The Smell of the Earth
by Joan L. Savage
"How much will you wager on your belief?" The wizard tapped her fingernails
beside a puddle of spilled ale on the table and leaned so close that the sweetness of
her perfume only half hid the acridness of her sweat and the smell of sex. "You
Jongleurs say you can affect any heart with music. Will you prove it?"
I tugged on my cloak to cover the hole in my tunic. Why was she talking to me,
she in her jewels and furs? She obviously had riches and power enough to buy
whatever she wanted. Why speak to me, Jongleur, gypsy, outcast.
"Prove it?" I asked stupidly.
"What will you wager? All men desire something."
In a whole lifetime of loss, how many people have a chance to gain what they long
for? Who can discover what he longs for, given a month to think? I had too much
ale in me and her warm, full breasts pressed over her arm on the table until they
blossomed out the top of her bodice and her eyes trapped me on my bench,
demanding an answer.
My mind flitted over the things that all men want. Riches, fame, sex. With her
watching me from the depths of those compelling eyes it was hard not to think
about the sex, but as well ask a star to come down from the heavens and share my
bed. And what good were riches? With my wife and son dead, I had no one to
spend them on.
"I want to be known as the greatest Jongleur who ever lived."
I listened to the words coming from my mouth. Was that really what I wanted?
Maybe. Maybe that was the only way not to be forgotten in the silent emptiness of
a grave. My wife had been so silent, when I laid her in the earth. So still, so cold.
"Done," the wizard said. Her smile sent shivers across my skin. "If you win, I
will spread such stories about you that people will say, 'He is the greatest
Jongleur.' If you lose?"
What was my deepest fear? Music comes from the heart but it takes hands to free
it from silence and I could not bear for her to silence me. I tucked my hands under
the table and shuddered at the thought of that loneliness. All the doors that
cracked open to let me sneak in and play by the fire for my bread would slam
closed. I would have only the cold, empty road, and not even a song to play, for
"Done," she said. "If you lose, I will chop off your hands."
For a moment, I could not catch my breath. She stood to go.
"Wait, what wager -- I don't even know -- what's the bet? Why do you need
me? Why do this for me?"
She ran one finger through my hair, her nail prickling against my scalp, and heat
rushed into my loins. I barely heard her over the blood throbbing in my veins.
She leaned so close that her breath tickled my ear. "The best vengeance is always
through another. And some loves must be paid for. You know that. You've paid
for your love a thousand times."
A flash of memory. My wife laughing in my arms, smelling of spring, with her
fingers tousling my hair. Then she was gone and I had only the terrible, aching
emptiness left where once she had filled me. The silence. Yes, I had paid for my
love. Every night, with every memory. And I would pay again, and again. A
thousand times more, if it would bring her back.
"See the man by the window? Change his heart so he forgives his little peasant
wife. A simple thing. A good thing, forgiveness."
Her fingertip traced a river of fire down my neck and I nodded silently. I would
do this thing. For memory. For love.
"That is all." She paused. "Within this hour I will come back for your hands, if
She pointed to where my hands hid under the table, then turned and swayed
through the inn's doorway, taking her agonizingly luring scent with her. The other
patrons ducked their heads as if afraid to look at her. I looked at the man.
He was plain, with dusty, lanky hair hanging across his face. His hands were
brown and worn, with calluses rough from the plough. A pint of ale sat barely
touched on the table before him but he did not look at it, or at the other patrons.
He stared steadfastly into his lap, at a small rock the size of a knuckle.
I wondered what his wife had done that was so terrible he could not forgive her. I
would have forgiven my wife anything. I laid my lute across my lap and plucked
the strings with one hand while the other fingered random chords. I had nudged a
man's emotions before, but only once. It seemed unfair, somehow, to make
someone feel what he did not want to feel, but surely it was a small price to pay
for immortality. To be remembered.
I settled into a melody that had been my wife's favourite -- a melancholy dance,
full of the seduction of love and the sweetness of yearning. I plucked the melody
into the air and touched the man with my Jongleur's gift, my gewaer. He felt pale,
like a winter's sunrise that promises more cold without any prospect of spring to
warm it. With my gewaer, I gave him the song, for his care and comfort. A piece
of my heart in return for a glimpse into his soul.
He met my gift with such a flash of despair I almost stopped playing. Most people
showed me flashes of colour or moods when I sang to them. He projected an
image into my mind so brightly I almost had to pull my gift away. A girl, maybe
sixteen, dancing down a cart track with her skirts hiked up around her knees,
leading a pig.
Then the man's voice rumbled in my head, remembering. His voice was deep and
as worn as his hands, his tone dull and sorrowful.
"My wife knowed it was my most favourite pig when she sold it to Gerg. Some
neighbour. I'd knowed him for forty years. Had knowed, had been a friend.
Ariana thought the price so good for the sow that she was a-dancin' when she
carried it home to me in her skirts. She so wanted a baby. I wanted another babe,
too, a son with my new wife, but since the plough tore my flesh that wasna gonna
happen and she thought she'd found another way to give me a babe." Her face
dazzled in his mind, her smile frozen then fading to despair when she realised he
wasn't happy with her gift. "Gerg's son Tan's a strong man, good seed. But it
ain't my babe."
I played a gentle chord, soothing, and projected my thought with it. His wife had
done it out of love for him. She had tried to please him.
The man turned the rock in his lap.
"Ariana hadna meant to hurt me. Not knowingly. And it bein' so soon since the
weddin', how could she've knowed that sow could open gates and find her way
home from anywhere herself? How could she've knowed Gerg would blame me
for his trampled corn and ruined garden?" An edge of anger touched his
remembrance of Gerg's flushed face and shaking fist.
The hour was slipping away beneath my fingers, and my hands trembled on the
lute. All I could touch in him was anger and resentment. How could I push those
feelings into forgiveness? Maybe my task was impossible. Sweat beaded on my
forehead and trickled into my eyes, stinging, but I dared not break the spell of the
song to wipe it away. If I couldn't make him forgive his wife, the wizard woman
would silence my music and leave me with no way to touch others, with no path
for them to accept me. With no way to cast those I had loved into song. I played a
minor chord with a hint of longing in it. He should remember how much he loved
I remembered how much I loved mine. The scent of her hair, touched by sunshine.
Her hand over mine, how rough it was, but how gentle. Gone now, laid in earth.
The damp smell of the earth of her grave would always be in my nose. Maybe,
when they said of me that I was the greatest Jongleur who ever lived, they would
remember her, too, as the greatest woman ever loved. She was so cold and silent
when I laid my face against hers, before the earth took her. She deserved to be
remembered in song only I hadn't had the heart to write it yet, not so soon, and to
be silenced now meant her memory would be lost. I couldn't let that happen. I
shifted the music into a song with more urgent longing.
The man poked at his memories, like prodding a sore tooth with his tongue, unable
to let it rest.
"I do love my Ariana. She with her tiny hands and gentle heart that makes her run
from the farm when it comes time t' slaughter the lambs." He ran a hand across his
sweating face, though the room was cool. "I love her more 'n anythin', more than
Betric who bore my only boy. Eight years now, since Betric died? Stars bless her,
she were strong. She didn't need me. Ariana needs me even more 'n I need her."
He needed her so much he ached with it. The flash of memory of them making
love left my pulse pounding again and I almost lost the thread of the song.
The hunger for the feel of her slight body was just as quickly replaced by a cold
rush of despair. "What was she thinkin'? How could she've shamed me like this?"
Pictures flashed, dazzling in their clarity. Gerg letting his cows through the man's
field, just for spite. "I hit Gerg then -- I'm not proud o' that. Then our boys
fought, bein' of an age, and my own boy, oh my Aron, you were too angry for your
papa's sake and Tan, he hit my Aron too hard and then there was the rush of
blood and the long, long sleep before my boy slipped into death."
That memory brought a rush of grief that forced the music into dark, hushed tones.
I had no answer for his emptiness -- it was too close an echo to my own. I began
to wonder what my wager might do to this man. Why should I torture another
man's soul with remembering? What gain was it for me, this immortality? Soon I
would lie beside my wife and what gain, what gain was life or fame against that
I should have left him alone with his unshed tears. His memories flooded me,
rubbing against my own, too close, and I wanted to let him be. He deserved that.
But where would that leave me, with no hands to shape my memories into
remembrances? I thought, what harm could it do for him to remember? The pain
must always burn his heart. He must remember, whether I urged him to or not.
The man thumped a hand on the table, startling some of the other patrons who
stared at him and edged away. His thoughts went on, unhindered by their notice.
"Silly girl. She shoulda knowed it was my bestest pig, shoulda knowed that ever
since she were a tiny piglet she'd come home from wherever I'd tried to sell her.
After Aron died I just didna know what to do an' they said lord Gareth was a just
man so I went to him. Oh, why did I go? Who will give me justice for my dead
Gareth, Lord of Traes, was a good man from all I'd heard but young -- only
eighteen. A dangerous age, when you know everything and aren't old enough yet
to realise that you're wrong.
The wizard woman was there, in the man's memory of Lord Gareth's hall. Even in
his memory I could smell the seductive scent of her and I wanted to hide my hands
but if I stopped playing it would break the magic of the song and end my glimpse
into the man's memories, my influence over his feelings. My hour was fleeing
away. I needed my hands. I needed my music to fill the long, empty days of
wandering, and the colder nights. With fame would come food for my belly, warm
blankets at night, and maybe enough security that I could stay in one place long
enough to learn to know someone. A woman. She could never replace my wife
and son but it would be someone to comfort and warm me. Someone to be with.
This old man had found a second wife to share the turmoil of his life. Someone he
cared about. Why would he cast that away?
In the man's memories, the wizard bent low and whispered in lord Gareth's ear,
her breasts brushing against his shoulder.
"The lord atold me it was all my own fault -- my boy's death, my wife and the
bastard babe, the poor old sow. The woman, his wizard advisor, atold me herself
that I'd to pay back Gerg for the trampled garden but not a word about my
cabbages all churned up and eaten by them cows. Then the woman gave me a
useless lump o' rock, as if a lump o' rock could help me."
In a few short moments the wizard had destroyed the man's hope, his dignity.
The same reason she was destroying me?
The thought sent prickles of fear across my chest. My fingers stumbled on the
strings. She had no reason to destroy me. It was a foolish thought.
The man looked up and our eyes met. If he knew I had been spying on his
memories and pushing his emotions, he gave no sign. His attention returned to the
rock in his lap.
The wizard had destroyed his dignity, but not his love for his wife. He clung to
that love as to the last floating board in a shipwreck. I felt it in the desperate
churning of his hands as he rolled the rock over and over again.
For the first time I saw the rock clearly, through his eyes. It was a crystal, gnarled
and black. Seeing it, I knew I had blundered into something too big for me.
Crystals were dangerous things, contorted by wizards to affect their holder in
treacherous ways. Always the holder had to do something, perform some act,
before the crystal could bind them but once bound, there was no freeing them. I
had met a man on the road, bound to a wizard's crystal, who could only walk east,
never west, so he could never get home. Another, in a town, could not use his legs
from dawn 'til dusk. How the crystal in this man's lap would bind him, I didn't
know, but in some way it would torment or cripple him. For now it was quiet, and
I prayed it would stay that way.
The water clock on the mantle dripped relentlessly, drowning my hour. Only a
few minutes before the woman returned. How could I save this man from the
woman bent on destroying him and still save myself? My mind raced without
finding any answers. He felt the same as the crystal -- cold, dark, withdrawn. I
had no idea what action would spark this crystal into life. Should I use the last
moments of my hour to run across the room and dash it from his hands? But what
would stop him from picking it up again once the wizard had come for me and my
hands were gone? All I had was my wager. Win it or be silenced. This man
didn't deserve whatever fate the wizard had devised for him.
I didn't deserve silence. Not yet. My wife, so silent, her cold lips under mine. So
mute, laid in the damp earth that covered her hair. I needed to write a song to
remember her as she was before the scent of earth covered the warm saltiness of
her skin. To remember her before her silence. I couldn't lose my hands, whatever
might happen to this man.
Music is a strange beast. Hard men cry when touched in the right moment by the
right harmony. An enemy's heart can be changed and peace brokered. Frightened
men can be pushed into battle. How many children have been conceived beneath a
melody's seductive fingertips?
Yet it's a difficult master, more compelling than the opiate drugs. Once is never
enough to fill or content and so the music drags me back again and again, looking
for that purest chord that can shift a man's anger into joy. For the harmonies that
might warm a heart to forgive or a melody that might open a woman's thighs, all
the while hoping for myself to find that moment of ecstasy when the music shifts
me, warms me, opens me, and I feel everything. Even to feel loss is better than
The clock dripped to fill up the hour, moments away, three drops, two. I played a
note and touched the man. A moment of forgiveness. That was all I needed to
create. Just one moment. His love for Ariana was so close to the surface now, so
tender, I just had to touch it. I played a thick chord, heavy with longing at first but
melting into something fragile, a bubble he dared not touch lest it break. It was so
fleeting, suspended there, a blink of time that was the span of his life and then it
would flee, burned away like the summer grass, and he had only Ariana in that
moment, only her to share his fleeing life with. The bubble shivered before him,
so fragile, so easily lost.
In my mind, I saw him reach for it. He could not lose her, too. Could not let his
moments with her shatter beyond repair. He could love her. The babe, too. He
could make the babe his own. His child.
The crystal in his hand leapt into fire and I dropped my lute to shield my eyes from
the glare. I thought the man screamed, but I couldn't be sure. There were so many
people screaming. Tables toppled and benches skidded across the floor as people
ran from his burning.
I couldn't move. It had been a perfect note and I had felt his love for her blossom
into forgiveness. The feeling still burned my chest, hotter than the crystal's glow.
I knew he was dead. Only death carries that profound a silence.
I lifted my eyes. The wizard stood across the room, watching him, her body arcing
"He would accept this bastard babe, would he? Love it?"
She turned and met my gaze. Unshed tears glittered in her eyes, like ice.
"I told you that some loves must be paid for. I spent years looking for my peasant
bastard father. He was so young, fulfilling his service time with his lord, when he
left my mother in her lord's kitchen with a full belly and no man to protect her.
Then, after all these long years, he came to Lord Gareth. He came to me.
"But even after all the sacrifices I made to become a wizard so I could destroy
him, I couldn't. Not before seeing what kind of man he was. I needed to know
how much he could love, and forgive, when he wouldn't forgive my mother, or
She had used me. Had used my love for my wife, my need for remembering, and
made it dirty. I stood and backed away from her but could not rid myself of the
bitterness in my mouth that did not come from the smell of charred flesh.
For a brief flash, I felt the brush of her wizard's gift. Her anger beat against me, as
deep and desperate as pain, unassuaged by vengeance; her rage demanded that all
great loves be sundered. And forgotten.
The word echoed through my head, pounding against my skull. Forgotten.
The wizard lifted her hand and batted away my awareness of her feelings as easily
as if I had been a drift of smoke. "Do not dare to look at my emptiness. You, too,
have lost your love. Take the fruits of your wager, and go."
To this day, they tell stories of me. How I stormed castles with my songs and
felled giants. None of the stories are true, and I'm haunted by the memory of that
one perfect note. I cannot play. I can't even think of music without smelling the
charred smell of death and hearing the terrible silence where the man's heart had
been. I touched that heart, shared in its grief. Silenced it.
I wish I had let her cut off my hands. Then maybe I could still remember the smell
of the earth where my wife lies, waiting for me. Maybe I could hum a song.