A tale of love and pathos in the face of adversity
The Witches' Kiss
Time stood still for Dr Jonathon Adams. The familiar surroundings, as much a part of him, as the battered old briefcase he carried paled into insignificance. The young woman walked cautiously into his office and seated herself at his desk. With years of experience, he noticed, in her first few faltering steps, that the very essence of her soul had been battered. Even broken. But still a tiny gleam of hope in her eyes as she looked towards him. He had witnessed it only once before. He had prayed he never would again. His prayers had not been answered.
She was young, maybe twenty1 but what did it matter. Age was not the issue. Neither was normality for how could anything be normal again. He was gazing into the eyes, those soulful gypsy eyes, of Tara, his Tara more than thirty years ago. The early morning rays, of a forgotten April sun, lit her long chestnut tresses into a thousand dancing lights, framing that same beautiful but haunted face.
Tara, shattered dreams and broken promises, the love he'd had to live without. Tara, sleeping peacefully not three miles away, released for eternity from a life that had never been hers to live. Still the guilt he'd lived with for all those years, maybe he could have saved her. He should have saved her. The blame that he'd carried for not having realized the path she was treading, yet now he could see her so clearly again. In his darkest moments he had wished, prayed even, he could see her once more. But not like this. Not in this time, this place. Life had been cruel enough. Now the wish had been granted, he would not let it become a nightmare. He could not allow that to happen. Was this his second chance, his last chance to find peace within himself. Could he take away the pain from the girl with the pleading eyes, or would he fail her as he had Tara.
For she was not Tara. She never could be. Tara was dead, her mind as unbalanced and fragile as a spider's web in the blackest storm. On a cold winters night she had taken leave of this life. No final embrace, no last kiss goodbye. She had left him with a lifetime of pain. And guilt. Always the guilt. The same guilt that he lived with from the moment he woke to the moment he slept. He should have seen it coming, known the signs. When her mind was clear Tara had loved the world, loved life. But life had never loved her back.
The deep and comforting tick of the clock, on the mahogany desk, bought him back to the old man he felt he had become. Her words were barely a whisper but if she had screamed them to him they could not have been louder.
"My name is Madeleine Collins and I believe you are my father."
The clock was still ticking, the sun still shining and the world still turning. But in those few simple words he knew his world would never be the same again. As the years slipped away he did what he had promised himself he never would. He remembered. Everything.
"Gypsies, tinkers, diddicoys, call them what you like. They're nothing but trouble selling their clothes pegs and frightening poor souls with their so-called fortune telling powers. Better if they stayed out in the wilds, where they belong, if you ask me."
But I'm not asking you, you opinionated old bat, thought Kate, as the sound of Agnes Merrifords sensible brogues echoed briskly down the labour ward. To vent her anger on yet another unsuspecting victim no doubt.
Kate often wondered just why Sister Merriford had ever entered the nursing profession. And midwifery of all things. Merry by name, merry by nature. What a joke! Kate found it hard to remember just how many times she had seen the same look of fear on an expectant mum's face. Agnes Merriford, peering and probing, steel grey hair scraped back into a tight bun, did nothing to comfort or soothe. Any emotions she may have had, which Kate doubted, were hidden behind eyes as cold and unfeeling as a dead fish. Eyes that never looked at, but always through and a thin tight mouth that never spoke to but always at. Agnes Merriford was here solely to do a job and to give her credit she did it well. But any of that "emotional nonsense", as she called it, she left to the juniors. Although Kate was nearly thirty, the title fitted her. Always having been of a caring nature, the death of her elder brother during the war, had been the deciding factor in taking up nursing professionally.
It was close to midnight, and as the small hours approached, a calm stillness descended over the hospital. This had always been Kate's favourite time. The witnessing of a new life never ceased to be a miracle. But the babies that arrived in the still of the night, when it seemed the rest of the world was sleeping had always held a special, even magical, quality for her. She had been on duty for over ten hours and could have gone home earlier in the evening; back to her tiny cottage just a few minutes walk away. She hadn't, for one simple reason. She had felt compelled to stay with the frightened young woman who had been admitted late that morning. Not for the first time that night, she remembered again the pitiful sight that had confronted her.
The girl had been found huddled on the steps, leading into the hospital, dressed in rags. Filthy dirty, they hung loosely from her arms and legs, except for the point where they were stretched across her vastly swollen tummy. Her hair was a mass of tangles and knots, its true colour impossible to tell. She was terrified, the same look of fear on her face as a young deer Kate had once found trapped in the nearby woods, when she herself was just a young girl. She had spent hours trying to free it, as it had meekly answered its mother's distressed cries in the distance. When at last she had succeeded, it had looked so intently at her, before dashing away, Kate was sure it had been trying to thank her. She had felt a connection with the tiny creature, just as she had this morning, with the young woman, who thanked Kate, just as the young deer in the woods all those years ago. Kate's heart had broken for the poor forgotten soul, suffering in her own silence.
Kate sat down gently on the bed and took Megan's hand, as she searched out her face in the dim light. Megan had seemed afraid of the bright artificial lights. Doesn't even know what electricity is, had been Sister Merriford's cruel comment.
Silhouetted by the bright whiteness of the pillow Kate felt almost humble in her presence. If ever an angel had fallen to earth then Kate was looking at her now.
"How are you feeling Megan, are you in pain because we can help you if you are?"
Until that moment Megan had barely spoken more than a few words. She had refused all pain relieving drugs that had tried to be administered, even though her contractions had become stronger and closer together in the last two hours. Kate knew it wouldn't be long before the baby came. Megan raised her face to meet Kate's, giving her the uncanny feeling she was looking into her very soul. The words she spoke were to stay with Kate for the rest of her life.
"My life will end soon but I must be strong now for my baby. She is cursed, as I was, but will know more happiness than I have ever known. The runes told me long ago that I would give my child to a woman, an outsider, whose life has not been blessed with her own. You are that woman Kate. I know it. Promise me you will take care of her when I am gone."
Slowly Megan reached towards the crumpled rags she had worn; now lying in a heap on the chair beside her. She pulled out a silver chain with a single opaque moonstone set in its centre.
"Give this to the child. Make her wear it always. It will protect her".
Kate was about to protest when Megan was seized by a contraction. As she cried out in pain Kate knew the baby was on its way. All thoughts of Megan's prophecy were lost. In an instant Sister Merriford entered the room. The tranquil haven it had once been now flooded with harsh artificial light, as Megan entered the last painful stages of labour.
Kate tried as she always did, during these final crucial moments, to block from her mind the sordid back street abortion she had to endure years ago. Young Katie Talford, frightened and alone. The father, the man she had innocently adored had stuffed a wad of notes into her hand and told her to sort it out. She had no choice, and never saw him again. Fleeting memories, she refused to let surface fully, spun in her mind and the same sickening feeling rose in the pit of her stomach. The old hag with her knitting needles, the hissing black range and the dirty kitchen table, the stale smell of sweat and rancid milk, filled her nostrils as she fought back the nausea. The filthy instruments and horrific infection almost killed her.. Sometimes she wished it had. Instead she was cruelly left infertile, barren. Never, as Megan had foretold, to be blessed with a child of her own.
Megan's hand gripped Kate's tightly, bringing her mind rushing back to the present as Sister Merriford delivered the baby. But there were no joyful cries, no miracles witnessed, for the tiny form was unmoving and lifeless. Kate gently released Megan's grip and wrapped the baby, a girl, in a blanket. As she looked down at the tiny child in her arms, her heart wept silently, for the mistake she had made all those years ago.
Sister Merriford's rasping voice invaded the sudden silence that filled the room.
"There's another baby still to come. This half-breed has another child inside her. Bring the forceps before we loose this one as well."
As Kate lay the limp little bundle down Megan's weak voice cried out. "No, please Kate, don't let her hurt my baby."
And with her last remaining ounce of strength Megan gave one final push. Sister Merriford was frantically searching for the forceps and Kate returned to Megan, just as the baby slipped into her waiting hands. Silence filled the room for what seemed like an eternity, but was suddenly broken by the unmistakeable sound of a newborn's cry. A tiny replica of Megan lay in Kate's arms, a fighter, and a winner. But, a looser too. For as Kate offered Megan's daughter to her Megan weakly pushed her away. A single tear ran down her beautiful face.
"Please take care of her Kate; she is a gift I could never keep," and as Kate slowly nodded her head Megan took her final breath, and closed her eyes for the last time.
A sharp intake of breath escaped from Sister Merriford's sly mouth. Her eyes were firmly fixed upon the new arrival Kate held so protectively close. As Kate followed her gaze she noticed the tiny birthmark on the child's forehead. "Trouble will follow the child wherever she goes. She has been born with the Witches' Kiss. Who, in their right mind, could possibly want her now." I do, Kate murmured to herself, I want her more than anything in the world.