A Child, After Witnessing the Execution of William Wallace, in London, August 23, 1305:
Me and da and wee Will walking back in the heat and the stink, hollering still in my ears the calls and the cries, and the cries and the cries, even now as how we’s far past the square and the hawkers and buskers long gone and the crowd all doing like me and da and wee Will, back to home and hearth and all, far yes now from the square all of us like blood that’s spilled from a heart that’s stabbed running all over away from where it was to newer and lonelier places. Sanguis Domini nostri Jesu Christi. The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Custodiat animam meam in vitam aeternam. Keep my soul unto life everlasting. Yes. Right on the side of da’s right am I and wee Will to the left, and Will blubbering like he does, and da glancing back to Smithfield saying what it means and how it is to be a man. Tomorrow there the Bartholomew fair, all joy with its bright silks and sweetbreads, the ladies serene and lords becalmed promenading on that boneyard, that field of blood.
Da’s sight none too good with the one rheumy eye and the other evicted from its socket by Frankish steel on Frankish soil in the service of this Edward, this Longshanks, my crown and king, this Edward, this God-anointed god of mine, the eye’s guts long-rotted in Calais, not even in holy, holy Jerusalem, where they say from the blood shed by soldier martyrs sprouts lilies of oh such a fuller white as to blind and dazzle our mortal eyes. Thus and with the sun weak now and old and the shadows sharp and fingery I go myself a bit ahead of wee Will and da who says to Will words Will don’t know, words like justice and treasonry, I go ahead a pace like I’s just tweedling around and all that but it’s really for so da can see the shape of me and can follow not needing to grope around with the rheumy eye for sure footfall. And so we wend around shit puddles and beasty hogs with their teats waggling in the mud and behind now Will with the head and brain that’s still too little to see that names can go all over and not just to the one thing and him saying William’s me, William’s me and feeling all about himself as though God’s own angels might tear him apart.
With home so near I pray against delay and dare not look back as we near the Lion and but then da’s hand on my shoulder the color of a dead carrot on the topside I know without looking and the bottom smooth as water and white like a fishbone from the liming and the bucking and says he hold now son I’ve to collect a debt I’m owed. Haloed by the bilious sun his pock-and-whisker face stretches into a Shrovetide mask, which snorts it too is owed and must deliver a Jew’d interest nip to its liver. Da’s bouffon body making its own way to the alehouse door he charges us now please you be good tanner sons and bring back the piss pots. Sicut erat in principio et nunc, et semper. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. So me and wee Will we hurry down the alleys and lanes to collect before the night eats all of the remaining day and past the women with flopping breasts we drag them backward back to outside the Lion the buckets hot and jaundiced like broth one and then two and then three and then four until wee Will trips still holding one pot’s rim and trips me too and the pot goes dump on us as we lay in the mud and the smell so demonical Will gags out porridge and black bread and with our legs wet like a pleasant wade in the Thames I curse him in the name of Jesus and Satan and Mary and God and box him father-like on the side of the head but his blubbering so pitiful I can no more and thus hold him and he then me. Huffing through my mouth to keep my own first meal stomachbound I smell in the nose of my memory the sweet sad smoke which bears up our meager prayers to the most holy Trinity and the most blessed Virgin and in them my own pleas for forgiveness that I most love the most glorious Mass not for the salvation it brings my soul nor the body and blood of my Savior which I am graced to consume but for the oh so heavenly aroma that does reprieve me for those few blessed hours a week from the stink of my father’s profession that is my curse and birthright and mortal inheritance. Cense my soul O Lord of Hosts.
Seeing the chattel women cackle we pull the piss pot to an alley unsmelling of happy families’ suppers and unlit by taper and I tell him to pull out his manhood and we piss into it together and not much it is, sallow and thin, but it is all our bodies can give so we haul it to the Lion. And we bide. Not once in my ten earthly years have I spilled a piss pot. Wee Will says his legs is cold and I look him with a look that’s all burning arrows and after shrinking he says whose idea was it for there to be a hell. And I say Jesus of course and box him father-like on the side of the head. He starts into feeling himself again and says does the skin really melt off of you, the eternal flames of hell being so hot. And I say of course. And he says does the demons with the three Saracen eyes and the wings of the bat and the tail of a serpent really tear open the bodies of the damned with irons white-hot and spiked. And I say of course. Of course say I. And when da when he comes bumbling out the moonless night so tarry black and the stars like spittle on the lips of God his rheumy eye glosses our wetness and only smells the smells and pats us on the sweaty heads to tell us lads lads we are in the devil’s business, we three drag the piss pots backward back to the tanning shed grafted shoddily to our house.
And the pots set along the shed da kisses us on the brows first wee Will then me and what with high summer squatting down on us even in the shadowblack air the smells of the shed turn my stomach green and so his breath to me is sweet, sweet like bread and beer, beer dark as his teeth dark as shit. And he says lads lads we must be about our best here, your mother inside a saint and a lady and no mistake so we will talk none of what came before. Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum. Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof. Sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
Burst in we three with three huzzahs but ma in the dark in the corner weeping Effie at her breast the babe’s head wet with her tears as her mouth wet with her milk, my goodly and oh so lovely mother’s eyes cast down and away from us at our entrance her fine hand stoking in vain the dead scullery fire. Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae; vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve. Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevae. Hail, holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
Aw Annie da says the hour the hour I know I know and late and the dark and no wood and he plucks the babe crying into the air and says me little girl me little lovely one and ma being goodly and modest even in the home not like the shrill women with faces of grease and paint she returns her arm to the kirtle sleeve even as she cannot bear to grace us with a look and da says what is today but a grand and glorious day for England, a red letter day even if not yet so demarked by Holy Mother Church. He begins jigging about but ma her eyes deep and black like old stones burned by many fires pierces him with a glance and he bobbles Effie into my arms and says that he and wee Will shall go the highways and byways if need be for firewood and liver and meatpies. And Will his heart is a lodestone pulled toward whatever feeling in a place is biggest, and I can almost see the tears and fears slip from his mind as he locks hands with da and dance they round and round as if a maypole had sprung up between them, but my mother and I share a grave heartbroke look with the same sad union as if sharing the last morsel of a blue moon eel pie. Our humour is melancholic, creatures of the black bile are we, autumnal in our spirit. Summer roisterers are da and Will, sanguinous and blithe, and as they merry out the door da hisses me to mind the pots before they return. Ma’s hands veil her lovely goodly face, a face da says cleaved the hearts of more Christian men than the swords of all the Saracen nations put together, a face now more terrible than the woeful reeking shed, so I lie God forgive me to her and say outside there is a trinket I misplaced and before setting Effie into her box of scrapwood and straw I whiff at her head, but the rosebloom burst of babes is masked by the scent we share like a name because it is our name. Tanner. I deposit, I exit, I run, dragging backward the pots into the shed, that house of death, that crypt, that mine of hide and offal whose meager lode provides porridge and black bread and stew, food we shit out and pound back into the skins until they are strong and supple as my mother’s dark hair. The Scotsman too was said to have been a tanner, and to have slain one of the valiantest nobles of that Longshanks our crown and king, flayed the man and tanned his skin as belt and baldrick for his long and bloody claymore.
In the shed the skins lie staked by the limbs to their four posts, staked and stretched in pits rouged by the blood and melting gore. Four pits, four pots, and seizing each foul basin by its edge I pour the piss down into them, but the last and lightest slips from my wet hands into the pit. Praise be to Jesus it does not split the skin and only bounces upon the hide. With my father’s awl I swipe to retrieve it but only push it further away, and so into the pit I leap careful to dodge the skin my breath locked in my lungs. And warm is the rot-frothed goo oozing about my feet, warmer even than the pot still carrying a memory of the sun, and I feel like to faint, the stinks mingling on the heat and rising through me to my head but I shan’t let da find me having failed in my charge infernal as it is. With a heave I hurl out the pot then clamber up the sides, my fingers’ nails cracking open on the rocks and roots laid bare. I slip and climb, and slip and climb, attempting to gain purchase and at last with on my lips a prayer to the most holy Virgin I yank a root secure and hoist myself up to the earth, which after the pit smells of rosemary and roast apples, the ghosts of our mother’s long-cold supper.
Inside again I sense the hush of Effie’s sleep even before I see the child and I untie my rope belt letting loose my gore-wet hosen which fall as I pull tunic and shirt overhead. Would I could have stripped outside and left all there so that ma might not know where I have been and what has been on me and so might I have dared but for the odd rag-and-bone man scuttling along and mistaking my workaday garments for castoff. So I stand naked as Adam in my mother’s home the rising odor behind as putrid as that first man’s first sin, and yea but her eyes turning from the dead fire do see and know all. Salve Regina. Weeping she takes me goosefleshed in her arms and sit we down upon our pallet wee Will’s and mine and she says oh but it wasn’t always this way and needn’t be now and oh would that it might not someday be. Her voice skipping through the longs and the shorts for her folk are northern and her lips and tongue remember the North in moments of joy and trial and most of all the times when those pangs are yoked as she and da roil about the marriage bed wee Will long asleep and me pretending but near enough as I could tickle them if I had a goat willow in hand. I too feel the rough dance of the cold North in my tongue and mouth bottom, and although her words become but nonsense, heathen keening in my ears, I know the sentiment burred as it is in my heart as well as hers. She vests me in da’s clothes stiff with a filth that will not be purged and I know she would wash me too feet and hands and head but there is no water nor wood to heat it. So da’s smock and hosen overlarge and rough and brindled by shit and lye like the hides of Satan’s heifers. Sit we again upon my bed and she says my son my son stroking my fingers as though they were jewels. And she says I did not weep for the hour nor the dearth of wood that left my babe and I in the dark with the stew fat rising and hardening thick and white like ice. I wept for you she says, you and William and the cruel cathedral of men down whose aisle your are already progressing, toward that dark altar of blood and sacrifice. My eyes wet as though her words were onions she tells me she wishes she would have left me as a babe in the care of the black robes so that I might know and understand the God who is such a mystery to her, that I might comprehend the order of the countless strokes of human life as those who read find not merely clarity but beauty in the construction and arrangement of letters upon the page. But what I hear is her regret she did not abandon me and it makes my eyes burn all the more. She tells me what I know already, that priests do not lose themselves to the steel arms of men nor to the hot arms of women, that theirs is the power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven, that by their words they reconcile the human and the divine. I remember the scaffold priest, his face and codex freckled in blood, tears on his papery cheeks, begging the executioner and lord governor to end it and what to me then was his weakness, a lodestone heart pulled in the wrong direction, seems now altogether something else. As she pets my smooth unsundered skin I recall it all dear Lord I remember everything. I cheered, God help me God help me I cheered.
I am freed from my head’s gaol only by the door chirruping open and for no reason I believe that they have come for me whoever they are and for whatever purpose but of course it is only wee Will and da returning, Will holding a small faggot and grinning like a fool, holes where his last wee teeth once were and da with a da-da-da-DA pulling magicianlike a plucked goose from behind his back. Hoc est enim corpus meum. This is my body. They wake dear Effie who shrieks like the damned ma wobbling over to her wimbling da with a look that I know now is not about the youngest of his children. Into the corner I curl cold as November while da’s boot knife rends the bird from gullet to groin. With a wooden spoon Will bangs upon a pan hooting like a mead-maddened owl. To me da says tend to the kindling and when I shut my eyes he says the faggot son the faggot and then shakes his head and says sblood but I’ll do it meself. He does not want to spoil the carnival. Moss-quick the bird’s guts grow from its fissure, slick and grey-red. Toward me Punch-like wee Will bops then yanks at an unseen rope and up roll his eyes and down waggles his tongue his neck lolling inebriate. Were not our father near, I would box him fatherlike on the side of the head. Wee Will is the sea riled in a storm and calm after its passing. He is his father’s son, and in the newborn firelight he monkeys himself to our sister newborn as she sours the air with her scream. Da tugs at the entrails until he pulls them free. The odd stubborn feather meanders the air searching for a home that will never be its home again.
Like a mendicant’s camelhair my father’s garments scratch me and sicken me and into my head I sojourn, to the priest high upon his altar mountain, robed in his own Father’s garments, alb and chasuble, cincture and stole, in daily communion with the King of Kings. Oh to stand at the foot of that golden stair where angels tread always up and down brighter than the sun and more beautiful even than my mother turned now away from us to hide what I know without seeing, that her soul is leaking out through her eyes but Effie now quiet at least at her breast, and I wish for the days when only her suckling was needed to regladden my heart. Pitchy and bitter the wood smoke grows monsterlike and Will at da’s beck drops the rusty grate over the shallow fire pit. Dispensing of the ropy intestines, da cradles the heart and liver and kidneys, his voice doodling an old air: We in our wandering, blithesome and squandering, tara, tantara, teino! Eat to satiety, drink to propriety; tara, tantara, teino! Laugh till our sides we split, rags on our hides we fit; tara, tantara, teino! Jesting eternally, quaffing infernally; tara, tantara, teino! Craft’s in the bone of us, fear ’tis unknown of us; tara, tantara, teino!
It is a young man’s song, a song he sang before his eye was evicted from its socket by Frankish steel on Frankish soil, and my mother she tamps down a whimper as he sings and da mistaking it for a laugh says that’s right Annie, there’s me lass and he capers over toward her, the blood-baptized organs piled in his hands, to show what his hard work and eternal infernal stink have earned, but it is too much, he does not know what he does and so forgive him and me, for her sake alone I snake out my leg as he passes and with his one rheumy eye and the devilish half-light, he sees not but falls headlong before he can reach her. And bless him but he is so proud of the goose his money has bought and the God-designed treasures lodged inside that he sacrifices himself for their sake, turning to the side the hot-wet insides clutched babelike to his chest, turns and bears the full rebuke of the ground upon his shoulder and head. Oh Harry ma says, setting Effie back in her box. Sweet child, she says, kneeling and cradling him pulling him and his spoils into herself and then of all things she laughs. Look, he says, his face dusty and bruised, how beautiful they are, how beautiful, and she laughs again and says yes indeed they are lovely and kisses him on the scruffed scuffed cheek. She takes them from his hand and lays them sizzling upon the grate as da pops to his feet with a tara tantara teino and sets himself to carving the plump goosebreast. Wee Will jolly as a jester sniffs at the sweet meats and makes a show of puffing out his belly as though he had one and not like he and me both with ribs as clear as tally marks. As he rubs at the not belly ma smiles with her mouth but not her eyes pouring out the cups of beer and as she dearly hands me one and I sip at its warm soothing darkness I wish to God my stomach would believe all my mind knows all my eyes have seen but it is renegade, stupid and blind, lusting after the grilling goose parts. Non in pane solo vivet homo sed in omni verbo Dei. Man liveth not by bread alone but by every word of God.
Da turns them over for a light roast, the cooked side staring up at us burnished brown-red the darker lines of grate-bite as straight as the rows of a codex. Heaped the slices of goosemeat wait to be burned and wee Will begs da to let us eat the heart and liver and kidneys first, so hungry is he he says could chew up his own clothes. Da laughing says of course of course and so while the goosemeat cooks we sit around the table da cobbled long ago from the less burnt timber of a burnt-out tavern and with the same solemnity as the blessing he slices the organs and divides each four ways, he at the north and wee Will the south, my mother who is the dawn at the east and me the blackening west, the west, the sun’s grave, and indeed the days are shorter now for although it is summer it will soon be autumn as it must always be. The steaming fists of meat ooze smoking blood themselves the remains of the goose’s own countless suppers and with twin-pronged forks they chew, Will jigging his head about and telling da it might be the tastiest delicacy to ever pass his lips. And da he turns his one rheumy eye to me weak and watery-quavering and says son son eat eat. Please. And the rising sun across the table beams me star-eyed with all the sadness and understanding of the one who stands at the fork in the road knowing both ways lead to doom. And with a false demonical smile I seize my twin-tongued fork and I eat. I eat. Every bite past lips and teeth and tongue down gullet and into my own dark and uncooked parts. Hoc est enim corpus meum. This is my body.