Thursday 28 December 2017

Beginning a new series of excerpts from "The Poor Preachers", Chapter 1: "The Two Shepherds".

Master Alfred Shephard gathered in and stored his final haul of fish for the day, and straightened his aching back.  He and his colleagues chuckled as they watched the valiant but unavailing efforts of his little son, doing his best to emulate the strength of his tall, gaunt father.

‘By the Rood, William!’ called another crewman from the other side of the boat, ‘Art better with staff and crook, minding the sheep than casting forth the fisherman’s net.  Thus fated art thou in thy name.’  He gave Alfred a broad wink.

‘Heed not the jobbard’s tongue, Will.’ said the tall fisherman, gathering the embarrassed little boy in his arm, and striding homeward.  ‘Take thou pride in thy name, lad.  Forget not that thou’st the blood of King Alfred the Great a-flowing in thy veins.  Yon Nicolas sayeth sooth in that thou’t a good shepherd boy, natheless -- yea -- the best in all Dorsetshire.  Art as kind of heart as thy sweet mother and twice as canny as Father Giles if I err not.’ 
He laughed, tossed him up in the air and put him down.

Little Will turned his back on the bustling port of Bournemouth, his birthplace, and pointed excitedly up the hill.  Four sheep, nonchalantly chewing their cud, were watching them with mild interest.  One seemed to recognise him and bleated with pleasure, as though inviting him to play.
‘Lo, Fa-fa!  It be Matthew, Mark and Luke and my good co’panion John.  Prithee to greet them, Fa-fa?  Prithee?’

‘On the morrow, my son, for much toil there is still for me to do.  From whence these names o’ yon lamblings?’

‘Father Giles telleth a tale o’ them, Fa-fa, as they be the great aposseless as a-preacheth the Gossapel.  I will preach the Gossapel someday.’

His father chuckled, but said seriously ‘Many a year and much fish must be netted ere thou canst walk that road, my son.  But if that still be thine heart’s desire, thy Fa-fa shall not turn thee from it.’

He marvelled once again at the brightness and intelligence of this affectionate little lad, barely six summers.  There was something special about him, as his wife often pointed out to him.  He took delight in doing good to others in the village, young or old.  He gleefully ran messages, and particularly loved bringing gifts or good news.  He would intervene in many of his peer’s quarrels and often restored harmony.  Smaller children often followed him around, and so did his four-legged friends.  The ducks and geese would often follow him if he passed by, and his mother called him her ‘little Saint Francis of Assisi’.  Needless to say, the whole of Bournemouth doted on him.  
No.  He was not destined to be a poor fisherman.  Perhaps his mother was right, mused his father proudly.  He had a special calling from God after all.

He also had a strong scholarly bent for so young a child.
In fact, they kept small copied portions of the Anglo-Saxon scriptures in a special clay jar in a corner of their cottage. It was an heirloom, secretly and faithfully passed down from generation to generation.  Alfred claimed that these were documents that the greater Alfred himself had translated. 
Little William would often peep at these portions with a sense of awe. He was not yet able to read properly, let alone understand the strange hieroglyphics of that ancient tongue, but just to feel that link with his illustrious ancestor, and his faith, inspired him. 

He pestered the parson to teach him to read and write, as it was his ambition to read the Holy Scriptures to his friends.
‘Read Holy Writ, my son?’ Father Giles said, surprised but not displeased. ‘‘Tis surely a long road, for the Vulgate is but for the learned holy priests that are schooled in that tongue. Even I wist but little o’ that sacred tongue.’

He taught him a little of what he knew.  William showed such aptitude and intelligence that Father Giles thought he would make an excellent scholar, if only he could get him to Oxford or Cambridge Universities when he turned fourteen.  But his family barely made ends meet.  It would be a miracle if the young man ever went beyond the borders of Dorsetshire.

His scholarly potential notwithstanding, William loved people and he loved animals. Though a quiet lad, he had the knack of making friends, and many would come to him and talk out their woes. Then he would go off and tell his own sorrows to the horses in the town stables, or even to the pigs.

All this changed suddenly and tragically when William turned seven. Once again, the horror of the Black Death raised its ugly head, especially in the poorer, rat-infested quarters of the towns. Bournemouth was a busy port, and it wasn’t the first time that plagues had been born in on foreign ships.
William watched in grief as one funeral procession after another made its sombre way down the streets, destined for the burial sites reserved for the poorest folk.

One evening, when the epidemic was at its most rampant, his father staggered home coughing and bearing ugly, black sores, only to find his wife was the same, lying on her bed.

When little William came in from visiting friends at the end of town, he was faced with a horrible nightmare that scarred him for much of his life. 

‘Nay! Will, liefest! Come thou not nigh!’ his mother screamed. 

The father dragged himself from the bed to find his last remaining coins, threw the bag to William and, before collapsing, gasped, ‘Go, son! May God go with thee and bring thee better fortune than ours!’

‘Yea, go, my darling boy!’ wept his dying mother. ‘Go to thine uncle in Abbotsbury! With our last breath our prayers go with thee!’

Grieving, barefoot, hungry and frightened, he walked the many miles from Bournemouth town to find his uncle and aunt in Abbotsbury.

The couple were poor themselves and barely had enough to feed their nephew. So they took William to the local monastery, hoping the brothers would keep him amongst the other orphans. 

William was agreeable, for he had been told that holy men were meant to be like the good saints of old -- kind and compassionate. He could get the education that his soul craved for, and maybe become a holy man himself.

The rather portly and forbidding-looking brother who received them peered indifferently down at the scruffy piece of humanity looking pleadingly up at him. 
‘Nay, it cannot be done.’ he said brusquely, without any sign of compassion. ‘Stay thou with thine uncle and aunt. We have no room for dirty waifs that cannot give aid unto the abbey, in especial they that come of plague-ridden huts. Begone! Ye waste our time.’ 
With that, he stalked out of the room. He had forgotten that ten years earlier, the Black Death had laid low many of his fellows.

William was stunned, feeling rejected as though he was an abandoned child. He henceforth made a vow never to become a holy man, even if he died of hunger.
‘Come, boy.’ His uncle heaved himself to his feet and sighed as though he had expected this.

So his uncle, also a poor fisherman, and his aunt reluctantly adopted him, but seven years later, before William was fully grown, they also died in a recurrence of the plague.

The boy was then looked after by a friend of the family -- a gruff, drunken herdsman, who had noticed that young William showed some ability with animals.

William could not love the old man, but he did his best to learn as much of the trade from him as possible. He worked at it so hard that he managed to escape many of the clouts old Toothless Tom used to deal out when he was half sober.

When the old man died a few years later, poisoned by the cheap wood-ale he brewed in the forest, William began to wonder if he brought ill fortune on all those who raised him.

Eventually William became a shepherd and sty keeper for the local monastery, the Abbey of St. Bartholomew.

Although most of the brothers treated him like dirt, there were a few that helped to make his life tolerable, especially Brother Joseph. It was largely thanks to him that William obtained employment there at all, even though it was barely enough to feed him.

The Brothers had gone beyond the need to humble themselves enough to get their hands dirty, and share in the duties of mere peasants -- so said my lord abbot.  
They had ‘holier’, though unspecified, duties to attend to.
Times had changed since St. Benedict introduced the Rule, with its lofty ideals and Spartan lifestyle.

Driven to despair, William turned to wood-ale to ease the pain he felt at the state of his world, his need for acceptance and the aching emptiness he had within. A few times he had to be rescued from the ditch by his fellow labourers after a drunken rout. 

He was a personable young man, and occasionally a few of the village girls ran off with him into the woods. Having lost all sense of purpose, William was quite willing, and found a tiny degree of temporary comfort in their arms. 
But the sense of guilt that came from each of these romps drove him further into drink.

In some cases he stole food and drink from the monastery’s buttery, to help feed himself and other poor folk. The poor folk accepted him readily, a kindness which he never forgot. In his turn, William looked for ways to ease their sufferings.

It was through the hard times of those days that he learned how to survive. He and his younger friend Wilfred, another shepherd boy, became skilled in poaching, as many poor folk did, especially with the winter’s lean times. However, they never stole from the monastery’s flock, for they were his charge, and they trusted him.

Another survival skill was taught to him by old Dick Little, a soldier discharged from the army, due to a lull in the French war.
He was one of the last surviving bowmen that covered themselves in glory and won victory for the English at the battle of Gr├ęcy. But old Dick never spoke of that. His pride was in his lineage, for he claimed to be descended from John Little, the famed outlaw and right-hand man to the legendary Saxon rebel Robin of Locksley. His great grandsire had fled from the avenging arm of the law in Nottinghamshire and settled in Dorsetshire. Old Dick belligerently challenged any scoffers to a fight if they scoffed at his claim. Not many accepted his challenge because he was a giant of a man, an accurate marksman with the bow and also master of the art of quarterstaff combat.

William caught his attention when old Dick witnessed the lad stand up to a couple of poachers who were about to run off with a lamb from the monastery’s flock. They fled empty-handed when they saw old Dick Little approaching.

The big man roared with laughter, clapped the grateful William on his shoulder and wheezed out, ‘By Saint George, thou’rt a flightsome lad, then! Come thou into the wood, and we shall a-striken us a stout staff for thee to swing, so shall we.’

He then proceeded to teach William some useful strokes with the quarterstaff. The lad became so skilled at this, he was able to stand his ground against a group of bullies who had terrorised him and his friends in the past. This resulted in a few of these gentry staggering home with bruises and cracked heads. They never bothered him again.

During one long, bitterly cold winter’s night, William stood in the entrance of the sheep-pen and beat off a small pack of wolves that tried to attack the sheep. With a number of well-aimed blows, he cracked the skull of the pack leader. The others gave up and retreated. 

He cut up the beast, giving the meat to his friends, the monastery dogs, and making a fine coat of the skin.

‘Art thou not full courageous!’ cried an admiring scullery maid when he came in late that night wearing the wolf skin.
‘Nay. Say rather I be full drunken.’ he replied, his voice somewhat slurred.
She giggled and pulled him into a dark corner.

The wolf skin helped to keep him warm for many a cold night, until a generous impulse moved him to give it to a thin peasant child he found shivering, sniffling and coughing one exceptionally cold night. 
Sadly, the child died of malnutrition and consumption, but his last few nights were warmer. The child’s mother never forgot William’s kindness.

William never lost his desire to learn and would occasionally sneak in at the back of some of the orphan’s classes at St. Bartholomew’s to listen. The orphans liked him and pretended not to notice, for his sake. They even let him read some of their books.

Eventually, he found the ways and means of sneaking into the monastery archives when none but Brother Joseph was there. He would find one of the old tomes and read it in some quiet corner. Brother Joseph noticed him, but did not have the heart to expel him. So in this clandestine manner, his education progressed to a reasonably advanced state.

To be continued....

Note: I have attempted to reproduce the language of the day, but tried to balance it with readability.
If you need help with certain phrases or words, feel free to comment below and I will translate for you.
Those who purchase the complete work will receive the whole glossary.

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Poetic Intermission: A Bard's Prayer

Creator God, I would draw near
Your stories and your songs to hear.
For like a child my soul would bide
And sit by Father’s fire-side.
O Lord of Stories, King of song,
Bring counsel, courage. Make me strong.

Before all time Your tale begins
Before rebellious man, he sins,
Your Word established Earth’s foundation
Angels sang in celebration.
But joy then changed to deep lament
As evil from your presence went.
But e’en when Adam made his choice,
Your sorrow did not still Your voice.

Your story of redemption speaks
From deepest seas to highest peaks.
With awe we see, as daylight dies,
Your glowing letters in the skies;

The new song of the rising sun:
The world reborn when dark is done.
Then forth from many a feathered throat
Come songs of joy You skillf’ly wrote. 

Yet few will stop, Your voice to hear
In nature’s clarion-call so clear,
Nor hearken to the Laws of life
That keep us safe and free from strife.

The greatest hist’ries ever told
Recorded now from days of old,
True tales and songs of by-gone ages
Are writ now in bible pages;
Telling me that Story True
And how we may turn back to You;
And how you sent our Saviour bold
Who many a telling story told,
Your Heav’nly Kingdom to proclaim
And find salvation in His Name.
The greatest Bard of all was He,
Who died and rose to set us free.

He sent Your Spirit to inspire
Your faithful folk with Holy fire.
Upon our hearts, Your sov’reign will
You write with Your Great Spirit’s quill;
To tell and sing redemtion’s song,
To light the darkness, right the wrong.

So, on this pilgrim’s path I tread,
Pass through this vale of dark and dread,
I write, I rhyme, I sing my lays
That some may hear, and give You praise.
My message many laugh to scorn.
I leave, disheartened, tired, forlorn.
For who, alone, can cast aside
Self-serving Self, self-centred pride?
Yet I return to see seed sown
Unwittingly, and how they’ve grown!

Encouraged, then I take the road,
Though rough the way and hard the load.
But when You’re with me, by Your might
The yolk is easy, burden’s light.

O help us, Lord, to tell Your tale!
All lies expose, let Truth prevail!
Your truth speak with the Lion’s roar,
And being gen’rous to the poor;
Yet gently, with compassion’s tear,
Speak graciously to those who hear;

Creator God, create in me
Your kind of creativity.
O give me words that heal the soul,
That brings new hope, that makes men whole;
And words of heav’nly wisdom speak
(Not somethin’ that’s way up the creek!)
In vain is that creative flame
That does not magnify Your Name.
So now, Creator God, I pray
come talk with me along the way.

Copyright © Arthur D Bardswell 2017