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The Poddington Project: Stories

The Boxwood Charm


My Da was a gardener, forcing blooms in the hothouse for the DeWinter women to arrange in their bowls and fancy vases. Such pretty flowers he brought up by hand, only to see them cut and taken away. Those were the days when the DeWinters had money and still cared about such things. Da would be gone from sunup to sundown, nearly every day of the week, leaving me alone for most days with Mam.

Mam was a good sort of woman. Kept the house clean. Told the weather from the way the wind blew. She loved my Da in a simple sort of way, sending him out the door in the morning with a kiss and meeting him at the end of the garden path with a lantern, at night.

But she wasn't like me, was Mam. When the eggs were collected and the breakfast dishes done, Mam would sit down before the fire for a bit of a nap, and doze her mornings away. In the afternoon she would visit the town, maybe, and sew my Da's shirts, and darn his socks. Women's things. Little things. Safe things.

No, I was different from her in every way. I wanted nothing little or safe. I would spend my days in worlds where no one had ever stepped foot. I would dream the day long, imagining what I'd be like when I was a woman, and the adventures I'd lead. Most of all when I was a little girl I used to dream--oh, didn't we all?--of my wedding. I only had one doll, a tiny naked thing I found discarded by the river and smuggled home, where I dressed her in clothes of my own making. When imagining my wedding I would wrap her in a pair of white flannels, one for the dress, and one for the veil, and pretend that one day I would have the same impossibly red, round cheeks and dark curly hair.

My groom I had to fashion out of a wooden clothespin. I'd wrap him in a black suit of coal-paper and stand him next to the china doll in white, and I'd solemnly intone, "Do you, Cassie Argentia Rundell, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?" I'd bob the china doll up and down. "I do."

"Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?" I would ask the groom with no name, and he would bob up and down as well. "Then you may kiss the bride."

I would lift her sweet red lips up to the blank and expressionless wooden knob that was his face, and press them against each other. Then I would march them away triumphantly, as the chess pieces and the spice jars commented to each other how lovely I was, and wasn't I the perfect bride, and wouldn't he love me forever.

I've had two weddings since, and neither has been much like that. I blame the old woman for it.

I first talked to the old woman in the spring of my nineteenth year, when I was collecting willow branches by the Slossip. It was a fine day, for April, and the willows by the river were obliging as they always were about shedding slender shoots that could be twisted and bent into a man's shape. For like all the maids of Poddington, I was collecting branches for the Annymus.

They tell me that in old days all the villages had their own Annymus, come spring, but that very few have one now. Maybe we're the only ones left. I don't know. In April the unmarried girls of the village always walk along the banks of the Slossip to collect the branches the willows shed for us, and put them in our bags so that we might give them to the town widows. The widows fashion the branches into the shape of a man, and name him the Annymus.

What does it mean, Annymus? I don't know, myself. Mam used to call it the Anymouse, and said that he used to sit atop Mouse Lane Hill in the old days. But that doesn't make sense, for the Annymus would sit in the village green for the week after the widows made him, in a cart filled with straw. And on May day, he would choose a bride.

The old woman appeared on the opposite bank of the Slossip while I was examining the branches I had just picked up. They couldn't be any old branches, these. Willow branches, straight and firm, no longer than an armspan, no bigger around than a shilling. Mine were fine. I put them securely in the bag hanging from my shoulder, and stood up. She was just looking at me, the old woman, with her hands on her hips, her gray hair wisping out from under the cap she wore. Tatters, her clothing. I had seen her before, from time to time, though only at night, and from afar. One of the people that lived wild in the forests, no better than gypsies, said the women of the town. Would she speak to me? I decided to speak first.

"Hail Mother," I said boldly.

"Hail yourself," she said in a voice that brought to mind an old key turning in an unused lock.

"Will you gather branches with us, Mother, and hope that the Annymus take you as your bride?"

She seemed to find genuine amusement in the idea. "And steal him away from you? No, child, too many years have passed for that."

My voice carried across the river that clear morning, as the sun filtered through the new leaves to dapple the water with its rays. "And what makes you think the Annymus will choose me as his bride?" I mocked. "For I am already intended, and will marry within the month."

"Ay, and a cruel man is your intended," said she.

I was instantly outraged. John Hoskin was the man who had caught my fancy. A fine fellow, was he, with curly hair and a cleft in his chin, and eyes that seemed to see right through me. When he held my hand, it was as if he had touched an ember to parchment, and my skin would spread with fire until I felt aflame. A blacksmith, he was, with arms as hard as the iron he worked. John Hoskin, cruel? "Ridiculous," I pronounced. "A fair and bonny man is my intended, and I love him."

"He will beat you, and make your life a misery," she wheezed. "He is a jealous one, this man. He will take away your beauty, and take away your youth, and in less time than you might think possible."

I had let loose my bag as she spoke, but hearing nothing from nonsense from this beggar woman's mouth, I lifted it from the butterburs and hoisted it over my shoulder once more. "Good day, Mother."

"Not yet child," said she, and I felt compelled to turn back once more. "A recipe I give you for the perfect husband. Do what I say, and this husband shall be kind to you always, and avenge any harm done you, five blows for each wrong."

I said defiantly, "What is this recipe, old Mother? An elixir I must purchase from you with gold? For I have none."

She laughed. "A recipe of your own making, daughter, and the ingredients are but few. Sprigs of boxwood, three, no longer than your finger. Twine them into a ring that would fit you. And conceal it in the Annymus that will be made with the very branches you now carry."

It is a custom of our village to conceal small tokens and wishes within the Annymus once the widows have placed him on the village green; the old woman's instructions were not so very unusual, then. "Is that all?" I asked. "And such a ring will make my John kind to me always?"

"Such a ring will make your husband avenge any hand raised against you in anger," she said. "It is not such a bad bargain, no?"

I thought for a moment, and was ready to make answer. But when I looked across the river bank, she was gone.

The sticks I carried that afternoon I set before the door of the Widow Collins. The widows of the town met late one night as they have done for centuries, and fashioned the Annymus. It was a faceless thing, the Annymus. His head was mere sticks, bent double and tied in a globe. A hat of straw perched upon it. A circle of cloth cut from rough muslin formed the face, with a slit cut for a mouth. His stick body was dressed in cast off clothing, a shirt and pair of trousers only. On the evening of his first day on the green, I stood before this parody of a man carrying a ring of boxwood on my hand. Three springs, each as long as my finger, woven into the charm of which the old woman spoke.

"Dear God," I prayed silently, mindful of the church tower looming to the west. "Be mindful of me, Cassie Rundell, and give me the kind husband the crone of the forest promised I might have. Amen."

Someone grasped me from behind, around my middle. My gasp turned into laughter when I felt familiar lips on my neck. "John Hoskin!" I cried, turning. "Mind your manners!"

His voice reminded me of a lion's growl. Lazy, vigorous, strong. "There ain't no one about to see, Cassie." He kissed me, and I let him, longer and deeper than I ought. "Besides, after next week, you'll be mine and mine alone, and I'll be able to hold you and kiss you as I please, woman." In the dim light of dusk I could see his smile creep across his broad face, and I placed a finger in the dimple on his chin.

"That's next week, husband to be, and not now." I pushed him away, and removed the circle of boxwood sprigs from my ring finger. "Now, I've a wish to make."

"You'd rather make a wish on the Annymus than take a kiss from me?" he said, incredulous.

"This is for the both of us," I told him. He stood by muttering as I reached with my fingers into the branchy depths of the stick man. I could feel slips of paper inside, wishes that other villagers had made for the coming year. In the heart of the Annymus I let loose the boxwood talisman, and uttered another prayer--a hasty one, as John was impatient behind me.

I dreamt strange dreams, the last night of April. I dreamt I was in times past. First my childhood again, sitting on the dirty floor of my Da's shack, playing with my china doll rescued from the river banks. And then I dreamt of times even before I was born, where the folk of the village were little better than savages, faces painted in blue and brown. They celebrated the wedding of a handsome young man, tall and slant-eyed and foxy, and a beautiful young woman with red ruby lips and curly hair. The young woman was me. "I'll protect you," my groom whispered into my ear, as we danced around a Maypole, just ourselves, while the village clapped and watched. "I'll avenge all harm. I'll watch over you. I'll protect you."

There was no day as pretty as that first of May. It seemed as if God had sent storm clouds the night before, but instead of rain the clouds loosed torrents of flowers onto the village. Acorn Lane was heavy with the perfume and blossoms of lilac, and when I stepped onto the village green, it was as if someone had strewn it with the petals of a million blooms. White and pink they were, a carpet far too soft and fragrant and fine for my rough country feet. I would have tried to walk around it, but the carpet was everywhere, and the children of the village ran and played in it as if it was the first snowfall of the winter. As they scampered, the breezes picked up the petals and tossed them everywhere. Soon my dark curly hair was full of them, and it was no use trying to brush it free.

Even the men of the village leave work, on May day, to witness the marriage of the Annymus. My John was one of the first to arrive, and when I looked at him with his hair full of petals, and a smile on his face, and when I knew his eyes were on me and me alone, my heart leapt up and sang. There were children at the May pole, and the widows around the Annymus, and men and women talking and dancing and eating all over the green that morning, but the only world I knew what the one built for me and for John Hoskin, my husband, come Friday.

"You goose!" whispered Doris Godolphin in my ear. "They're starting the ceremony! You have to come on!" She pulled me away from John, and although I laughed, he scowled at the interruption. I blew him a kiss across the green, barely able to keep my balance as Doris pulled me toward the widows and the cart. "You'd think you have no mind for your duties, now!" she teased me, and I blushed deeply.

Our ceremony was quick. There were thirty-three maidens competing for the attentions of the Annymus that year, when I was nineteen. The widows counted out thirty-two tiny black stones plucked from the river bed, and one white stone. Into the Annymus' mouth they went, trickled into a sack sewn into the otherwise featureless face. One by one they called our names, and we reached into the slit of a mouth and took a stone apiece. Thirty-three names called the widows, until at last we all held within our hands, still not glimpsed, a single stone from the river.

The eldest of the widows bowed before the Annymus when the last of the pebbles was plucked. She turned to us and intoned the words, "As it is above, so it is below," and we knew to open our hands.

I was a girl of abundant curiosity then, and I quickly sought out my friends to see if they had been chosen. Doris laughed with relief when she saw that she held only a black stone in her palm; my dear friend Sarah also revealed a black stone in her own hand. Girl after girl opened her hand to reveal identical dark pepples, and then I realized that only I remained, and many eyes watched me.

I opened my hand. Inside was a stone as white as the moon.

There was a hiss of anger in my ear. John had drawn close during the ceremony, and looked over my shoulder to see the white stone. "Any other rock you could have had, girl, and you had to choose that one!"

I laughed, and turned to him. "John Hoskin, I do believe you're jealous!" I should not have said it. The look on his face frightened me, at that moment. I pulled a smile to my lips and tried to encircle him with my arms, but the widows, they pulled me back.

"No kisses for any save your husband, today, and your husband be the Annymus!" And they took me away and dressed me in a plain white gown, and sat me next to the man of sticks.

There is no stigma for the bride of the Annymus. It has always been an honour for the girl chosen. Queen of the May is she, and has little better to do than sit in the cart with her husband for the day and laugh at the villagers as they dance for her, and accept the gifts of flowers and refreshments they bring her. But as each young man of the village brought me a flower, winking at me or commenting on my beauty, all I could see was my John, hovering on the perimeter of the green. He scowled in my direction. When they brought me strawberries to eat, and cream, they tasted sour in my mouth, as bitter and foul as the expression John wore on his face. It was plain he despised the attention the town gave me, particularly the men.

The day wore on, and though I suffered none, I could scarce bring myself to enjoy the day for fear of angering John more. I prayed for dusk to fall, and it did, bringing with it a soft sweetness that seemed to make the perfumes of the petals even more fragrant. The day of the Annymus was nearly over.

The widows held out their hands, and helped me down from the cart. At their prompting, I took the cart's rope in my hands, as had countless brides before me, and pulled my husband of sticks and cloth in the direction of the river. There was a bridge there, near the old mill, and as I trundled the cart in its direction, the rest of the village followed with songs and laughter and cheering. I looked over my shoulder. I could not see John in the crowd.

I reached the height of the bridge at last, and paused. "You have been good to me, husband," I said, repeating the ritual words that one of the widows mumbled to me. "But mortal time is short, and life is fleeting. Grant me safety even as you grant it to my kin. As above, so below."

The Annymus was surprisingly lightweight, I found as I lifted it from its seat. One of the widows helped to arrange it in my arms, so that his head lolled over the crook of one elbow, while his legs lay nestled in the other. When I looked down at this ridiculous contraption of sticks and rope, I thought I could see my sprig of boxwood, deep in the heart of the thing. But it was growing dark, and I could not tell for sure. I stepped to the side of the bridge, and dropped my husband for the day in the river.

We were all silent as it fell. In times past there have been signs to us to indicate that our gift has been accepted. A thunderclap in the far distance, one year. A chorus of barking dogs, another. We all heard the splash of water as the Annymus fell into the water below, and then we were blessed with a cool breeze, heavy and sweet with lilac, from the river. Several people gasped in delight, and the townsfolk broke into cheers. Many of the widows hugged me tightly. My marriage, scarcely a day old, was over.

Some of the villagers headed back to the green and the Languishing Apple to continue the revelry, while others left for home and a late supper. I looked around for my John, but he was nowhere to be seen. I went home alone, that night.

We were married that Friday, John and I. My gown was of white, and I carried blooms of lilac when I said my vows. John was not happy, though. He looked at me as if I had done him wrong. His eyes simmered with resentment. I knew from the moment he roughly forced the ring on my finger that I had done something wrong. The boxwood charm had not worked.

I had not married a kind man.

He beat me, my John. Late at night, after he had come home from the Apple, a pint or two bolstering whatever wrongs he imagined I had done him. Blow after blow he would deliver, until he staggered back, only half-ashamed of what he had done. Sometimes he would not stop until I collapsed to the floor with my weeping, clutching my bruised face, arms, breasts. When he wanted me, he took me, biting me, stretching me, using me as he would. It was not love. It was savagery.

A few months into the marriage I looked into the mirror and saw someone alien: A dirty, ragged creature with swollen and blackened eyes, a cut lip, and sores upon her body. A crone with limp hair who could scarcely keep her chin raised high. A broken woman whose eyes were constantly red from weeping. I could not enter the village in such a condition.

He had taken my beauty, my John. He had taken my youth.

The beatings continued through the autumn and the winter, through days and months so long I prayed to God from sunup to sundown for him to change, to return to the loving John I'd once known.

Then I discovered I was with child.

I hoped the beatings would stop, if I was with child. For the early months of the new year they did. He might slap me, would John, and he might pinch me hard or pull me about roughly, but he wanted a boy to help him in the smithy, and he dared not treat me too roughly for fear I'd lose it.

We ventured into the village together, that April, in John's carriage. My bruises had healed, and I looked almost well again. I was showing. We were not in town long when it happened. Driving by the green, we saw that the widows had placed the year's Annymus on the green, ready for the upcoming May Day. There were a number of people in the streets, all the more curious to see me after so long an absence. My pregnancy they saw with delight, and as we passed through the streets for the first time in nearly a year I felt human again, greeting the people I'd known since a girl.

Then came the cry, from one of townsfolk who knew John. "Hoskin! You sure the baby's yours? It might be the Annymus' get."

I felt John tighten and grow silent beside me. His hands clenched the reins tighter--too tight. He ordered the horses to turn homeward. I bit my lip, too close to tears to allow myself to breathe, knowing what was to come.

When at last he stumbled from the house, late that night, I lay on the floor scarcely able to move, clutching my womb. My face was blackened beyond recognition. My arms blossomed with cherry-like bruises. My back was torn, my breasts were battered. A trail of blood, cold and slowly congealing, stretched from the kitchen to doorway, where I had dragged myself before my strength failed. It ended in a widening puddle between my legs.

I wanted to die, that night. I prayed to God that I might die. I feared not heaven or hell. I wanted only release.

They found me like that the next day, the two men from the village. John had not arrived at the blacksmith's that morning, and they feared he'd taken ill. One look at my condition, however, and they forgot any concerns they had for his well-being. They put me into their cart and took me into town, where the physician, Dr. Dashing, put me into his late wife's bed and tended to my wounds. They covered me with salve and leeches. They gave me laudanum. The pain eased and the wounds began to heal. But they could not mend the hurts that John left deep below the skin, inside the bone, where they still ache when I think of them. They could not save my child.

The search for John lasted three days. It was in the forest they found him, the last day of April. They told me he had bled to death. Cuts covered his body, from head to foot. Hundreds and hundreds of cuts, as if someone had sharpened a handful of sticks and methodically raked them over every inch of his skin, drawing blood with each slice and counter-slice. It would not have been a quick death, they told me gently, fearful I'd go mad at losing him. It would not have been a painless death.

Hundreds upon hundreds of cuts, made by sharpened branches. Five blows each for the hundreds I had suffered during that year of marriage.

Forty and more years have passed since I was Queen of May. I don't indulge in dreams, much. I keep my house clean. I tell the weather by the way the wind blows. My world is composed of women's things. Little things. Safe things. I am one of those old widows now who wakes of an April morning to find a bundle of branches outside my door. I know my duty. With the other widows of the village we gather, one spring midnight, and make a man of sticks, and set him on the village green. And we wait. We wait to see who he will choose for that year's bride.

(V. Briceland)