Ordeals

It seems so odd that I’ve been writing enough to make 100 posts, but this one is the 100th, so happy milestone to us, and thanks for reading!

I’ve recently decided to apply to grad school for creative writing and in honor of that, and of the 100th post, I’m posting one of the pieces I’m considering turning in for my 25 pages worth of writing sample.  I went from having nothing at all to having a lot of potential things that could go, and I’m having trouble deciding.   I’m trying to show range, and honesty, and good story, and still make the pieces the kind of thing I usually do.  It’s hard.  I’ve picked four, and I’ll let my family help me narrow it down to three.  This is one of the four.  I hope you enjoy!

Williamsburg

Ordeals

            The wound is guaranteed to be extra juicy this time,” said Rutherford’s wife over the breakfast table.  “I just love a water ordeal.”

A flicker of flame from the open hearth silhouetted her hair in a frizzy halo around her white cap in the dim wattle and daub cottage.  Rutherford’s stomach lurched.

“I can’t stand Ordeals.  You know that,” he said.  “The way they poke at the festering wound and deliberate for hours sometimes, looking at it.  I mean, I know God is supposed to be speaking through how much the wound is healing and telling us whether the offender is guilty or not, but I just can’t stomach it.  Wounds are the most disgusting things.”

“I should knock some sense into you with my ladle, Fordy,” Gertrude said.  “It’s blasphemous to not like Ordeals, I tell you.  I mean, how else are we to know if someone is guilty or not?” she rubbed her hands together and smiled.  “I for one can’t wait to see if that Crispus Hode is guilty,” she said.  “I’ve suspected he was no good for a long time.  I heard tell he was born on a Friday, and if that’s true it’s no wonder that he grew up to be a no-account thief, taking Odo Black’s perfectly good hog and eating it for dinner.  You know what they say about Friday babes.  I mean, I suppose you have to raise them as best you can, but there will always be the devil’s streak in ‘em, and no telling when it will manifest.”  She shook her head.  “When they held his hand in that boiling water two weeks ago, you could hear Crispus shriek clear across the village, you remember.  Extra juicy this time,” she smiled

Rutherford felt his stomach churn and he dropped his porridge spoon into his bowl.  He swallowed.  “I know you enjoy these things but I’d rather not talk about it, Gerkins,” he said.  He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his tunic.

“Well, that’s fine,” she said. “I’ll tell you one thing I can’t wait to see.  They’re picking the new head of the Witan town council at this meeting.  How long have you been on the Witan?  Ten years?  You’re the oldest of the group now, too, aren’t you?  I mean what with old Robin Miller croaking at the harvest festival and all… that was a disgrace, it was.  Face down in the pudding.”

“I’m the oldest,” Rutherford interrupted, “but I wouldn’t keep your hopes up.  No one in his right mind would make me the head of the Witan.  I just don’t have the stomach for it.  If I can’t talk about Ordeals, what makes you think I can govern one?”

“And who said anyone in this village was in his right mind?” Gertrude cackled.  “You sure are funny sometimes, Fordy.  I’ll bet you’ll be nominated for sure.  Eat your bacon, and then we’ll get to the church.  I just love a water ordeal.”

Rutherford sat in the first pew of the church with the rest of the Witan – eleven other men just as grizzled and portly as himself.  The rest of the town packed into the church behind them, leaning forward to get a better look as Burt Cooper, the current head of the Witan, unwrapped the linen bandage from Crispus’s hand.  Crispus winced as the bandage stuck and Burt gave a pull, dislodging it from the dried puss on Crispus’s wrist.  Rutherford felt the bile rise in his throat, and forced himself to focus on the floor.  There was a knot in the pine board near his toe.

The crowd gasped and oh-ed.  Crispus cried out in pain.

Silence fell across the hall, and a sticky, wet sound filled the room.

“Humuhuhnm…” moaned Crispus.  Rutherford gritted his teeth.  If only the sticky sound would stop, he might be able to bear the rest.

Rutherford felt a nudge in his side.  “Open your eyes, man.  What say you to that boil there?  Does the puss make the sign of the cross?”

“It looks more like a dog to me,” another chimed in.

“It is categorically a full moon over the rowan tree,” said another.

“Well, I’m seeing a sickle.”

The group huddled and argued.

“Oh for God’s sake,” said Rutherford, his eyes still closed.  “Just make a decision.”

“Attention all” Burt cried at last, his voice echoing in the rafters.  “I proclaim Crispus Hode not guilty under trial of Ordeal. The burn has categorically healed some.”

The crowd let out a general sigh of disappointment.  Now there would be no fine levied against Crispus.  The fun was over.

Rutherford looked up.  In the colored light of the stained glass windows, Crispus was wrapping the bandage around his hand again, wincing as the linen touched his burn.

Burt continued, “And now, as it is the 23th of March and my duty shall be over in two days’ time, the village’ll choose another head from among the twelve men of the Witan.  Happy New Year to ye all.  I would like to nominate Rutherford Thompson to take my place, but the council will hear all nominations.  What names do ye put forth?”

Sounds of people rustling, moving in their seats, filled the church.  Someone in the back sneezed.  No one spoke.

“Anyone?” said Burt.

A shout arose from the back of the crowd.  “I second the nomination!”

“Second who’s nomination?” a voice shouted back.

“What about Fiscus Walter?” another yelled.

“I third Rutherford!”

“No one’s seconded him yet.”

“Then I second Rutherford.”

“And I third Rutherford!”

It only took a few minutes for the crowd to solidify.  “Rutherford! Rutherford! Rutherford!” they chanted.

Rutherford felt his heart warm in his chest as he listed to the town chant his name.  It was unexpected that they revered his wisdom so much.  His doubts melted in the warmth of his chest.  He could see it now: himself sitting in the grand wooden chair on the church dais, meting out wise advice to the confused villagers; tending to the extra strip of field allotted to the head of the Witan; being the most important person in town, his benevolence renowned.  He rose to face them, looked at their expectant faces, and felt power course through his veins as he raised his arms and the crowd went silent.

“I, I mean… I, well yes,” he said, and listened as his voice bounced off the rafters of the church as if they were important and decisive.  The crowd cheered. Rutherford felt Burt slap him on the shoulder.

“Congratulations,” Burt said with a grin, shaking Rutherford’s hand.

Rutherford grinned back, pumping his fist up and down.  “Thank you.”

It was not until the uncomfortable hour of midnight that Rutherford realized what he had done.  He sat awake in his curtained bed, Gertrude snoring beside him, and stared at the ceiling in panic.  As head of the Witan, he was now in charge of administering Ordeals.  Every festering wound he had ever seen rushed into his mind in the darkness, wet with pus and boils, oozing blood from between the crevices of a scab, streaked white and smelling noxious.  It was his job to hold a hand in boiling water while the offender screamed.  It was his job to poke through the festering wound two weeks later and make a decree.   His stomach churned and the saliva gathered in his mouth.  He would make a fool of himself in front of the entire town.

There was only one thing to do.  If Rutherford prayed hard enough, maybe he could avoid ordeals entirely.  He would keep his head down, pray for no breaches of law, and get out of office as soon as plausibility allowed.  Everything would be OK.   One term as head of the Witan was respectable.  Visions of mutilations rose in his head again, but he forced them out.  Everything would be OK, he repeated to himself.  If he kept calm, he would get through it.  Not every Witan had to administer an ordeal.  It would all end up alright.

It was not alright.

The night was crisp and sharp as Rutherford sucked the air into his lungs.  The needles on the trees that surrounded the village were extra green in the fading light and the lingering quiet of the countryside was broken only by the sound of the crickets chirping somewhere near the woods.  The corners of the thatched, wattle and daub huts showed as sharp as the air against the cold landscape.  As the sky darkened to indigo, even the twinkling stars that poked through the sky seemed more clear than usual.  Rutherford picked up the wooden bucket from beside his front door and went outside to milk his cow.

The quiet evening was interrupted by the din of clanging pots, cowbells, tools. Metal on metal rang through the night.  Voices followed, shouting “Beware! Thief!”  Rutherford dropped his bucket and put his forehead into his hands.  The Hue and Cry meant there would be a trial for sure.  Why? he asked the heavens.

The heavens did not answer.

Rutherford picked up his bucket again, and went back into the house.  There was no sense in milking Bessie now.  On his way, he ran into Sampson Hode and Fiscus Walter.  Sampson carried a rope and Fiscus had a large rock clutched in his hand.

“You going to apprehend the thief with us?” Sampson asked Rutherford.  It was the job of the entire town to catch the offender, and as head of the Witan, Rutherford’s absence would be obvious.

“I’ll be there,” Rutherford said.  “I’m just going to put this bucket in the house.  Do we know what happened yet, or what was stolen?”

“Nope.  We just heard the yelling and came out to see what was what.  I think it came from Leo Gregory’s barn, but I’m not sure,” said Fiscus.  “We’ll see you.”

Rutherford grabbed the requisite pitchfork from beside the door, dragging it behind him as he set off across the fields to the wood next to Leo Gregory’s barn.  The whole town was combing through the trees, calling, searching.  Two hours later, his feet tired and his brain sleepy, Rutherford called off the search, stood his unused pitchfork next to the barn, and climbed into bed.

Two nights later, Rutherford found himself sitting in a hard wooden chair at the front of the church.

“I do hereby accuse Mr. Leo Gregory of raising the Hue and Cry without proper cause,” said Hubert Ward.  His beard dripped down his chin practically to his navel, and Hubert’s arm got caught in the long coarse hair as he jabbed his finger in Leo’s direction.

Rutherford sighed.  How ironic that he was forced to mete out justice for a crime that wasn’t actually committed.  “Mr. Gregory,” he said,” did anyone else see the crime take place?”

Leo shook his head.  “No!  I was in the barn and I noticed that my good Scythe had gone missing.  I looked outside and saw someone running into the woods by my house, so I sent up the Hue and Cry.  I saw it, I say! I was robbed!”

“And you were alone?” asked Rutherford.

“My wife can attest to my good character,” said Leo.

“His wife’s word is as good as his own!” shouted Hubert.  “Worthless!”

“I’ll show you worthless Hubert Ward!” a woman shrieked from the pews.  Rutherford could see her rolling up her sleeves and attempting to dive from her seat.  The crowd converged on her, pushing her back down.  The room erupted into a cacophony of voices.  Rutherford stamped his foot on the wooden floor of the church.  It was no use.

“Ordeal! Ordeal! Ordeal!” the crowd chanted.

Rutherford watched Hubert place his fingers into his mouth.  A shrill whistle bit through the air and the crowd went silent.  “That’s better, ya harpies!” Hubert said, and then gestured to Rutherford.

Rutherford stood.  Every face in the crowd was eyeing him with expectation.  He cleared his throat.  “I… uh, suppose we will have to have an Ordeal.”

The crowd cheered.

Rutherford held up his hands, and the villagers went silent.  Rutherford sifted through his mind to come up with an Ordeal he could carry out without throwing up in front of the entire town. Unfortunately, all he could think of was his breakfast.  He was doomed.  “I hereby decree that Mr. Leo Gregory’s guilt will be decided upon an Ordeal of… ah… of… baking.”

“What!” Hubert shouted.

The crowd was muttering again too.

“I was hoping for Water.”

“What in heaven’s name is an Ordeal of baking?”

“Is he crazy?”

Rutherford stamped his foot on the floor again, and this time people paid attention.  “This has been divinely inspired,” Rutherford told them.  “You should not question the mysterious ways of the Lord.  This is how the process is to be carried out.  I will make a loaf of bread, but before it shall be baked, Mr. Gregory will spit into the dough.   If the dough rises and the bread is edible, he shall be considered not guilty.  If the dough should fall and the bread be corrupted, he will admit to his guilt and pay penance to the villagers for falsely raising the Hue and Cry.  So it shall be.”

The crowd paused.  Finally, the words “so it shall be,” echoed back to him in a monotone.  Rutherford’s baking ordeal had been accepted, and he grinned.  Everything would be just peachy now.

Everything was not just peachy.

Rutherford called the bread making meeting for the next morning.  All twelve members of the Witan, plus Herbert and Leo, crowded into the tiny, wooden mill just as the sun was rising over the bright green hills in the east.  The inside of the mill was streaked with yellow from sunbeams peeking through the slats of the poorly insulated walls.  One of the sunbeams fell across Rutherford’s eye, diagonally down to his opposite cheek.  He shifted, and the beam slid to his shoulder.

He cleared his throat. “We have gathered today to ask the Lord to reveal if this man before him, Leo Gregory, be guilty or innocent in his heart of hearts.  Let the countenance of the Lord shine down upon us this day and guide us in our endeavors that we may know the truth.  Amen.”

“Amen,” murmured the rest of the room.

Rutherford took a clay bowl out of the vast pocket of his belted tunic, feeling the prickly hairs on his neck stand up as he realized that everyone was watching him.  He walked to the corner of the room where burlap sacks of flour leaned against the wall, and unfolded the mouth of one of the bags.  He reached his fist into the flour and pulled out a handful.  Streams of grit fell from between his fingers, catching the light and sparkling in the morning sun as Rutherford dumped the handful into the bowl with a whuff.  He took a pinch of yeast out of a pouch in his pocket and dumped that into the bowl as well, and sifted them together.

“Someone grab me a dipper of that bucket of water over there,” Rutherford said.  The ladle full of water was passed through the crowd.  Rutherford took it carefully from the last pair of shaking hands.  He held it out to Leo.

“Spit,” he said.

“You’ll all see I’m not guilty and I’ve been robbed fair and square,” Leo said.  He gathered the moisture up in his throat with a sickening suction noise and then spat a fat loogy into the water.  Rutherford saw it floating on the surface, greenish and horrible as it bobbed in the water.  He felt the burn of bile as it rose in his throat, willed it to stop with all of his might, and then threw up his breakfast all over the flour, all over his hand, all into the water.

The crowd was silent.  They all stared unblinkingly at Rutherford and Rutherford stared back at them.  The vomit on his hand felt warm.

From the back of the room a tiny voice said, “Does this mean he’s guilty?”

“It means he’s innocent,” said another.  “We don’t need to have the Ordeal ‘cause the Ordeal ain’t gonna tell us nothin’.”

“I think it’s a clear sign that this Ordeal is stupid!” said a third.  “Water Ordeals are the way to go.  Nobody ever heard of a Baking Ordeal, and God don’t like it.”

“I say he’s innocent.”

“Guilty!”

Rutherford stood by and watched as the room began to shout at each other.  Most of them were old, grizzled men.  Their gray hair flew through the air and the loose sleeves of their tunics jumped on their arms as they gesticulated wildly at each other.  He pounded his foot on the floor for attention but it made no difference.

“Hey!” he yelled next, but his voice just mingled with the shouts of the room.

Rutherford dropped the sick filled bowl and dipper to the floor and wiped his hand off on his tunic.  He walked over to the water bucket by the front door, picked it up, and walked back.  With a swift thrusting motion, he threw it across the struggling crowd.  The water surged over them like a sheet.  They stopped abruptly mid shout, hair and clothes dripping, and turned their faces toward him.

Rutherford cleared his throat, embarrassed. “I’ll tell you what it means,” he said.  “It means that God wants Leo to have a second chance.  Leo, I hereby find you guilty of raising the Hue and Cry without cause, and order you to pay a fine to the church coffers of ten shillings.  The sentence, however, shall be suspended.  So long as you don’t commit said crime again, you will not have to pay the fine.”

“I’m not guilty,” Leo said.  “I take offense to that remark, but I suppose it’s OK if I don’t have to pay nothing.  It won’t happen again ‘cause it didn’t happen this time.”

“And it will go on the record books as guilty?” Hubert asked.

“It will go on the record books as guilty,” said Rutherford.

“Then I’m satisfied as well.”

The rest of the men in the room began to nod in assent.  One by one, they smiled.  Burt slapped Rutherford hard on the back.  “Good work, Witan,” he said.  Rutherford found that he could not smile back.

The group was meandering out of the tiny mill and onto the grass beyond.  Rutherford watched them trickle through the rough wooden doorway.

Hubert was the last to step out of the mill into the sunny morning.  Before he disappeared through the door he turned.  “Are you coming?” he asked Rutherford.

“I’m coming, I’ll be there in a minute,” Rutherford said. Hubert stepped outside and Rutherford fell onto his knees.  He thanked God for the amicable outcome and then he prayed that he would never have to assign an Ordeal again.  Then, he took a dipperful of water and rinsed out his mouth.  He felt relieved.  After all, the hard part was over now.

The hard part was not over.

Two weeks later, Rutherford found himself sitting in a hard wooden chair at the front of the church.  The rest of the town stared back at him from the pews.

“I do hereby accuse Mr. Hubert Ward of stealing my good scythe from out of my barn two weeks ago.” Leo Gregory said to the crowd.  He glowered at the bearded man on the platform with him.

The half of Hubert’s face not covered by beard was bright red.

“And what evidence have ye to present to the court that this crime took place?” Rutherford asked.

Leo walked to the platform and handed Rutherford a scythe.  The blade shined in the light from the stained glass window as Rutherford took the smooth, wooden handle.

“This is the scythe in question.” Leo said.  “It used to have my name on it, but it don’t no more.  See the bottom of the haft where it’s rougher than the rest?  It’s also shorter.  Someone sliced my name off.  I found this implement standing up outside Hubert’s barn yesterday.” Leo turned to Hubert and waved a fist at him.  “Caught in the ACT!” he said.

The crowd hissed.  “Caught in the ACT!” a few shouted.

Rutherford pounded his foot on the ground.  “He ain’t guilty yet,” he told the crowd.  He turned to Hubert.  “And what have you to say for yourself?  Do you have an alibi?”

“I don’t need no alibi,” said Hubert.  “That was the night Leo put up the Hue and Cry for no reason whatever.  The whole town saw me out there looking for the criminal myself.”  He turned to the crowd, his arms wide.  “Did you all see me holding a scythe that night?”

The audience turned to each other and began to murmur.

“Nope,”

“I don’t think so?”

“No scythe when I saw him.”

“I rest my case.” Hubert told Rutherford.

“He was kinda late on the uptake, though,” someone muttered from the crowd.

“Don’t you rest your case yet, ya burglar,” said Leo.  “I want to bring up an incident that many here may well remember.  Old John Ward, Hubert’s grandfather, was once caught with a herd of twelve sheep that didn’t belong to him, and he was regularly borrowing things and not returning them.  How many of you loaned him a hammer or even a plow blade and never saw it again?  Stealing things obviously runs in the Ward blood.  I demand for justice to be meted out!  That ought to be evidence enough for anyone.”

The villagers began to murmur again, and out of the myriad of voices a single chant began to emerge.

“Ordeal! Ordeal! Ordeal!”

Rutherford sighed, and then held up his hands.  The room went quiet.

“I suppose we will have to have an ordeal,” Rutherford said.  “It will be an ordeal of…” would they accept baking again?  What else was nonviolent?  He racked his brain.  “An ordeal of…  Um…”

“An Ordeal of Vomitus!” Hubert interjected.

“An Ordeal of Vomitus.” Rutherford declared.  “I mean… wait, what?”

“I make you spew across the church and I’m not guilty.  An Ordeal of Vomitus.” Hubert said.

“There’s precedent,” Burt shouted from the first pew.

“That’s right!” the crowd began to murmur

“Leo made him throw up last time and he wasn’t guilty.”

“An Ordeal of Vomitus,” the crowd approved, nodding in their pews.

“Wait, wait now,” said Rutherford.  “An ordeal of Vomitus isn’t dignified.  I mean… I mean…  Really!”

Hubert smiled a toothy grin at him.  He started the chant, but the villagers joined in quick succession.  “Vomitus! Vomitus! Vomitus!”

Rutherford looked around at the villagers.  There were no sympathetic faces in the crowd.  Even Gertrude was perched in a pew near the back of the church, her arm in the air, yelling with the rest.

“I hereby proclaim an Ordeal of baking!”  Rutherford yelled at the crowd.

“Vomitus! Vomitus! Vomitus!”

“An Ordeal of water?!”

“Vomitus! Vomitus! Vomitus!”

Rutherford threw his hands in the air.  “Fine, just fine.  An ordeal of Vomitus.”

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Categories: Fiction, History, Medieval History, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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