by Anne Elizabeth Edwards
At dusk, there was a large group of villagers gathered at the bridge to her crannog. They waited quietly rather than shouting traditional greetings. Through the woven willow screen, Huna peered at them; against the fading light recognition of individuals was uncertain. It was only as the group parted to allow one to come forward that she realised Elder Watten was there. He carried a long staff high in his left hand across his chest. This was a serious delegation indeed. She became conscious of all her bodies betrayal of nervous tension; clenched fists, hunched stance, bitten lip and racing heart. This would show weakness, she must contrive to appear bold, brazen this out. Huna had learned the hard way that pleading or bargaining achieved nothing.
Earlier she had been using a pot of smouldering sage for cleansing, the therapeutic smell filled the air. The ash was smudged on the infant’s forehead and on the mothers. They lay together on a raised wooden pallet filled with fresh straw. It was likely the burning of the soiled straw bedding had provoked the villagers into action. Why had she not waited till nightfall when an outside fire would be less noticeable among all the other rubbish fires? Expediency. There was always the worry that the blood-stained bedding would attract bad spirits. Jealous of mother and baby they might bring sickness and steal the new-born soul away, take the mother down to the spirit world.
Mey had been brought to her only when other actions had failed. The tumultuous journey of her labour had lasted three days already. Blood and water and slime had come. Then the bucking and stretching of heat. Mothers had walked her through the wombs rushes and the twists in her back. She had clutched on a knotted rope thrown over a beam. Squatted over warmed oil. A barrel had been rolled in and she had sat inside it, doused by water and milk. All this Mey had endured. The charms she clutched imprinted on her hands as her teeth clenched on wet rags.
Later her journey seemed over before reaching its destination. Grey and silent, Mey had lain alone at the back of her family house. Her mother’s mother laid her out in the attitude of a child, head bowed to chest, knees bent. A red blanket was placed over her, there was no expectation that she would live. The women sat around the fire, exchanging stories, what trials in travail. What anecdotes of near death! This one considered at the brink then recovered. That one all but extinguished then revival. Joy at being met again at the hearth by those who had been at the threshold between earth and sky.
Huna had watched and waited. They would not always come to her in time. Sometimes they would wait and wait and not consult. Then when there was no hope have her come and do her business and when it failed, something within them was satisfied. They had done everything they could, why they had even consulted Huna, but it was all to no avail. All was lost.
She would be shunned. All the small steps towards acceptance would be rescinded. Eyes averted when walking past her. Children pulled close when she came into the common grazing. More time spent alone. Fishing at the back of her crannog where none could see her. Collecting fodder when the others had gone. No-one would mix with Her Kind.
Then in time a maid would come in the night. sometimes alone, sometimes with a mother. The maid would be fearful and tearful. Some tale of betrayal. Huna would barely listen. Same tales her mothers had been told. She would brew ergot, add something sweet to ensure it was drunk to the last grains. Say prayers over it, ask forgiveness. Before the maid drank it, Huna would ask questions about quickening, clutch the maid’s belly to ensure an answer. Watch for a sly look between women. If she didn’t like what she heard then she spilled the tea and brewed something else. Something to loosen the bowel, it would be a pale imitator of what should have been. Thus, the spell would fail but Huna would have a clear conscience.
It was Dawn light when they brought Mey to her; as the cock crowed and the kids bleated for their mothers. Huna had prepared a bed in anticipation; the honeyed beer she had kept all night was in a pot warmed by hot stones. Using a rag wetted with the mixture she put it between Mey’s lips; in a moment, she was sucking greedily. She gave this duty to one of the mothers who crouched watching her; then wordlessly she felt the belly under the blanket. The baby lay against the mothers back like two spoons in a drawer. That was the reason known for the delay but not the solution obtained. She rubbed oil on her left hand and touched within the sanctum uttering the guidance prayer. The womb door was opened so a good omen. With one hand on the belly and one hand on the infants head she pushed the head away from the opening then deftly turned the skull Earthwise.
The women crowded round, sensing a change. They looked at Huna with wide open eyes, fighting fatigue. Their breath smelled of sour milk. She had them kneel and support Mey, straightening her back in a squat with wide knees.
If this was to work, she must bring back the labour pains but with a ferocity that if she had miscalculated the angle of the infant skull, would break both infant and mother.
Prayerfully she placed drops of ergot brew into the honeyed beer. There were so many variables. The strength of the brew was difficult to calculate and each grain would as nature dictated have its own level of potency. The delivery of the draught was variable as to how Mey would consume it, all or nothing. And then would her body react as it should or would it have a quarrelsome spirit and reject the liquor.
Mey awoke from her trance with a shudder and a forlorn groan as of a cow stuck in a bog. Her mothers shushed and soothed. Huna gave one attendant a compress to hold steaming to Mey’s lower back. Quietness. The fire cracked and spat with a sappy green log. Impatience was the enemy here. The temptation to give more brew, before the efficacy of the dose had been proved. In recognition of this Huna took time over placing reed stocks and other wetland herbage over the hearth stones. As they dried, she flicked them into the flames, they burned with greens and blues releasing queer scents. Mey stirred again. A groan of strain and effort came from her then a soft pop and sharp stink as her bowels loosened. Now there was a fullness for all to see. The ready pouting of her body. The outline of the baby’s head could be traced within the mother. Huna slapped back the hand of a mother that reached to touch. Well intended though her action might be it would cause the pouting to be drawn back. Another groan and the head appeared. Elongated skull bruised where it had sat against the portal. The infant face cleared. The baby turned to look at its mother’s thigh. Patience again. a pause. Then palms pressed against the infant’s ears Huna eased one shoulder then the other negotiating the mother’s bones with long practice.
There was no cry.
The infant body flopped grey with blue limbs. She quickly tied and snipped the cord. No time for the severing ritual- would that have repercussions later? Huna missed her own mother now; times past they would have split their duties one to the infant one to the mother. She looked around the group of women. Who could she trust to follow her instructions? Who was humble enough to act without argument?
One young woman, barely thirteen, locked eyes with her. Her light eyes bright in contrast to the exhausted sisters.
‘Skirza, take the infant. Rub dry with the blanket like you would a lamb. Use the reeds to suck snot from the nose.’ Skirza was the weaver’s daughter. She had nimble fingers.
Huna must concentrate on Mey. If she was to live. Her right hand on the arch, her left she used to bunch the chord and draw down towards the earth then up towards the sky. She felt the bulk released. The mass gathered together in a bowl. She could inspect it later. See what omens were there, why this journey had taken this route.
Now there was great danger for Mey. The body and soul could so easily separate at this time. One to earth and one to sky. Huna felt the womb bulk, drawing in to itself. Tightening hardening, under her massage. Briefly aware of Skirza’s activity, she noted the blush of life on the infant’s pale face, still no cry though, that meant the blush could fade away. She pummelled the womb into shape, cursing its laxity. She spoke harshly to it commanding it to stay firm using words from the old tongue. The supporters lay Mey on her back on the wool sack. raising her briefly as they replaced the soiled bedding.
Huna sat close beside her charge. Hand resting on her belly, ready to intervene if the womb softened. Skirza brought the infant close to her.
‘I’ve sooked out the nose. I’ve rubbed the body. There’s breath there but very quiet.’ Skirza looked from Huna back to the infant, waiting for more instruction.
‘The baby is at the threshold. We must call the wee one’s soul in. Promise good milk and warmth. Clean rags and warm oil rubs. Always to be in someone’s arms.’
Skirza nodded. ‘We need an inviting name.’
Two women came forward. Mey’s mother and Aunt. ‘Lyth’ the mother said. It’s a name in our line and all called it have lived long.
Huna called the name Lyth, flicking the baby’s feet with her still bloodied hands.
Lyth cried out at the discomfort. The lurking spirits that had filled the room fled out the door. All the women felt their malevolent presence depart. The air sweetened.
Slowly the women excused themselves. They had the days chores to see to. They might catch sleep in the afternoon. No chance of that for Huna, crouching vigilant over Mey and Lyth. Skirza showed no sign of departing. She fussed about the room tiding and sorting and folding. Glancing often at mother and child. Perhaps this was the apprentice she had prayed for?
Now as she peered through the reed screen watching those gathered Huna knew by bitter experience that success does not always bring reward. It can bring out jealousies and long nursed wrath. Elder Watten and his supporters; which way would the staff fall? Would she be paraded stripped through the village, cursed by mouth and hand to be purged by fire at the forest edge?
The old man took the stout staff he was carrying and stamped it down at the threshold to Huna’s crannog. Keiss the rope maker fastened it to the bridge rail. Nybster the Orator began a tale of tribute and gratitude. Long on sentiment and short on detail he rambled along merrily for a few stanzas till the light faded altogether and those gathered retired to their own firesides.
Huna and Skirza inspected the staff. The top was carved into a fat bellied woman. An adult sized baby came from her so that the figure appeared to have two heads. Thrumster the wood carver had got one thing exactly right, both mouths were wide open.↑