Be a Helper (part two)
Be a Helper
“I’ll card,” said Whimbrel. “Or I’ll sit at the wheel and Gadwall can hand me up.”
“None of you will spin. You spin to excess.”
Jorinda, bless her, almost had relieved Bede of his entourage. The sprites could be drawn off to bunch at each other’s backs over any competing task. Competing a thing they were given to—in eagerness, in productivity.
Finch, not long past, had wished the sheep into absurd hues, that she got from flowers: poppy red, veronica blue, daisy yellow, the magenta of a pink, the purple of an aster. There was a bright grass green, and a turquoise, whose source Bede could not identify. The lambs were coming out the same as the ewes.
“Will you put them back?” Jorinda had asked her. “I like my herbals, my mosses and indigos, and the colors the fleeces come naturally, the blacks and whites.”
One of the sheep had emerged a duck, as a result of Finch’s repairs. The duck-sheep offended with its manners, could not speak the other ducks’ language, failed to swim, and lived now as a pet at Jorinda’s feet.
“But all to the good.” Bunting had said this, in her daughter’s defense. “If they can’t be changed, it means the colors are a boon to someone. We’ll find out, won’t we?”
(Again, the sort of remark to call up much sprite laughter. The idea, Bede and Jorinda had communicated, shaking heads over those of their charges, of an outcome being consequent to one’s actions…)
All these matters of a household, and the people in it, were difficulties for Bede. He would not have a servant. Yet Jorinda had taken over; so that, with his kitchen and larder and the workroom under her command, but also the barn, and the animals, and the smithy and the tinkering shed under her eye, Bede had to ask when he searched for things. Jorinda would ask in turn: “What do you want that for?”
“Oh,” (it might be) “the heel is out in one of my socks.”
“Have another. The sprites have made one hundred and thirty-two scarves, fifty-seven pairs of mittens, twenty-four knit caps, and seventeen pairs of socks. Socks are in scarcity by that reckoning, but you can well afford to take four. Take six.”
If he’d thought of a slice of cheese and a hunk of nut bread to eat it with, Jorinda also knew better than he the spots for plates and implements, and which loaf needed to be finished, was dry and wanted a slather of honey, thus wouldn’t go with the cheese…
But grated, the cheese could be melted over eggs…
Add soup, make an early supper…
With the sprites to help, all done in a trice. Soon they were sitting down; soon it was growing dark; then tea by the fire, and bed.
Jorinda knew the better way, and was brisker about setting a job in motion than Bede. Under Jorinda’s management, he lived provided for, without feeling that he did his share of the work.
“You’ll make a hash of it,” was her answer. “Whatever it is. Go dig your herbs.”
Hill farmers were long lived; once having reached the age of contentment, they carried on, young of face and grey of hair. Jorinda might be forty or a hundred. She had been Bede’s close neighbor, her house on a single hill to the east of his land. His other neighbor was Langham, to the west. North, there was no one…north ran the Fell. South, the river, a road following it opposite, and beyond, royal meadows, so Bede understood. He made use of the river, driving his horse and wagon down and filling barrels. He made use of the mill, which belonged to Langham. On the road he saw caravans and odd companies of soldiers, who under royal orders never strayed a foot onto the verge left or right, or hailed the farmers they saw watching them.
One day Jorinda had chosen to leave her house and live in Bede’s. The house sat empty, the roof out, where by an accident undiscovered, a spark had blazed it up.
“Leave it be,” she said. “I built it myself, but I haven’t got the energy anymore, to do the fixing and keeping.”
And though he could not believe this of her, Bede knew of no use for the structure. Sprites could not be sent to live unsupervised.
His dining hall was a cliffside cave, each rock-frame of its irregular vantage excavated free of earth and loose stone. Melchior had diagramed the spaces inch by inch; dusted, cleaned, and smoothed them, built his sixteen custom shutters, chiseled mortices for the hinges, molded and fitted the fasteners, applied a milk paint saturated with bloodroot. He had woven mallow stalks into hanging mats that tempered the air on warm days—and like the parquet floor, with its edge-tiles fitted to the very contours of the cave, its state of level perfection; and like the vast wool carpet Melchior had made on his loom; and like the chairs and table, the sideboard and cabinets, all constructed of tooth-jointed windfall scraps, and painted yellow, the deep red panels folded against the walls lent harmony and comfort to the whole.
Melchior, at his bent and loping pace, moved many strides ahead of his guests. He moved as quietly as an unshod, twelve-foot being in festive mood might be expected to, and shortly, his guests filed into this achievement of a chamber.
“Your view!” said Jorinda, her chin on the window ledge.
“The air!” said Bede. “When the waterfall is running high. Rejuvenating.”
“Pleasant altogether, yes. Why I have my bedroom this side, as well. And how nice to have friends who enjoy one’s house!”
“Lot of noise from that,” Langham said. “Have the shutters closed and the lamps lit while we eat.”
No one gainsaid this, though Langham was alone in his opinion. In aid of hearing less of it, Jorinda and Bede tugged, but only Melchior, about to leave them in search of his skillet, could shift the shutters’ weight.
“Pay no mind to any clatter you hear. I’ve got all the pots and pans stacked largest to smallest. Takes a fair dismantling of the order of things… Sprites, bring along those baskets of onions and garlic. And Jorinda, the butter.”
Each sprite, in a pack slung across his or her shoulders, had one of Jorinda’s ginger cakes. She had baked as large as she could, half of six their host’s portion, two for guests, and one to send home with Langham. Her pack held its further cake, and three pounds of Bede’s butter.
Bede was alone now with Langham.
“Mist in the air, unhealthy,” Langham opened. “Surprised all this fancywork hasn’t got the rot.”
Clattering intervened, before Bede had thought of a way to slip disagreement past Langham’s suspicious ear. Jorinda’s voice came, chiding Whimbrel, “Help when you’re asked to help, remember. And with your hands and feet and mind, not your magic.”
Bede said: “I’ve got some lovely scarves, mittens, a nice shawl…your wife might like…”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Langham said. Like many who don’t want a thing they are being shown, he took up a scarf and felt it over, with farm-stained fingertips. “What sort of colors are those?”
“Oh…colors. But about that manure straw.”
“Can’t spare it, but I’ll let you rake out two of the stalls. No more.”
“Well, then, when shall I be over?”
“When it suits you,” Langham said, with a certain unwarranted haughtiness.
Melchior having made his fire hot, the turnip’s innards, and the onions, began to caramelize in his courtyard below with a tantalizing smell. Plate-sized slabs of bread and cheese were arriving by a relay of sprites, who skipped for joy and chattered (one accident: Scoter, feet tangling for these antics, and uttering: “Oh, plate, be safe!” had conjured a mysterious locked coffer). The vat of mulled sunflower wine was already warming at the dining hall hearth.
Langham climbed Melchior’s stepladder to dip himself a third generous cup. Bede sipped his first broodily.
“Do they get their work done all right? Planting time be here soon.”
“Do you mean…the sprites? Is that what you call a fair exchange?”
“Or not,” Langham said. “I’ve got use for my manure straw.”
Dinner came in full, and Langham, filling up on turnip, pea soup, bread, cheese, wine, and cake, plied knife and spoon in silence. Bede too was silent, thinking Langham deserved the sprites unfettered, and might just get them.
Be a Helper
Be a Helper (conclusion)
(2021, Stephanie Foster)