We don’t get many strangers in our village. Truth to tell I don’t recall anybody coming from outside. There was a road right enough but the only people who came along it were labourers from the fields of the half dozen or so local farms.
So the tall(ish) dark(ish) stranger who arrived on Michaelmas eve last was an object of wonder and, let’s be honest, a certain amount of suspicion.
He was dark-haired but fair-spoken.
“What is your name, stranger here unknown?” I asked formally.
“My name? Oh … it’s Nathan.”
He hesitated long enough to let me know that was not his name.
“And what would a pretty young thing like you call herself?”
“I could call myself Nathan if I were a liar like you.”
He had the good grace to laugh.
“My name is Sarah and what do you want, ‘Nathan’?”
“Nathan will do, for now. I can’t let my proper name be known. I am after work.”
“Well, there is work enough here. The sweating sickness took a lot of the menfolk. I know old Flint wants labourers. He won’t pay you much.”
So Nathan got a job with Flint but he didn’t need it for long. It happened like this. One of Flint’s cows fell sick and they were in a tizzy as to what to do about it. The stranger just put his hands over the cow’s eyes and muttered words in a forgotten tongue.( It was at least a tongue we had all forgotten!). Then he went about his business.
You can believe me or not, just as you choose. The cow recovered. Word was all round the village by lunchtime.
The stranger had a queue of people the next morning with sick sheep, chickens, pigs and one man, old Groat. He was as near to a pig as anything. The stranger took some jobs and turned down others because he thought there was no hope. He was right about that. Every animal he rejected didn’t get well. Some tried to blame him for that but for the rest of the villagers, he was too useful a healer to dispose of.
He didn’t need to work for Flint as a labourer anymore. People would pay well for his talents. It wasn’t always money. Some offered him food or accommodation. I don’t know what Sissy Barnes offered him but he told her he could manage quite well without it. She went away with a face like thunder.
He even cured old Groat of the ague he’s gone down with. He didn’t cure the old swine from being a pig. Such miracles were beyond his skill.
Sometimes he made use of herbs and I was able to help him there because I knew where the best ones grew. He called me his glamorous assistant. I kicked him in the shin. We got on better after that.
All good things come to an end, I’m afraid. This was the way of it –
I woke up aching all over. My neighbour said that I was as hot as a glede when she came to find out why I was still abed. I didn’t know what a glede was but apparently it’s ruddy hot. The stranger came to my house for the first time. When he looked at me, he gave that look he used when someone brought him a duck that didn’t stand a chance of surviving. I confess that I begged him to stay.
He stayed all day and all night. In the morning all my symptoms had left me but I was terrified of what I knew I had to do. Nathan could see it in my eyes.
“What is it, Sarah?” he said with an attempt at his old lighthearted manner.
“Nathan. I know your secret.”
“The devil you do!”
“Don’t mention him in this house,” I said. All his lightness became heavy then.
“I was restless in the night. I heard you praying. It was no normal prayer either. You promised the queen of the night that you would be her slave forever if only my life could be spared.”
He was silent for a long time. Then a calculating look came into his eyes.
“You owe me, Sarah.”
“I didn’t make a deal with a devil.” I raised my hand to show I hadn’t finished. “I owe you my life. I am offering you your life in exchange. They have a habit of burning people like you in these parts. I am offering you my advice, which is to leave.”
Nathan grumbled a lot and said ‘no’ then he grumbled some more and said ‘yes.’
And that was the last I saw of that stranger. There have been no other strangers since and that was fifty years ago when handsome young men wanted me as a glamorous assistant.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Look at surface beauty and enjoy it but, and it’s a big ‘but’, look as well for the beauty that comes from within. People have spent thousands on plastic surgery. Others have accepted pain as a price to improve their looks. And others have kindness, charity and love. So look deeper or you are really missing out.
Derek McMillan lives in Durrington with his wife, Angela, who is also his editor. His latest book is a collection of short stories, The Durrington Detective Agency. It is available from Amazon or (more cheaply) from your library. More at: http://www.derekmcmillan.com