Authors: Karen Cushman
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003
Copyright © 2012 by Karen Cushman
All rights reserved.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Clarion Books is an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Will Sparrow’s road / Karen Cushman.
Summary: In 1599 England, twelve-year-old lying, thieving Will Sparrow runs away, meets many colorful characters on the road, and then reluctantly joins a traveling “oddities” exhibit, where he learns to see beyond appearances.
ISBN 978-0-547-73962-5 (hardback)
[1. Conduct of life—Fiction. 2. Freak shows—Fiction. 3. Runaways—Fiction. 4. Great Britain—History—Elizabeth, 1558-1603—Fiction.] I. Title.
SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND, THE YEAR
For all those who asked,
Will you ever write a book about a boy?
With thanks to
Merna Hecht for the sensitivity discussions,
Kirby Larson and Dorothy Love for their encouragement and their example,
the librarians of King County, Washington,
for books and more books,
the legendary Dinah Stevenson for wisdom, jots, and quibbles,
Philip for love, for unfailing support,
and for being the perfect model of a twelve-year-old boy
INTRODUCING WILL SPARROW,
NOT YET THIRTEEN BUT ALONE AND
ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
was a liar and a thief, and hungry, so when he saw the chance to steal a cold rabbit pie from the inn's kitchen and blame it on the dog, he took it—both the chance and the pie. But the innkeeper would have none of it: "And how did the wee dog open the door, scrabble onto the table, and fetch the pie out of the kitchen, all the while sitting on Mistress Grubb's lap having his ears scratched, I would like to know?” He grabbed Will by the shoulders and shook him. Pie-crust crumbs fell like snow.
"Ye have stolen your last meal, boy. I paid too high a price for you,” the innkeeper said with a spray of spittle. "Free drink for your lout of a father. I could easily hire me two boys for what he costs me in ale.” Will struggled to escape, but the innkeeper held on tighter. "No, boy, you be liar and thief and not worth your keep. I mean to send you to the city. Sell you for a climbing boy.”
Will's heart thumped. A chimney sweep? "Nay,” he said, still struggling. "Ne'er!”
"Aye, boy. There always be a market for such,” the innkeeper continued. "Them don't last long. They lungs go.”
Will kicked his captor in the knee and, shoving the table aside, turned for the door, but the innkeeper stuck out a booted foot, sending Will tumbling to the ground.
"You be off with the carter in the morning,” he said, lifting Will by the collar of his shirt.
Although Will struggled and kicked and tried to bite the innkeeper's large and leathery arm, he could not escape and was locked in the stable—without his boots, lest he run. But it is difficult to keep a wiry, clever, sad, and angry lad locked up, and Will worked on the boards of the stable, making first a mousehole, and then a hole a weasel might fit through, and finally a hole large enough for a small but determined boy. He wrapped a blanket, prickly with horsehair and straw but not too tattered for warmth, around his shoulders. Exhaling loudly, he squeezed through the hole and ran into the night.
In the deepening dark, the boy could not see the road ahead, so he ran with his arms outstretched and waving wildly, lest he collide with a tree or a wagon or some unknown frightful thing. Such motions made running difficult and slow, but no one could follow him in the dark, so he ran.
Finally his arms and shoulders, not to mention his legs and feet, grew so tired and ached so fiercely that he had to take the risk and stop. where he was he did not know. on the road or off, he did not know. The darkness and the strangeness frightened him, and his heart beat like a tambour. He moved forward until he felt something—a tree stump, he guessed—by which he could rest without fear of being overrun by a cart or trampled by a horse. Lying down, he snuggled into the blanket, his back against the stump, for that way he felt less lonesome and forlorn.
The night was full of sounds. leaves rustled and whispered, the wind moaned, branches creaked and snapped. will could not sleep. He lay imagining the innkeeper catching him, his father finding him, or—worse—trolls and goblins, ogres and elves and evil dwarfs, come out of the forest to bedevil him. when he heard the direful hooting of an owl, he pulled the blanket over his head. Finally, comforted by the familiar smell of horse, he slept.
Dawn comes early in summer, so before long he woke to the sound of a cockcrow and opened his eyes. Fie upon it! In the dark he had doubled back and was now not an hour's walk from where he'd started. He smiled a sour smile. Leastwise the innkeeper would not be looking for him here, so near to the inn.
He rubbed his eyes, washed his face, and drank deeply from a stream running warm and shallow. "You, Will Sparrow,” he said to his face shimmering in the water, "are a sorry excuse for a runabout. Now you must start again.”
When folk heard his name, they smiled at first, it being a fitting name for one so small and brown, but then, thinking "Sparrow? Sparrow?” some would remember his father, the drunken fool who sold his only son for ale, and would turn away in disgust. So will ran, from the innkeeper and the carter, from his ale-sodden father, from the disapproving faces of folk, from his very life.
Will's stomach was empty, his head fuzzy, his legs heavy. He could go no more until he fed them all. Slowly he picked his way along the road, careful to keep the hedgerow between himself and anyone's eyes. It being late summer, he found a thorny thicket of blackberries, shiny and plump and smelling of sunshine, which he picked until his hands were purple and ate until his belly threatened to give them all up.
He wiped his hands on his breeches and stretched. While he ate, the road had grown busy with travelers in fancy cloaks and threadbare linen, carts and coaches and hay wagons, horses and sheep, merchants and beggars. Even with the shelter of the hedgerow, Will thought himself too easily seen and found. But where might he go? To his right was ploughland, golden with ripened grain, and to his left deep forest. In the forest he might be hidden from sight, but it was a dark and evil place, filled with demons and beasts and men who lived like beasts.
"You, boy,” someone called, and without stopping to see who called or who was meant, Will hitched up his breeches and his courage and ran into the woods. Brambles tore at his legs, branches whipped his face and tugged at his hair, but fear drove him on, away from the inn and toward he knew not what.
Was he running east or west? Toward a town or away? Was the innkeeper still looking for him? Had he sent the carter to fetch Will back? And his father—did his father care enough to search for him? Was the man too codswalloped to follow? Or had he lost his chance at free ale when Will ran, which would leave him sober and storming? Will shivered at the thought. Being sober enraged his father, as did honking geese, beggars, bill collectors, and Will himself.
The innkeeper had been no easier than Will's father, but at the inn will was fed somewhat regularly and many an extra sausage found its way under his shirt and into his belly, so he had stayed while wet spring turned to high summer. He slept in the stable behind the inn and each morning turned the spit on which joints of meat roasted, scoured the pots the mutton stew simmered in, and gathered up the rushes befouled with bones, grease, and piss, until that pilfered rabbit pie undid him.
He ran all morning, eager to put as much distance as possible between himself and the inn. By midafternoon the day was so bright that streaks of sunshine found their way even through the trees. He would have to hide until evening. He found a small hollow to curl into, pulled the blanket over himself for cover, and fell soundly asleep.
He awoke not long after to whistles and shouts. "I am certain he went this way,” a rumbly voice called.
"I will go this way and you that. He cannot get away,” said a scratchy voice.
Will crouched lower under the branches. How could they have found him so easily?
"Come, boy. Come out,” Rumbly Voice said.
Scratchy Voice shouted in triumph, "There he is! I see him! Come out. You cannot get away.”
Will looked about for an escape. He would not be taken so easily, not end up a climbing boy and die sooty and coughing in a chimney.
"Come on, boy. Be not afeared,” Scratchy Voice said.
As he dove into the brambles, Will heard a soft nickering. "Good boy,” said Rumbly Voice. "I have a carrot for ye.”
Will stopped and peeked through the bushes. A horse was poking its way toward two men. One of them slipped a halter over the horse's neck and patted its rump. "Good boy, good. No one will hurt ye,” the man rumbled. Will could hear the sound of carrot crunching. "Come, we will take ye home.”
The two men and the horse turned and walked away.
Will slapped his head. A horse. It was a horse they were after and not him at all! He was dizzy with relief but did envy the horse the carrot, the gentle words, and the home. Will himself had no prospect for any of those. He turned back for his blanket and then walked on.
It appeared to Will as if the woods went on forever, even to the edge of the earth where there were monsters and dragons. He shivered but walked ahead. There was nothing for him behind.
OF HOW WILL MOURNED
A LOST BUTTON, A BLANKET
AND A MOTHER
gentle dusk. Will filled his belly with berries and dreamed of warm porridge and buttered bread. As he sat for a moment's rest, he heard a scuffling sort of noise. Was it the horse come back? Or had the men returned for him?
The scuffling grew louder and proved to be a deer, eating her way through the forest. Will caught his breath, and the deer cocked her head and twirled her long, rabbitlike ears. In the last rays of light, her reddish-brown coat gleamed. Will stared at her. She was well muscled and a bit plump.
If I could catch her, I could eat her,
If I could catch her and skin her and butcher her and gather wood and build a fire and roast her until juicy, I could eat her.
He made a sound between a sigh and a snort—there was little chance of all that. The deer twitched her tail once and was gone. Will picked another handful of berries and resumed his journey.
Berries. He was sick of berries, but he had not seen a cottage to plunder nor a chicken to steal, not even a poacher or a charcoal burner who might be wheedled out of a bit of bread or cheese. Walking became tiring, then tedious, then a torment, and he began searching for something to distract him. "I am the famed highwayman Gamaliel Ratsey,” he roared, settling the blanket over his shoulders as if it were a cape, "taking what I want and wanting what I take. I care for no one but myself and nothing but my belly!”
He pulled the blanket over his face. "A dangerous outlaw I be, lurking here in the woods, waiting for unwary travelers to pillage and skewer.” But the thought frightened him, there alone in the darkening evening, and he looked carefully around before wrapping the blanket about him like—well, a blanket, and curling up to sleep.
He woke to find he had slept away the cover of darkness but not the pangs of a belly empty once again. As he trudged through the morning, the woods thinned into thickets, then hedges, then a road lined with avenues of trees—hawthorn, birch, alder, ash, apple. Apple? Apples! Will saw no one to stop him, so he scampered up the closest tree. It was heavy with apples, speckled and freckled and more green than red but there for the taking, so Will took them.
I care for no one but myself and nothing but my belly.
He liked the sound of that, so he said it aloud, but not too loud, lest he be heard and caught: "I care for no one but myself and nothing but my belly!”