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Volume 34.2
Summer 2003

sample haibun




Our forefathers in this village were no doubt as busy and bustling, and as important, as ourselves, yet have their names and transactions been forgotten from century to century, and have sunk into oblivion.

—Gilbert White, Letter VIII on Antiquities

It must be strange when they’re all let out of Heaven for the day and meet up. The yearly rehearsal of old gossip that has turned to myths. Probably squatting, a circle of them in the belfry of their abbey church. Christened, wed, buried, all in the one place.

So of course worked here. “Spent winter of 1779 whitewashing the place top to bottom,” says Thomas (died 1813). “Got paid ten pound, six shilling and elevenpence for it. Tided us over nicely that did, for it were a bad year. Jus’ before the wars wi’ France.”

William (died 1584) discussing the weight of a penny loaf of maslin bread with Anthony (buried 1682 in a woollen shroud) and working out how many penny loaves ten pound, six shilling and elevenpence would buy. “But loaf must ’ve got smaller by the half in them hundred years,” Anthony concludes. “Though it might be wi’ not so many ground acorns worked into the dough.”

“Wars. Wars. Hands up all of you,” says Roland (killed on the Somme, 1917), “who had to fight for king and country at some time or other?”

John (he can’t remember when he died) raises a fist and says he drew a long bow at Agincourt. Anthony (died 1682) says he was forced into the King’s ranks and skirmished with the Roundheads near Abingdon. Edwin (died 1957) tells how he stood on the Khyber Pass in khaki shorts and kept the Afghans at bay, but never fired a shot at any man. William (shuffled off some time in the 1390s) says he went through the Great Mortality and being surrounded by plague was worse than going to war.

“Tell us again what you was up to in 1554, gran’fer Bill,” coaxes Anthony (died just in time to cheat King Charles of his promise of loyalty in 1641). “You know, way you got hauled up before Star Chamber wi’ Bloody Mary keen to hang a noose around yer neck.”

“That? ’Tweren’t much, arter all,” says Bill. “Jus’ this rogue wi’ a bit more money than most, when they was selling off the abbey lock, stock ’n barrel, bought up the meadow what ’fore that was always common pasture, and slung up a dirty great ol’ gate to keep us out, saying as it was now for ’is cattle only. We wasn’t ’avin’ none o’ that, was we? So what we done was break the gate down, kick ’is beasts out and put our own in to graze there instead.”

“And what ’appened to you after they took you to the Tower, gran’fer Bill?”

“Mum’s the word,” answers Gran’fer Bill.

Taciturn blacksmith Thomas (passed away 1879 of “decay of nature,” bronchitis, and gout of the feet) suggests they all cross the road to the George, where brother James serves a warm pint and writes the charge up on a slate, and there they’ll play a game of quoits.

“Knocked this target up on Saint Eloi’s anvil.” From under his leather apron a bar of mild steel from which he has wrenched out a number of hooks large enough to catch a horseshoe. “Jim over the road’ll have shoes enough to pitch."

“Bags I have first go!” cries Clement (churchwarden once, used to pushing himself forward, died 1662, his wits blown, and waving a white wand to signify he’d given five loads of stones to rebuild the bridge so he might go safely up to Heaven, and all else, farmlands, elmwoods, cattle, to his son-in-law, cobbler and unlicensed preacher, believer in the common ownership of property except that which he might have the luck to acquire for himself.)

Clement shies the first horseshoe, misses by a yard. Singing about John Barleycorn the others take their turns to throw. Drinking a toast to the spirits on the hill on the far side of the river.

out of dark laurels
the flight of small brown moths—
how hard to follow!

David Cobb




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