The first thing I saw upon entering the inn was the tabby perched on the same table as the ale jugs, pink tongue curling between the toes of its hind paw. Sleek fur gave away its position of a cat specifically kept for the elimination of vermin in the home, and it did not seem to care about anyone or anything else, as cats are wont. Its shadow hung distended behind it, like a curtain hiding secrets from the world. Who knew what dark alleyways it slunk through while away from home, what it hunted.
The room seemed emptier than usual, its occupants preoccupied with matters other than those strictly reflected in the surroundings. William the Elder stared into his cup, occasionally sipping, while his lanky son sat staring, red-eyed, next to him. A group of men with graying heads sat in a silent lot nearest the fire, whispering amongst themselves. Nan circled the place, filthy apron covering a filthy dress, mouth set firmly like a dash in the dirt, refilling as needed. No one sang bawdy songs, or laughed over the story about the merchant slipping and falling arse-first into a pile of horse shit, or passed rumors about the blacksmith’s daughter with the swollen belly, or speculated about the possible father.
Since the carts in the street started appearing, bodies flung on them like sacks of grain, fear became something we breathed daily along with the usual stench of urine and smoke. Not just fear, but a sickly sweet smell with it. We all knew what that smell meant.
Myself, I was nervous, no doubt, but still taken aback by the sight of Big Simon. He was well into his cups by the time I had arrived and sat on the bench across from him, hair hanging in greasy hanks that hid his eyes. When I got closer, I saw signs of recent tears.
“Big Simon,” I greeted, pulling out the bench across from him. “Hello old friend.”
“Hullo,” he muttered, as if I was not even there. I waved down Nan for a drink.
“How goes it?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
He shrugged, as if only half hearing me. The ale’s soft, yeasty scent wafted off of him in waves so thick I could almost see them.
Nan sidled up to me, and as she poured, leaned in.”He’s been here all day. Won’t say nothin’.”
As if I could not tell. I nodded faintly at her, and she went back to stirring a pot on the hearth.
I looked around the room. Light flickered from candles on the hearth and tables, casting the patrons in a warm glow. The air felt stale, every breath almost edible. The cat had moved onto its forepaw, and the shadow bobbed behind it.
Big Simon stared into his ale. “Alice is sick. She awoke with fever last night,” he said, the words slurring from him with great effort.
I felt my face collapse, and God forgive me, I pulled back. Sweet little Alice, only six years of age, hair yellow as hay. I could see her wide smile, always with one tooth or another missing.
“Are you certain?”
He gave a quick nod. “I left at dawn. I dun’t want to see her piss blood. I dun’t want to see her blacken an’ grow cold.” A fat tear rolled from his eye and plopped on a damp spot on the table.
“God’s wounds,” I murmured. “How is Agnes taking it?”
He rubbed his eye with the back of his thick hand. “‘Bout as well as y’d expect. She’s carin’ for the girl, but her eyes are wild.”
We both knew what they feared. It was unspeakable. To lose a child was bad enough, but we knew what they would do in secret, furtively checking their own armpits, their own groins, their own necks.
My ale lost its flavor. I stood slowly.
“You are obviously distressed. Shall I leave you?”
“No,” he shook his head. “No, stay a while. You dun’t have to talk, just have a drink with me.” As if remembering his cup in front of him, he lifted it for another swallow.
“Of course.” I sat back down. I could do that much–for now, at least.