Words Like CoinsRobin Hobb
Words Like Coins
Subterranean Press 2012
“Words Like Coins” Copyright © 2009 by Robin Hobb.
All rights reserved.
Cover and interior illustrations Copyright © 2012 by Tom Kidd.
All rights reserved.
Print Issue Interior design Copyright © 2012 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.
All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
Words Like Coins
“First came drought. Then rats. Now it’s pecksies.” Jami spoke into the darkness of the bedroom.
“And that’s why you’re afraid to get out of the bed to get a drink of water?” Mirrifen asked. Her sister-in-law’s restless tossing in the bed they now shared had wakened the older woman.
“No,” Jami said, with a strangled laugh. “It’s why I’m afraid to get out of bed and go to the backhouse.” She shivered. “I can hear rats squeaking in the kitchen. Where rats go, pecksies follow.”
“I’ve never even seen a pecksie.”
“Well, I have! Lots of them, when I was little. And I saw one today. It was under the front steps, staring at me with its horrid yellow eyes. But when I crouched down to see it, it was gone!”
Mirrifen sighed. “I’ll light a lamp, and go with you.”
Swinging her feet out of the bed and onto the floor in the dark still put a shiver up her spine. Mirrifen wasn’t sure she believed in pecksies but she did, emphatically, believe in rats. She tiptoed out to the banked fire in the kitchen hearth and lit the lamp from its embers. The moving flame painted shifting rat-shadows in every corner. The night before last, Jami had stepped on a rat when she got out of bed for water. Jami’s feet were already swollen from her pregnancy. A rat bite could have crippled her. Mirrifen hurried back to the bedroom. “Come on. I’ll walk you to the backhouse.”
“Mirrifen, you are too good to me,” Jami apologized.
Privately, Mirrifen agreed, but she only grumbled, “Why Drake and Edric had to take the dog with them, I don’t know.”
“To protect them when they camp! All sorts of men are on the roads looking for work. I wish they’d all stayed home. I’d feel safer.” Jami sighed as she touched her stretched belly. “I wish I could have one solid night’s sleep. Did your hedge-witch ever teach you how to make a sleep charm? If you could make one for me—”
“No, dear heart, I couldn’t.” They moved slowly through the darkened house. “My training only included simple things. Sleep charms are complicated. They have to be precisely keyed to the user. Even so, they’re dangerous. Witch Chorly once knew a foolish hedge-witch who tried to make a sleep charm for herself; she finished it, fell asleep and starved to death before she ever awoke.”
Jami shuddered. “A pleasant tale to sleep on!”
The kitchen door slapped shut behind them. Overhead, the light of the waxing moon watered the parched fields. Mirrifen inspected the outhouse to make sure no rats lurked inside, and then gave Jami the lantern. Mirrifen waited outside. The clear, starry sky offered no hope of rain. By this time of year, the crops usually stood tall in the fields. Without them, the wide plains of Tilth stretched endlessly to a distant, dark horizon.
No one could recall a worse drought. Thrice the men had planted; thrice the seeds had sprouted and withered. With no hope of a crop, the two brothers had left them, going off in hopes of finding paying work. They needed to be able to buy more seed grain in the hopes that next spring would be kinder. Mirrifen reflected sourly that their husbands would probably have to go all the way to Buck to find work.
Jami emerged from the backhouse. As they shuffled back toward the farmhouse, Jami spoke her darkest fear. “What if they never come back?”
“They’ll come back.” Mirrifen spoke with false confidence. “Where else would they go? They both grew up on this farm: it’s all they know.”
“Maybe away from it, they might find easier ways to live than farming. And prettier girls. Ones that haven’t been pregnant forever.”
“You’re being silly. Drake is very excited about the baby. And your ‘forever’ is nearly over. The full moon will bring your baby.” Mirrifen stepped barefoot on a pebble and winced.
“Is that something the hedge-witch taught you?”
Mirrifen snorted. “No. What Chorly taught me was how much water to mix with her rum. And I learned six different places to hide from her when she was drunk. My apprenticeship was the most worthless thing my father ever bought.” Chorly should have taught Mirrifen a hedge-witch’s skills, how to make potions and balms, how to sing spells and how to construct charms to protect crops from deer or make hens lay more eggs. Instead, the hedge-witch had treated her like a servant and taught her only the most trivial charms and tinctures. Mirrifen’s apprenticeship had been spent cleaning the old witch’s ramshackle hut and soothing her disgruntled customers. The old woman had drunk herself to death before she had completed Mirrifen’s training. Chorly’s creditors had turned Mirrifen out of the tumble-down cottage. She couldn’t flee back to her father’s house, for her brothers had filled it with wives and children. She had thought herself too old to wed, until her brother’s wife had told her of a farmer seeking a wife for his younger brother. “Don’t have to be pretty, just willing to work hard, and put up with a man who’s nice enough but not too bright.”
Edric was exactly as described. Nice enough, and kind, with the open face and wondering mind of a boy. Being his wife and helping on the farm had been the best year of her life, until the drought descended.
“A pecksie!” Jami shrieked, jostling her.
“Where?” Mirrifen demanded, but when Jami pointed, she saw only the swaying silhouette of a tuft of grass. “It’s just a shadow, dear. Let’s go back to bed.”
“Rats bring pecksies, you know. They hunt rats. My mother always said, ‘Keep a clean house, for if you draw rats, pecksies will follow.’”
Something rustled behind them. Mirrifen refused to look back. “Come. We’d best sleep now if we are to rise early tomorrow.”
But when the morning came, Mirrifen rose alone, slipping quietly from Jami’s bed. Since the men had left, she had demanded Mirrifen sleep next to her. Jami was barely nineteen, and sometimes it seemed that her pregnancy had made her more childish than womanly. The blankets mounded over her belly. It couldn’t be much longer. Mirrifen longed for the birth as much as she dreaded it. She’d never attended a birth, and the closest midwife was a half-day’s walk away. “Eda, let all go well,” she prayed and drew the door closed.
The rat invaders had left their mark on the kitchen. Pelleted droppings and smears of filth marked the rat trails along the base of the walls. Mirrifen seized the broom and swept the droppings out the door. She stingily damped a rag with clean water and erased the rat tracks. Jami was almost irrational about rats now.
Not that Mirrifen blamed her. The creatures besieged them. No door could be shut tightly enough to keep them out. The ravenous rats gnawed through pantry doors and chewed open flour sacks. They ate the potted preserves, wax seals and all. In the attic, they scampered along the rafters to get at the hanging hams and bacon sides, spoiling what they didn’t eat. They attacked the sleeping chickens on their roosts and stole the eggs.
Every morning, Mirrifen discovered fresh outrages. And every morning, she struggled to conceal from Jami how precarious their situation was becoming. When the men had left, Drake had quietly told her the stored food should sustain them through the summer. “And by fall, Edric and I will be back, with a pocket full o
f coins and sacks of seed grain.”
Brave words. She shook her head and let her work routine absorb her. She woke the fire and fed it. She set a pot of water to boil, filled the tea kettle and put it on the fire. She now stored the porridge grain in a big clay pot on the kitchen table, with the chairs pulled away from it. She’d weighted the pot cover with a rock. The rats hadn’t gotten into it, but they’d left their ugly traces on the table. Grimacing, she scrubbed them away with the last of the water in the bucket. She left the porridge simmering while she went to her chores.
She counted the chickens as they emerged from the coop. They’d all survived the night, but there were only crushed shells and smeared yolk on the straw inside the nesting boxes. She stood, fists clenched. How had the rats got in? She’d find their hole later today.
She milked both cows, and gave each a measure of grain and a drink from the covered bucket outside the stall before she turned them out to find whatever grazing they could in the dusty pasture. Every day they gave less milk, poor creatures.
The well in the yard had a good tight cover. She unpegged the wooden hatch in the top and swung it open. Dark and the cool of water greeted her. She scowled to see that the edge of the hatch had been gnawed. The rats could smell the water. If they chewed through and drowned in the well, all the water would be spoiled. What could she do to stop them? Nothing. Not unless she sat on top of the well all night and guarded it. With a sinking heart, she knew that was exactly what she would have to do. The creek had gone dry weeks ago. The well was their last source of water. It had to be protected.
The bucket dropped endlessly before she heard the small splash. She jogged the rope up and down until the bucket tipped and took in water. Drake had promised to put up a proper windlass for the bucket, but for now, it was hand-over-hand to haul it up. Every day, its trip was longer as the water receded. Her straining fingers nearly lost their grip when a small gray face suddenly peered at her from the other side of the well cap. Its staring eyes were the color of verdigris. The hands it lifted seemed disproportionately long. The creature cupped them, begging and bared pointed teeth as she mouthed the foreign word. “Please. Please.”
Mirrifen set the dripping bucket down. As she stepped back in astonishment, the small creature collapsed.
Cautiously Mirrifen took two steps around the well cap. The pecksie lay where she had fallen. Yes, unmistakably a ‘she’ now, for her pregnant belly protruded from her bony frame. Mirrifen stared. A real pecksie. Witch Chorly had never bothered to teach her the spells against them. “Not enough of them to worry about now,” the sour old woman had declared. “Keep your mind to practical matters. Go chop some kindling. Pecksies! Pesties, I say. Just be glad they’re gone.”
Her knowledge of pecksies was small. They dressed in leaves, fur and feathers, and would thieve anything they could carry. They detested cats, and some pecksies had webbed feet. They were reputed to be dangerous, but she couldn’t recall why. The little creature collapsed by the well didn’t look dangerous. Her bark cloth garments contrasted oddly with silvery gray skin. She was half the size of a cat, and thin. She was curled around her pregnant belly and knobs of spine jutted out from her back. Her bare feet were long and narrow. A fine gold chain showed at the nape of her neck.
As if she felt Mirrifen’s scrutiny, the pecksie slowly turned her face up. Her chapped lips parted and a small tongue licked uselessly at them. Eyes green as a cat’s opened to slits. The pecksie stared up at her, pleading silently. Then her eyes closed again.
Mirrifen didn’t pause to think. She dipped a finger in the milk bucket and held it to the pecksie’s lips. A drop fell, wetting them, and the pecksie gaped after it, shuddering. Mirrifen dripped milk into the small mouth. Funny little mouth, with a split upper lip like a kitten’s. At the third drop, the pecksie blindly seized Mirrifen’s fingertip in her mouth and suckled at it. At a hint of pointed teeth, Mirrifen jerked her hand away. The pecksie’s eyes fluttered opened. Mirrifen spoke to her. “I’ll tip the bucket and you can dip up some with your hands.”
The pecksie pulled herself to a sitting position, her belly in her lap. She leaned into the tipped bucket, scooping up handful after handful of milk and slurping it down. When Mirrifen took the bucket away, the creature’s diminutive chin was dripping. She ran a red tongue around her mouth. “Thank-you,” she rasped. She closed her eyes tightly. Her words were oddly accented. “I thank you. I am bound now. Still, I thank.”
“That’s all I can do for you, I’m afraid,” Mirrifen replied. “Can you walk?”
The little woman shook her head wordlessly. She stretched out one swollen leg. A crusted slash ran the length of it. The flesh around it was puffy. “Rat,” she grimaced.
“Sorry,” Mirrifen said.
The little woman stared at her. Slowly, she curled up and closed her eyes.
Mirrifen rose. She secured the hatch to the well, took up the water and milk buckets and carried them into the kitchen. The lid on the porridge was dancing wildly. She hooked it off the fire, stirred in milk, and covered it again. She went to the door of Jami’s room and eased it open. Jami still slept, curled protectively around her belly. Just as the pecksie had been.
Mirrifen hurried through the house and back to the well. The pecksie still lay there. On the roof, a crow cawed, protesting his prior claim on the carcass. Mirrifen took off her apron, knelt and picked up the pecksie in a fold of the fabric. Silently, she carried her back to the house and into her own bedroom.
She emptied a small chest of the coffers and bags that held the beads, special twines, feathers and carved rods of a hedge-witch. Silly of her to cling to those fragments of a future now passed. She lined the chest with her shawl and set it on the floor. The pecksie revived enough to lift her head and look about doubtfully as Mirrifen set her in it. Then she lay back with her injured leg stretched out straight and closed her eyes. The open collar of her tunic revealed a small charm around her neck. Mirrifen peered at it. She couldn’t read it all, but made out the symbol for birth. So. Pecksies used charms, too. She toyed with an idea, then dared herself.
Moving slowly, Mirrifen hovered her hand over the pecksie’s leg. After a moment, her palm detected the heat of an infection. It had reached the pecksie’s knee. As Mirrifen moved her hand, she sensed fever building in the little woman.
The paraphernalia scattered on the bed beckoned her. Mirrifen surrendered to the impulse. She had never made a fever charm for so small a person. Did she even remember which beads and what order the spindles and rods went in? She carved the beads smaller and separated yarn to get cord of the right weight. A charm had to be precisely tuned to the person it would serve. When she was finished, a fever charm slightly bigger than her thumbnail dangled over the pecksie’s makeshift bed. Mirrifen sat watching her sleep. After a few moments, the lines in her brow loosened and she lapsed into deeper rest.
“Mirrifen! Are you here? Mirrifen!”
Jami sounded alarmed. Mirrifen leaped up and hurried to the kitchen. Absorbed in her charm making, she’d forgotten not only Jami but the simmering porridge. “I’m here, Jami!”
“Oh, Mirrifen! I worried when I couldn’t find you. You weren’t at the cow shed or the chicken house and—”
“There’s no need to be frightened. I’m right here.”
“That’s not it. Look. Just look at the milk bucket.”
“Don’t you see those silvery smears on the edge? That’s pecksie dust! A pecksie has touched our milk bucket!”
When she touched it, her fingertip came away smudged silver-gray, like the pecksie’s skin. “Wash it off! Wash it off!” Jami wailed.
“Why?” she asked as wiped her hands on her apron. “Is it poisonous?”
“Who can know? They’re such dirty, wicked little things!” Jami’s arms clasped her belly to shield her unborn child. “I saw one by the chicken shed. It sneered at me, and vanished.”
Mirrifen took a breath. “Jami, sit down. I’ll get yo
ur breakfast.” As Jamie sank into her chair, Mirrifen asked, “How do you know so much about pecksies? I thought they were rare and kept to wild places.” She set a bowlful of steaming porridge in front of Jami.
Jami took up her spoon and stirred the boiled grain thoughtfully. “When I was little, there were lots of pecksies near our house. My father’s land was between a spur of the forest and a sunny little stream, so they had to cross our field to get to water. My mother knew how to use them, so we had them in the house, too. She never realized the danger.”
Mirrifen poured water from the kettle over the tea herbs in the pot. “How do you ‘use’ a pecksie?”
“Oh, it’s easy enough. She had to be tricky to snare them, because they know how it works. If a pecksie accepts a favor from you, the pecksie has to do what you ask it. They’re bound. Once you have one pecksie, the rest of its clan come around. And a clever woman can trick them into bondage as well.”
“I see,” Mirrifen said softly. The pecksie’s rueful words carried a deeper meaning now.
Jami was caught up in her telling. “There’s a lot they can’t do, because they’re small. They can’t sweep, and one almost drowned in our washing tub. But they can fetch eggs and dust, tend the fire, do the sewing, bring vegetables from the garden, weed, and keep rats away. And if you treat them well, they’re good natured about it—or so we thought.” Jami scowled, remembering. “Perhaps all that time they were hiding their resentment. Is there tea yet?”
Mirrifen poured for both of them. “What happened?”
“They killed my little brothers.” Jami’s calm voice thickened.
“How?” Mirrifen asked in horror when her silence stretched.
Jami took a breath. “Oh, smothered them, I suppose.” Tears clouded her voice. “They were only babies. My mother told the pecksies to watch the baby at night, not to rouse him and to rock him if he woke. So my mother could get some sleep.”
“Well, one morning, Grag was dead in his cradle. Just dead. Well, everyone knows such things do happen. We mourned him and buried him. Two years later, Mother had another boy. Dwin. He was a fine fat boy. One night she told the pecksies to watch him sleep and call her if he woke. Before dawn, she woke up to all the pecksies standing in a ring around his cradle, squeaking and crying in that horrid way they have. My mother snatched Dwin up, but it was too late. He was dead.”