it starts with. Edward Rex. and the noise & the arguing. twenty of us sitting at a bench. Dame Badb watching us with orange eye & black claw. to start on the first panel laid on a board. on trestles so close together. no gap between us. our needles mad with blood. stab-stitch. wild with missing sons. to fill in curves of horses & ships in honour of a Bastard. Ubi Harold dux Anglorum et sui milites equitant ad Bosham. none of us can read. but the king of birds bows to Harold. we argue over who gets the name–. H makes a strong man with sturdy legs sitting on a throne. Dame Badb cocks her head & clicks her tongue. blue stinks & sticks in the throat. making us sob or laugh. blue piss blue spit. but bruises come up green & today we start for real. it is great praise to work in wool (she says). colour of the redbreast & the dawn & the oak. it is forbidden for us to use ink (she says) but we may sew.
. . .
Hic apprehendit Wido Harold. shears at waist & us overseen by Old Badb. piss & bark & ash. Nuntii Willelmi. by rushlight mixing to ensure he stands out. Hic venit nuntius ad Wilgelmum ducem. his hammer hand is heavy. we lay monstrous paws beneath his seat. a sword carelessly couching his W slices ducem in two & here the Kentish hind stands in stainless wool. our invisible hands. this English art to tell of our own defeat. Kentish women trusted with his great victory. & already no-one remembers which is the right story. Even Odo Catspaw. & though the design is given & we must follow. the border is ours and what’s left over.
. . .
only three times a woman is laid out on the board. Ubi unus clericus et Aelfgyva. once for a devil who wriggles her hips. once for killing her sons on the field & once for tearing her daughters. but only one named. he huffs & puffs squatting in his stinking ditch. until three times a womb is pricked onto the cloth. so while they divide our portions. we split needles from bone & fashion an axe. for a naked man & our chopping block.
. . .
all worked in stem-stitch. no leaves or fruit. Ubi Harold sacramentum fecit Willelmo duci. the root of it. but no leaves or fruit. Hic Harold dux versus est ad Anglicam terram. backwards we stitch.
. . .
Et hic defunctus est. we squabble over Edward’s corpse. not for the soft old body but who will work God’s hand. & which. the pale god of veils. or a scythe lord of the field. but Badb’s red tongue outlined in gold. her storm horse bears the Bastard.
. . .
Hic dederunt Haroldo corona regis. our bone-needles splinter. H is a man who reaches after. between Catspaw’s prick-and-pounce. a star appears. Isti mirant stella. the design is given. we wring our hands. a tear in the fabric adds chaos to the pattern. but ghosts fall quietly. to our bloody needles. Harold. H is a man who reaches.
. . .
these bloody needles sew their story. Hic navis Anglica venti in terram Willelmi ducis. are the same needles. to embroider our shrouds and winding sheets. how we searched each mutilated body. ten thousand or more. greedy to find a familiar ring or a chain. Edith once Swan-neck now purple and ragged in the mouth. stumbled with the rest. said she recognised the king in that slashed turnip grin. we turned our backs. prayed better fortune for our own. our king’s own mother begs for his body. the Bastard says he must be buried by the shore. to teach him to guard it better.
. . .
we stitch into the margin other memories. ghost-ships to haunt an island. unrigged and unmanned. our threadbare seas stitched with the same wool as strange ships carrying blue and gold horses. we tell of our own defeat. but they are haunted by our margins.
. . .
Hic exeunt caballi de navibus. now this time of year a wet wind calls us. a bitter clay smothers our fields. to grow erect he likes his drink. his sip of red. old man Barley needs his coaxing or he’ll not swell. now he chokes on blood. keep your mind on your work says Badb. it all belongs to the Bastard now. Hic coquitur caro hic ministraverunt ministri. nothing grows but as meat is rotten. nothing fat but corruption. Hic fecerun prandium. the green weed runs dry. so the Dame brings weld. yellow to bite the cloth but it’s the long go-round shapes bleeds the heart. because of. or missing after. as Odo Catspaw orders the story. bolting now & only our needles to hold it down.
. . .
Hic domus incenditur. we knot the child’s hand tight to its mother so they can run faster. a pair of fighting birds. her fingernails stitched in a perfect O around his wrist. gall to bind her curse. wind it in our sheet. the wolf takes even the smallest lamb–. Hic milites exierunt de Hestenga et venerunt ad prelium contra Haroldum rege. at the approach of battle our fierce needles work faster. the great horses raise their azur heads. a little ass in motley laughs. and so it starts. twin lambs bite on each other’s tongues. a hare leaps into open jaws. featherless birth for outspread wings. Bladdud’s war cry soars.
. . .
Hic ciciderunt simul Angli et Franci in prelio. spears and arrows tear through the divide. splitting each margin. furious birds peck at yellow horses. two brothers killed. but now we plant another. a fine red horse. broken as smashed straw. falls against the tabby-weave. tears the sky. Hic est Willel dux. there the youngest falls. between club-moss and madder root. no escape from each other.– twenty of us to finish it. in a place like Hel. Badb throws back her hood. head stained red from raw moult. wails for more blood. heads sewn apart from fallen bodies. horses snipped at the knee. linen spoiled by raw fingers. but it is not done yet. Et Franci pugnant et ciciderunt qui erant cum Haroldo. shirts ripped from warm bodies.— & still our sons. black feathers scatter from the Dame’s wide sleeves–. and at the end we refuse. Badb jabs at our hands with her needle. pierces. penetrates the field–. Hic Harold rex interfectus est. her needle sticks in his eye.
. . .
now we are all watchful. the invaders and the invaded. awake for the housethief’s return. spectral ships nuzzle our shore. we put honey loaves at the door for wolves. our hearth cakes are for us alone. we ghost stitch a land changed as our skins. our Osyths. holy women. lead us blindly in its circles. their heads bundled beneath their arms. we hide slivers of oak between our legs. the old laws are gone. this is our new vernacular. our new husbands moan in broken English and piss out wine-coloured splinters. & all of us turn nervously to the shore.
Note: Latin phrases are taken from the inscriptions on The Bayeux Tapestry. It is not known whether their ‘inaccuracies’ are due to colloquial usage or to variations introduced by the anonymous female embroiderers. Aelfgyva is one of the very few women depicted in the tapestry and the only one named.
A hill beneath and a filled-in door. This bench, its damp wooden flowers. A dead tree
stripped clean and time fucking stops. You reach a corner of you are there.
You are there.
An edge of grief you can park in an empty tongue. The fields are empty.
That’s near enough.
You expect you have come here to honour the dead. An open field looks like
battlefield words: gone, absent, missing. You come to hold it in memory but it
becomes spongy underfoot.
You do not mean to remember her, the time you brought her here. A list in a notebook
of useful words:
Sodden ground but your body remembers so you try to follow even as
it is hardening and solidifying,
becomes a whole, no longer possible to enter nor be held by it. Nil. Null. Hush. Ssh.
Shush. You cannot enter nor explore its spaces nor the dead in their apophatic silence
that gap in words. Listen. Hush.