The Green Children
They say I was the first to touch them. When the reapers found the children in the wolf-pits―a boy and a girl, their skin the pale flat green of wilting grass―they shuddered and would not lay hands on them, prodding them across the fields with the handles of their scythes. I watched them approach from my stone on the bank of the river. The long, curving blades of the scythes sent up flashes of light that dazzled my eyes and made me doubt what I was seeing―a boy and a girl holding fast to each other’s garments, twisting them nervously between their green fingers, their green faces turned to the sun. The reapers nudged and jabbed at them until they came to a stop at my side, where the river’s green water lapped at their shoes. I allowed myself to stare.
Alden took me by the shoulder and said, “We think that it must be the rotting disease. They were calling out when we found them, but none of us could make out the tongue. We’re taking them to the house of Richard de Calne.”
I understand little of medicine, and in those days I understood even less, but I could see that, despite the coloring of their skin, the children were healthy. The veins beneath their arms were dark and prominent, the sharp green of clover or spinach leaves. Their breathing was regular and clear.
“Will you carry them across the river?” Alden asked me, and I took my time before answering, cleaning the gristle from my teeth with the tapering edge of a twig. I know the rules of bargaining.
“Two coins,” I said. “Two coins for each. And one for the rest of you.”
The reapers fished the silver from their satchels.
If I was not the first to touch the children, I was certainly the first to carry them.
I lifted the boy onto my shoulders (one of the men had to rap the girl’s wrist with the butt of his scythe to make her let go of him) and was halfway across the river when Alden summoned me back. “Take some of us across first. If you leave the boy there alone, he’ll run away.” So I carried two of the men to the opposite shore, and then the boy, and then I returned for the girl, balancing her in the crook of my arm so that she straddled the hummock of muscle like a rider on a pony. This was years ago, when I could haul a full trough of water all the way from the river to the stables, or raise a calf over my head, or shore up the wall of a house while the sun dried the foundation. The water was as high as my waist when my foot fell on a patch of thick, jellylike moss and shot into the current. The girl wrapped her arms around my neck and began to speak in a panic, a thread of shrill, gabbling syllables that I could not understand. “Wooramywoorismifath!”
I regained my balance, throwing my arms out, and heard one of the reapers laughing at me from the river-bank. The girl was crying now, convulsive sobs that shook her entire body, and I took her chin in my fingers and turned her face toward mine. Her eyes were as brown as singed barley, as brown as my own. “I know these people,” I said to her. “Look at me. I know them. No one will hurt you.” A yellow slug of mucous was trailing from her nose, and I wiped it off with my finger and slung it into the water, where the fish began to nip at it. “Don’t cry,” I said, and with three loping strides I set her on the other shore.
As the reapers led the children into Woolpit, I kneaded the coins in my pocket, feeling their satisfying weight and the imprint of their notches. Seven birds came together in the sky. The coming week would bring a change of fortune. It was the plainest of signs.
The river spills straight through the center of town, with the fields, the church, and the stables on one side and the smithy, the tavern, and the market on the other. It is an angry foaming dragon, the current swift and violent, and only the strongest can cross it without falling. The nearest stepway is half an hour’s walk downstream, a wedge of stone so slippery it seems to sway beneath you like a lily-pad, yet before I took my place on the shore, the people of Woolpit made that journey every day. I was just a boy then and liked to stand on the bank casting almond shells into the water, following beside them as they tumbled and sailed away, memorizing the trails they took. By the time my growth came upon me I knew the river well, every twist and eddy and surge of it. I soon discovered I could cross it with ease. I had found my work.
The days after the green children appeared were busy ones. I would rest on my stone no longer than a moment before a new party of townspeople would arrive, their coins gleaming in their hands, eager to see the wonders at the house of Richard de Calne. One by one I would hoist them onto my back and wade into the water, leaning against the current and rooting my feet to the ground, and one by one I would haul them back to the other shore when they returned some few hours later. At night, as I lay on my pallet, the muscles of my back gave involuntary jerking pulses, like fish pulled from the river and clapped onto a hard surface. The sensation was entirely new to me then, though I have experienced it many times since.
The people who had seen the green children spoke of little else, and I listened to their accounts as they gathered in clutches on the strand:
The river was swollen with rain from a storm that had broken in the hills, but the sky over Woolpit was so windless and fine that the current ran almost noiselessly between its banks. As I carried the townsfolk through water as high as my gut, I gave my ear to them and learned that the green children had eaten nothing for several days, though bread and meat and greens had all been set before them. I learned that though they did not eat, they did drink from the dippers of water they were given, and that sometimes the girl even used the excess to clean her face and hands. One of the men who had examined the children for hidden weapons said that their hair was handsomely clipped, their teeth straight and white, and their clothing was stitched from a strange-looking material with many narrow furrows: it fell on their bodies with the stiffness of leather, yet was soft and smooth to the touch. “They huddled together as soon as I drew away,” I heard him say. “They clutched their stomachs and cried.”
On the third day of the children’s keeping, one of the growers brought them some beans newly cut from the field. The children were plainly excited and slit the stalks open with their fingernails, examining the hollows for food, but finding nothing there, they began to weep. Then one of the kitchen-maids swept the stalks aside and showed them how to crack open the pods. She prised out a row of naked beans, and the children gasped and thrust their hands out for them. The kitchen-maid insisted on softening the beans in water first, and then, with great relish, the children devoured them. For several days after they would eat nothing else.
It was Martin, the tanner’s son, who told me that the girl had spoken her name. He arrived at the river one evening carrying a palm-shaped basket of green reeds raddled so carelessly together that the fringe twisted in every direction. “Our fire went out,” he said. “My dad told me to go get some more.”
“Climb on,” I said, and he shinnied up to my shoulders. As we crossed the water, he asked me whether I had seen the boy and the girl yet. “I have,” I told him.
“Did you know the girl’s started talking now? Real words, I mean.”
“What has she said?”
“She can say ‘water,’ and she can say ‘hungry,’ and she can say ‘more.’ The boy hasn’t said a damned thing, though.” We had reached the shore by then, and I lifted him from my shoulders, straight into the air, so that he spat the word “Jesus” and then laughed as I planted him upright on the bank. “That’s what my dad told me, anyway,” and he ran up the trail into the village.
When he returned some short time later, there was a small heap of orange coals smoldering inside his basket. Each time the breeze touched them, they glimmered brightly for a moment, then gently dimmed. “You’re not going to spill those on me, are you?” I asked. “Because if you do you’ll be walking home wet.”
“I promise,” he said, and so I carried him to the other shore.
As I stood him on dry ground I asked, “Has the girl told her name yet?”
“Seel-ya,” he said. “That’s how she pronounced it, too. Funny.” He set his basket of coals on the grass and pulled a coin from the inside of his shoe: it was clinging to the skin of his foot, and he had to peel it loose before handing it to me. I took the coin and dropped it in my satchel, heavy as a fist from the day’s business. “Goodbye then,” he said.
“Goodbye,” I answered.
He marched off toward home, carrying his pocket of light into the graying air.
It was no later than the hunter’s moon when the first travelers began to arrive. They came from the east and the south (those from the west and north having no need to cross the river) and asked how to find their way to the green children they had heard tell of. They referred to the children as oddities, or marvels, or curiosities. Some of them had been given to believe they were bedded down like goats or cattle in a grain-crib or a stable somewhere, though in truth de Calne was housing them in one of his servant’s rooms. “You’ll find them over there,” I told them, gesturing obscurely beyond a spinney of thin, girlish elm trees. “A large house past a row of small ones. You can’t miss it.” I offered to ferry them to the opposite shore of the river on my back. “Only two coins,” I would say―my new fee for pilgrims. “Or you can try to push your way across without me.” At this I would toss a stick into the water, dropping it midstream so that the current gripped it immediately, wrenching it away. “There’s an outcropping of rocks downstream where we usually retrieve the bodies.”
The travelers all carried parcels and walking sticks, and after scouting along the bank for a time they always accepted my offer.
The green children had quickly become commonplace to the people of Woolpit, just another feature of the landscape, like the bluff above the maple thicket, shaped like the body of a sleeping horse, or the trio of stone wells outside the marketplace, but as the story of their discovery spread, the people who came to see them journeyed from farther and farther away. I was becoming a wealthy man.
One of these pilgrims, a boy of no more than fifteen who was traveling alone, asked me why there was no bridge by which to make the crossing. “We’ve built them before,” I said, “but the river is too powerful. They never last the month before the rains come and the high water washes them away.”
“There’s a man in my town who’s developed a new method of working with stone. He can shape it into a half-circle, and it will be broad enough and strong enough for even a man on horseback to pass over. I’ve seen him do it. For the right price, I’m sure he would build a bridge for you.”
I gave the boy a flinty stare and said, “We have no need of such a service.” His hair was as white as an old man’s, with the flat shine of chalk. Even after he was gone, its image stayed in my eyes.
As soon as the green children began to eat the same food as the rest of us, the same bread and flesh and vegetables, the girl developed a healthy cushion of skin around her bones. The boy, however, became frailer and more feverish with each new morning, trembling with the slightest movement of the air and passing a pungent, oily shit from his bowels. A doctor bled and purged him to balance his humours, then applied a poultice to his sores, but to no effect. He merely rolled over onto his side, coughing and blinking until he fell asleep. For a single coin Richard de Calne would have him strip from his clothing so that onlookers could see the way his skin pinched tight around the corners of his body―a mottled shade of green, like a leaf fed upon by aphids.
The boy had yet to say anything more than his name, a dusty line of syllables I have long since forgotten, but the girl, Seel-ya, was now speaking in complete sentences, and she astonished her visitors by conversing with them in a tongue they understood, telling the tale of how she came to this country.
She was, she said, from a wholly different land, though she could not say where it lay in relation to our own. The people there were of her color, and when she first saw the reapers leaning over her in the wolf-pits, their skin was of so pale a shade she was not sure they were human, and she screamed for her mother and father. The sun, she claimed, was not so bright in her country, and the stars were not so many. She had been playing outside her house when she heard a great sound, like the chiming of bells, and when she turned to follow it, she found herself in this place. The boy had appeared in the wolf-pits alongside her, and though she did not know him, she could tell that he came from her land. She missed her family, she said, and she wanted to go home.
One morning, while I was waiting for my first foot passengers of the day, Joana the Cyprian came walking toward the river. It has been a long time now since she was young enough to sell her services, but in the years of which I speak she was the most beautiful woman in Woolpit, and her eyes in their black rings were as shining and open as windows. She lived in a small hut hidden in the trees at the edge of town. The sun was climbing into the sky behind her, and through the thin fabric of her dress I could see the outline of her thighs and a tangled gusset of pubic hair. “Good morning, Curran,” she said to me.
“Joana,” I nodded.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I’m doing out so early?” Instead I pitched a stone into the water to measure the pace of the current, watching as it drifted from the surface to the bed. “I’m headed to Richard de Calne’s house,” she said.
“Going to gawp at the green children, I suspect.”
“Going to work with the green children.” Her voice was thistleish with irritation, and I had to smother a grin. It was one of my joys to provoke her. “I’m teaching the girl her duties as a woman,” she said. “De Calne plans to raise her to his wife.” She swung the copper-colored horsetail of her hair over her shoulder. “So are you going to take me across or not?”
I slapped my palms against my back and said, “I’m at your service, dear,” but she winked at me and declared, “No, Curran, I want to ride up front”―which is exactly what she did. She wrapped her legs around my hips and her arms around my neck. I swung forward with her into the river.
As I carried her deeper into the water, she allowed herself to sink slowly down over my crotch, exaggerating her fall with each jerk of my stride. The muscles of the current pulled at my ankles. I could feel her releasing her breath in a long, thin rope against my chest, and my nose began to prickle with her scent. “Why so quiet, Curran?” she asked. “Hmm?” When I set her on the other shore, she placed a slow-rolling kiss on my lips and ran her finger up my penis, from the root to the ember, which was visibly propping up my waistcloth. “So what do I owe you?” she whispered into my ear.
I brought her hand to my mouth and kissed the knuckles. “No charge,” I said.
Sometimes I wish it was still that way.
I was leaning forward on my stone, eating a boiled egg one of the farmers had given me for his passage, on the morning the monk arrived. I watched him hobble around the end of the stables and follow the path toward the river. His robe was coated so thickly with dust I could not tell whether the cloth underneath was brown or white. “Tell me,” he asked, planting his staff at my feet, “have I reached Woolpit?”
“You have.” I cast the eggshell halves into the water, where they went bobbing off like two glowing boats. I have watched the river for many years, and there is nothing it won’t carry away. I’m told that if you follow it far enough into the distance, past the hills and the long forest of pines, it empties into the sea, offering its cargo of sticks, bones, and eggshells to the whales, but I have never been that far.
“I’ve come for the monsters,” said the monk. The sun shifted from behind a cloud, and he squinted into the glare.
“The children, you mean.” I pointed across the river. “They’re at the house of Richard de Calne.”
“The soldier,” he said. “Yes, so I’ve heard. How much for passage?”
“Three coins,” I said. He drew open the pouch that was sagging from his belt, handed me the silver, and then rapped my leg with the end of his staff. “Up,” he ordered.
I looked at him grayly. He was not a large man and I could have broken him over my knee, but instead I pocketed the coins, counting repeatedly to three in my head.
While we were crossing the river, I allowed him to slip a few notches lower on my spine so that the hem of his robe trailed in the water and took on weight. Snake-shapes of dirt twisted away from him downstream, but he did not notice. He told me that he had heard of the green children from a beggar in the town of Lenna, who had informed him fully of their strange condition. “They speak a language known to no Christian ear,” the monk recited, “and are green as clover. The girl is loose and wanton in her conduct, and the boy shudders at the touch of any human hand. They are a corruption to all those who look upon them.”
“Most of what you say is false,” I said. A little whirlpool spun like a plate on the surface of the water before it wobbled and came apart. “The children have learned our own tongue now, or at least the girl has, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, they’ve certainly done me no harm.”
“You’ve seen them?” he asked.
“I have, and they’re no danger to anyone.”
He made a scoffing noise. “Yes, but you are clearly an ignorant man. I’m told they will eat nothing but beans. Beans! Beans are the food of the dead, and the dead-on-earth are the implements of Satan.”
“They eat flesh and bread, just like the rest of us. It was only those first few days that they ate beans.”
“The devil quickly learns to hide himself,” he said dismissively, as though he had tired of arguing with me. “I aim to baptize them, and if they won’t take the water, then I aim to kill them.”
I stopped short, anchoring my foot against the side of a rock. I could feel the anger mounting inside me. “You won’t harm them,” I said.
“I will do as my conscience demands.” He cuffed my ear. “Now move, you!”
At that, I whipped my body around and let him drop into the water. He sideslipped downstream, tumbling and sputtering in a fog of brown soot, before he managed to find root on the riverbottom. Then, bracing himself with his staff, which swayed and buckled in his hands, he hitched his way slowly to the other shore. By the time he staggered onto the rocks, I was already sitting against the high ledge of the bank. His robe hung on his body like a moulting skin, and his hair curtained his eyes. “You―!” he said. He flapped his arms and water spattered onto the shingle. “I want my silver returned to me.”
I did not feel the need to answer him. Instead, I reached into my pocket and retrieved the coins, slinging them at him one by one. They thumped against the front of his robe and fell to the rocks with a ting. He picked them up, then straightened himself and set his eyes on me. “I have a mission,” he said. “God has given it to me. I will not be discouraged from it by the muscles of any Goliath,” and he went stamping up the road into Woolpit, wringing the water from his clothing. Three blackbirds landed in the path behind him, striking at the dirt.
It was late that afternoon when I heard that the boy had died.
I abandoned my post by the river that night to attend the burning of his body. The pyre had been laid with branches of white spruce and maple, and the silver wood of the one and the gold wood of the other carried a gentle, lambent glow that seemed to float free of the pyre in the air. The moon was full, and I could see the faces of the townspeople by its light. Alden was there, and Joana, and the boy Martin, along with the blacksmith and the reapers and all the other men and women of Woolpit. I had never seen so many of them gathered together in one place. The monk, though, was nowhere among them. He had indeed baptized the children, I learned―immersing them in a basin of water, each for the count of one hundred―but while the girl had survived the dunking, the boy had not. He was already weak with illness, and when his body met the water, it stiffened in a violent grip and went still as the monk pushed him under. One of the servants who was watching said that he breathed not a single bubble of air. When de Calne learned that the boy had died, he set his men on the monk with clubs, and the monk was made to flee by the western road.
There was some discussion between de Calne and Father Gervase, the town priest, as to whether or not the boy ought to be buried in church ground―had his spirit passed from him before, during, or after baptism?―but finally it was decided to follow the path of caution. They would allow the fire to consume him.
The boy was laid out on the pyre inside a white sheet painted with wax, and as we stood about the fallow field watching, de Calne signaled to his servants and a ring of torches was driven into the wood. The flames were tall and bright, the smoke so thickly woven that it blotted out the stars. Our faces were sharp in the yellow light, which was clear and steady, so that our shadows scarcely wavered. I saw the green girl holding onto Joana, her arms wrapped tightly around her waist. A moment later de Calne stooped at her side, taking her chin in his hands. He stared into her eyes with a strange, questioning zeal until she quailed away from him, hiding her face in Joana’s dress.
The fire burned long into the night, and I fell into conversation with the merchant brothers Radulphi and Emmet. They were deliberating over what had killed the boy, and they had flatly differing notions on the matter, as they had on so many others. “He was not of this world,” said Emmet. “That much was clear to see―and so of course he rejected the baptism. The sacraments are for members of the body of Jesus Christ. The boy was a member of no body but his own.”
“But the girl accepted the water without sign of affliction.” Radulphi smacked his palms together as he made his point. “And it’s not at all clear that the children are from another world. They might have gotten lost in the flint mines of Fordham, nothing else, and simply wandered around the mine shafts until they came out inside the wolf-pits. It’s happened before.”
“Then how do you explain the color of their skin?” I asked.
“It was the greensickness, like the chirurgeon said.”
“Not likely,” said Emmet. “And if it wasn’t the baptism that killed the boy, then what was it?”
“Starvation,” said Radulphi. “His body wasn’t accepting the food he ate, and so it devoured itself.”
“At the very moment he touched the water?” Emmet smacked his own palms together. “Hah!”
Radulphi had been working an acorn between his fingers, and he tossed it to me. “You haven’t told us what you think, Curran?”
“What do I think?” I was, as I have said, a young man then, and my answer was a young man’s answer: “I think it’s foolish to argue over matters that cannot be decided. Who knows why our spirits depart, and who can say where they go when they do? These things are a mystery. Nothing more can be said.”
I have grown older since then, if only occasionally wiser, but I have tried to pay attention to what happens around me, and there is one sure thing my age has taught me―death is no mystery, in its cause if not in its consequences. If Radulphi were to ask me his question today, my answer would not be the same. I would tell him instead what I have seen with my own eyes: you can die of too much, and you can die of too little, and everybody dies of one or the other. That night, however, I simply fell silent. The shadow of the boy’s body flickered in and out of sight inside the flames, and as the wood settled, de Calne’s men prodded at it with long, forked sticks to keep it from tumbling free.
“I still believe it was the baptism,” said Emmet.
“And I still believe you’re an idiot,” said Radulphi.
I cast the acorn into the fire, listening for the nut to explode in the heat.
It was ten years or more before I saw the girl again. The last of the trees were turning color with the end of autumn, and the air had the fine, dry smell of burning leaves that signals an early snow. I was resting against the edge of my stone, worn smooth from all my years of sitting, when a young woman emerged from the spinney of elm trees by the tavern. She walked swiftly but deliberately, turning occasionally to look behind her as though sweeping the ground for footprints. I crossed the river to be ready to meet her on the other bank.
“I need passage over the water,” she said when she arrived. Her breath was coming rapidly, in thick white plumes. “Quickly. How much?” she asked.
“Four coins,” I said.
She counted out the money from a leather satchel hanging at her side. A shirt that had been tucked neatly inside poked out from the broaching after she tied the straps down. “Is there anybody following me?” she asked.
The sky was hidden behind a single flat sheet of clouds, and the path into town was long and shadowless. Even the birds were resting. “No one,” I said.
“Good.” She handed me the silver, then shifted her satchel so that it fell over her buttocks and climbed onto my back. “Let’s go.”
The water was frigid that morning. It rose around my stomach in a sealed, constricting ring, and I began to shiver. I couldn’t help myself. Even the year before, the chill of the water had seemed only the barest prickle to me, a tiny gnat to swat away with my fingers, but with each passing month, ever since the summer had fallen, I had noticed it more and more. The young woman tightened her arms around my chest and said, “I hate this―crossing the water. I feel sick inside.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
It was then that she made a clicking noise in her throat, and I could feel her seizing upon a memory or perception. You learn to recognize such things when you carry people as I do: it’s in their posture and their breathing and the power of their grip. In this case, it was as if all the heaviness drained from her body into mine, then gradually returned to her. “I remember you,” she said. “You were here by the river on the day I came.”
Whereupon I realized who she was.
Her body had spread open into its grown-up shape and become paler over time. Her skin was now a yellow-gold, like that of the spice merchants who travel through Woolpit from Far Asia. “Seel-ya,” I said.
She almost smiled. “I know. I lost most of my color a long time ago. The chirurgeon says it was the change in my diet, but people take on new colors all the time as they grow older, don’t they? They’re like caterpillars turning into butterflies.” She tensed suddenly. “Tell me, is there anybody following me yet?”
I looked behind me. “Still no one.”
“Good,” she said, and her muscles relaxed. “Then so far he hasn’t realized.”
I bent my thoughts to what she had said about people taking on new colors. It was not without its truth. The tillers and planters, for instance, were gray with a soil that would never wash out of their skin―you could recognize them by the stain of it on their hands and faces―and my own body had turned a rich chestnut-brown across the chest and shoulders from the hours I spent in the sun. Children were born with murky blue eyes, and only later did they become green or brown or hazel, or the lighter, more natural blue of the living. Old people faced with their last sickness turned white as tallow as they took to their beds. I caught my likeness in the water and saw the two long cords of silver in my hair. I deposited Seel-ya on the shore.
“Where are you fleeing to, child?” I asked.
“How do you know that I’m fleeing?”
I gave a snort of laughter, and her face sprang up in a slanting grin. “Very well,” she said. “I suppose I have to tell somebody. I’m going to King’s Lynne. There’s a man that I intend to wed.” She glanced over my shoulder, across the river. “In fact”―she dug into her satchel for another four coins―“if Richard de Calne or any of his servants come asking after me, will you tell them you haven’t seen me? Or better yet, will you send them the wrong way?”
“I will,” I told her, and I pocketed the coins. “Good luck to you.”
She nodded. She lifted herself carefully onto the shelf of the bank, then turned back to me. “You were kind to me that day. I haven’t forgotten. Thank you.”
“You were in need of someone’s kindness,” I said.
She set out along the southern road, moving at a steady trot, and soon she vanished from my sight behind the stables. That was the last I saw of her.
What else is there to tell? De Calne and his men did indeed come looking for the girl, their pikestaffs held at the ready, and I directed them into the hills to the west of town, where a few meager paths had been trampled into the brush by the few travelers foolish enough to attempt passage. Packs of wolves and wild boar could be heard baying and grunting there at night, and great owls lifted from the branches of trees with a sound like someone beating the dirt from a mat.
I told de Calne that the girl said she was going to gather her strength there and make her way north when the weather cleared. He and his men came stumping back two days later, their garments split and tattered and their pikestaffs left behind them in the forest.
The winter that followed was the coldest I have ever seen. (It has been a long life, and I cannot imagine I will see one colder.) The river froze over for the first time in memory, assuming the blue-white color of solid ice, and the people of Woolpit scattered dirt across it in a continuous sheet, walking from one shore to the other as though it were simply a road. I spent the season hauling coal to the village from the mines. When spring came and the water melted, the chalk-haired boy who had visited Woolpit ten years before―I had never forgotten him―returned with the stonemason he had told me of. Together they built a bridge that spanned the water in a perfect arch. It stands there still, as sturdy and elegant as the bones of a foot.
I found new work as a lifter and plougher, and when my strength went, as a tavern-keeper. It was some few years ago that a man of Newburgh, a historian by the name of William, came to the tavern seeking reports of the green children, and I told him this story as I have told it to you. Afterwards, he asked me if I knew what had become of the girl. Had she married the man at King’s Lynne? Had de Calne ever managed to find her? Though I am certain she did not return to Woolpit, and de Calne soon gave her up as lost, I know nothing else for a certainty. Some say she did indeed marry, mothering children of her own. Some say she took work as a kitchen steward in a small town to the south of Norfolk. Some say she vanished from this world as suddenly as she appeared here, following a sound like the chiming of bells. I myself could make no guesses. It was very long ago, and I was not there.
(photo by Leah Lynn)