19 December 2013

How Guillaume Villehardouin got his nick-name

Circumstances have made it impossible to write an entry for this week.  So I thought it might be amusing to post here an excerpt from the novel I was writing 25 years ago on the Villehardouins in the Morea.  This is about Guillaume Villehardouin's childhood in Kalamata.  This is fiction.

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A naked golden-brown child hauled kicking and choking onto a fishing boat, pounding his rescuers and sobbing in fury, "I coulda gone that far. I can swim farther than anyone!"

A stocky brown boy on the battlements, leaping from one the top of one crenellation to the next, shouting down the wind, "I am the king of the castle! I am the king of the castle!" Shouting down to his horrified parents who shouted back to him unheard.

A black-and-blue-eyed, bloody-nosed gawk of a lad, hair bleached nearly white by the sun, in torn, dung-smeared clothes, struggling up off the cobblestones, hiccupping, rubbing snot and blood off his face with a scabby brown arm, gasping, "I'm gonna show you mu' fuckers." Hurling himself like a windmill onto two or three larger boys who proceded to beat him up again with no respect for rank.

A stocky, tanned, scarred youth with crooked nose standing on the wall and looking at his friends in a semi-circle below, around a horse, chanting, "Jump! Jump! Jump!" Jumping onto the back of the horse as they screamed. The horse whinnying, rearing, bucking, he falling backward into straw and dung on cobblestones, and the hoofs coming down on his face again and again . . .

. . . becoming conscious under the faces of his parents: his father holding his arms down firm against the bed, his mother holding out something in both hands, a bearded stranger smashing his face. He tried to object, to tell the stranger to stop hurting him, to explain he would be all right if they would leave him alone, but all that came out was a gurgle of mucus and blood which made him cough and choke and then the terrible pain made everything dark again.

Coming sharply awake to a new pain and the harsh smell of vinegar. "Siga-siga, pedi-mou. It's all right, boy, I'm just cleaning you up." He heard the bone grate in his nose, jerked to get away from the pain, but his father was holding him. The stranger continued working, speaking to him calmly, telling him what was happening: a voice comforting in the pain. He put gum on the side of Guillaume's nose and on the opposite cheek; then pressed a strip of parchment from one to the other, pulling the battered nose back into position. The sound of the grating bone made him pass out again.

The next time Guillaume came to, the man seemed to be sewing something on his face, still speaking soothingly, his mother was helping him, too, they were both deliberately hurting him and his father was stalking back and forth. Then the man was wrenching his jaw: blinding pain again, and the smell of the gum. The man pressed a shape of leather onto the jaw and secured it with straps around Guillaume's head. He sat down on the floor, his face level with the boy's.

"Listen to me, pedi-mou. This is to hold your jaw while it heals. The gum makes it secure. It will wear away in time but the straps should hold it well enough. Don't try to take it off; your face will only hurt more. Now, you must have something to drink." He pushed a reed between his lips. It hurt. He squeezed his eyes against tears. Slept.

Mostly he moved back and forth between drugged thought and half-dreamed images, tangled ideas about looking at the horse more carefully next time, positioning it better as regards the wall, leaping onto a horse both of them fully armed now shining brandishing sword and banner at the charge. Running on the wall, jumping, each jump making him weep in pain, jumping into the sea to escape the pain, into the sea where he could swim out farther than anyone else and diving like a dolphin while they begged him to come back. In and out of the drugged dream his mother stroking his head and washing his face, dreading lest he flinch and she stop combing his hair. She kept working with a damp warm cloth trying to remove the blood, silently picking out the straw and dung, picking apart the tangles because he wore his hair long like the Greeks. He heard his father say, "Just cut the damn hair off," but she said nothing only kept stroking the hair loose.

Thick matted dark hair not blond like his mother and Geoffroi and Alix but dark like his father, bleached reddish now by the sun and salt water. At two, it was white from the sun, they said. In his bath, shrieking and splashing as usual, and his mother sitting before the fire brushing out her hair. Long hair, longer than he in the firelight all pale and gold. The maids had helped her wash it, she on her knees before the copper tub, two of them holding ewers of warm water to pour over her head. Shrieked with joy and danced when they lifted the tub to the window sill, unfastened the shutters doubled against the winter wind, and poured the water out into the blackness making great clouds of steam from the crash of hot water onto cold wind and stone. His nurse took a white sheet and lined the tub, then poured in more warm water from the ewers waiting on the hearth. Shrieking for the obligatory chase around the room until he was caught and stripped and held and scrubbed and scolded for the grime ingrained in knees and heels and elbows. Sputtering while his eyes and nose were gouged and his chin yanked up so the rings around his neck could be scrubbed clean. Fighting and drowning when they poured water on his hair and yanked it clean. Drowsy watching his mother shining before the fire, taking sections of her hair the width of the ivory brush with thumb and two fingers and beginning at the crown and brushing down. Slowly at first for tangles, then faster and smoother drawing the white gold out glistening before the fire. He jumped out of the bath and ran into the hair, under the tent of hair, turned pushed his face through it to look up at her face, smiling, then tugging the hair around him like a cloak or pelt. She laughed and drew her hair loose from him, and then tossed her head easily from one side to the other and he dodged back and forth through the soft and gleaming curtain.

Catching it again, hiding his face in it, coming up just as a voice said, "Opa!" His big brother, shining grown-up Geoffroi back from adventures, helm in hand, wearing boots in Maman's room. Who had been gone so long he had almost forgotten how desperately he adored Geoffroi. And Geoffroi put the helmet on his head and he couldn't see and he hid in the hair and came out again, and Geoffroi got the bearskin from the floor and growled, and he ran in and out of the golden forest of hair to hide from the bear as his mother put her hands to her head and held her hair protectively and laughed for mercy as the adventure became more exciting.

Stopped when his father at the door said, "Kalispera sas," and his mother stood and Geoffroi bowed a little and then caught him up to plunge him back into the tub to rinse. The nurse dried him and rubbed his hair dry and it pulled and she poked in his ears and put on a clean shirt and knit hose. The maids carried out the tub, and more people brought in trestles and boards and made a table near the fire. They brought in cheese and bread and figs and soup for Geoffroi who always ate a great deal after adventures. They gave him bites but they had wine, he couldn't have wine.

"Tell me about Astros," demanded his father, and his mother said to him, "Shhh," bending down because he was rolled up in the bearskin and growling and Geoffroi began to tell about not an adventure not at all interesting until rolled up in the bearskin he went to sleep.

So tired, he needed to sleep so much, but the stranger kept waking him up and telling him to cough. It hurt unbearably and he badly needed to spit, but he could only dribble into the leather chinpiece. The stranger wiped his mouth each time and nodded and said something over and over to him in a another language that sounded like a magic incantation and most likely was, because he always felt better for a little while after he was there though then his head started hurting again and he was thirsty and he kept thinking he would be sick.

It was summer, late summer, and the leather made him itch. His face was swollen wide enough for two: that he could see clearly enough in his mother's silver mirror. He was hungry after four days of nothing but what gruel he could suck into the side of his mouth through a reed, and everything the reed touched hurt and every time he swallowed he was sure he would be sick. His mouth tasted like sour blood. He couldn't sleep; they gave him possets, through the reed, of wine and cloves and cinnamon boiled with opium. This masked the pain and made him doze a while, but after an hour or two he would awake with a throbbing head and dried blood and dribble caked around his cheek. Thirsty and needing to pee but unable to get up. Spluttering incomprehensible syllables till one of the menservants brought a pitcher and assisted him to an unsatisfactory and partial emptying but when he tried to sit up so it would go better his head throbbed too much so he had to lie down and then he felt like he would wet the bed.

After a week, he was allowed up. The swelling in his face had mostly gone down, though it was brown and yellow and blue and purple and miserably tender. The leather sling on his jaw chafed; his mother tried to work in some salve but he couldn't bear to be touched. Then his friends were allowed in to visit and they immediately got to clowning and jumping and one thing and another and then all of a sudden he was too tired and too sore to be entertained, and was nearly in tears when his father and the stranger came in and thundered the boys out.

"Guillaume," his father shouted, "this is Rabbi Benjamin from Corone. He studied medicine in Spain and Damascus, and he has been good enough to take care of you."

"Prince," the Rabbi bellowed, "I hope you are feeling better." The Rabbi had so much beard that his mouth seemed to be covered and Guillaume decided groggily that the Rabbi didn't eat either. His head was throbbing and he couldn't understand why they were shouting at him when he was hurting so much. He nodded at first, to be polite, but his eyes got full of tears and he pointed to his head. "Of course," said the Rabbi, and went away and came back with a small glass vial and a reed. "Willow bark," he said and held it while Guillaume sipped painfully. Then the Rabbi had Guillaume get out of bed. He was wobbly so he sat on a stool why the manservant washed him and pulled a clean tunic over his head, and then the Rabbi massaged his temples and the back of his neck. It was only when the headache had gone away that the Rabbi allowed him to get back into bed. He slept.

The first real sleep in a week. He slept through the evening without stirring, all night, and into the middle of the next day. When he finally woke up, he was ravenously hungry, and consumed -- through his reed -- milk, porridge with honey made thin with milk, then an egg beaten in milk, Without the soreness once making him pause. The tenderness went away over the next few days, faster than the blue and purple on his face which gave way to brown and yellow. The Rabbi had the leather strap removed -- excruciating pain again as it was tugged away from the gum -- and replaced with several windings of linen. He no longer needed the opium possets. He was also permitted to leave the castle with a servant, though when he did, he had to wear the leather sling on his jaw.

So it was a shame that when he was finally able to go back outside on his own, he went immediately down the hill to the town, met up with his friends, persuaded one to hold a horse's head, climbed stiffly back onto a wall, and jumped. And fell off again. And was kicked and trampled.

The Rabbi had, of course, returned to Corone, so it was hours and hours of pain and not until evening before a horseman could ride south, locate the Rabbi, find fresh mules, and ride back. Hours filled with more pain and little sympathy mostly fury from his parents, guilt and misery watching while the boy who had held the horse's head was beaten. Knowing that when he was healed enough, his own beating would be double that.

The weary Rabbi gave him another dose of opium in wine and then set to work. After some maneuverings and the terrible shriek of bone against bone, he shook his head and sank back. "So," he said to the Prince. "It will mend, but it will always be crooked. It can't be set back the way it was."

"Do what you have to do," said the Prince, but his mother said, "How will he look?"

"There is always some mercy," said the Rabbi. "Fortunately, the boy does not have to be beautiful -- it is enough that he is a Prince. Now if he were a girl, God protect us all! The jaw, here, will be crooked, and the teeth, here, will protrude." He touched, Guillaume winced. "When he grows up -- he should live to grow up! -- he can always say he was in the wars. And why not? He lives in a continual war with life."

"Grosse-dent," they called him when the bandages were finally off. "Big-tooth." Sometimes they called him "Jaws."

The next spring, when they hanged Judas in Holy Week, the effigy of Judas had an enormous protruding jaw. He was mortified. The Prince laughed until the tears came to his eyes, and his mother was furious and said a thing so obscene and insulting should be forbidden. 

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