Time’s Bending Sickle

This site has two previous novels: “Four-Part Dissonance” can be found in the archives beginning October 2009; “Death and the Maiden” begins in March 2010; and “Time’s Bending Sickle” begins in October 2010 (scroll down to find chapter one).

27. Time’s Fell Hand

I slept a little that night in the hospital, but between bad dreams and the pain in my leg, I was almost glad to see day break and be relieved of the obligation to sleep. The doctor, a young resident with thick glasses and acne scars, pronounced my wounds in satisfactory condition, and the friendly black nurse from the day before put on fresh dressings and emptied the drain. Breakfast was about as tempting as dinner, but I managed to get down a banana, juice, and lots of water. Later, I dozed without dreaming and felt better.
That evening, Callie showed up. Her usual bounce and humor was much subdued. “Well, hoss, you must have had a pretty shitty day yesterday.”
“I’ve had better. Seeing you helps. Thanks for coming so quickly. How’s Jean?”
Callie winced. “I wish I could give you good news. She’s OK–I don’t think she’s suicidal or anything, but she seems obsessed, and I can’t make much sense of what she’s saying. I’ll tell you about that in a minute. Right off, I’d better say that whenever I tried to talk about you, she got angry. She even thinks your getting shot is at best a ploy for sympathy and at worst a sign that you need shootin’.”
“Maybe I do. I had the guy who shot me fired, and I’m not proud of that.”
“Well, we can’t let everybody get shot who deserves it. Who’d be in the legislature?” We both smiled at a flash of the old Callie. She grew serious again. “Anyway, I felt if I pushed your case too much I’d lose my credibility, and wouldn’t be able to help.”
“What about her therapist?”
“I think she may be part of the problem. I think she got her diploma from a cereal box. She says this gal helped her remember that her dad abused her sexually.”
“Oren Cullen?” I was shocked.
“Yeah, it’s hard for me to believe, too. But there’s so much of that around, you never know.”
“What does she mean, ‘helped her remember’?”
Callie frowned. “That’s what bothered me. Now I took psych in college, and more than just jocks and rats freshman year. I know Freud thought all kinds of problems could be the result of suppressed traumas–things so bad you put them out of your conscious mind.”
“I would think childhood sexual abuse would do that.”
“That’s the theory, and it may be so in some cases. But lots of victims of horrors remember them too damn clearly. The stories my law partners tell, not to mention my clients, would straighten your short hairs.”
“I surely can’t go a minute without thinking of those shots and me under that desk.” Those scenes were indeed going round and round in my mind.
“Anyway, Jean talks about these memories as somehow different from ordinary memories. It wasn’t until the therapist hypnotized her and made her go over her memories and see where the abuse might fit that she started recalling them.”
“It’s plausible, I guess, though I still find it hard to believe about Cullen. But he was a controlling bastard.”
“Yes, but here’s where I get off. Listen. The therapist helped her remember, not just old Oren doing dirty things to her in secret, but as part of satanic rituals.”
“What?”
“Yeah. I tried to act as if I believed her, but Lord! Every time she talked about it, it got more elaborate and less believable. She said Oren and she were present when a bunch of folks in black hoods sacrificed animals and even a baby. Then Oren did it to her while these folks looked on, and while–get this–while Tillie took pictures!”
“Tillie!”
“Yeah, totally unbelievable. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Can you imagine Tillie in satanic drag? ‘I’m off to the beauty parlor to get my haiuh set–we’re going to a sacrifice and orgy tonight in Foat Wuth. Now how does this little ole camera work?'” She did Tillie’s tone and prissy little gesture so well that we had to share a glum chuckle.
“I guess no one found any pictures.”
“No, Jean thinks they’re hidden somewhere.”
“And Tillie and Cullen can’t defend themselves.”
“Yeah, they’re conveniently dead. But you’re still here.” Callie looked at me sympathetically.
“Oh, God. Am I a suspect? She didn’t meet me till college.”
“But you worked for Oren, and conspired with him about something, according to her.”
“Jesus. Am I a devil-worshipper too?”
“She hasn’t put it that clearly yet, but she’s working on it. That’s the beauty of all this stuff. You don’t have to believe in the devil, you just have to believe that some people do–and apparently some really do. Maybe a few headbanging misfits who take heavy metal too seriously. But Oren and Tillie?” Callie shook her head.
“All I can think of is that Cullen tried to fix Jean up with a job when she didn’t want his help. I knew about it but didn’t tell her.”
We sat mulling over the situation. At least for a while I didn’t think about my leg or Abner shooting at me. Then something occurred to me.
“Callie, when you were here last you said something about Thump Wofford. Maybe now is the time to tell me about that.”
“Why not.” Callie looked down at her purse and plucked at her skirt. “Thump knocked Jean up. About that time she realized he was a dumb jerk and wanted to be rid of him. But Oren got wind of the situation, scared the shit out of Thump, and told Jean that, by God, they were going to do the right thing and get married in the Baptist church.”
“Wow.”
“Tillie wouldn’t even acknowledge what had happened, much less help Jean with Oren. She seemed to be upset that she’d have to plan a church wedding on short notice. Jean then did the best thing she could have done. She sold a diamond bracelet Oren had given her for her eighteenth birthday and got an abortion. She wouldn’t tell me any details, so I’m not sure how professional it was. Then she told her dad and Thump that there might be a wedding, but she wouldn’t be there. Thump was mightily relieved.”
“So there was a reason for her attitude toward Cullen.” And, I thought, for our inability to have a child.
“You bet. I’ve always admired her for taking charge like that. I think it made her feel good about herself for a long time, and helped her through college. But there were complications in her feelings that may have come out as time passed.”
“And when she moved here near both parents.”
“Yeah.”
“Do you think there’s any connection between the Thump business and the abuse memories?” I was groping for some answer.
“Maybe. Who knows? A really good shrink might find out. Maybe there really was some abuse, and Oren’s reaction to her pregnancy was fueled by that. But it also might be just the old-fashioned dad getting out his shotgun.”
I despaired of ever finding out the truth. “What’s to be done?”
“I’d stay away and not stir her up. She’s talking a lot about divorce. I’m going to try to talk her into coming out to California with me for a while. I think I might find a shrink who could help. This quack she’s been seeing is part of the problem.”
I didn’t mention my own experiences with shrinks. Maybe I had the wrong problem or the wrong shrinks. But I was relieved that Jean had a friend like Callie, whose good sense might help in any case. I allowed myself a few selfish thoughts. I shouldn’t have, for I felt myself sinking into pain and exhaustion. “You’re the designated grownup now. Any suggestions for me? What should I do?”
Callie patted my good foot, gently. “Get well. Get a job. Get a life. Maybe you’d better at least think about the possibility of one without Jean.”
The night nurse, a maternal woman with a tough jaw and rimless glasses, stuck her head in the door. “Time for visitors to leave now. Thank you.”
“I don’t want to think about that now,” I said. “Please keep in touch.”
“I will. Rest, and don’t worry.”
I slept but without resting. Funny, I never actually saw Abner in his hunting outfit when he came after me. But in my dreams it’s very clear, the camouflage fatigues and the orange hat. I dreamed of running down long sterile hallways, and finding Abner and his gun whenever I turned a corner. He was also at some kind of satanic ritual where guys with black hoods were poking my leg. But despite the discussion with Callie, I didn’t dream about Jean. And in my obsession with reliving my ordeal under the desk, I didn’t give much thought to the idea of Jean filing for divorce. Somehow her throwing my cello off the balcony made the idea of Jean with lawyers and papers tame, remote, unreal. I consulted my feelings, and realized that I couldn’t smother my own pain with my sympathy for Jean’s, and that I couldn’t distinguish between hurt at the loss of her and hurt at her rejection of me.
For relief, I tried to summon up Toby playing music or travelling with the players or making love to Jane. What I got was a return to the siege of Parnu.

The air was still smoky, and cannon fire was just infrequent and irregular enough to carry some surprise. Toby and his fellows looked thinner. I hardly recognized James Hill. The two men were watching as a soldier pried out the nails that were holding a shoe to a horse’s hoof. The hoof was not attached to the rest of the horse, which was not in evidence; when the shoe fell to the ground with a clang, the soldier tossed the hoof into a large steaming pot. Another soldier was hacking at some loaf-shaped gray lumps with a small axe. He was short and blond, and one could tell that he would normally have been heavyset; but his cheeks were lined and thin. He offered one of the lumps to Toby with an almost cheerful look, and gabbled away in Swedish. Hill replied, and the two walked away chewing on the pieces.
“What was that he said? This bread made him think of home?”
“Aye.” Hill gave a wry snort. “Whenever there is a bad harvest, the peasants eat bark bread. And as you well know, it is not easy on the digestion. So many peasants make a habit of eating bark bread the year round so that their insides will always be prepared.”
I remembered that Toby had written in his “Petition” that he had eaten bread made of bark and hay dust during this siege.
“So, colonel,” said Toby to Hill, “how much longer? I confess I am ready to test the mercy of the Polonians.” Toby’s voice was weak, and the hands that tried to break the ersatz bread trembled. There was a kind of desperation in Toby’s eyes that I had not seen before.
Hill broke into a fit of coughing. “Yet a few days,” he said hoarsely. “If we hear of no relief we shall seek terms.”
“Two more men died last night.”
“I know. And more are like to die before the duke can raise the siege, even if he is able to make the attempt.”
Cannon boomed in the distance, as fragments of stone flew off the ragged top of a wall nearby. Toby flinched. “I grow too weak to fight. But I had rather heft a pike and take the field than be penned here starving another day.”
“Patience, good captain.”
Another large burst of fragments flew from a closer section of the wall. Toby suddenly appeared sitting on the ground, clutching at his leg. His eyes were wide with shock, and blood was flowing between his fingers. He looked around. “Captain Hall?”
Hill called out, “Ho! A surgeon!” He knelt by Toby, who had rolled over on his side, still holding his leg. Hill did not seem to be aware that his own left arm was bleeding.

Hill, his arm bandaged, led his lean and ragged troops through the gates of the town. The troops made as good a show as they could, with banners and a drum, carrying their muskets with lighted matches. Toby was borne on a litter, bandages around his leg. Other men were also carried or hobbled along on crutches. Troops of the Polish army lined the road, and stood saluting as the duke’s forces filed by.
Hill, Toby, and a few other of the garrison’s officers were escorted to a large tent. There an older officer greeted them with courteous gestures and spoke in German. I caught something about Hill being a guest and something about a surgeon. Toby seemed to be in considerable pain and did not pay much attention to the proceedings.

Toby lay on a narrow bed in a small low-ceilinged room. He looked pretty bad, but he was awake and seemed alert. The sound of steps and a rustle of cloth was followed by the entrance of a woman carrying a steaming wooden bowl. Toby’s attention focused first on the bowl, then on the woman. She seemed to be in her twenties, with strawberry-blonde hair tucked under a white cap. She had a slight overbite, lots of freckles over a thin nose, and light green eyes.
“Noo, sir, and will ye be feeling like a bit o’ brose?” I was startled to hear a thick lowland Scots accent, and Toby seemed to be too.
“Thank you, kind mistress. But tell me, am I still in Poland?”
She smiled; her teeth were better than those of many of Toby’s contemporaries. “Aye, to be sure. This is Riga, where my father is surgeon. But we came from Edinburgh when I was a wee lass.” Her voice was captivating, not only for the lilting accent, but for the rich overtones; if she sang, she would be a mezzo-soprano.
“I lived in Carlisle,” said Toby, between rapid spoonsful of what must have been oatmeal. “And I have not had good brose since I left until this moment.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m sure tis better than what you would be having at the prison. You may thank your wound for that. My father gave assurance that you would not run away. He wanted to see if he could cure your wound without cutting off your leg.”
Toby dropped his spoon. “Cut it off! God defend!”
“Nay, lad, I think we’ll let ye keep it.” A balding, middle-aged man in a plain black gown entered. “There seems to be no corruption. I cleaned the wound with aqua vitae and Mary here keeps the bandages fresh. I have good hope for you.”
“Thank you, sir. And Mistress Mary.” He looked at them and relaxed a bit. “My name is Tobias Hume.”
“And I am Alastair McNab, and this my daughter.”
“I am grateful for your hospitality.”
“You are my prisoner, sir; I am paid for your keep.” McNab spoke sternly, then softened. “But you are also my patient, and, I find, my countryman. So, if you can remember that you are a prisoner, and do not try to escape, we will try to forget it, and treat you as a guest.”
“You have my word on’t,” said Toby, “as a gentleman and soldier.”
McNab’s mouth twitched at the corners. “Very well, captain. Now, you must eat and rest. We will talk again.”
Toby, left alone, closed his eyes. I relaxed too as the vision merged into ordinary dreams. I managed to sleep for some time before Abner began hunting me, and I awoke, panting and sweating. It was around six in the morning. I returned to Toby.

Some time had passed. Toby, looking much better fed, sat with his leg on a stool by a tile-covered stove that almost filled the small room. McNab sat opposite him, while Mary sat by a smoky candle, sewing. Toby and McNab puffed on short clay pipes. Toby leaned his head back, blew a stream of smoke, and sighed contentedly. “Tis too much, Doctor. Too generous. I’m sure my Colonel Hill is not treated better in the castle at Marienburg. I am ever grateful.”
McNab waved his hand. “The Poles are ignorant of the use of tobacco. They took this from one of their English prisoners, and gave it me, saying I should make medicine of it.”
“And you have. I feel much mended.”
“Tis a pleasant scent, and goes weel wi’ an idle hour. But I doubt its value as a cure.”
“There was a rogue in the Low Countries who sold the herb.” Toby smiled at the memory. “He claimed many virtues for it; for him twas a panacea.” The two puffed a moment in silence.
Mary’s scissors clattered on the table. “Weel, I like it not. This chamber is close as it is, and blowing smoke only makes it worse. Smoke is smoke.”
“Three things there be,” declaimed McNab, “will drive a man from home–a smoking chimney, a scolding wife–I forget the third.”
“Why did you leave home?” asked Toby, shaking out his pipe with a glance at Mary. “Why did you leave Edinburgh?”
“For some of the reasons you left Carlisle, no doubt. In the main, to make a living. There are, as you may have seen, many Scots peddlers in Poland. The Poles think ’em as bad as gypsies. I’ve a cousin who rose from peddler to merchant some years back, and since I had treated his gout with somewhat more success than his Polish physicians, he persuaded me to come. He promised me introductions to some of the better folk here, and over time, my art has made way for me even against the reputation our countrymen have made. Mind ye, I am no better than a servant to most, even so.”
“And I the servant’s servant,” said Mary, with some asperity.
“Wheesht, ma dearie! Ye maun have patience.”
“I can see na mair. I’m to bed, and ye two may smoke like a’ the chimneys of Edinburgh for me.” Mary folded her sewing and left the room. Toby followed her movements with interest.
McNab leaned forward, speaking softly. “Poor lass. She has no proper suitors.”
“I find that hard to credit.”
“Och, there are those that would be her gallant. Many a young dog has come sniffing about. But they would take her to bed and not to kirk.”
“A shame.”
“Aye.” McNab looked at his pipe. “Will ye take another pipeful?”
“Thank you, not now.”
“Weel, we must be up betimes tomorrow to hear mass.”
Toby could not conceal his surprise. “Catholic mass?”
“Aye.” He looked at Toby’s expression and gave a short laugh. “When in Rome, as they say. An I lived wi’ the Turks, I’d turn to Mecca and knock my head on the ground.” Toby’s surprise turned to concern and maybe a little fear.
“You jest.”
“A wee bit,” said McNab, smiling. “Dinna worry, captain. I am not of the Inquisition; I wish to avoid all such. I would rather be in the kirk at Edinburgh.” Toby looked relieved. “But to tell truth, I know not where the truth lies.”
“Have you not faith?”
“Aye, I have faith that a just God, if he exists, will not damn a man for choosing the wrong house to pray in or the wrong prayer. And since the papists may as well be right on some points as the Scottish Kirk, I will not risk martyrdom. Have ye read Montaigne, the witty Frenchman?”
“No. Is he a papist or a Huguenot?”
“Oh, a papist. But he would never kill a Huguenot, as the Guises did on St. Bartholomew’s. Faith!” He opened the door of the stove and spat. “How is it faith if one runs howling after the blood of this papist, that Protestant, this Turk, that Christian? When one book says love thy neighbor as thyself and do good to them that hate you, and the other book says much the same?”
“But the Spanish– ” Toby began.
“Aye, the Spanish. Did they launch the Armada or fight the Dutch because they were Catholics or because they were Spanish?”

On this theological note, my vision was interrupted by a hospital chaplain, in black suit and dog collar, asking if I would like his company. After some small talk, he asked if I were Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. I said “Protestant,” but with mental reservations, as the Elizabethan Jesuits used to do. He continued the visit on a polite and friendly level for a while, then promised to send me the Protestant chaplain.

Toby scratched on a wax tablet, humming to himself and smiling. He was sitting on a bench outside the timber and plaster house in the shade of the low thatched roof. It seemed to be a pleasant spring day. He had a crutch beside him, but his leg looked better. Dr. McNab approached along a dusty dirt road lined with similar houses. Behind him one could see steeples and a few taller buildings about a mile away. The doctor stopped a few yards from his door, put down his bag, and fanned himself with his broad-brimmed hat.
“Weel, noo. I maun post an extra guard on ye, lest ye flee. You look too pleased wi’ yoursel’ to be a wounded prisoner.”
“The Muses have not forsaken me, good doctor. I have a song for you. Would I had my viol.”
Mary appeared in the doorway. “He’s been humming like a beehive for hours.”
“Let’s hear it, then,” said the doctor, joining Toby on the bench.
In a rather hoarse baritone, Toby sang an unaccompanied version of his tobacco song:

Tobacco, tobacco,
Sing sweetly for tobacco;
Tobacco is like love,
O love it,
For you see I will prove it.

Love maketh lean the fat men’s tumor,
So doth tobacco;
Love still dries up the wanton humor,
So doth tobacco;
Love makes men sail from shore to shore,
So doth tobacco;
Tis fond love often makes men poor,
So doth tobacco;
Love makes men scorn all coward fears,
So doth tobacco;
Love often sets men by the ears,
So doth tobacco.

Tobacco, tobacco,
Sing sweetly for tobacco;
Tobacco is like love,
O love it,
For you see I have proved it.

“Quod est demonstrandum!” laughed McNab; Mary also laughed, showing some gum above her slightly protruding teeth.
McNab alternated chuckles and compliments for a few moments. “Marvellous witty, I assure you.” Then he smiled thoughtfully. “You had a viol?”
“Aye, I left it in Reval. Where it is now I cannot tell.”
McNab hummed a bit, then turned to Toby. “I have a scheme. I have a patient, a lady whose illness is slight, but compounded by melancholy. Her husband is a lord of some state here, a Hungarian, and one who takes tobacco. His father was a great hero to the Poles, and he has served them well himself. They enjoy music, and have a number of instruments, among them a fair chest of viols. Come with me and sing this song for the lady. If it improves her humor, I’ll bind you prentice.”
“Gladly.”

Limping and leaning on his crutch, Toby followed McNab to the door of a fine stone house. A servant in clean but worn livery admitted them and led them to an upstairs room. There a lady in her forties was propped up in bed, where she sipped broth from a silver bowl. McNab and Toby bowed, and McNab made the introductions in Polish. After some explanation, the lady spoke to the servant, who returned with a viol and bow. Toby tuned, and spoke admiringly of the quality of the viol. Then Toby sang his song, and McNab translated the words. The lady smiled, but much seemed to be lost in translation. She spoke pleasantly to McNab for a few moments.
“Lady Bekes would like you to play some more, perhaps a jig or a brawl.”
Toby obliged, and began a lively tune, one of the jigs he printed in his 1605 book. The lady’s bedclothes began to move near her feet. Suddenly McNab stood and bowed, and Toby broke off as a wiry, dark-bearded man entered, looking surprised but pleased. The lady and lord began to jabber happily in Polish, and McNab answered them deferentially. The lord then sat on his wife’s bed, held her hand and waved at Toby for more. Toby resumed playing.

Later scenes revealed Toby playing and the lord and lady dancing energetically. Another time Toby performed “The Lord Beccus Almaine,” and “Beccus an Hungarian Lord his delight.” The couple was obviously pleased. But when the lord pulled out a purse, Toby spoke to McNab, who then spoke to the lord. When I next saw Toby at McNab’s, he was playing the lord’s viol, with Mary listening intently.

All this cheerfulness helped me considerably, much more than the reruns of “Mary Tyler Moore” on the hospital TV. But when I actually slept, eventually there would be Abner with his orange hat and deer rifle, coming around the corner of McNab’s cottage, or bursting into Lord Bekes’s parlor.

Toby sat by the cottage door; the crutch had given way to a stick. Mary was a few yards away, scrubbing clothes in a wooden tub, singing to herself. Toby watched and listened. Absorbed in her task, Mary sang freely and without self-consciousness in her rich natural mezzo.

Oh, whar ha’ ye been the livelong day,
My little wee croodin’ doo?
I’ve been to see my stepmother,
Oh mummy, mak my bed noo.

I remembered a version of this song, a kind of grim lullaby variation on “Lord Randal.” A “croodin’ doo” is a cooing dove. A strange expression came over Toby’s face as Mary sang, and tears sprang to his eyes. He leaned his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands. His back heaved. Mary, rising to hang out a shirt on a tree branch, noticed and broke off her song. Stepping to the bench, she put her hand on Toby’s shoulder.
“Captain Toby? Are ye ill?”
Toby shook his head.
“Speak to me,” said Mary, sitting by Toby, “what is it?”
Toby looked up, red-faced, with a sheepish smile. “A memory. Och, I’m too soft to be a soldier.”
“Tell me,” Mary pressed.
“The song. I remember very little of my mother–she died when I was but a babe–but it came to me just then that she sang that song.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to make you melancholy.”
“No, no. It was a good memory. But it made me think of other losses.”
“Tell me. It may help.” She smiled gently, her hand still on Toby’s shoulder. “I’ll be a good Protestant confessor.”
Toby reached up and took Mary’s hand from his shoulder and held it, looking at it thoughtfully a moment; then he placed it on the bench between them. “I lost my wife to the plague. And my son. And friends in the wars. And–” He stopped and put his hand to his mouth.
“I have lost so many, I fear to have more to lose.” He almost whispered. Mary sat quietly, looking at her hand on the bench. Then she grasped his arm with both hands and leaned her head on his shoulder. They sat for a long time without moving or speaking.

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