The bandits came again on Easter. This time they slaughtered two men, three women, and two small children. Some smelting tools were stolen from the blacksmith, but no gold or silver, as there was none. One of the bandits was injured by an ax wielded by the slain children's mother-she smashed his left foot. Then he was restrained by neighbors and dragged to the village square, where he was beaten and put in the pillory. Villagers pelted him with mud and animal excrement until nightfall. Grigor, the dead children's grandfather, was too bereft to sleep, so he got up in the night, went to the square, cut off the bandit's ear with a garden knife, and flung it in a lemon tree laden with blossoms. 'For the birds to eat!' he yelled at the bleeding man and sobbed as he slunk away. Nobody could say what specific acts of horror this one pilloried bandit had committed. The rest of the bandits got away and took with them six geese, four goats, six wheels of cheese, and a cask of honey, in addition to the iron tools.
No lambs were stolen, as the lamb herder, Jude, lived in a pasture several miles from the center of the village, and he had his lambs penned and sleeping soundly that night as usual. The pasture was at the foot of a hill, on top of which sat the large stone manor where Villiam, Lapvona's lord and governor, resided. His guards were in position to defend him should any menacing individual ever climb the hill. Between the echoing screams from the village, Jude thought he could hear the gut strings of the guards' bows tighten from where he lay awake by the fire that night. It was not by chance that Jude and his son, Marek, lived in the pasture below the manor. Villiam and Jude shared a blood relation, their great-grandfather. Jude thought of Villiam as his cousin, though the two men had never met.
On Monday, Marek, age thirteen, walked to the village to assist the men in digging a trench to bury the dead. He wanted to be helpful, but cowered when the bodies were laid out on the thick grass of the cemetery and the men took up their shovels. The heads of the dead were covered only in thin cloths. Marek imagined that their faces were still alive. He could see their eyelashes grazing the fabric as a soft wind blew. He saw the outlines of their lips and thought they were moving, speaking to him, warning him to get away. The children's bodies looked like wooden dolls, stiff and adorable. Marek crossed himself and retreated back to the road. The men of the village dug the trench easily without him anyway. Nobody cared that Marek had come and gone. He was like a stray dog that wandered in and out of the village from time to time, and everyone knew he was a bastard.
Marek was a small boy and had grown crookedly, his spine twisted in the middle so that the right side of his rib cage protruded from his torso, which caused his arm to find its only comfort resting, half bent, across his belly. His left arm hung loose from its socket. His legs were bowed. His head was also misshapen, although he hid his skull under a tattered knit hat and bright red hair that had never once been brushed or cut. His father-whose long, uncut hair was brown-admonished vanity as a cardinal sin. There were no mirrors in their humble home in the pasture, not that they had any earnings to afford one. Jude was the oldest bachelor in Lapvona. Other men took their young cousins as their wives if they needed one-women often died in childbirth-or traded a few sheep or pigs to a village in the north for a tall girl to marry.
Jude could never bear to see his reflection, not even in the clear, icy stream that ran through the valley or in the lake where he went to bathe a few times a year. He also believed that Marek ought not see himself. He was glad to have a son and not a daughter, whose lack of beauty would be much more injurious. Marek was ugly. And fragile. Not at all like Jude, whose bones and muscles were like polished bluffs beaten by an ocean, soft and luminous despite his skin being grimy and often covered in lamb shit. Jude never let on that Marek's face had an unseemly disproportion; the boy's forehead was high and veiny, his nose bulbous and skewed, his cheeks flat and pale, his lips thin, his chin a stub giving way to a neck that was wrinkled and soft, like a drape of skin over his throat, which was flabby at the apple. 'Beauty is the Devil's shade,' Jude said.
On his way home from the cemetery, Marek passed the pillory where the wounded bandit moaned and cried in a language nobody knew. Marek stopped to say a prayer for the bandit’s soul. ‘God, forgive him,’ he said aloud, but the bandit kept crying. Marek got closer. Nobody was around. Perhaps the stench of excrement had cleared people away in the warm sun of spring. Or perhaps they were all busy watching over the burial of the dead. Marek looked into the bandit’s eyes. They were green, like his own. But they were cruel eyes, Marek thought. If he got closer, he thought, he might see the Devil in them. Upon his approach, the bandit cried out again, as if Marek of all people could save him. Even if the boy were strong enough to lift the stocks and help the bandit run away into the woods, he wouldn’t. God was watching.
'God forgive you,' Marek said to the bandit.
He got closer still, then deigned to lay a hand on the bandit's arm. Marek could see that his foot was broken, limp, a bone sticking out through the flesh, the skin wrinkled and yellow. His breathing was quick and raspy. Flies swarmed, unbothered by the bandit's repeated cries of jibberish. Marek closed his eyes and prayed until the bandit stopped wailing. He opened them in time for the bandit to spit in his face. He knew not to flinch, as that would show disgust, and God would judge him. Instead, he bent down and kissed the bandit's head, then licked his lips to taste the salt of the man's sweat and the rancid oils caked into his reddish hair. The bandit winced and stuck out his tongue. Marek curtsied and turned and walked away, feeling that the bandit's cries now were not in anguish or petulance, but in rapture of salvation, even if they sounded exactly the same.
Marek left the square and walked calmly now, a feeling of goodness tingling in his left arm, which he took to mean that he had earned a bit of grace while the rest of the village had reviled the bandit and suffered now in darkness, laying down the dead, who were, unlike the rest of them, at peace.
Outside the village, Marek passed a few of Villiam’s guards patrolling the road. He smiled and waved to them. They paid no mind to the boy. The guards were all descended from northerners, so they were tall and strong. Northerners were known to be single-minded and cold. They were physically superior to native Lapvonians, and if they had any interest, they could have sacked the village themselves and stomped into Villiam’s manor and killed him with a swift elbow to the heart. But they’d been sufficiently tamed and trained after generations of indenture, and now they did the bidding of Villiam as though he owned them. He did own them, in fact, and all the servants at his manor, and the entire village and the woods and the farmsteads spread throughout the fiefdom. Villiam owned Jude’s pasture and the small cottage he shared with Marek. The pasture was bounded by woods, which were Villiam’s also.
As Marek now turned into these woods on his way home, he decided he wouldn't tell his father that he had kissed the bandit. Jude didn't understand forgiveness. He was incapable of forgiveness because he was so addled by his own grief and grudges. This bad blood was what kept Jude's heart pumping. The first grief had been for the deaths of his parents when he was a teenager-they drowned in the lake during a storm. They'd been fishing for krap and their little raft had broken in the wind. So rare was a wind so strong that it seemed to Jude that the tragedy had been aimed at him specifically, an evil air cast up from hell to take from him the only family he knew and loved. The second grief was the loss of Agata, his lady, Marek's mother. She had died in childbirth, Jude liked to recount, bled to death on the floor by the fire. You could still see the stain of her blood thirteen years later. 'There, the red still shows,' Jude said, and pointed to the spot by the hearth where the dirt seemed worn down harder than the rest. Marek could never see the blood. 'You're blind to color, just like your mother,' Jude said. 'That's why.'
'But I see my hair is red,' Marek protested.
A punch in the jaw left Marek's tongue flayed by his own teeth. Blood spilt from his mouth on the very spot on the hearth where his mother had supposedly died. Jude pointed again.
'You see it now? Where she left me to raise a child alone?'
Not that Marek got much raising. Jude never held him or rocked him. Immediately following his lady's departure, he'd handed the boy over to the care of Ina during the day while he tended to his lambs. Ina was the wet nurse then, and something of a legend in the village, a woman without a man or child of her own, whose breasts had fed half the population. Some called her a witch because she was blind and yet she was industrious. And she had an intuition about medicines. She traded mushrooms and nettles for eggs and bread, and some people said the mushrooms gave them visions of hell and others said they gave them visions of heaven, but they always cured their malaise-nobody could doubt her knowledge of medicinal plants. They distrusted Ina because of her wisdom, while they still made use of it. She lived down the valley in a dark patch of woods south of Jude's pasture.
Ina was older than anyone could say, and by now her milk had dried up. Marek loved Ina. At thirteen, he still visited her once a week. She was the only person to caress him and give him a kind word now and then. He brought her flowers from the pasture and lamb's milk and chestnuts when they were in season, bread and cheese when there was some extra.
‘Did you dig?’ Jude asked when Marek got home. He dunked a cup into their keg of water and handed it to the boy.
'They didn't need me,' Marek answered. 'And I was afraid of the dead. I was afraid they were still alive.'
'Those were good people who got killed,' Jude said. 'Only the evil ones get trapped in their dead bodies. That's their eternal penance; the ones who go to hell rot. The ones who go to heaven disappear. Not a trace of flesh is left. Be good and you'll leave nothing behind. Be bad and you'll live forever in your rotting body in the ground.'
'Why were the good dead people still flesh then? Why hadn't they gone to heaven yet?'
'They've got to go into the ground first. Bury them and they disappear.'
'How do you know?' Marek asked.
'I'm your father,' Jude said. 'I know everything.'
They boiled lamb's milk and covered the pot with a cloth to keep the flies away while it cooled. Marek picked the bugs off some potatoes and plunged them and a few whole apples in the fire. They were old apples from the fall harvest. Jude had eaten only lamb's milk, bread, apples and potatoes, and wild grasses his entire life. Like the rest of Lapvona, he didn't eat meat. Nor did he drink mead, only milk and water. Marek ate what Jude ate, always saving a few bites for God: he knew that sacrifice was the best way to please Him.
'Does your head hurt?' Marek asked his father. Jude was rubbing his temples with his knuckles. He often had headaches. His gums often bled.
'Be quiet,' said Jude. 'A storm is coming, that's all.'
'Will it rain tonight?'
'It will rain on Wednesday. Just in time for the hanging.'
It did rain on Wednesday. As father and son walked to the village square, warm spring rain shook the lemon blossoms and haunted the air under Jude’s hood with a smell that brought his brighter childhood memories to mind, which he felt shame for remembering on such a day. Jude had not yet set eyes on the bandit.
'Did bandits really kill my grandparents?' Marek asked.
'My parents drowned. You know that.'
'My mother's parents-did the bandits kill them, really?'
'I've told you a hundred times,' Jude said. He told Marek that his mother had been a victim of an attack on her native village when she was twelve, a year younger than Marek was now. 'First they slashed your grandfather's throat, and then they raped your grandmother. Then they slashed her throat, too. They tied your uncles up with rope and threw them in a well to drown. They were just little boys.'
'What did they do to my mother?'
'They cut out her tongue so she couldn't talk, but she ran away,' Jude told him. 'She was lucky to escape. I found her in the woods, nearly dead. Poor Agata. Why do you like this story so much?'
'Because I love my mother.'
'She was a strong girl, but she carried death with her. Death is like that. Like a beggar that follows you down the road. And kills you.'
'Was my mother very beautiful?'
'What a stupid question,' Jude said. Of course, he had invented the girl's name and history. With no tongue, she couldn't possibly have communicated any of this to Jude-she could barely even understand the language of Lapvona when she first arrived. But Jude thought the story made him sound like a hero. 'She was the only one left alive. Imagine the guilt that comes with that charge. Who cares about beauty?'
'I'll feel guilty when you die,' Marek told Jude.
'Good boy,' Jude said.
The crowd had collected in the square, and as Jude and Marek arrived the bandit was being removed from the pillory. They joined a huddle of villagers and watched as Villiam's guards tied the bandit's hands behind his back and dragged him, his legs bouncing, along the cobblestones. They hefted him up the steps and onto the small platform of the gallows. The villagers spoke quietly amongst themselves, a few women sniffling, a few men shuffling violently, thirsty for blood. Grigor, the old man, stood stoically in front of the gallows and prayed that the souls of his two dead grandchildren find peace. The families of the other slain villagers shouted curses at the bandit. Their anger was righteous. Father Barnabas, their priest, had told them so. 'Chastise an evil-doer and God will know you're good.' Marek covered his ears. He didn't like to hear foul language. He was delicate in this way. Even Jude's rough words hurt him in the heart: 'Damn him,' Jude said.