Sweeping the Hearthstone

Illustration: Betsy James


by Betsy James  –  Realms of Fantasy, October 2011

My real mam got me when she shouldn’t have. I never knew her. She was young, they said, and of cruel family, with nobody to back her up and make the lad stand and be daddy. She put me in a basket and left me by the highway for the Roadsouls, when they passed in their painted caravans. The Roadsouls took me up, and I traveled with them till the spring I turned sixteen. Then Neely Sheeker, who runs a roadhouse near Carmony, needed a girl and hired me off the Souls.

I was happy to go. I’d come to womanhood late, and I was beginning to quarrel with those who raised me. I’m a homebody; I was sick of traveling about, and I had my cat, Suli. Traveling’s hard on a cat. I was ready to dig in a garden and see the same thing out a window twice. I wanted to find out what it’s like to live in a house built on the ground.

And Neely’s roadhouse was. It was old as mountains, and the bit that was to be mine was in the oldest part. I followed her there, carrying Suli and my little bundle. We went in through the big front doors, past the barroom to a low-beamed stone hall that maybe had been the public room a couple hundred years ago, and old even then. It was a storeroom now, piled with sacks of flour, broken chairs, empty barrels, handle-less pint mugs. I was to have a tiny room just off it, near the hearth. That wide old fireplace had been bricked up to take an iron stove with a brisk little fire in it. But right away I loved the hearthstone.

It was huge. Maybe eight feet long and four wide. I didn’t see how men could have shifted it. Clearly it had been there first, and the house built around it: the low hall, and then, little by little over centuries, the roadhouse as it now stood, with its big public room and kitchen, and an apartment above where Neely lived with her farrier husband.

“Corrie, here’s your room,” she said, drawing me past the hearth to my cubby. She was tall as a teamster, with a hard voice. I knew the three girls before me had quit—just quit, for no reason. It had me worried.              “There’s no fireplace any more,” she said, “but light the stove whenever you wish.”

“Thank you, ma’am. It’s lovely.”

My room had a barred window and a narrow bed and tulips in a vase on the washstand. It was more than I’d had in my life, but when Neely had left me I put my bundle on the bed and went straight back out to the old hearth. I set Suli down on the stone. She’d been hired same as me, though her task was the storeroom mice.

She sat. Her purr was thunder.

Until that hour I had never lived anywhere but a Roadsoul cart. I stepped out of my clogs and stood on that stone in my stockings. It was warm, worn smooth by a thousand years of feet. I sat down cross-legged.

“Here I am,” I said.

Then I scrambled up, for there was Neely with a towel for me. She handed it over and said, “What’s that cat staring at?”

“Nothing, ma’am. She just does that.”

“Gives me the creeps. And don’t call me ma’am. I’m Neely.”

“Yes, ma’am. Neely.” I wriggled my toes. “Please—the stone?”

She scowled. “What about it?”

“However was it brought here?”

“Those who could tell you have been dead a thousand years,” she said, turning away. “Or two thousand. Your task is to sweep it.” She nodded at a corner stacked with mops and a brand new broom. “When you’ve put away your things, bring that broom to the public room.”

She left. I swept the hearthstone. I knelt and patted it. Then I put my clogs back on, left Suli still staring, and began my employment.

I was to be barmaid, and clean, and help the gardener and the cook. I liked the work. I could make pewter shine like silver, and I’d cooked for the whole Roadsoul camp. I’d never had a garden before, it was just spring and the world was all earth and glory; I dug about, turned up worms and roots and an old penny and bits of broken pots. Corn and collards sprang out of the earth like magic. The old gardener took off his hat and said, “I swear, Miss Corrie, you could call anything out of the earth.” He stared at my breasts. “You could wake a dead man,” he said.

I let it pass. When you’re a barmaid you learn to. And Neely had her eye on me. When Dru Liddy from Hetch tried to sneak his hand up my leg she picked him up by shirt and britches and hove him out of the barroom herself.

I didn’t mind. I was grateful, to tell the truth. And I liked Neely. I couldn’t think why those other girls had quit.

Spring turned to summer. I washed windows and dug garlic and baked rhubarb pie. Suli caught a crow and wouldn’t let me rescue her, though it was twice as big as she was and cawed and flapped. That night she came back, looking smug, and puked up bits of it next to me where I lay on the hearthstone.

“You bad cat,” I said. I sat up. It was late; we had closed the house, Neely had gone to bed, and I had swept the hearthstone and lain down on it. That’s what I did most nights, for though the storeroom floor was cold that stone was always warm. I’d sweep it, and while Suli stared at whatever-it-was-she-saw I’d lie down with my cheek against the stone. My breath made a faint scent rise from it, like rain after drought.

Neely would have made me get up, but I made sure Neely didn’t see me. I had my secrets. As it turned out, so did she.

I was pretty clear what my own secret was, but it drove me distracted. I could only figure out half of it.

The half I did know was: I liked men. Or boys, however you call them—those beings who smell so different and so good, who have deep voices and broad shoulders and cocks. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted from them, but I wanted it with my whole body. More than my body. I wanted it deep as the earth under that hearthstone, that had been there thousands of years rich and dark and wordless. Sometimes I’d lie on my belly on the stone knowing that if I wanted enough, if I just longed, I could draw whatever-it-was to me from sheer longing. It was waiting to spring up like collards. To spring up to me.

Of course I knew about sex. Hadn’t I traveled with the Roadsouls? Wasn’t I a bastard child? But for the first time I maybe understood how it had been for my mam, that she couldn’t wait to be properly married. I thought I’d sink into that stone from sheer wanting.

Sex would be like that, I figured. Like blending. I thought I’d edge up on it and see, but I kept running into problems.

I kissed Ferd Harrow behind the woodshed. But his hands were cold, and he kissed wet; there must be some way to find that out beforehand. Jop Jarcy I wished I hadn’t tried, for he raised chickens and that’s what he smelled of. Lirri Barlissi put his hand between my breasts. I pulled it out, though not too fast. If you understand, I was of two minds about men—or one mind and two breasts—not always in agreement with myself. I put Dres Kimble’s hand under my shift my own self, and yanked it away some time later none the wiser. Neely caught me yanking it away. She chased Dres out of the kitchen, came back and cuffed me.

I held my ear and said, “You heard me tell him Stop that!

“I did, miss, and you meant it. But I want to see you use your fist, and mean that, too.”

I appreciated the advice and used it on the bull breeder’s son, who knew what he was doing but looked to take about as long at it as the bull did. I barely got away, and then he hung around the house like a dog. I was glad my window was barred.

Neely let me know about that. “Are you a fool, Miss Corrie? If you let them kiss you, of course they want more.”

Well, I wanted more myself. But not with those men. That was the part of the problem I couldn’t solve. None of them had a shine. What each of them was, I could see right off. I knew what he’d say, and what he’d do; he’d get what he wanted, and I’d get a baby, and that would be that for the rest of my life. None of them would give me what Iwanted: that dark, that down-deep, like the earth under the hearthstone.

I knew I could find it. And I just had to. Summer was over, and autumn is so sad. The days get dark, the garden dies, the fruit falls. We began to serve dark ale. The reapers were at the roadhouse every night, in from the fields all rowdy and covered in chaff, and singing. When drunks sing, a girl can learn a lot.

One of them, a young blond laughing man, kept looking at me. Sometimes I looked back. He stayed late, past midnight, his comrades had gone and we were near closing, the cook had left and even Neely’s husband had gone upstairs to bed. When I brought that young man his last pint he put his hand on my leg.

I ought to have hit him. I didn’t. I just stood looking at him while he slid his hand under my skirt clear to his elbow.

Neely saw. I saw her see. I didn’t care, I was so disappointed by his drunken “Heh, heh!” that was like any clod’s, and at myself.

Neely roared, she trundled over and jerked me away. Then he roared and grabbed for me, there was a scuffle, Neely got him by the back of his dusty togs and hove him out the door. You could hear him cursing and laughing and shouting he’d be back. Neely shut the door, took me by the upper arm and marched me back into the storeroom, onto the hearthstone.

Suli followed. She wreathed herself around my ankles as I stood my trial.

“And what have you to say, miss?”

I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. “I don’t like them,” I said.

“Don’t like them? You let lads you don’t like put their hands up your ass?”

“Halfway up.” I wanted it clear. “It’s somewhere in the middle of it I find out I don’t like them.”

“Sweet gods.” She threw her hands in the air. “What have I done, hired some man-mad Roadsoul girl? You’d let any man feel you up. You’d let the man under that stone feel you up.”

I said, “There’s a man under the stone?”

We looked at each other. She blushed right up to her hair. Crossed her arms. Looked away.

So that was her secret. I thought how she’d hurled the reaper out by his britches. In a small voice I said, “Is it somebody you killed?”

“Killed!” She rolled her eyes and put her fists on her hips. “Under a stone forty men couldn’t lift? Use your brains, girl.” But she looked ashamed. “It’s an old story. Nothing. That there’s a man under it, laid down before time—thousands of years.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because I had known it. I had known it all along.

“And have you wake at night weeping and screaming? Like—” She stopped.

“Like the girls before me?”

“Yes. And I’m sorry you’ve found it out.”

I’d walked back and forth on that man. I’d spilled soup on him. I’d skipped rope on him—and I was too old to skip rope. I’d danced on him all alone, I’d lain down on him and slept and dreamed. Suli had thrown up on him: the crow, and then two warblers, their beaks and little feet.

Neely said, “Are you afraid?”

“No.” If he was going to be angry, the cat puke would have done it.

“Nothing’s troubled you. If there’s a man there, let him lie. The men of this world are trouble enough,” she said, “which you are doing your best to find out.” She turned and stumped off. I heard the clink of gathered mugs, the lamps blown out, the creak of the stairs under her big body.

Suli rubbed my legs. I picked her up and kissed her, set her back on four paws. She sat down and stared.

Not at me. She stared at the far edge of the stone.

I looked where she was looking, her ears forward like a kitten’s, her gold eyes fixed.

Nothing there.

I took up the broom, nudged her off the stone, and began to sweep it. Because to knock on it, even to say, Ahem!or Excuse me! would be too abrupt, when a man had been sleeping for thousands of years.

I swept. Nothing happened. Suli didn’t go off on her mouse hunt. She settled on her belly and shuffled her feet as if she stared at a trailed ribbon-end, but it was only the far edge of the stone.

I wet my lips. I said to that place, “You know you’d be welcome.”

A brown hand crept up over the edge of the stone.

Suli pounced on it.

It jerked back out of sight. She looked for it. I said, “Suli!” She got that disappointed wrinkle on her forehead, the way she did when I took away a bird. To the place where the hand had been I said, “I’m so sorry. It was the cat.”

I heard Neely upstairs, her weight made the floorboards groan. The hand crept up again. A forearm followed, was laid on the hearthstone, and a man pulled himself out of the earth until his chin rested on the back of his hand, like a swimmer pulling himself out of dark water.

Nothing else stirred. The lesser stones, the ones he rose from, did not move.

He was solemn and shaven and young. Dark of course, his hair clipped close. I pressed my hands together and said, “I hope it’s not an imposition.”

He frowned. Not a scowl, just the careful look of a man who doesn’t quite trust the situation. But he pulled himself up farther and leaned both forearms on the stone as if it were the bar of the roadhouse. He wore a russet-colored shirt of nice weave, not fancy, the cuffs rolled up.

I said, “Good evening.” Then, “Good morning,” considering the hour. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I picked Suli up. “I’ve got hold of the cat.”

He climbed out then and stood on the stone. He wore dark breeches, and his brown feet were bare. I wasn’t disappointed. I wouldn’t have known what to say to a prince. I said, “It’s me.”

He gazed as if he were Suli and I were the thing nobody else could see. His eyes were green, and he had gold earrings. He stroked his mouth.

I held Suli against my breasts. I’ve never known what to do with people who can’t sustain a conversation. Lots of men can’t. Was he like the lads I knew, mute? That disappointed me. Petting Suli hard, I said, “It must be all right, or you wouldn’t have gotten up at last. Like tulips,” that every spring rise from under the ground, never so early that the frost kills them.

The cat still stared as if he were a squirrel. I shifted her to hang over my elbow and held my hand out to him, across the stone.

He took it.

I waited to see if I would die. I was frightened, but not horrified; for he wasn’t cold, the flesh didn’t hang off his bones, he didn’t smell of corruption. His hand was warm and callused, and he had the fusty, friendly smell of a lad who has slept in his shirt.

Suli, hanging from my elbow with her paws out straight and her fur bunched under her armpits, said, “Mow.”

The man brought my hand up and kissed the palm of it. His whiskers tickled, and his breath.

“Oh,” I said, “can’t you speak?”

He rubbed his mouth on my palm.

Neely’s footsteps creaked across to the landing and started down the stairs.

I wasn’t so stupid as to think she’d believe me if I said, “Him? Oh, that’s the man from under the stone.” Nor could I say to him, “It’s the mistress, d’you mind going back under?” You don’t wake somebody up after a couple thousand years and then say, “Nice meeting you.” And his mouth was warm. Those doubting lips had begun to curl up at the corners.

I was in trouble.

It must have shown on my face, for he got a look like Ah!, and dropped my hand. I clutched Suli, gestured with my chin toward the shadows behind the old beer barrels, meaning Hide!

But he stepped to the hearth. Anybody could see him. As Neely came boiling through the door he leaned one shoulder on the mantel and crossed his arms.

I thought, How could you? And I invited you!

Neely said, “And who are you talking to, young lady?”

I said nothing, because I was about to watch Neely take a ghost by his collar and backside and chuck him out the big front door. Then she’d beat me, and I’d be out of a job.

Suli scrambled up to sit on my shoulder. Neely glared. “Guilty!” she said.

What could I say? Dumbly, I nodded.

Tcha!” She tossed up her hands. “A kitten. A kitten in this world of wolves.” She surged across the storeroom. “When you’ve brought a lad to your bed, lass, learn to be a better liar, and earn your beating.”

She strode past the hearth. The man raised his eyebrows. She stamped into my little room, threw the bedclothes about, looked under the bed. Came back, put her fists on her hips and said, “Where is he?”

I stood with my mouth open.

“You’ve brought a lad into the house,” she said.

“I didn’t.” He was there already.

“I can see through your lies! It’s that reaper lad you’ve got.”

“It is not!

The man from under the stone leaned on the mantel, hid his grin with one hand.

“You’ll be honest with me, miss. Who’s to help you when he gets you with child and leaves you? What will you do—put it out for the Roadsouls, the way your mammy did?”

Thus I saw the true heart she had, and that she loved me. She knew I would sleep with a man—that I would not be stopped from it. And she was ready to stand for me with him, and stand for the baby, to be sure it was not cast out the way I had been.

I began to cry. “Oh, Neely!” For she would have stood for me with any reaper, any hunter or merchant, even a Roadsoul. But she wouldn’t stand for me with a ghost—or a demon or a god, whatever he was, something she could not see, who even now stood at her elbow with his grin fading, maybe toward compassion.

“Where is he?” she said.

I said, “Neely, the only lover I’ve got stands here in this room.”

It wasn’t for her ears I said it. I wasn’t such a kitten as she thought.

“Ah, you bad girl.” But I could see she believed me. She laid on my cheek a slap that was half pat. “If you aren’t sneaking lads in, then why aren’t you? I’ll see Ferd Harrow gets invited more often.”

“Not him. He kisses wet.”

She laughed her big laugh that could fill up the barroom. “Then I’ll find you another. What’s that cat staring at? Tell her to get to work.”

I lifted Suli from my shoulder, and she scooted into the shadows. Neely went off, grumbling and chuckling, back up the stairway, then shuffling to her bed in the room overhead.

The man left the mantel and came to me. I took his hand, drew him into my little bedroom and shut the door.

I undid my gown. He pulled off shirt and breeches. He shone like gold taken from the earth. He leaned over me, I raised my arms around him and there it was: darkness deep as under stone, as the dirt that makes tulips.

For an instant I thought, What is the baby I’ll get with him? For we would get one. A strange one, and I would have to explain it to Neely.

Starlight melted the window bars. In the room overhead the bed squeaked.

“You know how quiet we’ll have to be,” I whispered against his mouth. “Maybe it’s all right that you can’t talk.”

“Teach me,” he said.


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Betsy James on Writing, Art, and Walking in the Desert

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