Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "The Cold of the Winter"

This poem was written outside the regular prompt calls, inspired by discussion with [personal profile] dialecticdreamer. It's posted in barter for her demifiction and "Urgent Business," taking place shortly after and following up the consequences of the trot-line incident. It belongs to the series Frankenstein's Family. This is another triptych, so watch for the other two poems appearing later.

"The Cold of the Winter"

Victor walked through the village,
carefully noting the flow of traffic.

Lóránt's wood wagon lumbered by
with a fresh load of firewood for Bogdana.
Vladimir was up on her roof again,
having patched the shingles by the chimney
and now working on that corner which leaked
where it connected to the wooden gutter
no matter how many times it was patched.

New shingles for the castle, Victor thought happily,
shingles which I do not have to try to nail on!
Vladimir had promised to take care of the roof
as soon as the weather warmed enough
to flake slate off the little cliff that Dénes
was going to show him how to find.

Villagers walked back and forth on errands,
nodding at the mazil as their paths crossed.

A muck wagon trundled past, pulled by
a lazy, ambling plowhorse who seemed
almost amused by this stop-and-go task.
At each house, the driver paused while
a boy and girl in the back forked off a load.
Someone from the house would come out
to spread the used straw flecked with manure
over whatever garden beds they had.

Once Igor had explained how he used manure
to turn coldframes into hotbeds -- because
the castle's old flue-heated beds were a mess
that he had not got around to fixing yet --
everyone else had wanted to experiment
with ways to heat up their own gardens
even if they couldn't afford glazing.

So they'd gone from covering the beds
with a bit of straw, to successive layers
of fresh stable sweepings, letting
the lower levels break down as more
was forked onto the top all winter.

In spring, they could simply rake off
the uppermost straw, and start planting
in the warm, fertile garden beds.

It made Victor happy to see his little village
not just prospering from the wealth and influence
contributed by even a minor lord, but learning
from what he and Igor showed them.

Fresh vegetables in early spring, he mused,
and Igor won't have to grow them all himself.

As Victor approached the smithy,
Imre leaned out and beckoned to him.

"You said to watch the boys for sickness,"
said the blacksmith. "I think Nandru is
coming down with something. I've been
trying to keep him close to the forge,
as much work as I could find, but
he's started coughing anyway."

If the cold of the winter had
gotten to the boy, that wasn't good.
"I'll take a look," Victor said. "Where is he now?"

"Picking up stray scraps," Imre said.
"I did cutwork this morning, and I'm low
on metal stock, so I'm saving all I can."

Stepping inside, Victor found the teen
industriously scavenging tiny star-shaped flakes
from the nooks and crannies of the floor.

"Nandru," he called softly, "come here, please."

At once the boy poured off his palmful of scraps
into a small bowl, and came over to Victor.

"Imre tells me that you're not feeling well,"
the doctor said. "What's wrong?"

"I'll be fine," Nandru insisted. "It's just a bit
of tickle in my chest that I've had before,
come up more since I dipped in the river."

Victor cleared his throat. "I will
thank you to leave that diagnosis
to me, once I've taken a look at you."

"Yes, sir," Nandru said glumly, and
submitted to the examination
with some reluctance.

"Coughing? Sore throat?
Anything else?" the doctor asked.

"A little," Nandru said.
"Mostly it's just my chest stuffy."

Victor could find no sign of fever,
and when he listened to the teen's chest
with the little trumpet that magnified sound,
he could hear congestion but thankfully not
the rattle or wheeze of serious trouble.

"It's not too bad," Victor declared.
"You need to stay indoors for --"

Nandru started to protest, and
Victor lifted a hand to quell the objection.

"Listen to me," he said firmly. "Right now,
you have only a chest cold, which should heal
in a week or two. Stress your lungs any further,
though, and that could turn into something
much worse like pneumonia. Then you would be
laid up for months -- if you survived at all."

"I haven't got my own place," Nandru whispered.
"I don't want to be a burden on anyone."

Victor could see Imre looking anxious and
unhappy in the corner where he had retreated
to give the two of them a little privacy. Plainly
the problem was not a lack of offers, but
that Nandru felt unable to accept
for some reason of his own.

Most likely, the teenager had been
scuffling around the village long enough
that it wasn't as simple as finding a job
for room and board, and he did not have
much in the way of coin or trade goods.

Victor cupped a hand under Nandru's jaw
and lifted gently, using the opportunity
to confirm that the lymph nodes were
only a little swollen and not worrisome.
"Look at me," he said. "I won't leave you
with a big scary debt that you have no way
of paying. I just want you to trust my advice."

"I'll try," Nandru said, and that
was as much as Victor could expect.

"I need you to stay warm, so here's what we're
going to do," Victor declared. "For each day
that I keep you under someone's roof, I'll square
with your host, and you'll owe me an hour's work."

"What kind of work?" Nandru asked.

"I have heard you're quite good at getting rocks
out of garden beds; I know Igor will appreciate that.
The summer hearth in the outside wall wants patching,
too, and it's difficult for him to fit in there," said Victor.
"None of that work can be done with the ground
frozen solid, so we'll have to wait until spring
to balance accounts between us. Agreed?"

"Yes," said Nandru, holding out a hand.

Victor shook it, and then brought out the slim logbook
that he carried to keep track of everything which
couldn't be bartered off instantly, such as clothing
that took time to make or the promise of a spring lamb.
It was double-noted in text and pictures, so that
even the villagers who could not read would
be able to see who owed what to whom.

"Imre, do you have room for Nandru at your house,
or shall I ask elsewhere?" Victor began.

"We have plenty of space," Imre said.
"My eldest Beniamen had no gift for smithing,
and went over the ridge to apprentice with
an orchardist who has no children, so
it's only Iosif in the boys' room now.
All the rest of mine are girls."

Victor opened the logbook and said,
"Let us begin with a week, then,
which is to say seven hours --"

Imre cut him off with a soft cluck of his tongue.
"Six," the smith corrected, "for there's no work
on the Lord's day and it's not to be counted
as debt to put up a guest over Sunday."

"Six it is, then," Victor agreed.

"Will you show me in the book?" Nandru asked.

"Of course," Victor said as he opened the log.
"Now here is today's date and your name --
do you have a personal mark yet?" At Nandru's nod,
he instructed, "Put that next to your name, then."

"What's this part?" Nandru asked.

"Receipts, that's what you get," Victor explained
as he wrote out their agreement. Next he drew
the little house over a place setting that stood
for room and board. "Then tally marks to show
how many." He made four lines with a slash,
one more line, and finally a circle. "That makes
six days we're counting, and one free."

"Clever," said Imre, leaning over them.

"Next comes the debt column," Victor said.
He put a plant in a garden bed, and the hourglass
to indicate hours of service, then the same tally.
"Imre, do you want coin or barter?"

"Barter, for it's winter and someone my house
is sure to get sick sooner or later," said the smith.

"Done," Victor said, and started rummaging
in his bag. He had packed the things he thought
would be most useful if the boys turned up sick.
"Now about your cold, Nandru, I brought some of
Igor's cough syrup -- it's made with licorice,
horehound, mullein, and marshmallow in
a honey base so it tastes rather nice."

He recited the usage directions for Nandru,
and Imre paid close attention too.

"I could help make more?" the boy offered shyly,
"or maybe gather the plants that go in it?"

"I'll add you to the list for that," Victor said,
making another note. "Igor has it in his head
that it would be more efficient to collect big bundles
of ingredients, call up helpers from the village, and
make medicines in huge batches to parcel out. I'm
inclined to agree, as the castle has a vast kitchen
of which we rarely use more than the side hearth."

"Like the women do for canning," Nandru said.

"Exactly. Now, the elderberry elixir that Dénes
makes is good for boosting your immune system,"
Victor said. "I could get you a bottle --"

"The one with the cherry brandy base?"
Imre said, shaking his head. "Don't bother,
we bought the big jug. I offered Nandru some
when he started coughing, but he wouldn't take it."

"I think you'll find him more agreeable now,"
Victor said, giving the boy a stern look,
and Nandru nodded. "Evergreen tea is
another good choice -- pine, spruce, or fir,
whichever you like -- for fighting colds."

Nandru wrinkled his nose. "Tastes like pine tar."

"Then put honey in it," Victor said. He quite
liked the astringent, almost lemony flavor,
but children often did not.

The cough syrup went over well, though,
with Nandru licking his lips after the first dose.
"That is good," he said.

"I'll tell Igor you said so," Victor replied.
"By the way, Nandru? If you want to be less
of a bother, try telling us when you start to notice
a problem, instead of waiting to see if it gets worse.
Most things are easier to fix sooner than later."

Nandru blinked at him. "I hadn't thought of that,"
he said. "I'll try to remember it."

The big door to the smithy rumbled open,
and Artúr came in leading one of his draft horses,
a beautiful cream mare heavy in foal.

"She needs new shoes," he said.
"Could you put her in snow cleats this time?
She's been slipping when she pulls the sleigh."

Imre shook his head. "I will not put
heavy work shoes on a pregnant mare, Artúr,
I've told you that before," the smith scolded.
"Plain shoes, for she shouldn't be working
hard enough to make her slip. Mistreat her,
and the mazil will take her away from you."

At Nandru's urging, the mare in question
ambled into the shoeing stand and
eagerly nosed the pan of sweet feed.

Victor turned away then, content
that his work here was done. As he did so,
he saw through the open door of the smithy that
Tivador's father Egyed was scanning the street
with a pinched, worried look on his face.

"Egyed," he called. "What's the matter?"

Worry changed to relief as the man hurried over.
"Tivador's sick," he said. "Running a fever,
but I didn't want to take him out in the cold
to bring him to you. So I left him with Ráhel and
came into town. Would you mind terribly --"

"I'll come to your farm," Victor said.
"You made exactly the right decision.
Calm yourself as much as you can.
We knew this might happen; it's why
I've been keeping an eye on both boys."

Egyed nodded. "Thank you," he said
as the two of them hurried away.

* * *


Gutter history includes such things as gargoyles and simple wooden troughs along the eaves. At this stage in history, many cottages and outbuildings were still thatched, but nicer houses had wooden shingles with gutters. Those would be made of cedar if people could find and afford it, or else pine. The castle and the church are probably the only buildings in this valley that have slate roofs with guttering of stone and/or metal.

Coldframes and hotbeds are used to protect plants from chilly weather, especially for starting seeds early in spring. Coldframes use only passive solar heating; hotbeds use another source. Raw manure generates heat, so it works for warming hotbeds or greenhouses. Manure is one of many types of mulch, and it can be used in different ways to improve a garden.

Metal cutwork involves punching shapes from a flat sheet of metal, which is then worked into a finished product. Along with punchwork, it is a popular method for making lanterns.

Nonliterate recordkeeping has a diverse and sophisticated history. In this case, Victor has taken a literate recordkeeping system and adapted it for use in a population that spans the full range from illiterate to semiliterate to fully literate. The text is augmented by personal marks, pictograms, and tally marks so that everyone can understand what it says.

Here you can see the first inklings of Victor and Igor thinking of the castle akin to the common house in an intentional community. Historically, a castle or manor house was the lord's residence and almost a mini-village unto itself, rather than exclusively a private home. This raises some concerns because the design issues of a common house and its use as a gathering point differ from those of a single-family dwelling. A castle needs a high, defensible location but if it is protecting a village and receiving goods from there, it also needs proximity. This castle was built during moderately fractious times and therefore compromises between the two. While not convenient for casual everyday use by villagers, it is ideal for auxiliary use, allowing them access to very large spaces that would not really fit in a small village. Conversely, the church and the brewery serve many of the everyday functions of a common house or community center in the village proper.

Herbal recipes make up most of a historic first aid kit. Here's one for combination cough syrup. Alcohol appears in some cough remedies and forms the base of many recipes such as the elderberry elixir. Evergreen tea provides a source of Vitamin C when fresh fruits and vegetables are unavailable.

Winter horseshoes have various features to provide traction and protect hooves on snow and ice. Snow shoes may have large caulkins to catch in soft drifts or mud. These are less comfortable and safe on hard smooth surfaces. Ice cleats provide small sharp points to grip smooth, slippery ice; they are also reasonably comfortable and safe on other surfaces. Among the best are created by using nails with large pyramidal heads pounded into ordinary horseshoes.

Appropriate care of pregnant mares includes light exercise, but not heavy work.

Continue with "The Heat of the Fever."
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, poem, poetry, reading, writing

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