by Kevin Brockmeier
It was no later than the hunter’s moon when the first travelers began to arrive. They came from the east and the south (those from the west and north having no need to cross the river) and asked how to find their way to the green children they had heard tell of. They referred to the children as oddities, or marvels, or curiosities. Some of them had been given to believe they were bedded down like goatsor cattle in a grain–crib or a stable somewhere, though in truth de Calne was housing them in one of his servant’s rooms. "You’ll find them over there," I told them, gesturing obscurely beyond a spinney of thin, girlish elm trees. "A large house past a row of small ones. You can’t miss it." I offered to ferry them to the opposite shore of the river on my back. "Only two coins," I would say — my new fee for pilgrims."Or you can try to push your way across without me." At this I would toss a stick into the water, dropping it midstream so that the current gripped it immediately, wrenching it away. "There’s an outcropping of rocks downstream where we usually retrieve the bodies."
The travelers all carried parcels and walking sticks, and after scouting along the bank for a time they always accepted my offer.
The green children had quickly become commonplace to the people of Woolpit, just another feature of the landscape, like the bluff above the maple thicket, shaped like the body of a sleeping horse, or the trio of stone wells outside the marketplace, but as the story of their discovery spread, the people who came to see them journeyed from farther and farther away. I was becoming a wealthy man.
One of these pilgrims, a boy of no more than fifteen who was traveling alone, asked me why there was no bridge by which to make the crossing. "We’ve built them before," I said, "but the river is too powerful. They never last the month before the rains come and the high water washes them away."
"There’s a man in my town who’s developed a new method of working with stone. He can shape it into a half–circle, and it will be broad enough and strong enough for even a man on horseback to pass over. I’ve seen him do it. For the right price, I’m sure he would build a bridge for you."
I gave the boy a flinty stare and said, "We have no need of such a service." His hair was as white as an old man’s, with the flat shine of chalk. Even after he was gone, its image stayed in my eyes.
As soon as the green children began to eat the same food as the rest of us, the same bread and flesh and vegetables, the girl developed a healthy cushion of skin around her bones. The boy, however, became frailer and more feverish with each new morning, trembling with the slightest movement of the air and passing a pungent, oily shit from his bowels. A doctor bled and purged him to balance his humours, then applied a poultice to his sores, but to no effect.He merely rolled over onto his side, coughing and blinking until he fell asleep. For a single coin Richard de Calne would have him strip from his clothing so that onlookers could see the way his skin pinched tight around the corners of his body — a mottled shade of green, like a leaf fed upon by aphids.
The boy had yet to say anything more than his name, a dusty line of syllables I have long since forgotten, but the girl, Seel–ya, was now speaking in complete sentences, and she astonished her visitors by conversing with them in a tongue they understood, telling the tale of how she came to this country.
She was, she said, from a wholly different land, though she could not say where it lay in relation to our own. The people there were of her color, and when she first saw the reapers leaning over her in the wolf–pits, their skin was of so pale a shade she was not sure they were human, and she screamed for her mother and father. The sun, she claimed, was not so bright in her country, and the stars were not so many. She had been playing outside her house when she heard a great sound,like the chiming of bells, and when she turned to follow it, she found herself in this place. The boy had appeared in the wolf–pits alongside her, and though she did not know him, she could tell that he came from her land. She missed her family, she said, and she wanted to go home.
One morning, while I was waiting for my first foot passengers of the day, Joana the Cyprian came walking toward the river. It has been a long time now since she was young enough to sell her services, but in the years of which I speak she was the most beautiful woman in Woolpit, and her eyes in their black rings were as shining and open as windows. She lived in a small hut hidden in the trees at the edge of town.The sun was climbing into the sky behind her, and through the thin fabric of her dress I could see the outline of her thighs and a tangled gusset of pubic hair. "Good morning, Curran," she said to me.
"Joana," I nodded.
"Aren’t you going to ask me what I’m doing out so early?" Instead I pitched a stone into the water to measure the pace of the current, watching as it drifted from the surface to the bed. "I’m headed to Richard de Calne’s house," she said.
"Going to gawp at the green children, I suspect."
"Going to work with the green children." Her voice was thistleish with irritation, and I had to smother a grin. It was one of my joys to provoke her. "I’m teaching the girl her duties as a woman," she said. "De Calne plans to raise her to his wife." She swung the copper–colored horsetail of her hair over her shoulder. "So are you going to take me across or not?"
I slapped my palms against my back and said, "I’m at your service, dear," but she winked at me and declared, "No, Curran, I want to ride up front" — which is exactly what she did. She wrapped her legs around my hips and her arms around my neck. I swung forward with her into the river.
As I carried her deeper into the water, she allowed herself to sink slowly down over my crotch, exaggerating her fall with each jerk of my stride. The muscles of the current pulled at my ankles. I could feel her releasing her breath in a long, thin rope against my chest, and my nose began to prickle with her scent. "Why so quiet, Curran?" she asked.
"Hmm?" When I set her on the other shore, she placed a slow–rolling kiss on my lips and ran her finger up my penis, from the root to the ember, which was visibly propping up my waistcloth. "So what do I owe you?" she whispered into my ear.
I brought her hand to my mouth and kissed the knuckles. "No charge," I said.
Sometimes I wish it was still that way.