A short story by James Geddis.
‘Use your legs, lad. You’ll never lift it with your knees straight like that.’
William ignored the old man, whose chatter was not helping him to dislodge the muddy plough from the ditch. It was sowing season, and winter rains had cleared the fields of even the smallest weed. Nothing but black clay stretched from the stream to the village manor. The ditch, however, was so deep that it came up to William’s chin. A crater—but the old man swore he had not seen it when he first set out with his oxen that morning.
‘Lucky ol’ Clara here didn’t twist an ankle,’ he said, slapping one of the beasts across the thigh with a dead twig. ‘This plough needs two to pull, and Lord Percy wants the whole lot ready for pruning come April.’
Again, William ignored him. He wished the old man would just shut up and give him a hand in loosening the mud. They would be done a lot sooner with two men pulling the plough, but he knew better than to expect help, and nor did he have any business asking for it. It was the first true act of manual labour William had ever committed in his young life. The only reason he was even doing it was because hiking to the village stream took him past the open barley fields, and the farmer just happened to call out to him. Every day it was William’s duty to collect water for the monastery, but this was not real work, not when he strolled at a leisurely pace and whistled as the butchers, masons and ploughmen all toiled in the commons.
And William knew it. In fact, he reckoned there was nobody in all King Edward’s glorious land less skilled in the ways of hard labour—other than perhaps the king himself. William was a stringy boy, a fresh-faced runt, and bearing hands that many in the village would declare too soft and fleshy for one his age. Small hands—small hands that could fit between the blades of a rusty plough, and pull its beam without cutting. Using his feet as leverage, he pressed hard with all his determination into the dirt, until finally the contraption wriggled free. The oxen did the rest. Bleating and snorting, they lumbered together like a moody couple, coaxed by their jeering master.
William collapsed in the pit, wiped the dirt from his cowl, and used it to dab the sweat from his cheeks. He looked at the upturned pail beside him. Cold water had seeped into his underclothes, ravaging the heavy linen, but by that point he was already a floor rag caked in mud.
He should have returned to the monastery by now; the monks would still want their water, but so what if he was a little late? They had never punished William for anything, even when his eyes wandered from his study book to the window, so he hardly expected them to notice when the rest of him went wandering too. And when he returned, would they care about his muddy tunic? Even students of holy men could not escape the clingy earth in the village. The smell was harder to avoid; neither spitting nor gulping could rid the musky stench of manure from William’s throat. Looking up, he found the sky was just as filthy—a grey smear stippled with clouds that had never seen sunlight. If the heavens could not stay clean, what chance had its children?
His cloud-gazing was cut short by the farmer calling down to him. Already the excited man was crouched on one knee, rubbing his hands and leaning in with anticipation. Now the plough was out of the way, they could deal with the real matter of intrigue.
‘Well lad, what do you reckon? Silverware from the church, is it?’
In the corner of the ditch was William’s reflection, staring back at him from the topside of a plain metal box.
‘I don’t know what it is,’ said William.
‘I heard this noise like… like thunder, so I looked up. When I see there’s no storm brewing—no clouds out of place—I looked down again, only now there’s this big hole in front of me with nothing in it but this box! I could’ve broken a leg falling in—guess my eyes still have a couple years left in them.’
Mumbles of pretend listening came from William’s mouth as he examined the box’s sides without touching them. He had already deduced from stroking its surface that the object only pretended to be metal—solid, but also flimsy; polished like a breastplate, yet hollow like a wicker basket. The illusion was only skin-deep. When William scratched the strange object with his nail, its metal-ness peeled away, crumbling like leafing off a gilded folio, and this made him hesitant to touch it again.
Where it came from was also a mystery. From what the farmer suggested, the box could well have fallen from the sky, forming the crater in which it now rested—though even William’s tutors would have cautioned against such hasty claims of divine intervention. What he and the farmer agreed was that the box could not have been in the ditch for long. It was immaculate, as though somebody had placed it down in the dirt, laying it to sleep with tender hands. He had avoided stepping on it while wrestling against the plough, not that he thought it too delicate to hold his fickle weight. It seemed out of place in the ditch, actively repelled and repulsed by the surrounding stones and ox dung. It did not belong, this thing no bigger than a bucket, this thing forged of unearthly elements. Still, rarely was anything in the village so clean, and anything worth keeping clean must be worth something.
The farmer rapped his stick on William’s shoulder and pointed down to him.
‘Those scribblings on it are words, ain’t they? Well come on lad, what do they say?’
Of course. Living in the monastery, it was easy to forget most people in the village did not read. William knelt down and squinted at the largest word he could find.
‘Gibberish, it’s not even Latin. Well, the first half is anyway.’
He shuffled one side, allowing more light to fill the pit. Reading the inscriptions was not the problem; the letters were finely spaced, but clearer than the squiggled cursive he had read from the church’s manuscripts. It was the words—the nonsense phrases like “High Power” and “10 Mins” and “Start” painted onto its front side that eluded him. Some phrases, like “Portable”, at least resembled words he already knew. The rest were completely foreign, ramblings from another land.
The farmer just pulled off his cap and spat into the mud. ‘Your father told me you knew your letters. Don’t those monks teach you anything, boy?’
‘You know my father?’
‘The blacksmith? O’ course! Everyone knows everyone ’round here. I suppose you wouldn’t know stuck in that monastery most of the day. You saying you don’t recognise me?’
The farmer frowned. ‘You should get out more,’ he said. ‘Pull your head out of those silly scrolls, might even learn something useful for a change.’
William turned his back, snarled with lidded eyes under his cowl. It was a fair point. For all that the monks boasted about the values of a godly education—of practising scripture, reading scriptures about scripture, studying scriptures about bitter old scribes that wrote about scripture—none of what William learned was ever useful outside of the monastery. He had never left a book feeling wiser or more equipped to help his brothers and sisters. A line from Saint Paul memorised would not help the rains come sooner, or keep the roaches from feasting on the new season’s rye.
‘Maybe it’s written in French,’ muttered William.
‘Heavens! You know what you are, boy? You’re a lollard. A sheep with no fur, a cow with no milk. If you’re no good in God’s home or in Man’s, there’s only one home left for you.’
‘And I suppose you have a better idea what these words mean?’
The old man rummaged in his leather satchel and presented a half-eaten leg of chicken.
‘I know whoever owns it is missing their supper.’ He bit into it hard, tearing a pink morsel from the nub. ‘They must’ve left in a hurry, it’s still warm.’
When William demanded an explanation, the old man told him to lift the box out of the ditch. In the clear light, he revealed that its front side was actually a window, held by a hinge, and made of a thick hazy glass. There was no time to ask how it opened, as the old man simply yelled and kicked the glass with his heel, making William jump.
‘Crazy fool! You’ll break it!’
‘S’already broken—stupid thing’s got no handle. Step back.’
The thump of his boot was followed by a sharp ding, like a bell, and the window swung ajar. A warm but smouldering lamplight suddenly spilled from the box. When William leaned closer to the heat, he could not find its source; only a small glass plate rested in the box’s centre. He spun it with his finger.
‘Remarkable. It’s a chest, only… it keeps the food warm.’
‘I know,’ said the farmer. ‘Course, what confuses me is why someone would hide food in their music box.’
William scoffed at the greasy farmer. It was strange that his father had never mentioned this one; such a delightful imagination. If only he had the old greybeard’s name. But there was no chance of getting it now, not when he could lord it over William to spite his godly education, the wretch.
Better than no education; a music box? Then where was its cylinder, its crank, the little bronze cogs that made it sing? If it was made for music it would have all these things.
‘Alright, old man,’ William mused. ‘If it is what you say, play me a hymn.’
‘Oh, you don’t believe me?’ Quick to the challenge, the farmer bade William raise the box higher so that it balanced on the boy’s head. He lifted his cap, revealing the only part of his brittle frame not covered in hair. His naked eyebrows creased, turning visible as he grimaced in open thought.
And despite his disbelief, William was overwhelmed with an intense ringing resounding from the box, his ears pricked as though beset by invisible chimes. The old man did not even have to move anything—no cylinder to align, no crank to turn—but simply traced his finger along the box’s bold lettering. He tapped another, an inscription titled “Auto Reheat”, and another: “Defrost”. As if tickled by his touch, each phrase became a note in the harsh melody.
‘Such preternatural sounds! Maybe it really did come from heaven,’ William said.
The music made him want to look up, to see his God casting light between the clouds. He tilted his head from under the box. At this, the farmer thwacked his shins and sent him stumbling forward, the box nearly slipping from his grip.
‘Hold still! And don’t be a fool, boy! Would the Lord’s music be so howling, so ugly? This is Man’s work alright, some Frenchman’s idea of music.’ The old man gave a vulture’s cough, swallowing his spit. ‘I’ve heard of these music boxes, they’re the kind those dancing folks use when they cart from place to place.’
‘A theatre troupe?’ William reclaimed his balance from the ditch’s edge and lowered the box. ‘A travelling French theatre troupe? When have you seen anyone pass through our village, let alone a Frenchman?’
‘I hear stories—more stories than you, locked in your monastery all year round. What would you know, lollard boy?’
William distanced himself from the farmer; he was winding back his stick for a second beating.
Who was this grumpy bastard?
William had not wandered much beyond the monastery, but he knew how the village worked. It was a mud heap, held together by straw and sweat, encircled by a wreath of dense forest. The trees, if they could be called such, sprouted with contorted bodies at jagged painful angles. Their branches were as knotted and shy as their roots—thriving, yet they wriggled beneath one another to escape the sun. The only people who emerged from those forests were the peasants who went in for wood and kindling. Even the stream’s origin was uncertain; water trickled from the mossy thicket as though materialised from nothing. And so it was with everything else. Everything that was grown, cut, milled and eaten, was done so inside the wreath. Nobody left the village, because nobody ever needed to. And nobody entered the village either.
So where did the box come from?
‘A food chest… and a music box…’
As William went to read more of its inscriptions, he turned it over, following the silver letters to the rear of the box. There, his eye came upon a peculiar symbol, more angular from the rest—its black and yellow inkwork striking to behold. To William, it almost resembled a lightning strike. Was that the container’s purpose, capturing lightning? The farmer did mention hearing thunder when he found it. William felt his palms start to sweat; just thinking of the box’s potential made it heavy in his grip. To capture the might of God in a trinket! No, he could not entertain such black thoughts. If the box was truly magic, then even just holding it was a sin. The monks would crucify him for this.
He had to be sure, for the sake of his own soul. Beneath the lightning symbol were further foreign markings. Hesitantly, he lowered the box, with the farmer hunched eagerly over him—and on the chance that it was some hellish spell that, recited, might conjure greater storms, William silently mouthed the inscription.
‘Warning… Do not… place… m-metal insi—’
‘I say! What are you skamelars up to?’
William’s heart stopped cold. He turned slowly towards the accosting voice, and when its identity finally dawned on him, he knelt, frantically lifting his cowl. The farmer did the same.
Worse than thunder, it was Lord Percy’s son. William had never learned the noble child’s name; “Sire” was all the townsfolk would bother with whenever they had the misfortune of addressing his boots. From his pearish build, he could not have been older than William, though it was his clean rosy face that set him a little younger. His emerald vest, spotless fur coat, and sparkling broach said all that William needed to know.
‘My father still expects this season’s rent,’ squealed the lordling, regarding the farmer as if he were just another ox. ‘Better pay soon if you still want your virgate.’
The old man could not bow any lower, already stooped thanks to an aching slouch. ‘Yes, Sire. A thousand sorrys,’ he grumbled. ‘It’ll take time with just Clara and Belle pulling the plough.’
‘Then use Mr Cooper’s horse! I’m sure he won’t fuss. You people are used to sharing after all.’
As the two prattled, William placed one heel against the thunder box and nudged it between his feet, stashing it behind the curtain of his monk’s tunic. He scanned around for his water pail; the young lord had not seen him yet, there was still time to slip away.
‘I mean pity’s sake, man! No wonder you’re so slow, thinking you could do all this work by yourself.’
‘Sire knows best.’
‘Have you no children, no sons to help you?
‘My daughter’s at the market.’
‘Ah yes. Agnes, wasn’t it? Maybe I’ll see her on my stroll back to the manor house.’
The old man looked disdainful at the lordling’s swelling grin, his knuckles firm around his whipping stick.
‘I only jest, Bigges. Calm yourself. A man your age should learn to laugh more. That’s what father tells me.’
So that was old greybeard’s name, William thought. Bigges. It was coming back to him now; he had known the farmer through this father, who would occasionally help on the fields when he was not fixing horseshoes at the smithy. Bigges was one of the few men in the village proud enough to own a full virgate, even if that pride meant paying a higher tax to Lord Percy. Come summer, the meadows were rich with reams of corn, splendorous barley, wheat, oats and rye—and on his trips to the river, William felt that tenderness towards God’s work that his teachers had always preached about, as he walked through golden snow. But it took a young man’s sweat to reap the fields, and Bigges was old.
He had not always needed the extra help. William remembered a time when “Bigges” described more than just the farmer’s name—a time when the oxen were merely calves, and he would carry them up the heath, one on each shoulder, just so they could roam and graze on greener pastures by the mill. Such strength the man had back then. William could not imagine working so hard, let alone for twelve more years and with oxen to now do the carrying.
And what changed had the village felt in that time? People still spun their clothes from sheep’s wool; they fashioned chairs from forest wood; wives on the manor street still sold their husbands’ grain for veal, so they could cook it in houses made of mud and stone; they still received their spiritual sustenance from the church, before giving it back to the tithe barn. Even the village mill still needed a firm kick for its door to open, despite the promise William’s father made to Lord Percy to have it re-nailed.
It was Bigges who had changed, turning greyer, smaller, weaker. The man had worked all his life, which made William feel guilty, knowing that he would never have to.
‘And who are you, boy?’
William had barely noticed the young lord calling to him, his eye locked on the water pail still turned over in the ditch.
‘This is Will Brooker, the church boy,’ said Bigges, and hearing his name called by the farmer made William snap to attention.
He knew this whole time?
The lordling folded his arms. ‘So, you’re the runt who potters about the monastery. Tell me, boy-monk-to-be, has Father Bennett not taught you to approach when your betters address you?’
William fidgeted with his tunic. He knew that moving would expose the thunder box in plain view, and there was no telling what the lording would think to find him possessing the unholy relic. But eventually, he stepped aside. The young lord’s eyes were aglow.
‘Aha! I smelt something was amiss. Thievery, is it? My father shall have stern words and a heavy axe waiting for you at the manor.’ He paced forward, tutting under his steamy breath.
‘Forgive me sire,’ William begged. ‘I’m no thief. I don’t know what this is.’
‘Spare your pleas. What church boy doesn’t recognise a prayer box?’
‘A what, Sire?’ Bigges traded a confused look to William.
‘What else would it be?’ the lordling said. ‘Trust you peasants not to recognise the craftsmanship of our beloved church.’ He shuffled towards the thunder box, dragging mud on his boots, and placing his hand on the open window as if he had done it a thousand times. But behind the mask of indifference, eyes twitched—his pupils like aimless buzzards.
He’s clueless, William thought. Any humble person, farmer or church boy, would have admitted their ignorance—and for all he and Bigges had pondered, uncertainty was the only certainty. Yet the young lord was not humble, removing his gold pendant and shoving it into the box.
‘It’s simple! Even a thief like you should understand,’ he exclaimed. ‘First, we place whatever you wish to bless in this compartment, and then you read the sacred hymn written here.’ He tapped the first line of scripture. The box responded with a chime.
‘Perhaps I’ll allow you the grace of using it,’ he gloated. ‘A Sacrament of Penance before my father’s men have you head skewered.’
‘Sire,’ said William. ‘I’m not sure you should do that. This thing isn’t safe—’
He was cut short when the young lord wound back his elbow and shoved William in the gut, sending him tumbling and moaning into the ditch.
‘So now you do know what it is! That makes you a thief and a liar.’
The sight of William face-first in the dirt urged Bigges to climb after him. ‘Please, Sire! The boy might be a lollard, but he means no ill will. Show mercy! His father built the doors of your manor.’
‘A shame he didn’t build himself a tougher son, then!’ snapped the lordling. He did not care; things were now as they should have been. The peasants were buried in the hole of filth, and the nobleman could finish his blessing. Nothing could stop him.
High Power. 10 mins. Start.
In the end, it was the young lord who was most correct about the thunder box’s nature. Though it was never intended as a prayer box, when he placed his pendant into the compartment, fed the time and microwave input, and switched it on, he became very much closer to God. While William and Bigges, safe in their hole, became his very much alive divine witnesses.
Read more about the author James Geddis HERE.