by Nuala O’Connor
Thrice, after my birthing years were ended, a babe grew under my apron. Thrice I bled them out.
‘Chew birch bark, Eleanor,’ Mother said when I mentioned I was expectant on the first of them. ‘Get you some belladonna and make a draught.’
‘But I want the child,’ I said.
Mother snorted. ‘You are thirty-five years old, Elly,’ she said, ‘a crone.’
I see those small ones about me betimes, when I bind rope or thresh corn. My living childer work with me, all three, but the others appear and do their share. When I reach out to touch them, they evaporate like revenants and my good humour freezes. I bark like a bitch at those who thrived. The loss of a babe makes a body nasty-tempered, no matter if she is ageing.
So when the foundling lands at my door in a basket, I feel God himself has a big ear for me. I pray my thanks and take the boy-baby into our house as if I had borne him by my own labourings. He’s a scrawn, weak thing but I work at my breast until it comes full and he feeds hearty.
I call him Gabriel, after the archangel, but he does not live to the name. He is only a babe but there’s something unearthly about him – his eyes brood – and we all see it. My own Thomas cannot be at table when I nurse Gabriel; Martha and Annie spook when they have charge of him and they go to school every day to keep out of his way. The fire spits more since he came and the animals are unnerved; the old sow keels over when I take Gabriel out to look at her. A crookedness of nature runs like a stream through him and the more of trouble he conjures, the more he thrives.
‘I don’t like his angry eyes,’ Thomas says.
‘Gabriel is quiet as a cat,’ Martha says, ‘but he plots, I know it.’
‘Don’t be dim,’ I say. But there’s an unease about the boy that’s not easily sundered. ‘Might he be witch-born?’ I ask my husband, but he only shrugs.
Seven weeks after Gabriel comes to us, the barley withers on the stalk. Seven weeks after that my husband is struck with paralysis down one half of him and cannot work the land. Seven weeks again and Mother, who never ailed in her life, falls over in the pig pen and perishes.
‘Take Gabriel to the well,’ Thomas whispers. Martha and Annie nod their assent.
‘He’s but a babe,’ I say, but my childer stand about and menace me.
‘To the well, Mother,’ Martha says.
I take Gabriel out at dusk and unswaddle him. I don’t look into his eyes but drop him down, swift as a stone. I’m astonished to hear words wail up through the well: ‘I am yours.’ I fall onto my knees and clutch myself; I leap up and run. ‘I am yours,’ follows me. ‘I am yours.’
Nuala O’Connor lives in Galway, Ireland. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in 2017; her story ‘Consolata’ from that collection was shortlisted for Short Story of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, is published in 2018. www.nualaoconnor.com
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