Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Allison Weatherbee was dusting shelves inside the mansion at the corner of Main Street and Galbraith in Cloverdale when her employer wobbled into the room using a cane. “What a strange little box,” Allison exclaimed. “I’ve often noticed it while I’ve been cleaning. Can you tell me anything about it?”
“All things have stories,” Melania said. “Perhaps the time is right to tell you a small one of so many.” She settled into a comfortable chair and after a moment began to speak. Her young apprentice continued working. Melania’s voice was soothing and Allison felt like she was falling into a trance.
The Kingdom of Wessex, Islands of Britannia, AD 575.
Eight-year-old Adara Griffiths crawled with great care through the tall grass that lined a tree-shaded pond near the village of Dale. Even a stray breath will startle the wary. A small yellow bird, most likely a Finch, warbled on a low branch of an old oak tree near the water. A warning call to others? She prayed for it to be not. A crate filled with a dozen birds and a talent for haggling could yield two or more chinkers from the trader that visited the small village each season just after moon’s first wane. Was it wicked to capture that which was free in the sky and imprison it for life? She hoped not. There was great need at home since her father’s death and Adara desired that the precious Roman coins should fall into her own ragged purse.
A low rumbling came from the dark clouds overhead. Although having no wish to be rained upon, Adara welcomed the thunder. The sound helped to mask her approach. She was close. Fine feathers ruffled on the bird’s neck as the creature turned its head. Holding her breath, she focused on the place her fingers need to be gripping in the next instant - around the wings just above the tiny legs.
Now! The exact moment her hands flew outward, a jagged bolt of lightning lashed from the sky. With an axe-fall crack of doom and a sun crashing to Earth, it split the ancient oak asunder.
Adara sprawled on her back in the grass while hives of angry bees swarmed through her head and shook her arms and legs. The brilliant blue/white sky faded once again to dark azure gloom. How long she lay indisposed was unknown. When she staggered to her feet and gazed on the shimmering pond turned mirror by the darkened sky, she saw the yellow bird floating on the water. She lifted it from the pond with great care and regret. Beauty is gone with life and there would be no joy on this day.
The tiny feathered body was ice in her fingers as her hands heated. Excess warmth flowed from her hands into the lifeless form. First there was a jerk and then a beating heart. In an instant the bird was wiggling in her fingers.
A mystified Adara placed the fluttering yellow bird into the cage she had brought with her and secured the tiny door with a piece of string. She stared for a moment into the green mirror that had been the pond … shaking her head to dislodge a dream that wasn’t. Emerald eyes, too large for the fuchsia curls and rosy cheeks that enclosed them, stared back from the mossy water. Was this the work of Jesus lord or some sleeping pagan spirit? As her blind mother often said given enough time … all would tell.
She started back toward Dale, first with a joyful skip and then concealing a breathless memory …
The crowded hamlet of Dale sprang to life in the misty morning. Mrs. Bean flung a pan of water from an upstairs window into the soggy yard and called “Gardyloo!” And her neighbor’s answered “Good day to you too.”
A coop of hens followed a rooster down a ramp. There were night bugs to snip, puddles to wade and a snapping yellow dog to outrun.
Hobbling Charles turned as he smashed wood for a fire, careful to balance the heavy mall with his twisted leg. “Where is your coat and hat, Miss?”
“Don’t need them if you can dodge and dance with the drops,” Adara told him.
Three pigs had broken their pen and were rolling in the only deep mud they could find. You could hear an angry swine keeper’s wife scold her husband as she roused him from sleep. “No mush for you until those beasts are sorted!”
Spencer Dun was leading several cows with one hand. “Help me with the milking and I’ll give you a cup,” he promised.
“I’ll be there before you have them in the barn!” Adara smiled.
Adaline was climbing from a straw mattress when her daughter opened the door. Adara saw the yellow crust in her mother’s eyes as the woman’s splayed arms searched for a garment. “Was that thunder … is it wet out?”
“Only a spittle,” Adara told her. “I don’t mind. Spencer has promised milk for my aid. I’ll be back to make your porridge.” She opened wooden shutters and slipped the new bird into a cage with six others hanging from a leafy limb. “Don’t worry little one! You’re with friends and I’ll return with seeds and perhaps a little grain.”
“Another Finch?” Adaline said as she pulled the smock over her shoulders. Her eyes stared at a point beyond her daughter’s shoulder. “Sorry they’re not hens. We could use the eggs.”
“The trader doesn’t want chickens for his marvelous little chest,” Adara told her. “He wants yellow singing Finches to please his lady on the hill.
“But these birds don’t sing!”
“They will after I teach them,” Adara laughed as she skipped out the door. “After all, it was their patient mothers that schooled me … la la la … la la!”
Spencer Dun was having trouble locking a large wooden collar over one cow’s head when Adara dashed into the dark barn. His right hand was wrapped in cloth. “Are you injured?”
“More blood than pain,” Spencer said with a grimace as he attached the yoke.
Two cows stood in stalls munching dried grass. Adara soaked a rag in a bucket of warm water and cleaned the teats.
Spencer unwrapped the cloth from his hand before he picked up a milk pail. “Snagged it on a bent nail in the fence post,” he said. “I hope it was only rust … and not witched!”
“I don’t see soap bubbles pouring from your mouth,” Adara giggled. “Perhaps you escaped the dog’s bath!”
She finished and walked over as he positioned his stool. “Does it need sewed?”
“Tell me no,” he said as he extended his arm and looked the other way. “I’ve too much work ahead to become a tapestry!”
Adara felt the strange warmth once again flowing down her arms as she examined him. She was careful not to make the injury worse. Her fingers were as hot as sausages spooned from a pan. Like a reflection on rippling water the gash in his flesh stopped bleeding and then was made new.
“What have you done?” Spencer stared at his palm looking for the vanished wound. His astonished eyes flashed both relief … and some unknown fear. “What have you done?”
Adara was as confused as Spencer when, after a quick stop behind the millstone, she walked home with a small jar of fresh milk under her arm. Her mother was thrilled at her daughter’s industry and thought the cream would make the morning’s porridge even more delightful.
After breakfast, Adara decided to give the birds their first music lesson. She whistled two notes one low and one high and then dropped a tiny speck of ground wheat into the cage. One of the birds swallowed it in an instant. She waited a little longer this time and then repeated the notes … two birds turned their heads sideways at the sound. This time she dropped two grains into the cage. There was a flutter of wings as the Finches consumed what was there and looked for more. “Are you going to stare at that cage all day?” Adeline scolded. Adara wondered how her mother seemed to know exactly what she was doing … even though she couldn’t see.
“Animals are like small children,” Adara said. “They must be trained with love and patience.” Just then a knock came on the door.
Hobbling Charles stood hopeful on the stoop holding his hat in shaking hands; behind him Spencer rubbed his palms and stared at the ground. “Excuse me Miss, but Spencer has told me of your marvelous enchanting abilities. Such a thing would be beyond belief if I hadn’t been with him when he lost battle with the nail.”
“I don’t believe I have any magical power,” Adara told him. “I’m not sure what happened.”
“It’s my leg of course,” Charles blushed. “It’s been twisted since birth and I wondered if you might have a look see.”
Adara felt the same warmth flow from her hands as she examined the malformed leg. Charles’s shouts of joy were enough to set all the caged birds fluttering as he danced out the door.
Later just as she coaxed a first chirp from a Finch before dropping a seed into the cage another rap came on the door. Ruth Small stood hugging her son, Heath. “It’s his poor ears,” she said. “Can’t hear a thing unless you shout right into them!” Adara noticed a large pile of stacked firewood and a can of milk next to the step as she bid her neighbors come inside.
So many people visited the Griffith’s house they were forced to move to the town square because they had no room. The commoners were eager to show their gratitude. Bags of grain, tanned leather and numerous household goods including gold coins stood in piles next to Adara as she worked her magic, even though she never charged anything for her healing powers.
There was one face in the village that wasn’t smiling. Bishop Rent stood in the doorway to his church dressed in elaborate beaded and gilded robes. He scowled as he stared at the commotion going on down the street. He had always been the most important person in the village and now he felt slighted. “That which comes not from God comes from Satan!” he hissed. He gazed at the piles of riches stacked next to the girl and his eyes were filled with murder. “The souls in this village and all their wealth belongs to me,” he grumbled, “and a mere child is about to lead them astray!” Suddenly a wicked smile crossed his face, causing him to look even more reptilian as he drew a sharpened sword that had been hidden under a loose board beneath the pulpit. “But by the grace of the lord … I’m not going to let that happen.”
Word spread of the young girl’s talent and the village of Dale took on a carnival atmosphere. People were dancing in the streets. Merchants from all corners of the realm came to barter their goods including the trader who had the special box that Adara was collecting and training her singing birds for. “I don’t have twelve Finches yet,” Adara told him, “and not all of them can sing.”
“It’s just as well,” the trader hung his head. “A rich man needed the suave inside the box to remove the moat from his blind daughter’s eyes and there was no way I could refuse him.”
Adara was heartbroken and made the trader feel even worse. Suddenly he brightened.
“I don’t believe there was anything special about that glass jar of paste,” he said. “I think it was just animal fat mixed with crushed flower petals and a bit of oil. The real magic is the chest itself. I was told that anything you put into the carved box somehow becomes magical.”
“Really?” For the first time in months Adara had real hope.
“Besides,” the trader said. “With your healing powers I’m sure you could make your mother see again.”
Adara looked at her hands and then smiled. “I do believe I could.”
The trader took the small empty chest from his bag and Adara agreed to trade him the singing birds that she had already collected for it.
It was late when Adara finished healing the visitors and the trader followed her home to collect his birds. “You must be careful,” he warned her. “Many important people covet power and they will not give it to you without a fight.”
“Helping others is a good thing,” Adara said. “Why would anyone not want that to happen?”
“Greed is a disease for which there is no cure,” the trader told her. “It twists men’s minds and turns them into thieves and murderers!”
After the trader left, Adara went to her mother’s bed. “Sit up I want to try something,” she said.
A minute later her mother saw light for the first time in years. They both examined the intricate carving on the box and agreed that it was magical. There was joy in the tiny house and Adara and her mother both slept soundly. They didn’t hear the cries of terror across the countryside as dozens of farm animals were slaughtered.
Adara and her mother were both awakened by shouting coming from the street. When they looked outside they saw a group of soldiers coming from the church. The soldiers kicked open the door and seized Adara. “What are you doing?” her mother cried.
“Your daughter is to be tried as a witch,” they said.
“But my daughter has only done good things with her powers,” Adaline begged them.
“Tell that to the farmers who have lost their stock,” one soldier pointed.
The streets were filled with furious farmers driving carts and wagons into town. The backs of the carts and wagons were filled with dead animals … sheep, goats, pigs and even several horses … all had had their throats cut and had been drained of all blood.”
“This is the work of Lucifer!” Bishop Rent stood on a box in the angry crowd and pointed at Adara as the soldiers dragged her from her house. “Whosoever does not the works of God works evil. By day she heals a few scratches. By night she drains the blood from our livelihood. How long before we ourselves are murdered in our sleep?”
“No,” the young girl pleaded as they led her away but some of the villagers were already throwing stones.
There was no normal church services the next day. Bishop Rent spent hours preaching to the masses. Every foul thing that had happened in the last eight years was blamed on the girl who he claimed was in league with the Devil. Adara was asked by several prominent citizens to tell them where her powers came from. She didn’t know and with tears in her eyes told them so.
She was asked by the Bishop to read a passage from his Latin Bible and was unable to do so. “She reads not because she knows her eyes would burn as pitch!” The Bishop thundered. The people in the crowd began to murmur and several agreed with him … although not all.
He opened his scriptures and read loudly from the book of Exodus. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live! These are not my words but the words of God!”
Bishop Rent fell to his knees and began to pray. A moment later the entire village was silently praying with him.
Hobbling Charles who was now just Charles was the first to stand. He was keenly aware that he now had two good legs. “What shall we do with this girl whom we have known all our lives?” he asked.
“Burn her!” a voice in the back answered.
“Yes, burn her,” Bishop Rent said.
Adara was tied to a post in the village square. Her mother was finally dragged away as the townspeople piled dry branch limbs and sticks around her. “You people have been blinded by the tongue of a serpent,” she screamed. Indeed the people seemed to be in a trance, walking about carrying loads of wood with no mind of their own. All the while Bishop Rent preached from his black book, praising the citizens for obeying God’s will and doing God’s work. As night fell, a mountain of wood surrounded Adara.
Bishop Rent asked her if she was willing to confess to being a witch. The poor girl was so terrified she didn’t know what to say. “I’ve always loved this village and the people in it,” she told them. “If I have harmed anyone … then I am truly sorry!”
“She confesses and begs to be released,” the Bishop shouted as he held up the corpse of a lamb that had been butchered. “Shall we give the Devil quarter in our village?”
“No!” the angry crowd shouted.
“Then may God have mercy on her soul,” The Bishop whispered as two of his guards brought torches and started the wood pile on fire.
The smoke burned her eyes and Adara almost welcomed the flames as they began to burn the wood around her feet. She could see her mother held by two guards at the entrance to her home. Adara was determined not to cry out in pain. It was better for her mother to think that her death had come easy. Within minutes the pain was so great that she had to bite her tongue to keep from shrieking. Her shoes caught fire first and then her dress. Strangely though, as her hands heated, the pain would recede only to start again.
Suddenly the trader was standing before her covering his face from the flames and shouting so that he could be heard. “This entire village is stricken by a kind of blindness,” he yelled. “A blindness brought on by trust and betrayal!” He was backing away; the heat was too much to bear. “Use your power to cure the village,” he screamed.
Adara spread her arms outward, and she was no longer healing herself. She thought about every face in the village, men women and children that she had loved all her life and she willed them to come out of the darkness and into the light. The flames were in her hair now and she had become a human torch. Still she urged the heat to spread from her fingers even as the scorched flesh fell from her face.
The villagers were stunned by the radiating heat. Suddenly it was as if their own eyes had been opened. The guards released Adaline and she ran to help others now frantically trying to put out the fire with buckets of water. It was no use; the fire had gone too far. By the time the flames were extinguished there were only ashes where there once there had been innocent love.
All eyes were now on Bishop Rent. The people were horrified by what the man they had trusted had cohered them into doing. Spencer Dun appeared holding a bloody sword high in the air that he had found hidden in the church. “It appears a wolf has been in our flock and we never knew,” he shouted.
The Bishop fled to the forest but a hundred villagers chased him with hoes, scythes and pitchforks. He was about to board a boat for the shores of the continent when he was caught. They say his blood washed up on the beach for several days.
Adara’s mother was stricken to her bed with grief and it was days before she was able to stumble to the blackened pile of scorched wood in the town square. All that remained of her lovely daughter was a small mound of red ash the color of dried rose petals. She scooped up the ashes careful not to leave any behind and placed them in in the carved box that Adara had wished for for so many months.
After a time the village got a new Bishop who had a pure heart of compassion and gold. After hearing the story of Adara the carved box rested in a place of honor behind his pulpit. For more than eighty years the box became a shrine to innocence and virtue. Flocks of Finches nested in the trees surrounding the church and their constant singing was marveled at by many. After that time the box once again came up missing and as it is with all things it was once again lost for a time …
“There are many stories of the Ombré … and this is just a small one!” Melania’s eyes closed and she appeared to be sleeping.
Allison nodded as she carefully placed the carved box back on the shelf, then she turned her head and wiped a tear from her eye with the dusting cloth.