“They’ll be needing a woman here,” Alys said, glancing around the crude hut. The cooking vessels were unwashed and a blanket thrown across a chair was stained and in need of mending.
“Yes,” Claire agreed. “Men don’t tend houses well, do they?”
“Tall Andras is of an age to wed,” Alys said pointedly.
Claire shrugged. “He should, then.”
“It’s you he wants.”
Claire knew it to be true. She blushed. “I’m not of a mind to wed,” she murmured.
Alys didn’t hear, or pretended not to. “He’ll want sons.”
“All men do, I expect.” It was something Claire had observed, in the village. Sons carried on the outside work; they took on the boats and the fields as their fathers grew old.
Alys busied herself with tying the cords that held the wrappings firmly in place around Eilwen’s remains. Claire, silent now, helped her. She thought how proud Eilwen must have once been, to have birthed a strong boy like Andras.
They sat back. Their work was finished. In a moment they would call the men, father and son, to lift the woman into her coffin. The village would gather in the morning to place it in the earth.
“On that day, the day I tended you,” Alys said to Claire, “I saw your wound.”
Claire placed her hand there protectively. She looked at the ground. “I don’t—” she began, then faltered.
“It’s a grievous wound. Someone tended it, stitched it up. There are the marks.”
“I know,” Claire whispered.
“One day it will come back to your mind, like everything else.”
“But I fear this: that you will not be able to give birth. I think it has been taken from you.”
Claire was silent.
Alys leaned forward and turned the flame higher in the oil lamp. It was darkening outside. “There are other ways a woman finds worth,” she said in a firm, knowing voice.
“Come. We’ll bring the men inside to be with her now.”
They rose and went out into the evening where Tall Andras and his father waited in a light rain, their faces resigned.
In her mind, Claire made a list of what was new to her.
Colors, of course. She was grateful for knowing them now: the red of hollyberries, and the red ribbon of the Handfasting—she marveled at the vibrancy and vigor of it. And she had come to feel bathed in contentment when the sky was blue, as it was on these late-summer days. Sometimes the sea was quiet and blue as well, but most days it churned dark gray-green, with spumes of white blown and dissolved in the air. Claire liked that darkness as well, with its relentless motion and mystery, though she blamed the sea for hiding her past in its depths.
Yellow she loved for its playfulness. Yellow-wing, her little bird, came to her finger now when she poked it between the twigs that formed his cage. He hopped onto it and tilted his head at her with a questioning look. She wondered why she had ever been so frightened of birds.
They were added to her list of newly learned things: birds, and animals of all sorts. She still skirted the cow uneasily when she walked past, but she had become fond of Lame Einar’s sheep, especially the small ones, who frolicked in the tall meadow grass and showed their pink tongues when they bleated in excitement.
Einar told her of wolves, but she had not seen one and did not want to, ever.
She took joy in butterflies and scolded the little girls for catching them. “You’ve ruined it now,” she said, looking sadly at the crumpled spotted wings in Bethan’s outstretched hand. “It deserved to live, and to fly.” Together they buried the dead creature, but later she saw the child chasing another.
She feared bees, and most bugs.
“You’re like a wee child,” Alys said to her, laughing when Claire backed away nervously from a fat beetle on a bush where they were gathering large leaves of goldenseal. Infusion of goldenseal eased the sore throat that sometimes afflicted fishermen after long days in the boats.
“I’ve just never seen them before,” Claire explained, as she had often, of so many things.
Her list included lightning, which astonished her; thunder, which terrified her; and frogs, which made her laugh aloud. A rainbow one morning made her almost faint with delight and surprise.
Claire joined in the harvesting at the end of summer, and the rejoicing after. The crops were brought in and stored, and in the fields the birds picked at the strewn leavings. Apples were ripening still, but the early ones were picked and pressed into cider.
She could see that the days were shorter now. In summer the children had played barefoot into the evening, chasing one another until their shadows grew long. The men fished until there were stars, and still the sky did not darken until they brought their catch ashore. Now, though, the air turned brisk late in the afternoon. The sun seemed to topple down to the edge of the horizon and colored it crimson there until it was gulped by the sea and gone. The wind rose then, taking the brown leaves in a whirl from the trees, and smoke wafted from the chimneys of cottages as fires were fed. The smoke carried with it the scent of soups and stews: nourishment for chilly nights. Women unraveled the sweaters their children had outgrown. They rolled the yarn and started again with it, forming new patterns, bright stripes, in larger sizes. Nothing was wasted. Boys carved buttons from bone.
Tall Andras gave Claire a fringed shawl that had been his mother’s. Most days were still sunlit and warm, but in the evenings she wrapped the soft shawl around her. Lame Einar, seeing how she tied the ends to fasten it closed, created a clasp from willow twigs that he’d soaked to soften and then twisted into a curled design. Carefully he attached the two pieces to the green shawl and showed her how to fit them into each other and hold the thick fabric tight together.
She noticed one morning, early, that her breath was visible in the cold, clear air. “Like mist,” she said to Alys.
“Steam,” Alys replied.
They were on their way to the cottage at the edge of the woods where Bryn lived with her fisherman husband and their little girl. Bethan had burst into their hut just before daybreak, shivering with the cold because she had forgotten her sweater, and breathless with excitement.
“My mum’s pains have begun and my dad says come because he wants no part in it!”
“Run back, child, and tell her we’ll be there shortly.” Alys spoke in a calm voice while she rose, prodded the fire, and reached for her clothing.
“You’ll come too, won’t you, Water Claire?” Bethan begged. Claire had sat up and yawned.
“I will. Go tell your dad he’s a big baby himself.” Claire knew Bethan’s father, that he was gentle and loving. But men were not good at this.
The little girl giggled. Claire swung her bare feet to the floor and winced at the cold. She reached for the knitted socks that Alys had made for her. “Go now! Scat!” she said, and Bethan, gleeful, left the hut and scampered back along the lane.
Yellow-wing, whose cage had been brought inside at the end of summer, shifted on his perch and chirped. Alys rolled a leaf tightly and slipped it between the bars for him to nibble. Claire finished dressing. She fastened her leather sandals over the warm socks and watched as the old woman gathered things from the shelves in the corner. Suddenly, watching, she shuddered.
“Why do you need a knife?”
Alys placed the knife carefully beside the corked containers of herbal infusions. She rolled them all in a soft leather skin and placed the bundle inside her bag. She added a large stack of clean folded cloths to the bag and pulled its drawstring tight.
“Some say it eases pain to lay a knife beneath the bed.”
“Is it true?”
Alsy shrugged. “Likely not. But if the person thinks it, then the thinking eases the pain.” She wrapped her thick knitted shawl around her and hefted the bag over her shoulder. “And I need the knife for the cord.”
Claire pulled her own shawl tight and fastened it with the willow clasp.
“Bring the lamp,” Alys told her.
Together they hurried along the path. Claire held the lamp high and it made their way easier. But the sky itself was lightening now. The moon was a thin sliver against the gauzy gray of earliest morning. Bryn’s child would be a daylight baby.
They could see when they arrived that Bethan in her excitement had dashed about in the shadowy dawn and wakened her friends. Now all three little girls, still in their sleeping garments, were giggling nervously in the small room where Bryn groaned and twisted on the bed. Alys firmly shooed them back outdoors.
“Don’t come back till the sun is full up. And then you come with your arms filled with flowers from the meadow, to welcome the babe.”
“They’ll find some dried asters still,” she told Claire, “and late goldenrod. And it will keep them out from underfoot.”
The coming baby’s father was nowhere in sight. Alys had told Claire that men were frightened by birthing.
She had watched Lame Einar, though, help his ewes to bear young in early spring. He was both firm and gentle with them, and unafraid. Einar hadn’t minded that she stood watching when she came upon the scene. It was the first time she had ever seen him smile, when he unfolded the damp legs of a newborn and set it wobbling on its feet so that it could nudge its mother for milk.
“They don’t really need me,” he told her gruffly. “They can birth alone unless there’s trouble.”
“But it’s nice you’re there to help,” Claire said.
Einar had shrugged, patted the rump of the nursing ewe, and reached for his sticks to hobble away. Claire watched him for a moment after he turned his back. Then she too walked on.
But that had been months before. The spring lambs were tall now, playful, and thick with wool. Einar was no longer so shy with her. Once he startled her by making a harsh cackling sound, suddenly, and then a series of soft clucks. She looked at him in surprise.
“You asked me once could I do other birds. That’s a pheasant,” he explained.
Then he looked up at something very large, soaring above the sea. He gave a long, hoarse call. “Black-backed gull,” he said.
Now he let her help when he gathered the sheep in for the evening. Together they counted. He had never lost one to wolves, he told her, and was proud of that. He loved the new lambs.
“Wash the knife,” Alys directed her, and her thoughts returned to the cottage, where Bryn gasped and gathered herself now as the child emerged. Claire saw it was a girl. She heard it cry as she turned and dipped the knife into the water that simmered on the fire. The blade was hot when she wiped it carefully dry with a clean cloth.
“Don’t cut Bryn!” she implored suddenly.
Alys frowned at her. “No need to cut the mother,” she said brusquely.
She knotted a string around the pulsing cord. The baby waved a fist in the air and wailed. “Sun’s rising,” Alys said to Bryn. “And you’ve got you a fine girl.” She waited a moment, then reached for the knife that Claire held, took it, and separated the newborn from its mother with a careful cut.
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