You can read as well as the cat

You can read as well as the cat

Just before gray January turned into black February, she noted a thin, brown-coated back hunched over a table close to the fire and realized she had seen that same brown-coated back for weeks now, hunched in the same way over the same table before the same fire.

Alyce began to watch the man, not knowing he had long watched her and wondered what could so blight a person so young. He was long and skinny as a heron, with black eyes in a face that looked sad, kindly, hungry, and cold. She thought at first he had the pox, for his long face, long nose, and long yellow teeth were all spotted, but it proved to be only ink, splattered as he pushed his quill pen furiously along. Corpus bones, she thought. He is writing! That is a man who can write! She kept her eyes down as she served him his bread and ale, barely daring even to breathe the same air, she who was too stupid to be a midwife’s apprentice.

While they watched the big sow drop seven piglets one dark afternoon, Jennet told Alyce about the brown-coated man. Magister Reese, it was said, was a renowned scholar. Staying at the inn for the winter, he was working off his room and board by keeping accounts and penning letters for guests while he finished writing what was rumored to be a great and holy book.

Alyce studied the man. She noted that john Dark liked to sit near him , for he was careless of his ale; that Jennet made sure to give him the smallest portion or the toughest meat, for he ate what he was given and never complained; that he never scolded Tam the kitchen boy, who ha been kicked by a horse and was not right in the head, even when Tam spilled beer or bacon fat on his papers; and that only the geese seemed awed by him, scattering hurry-scurry when he entered the inn yard lest another tail feather go for a quill pen.

Alyce took to sweeping that corner of the floor more carefully and scrubbing that end of the table more frequently, hoping to see what he was writing and what it might look like, for her curiosity overcame at last even her bleak despair. After a while he tried to speak to her, but she would only clutch tighter to her broom and sweep furiously in silence, so instead he took to talking to the cat.

“This, puss,” he said, shifting the sleeping animal off the page he was writing, “is my masterwork, an encyclopaedic compendium I call ‘The Great Mirror of the Universe Wherein You Can Find Reflected All of the World’s Knowledge, Collected by Myself, Magister Richard Reese, M.A,, and Dedicated to His Ampleness the Bishop of Chester,’ so called for he is ample in all the world’s virtues.” Or “See how I can make the ink blacker by mixing soot with the boiled oak galls.” Or “This, cat, is a {, as in puss or pork or plum pudding.” Or “The letter S must be made just so, never thick or wiggly or with an extra curve at the end, but just so.”

The cat listened carefully, although sometimes he lost patience with the tutoring and began to bite at the tantalizingly moving pen. And Alyce, too, listened, so that she learned some letters as the cat learned. She liked best the O, the D, and the G, for they looked friendly. Z seemed mean, X wicked; and W always made her yawn. Q was by far the most beautiful, she thought, even if it could not stand alone and must be accompanied everywhere by the compliant U.

Sometimes at night, when the car’s belly was full and he had no need to prowl about looking for supper, he let Alyce cuddle him against her as they went to sleep and tell him more about what she had learned that day, how A began Alyce and apple and ark, when to put a tail on the S, and what letters might be made to spell Purr, even though he must, she thought, know these things as well as she. During the day, when not boiling or sweeping or chopping or skinning, she wrote letters in the frost on the woodpile with a twig, scraped them into the soot of the chimney wall with the handle f the broom, and stuck her finger in the mutton soup and wrote them on the table in the kitchen. At night she found them written out in the stars in the clear cold sky.

Once Alyce knew all the letters and a number of combinations,Magister Reese began teaching the cat words, reading aloud bits of wisdom from his great encyclopaedia. As a result, Alyce heard about the heavenly planets circling the earth in hollow transparent spheres, about the great empire of the Romans that once stretched all the way to Britain, about the faraway island of giant ants who walk upright and mine for gold. She learned about the four humors that govern the body, how to plant corn by moonlight, and where the Antipodes are. And still he had not said one word to her.

When one day he threw away a page he had ruined with an inkblot, Alyce snatched it up and stuffed the stiff vellum into her bodice. Each night before she blew out the last candle, she would labor over the page, picking out letters and sometimes even words that were familiar to her.

One showery afternoon when raindrops sparkled like fairy dew on the new green leaves, Magister Reese sat dreaming over his mug of Jennet’s thin, bitter ale. Winter was nearly over and his book far from finished. What was he going to do next? Should he stay or go? “What do I want to do?” he asked himself. Spying Alyce sweeping her way toward him, he asked her, “What do I want”” And then, pointedly, “And what, inn girl, do you want?”

Alyce stopped still. She thought just to sweep away, but the shock of his addressing her directly was lost in that intriguing question. What did she want? No one had ever asked her that and she took it most seriously. What do I, Alyce the inn girl, want?

She chewed on a lock of her hair to help her think. What did people want? Blackberry pie? New shoes? A snug cottage and a bit of land?

She thought all that wet afternoon and finally, as she served Magister Reese his cold-beef-and-bread supper, she cleared her throat a time or two and then softly answered, “I know what I want. A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.”

Magister Reese looked up at her in surprise. “You ask a lot for an inn girl. I thought you’d say a sweetheart or a yellow ribbon for your black hair.”

“No, this is what I want, but it is my misfortune instead to be hungry, out of humor, and to stupid to be a midwife’s apprentice.”

“None so stupid,” he said, “You can read as well as the cat.”

Alyce smiled. And so winter turned to spring.

from The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman



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  • See that’s why the Poetry subscription makes me feel slightly guilty. I feel I should enjoy it more.

    The author of that NY Times piece is the same as the Poetry mag. There is a lot of overlap, but they aren’t the same piece. I wonder why she chooses to spell it “landay” in the Poetry piece and “landai” in the Times.

    The book about Vietnam sounds fascinating.

  • Oh, The Westing Game! I haven’t read that in years, but I recall having a reaction similar to yours. I may have to go find a copy now…

    I’m a little jealous of your Poetry Mag subscription! smile I love learning about oral folk poetry. There’s a great article about landays here, though it may be redundant after that issue:  If you’re interested in that sort of thing across cultures, there’s a wonderful book by John Balaban about a similar (though longer) form in Vietnam called “Spring Essence,” a collection of such poems by a woman whose name translates as Spring Essence. The introduction about the culture and form is especially interesting.

  • +JMJ+

    This has reminded me to reread “The Westing Game”! I started it this morning and about a third of the way through. I’ll get back to you about it soon, Melanie. =)