Within a few moments, the kitchen hands had a fire lit. Free and unburdened by work, there seemed to be a magic about them tonight on the Eve of May. Sparks seemed to fly from their hands as if they were witches.
The kitchen girls produced food as if from nowhere. Their hands were empty and then suddenly full. Of things like a whole clove-studded ham, freshly baked loaves, mincemeat pies and honey cakes.
The washerwomen unfurled the largest of blankets, which seemed to float over the glade like a ship’s pennant before landing in the perfect picnic square.
The cleaning girls pulled wooden sticks from the fire and touched them to a million candles in a million lanterns. They peppered the clearing and hung about the trees, as bright as captured stars.
The village girls arrived bearing jars of jams and pickles, and jugs of ale from the tavern, their cheeks rosy and warm from the walk through the dark woods. They greeted the castle workers with whoops of joy and tender embraces. Most of them were related, after all. Mothers, daughters, aunts and cousins.
Catalina was awestruck. She had never seen anything so magical or so perfect. It was hard to connect these people with the downtrodden, subservient characters that ordinarily toiled in her world.
Someone showed her to a space on the blanket. Another handed her a silver goblet, full to the brim with ruby red wine. She drank half of it down immediately. The youngest serving girl, Joan, approached her, goaded by all the others. She brought out a crown of hawthorn blossom from behind her back.
Dropping a curtsy, she said: “We wish to crown you the May Queen, my lady.”
“Me?” Catalina replied, delighted. “It would be the greatest of honours.”
She rose up onto her knees and bowed her head solemnly. Joan placed the blossom crown on her head and everyone clapped.
“What do I have to do?” Catalina asked Maude, her nursemaid.
“You have to start the proceedings,” Maude replied. “Oh, look, my daughter’s here!”
And then Maude abandoned her. But Catalina had been waiting for many years for Maude to abandon her, so she didn’t care one bit.
“What do we do first?” she called out to the nearest girls. “And can we please do everything?”
But nobody had chance to answer her because, just then, there was a strange rumbling noise in the glade. There was a lot of ‘shushing’, and the women fell quickly silent, listening hard. Catalina stared along the hidden path to the right of The Tree as the rumbling came closer.
“It’s Boboli!” A washerwoman exclaimed.
She was greeted with disbelief.
“It can’t be…”
“Don’t be ridiculous…”
“He isn’t due this year…”
But the rumbling came nearer and, just as Catalina’s eyes were burning with the strain of staring, a black horse walked into the clearing pulling a black covered wagon, on which was written in gold the legend ‘Boboli ~ Who Knows All That Is Worth Knowing’.
“What did I tell you?” said the washerwoman.
“It is Boboli.”
“Oh, can I be first? I missed him last time.”
The horse came to a standstill and the cart rolled to a stop behind it. The light from the million candles did not quite reach the driver of the wagon, but he slowly started to emerge from the darkness.
“Ladies,” came a foreign voice.
It wasn’t the Spanish she was familiar with, but it was most certainly a Latin language, Catalina decided.
First a strong, hooked nose atop the most amazing moustache created by man. Two halves that extended horizontally and then curled into spirals as long as cat’s whiskers. Then black beads for eyes and a mass of black curls tied with different colour ribbons. Catalina had never seen anyone like him. He was so vibrant. He may as well have come from the skies.
Boboli’s stout body stepped off the cart and the cart sprang up as his weight left it. He was the first male to grace the female-only evening, but he certainly would not be the last.
The washerwoman ran to greet him, becoming timid at the last step. But Boboli reached out a hand and pulled her into an embrace.
“Alice,” he purred, but it sounded more like ‘Alleys’.
The oldest woman in the group caught Catalina’s curious look and, easing herself down with her cane, sat beside her on the blanket.
“Boboli is the master of charm,” she whispered. “He travels round the world every ten years. Every tenth eve of May he returns to us at Blackwood – this will be the fifth time I have seen him. He remembers everybody’s name and he never ages.”
‘Alleys’, the washerwoman, gripped Boboli’s hand and gazed at him as if he was a god. “We did not expect you. To what do we owe this pleasure, Boboli?”
“This is my favourite place. Here live the world’s most beautiful ladies. If I have come back sooner than I should it is because I have missed you all.”
Catalina raised her eyebrows at the old woman next to her and drank down the rest of her wine.
“I think he says that in every place he stops,” the woman grinned, showing off her few remaining teeth.
Boboli must have had ears like an owl because, as quick as a flash of lightning, he was kneeling in front of the old woman.
“Bella donna,” he purred. “I only ever say that of Blackwood, I can assure you.”
“Of course, Boboli. And it is so good to see you again. You breathe life back into an old girl’s heart with your smile alone. But what is the real reason you are here?”
“You are right, of course. I do have other business here. If you would be so kind as to fill a goblet for me and allow me to share your fine banquet, I will tell you all about it.”
Then his amiable expression changed. His eyebrows descended at the same time as the corners of his mouth and he looked puzzled, and then deeply concerned. He swung around suddenly so that his face was just inches away from Catalina’s. Catalina felt a pushing feeling inside her head as his beady eyes bored into hers, as if a squirrel was rummaging around in there for nuts. She gasped and shut her eyes to stop this stranger from invading her mind.
“And who are you, little foreigner?” she heard Boboli say in his musical voice, though he sounded more strained than before.
She peeked out from between narrowed eyelids and found that the pushing feeling had gone.
“No, don’t tell me…” Boboli continued, fingers on temples now, “Your name is… Catalina de Bayard.”
Catalina gasped. “How did you know that?”
Boboli swept his arm towards the gold words on his black wagon. “You can read, I presume, being of noble blood.”
“And just as you can read writing, so I can read what is written across your mind. What has gone, what is here, and what is coming.”
Catalina was so immersed in Boboli’s eyes, in which the light of a million candles danced, that she failed to see they had an audience. All the girls had moved nearer, drawn to Boboli’s words like bees to the most decadent of blooms.
“I can tell you what I have read.”
Catalina felt a shiver tickle her shoulders.
“I know what has gone. I know what is here,” she said.
“Clever girl,” he replied. “For what use is the past, eh? And the present is you and I, sitting here. It is nothing you do not know. Except… except that everything that has happened in your life… all the secrets, all the plots, everything you have been denied… you and I sitting here… the words I am holding back from you. It all leads to your future like the flow of a river. I am in Blackwood for another reason, yet I have the capacity to alter the course of your life tonight.”
Catalina was suddenly out of her depth. Drowning. Boboli’s dark eyes seemed to be bottomless pits of temptation. She struggled against his pull and failed miserably. The crowd of girls around them were drawn closer. Nobody breathed for a long time, and then Catalina drew in a large, rasping lungful of air.
“Then change it,” she said.
Boboli loved having an audience. There was nothing more intoxicating to him than the curiosity he managed to stir in others. But not this time. He waved a hand at his audience with an authoritative glare.
“Leave us!” he ordered.
And, because he was Boboli, they did as they were told without question.
He returned his eyes to Catalina, who grabbed them back hungrily. Then he took her hand, running his thumb over the delicate web of bones. He seemed unsure of how to continue, as if he were battling with himself. Catalina waited, it seemed, for hours for him to speak, but it was nowhere near that long.
“Leave now,” he said, finally.
“Leave now,” he repeated, this time more urgently.
“Is that it?”
“There is no more to say. You must go home.”
“But you said you had the capacity to change my life.”
“I do. But I didn’t promise that I would.”
Catalina’s heart plummeted. She had been so happy before this man had arrived and now he had destroyed that rare and precious emotion. Boboli still had her hand, but no longer her eyes, because they were suddenly so full of tears that she couldn’t see.
“I don’t want to go home,” she sniffed.
Boboli took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. The spirals of his moustache quivered in the rush of air.
“Then stay and be damned,” he replied in a quick rush.
“But what does that mean?” Catalina demanded, unable to control the wobble in her voice. He was scaring her.
“You have two paths, Catalina. The first will give you the smallest taste of something that you can never have, but something so divine that the very memory is enough to drive you mad for the rest of your life. Or you can leave now. Go home, back to your boring existence. And that is my advice. Take the second path. It is so much safer.”
The English half of Catalina was already removing her May-Queen crown and getting ready to leave. It was her mother’s half – the Latin half – that rebelled.
“Is it not better to have lived, even for the smallest moment, than never to have lived at all?” Catalina mused.
And in that smallest of moments she had made up her mind and there was nothing that was going to change it. Boboli smiled at her, yet it was a nervous smile (the first nervous smile ever to have graced his lips).
“You know,” he said, “I think I have to say ‘yes’.”
“And what form will this divine experience take?”
“What is the most divine experience one can have in this world?”
“Aside from eating honey cakes?” Catalina joked. But when the full force of his meaning hit her, she could hardly bring herself to say the word that came to her. It was too much. Something she never dreamed could happen to her. Mutual respect was the best she had hoped for.
“Love?” she whispered.
He nodded. “Yes. Love. But do not mistake love for happiness, Catalina, or you will be sorely wounded.”
He withdrew from her then, his prediction finished. He had nothing more to add. No detail. But Catalina could add the detail. The detail was made up of six letters, the first letter being a ‘J’.
from the Blackwood series
Cover Image from the 14th-century Codex Manesse