The setting is feudal Sussex in the thirteenth century, a landscape and society that have changed almost beyond recognition. The power of the Church is at its zenith, and the bishop of Alincester is one of the richest men in England. He derives income from the watermills in his diocese: the forces of wind and rain are held to be divine.
Ralf turned to look at his sister and found her still sleeping, curled up behind him in a bed their mother had contrived from a fleece. Now that the shadows had lengthened, Imogen’s hair, silver-blond like his own, was no longer catching the sun. Her thumb had returned to her mouth. In the enclosed space among all the furniture and baggage, her features had taken the inward reflections and made them into a serene and private thing, entirely her own.
That she, and not he, the son, the firstborn, was his parents’ favourite seemed to Ralf not only proper, but natural. So completely did he share their view that, aged nine, he was fashioning himself into her third guardian.
He reached down and, being careful not to wake her, pulled her hand and thumb away from her lips.
The cart, not very new, hired without driver, was being drawn by two oxen, one white, the other roan-brown. The motion of their broad, fly-pestered backs and horns, the containing sides of the cart, the creaking of axles and felloes, the occasional flick of his father’s switch: all these, like his parents’ desultory conversation, produced for Ralf, who had never yet been in one, the simulacrum of a passage by boat.
His ponderous land-vessel, following the roads through open downs or woods full of birdsong, sometimes passing another more or less like itself, or people on foot, and making ever-deeper headway into his apprehension, left the trees for good and crossed the furzy wastes of Mape Common.
The heavy perfume of the gorse, spreading on the cloying, pollenous air, had at last succeeded in stupefying the wayside grasshoppers, whose chorus had almost collapsed. The road began to descend and the chirping stopped altogether. The cart passed through an acre or two where the bushes had burned away, all but their charcoal skeletons. The soil, the road itself, scorched black, smelled like a hearth. As the road dipped further a view opened up below: marshland spreading as far as a long bank of shingle. Beyond that, glittering in the south-westerly light, Ralf saw the sea.
Mape Marsh, salt and fresh, comprised vast reedbeds and, in the drier parts, rough grazing for the hardy black cattle of the village. The reeds were harvested in winter for thatching, transported to Alincester and beyond. Thousands of bundles were cut each year, but still the reeds kept enlarging their kingdom, crowding upon the coast road and colonizing the verge on the other side, the pond, the brackish banks of the river, the front gardens of the lowest-lying cottages. In those days the plumes in summer spread, purplish-brown, the whole mile from village to beach.
As each reed ripens and grows heavier, the curve of its stem increases and, in concert with the multitude, changes most subtly the character of a marsh. With the frosts of autumn the flower-heads turn silver-bronze. The leaves fall, the stems dry out, and the ceaseless rustling becomes harsher, louder.
A boy who has grown to manhood in Mape, an observant and introspective boy who has spent his most important years roaming there, if blindfolded and somehow transported back to the marsh sixty years later and required on pain of forfeit to tell the season: why, such a one, without any other sense to guide him, could tell you the month and perhaps the very week from the particular quality of reed-rustle that met his ears.