The baby was born with its hands clasped together as though in prayer. ‘Prayin’ for forgiveness’, said the midwife, face pock-marked like a strawberry seen through a glass. It was no more than six hours since her arms had been inside a cow whose offspring was presumably free of original sin, though these were days in which sin was presumed to go deep and who knows whether cows might not be confederate since it was proved that animals were a regular concealment of Satan himself, the Great Deceiver, or why were dogs hanged beside their mistresses. Not all children were welcome and there were times she had strangled the odd one at birth. A few pence extra would do the trick, children being a curse as well as a blessing, more curse to her mind having herself spawned six, all ingrates so that she was obliged to work thus rather than rest content with a jug or two. An extra finger, a divided lip, was often enough to tilt life’s balance and a nod from the father sufficient she should close her own fingers round the neck of a baby whose first cry was its last. ‘A blessing,’ she said to herself, even as she calculated how much such a cessation might be worth. Into the privy it would go along with everything else that people would keep secret no matter that it was common to all, even those who considered themselves superior only because they had sweated on a goose down mattress rather than on straw.
It was no surprise to her the mother was dead, her skin already the colour of tripe cooked in milk. Her job was to deliver life not preserve it and she could see that here was a woman half way to heaven or hell, lacking the will or energy even to scream as she delivered. The only question was whether she would be paid to lay her out, an extra coin or so being always welcome. ‘An ill wind,’ she said to herself, there being no one else to address beyond the child who had yet to utter a sound but whose eyes seemed to fix on hers as no baby’s had before. Maybe she might even be asked to become a mourner. That would be another penny dropped into her bloodstained hand.
She was not, though, asked to lay out the woman who stared unseeing at the ceiling, life’s mystery at an end and another perhaps about to begin. Nor was she hired to mourn a woman who was no closer to her than she was to the father of her own children, he having sired six, or so she told him, then absented himself believing, as many before him, that travelling implies a destination other than that towards which all journey. Maybe there was something about the gurning, the unsubtle grimacing, the false tears mourners imagine a substitute for feeling that led even a distracted husband to send her on her way.
In former centuries the death of the mother was so anticipated that those who became pregnant were required to make out a will, but that was in another country so where the surprise in that. Even so, few approached birth without fear for their immortal soul or simply fear itself, a pure enough response, emotion and reason for once in alignment.
As for the husband who had summoned a doctor only to be offered a poor substitute, he has lost a wife and gained a son. It is not an exchange he is ready to accept and who would choose the future over the past where all is secure against immediate pain. There had been no time for prayers and now seems no purpose either. So joy turns to grief and no compensation acceptable. ‘Time heals all,’ said the perspiring minister before he, too, was sent on his way, his clothes sticking to him with the heat. He preferred winter deaths. The ground might be hard and the sound of frozen earth on a coffin lid disconcerting, as if the entombed were asking to return, but there were no mosquitoes or midges or blowflies replete from feeding on spoiled meat and dung.
It was spring but the summer had come early. Milk soured in the pantry and the grass was brittle underfoot. Creatures ventured forth that should have kept their secrets in dark corners but were deceived, deception being the way of things at a time when society itself seemed of a spin and even brute beasts intemperate. Earlier that day a horse had decided to stand still in a lane, its wagon blocking any passage, and no encouragement with whip or boot could persuade it otherwise. Heat has a way of changing something more than temperature. It stood there, besieged by horseflies, well named after all, until the sun decided to relent with the turning of an obdurate planet. At last the animal moved opening passage to a river that had decided against flowing preferring no more than the merest dribble like an old man straining to relieve his reluctant bladder. Fish arced in the shallows as a hawk circled slowly, with time to spare, time itself seemingly in suspension as in a sparse bedroom in a place of no particular significance a child chose this moment for his entrance and the first act of a drama began.
We are all born at an hour, on a day, in a month and a year not of our choosing. Passion is turned into form with a disturbing casualness. We are born of tiredness, drunkenness, lust or simple inadvertence and are required to discover some logic or purpose in our being. Consult the heavens, we are advised. See where the planets lie. We are products of the cosmos, as if the cosmos took any care for a child that slips into life in a manner that could surely not have been contrived by anything but the most lascivious or uncaring of gods. Or we imagine ourselves our own invention, the sum of choices made along the way, when there is that in us we may not command, indeed that commands us and owes nothing to the planets which circle in the eternal cold of the heavens.
We are born in one country rather than another because a horse became lame, a wheel was broken on a rock, a storm prevented passage of a ship, and yet later we are obliged to pledge allegiance to a land which might have been another if the current had been stronger, the wind less recalcitrant, to sacrifice life itself for a line drawn on a map which is no more than where the fighting last stopped, a line drawn in blood and requiring that more be spilt to ensure its continuance. What is forbidden in one country is embraced in another, creeds exchanged as easily as a chicken for a loaf of bread in a country market. Why are we so easily shaped by chance, coerced by happenstance, urged on by those who serve their own purposes by persuading us they are our own?
A fist of iron arcs across the sky, green and white, God’s welcome we are told, when it is no more, perhaps, than a piece of rock fused in a place beyond our imagining and betokening nothing but a star that has lost its way, forgotten its destiny. And do we have such? Is there a plan of which we are a part even as its details are to be kept from us, we not being worthy to know of it? Why do babies cry at birth when they should shout for joy at being delivered into our reality, why but that they know, if for but a moment, that there is no plan and they marooned as a sailor abandoned on a desert island with no escape beyond ending himself along with his agony.
This child, delivered so inauspiciously, has spent nine months sailing on a sea incarnadine practicing for a wider ocean. It has been listening to the drum beat of a failing heart as sailors row to an urgent rhythm, urged on towards their own epiphany. Do those in the womb not think or feel? It is said they dream but of what who have seen nothing but a hazy wash of blood and water? Do they perhaps glimpse what yet may be or do they pray not to be delivered from their present comfort into what they sense is dereliction and danger? And if so, are they wrong?
Even as the midwife takes her unsteady path back to a snag-toothed man, a poor substitute for the poorer who has left, she having taken more than a little of the spirit provided to dull the pain of a woman who herself abhorred such, so the man looks down at a baby who at last screams for the milk that will be that of a stranger for the milk that was to have been his is beyond his reach, cold as the body that holds it. The future has shrunk to a single point. All hopes and plans are in abeyance. Love ever ends in abandonment so that there are those who would advise it would be better never to venture on such a path whose destination is known but ever denied. Who, though, has ever listened to such advice? Perhaps we have a taste for irony. Those who love with intensity must learn to live with despair when nature reclaims what it once offered with such apparent generosity.
He looks at the child and sees no future, only the termination of a dream of possibility. It must be abandoned to its fate, whatever that may be. The consolation is its sex. Did I not say it was a boy? Boys, at least, are not natural victims whose lives are subject to others. Nor are they liable to fall prey to the Devil who knows of women’s passions unregulated by the mind. So it would be that the midwife, known for her healing touch as for her envy of others, would be put to the test. Some children she delivered whole. Others were malformed or dead before they ever breathed air. And how could that be except that some malicious force had intervened. There were those who ventured to her door when all light had faded, seeking potions for love and it was said potions for death. Sometimes all would be well, though none returned to offer thanks. Other times nothing would result beyond frustration and regret. And when child after child in the same family died well, who could be at fault. When another midwife was employed with the same result could it not be that the first had exercised her will and power without her presence being required. And what might this portend but popery. Popery was the true enemy.
The whole country seemed turned about. Churches were raided by those who would tear down the altar rails and break windows whose colours offended as much as their images. Organ pipes were grasped by ready hands and trod upon for seducing with their unholy sounds. Registers were seized and destroyed so that the very existence of idolaters could be denied, their names expunged as if they and their faiths had never been. In such times the past is no more fixed that the future. Surpluses were worn on the heads of those who moved on from bruised churches to discover a royalist home where papacy was suspected but which meanwhile rendered candlesticks and wine, hanging presses and pewter, even as ministers preached sermons urging them on, drunk on their own passion even as passion was what they abhorred.
Levellers, Adamites (naked as Adam), Anabaptists, Behmenists, Grindletonians, a whole alphabet of lunatic religionists, wandered the country each insisting they possessed an authority to which others must submit. Nor were they without imminent danger, as none are who regard themselves as sole possessors of truth. The dispossessed and poor begged for alms none would give as maimed soldiers discovered that few felt any obligation to those who had not had the courtesy to die and perhaps took injury as excuse for desertion.
There are times when all order is mistook or turned about, when bees abhor the pollen and birds forbear to land for fear they will be ensnared, as men and women are by gossip taken for truth, by a Book telling different truths depending on those who read it. This is a time when practice and propinquity are no protection, when neighbour turns on neighbour. At such times everything is taken for a sign, all is to be purged, all complexity simplified. The world continues to turn it is true, but what God, or the gods, see must convince that an error was made in this creation that could so turn upon itself.
The kingdom, then, was divided, the idea of kingship along with it. Posterns and bridges were guarded. Men were summoned from the fields to practice with pikes who before had held nothing but sickle and scythe and would again when forced to the point there being no pikes and little else with which to fight. Brother turned against brother for did the world not consist of light and dark. Beacons were prepared; postboys carried secret messages; words travelling at full gallop. Loyalties were exchanged as currents will cross and braid. The squeal of rope on beam was to be heard as men swung to and fro from their necks, speaking to spite as much as breaches of suspect laws. There were those whose lives were forfeit for seeing God through a different prism or for surrendering when what other course could they have sensibly taken.
There were burial sites where men were tumbled in and barely covered so that in places a hand reached up in hope of immediate resurrection. All were ready for the race not knowing where it would have its end. Troops unpaid and exhausted from marching from one unknown place to another took to chanting ‘Home. Home,’ and, indeed, took themselves off, their loyalties being to themselves rather than an idea. Sumpter-wagons stood abandoned, broken-spoked wheels at a lean. The doors of houses were angled having been forced by those in search of plunder and rape, this being a rite of victory as they supposed, unaware they sowed the seeds of their own fate thereby. Crops were trodden down by horses and cattle slaughtered for the satisfaction of the troops or to deny sustenance to others. The poor lost that little they had while the rich tried in vain to resist those who ran through their houses in search of gold, if finding none taking out their fury on those who stood already knowing their future lost to greed and inhumanity. There were those who would go home for half a crown or change sides for three shillings while the plague was at large, snuffing out life with such pain that death was an ally.
And amidst this the witch-finders plied their trade charging for their travel and then for every witch discovered, licensed by the times as by their own perversities for no one gave them leave to exercise their suspects judgements yet submission seemed the wiser course. In a world inverted there is no true north so that there are those prepared to offer a compass of their own devising.
So it was that the child delivered from a dying woman grew up to practice severity, having been taught little else. The boy has grown to a man, given everything but love, his mother gone before he opened his eyes, his father a benevolent but absent figure, a Captain in the navy, no less, and thus forever distant sailing on other’s errands, obedient to wind and tide as to orders not of his own devising. There had been those who suggested that a wife lost was best forgotten in another’s embrace. Life is short enough, he was told, without sentencing oneself to solitude because of one abandonment. Instead, he took himself to sea, a loyalty of sorts perhaps. I cannot say he knew no other women. The sea washes sins away as a vessel’s wake is smoothed within a handful of minutes as though it had never been. For all that, there were none that claimed him beyond the moment before it was to sea again and the spray like tears on his face for a love lost in another time at another place.
The care of his child was left to his brother whose own wife was barren, a punishment, he presumed, for the act that might have engendered life. He was a minister whose job was to threaten damnation to those who made their way to a steepled church to hear themselves condemned and sing songs lamenting their condition, paradise a distant prospect rewarding only those abjuring all pleasure. Perhaps, though, that is what passes as pleasure for some, obedience being charged with a suspect quality.
What could be the life of boy raised in such a household where right and wrong walked on other sides of the street, one in the sunlight, the other in gloom, delineated with an absoluteness that called all emotions, all wayward thoughts to heel? He was raised to be as severe as his father who greeted any sign of his mother’s gentleness with a sharp tug of the reins. To be sure, there were no blows struck, except to the spirit. Those who required others to be silent and bow to command went unpunished for that was seen as both natural and necessary to good governance in the home and society alike where gentleness can be a fault, as can a resistant mind. When the Devil walks the earth in search of converts it is necessary to maintain a sharp defence.
They were selective in their choice of gospel injunctions, not believers, it would seem, in ‘judge not that ye be not judged’ for judgement was not merely in God’s hands but their own. So it was that this man who had care of another’s child practiced a cruel discipline at home and a crueller one beyond the hearth, the result being that the child grew to be a witch finder in a place and at a time when witches were said to be common and a threat to the safety of the realm and not merely that of the soul, though the two were intimately intertwined. Who gave him such power? Who but himself having, as he judged it, a talent for it. He could smell them out, he explained, had a nose for it, literally, for he explained there was a definite aroma of sulphur not detected by others. Then there was the reward, for there was payment, a labourer being worthy of his hire, the Bible teaching justice along with hell fire. So it was that he travelled through the eastern counties to test out those delivered to him by those driven by envy, fear, or a need for significance lacking anything else that might grant them such.
On this day he and his fellow judges were assembled to test the mettle of a young woman accused of communicating with a mouse. A servant of the house had heard her whimsy and reported it, for it is wise to be the accuser lest others learn what has not been reported and accusations turn about.
‘A mouse?’ he enquired, leaning forward seemingly the better to hear.
‘Yes, sir, your honour,’ she replied, attempting a half curtsey, not being familiar with the court’s requirements.
‘You are sure of this?’
‘And what did she say to this mouse.’
‘I could not hear, sir, for I was cleaning the hearth. And keeping watch for her child.’
‘Then how do you know she was speaking to it at all. I will not have idle accusations.’
‘She had done it before.’
‘And when was this?’
‘Some time back. I do not recall the day.’
‘And were you cleaning the hearth then?’
‘No sir. I were baking a cake.’
‘And you heard what?’
‘I heard her talking.’
‘And what did she say on that occasion?’
‘She was just talking to it. “Hello, mousy” and “what will we do today,” and such like.
‘You saw the mouse.’
‘Indeed I did.’
‘And was it a particular mouse?’
‘Yes, was it a particular mouse.’
‘In truth, sir, one mouse is much like another, unless it be a pet.’
‘Do you, then, have a mouse for a pet?’
‘No sir. Indeed I do not. Nor have never talked to one, neither.’
Another judge now intervened, for justice required more than one opinion when it came to a threat of such magnitude, the fact of a mouse’s size not being a sign of its lack of significance, for the Devil may take many forms. And yet idle accusations could damage authority.
‘Do you jest, girl?’ he asked, his eyes narrowed, a bony finger directed at the witness who duly shrank back, shivering.
‘I, sir. No, sir. I but tell what I saw.’
‘And what significance do you attach to this.’
‘I beg pardon, sir?’
‘What do you make of what you saw?’
‘Why nothing, sir, beyond it were a strange thing to do, and the mouse…’
‘Yes, the mouse?’
‘Well sir, it seemed to listen. Certain it did not run away and mice do run away.’
The judge sat back a moment, as if to contemplate so profound an observation, before leaning forward again with such suddenness that the girl let out a cry.
‘And have you seen anything else?’
‘Are you stupid, girl. Have you seen anything else that suspicions you?’
‘You say she spoke to a mouse. Did you see her do anything else that seemed strange to you.’
‘No sir. But surely it is strange enough to speak to a mouse.’ Perhaps gathering confidence, she added, ‘I would wager you have never done so.’
‘Impertinence has no place here, girl. You have brought an accusation. It is for us to decide whether it be true or not.’
‘I have not brought no accusation,’ she replied indignantly. ‘I were summons here, as you will know sir.’
‘And did you not, then, inform as to what you had seen.’
‘I but mentioned it to the minister, not knowing what to make of it. It were he who said I must tell others. I come but out of duty, sir, and begin to wonder if it were right I should do so if you doubt me. I knew not what to make of it but you are learned in such things. Perhaps she were lonely. I have no learning. It is for gentlemen such as yourselves to tell what it may mean.’
The accused was hanged. A broken dam, they declared, begins with the smallest crack.
God be praised we live in more enlightened times, except there are still those who avow that a mouse may destroy an empire, the smallest gesture be magnified, believing there are unseen forces that work in secret to undo our serenity, thus justifying cruelties and the suspension of all rights hard won. We are ever ready to see difference as offence, discover meanings when there are none to be found unless projected by private fears and public alarms.
Except I know for a truth that the woman taken to her death without proof, ceremony or humanity was innocent of any offence because, you see, I am the child who was left to mourn, bereft of the gentleness that one day, perhaps, led her to address a mouse, as I, and all, may speak to ourselves from time to time, as children have dialogue with a doll or we with a dog instructing it to obey. Nor ware those times, perhaps, as distant as we assume. Neighbour may still turn on neighbour in times of general distress and rumour be taken for a truth. One religion is still declared superior to another, and a price exacted for the difference. Power, whether from prince or a general prejudice, still sacrifices those who would do no more than live out their lives in peace. We are still told there are witches whether they take the form of phantoms in the night or those whose ways are not our own, who declare loyalties we choose not to accept, who speak a different language, practice different customs or dissent when obedience is what is principally required.
And what of the man whose whim it was to murder my mother, for murder it was whatever sanction he may have claimed? You know the answer to that, of course, or why this rambling narrative, this last testament before I pay the price. I sought him out, I confess, and paid him in kind. It were a crime I committed, you object, an offence, a sin. That may be so, indeed is so, but justice must rule and mere anarchy be disavowed. So I put my name to this, which must stand as my will, leaving nothing beyond this rebuke to past and present alike. And as I do so what should I see scuttle along my prison wall but a mouse. Time for a little conversation before I leave to join my mother if not in paradise, for I have forfeited that destination, then in the memory of those to come who may recognise in our strange and disturbing times a lesson to be learned at last.
In 1645 Bridget Bigsby, one of my forebears, was hanged as a witch in Suffolk, England. Her offence was speaking to a mouse. In 1692, probably another forebear, Hannah Bigsby, was among the accusers at the Salem witch trials, alongside Abigail Williams, Betty Parris and Ann Putnam. As a result Mary Parker was executed on September 22nd of that year.