It was dark and wet in Friar’s Lane as Lettice hurried down past the old Priory walls and into the back alleyways on her way to Shut Street. Another dark ‘Whirrham’ call from a soul in need and she knew that a young woman was in trouble. She knocked on the door of number 55 and pushed it open, calling out “Hallo!” as she entered. In the darkened space she smelt the bitter tang of mildew but was warmed by the sight of a fire in the hearth. An old blackened kettle was steaming on the hob and the soft moans of a woman in pain drew her attention to the figure on the bed, an old iron cot, in one corner of the room. The woman began to cry and groan as Lettice came inside and shut the door. She took off her damp cloak and hung it to dry near the fire, placing her bag and basket on the only chair in the space. She took one look at the young woman on the cot and saw the fear in her eyes. ‘A first one?’ she asked. The woman nodded her head, tears streaming down her face, her hair plastering closely and the look of despair in her eyes.
Lettice reached for her old leather bag, peering into the blackness for the small vial of berries she had picked and dried last summer. “You need the soothing of the Rowan berries”, she said as she took out the vial and the small wooden cup from the bag. “What is your name, lass?” she asked as she carefully poured a measure of the berries into the cup and filled it with water from the boiling kettle.
“Ehedydd”, said the young woman.
Stirring and blowing the steam from the cup Lettice brought it to the woman and held it carefully to her lips, cradling her head as she sipped the sweet elixir. “Here take this my lovely lass, it’ll help with the pain!” Ehedydd’s sobbing slowed and her breathing returned to normal, but she clung desperately to Lettice’s arm and there was wild alarm in her eyes! “Your baby will be safely born here tonight, do not fear!” she whispered.
Her mind delved deeper into this certainty as she remembered her calling and her teachings from her ‘Merlin’. She knew that the Rowan berry elixir would calm the nerves and ease the pain of childbirth as it had done for many before her. She herself had ‘sipped of the Rowan’ when her own daughter Mary was born. Her own sweet Tuesday’s child – full of grace.
She whispered again to Ehedydd, as she laid out her birthing tools; the clamp, the scissors, the cloths, the bowl and the swaddling clothes. “Let the Rowan ease your pain and soothe your mind”. This young woman in labour was the last of those that Lettice would attend – she did not know that for sure – just a warning voice in her mind to take great care of the child to be born this night. She carried out the tasks in preparing for the child’s passage into this world and dreamed her dreams whilst soothing the fears of her young patient. Hours went by as the labour pains quickened and the cries of pain focussed their actions. “In a few more pushes, your baby’s head will emerge.” Taking a deep breath the woman bore down and pushed her baby’s golden head out with nothing more than a heavy sigh! “Pant now!” Lettice told her as they waited for the next wave of pain.
She looked down at the ‘caul’ covering the baby’s face and told Ehedydd “This child is one of god’s chosen”. Not letting the woman see her frown she prepared to receive the child as the final push heaved the rest of this little girl into the world. Ehedydd was spent as the baby burst out in a bloody rush! She took one more deep breath and then slumped back onto the cot, her face now ashen where once it had been ruddy from exertion. “A very special child!” said Lettice as she clamped and cut the umbilical cord. “the child who is born on the Sabbath Day, is bonny and blithe and good and gay!”
Ehedydd did not hear those words, she died without a murmur, leaving her blessed infant in someone else’s care!
Lettice looked up and cursed loudly ‘another damned soul lost in childbirth’!
Removing the caul gently from the face of the infant, Lettice gazed upon this ‘faery fae’ – her eyes wide in amazement! The bluest of pale blue eyes blinked as the child smiled briefly – or was that her own imagination! She set the precious caul aside in the bowl, being careful to not fold or crease it. She then wrapped the child in the white shawl – a significant colour for this young girl – and walked to the doorway, opened the door to see the pale pink streaks of dawn painting the sky. The rain had ceased and the puddles were reflecting the sparkling dawn; she breathed in the sweet smell of her new charge. “I will call you Swynwr! Come away with me, o human child” she whispered to the little girl sleeping gently in her arms.
Lettice gathered her cloths, potions, and other things, returning them to the leather bag. She laid the child gently into the basket and covered her with her now dry cloak, wrapped and placed the caul in the bowl at the other end of the basket. She then attended to the dead mother, removing the afterbirth and discarding in the hearth, cleaning her body and combing her hair, she gently laid her out for the undertaker. All the while she sang:
‘Come away with me, o human child
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand’
The Stolen Child, William Butler Yeats, 1886
“Soon the otherworld will be greeting you, my little skylark, lovely lass! I’ll take good care of your little faery fae, Swynwr.”
The last thing Lettice did was to make a bouquet of dried birch, cypress and elder for her safe passage. She tied it with a black ribbon, and placed it in the hands of Ehedydd arranged in prayer upon her chest. “Mistress Morgana will know I have been with you this night – god speed you on your journey to the Otherworld”.
The sky was reddening deeper now, a shepherd’s warning she thought, as she hurried back down Shut Street, past Fountain Row and onto the main road back to Merlin’s Bridge. “I’ll need to find you a wet nurse my lovely lass, if you are going to have a chance in this world.”
The early Sunday bells of St Mary’s were ringing out a knell, three times two, as if they already knew that one more soul had been dispelled.