Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Another Sample: Yershi the Mild

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There is more you need to know about Yershi the Mild.

He is good to his word. When he promised I could apprentice in the giving of life rather than in the taking of it, that is what happened. “If you follow me on a killing,” he said, “even more than fifty paces from the front door, I will chase you back to your mine and throw you in the deepest shaft.” I followed him once forty-nine paces and when I stopped, so did he. He turned, scowled, shouted: “Imbecile!” Then he marched off, leaving me where I stood. “One more step and I would be rid of you!” he shouted. “Take that step! I do not have time for stupidity!”

I did not take that further step forward. I went back to the hut to tidy. Counting my steps along the way, hoping I had not miscounted and gone fifty-one.

He let me live in the hut, from the day he took me on as his apprentice. I slept on a rug at the hearth and, for a while, missed the warmth and companionship of the chicken who used to sleep on my back. Yershi snored and talked and called out in his sleep, so the first few weeks inside the hut were not restful. But as autumn gave way to fall and the snow came, I was glad to be out of the coop and into the relative warmth of the hut.

Yershi is not trusting. When he left, he bolted and locked the room underneath the hut, where he took the chickens after they were plucked, where he stored his herbs and bark and flagons that came by wagon to the alchemists’ in Alderny. “Your world as my apprentice exists down there,” he said. “But you have work to do above ground, first. Above ground,” he said, “before you enter the Grave.”

He came back with a grim expression.

“I saw his widow,” he said. “They had two children. They wept bitterly when they found him dead. And the alderman who had him killed gloated, gleeful, revenged on the poor man who dared to say he would not sell his acre to the man who has a thousand acres. A benefactor left a pouch of gold hanging in the tree above their well, with directions to a place where an honest farmer, recently widowed – a decent chap by most accounts – would welcome her and her children. Along with instructions on how to deed the land the alderman wants to the church.”

Yershi the Mild came with no payment; no bag of gold at his waist.

“I am no Robin Hood, Shadow,” he said to me. “I may rob the rich to feed the poor, but I also rob the poor to feed the rich. My good gestures must be accepted anonymously, with tears only softened and hearts still broken.”

He sat by the fire that night, straining to read from a book through spectacles clinging to the tip of his nose:

Father, I thank thee that thou has heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.

And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said unto them, Loose him, and let him go.

“Then from that day forth,” he said to the dancing flames, “they took counsel together for to put him to death.”

He gazed long into the fire, forbade that I should renew it with logs though the night grew colder.

When I woke he sat still in his chair by the fire, a shawl around his shoulders, staring into the dead grey ash.

He looked at me with distant eyes. “What think ye?” he asked. “That he will not come to the feast?”

I stared back. I could not read. I did not know the book from which he read. My father had no books, nor did they in the mining camp. Jans, laughing at my ignorance – he knew how to spell his name and the name of his village in large block letters – called me a pagan. I did not know what he meant, nor did I ask.

“Light the fire,” he said. “I am cold.” He moved slowly from his chair and rolled himself in his blankets on his bed in the far corner of the room.

Just outside the window, the cock crew, loudly welcoming the cold sun of morning.

“I, Yershi the Mild, am not welcome to the feast,” he said.

A sour mood descended with the snow. Bartholomew, who raised the pigs to whom I fed the windfall apples, warned me. “October is not a time to be intimate with Yershi the Mild,” he said. “He’s never jolly by any account, but in October, man, his moods turn especially dim. Sometimes as swiftly as blowing out a candle. Years ago, one day toward the end of September, one of my sows jumped the fence and snorted her way into Yershi’s hut after he’d put out his light. I did not know of it until the next morning when Yershi brought her home, a rope tied gently around her neck. ‘I am accustomed to whiskers in my face when I sleep,” he said, laughing, “but not to the pig nose behind it. Except once in Kettering. Mary was her name. Warm, but ugly as this sow.’ We laughed heartily.”

Then his face fell and his voice lowered. “It happened again a week later. He brought the pig back on a rope, but in the form of hams and bacon, with half the meat gone. ‘Kindly keep your sows to yourself,’ he said. My wife dared not eat the meat. I had to burn it. She feared it was poisoned. No,” Bartholomew said, “Yershi is not pleasant in October. Ware, son, ware.”

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