Excerpt from ‘The Birth Tree’ (new work in progress)
When the time came, it came in irresistible force. Waves of pressure bore down inside her, stealing her breath until she couldn’t dance in the firelight any longer. She moved into the shadows. It was time to go to the birth tree.
She went alone. Most women did, although the old aunties always knew when they went, and made a point of watching quietly from a distance. If needed, they would materialize, bringing comfort and years of experience. If not, the women were left alone in their travails.
The birth tree was always a cedar with a low, sturdy branch over which a laboring woman could lean her body. Most of the children and adults now living in the village had been birthed beneath the tree, and its roots were full of the bones of babes who had not survived. When it was no longer possible to dig a new grave without disturbing bones, a new tree was chosen and nurtured, and the old tree left alone. They never cut birth trees, which were the living memories of lives cut short. And of such babes, precious fleeting things, they had no other memorials.
The walk to the tree seemed to take forever. She had to stop many times, pausing to pant with her arms curved around her belly and her hands on her knees. To cry out would bring one of the old aunties away from the fire and the dancing, thinking she needed assistance. But she had done this before. She reached the tree by herself.
The low branch was worn smooth. Its bark shone in the moonlight. Uncounted hands had worn it smooth in its role of support, both by laboring women and those who came to weep for losses. Children sometimes climbed the tree because they could reach the branch. It was no desecration for a child to climb it—after all, they were its survivors. She folded her arms along the branch and let it take some of her weight. A wave of pressure came upon her again, lasting longer now. She struggled to breathe. Then it was gone.
In the brief respite she pulled her clothes away. The moon looked down and saw only her naked skin with a sheen of perspiration, her bare dirty feet standing in the thick moss, and the silent battle as her body fought to rid itself of the burden it had carried so long.
Time ceased to have any meaning. Some part of her knew she was making low animal groans, and she wondered in a disconnected fashion whether those of the village could hear and whether anyone would come. No one did. A scream might have alarmed someone, but low groans could not reach above the sound of drums. She observed this with detachment, as she noted the light night-breeze that cooled her body, and the call of a night-bird in a tree nearby. She used the branch for support until her legs shook too much, and then she squatted flat-footed with her hands hooked over the branch, all the while trying to remain quiet and let her body do what it knew to do.
The intensity grew. She felt as though the hand of the goddess Herself were squeezing her until she could not take a breath. She could not get enough air into her lungs. When the need to bear down came, she could no more have denied it than stop a sneeze. She crouched low, suspended by her hands until the wave of pressure built to its final peak, and the babe slipped from her body to the embrace of the moss underfoot.
She drew ragged breaths for a moment, then dropped to her knees. Gathering a handful of moss, she began to clean the tiny crumpled face. The babe, not finding the cold world to its liking, made a squeaking cry of protest. “Hello, little thing,” She whispered to it, “Please stay. You are welcome here.” The babe squinted at her through pinched eyes. She went back to wiping fluids from its body with one handful after another of moss and found the babe to be a boy. Some part of her relaxed. Her man would be pleased.
She did not linger long. The babe breathed and suckled well, and she swaddled him in rags, dressed herself and then, shielding him from the plaguing mosquitoes and the chill night air with her arms, returned to the village. The drumming had long since stopped. The village was quiet except for the pre-dawn crowing of a rooster. Annwn’s feet felt heavy. She was glad to push open the door to her own hut. Then her man Sadon, who had slept sitting up in order to wake at her return, staggered groggily to his feet and came to her. “Will you live? Did this one live?” His voice sounded both cautious and hopeful.
“Yes,” Annwn said. “We will live, but I’m very tired.”
He lifted the babe from her arms and watched anxiously as she laid down on their narrow straw tick. She still bled, but neither of them worried about that: it was not the kind of bleeding that would kill, and the straw would be changed later. Sadon crooned to the babe while she slept.
They gave the tiny thing the milk-name of ‘Lamb,’ and they reminded each other not to become too attached to him. After all, he might not live, as the first one had not. He might be carried off by the scours, a fever, a cough, or something they could not see. But when Annwn put the searching rosebud mouth to her breast, love surged up in her, and her mind recoiled from the thought of losing him. She loved her little Lamb. He made tiny contented sounds as he fed, and she could not bear the thought that he might go to join his brother under the tree.
* * * * *
“That’s the one I want,” Elyas crooned from behind the Veil that permitted the realms of Fae and human to overlap and yet to be separate. “He is such a beautiful thing. See his red hair. We do not have one with red hair, Feowyn. I want that one.” Elyas was bright and rich as summer sunlight, supple as a young willow branch, and fresh as dawn. When she pouted, her lower lip thrust out becomingly, and she was accustomed to having what she wanted when she pouted.
“But surely you will not take her only living child, Elyas? She only has the one,” Feowyn chided her. “Surely not. Be patient. Another in the village will surely bear a red-topped child soon, someone for whom the just is just another mouth to feed—a burden, not a blessing. Anyway, darling, I’ve no proper changeling made right now, and even the best one we can put in place won’t last a week, and it won’t fool her for a moment.”
“But I want him. He is so dear, and he might die anyway in this squalor they call home.” She gestured at the single-room hut in which Annwn sat, the babe at her breast, blissfully unaware of observers. “How about this. Give them another sevenday. In that time, surely you can put together a changeling that will fool even the mother’s eyes and hands? By the time it fails, she might even have fallen pregnant again. Humans do that so easily.” Then she added with a hint of pique, “I am quite jealous. And the red hair! Please tell me you’ll get him for me?”
“I’ll get him for you,” Feowyn said, surrendering with his hands spread wide. “You know there is nothing in our world or theirs I can deny you if it lies within my power. I am your faithful servant.”
Elyas looked briefly into his eyes and smiled so brightly it nearly cast shadows. Feowyn basked in its light. She could always get him to do whatever she asked if she smiled just so.
All text copyright Angela Beegle, 2011