“How does she do it?” I asked my father once. He smiled - the over-wide smile of a man trying hard not to laugh.
“She keeps them in an old skin pouch.” He told me. “If the gift you take her is fine enough, she’ll let you have one.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“Then you’ll have to go back and try again.” He said.
Annis Blackbeard visited Jennika twice a week - I’d seen him coming out of her house as I lit the dawn-spark fires. I said as much to my father and he chuckled.
“I guess she hasn’t made a man of Annis yet then. That woman of his never could and not for want of trying.”
“Can all women make men, then?” I asked.
“They can.” My father told me. “Though some of them make better men than others.”
Annis’ wife, Mella, was a sharp woman built up of spite and angles, so unlike the soft-faced girls who had been born to our village. Annis had brought her back from the coast past Wymeswood. My father said that Annis had regretted it ever since.
“Then why did he bring her?” I asked.
“She was beautiful then. A princess, Annis told us - although whether or not that’s true I wouldn’t like to say. Maybe he wanted to be a prince.” My father shrugged.
There was something of Mella’s beauty left to her in her if you looked hard enough for it, but even then it was a harsh beauty, so unlike the other women I had seen that it had an exotic allure all of its own. Where the girls of our village were short and thick-limbed, Mella was tall and willowy, the curve of her jaw and the line of her cheekbones proud under her translucent skin. There was a frost in her eyes as sharp as a midwinter morning.
“She was not so gaunt then,” My father told me. “and her cheeks had a pretty pink flush to them when she laughed.” I had never seen Mella laugh; or, at least, if I had I couldn’t remember it.
There was no frost in Jennika’s honey brown eyes or sharpness in the age-softened curves of her body. She was not a young woman - experienced, my father called her and an experience worth having - or an especially beautiful one, but when she smiled or laughed the echoes of the girl she had once been danced around her shoulders like a cloak of memories.
Jennika had given my father his manhood before he took my mother as his woman - and his father before him, too. Before that, there had been another woman - and before her another.
“There have been women like her since there were boys to need making into men.” My father used to say. Perhaps he was right.
I took my time to make the right gift; a little brooch carved out of oaken wood and fitted with a river polished stone. My hands were still too awkward to carve as finely as my father could. Even so, when I was finished it looked more like the acorn cup I had intended than the misshapen knot of wood I had been expecting. I fixed the stone in place - a gleaming dark brown ‘acorn’ - and stained the wood dark with tar bush juices.
My father examined the brooch when I was finished, turning the wood over in his soft-calloused hands. “A little clumsy and raw, but not a bad place to be starting the craft.” He could have been talking about me. Maybe he was.
“Take it to her later.” He told me.
My father nodded. ”And maybe not soon enough then.” It was true that I’d left it later than most to visit Jennika - Markie had gone a whole year younger than I was then - but I’d wanted to get her gift just right.
“Give her this too.” My father said. He handed me a little skin pouch; when I took it, the weight surprised me. “Don’t look inside - that’s part of the magic.” He told me when I went to pull the strings.
I nodded. The magicks of women were a mystery to me then, as they still are to me now if I’m speaking honest. Pouches to be kept closed and pouches to be opened - and not for me to decide if they were one or the other.
It was late when I went - not quite late enough to be dark although the night fires were already burning. It had been a cold, thin Summer that year and the days had a brightness to them which seemed to be stretched too thinly. Nobody thought to ask what it was stretched over - or, at least, nobody asked in my hearing.
I tucked the acorn into my belt along with the pouch my father had given me. I realise now that the whole village probably saw - and heard - me make my way to Jennika‘s house, but at the time I thought I moved with the stealth of a third year Forest Wyvern out on hunt.
The door was open. My father said that nobody ever knocked on Jennika‘s door. “If Jennika’s door is open,” he said, “you go inside. If it happens to be closed, you come back later.”
Jennika’s house was comforting and well-worn. The stone floors were covered by a mosaic of rag rugs and there were hangings on the walls.
On some distant day, someone had plaited a brightly coloured bundle of ribbons into a May-crown. Perhaps once Jennika had worn it. Now, it hung from a nail in the wooden window frame where some spider or other had seen fit to add to it a veil of cobwebs.
The hearth fire was lit and a pot of water was set to simmer over it. Jennika was tending the pot with a long-handled ladle. She looked up and smiled a welcome but did not stop stirring.
“You are Halrick’s boy aren’t you?” She asked. “You have the look of him about you.” Jennika had known me since I was a child. This was part of the ritual - the lesser part of the magicks where words were spoken before deeds were done.
“No.” I told her. “I am my own man. My name is Alaric. Halrick is my father.”
Jennika nodded her subtle approval.
“And what can I do for you, Alaric son of Halrick?”
“I - ” I was so nervous that I forgot the words my father had told me to use. Instead, I stepped forwards and pushed the gifts - my acorn and the pouch my father had given me - into Jennika’s free hand.
Jennika examined the little brooch almost as thoroughly as my father had. I had been afraid that she might laugh but she didn’t.
“From acorns such as this great things have grown, Alaric.” Jennika looked up and smiled. “Perhaps you also will grow to be great.” She didn’t examine the pouch. Instead, she tucked it - unopened - into a crude clay jar in one corner of the room.
“Come this way, son of Halrick.” She said.
“May I have my manhood?” I asked - I still cringe today when I remember it.
Jennika smiled - it was a forgiving smile. An understanding smile. I have ever been grateful for her patience with me.
“Of course you may.” She told me. “Let me show you where to find it…”
My father was sitting by the main door when I arrived home. An unwhittled lump of wood rested on his lap. When he saw me, he picked up his knife and pretended that he had been paring it all along. Long, curled ribbons of wood began to settle around his feet.
“Did she give you what you needed?” He asked me. I blushed and he grinned at me, enjoying my boyish discomfort.
“That old skin pouch of hers has plenty of treasure for a man. I take it what you found there was to your liking. No - don’t hang your head, son. There’s no shame in what you’ve done tonight. Jennika is a good woman. Be kind to her and she’ll show you all manner of magicks. Use what she teaches you well and you’ll find a fine witch of your own to keep one day.” He winked and there was no mockery in it. “Come sit with your father by the fire, Alaric. Tomorrow, you will greet sun-up as a man - but tonight, we must talk of the things passed down from father to son.”
We talked well past sun-up, although I will not tell you what it was we spoke of. If you are a man, perhaps you will know those words already.
“When you have sons of your own, you will speak to them of these things.” My father told me when we had finished. “You will pass on the things which I have told you - and perhaps add a little wisdom of your own.”
We stood and he clasped my arm as one man greets another. I gripped him back, tightly. I will admit now that I was a little afraid. A boy lives under the protection of his father but a man must make his own path through life. It felt to me then that when I released my father’s arm I would be truly alone in the world - although, of course, that was not the case.
There was a new knife - unsheathed - waiting for me at the foot of my bed. The handle had been carved out of rosewood and there was a notch at the base of the blade. I tied a length of cord around the handle and hung it on my belt.
“Started your sheathe-search at last, Alaric?” Annis grinned when he saw it. “You look tired - did she work you hard at earning it?” I felt my cheeks flush and he grinned all the more.
It was an old custom in the Crosshawk Valleys for an unmarried man to carry an unsheathed blade. When a girl desired him to court her, she would fashion a sheathe for him and offer it up as a gift. The best were made of leather, carefully shaped and stamped with patterns. My father still wore his, a sturdy sheathe of dark-tanned leather - almost black - onto which my mother had sewn a wolf’s head.
“Your mother was a fine woman.” He told me once. “As quick with her tongue as she was with her fingers, but gentle-hearted behind it all. I’ll wear her work until the day I join her and be buried with it after that.”
“You could remarry.” I told him. It was not uncommon for men to take a second woman - or even a third, if they were unlucky enough to lose two.
“No.” He sighed. “There’s no woman in the world fit to take her place, Alaric. It wouldn‘t be fair to let one try.”
Annis’ heavy hand brought me staggering back into the moment as it thumped hard into the space between my shoulder blades.
“So… is there a girl who you’ve got an eye on, maybe?”
For a while, I’d hoped that I had a chance with a girl called Daria but either she had gotten tired of waiting or I’d misread the looks she gave me at Midsummer’s Feasting. She had partnered three months earlier with a young man from Athelton Village and I hadn’t seen her since.
I shook my head.
“No? Well, there’s plenty of time for it, I suppose. It looks a fine knife you’ve been gifted with there and I’m sure it’ll treat you well.” He ambled away towards his house, a clumsy bear of a man but always good-natured and slow to anger.
Rumour was that, since Mella was an outsider, Annis had had to make his own sheathe. Whether that was true or not, the leather was poor cured and the stitch-work haphazard. It looked more like a child’s practice piece than a gift-sheathe.
“I’d be ashamed to wear one like it.” I had told Markie once.
He had nodded. “Maybe princesses’ fingers aren’t made for stitching.”
Mella’s hands were long-fingered and graceful, the pale skin soft and un-calloused. I had never seen her knitting or sewing with the other women, nor did she join in with their good-natured gossiping.
Jennika didn’t join them either. Instead, she would sit at home and weave or - on warmer days - make her mendings on the porch of her house. When the other woman’s gossiping turned to Jennika, it took on an edge. ‘Whore’, they called her - or worse. Where Mella would have been welcomed if she had made the effort, Jennika could never have gone - but if that exclusion hurt her, she was careful to hide it.
That morning, Jennika was never far from my mind. There are some things which are hard for a man to forget and the soft curved body of his first woman is one of them. Even now, when I try, I can remember the way she felt - even the scent of her skin - with little effort. On that morning, it was as if my mind was flooded to bursting with her.
That morning, the women would be gossiping about me. Word would get round to them that there was a knife now at my belt and all of them would be sure the knew which girl was going to sheathe it. If my mother had still been alive, they would have given her little gifts for me; sweet pastries and hunter’s knots to hang around my neck. Instead they would leave them on my father’s doorstep and pretend that they had nothing to do with it if I tried to thank them.
They smiled as I walked past, not needing to look at the blade. Someone must have told them already. For a third time in a handful of hours, I felt my face grow hot and red. One of the younger girls - Pitta, I think - giggled.
“Hush girl,” Hannah mock-scolded her, “it isn’t right for girls to laugh like that with unmarried men around. You’ll fill their minds will all kinds of nonsense…” She winked at me and shifted her well padded hips into a mock-coquettish pose. Hannah was a widow and old enough to be my grandmother. “A young man like Alaric here needs to find himself a solid, sensible woman.” The other women laughed and I laughed with them, wishing dearly that the hotness in my cheeks would lessen.
Hannah winked as I left. “You know where I am when its time to come looking.” She cackled. If a younger girl had dared to say the same, they would have sent her to ‘prentice with Jennika.
Jennika’s door was shut.
My father had slaughtered a young pig and I’d been sent to see if she had need for a cut or two of it and what price she’d offer. Jennika didn’t keep stock of her own. She bought her meat from whoever would sell it to her.
I almost knocked before I remembered. My knuckles stopped just a hairs-breadth away from the door.
Fool, I thought, she has a customer. I could hear the soft sighs and grunting from inside. Annis no doubt, I decided. It had been a few days since I’d seen him make the trip there.
“Busy.” I told my father. “I’ll go back later.” He nodded and went back to his butchery, portioning up the pig meat into more manageable pieces. I picked up a piece of wood and started to carve at it absent-mindedly. I’ll make a spoon, I decided. A pretty one to sell at the harvest market. Not that my work was good enough to sell then. Functional my spoons might have been, but next to my father’s pieces there was little of beauty in them.
I had roughed out the handle and was starting to shape the bowl when the shouting started. My father put down his knife and looked up from the meat.
“I know you’re in there!” Mella shouted. “Come out here you filthy swine!” Her hands pounded on Jennika’s door far harder than I would have thought her capable. Her long sleeves had fallen back down her arms and there were red marks where her forearms had hit against the wood.
“Come out here, I say!”
A small crowd had gathered - women, mainly, with a few amused-looking men amongst them.
The door opened inwards and Jennika stepped onto the threshold. Mella stumbled forwards, her fists flailing uselessly.
“Send him out, whore! I know he’s in there!”
“Whore I may be, but that’s no excuse to be hammering on my door and shouting down the walls.” Jennika told her. Her voice was unexpectedly soft - compassionate, almost.
“Annis! Annis!” Mella was shouting over Jennika’s shoulder into the house. If Annis was in there, he had decided to keep himself hidden.
“Woman, go home. I’m sure you’ll find your man there waiting for you.” Jennika said.
“He’s snuck out while you kept me busy with your tricks, has he?”
Jennika shrugged. “Where a man comes and goes , and when, is none of my business.”
“If he’s coming in you, it is!”
“A man needs somewhere to come when he’s lonely.”
The crack was so loud that I thought Mella had broken Jennika’s jaw.
“If it wasn’t for you…!” And then she was sobbing. Crumpling - her legs seemed to give up and if Jennika had not caught her she would have been sprawled there in the dust.
“Come inside.” Jennika said softly. Her cheek was beginning to redden already, darker where Mella’s nails had hit. She half-carried Mella inside and shut the door behind her.
“Will she kill her, do you think?”
My father shook his head. “Not Jennika. She isn’t the kind for killing. Best you go and see her tomorrow instead, I think.”
“What did you do to her?” I asked. Jennika’s cheek was dark with bruising. One of Mella’s nails had punctured the skin, leaving a shallow crescent scratch.
“I can’t tell you that - no more than I could tell her where your manhood came from.” Jennika smiled, wincing a little as her cheek creased against itself. “I’ll take some of your meat, Alaric - you can take this to your father.” She reached into her jar and pulled out the pouch I had given to her. When I took it, the weight felt much the same as before.
“You’re a good boy - man - Alaric.” She told me. “You’ll make some girl a happy woman.”
“Perhaps.” I said.
A pause. And then -
“No, Alaric.” She sighed. I flushed. Had my thoughts been so obvious? “If I was a little younger, perhaps… But no. Even then, I have no sheathe of worth to offer you. I am sorry, Alaric, but no.”
She closed her door behind me and didn’t open it again that night - and perhaps it was not sobbing that I heard as I walked home.
The day that Pitta presented me with a sheathe was the proudest day of my life. The leather was cut from a fine oiled hide and she had lined it with soft white fur. There was a hawk pressed into the side, an acorn clutched between its claws.
By then Annis was wearing a new sheathe too. Mella had presented it to him at the Wintertide Feast and he had squeezed her so tightly I thought he might crush her.
When I walked the trail with Pitta, she wore a pale green dress and a cloak in the shades of late autumn leaves. Pinned to one shoulder just under her hair was a little brooch - a polished river stone in a wood-carved acorn cup. I never asked her where it came from - why would I? I know that she wouldn’t - couldn’t - have told me. There are traditions which are not spoken of and things only passed on through whispers.
© November, 2012 Rebecca L. Brown
Rebecca L. Brown is a writer based in Wales, UK. She lives with her two cats, her partner and the disconcerting feeling that she has forgotten to do something extremely important. For more news and updates, visit Rebecca's blog at http://rebeccalbrownupdates.wordpress.com/