Short stories

A Woman Skilled in Physic

“I’m tired,” he said to me. “I’m tired and I’m old, and I can sense everything good I’ve done being blown away, like the leaves from the trees once they fall. Have you got a cure for that, cousin?”

“Most leeches would suggest that you be bled,” I told him, though I knew it was no real answer to what he was saying, “to purge you of the bad humours that make you feel this way.”

“Thus they are called leeches, but I came to see my sweet cousin,” he said. There was none of the usual bite to his voice, none of the fox-cunning in his eyes that I was used to, despite his quick riposte. None of the sharpness that let him cut straight to the heart of the fattest friar or slice away the entanglements of the most miserable maiden.

I put my hand on his shoulder. “What’s amiss, Rob? It’s not like you to talk this way.”

He shrugged his shoulder away from my hand. “We were in the town yesterday, John and I and Much as well. It was busy. It was market day. And it was all as usual — children running and playing between the stalls, cattle being sold, fat merchants selling food at high prices to all and sundry, regardless of their means. The goodwives of the town were out in force, sampling the wares from each stall — and sweeping their skirts back lest they touch the poor starving boy sat amidst it all, too weak to move.”

I sat down beside him on the bench. He didn’t look at me again.

“I went to give the lad a coin, but John — John! — held me back. ‘Like as not he’ll squander it,’ he said. And I let him pull me back. I walked away. Once I’d have given the lad every penny in my pouch and laughed to see the money falling through my fingers, but — ”

There was silence between us, for a moment. I lifted the lid of my box of herbs and simples, setting the box in my lap to sort through it. My fingers passed across the bundle of dried lavender, the wormwood, the rosemary, but I didn’t really see them. I knew I had no cure for what ailed Robin in that box.

He waited.

At last, I had to look up, and I met his eyes. “I don’t think anyone has a cure for all the world’s ills, Robin,” I said, as gently as I could, for it sickened me too. I’d seen it even among my own order, even among those who rode through Sherwood Forest and knew somewhat of the dangers they’d once have faced there under the greenwood, purses heavy on their belts and pride in their eyes. I’d seen the red-cheeked drunken friar with no care for his flock; the proud prioress of my own order, sending barefoot stable boys scurrying through the frozen muck to save herself even the chance that her fine warm mantle could drag in the snow. The lord counting his money, while the poor shivered outside the back gate waiting for the scraps from his table.

“It’s not the whole world that’s sick,” he said, and there was a feverish light in his eyes now, as though some thought had struck him. “It’s a way of thinking, but that can be changed. People can be shaken out of the easy course and made to do what’s right.”

“Do you think so?” I asked, but I knew the answer: of course they could. Robin had done it himself, first for play and sport and then, drawn into his own growing story, because he saw what was happening. He’d stolen and tricked and led the law a merry dance through all the wood, and at the same time he’d fed the hungry, reunited lovers, pulled down the walls that made people different and banded people together.

And we’d all followed him, and for a while there’d been no hungry child in the marketplace, and no merchant thought himself above anyone else, because as soon as thought Robin was there. And no maiden was ever married against her will, if she had a sweetheart she preferred — or a cloister in Kirklees to retreat to.

I shook my head, shook the thought away. “Aye, perhaps for a while, Robin. But it doesn’t last. Even you — you said yourself that you’re growing old, that…”

“Some stories do last,” he said, softly. “Maybe that’s why Christ had to die. Maybe that’s why Arthur went away and has never yet returned. Maybe that’s how you keep the legend alive. The hero can’t continue and just grow old and die. The story can’t just fade away to nothing.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and said nothing. My cousin reached out and took my hand.

“You owe me somewhat, from of old,” he said, and his eyes were alive, fox-cunning and sharp. I made no movement, no sound, and my hand lay in his cold and still.

For a moment, there was silence between us again, but I don’t think it was a silence of hesitation. I think it was a silence he savoured, thinking of his next great trick. Finally, he nodded; his fingers squeezed mine once, and I squeezed back, and then he drew away.

There was a laughing in his face, I’d swear to it. “I think you were right about the bleeding, cousin,” he said. “Don’t bind it up too tightly, and fetch John when you think it’s almost done. I’ll go back to the forest, I think, and there remain.”


Notes:

Sorry, Mum; this isn’t a version that fixes the fact that the story always made you cry! But it gives a little more meaning to the actions of the Prioress, because revenge is so overdone — and a little more heroism to Robin (who in the original versions was not really so very heroic — he gained that fame much later!).

Technical notes:

This is, of course, an elaboration of the ending of the story of Robin Hood. I’m currently doing the Old Stories into New course, taught by Rachel Swirsky, from The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, and the prompt/exercise that produced this asks you to think of a myth, fairytale, legend, etc, in which the ending doesn’t satisfy you… and make things come out differently. My first thought was King Arthur, of course, but I also did a lot of work in my English degrees on Robin Hood, and in the end, what popped into my head was the Prioress from ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, Child ballad 117… or the version of that story I first read in Tales of Brave Adventure, by Enid Blyton.

I didn’t want the title to give it all away — I wanted the reader to have to wait for that confirmation, so ‘Beneath the Greenwood Tree’ was out immediately. ‘The Good Outlaw’ was another thought, which is a quote from the last stanza of ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’; I think it still gives it away too much, though. And, after all, this about the Prioress, originally. When I googled her, she’s often referred to as being “skilled in physic”; I didn’t actually manage to track down any kind of older source for that, but ‘A Woman Skilled in Physic’ seemed to work somehow in both misleading the reader (away from Robin Hood) and introducing the story.

I experimented with two things for this story, and took both out: first, taking the lead of Katherine Addison and Elizabeth Bear’s The Cobbler’s Boy, which I read recently, and trying some archaic thees and thous. It pretty much worked for them, but mostly not for me. There’s still a touch of it, enough to give a flavour of archaism, while not getting in the way. I hope.

Secondly, I tried to insert some framing narrative of why the Prioress is telling the story, but it cut some of the impact when I tried it and those lines have been removed. If it helps, though, she wrote it in the record book where she kept her notes of which herbs work and which don’t, and when they are best gathered, etc, etc. No one ever thought her writings would be important, so the book has been long lost. Nonetheless, if just one person reads it, her own small legend has been resurrected.

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