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Song of the Sparrow, p.4
Lisa Ann Sandell
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My mother showed me, first, how to spin the wool, how to twist the fibers and marry them together. A single, continuous thread, like her love for my brothers, for my father, for me, she said, stroking my cheek, forgiving my complaining. Then the weaving. Painstakingly pulling the wool that she had only just spun, in and out of itself, back and forth, over and over, as patterns, stars and moons, crosses of scarlet and indigo emerged. This was the safe world of women that I knew. No war. No tents and no swords or battle-axes, no blood, no bows and arrows, no hordes of stinking men. Our home was on an island, a beautiful island in the middle of a river, a river whose name I cannot remember. All I can recall are the reeds along the banks and the funny green turtles that came to nest on the shores of our island, our island called Shalott. Baby turtles, hatching from leathery eggs. My brothers delighted in capturing them, building them cages of sticks, carpeted with leaves and moss. They would keep those turtles as pets, as beloved as our hound, as present in the house as motes of dust. I remember so little of the house, just the room in the tower, where my mother’s oaken loom stood, where we would sit for hours, weaving and spinning and sewing, where golden sunlight poured in through a single window, painting a yellow square on the floor. The men of the house never entered into that tower. It was the territory of women. Tapestries my mother had woven hung on the walls, tapestries and a singular gilded mirror. Heavy rugs she had woven covered the floors. But those rugs could not suppress the damp smell of granite stones, nor my mother’s perfume of violets. It was warm and safe there in that tiny tower room. Lord, I miss her. I wish I could go back. Back to the time when my brothers would lead me past the weeping willow trees, Lavain holding fast to my hand, when Lavain was thoughtful and sweet, and they would lead me through the rushes, down to the banks of the river, where they would catch those small green turtles, picking them up gently, with such care, where they would watch, as warily as a pair of hawks, as I tottered over slippery stepping-stones, to be sure I did not fall. I wish I could go back to that time, when my mother would smile the gentle smile that told me, all is right and well. Back to that time when I was young and loved and safe. When we were all safe. That things change, that people change and die, that we grow older, that life brings the unexpected, the unwanted, oh, some days it fills me with a measure of lightness, for I will be a woman soon. But other days, the very thought of growing older, of not being that small girl who danced over river rocks, whose brothers held her hands, whose mother lived, the very thought of it crushes me, till it is stopped, by the world outside my memories. I know another woman. She has long brown hair that hangs about her waist. Like me, she does not bind it up. No, Morgan does not care for formalities like that. She does as she likes and no man or woman can say anything about it to her. The older sister of Arthur is respected in her own right, and she hears no complaints. Morgan is the only other female around the camp, but her presence is not a constant one. I know not where she goes. I count days and even moons between her visits, the intervals seeming interminable, as I wait for the company of another female. When I see her, my heart feels free, free to unload its burdens, if only for a while. Morgan is the only one who knows of my fears, the constant worries that one day my father or my brothers or the three will fail to return from battle. And I will be all alone in this sea of men and war. And she tells me, Child, think not of those things, those dark possibilities. Your father and brothers are here with you today. Lavain will tug at your braids, Tirry will sing you songs, and your father will see his wife’s beauty in you. Savor their love today. And it will never leave you. Morgan teaches me her healing arts, and I watch, rapt, as she removes the dried herbs so carefully from their satchels, as she crushes and mixes and stirs. How I love to watch as she selects some flower or leaf for grinding, as she explains how a particular paste or balm can help the skin bind itself together, renew itself, stave off the inflamed invasion of infection. It is truly amazing to witness, and then to perform. These powders and elixirs we brew, they ease my worries, for I know one less man may die or take sick because of them. She has given me a pouch, a leather satchel to keep around my neck, filled with leaves of milfoil and the saffron-colored petals of calendula, purple heads of red clover, healing herbs to keep close, if ever I should need them. She has taught me how to make poultices and ointments, how to chew or boil the leaves and flowers, to plaster them to a bruise or open cut. To tend to the wounded. My pouch gives me comfort. And it also brings me a sense of power. I can help those I love. Morgan’s hands are white and delicate,r /> but the nails are bitten down to the quick. Morgan hasn’t the patience for fingernails. As I bury the mirror back in the chest, beneath piles of snow-white linen, she comes to my tent, a scent of lavender trailing behind her. Her presence is an easy one. Her movements are light and smooth as a deer’s. When I am alone I sometimes try to mimic her fluid grace as I set the table, prepare the meal, sweep the floor of the tent. I have noticed how Accolon, one of Arthur’s lieutenants, watches her, his eyes tracing her motions. If I were able to move so effortlessly, would Lancelot watch me in the same way? Oh, why does my mind ever wander back to him? Surely he sees me as no more than a child. He was is my friend. Morgan is my friend too. And after we embrace, quickly I close the chest and move to brew some tea. Gently, she stops me. Nay, Elaine. I cannot stay long. My brother has need of me. You see, it was my counsel and the Merlin’s that convinced him to assume dux bellorum, to take Aurelius’s position, to lead the Britons. And I fear it does not go easily for him now. The Merlin is here? My brothers did not mention him. I have never seen him. Some say the Merlin is a wild man, for he lives in the Celyddon Woode, where all manner of wild things live. Others say he is a wise man who tells many prophecies that come true. Morgan says that he is a man, both wise and wild, who may know the future, and gives good counsel. They must have spoken before the Round Table, for I did not see either the Merlin or Morgan last night by the fire. You advised Arthur? I ask my friend, incredulously. And he listened? I cannot help it. I know my brothers and father love me. They care for me and protect me, but would they ever accept my counsel? My heart sings with admiration and love for this tiny slip of a woman who possesses the power to move men and the forces of a nation. She holds to the Old Ways, the way of the Moon Goddess, and I sense that there is something magical, majestic about her. Morgan nods and looks at me with patience and a glint of laughter in her eyes. And Britain will follow him, Arthur, I mean? I ask. Elaine, I do not know. Her mouth twists into a bitter grin. But, I think most of the soldiers will follow Arthur. There are rumblings, however, and I fear more chieftains will leave, not trusting one as young as Arthur. I interrupt, What could they possibly expect to accomplish on their own? For it is certain that only as a united front, could we ever hope to defeat the Saxons. Yes, I know, she says, and I swear the laughter has returned to her eyes. My dear, I must take my leave. Tonight all the camp will dine together, under the stars, and the Merlin will proclaim Arthur dux bellorum for all to hear. I shall see you then. She kisses my cheek and goes, the tent flaps barely rustling as she passes. This is it, the events to be are set in motion. As dusk approaches and the greying light begins to fade, the tent flaps flap apart again. I am sewing a tear in Tirry’s cloak. Tonight, this small task is enough to make me feel perfectly hopeless, there are so many stains and holes. Irritated with frustration, I hate how my fingers cramp, how they would — how I would much prefer to be digging for roots, hunting for leaves. As I look up, Lavain stops short. His eyes are bloodshot, and his flaxen hair is sticking up in all directions, as though he has been tugging at every strand, trying to pull them out. Sister. He comes near and sits beside me on the hard wooden bench. My hand continues to move the needle in and out of the heavy wool. Yes, my brother, I answer him. These are bad days, he murmurs. He sits silently, watching me sew. And after a long pause, he speaks again, I remember Mother would sit by the fire, listening to Tirry and me tell her about our adventures, her hands moving just as yours do, guiding the needle and wool without a thought, without even a glance, her eyes ever on us, as we went on about turtles and snakes and minnows. He sighs. I wish we could go back. That she would come back. He gives a harsh chuckle. So long ago now. But you remind me of her, you know. Sometimes I forget that you are not she. Sometimes I forget that I should not blame you for leaving me. It was her. It was her. His eyes close. I am sorry, Elaine. I am sorry. I put the cloak aside, and realize I have been holding my breath. Lavain was my dearest friend, my closest brother once. But when she died, he went away too. Became brusque, brash, the Lavain that I have now. I put my hand over his and he leans down, down, resting his head on my shoulder. It is big and heavy, and suddenly I feel small again. We sit that way until the sounds of my father and Tirry approaching can be heard. Lavain gives my hand a final squeeze then rises. As the others enter the tent, he turns and reports, Saxon troops pour into Britain from the southeast. They move too near the center of this land. Arthur plans to attack them at the mountain called Badon. I look to Tirry and Father, to see if Lavain speaks the truth. My father nods, and looks down, Tirry, too, looks away. They are ashamed, for never have they struck first, on the offensive. Come, daughter, let us to dinner. The Round Table is for everyone this night. My father takes my arm, leans on it, with the faintest pressure, like an old man. I nod my head and we step out into the night. My brothers walk quickly ahead, Lavain’s strides thunderous and harsh. Tirry’s only slightly softer. The circle of men is at least three deep. An amber halo encircles the camp, as the flames from the central bonfire and surrounding smaller fires leap and dance, shining on the nearby tents. My stomach begins to feel strange, as though a small bird has found its way inside me, and flies around, frightened. The smell of fetid yeast, ale, and earth fills my nostrils, and the sparrow in my stomach surges upward. I swallow her back down. Stay calm, I warn myself, and quiet, so no one will think to send you back to the tent. I spot three golden-haired bears of men beside Arthur, near the top of the circle. Gawain and his younger brothers, Gareth and Gaheris, stand at Arthur’s right side, tall and blond, each with a neck as thick as a small tree trunk. And Morgan, her silhouette unmistakable, in spite of loose robes, with her long curly brown hair flowing to her waist. She is at Arthur’s left hand. And there is Lancelot, his red tunic glowing in the firelight, beside her. The sparrow quivers. Perhaps tonight I shall talk with him, of things that need telling…. Wait. There he is. Against the light of the flames, he stands, as though he, too, were composed of smoke and air. A wraith. But no — Closer now, Father and I step; he is solid and covered with flesh. As we are. A man. Grey hair, matted and wild, falls to his shoulders. The eyes of a predator, an eagle, surveying a field of mice, or men. I can find no kindness in his eyes. Two blue stripes in the fashion of the Picts, are painted over each cheek. And he wears a robe of grey twilight. He certainly does