a weakness for drink. He was with me four prosperous years past apprenticeship, until he was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl in Leicester, a fool’s end.

“The second was Jason Earle. He was clever, the best juggler of all. He learned my barber’s trade but married the daughter of the reeve in Portsmouth and allowed his father-in-law to turn him into a proper thief and bribe collector.

“Boy before last was marvelous. Name of Gibby Nelson. He was my bloody food and drink until he caught a fever in York and died.” He
frowned. “The damned
boy was a twit. He did same as you, he could juggle four balls but couldn’t get the hang of managing the fifth, and I rid myself of him in London just before I found you.”

They regarded one another unhappily.

“You, now, are no twit. You’re a likely chap, easy to live with, quick to do your work. But I didn’t get the horse and rig, or this house or the meat hanging from its rafters, by teaching my trade to boys I can’t use. You will be a juggler by springtime or I must leave you somewhere. Do you see?”

“Yes, Barber.”

Some things Barber could show him. He had him juggle three apples, and the spiky stems hurt his hands. He caught them softly, yielding his hand a bit at each catch.

“Observe?” Barber said. “Because of the slight deference, an apple already held in your hand doesn’t cause a second caught apple to bounce out of your grasp.” He found that it worked with balls as well as apples. “You make progress,” Barber said hopefully.

Christmastide crept up on them while their attention was elsewhere. Editha invited them to accompany her to church and Barber snorted. “Are we a bloody household, then?” But he made no objection when she asked if she could take just the boy.

The little wattle-and-daub country church was crowded and therefore warmer than the rest of bleak Exmouth. Rob hadn’t been in a church since leaving London and nostalgically breathed the incense-and-people stink and gave himself up to the Mass, a familiar haven. Afterward the priest, who was difficult to understand because of his Dartmoor accent, told of the birth of the Saviour and of the blessed human life that ended when He was slain by the Jews, and he spoke at great length of the fallen angel Lucifer with whom Jesus eternally grapples in defense of all. Rob tried to choose a saint for special prayer but ended up addressing the purest soul his mind could conceive.
Watch over the others, please, Mam. I am fine, but help your younger children.
Yet he couldn’t forbear to ask a personal request:
Please, Mam, help me to juggle five balls.

They went directly from the church to a roast goose turning on Barber’s spit, and a plum-and-onion stuffing. “If a man has goose on Christmas he’ll receive money all through the year,” Barber said.

Editha smiled. “I’ve always heard that to receive money you must eat goose on Michaelmas,” she said, but didn’t argue when Barber insisted it was on Christmas. He was generous with spirits and they had a jolly meal.

She wouldn’t stay the night, perhaps because at Christ’s birth her
thoughts were with her dead husband and sons, as Rob’s were elsewhere.

When she had gone home, Barber watched him clean up after their meal. “I shouldn’t grow too fond of Editha,” Barber said finally. “She’s only a woman and we shall soon abandon her.”

The sun never shone. Three weeks into the new year the unchanging grayness of the skies worked its way into their spirits. Now Barber began to drive him, insisting that he stay at his practice no matter how miserable his repeated failure. “Don’t you recall how it was when you tried to juggle three balls? One moment you couldn’t, and then you were able. And the same thing happened with the blowing of the Saxon horn. You must give yourself every chance to juggle five.”

But no matter how many hours he kept at it, the result was the same. He came to approach the task dully, understanding even before he began that he must fail.

He knew spring would come and he wouldn’t be a juggler.

He dreamed one night that Editha touched his head again and opened great thighs and showed him her cunt. When he awoke he couldn’t remember what it had looked like but a strange and terrifying thing had occurred during the dream. He wiped the mess from the fur bedcover when Barber was out of the house and scrubbed it clean with wet ashes.

He was not so foolish as to suppose that Editha might wait for him to become a man and then marry him, but he thought it would improve her condition if she should gain a son. “Barber will leave,” he told her one morning as she helped him carry in the wood. “Could I not stay in Exmouth and live with you?”

Something hard came into her fine eyes but she didn’t look away. “I can’t maintain you. To keep only myself alive, I must be half seamstress and half whore. If I had you too, I should be any man’s.” A stick of wood fell from the pile in her arms. She waited until he had replaced it, then she turned and went into the house.

After that she came less often and gave him only a scarce word. Finally she didn’t come at all. Perhaps Barber was less interested in his pleasure, for he grew more fretful.

“Dolt!” he shouted as Rob J. dropped the balls still another time. “Use only three balls this time but throw them high, as you would in juggling all five. When the third ball is in the air, clap your hands.”

Rob did so, and there was time after the handclap to catch the three balls.

“You see?” Barber said, pleased. “In the time spent clapping, you would have been able to toss up the other two balls.”

BOOK: The Cole Trilogy: The Physician, Shaman, and Matters of Choice
3.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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