Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In the humid, stuffy heat of a July day, with warm liquid gushing from between her thighs and pain that gripped her belly and back with an ever more ferocious frequency, Margaret Collins FitzClement prayed, silently and aloud. Her mother had given her her rosary beads to grip. She gripped them so tightly her knuckles were turning white. Margaret gritted her teeth every so often, but even so, she kept the prayers focused.
            St. Mary, Mother of God, please intercede with your beloved son to get me through this ordeal.
            St. Agnes, saint of women, please protect me and watch over me as I go through this woman's time.
            St. Margaret, your namesake asks for your protection.
            The midwife entered the room in a rush. She untied the knots in Margie's braid and the knots in the heavy drapes and bed curtains so the babe would not get tangled in the cord inside and then demanded, in a stern voice, that the maids bring her clean linen, a basin of water, and some ale. Lady Mary took her place beside her daughter.
            "Can we—can we not open a window, please?" Margaret gasped after a particularly hard contraction, her face red and her hair matted with sweat.
            "Hush, child," Mary replied. "If we open the windows, evil vapors will harm you and the child."
            "But—but 'tis July. It cannot be cold. Please," Margie said in a wheedling tone. "I feel as though I should suffocate. It is so stuffy in here."
            "May I, Mrs. Braxton?" Mary asked the midwife.
            "Can't do any harm," the midwife said. "Open it. An oven ain't no good for a laboring woman."
            Mary went to the single window in the chamber, opened the shutters to emit clear sunlight and then unlatched the window. A stale breeze entered.
Ignatius was below in uncle Robert's office, carefully writing out some correspondence. He now acted as Robert's secretary, taking notes, making suggestions on some equipment for the land in Durham, and reading and writing Robert's mounding correspondence.
            He heard a knock at the door and gave an absent, "Come in."
            The door opened. "Iggy?"
            Ignatius glanced up and saw Isabel's face peering in.
            "Hullo, Is. Is anything the matter?"
            "Lady Mary sent me down to tell you that Margaret has begun her labor."
            Iggy put the quill back into its holder and rubbing his inky fingers together, said, "Her time has started?"
            "Aye. But her water's not broken yet. The midwife and Lady Mary are with her."
            "Oh, Lord," Iggy breathed. "Thank you, Isabel. I…I…"
            "Apparently, first births can take many an hour. Finish your letter." Isabel left, closing the door behind her. Iggy reached for the quill, glanced down at the letter, and found that he could not remember what he had been about to write. His wife. His child.
            The door opened again and jubilant uncle Robert walked in, a grin a mile wide on his face. Holding out his arms, he said, "Come away, Iggy. That can wait. Your son is about to be born."
            Iggy rose, equal parts happiness and trepidation. "Isabel just came and told me. Is Margie far along in her labor?"
            Robert shrugged. "I've no idea. Women's business." He gestured Iggy to follow him and led out of the study door, to a sitting room upstairs. "Margie's in the other wing. Your aunt is with her." He found two glasses and a decanter of golden-colored liquid. "Times like these, lad, this needs to be drunk."
            "Is that mead?" Iggy asked, settling down, hands locked together between his knees.
            "No. It is whisky. Imported from Scotland. 'Tis the one thing the Scots do well," Robert remarked dryly, upstoppering the decanter and pouring a small measure in each glass. "They call it something unpronouncable, in their own language. Called uishe beatha. 'Water of life.'" He gave one glass to Iggy and raised the other one. "Sip, don't drink. I give a toast, to my new grandson and for the well-being of my daughter!" Then Robert knocked back the water of life in one fell swoop. Iggy tried to emulate, but his throat began to feel burned as the whisky ran down his mouth and trickled into his throat. He drained his glass at a slower pace than his uncle.
            "So..."Iggy said when he felt able to speak once again. "Is this what one does when one is waiting on a child to be born?"
            Robert considered. "Aye. Go about your business. A first child especially can take a long while to be born. My Bridget was nearly seven hours in the coming. You certainly took a while as a well. Drink. Eat. Read. Go riding. Different men deal with it in different ways."
            "Do you what will be going on in Margie's chamber?"
            Robert shrugged. "Screaming, moaning, bleeding…"
            "Bleeding!"
            "Think of it. Squeezing a baby out of her cunny." Iggy cringed. "Exactly, lad. 'Tis a primal business, according to my lady wife. And husbands are not a part of the process. We've done our parts, haven’t we?"
Isabel, as a maiden, was not allowed in the birthing chamber, for which she was profoundly thankful. She's been only a young girl when her sister Eleanor's first children were born. She remembered Martha having to sit outside in the antechamber then just as Isabel was doing now. Every once in a while, the door would open and a maid would go flying out to fetch something. Isabel kept stitching the swaddling bands and the blankets that she, Margie and Lady Mary had been unable to finish.  
            A maid brought some ale for the midwife and Lady Mary and a meal for Isabel. She glanced outside. The sun had been in position for noon when Margie's labor had started. Now it sunk lower, the rays slanting through the window and blinding Isabel temporarily.
            That was when the screaming started. Isabel heard voices on the other side of the door, then a keening. It grew in strength and then gathered, becoming a full scream.
            Isabel pricked herself with the needle. She hadn't done that since she first learned how to do needlework. She continued on, concentrating on the straight stitches she must make, trying in vain to block out Margie's screams.
            If this was the way birthing went, then perhaps Isabel could see why women became nuns. At least, then, they had a modicum of choice in their own lives. Then again, there were women like Sister Benedicta, who made a choice to take vows after giving birth.
            Another scream, this one more harsh, for it sounded as if Margie was running out of voice to scream.
            "Miss," a maid said. Isabel glanced up, blinking her weary eyes. "Supper is being served. Shall I bring a tray up for you?"
            "Thank you. Yes," Isabel said. "Are the men eating?"
            "Yes, they are."
            Isabel gave a nod. "Send up a tray and tell them that the birth seems to be progressing."
            The maid bobbed and went to do as Isabel bid. Through the wooden door, Isabel heard the midwife's voice, urging Margie on. The keening noise continued on. Then another ferocious scream, which seemed to subside only because Margie lost her voice.
            Isabel lit two candles and continued sewing the last of the unfinished swaddling bands. From inside the room came a feeble cry. Isabel looked up and stared at the door. Could it be? Had the child been born, finally? She estimated nine hours, nearly.
            The cry grew stronger and louder in volume. A moment later, the door opened and Lady Mary, blinking, came out, beaming.
            "Oh, Isabel!" She exclaimed. "Go to and tell my husband and Ignatius that a little boy was born."
            Isabel immediately stood, her back protesting. "A son?"
            "Yes," Lady Mary said. "Go! The baby is being bathed now."
            Isabel dropped her sewing, forgetting to secure the needle in the cloth, and lifting her skirts, ran off. She asked a maid where to find the men. The maid indicated the main hall, where Isabel found Robert staring into the empty fireplace and Iggy, reading something by the light of a branch of candles. Both looked up as she dashed toward them.
            "A son! You have a son, Iggy!"
            Iggy stood up quickly. "A boy? How is he?"
            "Lady Mary said they're bathing him at present and from the sounds of him, he sounds right lusty," Isabel reported.
            "My hearty congratulations, lad," Robert said, clearing his throat. He signaled to a servant. "Bring some good wine. We'll toast the newest boy!" The servant quickly returned with a rich Gascon wine and Robert poured some for Iggy, Isabel and himself. Each of them, holding up their goblets, drank to the health of mother and child.
            "Ah, lad," Robert said. "You've done what I could not." Isabel, finishing her measure of wine, disgustedly wondered if all men only wished for boys. Who would birth all the boys to grow into men to wish for only boys, if not for the little girls born?
            Isabel led Iggy and Robert to the antechamber where she had stayed the whole day. The door was still shut.
            "Soon," Isabel told the men and once again, eased herself into a chair and took up her sewing again. Just minutes later, the door opened. Mary, smiling, gestured Iggy inside.
            Margaret was sitting upright on the bed, bolsters supporting her, her hair loose and brushed. But her face was pale, tired and wan. Beside her on the bed lay a naked, red-faced baby on a blanket. Iggy bent over to study him, for the boy had been left unwrapped for his father's approval.
            He was a father. Iggy felt wetness at the corners of his eyes. His son had ten toes and ten curled fingers. His parts looked to be the correct size and in the correct order and places. The child was no longer crying from the indignity of being born, but was glancing around, his eyes a milky blue. A few sparse brown hairs covered the crown of his head.
            Iggy looked to Margie. "Thank you so much, Margie. I can't…I can't tell you how proud I am."
            A faint smile appeared across her face. "He's perfect, isn't he?"
            "He is," Iggy agreed. "What shall we call him? We had a spate of names. Which one do you think he is?"
            Margie frowned. "He looks like a Robbie to me."
            Iggy looked at his son. The boy did, indeed, despite a head that looked red and squished, have a look of his grandfather about the small nose and the rosebud lips.
            "All right," Iggy said. "Welcome to the world, Robert FitzClement."
            Mary wrapped the child up and using the swaddling bands that Isabel had completed only hours before, wrapped the child up into a bundle. Then Sir Robert was allowed in to see his newest namesake.
            Mary held the child close to her husband.
            "A fine boy," Robert finally said. "Even has some hair. Margie was bald as an apple when she was born."
            The men left the birthing chamber to the women then. Isabel visited with her friend and the new baby, cooing to the child. The midwife showed Margie how to put the child to her breast and then, after a payment from Lady Mary, left. Soon, with a maid assigned to the child should he cry, everyone left the room and let the new mother rest.
            Before he went to sleep that night, Iggy wrote two missives.
            Dear Brother Clement,
            I am now a father. My wife has just given birth, at approximately four hours after Vespers, to a healthy baby son. We have named him Robert FitzClement, to be called Robbie.
            Your son,
            Ignatius
           
            Dear Sister Benedicta,
            Mother, I write to inform you that Margaret has given birth this night to a healthy baby son. His name is Robert, called Robbie.
            Your Son,
            Ignatius

            When Sister Benedicta received the note early the next morning, she laughed, then wept. She, a grandmother. She, who should never have had a bloodline to go on after her, now did. In between the canonical hours and masses, Benedicta went to the altar and lit a candle. As light began to strengthen, she prayed for her little grandchild. She prayed that he was a healthy child, that he would thrive, that he would grow to be as intelligent as Ignatius, that he would grow up to be kind.
            From behind her, several yards down the nave, the church door opened. Though it had been a stuffy week, even for July, so notable that it had been written in the chronicles for the year, a light breeze entered the church. The candles flickered.
            At Collins Hall, Margaret Collins FitzClement could barely open her eyes. When the midwife returned with some herbs to brew a tea, to ease the body back into regular health, she gave a gasp as she turned up the sheet.
            The girl was still bleeding, a slow, ominous trickle of blood, deep red. Womb blood. The afterbirth had come out fine, sliding out as it should have. Perhaps something had torn. The midwife asked for cloths to stopper the bleeding, for some women simply bled a little longer after a birth and they survived to be churched and even go through the ordeal again.
            She was given simple, nourishing broth and mulled wine. Margie had milk, so baby Robbie was able to gain his nourishment as well.
            Iggy visited, sitting on a chair instead of on the bed, for Margie still looked rather pale and delicate.
            "How are you, love?" he asked. He gave his son one of his fingers. The baby grasped it as if he would never his father's fingers go.
            "A bit better," Margie replied. "I should be right as rain soon enough." She glanced at the child. "It took him a long time to be born, but he's perfect, isn't he?"
            "He is," Iggy said in laughing agreement. "But you must be bored stiffless in here."
            Margie rolled her eyes, agreeing. "I asked the midwife to open a window, for it was so hot and gloomy in here. She said it would give us ill humors, but indeed, the ill humors were present already, what with the darkness and all."
            Iggy grinned. "Isabel says confinement is a silly custom. At least the shuttering of the windows part, anyhow."
            "It's been boiling hot all week, according to Isabel and Mother. How did the midwife expect me to give birth and toil away without some air and wind?" She sighed. "I've missed your company a great deal."
            "It may be too soon to say it," Iggy began. "But with the next babe, we'll have to break some conventions."
            "It is far too soon to say it."
            Robbie cooed and snuffled. Margie's eyes drifted closed again.
            "I'm sorry, Iggy. I'm so terribly tired."
            "Of course you are," Iggy said soothingly. He stood and leaned over, kissing her on the forehead. "Rest. I'll see you soon."
            Iggy could not have known that that was the last time he would ever see Margaret alive, ever again.
            It happened slowly, for which later, in reflection, Iggy would be thankful for. The small trickle of blood that had been seeping out of Margaret had soaked the sheets below her. Mary discovered the horrific sight, the sheet below her daughter heavy with thick, red blood.
            Mary, who had suffered stillbirths and miscarriages, had grown immune to the sight of her own blood soaking the rags meant to absorb the viscous, tangy-smelling liquid, but to see her daughter's sheets soaked thus made her gasp, a hand reaching up to cover her mouth.
            This was not in the normal range of post-birth bleeding.
            It came quickly. Margaret fell into a deep sleep. By nightfall, she was gone. Isabel sat beside her friend, the baby in her arms, and cried. Margie had not even had the chance to hear extreme unction.
            Isabel heard rushing feet. Iggy. He sputtered. "Truly? She's gone?"
            Isabel cried harder and nodded. The baby, asleep in his swaddling bands, did not know anything about the grief in the room. Iggy stepped closer. He saw, by the light of a branch of candles, that Margaret was not breathing. She was waxy-looking, eyes closed. Shadows had crept under her eyes and her nose was begininng to look pinched.
            "Why?" Iggy said, his voice breaking. "We were finally…she and I despised each other for so long…"
            Isabel remained silent, rocking the baby.
            "We had a son. We had done something uncle Robert hadn't done: have a thriving son." Iggy wiped his eyes. Inwardly, Isabel frowned. There was too much Uncle Robert this and Uncle Robert that for her liking.
            Lady Mary appeared, eyes red and blotchy. "Come along, son. The women have to wash and sew her into her shrift." She sniffled. "Isabel, would you be chief mourner? We haven't much time in this heat and her sisters will not make it. You were her best friend."
            Isabel nodded, the tears welling up in her eyes again.
            Mary sighed. "Good, that's settled then." She placed her hands on Iggy's shoulders and then urged Isabel, with the baby, up. Ushering them out of the door, Mary said, "Take him to the study. Then write to Father Walter at St. Osana's. The funeral mass must be soon."
            "Yes, ma'am," Isabel said, in a voice filled with grief. "Come on, Iggy," she whispered. Iggy walked the corridors of the house with her, stunned. Sir Robert was in the study, drinking an amber-colored liquid from a tumbler. He did not even look up as they came into the room.
            "Here," Isabel said, offering the bundled child into Iggy's arms. "I'll write to the priest." Iggy stood stock still. "Iggy? Iggy, take the babe."
            He shook, trembling, and then took the sleeping baby into his arms. Isabel quickly prepared a quill and ink, pulled out a fresh sheet of paper, and wrote to the priest. She sanded the message and gave it to a footman, with crisp instructions that it be delivered immediately, even if one had to beat down the good father's door.
            Then Isabel ordered a maid to bring some bread and cheese. They may not have felt like it, but they had to eat something.
            "Oh, God," Iggy muttered. "What will we do with the child? No milk for the baby."
            "Wet nurse," Isabel replied. "Ah, here's the food. Eat."
            The funeral cortege for Margaret Collins FitzClement began with the lead-lined coffin, which had been lying for a vigil in the Collins Hall main hall, being placed on a carriage. Isabel, draped in hastily bought black crepe, as chief mourner, walked behind the coffin. Some of Margie's women followed her, then Lady Mary, Sir Robert, and Ignatius. They processed from Collins Hall through the small strip of cottages and shops in Scour, past the village green and the village well and up the slope toward St. Osana's Church.
            Pallbearers stood ready to take the coffin into the church. They set it down in the nave near the altar, where the priest stood ready. Ignatius felt bleary-eyed, for he had not slept since Margaret has passed.
There were some people there, he registered, besides the procession. He saw the figures of two nuns and a monk standing in the nave. After a few moments of looking at the white habits, Iggy registered that the nuns were his mother and his cousin Agnes, while the monk was his father. Iggy kneeled with the rest of the procession in the nave and crossed themselves before the women stood on one side and the men on the other. In addition to his father, Iggy noticed his uncles Richard and John. His aunt Cecily was standing behind his mother on the other side.
The priest began his homily, quoting in rapid Latin the Gospels, when they spoke about Jesus going to his death at Calvary. His Son had died for the sins of all Christians and now, they gathered here to consecrate their sister and daughter, Margaret FitzClement, to God. The priest briefly mentioned that she had died as many women did, in the most natural act of giving life to a small, defenseless babe.
Iggy thought there was nothing natural about an act that caused so many to lose their lives. Anger, ever present within him, gathered force. Margaret had only turned seventeen; Iggy would be sixteen in a few months. Many women were married, wedded and bedded, by this age, but not all women were the same. Isabel, at fourteen, still had the willowy look of a prepubescent girl. Margaret had been lush; her breasts had been large, her hips wide, it was thought, wide enough, to birth a child.
That was why the bedding ceremony had taken place late last year.
Their relationship had thawed, from tentative friendship that made the best of a situation neither had wanted, to true friendship. Iggy tried to remember the conversations they had had together, the times she had made a joke, or the times, even in the winter, that they had gone riding in the early mornings together. Then there were the nights they had made love--so few times. She had become pregnant quickly.
It was supposed to be a good sign, that.
Iggy shook his head, realizing that the congregation had moved on to the Lord's Prayer. He recited the Latin along with the rest, mumbling the words really, for he did not know if God heard his prayers now. Then, wincing, he sent an apology up to God for his blasphemy. It was wrong to doubt God. He worked in mysterious ways.
But if you had to do this, Iggy thought, could you not have kept Margie and I despising each other? This hurts too much.
God did not answer.
The funeral ended, a lone male solo singing the "Ave Maria" as the pallbearers once again picked up the coffin and moved it along outside. The attendees shuffled out, pooling in the church's porch.

"How is my grandson?" Benedicta asked Robert, her face long and her clear blue eye muddled by redness from crying.
"He thrives," Robert replied. "You heard?"
"Ignatius sent me a note to tell me," she replied.
"Ah," Robert said. "He would. He is considerate like that." He glanced down at his hands. "It wasn't childbed fever. She wasn't...feverish. At least that's what Mary says. She merely...bled too long."
"And bled too much."
"Aye," Robert replied. Their brother John, who towered over Benedicta, had approached them. John was Margaret's godfather, the baby having been born the same year that Robert took John out of seminary. It had proven a wise choice, for John had been a conscientious godfather. "Thank you for coming all this way, John."
John nodded. "Of course. My one godchild. Your daughters could not make it?"
"Nay. It was judged that coming from Northumberland and Durham would take far too long, even by water. And with this awful heat..." Robert sighed, wrinkling his nose. "Best it were done quickly."
"It has been beastly hot," John agreed. He threw an affectionate, sad smile in his younger sister's direction. The two had been thick as thieves as children, having spent time in the nursery together. John was only two years older than Benedicta.
"We'll have to find a wet nurse," Robert added. "And baptize the babe."
"And my son? How is he coping?" Benedicta asked, a concerned mother as always.
"He is...in shock. As are we all," Robert replied. "I must go. I..." He shook his head. "I have forgotten what I was going to say." He made the sign of the cross. "Bless me, sister. And bless your son. Pray for him."
"I will," Sister Benedicta replied. She also made the sign of the cross in the air and murmured, "Peace be with you," in Latin. But she doubted that peace would ever have the same meaning for her poor, vulnerable son ever again.
John stayed to visit with his younger sister, the girl he had both watched as a protector and had tormented and teased. They shared bright blue eyes and impish grins. They had both been relegated to the Church by their imperious elder brother. The difference was, at the time, John was sincerely devout, whereas Alice sunk into doubtfulness.
"I feel powerless to protect him," Sister Benedicta said as she and John walked in the kitchen garden, which was green with vegetables and herbs for the priory kitchens. "My poor, poor son. He is only fifteen years old. He should never have had to go through something this horrific."
John continued to stare at his feet. "You think the consummation commenced too early?"
"She is dead, is she not?" Benedicta replied. "I have no power to say anything in my own son's life. I asked Robert not to betroth him so young."
"Robert works in mysterious ways."
Benedicta snorted. "Oh, aye."
"Ally," John said, reaching out for her hand. The use of her childhood name brought a
fond smile to her face. "What's done is done."
            "Yes, unfortunately," she agreed. "You look well. I assume Robert keeps you busy in York."
            "He does," John replied. "I seem to have a business acumen I never suspected in my growing up years. I oversee his interests, what will be your son's interests."
            "They should have been your interests," Benedicta said. "And he could have left my son be."
            John tilted his head and squeezed her hand. "Ally, love, truly. In your heart of hearts, without Robert's sponsorship, where would your poor grieving son be right now? An apprentice? Studying for the priesthood?"
            "Perhaps. Yes."
            "What about Robert are you concerned about?"
            "His control," Benedicta spat out.
            "Your son is a good, honorable boy—all credit to you and his father, for he could have been a hellion or a resentful brat, under the circumstances."
            "Yes, I know."
            "You may be right, sister, in saying that he is facing pain that he is not ready for," John admitted. "With guidance, he will be fine."
            "With Robert's guidance?" Benedicta said in disbelief.
            "His. Yours. His father's. Mine."
            "You I trust," Benedicta replied, squeezing his hand. "Robert, I've never been sure of, yea or nay."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you so much for your comments and thoughts. Check back soon. I reply to all comments. Happy reading!