The Steam Broomstick

Part One: The Witches of Dornoch
Chapter Five: Christina

Ben (54) is married to Christina (33), their daughter (8) is Janet. Ben is a pockmarked ploughman who upset Dornoch by marrying a young beauty and invented a new type of plough.

The northern autumn of 1682 was wet. Incessant rain filled rivers that broke through dykes, cattle pugged mud that blocked ditches, downpours formed rivulets that carried precious ears of grain away, spring-sown crops went mouldy, and autumn sowings were delayed. Teams of oxen stomped the Dornoch fields into quagmires and plough wheels clogged and dragged the heavy ploughs to a standstill. Only Ben’s lighter Swing Plough, with no team of oxen to pug or wheel to clog, kept operating, even in the rain, which meant that Ben’s services were once again in high demand.

Christina and Janet tended to the stock and all the other chores so Ben could devote his days, from first light to after dark, to the plough. In the evening Christina fed her husband and washed the mud off him and massaged the knotted muscles of his legs and back and neck and mighty arms, as he fell into an exhausted sleep. No one in Dornoch worked as long and as hard as Ben. On the 16th of  September, when a special service was called and the rest of the parish spent the day in the Cathedral praying for deliverance after a night of  horrors when a fiery portent burnt a trail across the sky and fairies were seen dancing down the lanes,  Ben was the sole figure to be seen on the fields working his plough behind his two horses.

Because he had only three furrows to go Ben decided to ignore the pelting storm that suddenly blew in from the North Sea and to finish the strip before heading home. Because the light was fading Ben failed to see a bog hole ahead, and the plough shear sank into it and pulled the horses up with a wrenching jolt. Because of the huge icy raindrops beating into his face, and his exhaustion, and his drive to get the job finish, Ben tried, with a mighty lurch reminiscent of his youth, to jerk the plough free – and fell face down into the mud, immobilised by excruciating pain in his back. He extricated his face, gasping for breath through the mud in his mouth, but he couldn’t rise. The rain pounded the muscles of man and horses but they did not move – the horses stood stock still so the rain would be shed without penetrating their coats, and the man lay helplessly paralysed in the mud.

In the darkest storm of her life Christina groped her way along the furrow with Janet clinging to her dress, until the white rump of a horse loomed like a ghostly statue, and she stood on Ben lying like a half buried corpse. With a desperate cry she sank to her knees in the mud and clawed around trying to turn Ben over screaming at him to speak to her. To her relief, and terror, he gave a cry of pain. Janet shrieked at what sounded like her father, but a father she had never heard before. Christina turned his head and wiped the mud from his mouth and eyes and got Janet to help her lift him up, but as soon as their efforts bent his back he let out a cry and fell back. Christina left Janet standing over Ben and stumbled  back down the furrow to seek help. Janet stood shaking, her terrified tears lost in beating raindrops that were swept from her face by the searing wind.

An interminable hour and a half later Christina returned with Stèphan and Isaac MacGowan, and a litter. By putting Ben’s cries of pain out of their minds they got him onto the litter and carried him home and onto his bed and covered him with blankets. Janet stoked the fire while Christina spooned ale into Ben’s mouth, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t eat. She lay against his back, trying to calm his shaking with the warmth of her body, willing him to sleep, until they both started drifting in and out of consciousness.

The morning light seeped into the byre-house endowing the smoke that hadn’t seeped out with a mysterious presence, and with enough visibility to show that Ben’s mouth was blue. He was chanting Bible passages through chattering teeth and when he saw Christina he started chattering over and over about a turtle, how she was not to sell the turtle, how she was to cook the turtle and make a soup and how they would feast on the turtle soup that evening when he returned from his day on the plough. There was no turtle.

When it stopped raining Christina told Janet to go and fetch the pastor, but Ben stopped her, he didn’t want to see anyone. He told Christina to see that Isaac had tended to the horses and plough and to fetch Ben’s Boot and the Poxman’s Pulley so he could explain an idea he had had about how it could be modified to help the plough operate in saturated soils. She obeyed but when she returned Ben had fallen into a fitful sleep. Stephan and his wife brought some clean blankets that were piled on top of Ben until his clattering turned to panting when they removed the wettest blankets. They tried to roll him over but his cries of pain stopped them, so he remained on his side staring at the fire and the door of his smoky world, his face as grey as the smoke, but for his pockmarks that were as grey as the ash. Only his eyes retained colour. Christina wiped yellow froth from Ben’s mouth and washed his face and lay with her elfin green eyes staring into his cow brown eyes.

When an afternoon calm settled on Dornoch like autumn leaves, Christina opened the wicker door to let flaps of smoke fold their way out and beams from the descending sun reach in towards Ben, then disappear, then return provisionally. Ben told Christina to make the turtle soup and for her and Janet to dine on it by the fire where he could see them. Christina made lentil potage and poured it into the turtle shell bowl then she and Janet sat by the fire where Ben could see them as she ladled the potage into two wooden bowls and they consumed it slowly with bread. Ben’s breathing was heavy and he started coughing up red froth.

When Janet went to bed by the door Christina undressed and lay pressed against Ben’s once mighty back weeping quietly at Ben’s painful wheezing breaths, wishing the pain to stop, dreading to hear the breathing stop, saying: “I love you Ben. I love you Ben. I love you Ben.” Christina didn’t sleep that night, when the breathing stopped she kept on saying: “I love you Ben”. When Janet got up and stoked the fire then went back to bed Christina got up and washed herself and combed her hair and put her best dress on before she went to face her husband. He lay on his side with his brown eyes staring out of his pockmarked face at Ben’s Boot and the Pox-Man’s Pulley lying beside the turtle shell.

17 thoughts on “The Steam Broomstick

  1. cpcurty says:

    You cover an awful lot of story here in a very brief amount of words. It feels to me like you are skipping over a lot of good action and drama by telling the story much too quickly. Show me more and narrate a little less. You have good style and your rhetoric is nice. Just focus in more closely, give me what the characters are going through inside there minds. Why does he work so hard what drives him to do the work of many men. How does his wife know that he is hurt in the field by the way, it seemed the story jumped right there?
    You can show me everything show me how his plow is better than everyone else’s but also show me that he is the sort of man that is a thinker and an inventor. Show me the mud clogging up the works. You have a good start though, keep writing.

  2. chickinwhite says:

    I can´t define it really, but it feels a little distant to the characters. As if told from someone who had heard it in town and now tells his fellows what happened…
    So, yes, I agree with cpcurty: give us more insights on their feelings, focus a little more on what is going on in their minds. That would be helpful and I think you can create much more tension…
    On another point: I think in th ebeginning of the scene you use very long sentences and, though they are getting shorter, I think that the dramatic tension (while hs laying in the mud and his wife finds him and the rescue…) could be intensified if you write it a little shorter…
    But all in all, it has caught me.
    Thanks for posting!

  3. Arlene says:

    First let me say that I like the story. I’m wondering if readers would be drawn into the story more if we were hearing from Ben’s point of view.
    I would continue reading.

  4. Ella says:

    I wonder if the distance that some of the readers are feeling comes from the uninterrupted narrative — I start to feel antsy if I haven’t seen dialogue for two or three paragraphs. Dialogue might also help keep what I suspect is an important scene (or series of scenes) from slipping past too quickly.

    A question for further research, if you haven’t looked already: would a minister in seventeenth-century Scotland ordinarly be called ‘pastor’? I’d expect ‘priest’ or ‘vicar’ or the like (although Scotland was Protestant at this point, Anglican ministers are often called priests), but I don’t know much about the place or time period.

    The setting and events interest me, and I do like what we see of Ben, esp. his dedication to his project even when (apparently) deathly ill.

  5. Philipp says:

    Surely the minister is most likely a presbyterian! Actually, that could be a very important point–was there as much religious strife in seventeenth-century Scotland as in sixteenth? I would guess not, but it might be significant, especially if this is (as I take it to be) a novel about Janet Horne, the last witch executed in Scotland. I agree fully, however, on the need for dialogue or, even more than that, for some deeper experience of the characters’ sentiments: we know that Ben is profoundly devoted to his work, but we don’t really feel that devotion. The exposition is good as exposition, but the voice isn’t strong enough to carry it.

  6. johnsonofdaw says:

    Thanks for all the above – these perspectives are extremely helpful.

    BTW I mistakenly put this in Mainstream, it should have been in historical, and 17th century Scotland was all about religion.

    • Philipp says:

      Perhaps (if I may be so bold) one way to bring out the emotions of the characters would be to emphasise the religious elements of what is going on more vividly and clearly: we hear that Ben has skipped out on church to work the fields. Is this a sign of his great dedication to his work or of his hubristic impiety–or, more interestingly than either, of a tragic blindness to the demands of society and of God (as a 17th-century Scotsman would likely see it) brought on by his obsession with his (intelligent or even brilliant and therefore good) invention? I’m not sure what sort of tone you want regarding religion, but I thought that that passage ought to foreshadow some kind of disaster, social or personal, and I guess a disaster resulted, but the sense of doom was never really worked out. To me, this vividness is more important than the presence or absence of dialogue, and is really what I meant by ‘voice’. I have no idea how you would achieve it, but it feels to me that all the pieces are there–it’s something about how you put them together.

  7. johnsonofdaw says:

    You may most certainly be so bold Philipp, and I’m pleased that you could detect what you did from this excerpt. Yes I try to foreshadow the primary theme of my novel with Ben. His pockmarked face made him a questioning outsider which led to two passions: a religious mission, and his tradition-defying work. Then, due to crisis involving Christina, he abandoned the former – which sets up the next conflict involving Janet Drury. But that’s only Part One.

    (I know I know I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Comments here have been very helpful though – now all I need is the same help for the rest ;- )

  8. Alex Zaykov says:

    A gripping dark story. I almost felt ploughing these fields myself and Ben’s and Christina’s agony afterwards. The voice was strong enough to carry me through the whole excerpt, but the lack of dialogue made reading hard towards the end.
    One point that got me pausing and thinking for a moment was Ben’s injury. Is it possible to die from pushing something very hard? Bubbling blood from the mouth implies internal injury which I can’t see happen from pushing.
    When I take this excerpt together with the novel beginning posted earlier I am left pretty confused about the whole story and its coherence. Chapter one is called: William Laud, whom I never meet. Instead the novel opens with Hamish Magill and involves indirectly Janet Drury through their old affair. In the second scene Ben is somehow the leading character while the chapter is named after his wife who, at least in my opinion, plays a secondary role. If the concept of the novel is to look at a story through many different inhabitants of Dornoch then adopting the POV or sticking as closely as possible to the experiences of the persons to whom the chapters are dedicated will be clearer for the reader. Also, if there is one true main character (Hamish?), first chapter and opening scene should be all his, including the chapter title.

    I would definitely read a XVII Century Scottish village saga , so I wish you good luck!

  9. John Dawson (@johnsonofdaw) says:

    Wow Alex, I’m flattered by the thought you’ve given my passages.

    Ben died of complications (sepsis or blood poisoning) from pneumonia as a result of lying in the rain after a back injury. I grant you one day is very fast. I’ll think further about that.

    None of the characters you noticed are the main character. I don’t get to him until part two. Which may turn out to be an insurmountable flaw. But I want to show the phenomenal transformation in a century from the religious/medieval world to the scientific/modern world in terms of personal tribulations and achievements.

    I’m glad there’s some appeal there. Thanks for noticing so much

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