Sunday, September 28, 2008

The last flight of St. Caderine the Healer

The cathedral bells started chiming that very evening.

The people of Laysham, who had barely got their tongues unstuck after the New Wife had stepped through the castle gate with a flummoxed knight of the oak in her wake, could not stop wagging them now.

It was five and twenty years in the past, and I still echoed their questions, peppering Gemma as she was sitting by the fire. Was the king mad? Was he spellbound? Had he bought his beauty from a livereater witch, who now had come to collect?

- Never mind the witchcraft, Gemma used to huff, being of a practical disposition. – And never mind the sorrowleave. How did that ditherdolt expect us to put on a royal wedding overnight?

But she had loved her ‘ditherdolt’, as did the rest of the townspeople, and they would not dream of refusing the requests of king Corian’s blood. So they got busy, steeping tenderberries, sweeping floors, shining silver and topping off lantern oil.

There were no flowers to be gathered, so they put ribbons on redbranches and put those on the cathedral steps instead. There was no sweetdrip to be baked into the wedding cake, so they laced the batter with honey. There were no knights of the willow, nor of the dwarrow birch, nor of the rowan to invite, and so they scrubbed their faces and cut their hair and hung their best clothes out to air in the numbing spring winds.

When the bells began their last, frantic call, the Layshamer were as ready as they could be. They milled up the steep hill to the cathedral, which loomed above the gorge as ever, turning the dull, grey morning light into the gleam of St. Caderine the Healer.

I was a child when Gemma told me these stories, a mere apple picker with no other worries than stingworms and sap rot. And to my taste, this was where the tale got interesting. I flung out another flurry of questions. Where was Gemma standing? What was she doing? Did she hear it crack? Did she try to warn them?

To my frustration, she changed the story with each telling, I suspect to punish me for my impatience. Sometimes she stood in the back, close enough to smell the salt on the New Wife’s dress when she glided past. Sometimes she was in the rows with my mother in her lap, craning her neck to see if the King was shaking with witchery, or if the New Wife would reveal her inky teeth, or if little princess Edela wore her golden curls loose.

Sometimes, and this was my favourite, she was in the front row of the altar gallery, leaning forward, gripping the banister, silently begging of the inverted stone eyes that for a slip of a moment stared into hers, to grant her wish: stop, stay, please break away!

If she was there, she would have given a groan, as did everyone in the galleries. For they could see what the wedding party could not: the flight of St. Caderine the Healer.

I know you have never seen the eyes of St. Caderine, nor have I, of course. But Gemma says that they had watched silently for a thousand years and more. From her lofty step under the pointed cathedral ceiling, under the milky glow of the ice window, our saint had watched the Narrow people wash her steps and leave her thorns and sick babes. She had seen them leave. She had watched king Corian limp through her arched doors, hurt and hungry, and with her unflinching eyes, she had healed him. She had seen him stay.

All this she had witnessed patiently with her marble fingers locked around her praying staff. She was a mother to whom one could turn for solace. She was a healer to beg for miracles. It was unthinkable that she would do anything but gaze down upon the wedding of the king and his New Wife.

And yet she did. As the monks began their wedding song, her cold figure somehow left its perch and dove gracefully down past the bright white walls and silver carvings, like an ash otter slipping into a clear forest pond.

Gemma's wish was not granted. She always said she could not watch. But because she did not think to cover her ears, she heard St. Caderine strike.

It was a blow that struck thrice.

It struck the New Wife, who never had the chance to touch her dark lips to her groom’s mouth. Instead, she had her kiss from a saint, who took her life in the embrace, spilling every drop of blood the northerner kept inside her stained skin.

It struck the king, who had to be carried into his chambers, and lay there whimpering for three nights before he gave his last breath to sadness.

And it struck princess Edela, who was found amid the chaos and rubble, pinned down by the only whole piece of St. Caderine’s statue, her praying staff. The young girl’s hips were crushed and her womb marred beyond the help of any healer, save one. But that Healer was no more.

Gemma always thought it was the price our saint exacted for letting a livereater into her home, and we still pay it. We pay every time the herring barons come strutting up the fjord roads to flaunt their piety and smelly money. We pay every day the queen stays shut up in her chambers, stitching the face of her beloved saint onto tapestries and pillows, hoping for a miracle, while her greedy suitors roam the castle.

- Yes, my dear, Gemma finished, and here she never strayed. - We pay dearly and with salt to spare. For as sure as if by marriage, the last of Corian’s blood belongs to St. Caderine the Crusher.

(This Sunday Scribbling is another scene from one of my stories. It takes place after The Invitation.)


Li:ne said...

I remember you telling me this story. A few years ago no, I think. We were sitting at our favourite table in our tiny, favourite café, drinking sweet coffee and smelling carrot cake just coming out of the oven. I want to do it again.

tone almhjell said...

Me too, sweets, me too!