We woke before Lauds, when the sun was barely tinting the eastern horizon with a hint of green. Our ragged blankets were cooling quickly as my mother was already moving about the hut, preparing for our day’s work. The air was sharp with the bite of autumn and a layer of dew coated the dirt floor. I snuggled deeper into our nest, but my mother nudged me with her foot. Reluctantly, I rose and tied on my shoes.
The baby cried piteously as he was briefly exposed to the cold while my mother changed his swaddling cloths. He was hungry again, for my mother was not making enough milk. But when I complained because his cries kept me awake at night, she cuffed me and said I should say a prayer in thanks to God that the babe was strong enough to cry.
I wanted to be a good sister, but I found it hard to love the babe as I should. My father had died before he was born, and so much work had fallen to me. I felt my heart harden with resentment as my mother cradled the babe to her bosom and wound lengths of wool around them both. I envied them the warmth their shared body heat would bring. To my shame, I sometimes wished the babe gone. Not dead, just somehow...gone.
I should try and remember all these sins for the next time I saw a priest, but for a moment, the fires of hell seemed a welcome respite. I crossed myself guiltily and bent to help my mother tie the laces of her boots. She smiled, stroking my hair gently, and for just a moment, I felt as though I basked in the warmth of summer’s sun again. Perhaps this babe would live long enough to be baptized and named. Perhaps we would find a place on an estate this spring, with a strong and generous lord and a kind-hearted lady. Perhaps we could have a little garden and I could tend chickens and watch my brother grow strong and sturdy on fat little legs as he ran and tumbled across the green meadows where I would work alongside my mother.
But then she stood, and mutely handed me half the small cold oat cake left from last night. My childish fantasy dissipated in a moment. I must have still felt repentant of my morning’s sins, because, with only the briefest hesitation, I split my small portion of cake in half again and held it out to my mother. “Take it,” I said, “for the baby.”
My mother smiled and shook her head, “I’m not hungry, dear heart. You eat it.” But her stomach growled loudly at just that moment, giving up the lie. Her mouth opened in a little “o” of surprise, then she laughed ruefully.
“Take it!” I insisted, “Tonight we will have plenty for us both!”
Yesterday, the orchards had been harvested, and for the next several days, we would glean. Most of the apples left would be rotten on the ground, or wormy. But my mother had made arrangements to trade what we could find with the nearby monks who would feed the apples to their pigs and cows and give us milk, and maybe even a little meat, depending on how much we were able to gather. Last year, we had been further south at harvest time, and the monks there had kept bees. When we brought them our gleanings, one of the brothers had heated some fresh cow’s milk in a kettle over their cooking fire and stirred honey into it for me. I had held the warm cup between hands red with cold and cramped from work, sipped the frothy sweetness and tasted God. I hoped this monastery had bees, too, but I knew better than to ask.
The day was long, and hard. I climbed the trees and threw down apples, while my mother scooped them up off the ground and filled the bags the monks had loaned us. My body ached by the time we stopped to eat the best of the fruit we had found, huddling under a tree as the clouds loosed a spittle of rain, and the sharp wind shook flurries of golden leaves down upon us. My mother said I should eat no more than three apples with my empty stomach, or it would bring on the flux. I began to regret giving up half my oatcake. But I ate my apples greedily, licking the sweet juice from my fingers. We spent the next hour or so sorting the apples into a small bag for eating, three large bags of hard or wormy apples, and two of partly rotten apples. It seemed a pitiful haul for the effort of the day, especially considering the bushels and bushels of apples taken out of this orchard over the last weeks. But with luck, the monks would be generous, and we would eat well until the upcoming wheat harvest when we would glean again.
We sang songs to pass the time while we waited for the monk to arrive with a cart. I made faces to try and make the baby laugh, but he was a pinched, unhappy thing and I could not coax even a smile from him. Eventually, we heard the clomp of horse’s hooves and the heavy creaking of wagon wheels, and we stood respectfully to welcome the monk. He was a cheerful round-faced fellow, with a bulbous red nose that told me the monastery certainly made a good beer. Or perhaps mead, I thought hopefully. He smiled kindly as he hopped down to help us load the sacks. It only took a moment, but he brushed his hands together as though completing a long day’s labor. He turned to my mother and crooned, “What a beautiful babe! What is its name?” which made my mother blush with pleasure.
She murmured shyly, “He’s not yet baptized, Brother, but we hope to receive the Sacrament next month.”
“To be sure, to be sure,” the monk blustered, then he turned to me, “And what is your name, little one?”
“Daisy,” I said. The corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval and my heart sank. What had I done wrong? Should I have kept my eyes on the ground? I snuck a look at my mother and saw the sudden fear leap into her eyes.
“What is your saint’s name, child?” asked the monk sternly.
“Martha, but that’s also my mother’s name, so I am called Daisy.”
“Ah, St. Martha,” boomed the monk, all smiles and jollity again. I could see from the corner of my eye as my mother drew a relieved breath, the tension leaving her. “Our Lord’s dear friend who cooked the meals and baked the bread. That’s the kind of friend everyone needs!” he laughed at his own temerity. “And what about you, little Martha? Do you know your way around a kitchen?”
I was struck dumb, having never had a kitchen, of course I knew nothing at all. In just a moment, he realized his mistake and patted my shoulder awkwardly. “Well, let’s get you to our kitchen tonight. Brother John has made a soup of beans and ham and I am sure we can find an extra bowl or two for our gleaners.”
“You are too generous, sir,” began my mother, but the kind monk waved her off.
“Not at all, not at all. Let’s all get aboard and we’ll be back before Vespers.”
My mother was lifting me into the wagon when the thunder of hooves on the track reached our ears. “Hold, there!” cried a commanding voice. She froze, holding me above her head, my feet dangling ridiculously in midair for a moment before she lowered me to the wagon bed and turned to the source of the voice. A huge man upon a huge horse bore down upon us, and the man jerked the reins back cruelly, causing the beast to pull up sharply, tossing its head. I saw he had a sword at his waist, and having seen it, I could see nothing else. Swords brought nothing but death. I pried my eyes away and stared down at the rough boards of the wagon bed, praying as hard as I ever had. “Whose apples are these?” the man demanded.
“What do you mean?” asked the monk, clearly befuddled, “This orchard has been harvested, and these wretches have gleaned the apples.”
“This orchard,” sneered the man, “belongs to Lord Steel. These apples, therefore also belong to Lord Steel. You will have to pay for them, or be charged with trespass and theft.”
“By whose authority?” asked the monk, indignantly.
“The King has acquiesced to the Lords’ demand that gleaners no longer have the right to trespass on private property. I do not make the laws, monk, I simply enforce them.”
The monk gaped at him, incredulous, “Impossible! I don’t believe you. That would fly in the face of the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and the traditions of England!”
The man shrugged carelessly, “Ask your bishop, if you like. But in the meantime, these peasants will pay for what they stole, or spend some time in gaol.”
I looked through my lashes at my mother, whose hands clenched and unclenched helplessly. She looked in desperation at the monk. We had no coin to pay for these measly apple; we knew it, the monk knew it, the man on the horse knew it. The monk regarded us with pity, then visibly swallowed his anger and turned to the horseman. “My son, these wretches could not have known of any new laws. Not even I had yet heard of them. Surely, God will bless you if you instead show them mercy that they might learn from your example. I will tell everyone of the grace and generosity of….?” He lifted his eyebrows querulously.
“James Houghton,” allowed the man.
“The grace and generosity of James Houghton will surely be writ in the book of God and this act will see you through the gates of heaven.”
We all held our breath, waiting to see if the monk’s overblown words would move him. Finally, he huffed, “Fine. A warning this time, but I expect you to move on. I don’t want to see you in this shire again.”
“You are a paragon of virtue, sir,” intoned the monk, blessing him.
“Dump out the apples.”
“Pardon me?” asked the monk, hand paused mid-air in the midst of the Sign of the Cross.
“I said, Dump. Out. The. Apples. No one will be allowed to gain from this perfidy. Dump the apples onto the ground.”
My mother leapt to obey, spilling the fruit out upon the dirt of the track. My stomach growled painfully in protest, as the man guided his horse to stomp its front hooves upon our harvest, a pretty little dance in other circumstances. He kept his eyes locked on my mother’s face, savoring her distress, as the horse’s hooves churned the apples into the mud. Their cloying scent wafted about us, somehow both tantalizing and sickening. Then without another word, the man wheeled his horse and galloped away.
The monk slumped back against the side of the wagon, “The Devil take James Houghton,” he swore forcefully. My mother gasped in shock at the sacrilege. The monk glanced at the sky. “It’s getting late. Come with me, at least tonight you can get a warm meal. I need to discuss with my Abbot what has happened here.”
The journey wasn’t long, and I soon found myself sitting next to a roaring fire, feeling blessedly warm for the first time in weeks. The fattest man I’d ever seen ladled steaming bean soup rich with autumn vegetables and small bits of ham into bowls for each of us. My belly full at last, exhaustion overcame me. I stretched out on the little bench with my head on my mother’s lap and fell deeply asleep.
I woke some time later to the familiar forlorn cry of the babe, as my mother shifted him from breast to breast trying to find enough to fill his little belly. The cooking fire had been banked for the night, and the kitchen was in darkness but for its faint flickering glow. One brief look reminded me where I was, and I closed my eyes again in bliss. I heard the murmur of voices, and my mother moved as though to rise, but I heard an old man’s voice say, “Nay, nay. Sit with your babe.”
The old man continued, “Brother Thomas has told me what happened at the orchard. I’m sorry to hear it. I know the landowners have been pestering the King for some time, but I never thought it would come to this.”
I heard my mother speak, and the desperation in her voice stopped my heart in my chest, “Sir, what can we do? We have always been gleaners, even before I was widowed. Winter is coming, we have nothing. My son,” her voice broke, “my son will die.”
“You must pray,” said the old man.
“Prayers have not saved my other children, I doubt God will make an exception for this one,” she said bitterly.
“Leave him here with us,” came the voice of Brother Thomas from another corner. “We have cows for milk, and when he is grown, he can take Holy Orders.”
“Thomas!” admonished the old man, “You forget yourself. This monastery is no place for a babe.” His voice softened as he added, “We cannot save them all.”
“I’m not asking to save them all. I’m asking to save this one,” Thomas said passionately, “God placed me with this babe at the moment his future was taken from him. God does nothing without purpose. The babe has not yet been baptized, perhaps it is our Lord’s intention that he be baptized within the brethren. He could perhaps become a saint!”
The old man chuffed a little laugh. “Perhaps. More likely he will be another mouth to feed.”
My mother stirred, “Please, sir, if you can save my son, I will donate a quarter of what I earn for the rest of my life to the Church.”
“Well, that’s little enough, I imagine.” He sighed again. “I’ll allow it, Thomas, but the boy will be your responsibility.”
“With God’s help, I will do it!” cried the kindly monk.
“You will certainly need it,” said the old man, “what do monks know of babies?”
My mother gathered her courage and spoke again, “We could stay, the girl and I, and care for the babe and be your servants.”
The old man spluttered indignantly, “The girl? A woman?! Of course not! A boy babe is bad enough! No. No. Absolutely not. You may sleep here next to the kitchen fire tonight. And tomorrow you must go, but you may leave the babe if you wish. Now I must go and pray for the King and our country and the thousands who will starve this winter and this fool of a monk who has decided to play at nursemaid. I bid you all good night.”
“Good night, Father,” said the kindly monk, and there was a murmuring between them before the monk spoke again to my mother. “I’m sorry you cannot stay, as well. There is a nunnery two-days’ journey west, but I don’t know that they would accept you into the order, especially without some kind of dowry. But they might need a servant. She would not starve, at least.”
“I see few paths to avoid starvation,” my mother said miserably, “We will both die this winter. Better we throw ourselves into the river now.”
“And burn in hell for self-murder?” scolded the monk, “I have another idea. My mother’s family serves Lord Pembridge. The village is nearly two weeks journey, but I will write and beg them to find room for you. Lord Pembridge is a godly man, and I will offer my prayers for him if he will take you on. You understand you and your child will be serfs, tied to the land. If Lord Pembridge wishes you to remarry, you must. He will decide your daughter’s fate as well. Your lives will be hard. But God willing, you will not starve.”
My mother’s hand clutched at my shoulder, “God bless you, Thomas. If you can spare just a little bit of food for our journey, we can take my son, as well, and make a new home in Pembridge.”
“No,” said the monk firmly, “No, I believe God wishes the babe to remain here. We cannot know if he would survive the journey or even if Pembridge will allow you to stay. No, I will write your letter, but the babe must stay here.”
And so it was that the next morning, my mother and I left my brother in the arms of the monk, Thomas, who held a rag soaked in warm cow’s milk to the babe’s lips. My mother wept freely as we walked away, every exhalation a thin pained keening. But she never looked back. She held my hand in hers and we marched north, just the two of us.
With every step I took, a small bag of apples tied around my waist bumped against my leg, every thump an accusatory reminder of the weight we no longer carried with us. Finally, unable to bear it another moment, I surreptitiously emptied the sack into the ditch. I would never eat another apple.