It’s 1808, in Portugal during the Peninsular War.
There were the sounds of the early morning, quiet, peaceful, not like yesterday. A bee was exploring the flowers near where he had fallen, felled by a bullet in his leg. He had been unlucky. It must have been a rifleman that hit him: only a rifleman could have shot him at that distance. The French didn’t have many riflemen. Just his luck that one was there, and saw a soldier on his own, probably a messenger, making off along a track; an obvious target. And wearing a shako with a scarlet plume: an officer. In some regiments the officers didn’t wear the plumes in their shakos on the field, but in his regiment that was considered cowardice. Live to fight, or offer yourself as a sacrifice? He had honoured the regimental tradition, but wondered why. Don’t let me die, God.
He could hear a skylark desperately pouring out its song just as it did in England. He couldn’t see it. He could see the blue, so much bluer than at home. The crickets were starting their calling, warmed by the sun rising above the hills. He heard the distant shouts of men, and if he turned his head he could see them, far off, on the field he had left the day before. Tiny figures from this distance. There were little groups of men sitting round their fires, probably hoping that food would arrive. And there were bodies, once men, lying on the field, dead. French or English, too far away to see the uniforms. Who would they say had won? The men who fought never knew until word came from general headquarters. It could say, well done, men, a great victory. Or it could say, well done men, you fought well and hard. Then they knew that they had lost that little skirmish. In the far distance bells were ringing. It must be for early Mass. Strange how life went on unperturbed so close to the battlefield. Strange how the day after a battle, men reverted to a more peaceful life, burying their dead, cooking their food. Even sharing what they had with the French, giving them food and welcoming them to their fires, taking their wounded to the regimental surgeon.
But yesterday they were the enemy. Yesterday had been dreadful. Lined up just before dawn, they had seen the camp fires on the hill across the stream. As they advanced the French artillery bombardment began, setting fire to the dry grass. Impossible to see where they were going for the smoke, and men were turning and fleeing from the flames, the long grass burning with terrific heat, some of the men engulfed, their clothes burning on their bodies, screaming with pain, made worse by fear. He had tried to rally his men, but the panic was too strong. He gathered the men at the stream, ready for another advance, and it was then that the order had come that he was to report to General Wellesley, and given the messenger pouch, the men sent into reserve. He saw the relief on their faces.
He put his hand on the pouch. Too late now: it had probably always been too late. He wondered what the message said, and what he should do with it now. Well, he probably wasn’t going to do anything at all. He moved to try to make himself more comfortable, and the pain in his leg came crashing back. Most of the time it was just a dull throbbing, but any movement brought back the worst.
It was getting hotter, and he knew it would soon be unbearable lying out in the sun. After he fell yesterday evening he had tried to stand, but couldn’t, and lay there all night, waves of pain sweeping over him. Could he drag himself into the shade of the trees? The sweat already pouring down his face told him he should try, and he dragged himself a few feet and couldn’t go any further. But after a time he tried again, and managed a few feet before he had to stop, vomiting. He kept on, a few feet at a time, and in the end was lying in the shade cast by a huge tree. A cork oak: there weren’t cork oaks at home, but he remembered lying in Wilson’s meadow with Mary under that big elm tree. Sweet Mary. How she had cried when he told her he was being sent away. His mother told him he should marry his cousin, Celia, and he had shuddered. He had kissed her once, at Christmas under the mistletoe, not a shred of passion in her body. Not like Mary, her whole body his, clinging to him, calling his name. His father had warned him not to pay attentions to the village girls, and when warnings proved insufficient had bought a commission and sent him off to join his uncle’s regiment.
Don’t let me die, God, he whispered.
He looked at his leggings, soaked with blood, now dried, wondered if he should try to look at the wound, see if there was anything he could do, but knew it was beyond him.
There was the sound of a cart approaching, the horse stumbling on the track where it had been washed away by winter rains, long past. He wondered if it would be an army cart. If it would be French or English. As it came round a bend in the track he saw that there were two women sitting on the box seat: the woman driving called to the horse, and it stopped. He put his hand on his pistol, but knew he wouldn’t fire it. Why should he? They had come to help the Portuguese throw off the tyranny of the French, and drive the French from their country. They were our allies. He hoped the women would know that he was English. The younger woman, who had been driving, got down and came over to him. She seemed unafraid, looked at his leg, turned and said something to the other woman. They talked, and then the older woman got down, came over, and they gestured that they would put him on the cart. Anything was better than lying there, half dead.
The women were strong, and managed to get him onto the cart without difficulty, although he cried out in pain as they lifted him.
He wondered where they were taking him, but didn’t really care.
It was to a farm house, on a little hill, surrounded by cypress trees scenting the air, calming him, and they carried him into the house, laid him on a table. The older woman spoke to the younger, calling her by her name, Maria. And he realised that she was being sent out of the room. He wondered why. The older woman picked up a knife and he was apprehensive for a moment. But what she did was to cut away the clothing on his leg. The clothing was stuck to his leg, and the pain came shooting back. He put up his hand to stop her, but she shook her head, said something to him, and went on. Maria reappeared with a bowl of water, steaming, and the older woman started washing his thigh. The pain was intense, he gasped, and Maria held his hand. After a time he managed to raise himself to look at his leg. It had begun bleeding again, but he could see that the bullet must have missed the bone. He knew they should try to see if the bullet was still in his leg, but wondered if he could bear that. He could just reach his leg, and felt around the wound, but couldn’t feel anything. He knew that wasn’t enough, he was afraid to feel properly. He had been in the surgeon’s tent, and knew that you had to use a, what was it called, a probe? That was the only way. He looked around the kitchen and saw a skewer. Could he bear to have that pushed into his leg? By gestures he tried to show the women what they should do, and saw understanding. The older woman just nodded, but Maria put her hands in front of her face, a sharp intake of breath, turned away, and was spoken to roughly. She took up a wooden spoon, putting the handle between his teeth to bite on, while the older woman felt around the wound with the skewer. The pain was intense, and he must have fainted, because the next thing he knew was that the women were binding up his leg with a cloth.
‘Bom,’ the older woman said, smiling and nodding at him. He hoped that meant good, and that the bullet wasn’t there.
He lay helpless in bed, looking out over the countryside through the window, always open, watching the clouds coming in from the sea, the sun sinking into the sea in the evening. There was a huge bird, hovering, the dizzying plunge to earth, levelling out as the bird swooped down and seized its prey. Then the laboured climb back into the sky towards the hills, with something in its beak or claws. It came every afternoon, and he looked for it. Had the bird seen the foolishness of men yesterday?
The women brought him food, often soup, and sat with him. Maria baked every day, and brought him bread, sprinkled with oil and salt, as Penelope did for Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, a lesson from his school days. He learned the older woman’s name, Constancia. Mother and daughter, he supposed. He could hear them moving around the house, he could smell the cooking. There didn’t seem to be any men, and he wondered why. This is a house where a man would be contented, he thought.
They brought him his uniform, the leggings mended, clean, and his shako, the plume brushed free of dirt. He could walk out and rejoin his regiment. Except that he couldn’t walk.
He talked to Maria, and began to learn words, asked her if she was married. He hadn’t learned the word for married so he asked her in English. It often worked. When two people want to understand, they will find a way.
‘Marido, não,’ she said, and shook her head. ‘Madre, sim,’ pointing downstairs. Then she took his hand in hers, looking into his face.
Her face was round, her hair black, and her eyes the same; he had never seen eyes so dark.
He lay there, listening to the house. It made its own sounds, creaks and cracks. A house that had been speaking to those who lived there for hundreds of years. Each step on the stairs had its own creak, each door its own sound. He knew the sound of the door to Maria’s room. He knew her footsteps, and heard her coming upstairs to her room, and opening the door, her door. He heard her crossing the floor, knew when there would be a floorboard that squeaked. He could tell when she sat on the edge of the bed: it made a sound like a sigh. He imagined her taking her clothes off, and he thought of that other Mary and was ashamed. There was another sound: that was Maria kneeling by her bed to say her prayers, and then jumping into bed, pulling the bedclothes round her. He knew all of this, as well as if he had been there and seen it.
It wasn’t much of a farm, he learned, a few olive trees, chickens running around, a few goats driven out each day by Maria. The goats all had names, and he heard Maria calling them. Each goat had a bell, all different, and the bells were a constant accompaniment to his day. He learned the sound of each bell, and then the name of the goat that bore it. Maria would call out a name, and then there would be a rapid tolling as the goat obeyed Maria’s command, coming back to the herd, catching up. She had a different voice for each of the goats, to some she spoke angrily, harshly, but he knew her favourite, Princesa, by the soft voice that she used to her.
He woke one morning sweating. His leg was throbbing and his whole body ached. Constancia brought water and sponged him, but wouldn’t let Maria do so. He spent more and more time asleep, but woke one afternoon to find a priest in the room, talking to the women, and shaking his head. The priest saw that he was awake, spoke to him, saw that he couldn’t understand, and took a small silver cup of wine, and offered it. They think I’m dying, he thought. Dear God, I don’t want to die.
He didn’t know how long he had been there, drifting in and out of sleep, dreaming. Maria, when she sat with him, held his hand, and he thought again of that other Mary, and spoke to her.
‘Don’t let me die,’ he said. ‘You can keep me here.’
He could hear Constancia and Maria talking downstairs; at least he could hear Constancia, her voice raised, Maria almost inaudible, answering with single words. He was falling asleep when he heard his door opening, looked up, and saw Maria standing in the doorway. She came to his bed, knelt down, and buried her face on his chest, her body shaking with sobs. He could hardly move, but he managed to put his arm round her, telling her not to cry.
They buried him the next day in the graveyard next to the tiny church. A bright day. It had rained in the night, and everywhere was fresh and clean. Just the three of them, the priest, and Constancia and Maria, the grave diggers standing aside.
Maria held his messenger pouch and his bible. She knew the pouch was important; he had always kept it by him, but she didn’t understand English, so she didn’t know what the writing in the pouch said. She would keep it safe for him.
She knew what the bible was.
‘Sua Biblia’, she whispered.