Authors: Isobelle Carmody
Tags: #Young Adult Fiction
She waved aside my soothing words and clutched my arm. âWhen you get there,' she said in an urgent whisper, âshow no curiosity, no surprise, whatever happensÂ .Â .Â .Â even if the child isÂ .Â .Â .Â is not what it should be. Deliver it as you must and be on your way. For God's sake don't linger!'
âI won't,' I said, thinking that would satisfy her, but she hadn't finished.
âAndÂ .Â .Â .Â and if the lightÂ .Â .Â .Â the lightÂ .Â .Â .Â if it flares around you, close your eyes. Ignore it. Pretend you've seen nothing. You must promise me that.'
I had no idea what she was talking about, but time was passing, and a promise was easily given.
âI'll do as you say,' I assured her. âMy word on it.'
She let out a relieved sigh and released my arm. âGo then,' she murmured, and gave me a strangely squint-eyed look before slipping back into sleep.
Within minutes I had hitched up the buggy and was on my way. It was a warm, still night, with a nearly full moon, so I needed no lamp to light the road ahead. Our old horse seemed to understand what was expected of him anyway, for at the crossroads he didn't hesitate, instinctively choosing the lesser-used track that led westward to the end of the valley. The journey itself proved uneventful, but as I left the cultivated fields behind and entered the scrub country beyond, I felt a chill of loneliness, like someone wandering in a foreign land.
I was almost glad when the dark shape of the hovel came into view. Hastily I looped the reins over the nearest fencepost and hurried forwardÂ âÂ to where, once again, he stood waiting. He looked past my shoulder enquiringly, and then back to me. In the moonlight his face was gaunt and hard, etched out by shadow.
âWhere is she?' he demanded.
âShe's ailing. Too weak to leave her bed.'
âAh yes, I always forget about you people. What it must be like for you.'
I interpreted his softened tone as a sign of acceptance and made for the porch, but he stepped directly into my path, the two of us so close that I could smell the rankness of his unwashed body.
âDid she send you in her place?' he asked.
âI'm her apprentice. Who else would she send?'
âSo she trusts you inÂ .Â .Â .Â in
He paused for some moments, pensively. With one brawny hand he wiped at his mouth, his palm rasping against the stubble. I took the opportunity to ask a question of my own.
âThe womanÂ .Â .Â .' I nodded towards the hovel. âIs she the same one as before?'
âNo, but just as foolish.'
âHow is it foolish to have a child?'
âYou saw the last child,' he answered coldly. âWasn't that folly enough for you?'
âHow can you be sureÂ .Â .Â .' I began, and stopped as he raised his face and his eyes caught the moonlight. âCome,' I added quickly, changing tack, âwe're wasting precious time here. I need to see her.'
Without waiting for his permission, I eased past him and onto the porch. As I entered the house itself, the foul stench of it hit me full in the face, and I paused for some seconds, gasping. I had hardly recovered when an older woman appeared from the shadows and led me upstairsÂ âÂ our way lighted by a crude lamp which was little more than a wick floating in a saucer of oil.
At the head of the stairs she pointed to a door across the landing. I pushed it open, the stench growing stronger as I did so. Inside, on a bed of filthy straw, lay a young woman. She was naked, her face and limbs bathed in sweat, her belly unnaturally enlarged. She whimpered when she saw me, and covered her face, though not before I noticed her gapped teeth. It was the girl from the market.
By the flickering light of a candle, I squatted beside her and made my initial examination, the woman with the lamp watching from the open doorway.
âIs it bad?' she asked.
Before I could answer, a terrible contraction gripped the girl, so strong that it contorted her whole body. Her moan of pain soon grew into a shriek that went on and on.
And so began the long night of her delivery.
The tinker chief was right, of course. It turned out to be a bloody affair, just like the last, the baby far too big for her and horribly deformed. Had they called me sooner, I could have got her out of the valley to the relative safety of a hospital. But that was not their way. So given the circumstancesÂ âÂ the filth and lack of equipmentÂ âÂ I was forced to make a choice that faces all midwives from time to time: whether to save the mother or the babe. It is no choice at all, really, and towards dawn, after a dreadful night, I eventually removed the child in pieces. It was the best and only thing I could do. The head emerged last of all, an ogrish thing that I swiftly consigned to a sack held open for me by the woman with the lamp. Even she was shocked by its distorted features, and fled the room before I had finished.
Working alone, I did what was needful for the mother and made sure there was no haemorrhaging, then stroked her sodden hair to soothe her. At first she shuddered at my touch, as a horse trembles when patted by an alien hand; but exhaustion, rather than trust in me, won her over, and she dropped into a murmurous sleepÂ âÂ muttering words I had never heard before.
I gathered up my bag and the bloody sack and groped my way down the unlit stairwell. On the lower level I could sense figures moving in the shadows. One, an old woman with stringy grey hair, appeared briefly. Reaching out one work-hardened hand, she offered me something that flashed gold in the poor light, but I refused her and hurried out onto the porch.
He was standing exactly where I had left him, the moon now low in the sky, the stars faded almost to nothing by the upcoming dawn. He turned, and I saw him glance down at the sack in my hand. I placed both sack and bag on the ground as we faced each otherÂ âÂ I, in the partial shade of the porch; he, with his face exposed to what remained of the moonlight.
âSo it's done,' he said.
âYes, it's done,' I said, âbut should never have happened in the first place.'
He dipped his head slightly. âWe are agreed on that.'
âWhy does it happen then?' I pressed him. âIs it some genetic disorder? Because if it isÂ .Â .Â .'
He clicked his tongue impatiently. âYou shouldn't meddle with things you don't understand.'
âThat's exactly my point,' I said. âI
to understand. This is the second time this has happened. I can't keep com- ing here like this. It's only fair that you tell me the truth.'
âThe truth will not change anything,' he countered.
âI need to know all the same. Otherwise I can't promise to come next time.'
âIs that a threat?' he growled, his hand stealing to the knife at his belt.
I corrected myself hastily. âNo, I'm
to you. It's your help I'm asking for here.'
He nodded, satisfied. âVery well, the simple truth. Our girls like to seduce the young farmers, especially the married ones. It gives them a wicked sense of joy. And they both pay a price for their folly. The farmers no longer delight in their wives, and the girlsÂ .Â .Â .' He shrugged. âWell, you have seen the result.'
âBut why should it always end like this?' I asked, indicating the sack at my feet.
He swept one arm round in a half-circle, including both the hovel and the rocky landscape surrounding it. âYou have seen where we live.
we live. We are the poorest of the poor, the lowest of the low. Different from your kind. As different as night from day, asÂ .Â .Â .Â as past from future. Our two peoples can never mix, our bloodlines never cross over.'
He spoke like a man convinced, and I was too tired to try to prove him wrong.
âYou can at least keep your girls on a tighter rein,' I said wearily. âStop them stealing out at night.'
He laughed at that, a hollow, unhappy sound. âHaven't you noticed? We are an unruly people.'
I stooped for the sack. âSo this abomination will continue?'
He shrugged again. âSo it seems.'
Hiding my disgust, I trudged past him, sack in hand.
âMy thanks to you,' he called after me, âand to the old woman too. Tell her she'll be missed.'
After which, the door of the hovel banged shut.
Because of the recent rain, it didn't take long to dig a second grave alongside the first. That done, I unhitched the horse and was climbing into the buggy when I remembered leaving my bag on the porch. I hurried back, tiptoeing the last few paces so as not to disturb those inside. As I stooped for the bag, however, I heard something. The sound of laughter, of merriment; plus a softer, tinkling sound which I took to be some form of music. It was all coming from inside, clearly audible through the cracked, thin planking of the door.
I put my good eye to one of the cracks and peered in. What I saw cannot be easily described. Where there should have been darkness, or at best a dim candle-glow, there was now a shimmering golden light that transformed the sordid interior into a place of splendour. In the midst of the light, equally transformed by it, was a group of stately creatures. I can't say they were wholly human, or animal either. I can say only that they were beautiful beyond words, and also terrible beyond imagining. They were laughing and singing together, like gods at play, and I knew, even as I spied on them, that I shouldn't have been there. I was doing a forbidden thing. Still, it was hard to pull away. The golden light, the creatures themselves, drew me back to my childhood, and to those nights of longing when I had called out to Robin Goodfellow.
One of the creatures, as though sensing my presence, glanced towards the door, and somehow, despite the transformation, I knew him for who he was. Had he recognised me too?
A sudden hush fell on the gathering.
I had been frightened before, but not to that extent. This fear pierced me like a thin steel blade. Scooping up my bag, I turned and ran off into the strengthening dawn. Behind me, the door crashed open, but I didn't look back. Leaping into the buggy, I lashed the rump of the old horse until he broke into a stumbling gallop, and I didn't let up until I could hear his wheezing breaths and feel the newly risen sun warm on my neck.
Then and only then did I look behind. The road, streaked with morning shadow, lay empty. There was neither sign nor sound of pursuit. Yet still I sensed something not quite right. More calm now, less blinded by fear, I surveyed my surroundingsÂ .Â .Â .Â and immediately wondered why I hadn't noticed it before! The sky was far bluer than it had ever been; the grass and trees more vividly green; the whole scene shot through by a suggestion of golden lightÂ âÂ the same transfiguring light I had glimpsed in the hovel. It was as if, in peering into that forbidden place, I had passed through the doorway itself, into a magically altered world from which there was no return.
I blinked my one good eye, just to be sure, but this newer, brighter world remained. Even my own hands, still gripping the reins, appeared wondrous to me now. As did the steaming coat of the old horse. And leaning back into the padded seat of the buggyÂ âÂ the horrors of the night and my recent fear both momentarily forgottenÂ âÂ I laughed out loud.
I could hardly wait to get home. Gretel, I felt certain, was the one person capable of understanding what had happened to me, for in all likelihood it had happened to her too. Abandoning the buggy at the front gate, I ran indoors and took the stairs two at a time.
But when I burst into the room and called her name, there was no response. A fly buzzed busily at the window, and that was all. As for Gretel herself, she lay stark and still in the wooden bed, both eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.
âDear God!' I breathed, and in the first rush of grief I bent to kiss her.
What prevented me were those staring eyesÂ âÂ one dull and unseeing, as you would expect; the other as bright and unclouded as ever.
For a moment I thought I'd been mistaken. She was alive after all! Except that when I grasped her hand, the flesh felt chill.
I blinked away tears, too upset to fathom the simple truth.
âGretel?' I whispered uncertainly, and when she failed to stir, I touched the tip of my finger to the brighter of her eyes. It felt weirdly familiar: rock-hard and unyielding. More intently nowÂ âÂ the truth at last beginning to dawnÂ âÂ I pressed my fingers into the surrounding flesh, gently at first, and then more firmly, until the eye eased itself free. It was exactly like my own, a thing of glass and ceramic!
I sat down on the bedside chair with a thump. Here in my hand lay an explanation for her habit of turning her head aside, which had merely been her way of hiding the fact that her eyes did not move in unison. Yet in solving one puzzle, I had raised other, more pressing questions. Had she, perhaps, only chosen me as an assistant because of our shared handicap? And if so, why? It seemed an odd, even self-indulgent reason for making such a choice and didn't gel with what I knew of her.