Jacques is telling it…

The hovel is dark but for a rush light that flickers in the rafters. Wind rattles the shutters and moans under the door. I cuddle Margot in our pallet of straw; the crone is skin and bone, like a starved cat, with saucer eyes and stubble on her chin:

‘Are you warm enough Jacques?’

‘Yes Moma…’

‘There’s thistledown in your hair.’

‘And yours too Moma…’

‘I saw a dragonfly today – a handsome fellow, all glassy blue with crystal wings; he was patrolling the pond. Did you see him?’

‘He hates us cutting his rushes.’

‘No tapers, no coppers.’

‘I wish the priest was dead.’

‘So long as he pays us first…’

‘He’ll never pay, Moma.’

‘I fear you’re right, Jacques. Doomsday will come and go before the priest pays his dues. The priest has never forgiven me…’

‘For what?’

‘I played a wicked trick on his father – who was priest before him…’

‘What kind of trick? A spell?’

‘Why, have I never told of Squealing Jeanne?’

‘No Moma.’

‘Well, when I was eight, I had a little pig called Squealing Jeanne: a runt, with pretty locks and a curly tail. I used to think the world of Jeanne and took her everywhere. I even spun her a woollen hat with slits for ears, to keep her warm on winter days. She followed me wherever I went: sowing, reaping and foraging for wood. Then one Easter Day, I decided to take her to Mass…’

‘Oh no!’

‘Yes! I did! I hid her in my shawl and crept to the altar. But just as the priest offered the Host, Jeanne began to squeal. Well, this frightened the priest so much, that he dropped the Host right into the piglet’s mouth!’

I squirm with glee, snorting into her ribs. Margot chuckles:

‘The priest was so confounded he didn’t know what to do. The Host was in the pig! Well, there was a friar in church that day; and he was very keen to give his verdict on the matter. “I’m a close friend of the bishop,” says he, “and well instructed in the Rule of Mother Church.” Oh that friar was so pompous, waving his hands this way and that. And what he said was this: “The pig must be placed on the altar, as it is now the Host itself. And there it must remain, surrounded with lights, until the wafer is digested.” We all thought he was jesting. But the silly priest did just as the friar instructed, and put Jeanne on the altar, with lighted candles and a stick of incense! We couldn’t believe our eyes: there was my piglet, standing with muddy trotters on copes of golden cloth, all woven with the apostles. She didn’t like it up there one bit, and soon went filthy mad, squealing and kicking the crucifix. The priest grabbed her, but she bit his finger and beshit his froc.’

‘Oh! Moma!’

‘Whereupon the priest said: “That pig should be burnt on the spot!” He was very angry, and well beshitten like the filthy priest he was. The congregation went wild. Squealing Jeanne had made him a laughing stock. Even the friar was grinning.’

‘What happened Moma?’

‘Well, the friar told the priest that to kill Jeanne would offend God, since the Host was still in her. The priest couldn’t argue with that, but you could tell he hated the notion. And what’s more, the friar ordered that when Jeanne died, she must be buried in consecrated ground. Ha! Ha! The priest was so angry, he looked fit to burst; he looked at me, and he looked at Jeanne, and he looked at his beshitten frock, then he stormed off into the vestry, spitting and cursing. So Jeanne was saved and became known as “The Sacrament Sow”. Oh, she was treated with such reverence. Everybody loved her. By and by, little Squealing Jeanne grew to be a fat old hog. Until one night the priest came and stole her away…’

‘He killed her?’

‘Of course… He couldn’t stand the idea of giving a pig last rites – especially when it had caused him so much disgrace. So he ate her instead. When the bishop heard of the matter, he chastised the priest for his great folly. And his son still holds it against me.’

‘That’s a funny tale Moma.’

‘We make a fine pair, don’t we Jacques: first my pig defiles the altar, then your lightening strikes the tower.’

‘Yes Moma.’

‘Shut your eyes now Jacques. My little lord must get his sleep…’

I nestle in her smock and rest my head on her withered paps. She strokes my hair and sings of frogs and queens; of cauldrons, snails and oxen tails; of Spring and maidens fair:

There went out in the dawning light
The fairest mountain maiden;
Her flock so white, her staff so slight,
With fleecy new wool laden.

Small is the flock, and there you’ll see
The she-ass and the wether;
This goat’s a he, and that’s a she,
The bull-calf and the heifer.

She looked upon the green sward, where
A shepherd lay at leisure:
“What do you there, young sir, so fair?”
“Come, play with me, my treasure!”[i]

Before the taper is spent, I’m fast asleep, swimming with tadpoles in the pond. The moonlit water teems with larval horrors and molluscous beasts. Like a tadpole, I’m changing into something – but I don’t know what…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2020.

i. Old French pastoral, circa 1300.

Image credit: December: A man slaughtering a pig. Miniature from the Book of Hours of Simon de Varie (folio 099r – KB 74 G37a). Wikimedia Commons.