JULY 31, 1718: LUST IN THE BARLEY

LUST IN THE BARLEY

A tragedy occurred on the last day of July in the English countryside, and eighteenth century poets were all over it like paparazzi on today’s celebrities. Gay wrote about it, and even Pope versified the unfortunate event.  John Hewit was a well-set man of 25, the comely Sara Drew about the same age, when they were both struck dead by a single lightning bolt. An anonymous poet (neither Gay nor Pope) told the sad story:

loversmeadowSara and Johnnie were lovers.

Oh, how those two kids could love.

Vowed to be true to each other,

As true as the stars above

He was her man,  And they were doing no wrong.

 

They were out in the meadow,

Picking flowers they say.

They lay down in the barley

Just to pass the time of day.

She was his woman, And they were doing no wrong.

 

The rain began, pitter patter.

It soaked them right through to the skin.

The great storm of 1718,

Yet the lovers didn’t come in.

He was her man, And they were doing no wrong.

 

Then came loud peals of thunder.

Guess what? They stayed there outside.

Lightning struck all around them.

Alas, our lovers were fried.

She was his woman, And they’ll be doing no wrong.

 

When the neighbors went searching, they saw the barley smoking. Then they spied the faithful pair – Sara, lifeless, with just a tiny burn mark on her breast;  John lying upon her in a vain attempt to shield her from the lightning, black all over.  Their tombstone, penned by Pope, read:

Near this place lie the bodies

OF JOHN HEWIT AND SARA DREW

an industrious young man

and virtuous maiden of this parish

who, being at harvest-work

were in one instant killed by lightning

the last day of July 1718

Either Pope didn’t know the sordid truth or he wasn’t telling.

 

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JULY 15, 971: JUST LYING IN THE RAIN

JUST LYING IN THE RAIN

‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.’

     St. Swithin is the British counterpart to America’s Puxatawney Phil, except that the former is a ninth century bishop and the latter is a ground hog.  And just how did the good St. Swithin get his meterological stripes?  Here’s how:

ST-SWITHIN-DUDLEY-MAXIMSSt. Swithin was noted for his great humility, a quality that some may say he carried to excess. On his deathbed, he asked to be buried, not in the church or in some shrine, but outside where his corpse might be watered by rain from the church eaves and his grave stomped on by passers-by. Folks rolled their eyes a bit but complied with his request.

     And his remains lay wet and walked on for a good hundred years, until a more modern generation of clergy (those 10th century radicals!) took umbrage at one of their own resting in such a lowly spot. They decided at once to relocate Swithin, who could not object, to a great cathedral.  However, on July 15, 971,  just as a ceremony with great pomp and circumstance was about to begin, as if on cue, a heavy rain burst forth and continued with nary a break for 40 days (40 days is a popular duration for great rainfalls).

     The monks interpreted this tempest as a not-so-subtle warning from on high that their nasty little undertaking was a bit of blasphemy.  They immediately abandoned the project. And even without the help of modern social media, word spread throughout the land, and a tradition was born: if it rained on St. Swithin’s Day, it would rain for 40 days.

St. Swithin also planted apple trees (like Johnny Appleseed, who never predicted weather) leading to the popular description of rain: “St Swithin is christening the apples

Death Visits Aunt Agatha, Part 3: Solomon Grundy et al

Early that evening, after helping herself to a steak she found in the refrigerator, Bridget poured herself a tumblerful of Monty’s gin and returned to the bedroom to console his sick aunt.

“Seen a lot of people die,” said Bridget. “Usually they do it more quickly.”

Aunt Agatha gurgled.

“Simon Walters took the last count back in ’06. He was about the longest, three days. Course, unlike yourself, he was young and healthy. ‘Til the tractor hit him. Now Lucy Beaconsberry was a lot like you, old and frail, withered, look of death all over her. Gurgled just like you been gurgling. Turned her toes up in less than twelve hours. Just figured what good was she doing anybody, just lying there and gurgling. Thoughtful of her, I’d say.”

Aunt Agatha stirred slightly, but didn’t open her eyes.

“Yes, I’ve seen a lot of folks go. Joshua Higgins gave up the ghost just last week. Eighty-seven he was. Nice ripe old age. You’re close to ten years older than that, aren’t you, dear? Pretty old. Good long life you’ve had. When pneumonia took old Frances Cartwright back in October — just a week after her ninetieth birthday, she said ‘ I figure anyone that lives past ninety is stealing space from someone younger.’ Interesting way to look at it, wouldn’t you say? Smart old lady, Frances. Had some pain though. Just feel lucky you don’t have the pain. At least not yet.”

Bridget gave her charge another nasty look, then got up and left the room. When she returned with a refilled tumbler of gin, she thought for a moment that Aunt Agatha had stopped breathing. But several short hacking coughs dashed her hopes. Damn you, old woman, Bridget thought. What good does your hanging on do you or anyone else? “How about a little verse, my dear?” she said.

“Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday:

This is the end

Of Solomon Grundy.

“You see, dear, it’s just a matter of pace. Jeremy Lockless held on bedridden for almost two years. Did you know that? Well, let me tell you, his family grew to hate him so much for just lying there so long that, when he did finally bite the dust, they wouldn’t even bury him. They just threw him in the woods out back for whatever wild animals wanted his carcass.”

Sunday evening and two more tumblers of gin made Bridget frantic. Now she was really losing money. Maybe she could just hurry things along with a pillow. Don’t be foolish, Bridget, she told herself. Use your head. And with a third tumbler, now vodka — Aunt Agatha was still here but the gin was gone — Bridget got an idea.

continued

 

February 2, 1887: The Shadow Knows

The first weather forecast by a rodent meteorologist took place on groundhogFebruary 2, 1887, in the metropolis of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. His groupies, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, in an effort to stifle all competition, declared that Phil (for that was his name), the Punxsutawney groundhog, was the one and only true weather-forecasting groundhog in all of North America. Pay no mind to those wanna-bes like Birmingham Bill, Staten Island Chuck, or Canada’s Shubenacadie Sam. Phil’s original prediction has been lost to history, but it was either six more weeks of winter or an early spring.

As a celebrity, Punxsutawney Phil can be temperamental, occasionally biting or scratching an adoring fan if given the chance, but Phil’s rude behavior doesn’t hold a candle to that of Staten Island Chuck. Sure New Yorkers are accused of being rude and Staten Islanders are certainly outliers — but biting the mayor that feeds you is a bit over the top.

The lucky mayor was Michael Bloomberg, the occasion was Groundhog Day 2009, and some would say it was the mayor’s own fault. Practically anyone, groundhog or otherwise, would not enjoy being roused out of a deep sleep at seven in the morning and asked to pontificate on the weather. Chuck wasn’t up for the celebration and the mayor was just a little too persistent, so of course Chuck bit him. Wouldn’t you?

Later in the day, Mayor Bloomberg, his left finger bandaged, was keeping mum. “Given the heightened response against terrorism, and clearly in this case a terrorist rodent who could very well have been trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, I’m not at liberty to say any more than that,” the mayor said.

 

coconut womanPart 3

Harriet studied the two men. She was an outgoing and trusting lady, but she was no fool, and she didn’t want to get stiffed for a night’s rent even if the New Orleans Suite was between guests this particular night. Nor did she want any of her semi-precious belongings spirited out during the night. As if sensing her apprehension, the shorter man produced a handful of twenty dollar bills as an unspoken offer of payment in advance, something Harriet couldn’t have brought herself to ask for but was more than willing, in this particular case, to accept. “The New Orleans Suite is available this evening,” she said, “Would you care to look it over. Some folks find it doesn’t fit their taste.”

“No need to ma’am,” the man answered. “We’re very tired. Won’t be doing nothing but sleep and we’ll be out right early.” He smiled at her, eyes twinkling. “So we really don’t care about ambiance.” He pronounced the word perfectly. “And what do you charge for your New Orleans room?”

“Ninety dollars,” said Harriet. “That includes a full breakfast.”

He counted out five twenties and handed them to Harriet. “Here you go. But I’m afraid we’ll be skipping breakfast. We’ll be leaving at the crack of dawn.”

“In that case, I’ll make it eighty,” said Harriet, handing back a twenty.

“If you insist,” said the man with another of his disarming smiles.

Harriet dug the key out of her pocket and handed it to him. ” It’s through that door and to the right. Hope you have a pleasant sleep.”

“I’m sure we will,” said the shorter man turning. The other man smiled for the first time as he turned to follow his partner. He was missing a tooth.

Harriet, sensing that the young couple were uneasy about sleeping under the same roof with the two strangers – the young woman was, in fact, certain they’d all be murdered in their sleep – said: “We get a lot of sailors and fishermen here. They pretty much keep to themselves. You know, aloof. But if you ever get them talking, well honey, they can really spin some stories. Too bad they’re not staying for breakfast. You’d get a pretty good picture about this part of the world.”

Harriet’s cheerfulness calmed the young couple and a few moments later they sought the privacy of their room to do fifth anniversary things. Malachi finished his beer and headed off down the road to his own apartment over Gunny’s Restaurant. Everett scribbled in his spiral notebook for a while, then made for his loft, where he would probably punch numbers into his pocket calculator for a good hour before going to sleep. Harriet mixed a batch of muffin dough, refrigerated it, and returned to the porch where she sat staring at the starry sky and swaying with the steady lapping of the surf. She loved this porch; she loved this place. She realized sitting here that this place was more important than any silly pirate treasure, even if she believed in such a thing, which she didn’t. Finally, she reluctantly quit the porch and went upstairs to bed.

She slept in spurts. More than once she thought she heard noises above the natural rhythm of the night but when she listened carefully, even sitting right up once, she heard nothing, and she went back to sleep. Asleep, she dreamed about the man with the missing tooth. He was carrying water up the beach and pouring it on her porch. And then there were two of him, four of him, eight of him, just like the brooms in Fantasia. The water was up to her knees when she woke up to sunshine.

She shuddered at the nightmare, dressed quickly and hurried to the New Orleans Suite. The men were gone, and the only mementos of their stay were an empty whiskey bottle in the garbage can and a Fats Waller record out of its jacket on the floor in front of the stereo. Otherwise the room was perfect; they had even made the bed. She went back to the kitchen, poured herself a glass of half tomato juice half Bloody Mary mix, put the coffee on, beat ten eggs, and whipped up some Hollandaise sauce, all the while singing it’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die; the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

Breakfast preparation complete, she walked around to the front of the house, picked up the newspaper and headed for her spot on the porch to wait for her guests to arise. What she found on the porch was not her favorite chair; that had been tossed into the hibiscus bush. What she found were weathered boards strewn for ten feet around a yawning hole in the ground where her porch had been the night before. She stared into the hole in disbelief. At the bottom of the whole, she spotted indentations in the dirt suggesting that something heavy and rectangular had been sitting down there.

Then she spotted a coin at the edge of the hole. She reached down and picked it up. It was gold, and it had Spanish words engraved on it. She stared back at the hole then studied the coin again. Laughing, she said aloud: “Poor, poor Malachi. He won’t be a happy man.”

She pushed the coin into her pocket and went inside. After calling the carpenter, she returned to the kitchen where she put the muffins in the oven and wondered, just briefly, if the floorboards beneath her weren’t a little spongier than usual.

 

Coconut Woman originally  appeared in Tampa Tribune Fiction Quarterly.  It is one of the 15 stories included in Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean.

 

January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.