It was 1327, in the south of England. Outside, the snow fell relentlessly, transforming the green fields and forest beyond into a ghostly white haze. Only the low growling of the icy wind could be heard over the chattering of teeth and groans of discontent inside the tiny dwelling.
John lay in the corner of the room, huddled up behind his sister Beth, trying to appease the chill in his bones. Five children in all, John the youngest appeared as a clump of intertwined arms and legs, shuddering and writhing restlessly under the tattered covers amidst the coldest of mornings.
John’s father Baldwin, was stoking the fire, and trying desperately to extract some warmth from its ineffectual flames. The cold was so intense that he almost burnt his hands attempting to feel its heat. John’s mother Agnes, lay motionless and closest to the fire wrapped up like a cocoon. She had been ill for some time and could no longer even sew, as she had done in the past, to help feed her family. She lay pale and despondent, occasionally coughing weakly in an attempt to clear her congested lungs. The children tried not to listen to her gasping- it frightened them.
All responsibility now fell directly on Baldwin’s shoulders, but there was little work for a stonemason, especially at this time of year and in such weather conditions. Thankfully he had found some work with Lord Osric, who owned much of the land just east of the village. Baldwin, on and off, tended his livestock and cleaned the pens; anything to keep busy and retain his employment until something more permanent could miraculously appear. But life was not kind, at least not to this family.
They had not eaten for almost two days now and before that, only a light broth made from a few turnips Baldwin had traded for a bone-handled knife that his father had given him. There was little work left for him to do at Osric’s estate and time was running out. In total and unequivocal desperation, Baldwin did the unthinkable; but what choice did he have?
As Baldwin crouched by the fire, his heart was thumping, his mind awash with guilt and grief. His bony hands trembled as he mindlessly taunted the fire and watched airborne embers spiral upward.
John was now completely awake, staring at his father’s slim silhouette against the fire. John was a small, frail lad with light brown hair and almost black eyes, the sort of eyes that could reach deep into your soul and know you at a glance. His painfully thin body seemed to make his joints more prominent, and his wasted gangly legs seemed hardly strong enough to hold him up. Patched, multi-layered rags fell from his frame like a limp wet cloth, but at least added some bulk to his almost non-existence.
John suddenly became agitated; his stomach was cramping again. But the pangs of hunger that had driven him crazy over the last few days were now gone, having been replaced with a dull incessant ache. He grimaced, tasting blood in his mouth, no doubt from his raw receding gums, and the lice in his hair were so prolific and had created such an irritation, that he could barely touch his head for fear of breaking the skin. The emptiness in his eyes was revealing enough, but at the age of seven and in this sort of condition, it was unlikely that he would see the winter through.
Outside, through the howling winds, came a rattling and creaking sound. Baldwin startled and rose to his feet nervously; his eyes firmly fixed on the door. John could hear the sounds of a horse outside; its leather bridle and iron connecting rings clattering as the animal steadied itself.
‘Wooh!’ uttered a deep resonant voice as the squeaking wheels of a cart ceased as it came to a halt. The howling wind then seemed to sweep away the sounds as if they were a dream, and a moment of sheer anticipation followed. Then from that expectant lull came a loud rap on the door, startling all inside the dwelling. The children sat up in fright with their eyes wide and wondering whom it could be this early. Agnes rolled awkwardly to one side with only one eye open, squinting to see who was there, while John remained where he was, a strange portentous fear holding him down.
Suddenly the door swung open and a blast of freezing air swept in along with a white, swirling mass of snowflakes that fell gently and silently to the floor. A dark figure emerged, and as the door closed behind him and the air settled, he reached up ominously and removed his thick black hood to reveal an aged face. He was a Benedictine monk; the local monastery sat high on a hill some miles to the north. John had seen the monks picking up supplies from the village and immediately recognized his dress.
Baldwin approached the man and began some secret discussion. They huddled closely together and then finally when words were done and the matter settled the monk removed something from within his sleeve and shrewdly handed it to Baldwin.
Agnes tried to focus her blurred vision. ‘Who is it?’ she groaned, her words slurred and hardly legible. The children were becoming nervous, not understanding what was happening, and instinctively looked to each other for comfort and reassurance. John remained huddled under his cover, his eyes now clenched tightly together, not wanting to see or know anything.
Baldwin turned toward the children; his eyes were like a stunned rabbit and he was clutching at his clothes nervously. His face began to contort and shake just a little, as he tried to contain his welling emotions.
‘John?’ he said, in a low quivering voice.
‘What are you doing?’ moaned Agnes, who was trying to prop herself up on one elbow. Baldwin clenched his lips tightly together and glared down at her.
‘Keep out of this, woman!’ he snapped. ‘John, come here immediately!’ his voice sounding harder.
John lurched to one side, startled by his Father’s tone, and pulled himself up to a sitting position, his eyes wide, stunned.
‘Here, boy!’ insisted Baldwin, trying to maintain his resolve.
John rose gingerly to his feet, stepped around the other children and stood trembling, cowering before his father. He had never been spoken to like that before, ever. Baldwin gently lifted up the child’s delicate chin and looked sadly into his dark, soulful eyes. Tears were streaming down Baldwin’s face, as he attempted to hold himself together. Little John, not understanding any of this, could see the pain in his father’s expression and his tiny heart began to break. He reached up and took his father’s calloused hand, his tiny fingers dwarfed by its comparative size.
‘What’s the matter, Da?’ he inquired in his slight, fragile voice. Baldwin clenched his eyes in pain, then looked to the monk in panic.
‘I can’t…I…I can’t do it,’ he pleaded. The monk’s face remained unmoved; his dark brow already furrowed.
‘It is done, or would you prefer to all die. He would be first,’ he asserted, grabbing John around his scrawny neck. Baldwin quickly grasped the monk’s arm and with an unyielding expression, made him release the child.
‘All right! Just don’t hurt him,’ he insisted. Baldwin crouched down and peered into John’s eyes, silently pleading for forgiveness for this unthinkable act. He placed both hands on John’s narrow shoulders, the tears continually rolling down his rugged face.
‘My son, if there were another way,’ he blubbered. ‘You must go with the Friar now. It is for your own good.’
John was confused. What was his father saying to him? He looked to Beth who was sitting there with a horrified expression.
‘Are we going somewhere?’ asked John, turning sharply toward the other children, trying to get some sort of response or assurance. Agnes suddenly realized what her husband had done and rolled over attempting to get to her feet, fighting to find the strength, but weakly falling back to her bed.
‘No! Please no, not the children!’ she sobbed, her arms flailing uncontrollably and helplessly in anger, the older children trying to calm her down, keep her from hurting herself.
Baldwin reached out and took John in his arms, clinging to him with desperation and horror in his eyes. All he could think of was how loving and innocent this child was, and the joy that his very existence had brought him. Made of his own stuff, with the same blood running through their veins, this beautiful child was being torn mercilessly from his life and it was by his own hand, by his own decision. Baldwin’s heart was screaming silently with the pain, almost arresting with the all-consuming agony of it.
John remained wide eyed in his father’s arms, not consoled as he normally would have been, but empty and confused by his father’s pure desperation. The reality suddenly hit little John like a charging boar. In an instant and in complete panic, he slipped away from his father and went to escape the clutches of the monk, into the safety of his mother arms, but was wrenched firmly back to the man’s side. The abject horror on John’s face was indescribable.
‘It is all I can do, we will all perish if I do not,’ cried Baldwin, now on his knees, searching for some scrap of justification, begging his youngest son to understand.
‘Nooo!’ screamed John, trying desperately to loosen the monk’s grip, attempting to dislodge his fingers, one by one from his arm. ‘Please Da? I will work harder, I’ll be a good boy,’ he pleaded, the tears pouring down his face, lost in this unthinkable nightmare. Baldwin shamefully lowered his head and could say nothing more.
The other children were now wailing mournfully huddled together in fear and holding onto each other for dear life. Beth sat on her haunches, alone, her mouth open, with saliva streaming down her front and tears glistening on her flushed cheeks.
‘John,’ she moaned quietly, rocking back and forth.
Amidst his own mindless panic, John caught sight of Beth and realizing she was in such a state, somehow centered himself, thinking now only of her. He suddenly ceased struggling and stood motionless looking deeply into her eyes. Her soul was being torn apart, as was his.
He adored Beth; she was his warmth, his comfort, having by circumstance become his surrogate mother. His love for her, even amidst this trauma, outweighed anything that could happen to him. Standing there with his eyes wide and his mouth gaping, he slipped helplessly into a deep state of shock.
All that followed was as if in a dream, in slow motion. John suddenly felt wrapped in a soft numbing cloud, cognizant of what was happening but somehow detached, as if he were merely an observer. As his mind considered this abstract reality that seemed so indistinct and improbable, his dark eyes began to melt and his tiny bottom lip, almost purple from the cold began to quiver. John’s slight frame suddenly shook convulsively with the shock of what was happening.
Then, with not even a second of warning, John was bodily picked up around his middle, tucked securely under the monk’s meaty arm and whisked out through the front door to the cart outside. Beth watched him leave through a blast of swirling white flakes. She saw his utterly beaten expression and his slender arms outstretched, silently pleading, unable to speak, but begging anyone to do something to prevent this incomprehensible act.
As the door slammed, and the devastation and grief somehow quieted amidst the tragedy and shock of what had just taken place, an empty and sickly silence descended upon the dwelling. With tears exhausted and with vacant stares, each within these walls felt the cold steel blade of their circumstance, and the cruelty that life was inflicting upon them.
Tony DeLorger © 2016
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