Jacques is telling it

As I wake, His name is on my lips:


The bed is damp; water drips from a hole in the thatch and splatters my brow. A crow perches on the rafters and peers into my new formed soul.

‘Hello Jacques.’

‘How do you know my name?’

‘I know all about you. I attended your birth.’

‘My birth? You know about my birth?’

‘I do.’

‘Where am I from?’

‘I cannot tell. You must ask your stepmother.’

‘But she never gives a straight answer.’

‘Then tell her what you saw last night. Tell her about the monk with horns like yours.’

‘What’s your name crow?’

‘I have none. But I’m the finest crow in the wood, and you may count me as your friend.’

‘A friend must have a name. I shall call you Ailes de Suie [Soot Wings].’

‘You raised quite a storm last light—with my mother’s quill. I’m hungry and cold. Might I have some food? A crust of bread perhaps, or a tasty snail?’

‘Please help yourself…’

I turn over. Margot is already up, cooking pottage with snails. She squats on a stool, stirring the cauldron with a stick, her shaggy hair steaming in the vapours. She shivers and pulls her shawl round her bony shoulders:

‘I caught a chill last night.’

‘Where were you momma? You came back late.’

She scorns:

‘This place is a mess. What happened?’


‘Badgers? What were you doing letting badgers inside?’

‘The latch is broken. I chased them out with the broom.’

‘Well, clever boy. But you should be more careful in future. Badgers are ferocious and have a poisonous bite… I suppose our home is in the way – in the way of their coming and going.’

She sniffs the air:

‘They’ve scented the hearth. What a stink! I have some lavender for that…’

‘Look momma: there’s a hole in the roof. A crow has come to visit.’

‘That bird has been watching you.’

‘His name is Soot Wings. He wants some pottage.’

‘Since when did you talk to crows?’

‘He spoke to me. He was at my birth.’

Your birth? Do you take me for a fool? Pah! A bird of bad omen. He shall not get a crumb. Now come to the table and eat your breakfast.’

I climb out of bed and shriek as the palette scrapes my shins. Margot rises and clouts me round the ear:

‘Fool! I told you to stay inside! Just look at your legs! Sunburn!

The blistered flesh is caked in mud and blood.

She throws up her arms:

‘What were you thinking of? Terrible! This is serious: it could scar…’

I start to sob. I hate her withered lips and warty nose; I hate her walnut face and wispy hair. She fetches a pail and orders me to strip. Then she washes my wounds in silence. The water turns murky red.

‘You’re filthy. Where have you been?’

‘Guillot took me to reap.’

‘That wicked reeve. He knows you’re sick. And what are all these leaves and feathers in your hair?’

‘I got lost in the woods coming home.’

She stops and falters:

‘The woods? What were you doing there?’

‘I took a short-cut by the gorge.’

Silence. She fetches a jar from the shelf:

‘Marigold, chickweed and chamomile. This will make it better…’

She pops the cork and smears a soothing balm down my legs.

‘It’s lucky you have Margot to mend you. No?’

My heart is fickle. Last night she repulsed me but now I adore her healing hands. I stand there naked, spellbound by her medicine. Then I glance at the corner where her horde lies buried. My foster crone is crafty indeed…

‘Who was my birth mother?’

‘I’ve told you before child: I found you in the well.’

‘Then what of my father?’

‘Who sired you is another mystery.’

‘Blind Pathau said Satan is my sire.’

She chuckles:

‘The devil himself? You should be so lucky.’

‘The blacksmith says I’m a goblin.’

Pah! That drunken dolt? Pay him no heed. No sooner had he clapped eyes on you, than he was telling tales. Besides, goblins live deep under ground and never come out in day. Fool is he who judges man or beast by eye alone. Well look at you now! You’re growing so fast. I love you so much. Here, hold out your arms…’

‘—And do you know what the miller said?’

‘The miller is a miserable old miser. Why listen to him?’

‘But he said—’

‘He should be tied to his own wheel for all his wicked thieving… What’s the matter child? What did he say?’

‘He said, that long ago, an albino monk infested the mill with weevils.’

She glares like an owl.

‘Othon is a liar. He claims the flour is bad to keep it for himself. See?’

‘I’m not stupid momma. If you found me in the well, then someone put me there.’

She dabs some balm on my nose and quips:

‘I think you came down with the rain.’

‘Why won’t you tell me?’

‘Who bore you is of no consequence. You have life and that’s what matters. Let the past alone and look to the future.’

I catch my horned reflection lurching in the bloody pail:

‘The future has no face.’

‘You will find your place in the world. Have no fear. I have great plans for you. Everything is coming together. Just you wait and see…’

The crow caws thrice and my heart turns cold.

‘Momma, Soot Wings just told a secret.’

‘What child?’

‘–That you were in the gorge last night, whipping a pink-eyed dog.’

She gasps, dropping the jar, and falling to her knees:

‘Oh, Jacques! My poor child, what did you see?’


She flings her arms about my waist and sobs into my chest. When she looks up, her eyes are brimming with tears:

Jacques! Jacques! My precious boy! You don’t understand!

‘Then tell me momma.’

‘Oh! It’s all so wretched! Wretched! I can’t!’

‘You must. Who was that monk? I saw him momma. I saw him. He had horns like mine.’

‘It’s too terrible. I cannot burden you with it!’

‘If you don’t tell me, I will run away, I swear, and leave you all alone.’

Oh! Don’t say that! I have no one else but you. I have always loved you as my own!’

‘But I’m not yours, am I?’

She looks wounded, like a bird with broken wings. Distraught, she clutches my shoulders and weeps:

‘My precious Jacques! I would never have any joy in this miserable world if not for you. I shall love you ’till my last breath.’

‘Then tell me who I am!’

‘But my child, there’s so much to tell, I don’t know where to begin.’

‘Who was that monk? My brother?’

She glances at the cupboard as if a ghost lurks there:

‘I don’t want to upset you.’

Tell me the truth.

She dabs her eyes with trembling fingers, mewling and sniffing. Then she rises and wraps me in her shawl:

‘Very well child. The truth is what you want, the truth is what you’ll get. Come, let me tell of your mysterious line…’

Taking my hand, she hobbles to her stool and puts me on her knee:

‘It all started long, long ago…’

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1998.