This is an experiment. I don’t know if it’s going to work. But I have a problem, which is that I’m not writing. So I thought I would try to write a story here, in installments. The story is called “Blanchefleur,” and I’ve written about 4000 words of it. I’m going to post those over the next few days. And then I’ll try to write the rest of it. By the end, I should at least have a first draft for my writing group to critique.
So here goes. Here’s the story. This is how it starts.
They called him Idiot.
He was the miller’s son, and he had never been good for much. At least not since his mother’s death, when he was twelve years old. He had found her floating, face-down, in the millpond, and his cries had brought his father’s men. When they had turned her over, he had seen her face, pale and bloated, before someone had said, “Not in front of the child!” and they had hurried him away. He had never seen her again, just the wooden coffin going into the ground, and after that, the gray stone in the churchyard where, every Sunday, he and his father left whatever was in season – a bunch of violets, sprays of the wild roses that grew by the forest edge, tall lilies from beside the mill stream. In winter, they left holly branches red with berries.
Before her death, he had been a laughing, affectionate child, playing all day long. After her death, he became solitary. He would no longer play with his friends from school, and eventually they began to ignore him. He would no longer speak even to his father, and anyway the miller was a quiet man who, after his wife’s death, grew even more silent. He was so broken, so bereft, by the loss of his wife that he could barely look at the son who had her golden hair, her eyes the color of spring leaves. Often they would go a whole day, saying no more than a few sentences to each other.
He went to school, but he never seemed to learn – he would stare out the window or, if called upon, shake his head and refuse to answer. Once, the teacher rapped his knuckles for it, but he simply looked at her with those eyes, which were so much like his mother’s. The teacher turned away, ashamed of herself, and after that she left him alone, telling herself that at least he was sitting in the schoolroom rather than loafing about the fields.
He learned nothing, he did nothing. When his father told him to do the work of the mill, he did it so badly that the water flowing through the sluice gates was either too fast or too slow, or the large millstones that grind the grain were too close together or far apart, or he took the wrong amount of grain in payment from the farmers who came to grind their wheat. Finally, the miller hired another man, and his son wandered about the countryside, sometimes sleeping under the stars, eating berries from the hedges when he could find them. He would come home dirty, with scratches on his arms and brambles in his hair. And his father, rather than scolding him, would look away.
If anyone had looked closely, they would have seen that he was clever at carving pieces of wood into whistles, and that he seemed to know how to call all the birds. Also, that he knew all the paths through the countryside and could tell the time by the position of the sun and moon on each day of the year, his direction by the stars. He knew the track and spoor of every animal, what tree each leaf came from by its shape. He knew which mushrooms were poisonous and how to find water under the ground. But no one did look closely.
It was the other schoolboys, most of whom had once been his friends, who started calling him Idiot. At first it was Idiot Ivan, but soon it was simply Idiot, and it spread through the village until people forgot that he had ever been called Ivan. Farmers would call to him, cheerfully enough, “Good morning, Idiot!” They meant no insult by it. In villages, people like knowing who you are. The boy was clearly an idiot, so let him be called that. And so he was.
No one noticed that under the dirt, and despite the rags he wore, he had grown into a large, handsome boy. He should have had sweethearts, but the village girls assumed he was slow and had no prospects, even though he was the miller’s son. So he was always alone, and the truth was, he seemed to prefer it.
The miller was the only one who still called him Ivan, although he had given his son up as hopeless, and even he secretly believed that the boy was slow and stupid.
This was how things stood on the day that the miller rode to market to buy a new horse. The market was held in the nearest town, on a fine summer day that was also the feast-day of Saint Ivan, so the town was filled with stalls selling livestock, vegetables from the local farms, leather and rope harnesses, embroidered linen, woven baskets. Men and women in smocks lined up to hire themselves for the coming harvest. There were strolling players with fiddles or pipes, dancers on a wooden platform, and a great deal of beer – which the miller drank from a tankard.
The market went well for him. He found a horse for less money than he thought he would have to spend, and while he was paying for his beer, one of the maids from the tavern winked at him. She was plump, with sunburnt cheeks, and she poured his beer neatly, leaving a head of foam that just reached the top of the tankard. He had not thought of women, not in that way, since his wife had drowned. She had been one of those magical women, beautiful as the dawn, as slight as a willow-bough and with a voice like birds singing, that are perhaps too delicate for this world. That kind of woman gets into a man’s blood. But lately he had started to notice once again that other women existed, and that there were other things in the world than running a mill. Like his son, who was a great worry to him. What would the idiot – Ivan, he reminded himself – what would he do when the his father was gone, as we must all go someday? Would he be able to take care of himself?
He had saddled his horse and was fastening a rope to his saddle so the new horse could be led, when he heard a voice he recognized from many years ago. “Hello, Stephen Miller,” it said.
He turned around and bowed. “Hello, Lady.”