Be a Helper (conclusion)
Be a Helper
He calmed himself over ginger cake. There was Mrs. Langham to consider, whose husband thought her not worth bringing along, nor asking what she thought herself about the woolens. And if the sprites wreaked havoc with the crops…
You couldn’t call it sense, punishing someone in a way to make him dependent on your charity. Not unless you were truly heartless and wouldn’t give it.
“And what now,” Langham said, on his feet and squinting after his hat, “about that proclamation?”
Bede traded a look with Jorinda. “Whose proclamation?” she asked. “Do you mean one of the Queen’s?”
“What would I mean else? It’s the times we live in. Me, I don’t care for the asking of it. Maybe you and Mr. Dwale have the easier job…having more help in the house.”
“Langham, neither of us knows what you’re talking about.”
“Yours has gone astray.” This, in a definite way, from Melchior. “They leave me off the circuit, because I never answer the census. I never answer the census because, being I’m the only giant for miles around, if I were listed, they’d come calling on me for all of it. The heavy lifting, the uproo… Hem! And the shouting down the valley, all that sort of thing. But as I say, I spied the little fellow riding on his swan. I take it elves call that tradition, and refuse to hear a word against it. Foul-demeanored fowl, swans.” Melchior paused to chuckle. The sprites chuckled. Melchior went on: “While, you would think the Queen with all her magic could miniaturize a horse, a nice reliable saddle horse…”
Bede cleared his throat sharply. Langham’s shuffling boots hadn’t done the job (though Langham shuffled in an agony of spent sociability); and the sprites, Finch in particular, who had clutched her mother’s arm, were showing a dangerous twitch about the ears.
“Well, he stopped, anyway, this elf, at one house and another. Now I think of it, he looked to be making for yours… You’re sure your copy has gone astray?”
“Pay no mind,” Bede said, “to my ramblings. I ought not to have mentioned it. What is the content of this proclamation?”
“All us on the border of the Fell, supposed to set up a guard and keep watch,” Langham said.
“Set up a guard!”
“Keep watch…what on earth would they have us watching for?”
Gadwall sidled to tug at Langham’s sleeve; Jorinda, spotting this in time, drew him back by the collar. “We help when we’re asked to, and with…?”
The whispered prompt won a sigh. “Hands, feet, and…and good ideas we think of?”
“One of you,” said Bede.
“No one likes a proclamation. I thought you and Jorinda would be happier…if it wasn’t.”
Whimbrel spoke, and Finch filled in. “He made it a muffin recipe.”
“And why don’t we have any muffins?”
“Because, ma’am,” Whimbrel answered Jorinda. “I don’t know what a currant is.”
“For all intents and purposes, a raisin,” said Melchior. “But you could substitute bilberries.”
Langham had his coat off, and was elbow deep in the lining. His hand came out gripping a sheet of parchment. He was keeping himself at the ready, Bede realized, to argue his case point by point, should authority find his watchwork under par.
“Wipe your fingers off.”
Using Langham’s scarf, Bede complied. He scanned the order, not at all caring for it, no more than his neighbor.
“Strangers? Odd people? What is to make them odd?”
Jorinda, not wiping, took her turn at reading. “They never mean to put us at fault if someone crosses! And did you see…they’ll have us hold prisoners!”
“Your house could do for a jail.”
“That it never will, Langham,” Bede murmured. “But the minister says, this is an alert. An alert is not yet a warning. Do I remember right?”
“Bah!” said Jorinda, with a flash of hands.
It might have been midnight. Bede’s mind had carried him over what he felt was the evil of the proposal…which was not a proposal, but a directive. And, credit her, the Queen was not evil. She was a dodderer, her daughter grown long in years at her side; both restless and inquisitive, as elves did not really age…
But they did dodder. They grew hosts of cranks, pets, finicking habits, particular preferences, uncompromisable insistences, added to an encroaching deafness and shortsightedness which came of exercising the ears and eyes less often. Langham was a sweet-natured font of reason compared to any venerable elf.
Bede’s unsleeping brain digressed; that drowsing time when thoughts lose themselves was far tonight, and likely would not come. The Queen was not his enemy. Her ministers, their handpicked friends, and the interests of those friends, and the tight, ignorant circle they all maintained, feeding one another with these notions of…
Of uncompensated labors, of expropriations. He slipped from the covers. The tower was the place to sit and gaze, in moonlit gloom, at his hills. He climbed the stairs, tiptoed through Bunting and Finch’s province, paused to frown at the elfin accommodations, finally scaled the ladder.
Doing all these things, he thought of failure. Because I will not obey, because I won’t be judge and jury and jailor, because I pity too much the poor souls who have not, after all, gone to the Fell for its charms and delights…
And when I fail, I’ll have soldiers quartered on me. That will be the trial phase before they seize my land, lock, stock, and barrel. At the first magic accident, the sprites will be dispatched, refugees again themselves…
Langham will be no more my friend, for a common loathing, than he is now. Melchior will leave, rather than have the army setting him to tasks.
All this brought Bede to the one he wanted least to think about. Jorinda had chosen his house; they had fallen into a rhythm side by side (or, properly, in their separate spheres, but united of purpose). When you were well in accord with a sympathetic heart, you didn’t have those talks. It didn’t seem to ask spelling out—if I draw the line where you would. If all that I refuse is all that you would refuse; if all that I would die for…
But, of himself, he could not fill this blank. What does anyone die for? The hour, Bede concluded, having not come for that test, he had no means of knowing. Did Jorinda, wiser, know what she would die for?
She would not, far short of the cliff’s edge, keep house for the army. She would leave Bede to his fate. His fate would be dismal, a tinpot officer’s fetch and carry servant, without a friend in the world.
Silent now, the inside of his head drained of clamor, Bede studied this pale land, named his six hills to himself, his eyes traversing fences and cultivated patches. These he also greeted and named.
Jorinda’s ruin sat atop its own hill.
But no ruin, only the roof and windows out…still a house. A beckoning little house, reparable. It occurred to Bede that he was seeing movement. A low light, masked from shining a beam, but casting a glowworm’s dot on the earth, bounced there, just exiting the cellar steps. The steps, and the figure carrying the lantern, were not visible, but an up, up, up, was…and now a swing, stop, swing, stop, that echoed a cautious tread. From this side of Jorinda’s house, shadowed against the moon as the sun, the figure emerged into outline. His dark form was joined by another.
Bede, having just lapsed to a cathartic repose, just recovered from blank-mindedness to pragmatism: None of that will happen. It is a tempest in a teapot; it will pass…
Conscious now, in telling himself not to tell himself things, he descended to the ground floor, and put on his boots, his jacket and cap. He unhooked a walking stick…
It was fair to make use of one…so not altogether a weapon…
He snapped his fingers at one dog, shushed and quietened the other with a stern gesture at the kitchen door. The creature whimpered, but with apology, and lay down to her duty.
And Bede, allowing at last that he was up against it, set off in the moonlight to learn of new things.
Be a Helper
(2021, Stephanie Foster)