A NEW YEAR’S TALE*
The Midwife’s Tale
He called late that New Year’s Eve.
My tea long gone, the fire smoored**
I’d prayed my beads and said my peace.
The dog barked once and wagged her tail.
(She knew the voice well).
The door opened and he stood, ashamed.
“She needs you, lady.”
He’d run the distance and his sweat poured down.
Despite the cold he shook with heat.
“So fetch your doctor.
Sure this midwife was not good enough for you.”
I turned my back against him
“Please, she’s bad. We’re sorry, so. We were that scared.”
His voice broke. His knees bent low.
He sunk to ground and cried.
My heart’s memory released, I called him to me,
reached out and hugged the shaking frame of my
dead sister’s only child.
His wife lost three mid-term. The last, a son, was but a month.
I’d sent a christening rug when I learned the birth was safe.
(I could not begrudge a babe).
I nodded so and told the dog to stay.
I took the anorak and scarf, traded shoes for boots,
and grabbed wool mitts against the cold.
“We’ll drive the mare and cart.
I’m not for rambling these winter nights.”
He did not answer but headed to the barn to hitch the horse.
The wind took any words we might have said
and I was glad for the shared silence.
I’m not a talker nor is he.
The sure mare clopped the five miles over.
There was naught save her steaming breath
to fill the bitter night.
The moon and stars were bright as torches
and I saw the old croft clear as day
as we gained the timbered hill.
The chimney smoked and a candle burned.
But he held back and slumped lower in the cart.
He gave a groan that shook his bones.
I said nothing but touched his sleeve.
He started, turned, the look of horror on his face
shook my bones as well.
After tying up the mare,
he took my arm to hold himself, not me.
And so we walked the path towards whatever haunted him.
The door creaked open and he called her name.
Before the dying fire, she rocked their babe and
hummed a lullaby, her eyes half closed.
A peaceful scene, a nativity, I thought, until
she shook, screamed and ran toward the open door,
holding close their precious son.
It was then I saw the staring eyes,
the tiny lips that would not seek her breast again.
Although swaddled still, no heat would find his heart.
This truth I knew:
Their son was dead and she was mad.
And yet I held my tongue.
He grabbed her quick before she slipped away.
Bending down, she bit his hand.
And still he held her fast and still she screamed.
Her black wild eyes met and held my own.
Then she slowly sagged and almost dropped the babe.
I thought she too had died; but it was a faint.
I caught the child and held him tight.
As the rug slipped down,
I saw the sturdy lad beneath.
“Go, we’ll bury him beyond.
But first we’ll lock her in to keep her safe from harm.”
He did not look at me when he said these things.
As we scrambled toward the open field,
I heard a sound behind the door
that put a banshee’s cry to shame.
He did not stop nor turn
but pointed with his spade.
“There, we’ll put him there.”
“There” was a mound with three small crosses.
No names, nor dates, just simple wood
marked lives unlived, unborn.
(The fourth at least drew breath,
suckled once, twice and heard his
mother’s voice, I thought.)
“What happened, lad? I need to know
before we dig the grave.” He stopped.
I thought his look would strike me dead.
Silence and then these words: “As you well know,
it is my fault. God punished him for my mis-deeds.
My sin is huge. I broke my marriage vows.”
“God saw and knew and took
what most I loved and cherished.
He took the hope and future of our bond.”
“He took her mind and left me these four
crosses to warm my damaged soul.”
There was no more to say.
I knew too well having buried four myself
that tearing limb from limb
would not match the wound inside.
And so he dug and dug until the hole was big
enough to hold a man—and so I thought it
might if he could will his own demise.
We placed his son, free from the rug
I’d knit for him into the ground
to join the three who went before.
Because there was no coffin, there was no sound
of dirt on wood when he filled the grave,
which seemed easier to bear.
The sky was light as he placed the cross.
I crossed myself and said some words.
He turned and walked away.
I wondered dawn had come so soon.
Bright as day and still I saw the moon and stars.
I smelled it first: the smell of wood and thatch on fire.
The cottage took no time to smolder down to ash.
(He could not have saved her as the door was
locked and wind quickly blew the flames.)
They said such suffering should not come to any man:
Four babes and a wife taken way too soon.
And the cottage that smolders five years on.
And I agree, of course, but think this midwife
might have stayed God’s hand had the lad and I
not lusted so beneath the moon.
*Samhain (October 31) begins the New Year in the Celtic Calendar; **slacked (Celtic)
The Husband’s Tale
Five years have past since that dark night
and still the ashes burn.
(They say the devil will not be smoored).
Through the smoke of charnel ruin
I saw her spirit rise up with his,
circle and disappear above the burning thatch.
I carry my sin within.
My wretched gut burns hot and strong.
My penance: Flame, with no respite.
Our evil covenant sealed tight my fate:
No hope for heaven now.
I wait in limbo till I fall to hell.
No wife, nor child, only nightmares
fill my days from darkness until dawn.
I am pregnant with their pain.
I curse the night I crossed that lady’s door,
broken and ashamed.
She saw my need and made me kneel and beg.
Her midwifery and nursing skills were good.
But she craved the other side
and let the dark one guide her hands.
Her alchemy reversed:
Life to ash and love to lust,
a caldron’s brew of greed.
Oh my heart’s dear wife, you bore our sons
(but not my sin).
When the last one died you knew.
Your mind broke down
as did our vows.
Again, she took our child.
What madness turned me out
that New Year’s past?
My bowels in heat, I ran to her.
In my deep shame I lied.
I said it was my wife (and not my loins)
that was in need.
She laughed at my forked tongue.
and forced me lower still,
to cry and groan and crawl the floor.
To carry the deceit I lured her home
(to her death or to mine, it mattered not;
but even that was not to be).
The silence made the five miles long.
We did not speak nor touch.
The mare’s breath was the only sign of life.
As the cottage loomed,
she grabbed my hand.
I withdrew the claw, my horror clear.
I stopped the cart, handing back the reins.
(Now wishing her long gone
and my wife and child at peace).
Feeling the wretched arm on mind, I shook it off once more.
She shrugged and said my name
as we gained the darkened house.
I saw the fire blaze then die as the door blew shut.
My blessed ones were not aware of danger till
the midwife screamed, flew to them and grabbed the rug.
Our baby’s neck jerked back;
the snap echoed from the walls.
His sweet head lolled and dropped.
His mother now turned mad.
Her black eyes spoke a curse
as she fainted toward the hearth.
The midwife handed me the rug-wrapped child,
grabbed the spade, and pointed it to me.
“We’ll bury him beyond.”
“But first let’s lock the door
lest she should come to harm.”
Her irony not lost; I did as I was told.
Yes, it happened fast.
Although in shock,
still I wondered at her calm.
“Why did you wait till now?”
I asked her disappearing form.
She either did not hear or did.
We trudged the hill toward the graves above.
The moon shone on the three small crosses.
I groaned and called to God.
“The earth is soft; it should take no time,” she said,
taking the babe and handing me the spade.
“Here, you’ve done this thrice before.”
She spit the words and laughed
as I took the wooden shaft,
placed my foot and began to dig.
With each mound of earth I cried.
(It was the task, not the work that
took the toll upon my weakened heart.)
“You sired four sons.
My brew was good.
Too bad they would not stay.”
Her rictus smile shone from the light below.
It was the cottage that lit our cursed selves.
I knew at once what lay beyond the fog.
I turned when I smelled the smoke and fire.
“She’s there, in there.
Oh Mother of God what have we done?”
“We do what we must do,” she said.
“It is too late for them.
Now finish with the grave.”
Blind and numb, I obeyed her words,
then lay my treasured son
most gently in the ground.
As I crossed myself, she muttered:
“Hypocrite. You’re damned.
Only I can save you now.”
“No, lady, my God still offers grace.
Salvation’s there; I know it sure.
“Then made confession to your priest or Guard or God.”
She was right I knew.
Frightened more of Gaol* than God,
I would not confess to anyone.
“I thought as much. Your mea culpa burns my ears.
Now wait until I’ve left the hill, then quench
the fire as best you can.”
Suddenly, she grabbed my hand and bit it hard.
She spat these words with skin:
“I leave my mark less you forget this night.”
I shivered in the cold.
Wrapping the rug around my arms, I started down the hill,
as the last bit of roof caught fire and died.
The Wife’s Tale
Five years ago my body burned but not my soul.
Smoored, but smoking still, my spirit left
its skin and bone to wander forth.
If anyone should ask how I withstood the heat and pain,
I’d say his sin, not flames,
most charred my love and limbs.
But no one asks; nor knows I am alive.
A monster now, hidden from all save him,
my mind grows hot with time.
Ah yes, that New Year’s night.
He thought I did not know he’d gone to her.
But I knew more his evil ways than she.
Was it not his wife who held him when
he at last confessed. Shaking with grief and shame,
he begged for mercy from both me and God.
I know once I’d lost the third,
all spoke as if I’d with the fairies gone
and him a saint to stay the course.
The crones all whispered in his ear:
“Remember this, my lad: All knew she carried madness,
the family curse, so no one looks to you for blame.”
But he’s the one who made the devil’s pack
and consorted with the witch three times.
She tempted him with sons.
She knew dark arts and used them well.
He said the brew she poured from her woman’s place
was black and strong, as were her words.
Ah, man-fool, you did not
see what she wanted for herself:
Our babes to raise by Satan’s law.
Each time he left her bed
I stopped my lunar flow,
filled with what we thought would be our child.
Three times I’d failed; the last I kept held fast.
When the child moved within my womb I prayed
that he would live and breathe and have his suck.
When the lad was too soon born
I held my breath until he cried.
A feather-weight he would not feed nor thrive.
One day, midst my despair, the rug arrived.
Its blues quite matched his eyes
and so I swaddled him with this last hope.
Not caring its domain, I wrapped it tight
around his fragile form.
When he smiled, my joy was such I could but weep.
From that day forth he drank me dry
and cried for more,
until my flaccid breasts said “No”.
As the babe grew strong, my weakened body aged in days
what should have taken years.
I could not rest nor sleep.
Now a feeble wizened wife, no longer young,
my life’s mate wanted me no more.
“Husband, sure you have your will: A son and now my death.”
“Ah, wife,” he sighed, but he’d not deny the truth.
And I to him: “Do you not know I worship you both so much
I’d hand to you my heart sliced equally between?”
“And although I die, my soul will live through him
and my love will light the sky with fiery stars
less you forget what you have wrought.”
“Through the long nights when the moon is hid
and dreary days when the sun is dulled,
I’ll be with you still; you’ll never be alone.”
“And because I’ve borne the life that she could not,
in death I’ll win, and you’ll both pray for fires of hell.
Neither a day nor hour will pass that you’ll escape my toll.”
Exhausted from my New Year’s curse I closed my eyes.
Before he left the house, I heard my husband scream.
He bit the hand that would have struck me down.
As the babe tore at my breasts, I called to him:
“No, stay this night at least.”
But the wind blew shut the door and I was left alone.
That night my child’s clear eyes grew large and black.
His countenance I did not know.
My own spawn frightened me.
And yet I held him still as he grappled more to feed.
I pressed him close and closer to my heart
until his struggling stopped.
His small hands unclasped and at last released their hold,
as did his breath.
And finally, he was calm.
I sang my son a lullaby and breathed with him his last.
And so we were at peace
my infant boy and I.
The story should have ended there
but the two returned to battle
and for prey.
I waited as the candle burned
and tightened up the rug.
What happened here stays secret, locked to me alone.
She gained the entrance first
and started towards the fire.
But he held her back to assess the scene.
We looked serene, his child and I.
I hummed and rocked the lad
as if to sleep not death.
I could see they were confused.
They looked at one another, then to me.
She quickly moved to know the truth.
Pulling back the rug she revealed the babe’s still form.
I heard her wicked cry;
and then my husband’s own.
And so I gave him up to them and God.
I pretended then to faint as they carried him away,
(locking the door to keep me “safe”).
The house and its four walls now were mine, alone.
I keened my loss, which I know she heard.
And then I went to work.
I piled the chairs before the door.
Cursing that the rug was gone,
I did not stop to think or breathe.
I took some turf from off the hearth and placed it on the floor.
It took little time to catch the wood,
but the paraffin made the fatal torch.
It flamed and the roof caught fire.
I prayed for my release to be mother
to our buried sons; but God knows His holy will.
My husband leaves me food when my tortured tracks
prowl the ground where our babies rest.
No sleep, nor chance to dream, I smolder with the croft.