Read The Book of the Maidservant Online

Authors: Rebecca Barnhouse

The Book of the Maidservant

For Sid

m
y mistress says you mustn’t stare into the fire lest the devil look out at you from the flames. “He’ll see into your soul,” she says.

My mistress says a great many things about the devil.

But before cockcrow, when my mistress is still abed and I’m sitting on my heels coaxing the embers into life with my breath, I stare into the fire with no fear of the devil. The devil, I think, wakes up when my mistress does.

Before then, the house is quiet and my face is warm with the fire I’m making. I stare into the coals and the new little flames licking blue and yellow around the kindling, and I don’t see the devil or the mouth of hell. I see summer and yellow sun, and in the smooth flames curling around the wood, I see clear water flowing through rushes the way it did in the stream when I was a little girl.

I’ve just long enough for a memory of splashing in the stream with my big sister, Rose, before the rafters tremble with the sound of my mistress stirring above.

Cook limps heavily into the kitchen and casts a baleful
eye at the upstairs room. “There’ll be weeping today, you mark me,” she says, and busies herself with the pots.

It’s a big house, this, for my mistress’s father was five times Lord Mayor of Lynn and an alderman of the Holy Trinity Guildhall, too. The mistress doesn’t let it be forgotten, not by the servants nor by the goodwives of the town, for all that she’s a religious woman.

“She’ll be wanting you,” Cook says.

I lean forward to give the fire one last breath, although it doesn’t need it. For one more instant, it’s summer and I’m with Rose and the sun is warming my face.

Then I rock back on my heels and stand, letting the cold air settle around me. I heave the bucket of water I’ve brought in and start up the stairs.

I’m halfway up when the weeping begins.

“Ah, sweet Jesu,” my mistress calls out, and then she is crying in earnest, great heaving sobs. “My sweet Lord,” she cries.

I hover on the stairs. Up or down?

“Johanna!” My mistress shrieks my name from her room and up I scurry. I’ve been here long enough to know the consequences if I don’t.

I open her door with my foot, swinging the heaving bucket into the room. She’s sitting on her bed, her face in her hands, the tears coming fast. The water from my bucket goes into the hand basin with only a river or so spilled out, and then her foul-smelling night bucket is in my hands and I’m on the stairs again.

“Come back, you stupid girl.”

I stop. Even when she’s full of the passion that Our
Lady Mary suffered for her poor son, my mistress notices things. You’d think she’d be blinded by her tears.

“The fire, Johanna.”

I set the buckets down and creep into the room again. I had thought to come back for the fire later, when I brush her hair and pin up her headdress—after the weeping has abated. But my mistress likes to be warm and toasty while she shares Our Lady’s pain.

The bellows crouch beside the fireplace. I mend the coals with the tongs, then blow them into flames with the bellows. Already, while my mistress was sleeping, I’ve brought up the coal. Also, I’ve scoured the bottles and pots left from yesterday. And brought in the water for Cook and for me, lots of water, fetched from the Common Ditch, a long walk through the ooze and muck of the streets in the chill damp of the morning.

My mistress feels such compassion for Our Lord, she cries and cries at the thought of him on his rood. You’d think she could spare some compassion for me. Almost June and still the mornings are cold as midwinter.

She interrupts her weeping to say, “Don’t dally before the fire, you wicked girl. The devil creeps into the souls of those who dally.”

She should know.

I escape down the stairs to haul the iron pots of water to the fire for washing. Linens today.

When I lived by the river, off in the Fens, after my mother died giving birth to a baby who didn’t live to see the sunrise, my sister Rose did the washing. Back then, I really did dally, kicking my heels in the stream, weaving
sedges together to make birdcages, trying to catch silvery minnows with my bare hands, fashioning pipes of reeds. I thought I was working, but Rose was doing it all. Now that she’s married to a farmer, she knows even more about work.

Dame Margery thinks she’s overburdened, what with the Lord’s suffering on her shoulders, but she knows nothing of burdens. Cook and I and poor little Cicilly know about burdens. Cicilly has a cough, so Cook and I have conspired to let her sleep longer. Just so she’s visible by the time the mistress sweeps downstairs.

Since our household broke up at Michaelmas—Rose going off with her farmer, my father going to harvest the bishop’s fields, and me going into service for Dame Margery here in town—Cook has been all the family I have. Cook and Cicilly. Piers, who does the men’s labor, treats me too ill to be family. He grabs my braids and sometimes my skirts in a way I don’t like at all. Besides, he smells.

But Cook can laugh. She’s a sly one, Cook is, when her joints aren’t making her limp and groan.

“Come, Johanna,” she says. “Here’s her morning meal to be taken up. Enough for her and whatever saint is visiting today.”

It’s when I’m up the stairs, handing her the trencher, that my mistress changes my life again, for the second time in a year.

“God has told me to go on pilgrimage to Rome,” Dame Margery says. “I’ll need a maidservant. Cicilly’s too young; Cook is too old. You’ll go with me, Johanna.”

My mouth drops open. A pilgrimage to Rome? With my mistress?

“The Lord doesn’t hold with idleness. Get on about your duties,” she says, her mouth full of bread.

I tear down the stairs as fast as I can.

w
arm weather finally comes, and I can go out without fear of frostbite. Cook says I never did need fear frostbite, but she was warm in her kitchen while I was elbowing my way through the Saturday market, my stomach leaping with fear and excitement every time I thought about Rome.

Today I scuttle past St. Margaret’s, where my mistress has gone to speak to the parson about our pilgrimage. I glance over my shoulder, but she’s inside, so she doesn’t see me.

Over the Millfleet and past All Saints, where the holy man prays in his anchorhold. I’m off to the marshes to gather rushes, which always makes me think of Rose and of our packed dirt floor at home that she kept so clean with her broom. The door was always open in the summer, and chickens wandered in and out, into the cool shade of the cottage and back out into the summer sun. There may have been only one room, and the fire smoked something dreadful, and the roof leaked every time it rained, but it was home.

At Dame Margery’s, the wooden floors all have rushes on them, because she is rich and lives in a big house in town—so big that it has four different rooms, a staircase, and even a chimney for the smoke. It’s my task to gather the old, moldy, soggy rushes with their mice and bugs and bits of meat and slimy vegetables clinging to them and throw them in the street before laying down fresh rushes.

But gathering rushes I like because I get to be alone, barefoot, under the wide sky with my thoughts of Rose and of home. And besides, there’s nobody to watch me when I stop to let the minnows nibble my toes. The sharp rushes slice into my wrists, and the edge of my skirt is muddy, but I don’t care. Huge gray clouds sail across an ocean of sky, and the waterbirds stalk and call to their mates. A snail, his home packed tight into his shell, sways sideways as a breeze ripples through the reeds.

Why does the holy man wall himself up inside the anchor hold, praying night and day? Once, I went with my mistress to call on him. They talked in low voices, and then the holy man reached his hand out of his window to place it on my head. I felt a tingle go down my spine. Was it a demon leaving my body? After that, I tried to be good for a long time. I didn’t hide beside the church to see the lepers coming to hear Mass through the lepersquint. And I prayed all during Mass instead of watching the wart on the priest’s chin wiggle as he spoke.

What would it be like to wall yourself up for the rest of your life that way, to serve only God? When I listen to the wind whistling through the marshes, bringing with it the smell of salt and mud, making the reeds bend down to
touch their knees, I know I could never lock myself up in a room that way. Nor could my mistress, for all her holiness.

That makes me think of our pilgrimage and I shiver. We’ll take a ship at Yarmouth, my mistress says.

Every day, ships and fishing boats come up the river to Lynn, and many’s the time I’ve stopped in my errands to watch men unload coal and cod. On Codling Lane, I’ve bargained with tradesmen for stockfish that have swum in seas as far away as Norway, wherever that is. But I don’t want to go to Norway. I don’t want to go to Rome. I don’t want to climb aboard any ship at all.

Water runs through my life. I was born by the River Gay, and for thirteen years I lived there, summer and winter. Now I live in Lynn by the River Ouse, which empties into the sea. The Millfleet and the Purfleet run through town, and I crouch in the marshes, mud between my toes, to gather rushes. And I know that people belong beside the water, not upon it.

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