—Elsbeth, said Pieter. Did I not tell you there was no worry here?
—But I saw you, she said. I saw you on the pole.
—Some other man. Without luck. Perhaps not so clever as I.
—I saw you. It was you.
Pieter looked down at his feet.
—Those who came, said Pieter, felt they put me on the pole, felt they took me with them. They have seen my house burn. They have shown themselves to be that which they hate, that which they want to chase away out of the village. Well, there is a visiting that proceeds, that has proceeded this week in the town. Someone has been visiting, has he not?
Elsbeth was looking at her Pieter and her eyes were shining.
—I am glad, she said, that you are not on that pole. Whatever it means.
—Come and sit, said Pieter, for there was a supper laid out on the table. I will tend to your horse.
And he went out the door and down the steps. Through the window she could see his head laid against the horse’s head, though she could not hear his speaking there.
—What is it you have to say to horses at evening? What understanding have you made?
She troubled him again and again with questions. How is it she had seen him on the pole. But he would say nothing about it, and would turn silent and cold, so she left off.
I will know in time all this, she thought.
From a hollow place in the wall he took out a long crook. It was reddish in color, with streaks of white.
And then Pieter was again with her, and serving the meat, which was a pale red meat, like venison. He had bread he’d baked, butter, cheese, and fresh milk. She ate with a hunger she had never felt, ate and ate. Pieter ate, too, and between them, they ate all that had been laid upon the table.
He showed her a silver glove he had made from the thinnest links.
—One wears it in the first hour of dawn, and chance goes a little ways with you on the road.
Scarcely do I believe it, thought Elsbeth,
and Pieter smiled.
From a hollow place in the wall he took out a long crook. It was reddish in color, with streaks of white.
—Have you sheep? she asked.
—I have had sheep, he said, though none now.
The door to the outside was open and a cat came in. Behind it was another cat and another.
—These go everywhere together, said Pieter. For they each know what’s best for one of the others, but never for themselves.
He gave Elsbeth a bowl and she poured milk for the cats and laid it on the ground.
—I will show you a thing now, said Pieter, as he lit the candles in the wall sconces.
He went to the door at the far end of the house, and turned the handle, and beneath his hand it turned easily.
Elsbeth followed him in. He lit a candle and another and another, and the room was full of light.
What can be said of that room? There was a bed placed, as the others, in one wall. There was a broad window, widest of the house, looking out over the hill away from the road.
But most stirring, most unforeseen, most impossible of all, at the center of the room was an enormous loom, the best she had ever seen.
It was rooted to the ground upon legs like the legs of a young animal, sure in its strength. Its frame rose up, figured and etched. The wood was ebony, ebony all through.
—It can’t be, said Elsbeth. It’s made from a single piece of wood.
—It was brought here for you, said Pieter, many years ago, by a young man, building a house from his thought and wishes. He considered that perhaps Elsbeth might come one day out along the low road.
Then he brought out a bottle of warm drink, and they drank a glass together, and he left Elsbeth to her room, and left, closing the door.
And the first part of the night she spent running her hands over the loom, and taking up the thread that was at hand and stringing it.
And the next part of the night she slept in the bed that had been made for her, and it was hers then to lie in a deep place.
What can be said of waking in that house? That the dreams of the night before stood in turn to be examined, waiting with a patience unheard of?
Elsbeth remembered first:
A word learned by listening every day for years at a hole in the ground. Years and years passing and finally the word is said.
Then, all through the town, all through the world one goes and no one can stand against one. The word is said, and houses are laid upon their sides, clouds form into veins that carry sight farther and farther than ever before. Can you see? asked the dream, the true depth of sight when one abandons the direction of one’s life and takes to a single task, takes to listening at a hole in the ground, years and years, and finally a word is said?
That was the first dream.
A room full of coats. A coat of bird feathers, a coat that is the skin of a man, a coat that is the skin of a bear, the scales of a fish, the skin of a cat, of a mouse, of a snake, of a mule.
Then out that room and into another, where three suns rise in the farther sky. Men devoid of color sit playing at chess on a hundred tables. The pieces move untouched from square to square, and smoke rises from the ground where feet touch.
—There is no dust here, says the man who stands directly behind and cannot be seen.
—Do you know what that means, for there to be a place without dust?
A grand theatre, built to hold an audience of all that were ever born and all that will ever die, but the arriving there has taken place far too soon, and no one has come. Then, the wandering up and down aisles, empty aisles, the choosing of a seat from thousands made thousands in the thousandth part. Balconies, boxes, side-seats, hiding places on the roof, stools set on the stage-side, chairs built into the machinery of the lamps and bells and curtains.
Alone there and walking and walking, sitting first in one chair and then another, whistling and singing. Speaking first softly, and afterwards with a loud voice, for it is no matter. No one has come. One is far too early for the proceeding of life, even in one’s own body.
To arrive too early even to live in one’s own body.
And then sleep again.
That was the third dream.
The fourth dream:
As though in morning, with little warning, a yellow haired man came in through the window.
Pieter Emily rose in his small room. In his house there were but two rooms. He went into the other and lit the stove. The yellow haired man was already there.
The yellow haired man was standing at once in all the rooms of the house, standing at once in every field, upon every roof, sitting in the boughs of every tree, prone upon each running stream, each still lake.
You cannot escape me, said the yellow haired man.
But all at once, there were two countries, then three, then four, then five, and Pieter Emily and his cottage were nowhere to be found, and search as the sun might, its rays were like arms without hands, and could not lift the earth to see what lay beneath.
That was the fourth dream.
Yes, Elsbeth woke and looked about her. The room was there, with the full light pouring through the windows, and the loom at the room’s center, strung like a harp, finer than ever. She sat at it, and felt the shuttle and how it sat upon her hand.
Then a knocking at the door.
—Elsbeth, will you come?
She rose and went to the door. Pieter was there.
—I must speak with you, he said.
Then they walked together the length of the house.
—Elsbeth Grimmer, said Pieter, and he looked at her but said no more.
He wants me to live here, thought Elsbeth.
And she thought of the loom, and how she had never seen a loom so fine. She thought of the feel of the place, like a house in a well to which no one can ever come. She could live here, she thought, and pass her days in weaving just as she would in town.
—Do you like the loom? he asked.
And she felt the truth of it. To leave her sister’s house, to leave her shop, to leave the town… She could.
Elsbeth opened one of the narrow windows and leaned out so that the land beyond was all about her, the hill and the house and the room behind.
I will live here, she thought to herself.
And Pieter nodded.
—You have had many dreams this night, said Pieter. If you like I will tell you the meaning of one, but only of one.
—This was the dream, said Elsbeth. I had lost my legs in a threshing accident, and instead of legs I wore long stilts buckled to my knees. On these stilts I could make speed through the fields and so I was a carrier of messages like no other. My father was a wealthy farmer, a prince of sorts, and all those merchants who came to him would speak and wonder at the beauty of his broken child fluttering above the wheat on legs of wood. Call to me, I would say, call to me, but none would call. None called, and when my father grew old, the farm was mine, and I wore a leather coat and carried a sling and kept a watch over the fields in the long night.
—What you invent, said Pieter, is as telling as a dream.
—Do you say so? asked Elsbeth.
—The threshing accident was birth, the wooden legs the loom. Your father is the town, the messages the needs perceptible to you in thread. Those visitors are nothing, the mountains beyond. You have no hope of them, and never did. The leather coat, the sling, are a step with the left foot and the right as you come here to me to speak not in defense of myself, but to protect your childhood which seems now so far.
—And yet, said he, it is the good fortune I have awaited, so we shall call it what you like.
The day was early still, and the sun beneath its zenith. Pieter and Elsbeth went to the hill’s edge, where there was a well and a stone wall. The grass on either side of the stone wall was alike. It began and ended with no purpose.
—What is the purpose of this wall? asked Elsbeth.
—I built this wall, said Pieter, twenty years ago when I built the house, thinking of the day when we would walk out from the house and need a place to sit as I told you the necessities of your return.
Elsbeth smiled a smile of not-believing.
Then Pieter sat in a way that said, you need not believe me, but still it is true.
—You’ll go then back to the town to fetch some things. But if you are to come and live here, you must obey these few things.
He looked sharply into Elsbeth’s eyes.
—You must bring back no iron.
—You must say my name to no one, and say nothing of what you have seen.
—You must not sit in a chair or upon the ground when you are again in the town. Neither can you take food or drink.
—You must return here before the sun goes down, and you must bring back no more than you can carry in a single bag. There will be a new life for you here, with as many things as you desire. These things that you will bring will be the last of your old life.
—And you must not be cut, or let a drop of blood out of you in the town. There is time still today. Go and return.
—I will bring no iron, she said. I will sit nowhere. I will say nothing of what I have seen. I will take no drink, no food. I will return before sunset, and I will take but a single bag. No blood will come from me while I am in the town.
Pieter wore a long coat of harsh canvas, buttoned on the side, and he had at his side a long knife.
—What will you do, asked Elsbeth, while I am gone?
—I’ll check on my field, give food to my animals, and set out in the woods.
—You must be here when I return, said Elsbeth.
—Have no fear of that, said Pieter, for I know every way in the wood, and can judge time from the limbs of trees.
Then they were parted, and Elsbeth rode away into the town, and when she looked back from a rise in the road, what she saw behind her was a burned-out cottage on a ravaged hill, and she found that her clothes were dirty, as though she had slept the night on a bed of ashes.
After a short ride, Elsbeth reached the town. She saw it from a distance, its intricacy of wood and walkways, its rising of turrets and workshops. Smoke rose from dozens of chimneys, people leaned out windows. The warmth of the sun was here though it had not been with them on the hillside at the reasonless wall.
Will I go back? asked Elsbeth. And then she thought of the loom, and her blood stirred.
I can, she thought, always return to the town one day. If I like, I can return after a month, after a week. I need not stay with Pieter forever.
But she saw in his face a hardness and she knew that what was binding to him would be binding to her.
At the stable she left the horse and went on home.
Moll Ongar stopped her at a crossing.
—Elsbeth, she cried out. Elsbeth have you heard?
—What is it, Moll?
Moll’s face was red with the news.
—The mayor, squeaked Moll, Falk’s hand was cut off at the wrist. He reached into a cupboard and when he pulled his arm out there was blood everywhere. I mean, they brought in the body of Pieter Emily today, and hung it on the gate. I said so myself, I said it was bad luck, and now see what’s happened.
—Where is the body? asked Elsbeth.
—The main gate.
Elsbeth stood looking up at the arch. There was blood there, where the hook was, but no body.
—Took him down an hour ago.
—What did you say?
An old man was sitting there in the shade.
—I said they took him down an hour ago. I’ve been sitting here all day. I watched them bring him, watched them hang him up, and I watched them come an hour ago, take him down and drag him off to burial.
—Where would that be? asked Elsbeth.
—Where do you suppose? asked the old man.
He spat on the ground.
—I don’t know, said Elsbeth, the graveyard?
—Would you want him there? asked the old man, with decent folk?
Elsbeth narrowed her eyes.
—Where are they burying him?
—Why do you care anyway? said the man suspiciously.
Another old man came out of the inn and sat down on the bench next to the first old man.
—What’s the news? he said.
—This woman’s wanting to know where they took Jansen’s son.
—Yeah, where they took him.
—Doesn’t she know that?
The second old man looked up at Elsbeth.
—Haven’t seen you in a time, he said. Elsbeth Grinner. My son says the shop’s been closed last few days.
—Clef Carr, tell me this minute, said Elsbeth. Where is Pieter Emily being buried?
—Buried him already, said Carr. In a plot by the church, face down like a suicide, from shame.
No one was at the house when she arrived. Elsbeth went up to her room and laid out a bag. She changed her dirty dress for another, and filled the bag with a few things, then a few more. She set out all she’d like to take with her, and saw that it was more than would fit in the one bag.
—I could take two, she said. Two would not be so bad. He couldn’t object to two.
But when she left the room, it was with the one bag, and having left the best of her things behind.
On the stairs, she heard the door creak. Catha came in.
—Elsbeth, she said. Elsbeth, where have you been?
And Elsbeth looked at her and said nothing.
—Elsbeth, she said, where have you been?
—I went, said Elsbeth, to the mountain pass, to see if it’s clear, to see if anyone come from the outside.
Catha shook her head.
—That’s a lie, she said. What are you doing with that sack? Where are you going now all dressed to travel?
Elsbeth looked at her feet.
—What’s going on? said Catha. Last night I dreamt the strangest dreams, so clear I could remember all when I woke. And when I did, I went to your room to tell you, for I know you had the same, but you were not there, and your bed was made.
—What did you dream? asked Elsbeth.
—I dreamed of an opera house like the ones in the great cities of the East, a grand place, as large as a city itself, and made to hold all that were ever born, or ever will be. Yet it was morning, and the opera is an evening’s word. It was morning and I came there all alone to walk among the seats as through a forest of pines, where the needles make a bed and all’s quiet. There were no hands to hold, and so I held my own and went through the arcades, the balconies, the anterooms, calling out, but no one came. The roof of the opera was painted like the sky, and changed like the sky, changing as I moved, and ceasing when I ceased. All the lights were lit, great lamps burning at every interval, in every unpeopled room. I felt that you were there, that you had been there.
—I was there, with you, and you with me, but we could be no comfort to each other.
—And this? asked Catha, her hand taking in the sack, the traveling clothes.
—There’s no comfort for me here, said Elsbeth, only craft and continuing.
—Do you know, said Catha, taking her sister in an embrace, that they killed him?
Catha began to cry.
—They killed him, she said, and hung him on the gate.
To this Elsbeth said nothing.
—Where have you been? asked Catha. Oh, you will not tell me. Then go, and go, and I shall watch you from behind your shoulder, as I always have.
—And I you, said Elsbeth.
On the stoop she set down her sack, for a thought had pricked her. What of iron had she taken unwittingly?
And from her sack she drew a penknife, from her sack she drew three needles, from her sack she drew a scissor, all gone there unknown.
She left these on the doorstep, and made to go. But Catha called to her from the door.
—Are you not hungry? Let me make you a meal before you go. Let us sit and have a drink.
And in Elsbeth then a hunger greater than she had ever felt. Yet she dismissed it. Then in Elsbeth a thirst as for the sea.
He said no food and drink. To have one drink alone . . . It might be all right. She went into the house, and Catha poured a glass and a glass of wine.
—Sit, said Catha.
—Oh, said Elsbeth, I cannot.
And she turned away from her sister, standing there with the two glasses.
Then she fled through the door, and as she did a nail caught at her.
Her sleeve tore and the nail was against her skin. But it did not cut.
Elsbeth breathed and closed her eyes.
—Goodbye, she said again.
And then she was out in the day and the day was soon to finish. Bag over her shoulder, she made her way down to the stable. I will go another way, she thought, than the usual. I do not want to see anyone at all.
So she took the alley behind the main street, and went along behind shops and houses. As she drew near the stable and the town’s edge, a voice called out.
—Elsbeth. Elsbeth Grinner.
She turned. It was the priest.
—Father, she said.
—My daughter, what ails you?
He came up, Father Rutlin, and took her chin in his hand.
—What ails you? he said.
—I am as well as I may be, said Elsbeth.
She tried to pull away, but he would not let her.
—Elsbeth, he said, Elsbeth, there is a skin on you. Another skin, that you cannot see.
He ran his hand over her face and along her arm.
—There is another skin. It is between you and the world. I shall take it away.
—No, said Elsbeth. Do nothing!
But Rutlin held his hands at her temples and spoke beneath his breath, and when he let her go, he drew something off her that left her weak in the legs and arms.
—Come tomorrow, said Rutlin, I demand it.
And he fixed her with his eye.
The light of the sun was lying on its side and coming here and there through the houses and walls.
Elsbeth looked helplessly back and then broke away.
—Elsbeth, he called. Come tomorrow. Heed me.
On down the road on horse, on horse down the low road as the road sank and the sun sank, and a weight was upon her.
He must let me in, she thought. He must.
On she went, and evening drew near. Yet as she came down the side of the last hill, the sun was in the sky, still above the trees.
I am in time, she thought, and she urged the horse on.
The cottage appeared before her in ashes, as it had been. It lay ahead, in ashes. Up the hill she came, and down from the horse. The cottage was in ashes.
—Change, she thought. Change. Flicker and be here.
But she came on horse, and then she came on foot to the cottage, and the ground was ash. The cottage was ash. She walked about in the ashes, and moved them with her feet. The horse went off to graze where it had been the morning before. And the sun was gone from the sky, and she laid down in the ash and wept, and fell into sleep, and this is what she dreamed:
She was sitting at the loom, the black loom, strung as it had been by her the night before. She began to weave, and she wove faster and faster, and the room began to spin. She wove and she wove and a pattern grew, and she could see what it was in the pattern, rising from her hand.
A red blot growing, and then it was a fox, and a wood grew about it, and hills, and a road. A party of horsemen could be seen, and a pole they were carrying, a man hung from it. In the distance, a town of wood, a box of wood, a town like a box of wood. Three suns in the sky, each weaker than the one before. And at the edge of the town, a man with a woman’s skin in his hand. Then the loom cracked in half and broke to the floor, and Elsbeth woke.
Yes, morning bright all about her, and Elsbeth woke, lying in ash, covered in ash, holding the tapestry in her hand that was the record of all that had passed, and on the near slope her horse stood, nosing at the grass, and looking up now and then to see if she was yet awake.
Jesse Ball (1978- ) is a poet and and novelist. Novels: The Way Through Doors (Vintage), Samedi the Deafness (Vintage). Poetry/Prose: The Village on Horseback (Milkweed 2010), Vera & Linus (Nyhil), March Book (Grove). Drawings: Og svo kom nottin (Nyhil). Won the Plimpton Prize in 2008 for The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr. Assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Book of the Courtier: Castiglione, Baldesar. 1528. Conversations about behavior. For those of you who don’t know how to behave…
Samurai Rebellion: Kobayashi, Masaki. 1967. With Toshiro Mifune. More about behavior, but this time with samurai swords.
Tous les matins du monde [Bande Originale du Film]: Savall, Jordi. 1991. If you spent a decade doing nothing but trying to find the saddest music, you would end up playing this on a record player in a broken down apartment.
Pieter Emily copyright 2009 by Jesse Ball