Ravished: the unfortunate tale of Bridget Cleary
The illness devoured me from the inside, a solitary warmth at first, lingering in my chest then unfurling like a poisonous flower, before cloaking my whole body, my whole being, in its shadow. I grew weak, so weak that I couldn’t leave my bed.
My husband brought herbs bathed in beastings milk and bubbled the liquid until it scolded my throat. This was the only way to expel the illness, he told me. The doctor’s medicine would not do. Doctors’ medicine could not cast out a fairy – that medicine was made to deal only with the misfortunes of this world.
He came towards me, smouldering fire-poker in hand, and brandished the spoon again. I wretched at the heat of the milk but he clasped his hand over my mouth, forcing the potion down and I squirmed, blisters puckering at my gullet. He assured me that he only wanted the best for me, only wanted his wife to return to his side. I tried to mouth my rebuttal but could not speak, could only blink.
Then the questions began. Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God? I kicked and writhed and felt firm hands pinning my arms to the bed, the weight of a body blanketing my shins. I tried to speak, to nod, but could not. My husband’s hand was still set firmly over my face, my whole body restrained by the others. I glanced frantically at the women cowering in the doorway, registered the wide-eyed fear on their faces, the mouths hanging agape. Their tongues were as stiff and swollen as my own, their silence complicit and total.
Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God? Again, the question was asked. Again, I failed to plead my case. The saucepan of steaming milk was discarded, its creamy contents dribbling over the floor boards like entrails, and Michael picked up another pan from under the bed. His face set in a mask of hatred and fury, he cast the pan towards me, drenching my face in cold urine, sickly sweet and dark yellow. My chemise clung to my clammy stomach and thighs where the urine had been doused and I thrashed all the more, feeling like a fish trying to squirm from its own skin.
The following evening, I was dressed by my cousin and taken to supper. I had regained some of my strength but felt battered and weakened by the assault my loved ones had inflicted on me the night before. Michael continued to accuse me of being other than myself. He said I was a fairy, a witch, a changeling, my body ravaged by something frightful. He said I was a beast. I told him sharply that I was not but he would not let it go. He sat at the fire with my cousin and they talked about the fairy folk, so much so that the syllables clawed through my sternum and out – your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them. I regretted the words as soon as I spat them – I knew my husband would silence me swiftly.
The tendons in his jaw tautened and bulged as he crossed to the counter top and busied himself with bread. Are you Bridget Boland, my wife, in the name of God? The question came again, accompanied by three servings of bread and jam. I chewed but found I could not swallow. The crumbs were grit in my mouth, mingling with the pleas I once again failed to utter. If you won’t take it, down you will go. He lunged at me, bread in hand, and roughly palmed jam over my lips, spittle bubbling across his own chin. Swallow it. Swallow it. Is it down? Tongue-stiff and sick, I looked him square in the eye, watched as he reached for a lighting stick from the hearth, waited as he smashed the paraffin lamp.
In my last moments of life, the fever was all-consuming. I had never been so warm.