… When her eldest child, Rupert, reached his seventh birthday, Eve took her two sons to see the river goddess. The family walked through the woods and fields and along the river until they found the deity, sitting on a wooden jetty. Her skinny frame was unconstrained by the baggy, moss-coloured tunic she wore. Her grey-white hair, in a wild bob, curled damply above her shoulders. One loose-skinned leg stretched a foot to trail patterns in the river while the other bent lithely into her body, bare foot splayed on the damp wood. When she saw the two boys running toward her and the strong, graceful figure of their mother not far behind, the skin of her face slipped effortlessly, through long years of practice, into a broad smile.
‘Welcome,’ she said, rising to embrace Eve, who handed her a basket of wild greens.
‘Dear Goddess,’ said Eve, ‘I have come to ask you: what will be the destiny of my children? I would like to help them prepare for the future.’
Eve’s eldest son Rupert stood before the goddess first. He was smartly dressed in shirt and breeches, unspoiled by use. He proudly carried with him the yardstick of intelligence; a handsome, straight, polished thing, made from elm and calibrated finely with a branding pen. The goddess turned her gaze on Rupert and touched the plank beside her with a wrinkled brown hand. He went to her at once and proffered the stick. His own notch, accompanied by his initials, was carefully fashioned just half an inch from the top.
‘Did you carve this?’ she asked.
‘Yes, with my knife,’ replied Rupert, sitting by her side. ‘It is the evaluation mark the school teacher gave me.’
She tilted his face towards hers with long, gentle fingers, and said, in response to Eve’s question:
‘This one shall be Lord of the Manor.’
John, meanwhile, had run away down the river, laughing and shouting. His trousers were muddy and the front of his shirt had holes where he had chewed it. Eve ran to catch him and bring him back, whispering:
‘John, stay still a moment.’
But to stay still was no more natural to John than it would be for you or I to go about life with our eyes shut. He liked to push hard at the world so that he could feel the world push back against him. He leapt into the shallows of the river, spraying muddy water over his brother, who surveyed the splotches on his clothing with rueful acceptance.
The eyes of the goddess shone as she watched John.
‘That one shall be a gardener,’ she said.
‘But for all his restlessness,’ said Eve, ‘his heart is every bit as good as his brother – it does not seem fair that he should be a common gardener while his brother is a lord.’
‘Then let me ask you this. Who is the true owner of the garden – is it the Lord of the Manor, or is it the gardener?’
‘It is the Lord, according to the deeds.’
‘Yet is it not the gardener who knows every glade, every rise, every rose and every fern as if it were a member of his own family? Is it not the gardener who shares the deepest intimacy with the garden, and is it not he to whom, through a fair exchange of sweat and produce, the garden brings greatest joy?’
Eve was about to protest at this, for the produce surely belonged to he who owned the land, but she remembered that the tastiest delicacies of the garden – even the garlic mustard which grew under the hedges, unknown to the Lord – were found on the gardener’s table.
The goddess continued: ‘Does not the Lord, who comes frequently to your cottage, take more pleasure in your company than he does in that of the Lady of the Manor, who is his by law, but who lives apart from him in the east wing and keeps company with the farrier?’
Eve, who had been looking thoughtfully into the honest eyes of the goddess as she spoke, turned her gaze to her youngest son, squatting in the stream, pushing his hands into the mud as it swirled around his fingers. The goddess was right; a courtly life would be burdensome to John – he would thrive in the outdoors. She then turned back to Rupert, sitting upright on the jetty, content to watch his brother at play.
‘But if the gardener has the best of it,’ said Eve, ‘does not then Rupert, whose mark is etched so high upon the stick, deserve as much good fortune?’
‘Do you set store by this high mark?’ her companion asked. ‘Where is John’s notch?’
‘It is only here, half way down,’ said Eve, pointing to a rough gouge.
‘Is it too high, even there?’ asked the goddess mischievously. ‘Certainly it is a long way below Rupert’s.’
‘There are many things at which John excels,’ protested Eve. ‘He is excellent at reckoning. Judged on that, his mark might be a finger’s breadth from the top.’
‘If we were to judge him by his skill at remembering the beginning of something when he gets to the end, would he not be close to the bottom?’
‘That is true,’ sighed Eve.
‘But according to his ability to make his mother laugh, I think he would be judged highest of all.’
‘Then where is his true mark?’
‘There are as many ways to measure a child as there are trees in the forest, and if every measure were brought together in one, each child’s worth would be marked at the same spot.’
‘The same for Rupert and John?’
‘The same for everyone.’
‘And where does this universal mark lie, which you say fits us all?’
‘Who knows! What does it matter? Rupert must be a Lord because he can keep his thoughts straight and true on a single track, he can shape an argument and he can chronicle what needs to be chronicled. John must be a gardener because he can measure acres with a glance of his eye and he will know instinctively how much seed to buy and whether to plant potatoes or peas by the feel of the earth.’
Eve knew she was right. Rupert’s ears were always pricked when the Lord talked about running the estate. John’s knowledge of plants always amazed her; already she was relaxed when she saw him chewing on some weed which she herself struggled to identify – he had an intuitive affinity for wholesome cow parsley but shrank instinctively from the poisonous, lacey, purple-splotched hemlock, though the two plants were like twins in shape and habit.
‘‘Thank you,’ said Eve, turning to leave. ‘Now I know my sons’ destiny, I can help prepare them.’
‘But wait. You have not asked about your own future.’
‘No,’ said Eve, surprised. ‘I did not think of that.’
‘I will send you a daughter. By the measures people first notice, she will rate so low that she will be mocked. That of course means that she will have wonderful, hidden talents. Your task will be to teach her to love herself and to nurture her gifts so that her true calling can be fulfilled.’
‘What will that be?’
‘Wait and see.’
Imaginings danced in Eve’s mind. This daughter would benefit from all the lessons she had learned in mothering her two boys. She would have choices cleverly fashioned to empower but not overwhelm; food to sustain and heal and soothe; freedom and space to explore and play. Who knew what would grow out of such a beginning – perhaps she would be a story-teller; perhaps a painter; perhaps a healer. Eve smiled and brought her hands together at her heart, bowing to the river goddess, before gathering her children and hastening up the bank, towards home.