The Lady and the Butcher
Daylight was full upon me as I re-entered the house — once again denting my forehead on the lintel. I pulled back the covering and checked my lady’s wound. She still slept, and I began to hope that, following my stitching, peace and healing had begun to settle into her. Boldly I freed her left arm from the draped and wrapped garment and pushed the loosened cloth away to expose for the first time the uninjured left side of her torso. I stared for some minutes at her chest and belly, bare save for the strips of cloth that crisscrossed her breastbone and enclosed her bosom. I could make no sense of this mass of tightly-fastened and wound and bound clothing that she wore but was touched with tenderness at the sight of her thus exposed. I had not bandaged the bloody injury and remained reluctant to do so because I needed to check it often.
At last I covered her again and fueled the fire in the large earthen stove not far from her feet. Then I removed my stiff wet clothing and ventured to wander about inside my warm house, wearing nothing.
My worst work was done — that which, in my hesitation I had most wanted me to avoid. Now, although my fabrication was not clearly formed, I had only to explain the presence of the lady, should anyone come and find her there. Anything else that needed explaining had been changed from earth to air.
Again I contemplated the way the lady’s pelvis was elevated above the bed, forced up by the mass of garments. I knew I had to remove more of her clothing the better to make comfort possible, but trembled at the thought of her certain wrath over such an indignity.
I probed first into the folds of her heavy skirt — probed for sign of further injury and for sign of the skirt’s fasteners. I could still find no hint for removing it properly. Beneath the caftan she wore long stockings of heavy brown felt, and leather boots over these. Again I stood staring, puzzling. A range of conflicting emotions battled for control of my thoughts.
Eventually I had to examine her for further injury. I decided that I must manipulate her knee and hip joints to be sure there were no broken bones there, so I took each leg in hand and worked it about. Her farther knee showed limited motion and enlargement, but didn’t behave as if mechanically defective. All else seemed in order, but it was upon gripping her nearer thigh through layers of cloth that I discovered that she had emptied her bowel. I realized then that for some time I had been smelling something familiar but unwelcome, although my mind hadn’t yet comprehended it. I gave hard thought to what I must do now.
I covered my front side with a doeskin apron, already much stained and stiffened by the blood of animals as well as people, and went behind the house to butcher the pig. My feet were bare, as was my entire back side. Only on the front was I covered, from my neck to my knees. A testy breeze insulted my flesh, causing me to shudder often. But the less I wore, the less I could procrastinate, and the less damage I could do to the few clothes I owned. The apron would remain bloody, and after a time I could wash from my own skin the stains which hadn’t by then worn off.
I was a good butcher, I congratulated myself. In fact, if the lady in my house were to die and if I needed to dispose of her body — I allowed it to pass my thoughts fleetingly — I could quickly make from her what would appear to be just so much more pork. (Pork in appearance only! I would never consume human meat!)
There was much in a sow that I could use in my medicine — the bristles, of course, are useful, whether plucked or left on squares of skin. There are many remedies that call for eye water, so of course I saved the eyes. I resolved to soak and scrape some of the large intestine for its qualities as a wound covering, as well as a covering for small windows in door or shutter. I squeezed the waxy substance from inside the ears as well. Certain bones make fine tools, but I ignored these as I quickly flayed and quartered the carcass.
That done, the skin salted and soaking in meltwater, and the meat salted, wrapped in straw-cloth, and stored in its own place upon the roof (apart from the human organs), I gave thought to checking my brush pile, just to reassure myself and bolster my satisfaction, but I resisted. I didn’t dare venture to place footprints anywhere I didn’t want others to look.
Still dressed only in my apron, I fought the snapping branches of undergrowth, dragging my smaller barrel, and went to the stream for more water. My toes took many bruises from slipping on smooth icy stones. What an idiot I must have appeared! That reflection made me think of Turgey. We made so much fun of him after every visit — how he would have had fun at my expense if he could but see me now!
By the time I ducked back through my doorway with my water, sloshing icy cascades over my feet, I suspect there was as much of my own blood on my cracked and scratched hide as there was from Yomo. I stood the barrel near the stove to suggest, in vain of course, that its contents assume some gentle warmth. I dipped a bowl into the barrel and sat it onto the stove to warm more quickly. From another bowl atop the fire I ladled some broth from my nighttime stew into my most delicate clay cup and took it to my lady. With the greatest of care I raised her head to meet the rim and brought her lips together with the broth. She did not respond. I manipulated her jaw to unclench her teeth and tried again, and this time a few drops fell onto her tongue. Still I did not see her swallow.
Still wearing only my long apron, I sat the cup aside and turned with resolve to the problem of her clothing. By now I realized I had little to fear from her anger at my liberal disrobing of her body. If I had lived in a village I could have enlisted the help of any of the women, but the nearest woman was hours away. It would have been possible to fetch her, but I doubted that I should leave this lady unattended for that long a time. She was at my mercy, and in the time I would possibly preside over her recovery I could hope to assure her of the necessity of my decision. She might well be more angry if I left her filthy. What I should be more concerned about, I said inside myself, would be the reaction of any of her people should they learn of the liberty I was about to take.
Yet didn’t I have a small trunk of her very clothing from which to replace the bloodied and dirtied garments? And couldn’t I clean her and re-clothe her within an hour? She might never know that I had done it alone, I assured myself somewhat aloud, as I resorted to a sort of murmur that I indulge in when I am planning and working.
I removed the blankets and, with the pivoting blades in one hand, I probed once again with the other for one final clue to a fastener. Nothing. Gingerly I pressed her flesh at the navel and inserted a blade beneath the cloth gathered there. At that instant she groaned. I froze. Her eyes blinked and then widened in horror, fixing on my apron, as she drew some unspeakable but also inaccurate conclusion about me. My hands still in place at her belly, I spun to face her squarely, thereby to conceal my entirely-exposed back half, but it had already been apprehended. She tried feebly to rise. For a second she was choked with pain. Then she fell back.
“I am a physician,” I told her in a friendly, professional tone.
“I am befouled,” she said faintly, panting as if a man were standing upon her chest. She coughed lightly, and continued doing so frequently for most of her waking time.
“My Lady, I only wished to assist you, indeed to make you clean and comfortable.” I remained poised to cut, but dearly wished that I had not been caught in the act. I ached for her suddenly. Her husband had died, and she knew it not. Worse, I had denied her the privilege of giving him a respectful burial as I was sure noble people would do. And then, after I had burned his body as if it were a sputtering birch log, I had ground his bones as well as my master’s without remorse.
“Is there no woman present?” she whined. I barely understood her labored speech. Tears were in her eyes, but I knew not whether tears of pain, fear, grief, or humiliation. Her pronunciation was colored by the hint of a native tongue that was non-Slavonic.
“You are far from any women. You’ve had an accident, and I am a physician.”
“Why are you nude?” she squeaked, her eyes closed and her body tensed.
I considered my appearance. “I have been butchering,” I said, as if that explained everything. She glanced at me and stiffened more. Then I added: “I do it without my clothes so that I don’t ruin them.”
Her left hand suddenly gripped my cutter. Her right had moved also, as if she intended to seize me with both, but her wound hindered that arm.
“My Distinguished Lady, I have been trying to discover your wounds, but I cannot make sense of you garment. I took the liberty to cut away…”
“It is a yelek, but how would you know that? Cut it away, then, quickly. Quickly, please. Your blade is cold,” she bade me, with resignation in her hoarse whisper.
I made talk while gnawing at her waistband with my cutters. “You have a deep wound in your right side. No doubt you can feel it, but I beg you please not to disturb it with your fingers.”
Her eyes were closed. She made no reply.
I improvised what seemed like a natural story as I revealed within her clothes a sight of disconcerting contrasts, for other than my exposure to one disrobed female corpse and to children, who could often be found nude in the yard of a home, I had never seen what I now beheld. It was not an attractive sight, only owing to her filthy condition at the moment, yet, to make time to tell the lie that came to mind and leisurely to observe her in more detail, I proceeded to cut the length of cloth along each of her legs. Inevitably I would have to do so anyway.
“Your carriage had an accident. Do you remember it?” I paused here, because certain details of her recall were important to me. Had she seen me at the side of the road? Had she even seen the pig? I examined her left knee, which was bruised and swollen, then moved on. She lay still, but opened her eyes and stared straight above.
“Please, it smells badly. I feel like vomiting. Can you hurry?” she pleaded, lightly panting and pressing her elbow against her wound.
Indeed it smelled badly! But nearly as strong as her own odor was that of the substances smeared upon me in the butchering. Perhaps she didn’t recognize the difference. It behooved me to prevent her vomiting, considering how it would convulse her wounded ribcage. I felt for the poor girl, and I suppose I should have told her so, but instead I was warming to my tale and forged ahead with it.
“Your carriage was upended some distance from here, but your nobleman righted it quickly and rushed you here, the first house he could find. As it would be your good fortune, I am a physician, recently ascended from my apprenticeship under a teacher of the most forward Greek methods.” I wanted to know early on whether she preferred a shaman who would invoke spirits or a master of herbs and surgery.
I separated the undergarments from her body and pulled them carefully, so as not to jar her chest, retaining in them most of the product of her distress. I left the open outer skirt beneath her temporarily as a bed cloth, however. Then, with the barely warmed water and thick rags I washed her quickly and dried her. She whimpered throughout the ordeal.
Oblivious to my insensitivity, I pressed on: “Your nobleman has left you here to be tended by me, promising to return soon to see about your progress and your ability to travel.”
Finished with her mess, I lay a fox fur over her mid-section. Then I found myself a not-too-dirty robe and traded it for my apron, but not before I had tormented myself with a quick sponging from the freshly-fetched water. She paid me no heed. Impulsively, I balled her stinking garment together with my stiff, disintegrating apron and thrust them into the stove. Although the smoke from my fire typically escaped neatly through the back of the house, on this occasion the ever-present leaks into the room began providing an inward surge of smoke from the burning clothes that had an oddly acceptable odor. Sadruk had cut and capped a hole in the roof for such back drafts, and the errant wisps curled toward the opening as I bustled to finish this embarrassing job.
Then I opened her trunk and sought her attention. I held up for her view the first of those items that apparently served as underclothes. She shook her head as I raised each of several pieces until at last she settled upon a simple device even I could comprehend. This I pulled up over her thighs, but could not draw farther without causing her grave distress from her rib injury. We both seemed to realize that that was as far as it would go today. Then I came to an outer garment, a simple gray wrap that would form a dress, which she approved, but there was no hope of getting her into that. I applied a bandage cloth to her wound and covered her again with the blankets. Then she motioned for me to continue through her things until I had found a like set of clothing, which I obediently set aside. She surprised me next by telling me that I should tear some certain other items of plain clothing into rags for use in my work. I hesitated, to be polite, but she painfully insisted, and so I complied.
“Are you hungry?” I asked as I began rapidly tearing a half dozen garments into strips. I had closed the trunk and pushed it against the wall.
“No,” she answered flatly, gasping, coughing, her voice sounding hopeless and depressed. She tried again to rise. Once again, of course, she fell back in agony. This time I hurried to prop her up ever so slightly, which again pained her until it was done. At least I could get a cup to her mouth, now, without pouring it over her face.
I blended a dried garlic clove and some sorrel tea into a cup of stew broth, and she took it readily, but after four or five swallows she was taken with a severe choking which ended her meal and which unnerved me for its haunting resemblance to Sadruk’s death during a similar episode.
Helpless, I stood by, watching her heave with the convulsing coughs, and when it subsided, she began sobbing. I wished I had some fresh ground ivy to give her for her cough. That being unavailable due to the season, I quickly stuffed a cloth sack with dried calamus and placed it next to her cheek in order to surround her with an interesting and spicy aroma. I checked her bandage, which remained, I thought, remarkably unstained except for a small patch of yellow and red in the center.
She began to complain of burning and itching, and there would be times in the coming days when I would have to restrain her from tearing at her side. We talked no more that morning, for I, exhausted and seized by much confusion, lay upon a bench next to the large stove and opposite the door, and fitfully slept.