Please refer to the full-length illustrated verionavailaable at <https://issuu.com/douglasbullis/docs/book_of_days_300_dpi_261_mb>
September’s quick storms wither into the first week of October. Then come the thick morning fogs and bright afternoons of Saint Martin’s Summer. In the five weeks between autumn’s first storm-broken twigs and the somber jaggedness of All Saints’ Day, the harvest is embraced.
The time of the wheat and apples now long done, this is the time for the gifts of the earth not tended by a hand. They are gathered from the wildnesses that surrounded every hamlet and field. First the walnuts scattered on the ground in their decaying husks — nutmeats for feasts and dyestuff from the husks to darken winter’s clothes. Wives drape broken branches across doorways to keep out flies. Children groan at the order to gather acorns, tedious work but food for the winter sows to keep their flesh pink. And to make sweet pies with acorn-flour crust filled with honey, cream, and wild berries.
Lords’ falconers haunt the field edges and bogs, unhooding their birds and shooing them with yelps to flush pheasants, quail, partridge, ducks. Eel hunters poise along the swamp rims, cocking their spears and gripping tightly to the woven hemp twines that will retrieve the writhing, agonized creatures. Mushrooms poke out of the wet leaves and damp stumps. In the forests sudden yells and furious barking announce that hunters are lunging pikes at a cornered boar, squealing and pawing with rage. Dogs lay whimpering in the blood of their tusk-torn bowels until their owners come to them, pat them and talk to them in low voices, then end them with a swift pierce.
The pale green leaves of stream-side poplars crinkle to yellow as next spring’s young buds push from beneath until the leaves snap free into the wind. Though the sun glitters brightly on top of the water, beneath it is murky and dull as the summer’s end drifts toward the sea. A leaf is caught, spun, dragged into an eddy to vanish forever. Twrrts come from the stream-edge birds, zzdzs from the crickets. Wrens flit through the blackberry briars, cleaning the last ants from the thorns.
October’s wing shapes reveal the forms of their flight, from the tireless taut bulk of the upthrusting young duck to the rapier-bent tension of the land gull’s long glide. The soil, released at last from the management of the plough, crumbles into furrows filled with fallen seeds. Insect clouds, much diminished by the rains, tremble in the coppery sun of late day. Everywhere there are autumn smells — wet moss, pine, mud, stagnant water, souring manure, burning weeds, wild garlic, dill.
Then the mood of the weather changes, robbing the afternoon to pay for the morning, twisting the cold’s grip deeper into the soil. As the summer was of flesh, October is of bone. Men gather in fire-lighted caves,
elbow to elbow, breath steaming despite the roaring fire, as they taste the harvest’s new wine, sniffing through its mustiness, then quaffing it deeply from carved wooden mugs. The smell of the candles as they are snuffed out. The ache of the fall.
Slaughter. Swift, grim knifework, spilling the year’s blood as animals bellow and flare their eyes and struggle against the ropes binding their hooves.
Quick knives, sure knives, splitting the bellies and scraping the hides and cutting hazelwood spits to skewer the meats. The hides are compressed into thick, nauseating bundles, to be taken to the tannery.
Then comes the division. The village smith is given the head of the largest cow and pig. After his wife has boiled them down to the last sinew for soup, he will nail the skulls up alongside his dozens of others, an advertisement for his trade and how many seasons he has been there.
Women mince the sweetbreads and delicacies into sprouty, a hot pie seasoned with vegetable sprouts, nuts, and sorb berries. The sheep will be spared, for they have fat and thick fleece to keep them alive through the snowy months until the first crocus-spring in February.
Then comes a humble silence as the local seigneur arrives to claim his Lord’s Haunch, the best piece of meat from each man’s cows and pigs, and his dîme, a tenth of the chestnuts and smoked sausages, eels, leeks. The men fill his barrels with new wine as he sips a cup with them before going off on his horse.
Next comes the curé with his two black kettles, one of them nine times the size of the other. When both are filled, the curé takes the smaller for himself and marks on his tally whose tithe is done. After his gleanings have been loaded onto a mule, the women present him with sausages of boiled chicken mortared into a paste with fresh cress, then stuffed into scraped gut. One of the women gives him a basket of hard-boiled goose eggs for the traditional prelate’s breakfast after the midnight Nativity mass in December.
With the division done, the duties are done. Backs are slapped, old women get kissed, children freed from their chores for the day. Everyone becomes giddy as they think ahead to the Nativity feast. Hence the bitterest task of the year, meat salting, passes swiftly amid the catch-tags of songs. The frost is an agony, but they have to work with bare fingers as they slice the meat thin and rub salt into its fibers. They warm themselves often with deep gulps of wine from half-warm barrels stacked next to the fires.
Rib beef is sliced into slivers and dried in the cold night air. Tripes and soft parts are half-cooked by boiling, then mixed with fat and blood to be stuffed into sheep-gut andouilles they will boil every morning through the rest of the winter. Bacons and hams are salted and trussed up in sacks, then punctured with tiny slits and soaked in barrels of brine before smoking. Plumes of smoke from hardwood fires streak the horizon as smoke-houses finish the last task of the year.
Then comes the tally. One harvest in six is a total ruin, two or more yield less than they might, two others will be so-so, and then there will be one, just one, with an ending like this.
When January’s cold comes, it clenches like a snake around a rat.
Gonbault Lefief ventures out into the mist to set a snare for a crow. In the distance he glimpses a figure walking toward him through Noyers, the walnut-gathering grove. His eyes growing weak at the age of thirty-nine, Gonbault does not recognize the figure as his son, Josseret.
And Josseret does not recognize him. Barely twenty-three, he trudges with a limp, one foot severed of its toes by the scimitar of an Ayyubid Mussulman. His eyes, too, are weak, although he can see well enough to recognize the shapes of the old buildings, the trees he climbed as a child, the pasture now barren after the slaughter.
The backs of both of his hands and his cheeks are disfigured after a flood of seething oil leaked its way through the seams of the leather tent covering a siege tower he and twenty other men were scaling in an attempt to assault a parapet at Arsuf.
Josseret was lucky. He had time enough to shield his eyes with his hands. The hot fumes merely weakened his sight and burnt him. Others were blinded, or suffocated when they inhaled the burning liquid. Of the twenty-odd youth between fifteen and twenty who began the Crusade from the church in the centre of this very hamlet, only Josseret has returned, in a body so exhausted it will carry him but scarce another year.
But the stories he will tell! Of steel so honed it can cut a falling cloth by the cloth’s mere weight alone! Of immense domed roofs held up by the merest whisper of windowed walls! Of plates so lustrous and thin one can see the shadow of the hand holding it from behind. Of hayforks made so tiny they can fit between the fingers and move even the smallest morsel of meat to the mouth. Of lapis, of onyx, of ruby. Painted jars more splendid than jewels. Of spices that turn the muddy stink of raw meat into odors of flowers s
21o delicate they must surely be the food of angels. Of sallow men who have no lust for women (O how Béríc the village priest will despise the guffaws that story will bring!). Of things with names Josseret will never forget — orange, lemon, sugar, syrup, sherbet, julep, elixir, jar, mattress, sofa, muslin, satin, fustian, bazaar, caravan, alembic, almanac, tariff, traffic, sloop, barge, cable, guitar, lute, tambourine, zenith.
And the words he heard from a brothel woman as she disrobed for him:
From the moment you were brought into the world
A ladder was before you that you might escape.
First you were but a clod
Later a seed,
Then you became animal,
Now a man.
When you depart this realm,
leave aside your Son of God,
for he is but a son.
Instead be one of God,
For God alone is Great.
Gonbault, his son still a village and a field away, is intent on the crow he has just snared. He strangles the frantic bird with his bare hands, then hangs it on a cord to rot from the limb of a tree in the middle of his garden, the first scarecrow for nex