‘Now what’s this ere, John Thumb?’
He closes his eyes. A silent plea. For strength perhaps. For the ground he’s broken to swallow him; the alchemists’ purported trick of invisibility. Anything.
Opens them again. Turns his head upon a stiffened neck.
His wife stands behind him, fists fast to her hips. Like limpets, he thinks. Or leeches.
He pushes the thought away. Out with your damn leeches. They’ll be the death of him yet.
He squints back at her, a black outline against the blacker door, the late afternoon sun thrusting over the thatch, direct in his eyes.
As well he can’t see her face. He’d bet a silver guinea she looks the very devil. S’blood, but that woman could scowl Lucifer out of wings and horns. Nothing he can do with that look. There be not fortification for it, nor remedy that he’s yet found.
‘John Thumb, you cease this very instant.’ O, how she growls, this woman of his. Contrary to proverbial promises, her bite is every mite as fearsome as her yap.
He stabs the fork in a fresh turned hassock of earth. Unbends his back, wincingly. The bones within crack and pop, like ship-planks contracting in ice. He is not young. It must be said, be looked full in the hoary face: age is no longer on his side. Time is against him. He will not have his years again, and what has he done with them?
‘You answer me, you crabbit ol’ drog polat.’
What to tell her? She will think him lunatic. The truth will have to stand, half-dressed and shivering in its shift. Insufficient, weakling as it is.
‘I am digging up this tree,’ he says, blinking into the sun.
‘That tree,’ quoth she, ‘has been there longer than you have drawn breath. Wretched man. To what purpose?’
She does not truly want to know. She merely seeks bones to pick.
And yet. And still. He remembers the look of old Sir Richard. The king’s promises of land and gold, passed from mouth to mouth. If only some hearty fellow can bring him that strange crop of which his infamous, no, heretical divorce hath deprived him.
What God hath joined, let not man put asunder.
‘A brave new plant. From Spain. I shall harvest it, and bear it to the king. It shall be the making of us, Agathe.’
‘The making or the breaking, you wizened old fool. Show me. Show me this plant for which you sacrifice my family’s tree.’
She approaches, her bulk swaying as she picks her way across the tussocky earth of their plot. Her plot, in truth. His by marriage only. Was this sweet scrap of the Tamar valley that led a younger John blindly into his own conjugal shackles to a certain harridan he won’t mention.
Earth to earth. Dust to dust.
For richer for poorer.
Sir Edgecumbe had it that the young king made good on his word, was not above recognising a commoner who did him loyal service. Had Henry not thrown over a very Spanish princess, broken with Rome, all for the love of the common, not to say strumpet, Boleyn girl?
The trollop. The witch.
From the pouch at his belt, he extracts and earthy tangle of roots. With care; they are precious. From the cargo holds of a Spanish ship returning from the Americas.
No saying how such goods would come into his possession, save that there are some Cornishmen up and down these shores not averse to leading a vessel astray. Perhaps taking due advantage when she prongs her belly on the tricksy rocks beneath the surf.
He holds out the shrivelled roots for her perusal.
She looks from the roots in his hand, to his face and back. Not pleased. The face she wears for dead mice in the grain. Also, for the nights he returns late from the refuge of the Weary Friar, rocking swaying like a fishing smack riding a spring tide. Disgust, disbelief. Oh, many things in that face that he prefers to leave alone. Pry open Pandora’s box, and you never know what you might unleash.
He thinks perhaps he heard a story that went this way once, in his far distant boyhood. A child with some beans, a mother like a vengeful god. A monster in the clouds, a golden goose, a harp.
It comes back to him. Might have been conjured just to come to his aid in this moment. Else, to delude him. King Henry is no one’s golden goose, though giant… yes. Giant he may be. With a monstrous appetite.
Spurred, he says, ‘The King can eat twenty at a sitting. Since he divorced, he cannot get them, for love nor money.’
‘You, John Thumb,’ she stabs a thick finger at him, ‘Will believe any tall tale with the misfortune to stumble into those things you call ears. Most specially if it’s his lordship doing the telling. You are diggin up a fine fruitin tree for a handful of muck. Well then. Don’t come bawlin when there’s no quince jam, nor ale money from the sellin of it neither.’
She crosses her staunch arms across her stauncher bosom, treats the wayward imbecile to a sharp that’ll serve you nod, and turns on her heel.
It is with a small, grim spark of satisfaction that her wayward husband watches her teeter, all but turn an ankle, on an off-kilter clod, sending those same arms flailing out, clumsy as a duck churning down to water.
‘John Thumb,’ he mutters to himself, as he retrieves the fork. The worn
wood fits his fist pleasantly, like fate, like destiny. ‘John Thumb, John Thumb, John Thumb.’ Wishing he’d had the sense to plug her mouth for her, cork it, the first time his good wife called him that: Thumb. As in, under her.