THE SAMPLING: Sherryl Jordan's 'Wynter's Thief'
There is a wild danger, a dancing on the knife-edge between sacredness and devilry, when a witch works magic. It is like that today, with the maid. Around her the burning air shimmers, prickly with suspense. She strides ahead, wand outstretched in front of her, bare feet swift on the scorched earth. We follow, feverish with excitement, and musicians march alongside, banging drums and playing pipes. Dust rises about us, bright like a holy cloud, leaving us breathless, dazzled in her wake.
She is a water witch.
It is near the end of a long, hot summer, and the village well has sunk to mud. The river has dwindled to a dirty brook, and the wheat and rye droop in the parched fields. More than a month past the village lord sent word for the water witch to come. She had been powerful busy and arrived but yester-eve, riding in a covered wagon drawn by four horses, her father holding the reins. Straight they had gone to the manor, where doubtless they feasted well; but now it is morning, and she has come to work her marvels against summer’s ruin.
Every soul in the village is here, following her alongside the river’s miry remains. In a narrow lane between two fields the water witch’s footsteps slow, and we fall silent. A solemn hush hangs in the stifling air, broken only by the cries of the wheeling crows and the rustling of the wheat. I am near the front of the crowd, a little apart, for I am an outsider; but I creep along unnoticed, until I can see her face. And my heart stops, and beats on, mayhap too fast for my own good.
A solemn hush hangs in the stifling air, broken only by the cries of the wheeling crows and the rustling of the wheat.
I had imagined a dried-up dowser, severe and disagreeable, like the droughts she works in; but this water witch is comely, slender and tawny-haired, with eyes as grey as glass. There is a solitary look about her, intent and purposeful, as if she stands alone beside the withered wheat, and none of us are here. She half closes her eyes, and I see the jagged shadow of her lashes across her high cheekbones, for she is pale as morning milk. All her attention seems to be on the witching rod in her hands.
It is a forked wand, and the tip of it hovers horizontal in the heat. Of a sudden it starts to tremble and she walks on swiftly, as if drawn by it. Graceful she is, almost dancing, her face filled with joy. In silence it happens – just a swing of the wand towards the dust, and the stopping of the maid, so suddenly that the villagers closest to her heels almost stumble into her, and the moment’s magic is spoiled by a few curses. The crowd shuffles back and she stands there alone, looking down at the ground by her feet, the wand motionless. Then her father goes to her, says something in her ear, and she nods. He makes an announcement.
“Here’s the water, but you must dig down to it.”
Several of the men have brought hand-drawn carts bearing shovels and buckets, and they push forwards with them, and begin to dig. We are still in the lane between two fields, and they dig right there in the middle of it, throwing shovelfuls of dust onto a heap beside the brown wheat. The maid’s father comes and offers her his arm, and she leans upon him as he leads her a little distance away. Someone brings one of the empty carts and she sits on the end of it, her head bent, the wand on her lap between her upturned palms. After this she is ignored, as everyone crowds around the men who dig the well.
I notice that the priest is with us, clutching a golden cross in his podgy hands, as if warding off evil. Mayhap he is only jealous, for over the past weeks he has kept his flock penned up in church hours at a time, stinking hot and bleating for rain, and all to no avail. He frowns as he watches the diggers, his thick lips muttering. I suspect that he prays there will be no water, so he can shepherd us back to prayers in the holy fold of his church. I suspect that, but I fear worse. Though I have been in this village of Nettle Hill but two months, I know that Father Villicus has a nose for sniffing out heretics or dabblers in devilry, and I fear that the work of the water witch will come under the latter. I am not the only one who notices the priest’s disapproval. After a while the musicians start up a sombre hymn, and several people murmur Sunday prayers, perhaps to appease the priest, or to protect themselves. How quickly they go from wonderment to fear! There is but a fateful heartbeat between the two.
I suspect that he prays there will be no water, so he can shepherd us back to prayers in the holy fold of his church. I suspect that, but I fear worse.
The water witch is sitting close to where I stand, and I stare at her, intrigued, wondering if she knows the dangerous edge she dances on. But she looks only weary, as if divining has taken all her strength. Of a sudden she looks straight at me, her gaze flicking first to the mark on my face, then to my eyes. There’s something disarming and otherworldly in her gaze, and I am trapped in it, caught in the uneasy notion that she divines my soul and sees all my faults and felonies, besides the one that marks me.
I am a branded thief. The letter T is burned large into my right cheek, a scar raised in bold relief, stark and unmistakeable. It is all that people see when they look at me – my great crime emblazoned on my face. But as the maid looks at me this day she slowly smiles, and there is no contempt in her look, no suspicion or judgement. Just those eyes as luminous as skies at dusk, and her lips curved in rare warmth. And how I burn in that warmth! Like a fool I blush deep, and swallow hard and look away. I am even more disconcerted when she gets down from the cart and comes over to me.
“You are not watching them dig the well,” she says. Her voice is slightly rough, as if she thirsts, or does not often speak. “Think you they’ll find nought else but dirt?” Struck as witless as a turnip, I manage to mumble, “I have no doubt they’ll find water, lady.”
She smiles again, her eyes sparkling. “Aye, they will,” she says, “if they dig deep enough. But if they give up afore they reach it, I’ll be blamed as a charlatan, or worse.”
“That is hardly fair,” I say.
“Life is not fair. I am trapped in a skill I wish I did not have, and you are trapped in a skill you can never give up.”
Her perception astonishes me. True, I am trapped, for I am hardly ever given honest work. The painful mark that was intended to make me give up thievery, is the very thing that keeps me enslaved to it. But why does she wish not to divine, when her face showed so much gladness?
I am about to ask her, when a shadow falls across us. It is her father, brawny and baleful and bitter-faced. Without a word he grips her arm, and she gasps with pain as he hustles her away. I glimpse his hand and see that the fingers are misshapen and scarred, as if they have melted together. As he pushes her through the mob and back to the village, no one else notices, focussed as they all are on the well diggers.
Shocked, I feel as if an enchantment has been broken. We have spoken only a handful of words, yet I feel a kinship with her, a bond betwixt my heart and hers. As I watch her driven roughly off by her brute of a father, I am briefly tempted to run after them, bash him over the skull, and run away with her. Instead, I turn to watch the well diggers, and spy a stick on the soft dirt, not far from her small footprints. Turning my back on the crowd, I pick it up and walk a little distance away, where no one can see. It is her witching rod. I half expect to feel something in it – some force flowing through, a vibration perhaps, like the string of a harp when it is plucked. But for me there is nothing. Yet as I hold her wand I realise, with a surge of joy, that it does indeed hold power for me – not the power to find water, but one even more miraculous: the almighty power to connect us again, the comely water witch and I.
I half expect to feel something in it – some force flowing through, a vibration perhaps, like the string of a harp when it is plucked.
All day the well diggers work, for the ground is baked as hard as rock. The musicians give up playing and sit in the lane to watch with everyone else. John Strongarm returns, staggering and reeking of ale. At dusk women go back to the village for baskets of food and flagons of cider, and people sit in family groups to eat and talk and watch. As always I am alone and hungry, the unwelcome felon. Resisting the urge to sneak back to the empty cottages and steal myself a meal, I trot along the lanes towards the manor lord’s orchard. I heard earlier that the water witch and her father have their covered wagon there.
I find it parked under an old peach tree, the horses grazing nearby. It is dim under the trees, but the canvas covering of the wagon roof gleams golden from a light within, and I see the shape of someone sitting inside. I wait until I am sure no one else will come, then creep to the wagon. Peering in the front opening, where the canvas is rolled back, I see the water witch sitting alone on a pile of cushions, her arms wrapped about her knees, her eyes wide and watchful. She does not look surprised to see me, and I have the uncanny feeling that I am expected.
“Ho there!” I say, cheerful-like. “How goes it with you?”
“Not well, I suppose,” she replies, “unless you’ve come to tell me they have found water.”
“Not yet,” I say. “But they’re still digging. A sure sign in your favour.”
She smiles. In the lamplight her curling hair is golden-brown like honey, and her eyes are amber like a cat’s, and beautiful. For a few moments we say nothing, and I am awkward of a sudden. Then I remember why I came, and withdraw her divining wand from inside my shirt.
“I found this, after you left,” I say.
Without a word she takes it and places it on the cushions beside her. Behind her, running the length of the wagon, is a chest where doubtless they keep clothes and blankets and other belongings. There is little else, save for cooking pots hanging on hooks, and the lamp suspended from the framework of the canvas roof.
I linger, wanting to talk. “My name is Fox,” I say.
“My name is Fox,” I say.
“A strange name for a thief.”
“I started by stealing chickens, so the name fitted well enough. It stuck.”
Again that smile, and those dancing eyes. “My name is Wynter,” she says.
“A strange name for a water witch.”
“I was born in winter, when our village was in flood. I think water got under my skin and into my blood, and now it calls to me and I hear it.”
“Is that what happens when you divine? The water calls to you?”
Encouraged, I say, “I would like to talk more with you. Come for a walk with me?”
She replies, “I cannot leave. But if you’ve a mind to stay, sit there on the step and talk.”
“Why can’t you leave?”
She moves something in the cushions near her feet, and a chain clanks. Lifting the frayed hem of her skirt, she reveals an iron manacle encircling her ankle. She is chained to an iron ring in the floor. I am speechless with shock. Her ankle has grown a thick scar all around, from the rubbing of the metal ring. At last I say, “This is a great wrong! Why the chain?”
She is a while answering, and I sit on the step, leaning my right arm on the floor. At last she says, “My father keeps me here. I earn money for him, with my dowsing. I tried to run away once, and he caught me. And he has other reasons for keeping me chained.”
“God’s belly!” I say. “’Tis wrong, Wynter.”
She sighs, wraps her arms about her knees again, and says meekly, “He is my father. He owns me.”
“God help us if every father got the notion that he could chain up his children! Don’t you have a mother to defend you?”
“I have no one. They all burned to death in a house fire when I was five summers old. Papa burned his hands badly, trying to get them out of the blazing house. He can’t get work. Now there is only him and me. My divining supports us.”
“It’s still wrong. Your father is wrong.”
“Maybe so. But my life is bound with his, and I have come to accept it.” Of a sudden she smiles and adds, with her amazing eyes on me, “But tell me of your life, Fox. How came you to be a thief?”
“But tell me of your life, Fox. How came you to be a thief?”
“I think I was born one,” I reply. “From when I was a little child I worked with a man called Meredith. I thought he was my brother, but he was not. He told me he found me wandering in the street, crying from hunger and cold, when I was a toddler.” I hesitate, remembering. Meredith’s name has not passed my lips since they killed him. At last I go on, “He was a thief, and cunning with it. We worked together, and he protected and fed me. I was little enough to crawl through holes in fences and walls, and the first thing I ever stole was a chicken from a henhouse; that’s why he called me Fox. I would not have survived, if Meredith had not taken me under his wing. He was exceeding good to me.”
“What happened to him?”
I look away from her, out at the orchard where the gnarled trunks of peach and apple trees glow faintly in the light from the doorway where I sit. I cannot speak, for the awful memories that pour over me.
“Tell me,” Wynter says. When I look back at her, her eyes glimmer as if she feels my pain.
I reply, my head bent, “When I was still small – about six summers old, I suppose – we were accused of stealing a loaf of bread from a town bakery. We had not; we never stole bread from shops, because bakers put stones in bread to make it up to the legal weight for a loaf, and once Meredith broke a tooth on one and was in agony all winter, until the tooth fell out. Since that mishap, we only ever stole bread from houses. But we were judged guilty, and no one spoke for us, and we were called vagrants and liars and much else besides. Meredith they dragged from the court and hung on an oak tree outside the town. I was too young to be executed – seven is the hanging age – so instead they branded me.”
“That was a terrible injustice, for both of you,” she says softly.
“Aye, well, there’s injustice a’plenty, in the world. The poor have no voice and no-one to speak for them, and the judges are fools who can’t see beyond rags and misfortune and their own blind bigotry. You spoke true, when you said I was trapped in a skill I could never give up. I cannot count the times I’ve asked for honest work and been turned away. So I stay a thief, will always be a thief. It is my sealed fate.”
"You spoke true, when you said I was trapped in a skill I could never give up."
She is silent, and when I look at her, I see tears on her face. “My life has not been so bad,” she says.
“Well, neither has mine,” I say, trying to sound jocund. “I have not starved to death, as you see, and I am warm, thanks to clothes donated unwittingly from a house in a town twenty miles off. But your pity means much to me. The rest of the world thinks my tender heart isn’t worth a turd.”
She says, her lips curved, her eyes still on mine, “You are a brave man, Fox.”
“Foolhardy, more like,” I say, returning her smile.
She shakes her head. “Brave.” Then she bends her brow on her arms folded about her knees, and sighs deeply. She looks small and vulnerable, and I want to protect her. Again I have the feeling that something compelling lies between us, an empathy sprung from the fact that we are both prisoners, of a kind. But it is more than that. On my side: I have a powerful liking for the maid, because she looks at me straight, and talks to me without false shyness. Most maids look on me with haughty contempt because of my brand. Others simper and give alluring smiles, thinking me a dangerous, loose fellow. And I confess that twice I have gone with such tempting maids, from sheer curiosity and loneliness. But there was no joy in it; I was lonelier after, and despised myself, besides, for giving away cheaply what should have been kept for someone worthier. What I really long for is a friend, another human soul who sees me for who I truly am, and loves me for that alone. I fancy, rightly or wrongly, that Wynter might be such a soul. Except that she is a prisoner, and when her father takes her away I will likely never see her again.
“What is on your mind?” she asks, and I glance up, the colour rising in my face. She has a talent for making me blush, this strange maid. She adds, with a smile that is all warmth and honest interest, “You have been thinking long and hard, Fox.”
I am tempted to tell a lie, but say instead, “I was thinking that we might be friends, you and I, if you were not a travelling diviner, and a prisoner.”
“Are you not a travelling thief?” she asks. “You mentioned a town twenty miles away. Most people never go more than five miles from their homes. You are a mighty traveller, I think.”
“I need to be,” I say. “In my trade, it does not bode well to hang about too long.” I glance behind me, through the orchard’s gloom. “’Tis getting dark,” I add. “Your father will be back soon. I’d best be gone. I heard folks say his name is John Strongarm, and I don’t doubt he’s earned the title.”
“In my trade, it does not bode well to hang about too long.”
“He’ll not come back till late,” she replies. “He’s been invited to feast at the manor.”
“Him, and not you?”
“Someone will bring me supper.”
“Why were you not invited?”
“I used to go to manors with my father, for the feasts. But people asked me questions, and sometimes … sometimes my answers were displeasing – to them, or to my father. After that my father decided I was half mad, and not fit to eat at table. ’Tis another reason he keeps me chained. To keep me safe from curiosity and scorn.”
“He has strange judgements, your father. I see no madness.”
She smiles, but her eyes are grave. She says, “Madness, witchery, dwimmer-craftiness, whatever it is, I am not like other people.”
“True. You’re a good deal prettier than most. And being different is not a felony. Though I confess, it can at times be dangerous.”
This time the smile reaches her eyes. She asks, “Are you hungry, Fox?”
“It is my permanent state,” I say.
She crawls over to one of the long chests, dragging her chain after her. Delving in the chest, she comes up with a package folded into a piece of cloth. Unwrapping it on the floor between us, she takes out bread and offers it to me. I shake my head in protest, but she pushes the food into my hand, saying, “I’m not hungry after divining. Take it, Fox. And the cheese. I’ll eat later.”
Extracted from Wynter's Thief by Sherryl Jordan, published by OneTree House, RRP$24.99. Text © Sherryl Jordan, 2019
By Sherryl Jordan Published by OneTree House
Published October 2019