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“Oh! What’s that?” Claire asked, startled at a sound. From the path, several young village men approached and the crowd opened to make way for them. One was blowing into a carved flute. Another kept time on a small drum made from an animal skin stretched across a hollowed gourd. The third plucked at strings stretched across a long-necked instrument made of wood. Moving in time with the melody, they entered the circle that had opened to admit them as Claire watched from where she and Alys stood at the edge.

“It’s so lovely! Listen! How they make the sounds go together! I’ve never heard anything like that before!”

Alys frowned. “It’s music, child. Have you never heard music? Have you forgotten it?”

“No, never,” Claire whispered. “I’m quite sure.”

The Handfasting ceremony ended as Martyn and Glenys kissed each other, and the red ribbon that had been wound around them unfurled, loosened, and freed them. The musicians began again, with a louder, rollicking tune, and the villagers cheered and turned to the waiting feast.

Claire stood silent, awed by the music, puzzled by the concept of love, and moved by both the solemnity and the celebration of the occasion. When she turned to look through the noisy, laughing throng for Alys, she suddenly noticed Lame Einar standing alone on a small rise at the edge of the meadow. While she watched, he adjusted the two sticks that supported him, turned, and hobbled slowly away. For a moment she thought of running over to invite him back, to entice him to join in. But her attention was drawn by the music. Never had she heard such an enticing thing as music, she was sure of it! And now the villagers were choosing partners, forming lines, and moving in time to the cheerful melody. Surely Einar would enjoy watching, even if he couldn’t do the quick hopping steps that they all seemed to know. They could watch together. But when she looked back for him, it was too late. He had disappeared into the woods.

Back to daily tasks after the excitement and holiday of the Handfasting, Tall Andras knelt in the field and meticulously tied together the thick branches that would form the body of the mommet. Then, after he had decided on a spot, in the center of the young, sprouting crops, he pushed the main branch into the earth and patted the dirt firmly around its base so that it stood upright without tilting. He dressed it, carefully fitting the wide sleeves of a ragged coat over the two stick arms. He tied a sash around the middle to hold the coat closed, but loosely, so that the breeze would lift and sway the fabric. He stood back and watched with satisfaction as the cloth moved. The ends of the arm branches, extending from the sleeves, looked like beckoning, skeletal hands.

Claire, approaching on her way to the stream, watched with a smile. She understood what he was doing, though she had never seen a mommet before. She stopped, watched, then called to Andras: “Do you have a ribbon? If you added a long ribbon, it would wave in the wind.”

He shook his head.

“I’ll bring you one, if you like,” she suggested, coming closer.

He stood back and looked at his creation. “A ribbon would be good,” he acknowledged, “around the neck.”

Claire laughed. “The neck?” she asked. There was only the gnarled branch end protruding upward from the patched coat.

Andras laughed as well. “I’ll make the head now,” he told her, and showed her the large gourd waiting on the ground. He knelt beside it and with his knife carved a hole at one end. He dug out several inches of the pulpy flesh within, then placed the gourd atop the neck, fitting it down so that it sat firm. Claire could see that it looked, indeed, like a head, and that from a distance the entire mommet would seem a frightening, flapping creature. The crows would surely avoid it and the crops would be protected.

He lifted the yellow gourd off the neck and set it on the ground again. “It needs a face,” he told her.

She sat on the soft earth and watched him begin to carve. First he gouged two circles near each other in the center of the gourd, then scraped at the rind between and below the eyes, to create the impression of a nose.

Impulsively Claire tore some handfuls of grass from the earth and handed them to him. “Hair,” she said.

He laughed and draped the hair over the gourd. It slid away and he looked around. “Wait,” he told her. “I can make it stay.” He left her with the gourd lying on the ground and went over to the edge of the woods. As she watched, he found the pine tree he had in mind, and pulled a length of one supple branch loose. “Oh, aye,” he murmured. “This is good.” He brought it back to where she was sitting and showed her the wetness from the torn end, where the bark glistened. He held it for her to sniff the woodsy pine scent.

“Alys makes a pillow filled with the needles,” she told him.

He nodded. He was smearing the oozing resin on the gourd. “Aye, it soothes the sleep,” he said. “Look now!” He picked up the torn grass and pasted it on the gourd’s head, where it settled in tufty clumps, held tight by the sticky sap. They both laughed as he held it up. “Some mommet!” Andras said with pride.

“Needs a mouth,” Claire reminded him. She pictured a grin on the odd creature.

“Aye, it does.” He bent over it, carving meticulously. She watched as he worked. Now and then he drew back, examined his own efforts, and then leaned forward to correct the shape, to trim the curves. She saw him smooth the mouth edges with his finger. He flicked away some tiny shreds of gourd.

“May I see?” she asked him.

“Wait.” He moved his blade to the expanse of yellow rind above the gouged eyes, and she could see him make three deep rippled cuts across the broad forehead. He looked at it and laughed in delight. “There!” he said. He stood, holding it, and placed it carefully over the wooden neck, easing it down into place.

“There!” he said again proudly, and turned with a grin to see her reaction.

Claire stared. The grotesque face stared back at her. Its forehead was wrinkled by the wide cuts, which made it looked puzzled, and the eyes squinted above the twisted nose. The mouth was a tortured smile, a leer. She caught her breath and felt her heart pound. Andras was laughing. She turned to him, horrified, not knowing why, and cheerfully he twisted his own face into a mimicry of the mommet. He thrust his tongue into his cheek, wrinkled his nose and creased his forehead. He made a chortling sound.

The skewed face, the laughter with it, made something flood into Claire’s memory, surging upward in her like a wave about to break. She had made that face once, and thought it funny. Someone had made it back to her. But why? Who? She pulled herself upward from the place where she had been sitting in the grass so cheerfully a moment before. She felt sick, suddenly, and began to cry.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry—”

Then she turned and ran, sobbing and breathless, down the hillside as Tall Andras stood uncomprehending beside the wretched, ragged stick figure with its bulbous head. High above him, two crows wheeled in the sky and cried out.

Alys had been busy sorting and separating her dried plants when Claire burst through the door, her face wet with tears, and threw herself onto the bed. It was clear that this was not a thwarted romance or a quarrel with a friend, the usual cause for the weeping of young girls. This was raw and deep. The old woman poured steaming water from the kettle over a few pinches of blue vervain and chamomile, then put the mug of herbal tea into Claire’s hands. She watched with concern as the girl sat huddled and shaking in the dim light of the hut.

“Something’s come back, then,” Alys said. “Something cruel.”

Claire nodded. She took a few shuddering breaths and sipped the soothing drink.

“It helps to say it,” Alys suggested.

Claire looked up at her. “I can’t,” she said. “It was so close! It was there, so close! And I can feel it, still, but I can’t grasp what it is.”

“What brung it? Where be you, when it come so close?”

“Over on the hillside, with Andras. I was helping him build a stick figure to frighten the crows away.”

“A mommet.”

“Yes. That’s what he called it.”

“Tall Andras is a good lad. Surely it was nothing he done?”

Claire hesitated. “I don’t think so. I can’t remember, exactly. We were laughing, and then—well, everything changed. I can’t think why.”

“Something brung it. Want I should ask Andras?”

Claire closed her hands around the mug and breathed the tea’s steam. “I don’t know.” She whispered, after a moment, “I feel so sad.”

Alys watched her, and knew that the herbs in the mug would soothe the panic that had afflicted her, that soon she would calm and likely sleep for a bit. But they would not heal her. It would be hard to heal a girl as desperately wounded as this one.


The good-weather days continued. The sun turned the wave tips to sparkling jewels, and the fishermen filled their nets each day with their glistening catch. In Tall Andras’s field the mommet flapped its loose fabric arms and the crows, made timid by it, called out harshly and went to other fields, other crops. The gourd head began to rot in the sun and collapse upon itself, oozing and purple like a bruise. A bold starling swooped and grabbed some of the browning grass that had been its hair. One day it fell sideways into the field. When Claire walked past on her way to gather herbs, she saw only the toppled, ruined remains. The memory it had brought her was no longer there.

Andras’s mother, Eilwen, weakened and no longer left her bed. Alys tended her there, holding her head so that she could sip warm liquid made from chopped wild sunflower roots simmered in spring water. The medicine eased her cough. But it was a comfort, not a cure. “She’ll not live,” Alys told Claire.

Claire had learned about death already in her time here, for they had buried an old fisherman earlier, and she had helped Alys wash and wrap the gaunt body before his sons lifted it into the box they had built. The fisherman’s death had been sudden, though, in his sleep. Now Claire watched, day by day, as Eilwen drifted in her mind, woke less often, and seemed to shrink. Finally, early one evening, with Andras and his father there, her breath slowed and stopped.

The father and son touched her forehead gently as a goodbye and went away.

Alys squeezed cloths that she lifted from the pail of water, handed one to Claire, and together they began to wash the thin body. Clean wrappings were folded nearby, waiting.

“The day they brung you from the sea,” the old woman said, “I washed you like this.”

“Did you think I would die?”

Alys shook her head. “I could see you was strong. You fought me some.” She chuckled softly as she patted Eilwen’s arm dry and laid it back gently on the bed.

“I don’t remember.”

“No, you wasn’t yourself yet. It was your sleep self what fought me.”

“Here.” She handed Claire a dry cloth and together they dried and tidied the dead woman, folding her arms finally across her gaunt chest. Alys brushed her thin hair and they carefully wrapped her. They could hear the two men moving outside, readying the box.


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