I’M ONLY GOING out to get the fire started, but already the cats have assembled.
They are three, and they sit like points on a sundial around the huge, scarred kettle in the rear yard. I’ve no idea how they know, but they’re right, down to the hour—today’s the day Papa and I are going to start rendering tallow for our big season of candlemaking. Papa’s at the butcher right now collecting the first load of fat we’ll need, and the cats are very much aware there’ll be scraps of meat too small to go on our table.
Big Gray is shaped like a furry beehive, and he regards me like he knows I won’t be feeding him at the moment and he’s judging me for it. Sunshine has yellow eyes and a stripey back, and the Fox is a deep orange with white-tipped paws. They stand on either side of Big Gray like lieutenants, or perhaps supper guests.
None of these cats belongs to me. They turn up when there’s tallow bubbling, unlike, say, almost everyone else in St Neots, who keep well enough away when smoke starts rising from our yard. Papa even agreed to live on the edgemost edges of town, but even that’s not enough. I’m always overhearing the very colorful and unflattering things our neighbors mutter about the smell. Or the stink, as some of them are unkind enough to say.
Sometimes not just about the smell of the yard. Sometimes about the smell of me.
Everyone likes a candle to burn when the winter closes in, though, and somehow when those candles burn, they don’t smell like we do when we make them.
The kettle stays in this spot outside more or less year-round. It’s so big and heavy that we don’t move it unless we have to, but it’s suspended on a sturdy truss so it’s simple enough to kindle a fire beneath it and start water boiling.
When Papa gets here, I’ll cut the fat he brings into small pieces—Big Gray and Sunshine and the Fox will be my very dearest friends for a while—and then it’s just a matter of letting it render down several times so all that’s left is nice, smooth tallow, which will become lovely candles.
Well. There’s the matter of the smell. Honestly, though, it’s not as bad as people say.
It’s a bright day in spring, and a joy to sit on an upturned bucket near the kettle and watch the world go by. Mostly it’s bees, with the occasional bird, until a group of children comes from town along the road that ends in fields just past my house. Lucy’s little brothers and sisters, and Johanna’s, too, all muddled together like usual, and they’re swinging sackcloth bags and chattering like wrens.
Lucy’s papa is the goldsmith, and Johanna’s is a baker. We were all born the same summer, but unlike them, my house didn’t fill up with so many brothers and sisters that I was all but appointed second mama. It must give them a lot to talk about. It surely gives them a lot to do.
Lucy and Johanna have their matching aprons on today, the ones with the little runner of embroidery along the waistband.
A dark-haired boy breaks away from the group and races toward me. It’s Adam, one of Lucy’s brothers. He’s eight or so, and I figure he wants to pet the cats. I rise from my bucket and curtsy a little. “Good mor—”
“Stennnnnnnnnnnnch!” he shrieks as he flies past the house and into the field beyond.
Sunshine hunkers, and Big Gray turns to glare.
“Stop that!” Lucy scolds, and Johanna shouts, “Adam, you get back here and beg pardon—”
But it’s too late. Adam’s long gone, and the other kids are running after him, crowing Stench! and What smells? and Get away, get away!, all while holding their noses or pressing their bags to their faces.
Johanna trails to a stop in the road. “Tick, I must beg your pardon for that. What a little vermin he is.”
“I’ve heard worse,” I tell her, and I smile and shrug because it’s true. “Going foraging?”
Spring’s the hungry part of the year, the garden still greening and winter stores scraping bottom, and they’re likely heading out to find chickweed, or goosegrass, or other things that grow wild and won’t be missed.
Lucy’s eyes go to the kettle in the yard. “Oh. Well. I… I suppose you could come. We’ll be outside and all.”
I toe the dirt, my stomach souring a little.
Big Gray winds around my legs, then starts licking my ankle. I reach down to rub his ears. No matter how many times I wash my gown and hose, or how much the cats help out, there’s always tallow in the weave of everything I own.
“That’s all right,” I say. “Papa and I are starting our work today. I’ll be all day trimming fat and minding the tallow. We have much to do to ready ourselves for the Stourbridge Fair.”
It’s a little mean, me adding that last part, because neither Lucy nor Johanna gets to go to the fair. They have to watch their brothers and sisters, which is why they’re always together. They’ve long since worked out that four hands are better than two, even when the group is bigger, and those kids mind both Johanna and Lucy without much care for who shares whose blood.
But Johanna shrugs easily and says, “Your papa’s making wax charms, though, right? Perhaps you’d save me back an Agnus Dei. I could give you a braid of onions for it.”
“That’s my job this year,” I tell her proudly, though I leave off the part where Papa can’t see well enough to press the plum-sized mold against the precious beeswax, nor use the tiny brushes to paint the little lamb and his banner.
Papa says it’s better if people don’t know how fuzzy the world looks to him now when he tries to see things close-up.
Johanna smiles. “You’ve been looking forward to making charms since forever!”
“We should go.” Lucy tugs Johanna’s sleeve and tips her chin toward the field, where only the smallest children are still visible. “Farewell, Tick.”
I wave, and I’m reaching for a new piece of firewood when Johanna turns and asks, “Who’s the boy? Is he visiting? I didn’t think you had any cousins.”
“I don’t. What boy?”
“The one I saw through the window,” Johanna replies. “Your stepmother was giving him a big wedge of bread and cheese when we went past.”
Lucy pulls harder on Johanna’s sleeve, and together they hurry with their forage bags into the fields, where they scoop up the little kids and move in deeper to find the bigger ones.
I add some sticks to the fire. The water is getting good and hot, but I’m not thinking about that anymore. Nor the cats. Not even Papa, on his way home from the butcher.
Had it been Lucy who said it, I’d have paid it no mind. She needs to be the king in every game of king of the mountain and have the biggest blossoms in her flower crowns. But Johanna is like a daisy—everything good is drawn to her.
Still, I wait till they’re both out of sight, then I head for the rear yard door, closing it tight behind me so none of the cats can get in and swipe our supper.
The boy is probably from the poorer quarter of St Neots, and Mama Elly isn’t good at letting want go unanswered when it’s in front of her.
The back of the house is the workshop, where Papa and I make candles. I dodge around the big rack in the middle of the room, past the deep tallow troughs, and around the pile of molds, hurrying because I can hear voices now.
Mama Elly’s, and also one I don’t recognize. The boy’s, likely. They’re happy voices, and then they laugh.
I weave through the kitchen and step into the hall, our living area at the front of the house.
Sure enough, there’s a boy here.
Sure enough, he’s eating a generous wedge of rye bread and fragrant cheese while making my stepmother laugh.
And I’d be all right with that, only he’s sitting at the big, spacious trestle board carefully positioned under a window to catch the most light, where I do tasks like twisting wicks or painting wax charms, work that needs young eyes that aren’t blurry at the edges like Papa’s.
My bright table.
“Tick, my lamb!” Mama Elly swings herself up from her stool. Her leg brace scrapes the rungs. “I thought you’d gone foraging with your friends.”
“Ah.” I have no notion why she’d think that. She and Papa have been wed for most of my life, so she knows how he and I spend this time of year, and she should surely know Lucy and Johanna and I haven’t spent more than an afternoon together since we were small. “No, of course not. I’ve gotten the kettle started. Papa and I will likely be rendering for the next few weeks.”
Mama Elly pauses. Her face is slowly turning the kind of pink that only redheads can turn. Then she flutters a smile. “Hey, why don’t you join Henry in a bit of bread? Henry, this is our Tick.”
The boy is about my age, sturdy like a fencepost, with hair the color of a roebuck falling to his shoulders. He’s wearing a tunic of good blue wool, orange hose that don’t sag in the slightest, and fine leather boots that look like they were new-made yesterday.
When Mama Elly gestures to me, he swallows his mouthful and slides off the stool. Then he dips his chin, polite, and says, “Henry of Holgate. A pleasure to meet you.”
I nod back, even though I’m not sure why we’re making acquaintances if he’s just come for charity, though anyone with boots like those surely doesn’t need our bread. Still, I curtsy and reply, “Pleasure to meet you, too.”
“Tick,” he repeats, like it’s a curiosity he’s poking.
“From Scholastica,” I explain, because I am in no humor to hear any one of the jokes that often come with my name.
Henry’s brows go up. “Oh! You mean like St Benedict’s sister?”
“St Scholastica was her own person, you know. Not just someone’s sister.”
Henry has the grace to look sheepish, which he tries to hide by dusting crumbs from his front and turning to Mama Elly. “Ah. Well. That was delicious, mistress. Thank you. Best make a good impression on the master, though, and get right to my labor. Will you show me where to begin?”
He is not staring at her leg brace. He is treating her like anyone else, like someone who could very well be the one who’d show him what’s what in the rear yard.
“There’ll be no mistress anything while you’re beneath my roof,” she scolds, but in a playful way. “It’s Mama Elly to everybody, you included. Hear?”
Henry nods, smiling, but I glance between them because even though that is such a Mama Elly thing to say to anyone, there’s no reason for him to be beneath our roof, and the only person he might be calling master is Papa, but Papa has no need for him because he has me.
“And if you want to know where to begin with the candlemaking, Tick’s the one to ask.” Mama Elly turns to me. “There’s the rendering, right? Why not get him going on that?”
Because it’s my task? Because I’ve minded that kettle since I was old enough to poke wood beneath its bottom and tall enough to drag a paddle through whatever was bubbling within?
But I turn to Henry and say, “Let’s go out back. You can help me.”
I smile again, turn on my heel, and march through the house. Henry trails after me, and I think he may be dawdling to take in the huge candle rack that fills up much of the workshop, but my hands are shaking and my belly feels as hot and runny as new-melted tallow.
The yard is just as I left it, and I make a big show of checking the height of the fire, the grid of sticks beneath the kettle, the steam rising from the water. The cats retreat when Henry follows me across the mud, but they don’t go far.
“So.” Henry pauses, and I can tell he’s sorting through different things he can say. “Your stepmother told me you’ve been helping your father since you were really little.”
“I have. I’m more or less his apprentice.”
“Only you can’t be,” Henry points out, but not in a mean way. “Not really. Girls can’t be apprentices in the chandler’s trade.”
“I know as much about candlemaking as any apprentice,” I tell him.
Henry doesn’t reply. Instead he reaches for my bucket, the one I sit on, and starts to turn it right side up. I whip it out of his hands, stump it firmly back in the mud the proper rump-holding way, and point at it.
“Why don’t you sit there?” I say. “You can watch.”
“Watch water boil?”
He’s trying to make a joke, I can tell, but I’m not in any humor for jokes. This boy is not here for charity. Somehow he’s gotten it into his head that my father needs an apprentice. He’s even convinced Mama Elly of it, to the point that she wants me to teach him how to take my tasks away!