All that the men could see from the village was an orange glow under the fringe of blue pines. They could hear nothing but peaked laughter and snatches of song, which spiraled like smoke under the frozen stars. That was the point. That was why the women carried their baskets of fleece, long wooden distaffs, knitting needles, and spinning wheels (those that had them) out to the shack one night each week through the winter.
It was hardly a shack, in truth. A tent of logs with walls of woven hazel branches, covered with dried dung and straw. A bare earth floor, a few rough benches, and the fire in the centre. The doorway was left open, facing the village. So they could keep an eye on the men, they said, and the men said the same.
Inside the ring of light the women blazed brightly. They sat wrapped in cloaks and caps and blankets on their stools and benches. A jug of ale was passed around. Their hands flew along their yarn and over their spindles at a steady pace, and their voices danced. Now one speaker, now many, crossing and looping over each other. Now sliding into song or resting in silence.
It was Jennet Andrews’ first time spinning with the other women. She was 14 and didn’t yet have the knack of keeping her rhythm while the conversation flowed around her. She would get pulled into the current and drop her pace, pinching and pulling the yarn. But the older women loved her bright eyes and her quick, fumbling fingers.
“So Jennet, have you a sweetheart?” old Mrs Danlin asked with a wink.
There was a rattle of laughter like leaves and Jennett flushed.
“I do, as I think you already know.”
“You do? Well tell us all about him Jen and we shall tell you what we shall tell you.”
Jennet teased at her fleece and smiled to herself. “He’s two years older. Tall and straight as a birch. His hair is dark and his eyes are green. He’s very handsome.”
A couple of the women threw glances at each other, for they knew full well she was talking about Will Tawler, a gangly, spotted young man apprenticed to the blacksmith. But they took care Jennet didn’t see.
“We danced together at Michaelmas and he’s been courting me since. He brings me flowers sometimes, and a necklace of shells that the peddlar brought all the way from the sea!” Her eyes sparkled.
Mrs Danlin smiled, her wrinkled face arranging itself into soft pouches.
“And is he constant? And kind?”
Jennet tugged her yarn a little faster.
“He’s always thinking of me. Always. He wants to know all about my day, even the littlest things. Where I’ve been, who I’ve spoken with. Sometimes he’ll come and visit when we’re apart too long, when I’m milking, or sweeping. He says he cannot stand to be away from me, and when we are wed he shall be always twined together.”
“And is his temper hot or cold, my dear?”
“Oh hot I should say! He can be fierce as a boar. Once I saw him snap a broom in two! He feels everything so deeply.”
Jennet examined a snarl in her yarn and didn’t see Mrs Danlin’s sidelong glance to the woman who sat beside her. The woman’s eyes glittered under the brim of a broad felt hat. She’d paused her knitting and sat smoking a long clay pipe, a thoughtful expression on her face, which was carved with deep lines and brown as an acorn.
“Well Jennet,” Mrs Danlin continued. “You’d better tell your sweetheart to give you some turning room. Believe me, that sort of grasping love can turn sour awfully fast.”
“You don’t want your young man to go the way of Kit Carney,” the old woman beside Mrs Danlin added in a low voice grizzled as bark, and put her pipe back in. There was a murmur from the circle.
“Who’s Kit Carney?” Jennet asked, and a hush settled on the group. For a moment they listened to the fire crackle. Mrs Danlin drew a deep breath.
“A long, long time ago all the women in the village were met here just as we are tonight. But it wasn’t a clear night like this one. A cold mist hung over the ground and wreathed around the trees like the breath of some slumbering dragon, and the moon was wound in sheets of cloud. The women huddled close to the fire, but they felt the chill down in their bones all the same.
One of the women there that night, the youngest, had recently been courted by Kit Carney. He was a local lad with good prospects, a fine crop of golden curls, and a temper black as pitch. He’d chased the girl, and pinched her, and bullied her into taking a turn with him. Her parents were pleased with the match, and it was true that sometimes he could be sweet and charming. But she wasn’t sure. She didn’t seem to feel what everyone said she must feel. She wondered if something was wrong with her, not to want such a fine young man for her husband.
One day they were out walking and he found a beetle struggling on its shiny black back. She watched as he picked it up and pulled its legs off one by one. That’s when she knew she couldn’t marry him.
She decided she’d spent long enough not trusting herself, so she told him there and then that she couldn’t be his wife. First he laughed and tried to kiss her. But when she pushed him away he flew into a rage and grabbed her hard around her wrist, digging his fingers into her flesh.
Agnes, for that was her name, managed to twist out of his grasp. She ran as fast as her feet could carry her back to the village, with Kit Carney close at her heels. She swung herself over the gate where he scrambled, and tripped over the stepping stones where he slithered and slipped, and so she managed to get back to the village before him. She ran straight to her best friend’s house.
Her friend was an orphan girl a little older than Agnes, who we’ll call Bet. She lived alone, after her aunt passed two summers before. This day she was sorting the last of the hard autumn blackberries, and dropped the basket as her friend came flying into her arms and poured out her whole story.
They had a fierce love for each other you see.
Bet barred the door and took her friend’s face in her hands and said “Don’t you worry my darling, my dear, he won’t hurt you. I’ll not let you become a beetle for an angry boy to play with.”
Then came a pounding at the door so loud the rafters shook and a little rain of dust fell on them both. Kit Carney bellowed: “I knew she’d run to you, you wretched sow. Let her come out and face me and tell me herself why she won’t be my bride.”
Bet shouted back just as loud: “You know why, Kit Carney. She’ll not come out, she’ll not come to you again.” She looked at Agnes, trembling but holding her head high, and took her hand in her own, strong and berry-stained. “And here’s your fair warning: if you try and come to her you’ll pay more than you can afford, do you hear me?”
He roared and shouldered the door again, stamping like a bull. Bet led Agnes away. “Come on, you best help me with these brambles seeing as you’re the cause they were spilled.”
Agnes smiled and wiped away her tears. She’d known that any husband would fall short to her love for Bet. Now it felt clear as day, bright as the sun. Bet was an oak and Kit Carney just a gall wasp. She threw her arms around her and pressed her face into Bet’s smoky hair. “Thank you,” she whispered, and Bet held her tight.
This all happened on the day of the night of the spinning circle. Kit Carney shouted himself hoarse then stamped away, cursing. At dusk the two girls crept out of the house and down the path to the spinning shack at the edge of the woods. Agnes told the other women the story as Bet pulled out her pipe and tobacco.
Pale-eyed Mrs Priddy had nursed Kit as a babe when his mother died in the bearing of him, and said he was a good child underneath. She was sure he’d see the error of his ways treating Agnes so roughly, surely it was just because he loved her so. Agnes should give him another chance. To which Bet replied sharply that this was his chance. She’d told him clear to keep away from Agnes. If he abided by her words, well, that would be an end to it. If not, he’d had his warning. The other women murmured their agreement and Mrs Priddy said: “Do as you will, I’ll have no part of it,” and picked up her stool and her distaff.
As she walked off Bet called after her: “Tell him to keep clear, Priddy, and all will be well.” She blew a perfect blue smoke ring to send her on her way.
The women span by the light of the fire as usual. They laughed and told stories, and swapped charms and remedies, but they kept their voices low and their ears pricked, especially Agnes. It was Nell Brannock who saw him first, just a tall shadow by the hedgerow in the mist.
“Show yourself Kit Carney! I see you skulking there,” she said and stood up, hands on her hips. All the women turned to follow her gaze. Without a sound the shadow parted from the hedge and stepped out of the mist towards the little shelter until Kit’s face was plain to see.
Agnes reached for Bet’s arm to steady herself. Bet touched her hand and then slowly got to her feet. “This is no place for a man. Least of all you,” she said, and her words cut through the muffling fog. “Turn around and go home, Kit Carney, and there need be no more trouble.”
He laughed, a harsh bark. Two more women stood up.
“No trouble? You’re the trouble, you wenches. I’m here to fetch back my bride. All was well with us until you all started whispering poison in her ear. Especially you Bet Farlowe, you’re… unnatural.”
The other women were all standing now, forming a wall in front of Agnes, and holding their distaffs before them. Bet picked up her own, a solid pole of strong oak, and said slowly: “Well if you’re here for Agnes I suppose you’d best come and take her.”
Mrs Danlin paused and looked around at the faces of the women. Some watched with gleaming eyes. Some span quietly, eyes to the earth and lost in their thoughts. Jennet’s mouth was hanging open, her spindle idle in her lap. Mrs Danlin let out a sigh.
“I’ll leave the details in the past where they belong. All you need to know is that Kit Carney never bothered Agnes again. He never bothered anyone again.”
A couple of the women laughed low and whispered to each other. Cloaks were rearranged, legs stretched, and the jug of ale passed around. A new conversation began about Mrs Rackett’s black hen. Jennet picked up her spindle and gazed into the fire, hands moving as if in a dream.
“Did that really happen?” she asked, finally.
“Of course,” Mrs Danlin said. “Though it was a long time ago now. But not so long ago that it couldn’t happen again. You make sure your young man treats you kind, and when you tell him ‘no’, he hears ‘no’.”
Jennet nodded, and turned away, towards a conversation about the color of eggs. Mrs Danlin gazed out into the night. It was probably for the best that Jennet didn’t see Will Tawler hastily retreating along the path by the hedge. Nor the pale form which had been standing behind him, flickering like a candle. A young man – a boy really – with golden curls. His face white as milk, eyes grey as rain.
Without taking her eyes from his, Mrs Danlin reached for the woman beside her and they sat looking together into the dark, hands clasped under the warm woollen folds of her cloak. The other woman drew the pipe from between her teeth and blew a ring of blue smoke, framing the dead boy perfectly for a moment before both dissolved in the cold night air.
This story was inspired by an extraordinary account of a women’s spinning meet that I read in At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch:
“In 1759, upon visiting a Spinnstuben, the journeyman Conrad Hugel suffered a severe beating at the hands of women armed with distaffs. For three weeks, he lay close to death. Claiming the punishment was their ‘good right’ because of Hugel’s indecent flirtations, the women later declared that ‘they should have injured him even more’.”
This story previously appeared in Noctivagant Press Issue 3 December 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga