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The Patience of Griselda (sample)
Tinney S. Heath
She's howling mad, you know. Griselda, my mother. I pray daily, sometimes hourly, to Our Lady that no mad blood runs in my veins, to show itself when I am older. Everyone thinks her story is over, losses restored, all well at last. For myself, I know there is yet a chapter to be written, and I know too that some losses can never be made good. We shall see very soon what new turns and twists are to be added to the tale. Tonight it ends.
Tonight's wedding feast will see me away from this palace and beyond their reach forever, one way or another. I believe that is why she waited until now. This night I'll be wed, at fourteen, to a man half a century older, whose greed for my dowry overrules his revulsion for my family. If the revulsion extends to me, it will make it all the easier to bear no hapless babes myself, for others to use as pawns. If his revulsion is not enough, I have some herbs in my wedding chest that should suffice. My nurse did me that much kindness. Would that she had done the same for my mother.
Everyone knows the tale of patient Griselda, so I will sketch it briefly, for completeness. Gualtieri, Marquess of Saluzzo, had been urged by his courtiers for years to take a bride. He was riding one day and saw a beautiful peasant girl toiling in her father's garden. Seeing a chance to silence his advisers, he demanded the girl's hand of her craven, servile father Giannucole. He extracted a promise of perfect obedience from her as a condition of the marriage, a condition her eager panderer granted on her behalf. She came dowerless, in rags, and Gualtieri raised her up to greatness. The nobles resented her at first for her humble birth, but they came in time to love her for her goodness. She bore Gualtieri a daughter.
Two years passed. Gualtieri decided to test his wife, spiriting the child away and telling its mother the little one had been killed, by his order, because she was only a girl child. Griselda continued obedient and spoke no word against him, though some did say she exhibited a passing sadness. It is true that from the moment they told her the child's body rested in the ground, she would eat no vegetable that is pulled from the soil.
She next bore him a son, and the same thing happened, this time when the child was newborn and put down to the child's—Griselda's—peasant blood. Had there been any more, I suppose there would have been no end of repetitions, sleepy-eyed children yanked away in the night, lies, tears, acquiescence. Loss upon loss.
Some years later Gualtieri chose to test her still further, harshly telling her she was to be put aside so that he could wed a younger woman, one with noble blood. Uncomplaining, she returned to her father's hovel, leaving her rich garments behind and wearing only the shift she had arrived in. Soon she was summoned back to the palace as a servant, to prepare her lord's wedding feast.
The daughter and son, not dead at all but fostered, returned, bearing other names. The daughter was presented to ragged Griselda as Gualtieri's bride, yet Griselda had nothing but praise for the bewildered woman-child. The entire travesty was grandly revealed at last, Griselda was restored to her place, and her husband finally acknowledged her unwavering loyalty and devotion, declaring that she had passed his test. She was dressed once again in her old finery and at last allowed to greet her son and daughter. She was incoherent, some said with joy. (We shall pass over the effects of this spectacular denouement on a frightened twelve-year-old and her little brother.)
Now she wears her beautiful robes again, the robes of a gentlewoman, and sits in a place of honor. What a fine tale it makes, unless you notice that she spends her days singing softly to a rag doll, and that she still will eat no food that has touched the earth, and that she looks through her son and daughter as if we were not here.
Of course, the tale says nothing of the rest of us. Nothing of Giannucole, still eking out a living from the soil, raising those plants that Griselda will not eat, still poor, dirty, and devoid of dignity. If she made no complaint, he more than compensated, railing endlessly and bemoaning his fate. There was nothing in all of her grandeur for him. She did not visit. She does not see him now.
Nothing of Griselda's fierce husband, said to be cruel but wise, except by those few religious who doubt that those two qualities can inhabit the same man. They are understandably reluctant to voice that opinion here. Nothing of the pampered son, who is dutifully kind to his vague, uninterested mother but mostly loves his hounds and horses, and to be called "young Lord."
And certainly nothing of me, that daughter, brought back with no knowledge of my own origins, thinking I was to wed (at twelve! my courses barely upon me) the man so swiftly revealed to be my father. Then those two nightmarish years in the palace with strangers for parents, and now a merciful marriage, to an old man who at least has the good sense to be embarrassed by his in-laws. And for those two years, not a word from the woman who was my mother. I have both longed for her attention and feared it, watching her surreptitiously whenever I got a chance, searching for the madness. Searching for myself.
Cover design by Tim Heath, all rights reserved.
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This page created 13 December 2011
Last update 21 March 2014