They say I was the first to touch them. When the reapers found the children in the wolf–pits — a boy and a girl, their skin the pale flat green of wilting grass — they shuddered and would not lay hands on them, prodding them across the fields with the handles of their scythes. I watched them approach from my stone on the bank of the river. The long, curving blades of the scythes sent up flashes of light that dazzled my eyes and made me doubt what I was seeing — a boy and a girl holding fast to each other's garments, twisting them nervously between their green fingers, their green faces turned to the sun. The reapers nudged and jabbed at them until they came to a stop at my side, where the river's green water lapped at their shoes. I allowed myself to stare.
Alden took me by the shoulder and said, "We think that it must be the rotting disease. They were calling out when we found them, but none of us could make out the tongue. We're taking them to the house of Richard de Calne."
I understand little of medicine, and in those days I understood even less, but I could see that, despite the coloring of their skin, the children were healthy. The veins beneath their arms were dark and prominent, the sharp green of clover or spinach leaves. Their breathing was regular and clear.
"Will you carry them across the river?" Alden asked me, and I took my time before answering, cleaning the gristle from my teeth with the tapering edge of a twig. I know the rules of bargaining.
"Two coins," I said. "Two coins for each. And one for the rest of you."
The reapers fished the silver from their satchels.
If I was not the first to touch the children, I was certainly the first to carry them.
I lifted the boy onto my shoulders (one of the men had to rap the girl's wrist with the butt of his scythe to make her let go of him) and was halfway across the river when Alden summoned me back. "Take some of us across first. If you leave the boy there alone, he'll run away." So I carried two of the men to the opposite shore, and then the boy, and then I returned for the girl, balancing her in the crook of my arm so that she straddled the hummock of muscle like a rider on a pony. This was years ago, when I could haul a full trough of water all the way from the river to the stables, or raise a calf over my head, or shore up the wall of a house while the sun dried the foundation. The water was as high as my waist when my foot fell on a patch of thick, jellylike moss and shot into the current. The girl wrapped her arms around my neck and began to speak in a panic, a thread of shrill, gabbling syllables that I could not understand. "Wooramywoorismifath!"
I regained my balance, throwing my arms out, and heard one of the reapers laughing at me from the river–bank. The girl was crying now, convulsive sobs that shook her entire body, and I took her chin in my fingers and turned her face toward mine. Her eyes were as brown as singed barley, as brown as my own. "I know these people," I said to her. "Look at me. I know them. No one will hurt you." A yellow slug of mucous was trailing from her nose, and I wiped it off with my finger and slung it into the water, where the fish began to nip at it. "Don't cry," I said, and with three loping strides I set her on the other shore.
As the reapers led the children into Woolpit, I kneaded the coins in my pocket, feeling their satisfying weight and the imprint of their notches. Seven birds came together in the sky. The coming week would bring a change of fortune. It was the plainest of signs.
* * * * * * * * * *
The river spills straight through the center of town, with the fields, the church, and the stables on one side and the smithy, the tavern, and the market on the other. It is an angry foaming dragon, the current swift and violent, and only the strongest can cross it without falling. The nearest stepway is half an hour's walk downstream, a wedge of stone so slippery it seems to sway beneath you like a lily-pad, yet before I took my place on the shore, the people of Woolpit made that journey every day. I was just a boy then and liked to stand on the bank casting almond shells into the water, following beside them as they tumbled and sailed away, memorizing the trails they took. By the time my growth came upon me I knew the river well, every twist and eddy and surge of it. I soon discovered I could cross it with ease. I had found my work.
The days after the green children appeared were busy ones. I would rest on my stone no longer than a moment before a new party of townspeople would arrive, their coins gleaming in their hands, eager to see the wonders at the house of Richard de Calne. One by one I would hoist them onto my back and wade into the water, leaning against the current and rooting my feet to the ground, and one by one I would haul them back to the other shore when they returned some few hours later. At night, as I lay on my pallet, the muscles of my back gave involuntary jerking pulses, like fish pulled from the river and clapped onto a hard surface. The sensation was entirely new to me then, though I have experienced it many times since.
The people who had seen the green children spoke of little else, and I listened to their accounts as they gathered in clutches on the strand:
"The girl is covered in bug bites, and the boy just lies there and shivers."
"I hear that de Calne has hired someone to train them in English."
"Green to their gums! Green to the roots of their hair!"
"Have you seen the midget who lives at Coggeshall Abbey?"
"I made a farting noise with my tongue, and the girl smiled at me."
"The chirurgeon says that it's chlorosis — the greensickness."
"They're the ugliest specimens I've ever seen — uglier than a boil, uglier than that hag Ruberta."
"I can see them glowing like marshfire when I close my eyes."
"Did I tell you my milk–cow dropped a two–headed calf last year?"
"Mark my words — they'll be dead before the first frost."
The river was swollen with rain from a storm that had broken in the hills, but the sky over Woolpit was so windless and fine that the current ran almost noiselessly between its banks. As I carried the townsfolk through water as high as my gut, I gave my ear to them and learned that the green children had eaten nothing for several days, though bread and meat and greens had all been set before them. I learned that though they did not eat, they did drink from the dippers of water they were given, and that sometimes the girl even used the excess to clean her face and hands. One of the men who had examined the children for hidden weapons said that their hair was handsomely clipped, their teeth straight and white, and their clothing was stitched from a strange–looking material with many narrow furrows: it fell on their bodies with the stiffness of leather, yet was soft and smooth to the touch. "They huddled together as soon as I drew away," I heard him say. "They clutched their stomachs and cried."
On the third day of the children's keeping, one of the growers brought them some beans newly cut from the field. The children were plainly excited and slit the stalks open with their fingernails, examining the hollows for food, but finding nothing there, they began to weep. Then one of the kitchen–maids swept the stalks aside and showed them how to crack open the pods. She prised out a row of naked beans, and the children gasped and thrust their hands out for them. The kitchen–maid insisted on softening the beans in water first, and then, with great relish, the children devoured them. For several days after they would eat nothing else.
It was Martin, the tanner's son, who told me that the girl had spoken her name. He arrived at the river one evening carrying a palm–shaped basket of green reeds raddled so carelessly together that the fringe twisted in every direction. "Our fire went out," he said. "My dad told me to go get some more."
"Climb on," I said, and he shinnied up to my shoulders. As we crossed the water, he asked me whether I had seen the boy and the girl yet. "I have," I told him.
"Did you know the girl's started talking now? Real words, I mean."
"What has she said?"
"She can say 'water,' and she can say 'hungry,' and she can say 'more.' The boy hasn't said a damned thing, though." We had reached the shore by then, and I lifted him from my shoulders, straight into the air, so that he spat the word "Jesus" and then laughed as I planted him upright on the bank. "That's what my dad told me, anyway," and he ran up the trail into the village.
When he returned some short time later, there was a small heap of orange coals smoldering inside his basket. Each time the breeze touched them, they glimmered brightly for a moment, then gently dimmed. "You're not going to spill those on me, are you?" I asked. "Because if you do you'll be walking home wet."
"I promise," he said, and so I carried him to the other shore.
As I stood him on dry ground I asked, "Has the girl told her name yet?"
"Seel–ya," he said. "That's how she pronounced it, too. Funny." He set his basket of coals on the grass and pulled a coin from the inside of his shoe: it was clinging to the skin of his foot, and he had to peel it loose before handing it to me. I took the coin and dropped it in my satchel, heavy as a fist from the day's business. "Goodbye then," he said.
"Goodbye," I answered.
He marched off toward home, carrying his pocket of light into the graying air.