Work In Progress – Section: The House of Grain – an extract

Grain in a basket

Here’s the latest from the strange pagan novel I’m writing:

The sun is already climbing by the time we set out along the rough track from the fields. It is not long before heat combines with beer and my head is a hot ball of discomfort, jostled and jolted on rutted roads. I sit up to peek out over the raised sides of the cart, my head swimming. Broad fields in strips, those already furrowed are lines of bare wounds open to sky. Between each strip earth baulks strewn with weeds and low hedges. And the ox teams work on.

The alewife sees me looking out – a sharp admonition – back down, blanket pulled over face.

I think I must doze. Awake again, sweat is soaking rough cloth. I uncover to gulp air, head aspin, staring up. Not a cloud, clear blue. The oppressive air makes my is head flush with heat, and my skull develops a steady throb like the slow grinding of a quern on oats. Spots of rain fall. Surprised, I look up and around. Still no clouds. Am I drunk, then? Wherever the rain is from, I am grateful for its washing over the cart. It builds to a sudden squall, clearing my head and soothing its pain. A rainbow arches across the clear sky. The alewife huddles against the rain and stares down at me a moment, thoughtful.

The squall passes as quickly as it came, followed by the fresh nose of persichor, deep pungency of clean green: scent of spirits imbuing every bush and watching from every plant. I feel them huddling around me, growing living things. I know they sense me.

I sit up again. Ahead, in the middle distance on a low flat plain by a winding river, a low settlement squatting behind an encircling moat and palisade. Others dotted away into the distance behind it. The track we are on skirts its edge. At four points around the circumference, a tall white pole, each adorned with its own emblems. Passing the first, I see animals carved along its full length – wolf chases bull chases dog chases cat chases mouse. The next is populous with carved insect life – bee, fly, moth, wasp, ant, beetle in thousands of iterations. The third is luxuriant with carvings of wheat and barley, the fourth with sheep, cattle, goats, swine, oxen and horses. From the tops of each, blue and white cloth streamers – aflutter in the wind.

The alewife turns to me and tells me once more: “Cover up, girl”. We enter beneath a high gateway. Inside, through a crack in the cart’s side I slice the village into stolen glances: low thatched cruck houses made with arching beams rising from the ground. A woman stooping over a sheep pinned helpless between her knees beside a pile of yellow fleeces brandishes shears in sunlight. Elsewhere, a group of women gently drawing wool onto drop spindles, another leaning over a large barrel filled with red dye, holding a bolt of cloth under the water..

As we grind through, the air is thick with greetings to the alewife. Neighbours call and hail, the women asking after their menfolk in the fields and for news from other steads. It is a bright and cheery scene, far different from the sombre village of my distant boyhood that seems now only to come to me in flashes and feels as if it were never mine.

At one moment, a shadow falls and we travel in a silent place at the heart of the village. I am cold and I pull in under my blanket. A presence here, dark, brooding. Something vibrating in the air that my gossamer sense can read. Rage and repression waiting to break and destroy if it can. I quiver in my skin until the shadow that falls over me passes, and the cart continues on its way. But even though the malevolent presence dies away, the air around me vibrates my nails and hair, teeth and skin with the residue of anger.

I steal another glance. At the farther edge of the village stands a place unlike the low cruck houses we have passed. A two-storey building, dun-coloured daub over wattle walls hung between thick oak uprights, some of the ground floor panels infilled with rough clay brick. A tall lean-to barn built onto one side. Painted in black on the brown daub above the oak door: a sheaf of barley.

“Here it is then,” the alewife says cheerily under her breath. “The House of Grain. You just stay tucked away, and you’ll see.”

She drives the cart through the barn door. Here, the air is rich with the smell of malt and the dry presence of grain that sits high in the nose and at the back of the throat. She closes the door and comes to me.

“Come,” she says, helping me climb down from the cart with a gentle hand on my arms, then guiding me through the grain store loaded with sacks and guarded by three black cats who stare down at me with green, unblinking eyes. We step through a low door to another room, where a copper vat as wide as my outstretched arms is set in a rough brick block, a blackened opening below revealing its purpose for heating the copper. In the vat, a sweet-smelling liquid with a thick foamy crust and the acid smell of fermentation. I resist a strong desire to plunge my hands into that creamy surface.

The vat room is tall stretching up through both storeys. On a network of beams sits a a life-size doll, resting in a place of honour high on one beam, where it presides over the room. She is a woman of corn, braided hair winding over her head in long plaits that give the illusion of a glow like the rising sun. Her arms are outstretched towards me, palms upward, in a gesture of welcome. She is enthroned on a seat carved with ears of corn and overlooks a raised vegetable kingdom: the beams across the ceiling hung with green nature – herbs and leaves, dried or quick, some still curling and drawing sap through their stalks that wind around upright beams, growing up from where they are rooted beneath the earthen floor. Other plants are cut and hung to dry – a vista of living and once-living things: broad leaved and narrow, thick-stalked and slender. One plant has roots in the shape of a man, arms and legs splayed, head set back as if ready to shriek. Among this hanging garden, pairs of eyes of mice tremble, docile, wide eyed. Throughout all, the strong nose of grainy sweetness, and a coolness here that raises goosebumps on my arms.

Then I see her. In the shadows at one side of the room frozen in the act of cutting herb stalks is a frail young woman of the most startling beauty. White as the snow of my home, she has platinum hair and the most piercing blue eyes that settle on me with an unreadable expression…

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