‘She’s burning up.. Her head.. It’s as hot as hellfire!’
‘Myn uffern i. Don’t say such things,’ Alys snapped at John Ellis. ‘It’s not the sort of omen you want to bring to the birth of your first child, I’m certain.’ She hadn’t realised how sick his wife was when she had agreed to assist in the labour, but now that she was stood in the dank room, Alys could see the beads of sweat trickling over Gwenllian’s forehead and into her eyes, could feel the heat emanating from her like a thick fog.
She could almost see a faint mist, silver and cloying, rising from the woman, who lay resplendent on the cold floor, her knees up, her legs parted. While she squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, Alys’ own stomach twinged, and she almost buckled under the shock of it.
‘I’m here! I’m here, what can I do to help?’ Mrs Jones, or Mair Bara, as she was known throughout the village, burst through the front door, brandishing a wicker basket. A stout woman with an ample bust and flyaway hair, Mair had a tendency to be wherever the drama was, even when the streets were lit only by silver moonlight. Before leaving the house, Alys knew, she would have hastily packed a clean cotton bed sheet, a wax candle, creamy milk and a freshly baked load of bread – her trademark and namesake.
‘This is no time for bread, Mair, we need water. We need a tourniquet.’ Alys snatched the sheet from her, ripped it and began to bundle it on the floor between Gwenllian’s thighs. Gwenllian lay hot and puce, panting on the hard-packed ground, which smelled strongly of earth and mildew. A glistening sheen of sweat covered her forehead like icing on one of Mair’s buns; she was whimpering.
Alys went over to the fireplace and picked up an iron pan, half filled with bubbling water which hissed and spat, blistering her arm. Trembling, she carried it over to the crying woman and placed it on the floor beside her. Alys took a handful of air-dried and pearly white baby’s breath from her pinafore pocket and dropped the petals into the water. She then began murmuring quietly, looking with deep concentration at the water, watching the flowers darken in colour as they sunk into the depths of the cauldron.
Once the water had cooled, Alys used her left hand to sprinkle a few luke-warm drops over her patient’s forehead, still murmuring under her breath. Gwenllian was almost delirious now, thrashing and twitching and mumbling incoherently.
‘Hush, hush, you’ll be okay, we’re all here for you,’ Alys uttered. The stabbing pains were growing increasingly worse in her own abdomen. It made her uneasy, and left her unsure of the truth in her own words of reassurance.
‘Alys, Alys bach, help me,’ Gwenllian whimpered. ‘I’m afraid.’
‘Well I don’t know what this holy water and mumbling is all about; all she needs is a drop of brandy and a bit of bread. Now, let me just -‘
Alys looked sharply towards Mair, the words of warning pouring out from her eyes rather than through her lips. Mair blanched and backed away, busying herself instead with the fireplace.
‘The baby is coming, Gwenni.’ Alys took the woman’s clammy hands in her own, ‘and she will be just as beautiful as you are.’ She smiled at her neighbour, watching even as the woman’s eyes grew darker and the room began to shrink around them both.
‘She? I’m having a girl?’ The red-faced woman looked up at Alys. All traces of pain momentarily vanished from her eyes as she absorbed the information, a smile playing, ghostlike, around her lips.
Just as John stepped forward, Alys’ stomach twinged again, a fierce and final pull. John stepped back into the shadows, fear flooding his eyes. Alys closed her own eyes, trying to shut out her neighbour’s pain, even while the woman clutched her hand and squeezed as though her life depended on it.
‘Shush, shush now,’ she said, panting despite herself. ‘It’s going to be okay.’
With one last groan, like a slippery eel, the tiny human being slid from its mother, eyes scrumpled shut, mouth pursed, a minute red raspberry in the centre of her face. Alys scooped the thing up, wrapped it in the other half of Mair Bara’s clean cloth and held it out to its father, who was once again cowering in the corner of the room.
‘Cut her cord,’ she told him, her hands shaking. ‘We need to get her cleaned up. Now.’
As John Ellis took the knife Mair had sterilised over the fire, slicing daughter clean away from mother, Gwenllian Ellis began to slip into a river of her own blood.
The rat’s fat tail trailed after it like long-dragging intestines as it scurried across the skirting board and disappeared behind the cupboard, where she had hung stems of baby’s breath to dry. Alys could still hear its sharp little claws picking at the floorboards, but she knew that if she were to look for it later, it would have disappeared into the wall, nestling itself into the hollows of the house. It would stay there until the urge for food drove it through the cavities in search of crumbs. Alys would know when this was, because she, too, would feel the emptiness of the rat’s stomach in her own, the grumbling protests of internal acid. The joys and pains of others were something she had learned to bear long ago.
Three short raps on the front door jolted Alys from her trance, drawing her eyes away from the heavy dark cabinet where the rat had disappeared and fixing them instead on the front door. Through the thick pane of wood she knew that there were two souls there. She could feel their warmth. Their anxiety pulled like a thread at her mind. She could take a good guess at their identities based on the gnawing questions she sensed in their minds.
‘Alys bach, you have to help us,’ hurried words poured from Mrs Gwenllian Ellis as soon as she’d stepped over the threshold and into Alys’ living area.
‘It has been so long now,’ her husband began quietly, his gaze fixed steadily over Alys’ shoulder.
‘We are very concerned. John does not think the herbs are working properly.’
John Ellis shifted, his feet pawing the ground, his eyes fixed downwards now. ‘I am not discounting – ’
Alys cut them off with a sharp look.
‘You must stop worrying,’ she told them. ‘It is not good for the baby.’
Both man and wife looked up at her, wide-eyed, then turned to each other.
Alys smiled at them and said, ‘you are carrying a child, Gwenllian. The herbs have worked perfectly.’
Soon after her neighbours’ success with their longed-for conception, Alys began to feel stirrings in her own womb. She grew tired and sick, her breasts became tender, her monthly bleed stopped. She had known this before; the Ellis’ were not the first to have been blessed with a child with her input.
Each time a woman in the village conceived, Alys longed to hear the fresh cry of an infant, to see it’s cat-like mouth pink and perfectly oval. She longed to hold a bundle to her breast, to comfort it, to love it. But it was not possible – Alys had not spent time with a man in many moons, and despite her body’s trickery, she knew with certainty that she was not carrying a child of her own. Had she been, it would have spoken to her, would have called out to her. She would have seen it, embedded there in her own flesh like a kindling ember, just as she had seen Mr and Mrs Ellis’ baby.
Just as she had seen last time.
She did not, however, cease dreaming of infantile cries, of tiny limbs and soft, supple hairs sprouting from a vulnerable head like thistledown. One night in early Autumn, she dreamed of Him again…
Her limbs were moving outwards and inwards like the tide. She moved like the water of the river that ran beneath the Dolauhirion Bridge not far from her home, the bridge she crossed daily. She was moving so quickly that the shrubbery all around was only a blurred mass of greens and browns. She’d never danced like this before, but she was happy now, the thrill of each step sending a current through her, pushing her forward, spinning her body around and around uncontrollably. She heard her own laugh echoing in the trees, heard the birds chirping back at her.
As she moved more swiftly into the dense undergrowth of the forest, the trees grew closer together, knotted and gnarled like withered old men. She couldn’t see the way back, but she didn’t need to. Pathways were unnecessary to her now – she knew she could raise up, up, up and fly home if she wanted to. She knew she would be able to hover above the trees, to stare upwards or downwards and glide quickly towards the village, back to her own sleeping body beneath the dornix bedding. As if the thought had lifted her, her feet swept upwards from the ground and she span and danced mid-air now, whizzing along like a fallen leaf, carried in the breeze. Rogue branches tried to grab and claw at her, but she reached a clearing with only a small tear in her thin cloth dress.
He was stood there, dead centre, surrounded by huge trees which blocked even the sky from view. It was dark but He had lit a fire to guide her way. The flames licked the air and she followed their rhythm. She moved towards Him, her feet back on the ground now, and listened to His pull. His pull. She could feel it in her shoulders, her calves, her thighs. When she reached Him, He was bigger than He had been last time, and seemed to be bigger again up-close. He touched her, held her in His arms and kissed her lips, then bit softly. Alys knew His dark eyes and His thick set chest, His strong thighs. She knew the nibble of His teeth on her lower lip, the soft undergrowth on His hot flesh.
They danced together into the night, arms wrapped around one another, limbs entwined. Deer and rabbits came creeping through the dense trees, peering at the entangled mass of limbs, silently edging closer. Alys welcomed them, her children. Their children. She could see herself from where they stood at the edge of the opening, could see her body through their eyes, even while she felt His touch. She tasted His salty sweetness as they collapsed on the damp grass, folding into each other. The ground tipped beneath her and she felt the earth spin. Somewhere, she heard a cat crying, a baby breaking its heart.
When she opened her eyes hours later, He was gone, disappeared into the powder-blue mid-morning sky. The stars had gone too, leaving soft-moving clouds in their place. The trees looked down at her where she lay, questioning and judgemental.
The following morning, Alys woke in a cold sweat, feverish and shaken. The house was cold – she could see her own breath unfolding before her as she climbed out of bed and unwound her stiff limbs. She wondered absently if the rats were keeping warm, or if they had frozen solid over night. While water bubbled away over the fire, she made her way to the window and looked out at the early morning street, tracing patterns with her fingertips in the condensation on the glass.
All the while, she thought of the night before. Although she didn’t remember leaving her bed or even waking, she felt as though she hadn’t managed a moment of restful sleep; her legs were heavy and tired as though she had been running. She checked herself over, looking for bruises, and decided that the dull heaviness she felt must be due to the cold, which could make anyone’s limbs stiff and sore.
She carried on tracing her index finger along the glass, following a pattern like a woman dancing, and then the image hit her. It was there before her, a scene on the glass, as though it were really happening, and yet it seemed to be drawn on the backs of her eyelids, still inside her mind. She remembered the man, the night she had spent with him, the passion and the familiarity. A sense of deja vu captured her – was this a dream she’d had before? Surely it was no more than a dream.
Alys spun about and looked at the unmade heap of linen, and felt herself shake involuntarily. A small brown twig lay, still and silent, on her pillow.
Once she’d sipped her nettle tea and warmed her insides a little, Alys wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and stepped out into the cold morning air. She was heading out on her weekly trip to visit Mrs Ruth Davies, a bed-bound widow. The path was frosted and icy; the chill pierced her bones as she made her way passed crowded farmhouses calling ‘bore da’ to a few early risers. She wandered over the bridge, and looked down at the water racing below. Its surface was not frozen, but it looked as though it had come very close during the night. Alys thought of the old lady’s cottage, the heat that would soon come from the hearth and warm her chapped hands. It wasn’t this cold last night, she thought, before reminding herself that her dance through the trees had been no more than a feverish dream.
Alys reached the small timber house quickly enough. She entered without knocking and stepped over the threshold. Her neighbour was lying in bed at the far end of the dusky room, hidden beneath four or five sheets, blankets and throws.
‘Bring me my shawl, cariad, it’s ice cold in ‘ere this morning.’
Ruth Davies was a wizened old lady. Though she spent her days in bed, barking orders at those around her, demanding tea and a bedpan, Alys had a suspicion that she may be capable of walking after all.
Alys dug about in the mound of clothing, blankets and table cloths that had collected on the old armchair, and pulled out the thickest shawl she could find, which was croqueted in red chequered wool. She went over to Ruth and swaddled her in it, tucking it beneath her swollen calves.
‘How are you feeling today Ruth?’ She put the back of her hand to the old lady’s head and felt that it was a little clammy.
‘Oh, just the same, bach. I was shivering all night long.’
‘Well it has been very cold around here. Especially at night.’ Again, Alys thought of the previous night, of the warmth she had felt as she had glided through the trees in only a thin dress to meet with her nameless lover.
While she half-spoke to Ruth and half-focussed on her own thoughts, Alys pottered with the contents of her bag. In her satchel, she carried fresh sprigs of lavender, a handful of hawthorn berries, ground nutmeg, a snip of sheep’s wool, orange peel and a small vial of water.
‘I had a strange dream last night, Ruth,’ she murmured as she ground sprigs of lavender together with orange peel and a little water, pummeling the concoction into a thick paste. She concentrated on the mixture, not wanting to catch the old lady’s eye, to see the knowledge that lay there.
‘It was one of those dreams that aren’t really dreams. Like I’ve told you about before. I’m not sure whether -’ She trailed off and focussed on the sounds of the fire crackling. Her own breathing was loud in her eardrums.
‘Did ‘ew night-walk?’ Ruth asked after a small pause. ‘’Ew know the people of this village look down on night-walkin’ Alys.’
Alys said nothing. Night-walking, if that’s what it was, was beyond her control. How was she to stop it from happening when she was asleep?
‘’Ew want to be careful, good girl, tha’s all I’m sayin,’ Ruth said.
‘Just a dream,’ Alys told her. ‘Silly, really –’
‘Listen now, bach, ‘ew need to be a little more cautious. I dun’ want to see ‘ew in trouble.’
‘I won’t get into any trouble. I told you, it was only a dream. I’m sure I didn’t actually leave my bed.’
Ruth looked over at her, her crinkled eyes narrowed and dark. She took a deep breath.
‘Did ‘ew consort with him?’
”Ew know very well with who. ‘Ew could ‘ave been seen! I’ve had dreams too, Alys, and I know wha’ the days ahead look like for the pentref and it’s not good, let me tell ‘ew. Neighbour will turn against neighbour. Thatcher will become torchbearer. And all in the name of Godliness. We live in dangerous times. I’ve consorted with ‘im too in my day. ‘Ew aren’t the first an’ ‘ew won’ be the last.’
The fire cracked and spit, the sound of bones breaking filling the empty space between them.
‘I have no control over it!’ Alys cried, finally looking up. ‘I go to bed and suddenly I am somewhere else and I don’t know what to do about it!’ She continued to grind her mixture vigorously.
‘I am only warning ‘ew child. I was once known as the Dynes Hysbys, and what do they see me as now? No mor’n a meddlin’ old lady an’ I’m grateful they dun’ look no deeper’n that. It’s tha’ bloody Elias Pritchard an’ his brother.’
‘But you are still a Wise Woman, Ruth. I think so, at least.’
Ruth only looked at her, her face melting like candle wax. Her shoulders hunched and she filled with a deep-set sadness, a resignation Alys hadn’t seen before. It was true the dynamic of the village had shifted since Elias Pritchard had made his home there, saddled with holy books and prayers.
‘I don’t have any visions when I’m with you Ruth. I can’t feel your aches or your swollen legs. Why is that?’
‘I dun’ know, bach. Dun’ care neither, as long as ‘ew keep comin’ to see me.’
Alys smiled, enjoying the quiet that Ruth’s company brought her.
‘Perhaps ‘ew should try one of ‘ewer remedies yourself, ‘ew know. Maybe a bit o’ lavender by the pillow at night. It will soothe ‘ew, help ‘ew to sleep.’
‘Maybe. Here, drink this.’ Alys handed Ruth a cup filled with steaming water from the pan above the fire mixed with the concoction of herbs she’d been grinding. ‘For your legs.’
‘All I’m saying is ‘ew need to be careful,’ Ruth spoke between sips, her face clouded by the steam from the drink. ‘Vivid dreams are one thing, but wandering’ about at night is another. People will talk. Myn uffarn i, they’ll talk.’
‘Let them,’ Alys replied as she gathered her things to leave.
The walk home was livelier than the walk to Ruth’s had been. As the pale Winter sun had risen over the village, so too had a feeling of purpose. Though the milky stream of sunlight provided scarcely any warmth, the streets were bustling with life. Carwyn Davies was stood in his front garden, weeding the plants. He called good morning and Alys waved in his direction.
Four young children, three girls and a little boy, were playing in the lane with a skipping rope. As the smallest girl jumped to avoid the rope, wings appeared on her back, disappearing again each time she touched the ground. She was central to a spider’s web of skipping and jumping and disappearing wings, and Alys couldn’t take her eyes from her. Her golden plaits flung up into the air and down again like a dog’s ears and Alys chuckled, once again feeling the sting in her lower stomach and the swelling in her breasts.
It was nearing lunch time when she approached her own little house. Rounding the corner, her feet slapping on the icy earth, she gasped, cold air hitting her lungs with a forceful impact. How had she not noticed it on her way out this morning?
The carcass was splayed like a sunken cloud. Eyes staring at nothing, mouth agape, it lay, bloodied and white, in its pen. A jet black crow perched on the broken mass, picking and clawing, its hematite feathers glistening in the Winter sun. Alys’ stomach dropped at the sight. Herbal remedies and prayers would not heal this sheep. It was long gone. Had it frozen to death over night? It seemed too deteriorated for that, and yet it had been alive and well the day before, she was sure of it, was sure she had heard it calling.
Alys considered knocking on her neighbour’a door, letting him know about his sheep, but he must have seen the thing already. Besides, there was nothing she could do to help now – he would need time to himself.
Elias Pritchard would find a way to blame her for this, she knew he would. He’d had it out for her and Ruth since the day he’d rolled into town, laden with large bags and leather bound books.
As the afternoon sun watched over the village, milk-white and trembling, her whole body drew further inwards. She waited, looking intermittently out of the window towards the small holding next door. She knew he would come, and when finally he did, she sensed his step drawing him closer to her home. She shivered, and opened the door before he could knock.
‘What have you done?’ He stepped over the threshold uninvited, his body mass filling the room from ceiling to floor.
‘It wasn’t me. I swear it.’
‘I do not believe you. Everyone knows you are not to be trusted.’ He looked her dead in the eye, unflinching.
Alys backed away from Thomas Pritchard, Elias’ younger brother.
‘They all talk about you, you know,’ he spoke into the silence. ‘We have seen you running about at night, heard you screaming. You are an unholy woman, Alys! I know it, you know it and the Lord above knows it.’
Towering above her and trembling in his fury, Thomas stepped closer to her, brandishing a weathered copy of Y Beibl Coron in his hand, holding it before his chest like a shield.
‘I do not.. I am not sure what..’ Alys faltered, before taking a deep breath and finally saying, ‘I did not do this.’ She barely had time to wonder how Thomas, or anyone else in the village, had seen her outside of her own home when she couldn’t remember getting through the front door. It was only a dream, she continued to tell herself.
‘We know you did this.’ As he spoke, soapy bubbles poured from his mouth. Some dripped to the floor; others darted across the room and evaporated mid-air, seconds before they touched her. She flinched as they popped near her face, wet and warm on her nose, her cheekbones.
She closed her eyes, not wanting to see what she knew others could not, worried her response would give her away.
‘I’m sorry,’ she stuttered, her eyes still squinting.
‘So you admit it!’ he cried, triumphant. His words tasted like vegetable fat and straw bales.
‘No, of course not! I – I don’t – I am sorry for your loss, is all I meant.’
‘My loss? It is everyone’s loss.’ He was speaking quietly now, and was all the more menacing for it. ‘We will have no wool to sell this winter. The villagers will have no wool to keep them warm. We will have no money to eat. We will have no lambs in the Spring-time. There will be no meat for anyone.’
‘There are others around here with sheep,’ she began, but he cut her off –
‘You owe me.’
He leaned close and whispered again in her ear, his breath hot and rancid on her cheek. ‘You. Owe. Us. All.’
As he turned abruptly and strode from the cottage, leaving the door wide open behind him, Ruth’s words echoed in Alys’ mind. In the name of God. Neighbour will turn against neighbour. Thatcher will become torchbearer. Farmer will carry the flame. In the name of God and Godliness.
For nights to come following her visit to Ruth, horns and hooves haunted Alys’ sleep… In a sweat soaked fever dream, she could see it through her flesh, embedded in her lower abdomen like an apple pip. Before her eyes, it grew bigger and bigger, until it looked like a fully-formed baby goat. She wanted it out of her, but knew there was no way to achieve an abortion of the child without clawing it from her womb with her own dirt-clogged fingernails. It was sleeping, silent, unaware.
Alys hated the thing.
One morning she woke in the early hours. The ceiling above her lit gradually, patterns playing across the faint light as her eyes opened. Once she had wakened enough to think, she noticed that her legs felt sticky and warm. With her hand, she felt the wet patch between her legs and slowly raised her fingers from beneath the blankets and towards her face. She sat up when she saw the redness of her palms, so close she could smell the cloying metallic scent of it. Thick blood congealed between her thighs, painting Alys’ legs and staining her night dress.
She had killed the thing. She had killed it with the power of her own selfish thoughts, the hate she had felt within her dreams. This was not the first time. She felt entirely powerless. She needed to speak with Ruth but dreaded what the Wise Woman might tell her.
As the months drew by, and Winter became Summer, Mrs Ellis’s bump shifted and grew. Alys began to sense the baby more and more as it transformed, transitioning from a small embedded seed to a growing human being.
Wanting to be part of the baby’s introduction to the world, Alys had agreed to assist John in the labour, telling him to knock on her front door when the time was right, though she would know when the baby was forcing its way from its mother’s womb, peeling out into the open. She would feel it too.
‘The baby’s coming.’ John Ellis burst through Alys’ front door one night in June. It had been propped open to let in the evening breeze, but the flustered man pushed it back further in his haste, bashing it hard against the wall. He was flushed, his hair was wild and his head was gleaning with sweat. ‘Something’s not right. We need your help. Please, bring what you can.’
The pair ran to the house, the door of which was also flung open. It was dark inside; the fire was roaring despite the warm evening air. As they entered, Alys felt a wall of pain and anxiety hit her, a roasting and meaty barrier. She found it physically difficult to step through and move towards Gwenllian, who was lying on the floor, her legs apart, her stomach huge and bulging, the baby beneath visibly shifting and turning.
The baby came into the world kicking and screaming, its dark brow furrowed, its little pink mouth puckered. When her father had cut her cord and taken her over to and eagerly-awaiting Mair Bara to be cleaned and wrapped up, Alys was able to turn to Gwenllian, who she realised now was in real trouble. Blood was streaming, thick and hot, from between her legs. It was a river of fear, a river of death. Alys began to panic, she could feel the warmth of the substance as it crept towards her legs, gluing her gown to her knees where she was crouched on the floor before her sick and shivering neighbour. Was this somehow her fault? Perhaps the couple had not been meant to conceive. Perhaps it was not written in their stars, after all.
‘Is she okay?’ Gwenllian asked, trying to raise her head in search of the child.
‘She’s fine, absolutely fine,’ Alys told her. ‘Shush now, try not to speak.’ Alys smoothed the bloodied hand and tried to hold back her salty tears by staring upwards. ‘Grandewch. Hear her crying?’ she asked, and Gwenllian nodded as she slowly shut her eyes and the baby’s first fresh and heart-wrenching sobs filled the room.
In the meantime, John had disappeared and was now hurtling back into the house with Elias Prichard in tow.
The Dyn Sanctaidd, a man of God, looked dishevelled and worried, his hair tumbling from beneath his hat. He hurried over to Gwenllian, pushing Alys out of the way, and began to murmur while gesturing with his hands. He drew his fingers over the woman’s forehead, then moved his hand delicately from his own forehead to his sternum, then across his chest, touching each shoulder in turn. A copy of Y Beibl Coron was thrust upon her breast as he turned to Alys, his upper lip set in a sort of cruel satisfaction.
‘Thomas has told me what you did to his sheep,’ he spat at Alys as she stood and backed away.
Within moments, Gwenllian Ellis had shut her eyes. Her chest ceased its rhythmic rise and fall.
Accusatory eyes from all in the room fell on Alys.
John thrust the baby, now bundled in clean cloth, back into Mair Bara’s arms. He stomped over to Alys, visibly quivering. The taste of metal engulfed her. It was in her mouth, her throat, filling her nostrils. She coughed, choking on it, and on John’s look of fury, the redness of his forehead and cheeks.
‘Why did this happen?’ he asked her.
‘It can’t be helped, John,’ she said, reaching for him. He took a step back, then stepped towards her again, hesitant. ‘I’m sorry,’ she offered. ‘These thing happen, sometimes.’
Just as John looked willing to accept her hand, Elias Prichard stepped in front of him. He looked Alys straight in the eye and spat out,
‘I’ve known your kind. I know what you are. Hen gwrach. The whole village will know – you are a witch!’