The man of whom she was speaking was short and dark and immensely strong.
She mouthed the words slowly, with a care, gazing at her image of him all the while through a prism of love. But then, gradually, she began to speak of other things as well, almost as if she were trying to turn herself from him and those hideous passages of thought. Yet even then, even as she made mention of trivial, unrelated things, she never quite lost sight of him—him with his undersized, hairless head as polished and dark as walnut and those eyes that seemed to her to be forever fixed staring in horror.
But then, among the drift of all this, there suddenly came to her again the way in which she’d shivered when first she’d seen him on that dull, overcast day in the market-place. Though whether this shiver had been because of the curious, almost impossible way in which his shoulders carried such a pea-sized head, or because in that same moment she’d somehow sensed what was going to happen, perhaps even how it’d all end, she’d never been able to say. For a long time afterwards, she’d laughed and joked about it. But later—in fact from the very day that he’d changed woods—she’d realised what, in the fastness of her heart, she’d always feared about Matthew and herself.
It was now nearly ten years since he’d changed over to yew. To begin with, he’d been quite set against it. But she’d argued long and angrily with him, telling him that it’d be plain stupid, downright irresponsible of him even to think of spurning the steward’s offer. Couldn’t he see that it was just what he needed, that it’d give him steady work all the year round? For heaven’s sake, she’d cried, what was he thinking of? Well, one thing was for sure anyway—she wasn’t just going to sit there and let him lose a chance like that!
And Matthew had answered by telling her that he’d once been warned by the master bowyer about the dangers of working with yew and how some men were upset by it and so were best advised to stick to the simpler ash and elm. In fact—Matthew had gone on—hadn’t his own uncle, another bowyer, been one of them? Didn’t she remember the way he’d become gradually stranger in his last years, his mind quite broken by the end? And he’d been working with yew for half his life.
Well, that’s as may be, she’d replied. But what proof was there that it’d been the yew that’d caused it? Or, for that matter, that the yew had this so-called power at all? And anyway, she’d added with scorn, even if it did, why should he start imagining that he’d inherited such a weakness?
And so the argument had run on and on. Oh yes, they’d gone over it all time and again, till finally there was nothing left to say. And then Matthew had just sat there nodding thoughtfully to himself, with the dome of his head flashing in the sunlight. After that, she’d reckoned that he was going to go on being stubborn and wasn’t going to relent. But a few days later she heard that he’d been up to see the steward about his offer.
And it was so. For when next she went to his workshop, she saw the new, dark bow-staves stacked away high on the beams. And him, with his fierceness of eye, already bending into the mysterious heartwood of the yew with his plane.
As she talked, she rubbed wearily at the side of her head, pressing at the bone as if trying to lay her hand on the fears and dreams that lived in her mind these days. Then, quite suddenly, she threw back her head and laughed out loud. But just as suddenly fell silent again, remembering how often she’d tried to laugh it all off before. And so, with her eyes cast down and her voice hushed to a whisper, she once again began to try and describe the way things had gone.
For she and Matthew had been so happy before all this. There’d been a real strength of peace and understanding between them, a happiness that others could only hope to guess at. Yes, oh yes, that’s the way things had been in the bowyer’s house.
Now she turned away and touched distractedly at the wall. For a moment she was near to tears but then had taken hold of herself again, was merely pausing for adjustment, as it were, to let the weight of feeling pass. Then, as if wanting to correct this way in which she’d chanced to refer to it all in the past, she turned back to explain that of course it was still the same between them—deep down, that was, for on the surface there was no denying that things had changed, with him no longer having anything to do with her and even sleeping in his workshop, only stealing into the house like a fox for the food which she left out on the table. No, to all intents and purposes, she was on her own these days.
She stated this quite bluntly and it was obvious that it was not her own solitude that caused her to tremble or indeed to talk about these things the whole time. It was rather her fears for him, him with his stark, burning eyes and his refusal to speak. Where, in God’s name, was he going? Where indeed had he already gone to in the secrecy of his mind?
Nowadays it was largely to people passing through the village that she chose to speak. Of course she’d tried talking to the others, her neighbours, but they’d all fidgeted or interrupted her when she’d begun to hint at what was happening to her man. And after that, when most of them started avoiding her, it got back to her that they thought she was losing her mind.
For a while she’d partly taken refuge in this idea. Perhaps it was indeed all taking place only in her imagination, she’d said to herself. And at the thought she’d even rejoiced a little, oh yes, she had! She’d blown a kiss to the air and clapped her hands. But that was years ago now and she’d long ceased to find hope in such an idea, in the possibility that it was her, not him, who was in peril.
The real problem in these latter years, she explained, had been that he was making better and better bows. How could she ever have got anyone to take her seriously when his work was spoken of so highly? He’d always been a good craftsman, but once he started with the new wood, the quality of his work soon began to be remarkable. For a while he kept on with the bows of elm and ash but it wasn’t long before he’d put these aside and would hear no more of what he called ‘those sorry woods’. From that day onwards, it was to be nothing but bows of yew. He worked longer and longer hours, reaching for a mastery of the difficult wood and gradually, over the months and years, he’d edged towards a perfection of work so that now men came to him from all over the shire.
And when they came to him, these people, what did they see? Why, first and foremost, they saw the racks of magnificent bows, long, smooth and heavy. They would take one down from the rack and handle it, knowing by the way it came compass in the draw the care that’d been taken in the tillering and in the subsequent piking and dressing of it. Again they would draw and feel just how the bow came, sweetly, without either stacking or being whip-ended. And having felt the sheer power of it, they’d perhaps check for any signs of weakness in the wood—galls or wems or frets or traces of windshake—though probably smiling to themselves at the very idea that there might be any. And so finally, with nods of satisfaction, they’d turn to Matthew and talk about the price. And even then, when they were talking to him, what did they see? A bowyer, just a bowyer—a little eccentric in his manners perhaps, but nothing to remark on. And so they’d pay their money and go off to tell others of the fine weapons to be had from the bowyer who lived in the village beneath the castle.
She smiled and shook her head slowly, in spite of everything still proud of her man’s prowess.
Yet they were blind and blinkered, these people, utterly! Yes, for she’d seen otherwise. She’d seen things.
Sometimes she’d watched him standing at the workshop door with his customers and seen that look of sullenness on his face. Well, perhaps they’d seen it too but they’d no doubt have taken it for no more than a passing mood. But she’d known how it really was, known how there was bitterness and a kind of gnawing grief in him as he handed over the bows, those pieces of the strange wood which he’d worked with all the skill of love.
And little by little she’d discovered other things too, things like how he’d sometimes just sit and stroke the wood, as daft as an infant. And she’d seen too the glaze that came to his eyes as he fingered the dark heartwood or rubbed the coolness of the sapwood against his cheek. And she might have found it all a bit ludicrous if she’d not also known the way it must lead.
Late one summer’s evening, she’d happened to pass the workshop and had been driven away in terror and disgust by the sounds that came from within. Until then, she’d forced herself to disregard the oddness in him, to tell herself that one or two strange things really meant nothing at all. What wife would’ve done otherwise? she’d say. But the weeks had gone on and, with them, the things—the same kind, time and again, and, oh, sometimes much worse! Yet when she began to make cautious remarks to him about his work, he merely looked back at her with the open face of puzzlement. And even later on, when she spoke more directly to him about it, his eyes would cloud over and his mouth become tight and hard. But she could see the print of fear on him. And then she felt her chest clench and tighten for she knew that now he’d not let her near him.
People had of course heard that there were difficulties between the bowyer and his wife. And it’d not taken long for the news to get round when they learned that he was now sleeping out in the workshop. Wasn’t that just the kind of thing people loved to hear about? And of course they put it all down to nothing but the usual petty disputes of marriage. How little they knew!
Then she stopped talking, suddenly aware of how her words had been coming all in a spate. She gave a sheepish half-laugh. But then almost rose out of her chair with a violence, saying again and again that, no, no, no, he wasn’t mad, really he wasn’t! It was just that he was, well, confused, and it was the wood, that damnable wood that was the cause of it all.
And then she sank back and wept voicelessly, as if she’d quite suddenly come to the end of her tether.
What was to be done? What, oh, what? Was it the priest that was needed? Or perhaps old Gritty, who lived down on the banks of the stream and knew all kinds of things? Where, oh God, where would it all end?
But at last she pulled herself together and began speaking again in such a subdued tone that her words were scarcely audible. For there was more, she breathed. There were other things, things of which she knew only a little but of which she thanked God she didn’t know more.
Sometimes he’d be away for several days at a time. And though she wanted to believe that he’d simply gone off on some business, she’d known well enough that this wasn’t so.
And then one day she’d followed him and seen him turn up into the beech woods on the far side of the hill. But it was steep there and she soon lost him. So she sat down at the top and waited, in the hope that he’d pass back the same way.
It was not long before sunset, just as she was about to give up and go home, that she heard it—odd cries and a muffled howl from somewhere far off through the wood. And though she’d quickly told herself that it was only a stray dog or something, she’d nevertheless stumbled home shaking and terrified.
The next morning, she was hanging out the washing when she caught sight of him coming across the fields. Back in the house, she put the water to boil and set some food on the table. Then quickly sat down with her sewing. Twice he’d passed the door but not come in. And when later she peeped out, she saw him hanging about by the cherry tree, clearly waiting for her to go. So she made a show of going out but then slipped round to the back from where she could see into the room. And sure enough, as she waited there, he came stealthily in, glancing about, wide-eyed and wary.
And now her voice began to tremble again. For she told how she’d stood and watched as he stripped by the fire, and seen the whiteness of his body torn and scratched. She’d watched him wash himself, dazed and slow, before he sat down to the food. And as he sat there at the old table, with his jaw working mindlessly and his sight fixed on the sky through the little window, he’d suddenly paused in the middle of a mouthful, with his forehead puckering and his eyes swollen up. He’d put down the bread and turned away to the fire and for a long time he’d stayed like that without moving, his face hidden from her. But later that day, when he came into the house again, he spoke to her quite naturally, just as if nothing in particular had happened and with no reference to having been away.
She got up and began to pace about by the window, every now and then looking out in the direction of the workshop. But then, with all the irritation of intense anxiety, she stopped, struck the wall sharply with the flat of her hand and remained standing there, chewing at her lip, her face numbed by thought.
Later, seated back at the fire again, she let her eyes close and felt the flamelight shudder over her. The afternoon’s rain had stopped and the wind fallen to a mere fretfulness in the air. By now, the room had only dregs of light in it. Slowly, the day was slipping away. And then, far away, from out of the gathering dusk, a dog began to bark—four sharp yawps followed by a drawn-out howl.
She sprang up and, lighting a lantern, rushed out of the house in the direction of the workshop.
The slight turnings of the wind carried the sounds back in through the open door. For a while her quailing voice continued to call his name. But soon there was only the wind and the noise of a heavy door being battered and shaken. And then, once more, silence again. When finally she returned, she seemed on the verge of collapse, the skin of her face pale and heavy, her eyes blanked out by fear.
The workshop had been silent and the door bolted up. And even though she’d been beating at the door in her panic, she’d not dared to peer in. For that other day was still with her, that day when she’d seen the yew berries heaped on the bench, the fleshy red cups with their hard seeds, and everywhere the splatterings of that terrible vomit, full of berries and small pieces of foliage.
And now, trapped by the memory of this, she quite lost her head. She turned away and beat with tense fists on the wall, giving out groans and little shrieks. Perhaps the people nearby heard, perhaps not. In any case nobody came, for everybody in the village knew that all was far from well in the bowyer’s house.
When the worst of it was over, she fell forward by the fire. With her head in her arms, she heard the flappings of night birds and the streams fluting in the darkness. And again and again, the distant sound of the dog. In her mind, she felt too the pricking of reeds and that cold filth of icy mud and the stabbing of fear that came with the sight of the long hedgerow and the narrow path leading on and on, away and up into the deepest of the wood.
And then finally she was still. A single flame sprang up and shimmered oversharp in the hearth for a while before falling back into the glow of the embers.
Gradually the night moved on.
That night, as she lay there in her crazed state, it was almost three years since the bleak November day when the frozen and half-naked body of Matthew the bowyer had been brought down from out of one of the great yew trees which grew up in the woods over the hill. Was she simply tormented by the loss of him? This, for sure, was what everyone said when they heard her shouting and crying out. But was there not perhaps something else? Was there not some other memory that would give her no peace, a memory from long ago of the argument they’d had?
‘You must understand,’ Matthew had said to her. ‘I watched my uncle die and I’m frightened of what the yew might do to me.’
But she, in the fury of her ambition for him, had laughed in his face and taunted him with the cowardice of superstition. And though Matthew had sat there for a good while afterwards, nodding thoughtfully to himself, he’d later gone up to see the steward.
Dominic Cooper is the author of several acclaimed volumes including The Dead of Winter and Sunrise.
Photograph by Dominic Cooper