2017 READING CHALLENGE RECOMMENDATIONS
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It was October, the time of the year's dying when cattle were being slaughtered before winter and when the northern winds brought a promise of ice. The chestnut leaves had turned golden, the beeches were trees of flame and the oaks were made from bronze. Thomas of Hookton, with his woman, Eleanor, and his friend, Father Hobbe, came to the upland farm at dusk and the farmer refused to open his door, but shouted through the wood that the travelers could sleep in the byre. Rain rattled on the moldering thatch. Thomas led their one horse under the roof that they shared with a woodpile, six pigs in a stout timber pen and a scattering of feathers where a hen had been plucked. The feathers reminded Father Hobbe that it was St. Gallus's day and he told Eleanor how the blessed saint, coming home in a winter's night, had found a bear stealing his dinner. "He told the animal off " Father Hobbe said. "He gave it a right talking-to, he did, and then he made it fetch his firewood."
"I've seen a picture of that," Eleanor said. "Didn't the bear become his servant?"
"That's because Gallus was a holy man," Father Hobbe explained. "Bears wouldn't fetch firewood for just anyone Only for a holy man."
"A holy man," Thomas put in, "who is the patron saint of hens." Thomas knew all about the saints, more indeed than Father Hobbe. "Why would a chicken want a saint?" he inquired sarcastically.
"Gallus is the patron of hens?" Eleanor asked, confused by Thomas's tone. "Not bears?"
"Of hens," Father Hobbe confirmed. "Indeed of all poultry."
"But why?" Eleanor wanted to know.
"Because he once expelled a wicked demon from a young girl." Father Hobbe, broad-faced, hair like astickleback's spines, peasant-born, stocky, young and eager, liked to tell stories of the blessed saints. "A whole bundle of bishops had tried to drive the demon out," he went on, "and they had all failed, but the blessed Gallus came along and he cursed the demon. He cursed it And it screeched in terror" -- Father Hobbe waved his hands in the air to imitate the evil spirit's panic -- "and then it fled from her body, it did, and it looked just like a black hen -- a pullet. A black pullet."
"I've never seen a picture of that," Eleanor remarked in her accented English, then, gazing out through the byre door, "but I'd like to see a real bear carrying firewood," she added wistfully.
Thomas sat beside her and stared into the wet dusk, which was hazed by a small mist. He was not sure it really was St. Gallus's day for he had lost his reckoning while they traveled. Perhaps it was already St. Audrey's day? It was October, he knew that, and he knew that one thousand, three hundred and forty-six years had passed since Christ had been born, but he was not sure which day it was. It was easy to lose count. His father had once recited all the Sunday services on a Saturday and he had had to do them again the next day. Thomas surreptitiously made the sign of the cross. He was a priest's bastard and that was said to bring bad luck. He shivered. There was a heaviness in the air that owed nothing to the setting sun nor to the rain clouds nor to the mist. God help us, he thought, but there was an evil in this dusk and he made the sign of the cross again and said a silent prayer to St. Gallus and his obedient bear. There had been a dancing bear in London, its teeth nothing but rotted yellow stumps andits brown flanks matted with blood from its owner's goad. The street dogs had snarled at it, slunk about it and shrank back when the bear swung on them.
"How far to Durham?" Eleanor asked, this time speaking French, her native language.
"Tomorrow, I think," Thomas answered, still gazing north to where the heavy dark was shrouding the land. "She asked," he explained in English to Father Hobbe, "when we would reach Durham."
"Tomorrow, pray God," the priest said.
"Tomorrow you can rest," Thomas promised Eleanor in French. She was pregnant with a child that, God willing, would be born in the springtime. Thomas was not sure how he felt about being a father. It seemed too early for him to become responsible, but Eleanor was happy and he liked to please her and so he told her he was happy as well. Some of the time, that was even true.
"And tomorrow," Father Hobbe said, "we shall fetch our answers."
"Tomorrow," Thomas corrected him, "we shall ask our questions."
"God will not let us come this far to be disappointed," Father Hobbe said, and then, to keep Thomas from arguing, he laid out their meager supper. "That's all that's left of the bread," he said, "and we should save some of the cheese and an apple for breakfast." He made the sign of the cross over the food, blessing it, then broke the hard bread into three pieces. "We should eat before nightfall."
Darkness brought a brittle cold. A brief shower passed and after it the wind dropped. Thomas slept closest to the byre door and sometime after the wind died he woke because there was a light in the northern sky.
He rolled over, sat up and he forgot that he was cold, forgot his hunger, forgot all the small naggingdiscomforts of life, for he could see the Grail. The Holy Grail, the most precious of all Christ's bequests to man, lost these thousand years and more, and he could see it glowing in the sky like shining blood and about it, bright as the glittering crown of a saint, rays of dazzling shimmer filled the heaven.
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