A TIMELESS LOVE
(By Sangeetha Kamath & Mithila Peshwe)
The wind was baying above my cries. The raindrops were viciously ripping my skin.
“Ewa! Where are ye?? Ewa…”
The sheep in the barn were getting restless and grinding their hooves into the mud, bleating in panic.
Had a wolf entered here and dragged the tiny lamb away?
I could hear the fading sounds of a feeble, helpless cry in the distance, beyond the hills. They looked formidable in the moonless night, blurred by sheets of pouring rain. The dark, undulating shapes were surrounded by deep forests. The ground had become a claggy slush.
I clutched my cloak at my throat and pressed down on the hood which kept flying wildly in the gale. My drenched hair was plastered on my face.
If Papa were here, he would have ridden his mule to search for Ewa even in the dead of the night.
“I miss ye, Papa.” His poor heart had failed under the mounting debt.
Baruch, the tax collector, had made life hellfire for us. The wool didn’t sell. The cottage was mortgaged, and our sheep dwindled by the month, confiscated for the money we owed.
Baruch was at the marketplace yesterday. He had scooped up a handful of coins from my bowl, the only meagre collection for the day and had playfully held it out of reach, high above his head. His cronies had jeered.
As I tried to grab hold of my earnings, Baruch had caught me around the waist and had pinned me against a wooden post. The other traders and peasants had averted their glances with an awkward indifference. He had gripped my throat and hissed, “Pay up! Or else ye be fresh meat!”
I had sprinted through the crowds into the woods leaving behind a trail of their beastly hooting. As I sat panting by a stream, splashing cold water repeatedly on my face, I felt a calm wash over me.
But tonight, peace eluded me. Baruch and his henchmen must have returned tonight to steal Ewa.
Dejected, I went back into the cottage and warmed my palms by the fire. I curled up waiting for sleep.
I winced, gritting my teeth, hard.
“It’s almost done, boy,” Dr. Coles whispered over my head.
Even through the anaesthesia, I could feel the dull throbbing pain. An uncomfortable weight pressed down my nape, where the hexagonal time turbulator was affixed.
After a few more minutes of tinkering with the gadget, Dr. Coles stood aside.
“Are you ready? You know the risks, right?
You cannot die!”
Nodding imperceptibly, I took a bolstering breath.
“I’m rea-” The world tilted as a deep, dark abyss engulfed me whole.
Something wet, gooey and smelly splattered across my face.
Hot breath tickled me and the heavy fog covering my senses dissipated as a low growl followed.
I sat up, alarmed and looked at the little beast staring me down.
Standing up gingerly, I found myself covered in mud and hay. It was a barn, a makeshift shelter for the sheep.
I grabbed a worn-out cloak hanging on a wooden post. It was long and covered me almost completely. I kicked off my sneakers and shoved them in a corner.
Trudging bare-foot, I left the barn and looked around the village. I kept to the shadows slowly venturing towards the crowded by-lanes. I found myself amidst a scene straight out of history books.
Men in coarse tunics and breeches, women in muslin gowns and head caps bustled about the busy streets. The sudden cacophony, unfamiliar smells and damp air assaulted my groggy senses.
I was about to turn the corner when a firm hand grabbed the cloak, yanking me back.
I turned around to face a rustic beauty of timeless tales. Attired in a homespun, serviceable gown in a muddy colour, she was no dainty maiden!
“Halt ye vile thug!” I glared at him.
“Who dares rob me dead papa’s cloak! Aren’t ye one wily fox to sneak into my shed? This dost not belong to ye! Unwrap it now!”
I sputtered incoherently. My emotions choked me, and my eyes brimmed with tears spilling onto my cheeks.
To my surprise, he meekly obliged. I grabbed it roughly from his clasp and sprinted away. He ran after me calling out, “Whoa, wait up girl! I’m not a thief…”
What a strange language! But I ain’t stopping!
We were both breathless as we reached the cottage.
“Hark! Fair maiden. Me name is Jason. I mean no harm. I’m a…a pauper, from… Norsgold hamlet. I need a roof on me, a bowl of stew, if you might spare? Me goes hungry for days with no pennies on me for even stale bread.”
He sounded pitiful. I turned and eyed him suspiciously. He was covered in mud and wore strange clothes. Poor lad had no sleeves to cover his arms. His legs were bare below his knee. What was he wearing!
And what strange hair he had! It looked like the mice had eaten it. They looked pointy like wheat stalks! But he looked strong and had polite manners. I could use an extra pair of hands at work. He said his name was…Je… Jezen.
I hired him to tend my sheep in return for food and a stay in the barn.
He helped me herd them while they grazed. I liked having someone around. It had been months since Papa was gone.
One day, after a minor skirmish with Baruch’s men, Jezen approached me.
“Mistress, you need to learn to defend yourself. These vile men would never give up.”
“What can I do, Jezen? I’m alone and defenceless.”
He gave me a sly smile. “Well, I have some moves that I can teach you.”
And our daily lessons began. Clad in papa’s tunic and breeches, I learnt ways to fight back using just my limbs. It was shocking! But I looked forward to our time spent together, learning and laughing.
“Uuughh!” I tried in vain to reset the turbulator at my nape. Anything to send a signal. Three weeks had passed since I had first stepped into this unknown pocket of history.
I washed myself, dunking my head under water. Unbidden tendrils of wayward thoughts inched behind my closed eyes. Large brown eyes, a soft hesitant smile, long, raven tresses flirting with the wind.
I crawled out of the river and donned the freshly dried clothes. As if my very thoughts conjured her, Bertha sat on a large rock a few paces down the river. As I walked towards her, I felt her back stiffen.
“Bertha? What’s wrong?” I touched her shoulder out of concern.
“Nay, nothing is wrong I tell ye. Just missing me papa.” She wiped her tears surreptitiously.
I held her hands away from her face and turned her chin towards me.
Tear stains marred her freckled cheeks.
“They killed Ewa.” She choked.
I gnashed my teeth with barely controlled anger.
“I swear to God…” I lifted myself off the ground, but Bertha pulled me back before I could leave to pound some sense into those men.
“Don’t! Please sit with me.” She uttered softly, so unlike her usual self. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, she settled against my shoulder. Impulsively I drew her closer, in the protective circle of my arms. She sought comfort and I obliged.
“I don’t want ye fighting my battles. Papa did and he isn’t here anymore. I don’t want any more blood to be spilled.” Her voice broke on the last words.
“I’ll never leav-” I bit back the words that had almost stumbled out. How could I promise not to leave her alone when at any moment I could be hurtled back.
She placed a chaste kiss on my cheek.
It felt wrong, but every sense in my brain deserted me.
I had never put as much thought in a kiss before but I wanted her to feel all that I would never be able to tell.
I pulled away. Loss, longing, hope, anxiety coursed through my mind.
A Month Later
The seasons changed. The blowing rains and nippy winds made way for clearer skies and wildflowers in meadows. Jezen dutifully led the sheep to graze every morning and I would join him at noon, carrying a basket of ginger ale and rye bread.
“The sheep are looking full. ‘Tis time to shear some wool off them, Jezen.”
“I will do it on the morrow, mistress”, he tipped his cap at me and winked.
We rode to the marketplace in a borrowed horse cart with sack loads of sheared wool. As we set up the stall, Baruch thundered in and rapped his metal cane on the wooden post. Without flinching, I gave him a cold, unblinking stare.
“So now ye have a lad as a guard! You don’t fear me, eh? C’mon now, hand over all ye pennies on the double! Or I will drag ye to the fishmonger,” he guffawed indecently.
He pulled my braid back savagely. Rage filled me and rose to the fore. I punched his nose and kneed his groin with a force that I would, to drive a flagpole into the earth. He doubled up wincing and hurled curses at me.
As he raised his cane on me, I, with an unrestrained courage and a strength I never knew I had before, wrenched the cane with the metal knob out of his hands and brought it down sharply on his skull!
He fell lifeless on the cobblestones. His head had cracked open with blood flowing like a rivulet into the gutters.
I was shivering with shock amidst high-pitched screams from the village folk.
With a tyrant like Baruch gone, they silently triumphed at his death. I was surrounded by looks of admiration.
Jezen looked stunned!
He had taught me well, but caught off-guard, I had used my courage to put an end to my tormentor.
The air was thrumming with anxiety. A beep rang out in the barn. Feeble, but sure.
I focused on the small humming sound of the turbulator.
My mind was in turmoil. I conjured a brittle smile as Bertha came looking for me.
“‘Tis happening Jezen. We are all heading towards the manor. Our people have surrounded Baruch’s men. They want me to lead, to talk with His Lordship.”
Bertha was shivering with excitement. Her eyes had taken a new sparkle and a part of me was satisfied with my role in it. She was meant for better things, for a better man.
My stomach roiled as I tried to get the words out. I kissed her one last time, leaving her even more breathless.
“What is it, Jezen? Aren’t ye coming with us?”
Pulling her face close, our foreheads touching, I breathed her in.
“Bertha, I’m so proud of you, your spirit, your cause. I love… everything about you.”
My nape was buzzing, getting warmer by the minute, like a hundred fire ants crawling all over my back.
There was no time to explain…
“Go make your stand. The path you’ve chosen is going to make history. I’ll be right there behind you…”
Her face creased with worry and confusion, but her duty towards her people trumped it all. She hugged me and ran towards the gathering.
I prepared myself for the inevitable pull.
Deep and thick.
I felt smothered and twisted. A tiny light beckoned, forward or backwards, I couldn’t make out.
“Jason? Wake up boy!” The gruff voice of Dr. Coles snuffed the light away.
As my senses restored, I found myself back in the sterile environs of the lab with the grizzly face of Dr. Coles hovering over me.
Unbidden tears rolled down the corner of my eyes. I had left a part of me behind.
“Sorry boy, we almost lost you. But I’m glad our experiment worked. We’ll be rolling in money after we patent our time turbulator.”
I curled up with pain and loss.
A few months later –
Jezen was nowhere to be found after the uprising. No one had seen him or heard of him. My heart bled for a love that was nipped at the bud.
“How could ye vanish into thin air, Jezen? Where might ye have gone?”
I held his cloak close, breathing his fading scent.
I had no answers but the strength and spirit he ignited in me would be carried on.
I closed the trunk containing his clothes and his outlandish, mud-plastered boots which I had found in the sheep pen.
I headed out to lead the guild of liberated peasants from my village and the next.
Bertha did make it in history!
An intense search on the internet provided a little snippet of the woman who had dared to rebel against the middlemen and fieflords in the late 16th century.
I stood at the site of the marketplace, now a bustling street amidst a crowded town. Holding a small piece of her ribbon, I wondered if she would be standing at this very place, centuries apart, leading her people?
Divided by time, but united by a love that transcended all.
Team – The Pixies
Sangeetha Kamath (Bertha)
Mithila Peshwe (Jason)
Fishmonger was a medieval slang for a flesh trader.
Cover pic by Ivan Dostal (unsplash.com)
This was such a unique take – with time travel. Love indeed transcended time here