It’s a slap what wakes me, right across my face. Is that Gemma, I wonder? Before my eyes can open I loose a mighty burp and trumpet a righteous wind.
“Good lord!” a man yells.
“By all that’s holy!” says another. “That is foul indeed!”
I try to open my eyes. My lids are thick, heavy, covered with honey or something. When I crack them it’s painful bright out and I wince. I could have sworn it was night just a moment ago, but everything’s blurry. Vision, memory, all of it. Like that time Gemma said she was expecting yet another mouth to feed.
I’m on my feet. In town? In the market? Two men hold me by the arms. They’re big and they have cudgels at their belts. There’s a third one in front of me with a pointy white beard and a fancy kettle helmet. He scowls like he’s drunk a pot of piss.
“Have you no shame?” he says.
I try to speak but my mouth’s sticky too. Filled with wool, feels like. I hack up something yellow and spit on the ground. It’s when I notice something’s wrong with my legs. I’m not wearing my boots. I’m not even wearing my hose. And everything looks like it’s covered in… feathers?
A bolt of thunder rips through my head and I grunt. That’ll be the devil taking his due for all that beer last night. I swear, this time I might be done with the stuff. At least for a few days.
“Put him up!” the man in front shouts, and his two thugs start walking me. “Let’s get this over with.”
“What’s happening?” I manage. My voice croaks and I cough again. It’s unbelievable how dry my mouth is. It’s like I’ve eaten one of those charred bricks Gemma calls bread.
“Ralph from Hairstow-on-Stretford,” the man with the beard says. I think he does, anyway. My head’s spinning and I stare at the muddy ground. Something’s carving up my guts from the inside and I feel it coming up.
Oh, it’s just a belch. But it’s loud, loud enough I think even the Good Lord appreciates it. And oh Lord, does it ever feel good getting rid of that.
“Bloody hell!” the bearded man says. “Just put him in.”
The two men holding me push me forward and then shove my head down. My neck and hands are resting on a wooden bar. Then there’s a crash all around me. My ears ring. I instinctively pull up but find I can’t move. My head and my hands are stuck.
They put me in a bloody pillory!
“Well now,” says the bearded man, standing in front of me. He’s got a taxman’s grin.
No matter how hard I struggle, I can’t move. The wood is too heavy, too tight. I can barely rotate my head. At least I can breathe.
“What’s the meaning of this, eh?” I say.
“Ralph of Hairstow-on-Stretford,” he says again. Don’t like how he says my name like that, all long and official like. “That is who you are, correct?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“For your antics last night,” he says, biting each of his words like he was eating one of Gemma’s meals and was expecting it to bite back. Which it might. “For your disturbing of the night’s peace, for your public disorder, and for your wanton drunkenness, you are hereby sentenced to the pillory until Vespers.”
“You’ve got the wrong man!”
“You just admitted you’re Ralph.”
Hmm. This one’s clever.
“And besides,” he says. He walks right up right to me, shoves his face nearly in mine so’s our noses is almost touching. “To call you a man would be most uncharitable to real men.” Ouch. “I see nary but a scofflaw, a blaggard. A wild beast.”
He steps back and his face softens, looking very much like my dear old dad right before the tree flattened him. “Take this time to reflect on your life, and pray God will have mercy on your soul, because if you stay on this path you’re bound for the noose.”
My guts start writhing something fierce and I let another one tear. Something I ate last night must have really not sat well with me, like any meal Gemma has ever made.
“Disgusting,” says the bearded man, and then he and his goons stalk off. Pfft. Who needs them.
I jostle about but the pillory holds firm. As a carpenter I appreciate the craftsmanship. As a man stuck in the pillory, not as much.
My neck hurts – well, my everything hurts, but my neck hurts particularly – so I give it a rest and look down. I see my feet and legs again, and when I wiggle my toes I confirm, without a doubt, I have no boots. And no hose. And there are feathers everywhere. I’m covered in them. Fluffy white feathers everywhere, and a thick, greasy, sticky, sickly yellow brown underneath.
Bloody hell! Have I been tarred and feathered? What kind of monster tars and feathers a man just for having a quiet evening brew with his friends? Have we been conquered by the bleeding Huns? A sudden wave of itch washes over me, on top of all the bruises both inside and out. I’ve seen many a man get tarred before and I’m not looking forward to peeling the stuff off. Leaves your skin red and raw for days. Like listening to Gemma go on about the rent.
When I see my maypole dangle in the wind I yelp and flinch. Not a lot of room to flinch in a pillory though.
“Bloody hell!” They took my hose and feathered me everywhere.
“Stop your fidgeting,” a man says.
I look to my right and see my pillory is actually a two-fer. It’s one of the double models, and there’s another inmate beside me. A man about my age, looks a mite familiar but I can’t quite place his face. It’s a little plain, like a turnip. I guess if he’s here with me this morning he must have been there with me last night too.
“Hey mate!” I say. “Quite a night, innit?”
I think he says “yes” but it kind of sounds like a huff. I take a closer look at him, which isn’t easy what with being stuck in this thing, and I see he has his boots and his hose. And his tunic. And he’s not been tarred nor feathered!
“Hey! Why didn’t they tar and feather you?”
“You don’t get tarred and feathered for disturbing the peace.”
“Well then why’d they do it to me!?”
“They didn’t,” he says. And I swear there’s a little smirk on his smug turnip.
“Well then who did?”
“’Twas I.” Yes, definitely a smirk.
“What!?” The cheek on this one. “Why? What did I ever do to you?”
His smirk turns to a snarl. “Because, you wanker, you hit on my wife! Right in front of everyone. The bloody nerve of it.”
I remember – vaguely. Loud singing in good company, a roaring fire keeping the spring chill at bay, and ceaseless beer for endless cheer. Ah, yes, and there she is. She sways in on voluptuous hips, Aphrodite risen from the waves. Her bosom a sunkiss’d mountain, bouncing with each delicate step like… um… a very large bosom indeed. We spent the peerless eve in quiet consultation, discussing poetics and the beautifuller things in life.
Not at all like that spindly reed, Gemma. Though fair is fair, I’ll grant she’s a mighty lass what with chopping all that firewood.
“Well forgive me,” I say. “But what man can resist such beauty? And anyway, is that a reason to tar and feather a body?”
“Truth be told, I’d have been satisfied giving you a thrashing. But you started a riot and fled before we got our hands on you. The tarring was for running. And for the sheep.”
I choke on my breath. “The what?”
“The sheep. Why do you think the reeve was so keen on getting you into the pillory this morning?”
Oh sweet Lord above, what!? I don’t remember a thing.
“Gave them a righteous fright,” he continues. “We found you coddling Beth when we finally tracked you down. Half way across town. All the other sheep gone, scattered into the hills.” He tsks. “And the hell you raised! Bloody near woke everyone.”
My memories are a blur, but something’s coming back. I remember jumping a fence. An old woman yelling. There was a dog that spoke to me, and I crossed a field and–
“–Ow!” I yell, as something strikes me across the arse. Children laugh.
“John-John,” says the other inmate. “Come here.” A pair of boys round the pillory from behind us. They look about ten and one of the rosy cheeked little shites is holding a big stick.
“Yes da?” says the boy.
“Go on home now and help your mama out.”
“Yes da,” he says. He looks forlornly at his stick, then drops it and runs off. His companion runs with him, but turns around and throws a half-eaten apple at me. I close my eyes to shield myself from the worst of it, except the worst of it hits me in the gooseberries.
“Best get used to that,” the man says. “The folk here love a good pillory. It’ll get real fun when the market opens.”
“Great.” I feel sick. I can’t believe I’m thinking it, but maybe I have drunk too much. Lord, if Gemma saw me now I’d never hear the end of it. “Look mate, I want to, erm, apologize. You know, if I’ve done you any harm and all.”
He grunts. “Tell it to the Good Lord above.”
“No, I mean it. I’ve not been well. Things haven’t been… they’ve not been well at home. With my own wife.”
“Please stop talking, Ralph.”
“She’s turned so cold, so cold. Like a fish. Like the heart of winter, only she has no heart. Her whole wretched family is like that. All of them, born on the wrong side of the river. Bloody fish-people. You know what I mean.”
His face gets red.
“And money’s been tight! Isn’t it always, friend, isn’t it always.”
“I do just fine.” His teeth are clenched.
“And all this talk of war has me so worried. Is it true? Is the king fighting the Huns?”
He grunts. “The Huns? Are you daft? There’s not been a Hun for centuries. What next? The Romans?”
“The French then, whatever. Can you blame a man, with all this upheaval about?”
He rolls his eyes.
“Oh!” I say, just realizing where I’ve seen him before. “You’re Osbert, aren’t you? The barkeep?”
“A pleasure to meet you, Osbert.”
“We’ve met before, you dolt.”
“Right,” I say. “Yesterday. Only my memory’s not too great.”
“Yesterday nothing, Ralph! Dozens of times. Last time just in the autumn when your fourth was born.” He looks at me as though he expects something but I have no idea what it might be. I don’t know why people are always doing that. Maybe there’s something going round. “For the sake of the Lord, Ralph! I’m Gemma’s cousin!”
“Oh!” Right. That’s where I’ve seen Osbert before. Right.
We stand in silence for a while, because that’s how pillories work. Well, I’m silent anyway, trying to will my skin to stop crawling. Osbert keeps muttering under his breath. Seems like he’s mad about something.
Every passing breeze gives me goose bumps but the blighted pine tar gunks it all up and makes everything feel off. It’s like my skin’s crawling over and under itself, and it reminds me of Gemma descaling fish. That’s nice of her ’cause I don’t like scales, it’s just a shame she goes on to ruin the rest of the fish too. On the bright side, the feathers are pretty warm. Not as nice as my hose and tunic, but it could be worse. Actually, they might be better than my clothes.
That’s when it hits me. Osbert is Gemma’s cousin. Cousin Osbert. Right, I’d come to town for a reason.
“What is it now!?” he snaps.
“Osbert, old chum, listen. As I said, things are a little tight at home. Me and Gem were wondering, could you spot us a loan?”
He turns to me, as much as he’s able in the pillory. His eyes are wide and his jaw hangs slack. “A loan? How absolutely shameless! Not a shred of it! No I will not give you a loan, you reprobate.”
“You haven’t even paid me for all the beer and food you pissed away yesterday!”
“Well, I’ll pay you when I get the loan.”
Osbert starts laughing, big heaving guffaws.
Well that’s just great. Wait till Gemma hears about this. Her cousin is an absolute boor and won’t even come to the aid of his family. And for all he knows, we’re dying! A Hun if ever I saw one. I tell you, men in Hairstow-on-Stretford don’t behave like that.
Nevertheless, I’m here on a mission. I need to try to sway his wicked heart. “If you’d have come to me for money–”
He just laughs louder.
It takes him a good while to settle down, and if I’m honest, I’m starting to find this whole pillory thing demeaning. But finally I hear the church bells ring, and our time is up. I cheer.
“What are you so happy about?” Osbert says.
“The bells, Osbert! We’re free now. Let’s go grab a beer and talk about that loan.”
Again he stares at me. He mumbles something, sounds like “Blessed are the simple,” but I have no idea why. Then he says, “That’s just Terce, Ralph. We’re here till Vespers. Well after sunset.”
People start filing into the market, which was empty a moment before, and the noise of them fills the air. “Terce also marks the opening of the market,” he adds.
It’s going to be a long day. I miss Gemma.
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I've said it before (at least, I hope I have) and I'll say it again now: I'm very jealous of your writing versatility. You seem to be comfortable in every single genre and setting you've done on this site, and it shows through the prose. The intersection between the historical and the humorous here was great. Even without the aid of the title, I knew where in the world the story was taking place from the first sentence, just based on the diction and grammar, which immediately grounded me in the narrative. The comparison to Monty Python is ...
Thanks for the read, and the great feedback! Regarding the last line, I'd like to think he meant it too. I get the sense Ralph's a guy who has problems accepting responsibility for things, and it's much easier just to dump on others. But on some level, he probably realizes just how miserable his life would be without Gem. In any case, I'm glad she came through, even if filtered. You can have a lot of fun with first person descriptions because they can unreliable. Where did the idea for this come from? Well, I have no idea about fashion, a...
Michal, you are in your element here. The voice, the vibe and the dynamics are fantastic. The story has humour embedded in a quaint but very believable world. Great job there. The paragraphs where you describe Gemma(fish) and Osbert's wife made me laugh out loud. Best of luck in the contest!
Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Also happy it's believable. Historical things are difficult for me.
Hey there! I feel like you had a blast writing this. The humor definitely came through in your characterization and dialogue. Found it quite comical that the MC took a moment to recognize his cousin-in-law (though I have similar problems with even blood cousins so perhaps I just find him likable). Such a fun read from you this week! Sorry for the late comment. A lot of the other folks covered the bases and I'm soooooo behind on my Reedsy TBR list lolol.
Thanks for the read! I definitely feel the "behind on Reedsy". Every week, there's so many great stories -- to say nothing of the back catalogue -- there's just never enough time for it all. I did have a blast with this. Partly, because I struggled with the prompt, and finally hitting on an idea was a relief. Partly because it was just fun to write. I like off-putting characters with redeemable features, so I'm glad he came across as likeable on some level. I don't think he's cruel, just crass and maybe clueless.
I can't explain it but there's something about the way you write that just keeps you drawn in. I really love the way you describe the emotions, feelings and settings. The way you have framed the characters really helps the reader to get invested in the stakes of what is happening. Great job man.
Thank you :) Very happy you enjoyed it, and I appreciate the feedback. Definitely helps me get better, knowing what works and what doesn't.
Hail to thee, Monty Shakespeare! (Now, there’s a character…) This is just a rollicking ride, hilarious and clever. I, too, can say I’ve never read a story set in (at? on?) a pillory. Lots of fun, as well as multilayered.
Thanks :) That would indeed be a character! I'm glad it was a fun ride :)
I enjoyed this so much, love the 'olden day' feel to it and the humour and Ralph especially. Being inside his head as he tries to work out what has happened, contemplates the good craftmanship of the pillory (loved that line), complains about his wife, tries to work out how he knows the man beside him ... it's one of those stories where the characters are so entertaining I just want to keep reading their interactions. Like when he offers to pay his debt to Osbert when Osbert gives him a loan. I also love that his first thought on being slapp...
Thanks :) Very happy the characters were interesting, because in retrospect there's not much else, since they're both stuck in place :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Concise yet clever characterisation here to set up the supporting cast. I loved the alliterative: "He scowls like he’s drunk a pot of piss." I teach and many of my students look like that when I tell them we're analysing poetry (well analysing anything for that matter!) I will definitely hoard that line to try on the ones who have a sense of humour, as your story has! For me the humour had a real Shakespearian aspect to it; brought to mind the fun humiliation of Malvolio in his ardent bid for Olivia's heart. He was yellow stockinged and cro...
Wow, thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I never expected to hear "Shakespearian aspect" but I'll take it! Like many, I wasn't actually too fond of his works in high school. It was only later in life that I warmed up to them, after figuring out they were so much more than meets the ear. There's just so many plays on words and double meanings, it's fantastic. The stories also become better when you drop the strictures of graded materials and "correct interpretations." We lose so much of it to pronunciation though. Especially a West...
Absolutely, the horror of assessment is enough to kill any enjoyment. Yours was more than true to the spirit though, rip- rolling cheeky fun. I agree, the wordplay is phenemonal: much for a writer to learn from ( or steal!). Students have asked in the past what my desert island book would be and I always say the collected works of Shakespeare ( bit of a cheat I know). As a writer, I know you can picture the faces!
Gemma sounds like she must have the patience of a saint, if not the best cooking skills. I loved how different this story is from some of your others, the historical aspect was such a fun treat. Any hiccups in my understanding of the narration I attribute to being an American, as I’m fairly confident you are not one. Though all descriptions of historic terms, tools, or settings were clearly understood, even by this simpleton across the pond ;) Your main character’s personality and thought processes so accurately depict what can only be des...
Heh, I think you got a perfect read on the characters. Yeah, I imagine Gemma's a *very* patient woman. And Ralph very much seems a fool. I think he means well, but it's like you say, he doesn't appreciate. He takes for granted. Perhaps there's hope for him though. I like to think people can change, in any case. Thanks for reading! I appreciate the feedback.
This was fantastic. I loved how you kept calling back to the burping and farting and how the narrator just kept ripping on Gemma. Of course, in the end, it's she who he misses. Truly funny. The way you introduced Gemma's cousin was really well done. He's a nobody, then he's the guy who got the narrator locked up, then he's the bar keep, and they'd met 12x, then he's actually Gemma's cousin. It was just a great teasing out of who this man was and the reveal added even more comedy to the story + clarified what happened the night before and sh...
Thanks for reading, and for the feedback! Yeah, I think throughout this, Ralph was having a dialogue with his body, and it was telling him "stop doing this to me." he seems a little scatterbrained in general. Happy you found it funny :)
I just had the best time reading this! Is this the funniest thing I read from you..? Tough question. It must be up there! I love a good comedy and you are just so in unbelievably good at writing them. The language of this, the terminology, the character voices..! Takes us right back in time. I really really enjoyed the commentary about Gemma - poor woman must have a hard life with this guy. The dialogue was so entertaining, and the contrasting characters so fun to observe. Another five star story if you ask me. And the imagery, I could ju...
Thanks! :) Yeah, I think Gemma has to have some incredible patience. It sounds like she's got four kids, and Ralph's basically the fifth one :P I liked the smirk too :) I'm glad you enjoyed the story!
What fun! It felt very Monty Python, like a deleted scene of The Life of Brian or something. One of the better pieces of humor I've seen on here for sure.
Thanks! Life of Brian is high praise :)