Poet and Underworld

Tents rose against the morning sky, their soot black peaks like woodcuts inked on a vellum scroll. Late-coming mules made their way toward the fair, dragging skiffs loaded with copperware and bolts of fabric. The men from the coast carried horned ocean fish in water-filled leather tanks, and those from the country pushed carts of fragrant cinnamon and cardamom. Drouet moved carefully, concealing herself in the black oak trees at the side of the road. Any one of these travelers might know her father, the burgher. If she was caught, she’d certainly be returned home by a merchant hoping for a reward.

On a different morning, Drouet might have climbed to a low-hanging branch and written about the procession in her book of hours. She’d make a record as her mother taught her long ago. But she found herself unable to concentrate in the high, pale light of the morning. She was tired of the city and even more tired of her father’s restrictions. She wanted the hot and busy escape of the fair. And she could think of little more than the elm shadowed butcher’s stall where Bledic would be working. The boy was Italian; he’d come north in a caravan along the Roman road, yet she sensed they shared a common soul. Bledic wasn’t a good butcher. He fumbled with his knife. Gouged flesh. It was clear when he spoke to his master that he wanted to escape as well. He wasn’t destined for merchant work. She pictured him raising his eyes from the cut of meat on the butcher’s block to look at her. She’d been visiting him since the fair began. The last time they spoke, he asked if she had money.

“Money for what?” Drouet replied. She thought it best to assert herself rather than play at being demure.

“Something I want to see,” Bledic said. “A new attraction.”

“What attraction exactly?”

He was wonderfully stoic, lips thin and hard. His neck was marble white, reminding her of the Roman statuary she’d seen in he father’s books. Drouet thought that if she got any closer to him, a tongue of fire might leap from her skull. “They say there’s an entrance to hell,” he said, “over near the edge of the fair.”

“Why would you want to see something like that?”

Bledic pointed at the fair around him with his still wet knife. “To know if it’s better than this mess, of course.”

“I can get money,” Drouet said, feeling bold. “I’ll bring it tomorrow on the condition that you’ll take me along.”

Bledic nodded, looking down at the meat as his master emerged from behind the curtain at the back of the stall.

The fair was like a painted halo—concentric alleyways cut by the radii of stalls. Bledic’s butchery was in the western quadrant. Chickens and rabbits struggled before the poultrymen’s carts as Drouet rounded the column near charred Tannery Gate. The gate had been damaged in a fire long ago. According to her father, who kept a chronicle of the city, the Devil had appeared at the fair in 1188. He walked the grounds in fine robes, and talked kindly to the men selling wares. A day after his visit, a south bearing wind carried sparks to the thatched rooftops and burned half the fair to the ground. The burgher said it was likely that the Devil would return, as he was drawn to places where he had history. The story was clearly another tale meant to keep Drouet from wandering.

She didn’t care about devils. She took pleasure in the sense of remove from daily life that the fair provided. Bledic himself provided escape of this kind in concentrated form not only because he was handsome but because he was different than anyone she knew in the city. On the first day she met him, she was surprised to find that the young butcher did not smell of rot. The blood on his hands had a clean scent, like two pieces of copper rubbed. Butchery, when preformed by Bledic, was not an act of murder but of sacrifice. This boy spent his days releasing spirits, allowing them to rush into the ether.

When she finally reached the butcher’s stall, both master and apprentice were working on a calf that lay open to the spine on the wooden block. Blood ran across the grain. Black flies swarmed in the heat. It was only when the master slipped behind the tattered curtain to collect some fresh implement that Drouet allowed herself to approach.

Bledic looked up from the animal, hands once again gloved in blood, solemn as a priest. “The burgher’s daughter,” he said. “Why do you always come here alone? Don’t you have anyone to walk with?”

“I don’t,” she replied.

“No mother?”

“I have a mistress from Paris. What does that matter to you?” For a moment, her mother’s dying body hung before her, cool and frail, suspended by ropes on a straw-filled mattress to avoid an infestation of fleas. The mattress floated in the dark of the stone bed chamber. Light from a high window shimmered on her mother’s skin. It was a damp-looking light that Drouet longed to touch, needing to discover if it was indeed sunlight or some heavenly substance, come to sap her mother’s soul.

She pulled herself back from the memory and reached into the pocket of her dress, removing the coins she’d taken from her father’s box. Bledic looked at the coins, rolling a bit of animal fat between his fingers and finally flicking it to the ground. “Meet me at Tannery Gate in an hour.”

She nodded.

“You aren’t frightened?” he said.

“Of what?” she asked, trying to appear sure of herself. Her skin prickled, but it was not from fear.

“Go, before signore returns,” Bledic said. “He doesn’t like me talking to girls. I’m still raw from the beating he gave me after your last visit.”

Drouet backed into the crowd, knocking against a woman in a ruffled bandeaux and excusing herself. She ran through alleys and stallways until she could once again draw cool air into her lungs. Steadying herself, she walked through a narrow section of the artisan’s corridor, thinking about meeting Bledic at Tannery Gate. To actually travel with him through the beautiful fair. How could she be afraid of that?

She paused at a table of painted clay dolls of the sort her mother had once made for her. They had clay heads and burlap bodies filled with sawdust. She dared to touch the fragile arm of one and the rough hewn skirt of another, taking pleasure in their simplicity. The doll merchant, a man with a drooping eyelid and a mealy beard, was busy attending to another customer and didn’t seem to mind her presence. Drouet certainly didn’t look the part of a criminal. The dolls themselves were blank-eyed, neither asking for her attention nor rejecting it. Though Drouet had put away her own playthings when her mother died, she longed for one of these. But what would she do with it when the church bells rang Terce? Carry it along for Bledic to see? Should she also wrap herself in swaddling clothes?

The final doll in the row was larger than the others, and odd enough to cause Drouet to momentarily forget the butcher’s apprentice. The figure seemed quite unlike the others. Made with a finer sense of craftsmanship, its features were detailed in such a way as to make the piece seem fit for enshrinement in a reliquary, not for sale on a doll table. It was not only the precision with which the doll was made that interested her but the fact that it clearly resembled Drouet herself. The doll’s hair was the same as her own—hay colored, and held back from her face. Even more remarkably, it wore the red cape that Drouet wore to the fair each day, stitched at the hem with day lilies. The way the doll clasped its hands reminded her of the comfortable way she held her own hands when she walked.

She wondered if the world could possibly grow any stranger, as she glanced at the doll merchant who was still busy with his customer. Had he seen her one day and been so enamored with the burgher’s daughter that he made a replica? She knew she had to have the doll. It reminded her so much of her own mother’s care. With great resolve, Drouet grabbed the oversized doll from the counter and then ran with it into the jostling crowd, its clay head nodding against her chest.

There was a moment when she was sure she’d be caught. She knocked against another merchant and fell sprawling in the dust. But no one came to take her by the shoulder. She was still free though she’d torn her dress and scraped her arm.

In a nook near the cathedral of St. Etienne, Drouet concealed herself and sat considering the doll, wondering again at its meaning, and wishing that she could ask her mother. If Bledic fell in love with her, would he also make a copy of her—but in meat? A bloody Drouet with bones for eyes and gristle for a tongue?

When the bells rang Terce, Drouet dusted off her dress and dutifully tucked the doll under her arm. She couldn’t very well leave her double there in the shadow of St. Etienne, and though she tried to make the thing appear as unobtrusive as possible, it was much too large and awkward for true concealment. She reached Tannery Gate by way of side alleys, keeping close look-out for the doll merchant who might be searching for her. She found Bledic leaning against a pillar, hands stuffed in the pockets of his woolen trousers. His eyes widened at the sight of the doll, but he made no disparaging remarks. It seemed that he’d either learned manners or his mind was elsewhere. “The burgher’s daughter,” he said.

“Drouet,” she countered.

“Follow me,” Bledic said, turning away from the gate, and Drouet hurried to catch up, the doll kicking at her with its sawdust legs. She followed Bledic along the graceful curve of the wooden alley deeper into the fair, passing guilds marked with the symbol of their patron saints.

The wheelrights were gathered beneath a sign painted with the figure of Saint Catherine, who’d broken a torture wheel merely by touching the instrument with her frail hand. When Catherine was finally beheaded, the wood of the breaking wheel sang her funeral song.

Then there was Saint Magadelena, who’d washed the feet of Christ with oil. Her likeness hung above the perfumery, red hair spilling over her shoulders and pouring into a golden chalice.

Saint Claire’s face loomed above the mirror maker’s stand. She’d been too ill to go to the cathedral, and it was said that an image of the mass had appeared flickering on the wall of her room so that she might still watch. Later when she hung a mirror in that same spot, she could see Heavenly realms and speak to angels.

Drouet looked down at the face of the doll—the face that was her own. Was it too a kind of sacred image? If she was a saint, what was she patron of?

She nearly lost Bledic in the crowd but then found him again. Spots of animal blood were spattered across the back of his pale shirt, and she thought they looked like constellations of red stars.

“Where did you say this attraction is again?” she asked him.

“At the edge of the fair,” he replied, not glancing at her.

“What’s it supposed to be like,” she asked, “this entrance to hell.”

“Dark and wet,” he said. “Full of creatures—sylphs and naiads.”

“What are those?” Drouet asked. “Isn’t hell supposed to be fiery?”

Bledic continued on as if he hadn’t heard. “There are yearly fairs in the underworld too, you know,” he said, “more majestic than the one in Troyes. Impossible wares are sold: golden heads that speak ten languages, animals that wear clothing and walk upright, boxes of blood that can give birth to an army on command.”

“How do you know these things?” Drouet asked.

Bledic finally glanced back at her. His gold-flecked eyes were nearly more than she could bear. “Because I’m from Rome,” he said. “We know all the old stories there.”

“Hell is nothing more than centuries of poetry, isn’t it?” Drouet said.

“We’ll see about that.” Bledic pointed into the distance where Drouet could make out a low wooden structure with two Doric columns that formed a gate. The columns were clearly made of some cheap material and painted to resemble Italian marble. An old merchant slouched on a stool, wrapped in what appeared to be a winding cloth. He seemed to have fallen asleep in the depths of the fabric. The sign nailed above the entrance did not bear the mark of a saint but rather read, “Averno—Entrance to the Under Realms.”

“You can’t be serious,” Drouet said.

“Quite serious,” Bledic replied, and there was earnestness in his voice that nearly broke her heart. She had no wish to diminish his excitement. She didn’t want to keep him a butcher’s apprentice for one moment longer. No more than she wanted to keep herself the burgher’s daughter for another day. But if he believed entering this place might provide anything more than a poorly made show, he was either half-mad or simply lacking guidance of the sort that Drouet’s own mother had provided. She decided she would try to lend him some sense.

“But it’s a theater, Bledic,” Drouet said. “Just look at it. There’s probably a stage inside with actors dressed as ghosts and devils who’ll prance around for us until we’re as bored as the old man who sells glimpses of it.”

“Not so,” Bledic said. “I watched a man go in last night, and he didn’t come out.”


“You have the money?”

They’d drawn nearer the entrance as they talked, and now they stood in front of the sleeping man who had crusts of yellow tears at the corners of his eyes. Drouet reached into the pocket of her dress and felt a sinking in her stomach. The coins were gone. They may have slipped out when she’d fallen and torn her dress.

Bledic looked astonished, then angry. “You spent the money on that ridiculous toy, didn’t you?”

“Of course not,” she said.

His gaze lowered to the effigy. “Give it to me. Maybe he’ll take it as payment. It looks expensive. All the merchants take trades.”

Drouet clutched the doll more tightly, then realized how silly she must look to Bledic. If she was ever going to escape, she had to let go of things. She extended the doll carefully toward the sleeping merchant, who was not in fact sleeping. He was staring at her from beneath half-closed lids. The old man took the doll, touched its hair, then its mouth.

Drouet felt cold. “Be careful with her.”

The old man responded by standing from his stool and swinging open an iron gate to allow them passage. As she passed by the merchant, she looked once more at the doll, telling herself it was ridiculous to mourn such a loss. The doll was of no consequence. Yet it still felt as though she’d given away some important part of herself.

She followed Bledic down a narrow hall painted with a mural showing red cliffs and the wisps of spirits who wandered there. The mural was nothing more than what one might see at a ridiculous chamber of horrors. The two of them came to a landing where a wooden boat waited in a man-made stream.

“You see,” Bledic said. “It’s not a theater.”

“It’s a show, nonetheless,” Drouet said. Yet she felt a new hesitation when she saw the boat. She was no longer quite sure about Bledic either—the way he’d grown angry when he learned she lost the money. She didn’t like how he’d pushed her to give away the doll. But his hands were strong as he helped her into the boat, and his touch still thrilled her. As they pushed away from the dock, she wondered what her father would say if he could see her. She smiled a little at this, thinking how angry he would be.

The boat glided into darkness, Bledic at the prow and Drouet in the stern. She thought she could hear the sound of the sea in the distance and wondered how such an effect could be achieved. There were more murals that showed bleaker landscapes, populated by wraiths. These spirits did not seem tormented, merely watchful. This hell was different than any Drouet had ever pictured. Darker creatures began to appear in the murals as well—beings with hooves and horns. They were not devils but an older breed of deity—satyrs perhaps—and they watched the boat’s passage with yellow eyes.

“Will you hold my hand?” Drouet asked, and Bledic obliged though he was far more interested in the darkness ahead. His palm was still faintly sticky with the remains of butcher’s blood, but Drouet clutched it thankfully.

The river curved once and then again. She felt they were dropping deeper into the earth though that might very well have been some illusion created by the placement of the murals. The images grew stranger still, the wraiths and satyrs dancing. Symbols hovered above them in the air—ancient scripts that Drouet worried were incantations. Finally the river opened into a small lake, at the center of which was an island of trees—not real trees but painted props with taxidermy black birds perched on the branches. “A stage,” Drouet whispered.

“No—a forest,” Bledic replied.

Together they disembarked, and Drouet felt her boots sink into the muddy quagmire at the island’s edge. “We should—” she began, wanting to tell him to go back, but there was a silencing about that place. The false birds in false trees made a kind of chapel. “We’ve seen all there is, I think,” she said finally.

“Walk a little more with me,” Bledic replied. “I’ll hold your hand again if you do.”

“I want to go back, Bledic.”

But he’d already taken her hand and was easing her forward. “Please, Drouet. Your mother—perhaps we’ll see her. Wouldn’t that be good?”

Drouet didn’t have time to take offense. He was hurrying her along. There was something different about him in the dark, an odd brightness in his eyes that she hadn’t noticed before. It was as if Bledic belonged in this place more than he belonged in the world above. The master butcher had trapped him, but she had set him free. She’d been foolish enough to follow him—to even pay his way.

As they walked, she continued to glance back at the tiny rocking boat until she could no longer see it through the painted trees. The island was much larger than she first imagined. Bledic walked ahead, hurrying toward something unseen, and she thought of how he’d described the yearly fairs in the underworld—talking golden heads and boxes of blood. Was his body changing in the dark? Growing smaller, closer to the ground? Were stiff horns emerging from his hair or was that simply another trick of shadows? Either way, Drouet knew she wouldn’t have his company for long. She wished again for the doll. She wanted to use its face as a mirror, to know that everything was fine. But what she’d given away was gone for good. Drouet looked up, hoping at least for the comfort of a painted ceiling, another mural, but instead she saw the dome of a sky, dark and vast—full of twinkling red stars.  

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