by Kevin Brockmeier
I was leaning forward on my stone, eating a boiled egg one of the farmers had given me for his passage, on the morning the monk arrived. I watched him hobble around the end of the stables and follow the path toward the river. His robe was coated so thickly with dust I could not tell whetherthe cloth underneath was brown or white. "Tell me," he asked, planting his staff at my feet, "have I reached Woolpit?"
"You have." I cast the eggshell halves into the water, where they went bobbing off like two glowing boats. I have watched the river for many years, and there is nothing it won’t carry away. I’m told that if you follow it far enough into the distance, past the hills and the long forest of pines, it empties into the sea,offering its cargo of sticks, bones, and eggshells to the whales, but I have never been that far.
"I’ve come for the monsters," said the monk. The sun shifted from behind a cloud, and he squinted into the glare.
"The children, you mean." I pointed across the river. "They’re at the house of Richard de Calne."
"The soldier," he said. "Yes, so I’ve heard. How much for passage?"
"Three coins," I said. He drew open the pouch that was sagging from his belt, handed me the silver, and then rapped my leg with the end of his staff. "Up," he ordered.
I looked at him grayly. He was not a large man and I could have broken him over my knee, but instead I pocketed the coins, counting repeatedly to three in my head.
While we were crossing the river, I allowed him to slip a few notches lower on my spine so that the hem of his robe trailed in the water and took on weight. Snake–shapes of dirt twisted away from him downstream, but he did not notice. He told me that he had heard of the green children from a beggar in the town of Lenna,who had informed him fully of their strange condition. "They speak a language known to no Christian ear," the monk recited, "and are green as clover. The girl is loose and wanton in her conduct, and the boy shudders at the touch of any human hand. They are a corruption to all those who look upon them."
"Most of what you say is false," I said. A little whirlpool spun like a plate on the surface of the water before it wobbled and came apart. "The children have learned our own tongue now, or at least the girl has, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, they’ve certainly done me no harm."
"You’ve seen them?" he asked.
"I have, and they’re no danger to anyone."
He made a scoffing noise. "Yes, but you are clearly an ignorant man. I’m told they will eat nothing but beans. Beans! Beans are the food of the dead, and the dead–on–earth are the implements of Satan."
"They eat flesh and bread, just like the rest of us. It was only those first few days that they ate beans."
"The devil quickly learns to hide himself," he said dismissively, as though he had tired of arguing with me. "I aim to baptize them, and if they won’t take the water, then I aim to kill them."
I stopped short, anchoring my foot against the side of a rock. I could feel the anger mounting inside me. "You won’t harm them," I said.
"I will do as my conscience demands." He cuffed my ear. "Now move, you!"
At that, I whipped my body around and let him drop into the water. He sideslipped downstream, tumbling and sputtering in a fog of brown soot, before he managed to find root on the riverbottom. Then, bracing himself with his staff, which swayed and buckled in his hands, he hitched his way slowly to the other shore. By the time he staggered onto the rocks, I was already sitting against the high ledge of the bank. His robe hung on his bodylike a molting skin, and his hair curtained his eyes. "You — !" he said. He flapped his arms and water spattered onto the shingle. "I want my silver returned to me."
I did not feel the need to answer him. Instead, I reached into my pocket and retrieved the coins, slinging them at him one by one. They thumped against the front of his robe and fell to the rocks with a ting. He picked them up, then straightened himself and set his eyes on me. "I have a mission," he said. "God has given it to me. I will not be discouraged from it by the muscles of any Goliath," and he went stamping up the road into Woolpit, wringing the water from his clothing.Three blackbirds landed in the path behind him, striking at the dirt.
It was late that afternoon when I heard that the boy had died.
I abandoned my post by the river that night to attend the burning of his body. The pyre had been laid with branches of white spruce and maple, and the silver wood of the one and the gold wood of the other carried a gentle, lambent glow that seemed to float free of the pyre in the air. The moon was full, and I could see the faces of the townspeople by its light. Alden was there, and Joana, and the boy Martin, along with the blacksmith and the reapersand all the other men and women of Woolpit. I had never seen so many of them gathered together in one place. The monk, though, was nowhere among them. He had indeed baptized the children, I learned — immersing them in a basin of water, each for the count of one hundred — but while the girl had survived the dunking, the boy had not. He was already weak with illness, and when his body met the water, it stiffened in a violent grip and went still as the monk pushed him under.One of the servants who was watching said that he breathed not a single bubble of air. When de Calne learned that the boy had died, he set his men on the monk with clubs, and the monk was made to flee by the western road.
There was some discussion between de Calne and Father Gervase, the town priest, as to whether or not the boy ought to be buried in church ground — had his spirit passed from him before, during, or after baptism? — but finally it was decided to follow the path of caution. They would allow the fire to consume him.
The boy was laid out on the pyre inside a white sheet painted with wax, and as we stood about the fallow field watching, de Calne signaled to his servants and a ring of torches was driven into the wood. The flames were tall and bright, the smoke so thickly woven that it blotted out the stars. Our faces were sharp in the yellow light, which was clear and steady, so that our shadows scarcely wavered. I saw the green girl holding onto Joana, her arms wrapped tightly around her waist.A moment later de Calne stooped at her side, taking her chin in his hands. He stared into her eyes with a strange, questioning zeal until she quailed away from him, hiding her face in Joana’s dress.
The fire burned long into the night, and I fell into conversation with the merchant brothers Radulphi and Emmet. They were deliberating over what had killed the boy, and they had flatly differing notions on the matter, as they had on so many others. "He was not of this world," said Emmet. "That much was clear to see — and so of course he rejected the baptism. The sacraments are for members of the body of Jesus Christ. The boy was a member of no body but his own."
"But the girl accepted the water without sign of affliction." Radulphi smacked his palms together as he made his point. "And it’s not at all clear that the children are from another world. They might have gotten lost in the flint mines of Fordham, nothing else, and simply wandered around the mine shafts until they came out inside the wolf – pits. It’s happened before."
"Then how do you explain the color of their skin?" I asked.
"It was the greensickness, like the chirurgeon said."
"Not likely," said Emmet. "And if it wasn’t the baptism that killed the boy, then what was it?"
"Starvation," said Radulphi. "His body wasn’t accepting the food he ate, and so it devoured itself."
"At the very moment he touched the water?" Emmet smacked his own palms together. "Hah!"
Radulphi had been working an acorn between his fingers, and he tossed it to me. "You haven’t told us what you think, Curran?"
"What do I think?" I was, as I have said, a young man then, and my answer was a young man’s answer: "I think it’s foolish to argue over matters that cannot be decided. Who knows why our spirits depart, and who can say where they go when they do? These things are a mystery. Nothing more can be said."
I have grown older since then, if only occasionally wiser, but I have tried to pay attention to what happens around me, and there is one sure thing my age has taught me — death is no mystery, in its cause if not in its consequences. If Radulphi were to ask me his question today, my answer would not be the same.I would tell him instead what I have seen with my own eyes: you can die of too much, and you can die of too little, and everybody dies of one or the other. That night, however, I simply fell silent. The shadow of the boy’s body flickered in and out of sight inside the flames, and as the wood settled, de Calne’s men prodded at it with long, forked sticks to keep it from tumbling free.
"I still believe it was the baptism," said Emmet.
"And I still believe you’re an idiot," said Radulphi.
I cast the acorn into the fire, listening for the nut to explode in the heat.