|An old Irish cottage - Perhaps Gitta would have lived in something similar.|
Along the path of novel writing, I decided to take a break and write another short story. The first draft of Williamsburg Hill, my next book, is coming along, but research is slowing it down a bit. I needed to feel a sense of accomplishment by completing something, so a short story it was. Thanks for reading The Witch of County Down. As always, copyright applies (©Veronica Randolph Batterson). Now back to the novel.
The Witch of County Down
By Veronica Randolph Batterson
The water sloshed over the bucket, soaking her feet and adding to the muddiness of the path. It had stormed for days, making the ground slippery and treacherous. Gitta had fallen twice since collecting the rain water, the weight of the pails hindering her journey; there would be two more treks up the hill and back before she was finished. It figured to be a long evening as the moans of her houseguest had yet to grow deep; lengthy intervals spaced the pains.
It was early, barely daybreak, when the young woman had knocked on her door. Desperation marked her features; water stains and spots of blood revealed her plight. Most came alone, driven by poverty, shame or both. This one was no different. Gitta marveled at how those, even the poor, could be so judgmental.
“Been told you’d help me,” the woman said, leaning against the splintered door frame. She drew a tattered shawl around her shoulders, her face and legs streaked with dirt and grime.
“Come,” Gitta replied, ushering the woman inside.
“Don’t have any coins, but I can sew and mend,” the woman breathed before bending over in pain and grasping her stomach.
“No need to worry about such things,” Gitta said, holding up the woman. “Breathe. The spell will pass.”
Once the pain had eased, Gitta readied the woman for the long hours ahead. She washed her patient’s limbs as best she could, even though barrels of hot water and a bar of lye soap would have served her better, and she tried to make her patient comfortable. The pallet of straw provided little relief when the spasms started, but Gitta figured the bed was better than what the woman was used to having.
“You have a name?” Gitta asked, spooning broth into the woman’s mouth.
“Fiona,” came the whispered reply.
The young woman’s skin, freckled from the sun, stretched across sharp and angled features. Hair as red as fire fell across her shoulders; Gitta imagined it came to life when clean. Her hands, dried and cracked from use and neglect, fared better than the swollen and split bottom lip that was either parched from thirst or split from a fist. Probably both.
“Here, drink this. It’ll quench the dryness in your mouth,” Gitta said, pulling a flask from a shelf and opening it.
“I’ll not drink water,” Fiona jumped, panic arching her back. “I’ll not.”
“I boil my water, just like that broth, you see,” Gitta soothed, attempting to calm the woman. “And it is rain water, kept separate from the river. Rain directly from the heavens.”
“I’ll not get the sickness. Saw too many of my own die of it,” Fiona replied, shaking her head.
“This is a little stronger than water, dear girl,” Gitta said, shaking the flask.
“What then?” Fiona asked.
“Plain old scotch. You’ll be needing it,” Gitta replied, tempted to drink some herself. Fiona sipped, and choked.
Gitta understood the woman’s fear, and had seen the horror with her own eyes. The filth of the river had caused dysentery and death, nearly eliminating entire families at the height of the epidemic. It took the sight of a bloated cow floating down the river to keep the remainder of the villagers away from the water, even though years of contamination had been evident. At the height of sickness, few came to her for help. Fear of Gitta had been greater than potential death. Murmurs of sorceress and witch still burned her ears as she remembered being ostracized for her ability. Most thought she had powers when Gitta would argue it was nothing more than common sense.
Carrying the pails up to the cabin, her thoughts of the morning troubled her. Would the young woman inside have a place to go once the child made its appearance? The ones who knew where Fiona sought help might view her as cursed. It had happened with others, yet Gitta had been less caring in the past. The young woman inside was nothing more than a child herself.
“My mam says to trust you,” Fiona exclaimed as Gitta entered the room, pails of water dripping on the floor.
“I have nothing to gain if you do or do not,” Gitta replied.
“Will my babe live?” Fiona asked.
“Your babe has yet to be born,” answered Gitta.
“But what they say about you knowing things. Can’t you tell? Most are afraid, scared you will bring bad luck,” Fiona started, the beginnings of another labor pain twisting her features.
“What is said is just talk. Nothing more,” Gitta soothed, setting the buckets by the door and reaching for the pot of lavender. She rubbed the oil at Fiona’s temples, and began chanting a prayer in Welsh.
“What’s that you’re saying?” Fiona hissed, teeth clenched against the pain.
“Just blessing you,” Gitta replied.
“Is it the devil?” Fiona asked, fear tempting her movements but the labor pain held her in place.
“Not the devil. Those who understand say it’s goodness. Some who believe, say God,” Gitta replied.
“Never heard talk like that before,” said Fiona.
“Most haven’t,” Gitta said.
“Where do you come from then?” Fiona asked, the pains subsiding.
“Wales,” was all Gitta offered. She told no one of her past, caring not to share the story of her life, of the hardships brought on by a father who loved the drink better than he liked his wife, of a traveling, nomadic existence that forced her to beg for scraps wherever they stopped. “A poor, needy child gets more sympathy,” her father had laughed, snatching any extra coins she might have collected. Then he’d leave for the night, drinking away her day’s work.
He had not been a cruel man, just lazy, and Gitta never saw him work much at anything. She and her mother would sell trinkets and herbs, a poultice or two for various aches, and homemade remedies for common ailments in order to keep their bellies full. Eventually, they learned to hide their earnings from her father until he grew tired of doing without his ale. He left and Gitta never saw him again.
She and her mother were taken into the folds of a traveling caravan of gypsies. They continued selling their herbal cures, and Gitta got quite good at mixing concoctions and experimenting. Within a year, her mother died of consumption; Gitta, heartbroken that none of her remedies could cure the woman, vowed to do for others what she couldn’t for her mother.
She remained with the caravan, proving herself even more useful when she assisted in delivering a child that was breech. The laboring woman, a person of prominence, had visited the gypsy stalls one morning and her pains came early. Without thinking, Gitta took charge and through a long and difficult birth, both mother and child survived. She was rewarded with coin, food and reputation, but even greater, Gitta earned the attentions of a young Irish soldier.
They married impulsively, and she followed him to his homeland where news of their union was met with hostility by his family. Gitta endured criticism on all levels, from her coloring to the way she spoke. It was her refusal to abandon the cures that finally drove her husband away and instigated the rumors of witchcraft started by his family. With no one to turn to, she stayed where she was, alone. She grew old.
“Oh, help me. It feels like the babe is coming,” Fiona’s voice cried, interrupting Gitta’s thoughts.
“Not much longer,” Gitta reassured the woman. The pains were intense and closer together; it would soon be time.
Gitta marveled at new life as the baby made its appearance, fists drawn and screaming from healthy lungs. A son for Fiona. As the woman held her child, Gitta felt a fleeting stab of envy. What she’d give for the chance to hold a child of her own.
“You have been kind to me. Kinder than most of my kin. I’ll not forget it,” Fiona murmured, exhaustion marking her face.
“Thank you,” was the only reply Gitta could give.
Over the following days, Gitta looked after woman and child, providing nourishment and teaching Fiona how to care for her babe. She shared simple remedies and stressed cleanliness. As she readied them for their journey home, it was her turn to thank Fiona. She had felt purpose for the first time in many years. Perhaps age had softened her, made her less bitter. She wished to think it was more than fate that brought the woman into her life.
“Might William and I come visit again?” Fiona asked, standing at the door, preparing to leave.
“That is his name then?” Gitta asked.
“Yes, it is. Felt right to me,” Fiona replied.
“I would like that very much,” Gitta said, “the two of you visiting.”
She watched as mother and child vanished into the morning mist, making their way back to the village, to Fiona’s home. Gitta’s cabin was quiet and felt empty. She busied herself cleaning, mixing herbs and boiling water, and when the loneliness seemed to engulf her, there was a knock upon her door. Gitta ushered in another needing soul to give her purpose.
©Veronica Randolph Batterson