Lips pale blue and skin whiter than chalk. Eyes darken as life beings to fade. She is barely conscious, barely breathing. I reach for her hand and her fingers twitch. She has stopped fighting, ceased pushing. The baby will die too if it is not dead already. She parts her lips and tries to speak. Her voice is a husky whisper, barely audible. I have to put my ear to her mouth to hear her.
“Save the bairn, cut him out.”
The thought is unbearable but I know she is right. Eyes roll as her body contorts. She can no longer scream but the agony shows in her twisted face as she bites down on the leather strap. Belly contracts tightly over the infant but does not push him down.
Women fussed about at first. A room full of action, heated water, cloth and straw, hands everywhere, many voices all instructing. Now there are only three, the midwife, our eldest sister and me. An entire day and night gone and still the child will not come. He hasn’t turned, the midwife had said. There was pressing and pummelling but turn him they could not.
Another dawn is breaking. Outside pacing feet crunch on damp grass. At least the rain has stopped. Men’s voices talk in hushed tones. I wish I could make them out.
“Mary, you must ask her husband how it should be.” The midwife is looking at our sister and shaking her head. Mary pushes open the door, light streams in for an instant and then it is gone again. My younger sister arches her back where she lays and gasps.
The door opens and Mary comes back in. She nods.
“Knife.” The midwife is moving fast now. I pass her the implement. It glints like an instrument of torture in the dim light of the candle. Skirts pushed up, blade presses down. Blood gushing and now Fiona is screaming again. My younger sister is begging us to make it stop. Then it does. She sinks back into the mattress, draw stings creak and wooden frame heaves. She is gone. Blood darkens but still pours.
I being to cry, I do not mean to but I cannot stop.
“Shut up, Catriona.” Mary slaps me and then I am quiet.
Bellowing outside. An angry roar echoes through the hut and down the valley. The door bursts open. The midwife yells, tells him to get out but he keeps coming.
"Witch!" He is pointing at me. Fists clenched and eyes blazing. "You are the devil's work, unnatural creature."
"Leave her Angus, Fiona asked her to come." Mary is my defender. I am astonished but grateful. I grasp for my shawl and offer to go but there is no reason in him. He lunges forward, face purple and lips wet with spittle. I try to run but his arms clamp around my waist and my legs are in the air. I kick and bite at his hands but his grip is firm.
"You murdered my wife."
"She was my sister, I loved her."
He hauls me out into the open air. I want to see the child, to hear it cry, to know if it lives. I cannot escape. I wriggle and struggle but his arms are tighter than a noose. Villagers are gathered outside the hut, men, women, children all waiting for news. Angus throws me to the ground and spits in my face. I scramble but before I can find my feet his foot connects with my gut and I collapse. Lungs empty and stomach cramped I cannot move.
“The little witch cursed my wife.” His voice sounds almost proud as he stamps a foot onto my back and flattens me to the floor. My face is in the dirt, mud seeping into my mouth. I choke for breath. “She told me Fiona would die if she had another child and now she’s dead.”
Women gasp and children titter. Men glare at me and someone throws a stone at my head.
“It was a dream,” I beg. “I saw it in a dream, I only asked you to wait a while ‘til she was strong again after her sickness.”
“Witch,” he yells again. “This is not the first time she has predicted the future. She’s not fit to live amongst us.”
“I am a good Christian woman,” I plead and 'tis the truth.
Another kick crushes my side, a crack and a searing pain like a dagger in my chest.
People are gathering closer. Angus rips at my frock. Cloth tares, skin exposes to cold air. I shiver. Somewhere toward the back of the crowd, I hear a chant begin. First a single voice of a woman, then more voices and more still until the chant is loud as thunder.
"Stone her! Stone her! Stone her!"
The cry rings in my ears and burns into my skull. My dreams are my curse but I never thought they would kill me. Hands grapple with me. I try to struggle, breath coming back and pain easing. Rough fingers grasp at me, nails scratching at my skin. Someone pulls my shawl away and binds my ankles with it. I cry out but no one cares. The midwife rushes from the hut, I can hear her calling. A baby wails and I pray it is Fiona’s child, alive and well. I thrash my arms and search for Mary. I glimpse her through the crowd. She is pushing her way through to me, begging Angus to stop. I am hoisted up over shoulders, arms spread and legs together like a cross. Angus is by my head. I can hear his voice booming in my ear. Mary is calling out but her way is barred. I think someone is dragging her away for her voice is fading into the distance.
My hair comes loose from its tie and I can feel the wind blowing through my curls. I turn my head, silent now. Mist is rising over the loch in the distance and a streak of blue brightens the grey sky. I am being marched up hill. I know where they are taking me.
I am set down on a granite slab. Unused for centuries, flat to the earth and stained with ancient sins. It is as though it has been waiting for me. I feel the cold stone against my skin and through my clothes. I stare at the sky and pray for salvation.
I am pinned by a large rock to my chest. The weight is immense and I cannot breathe. They gag me with a scarf but I should not give them the pleasure of hearing me cry out. The stones come fast, crushing my limbs, my stomach and my chest. I watch the clouds rush past the winter sun as the morning rises. Pain washes over me as rock by rock my body begins to break. My right knee cracks so loud the woman who dropped the stone flinches. For a moment she catches my eye. I look up at her. She is my neighbour. Her wispy brown hair ruffles in the breeze beneath a green headscarf.
Her hand flutters at her throat then she tightens her shawl about her and backs away.
I look down to see a trickle of my own blood running from my left breast onto the slab beneath. The stone has punctured the skin but the pressure on my lungs is so great I feel no other pain. I am unsure how I am still breathing. I raise my eyes back to the sky. I do not want to see their faces. I can feel tears running down my cheeks, but not a sound escapes my lips. The blood trying to pump through my trapped veins is deafening. I beg God to take me.
They are slowing down now, stones are getting smaller but each one feels heavier than the last. People are beginning to fall away and I hear someone tell them to stop. A shadow falls across my face from behind. I try to focus but my vision is blurred. There is a man leaning over me. His eyes are not angry but full of pity. He is not one of us.
"Is she dead?"
I can no longer recognise voices.
"If she’s not she ought to be."
Sound is echoing through my head as though I am in a tunnel.
My neighbour is leaning over me and holding his whittle knife to my nose to see if I'm breathing.
"That just proves she’s a witch then." This voice I do know, it is Angus. I wish I could kick out at him, but the stranger’s eyes above me are soothing my pain. I have never been afraid of death and now I am almost at peace.
The sky is the clearest blue I have ever seen now. Faces begin to swim in front of me but the man’s eyes stay in focus. I had never seen him before yet the familiarity is so strong I want to reach out and touch him. His hair is the colour of damp bracken and his face so gentle I weep no longer from pain but for his presence. The others move around him as though he is not here.
He smiles down at me just as the light in my eyes grows dim. How my hand became free I do not know but he reaches out and takes it in his own. He helps me stand. The pain is gone now. I look around at those who gave me back my freedom.
The talking has stopped and their eyes are full of fear and wonder as they stare at us standing before them. I look down at my broken body beneath the stones and then back at the man by my side. We turn and walk away.
(C) 2010 Liah S Thorley, all rights reserved