Forget Me Knot
by David Barber
When the village woke that morning, no one remembered Goodwife Axelrod's husband.
Lapses of memory had happened before, but it was uncommon for everyone to forget the same thing. The sisters Fogerty, chatting with the Goodwife's maid outside the bakery, were the first to crease their brows in puzzlement. By noon even menfolk realised Goodwife Axelrod had been busy.
It meant she needed a husband again - which was an opportunity - and Jacob's father ordered him scrubbed and buttoned into his best suit and sent off to propose.
"Mention your prospects," his father called after him.
"And take flowers," added his mother.
His parent's marriage had been arranged and seemed none the worse for it. Perhaps it was the suddenness of events that made him dawdle.
Here were wayside flowers and he picked a few. He had never understood why girls were so pleased by a bunch of flowers.
A proposal was not a thing to be rushed and he was having trouble finding the right words. Suitors had until sunset. A curious rule, but that was the way of it. With Goodwife Axelrod's shadowy magics came obligations. While having eyes of different colours was not a burden, the rule about husbands was more onerous.
There were lots of girls in the village who might welcome having their chores interrupted, but his feet brought him to the house of Miller Toft, where Bella Toft was just setting out for an afternoon stroll.
"Lucky Goodwife Axelrod," she shrugged.
"My father's idea," he said, hurrying after her. "I don't suppose I have much chance."
"Besides, she's too used to having her own way."
"And too old. She must be, what, thirty?"
"Her husband might have been sent off on business somewhere, then, you know, forgot where he lived, or who he was. I suppose not remembering you were married would be a kind of divorce."
Jacob tried to gauge the effect of his words. Bella seemed interested in the clouds.
"You should hurry up in case she chooses someone else."
At the Goodwife's gate, Jacob bumped into Samuel Thorpe, who ran his squint over the gleam of Jacob's boots, the tightness of his collar, his posy.
"Where you off to, Jacob?" he asked. "Dressed up like a goose."
"No more a goose than you, Sam Thorpe."
The other noticed his own finery for the first time and seemed taken aback.
"I was just taking a walk."
It was said that Goodwife Axelrod's powers were deeper than water in a well, and she could make things slip out of mind, so that a hopeless suitor like Sam Thorpe forgot being rejected.
Jacob wouldn't mind being passed over, but others might resent having their balloons pricked. Perhaps the Goodwife was being considerate. Or perhaps deciding what people could know was something the powerful did.
The maid had been answering the front door all afternoon, and if she was a dog, would have growled at Jacob. He sacrificed his hat but held his flowers out of reach.
Goodwife Axelrod was sat by the window and had watched Jacob rehearsing his proposal as he walked up the path.
"Goodwife," he began, a little daunted by her green and blue gaze. She wore a plain grey dress and sat very upright. Her fingers toyed with a length of green ribbon.
"Tragic though it is to lose a husband-"
"You do not remember him," she interrupted. "And I discovered too late that he was not a pleasant man, nor kind."
For all Jacob knew, the man deserved these slights, but the trouble with being made to forget was that he only had the Goodwife's word for it.
"Let us assume you promise undying love," she added. "And so forth."
Platitudes faltered on Jacob's lips.
"Have you nothing to say?"
"I met Sam Thorpe coming down your drive. He didn't remember."
Jacob thought of his own memories, and how very soon they would not be his own. "Must you do that?"
"I do not like to be discussed and compared afterwards."
"It seems your husband's unkindness has rubbed off on you."
He took satisfaction from the expression on her face. Her freckles were fading, as was the red of her hair. She was no longer a young woman. It was a curious thing, but at that moment Jacob felt sorry for Goodwife Axelrod. Sorry for women past their bloom. He felt very mature.
"Until you have been forced to listen to a string of scoundrels and nincompoops, knowing all the while that you must marry one of them before sunset, you are not qualified to judge unkindness."
As she spoke, her long pale fingers began to twist the ribbon she played with into a particularly difficult knot.
"Hmm," Jacob admitted. "Though I resent being called a scoundrel."
His gaze returned to the ribbon. It made his head swim to follow the twistiness of that knot.
"No," agreed the Goodwife. "You are one of the nincompoops."
To his credit, Jacob snorted with laughter. It was obvious that she'd made her choice and it was neither Samuel Thorpe, who had already forgotten his visit, nor himself, who soon would. His recollections would fade like a dream on waking, and he would wander the village like a lost sheep, as confused as Sam Thorpe.
"I wish you well, Mistress. May you be luckier in your choice this time."
He realised he still clutched his hopeless bunch of flowers. He thrust the posy into her hands and the ribbon slipped to the floor. He stooped to return it.
"Wait," he heard her say as he turned to go.
She was contemplating the bunch of forget-me-nots. "I recall these were my favourite flowers as a child."
"I suppose you will do as well as another," she said. "Certainly better than the last one."
Goodwife Axelrod tucked the ribbon away in her pocket for the time being.
© 2022 David Barber
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