Child of the earth
People who are well read are often called book smart. But there is a wisdom not acquired from conventional sources rarely deciphered in a person. Ethel Stewart was soon to encounter the latter. Hailing from the countryside in Newtownards she had excelled in her nursing studies. Two brief years at Belfast Jubilee Maternity Hospital followed where nurse Steward birthed precisely 1762 babies in total. Precision was one of Ethel’s key strengths and one greatly admired in a minister’s wife. Ethel Caithness became Ethel Stewart on a windy day in October 1959. Her husband, the mild-mannered cleric ten years her senior, the Rev Dr Kenneth Stewart was book smart and kept an imposing library that included his prized collection of ancient Greek texts, the hieroglyphics intimidating to the lesser educated members of the Caithness family. When a vacancy arose in the Anglican parish in Waterfoot, the Rev Dr envisioned the chance of expand his library away from the dusty and cramped conditions of East Belfast. There was only one hospital in Waterfoot run by the Sisters, so Ethel birthed her last baby at the Jubilee and turned to the task of creating her own.
The manse in Waterfoot was a large stony building attached to the church. Secluded and anchored by fields with the hint of the sea in the distance, no matter how many fires were lit there was always a hint of winter in the air that refused to submit to the warmth. Growing up on a farm meant Ethel was accustomed to space and initially revelled in the seclusion, cultivating a garden and tending to the vegetable patch. Shortly after arriving in Waterfoot, Kenneth Stewart senior suffered a stroke and as his only son, Kenneth was required to look after the running of the family business back in Antrim until a suitably qualified replacement could be found. This meant that the Rev Stewart was gone long hours every day. Not one to indulge in dull moods, Ethel spent the waking hours of the day perfecting household tasks and tending her garden. If she had time she would sneak into her husband’s library and attempt to read something enlightening, before eventually giving up and going back knitting clothes for the child she so longed.
Winters in Waterfoot were cold and hard. The icy wind affronted Ethel every time she took her afternoon walk on the beach. The Sisters of Mercy scowled at Ethel when they passed her by. She wondered what they looked like under their vast layers of dark clothing. Were they jealous of her flesh and blood husband compared to their intangible mate? Then she chastised herself for thinking such coarse thoughts. Every month fresh blood on the bedsheets heralded Ethel’s disappointment. Without the anticipated baby the void in Ethel’s heart grew bigger as did her despair. Rev Steward assured her that the Lord would provide and he nearly did. Baby John was born dead at four months and the words spoken at his funeral ‘The Lord giveth and taketh away’ seemed more prophetic than comforting.
One day in the village Ethel was vacantly queuing in the Butcher’s shop when she noticed a strange old looking woman shuffling up the street. The woman was wearing a long dark purple coat and had peacock feathers in her hair. She looked theatrical, not like the normal residents of the village.
“That’s Nuala Cahill,” said the woman from behind the counter.
“She’s a strange one. I’d stay away from the likes of her. Lives near you mid, on the coast road, up the glen.”
Ethel thanked the woman, took her sausages and went home.
Sunday morning came and the Rev Steward preached on Saul and the witch of Endor. That night Ethel dreamed of the witch. She dreamt the witch was reaching out to touch her but woke up startled before she could. Startled, she burnt her husband’s sausages at breakfast.
A trip to Bangor at Easter would cheer her up, her husband suggested.
It was St Bridget’s day, the first day of Spring. St Bridget’s crosses were proudly displayed in windows in the village. Ethel busied herself in her abundant garden which yielded a vast array of flowers, an insult to her own womb. A shadow was cast over and Ethel saw the strange woman standing on her path looking at her.
“What a lovely garden,” the old woman said.
Ethel stood up and slowly took the old woman in. Small, fail, slightly stooped over but she had big, kind eyes.
“Thank you, I always enjoyed having a nice garden.”
“Gives the mind something to focus on.”
“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Ethel retorted, too quickly, a habit.
“Wise words indeed, Mrs?”
“Mrs Ethel Stewart. Please call me Ethel.” Ethel extended her hand.
“Oh yes, the minister’s wife. The talk of the town. I’m not religious myself but I have such respect for belief. I’m Nuala Cahill. I live up on the glen. I‘ve been admiring your garden on my walk into town. Please call on me someday if you have the time.”
At dinner that evening Ethel relayed the meeting to her husband.
She invited me over for tea. I should bring her a fruit loaf. Ethel said.
That would be the Christian thing to do indeed, said the Rev Stewart, not looking up from his newspaper.
The following Friday Ethel prepared the fruit loaf and set off over the glen. It was a warm spring day and she enjoyed the walk. In truth Ethel was excited to break the routine and have someone to talk too, even if people in the town considered her strange. Hadn’t Jesus dined with tax collectors and other non-socially acceptable sorts? Ethel picked the nicest flowers from her garden and arrived at Nuala’s shabby little outhouse.
“Hello, dear, such lovely flowers, what a treat,” said Nuala beckoning her in. The wind chimes sang in the slight breeze.
“This is a very nice home,” said Ethel looking at the house that was full of trinkets. There was a marmalade cat circling the kitchen table.
“It’s not much but it’s mine. I’ve lived here all my life. My family came from this land. So tell me dear, how do you like life in Waterfoot?”
“Well, the scenery is lovely and I like living near the sea.”
Nuala eyed her carefully and learnt back in her rattan chair. “And the people?”
“I know very few people bar those in the church, truth be told.”
There was something about the old woman that inspired confidence in Ethel.
Nuala laughed softly. “The sisters of mercy don’t show much mercy in this town. That is until they need your help.”
Ethel didn’t know how to respond.
“Must be a bit different living here than in the city. You worked in a hospital?”
“Yes, I was a midwife.”
“Any weans of your own?”
Nuala registered the pain in Ethel’s eyes. “Not yet, no,” she replied politely.
“These things take time. Each flower bloom in its own time,” Nuala replied. “You can’t rush nature.”
“And you, are you married?”
“I am a widow. My husband died at sea. As did my only son, Samuel. Salmon fishing took both of them. The sea is a cruel mistress. That was a long time ago now, mind.”
“I lost a son too,” Ethel quickly blurted out. “I mean, he was born dead, only six months ago.”
“Dear, dear, no woman should go through that.”
Tears were rising in Ethel’s eyes. “I’m afraid I can’t have another. It took so long for John to be born and I’m married nearly seven years now, I fear it won’t happen again.”
The old woman held her hand out and touched Ethel. “There are things you can do dear, if you are prepared to do them, she said carefully.”
“ want to see a doctor but my husband tells me to have faith.”
“Faith can only take you so far,” Nuala interjected. “I’ve helped other woman before, but there’s always a cost.”
“What do you mean?” Ethel asked, confused.
“Sometimes women in this town ask me for things and I help them, if they are open minded. I can give a tonic if you get me some personal items. It’s a ceremony of sorts, it helps mother nature plant the seed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I can help you have a baby. Come see me before 1st May if you’re interested.”
At dinner that night Ethel pondered the strange events of the afternoon. What harm could a tonic do really? Hadn’t she herself encouraged patients to take castor oil and other such remedies. Old wife’s tales were proven to sometimes work. This was no different.
“How was your visit to Mrs Cahill?” Asked the Rev Stewart later than night.
“Good. She’s an interesting person. I like her.”
“Not as interesting as you,” he said, pecking her cheek. “How could she be?”
They made love that night and as ever Ethel hoped in vain that the seed would implant. But three weeks later she bled again. The next day she turned up at Nuala’s cottage. It was late April and the air was thick with pollen.
Nuala looked at Ethel; she knew she’d be back sooner or later.
“Come, sit,” she said. They sat down at Nuala’s table and drank some tea. “I knew when I met you that you were an open-minded person, unlike the other folk in this town. People in this town consider me strange and they are not altogether wrong. I have a gift, passed down from my mother and her mother before me. I can help people with certain things. But the power isn’t mine. It’s hers.”
“Hers?” replied Ethel timidly.
Nuala pointed towards a symbol made out of sticks on the wall.
“Bel is a fertility goddess. She can help you conceive a child on her festive, Beltane on May the first. But you must know the child won’t be your child. They will be a child of the earth. They will always belong to the earth until they are bound before adulthood.”
Ethel considered all these things but she wanted a child and this seemed like her only option. “But you can help me have a child?”
“Yes – but it’s very important you understand they need bound.”
“Okay, I’ll do it. Just tell me what to do.”
“I need a lock of your hair, your husband’s hair and something intimate like a night dress. Come before nightfall on the last day of April and we will perform the ritual.”
Ethel did as instructed and on the last day of April brought the items to Nuala’s cottage. Nuala gave her a sour tasting tonic and made her lay on top of the hair and nightdress. It was late at night and she had lied to her husband telling him she was in visiting her sister back home. Nuala made a circle out of stones and bade Ethel lie in the centre. Ethel had never felt so ashamed in her life. What a stupid thing she had left herself belief and she a woman of learning. Ethel started chanting softly at first then getting louder and louder. The breeze which had been faint picked up and the wind chimes danced in the gale.
“By the power of Bel we plant the seed,” Nuala kept repeating. Her eyes had darkened and her face looked contorted. Ethel was too scared to move.
The wind picked up and a strong gale blew; the shutters were banging against the windows. Nuala took a peacock feather and placed it over Ethel’s stomach. Suddenly the wind stopped and it became very quiet. Ethel was frozen on the ground, too afraid to move. Nuala’s face resumed its normal look. Then a heavy downpour, the likes of which hadn’t been seen that summer started pouring.
“It’s complete,” said Nuala. “Come on.”
The women ran back into the house. The ceremony was successful. Ethel didn’t bleed as expected and a month later the doctor confirmed the happy news. The Stewarts were ecstatic.
Far from bonding the women, Ethel avoided Nuala over the course of her pregnancy, embarrassed by the occult ceremony she had willingly participated in. She didn’t believe in any of that Celtic nonsense, which belonged in the same realm of Loch Ness monster. She convinced herself that she would had fallen pregnant naturally and that ceremony had been a silly act of desperation with a local maniac who had preyed on her vulnerability. She should have been more sensible. Her son Timothy was born, strong and healthy though no children ever followed after him.
At three weeks old Timothy was christened but when the minister declared him a ‘child of God’ Ethel couldn’t help but be reminded of Nuala’s words that he was a child of the earth.
The years passed and Timothy grew to be a strong capable lad who loved the outdoors. Nuala kept away from Ethel who had made it clear that she didn’t want to pursue a friendship.
On the eve of Timothy’s eighteenth birthday Nuala knocked on the door of the manse. The women hadn’t seen each other in many years. Ethel politely invited her in.
“I will get to the point Mrs Stewart. We both know why I am here. Your son needs to be bound to the earth before he is eighteen or the earth will reclaim him as her groom.”
Ethel was embarrassed.
“I’m sorry Mrs Cahill but I am ashamed of what we did that night all those years ago. It really was out of character for me to engage in such a pagan practice. But Timothy is a healthy lad with nothing to fear. Your visit here is pointless.”
“Ethel, I am begging you. Timothy needs bound before midnight tonight or you will never see him again. Please listen.”
Upon hearing their raised voices the Rev Stewart came into the living room and said calmly
“Mrs Cahill, I think it is best that you leave this house. Please do not be upsetting my wife and be on your way.”
He all but pushed the old woman out of the house as she kept repeating, “He’s not yours, she’ll take him back, like she did my Samuel.”
“Pity of the woman,” the Rev Steward repeated, sitting down on his chair. “Senile.”
Ethel didn’t sleep well that night. She tossed and turned to the early morning.
The bad news arrived later that day. A bull had escaped and kicked Timothy to the ground when he was tending to the sheep. As his blood mingled and seeped into the earth, Ethel knew that Nuala was right and that the earth had reclaimed him as his own.
Finlay holds a PhD in Irish literature from Queen’s university Belfast. Interested in the liminal space between fantasy and gothic, Finlay is an avid reader of horror and women’s fiction.