Hate to sound like a broken record, but I have another book out. Angel Fish is out now with Black Dog Books. It’s about the Children’s Crusade and here’s Chapter One:
A boy has come to Machery.
I think he might be an angel.
When he speaks, even the birds stop singing to listen. When he speaks, his eyes shine with a light that I know cannot come from dirt and skin. When he speaks, my head whirls round and round with strange thoughts, and my heart goes patter patter patter.
I first saw him two days ago. I was fetching water for Maman. The pails were heavy, but Maman tells me carrying them will help me to grow and be stronger. I am not strong, and not very tall. The other boys in Machery say I am a sparrow that will never grow to be a cock.
Maman says I must grow strong, because I will never be very smart, and a man needs to be one or the other. This is why she makes me eat so much cabbage. She says it will make me strong. I hate cabbage.
When I carry the water pails, I like to pretend I am in another place. It is very hot this summer, so I was pretending that I was lying by a cool stream on a soft bed of clover. Sometimes I pretend I am a silvery fish dancing in the stream. Or a white bird flying low over the water.
I was pretending all this very hard so I closed my eyes. Machery is all brown and dusty at the moment, and it is hard to imagine you are a dancing silvery fish when your eyes are full of brown and dust.
With my eyes closed, I didn’t see him at first. I only heard the shh, shh, shh of bare feet walking on the dusty road. With my eyes still closed, I pretended that it was the shh, shh, shh of branches bending over so leaves could kiss the water of the stream. I pretended that the leaves were tickling my silvery fishy skin as I danced below the surface.
As the shh, shh, shh came closer, I opened my eyes.
For a moment I was confused. I looked into eyes that were as blue as the stream in which I’d been swimming. I blinked, and then the eyes were attached to a person.
He was very tall and thin, with brown hair that was thick and bushy, like a sheep. He looked to be a few years older than me. Maybe fifteen?
His skin was dirty. It was hard to tell which brown bits were freckles and which bits were dirt. He had no shoes, and was dressed in rags.
And his eyes. Blue like the sky. Blue like an arrow. Blue like when someone hits you in the stomach and for a moment you can’t breathe.
He smiled at me, and the arrow-blue eyes crinkled at the edges.
‘Hello, friend,’ he said.
I wondered how he knew he was my friend. I didn’t think I’d ever had a friend before. But when he said it, I knew it was true. I knew it all the way deep down inside me, in my darkest and most secret places.
‘I am Stephan.’ He reached out a hand and I took it.
‘I’m Gabby,’ I told him. ‘Gabriel.’
The boy nodded approvingly. ‘Gabriel is one of the very greatest and most sacred Angels.’
I shrugged. I don’t really know Angels.
The boy’s lip curled in another smile. ‘Your pails look heavy, Gabriel,’ he said.
And they were, but I had forgotten.
‘I will let you get home,’ he said. ‘But we will see each other again. Very soon.’
I nodded. We would. I would see my friend again soon.
The next day was Sunday, so no work.
I went to mass in the morning with Maman and Papa. I have no brothers or sisters. Maman has tried to birth me a sister four times, but each time it has been no more than a wet and red thing. Papa thinks she is cursed. Maman says she cannot be cursed, because she birthed me. Papa replies that I am cursed too, because I don’t remember important things and am very small and find many things hard to understand.
One of the things I find difficult to understand is Father Sebastian. He reads to us every Sunday from the Holy Book in a tongue that Maman says is called Latin. Everyone else in the church nods and purses their lips when Father Sebastian speaks in the tongue that is called Latin, but I don’t understand any of it. And when I ask Maman or Papa, they get angry and tell me to hush. Once I thought that maybe they don’t understand it either and are just pretending, but when I told this to Maman she said that it was a wicked thought and I must never think it again.
When Father Sebastian speaks in a tongue I do understand, it doesn’t make much more sense. He uses lots of names of people that I don’t know. I think they must be Saints or Angels, but it is all very confusing because there are so many of them and it is hard to remember which ones are good and which ones are not.
Most of the time Father Sebastian reads to us or speaks in a voice that is all the same and very boring. But sometimes he gets excited and bangs his fist on the wooden stand and shakes his head so his cheeks wobble from side to side. Sometimes he gets so excited that I see sweat on his forehead. Or a tear slide from the corner of his eye and wriggle down his cheek.
After Father Sebastian talks, we all sing. This is my favourite part. I don’t know what any of the words mean, but I make up the meanings in my head. There is one that goes gloria gloria gloria and then some words I don’t know. It is the very best song. I think that Gloria is a land where nothing is brown and dusty, and the streams are clear and full of silvery dancing fish.
When I sang the gloria song on Sunday, I pretended that the streams were the colour of my new friend’s eyes. Blue as an arrow.
After the singing, we all line up and eat some bread and swallow some wine. Then we can go. Usually Maman and Papa want to talk to other people about boring things like rain and crops and bread, so I go and stand in the sun.
On Sunday though, Father Sebastian called me over to him.
‘There is a boy,’ he said. ‘A boy who has come to Machery.’
I nodded. ‘Yes, Father.’
‘You have seen him?’
I nodded again.
Father Sebastian shook his head so his cheeks wobbled. ‘You must not speak to him,’ he said. ‘He is from the Fiery Pit. His words are lies.’
I felt hot and angry inside. The boy was my friend. But I nodded again.
‘Do you understand? Do not listen to him. He is a child-stealer. He will take you and sell you to the Saracen.’
Walking out of the church in summer is always lovely. The church is cold and dark, and stepping out is like being lifted up into the arms of the sun. It was so bright I had to close my eyes. I turned my face up to the light and let it soak in. In a few minutes I would be too hot again, but for now the hot was delicious.
I could hear him talking.
I opened my eyes.
He stood balanced on a watering-trough outside the church. A small crowd was listening —Maistre Eudes the smith and his wife, Maistre Mathieu and his three pretty daughters, Maistresse Claudette and Maistresse Abrial, their heads bent close together, and Monsieur Rotrou from the big farm on the hill.
Stephan spoke in a tongue I understood. He spoke of things I had never heard of before, but he spoke of them with such strength, such lightness, that I could see them before my eyes.
He spoke of the Holy Land. Father Sebastian had talked about the Holy Land. It sounded important, but so very very far away from Machery that I had never really listened.
But when Stephan spoke of it, I understood that it was the most important place in the world. A Paradise, he said. A real Paradise.
I wondered what a real Paradise would be like.
It would have streams with silvery fish, I decided. Like in the gloria song. But the streams would be apple-cider, bubbling and fizzing and fresh. And the trees would hang low with the sweetest fruits, all year round, so nobody had to pick and store them. Cows would milk themselves, and it would be the sweetest, creamiest milk you’ve ever tasted.
In the Holy Land, cabbages would have honey-cakes at their hearts, instead of more cabbage.
And then, best of all, Our Lord lives in the Holy Land.
Father Sebastian is always talking about Our Lord. Except the Our Lord that he talks about is mean. He’s always watching to see if we’re being wicked, and punishing us for things that we haven’t done, or things that we just think about. I don’t see how you can stop thinking about things, even if they are wicked. Things are just there to be thought. I can’t stop that, so I don’t know why I should be punished.
But Stephan’s Our Lord is different. He is wise and kind.
I imagined that he is fat and jolly, like a King. He has a big black beard and laughs all the time. The only work to be done in the Holy Land is to sit at the feet of Our Lord and sing the gloria song to him. He loves singing. And dancing. And honey-cakes and apple cider.
When Our Lord walks through the soft green grass of the Holy Land, sparkly jewels and sweet-smelling flowers spring from under his feet.
I wanted to go there. I wanted to go there so bad I thought I might break apart like a dandelion and go floating off into the sky.
But then Stephan’s face fell, and the world came to pieces and fell down as well with a horrible thundering crash!
‘But,’ he said. ‘But.’
No. No but. I didn’t want to hear the but. I just wanted to hear more about the Holy Land and Our Lord and the honey-cakes and silvery dancing fish.
‘The Saracen,’ said Stephan.
I shuddered. Father Sebastian has spoken of the Saracen. I thought of the stories of monsters that the boys in the village try to scare each other with. I thought of red, glowing eyes and horns and snake-pointed tongues and sharp hooves. I thought of them above me, with whips in their hands and steam blowing from their noses. I thought of the smell of burning meat.
‘The Saracen,’ said Stephan, and I wanted to cry. ‘The Saracen is in the Holy Land.’
I felt a hand around my heart, squeezing. I gasped.
‘The Saracen is in the Holy Land, and the Paradise has withered away.’
The trees. The streams. The silvery fish. All gone. All burned and choked and ruined. I wanted to throw myself into the dusty dirt and cry. Who could rescue the Holy Land?
Stephan looked at me and smiled. It was like he could hear what I was thinking inside my head.
‘Soldiers cannot save the Holy Land,’ he said. ‘Nor Knights. Nor Kings. Nor priests.’
Who, then? Who?
‘You,’ he said, still looking at me. ‘You.’
Me? I was small and not very good at thinking. I couldn’t fight even one Saracen.
‘The only thing that can save us is the purity and innocence of children,’ said Stephan. ‘There is no adult in the world who is untainted by wickedness. Only children are truly pure. And when the children of Our Lord step onto the soil of the Holy Land, the Saracen will crumble into dust, and once again it will be a Paradise.’
The crowd started to make soft, angry noises.
‘You can’t take our children,’ said Maistresse Claudette. ‘You’re crazy.’
Stephan looked at me. ‘Will you join with me?’ he asked.
Maistre Eudes’s wife yelled at Stephan, her cheeks red and shiny as apples and her eyes all closed-up. Someone threw a rock at him, but Stephen didn’t look away. His eyes arrowed into mine.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes. Yes.’