NEAR LINZ, AUSTRIA, MARCH 1461
There was an angry bellow from inside the woodcutter’s hovel; the woman, struggling up from the stream with a heavy bucket of icy water in each hand, raised her head and shouted back. Something in her tone enraged him—he was always on the brink of fury—and, as she put down one of the slopping pails in the muddy patch before the tumbledown building, the rough wooden door banged open and the woodcutter surged out, his dirty shirt half open, his thick trousers flapping. He grabbed her free arm to hold her steady and slapped her hard, across the face. She reeled back from the blow, but
gritted her jaw against the pain, and stood, head bowed, like a beaten ox.
He brought his head close to hers and shouted, his spittle spraying into her impassive face. He let her go, and impulsively kicked over both pails into the mud; she would have to go to the stream again, and haul more water. He laughed, as if the thought of her pointless labor was the only funny thing in this bitterly hard world. But then his laughter died as he looked at her.
She was not pressing her slapped cheek with the cold palm of her hand, nor bowing her head in sobs. She was not shrinking from him, nor picking up the rolling, empty buckets. She had spread out her hands wide; she was snapping her fingers as if to a drumbeat that only she could hear.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Woman? Fool? What d’you think you’re doing?”
Her eyes were closed as if she could sense nothing but a smooth wooden floor and clean limewashed walls and candlelight, and the fresh smell of a swept barn ready for a midsummer dance. Her head was tipped, as if listening to the rattle of a tambourine and the tempting, irresistible saw of a fiddler. As he watched, quite bemused, she lifted the hem of her ragged dress, spread it wide, and started to dance, as pretty as a girl.
“I’ll dance you!” He started toward her, but she did not
shrink from him. She took three steps to the left and did a little jump, then three steps to the right. She turned round as if she were being spun by an attentive partner. Ignoring the icy mud on her bare feet, she started the part of the dance where the women circle the room, as if she were being watched by admirers, her head held high, her eyes blind to the leafless branches of the trees and the cold sky above them.
He laid heavy hands on her shoulders and felt her jig beneath his grip as if he were about to dance with her. He tried to drag her into their hut, but she only danced toward the open door, bowed to the dirty interior, and danced back out again. He drew back his fist to thump her into unconsciousness, but something in her smiling, bland face made him hesitate: suddenly powerless, his hand fell to his side.
“You’ve gone mad,” he said wonderingly. “A madwoman you’ve always been, but now you’ve lost your wits, and you’ll be the ruin of us all.”