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A Knot in the Grain: And Other Storiesby Robin Mckinley
Synopses & Reviews
The child was born just as the first faint raysof dawn made their way through thecracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low.The new father bowed his head over his wife's hand as themidwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Blackcurls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but whenthe little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and dosed its mouth as if it knew that ithad failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife's own, black, and dearer than a new-born's should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife's own eyes.
"The child does not cry," the mother whispered in terror, and the father's head snapped up to look at the midwife and the baby cradled in her arms.
The midwife could not fear the sadness in this baby's eyes; and she said shakily, "No, the baby does not cry, but she is a fine girl nonetheless"; and the baby blinked, and the look was gone. The midwife washed her quickly, and gave her into her mother's eager, anxious arms, and saw the dampcurled, black-haired head of the young wife bend over the tiny curly head of the daughter. Her smile reminded the midwife of the smiles of many other new mothers, and the midwife smiled herself, and opened a shutter long enough to take a few deep breaths of the new morning air. She dosed it again firmly, and chased the father out of the room so that mother and child might be bathed properly, and the bedclothes changed.
They named her Lily. She almost never cried; it was as though she didnot want to call attention to what she lacked, and so at most her little face would screw itself into a tiny red knot, and a few tears would creep down her cheeks; but she did not open her mouth. She was her parents' first child, and her mother hovered over her, and she suffered no neglect for her inability to draw attention to herself.
When Lily was three years old, her mother bore a second child, another daughter; when she was six and a half, a son was born. Both these children came into the world howling mightily. Lily seemed to find their wordless crying more fascinating than the grown-ups' speech, and when she could she loved to sit beside the new baby and play with it gently, and make it chuckle at her.
By the time her little brother was taking his first wobbly steps it had become apparent that Lily had been granted the healer's gift. A young cow or skittish mare would foal more quietly with her head in Lily's lap; children with fever did not toss and turn in their beds if Lily sat beside them; and it was usually in Lily's presence that the fevers broke, and the way back to health began.
When she was twelve, she was apprenticed to the midwife who had birthed her.
Jolin by then was a strong handsome woman of forty-five or so. Her husband had died when they had had only two years together, and no children; and she had decided that she preferred to live alone as a healer after that. But it was as the midwife she was best known, for her village was a healthy one; hardly anyone ever fell from a horse and broke a leg or caught a fever that her odd-smelling draughts could not bring down.
"I'll tell you, young one," she said to Lily, "I'll teach you everything I know, but if youstay here you won't be needing it; you'll spend the time you're not birthing babies sewing little sacks of herbs for the women to hang in the wardrobes and tuck among the linens. Can you sew properly?" Lily nodded, smiling; but Jolin looked into her black eyes and saw the same sorrow there that she had first seen twelve years ago. She said abruptly, "I've heard you whistling. You can whistle more like the birds than the birds do. Tbere's no reason you can't talk with those calls; we'll put meanings to the different ones, and we'll both learn 'em. Will you do that with me?"
Lily nodded eagerly, but her smile broke, and Jolin looked away.
Five years passed; Jolin had bought her apprentice a horse the year before, because Lily's fame had begun to spread to neighboring towns, and she often rode a long way to tend the sick. Jolin still birthed babies, but she was happy not to have to tend stomachaches at midnight anymore, and Lily was nearly a woman grown, and had surpassed her old teacher in almost all. Jolin had to offer her. Jolin was glad of it, for it still worried her that the sadness stayed deep in Lily's eyes and would not be lost or buried. The work meant much to each of them; for Jolin it had eased the loss of a husband she loved, and had had for so little time she could not quite let go of his memory; and for Lily, now, she thought it meant that which she had never had.
Of the two of them, Jolin thought, Lily was the more to be pitied. Their village was one of a number of small villages, going about their small concerns, uninterested in anything but the weather and the crops, marriages, births, and deaths. There was no one within three days' ride who could read or write, forJolin knew everyone; and the birdcall-speech that she and her apprentice had made was enough for crops and weather, births and deaths, but Jolin saw other things passing swiftly over Lilys dear face, and wished there were a way to let them free.
At first John had always accompanied Lily on her rounds, but as Lily grew surer of her craft, somehow she also grew able to draw what she needed to know or to borrow from whomever she tended; and Jolin could sit at home and sew her little sacks of herbs and prepare the infusions Lily would need, and tend the several cats that always lived with them, and the goats in the shed and the few chickens in the coop that survived the local foxes.
When Lily was seventeen, Jolin said, "You should be thinking of marrying." She knew at least two lads who followed Lily with their eyes and were clumsy at their work when she was near, though Lily seemed unaware of them.
Lily frowned and shook her head.
"Why not?" Jolin said. "You can be a healer as well. I was. It takes a certain kind of man"---she sighed---"but there are a few. What about young Armar? He's a quiet, even-handed ...
A mute healer who meets the one man who can hear her thoughts, an abandoned princess who discovers the truth behind the mysterious stagman, a modern girl who finds the knot in the grain which leads her on a magical mission--these are a few of the characters in these five tales, created by a Newbery Medal-winner. 1995 Fanfare Honor List (The Horn Book).
Lily. A woman with power to heal, but no powers of speech. Then she meets a mage---a man who can hear the words she forms only in her mind. Will he help her find her voice?
Ruen. A princess whose uncle leaves her deep in a cave to die at the hands of a stagman. But when she meets the stagman at last, Ruendiscovers fatehas a few surprises in store for her.
Erana, As a baby, she is taken be a witch in return for the healing herbs her father stole from the witch's garden. Raised alongsidethe witch's troll son, Erana learns that love comes in many forms.
Coral. A beautiful young newcomerwho catches the eye of an older widowed farmer. He can't believe his good fortune when Coral consents to be his wife. But then the doubts set in---what is it that draws Coral to Butter Hill?Annabelle. When her family moves, the summer befre her junior year of High School, Annabelle spends all her time in the attic of their new house--until she finds the knot in the gain which leads her on a magical mission.
About the Author
Robin McKinley's other books include the Newbery Award-winning The Hero and the Crown; Newbery Honor Book The Blue Sword; Sunshine; Spindle's End; Rose Daughter; Deerskin; The Outlaws of Sherwood;and the short story collections The Door in the Hedge; A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories;and, with her husband, the author Peter Dickinson, Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits. She lives in England with her husband, three whippets, and over five hundred rosebushes.
Table of Contents
The healer — The stagman — Touk's house — Buttercups — A knot in the grain.
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