By Marilyn Pemberton
I hold her tight to my breast; she is as light as a fledgling’s feather and I am afeared that the spring breeze will take her and waft her out of the window, straight up to the blue heavens.
But I’m not ready to let her go just yet.
The minister stands patiently at the head of the bed, his cheeks still flushed from the ride from the next village. His hands are cupped around the chalice as if he is waiting for some nourishing broth to cool, rather than to dispense holy water at this too-early christening.
He has just asked “What are you going to call her?” but how can I give this tiny scrap of skin and bone a name? A name will make her real; a name will make her impossible to forget; a name will need engraving on a head-stone.
I am glad the babe is a girl, naming will not be such a problem. The tradition in Matthew’s family is to call the first-born male Thomas. If we had had a boy instead, would we have to call him Thomas, even if he only lives a few hours? I argued against the tradition; I dislike Matthew’s elder brother and don’t want any son of mine to bear his name. Matthew had laughed when I said this. “You like the inn-keeper at The Bear, and Father Hammond, they are both called Thomas, you can think of them instead!”
Matthew had said that I could choose the name if we had a girl, and if she had been born when she was ready I was going to call her after the month of her birth. I thought that a girl called June was bound to have a sunny character, she would be plump and healthy and would be a great help on the farm. Following my own logic, I should call this little one May, but that name makes me think of white and pink blossom and fresh green leaves uncurling in the spring sunshine; it is not a name to give to my daughter, whose skin is wrinkled and hairy and whose pallor is pale grey. She looks as one already dead, but I can feel her heart still fluttering against my breast, like a trapped moth against a window pane.
I steal a glance at Matthew, dreading to see condemnation in his eyes, but all I see is concern and grief for now. The recriminations will come later, when he realises that it is my fault that our daughter has been born into the world too soon, and so cannot remain for much longer. I had been sitting in my rocking chair this morning, embroidering a coverlet for the crib that Matthew had taken so much pride in making. He had spent hours sanding it until it was as smooth as the surface of a frozen pond on a winter’s morning, and he had even chiselled little leaves and flowers on the sides as decoration. But all it needs now is a lid to become the bed where our daughter will sleep for all eternity.
As I had rocked gently this morning, humming quietly to myself, something had caught my eye, glistening in the corner of the room. In truth the web was as fine as gossamer but to my eyes each strand was as thick as a piece of rope and I could not rest until it was gone. So I took a stool, another of Matthew’s creations, made sure it was stable and very carefully raised myself onto it. I made sure that I was balanced properly and only then stretched out my hand the small distance to brush away the offending web. It was then that the baby decided to give an almighty kick and I was so startled that I stepped backwards into nothingness.
It was my screams that brought Sam, one of the farm hands, from the fields.
In the end my daughter had come quickly and silently and even a sharp slap on her bottom by Old Ma Brown, the midwife, had raised no more than a whimper. She wasn’t ready to be born and was not yet fully formed. I thank God that Matthew had not seen her before I wrapped our unfinished daughter in the unfinished coverlet, for I don’t know what he would have done if he had seen the bud where an arm should have been. Old Ma Brown had then sent for the vicar and whispered to me that everything was probably all for the best, for life would not be easy for one such as her. But I had wanted to scream at her that I would have loved her regardless, for isn’t that what mothers do, love unconditionally?
I wonder why God is punishing us so? We had waited until we were married before we had full sex and we both went to church most Sundays as we should. Matthew sometimes took God’s name in vain, but I always told him off and I know he would have made every effort not to do so in front of the child.
But it doesn’t matter now, does it?
My linens are saturated in blood and need changing; I just want it all to be over and for everyone to leave me in peace to start my grieving. I clutch my daughter tightly to my chest and stroke her downy cheek. As I do so she turns her head slightly towards me and opens her mouth. I instinctively put in the tip of my little finger and she sucks, not hard, but she sucks.
I gasp and without giving a thought to the blushes of the men in the room I take out my left breast and put the nipple gently into her searching mouth. God be praised, she continues to suck, not hard, but enough. The pain of the milk beginning to flow is glorious and I feel a wave of emotion flow right through me, primeval in its rawness. As she sucks, her eyes open slightly, and she seems to look at me, to see into the depths of me, to recognise me. Even as I watch her cheeks begin to lose their ghastly hue and become tinged with a healthier pink.
The minister is looking everywhere but at me, and doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself or with the holy water.
“You asked me what we are going to call her, vicar. Well, her name is Joy, for she is and ever will be to me and Matthew.”
And with my own tears I christen her.
About the author
The Jewel Garden is available https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jewel-Garden-Marilyn-Pemberton-ebook/dp/B079ZY877T or https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-jewel-garden/marilyn-pemberton/9781912582037
Member of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists
Member of the Historical Novel Society
Member of the Society of Authors