GESTATION by Catriona McDonald
Tales are funny things, single moments drawn out into paragraphs and nine months glossed over in a handful of words.
They tell of my rage at the child-thief, the one who–however unwittingly–stole the Awen for his own. They tell of my fury as I hunted him through land, sea, and sky. Of my crow of triumph as I swallowed him whole.
“And, as the story says, she bore him nine months…”
Nine months. So much can happen in nine months. A child can be born. Or, a woman can be turned out of her home to wander the forest in madness as her body swells.
The wheat kernel was poison. As surely as I had once devoured the thief, I retched in vain to purge him from my womb as insanity crept through my mind. No herb or decoction would dislodge him. Better I had left him to sprout in the broad earth and reap my vengeance at harvest, than to let him take root in my own body.
Three, four, five times the moon passed from light to dark. My husband had indulged my assignations with the Pheryllt, with the promise the resulting brew would heal our son. My burgeoning belly belied a different sort of rendezvous. Tegid would brook no cuckoldry, real or imagined.
So I wandered. I wandered without the comfort of my children. I wandered past the stink of my broken cauldron and rotting horse flesh. I wandered from the first blasts of Gwynn’s horn through the first snows and darkest night. And as I wandered, so too did my soul become lost.
The cursed fires of Awen, locked away within my own body, those flames would not let me die, no matter how many times cold and hunger overwhelmed me. Against nature, the babe within ensured his vessel’s survival. Repeatedly I sought death to escape the unceasing burning in my head and the torturous visions–ghosts of the future, shades of the past, far-off phantoms of the present.
Again and again I begged Gwynn for the mercy of the teeth of his red-eared pack. Each time he shook his head, turning the host to ride down other, sanctioned prey.
As the ground thawed and the winds warmed, my feet brought me to the edge of the ocean. The first labor pangs cut through the stupor of visions as I stumbled to the water. No warm chambers or soft beds for Cerridwen. No midwife to help me in my pacing, or hand to hold as I moaned though washes of agony. Just the pounding of the surf as it brought me slowly back to myself, and eased the weight of the trespasser in my body.
And so, as the first of the bonfires were lit on the hills, I birthed the wretched creature.
They say I could not murder the babe so wondrous was his beauty. In truth I could not bear to even look at him. I did not take time or care to sew a leather bag. The baby was born with the caul intact and no sooner had it left my body then I flung it away from me into the devouring ocean. Elffin has ever been a fool.
Nine waves passed over me and I felt the madness recede. I let the chill spring tide carry me higher and higher onto the shore, the polished rocks soothing my body. I dragged myself over to the dark mirror of a tidal pool. The moon rose, and she revealed a woman, once beloved and fair, now bent and white.
Now they say the thief reborn has become a bard, the greatest bard the land has ever known. They say he has sung at the courts of at least three kings, and has performed magic and miracles beyond those of the wisest druids. And they say I am the mother of inspiration.
I can no longer bring myself to care.
I returned home. Winter had cleansed the land of much of the poison from the brew. Bones were all that remained of Gwyddno’s horses, picked clean by crow and wolf and frost. My husband’s ire had likewise cooled, between the storm-whipped winds and lack of someone to run the household.
My own vengeance had been purged at the side of the ocean. My children still need me, and my son is still cursed. Perhaps my mistake was to trust another with work that should have been his. It matters not. It will take time, and it will take care, but my son will have at least one blessing in his life.
What? Did you think I would give up so easily?