Three times, as a baby, he had fallen into sicknesses they were sure would kill him: once with a speckled pox, once a fever that turned him redder than a robin’s breast all over his body, and once he slept for three days and nights and grew cold and clammy as a fish. Yet he survived all three, and by the time he was seven years of age Iorwerth was as strong as any lad of his parish. He lived on a farm in Brecknockshire, and his father was a freeman, and travelled widely—often as far as Hereford and Bristol, and once even to London by boat. Iowerth kept his mother and sisters company on the farm at Llanfaes when his father was away, and he rode a pony, and sometimes dreamed he was a chivalric knight on adventures, and he helped with services at the church.
It was a fine church, dedicated to Saint David, and had a slate roof, something not even true of the big church at Cardiff in those days. Inside there were half a dozen wooden pews, and benches for the rest, and the tiles on the floor alternated blue and white, the colours of the blessed virgin herself.
Pigeons had nested in the roof. He could hear them, when he was inside the church sweeping the floor alone, hear them overhead murmuring to one another in their bird-voices like running water.
There were stories about the Church. One was that the foundation stone had been laid by Joseph of Arimathea soon after arriving by boat from the Holy Land, and that therefore it was the oldest church in the land. There was a story that a local nobleman had spent the night in the church with his hounds, ready to go hunting at first light; but when the dawn came he found his dogs had all been driven mad, and he himself was blinded, presumably for the blasphemy of using a church as a hunting lodge. This story bothered Iowerth: for what had the dogs done to deserve such divine punishment? And when Dafydd told the story the nobleman was Sir Richard of Hay, and when Owain told it the nobleman was William of Braose. It would hardly be both.
Still, Iowerth always felt the shiver go through him when the priest said mass, and once a Bishop came through asking for volunteers to take the cross and fight to regain Jerusalem, and Iowerth almost stepped from the crowd and presented himself, child though he was. He didn’t, of course. But he daydreamed often of riding a great warhorse across the pristine yellow plain of the deserts of Judea, armed with a sword and wearing the red cross, and doing great deeds.
One week it rained every day from Sunday to Sunday, and the house flooded, and there were great shallow pools of water standing about. Another time there was no rain for a month, and the leaves on the trees grew dry and brittle as fine crusts, and rattled together with a noise like tin. Iowerth listened to the smug cooing of the pigeons on the church roof.
One day Iowerth thought he would take the pigeon-eggs, and present them to his mother. Then he thought: he could take the pigeons too, and snap their necks, and his mother would be happy with the free meal. So he climbed up the wall of the church, putting his bare feet on the outcropping flints, and hooked his elbow about the top, where the roof slanted away. He could see the nest, and the brooding bird sitting on its eggs, and it looked at him with one inkdrop eye. Iowerth reached out with his free hand, and, almost losing balance, slapped it onto the stone just in front of the nest. He kept his balance. But when he came to withdraw his hand, he found it would not come free. He tried to pull it, to lift it straight up—a simple matter. But it would not come free. It would not release itself from the stone.
At first Iowerth was more puzzled than afraid. But after a while it became clear that the hand was not going to come loose, and he grew very afraid. The wind got up and rummaged through his hair, and dried the tears on his cheeks. His left armpit, where he was supporting himself, grew painful with the unrelieved pressure, and then grew numb. Iowerth tried sliding the hand along the stone, but it would not move. He tried a sudden tug, and tried pulling with all his might. He called out with the frustration and the pain.
Soon enough somebody heard him, or saw him from below, and came and stood at the base of the wall and shouted up at him. He tried to answer, but he was crying so much his words were smothered. The fellow went away, and came back with several others.
They put a ladder up, so Iowerth could rest his feet, which took some of the pain out of his armpit. But then they tried hauling him down by main force, and that hurt his arm more. It felt like they would yank his arm clean off, and that surely would kill him, so he begged them to stop and the copiousness of his tears persuaded them. His mother came—his father being away—and climbed the ladder, something she would not normally have attempted, to hug him and weep and ask what was going on. She helped him up, so that his knees were just-about resting on the narrow stone ledge, but it was a precarious position. Why could he not release his hand?
Was there some strange substance or glue upon the roof of the church? Then the sun set and everybody went home except his mother and one of his sisters, who lit a candle and prayed and sang hymns; but when the candle went out and it grew cold they threw a blanket over Iowerth and went to their home.
Iowerth slept barely at all. From time to time exhaustion propelled him into a stupor, but then the pain in his arm, or the numbness in his hand, of his shivering from the cold, despite the blanket, woke him up again. Twice he slipped from the ledge, and yanked his pinned arm painfully, and had to scramble and struggle back up onto the narrow ledge.
He tried praying to God, and then tried bargaining with God, and then in the darkest hour of the night, as a wolf snuffled menacingly around below him somewhere, and owls blew a cold wind through their beaks with who and woe, he cursed God, and railed that he had only wanted an egg, one solitary egg, to feed his hungry mother, and how was it fair that he be punished so? When dawn came he wept again, this time with relief. He soon became warm, and when people returned they brought him food and some milk to drink. But he could not unfix his hand. Trying to pull it, he fell from the roof again and dangled.
By noon his whole arm had lost sensation. The skin looked greyblue, something like an unusually uniform bruise, spread over the whole area. People had come from neighbouring parishes to see the strange event, and many of them were sceptical. They said Iowerth was shamming, only pretending to hold his hand there, that he ought to be ashamed, that it was blasphemy. So up the ladder came two men from a strange village, to heave and haul at the boy. His arm was no numb that it hardly hurt, though it hurt a little, and he moaned. They gave up after a while. People came and went, and a bonfire was built in the churchyard, although the priest complained it was disrespectful. People sang, people played dice, people came and went. The second night was a little easier than the first: for though he was still horribly uncomfortable it may be that he was growing accustomed to his strange posture. Or perhaps he was simply worn out. At any rate he slept for hours and woke before dawn with a new clarity in his head. People were snoring on the ground below him. The bonfire had burned low, and glowed ruby under a web of black ash. He prayed to the mother of God, Mary in her mercy and beauty, to intercede for him; and then he prayed fervently to Saint David, in heaven, for forgiveness for what he had done. As he prayed he began to feel the stone under his hand soften. Though his hand was numb as with great cold, and he could feel almost nothing, he was able to flex the fingers, just a little. It felt, very distantly, as if he were gouging into dough. Then, as the sunlight broke over the horizon, his hand came free, and he almost fell down the ladder, but was able to clutch at the stones with his tingling left hand. He clung there for a while, and eventually he came tremblingly down the ladder, half stepping, half falling. He woke his mother who wept and embraced him, and soon everybody was awake, and people were coming from all around to clasp him and look at his hand—slowly regaining its colour, painfully stabbing as sensation returned—and to praise God, and thank the virgin Mary, and the saints, and redouble the sanctity of the human heart, which is, after all, the only kind of sanctity that exists in the world.
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