Authors: Erika Mailman
To Mary Bliss Parsons
After she has been consigned to prison in this way, the promise to spare her life should be kept for a time, but after a certain period she should be burned.
t has indeed lately come to Our ears, not without afflicting Us with bitter sorrow, that in some parts of Northern Germany, as well as in the provinces, townships, territories, districts, and dioceses of Mainz, Cologne, Trèves, Salzburg, and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying from the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offences, have slain infants yet in the mother’s womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nein, men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pasture-land, corn, wheat, and all other cereals; these wretches furthermore afflict and torment men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, with terrible and piteous pains and sore diseases, both internal and external; they hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, whence husbands cannot know their wives nor wives receive their husbands; over and above this, they blasphemously renounce that Faith which is theirs by the Sacrament of Baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from committing and perpetrating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls, whereby they outrage the Divine Majesty and are a cause of scandal and danger to very many.
ROM THE PAPAL BULL OF
N THE SECOND YEAR OF NO HARVEST,
t was a winter to make bitter all souls. So cold the birds froze midcall and our little fire couldn’t keep ice from burrowing into bed with us. The fleas froze in the straw beds, bodies swollen with chilled blood.
We were hungry.
It had been a poor year for grain, like the year before, and the blasted field was now covered with snow. What game there was starved too, their ribs plain as kindling. But soon enough we ate all of those and there were no longer claw marks leading us along their little paths.
The lord’s mill, which Jost ran, hadn’t been in use for years. When I looked upon the mill wheel a fortnight ago, a cobweb stretched from the hub to the teeth. No one had any grain to grind and so our barter was based on “next harvest.” Last year, the lord had released the vassals from obligation and we had all walked the furrows of the tilled earth many times, seeking a scrap thought useless before, even chaff, something to put into our mouths. The soil was as if salted. Seeds went into it only to fester and wither. We did all manner of things to change our fortune. We prayed in the way that the priest asked us to, with the Lord’s Prayer, raising our eyes to heaven as we spake of the daily loaf God might grant us. Incense cloyed our throats as we prayed again and again, asking Mary’s help as well. We became as gaunt as the saints carved onto the boards of the altar.
And we also did what the priest asked us not to do. Facing to the west, where the sun sets, we slaughtered beasts and poured the blood onto the soil. We dabbed blood into the middle of our palms to represent the harvest we wished to hold. We sang the old songs, our voices hushed so that the ancient music would not drift back to the church. We could not eat the meat of the ritual beasts, and so with tears in our eyes we burned the goats we might have eaten. We watched the smoke drift with the cold wind, incense the earth might prefer to the sweetish cloud from the censer.
We scolded the fields as if they were children; we threw the silt at the sky in a dusty haze and screamed. Künne Himmelmann slept with a clod beneath her pillow.
And nothing changed.
Nothing changed except that snow fell.
My son, Jost, and his wife, Irmeltrud, never spake in jest anymore; never did they laugh. No one did. I felt worst for the young ones. I had already had a lifetime when food was plentiful and neighbors bantered with each other, but they had not known lightness, only heavy, stolid days. I tried now and then to tell funny stories to Alke and Matern, my grandchildren, stories my parents had once told me, of old Lenne kissing her brother by mistake, deep in her cups, or the year the maypole came crashing down and all the girls were cross for thought of the bad luck it brought. But I was the only one who made such effort, and after a time of watching the moveless faces of my family, I ceased myself. Alke and Matern were always solemn. Because they were so thin, they didn’t have the strength to race each other into the woods as children should. They played their games close to the fire, and oftentimes their shoulders were joined. I knew they sat that way to keep each other warm.
Alke, the elder, would have no doubt been the prettiest one in the village if only there were color and plumpness to her cheeks. But her blond hair, which should have shone like poppy oil, was lusterless. She had not much spirit to her. In several seasons, she would be marriageable, but would she be able to flirt at Mayfest to gain a lover, as Künne and I had done so shamelessly when we were her age?
And Matern, the boy, was made like a girl by these circumstances. Tears came to his eyes easily and he was hurt by the smallest slight. The idea of him cleaving to a woman and taking care of all the household’s needs—hunting and wood getting—seemed an impossibility. Matern would always be helpless, an eternal child created by the absence on the table. And so we all did our best to exist in the same cottage without food, letting the silence fall upon all of us. If my Hensel had been yet here, he’d have made them merry, but he died when Jost was yet a child, turning the world upside down like a plate.
“Mutter, Großmutter has hardly any soup,” said Matern, eyeing my bowl.
“Soup’s for those who work,” said Irmeltrud. “Those who barely move all the day long need little to sustain them.” Jost tried to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t let him. Such a thing was true, but she was ashamed to have spoken it.
We all sat at the table, backs straight in the formal wish that there might be real food served upon it. Members of my family had sat upon these benches for so many generations, I felt the grooves placed by their more ample bodies. Of course, they had assembled for several meals each day, while we now gathered in the late afternoon for our sole serving.
The soup looked hardly worth the having, coins of carrot floating in water barely flavored with rosemary. The sojourn in the soup pot had likely not softened these rough roots. We had not had meat since Michaelmas. When Irmeltrud turned her back to fill Matern’s bowl, Jost poured some of his soup into mine. “No, son,” I said in a low voice. He set his jaw. When Irmeltrud sat down, I saw her notice the sudden difference in my bowl. Her eyes narrowed and I thought, as I often had, how her face expressed the very fume of Eve when she realized the apple had undone all the good. Years ago, Irmeltrud used to smile at me, thinking that earning Jost’s favor required mine. She asked my advice in all things and was hesitant as a midafternoon spider. As soon as the marriage banns were read, however, a sourness crept into her face and she has been so with me ever since.