The Green Children of Woolpit
Today’s not the day to get lost in a story, Agnes Walter.
Everything feels like a story today, though. It’s hot in this wheat field, which makes me think of deep, cool wells and the saints who look after them, or a delicious patch of shade and the shadows that play there, or the first snow of the year that brings all the kids in Woolpit outside to make tracks everywhere so Those Good People can’t tell whose house is whose, at least for a while. There are a thousand stories I could tell, but if you are a grown-up, now is never the right time for such things.
My da is working ahead of me, swinging his scythe, shush-shush, cutting close to the base of the stalks so nothing is wasted. I follow him, stoop and gather, stoop and gather, stoop?—?ooooh, look at those thin slivers of wind chasing past like tiny threads of silver among the husks of wheat.
I don’t talk about how pretty the wind is anymore.
Not since Kate and Tabby started oinking at me and reminding anyone who’d listen that pigs are the only animals that can see the wind.
A cry rises somewhere distant. At first I’m sure it’s a bird, but it keeps spinning up and falling like a baby’s yowl but also like a dog that’s gotten its tail caught in a door. Birds don’t make that kind of sound, nor do beasts. Not even wolves. I trail to a halt and listen hard?—?not stooping, not gathering, not watching the wind?—?even though I’ve been warned twice already that there’s to be no shirking. No foot-dragging. Today’s not the day to get lost in a story, my da keeps saying, and the Woolpit mas have even less patience for stories than anything else, especially when my jammed-up words make everything I say sound like a falsehood.
I’ll ask Glory. She’s the best dog namer, straw braider, and butterfly chaser in Woolpit, and good at helping me stay in the here-and-now. She can’t still be angry about what happened at the Maying. That was months ago, and I’ve begged her pardon and she gave it and surely she’ll soon feel like making flower crowns again instead of always having a chore to do somewhere away from me.
I gather in a rush, leaving behind big swaths of cut wheat stalks, so I reach the top of the row when she does. I tug her sleeve and say, “Listen.”
Glory jerks away. “What? What is it now?”
“You . . . you said you weren’t angry anymore.”
“I’m not. It’s just . . .” Glory gestures at the long, narrow lines of cut stalks. “We’ve got all this work to do. And you missed a lot. Da won’t like that.”
Glory is gathering wheat behind her uncle instead of her da because her da is the reeve, and it’s his job to see that the work gets done. He’s the one hauled before Milord if it doesn’t. She looks pink-cheeked and tidy like she always does. Not filthy and sweaty like me, even when I’m not in the wheat field. A pretty girl turns heads, she says, when she’s never said that before this year. It’s something those numbwits Kate and Tabby prattle, as if they have a single brain between them.
“Someone’s crying. Far away. Don’t you hear it?”
Glory muffles a groan. “I am not in the mood for one of your stories.”
I study my feet. So she is still upset about what happened at the May Eve feast. Or mayhap she’s thinking about her brother, even though we were both watching baby Hugh the day Those Good People breathed in his face and now he’s in the churchyard under a sad little heap of dirt. There’s only so many times you can tell someone you’re sorry. Only so many times you can hear them say that’s all right before you wonder what else you must do to make it so.
My eyes sting. Just because no one else can hear the crying doesn’t mean it’s not there. I’m the only one
I know who can see the wind curl past houses and fingers, through hair and leaves and fence posts. If it’s not an animal making that sound, it must be a person, and the last person whose crying I ignored gasped his final breaths in shudders that grew ever slower, ever quieter.
By the time I tried to help baby Hugh, it was too late. Today someone is clearly in trouble, and considering how everyone else keeps working, how the reeve isn’t blowing his horn all frantic and calling the name of someone missing from the field, I’m the only one who knows.
Crying twists up my insides now like it didn’t before, but I can’t just leave the harvest. Not when everyone helps. Not when there’s no reason I can give that the reeve will see as a good one.
Only moments ago, so many things felt like a story, but not this kind of story. If something is not as it should be, Those Good People are likely near. It’s one more reason not to say too much about seeing the wind. The Woolpit mas are very careful about keeping Those Good People at a polite, cautious distance. No one wants their cow to go dry or their granny to get a fever. If there’s a shiny coin in a puddle or beautiful music just beyond the path, you’ll do well to think twice before picking it up or peeking through the brush. It could be just what it seems?—?or it could be a trick meant to tempt you into promising something you don’t want to part with.
Never call them by their name, Granny would say.
Speak respectfully of them always. With any fortune you will never meet one, but if you do, there will be no doubt what it is you see.
When the story is about a girl, you meet her doing ordinary things. Then the story part comes, and she must think carefully whether she should do the safe thing and keep feeding the pig, harvesting the wheat, and being an ordinary girl who stirs the beans sunwise just like her ma showed her so Those Good People can’t sprinkle in thorns. Deciding isn’t as simple as it might sound. The story part can lead to treasure as surely as it can lead to ruin, and at the very least she will get a scolding?—?and likely a smacking?—?if she leaves the wheat field when every soul in the village must help with the harvest.
The rest of Woolpit works on steadily. The reapers step and swing, step and swing, and wheat stalks fall around them like panes of sunlight. Girls and women rush armloads to older men who draw them into tight golden shocks and prop them up together. My dress is soaked with sweat. From today and yesterday. And the day before that. My hands are well bloodied, cuts atop cuts, from slips of chaff.
Most of the time the story’s not about a girl at all. When it is, the girl has shiny yellow hair and clean feet and her da is the reeve. She is clever with her words and all the Woolpit mas fuss over her like a late-season
peach. Everyone will notice her whether she does the safe thing or not.
But if the girl does the safe thing, there’s no story.
At midday, I always go home and put the evening meal on the fire so it’ll be ready when we stumble in late and exhausted. I’m supposed to go straight back to the wheat field and my stoop-and-gathering. All the way out to the house I hear the crying. All the time I’m getting the beans together and settling the pot on its little stand in the coals. The sound is faint but steady, gliding around corners and across fields like it’s made of wind.
Glory told me to ignore baby Hugh. He’ll cry forever if you keep picking him up. Ma says to let him calm himself.
We thought baby Hugh growing quieter was him going to sleep. That his gasping was the last of his cries.
It was, but not how we thought.
I cover the pot, pull the door closed, and follow the crying. I follow like Milord’s dogs after a fox until the field is somewhere behind me and the heath opens out like a scratchy brown bedcover tossed gentle and wrinkly over a pallet. Beyond is the greenwood, dark and dangerous.
The crying drifts like a fog across the scrub-scattered plain. It’s not just any voice. It’s a girl’s voice, and it’s coming from the wolf pit.
The last time I was anywhere near the pit was two summers ago when Kate and Tabby dared me to get close enough to look in. Glory was there too, and she
hissed and did urgent eyes at me because Kate and Tabby were older and they were talking to us and did I want to look like a baby?
The pit is a neither-nor, Granny would say. Neither on the heath nor in the greenwood, and neither-nors are places you must watch yourself in. When something is neither one thing nor another, anything is possible.
It was cold by the pit then, even for summer. Colder than it should have been such a short way into the greenwood, and as I edged near the long, jaggedy gap in the earth, there was a smell that hit me like a stone to the forehead. A damp, decaying smell, like old leaves pushed against a yard fence in November.
There were bones at the bottom. From wolves, of course, poor beasts who met their ends there, trapped where they could neither eat lambs nor cripple cows. But wolves did not have long, bleaching leg bones. They did not have skulls round and cracked like fruit.
That day two summers ago, I fled bawling and gibbering past Kate and Tabby as they pointed and laughed, as Glory stomped her foot with fed-up, helpless frustration. I flung myself away from all of them?—?toe-stubbing, lung-aching, skin-tingling?—?and I swore on every saint listening that I’d never go near the pit again.
Only someone else is crying today, and it’s a girl.
It has to be, because there are words in those cries. There’s a girl and the story will go like this: I’ll rescue her and together we’ll return to Woolpit and everyone will say how brave I was. How clever. My da will have to admit that sometimes it is a good day to get lost in a story because sometimes it’s not quite the story you thought it was. Glory will stop rolling her eyes when I suggest a game we both loved only last summer and sighing long and loud when I say things like we should make flower crowns for each of Mother’s six piglets.
The crying is loud now that I’m nearing the edge of the greenwood. It’s not scared or sad, either. It’s raging. That crying sends tiny chills down my back, and there’s no question it’s coming from the wolf pit.
Midday is a neither-nor. Neither morning nor evening.
The rotty smell is stronger here. It’ll get in my hair. In the weave of my dress. It’ll follow me home. Still, I creep to the edge. The pit falls away, down deep, twice the height of a man, and this edge has crumbled over time so it’s rounded and impossible to climb.
There’s a smudge of movement at the bottom. It’s dark down there and I don’t like the dark, but I peer in anyway. Just a little, in case I have to flee quickly.
Two faces appear. Small faces. Children. A boy, several summers younger than me. A girl about my size.
Their faces are green.
The girl gestures wildly with green hands and shouts
something that comes out raspy and hoarse. I scrabble away from the pit edge. Granny said I’d know in an instant if I met Those Good People. There would be no doubt.
It’s all I can do to breathe. Anything that’s not as it should be?—?strains of beautiful music, lights on the heath?—?that’s when you must beware. Stories keep you safe, Granny would say, because following the music or the lights means Those Good People are luring you into the kingdom under the mountain, deep in the Otherworld. If you go, if you’re tempted and not content with what you have, you’ll end up their servant there. You’ll be trapped forever, forced to work your fingers and feet to bloody stumps. You’ll never see your ma and da again, or your house or your bed or your favorite doll made of straw that smells like wet dog.
You can weep and wail, and Those Good People will not care.
These kids cannot be Those Good People. Green is their color, but it’s the color of their clothes, their jewels, their world. If they were green anywhere else, it would be in all the stories because it’s the stories that keep girls like me safe.
But the stories would have girls like me stay ordinary.
I pull in long, long breaths until I can peek over the side once more. The green girl sees me and starts talking in a low, throaty growl. She’s definitely saying words, but none of them make sense. The boy says nothing.
His face is in shadow like he’s hiding from the light, but for half a moment I swear he grins at me, cold and cruel.
I hold out my hands, once peachy but now darkened by the sun. Cuts atop cuts. So many kinds of people travel the road past Woolpit to the abbey, especially at fair time. They’re pale, freckly, rosy, and all shades of brown, but nary a one has been green. Not ever.
Those Good People love their trickery. Nothing gives them more delight than forcing someone to guess both their nature and their intentions.
Sometimes Those Good People reward mortal folk who do things they like, but they hate it when you come upon them unawares. Once you’ve offended them, you’d best give over whatever they demand as payment for the insult. Doesn’t matter if you meant no harm.
Like me. Like now.
The safe thing is to leave them here. They’re trying to lure me, somehow. Those Good People think of us like we think of mugs and tables and privy ditches. They grind through mortal servants like the millstone makes flour of the grain that Woolpit is even now cutting down. There is no escape once they have you.
Those Good People can make nothing of their own, Granny would say. They need human hands to do their work. Even if they didn’t, there’s something they love about a servant. Someone to kneel and cringe. Someone who must always bow.
But Those Good People would never blunder into a pit trap made to catch animals, and if for some reason they did, they’d find their own escape without asking the likes of me for help. These kids are thin and dirty. They might simply be children from a nearby village who wandered away from their own harvest. They’d never know the pit was here.
Although if they were from another village, I should be able to understand the girl. And there’s no reason they’d be green.
I’ve never been anywhere but Woolpit, but I know there are other villages. I’ve known since my fifth summer when Kate and Tabby told me I was so ugly, it was no wonder my real parents didn’t want me. That’s when I learned that I was a foundling brought to my ma and da when I was so tiny I still had my birth-cord attached, and that’s when I started crying because foundlings in stories were always sent away to make their fortunes or tormented by mas and das who didn’t really want them, and even though getting lost in stories was good, at the end of the day I wanted a ma’s lap to sit on and a da who’d show me how to plait fishing line.
But after my ma told off Kate and Tabby for being so hateful, she groaned down to her knees, took both my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “You are our baby. Don’t you listen to what any of those shrews say. You’re ours and that’s what matters.”
The green girl starts whimpering, but softly this time. Like baby Hugh on that long, sweaty afternoon, writhing and gasping like a fish after crying himself raw. Glory and I had been so busy with our spinning that we didn’t notice the iron poker had fallen off the cradle and Those Good People could get to him.
By then it was too late.
The green girl would not be so upset if she could get out of the pit any time she wanted. If the children are Those Good People and they’re truly trapped down there, and if I free them, I can ask a favor and they will have to grant it.
The pit is too deep for me to reach in and help them up, and besides, I doubt I’m strong enough to pull out even the boy. If I’m going to get them free, I’ll need help.
“Glory,” I whisper, because she’s the one who showed me how to grow big turnips and patch a dress so seamlessly you hardly saw the needlework. She’s the one who’d ask me to play when the other girls’ mas nudged them toward one another and away from me.
It’s been months since the Maying and I didn’t mean for it to happen like it did. The story was supposed to go like this: I’d tell the May King what Glory told me, that she thought he was comely and she’d like nothing better than to dance with him. He would hold out a gallant hand and they would leap and parade around the Maypole and the bonfire and he would declare his love
for her but she would say she was too young to marry and he would wait for her and then in many, many years they would be married and I would make her so many flower crowns she’d need to give a few to me.
Instead the May King laughed hard and long right in her face and said something snide about cradle-robbing, which made Kate and Tabby double over laughing till they fell into each other like milk-drunk kittens. Glory turned red and ran home and refused to come back, even for the honey cake.
I can make it up to her now. I can bring Glory into this. If the green children do belong to Those Good People, and if she and I work together to save them from the pit, we can each ask a favor.
If they’re not, if they’re just hungry kids separated from their ma and da, kids who’ll die here unless someone else happens along, Glory and I can help them out of the pit and bring them into the village. Everyone will stop the harvest to see us lead green children past. Their parents will weep and be grateful and mayhap offer something as reward. Woolpit will talk about me long after Christmas. Possibly even into next summer.
There are precious few stories where girls help each other. They either fall out over a boy or there’s some rubbish about one being prettier than the other, like that nonsense matters half a thumbnail. In fact, I can’t think of
a single story?—?not one?—?with two girls who don’t fight.
Not that there are many stories with girls in them at all.
This story will be different. It’ll end with Glory and me friends again, just like it was. Just like it ought to be, the end.