I blame it all on the garage sale. Not that this is in any way a reasonable thing to do, beyond the fact that doing so has saved me several hundred dollars in the last year, but I do so anyway. Who or what else do I have to blame? Myself? That would hardly be spiritually uplifting. The woman at the perfume counter? I’m not sure I truly believe she existed. And if she did or does, I’m not sure that I blame her, both because she suffered from severe extenuations and because, well, if I’m honest with myself, because I rather enjoyed the ride. So the garage sale gets the blame.
Nasty things, garage sales. I bought the book at a garage sale – for a quarter – L.L. F by X. It had been published in French, in 1954, and it was sort of a history book on the French Middle Ages. At least I think that’s what it is. My high school French classes were longer ago than I’d care to admit. I later bought a cheap French/English dictionary, but I’ve only translated the Table of Contents, part of the Introduction, the beginning paragraph of each Chapter, and a ballade.
If I remember correctly, at the time of The Incident I could play “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Aura Lee,” and “This Old Man,” courtesy of the YY. I was still working on “Give a Little Whistle,” though, which was more challenging.
You may note that I’m referring to books a lot. That’s because I’m the sort of person who refers to books a lot. I’m also a person who carts books about, takes them home, and slaps cute little stickers on them that say: “Ex Libris – Beth Sharpwater.” Other people, in conversation, say: “that reminds me of the time that I . . . “. I’m more likely to chime in with: “you know, that reminds me of an article that I read . . . “. Hauling too many books back from the library is my biggest vice and main source of exercise. Hauling them from garage sales used to compete, but I have, as mentioned, forsaken garage sailing as a token of disapproval.
Not that I couldn’t just as easily blame The Incident on my job. Well, on my work, to be picky, since it comes and goes too often to be anything as steady as a job. My main advertising (a newspaper ad and some fliers) claims that I am a freelance technical writer, editor, and proofreader. I do this while I am trying To Write, despite a degree in a better paying field which shall remain nameless. Both of these endeavors are actually supported by stints of temporary office work (I have great word processing skills) and by pregrading class reports for the local junior college crowd.
Young hopefuls that somehow failed to learn to wield the English Language in high school are recent immigrants give me their class papers a week before they’re due and I mark them up. I’m brutal. I mark every mistake and comment on every deficiency. I get out my little red pen and make the pages bleed. A lot of people can’t handle it. The ones who can go on to get C’s and B’s that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten just by making the corrections. If they address the deficiencies as well, they get A’s. Some of them even learn to write, after a few quarters.
But it’s poorly paid work that comes in batches. It’s like catching salmon commercially. You work ‘til you drop while the papers are running. The papers had been running just before The Incident, so I was a little groggy at the perfume counter.
Since I was a little groggy at the perfume counter because of my job (with the running pages), maybe I’m being too harsh on the garage sales. But that silly, unreadable book sent me on a French Middle Ages binge. Yes, I confess. I’m a binge reader. Ask any relative waiting for me to live up to my potential. I waste countless unbillable hours looking up subjects in which no sane (that is, no billing) person would have an interest.
So I learned about the lays of Arthur and the Song of Roland. I learned about the Roman de la Rosa and the branches of Perrot’s animal tales. I have no proof, but I am certain that this immersion left me with a weakness, a small vulnerability which the nonexistent woman at the perfume counter used to her advantage.
Since I was, as maintained, a little groggy at the perfume counter, I can’t say that I noticed any portents of foreboding or even anything out of place. I was just passing through on my way to drown my sorrows in the purchase of some hideously flashy socks, when a smiling perfume lady spritzed me. At least I assume she was smiling. They always do, don’t they? As I blinked in a cloud of cinnamon and ginger underlain with a musky, animal aroma, she thrust a clipboard at me. On it was a sheet of paper with one word: Hersent.
Being groggy with editing and a little miffed at suffering a delay in sock acquisition gratification, I whipped out my trusty red pen and added the caret, pound sign, caret, C that would correct the run-on word into: Her scent.
The woman was definitely smiling when I handed the clipboard back to her. I wondered for a moment at the size of her golden eyes before I was blinded by a second spritz. This one was piercingly ammoniacal, sending me coughing and wheezing and rubbing my eyes.
“Come, my lady,” said a silken, chiding voice. “There must be no further delay. The charges of your husband must be answered in open court.”
A warm, firm hand propelled me forward by my shoulders, though I balked, wiping at my eyes.
“Come, now, no false tears. Make yourself presentable and attend with all speed and courtesy.”
A cloth was pressed into my hand and I mopped gratefully with it, blowing my nose for good measure. What I saw when my eyes cleared sent me limp and staring. Gone was the perfume lady, gone the perfume counter, and gone as well was the department store and the mall and city to which it had been attached.
I was in a meadow, a wood, a castle. Or, rather, I was in a piecework combination of the three. Pushing me along with the pretense of following me meekly, was a nun whose appearance shocked me docile. Disbelievingly, I floated where I was led.
We turned into a clearing, a courtyard, a hall, filled with persons in full medieval regalia. Note that I didn’t say people. Like the location, the wearers of these fine clothes seemed, like the nun behind me, to be several things simultaneously. They were human and they were also animals – some of them very small animals – and they were also a combination of the two, all at once.
I looked down at my own hands to give my eyes a stable focus and saw a fine, white lady’s hands, complete with gold rings, together with furred hands and a pair of wolf’s paws. Beyond my shifting extremities, my skirt was stiff with gold embroidery over a lithe, graceful part-woman’s form.
Vertigo and a buzzing in my ears drowned out the beginning of the proceeding that began around me. I was led forward to stand beside a surly looking Wolf/Lord. This lord ignored me and stood forward to bow before a King/Lion. Words were exchanged, but the only ones I heard were “rise Sir Isengrin.”
Isengrin. The name was familiar and, more, brought to mind a vague connection with the word: Hersent.
Isengrin rose and drew himself up to declaim.
“My beloved and great lord, grant me justice against Reynard for his adultery with my wife, the Lady Hersent . . . “
Reynard! If there was one medieval character that I disliked, it was Reynard. Reynard the Fox was not only the nemesis of Isengrin the Wolf, he was a vicious, mocking trickster who played bloody tricks on the other animals just because he couldn’t leave their gullibility alone.
Hersent, if I remembered right, had originally welcomed Reynard’s advances until he had beaten and peed on her children, at which point she had tried to drive him off. He had tricked her into chasing him through too tight a burrow hole and then . . .
But Isengrin accused his wife of adultery because of Reynard’s lying boasts and Hersent, believing, lawyerlike, in her technical innocence argued that nothing at all had happened beyond Reynard’s lies and her husband’s jealousy. Fortunately, Reynard refused to come to court and, barring extreme embarrassment, nothing happened to Lady Hersent.
Lots of other animals were hurt trying to bring Reynard in, though. Whatever happened, I was not going to enjoy it. Even a department store perfume counter was better than this.
The revelation that there might be some sort of logic to what was happening had taken my attention away from the odd proceedings. I refocused. The nun/fox, I was sure, had never been in any of the stories. And I wondered if there would be other discrepancies.
The King was regally dismissing the complaint “ . . . by so trivial a mischief. Such a matter as this is certainly not worth discussing.”
Perhaps it would end here, I thought. It hadn’t in the original story, however, and I suspected that Hersent, herself, would be here if she considered the matter to be dismissible.
A bear/man stood to argue the judgment. He was different from the other . . . I could only think of them as characters. Where the other shifting characters had human features of near perfect, youthful beauty, this beast was bald, middle-aged, and paunchy. His face was not filled, like the others, with courtly irritation and self-regard. His was an earnest and trusting face.
“You could say better than that, most noble lord. All the kingdom assembled knows that Isengrin is not weak or timid. He is well able to take such vengeance against Reynard as his anger and conscience demands.
Only his love for you, our honored liege, and for the peace you have proclaimed, prevents him from laying siege to Maupertius, whence Reynard has fled. Send to Maupertius, my lord. I will go myself, if you wish it. Summon Reynard to court. As you are a prince of this earth, judge and make peace between your lords and so bring this feud to an end.”
An handsome young bull/man shouldered up.
“Lord Bruin, how can you suggest that our lord involve himself in so tawdry a matter? Reynard has committed so many misdeeds that it is a ool indeed to trusts him or stands for him in court. How could we reach a judgment? If it were my wife he had touched, no fortress walls in this world would hold me from castrating him and casting him, writhing, in the mire. How could you so soil yourself, Hersent?”
My blush came as a delayed reaction. They expected me to be involved with this. I didn’t feel involved. I felt totally at sea. I tried to remember the details of Renard’s Trial, as the story was called. For the life of me, I could not.
The basic plot was that the King sent three animals to summon Reynard to court and the first two were tricked and maimed before the third brought him in. At this point, Reynard got religion and repented, and the King sent him on crusade. Reynard got halfway down the road before turning to mock, blaspheme, and run. The next story in the series is The Siege of Maupertius. Other than being the cause of the initial complaint, Hersent was not much involved in either story.
“Sir Bruyant,” said a badger/man, “we must not exaggerate this trouble . . .”
I did try to keep my mind on the proceedings.
“. . . it is not as if the receptacle has been damaged . . . “
Sometimes it was difficult.
“ . . . and you should be beaten if you ever show him any affection again. Look at him!”
I was surprised when he indicated by husband.
“Isengrin. He calls you ‘my dear’, but he drags you before us all in shame. He deserves to be spurned!”
“Do not chide the Lady Hersent for loyalty to her husband, Sir Bumbert.” The sly nun’s voice was soft, but it carried. “Her husband and Reynard have been feuding for years and it is to her credit that she stands with him even though his mind is fevered with frustrated vengeance for other wrongs.
As regards her honor, why only in the hallway she was saying that she would willingly undergo an ordeal by scalding water or by fire to prove her fidelity.”
There was a murmur as all the creatures of forest and field approved of that as a noble gesture and possibly a very good idea. I folded my hands at my waist and pondered my toes in a display of medieval modesty. I prayed they’d stick to the next part of the script.
“And what would that profit me, good Sister Hermeline?” growled my husband, “except to make me richer by a burned wife? I forbid it!”
I raised my palms and eyes in an I’ve-done-all-I-can-do-who-can-blame-me-for-giving-up gesture. It was a mistake. The sun and moon were out. The constellations overlapped and the moon showed several phases.
[I know this story had a projected end. I know that it hinged on something from The Trial of Reynard. I suspect it required trial by ordeal to be valid in the animal’s world and for the main character to know some dirt on Sister Hermeling, so that she could swear that she no more blank than Sister Hermeline other blank.
But that’s all there is in the folder and I don’t remember specifics. Maddening, isn’t it.]