The Witch’s Daughter

The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston

Book: The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston Read Free Book Online
Authors: Paula Brackston
certain … not the head, nor any limbs.’ She looked at her mother, brows creased, trying to picture in her mind how the baby could be arranged in its mother’s womb. ‘I think … yes, I feel the child’s back, and here, its shoulder.’
    Old Mary cursed quietly, ‘ ’Tis as I feared—the babe lies crossways.’
    Mistress Prosser began to weep.
    Anne held Bess in her gaze. ‘Feel for the top of the shoulder. Work your fingers over the bone. I will aid you from outside, but you must turn that baby so that his head is drawn downward.’
    ‘There is no room. I cannot take a hold…’
    ‘You must!’
    Bess searched with her fingertips, finding her way to the nape of the unborn child’s neck and then over its tiny shoulder. She pulled, gently at first, then with more force. ‘It will not move.’
    Old Mary stepped forward to whisper in Anne’s ear, but her words were audible to all.
    ‘Anne, I have the hooks…’
    ‘No!’ Anne was adamant. ‘Not while the infant still lives.’ She turned to Bess again. ‘Keep trying,’ she said.
    Bess did as she was told but feared her efforts would prove fruitless. The slippery baby seemed stuck fast in its impossible position. A terrifying image came into Bess’s mind. She recalled with frightening clarity the time her father had failed to deliver a particularly large calf. After battling for hours, he had thrown up his hands and sent Bess to the dairy to fetch the cheese wire. He had used it, with slow and deliberate movements, to slice the calf into pieces so that they might take it out and save the cow. No one could be certain the creature had been dead before he started dissecting it. Bess could see now the pathetic limbs and hooves lying in a gory mess beside its mother. The cow herself had died the following day. Bess blinked the picture from her mind. She must stay calm. She must be steadfast. If she was not, Sarah would pay the price with her life. Bess redoubled her efforts, shutting from her thoughts the notion that she might harm the child—it had to come out. At last she began to detect some shifting in its position. Anne noticed it too.
    ‘Do not let it slip back,’ she said.
    Bess prized the shoulder to one side and felt the head moving downward toward the birth canal. At that moment, a powerful contraction swept through Sarah’s body. The girl was now too weak to scream and instead emitted an eerie wail.
    Old Mary stepped forward.
    ‘Bear down, child! Do not falter now. Push!’
    Now she screamed. With one last, gargantuan effort, with strength summoned from an unknowable place that exists hidden within every mother, Sarah screamed and pushed.
    Bess gasped as her hand and the baby were driven out. Everything happened with such speed she barely had time to grab the infant as it slithered onto the blood-soaked linen.
    ‘Look!’ Bess cried. ‘He’s out! A boy!’
    Anne examined the child who protested loudly, much to the relief of everyone in the room.
    ‘The Lord be praised!’ whispered Mistress Prosser, raising her daughter’s hand to her lips.
    Old Mary smiled a toothless grin, ‘The Lord and young Bess here,’ she said. ‘She surely be her mother’s daughter.’
    Bess watched the baby wrapped in warm swaddling and handed to his mother. Sarah kissed the top of her newborn’s head, her face transformed, the cloud of death removed and replaced by the warm joy of life. She looked up at Bess.
    ‘Thank you, Bess,’ she said.
    ‘I need no thanks beyond seeing you and the babe safe and well, Sarah.’
    ‘I will never forget what you have done for us,’ Sarah said, before closing her eyes.
    Bess felt her mother’s hand on her arm.
    ‘Come, Bess. Let us leave her to rest.’
    ‘I feared I might fail,’ she confessed.
    Her mother smiled. It was a smile that from anyone else might have been said to betray pride. She shook her head. ‘You did well, child,’ she told her daughter. ‘You did well.’
    2
    A week later, at the start of the

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