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The Testament of Yves Gundron

About The Book

Here is the chronicle of the strange events that befall Mandragora, a primitive farming village in the Outer Hebrides. A tale of conflict where there had been none, of lives irrevocably transformed, this is the written testimony of farmer and inventor Yves Gundron, edited and annotated by Harvard academic Ruth Blum. Yet this historical manuscript is not quite what it seems...and neither is the town of Mandragora. When Yves recalls lyrics that are recognizably from a blues song, it begins to seem that Blum is not merely an anthropologist preparing a historical document, but an active participant in Mandragora's battle with the double-edged sword of progress.
The Testament Of Yves Gundron is a brilliantly imagined exploration of the pursuit of modernity -- and of the detritus left along the way.


Chapter One: The First Invention

Imagine the time of my grandfather's grandfather, when the darkness was newly separated from the light. Society was only a shadowy image of what it would soon become. This was Mandragora before my invention and all that it set in motion. People spoke to one another, but their habits of thought were coarse. People lived in fear. Our forefathers farmed, but with great difficulty; a man used a sharp stick to dig a hole for each seed, and furrowed his fields by dragging his fingernails through them and picking out each small stone. Often a whole spring passed in preparing the ground, and families went hungry or died come winter. They had fire, but they had no candles, nor did they have proper looms -- when a woman made cloth for her household, she wound the woof through each strand of warp, and tamped down each row of weaving with her fingers. It took so long to make a bolt of cloth that growing children went about in tatters because their mothers could not keep pace. Men knew how to count and keep tally, but they had no numbers bigger than twenty. Twenty acres was the size of Mandragora's largest farm (my grandfather's, which I cultivate still), and twenty sheep the size of its largest flock; what need had they to reckon the infinite? Men's faculties may have been as well developed as ours, but they spent so much effort scratching their existence from the soil that they had no time for ideas or contemplation. What sufficed sufficed; and however much men might have profited from introspection, their days were full of drudgery that kept it at bay.

Such darkness persisted nigh unto the present day, and might nearly have persisted ever, had not a glimmering seed of an idea taken root in my mind and beckoned me out of the night. I wish it had been an idea of philosophical profundity, one that could explain to men where God resides or what happens to our essence after death, but it was only a workaday idea, the kind a farmer such as myself might have about his farming. Of all the events to set the process of history in motion, mine was a realization about my horse. Had I known then what terrors my invention would bring us along with its joys, perhaps I would have allowed the idea to drift off like a thousand other daydreams. I could not have envisioned myself, two winters later, spending these long nights writing in my barn, writing against what seems the inevitable outcome: that I, and all that I have wrought, will be forgotten utterly as the future gallops forth to devour us. At the time I knew nothing but the perfect beauty of what I imagined.

I have already gone ahead of myself, however, for you do not yet even know what I accomplished. Perhaps you will best come to understand the deed's magnitude by its first outward sign: because of my invention, I was able to name my horse. I called her Hammadi. My neighbor Ydlbert von Iggislau named his horse Thea. These names had weight for us beyond their intrinsic beauty, because these two workweary horses were the first anyone had ever named. No horse before Hammadi lived long enough to need a name. It was enough that God had given us the beasts to serve us; we had never spent enough time with a single one to come to know its soul. We named our other animals -- sheep and billy goats, for example, performed no labor and had fair chances of survival. My cow, who had provided me milk even before I married Adelaïda, had always been called Sophronia, and seemed worthy of such a name. We loved our horses nonetheless, as we loved our crops and loved the gentle spring. In their infancy we patted their soft ears and watched their first, faltering steps with the same fear and pride we felt in watching our own growing babes. We had little to spare, but the horses performed important duties, and we thanked them when we could with windfall apples or carrots that had gone early to rot. And in times of trouble, we prayed for our horses, sure.

But we could not risk giving a horse a name. They were subject to all manner of plagues, maladies of the tooth, hoof, and digestion, sometimes a dread illness that turned a healthy horse to a deranged beast, choking on its own frothy spittle, spewing blood from every orifice. Because God is merciful, such a horse rarely lived longer than a day. Horses died young, as ail creatures die young -- like hatchlings in the nest or children yet unable to speak, foals were delicate, without sense, and held always in a balance that desired to tip against them. Sometimes God spared a foal its childhood torments, and it grew to be a strong adult, suitable for work. The seasons could not turn round upon a workhorse, however; they often died in their first few months of service. Even the smallest human error could bring a horse to its knees. I hitched my third horse, a beautiful chestnut mare whose white socks I brushed down of mud each night, to a full cart of grain one August morning -- a cart only slightly more full than that she had pulled the week before -- and she strained too hard under the load. Before I could loose the choking strap from her neck, she stood quite dead at the edge of my farthest field, her eyes popping and her tongue aloll. Her pained and frozen visage struck terror into my heart, and I let much of the shocked wheat go to rot in the field because I dreaded to approach the dead horse. After a few days I enlisted the help of my closest companions -- my brother, Mandrik le Chouchou, and my neighbor Ydlbert von Iggislau -- to drag the stinking, stiffened carcass away. "Fear not," Mandrik told me, bowing his head of fine brown curls before the sight. "The multitudes depart our presence thus, but the few escape intact." Ydlbert set his hat on the ground, revealing his balding pate to the hot sun, spat in his two strong hands, and set to backing off the edible sections and the horse's skin. I could neither think long on the commentary nor bear to watch the flaying, so I returned to our house, where we wintered in poverty and want, except for copious lots of salted horse meat.

I am not certain I have conveyed the direness of our situation. We could not produce horses fast enough to make use of them -- the chances of bringing both a male and a female to healthy adulthood were few, and when they mated, the spirit often left the foal before it left its mother's womb. Horses -- like even the bravest of women, my first wife, Elynour, among them, may she rest in peace -- often died in giving birth, and a foal would languish on the diet of sugar and water it suckled in its mother's absence. A foal that persevered to its adulthood was prone to the aforementioned afflictions of the body; those beasts we acquired from Andras Drck, the dealer, were healthier, but often dearer than their short lives made worthwhile. Watching a horse in my barn at night, I sometimes saw in its trusting downcast eyes a premonition of the death that the weight of its suffering would surely and eventually bring. Our ancestors dreamed up a thousand spells to save them, but though a man might studiously recite his

Day be bright,

Load be light,

Bring this horse safely

Back home tonight

it only worked when the spirits were willing. When the horses did not die of their sundry natural maladies, they strangled pulling loads.

I and my countrymen desired the plight of the horses to be otherwise, but we knew no way to bring about the change except through ardent prayer, in which we engaged together each Sabbath, and in which many of us engaged alone in the dreary hours before sleep. It Is by such meditation, as well as by luck, that eventually I came upon the solution, a solution so simple yet so unknown that we did not have a name by which to call it. Though human vanity convinced me that the invention was the product of my mind, I soon came to realize that I had received both a vision and a blessing; only much later did I begin to see the terrors such a blessing can wreak. That first night I gave the longest prayer of thanks I have ever found it within me to offer, and thus, with a heart full of devotion, did I learn the thing's Heaven-given name: Harness.

Before we had the harness, we would tie a piece of flaxen rope or leather thong around the neck of the beast, secure the two traces to the swingletree of the cart (which at that time had but one wheel, square in the center of the load), and hope for successful drayage. If the horse was strong and the cart half laden, the burden arrived with its bearer intact, but the more weight we placed on the cart, the more likely it would strangle the horse. God is merciful, but he does not remove weights from around the necks of beasts, and we lost many horses in this manner. We gambled accordingly on each load; if it arrived safety, then we could eat, and if ill befell it or the horse, we couldn't. The material loss was, however, only part of the grief when our horses died. Even before we dared name them, we grew accustomed to their wants and ways. When we saw their (fear lips, black as night or pink as a newborn babe, grimace in pain, it cut our hearts, as it would cut your heart, in two.

One morning when the sun had not yet lifted his chin above the mountains to the east, I dreamed I was a horse dragging a cart heavy with sacks of flour. In the dream the hands of a black devil pulled the rope taut about my neck, and I knew the terrible truth of how cursed our horses felt. I awoke with a start and sat gasping for breath in my bed, holding my hand over my chest to see that my heart was still beating. I felt it working its miracle behind the bone. My wife, Adelaïda, quickly awoke beside me, her yellow braid brushing across my cheek.

"Yves," she asked, "what's wrong?"

"I dreamed the devil was choking me. I dreamed I couldn't breathe."

Adelaïda settled back into the bedclothes. "It'll be a bad season for goldenrod, then. We'll have to keep Elizaveta indoors."

But I knew in my aching heart that the dream had been a prophecy of a different kind, though none of my deceased kin had come to herald it in the usual fashion. Of a sudden it seemed quite natural that a rope should choke a horse's throat, just as the devil's hands choked mine. But, like me, the horse had a hard place above her heart, a shell to protect the most sacred part of her, and if I could bind her to the cart across that place, it would make use of that strength instead of aggravating a weakness.

The next morning, after briefly watering the near pasture and dumping the night's slops out besides, I brought my horse -- nameless still -- out into the yard, tethered her to the stake, and took strips of cured leather and pieces of flaxen rope from the barn. The chickens clucked in the yard, and my dog, Yoshu, bit fleas off her yellow backside, annoyed that I should pay more attention to the horse than to her. Elizaveta, a year-old infant then whose eyes had but recently gone brown, rolled into the yard behind me. Adelaïda had tied the child's left ankle to the kitchen bench with a length of twine, so that she could roll only a short distance from the door. My wife stood in the doorway with her distaff, spinning and watching the child play with her doll. They were the picture of beauty in the early-morning light, both fair-haired and sturdy, Adelaïda's round face ruddy with health around her gaptoothed grin. Her long braid shone, and she rocked her round hips slightly as she spun; Elizaveta fixed her gaze on her doll with a grown woman's intensity. Thus to observe their morning activities -- so different, yet so intimately tied -- brought me great pleasure and renewed dedication to my project.

I watched the horse as I worked, wondering if she would give me a sign how my invention should progress. I had acquired her from the dealer three years since, and she was the best, most intelligent horse I had yet owned -- not the most delicately featured, but a solid work beast, bay of hue, with a silky black mane, beautiful white feathering over her hooves, and a white star between her brown eyes that gave her a thoughtful air. She switched her tall, and wagged her head expectantly, but she could give me no advice.

With all the combined efforts of my intellect and soul, I could imagine no way to secure a strap around the horse's breastplate. Every position, it seemed, caused the thong to slip back up to her windpipe. In any position she would choke.

Adelaïda spun her flax into a long thread as fair as her heavy plait. "That doesn't seem to be working," she offered.

"I can see that."

"It's too bad the horse doesn't wear an apron, because you could tie the ends of the straps to it and that'd be that."

"A fine point, but one which I must qualify," I said, mindful that my wife's tutelage was among my duties upon this earth, "by reminding you that horses, who do no women's work, require no aprons."

"I was only remarking how much easier for you it would be if they did," she replied. "I've more wit about me than a suckling child."

I was chastened by her saving, for, either by accident or by God's grace, Adelaïda had solved the problem as she spun. The horse had no need for an apron, true, but if I provided her a tight-fitting girdle, then I could attach a strap to it across the breastbone; from this, in turn, would emanate the traces that bound it to the cart, thus distributing the weight of the load over a more solid area of the horse's body. I measured the horse's girth with a length of twine, and with another the distance about her breastplate, and retired to the barn to cut leather to those lengths. This leather I sewed to its own edge, so that it made a long, hollow shape, like entrails; and this I stuffed with straw, so that the straps could cushion the horse even further against the blow of labor. Elizaveta continued to roll about the front garden, gurgling her native song of praise. Although I shut the barn door to ensure the stillness necessary for work, I could faintly hear Adelaïda singing a song she oft sings as she works:

Well, I love Yves Gundron,

Tell you, Lord, I do.

Yes, I love my old man Yves,

Yes, indeed, it's true.

But the fact that he don't listen,

Lord, it makes this woman sad and blue.

Yves, he leaves me 'lone

And plows his fields all day.

Yes, he leaves me 'lone

While he plows all day.

But I wouldn't feel so lonesome

If he'd just listen to what I say.

Though she intended her music as a reproach, it reminded me of my mother, who had ever a song upon her lips; it aided me in my thinking, and spurred me to complete my work. I stitched the breast strap firmly to the girding strap, so it would hold tight, and furnished the girding piece with an old iron buckle and multiple holes, so I could adjust it. The two ends of the breast strap I left long, that I might tie them to the cart. Fashioning the device, a labor of love unlike any I had yet known, took the better part of the day, but the sun sped past in what seemed an hour.

He had not yet reached the western edge of the horizon when I brought my work out and showed it to the puzzled horse, who was nibbling the scant grass of the near pasture. The shyness of her usually forthright gaze told me that she knew her life was about to change irrevocably. When I slipped the strap around her breastbone she hung her head, anticipating the drudgery of all the many workdays that had come before. She kicked when I fastened the belt about her midsection, and again when I tightened it and adjusted the breast strap. The fit, even on that first attempt, was nearly perfect -- evidence, it seemed, of God's desire for man to have this invention. Sophronia, the cow, kept chewing nonchalantly on her cud, but I knew she was watching with something more than her ordinary interest. I fitted the horse's lead about her head, and she burred in annoyance.

"Adelaïda!" I called. She appeared in the doorway, now in shadow, with the child on one hip and her distaff in the other hand. "Look at the horse!"

"What in Heaven's name have you done to her?"

"I've made an invention."

"It doesn't look kindly."

"Never mind its outward form -- will you help me bring the cart?" It was not so heavy that I could not have moved it alone, but I wanted her nigh when the great event took place. She tied the child back up to the bench and rested her spindle against the door frame. Together we maneuvered the awkward cart out of the barn, and pulled it up behind the bewildered horse. I fastened the ends of the contraption to the cart, and tested their hold. The horse hung her head and looked at me askance, but when I clicked my tongue and urged her to follow me by tugging gently upon her lead, she knew the moment of reckoning had arrived, and began, hesitantly, to walk. For what seemed an eternity the traces pulled taut, and then the cart began to roll at a stately pace behind her. The horse, who still believed disaster was imminent, continued to regard me. But nothing went amiss. The cart's solid iron-clad wheel whined, bumped, and turned as it always had, but nothing pulled at the horse's throat. I put my hand upon the horse's neck to stop her.

"Adelaïda," I said. "Climb up on the cart."

She pursed her lips. "This much seems miracle enough."

"But another is about to unfold," I said, uncertain though I was. "Climb on." I prayed silently as Adelaïda hitched her skirt up, revealing her pale underskirt, and climbed up to the bed. I saw her lips moving, if not in prayer, then in a song of private devotion. Once more I clicked my tongue at the horse, and though she strained to set the cart in motion, she soon lifted her white feet high, and carried Adelaïda without apparent effort toward the southern fields. Adelaïda whooped with glee, for she had never before moved so quickly. No one had ever moved with such speed, and had I not known the cause of her rapid motion, I would surely have thought her an Arab upon a magic carpet or a witch in the Devil's thrall.

Adelaïda is by no means as heavy as a load of turnips, but she has weight enough, if not to strangle a horse, then to make her struggle in her labors. The horse, however, pulled my fair wife with ease. When at last she tired of her sport, I returned to the barn and brought forth a bale of last year's hay, Yoshu nipping at my heels. As I hoisted the hay and the dog onto the cart, both the horse and Adelaïda winced, but the added weight, nearly equal to my wife's, did not cause the horse more than a moment's pause. Finally I stopped the cart again and climbed aboard.

"Yves!" my wife cried. "You'll surely kill her." Yoshu, ready for adventure, voiced her approval of my scheme.

But I persevered. The horse looked round, wondering where her master had gone. I stood at the forward end of the cart and yelled at her to go, but she did not understand, as I was behind her. I had left her lead dangling before her, as it always had before, so I had no way to signal her to start. I reached over the edge of the cart and slapped her croup, shouting. She turned her head to recognize me, and showed by the gleam in her eye that she understood. She pulled all of us -- myself, Adelaïda, the dog, and a dry bale of hay -- until the sun went down. That evening I rewarded her with oats from my own provender, and with the previous year's dried apples, and scrubbed her down until she gleamed from crest to tall. Elizaveta, when we returned to the house, was completely bound up in her string, and lay with her arms pinned to her sides, blinking.

That was the night the device's Heaven-given name appeared to my inward ear. Harness would be its name henceforth until the generations expired. I was still speaking the name to myself when I rose before dawn to bring wood for Adelaïda's fire, and as I spoke it, I realized that this one simple word meant that our horse, with God's grace, would survive into her dotage. She would become a member of the family. She, too, would require a name. Again the voice spoke in my inward ear: Call the horse Hammadi. Its beautiful sound rang throughout my body and mind. Although the wood was heavy in my wood sling, I stopped at the barn. All the animals stood wide awake and expectant, and the horse looked at me skeptically, her white star shining, as she hoped for a breakfast as fine as last night's meal.

I said, "Hello, Hammadi."

She flared her nostrils and flattened her fine brown ears against her head. Perhaps this form of greeting had, in the intervening night, attained an almost human eloquence. I could practically hear her whisper, "Hello."

That day was a Saturday, one among the many. On Sundays God decreed a day of rest, but after we went dutifully to worship, and ate a solemn meal, we would return to our everyday work. We dared not tell our priest, Stanislaus, that we worked on the Sabbath -- he was too young to have real experience of the world and its ways, and such an admission might have shaken his confidence. Our old priest, Father Icthyus, had fed us full up on the fear of God; but Stanislaus, thin as a reed in his dun-colored cassock, looked down his hooked nose at whatever he studied, his Adam's apple bobbing ever in confusion, and could not inspire us to the same frenzy of worship and dread. Though he was a young enough fellow, he held to his doctrines with an old man's fervor; and his unwillingness to grant pardon for our workaday follies made us hesitate to admit to him our real sins. The truth was that, whatever God had decreed, survival required a great deal of labor, and to take more than half a day of rest would have meant our demise. And as for spending one day in contemplation, for the multitudes there is nothing to contemplate beyond work; we think about it while we do it. Clerics or no, it is better to bring in the hay on a sunny Sunday than to meditate upon God's goodness and allow the hay to be ruined by an evening rain.

Sunday morning Adelaïda and I put on our good clothes, tied Elizaveta to a clean string to keep her from running wild in our lovely sanctuary of St. Perpetua, and walked to the village for services. The air was crisp and the sun bright, and I was humbled by the beauty of the mountains that lifted their heads to Heaven all around us. That day our church, with its 'Jewel-hued murals, its clear morning light, and its great congregation of farmers, seemed truly the house of the Lord. Stanislaus's sermon was a dreary injunction against drunkenness and profanity, but all the same was I ardent in my devotions. Adelaïda looked especially beautiful that day, and when we 'joined together in silent prayer, I thanked God for her as well as for my new invention and my horse. My friend Ydlbert must have noticed the happiness on my face, for as we left the sanctuary he regarded me with a look of some curiosity. I held my silence as we began the walk home -- Ydlbert and I together, followed by our strong wives carrying our infants, followed by four of Ydlbert's sons, who walked in a row, each holding the previous child's string. The frontmost son, whose name I could not recall, held to the back of their mother's apron, which she kept tied in a scrupulous knot. The eldest, Dirk and Bartholomew, scuffed at the dust behind them all, their dark hair hanging forward over their eyes as if they were brigands.

Ydlbert said, "Has something happened, Yves? You look different." His gray eyes were bright with expectation.

I believe I blushed from pride. I told him, "I think I invented something."

"I hope it's better than that damned thing you made with iron filings."

"Indeed," Dirk said. "That was a foolish invention."

"Ydlbert," his pinch-faced Anya said, as her sons guffawed. "Not on the Sabbath."

"I call it the harness. It allows me to attach my cart to my horse without strangling her."

Ydlbert laughed, as he does, with all his soul, and with his great, firm belly heaving. "Oh, well, if that's it, congratulations."

"Ydlbert," I said, "I'm serious. When I used it to tether them together, the horse dragged me, Adelaïda, a bale of hay, and the dog without the slightest strain."

"Yves," he said, poking me in my gut -- which was only half so ample as his own -- "save your fairy tales for bedtime."

"I'll bet you three guilders it works."

Ydlbert raised and drew together his brows. Three guilders was somewhat more money then than it is now -- enough to buy a pound of fine sugar or all the cinnamon one's wife could bake with in a year. "In that case, my friend, I'll come see."

Bartholomew said, "Father, he's baiting you, sure," but without enough fire to offend.

Ydlbert lived half a mile closer to town than I did, and parted from his family at the rise that marked off his property from my own; Anya trudged down the gentle slope in the brilliant sunlight, her noisy children following behind like a family of rumple-headed ducks. Ydlbert accompanied us to our farm, and thought, no doubt, that I had prepared him an elaborate joke. Adelaïda took Elizaveta into the house, and as Ydlbert stood with his arms folded across his chest, I brought my horse, whom I could hardly grow accustomed to calling by her God-given name, Hammadi, outside. Since yesterday evening's exploits, she had begun to stand taller, and her eyes shone with knowledge of her accomplishment. The animals, out grazing in the near field, gathered round to bah and grunt with expectation. Ydlbert helped me drag the cart from the barn, and we pulled it in a wide circle to Hammadi's rear. I hitched her into her harness, which she accepted this time with joy, attached her to the cart, and repeated the previous day's successful experiment, this time with Ydlbert the skeptic in tow. When first he felt the forward motion of the cart, he crowed with 'Joy at my invention. "You've done better than invent the wheel!" he yelled, tossing his cap into the air and revealing his comical bald spot. "What good was the wheel before we had your blessed harness to make it worthwhile!" Chornaya and Flick, the two black sheep, bahed in unison; God be praised.

My heart glowed with pride; I had brought a new, good thing into the world. I stopped Hammadi's circuit, and walked to where Ydlbert had hunkered down in the cart. With my hand on his broad shoulder I told him the dearest secret of all. "I named my horse."

He smiled, uncomprehending; his teeth were worn down from more than thirty years of good use. "What do you mean, you named her?"

I said, "She's not going to die now. I gave her a name, as we'd name any other thing."

"What name?"

"Hammadi." The name still rippled like the faint echo of bells over my ears.

Ydlbert nodded and looked at Hammadi, for the first time thinking of her by her own name. Knowing this gave me joy. "Yves," he said. "We've been friends since childhood."


"Please make me a harness, for my horse, also."

"With pleasure," I said.

Ydlbert continued to nod, and looked off toward his ancestors' land. "Then I name my horse Thea," he said.

"And my three guilders?"

He smiled broadly. "I'll pay you anon."

"I don't want it. Come," I said, steering him toward the barn to begin on the second harness.

By Monday morning, then, two horses in our village had names. I cannot overstate the importance of this development. In Mandragora, we do not even name our children when they first emerge from the womb; we call them "daughter" or "son" until they have lived a full year. On the first anniversary of a child's birth, we name it, for by then it has weathered the most difficult season of its life, and we can pray for the child once it has shown us the light of its soul. But in reality children, like horses, die all the time, for the strangest of reasons. Each morning as I wake, I wonder when Elizaveta will be taken from me.

What a mark of our faith, to name our horses as we would name a year-old child. Our neighbors thought we'd gone mad -- except for my brother Mandrik, the one man in our village who understands more than the ordinary workings of machines and of God, the one man I defer to in Judgment, however odd my countrymen think him. The villagers had not yet witnessed what the harness could do; how could we expect them to believe without any visible sign?

We grow what we need to survive -- a crop of wheat, smaller crops of oats, rye, or barley in rotation, and a row of flax in the vegetable garden. My brother keeps an orchard of trees that produce many fruits of his own invention -- strange, succulent things of rare colors, which require his constant gentle care and provide one of our chief pleasures. We preserve what we can for the dark days of the year. We give some to the Archduke's household and bring the rest to market, where the townspeople buy the goods to feed their families.

When the horse could bear little weight, we loaded some of the fruits of the land onto our one-wheeled carts, carried the rest in our wood slings, and prayed each minute of the five-mile journey to town. Thankfully, we went to market only once a week, each of us bearing the choicest of his produce, peas, parsnips, or pears. If such a one as Gerald Desvres, who owned a great tract of meadow, had surplus hay, he would bring that to feed the town horses. Ydlbert, who is, after all, a sap, sometimes loaded his cart with wildflowers -- then he could load it high, because they weigh almost nothing. His brother York who bordered the forest, sometimes brought a load of firewood. As the sun rose we began to lead our horses up the road. Mandrik has the best voice among us, clearer than the first birdsong of spring, and so he often accompanied us singing ballads of events in the times of our miraculous grandmother sprung from the sea; and when we were lucky, he sang to us from the repertory of his many adventures in Indo-China. Those tales, weird and fantastical, filled us with wonder and delight.

The journey to market was grueling, despite that the terrain was smooth and gently sloped. Many a man could be heard saying spells for safe drayage under his breath, especially at the crossroads. Horses always managed to slip free of their burdens -- not my Hammadi, mind you, even before she had her name -- or lose their shoes. And when finally we arrived at the city, we had to pass single-file through the gate and the fetid streets, which were closed to the sunlight, full of the odors of refuse and garlic. If a townswoman had hung her laundry in the street, the passing horses would knock it down, but it hardly mattered -- even on the line, the linens were far from clean, and their descent to the gutter seemed, sadly, a return to their natural state. The younger sons, Ydlbert's and Desvres's especially, covered their noses in disgust. We wove between crumbling buildings until we arrived, quite abruptly, at the church steps, where we spread our wares. The horses and carts blocked off most access to the tight, oddly shaped apron of stone, even crammed as they were nearly atop one another, and the residents of the town always cursed us, spilling their slop buckets on us, kicking our horses in the shins as they struggled past.

The townspeople were niggardly with their pennies, but they needed everything we brought them; if we could have produced twice as much, they would gladly have bought it to feed their families. Still, in those days it might take six months before a farmer could save enough money for a new earthenware jug or a hundred well-made nails.

But that all happened in the past, which with impunity I can tell you ended on a spring Saturday, when I stumbled upon the miracle that changed our lives. On that April day the present as we know it began.

Can you imagine the changes this single innovation has already wrought? At first It merely staved off the death of my horse, which was in itself a miracle. But after I showed Ydlbert my invention that fateful Sabbath, we retired to the barn to make a harness for his Thea -- a black horse, not as proud of stature as my Hammadi, but nearly her equal in intelligence, and with a similar spot upon the forehead. The next morning was Monday, and we hitched our horses to our carts, loaded them fuller than any carts had ever been loaded before, and began our walk to town on our way to the city. Before we had reached the shrine, all our countrymen were abuzz. Wido Jungfrau was shaking his balding head, his thin lips pursed in disapproval, as ever. Jude Dithyramb simply stood with his mouth agape. My brother Mandrik, who in his haste had forgotten his shoes, ran up beside Hammadi on the road and tried to look into her eyes. "Halt!" he commanded her. "I pray you, sister horse, halt!" Hammadi, who had always been obedient, quit walking. "Why do you not expire under your heavy load?"

r"I made her a harness, Mandrik!" I shouted. "She bears the burden with ease!"

"Hush, my brother. I have asked your beast a question; I await her reply." Mandrik bowed his head respectfully while Hammadi flicked her face to the side twice, shooing off bugs, and worked her black lips together as if in speech. Then my brother, unshod but steady on his long, bare feet, made a slow circuit of inspection around the horse and cart, testing the strength of the harness at all Its junctures. Mandrik smiled so wide he showed his strong yellow teeth down to the roots and turned up the corners of his soft blue eyes. "What a miraculous thing you have made, Yves. We must offer thanksgiving."

I bowed my head to him; since earliest childhood he had manifested his superiority in matters of the spirit. "I have offered it moment by moment since."

"But we must all thank Providence, for now that you and Brother von Iggislau have this wondrous -- what did you call it"'

"A harness," I said.

"This harness is a boon, but may also sow the seeds of unrest in our midst. You must provide them for all your brethren, lest the fabric of the community be rent. And you must thank our grandmother, in case 'my of this was her influence."

"That old witch," said Wido Jungfrau.

"Hold, Wido," I warned him.

Ydlbert's Dirk, who hadn't eaten since breakfast and already was growing cranky, said, "Mandrik, why can't you go about shod, like other people?"

My brother, who had perhaps not yet remarked upon the nakedness of his toes, looked down.

Ydlbert swatted his son's arm. "You'll learn to respect visionaries and holy men."

He flicked his curly hair out of his eyes. "As you say, Father. I was but asking after his shoes."

Wido Jungfrau said, "I don't know why we need this thing. We always got on fine before."

"Then suit yourself," said tall Jepho Martin, nodding vigorously to his own elder brother, Heinrik, "because I want one."

Said Heinrik, with reverence, "It is one of the loveliest things I have ever beheld."

"We are all equals when we are born from our mothers' wombs and when we return to God's dark earth," said Mandrik, "and we must strive always to maintain our balance in between. To market with you, for the nonce, and Godspeed."

The two harnesses created quite a stir among the townsmen, who as a result were more willing to pay a fair price for our goods. We were all pleased with the outcome of the day. After market, then, I traveled to the edge of my northern fields with barley ale and a bunch of flowers to offer up at my grandmother's cairn. The story went that when she was a young woman, my grandmother Iulia washed up in the tide with sea vegetables and fish, naked as the day God made her, with her dark auburn hair in a salty tangle behind. Some fisherman, his name long since lost, brought her the long journey inland to our village -- which I am told sits in the very center of our island, a single verdant dip in the surrounding mountains -- during which time she would nor speak to him nor eat. As it happened she spoke English, but in a strange, harsh voice, which made everyone think her a changeling or at best a thing of the sea; yet old Matthias Gansevöort took pity upon the poor wretch, and accepted her into his crowded house as daughter. There she surprised him with her industrious weaving and her knack for concocting dishes more varied than porridge; and soon enough, she began to compose music, bending the syntax of our tired old language to her will to make the sad, syncopated songs which eventually she passed on to my brother, and with which talent my wife was also blessed. Iulia never lost her memory of the sea, nor quit telling tales of a great land beyond it, nor rid herself of the peculiar frankness of demeanor that marked her when she was first dredged up, and so was always somewhat feared among the villagers, who would not have her buried in the churchyard. There she was then, looming large above my land. I thought she would be glad for ale and flowers, though wildflowers grew all around; and I asked her to bless my invention. The next day Ydlbert and I brought our neighbors to my barn and instructed them in the manufacture of harnesses, and of long reins that we might stand in the carts behind the horses. Gerald Desvres brought a lug of fermented barley to share around the threshing floor, and recited the briefest blessing:

All saints! All saints! All saints, hear!

Bless this measure of barley beer!

It having thus been rendered safe, by nightfall our horses were all beharnessed and our heads wobbly with liquor. We decided to meet thus every month on the new moon, if not to discuss inventions, then for the drink.

At next market, my whole village -- even those I disliked -- had harnesses, and it became clear that our carts were now insufficient. Previously we had chosen among our weekly crops and loaded the carts tamely; now we loaded them to breaking with vegetables and fruits, and even then the horses, though tired, seemed little troubled by the journey. The carts needed to be different somehow, but every cart I had ever seen had been exactly like the one Hammadi now pulled; how was I to imagine a different way? One man cannot change everything in his lifetime.

My brother, however, has an ability I do not understand to see things anew; this is, he tells me, a result of his wide journeys and of his lapsing into his states, and also perhaps explains why he has such gifts in singing and in grafting new trees but no real ability to work the soil. Mandrik retreated to a high-up crook in an oak tree for a day, taking with him only a gourd full of water, a slate, and a chalk rock, and when he returned, he brought me a drawing of the new cart. It had, as no cart had before, two wheels, one on either side of the axle log in the middle of the cart. With two wheels for balance we could make the carts longer, wider, and able to bear more than twice as much weight. Mandrik's design, which he explained to me again and again as I cut wood and assembled the contraption with nails, also called for higher sides, to keep stray carrots from spilling over.

Mandrik and I loaded all my goods onto my new cart the next Market Day, and still it was not full; and when we drove Hammadi through our town, imagine the astonishment this new invention aroused. "Crikes," Jepho Martin said, the only man tall enough to peer well over the high sides and into the marvelous machine. "I'll give you five rounds of cheese if you'll help me and my brother make carts like this one. I can only imagine how happy it'd make old Heinrik. We could let the children sleep in them, in good weather." Within two weeks, every man in the village had a Two-Wheeled Cart to accompany his harness, and our meager incomes began to seem less bleak besides. The townspeople had surely been hungry all the years of their lives, because as much food as we brought them, they were able to eat.

But since Adam's fall it has been our lot for circumstances to try our intelligence and faith. And look you: we had been satisfied until that time, but as soon as the prospect of a better fortune became manifest, we pursued it with all our hearts and minds. Over the summer and fall we built larger, stronger carts, capable of increasing our material wealth; and their increased size did not make them unkind to our precious beasts, all of whom now bore names. When at last we perfected our new carts -- when they were as big as we desired them, and as sturdy -- we had had our fill of inventing. One Market Day that winter we arrived at the gates of the city as the Prime bells began to ring in the dark morning. Ydlbert was at the front of the line, leading the proud black Thea by her reins. We heard a thump, then Thea's whinnying complaint. She stamped her feet for punctuation.

"Ydlbert?" I called to him, leaving Hammadi's reins in Mandrik's idle hands. "Brother von Iggislau, what ails you?" My breath left me in a chill cloud.

Jungfrau said, "Bad news, I'll wager. It's about time the Devil caught up with us." I had lately noticed that small children kept their distance from him.

As I approached the gate, I could see only the rear of the cart, protruding. Ydlbert and his horse appeared to be already somewhere inside. The cart began to shake, and first Ydlbert's hands, then his whole head and torso appeared atop his carrots and turnips. "The blasted thing's stuck. It's stuck in the bloody gate."

Jungfrau let out a hoot, and good Ion Gansevöort hushed him. Some of the boys were giggling, though.

I said, "That can't be."

Ydlbert tumbled over the vegetables and landed solidly on the ground. "Look, then." He wiped himself clean, then blew into his hands, as he led me to the front of the cart. Indeed, the cart had caught both sides of the narrow gate. At least two hands' width of cart would not fit through.

We backed the horses up and led them to the side of the road while we conferred -- the townsmen treated us bitterly when we left horses near the church, so we did not want to block their ingress and egress through the Great West Gate. It was a bitter chill, though thankfully without snow, and every moment's delay made us more impatient. We had brought our tarpaulins to cover the ground before the church; now each of us lay his on the hard ground, filled it with as many vegetables as he could hoist, and carried the load into town, lust as it was in the days of our grandfathers' grandfathers, who knew not how horses could be made to do a man's labor. The Martin brothers, Heinrik and Jepho, were bent so far under the weight of their burdens that their spectacular height was reduced to that of ordinary men. The sun was well up when finally we set our goods out to market; the townsfolk quibbled over the freshness of the food, and we left with numb fingers, half our goods still in the carts, and light pockets.

A while past dark, I reached Ydlbert's home. The middle boys, who'd come with us, ran to the warm hearth; the smallest were strung up dreaming in their hammocks; and the elder two were not to be seen, though likely out lifting the skirts of Heinrik Martin's and Desvres's nubile daughters. Anya, weary-eyed, plunked bowls of porridge onto the table, then retired to her fireside chair, where she wound yarn from her distaff into a ball. At her feet an infant cat unwound yarn from another ball, but Anya worked more quickly, ensuring that the progress of the yarn was overall for the good.

"Was it a good day at market?" she asked. Her thin lips scarcely moved when she spoke, so tired was she from her days of rearing sons.

Ydlbert poured us milk from the bucket, "The new carts are too wide to fit through the city gates, and we had to carry the vegetables on our backs."


"Monkeys, all," Anya said, though we knew monkeys only from my brother's stories of abroad.

"It was dreadful, wife."

"Now you know what it's like to trudge about with seven bairns inside you," she said, and stood up to check the smaller children's placement in their hammocks.

Ydlbert ladled more porridge into our wooden bowls. "We have to do something about that gate, is all," he said.

"Cast a spell?"

"Talk to the Archduke."

When I arose the next morning at sunup, Ydlbert was crouched on my stoop, holding a baked potato, that miraculous and most nourishing food my brother so providentially brought back with him from the Beyond, for warmth. The dog eyed his provisions greedily. "For the sake of the Lord God," I said, "you can come in, man."

"No time," he said.

"We've got hot porridge, and some fine pickles."

"And no time to eat it. This matter cannot wait."

I wrapped myself up in my warmest garments, and we detoured up the side path to fetch my brother from his simple hut. We found him cutting back the dead vines in his winter arbor. Mandrik was the only man in the village besides myself and Father Stanislaus who could write, and had a fairer hand than I for drafting a petition. Besides, if nothing else, good luck followed him like the stink follows a stuffed cabbage; and he brought along his psaltery, and sang a song of his own devising to while away the walking time and to ease our restless spirits.

We can't fit our carts

Through the city gates.

No, we can't fit our carts

Through the city gates.

But we gone petition the Archduke

Before it gets too late.

Now, Ydlbert and Yves,

They don't believe in what I write.

"Yes, we do, brother," I interjected, to which Ydlbert appended, "Amen."

Yes, they doubt me like Thomas,

They don't think I'm all right.

Just wait until we reach the castle

And everything's gonna be out of sight.

Despite Mandrik's optimism, we knew we had no chance of being admitted to his Urbanity's presence. What was he to do -- accept petitions from every bumpkin farmer who came urgently to seek his counsel? No, we would leave our letter, beautifully penned in fine black ink by my brother, with our humble entreaties for kindness and mercy.

The Archduke's castle stood sentinel over the southern half of the town. As we approached from the west, its crenellated towers loomed over the walls, theoretically protecting them from barbarian invaders, though, for one thing, Nnms had never been invaded, and, for another, if I were a barbarian, a place with good masonry would be my choicest choice for attack. None of us had ever been to the castle -- the Archduke sent his red-liveried men around the village whenever he needed anything -- though its towers were all we could see, except the steeple of the church, over the walls.

Once inside we did not turn, as was our custom, toward the sanctuary, but south, toward the Archduke's castle. As soon as we left our familiar path, however, we became disoriented. This was an ordinary occurrence in the city; the streets were so narrow and wound so tight that it was impossible to know where one stood, and since they shifted every time someone burnt down his forge or added a new room to his home, they were never the same two weeks in a row. At least in the winter the stench was less pronounced. Ordinarily I carried my southpointer, but in the hurry to get to my brother and to town, I had forgotten it. At each turn we were thwarted by walls, laundry lines, slop plies, archways, and dark stairs rising toward invisible heights. Before long we were lost utterly. Mandrik handed Ydlbert the psaltery and turned in a slow, patient circle, snapping his middle fingers against his thumbs.

"What are you doing?" Ydlbert asked, stomping his feet in his worn shoes. Not having grown up in the same household, he had less tolerance, I suppose, for my brother's divining tricks.

Long way to go,

Can't see the towers from here.

Lost our way, Lord,

Can't see the towers from here.

But one itty-bitty sign, Lord,

Makes the True Pathway clear.

He stopped snapping and held his arms at his sides. Then he turned back the way we'd come, saying, "It's that way."

Ydlbert rolled his eyes. "How do you know?"

Mandrik shrugged. "Give me back my psaltery before I lose my temper.

Ydlbert handed It to him and cast me a sidelong glance.

Mandrik hummed to himself and led us down a few blind alleys, but before long brought us to the Archduke's gate, narrower than the town's, and the only opening in the sloping granite wall surrounding his demesne. The guards, identical in height and accent, and shivering in their silken livery of ruby hue, were surprisingly courteous once we showed them our petition, and they summoned us across the vast court yard to the door.

As we had imagined, we were not to be admitted to the presence of the Archduke, but we were shown to the impatient attaché, who was clad in flowing black silks and stood tapping his narrow-toed shoes and fingering his shiny mustache. Mandrik smiled, bowed, and so charmed the attaché that, despite his nervousness, he allowed us to present the skeleton of our case aloud, and with feeling. Mandrik sang this petty functionary only a short snippet of song:

We love the Archduke,

He's our mainest man.

Yes, we dig him deeply,

He's the mainest, mainest, mainest man.

(Skeet a deedly deedly doo doo doo-ah)

And if he'd widen up the West Gate,

We'd serve him the best we can.

By the end of the verse, the attaché had tears in his blue eyes, and daubed at them with a black laceedged handkerchief before applauding my brother's song. Calling out, "Bravo! Bis! Bis!" he accepted the petition with a show of grace. I used my walking stick to draw a diagram for a wider gate on the ground, and I explained, in the best words I could muster, that, while in our interests, the new gate would also serve the town. "Oh, absolutely," said the attaché, really quite overcome with feeling. "I have never received a petition so worthy of the Archduke's attention. Rest assured that I will relay it to his Urbanity. Do take his and my warmest wishes back to your countrymen." He gave us a skin of wine to ease our journey home.

Ydlbert and I drank the wine on the road, and arrived at Mandrik's hut stone-drunk. All three of us slept around the fire on his bare dirt floor, but when Ydlbert and I returned to our families in the morning, we were more flush with the good news than with the morning chill and the previous night's debauchery.

The next Market Day, when we headed back with our awkward carts and our tarpaulins, we saw hazy dark smoke on the horizon; it was clear, even from a distance, that something was afire. When we reached the city, we saw that the gate had been widened by twice the length of a man's arm. The squalid row of tenements which had previously intervened between the gate and the church square had fallen into heaps, razed. Two old men with buckets were dumping dirt on some of the smoldering remains, and three or four bands of children climbed and slid in the rubble, searching for spoons and bits of colored tile and glass. One woman picked dourly through the remains of what once had surely been her hovel, clutching a walling infant to her breast. This part of the city had never before seen the full light of day, and suddenly it was flooded with light, as healthful and clean as one of our own fields; and yet to see this misery exposed seemed untoward, as if we should avert our eyes. But we could not avert them. "Looks like something's happened," said Ydlbert's brother, Yorik, who had perhaps never been the brightest star in Mandragora's firmament. Ydlbert slapped him, but it seemed in lest.

We processed through to the center of town, and there set up shop around the kettle fires the townsmen had lit. Around us they walked with their hands shielding their eyes, both from the smoke and from the uncustomary brightness in the square. Even the space before the church was clearer now -- the Archduke had, without our prompting, razed the filthiest habitations, so that we could display our produce in better view. The next week, aware of how much space had gone unused, we brought even more of our goods to sell, and the week after that, some of the local tradesmen began bringing their wares, to take advantage of the milling people and the light. A potter sold jars and crockery; the tanner draped hides over a sawhorse; the smith stood at one corner of the empty space, calling for horses to be shod. Each week the market grew bigger, and each week more debris was removed, untit finally, that spring, there was a fine, clear path to the sanctuary, a processional wide and grand enough for princes and kings. The road within the city gates was surfaced with broad, flat stones, smooth underfoot and to the carts' wheels. "It's Paving," Mandrik told me, the first time we drove our wary horses over them. "I have seen it in IndoChina, though there it was all of hammered brass, making the roads sparkle brighter than a courtesan's eyes." I had never seen a courtesan nor heard of paving -- I knew only that what I saw was beautiful. But Mandrik knew that something momentous had happened, even if I did not have the knowledge to understand his explanation fully.

Each week we brought more and more of our crop to market, until it seemed our land could no longer stand the burden of such production. That spring was balmy, with soft rains and a strong sun, but we dripped our sweat into the ground every hour of the daylight, and still could not sate the townspeople or exhaust our soil. One day as I worked on my farthest strip -- near my grandmother's cairn -- wishing I were my brother that I might have a song to sing, bathed in sweat, toting in the heat of the midday sun, pulling a wooden plow so old and worn that I would soon need to replace its coulter and share, the next great thought insinuated itself into my mind like a whisper: Hammadi could pull the plow for me, and I could simply walk behind, to guide it. Hammadi could pull a much bigger plow than can I.

I gave up the rest of the day to tinkering, and by nightfall had constructed a new harness for plowing; the next day I attached handles to the plow so that I could guide it from behind. Ydlbert stopped over the next morning -- from his adjacent strip he had seen me leave mine two days since, and wanted to make certain I had not taken ill. I led him to my barn, hitched up Hammadi, and set her to work. She performed the work of three farmers with only a fraction of the effort and none of the grumbling. Ydlbert shook his broad, balding head, and crouched down as if exhausted in the good dirt that marked the border between our two fields. "Yves," he said, "think of it. Think what you've done. The horses will do all the work -- we'll finish at noon and lie about the rest of the day."

I followed Hammadi to the end of the row. She wasn't going straight, exactly, but she pulled the plow with ease; I could certainly make it larger. I then returned to my friend and sat down in the dirt beside him, and we talked of the idyllic life to come. Ydlbert was right -- we would have time now to patch the holes in our roofs and our children's shoes, to dig wells, perhaps even to help our wives tend the herb gardens and spin wool. Ydlbert wanted to go to the glassmaker to learn to blow vessels. All my life Mandrik had pestered me to write down tales, but I had never the time nor the inclination, particularly as he was no help with quotidian labors. Now, who knew what I might find time for? I did not know then that I would find myself writing this history, but I knew that my world had changed such that something might get written. Hammadi stood gently munching the grass at the end of the row, for she did not know to turn around and work the next piece of land. It hardly mattered. She could be trained.

I admit that at this moment a small stone of doubt lodged in the bottom of my stomach, for I realized that this vast plot -- these twenty acres, as big as any plot of land had ever needed to be -- this land to which my father and his forebears had given their lives dutifully and without complaint, these strips of land they had leveled stone by stone and tended until they were among the finest in the valley, would no longer suffice.

The harness in its various forms has changed our lives in many ways for the better. We grow more food than our families can eat, more than we can sell to the town. Our soil is rich, and our farming advanced -- each generation has made some improvement in the methods of husbandry, but none so remarkable as ours. We have money as we never did before, and our city, which was a stinking gutter, now glitters like the stars in the great dome of the sky. That first paved path was only the beginning -- now the city has long, wide roads stretching toward the four cardinal points of the horizon, all paved in gray stones, so that even Andras Drck, the horse dealer at the far northern edge of town, is as easy to reach as my nearest neighbors. Suddenly, where there once was squalor, there is light, air, and free passage. The Archduke soon issued an edict to name these paved passageways as one would name a child or a place -- they won't be knocked down, these paths, they won't shift with the rain. The roads will then be like our horses-once so temporary we hardly thought about them, they will now endure.

Finding our way in the city is different with these roads. In my youth we navigated as do, my brother says, the sailors at sea -- we fixed the positions of the sun, towers, and steeple, and hoped to find our destination. Later we had my south-pointer, but it told only if one was facing south. Going anywhere in town was trouble -- it made the breath come short and the eyes sting. Now everything is flooded with light, and we go straight from one place to another, knowing our location at all the places in between. The city is half as large as once I thought. It only took so long to get anywhere because one had to circumvent so many buildings, gardens, and walls.

I have built already a storeroom onto my home, and rethatched the roof, and I would like to buy a second cow next spring. I bought AdeIaYda eight yards of pale blue linen, like a noblewoman's, and a vast array of spices. Because of one invention, the City, my city, is outgrowing its walls.

All of this change is wondrous, no doubt; and yet I must admit that when I invented the harness, I did not imagine that it would bring hardship along with all this bounty. I did not know that the whole world would change when I made Hammadi her first harness. I did not know that I might someday want the old world, or some of its ways, back.

If this one tiny bit of human ingenuity, the contribution of a man with no title, hardly a name -- if so little can change so much, then I fear for our future. I fear the things our children will know, the things of which we can only dream. My prayer, my ardent prayer, is that we are moving forward, and toward the path of God.

Copyright © 2000 by Emily Barton

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (June 1, 2001)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743411486

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Thomas Pynchon Blessedly post-ironic, engaging and heartfelt -- a story that moves with ease and certainty, deeply respecting the given world even as it shines with the integrity of dream.

Time Out New York An engrossing folk tale that, in our technology-crazed era, ought to be required reading.

Newsday As strong a debut as the coming year is likely to see.

The New York Observer Establishes Ms. Barton as a copiously talented, daring writer.

Talk Destined to alter the landscape of contemporary literature.

The Village Voice Ingenious.

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