Author’s Note: “The Blacksmith’s Wife” was written one sunny afternoon whilst camping in the village of Darsham, Suffolk – it was as if the ghost of the nearby graveyard were whispering me their secrets. The story was first published in Vintage Script Magazine Summer 2012
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The Blacksmith’s Wife
Janis Pegrum Smith
‘Come away will ya,’ Clara hissed in my ear as I lingered, watching him. His hair was a ruffle of unruly curls as the sunlight made a golden halo of it above his beautiful, huge, blue eyes. A powerfully built man, but with the look of any angel, ‘He’s not for the likes of you, even if he weren’t married,’ Clara hissed again. ‘We’ve enough now, come on.’
She grabbed my arm, almost causing me to drop my basket of blackberries; they grow sweetest and plumpest by churchyards. Pa would say it was the soil that made them so fine, all them godly souls laid rotting. Locals never pick them, but we can’t afford to be so choosy. It being a Sunday made it worse, of course – the God-fearing folk flocking through the church doors. Normally closed tight shut, Sunday saw those doors flung wide open, like a toothless mouth sucking them all in. They muttered under their breaths, tutted, shook their heads as Clara and I passed by, heading the other way, our baskets full of plump, succulent, ripe berries. His eyes met mine; I felt him gaze right into my soul and me into his – it was an eternity in the briefest of moments.
‘Ugly, fat cow,’ I breathed, once we were out of earshot.
‘Jessie!’ Clara scolded with a laugh.
His wife pranced before him like she was a queen; all dressed up in cloth far too fine for the likes of a blacksmith’s wife. She had airs that one, thought herself superior. I imagined me on his arm and her pushing past with a basket of illicit fruit, the good villagers all laughing and pointing at her in her striped, green dress – all muddy like mine.
‘That stew’ll catch if you don’t keep stirrin’, girl.’
Ma’s voice chased away my thoughts of him, swamped and consumed me they did, till I was drowning in them: I thought of nothing else.
‘Fancies herself in love with the blacksmith,’ Clara piped, hanging out washing behind us.
She was my cousin and my best friend, but I could have happily murdered her in that moment. Ma laid more wood on the fire while I stirred the pot.
‘Don’t let your pa hear talk like that.’ Ma looked concerned, ‘if it’s true, our Jess, you can take them thoughts out of your head straight off. We’re here to help bring in the crop is all. We want no trouble from these villagers; they only just bear us as it is. Has this fellow spoken to you, or anything?’
‘He don’t even know she exists,’ Clara laughed, and Ma breathed out an audible sigh of relief. ‘She’s been moonin’ over the mush since we got here and he don’t even know she exists,’ she repeated, gloating.
‘Shut up! Shut up!’ I flew at her, my face red, fists flying.
Ma grabbed my arm before I could reach Clara and swung me around, slapping my face hard. My cousin laughed in that superior way she had about her. Even though I was nineteen and she but twenty, she could make me feel like a silly little child with that laugh.
‘You put this blacksmith out of your head, you hear!’ Ma shook me, then let me go. My face throbbed and my eyes stung, tears rising.
I nodded, even though I knew it was impossible. Now I knew he was in the world, my heart and head would never forget him.
‘What’s the rumpus?’ Pa asked as he entered the camp with the other men. He wasn’t concerned for his youngest, tears flowing like rain, face glowing from a beating, no, he was concerned about trouble! Fear of trouble is a way of life for us gypsies, we’re born with the nature of it in our bones. Spectres who hover on the edge of settlements, we are tolerated, as we have our uses, but you can hear the communal sharp intake of breath as we arrive, likewise the sigh of relief as we leave.
‘Nothin’, Jim. The girl nearly ruined the stew, is all,’ Ma said, throwing me a look that said the subject was closed.
Harvest in, we prepared to move on. That night, I snuck a stroll passed the blacksmith’s cottage. The curtains were closed tight but I could hear her yelling, raging, cursing in a way I had only heard men speak before. Only her voice came, his was silent.
‘I can’t stand this anymore,’ she ranted, ‘I should never have married you, you’re useless! Useless! I’ll be stuck in this village forever, buried in that stinking graveyard, buried with my useless dog of a husband..’
I cried to hear her say such things to him. He was far too fine a man to be spoken to in such a way.
The village children ran after our wagons and called us names as we left. Their calls were not original, nor was their muck throwing any more on target than the children of other villages. We had seen and heard it all before. I looked for the blacksmith as we passed his house, but all I saw was the glow of his forge through the door, my heart said goodbye to him, but I would never forget him.
Almost a year had passed when we found ourselves in Ipswich, it hadn’t slipped my notice that we were but twenty miles or so from the man who held my heart. I had not looked at another since, and I was haunted by the fact my father was pushing for me to marry next spring. So, it was with complete surprise I heard Clara say, ‘That’s your blacksmith’s wife ain’t it?’
I looked to where she pointed; we were walking past a tavern, ‘That’s her alright.’ She was sat upon a gentleman’s knee, plying her wares in a way that repulsed me to the core.
‘From blacksmith’s wife to trollop in a year, there’ll be an interesting tale behind that. You didn’t go cursin’ her did you?’ Clara asked, concerned.
‘No!’ I said, honestly. Clara believed in such powers. I did not.
‘Perhaps the blacksmith died.’ Clara dwelled, morbidly.
I nearly cried, the thought that my true love could be lying cold in that churchyard made panic rise inside me. We walked on, back to the water meadows where we were camped.
‘You’re quiet? Don’t tell me you are still holdin’ a flame for that blacksmith, and you as good as married to Davey?’ Clara looked shocked.
I said nothing.
Born on the road, I know my way anywhere, like all us gypsy kind. It was the dead of night when I left my people, creeping silently so not even the dogs stirred. I didn’t take a breath for the first five miles, I swear, I was that afraid – but I was more afraid of staying.
‘You look like you’ve walked a fair lick!’ commented an old lady, tending her garden as I passed. I was on the edge of his village. The evening was upon us, I hadn’t stopped walking since I’d left the camp. The lady went to her water pump and brought me back a ladle of cool, sweet water.
‘Does the blacksmith still reside in Darsham?’ I asked.
‘Indeed,’ she sighed, ‘poor fella, his wife up and left him near a year gone. Had herself some fancy man she did, reckoned she was going to be a lady. Soft in the head that one, if you ask me!’ She now eyed me suspiciously. The dark skin, flowing dark hair, eyes the colour of the night… mistrust was never far away, ‘You kin of his?’
‘I have news of his wife.’ It wasn’t a lie, I did, of sorts.
He was in his forge, I could see him working as I approached, he was alone. What was I to say? I stood in the doorway; he didn’t notice me for the longest while, so intent was he on the hot piece of glowing iron he worked. He stopped suddenly, our eyes locked, as they had that day in the churchyard, but there was no one there to break the spell this time. Our hearts spoke.
‘I have news of your wife,’ I said, for want of telling him I loved him; that my heart beat solely for him.
He simply nodded and I related to him what I had seen outside the tavern in Ipswich.
‘You walked all those steps to tell me that?’ was all he said when I had finished, his eyes had welled as I had spoken, but no tears fell. ‘You must be hungry,’ he said.
I followed him into the kitchen; it was a pitiful state, unkempt, dust and dirt all around, unloved and uncared for.
‘I’ll make us some food, you go back to your work,’ I said.
Within an hour the room was clean and straight, and I had cooked a meal with the few provisions I could find in the cupboard. We ate in silence.
I slept in front of the fire in the kitchen, rose early and got eggs from the chickens for our breakfast. Little was said but I cooked, cleaned and cared for him, and he accepted me. However much I longed to kiss him, to feel his arms about me… he never once came near me – but, he seemed content with the way things were, and I was happy to just be with him and look after him.
‘I tried to love her, make her happy,’ he would talk of her sometimes in the evenings, when our meal was done and all was tidy. ‘All over me when I first met her, bar wench at a pub in Ipswich she were. Never had a smile or a good word for me after we were wed, though,’ he would reflect. ‘She thought blacksmiths earned more than the reality of it, I believe.’
When there were tears, I fetched a rag to dry them, but his tears came less and less as time passed. The villagers talked about us, but I was used to people shunning me and talking. He took me to church, were I sat with the other servants and he with the village folk, my place was clear to us both.
‘Jess!’ my heart stopped whenever he called my name, a year on and it still missed a beat. I came out of the cottage to see a man riding away on a fine horse.
‘She’s dead,’ he announced, ‘died giving birth to some bastard brat in a back alley.’ He suddenly looked years younger. We stared at each other for the longest of moments, ‘Her friend knew the village she was from, and it didn’t take a lot of asking for the constable to find me.’
‘You sure she is dead?’ I scarcely let myself believe it.
‘Oh, yes!’ he dangled a gold locket on a fine chain before me, ‘I gave her this on our wedding day.’ He threw it with all his might into the muddy field next to us. Before I knew it, he’d swept me up into his arms and kissed me long and deep, like a thirsty man taking his first drink of water, ‘I’ve been wantin’ to do that ever since the first day I saw you in the churchyard,’ he sighed. ‘I’ve loved you from the moment I saw you.’
My heart flew.
I am making my mark on the page open before me, the vicar writes my name, as I cannot. “Jessie” he tells me it says, and Carter we have decided upon, as I know not what other name I have for sure. All I know is my name is beside his in the book, I am now the blacksmith’s wife and I could not love him more if I tried, nor he I…