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The Gryphon
Katy Jones

From my perch on the table I could see the thin hair on the crown of my father’s head. I smelt beer and horses and heard the rattle of carts on the cobbles. I was not more than eight years old.
“Have you seen this that I am painting?” my father asked, looking up from his work.
“Is it a dragon?”
“No. It is a gryphon.”
“A gryphon.” I tried out the word. Then I looked again at the shield’s painted surface. “Tis like a dragon. It has wings.”
“It is a female, that’s why. Male gryphons have no wings.”
I thought about this. “Why not?”
My father laughed. “What a strange question. That is how it is. But most gryphons are winged females.”
“Oh.” I watched the small movements of my father’s hand as he added more feathers to the yellow painted wings. “Who is the gryphon for?” I asked.
“Sir Nicholas de Montfort. He that owns de Montfort Castle.”
“Why does he want a gryphon?”
“Because that is his coat of arms.”
“Why?”
My father smiled, but he did not look up. “That was his father’s coat of arms. Many families have a gryphon on their crest, for the gryphon is the noblest of beasts.”
I considered this. “Why?”
“Well, it has the body of a lion and the head of an eagle. The lion is king of the animals and the eagle is king of the birds. So the gryphon is king of everything.”
“The gryphon is queen of everything, you mean, father.”

When my brother Roger turned twelve, my father took him on as an apprentice. I wished that I could be my father’s apprentice too, but I had little time to dwell on this, for there were too many tasks to attend to. I helped my mother with the cleaning, the washing and the cooking, which gave her more time for baking the bread she sold. My mother, at that time, was big with child. I remember her damp, flushed face as she kneaded the dough, her mouth firm. I remember the smell as she pulled the new loaves from the oven and packed them into my basket.
“Hurry now, before they cool,” she would say, and I would go, eager to be out of the hot kitchen. Now that I was ten it was my job to deliver bread to the tavern, the parsonage and the convent.
Each day, the first loaf had to be left at the parsonage door. The next two I passed through a window, to the taverner’s smiling daughter. Then I would run down the hill to the convent, holding the basket tightly in both arms.
There were apple trees in the convent grounds, and a vegetable garden where I sometimes saw the nuns at work. The pathway that led to the kitchen was edged with herbs, and smelled of lavender and rosemary. When I arrived with the bread, Sister Clare was always in the kitchen, stirring broth or bottling plums or maybe sweeping the floor. I would place the three remaining loaves on the table, one by one. Sister Clare would just say, “Thank you, child,” and then I would be gone.
Once, it did not happen that way. Once I brought the bread into the kitchen and Sister Clare looked up from her onions and carrots and said, “Take some of it through to the school room, will you child? For you are a little late, and I must be in the chapel before ten.”
The school room was a small room, pierced by rays of light from a little window. There were a dozen children of all sizes, and a nun with green eyes. She held one of the smallest in her arms, and another dark-haired one tugged at her sleeve. Some of the older boys scratched away at slates as I had seen Roger do.
I looked at the green-eyed nun. I knew that nuns did not have children, and the way the little ones clung to her puzzled me. “You are like their mother,” I said, although I had not meant to speak aloud.
“I am a mother to them, because God is a mother to me,” said the nun, with a smile. I frowned at the hem of her habit, wondering what kind of shoes nuns wear. I said nothing. “God cares for us, nourishes us and teaches us,” the nun said, as if my silence were a kind of questioning. “He protects our weakness, and forgives our disobedience as a mother would.”
I stood in the doorway with my basket, and wished suddenly that I had scrubbed my face before I left the house. I shifted my feet, watching the child in the nun’s arms, who seemed to be falling asleep. “But we are not born of his body,” said I, thinking of my mother’s swollen belly. “These children were not born of your body, and neither are we born of God’s body. It is a kind of mothering, but not a true mothering.”
I had expected the nun to be shocked by this boldness. Indeed, I had hoped she would be, but again she smiled. “You were born once through the pain and suffering of your mother,” said she. “Through God’s pain and suffering we are born once more, for bliss and eternal life.”
I did not want the nun to smile at me again, and I did not want her green eyes watching me. I wanted to run away. I saw that there was a little table at the front of the class, so I put the loaves on it and then I turned to go. But I did not forget what the nun had said.

One of my favourite tasks in those days was to bring lunch to my father and Roger. I liked to see the armour and weaponry they fashioned in the forge, and most of all I liked to see the devices my father painted on the shields. Very often he painted ordinaries such as crosses or chevrons. Occasionally he would be asked to paint an animal or bird. I liked to see his dragons and lions and fish and deer in their strange, stiff postures. One day when I brought the food in I found the workshop empty, as it sometimes was when my father went to the market, or when he was summoned to take an order from an important customer. I left the food on a low stool and went to see what my father had been working on. He had been painting a shield in green and blue, with a gryphon segreant in the centre. I recognized the device at once.
“God’s wounds!” I looked up at the unfamiliar voice, and saw an unfamiliar face. It was not a face I greatly liked, though it seemed to belong to a man of some wealth. He was watching me as a cat watches a bird. “Who is this bright star?” said he to me, and he seemed to speak through his nose. “This lily, this jewel of light?”
“Sire?” I looked at him and then looked hastily away. I had never seen such an elegantly cut tunic. It was deep red, and a silken purse hung at his girdle.
“What? You are not shy of me?” He was gazing at my face in a way I thought not quite seemly. I did not dare look up at him again. “There is no need, fair maiden, to be so modest.” I was silent, not knowing how to reply. I turned my head away, so that he could not stare at me so. “Do I truly frighten you? Tis very hard, that I find you gazing at my arms and yet you will not permit me to gaze at your face!”
“Sire.” I gave a sort of curtsey, and skipped past him out of the door.
“Would you go so soon, fair maiden?” said he, laughing. “Well, perhaps we will meet again.”
When I got back to the kitchen my mother was standing at the door, looking anxious.
“Were you alone in the workshop with that man, Emelya?” said she, crossly. “Tis better not to be noticed by such as he. Dost know who it was? It was Sir Nicholas de Montfort!”
My mother did not usually speak to me so fiercely. I started gathering together a stack of plates and knives that needed to be cleaned.
“You grow very comely, and that has its perils,” said my mother, watching me closely.
“I only did as you asked me,” said I. “Do not be so cross.”
“Emelya, you are twelve years old, and that is too old to be foolish.”

The winter passed, and then another. My mother was heavy with child once more, although our little house seemed already full of children. It was hard to find time for thought, but one hot summer Sunday I slipped out to walk in the meadows for a while. After a time I grew very warm, for when there was no one to see I liked to walk in the sun with my head uncovered. When I reached a pool of water I stopped and dipped my hands in to cool them. As I knelt before the pool I caught sight of my own trembling image. I gazed at it as if I gazed at someone else’s fresh face and black hair, and someone else’s well-grown form. Mother is right, I thought. I have grown comely.
Just then the pool seemed to turn to liquid gold. I looked up to see a creature of light that filled the whole heavens. I glimpsed bright fur and flashing talons. I knew then that she was a gryphon.
Swiftly she rose in the sky, brighter than the sun. There was such strength in her brilliant, feathered wings that in moments she looked small as a bird. Eagles could not have flown so high, nor horses outrun her. Men could no sooner have captured such a creature than they could capture the wind.
Fearless and free she rode the breeze, and I saw that she flew towards the mountains. The snowy crowns of their ragged peaks reached up to the azure sky.
My father’s painting was as like this creature as a candle-flame is to the angel of God.

Light from the large window floods my page. It sparkles on the bowls we use for grinding and mixing the paint and brightens the little piles of azurite, verdigris and saffron. Next to these is a pot containing goose quills. A bowl of oak apples soaks in the corner, for these are what Sister Margaret uses to make the ink. The chapel is nearby and I can hear the measured rise and fall of female voices solemnly echoing through the cloisters.
The page before me is almost covered in cramped black writing. I do not understand the Latin, but I know that the passage tells of the death of our Lord, of the women’s going to the tomb and of his rising to life. I lean over my work, adjusting my wimple so that it does not obscure my view of the fine brush I am using. I am picking out red grapes in the vines which crowd the narrow margin and curl around the big initial “C” at the top of the page. It is decorated in blue and green, and in its hollow I have painted a curious creature. Her beak is hooked and her body gold, and she flies on eagle’s wings.

 

 

 

 

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