Pieter Emily will be presented in this magazine in three parts. This is Part 2. Part 1 can be found here.
—Elsbeth! cried Catha, as she saw her sister at the door.
—Elsbeth, she said again. I have been waiting all night.
Elsbeth came into the room. She was filthy from head to foot from walking the dirt road. She was as weary as she’d ever been.
—I know, said Catha. I know where you went. It’s plain on your face.
—It was a long walk, said Elsbeth.
—I will put water on for a bath. Change out of your clothes, and I’ll set out some supper. Poor thing.
And so Catha filled a bath, and made a supper, and when Elsbeth emerged and sat down at table, she ate a little.
—Speak, said Catha, for I’ll wait no more.
—I went to his house. He was there, alone, living alone. He has done… terrible things. He admitted as much, though he can’t see it. He can’t see what’s wrong with the things he’s done.
The sisters looked at each other as though from far away.
—Do you understand? asked Elsbeth.
—More and worse happened today, said Catha. There was another meeting. Loren, Malin’s son, was out in a field. Malin said the field grew up around him and the boy was gone. Just like that, the boy gone. All the farmhands came, the field was searched clear from one end to the other, but the boy was gone.
—Cran’s boy Levin Mills saw himself in a mirror, turned old, and when his sister found him, she couldn’t comfort him. He’s convinced his body’s withering, and he can hardly draw a breath for fear.
—Dar Stane fell from a ladder, and his wife watching him. Fell to the street and landed on his head.
They dreamed of a wasteland, stretching into distance on all sides. At the center, a thin wooden ladder ascending out of sight through the clouds.
—Someone set fire to the Oulen’s place. It near burned to the ground, and the barn as well, but the fire didn’t touch the animals. They didn’t even notice it.
—Ann Severn can’t find her husband Tham. He went to gather wood, and hasn’t been seen. There’re a dozen stories, and a dozen more. People are angry. They’re setting out in the morning to take him. Galvin Falk and twenty others. My Jaim spoke against it, but he was shouted down, and there wasn’t much to say anyway, what with all that’s been happening.
—Falk was angry, angry as I’ve ever seen him. He said we could not stand to live with a murderer not fifteen miles away. He said that even if we did not judge ourselves, that our fathers and their fathers, and our children and their children, all these would judge us. There was a great argument, but when the sticks were passed around, most were for it.
—Four people dreamed it the first night, and seven the next. Everyone in town has dreamed the same dream, said Catha.
—What was it? Did you?
—No, said Catha. They dreamed of a wasteland, stretching into distance on all sides. At the center, a thin wooden ladder ascending out of sight through the clouds.
—But there’s this, said Catha. Of all in the town, only one was brave enough to climb the ladder, even in a dream.
—Who? asked Elsbeth.
—Dunough Lark. She climbed it hand over hand, and when she passed through the first cloud, she said there was a world in red, that frightened her. When she passed through the second, there was a world in blue that gave her a sadness she will never dispel. Yet when she passed through the third, she found herself in her own room, made lovelier and stranger than she ever had been.
—And was it true?
—None would have recognized her, but for her voice, which was the same, but quieted.
When Elsbeth woke it was well past noon.
—Have they left? she cried, and she knew that they had, that the mayor’s party had passed out along the road at first light.
Down the stairs she went. Jaim was there. He called out to her, but she ran on. On she went to the stable, where she hired a horse.
—Where is it you’re going, Mistress Grimmer? asked the stablehand.
But Elsbeth rode past him without a word.
Out onto the road and urging the horse on. She was a quarter of the way there, then more, when she heard a pounding of hooves ahead on the road. She drew off, dismounted, and led her horse into the woods.
In the world, there is a time when one feels a confederacy with others. That time may last a short while. It may last through all of one’s life. Elsbeth had felt that twice in this world, once with her sister, in a lasting bond, and once with Pieter. So unlike the others was she that she felt sometimes incapable even of speaking when out in public. The matter of greeting those who greet in the road was a huge complication, and she would go back ways through the streets to avoid it. As a child, she had pretended there were two of her, Elsbeth, her parent’s daughter, and Elsbeth-made-of-shadows. Elsbeth-made-of-shadows could do what she liked, and did. It was she who befriended Pieter. The things they did were not good things, not always. Once, they cut off a horse’s hoof for no reason at all, and left it on the steps of the church.
Pieter was caught for that, but he did not say who had been with him, and Elsbeth had gone unpunished.
They had whipped and whipped him for that. Meyer the cart-driver, whose horse it was, was given way, and he had taken it.
The boy’d been held down by his father while Meyer laid into him. Elsbeth had watched, along with others.
How could they decide, she’d wondered, a penalty for the cutting off of a horse’s hoof? Who is smart enough in this world to know what that crime equals, to know what punishment absolves it? Something so absurd can have no correspondent.
Yet they’d whipped him and let him go, and his father had paid a price for the draft-horse.
They’d forced Pieter to put the horse down, just to show him the weight of what he’d done, but that was a lost act, for he’d killed the horse with care and even sad pleasure, stroking its face and quieting it, then firing a pistol into its head.
Who supposes any fairness is a fool, thought Elsbeth, and when Pieter went, back raw and bleeding, to his hiding place, it was she was there to clean his back and sit with him.
Off the road, then, Elsbeth drew. She pushed the horse further, and turned to look back.
Movement and dust. Along then, the Mayor’s party, some twenty strong, riding slowly. Two and two carried a long pole, the mayor at the head, and from the pole hung a body, beaten and broken. On the pole a body hung. It was Pieter, stripped to his waist, slack with his mouth agog, chest blooded.
Falk’s face was triumphant. He was a large man, and he wore his happiness openly now. He did not look to left or right, or he would have felt Elsbeth’s eyes bore into him.
—You’ve killed him.
She dropped the reins and stepped forward.
Then the pole flickered. It flickered, and there was no one there, the horsemen were carrying an empty pole. She blinked and looked back. Pieter was again strung on the pole, slack in death, and then the horsemen were gone out of sight.
What was that? she wondered.
And a strange feeling made her say, I will continue to his house, to see what they have done.
The horse was waiting deeper in when she went to fetch him. He looked at her with his long horse eyes, and she felt that someone was looking through the horse’s eyes, that someone could see her there where she was. She pulled the horse’s head away from her, but it strained and turned and again it was looking at her.
—Come now, she said. Come along.
She rode on, but slower, and after a little while, came to where the road rose to overlook Pieter’s holding. The line of trees wound like bunching thread up and around, holding the hill in a green fist, and there,
there, the house was burned to the ground. Where she had sat yesterday was ashes. She rode closer, and as she rode, the house flickered, flickered and was there.
She urged her horse on. Smoke was coming from the chimney. The door was opening. Pieter was alive. She was sure.
Elsbeth climbed down from the horse and ran up to the steps.
—Pieter, she called. Pieter!
Pieter Emily continues here.
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