These Old Hands

Frances heard a shriek as she approached the cottage door. Joseph hovered outside the threshold, twisting his cap in his hands. “She’s bad, Frances. Says she can’t take the pain.”

The old woman gave him a dismissive wave. “Ah, she’ll be fine, lad. It’s nature’s way.”

“What should I do?” He was barely more than a boy, less than a year married. His face, normally nut brown from working in the fields all day, had a grey cast to it.

Frances shouldered past him, Margaret right behind her. “Just stay out of the way, boy, and let us work. I’ve never lost a baby nor a mama yet, and I don’t intend today to be my first.”

Inside the cottage was dark, air thick with the smells of smoke, sweat, and urine. Frances could dimly make out Essie’s form writhing on the small bed against the far wall. “Margaret, get the window open and put on water to boil,” she said, rummaging in her bag of supplies. The packets of powders and herbs went on the cottage’s rickety table; Margaret would know without being told how to mix them.

Frances carried the birthing stool and linen to the bedside. “Now then, young Essie, let’s have a look at you.”

Essie’s round face glistened, her cornsilk hair flattened against her scalp. “Oh, Frances, it hurts something terrible. I think something’s wrong.”

Frances pushed back the blanket and peered between Essie’s legs, pressing one hand against the swollen belly. “Nonsense, girl. Your mother said the same thing when she birthed you, and you were no trouble at all. We’ve time yet.”

While Margaret boiled water and brewed the herbs, Frances got Essie out of bed and on her feet. At first she resisted, but Frances eventually got her to walk a circle around the small room. When Essie’s next labor pains struck, the old woman helped her sink into a squatting position on the low birthing stool. “Margaret, hold her up.”

Margaret set aside the cup of brewed herbs and moved to support Essie’s lower back. She was a thin, fragile-looking girl, but Frances knew she was far stronger than she seemed, and holding up Essie’s limp weight posed no challenge. Frances eased down onto one knee, wincing at the stiffness in her bad hip. Pushing up Essie’s skirt, she leaned down to check her again.

At first glance, it appeared to be the start of a normal crowning. The lips of the vulva were stretched over a round, smooth surface, one a little bigger than a balled-up fist. Then Frances frowned and took a closer look. It was the right size to be the baby’s head, true, but it was too dark, too shiny. Even if Essie had been bleeding, it wouldn’t have stained the scalp that deep, gleaming black.

When Frances leaned up, Margaret’s sharp brown eyes were watching her. Breech? she mouthed from behind Essie. The midwife shook her head.

“Essie, bite down on this, now. I’ve got to reach in.” She passed Margaret a leather strap and smeared her fingers with goose grease from a small jar.

Essie tensed and let out a groan when Frances slipped her fingers past the mass. Frances felt around the sides of the object, pulse quickening with each moment that passed. The shape her fingers traced was a smooth ovoid. No limbs, no face, no bones. In place of soft, yielding flesh was a slick carapace or shell, hard as stone under Frances’ fingers. As she explored, there was a flutter, some tapping from within, a pulse or a kick.

“What is it? What’s wrong with him?” Essie’s voice came out shrill and garbled around the strip of leather.

Frances forced herself to meet Essie’s eyes. Poor girl, she thought. And it’s her first. “We can’t know till you’ve birthed,” she said, and could see that Essie was too scared to ask again.

The rest of the labor Frances handled like any other, instructing Margaret to rub Essie’s back when the pains came, applying salve to prevent tearing and blood loss. When the time came to push, Margaret moved to ready the linens. Frances watched her face, could see the shock pass over her features when she saw what was coming out. But then the girl steeled herself and looked away, busying herself with preparations. Frances took Essie’s hand in her own arthritic fingers, not allowing herself to wince no matter how hard the girl squeezed.

It came out smoothly, and Frances could see right away that Essie was in no danger. Margaret caught it as it slipped from between Essie’s legs, a perfectly even, black shape, like obsidian with the edges smoothed away. There was no cord, nothing attaching it to Essie’s body. Margaret’s hands trembled as they held it, her throat working as she swallowed convulsively.

“Why isn’t he crying?” Essie gasped. “Why isn’t he crying?”

She leaned forward and saw what she had delivered into the world, and the scream that ripped from her throat seemed to pierce Frances down to her bones.

By the time Frances and Margaret emerged from the cottage, Father Godfrey and the steward had arrived and stood waiting with Joseph. The sun, which had been high when Essie’s labor began, touched the horizon. “Well, is it true?” the steward demanded.

“Is what true, Master Hugh?” Frances asked, unable to conceal her irritation.

“That there has been a demon born here.” He was a short, stocky man with rough peasant’s features but an immaculately trimmed beard and a fine wardrobe. His pale face reddened when he was angry or nervous; at the moment he appeared nearly purple.

“What about Essie? Is she ill? Can you not help her, Frances?” Joseph pleaded.

Frances patted the young man on the arm. “She’s had a shock, but she’ll live. We gave her medicine to calm her and help her sleep.”

Joseph shifted from one foot to the other, eyes darting toward the cottage door. Father Godfrey cleared his throat. “And what of the… the birth?”

Frances turned to Margaret. The girl held a basket in front of her, awkwardly, not letting it touch her body. She set it on the ground and took a hasty step back. Frances reached down and lifted the soiled cloth to reveal what lay inside.

“Mother of God,” the steward breathed. Father Godfrey made the sign of the cross, eyes wide. Joseph, seeing it for the second time, let out an anguished gasp and moved a short distance away from the rest of them.

It lay cushioned by linens as though it were a real child. Dotting its surface were flecks of blood and mucus, residue that Frances would have cleaned off of a normal baby but could not bring herself to do now. As she pulled more of the cloth away to reveal it entirely, it gave a little twitch.

Hugh darted back as if it had sprung at him. “What is it?”

Frances pursed her lips, shifting to her good leg. “You think I know?”

“You’re the midwife. You delivered the thing. How can you not know what it is?”

“Well, I know it’s no baby,” she snapped.

Father Godfrey inched closer and bent over to inspect it. The hem of his cassock trailed in the dust before his feet. “Has it been moving since the birth?”

“Since before,” Margaret murmured. “We attended to Essie throughout her pregnancy and always there was kicking. What we thought was kicking.”

“Clearly, it is of the devil,” the steward interjected.

“Ye’re an expert on devils now, are ye?” Frances muttered.

Hugh shot her a poisonous look and turned to Father Godfrey. “What is your opinion of it, Father?”

The priest bit his lip, eyes fixed on the thing in the basket. He was a tall, thin man with a face younger than his years. His sandy hair and large grey eyes always reminded Frances of a skittish fawn. “I have never heard of its like,” he said at last. “It looks like an egg, but seems to made of some stone or mineral…”

“Well, we can see that. Could it be that the woman fornicated with a demon, producing this?” the steward asked.

“You shut your foul mouth!” Joseph shouted, rushing toward Hugh. Father Godfrey managed to get between the two men before blows were exchanged. Frances glanced at Margaret, who eyed the steward with undisguised contempt.

“You are obviously under duress, so I will forget that this incident occurred,” Hugh said, adjusting his jerkin. “But it is plain as day that that thing is a source of evil. If it is an egg, then it will one day hatch, and I do not wish to see what is inside. ”

“That does not mean it was Essie’s doing,” Father Godfrey replied, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “It could be the result of an evil committed against her.”

“Who could perform such a curse?” the steward asked.

None of them spoke. The only sound was the clucking of Essie’s hens as they pecked in the dirt around the wood pile. “Would you have any knowledge of how to perform such a spell?” Hugh stared at Frances as he asked the question. Father Godfrey’s eyes widened and he bit his lip.

“Don’t be daft. I know nothing of spells,” Frances said, lowering herself into a sitting position on the chopping block next to the woodpile. She forced herself to sound bored, secretly wondering if the day had finally arrived, as she always knew it would.

The steward folded his arms. “It is said that no mother or child you have attended has died. Surely the villagers exaggerate?”

To her left, Frances felt Margaret’s body tense. “Tis no exaggeration,” Frances answered calmly. “All have lived, although some do not show due gratitude.”

Hugh’s face darkened further. Frances remembered the day he slid into her arms, blue and still with the cord wrapped around his neck. Two breaths into his sticky mouth and a slap to the arse had forced air into his lungs and set him squalling like any other newborn. Francis wondered now if she should have slapped him harder.

“I’d wager that such success is unknown, even for the most skilled midwife. One might be forgiven for suggesting it might even appear to be sorcery.”

“Frances is a godly woman, Master Hugh. It is not her doing,” Father Godfrey interjected quickly.

“Oh,” the steward said, raising an eyebrow, “you are certain of this?”

“Surely you are aware, Master Hugh, that all midwives must receive the approval of the bishop himself.” Margaret’s voice came out low and mild, but her glare was like frost. “Frances has had permission renewed by three successive bishops, one just last year during his visit to the manor. Do you suggest that the bishop is incapable of identifying a witch?”

The steward’s eyes widened. “I suggest no such thing! I simply–”

“Well, then, let us stop wasting time and discuss what to do with the abomination.” She folded her hands primly in front of her apron. Frances had to feign a fit of coughing to hide her laughter.

Joseph stared at the basket with loathing. “We destroy it. We break it open and kill whatever is inside and burn anything that remains.”

Father Godfrey picked at the front of his cassock. “We are not yet certain that it is of demonic origin…”

“I am.” Joseph strode to the woodpile and seized his ax. The priest and the steward took several steps back, giving him wide berth.

Hefting the ax in both arms, Joseph paused, a hint of doubt in his eyes. Then, shaking his head once, he lifted it over his head and brought it down on the egg.

There was a clanging sound, like the church bell, and the ax bounced back into the air. Joseph staggered back, nearly dropping it. From where she sat on the stump, Frances peered into the basket. The thing appeared untouched.

“Here,” the steward said quietly, holding out his hand, “let me try.”

He met with no better result. “It’s like trying to cut an anvil!” Hugh gasped, rubbing his right hand in his left.

“Perhaps…” Father Godfrey fished a small vial out his pocket, recited a prayer, and dribbled holy water over the black shell.

They waited. Margaret reached down and nudged it with one knuckle. “I feel no movement.”

Frances hauled herself to her feet and touched it with the toe of her shoe. It immediately began to twitch, rocking back and forth within the basket.

“It seems to respond only to you.” Hugh said quietly, eyeing Frances. Nobody replied.

By the time full night had descended, they had determined that neither blades, nor fire, nor the touch of a crucifix could kill what had emerged from Essie’s womb. Frances’ back ached from sitting so long, and she shuffled back inside the cottage to check on Essie again. The girl still slept; Frances had given her enough tincture of opium to ensure that she would not wake until morning. She had no signs of fever or infection; Frances wondered what illnesses could arise from birthing such a thing, and if she would be able to help if Essie showed symptoms.

Back outside, the steward and the priest argued about what to do with the thing overnight. “It cannot come into the church!” Father Godfrey protested.

“Well, it cannot be left here. And it certainly will not be taken to the manor,” Hugh objected.

“We should have the bishop’s counsel,” Father Godfrey fretted.

The steward sighed. “A message will not reach him for two days.”

Finally, they agreed that it would be locked in a chest and buried until they received instructions from the bishop. Father Godfrey set off to the church to fetch a chest while Joseph and the steward stood guard. “We’ll be on home, then,” Frances announced, climbing to her feet with a groan. Hugh looked like he wanted to object but held his tongue.

Margaret laid a hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “We’ll be back early to tend to Essie.”

He nodded, defeated stare fixed on the egg.

Margaret and Frances said nothing on the walk back to their hut. Once inside, Frances settled in front of the fire with a long sigh. The hut was small but well-built, with bundles of dried herbs hanging from its low ceiling. It smelled of rosemary, onions, and the rabbit stew they had left simmering in the hearth when they left. Margaret lifted the lid of the stewpot and stirred its contents with a ladle. “Perhaps it is not wise for you to anger the steward so,” she murmured without looking at Frances.

“Hm. I could get on my old knees and kiss that bastard’s boots, and he’d still think me a witch.”

Margaret said nothing until they finished their meal. “He was right about something. It responds only to you.”

“Aye,” Frances said quietly, adding a stick of wood to the dying embers of the hearth.

“Could it be,” Margaret began slowly, “that it is not Essie who is the target of malice, but you? How better to strike against a midwife?”

Frances said nothing. Half of her hoped that Margaret’s wits failed for once and led her to the wrong conclusion. The other half wanted to tell her.

Margaret continued. “But there is no one in this village who you have angered, besides the steward, and I doubt that such a boorish fool would have the knowledge for magic. And no one could find fault with your midwifery; everyone knows that many children and mothers would die without your skills.” Her sharp features radiated intensity. “So the question is, who would benefit from stillbirths and women dying in labor?”

Frances gazed into the hearth. She could feel Margaret watching her. “It’s not all skill,” she said at last. “A lot of it is, mind. I learned my trade well, from one who knew it well. But there’s more to it. These hands…” She smiled bitterly and gazed down at her fingers, gnarled and twisted as the roots of a tree. “These old hands, they can conquer demons.”

“The first time was me fourth birth. I remember it well…

I was still young then, still apprenticed to Old Hannah. I knew much already, all of the herbs and elixirs, knew when it was proper to use feverfew and ground willow bark. I could see when there be twins and know the place of the unborn babe in a mother’s belly. But I had not yet delivered a baby on me own, and the thought of managing without Old Hannah scared the life out of me.

This time was a hard labor of a woman who had birthed five times before, with only one baby living. Her pains lasted through the night and into the morning. By the time she was ready, she was almost too spent to push, wouldn’t until Old Hannah gave her a good talking to.

I myself hadn’t slept. Bone-tired, I was. I didn’t even know the baby was coming out until Old Hannah gave me a slap and told me to pay attention.

It was without breath when it came out into Hannah’s hands. But I could see it had no cord around its neck, knew it had moved only hours before. Knew it should live. Old Hannah tried to bring it back, flipped it over onto its tum and gave it a smack on its back, but it still didn’t breath.

When Old Hannah turned the little body over on its back, that’s when I sees it. At first I thought it was a caul, but a caul wouldn’t be black. It was something alive, something black fixed on the baby’s face, like a little patch of black fog. There were no eyes or arms that I could see, just a wee mouth, and it had it around the baby’s.

I was scared out of me wits, I don’t mind telling you. I screamed like a fool and backed away, but Old Hannah didn’t even see it. She just yelled at me to bring the bag, stop being such a ninny.

I knew why she wanted the bag. She’d given up on the poor thing, needed the holy water to say the sacraments since there was no priest. Well, I wasn’t having that. I didn’t even think about what I was doing, I just stepped over and ripped that evil thing from the baby’s face. It fought me fierce, it did, tried to stay stuck to his little mouth, but I got the best of it. The moment I got it off the baby, it just broke apart, turned into soot and dropped all over the floor.

‘What are you doing?’ Old Hannah asks me, spitting mad. I ignores her, for once, and touched the baby’s chest. Didn’t know why, just that I had to. I felt something, something moving between me and it, and then its eyes opened and it started to cry.

“Old Hannah saw it happen. She looked at me like I was the Holy Virgin her own self. But we never talked of it, not once until the day she died. I’m no witch, you see. There’s no spells or deals with the Devil. But when a child is born dead, I can bring it back. And when it is born with one of those demons…”

“You destroy them.” Margaret’s eyes were wide. She was silent for a moment. Then: “This is not a skill that can be taught?”

Frances covered the girl’s hand with her own. “No, child. I don’t even understand how I do it.”

Margaret took a deep, shaking breath. “And when you are gone and I am village midwife, children will start to die again.”

“Yes. Not many. Ye’re a good midwife, Margaret, better than I ever was. Better than Old Hannah, even. But there’ll be some with demons, or ones who are beyond teas and medicines.”

“And I’ll be powerless to save them.”

Frances was silent for a time. At last, “Ye’ll save more than ye lose, girl. That’s what you must remember.”

She waited while Margaret cried in silence, just a steady drizzle of tears trailing down her stony face. When the girl was finished, she let out one heavy sigh, wiped her cheeks, and began tidying up after their supper. “You believe the thing Essie birthed has something to do with the demons you’ve thwarted?” she asked, scrubbing one of the bowls.

“Don’t see any way around it. It don’t look like one of em, but it has the same feel.”

“But this one survives your touch.”

“Aye. They found a way to send something I can’t kill. I think it’s the shell keeps it safe.” Frances stood and shuffled over to her pallet. “I’ll sleep on the matter. Tomorrow we’ll decide on what’s to be done.”

Frances woke before first light. At first she thought it was the throbbing ache in her joints that had woken her, as happened most days now. But her heart pounded and there was the tang of fear in her mouth; she made herself still and listened for what had broken her sleep.

There. Something rustled outside the door. Frances rose as quietly as she could, slipping past Margaret’s pallet. She found their one carving knife and gripped it in her trembling fingers. Pausing with her hand on the latch, she listened for what lay beyond the door. All was quiet.

Before she could lose her nerve, Frances lifted the latch and flung open the door, knife ready.

The egg lay on the ground outside the hut. As Frances took a cautious step toward it, it began to rock back and forth. Even while standing several feet away, she could hear the sounds emanating from it. These sounds weren’t weak clicks and stirrings, as before; now it was a hard, steady series of taps, a chisel on stone.

“Frances?” Margaret’s sleepy voice drifted out from the hut.

“All’s well, Margaret. Stay inside.” Frances tore her gaze away from the thing, fixed her eyes on the smear of heather grey where the sun would soon spill over the horizon. She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and held her arms closer to her body in an effort to ward off the morning chill. Winter was coming on fast, she knew, but at that moment she realized that she would never see another snow. That’s something, at least, the old woman thought with a grim smile.

Margaret appeared in the doorway. “How…” she breathed.

“Impatient little thing, isn’t it?”

“Should we–”

“No.” Frances cut her off. “Breakfast first. We’ll deal with this thing after we’ve eaten.” As she shuffled back to the hut, Frances aimed a solid kick at the egg, sending it rolling across the garden.

As instructed, Margaret prepared a hearty breakfast, far larger than their usual meals. Bread with honey, cheese, bacon. Frances ate slowly but finished everything in front of her. Margaret merely picked at her food.

“The steward will find the box unearthed and empty. Do you think he will think to look here?” she asked at last.

Frances shrugged.

“Before, we could deny that it was anything to do with you,” Margaret pressed. “But since it has come here… What if Father Godfrey changes his mind, begins to think you a witch?”

Frances let out a laugh. “Godfrey’ll never turn on me. He knows I know too much.”

Margaret raised a quizzical eyebrow. Frances leaned close and lowered her voice to a dramatic whisper. “Next time you see young ones playing in the village, see if you can spot the one who has his eyes.”

Margaret’s mouth dropped open, but she said nothing.

Frances continued. “That bloody Hugh, on the other hand…”

The tapping outside grew louder. Margaret rose and peeked outside, opening the door only a crack. “Frances,” she said, voice tense.

Pulling the door all the way open, Frances squatted down to examine the egg. There was a tiny hole, scarcely bigger than a pinprick. Something sharp and white emerged from within, chipping and scraping until another tiny piece fell away.

“That’d be the egg tooth,” Frances murmured.

She stood. “Margaret, Essie’ll need checking. Go to her and make sure there’s no fever.”

“I’ll not be leaving you alone with this!” Margaret protested.

“You’ll do as you’re told, girl.” Frances said the words sharply, though it pained her to be harsh with the girl.

Margaret bit her lip and slowly started gathering her supplies. Frances watched her in silence for a moment. “It’s Widow Cavendish. The one what had a child by Godfrey. He had me convince her to remain silent, but she’d speak if the story needed telling. And Master Hugh bedded the lord’s daughter. She came to me and I gave her what she needed to kill it in the womb. But you must speak of that only if Hugh makes an accusation, only if it means your life.”

Margaret slipped the bag over her shoulder. “Why are you telling me this?”

“All my secrets are yours now.”

“What will you do?” she asked quietly.

Frances crossed the room and embraced the girl. “Only what must be done.” She patted Margaret’s cheek. “Don’t you worry. This old woman’s got a trick or two yet.”

Tears welled up in Margaret’s eyes. “Frances, please…”

“Go now. Off with you.” She waved a hand at the door.

Margaret hesitated, opened and closed her mouth. Finally, taking a deep breath, she walked out of the hut and started on the path to the village. Frances waited until the girl disappeared over the hillside before gathering her things.

By the time Frances approached her destination, her lungs burned and her clothes were damp with sweat. “Right pain in the arse, you are,” she puffed, dropping the basket in the grass. “Making me walk all this way.”

She settled on the ground to catch her breath. Below her stretched the rocky valley north of the village. Just one or two paces from where she sat, the ground dropped away into a crumbling granite cliff face. Peering down, Frances caught sight of the stream running along the valley floor. She remembered walking there, once, when she was young. It had been a long, difficult journey to the bottom of the valley, but there had been sun and cool water and a boy she might have wed had things gone just a bit differently. Smiling, Frances let herself linger on that memory.

The sound of the thing in the basket broke her out of her reverie. There was a crack as a large piece of shell gave way, revealing something darker moving inside. A black, jointed limb reached out, grasping, but it could not yet escape.

“Five hundred and fourteen,” Frances said. “That’s how many babies I’ve helped to be born. And those ones grew up and had babies themselves. There’s little ones today whose mothers and grandmothers I’ve looked after. Never had none of my own, but I’ve still brought more life into this world than you can imagine.”

There came a snarl from the basket, egg rocking back and forth as another piece of shell fell away.

“And that,” Frances continued, “is something I won’t let anyone undo. I don’t know where ye’re from, but I know you was sent for me, and that must mean you can kill.

“But ye know what else?” She smiled. “An egg keeps a chick safe. Without it, the poor thing’s helpless. If ye had to hide in such a strong shell, it must mean you can be hurt.”

One side of the egg crumbled. Another limb stretched out, dragging a leathery wing along with it. Frances rose to her feet.

With one last, shuddering spasm, the shell broke apart. A dark, spindly shape launched itself out of the basket, speeding toward Frances. She caught sight of the wings, and teeth, and legs, too many and too long. Then it was upon her, serrated fangs sinking into the flesh at her throat. Run, her body screamed, fight! But she forced herself to take hold of its wings, squeezing them tight in her fists. A bone under the stretched skin cracked beneath her fingers, and the thing tried to push away, snapping its teeth and shredding the skin of her chest with its claws. Frances felt liquid warmth flowing from her neck down to the ground, knew the pain was soon to follow.

“These old hands, they can conquer demons,” she whispered, and, holding the creature to her breast like a child, she stepped off the edge.

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