Fiction · 01/13/2010

The Major Players

For my comfort, they told me the details so I would know that my husband died quickly and painlessly. The arrow traveled through his eye socket and directly into his brain. Only one man could kill so precisely from that distance, they said.

My husband was killed a year ago, three months after he started working for the Sheriff.

Both of my children sleep fitfully tonight. They haven’t eaten in three days.

My husband was not always a soldier. As a boy, he was apprenticed to a gardener and had such a natural talent for the trade that he was working on the grounds of the castle by the time he was sixteen. By the same age, he also stood three inches over six feet. The king wanted his landscaping to include stones, and my husband hauled many of them. He was a bear of a man by the time we were married.

We lived well in a cottage on the grounds of the keep. I kept a small vegetable and herb garden in back that we tended together in the evenings. The children helped us when they were old enough. For years, our life was in the dirt with our hands around weeds or dropping seeds into tiny holes or, for him, carrying large rocks. Earth, stone, and plant. It was all we really knew, and we were quite happy. We never imagined a third Crusade.

Tomorrow I will earn money to feed my children. I will lie with a man the way I used to lie with my husband. I will be paid, although it is not really clear how much. My visitor is a nobleman who admired me from afar when my husband and I lived on the castle grounds. I have a handful of peppermint leaves I will chew before he arrives to cover the odor of a rotting tooth.

When our lion-hearted king left to reclaim the Holy Land for Christ, priorities changed around the castle. The brother, King John, had no interest in gardening or landscaping. The grounds fell into disorder. The Sheriff, however, was looking for soldiers and guards because so many of the best men had gone off with King Richard. Because of his size my husband was conscripted. Without Richard on the throne, the peasants were less willing to pay their taxes. They placed my husband on a squad whose only purpose was to collect delinquent payments.

He was no good. Too kind. When the peasants would confide their hardships, he would listen. He sometimes admonished the other guards for being too brutal.

He was a hindrance to their work and only lasted two weeks.

His size, though, was his asset, and he was kept on as a soldier. Taken from the tax-collecting squad, he was reassigned to a guard post in Sherwood. We moved out of our house on the keep’s grounds and into a two-room hut near the barracks. I started to remove stones from the soil so I could start another garden. We had less, but we were better off than many. My husband would visit in the evenings. He always tried to make the best of things. He would bring me cuttings of Costmary or Rosemary he had found in clearings in the forest. “It is so quiet at the guard post,” he told me. “You can hear the birds and smell so many woodland smells. At times, it is a pleasure.”

I assume the arrow found my husband’s head because he looked so formidable from a distance. Even close up he was intimidating… until he spoke or gestured. Then, his gentleness was made plain.

I miss him.

Without his soldier’s pay, I could not afford the rent of our hut behind the barracks. We stay now in an abandoned pigsty. The owner, a peasant, collects nothing from me in rent, but I help him in his garden. In the winter he says it will be too cold and I will have to leave. He cannot have the Sheriff’s men finding dead bodies on his property. He would be charged for the burials. I do not blame him, but I do not know where we will go.

Maybe tomorrow will go well. Maybe the nobleman will still desire me, though his desire would have to burn strong for him to lie with me and my rotten tooth in an abandoned pigsty.

They say everything will be better when Richard returns. The Crusade, though, is taking so long. There are many Jewish communities along the route. Two birds with one stone, I have overheard the soldiers saying.

Two birds with one stone in the name of Christ.

My children are awake, whimpering with hunger.

Something flies through what used to be the pig entrance and sticks in the dirt inches from my daughter’s leg. The children shriek and cling to me, sobbing beyond comfort.

I look and discover what turns out to be an arrow with a small leather pouch tied to it and a note. When my children are calmed, I unroll and then read it:

Dear Lady,

Use these coins donated by a deceased nobleman to feed your children a good meal.

~ R.H.

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Jeff Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College in Midland, MI. His stories have been collected in a full-length collection, Emergency Stopping and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press). Individual stories have appeared in Coe Review, Existere, Iron Horse Literary Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and Necessary Fiction, among others. He has two novels: Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press) and Landscape with Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Press). In 2010, Whistling Shade Press will release his novella, Threatened Species and Other Stories. He maintains a website at www.jeffvandezande.com.