Copyright © 2010 Barry S. Willdorf
All rights reserved, Wild Child Publishing.
Aquae Sulis (Bath), Britannia: Spring 410 A.D.
Glenys was roused from sleep by pounding at the door. It was well past midnight. Concerned that the tumult would awaken the old woman in her care, she gathered her bedclothes about her and stumbled barefoot across the drafty hut with only the light of stars and a waning crescent moon through an open window to guide her. Reaching the door, she pushed aside the hide that covered its peephole to spy the face of a man who had always viewed her with contempt. His ruddy nose glowed by the flickering light of the torch he held. Dank hair matted his forehead. Great beads of sweat clung to his eyebrows and moustache, like raindrops on the eaves of a hut.
His sour odor seeped through the cracks in the door, making her gasp. “What do you want?” she hissed. “It’s late and you’re waking the whole town.”
He was panting heavily and obviously had been running. “Are you Glenys? Glenys, who is the healer?”
“What if I am?”
“I hoped to find you at the baths but Ceallaigh told me to try here.”
“You’re breaching the peace, you know. What is it you want?”
“It’s me, the thatcher. My w…wife,” he sputtered. “Come quickly. She cannot…the baby…is stuck… Please, Lady Glenys, come. We need you.”
Glenys cautiously pulled back the bolt.
The thatcher pushed aside the door and clamped a powerful hand around her wrist. Instinctively, Glenys pulled back but was unable to free herself.
“We do not live far from here,” he blurted before she could protest. “We need your help right away.” Without awaiting her reply, he pulled Glenys down the alley and then through a maze of passages until the shrieks of the mother became audible. Women were standing in doorways, their hands over their mouths, shaking their heads and choking back tears. Men, bleary-eyed, peered over their wives’ shoulders looking worried.
“It’s just right over…here,” the thatcher stuttered, pointing with his torch to a cottage that boasted a door of polished planking and matching shutters, in distinction from those around it—signs of his prosperity. He set the torch in an iron cradle, pulled clumsily at the latch and burst in, Glenys still tightly within his grasp.
A circle of flaming torches illuminated a young girl lying naked on a bed of soiled sheepskins. Shading her eyes from the glare with her free hand, Glenys gazed into terrified blue eyes desperately pleading for succor. She gulped a breath, gagging on the acrid black smoke that hung in the low rafters like a prescient storm cloud and sniffed the sobering odors of urine and of broken water.
As her eyes grew accustomed to the light, Glenys observed that the girl’s tongue had become swollen, likely from dehydration, and now drooped to the side of her contorted mouth as if she were a shipwrecked sailor expiring of thirst.
Her thin child’s legs were splayed wide, knees fully bent, soles flat on the sheepskin. She shivered frightfully.
The image of her mother, who had lovingly taught her the contraceptive secrets of Queen Anne’s Lace and pennyroyal danced before Glenys’ eyes. Glenys unconsciously ran a hand over her mature hip. She’s no more than fourteen years of age. Hardly five years separates us, but it is all the difference.
A gray-haired crone with a misshapen skull and a face as deeply crevassed as the bark on an ancient oak ceased daubing the girl with a wet cloth and squinted at the newcomer. Licking her barren gums with a colorless tongue, she cocked her head and with a gnarled finger gestured at the girl’s vulva. “She’s a small one, she is.”
The girl shrieked.
A second woman, younger than the crone, the girl’s mother, Glenys guessed, put her hands to her temples and began to cry out, “Dear God, dear God.”
Glenys bit hard into her lip to keep from chuckling. The woman’s face appeared to her as an exaggerated pair of pendulous cheeks like sacks of the flour hung from the rump of the miller’s ass. Glenys felt a hot blush of guilt. I am a healer, and this is a matter of life and death. She regained her composure and plucked a torch from the circle.
Holding the fire as close as she dared, she knelt down to examine the girl closely, running educated fingers first along the cervix and then probing further inside. To no one in particular, she reported, “She is ready to deliver but the head’s not engaged. I’m feeling the baby’s rear. It’s breached, and the feet are caught. I’ll try to push the baby back and free its feet.”
The girl screamed again and the muscles of her abdomen tensed.
Glenys pushed away from the child and stretched to relieve her own cramping. She accepted a damp cloth from the old woman, wiped her hands and turned to the thatcher. “Your wife is very young and very small,” she explained. “Unless I’m able to relax her sufficiently so I can free the baby’s feet, they both will surely die.” Failing to make eye contact, she shook her head and addressed the mother. “Even then, I can’t promise success. The baby’s head will come out last. It may be too large for her. If that’s the case, the only thing to do is to cut the baby free.” Again she turned to the husband. “Your wife will certainly die if cutting must be done, but I cannot do it. Just three weeks ago, the vortigern prohibited all women from performing surgery. Perhaps you saw the edict nailed to the door of the old temple? You must summon the physician at once.”
The thatcher’s mouth opened and shut like a netted salmon. Balling his fleshy hands into ham hock fists, he pounded his temples. “The physician . . . cannot . . . be found,” he sputtered. “We looked for him before I came to you.” He fell to his knees and, looking up at the woman towering above, clasped his hands at his chest. “She is only fourteen, Lady Glenys. Only fourteen. Please help her, I beg of you.” The mother too was praying now, her hands pressed together, mouthing the words of a psalm.
Glenys had little hope. She wiped the perspiration from her brow with the sleeve of her nightgown and attended once more to the screaming girl, whose feeble attempts to writhe were being foiled by exhaustion. Absent a miracle, the young girl and her baby were both going to die. Taking an iron key that hung from a cord around her neck, she dangled it and addressed the thatcher, hardly sparing him another look. “How well do you know the baths?”
The thatcher glanced briefly at his mother-in-law before averting his gaze toward the rafters. “Not…”
“…well.” Glenys ventured. “But I am certain you will find it without difficulty. Be quick. This key will open the gate. Go to the great pool. At the far end there’s a hall. The first door you come to will be my treatment chamber. Inside you’ll see shelves. Upon the top shelf, in a blue basket, there you’ll find herbs. The one you are looking for has leaves of dark blue-green and the smell will remind you of a skunk. Bring me that basket in all haste!”
The thatcher snatched the key and rushed from the cottage.
“What herb is that?” asked the old crone.
“A rare herb,” said Glenys. “I obtained it from a Jew in Clausentium who trades with Palestinia. It should relax the girl so that I can manipulate her baby.”
The old woman fussed with the wattle beneath her chin. “From Palestinia, you say? I’ve heard of this herb. You will burn it, yes? The girl will breathe the smoke and lose her senses? Is this the herb?”
Glenys scrutinized the woman before responding. “Perhaps, I’ve not used it before. But this is an emergency and I’ve been told that in Egypt they use this herb for difficult childbirths.”
I hope it’s still there, Glenys prayed silently. With luck, Ceallaigh’s not gotten round to dismantling my chamber yet. But he’s become so erratic... Could it have been just three weeks? So much has changed since that night.