from My Name Is Wat, a work in progress
My name is Wat—short for Walter—and if you can’t imagine the jokes that leads to,
well, you just don’t have an imagination. Try “His name is Wat?” or “Wat have we
here?” Endless hilarity for a certain breed of clapperwits I’ve known.
I’m twelve years old and bony as a carp, but I’ve already lived through more than
I ever meant to. I’ve killed a man and managed war stallions. I’ve learned to read
music and flown falcons. I’ve traveled to London and seen a miracle. How many sprigs
my age could say as much?
On the other hand, considering how I got where I am, how many would want to say as
much? Especially since I’m still not sure just where that is. Whenever I think I’ve
found my path in life, something knocks me sideways and I’m set reeling again. No
doubt all lads my age feel adrift at times. You’ll see, though. I’ve got more reasons
As I now know, the year I was born saw an even bigger piece of history take place.
It was also the year King Uther Pendragon died, leaving England without a monarch.
While he lived, Uther kept the country’s rowdy barons and hedge row kings in check.
Without him, through the years I was growing up, only the area governed by London
was at peace. Since Uther died without an heir, the Archbishop of Canterbury and
King Uther’s old advisor Merlin Emrys ruled the south of England. They made an odd
pair: the Archbishop, of course, was the holiest of men, while Merlin was not just
a magician but demon-born. At least some said so. To the north and far west, local
lords made their own law, or got by with none. Strangely enough for a meager whelp
from nowhere in particular, all this came to figure in my story as well.
Like many other lads, I’m an orphan. But as you’ve heard, sorrows have a mouthful
of teeth, and I’m a bastard as well. When my mother, Margery, was sixteen, she began
to swell, and lo and behold, I was the cause of it. She never told anyone who fathered
me but set about becoming a mother as if hers was the way everyone went at the job.
From what I know of my mam, I’m sure she was excited by the adventure and hoping
for the best. She always looked for the blue-sky side of things.
I was born in her father’s cottage (her own mother was long dead), but as his current
wife wouldn’t keep us, we made our way to Scarp Abbey, the monastery just outside
our village—Mam to fetch and clean for the monks and me to mewl about with two or
three other fatherless bantlings. Mam wasn’t the only sullied rose at the abbey.
Such girls had nowhere else to turn. And they worked cheap.
We weren’t there long. Mam carried food to the men at work on a grand new church
the monks were raising atop the old one, and before I was a year old she married
Alanus Mason, master stonecutter. Mam could have left me behind to become an oblate,
a lay servant bound to the abbey, but she wasn’t the lass to do that. I grew up calling
Alanus father, though the other village children rarely let me forget that only Mam
knew who my real father was. “Humph! Likely she don’t know herself,” the nasty ones
Mam was lucky to get Alanus. She brought him nothing but me, and most men would have
considered me—someone else’s get—a mortal drawback. But Alanus was a steady earner
at the top of his trade and could afford us. You’d hardly blame him for wanting my
mam. She was only seventeen when they married, very pretty, small and round, with
shining dark hair and deep blue eyes, always busy and smiling—just the lass to warm
a man who spent his days among cold stone leaves and faces.
Singing poured out of Mam like water from a spring, and she handed her love of music
on to me. I sing her songs still and picture her keeping time to the music, as she
would, nodding and swishing her skirts about the house. She had an easy way of moving
all her own. She taught me herb lore and how to sew and cook and keep the house and
garden as well. “Learn all the arts you can,” she’d say. “Sooner or later, my lad,
you’re sure to need every one of them.”
Alanus was getting on to be an old man when he took us up—near fifty, maybe older.
But he was good to Mam and me. Up at the abbey he was the best paid craftsman on
the grounds. Others might do the plain work. Alanus never set his hand to any part
of that. He was the one to shape the eye-catcher capitals for the top of each column
and lay out and finish the high divided windows. He could carve statues and inscriptions,
too. “I’ve an eye for figures,” he would say, often patting Mam’s bottom as he said
it. “And who else outside the abbey can read English and Latin?”
Alanus kept carving tools at home for private jobs—mostly tombstones. I never tired
of watching him sketch his texts and designs and then cut perfect letters and flourishes
in the ringing stone. That is how I learned to read and draw myself. From the time
I was seven or so, Alanus let me help lay out lines for his lettering and draw borders
and decorations in gray chalk on his stone blanks. Before he died I was doing a bit
of carving myself, though his tools were too big for my hands.
But die he did, in my eleventh year, and Marjorie, my lightsome, darling mam, died
with him. Even with all that’s happened since, it chokes me to set those words down.
The pestilence could have been worse that summer. A bad outbreak would carry off
a town. But it hit us, and left me on my own, clueless as a garden newt.
“Foh! What a smell!” said Mam one morning. It was early summer, a little past Saint
“Aye, so. Two of them.” Alanus climbed down from the loft clutching the ladder with
his forearms, hands busy holding a pair of reeking dead rats. He griped each one
in a wisp of straw to keep from touching it. The stink made my eyes water.
“And look you here. Pray to God it’s not a sign.” Mam nodded toward the willow cage
by the door. A bit of brown fluff—Phip, her sparrow—huddled dead in the bottom.
Two of our three cats died the next day. I carried Black, my crow, outside and shooed
him into the trees. It hurt to lose him, but I wouldn’t risk seeing him die. Then
Alanus took to coughing. In a day or two he could not get up by himself. That afternoon
Mam and I heard him call out and found him toppled over, his legs on the bed and
the top half of him on the floor. We lifted him and laid him straight out on his
back, but he was burning hot and babbling nonsense. Then we noticed the swollen spots
in his crotch and armpits, and Mam’s eyes went wide with fright.
“Run to the well, Wat. Bring water for the water butt,” she said. “Take both buckets,
and don’t stop until it’s full. We have a whole shed of firewood, and bless the saints
there’s grain and bacon and leeks in the cellar.” She looked me in the eyes. “You’re
old enough to know what we’re in for, lad. They’ll have missed Alanus at the abbey,
so the word may already be out. If not, it soon will be. And then no one will come
near us, not even Parnell Haddon.” Mistress Haddon was our healer, down the road.
“They’ll wait to see who’s alive in two or three weeks. If anyone is.”
We had plague in the house! I was almost as terrified for Mam as for myself. She
hugged me to her breast so close it hurt, and I only wished she could have clutched
me harder. “Dear Wat,” she said, pressing her hot cheek to the top of my head, “No
one could ask for a better boy. Lord, how I yearn to see you grow to be a man. Pray,
lad, as you’ve never prayed before that we get through this alive . . . but first
fetch that water.”
Alanus never came back to himself. His swellings blackened and burst with a sick-smelling
discharge, and black spots like a devil’s bruises broke out all over his body. Later
I heard this meant the blood was going bad beneath his skin. In two more days he
was dead. One afternoon his jagged breathing just stopped. By the time Alanus perished,
Mam was coughing blood. I couldn’t shift Alanus from the bed, so I made her a pallet
near the fire and sat beside her as she died. I sang to her and played her tunes
on the stallion-shaped flute Alanus had made me the year before. Like Alanus, Mam
was out of her head most of the time. Her breath came in ragged gulps and smelled
like bad meat.
While she could still talk Mam told me what she knew of my father. She’d always been
a pretty girl, she said, sweet honey to any fly in breeks. “La, Wat,” she said, smiling
even then, “how they buzzed about. I had to swish them off. Or not!
“One day—ach, lad, it was hot enough to melt your bones—my father sent me to gather
withies by the river. We were weaving baskets at home for cheese-making. I’d been
in and out of the water with my skirts tucked up around my waist when I saw your
da.” Mam’s far-away look was more than just fever. “Wasn’t he a vision, Wat—all in
silver, atop a horse as high as a haycock. A knight, I don’t doubt now, but back
then I knew nothing of such things. He got down and put the horse to drink, you see.
I tried to loosen my skirts to cover my legs, but he caught my hand and hindered
me.” She stopped to cough. “He was so stern and silent I couldn’t think what to do.
I could scarcely get my breath. He might have been a prince among the good people.
I let him ease me into the willows— I only halfway held back—and there he had his
way with me.
“Of course, you know, he was just a man like any other. I learned that soon enough.”
Her words might sound bitter, but Mam never was. “He asked after my home and family,
but said not a word of his own. He meant to give me a silver penny, as he said, but
he couldn’t find one in his traps. A man like that!” Mam was still astonished. “So
he gave me my tin dragon instead. ‘Here then, lass,’ he said. ‘Happen it’s worth
more than a penny, but I’ve no more use for it.’”
The tin dragon! All while I was growing up, a silvery, twining brooch hung from a
nail by our fire. From across the room it looked like a scrap of lace. Closer on,
you saw how one branch at the top made a dragon’s head. Tin was only Mam’s word for
it. Alanus told me it was pewter—tin melted with a bit of copper and shaped in a
mold. Alanus made lovely things like my stallion whistle in stone or wood, but to
my eyes that glittering tin dragon was magic, the heart of our house.
“Why didn’t you tell everyone all this?” I asked.
“They might have believed me, with the dragon for proof, but they’d have thought
I enticed him—and what would have been the good of it anyway? The man rode on. No
one could bring him back. Besides, the whole affair seemed so strange I scarce believed
it myself—until I began to make a belly. And that was you, my lad.
“It’s little enough to leave you,” Mam said, “but keep the dragon, Wat.” The coughing
burst out of her again, and she gripped me hard. “Save the coins Alanus hid in the
cellar, too. Look for the white paving stone with the black vein,” she said. “You
can lift it with a pry bar and chisel.
“Without a trade to practice, you’ll have no place in the village, lad. At least
no place I’d want to see you in. Take the money and make your way to London.” I felt
the heat of her hand burning through my shirt. “It could be the dragon will lead
you to your father. He might be known there, and provide for you. Or the money may
be enough to see you apprenticed to a mason. You already know something of the trade.
You’ll need a billet and work, Wat . . . work, or take up a clack dish and beg.”
Being a sharp-eyed young sprog, I already knew where the money was. But when Mam
and I looked at each other, I saw that neither of us believed I’d be strong enough
to hold onto it. We were right about that. When Mam died, I’d have no grownup to
stand up for me. She had no people living, and Alanus had moved often, following
his trade. If he had family, no one knew who they were. Besides, I wasn’t a blood
relative of his anyway. The cottagers in that town—a place called Cley in the low
fens—were not the sort to provide for other people’s orphans. Life there was too
hard. Without Mam and Alanus, I’d be lucky to save the clothes I stood up in.
“Don’t talk so, Mam.” The words stuck in my throat. I was near to crying. “People
live through the plague, and so will you. I know you will. If anyone goes to London,
it will be the two of us together.” Mam smiled, but another fit of bloody coughing
made her clasp me again, this time for support. I was lying, and we both knew it.
That pallet by the fire was going to be her death bed.
I seldom had another word out of Mam before she died, not even aimless babble like
we’d got from Alanus. It hurt to listen to her gasping—a night and a day more of
it—but God knows when she stopped it tore the heart out of me. All at once she settled
into herself, and then she simply wasn’t there any more—the husk of herself left
behind held no more life than Alanus’s carved effigies.
The neighbors kept me inside our house and croft for another three weeks, posting
other boys—old friends of mine—to stone me if I tried to come out. The croft was
our fenced back lot, space for a garden, a few chickens, and our brood sow, Cecily,
who was then off in the forest with the village drove. She may be there still for
all I know. The lads nailed a hen to our gate post as a ward against me leaving the
place and heaped green juniper branches on a smoking plague fire outside our door.
People thought juniper purged the sickness. Maybe they were right. I didn’t catch
Thanks to Mam I had enough to eat and drink, but I could hardly gag it down, or do
much else. I was too heartscalded. I needed a plan if I meant to survive, but I couldn’t
make myself think straight. I even pretended Mam and Alanus were alive, at least
until their bodies began to swell and burble with gas. I’m known as a master pretender,
but not even I could imagine that away.
My stomach ached for both of them, especially Mam, but I’m sorry to say, I worried
even more about myself. On my own! I wasn’t ready! If only I’d paid better attention!
I knew little enough about our village and less of the world outside it. When Alanus
and his friends had talked of London, rowdy barons, raiders from the north, I hardly
listened. So what if the countryside was growing lawless? It was nothing to do with
me. In good time, I thought, I would be apprenticed to Alanus and live out my life
as he did, cutting stone for the new church. I never guessed my small world might
go up in plague smoke, leaving me to fend for myself.
But it had. I dragged Mam on her pallet into the back room with Alanus and tried
to shut them out of my mind. Some chance! I lost track of time, sleeping through
the day and pacing the cottage by night, always hounded by one thought: What would
become of me?
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