Someone asks: What country, friends, is this? No answer. I open my eyes with a start. In the dim early-morning light, the world returns around me. I lie nestled in straw in the stable loft of a country estate. I look out a dormer window toward the soft hills that rise in a low ridge between the estate and the nearby village.
Below me the horses shift in their stalls. Their safe smell and their heat rises to me. It is dawn, and the sounds of the yards and the house awakening will begin in a few moments. This is the moment of stillness before the lark rises toward the rosy light raying up from the eastern horizon, toward the zenith of the clear spring sky.
My work begins as the lark flies up, singing from its meadow nest to greet the sun. I too rise. I begin not with a hymn to nature but with a visit to the outhouse, ablutions under the pump, a quick ordering of my garments.
Then I attend to the horses. They need water, clean straw, and grooming. But first I have something else to do.
I have a dream that recurs. It came to me again last night. I walk from the door of our croft into the field that slopes to the south. The land is green, green, green, like a velvet gown laid over a curving body. In my dream I tread lightly on the soft surface. I feel the spring of grass beneath my bare feet. As I pace down the slope of the field, I feel the warmth of the sun on my face and arms. All is pale blue above, green below, and a fresh wind blowing. I notice something growing in the field. Loaves of bread, golden-crusted. It is as if the corn had grown, been harvested, thrashed, ground, kneaded, baked all in a night—as if the bread grew ready to my hand and mouth directly from the earth. In my dream I smell the yeasty bloom and fall to my knees, mouth watering, guts cramped with hunger. I am eager to pluck and eat these magic mushrooms, brown-gold buttons on the green velvet field. I lay my hands reverently on a loaf and find that I hold stone. Frantic, I rise and run about the field from seeming loaf to seeming loaf. All stone and heavy beyond bearing.
I stumble, weeping, down the slope, and in that sudden translation of dreams find myself in a dug field. A man in ragged clothing stoops over his spade; his face is averted from me and his lowered head is covered with a shapeless blob of felted hat. He looks familiar and yet I cannot put a name to him. He turns the earth, stoops his back into the weight, lifts brown clumps from the soil—potatoes. Here is food, I think; not crusty, fragrant bread but gray flesh formed under dark loam. This man will share with me a potato or two, and I will find green herbs in the field and feed my brother. I hurry toward the man and stand beside him. My heart fails me, for here again are stones. His face turned from me, he delves stone after stone from the ground, brushes away dirt and sets the stone on a rising heap. A cairn is growing in my dream, a monument, a funeral pile. I stoop to see the face of the man who digs. His blue eyes burn with fever. His eyebrows are thick and red. His cheeks are gaunt with hunger, yet glazed with the red-gold stubble of his rough beard. This is my father. He does not speak. My tongue is thick in my mouth, my throat burns. I cannot make a sound. It would not matter if I could; I know he would not hear me.
I turn to look back to the house at the top of the rise. It is tiny in the distance. I have come much farther than I thought. I turn my steps along a path. The green grass lies to my right, the spaded soil to my left. My father will not, cannot, speak to me, for he is dead. I think that I will go back to the house and find my brother. The house is a white toy in the distance, the sky is blue and far above. I am filled with a sense of urgency.
Then, as always, I awaken in a strange country. Above the place where I nest at night in the barn loft, I have rigged a bag that swings away from the beam on a thin string. The string is enough to hold the bag, yet not thick or strong enough to give passage to the mice that might forage here. I let the bag down and check its contents. The mug and the spoon are there and my brother’s jacket, folded carefully. The bag would be limp with just those three things, but hard bread packs the cloth too. Fresh bread would mold, flour would sift away. The cook sets out this dry bread for the field hands; for three mornings now, I have managed to filch some. Why I do so, I do not know. There is food enough here at the kitchen door for all the outdoor workers. Even so, I keep this private store. I count the brown-gray squares. Six now, put away against the day of need. I will not eat of this, not even nibble on a corner to taste it. It will not matter if a little mold grows on this bread; that is easily scraped away, the biscuit boiled in water to a sticky dough. This will suffice as food. And my store is secret; I will not be called to share it until I find my brother. When the day of need comes, as come it will, I will be ready. I hoist my cache again to safety and begin the day.
It comforts me to groom the horses. I lead the black, Sultan, out of his stable into the sunshine of the back courtyard, fasten his lead to the iron ring in the wall, and wield the comb until his flanks shine and my arms ache.
As I finish with Sultan, the kitchen maid who peels the vegetables, cleans the pots, and helps the cook as he requires comes out the kitchen door. I have spoken to her just once in the three mornings I have risen here.
Yesterday, she handed me a chunk of brown bread and a wedge of cheese and said, “Here, Paddy, I don’t suppose you saw such food as this at home.”
“No,” I said, “not since two years ago. They are starving at home.” She did not answer that.
Today, she has her hair tied up in a fancy green ribbon, her skirts down at her ankles, not kilted up as she wears them when she is working. She carries a bundle under her arm.
“Good morning, Mary,” I say respectfully, keeping my voice low. “Are you off to the village so early?”
“Indeed, I am,” she says, tossing her head in her saucy way. Her face is pudding-plain and marked by smallpox besides, yet her blue eyes are clear lake-blue and fringed with long lashes. “Indeed I am, Paddy. Off to the village and beyond.” She winks at me, fluttering her black lashes down to her pox-scarred cheek.
“Beyond?” I ask, puzzled by her way of speaking and her new manner. She seems impertinent and yet fearful of her own boldness. It frightens me that she might be doing something that will involve me in a wrong.
“Beyond, indeed,” she asserts. “I’m off across the hill to the village and the stagecoach for London town.”
“London?” I feel quite stupid.
“London?” she mimics my Irish speech and my bewilderment. “Yes, London. I had a letter yesterday. My sister has a place for me in a great house, a maid’s place, sweeping and dusting the fine things. Mr. Serle will have to find someone else to shell his peas and scrub his pots. Or do it himself, the black foreigner.”
“Oh.” I can think of nothing to say to this Mary I have never seen before, this bold girl who was hiding all the time inside the lazy kitchen scullion with her straggling hair and dirty skirts.
“Oh?” says Mary. “All you have to say is ‘Oh’? You Irish are as stupid as they say.”
I want to say that I am not stupid, just surprised by the change in her. She looks almost clean in her traveling-to-London clothes. But I know it is wiser to hold my tongue. “Well, good-bye, Mary,” I say. “Godspeed your journey.”
“I’m away,” she says and hurries out the gate.
And Godspeed to me too, I say to myself under my breath. There will be a place in the kitchen to fill today. I wonder whether Mr. Serle, the black foreigner, will be angry when he learns she is gone. I have glimpsed him walking in the kitchen gardens in the morning and heard him speaking to the gardeners. I do not catch his words when I listen, only a murmur of sound. He is not a man who raises his voice. Where does he come from? I wonder. He is not so black, I think. I have seen darker in Ireland even, and in Liverpool for certain.
I lead Sultan out to the paddock behind the stable. The master will ride this morning as he does every morning. I lead out the gray mare, Gytrash. If the master’s lady does not ride her, I will exercise her, following the master in a lazy loop down to the path along the river, across the meadow by the road up to the ridge of hills, and then down along the river again to the copse of great oaks, and, finally, back across the meadows to the stable yard. I hope the lady will be busy with the house today. I love to ride. The master does not speak to me, and I am free to move with the horse and to think of my father and my brother who loved horses and raced them and wagered on them and laughed when they won and drank up the prize money to my mother’s despair. But she laughed too and said that it was all gravy money anyway and who could not love the beauty of a clean race. And when they lost, they had a pint for consolation and groomed the horses for longer even and whispered to them to run better next time.
As I run the currycomb down the dappled flank of Gytrash, I dream of the past. Gytrash means ghost; Mr. Coates, the stable master, told me. As I curry her, I think of the past. I think of the dark bay horse I groomed for my father, the dreams of horses my brother told me as we did the work on the farm. Gytrash brings my ghosts to me each morning, and for that I am grateful. I have nothing now except my ghosts, and the gold ring my mother gave me sewn into my shirttail, my brother’s riding boots, and the bag of bread I have saved in the loft.
The clothes I stand in and my brother’s boots. The boots he was taking to America. His boots, which are too big, I stuff with straw before I put them on to ride. They hardly show the water stains that marred them; I have rubbed and waxed them until they shine.
Mr. Coates will not allow me, or anyone who works for him, to ride barefoot. I have no proper shoes yet. Working in the yard, I must go barefoot, for shod in the boots, I would trip over myself. Also, the boots are my brother’s good riding boots. I will not wear them to muck out stables. His ordinary boots are gone with him. I keep his riding boots well for his return.
Gytrash goes into the paddock with Sultan, stepping daintily and then lowering her head to crop the grass. I close the gate and return to the stable for the pony. I am beginning to feel the day growing as the sun’s warmth strengthens. Once the fat pony is brushed down, I will muck out the stables and then wash myself again and seek brown bread and a mug of ale at the kitchen door.
Long after I have eaten my breakfast in the stable yard, the gentry will rise and go to their meal. Soon after that, word will come down to Mr. Coates that the horses are to be saddled for the morning ride. Later, I will polish tack and fill the water pails. I am slowly becoming accustomed to the rhythm of this place. I am beginning to feel safer here.
The cook, that dark-haired man to whom I have never spoken, is leaning against the dairy wall across from the kitchen door. He turns his face into the sun as if he would warm himself. He raises a hand in casual greeting to me as I go toward the stable again. I raise a hand in return. I wonder if he knows yet that Mary has gone away.
The pony lowers its head and swings it sideways at me as I lead him from his stall. He will nip my arm if I am not careful. I do not like this fat brown animal. He stands no more than my shoulder height at his neck. When a child or a young lady is perched on his broad back, the animal is docile enough. The halter and the lead are what annoy him—especially in the early morning. Later in the day, when he has waddled about the pasture and been exercised, he seems happier.
I set to work with the currycomb. Mr. Coates comes through the gate and across the yard. He lives in a cottage down the lane, away from the great house and close to the chapel.
“Morning, Paddy,” he says in his gruff way.
“Good morning, sir,” I respond respectfully. He makes me uneasy, although I know that is not sensible. After all, he gave me a job when I arrived here just three days past, with nothing to introduce myself but a note with his name written on a sliver of paper, my claim to know his niece, and my assertion that I am good with horses.
Mr. Coates slaps the pony on the neck. The pony, startled, sidles toward me. I leap away. Mr. Coates stands stock-still, his fists on his hips.
“Mr. Coates,” I exclaim, “sir!”
“You handle the beast well enough, Paddy,” says Mr. Coates. The pony reaches its neck toward him, its lips drawn back and its yellow teeth bared. Mr. Coates reaches out to catch the bridle. I know he will jerk the pony’s head down to discipline it.
“Comb out and then braid his mane up today,” says Mr. Coates, jerking the pony’s head around so he can look at its rough mane. “And exercise him well. They say that one of the guests, a timid lady, might wish to ride this afternoon. And clean yourself up too. Douse your head under the pump.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, moving close in again to the beast’s rear quarter with the comb in my hand. My heart pounds in my chest.
Mr. Coates slaps the pony’s neck again, and the nervous beast stamps. This time I am not quite quick enough. The pony’s rear hoof catches the side of my left foot. I feel as if I have been bitten. I think I hear the crunch of bone.
I stagger back and sit on the mounting block, cradling my foot in my two hands. No tears, I tell myself, no tears.
“Let me see that,” says Mr. Coates. He grasps my foot roughly and twists it. I cannot help myself. I cry out.
“It is broken, and it is swelling already,” he says. “You will never get a boot over that. And you cannot exercise these horses or ride with the master barefoot.”
“I can,” I assert, but inside I feel hopeless. Perhaps I could manage to mount Gytrash, but I know I can never ride and control her with my foot hurting like this. “I have ridden with far worse injuries,” I claim.
“No, lad, you will have to go. You are puny as it is, and with this injury I cannot trust a spirited horse to you. Remember that I took you for a few days on trial only.” The stableman shrugs, looks sorry, turns away from me. “There’s work in Milford, no doubt, for a willing boy with a lame foot.”
I feel the tears start to come. “I can groom the horses even if I can’t ride out to exercise them,” I protest. “I can throw down hay from the loft.”
“I must have an exercise boy,” Mr. Coates maintains. “I must have a lad decently outfitted to ride with the master and the gentry.” There is something in his voice that tells me he is not truly sorry to have found a reason to send me away.
The man standing in the sun by the garden wall walks down the courtyard toward us. “What is the quarrel here?” he says. His voice is low and his accent strange to me. Not the country, not London, but some other place.
“No quarrel, Mr. Serle.” Mr. Coates seems easygoing; he does not sound offended. “Paddy here has been careless. He has let the pony step on his foot. He won’t walk or ride for the week or even two. I cannot keep him useless to me all that time.”
“He looks well enough,” the dark man says, staring me up and down. His expression is neutral. He neither smiles nor frowns.
“I am well,” I say. “I can do the work.”
“Draw two pails of water and carry them to the stable door.” Mr. Coates is looking not at me but at the other man.
I limp over to the stable to fetch the pails. I put my weight down on the heel only. The movement pains me, but I cannot bear the thought of being turned away. Where can I go? And how can I go if I cannot walk?
“Stop,” says the dark man. “Let me see that foot.”
I sit on the mounting block again, and he takes my foot in his hand. “Does this hurt?” he asks, moving my ankle a little. His long-fingered hand, which does not look so large, can fully circle my bony ankle.
I shake my head, no.
“And this?” he presses down on the top of my foot.
I shake my head again, no.
“This?” he presses sharply where a lump and a bruise are growing below my two outer toes. The nail of the smallest toe is torn and bloody.
I hold my breath until the pain subsides.
Mr. Serle sets my foot down. “Let me see you stand,” he says. “Both feet on the ground.”
Gingerly, I slide from the mounting block. I put weight first on my right foot and then tentatively set down the left. It is not so bad if I keep my weight on the heel.
“Now a step,” Mr. Serle says.
I can do it if I do not set the left foot down fully.
“The ankle is not broken,” he says. “There may be a broken bone in the foot or just a bad bruise.”
“It does not matter to me,” says Mr. Coates. “The boy cannot work with the horses.”
“It does not matter to you,” Mr. Serle says in his even, quiet voice, “but it matters to the boy. And I can use all hands today even if the hands do not have feet to match.”
“I will do any work, sir,” I say, standing as best I can, trying to look fit.
“I am sure you will,” he says. “With your permission, Mr. Coates?”
Mr. Coates nods sourly. “You won’t get a fair day’s work from him, in my opinion, but suit yourself, sir.”
“I will, I think,” the dark man says. “Mary has run away to make her fortune in London, I learned just now. We are shorthanded in the kitchen.”
I am glad inside, but my foot has started to throb, and the effort not to cry takes my attention.
“What is your name, lad?” asks Mr. Serle.
“Just call him Paddy,” interjects Mr. Coates in his drawling way. “He’s one of them starving Irish come to England to make his fortune. My softhearted niece in Liverpool, Susan, sent him on to me. He’ll be off soon enough, I’ll wager you. They don’t stick with a job, I find.”
“What is your name, lad?” Mr. Serle says again.
I try to shrug nonchalantly as I used to see my brother do. “Just call me Paddy,” I mutter. Why should I care?
Mr. Serle raises an eyebrow. “Paddy it is, then,” he says. “We will put ice on your foot, I think, and then find work you can do sitting down.”
He is as good as his word. Tom, the cook’s assistant, a tall, bland-faced fellow with white-blond hair and faded blue eyes, goes off to the icehouse. Mr. Serle orders me to rinse my foot under the pump in the yard and then to come sit on the bench just inside the kitchen door. My bare foot is wrapped in a clean rag. When Tom returns, I must soak the foot in a pail of ice and water.
“Keep the foot in the pail for as long as you can stand it. Then take it out and let it warm. Then back in again until the water is no longer cold.”
I limp to the kitchen, where I must stay on the bench out of the way. First I am set to pick over a peck of rice, looking for the little gray stones on which Mr. Serle says some guest in the great house might break a tooth if I do not do my job well. When I have cleaned the rice, I will use the knife Tom gives me to trim the asparagus piled by the hundreds in flat baskets; then I will shell the bushel of peas that stands ready. After that, they will find more for me to do. There is a dinner party and a supper to prepare for. Mary has gone without warning, and the extra servants from the town of Milford have not yet arrived to help.
I must work steadily, and when I am not soaking my foot in the pail of ice, I must prop it on the bench, says Mr. Serle.
“And do not cut yourself with that knife,” Tom says kindly. “We keep our tools sharp in this kitchen.”
“Here,” says Mr. Serle, setting a piece of bread and a mug of cider beside me on the bench. “When you are recovered enough from the pain to feel hunger, you must eat.”
My head whirls and my foot throbs. Cautiously, I set to work, sifting rice grains through my fingers into a clean bowl. I am out of the way by the outer door of the kitchen, which is a good thing, for Tom and Mr. Serle move swiftly about the room, armed with great knives and hooks for shifting pots upon the fires. I glance about as best I can while getting through my own tasks and resisting crying for the pain in my foot, and for the danger I am in of being thrown out into the fields and lanes defenseless. I realize with horror that perhaps I cannot even climb to the hayloft for my bag and blanket. I will be better, I tell myself, and plunge my foot into the pail of ice again. I will do the work set me and find my way as best I can.
After a while, the pain in my foot eases. I can look about me with more accurate perception. In this one room there is more food and more equipment for preparing it than I have ever seen in my entire fifteen years on earth.
The bench I sit on is just on the right inside the main door of the kitchen. The great room lies before me, with fires on each side glowing behind iron grates and the looped chains that I will learn later are part of the apparatus for turning roasts. Pots are set on iron counters let into the walls beside the visible fires. From the steam I see rising, there must be fire under these too. Great metal cupboards on wheels obscure my view of what is cooking. There is a long table in the center of the room laid out with white cloths and wooden chopping boards and knives and cleavers. Against the far wall is a counter that is also heaped with foodstuffs and, beside that, dressers with rows of basins, forms, and other cooking utensils.
To my left I can see a stone passage and the door to another room. It must be the scullery, for clouds of steam billow out from time to time and pots are taken in and brought out again. There must be space in that room too for other work; Tom goes in and out with roasts to set on the spits and plucked poultry. A man wearing a great shiny apron carries in a fish as long as a two-year-old child. He disappears with it into the scullery door. Later, two of the helpers, who have at last arrived from Milford, carry it out laid in a long pan. The fish must have been scaled, for it does not gleam as it did when the man brought it. Mr. Serle directs the servants to place the long copper pan on one of the range tops. I learn that the iron counters are the range tops, because he says, “Place the fish steamer here on this range top. The fire is right for it.” The sight of the flames flickering up from the fire box when the metal cupboard is moved aside makes my heart beat faster. I hold my breath for a moment and calm myself.
To my right is a longer stone-flagged passage. There are several doors letting into this hall, which has high windows on its right-hand side. In the rooms in that direction, the baking and dessert preparations must be taking place. Servants with flour-smeared cheeks hurry in and out with closed dishes, pie plates, and—when Mr. Serle or Tom demand something—bottles of bright liquids.
Ordering them all about is Mr. Serle. Mr. Serle is thin and dark. He moves with the strength of flexed wire. His black hair curls back from his face. His skin is clear olive with a flush high on the cheekbones when he is annoyed or warmed by working at the fire. He is of medium height. He has a high-bridged nose and black eyes with long, black lashes. His eyebrows are thin and arched. I am afraid of him, I think. When he attended to me earlier, he seemed to know something about me that I had not told him.
Moving about the kitchen—his kitchen—he looks quick, impatient. There is a list of dishes written up on a slate that is attached to the wall near the passageway that leads to the main house. Tom consults it from time to time when one of the assistants hired from Milford asks him a question. Mr. Serle never has to look. He seems to have in his head exactly what needs to be done and the order in which he wants the others to work. He stands at the long, scrubbed-pine, table and his hands move deftly with the great chopping knife. The men and women come to him and he gives them their directions simply and clearly, his hands working all the while.
In the course of the day, as its golden track across the kitchen floor tells me how the sun moves, the two men, Mr. Serle and tall Tom, helped by Mrs. Bennet, the pastry cook, by the two regular kitchen maids, the boot boy, who has been temporarily promoted to cleaning pots because Mary has disappeared, and by the six extra helpers from Milford, turn crates and baskets and barrels of meat and fish and shellfish and vegetables and rice and cream and butter and fruits and sugar and herbs and spices into a great dinner for twelve people and a supper for thirty. Of course, as I will eventually understand, it is not all accomplished in that one day. The supper dishes, especially the cold meats and the pastries, had been in process of preparation for several days.
But that knowledge comes later. Through that long first day in Mr. Serle’s kitchen, my senses swim and swoon in the odors of meat and fish and pastry and vegetables being baked and broiled and roasted and steamed. When two of the assistants wheel past me on a trolley a haunch of beef that they have taken down from its spit and I see the brown crackling fat and the red juices oozing out onto the platter, tears come to my eyes. My village in Ireland—all two hundred souls of us—would have shared out a portion each of such a meal and considered ourselves well fed.
But I have little time to look about me. Mr. Serle constantly directs work to me. Heaps of washed things are piled beside me or placed in baskets at my feet. Basins are handed to me with quick instructions to stir or to beat. I shell peas, I pick over spinach, I shred lettuces, I hull strawberries, I grate orange peel, I stir a custard until it is cold. Sometime in the late morning, after I at last nibble the bread and drink the cider, I forget to feel hunger. Soon I even forget my foot. There is so much to see and to smell and to do.
No one seems to eat. Indeed, Tom and Mr. Serle pick up a spoon occasionally and taste a sauce, but no one actually eats a meal. I think, with so much food piled about them, they forget what it is for. In the late afternoon, when the footmen come down with trolleys to take the made dishes away through the stone corridor that leads to the main part of the house, Mr. Serle dismisses me.
“Here, lad,” he says, noticing me, it seems, for the first time since he plunged my foot into the pail of ice and gave me bread just after dawn, “here’s a bowl of sorrel soup for you and a cheese tart. Eat, and then get yourself some water at the pump and be off to your bed.” He thrusts a bowl and a spoon into my hands. He sets the pastry on the bench beside me before he turns away to his work.
I spoon the gray-green soup into my mouth. It tastes like lemon and fresh grass and potato and cream. For a moment I am hungry again. Later, as I limp off toward the stable, he calls after me, “Be here at dawn, lad. Be back at dawn.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mina by Jonatha Ceely. Copyright © 2004 by Jonatha Ceely. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.