Medieval_mill_with_overshot_wheel

Jacques is telling it…

I stand huddled at the mill door holding my basket of corn. Inside is a gyre of whirring wheels. Shafts of dusty light pulse through the turning spokes. Othon stands by the millstones, pouring grain into a hopper, his belly hanging over his belt like fermented dough. Then he sees me:

‘You!’

‘Monsieur!’

‘Get away form here! I’ve told you before: you’re not welcome! Be off!’

‘But I’ve brought grain to grind.’

‘Well you can take it away again. I won’t turn the mill for a goblin! Coming here, infesting my flour with weevils! Haste away, before I thrash your hide…’

‘But my mother sent me. She says, if you don’t grind our grain, she’ll have something to say about it.’

‘Oh? And what might she say, I wonder?’

‘I dare not guess Monsieur. But I’m more frightened of her, than I am of you…’

He looks anxious and scratches his head.

‘I’ve brought money Monsieur.’

‘How much money?’

I show him the coin. He snatches and bites it.

‘Hmm… How much grain do you have?’

‘Just what’s in the basket, Monsieur.’

‘Only that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, I’m a busy man. Come back and collect it tomorrow.’

‘But Monsieur, my mother told me not to take my eyes off you.’

‘Oh! She did, did she?’

‘Yes, Monsieur.’

‘And why would she say a thing like that?’

‘I don’t know Monsieur.’

‘She thinks I have a bad reputation?’

I shrug.

‘She thinks I’m a thief?’

‘No, Monsieur!’

‘What then? She’s not exactly a woman of virtue herself, you know!’

Beyond is an oven glowing in the gloom.

‘Are you making bread Monsieur.’

‘Baking and grinding. Like I said, I’m a busy man. Moulant, moulant, moulant! [Grinding, grinding, grinding!]’

‘Can I stay and I watch?’

He bites the coin again. Puts it in his purse.

‘Pah! That mother of yours. She’d love to cause me trouble. Very well. You can watch. But don’t you dare step inside. And keep that sack over your head. I don’t want to see your ugly face: it gives me nightmares.’

Othon weighs the basket and pours the grain into the hopper.

‘What’s that shaking thing.’

‘What boy? This frame here?’

‘Yes, the thing on top of the millstones.’

‘We millers call it The Horse.’

‘I’ve just met a man who said he was a horse.’

‘What?’

‘And before that he was an ox…’

‘One of those shitten shepherds, no doubt.’

‘Yes, Monsieur.’

‘I’ve heard that tale a thousand times before. How could he have been a horse? It’s madness.’

‘But Monsieur, he found his lost shoe in the mud. His horseshoe.’

‘The soul is naught but blood boy. When a man dies, his soul dies too. Just like the animals. If you ask me, the Virgin Mary is the blue sky.’

‘You are not Catholic, Monsieur?’

‘My mother was a good Catholic. My father was a good man. But I am a good deal wiser…’

‘And you think I’m a goblin?’

‘Pah! I only say that because I know who you really are. Do you know who you really are? If your beginning is terrible, then what of your end? Shall you follow all those bleating sheep in the hope of Christian redemption? ’

And he prods me three times on the shoulder:

‘Eh? Eh? Eh? Perhaps you are grinning under that hood? Perhaps you are mocking old Othon?’

‘No Monsieur!’

‘Ah! Jacques is a good little Catholic, of course he is. And he believes the sacraments of the Church and articles of faith to be true.’

‘Of course, Monsieur.’

‘Then tell me Jacques, how do you pray, now that the priest has gone?’

‘I cross myself…’

‘Yes…’

‘I commend myself to God…’

‘Oh yes…’

‘– Who died for us on the cross, and to the Virgin Mary…’

‘I see… And what else?’

‘I say the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria. And I fast on the vigil of the Virgin…’

‘And when is that, exactly?’

‘Well, I forget the date, Monsieur.’

‘The sheep bleats because it does not know how to speak.’(i)

‘You do not fast on the vigil of the Virgin?’

‘Of course not. Because the Ave Maria is worthless. ’Tis an invention of the priests. As for your fasting, it might as well be the fasting of a wolf! Listen to me boy. The Pope devours the blood and sweat of the poor. All his monks are carnal wolves. And that goes for his priests and bishops too. If all the clergy in the world were hung up by the jaw, I’d be a happy man.’

‘Don’t you believe in the Devil, Monsieur?’

‘Oh yes. I believe in Him. The Devil has more power than God. He’s as real as you are standing right there… Now, do you want to know how The Horse works, or don’t you?’

‘Yes, Monsieur.’

‘Well, this little rod is called the Damsel, and the Damsel shakes the Slipper here; and that causes the grain to trickle into the Eye of the stone, here. See?’

‘Yes, Monsieur. Thank you, Monsieur’

He coughs and spits a glob of phlegm on the floor.

‘Whilst your corn grinds I have other work to do. I must bake the Host… Stay there and don’t move. The last child that wandered in got caught between the cogs. He was torn to little pieces… You wouldn’t like to be torn to little pieces, would you boy?’

‘No, Monsieur.’

He sieves some flour through horses tails and mixes it with rain water. Then he makes a dirty dough whilst picking his ears and scratching his arse. Light flickers on his bald plate as he kneads the unleavened bread. He cuts and shapes it into wafers, then bakes them in the oven.

A curious thing how an impenitent thief can bake the body of Christ. Until then, I had always thought the sacrament mysterious, hallowed and ineffable, made by angels or nuns in a convent. But ours was made by a sneezing brute who stank like a hog, with bloody rheum dribbling from his nose. No wonder Margot spat it after mass. ’Twas only fit for rats.

‘I didn’t know you baked the Host, Monsieur.’

‘How Christ can descend into one of these wormy wafers is beyond me. Whenever the priest raises them up, it makes me want to laugh. Besides, all that passes through the body comes to a vile end. Which could not happen to the Host if Christ were in it…’

He goes to the flour bin and fills a small sack, checking on his scales.

‘Here’s your meal master Jacques. I have enjoyed our little conversation. But we never spoke. Is that clear?’

‘Yes Monsieur…’

‘Besides, who would believe you over me?’

‘No one Monsieur.’

‘Good. Now be on your way. And I hope your mother is satisfied. I don’t want any trouble from the witch. Good day to you.’

‘Good day to you, Monsieur.’

As I return I think on what Othon has said. The skies have cleared and the distant peaks are aflame with the setting sun. Spans of golden rays reach from the hills, flooding the valley with light; amber beams pour down the slopes, penetrating dark groves and illuming flanks of windblown flax. High on a mountain pass I spot Pierre with his flock, lit like altar candles. I am struck by the pristine glory of the Earth and feel a spirit moving near, between the trees and rocks, over the river and into every needle of the pines.

When I get home, Margot is waiting with staff in hand. She looks stark raving mad:

‘Why have you emptied the grain bin?’

‘But moma! You told me too!’

‘No I didn’t. And what’s in that basket?’

‘Flour.’

‘Have you been giving our grain away?’

‘No! You sent me to the mill this morning. Don’t you remember?’

‘Liar!’

I cower beneath her staff as it whirs through the air:

‘No, moma, no!’

I take six blows across the back and one across the legs. The crone is transformed and girded with hideous strength; her spindly limbs wield great power, springing in the air like saplings. Like some mad Mænad of Bacchus, she spits and foams at the mouth:

‘I’ll teach you! Stealing from my grain bin!’

Her mouth is pulled back in a deathly grimace, her hair a seething nest of vipers. The mottled face, riddled with veins and warts, stretches on her skull like parchment. I curl in a ball and cry:

‘I’ll get the mistletoe for you moma!’

I brace myself, fully expecting another blow. But the staff drops on the floor. Silence. I look up. She steps back in shock, hand on her mouth. Her phase has passed:

‘Oh my god! Jacques! What have I done?’

I hate myself for smarting for a love so unsteadfast. And once again, I run out the door…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2004

i. From a conversation between Bélibaste and Arnaud Sicre. Fournier record, ii.37,54.