Margot is telling it…

Mother would not relent. She said to let the Janus live would be contrary to Nature. She told of a child born with two heads and four arms, seeming like a boy and girl joined at the back, with heads looking contrary ways. They would both laugh and cry; one would speak and the other keep silent, and sometimes both speak together. But how long they lived she knew not.

We sat in silence as the wind howled without. Then from within the cupboard came a series of shrill cries. Mother crossed herself and said:

‘What an unholy noise. Even the screech owl has a fairer voice. God willing, the child will be dead by morn. But I doubt its body will be capable of resurrection as yours and mine.’

‘What if it lives?’ asked I.

‘Then we must kill it.’

‘Oh mother, I could not kill that little child,’ said I.

‘Fool,’ scorned she. ‘’Tis no human child; ’tis a mooncalf. When will you learn?’

‘But I’m sure ’tis human as you or I.’

‘That’s what frightens me.’

‘Yet I wonder why a human soul would enter a foetus so deformed?’

‘Penance,’ said she. ‘The twisted form of a damned and unrepentant wretch, who died without owning the name of Our Saviour.’

‘Or a simple freak of Nature?’

‘Either way, kill it we must. ’Tis the kindest thing to do. Then the soul will be free to find another body.’

‘If babies inherit old souls, then why do they not speak when they are born?’[i]

‘Because God does not wish it.’

‘But mother, did God wish that monster? It looks so wicked and maliceful.’

‘Then why did you sing to it?’ asked she. ‘You rocked it in your arms as if it were your very own. Do you love it or hate it? Make up your mind.’

‘The pity of it, mother; the pity of it!’

‘Save your pity for Jacotte. And do not get attached. The devil made that child. The devil makes all flesh. Only the soul is made by God.’

‘I wonder who the father is?’

‘To ask will only bring trouble. A corrupt line runs through these hills. I know not the root or seed, or what sin brought it about, but the cloisters of Belloc are full of monsters.’

‘What kind of monsters?’ asked I.

‘Tis best not to blab of such things. One thing I never saw – but ’twas a strange thing to hear, and I swear it true – that amongst the hills, some folk are born with tails.’

‘Like a dog?’

‘No, short and curly, like a pig. And when the child is loosed from his swaddling, the mother flees, to avoid its bane. I ask you, what evil will a Janus bring? Mark my words, that child is cursed. We shall wait for it to pass. But if it lives by dawn, we must do away with the wretched thing…’

Well, I had seen lambs born with two heads and the shepherd always wrung their necks. But I could not bring myself to harm that little child. So I said to mother:

‘Tis for God to decide the hour of its death, not us.’

‘Margot, if you will be a midwife, then you must be ruthless and merciful in equal measure.’

Night fell and a fierce storm swept down from the hills.

‘Father is late,’ said I.

‘He went to the woods to make laths. He’ll be sheltering in the gorge – or drunk in the tavern.’

We bided our time, tending Jacotte, and praying that God would take her child. The storm raged and the hovel shook in the thundercracks. Wind whipped the wattle, rattled the door and howled in the eaves. Jacotte was with fever and mumbling for her master. So I cooled her with rags and gave her some wine.

‘’Tis my soul that burns, not my body,’ said she.

‘Sleep,’ said I.

‘Where is my child?’ asked she. ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’

‘We know not,’ said mother. ‘It might be a boy, or a girl, or even both together. We had the skill to deliver it, but not to cure it. Better it suckled hemlock than the milk from your breast.’

Jacotte wailed and wished she’d never been born.

‘I want my baby!’ cried she.

Mother took her hand and said softly:

‘Don’t be upset. You will get him back again.’

Yes! In Paradise!’ said I.

‘No, you will get him back in this world,’ said mother. ‘For you are young and will be pregnant again. And his soul will enter the new foetus.’

Well, when Jacotte heard this, she nigh jumped out of her skin. She clawed mother’s face and hissed:

You moonstruck churl!

Mother bid her still and held her down, but Jacotte would not submit, and writhed on the bed, snarling like a mad dog:

‘Give me my child! You think you can steal the fruit of my womb?’

‘Best not set eyes on it,’ said mother. ‘Such a thing was never meant to live.’

It seemed the whole world was howling – Jacotte, the wind, the wolves – and that misbegotten thing, squealing in the cupboard. ’Twas then I knew the Janus was bewitched…

I speak of the things unseen. For the spoons began dancing on the table; the cauldron seethed and the trivet trembled; latches clattered and shutters rattled; whatever iron was about jarred and rang out. The stools jumped in a frolic, spinning on their legs and hopping back and forth. Then the whole hovel began to shake. We fell to our knees, for the floor was heaving like a sea, and lay on our bellies like worms. There came a terrible wailing, as if all the imps of hell were riding on the air. The wattles cracked and the timbers split. Then a great squall blew in the shutters: whoosh! The door was rent clean off its hinges and snuffed out the fire. The room grew darker, smaller, colder. I clung to mother in dread, for the cupboard was banging like the Devil’s drum. And standing midst the fury was Jacotte, cockle brained, her eyes blazing like coals. She was staring at the heartwood. A shadow was rising there: a bulky shape, all inky gall. It grew taller, bigger, blacker, gobbling up the light. My blood ran cold. For the Janus was floating in the air, its little body all waxy white. And those glassy black eyes were peering right through me. Jacotte went yonder, snatched up her child and fled naked into the night. Then all went deathly quiet.

We never saw Jacotte again. Mother said our house wasn’t fit to live in after that. She was right. For the Janus brought a haunting. We had terrible nightmares and got troubled by strange noises. The sound very oft’ seemed in the air, or middle of the room: a rapping; a groaning; a growling. Father said it came from the walls, so we pulled out the wattle but found naught. Sometimes loud knocks sounded in the loft; so father climbed up and looked round every place he could think of – but found naught. There were raps on the cricks and clangs on the cauldron. They never came in day, only at night. Things got so bad, we could scarce go about before a stool was put in our way, or a cup got hurled through the air.[ii]

‘We should tell the priest,’ said I. ‘He will come and put the spirit to rest.’

The priest?’ scoffed father. ‘He cannot save souls. He’s always curdling our blood with the devil and hell. But he’s knows nothing of God. The priest is a thief. He has led many astray from the path of salvation. He will demand alms to cleanse our home. And what shall he do? Sprinkle some water about? His water is useless. Shall a devil cleanse a devil? Why should we give alms for the redemption of souls? All that is nonsense. The Son of God said that man must live by the sweat of his brow; but the priest lives off the people; he only cares to be well shod and ride about on horseback. How shall he save us? There’s no salvation for the rich; nor for kings or prelates; nor for religious orders; and especially not priests. Put the spirit to rest? The priest is a fool. He knows naught of this demon.’

‘Well what is it?’ asked mother?

Father looked grave and said:

‘I fear I’ve ploughed up a follet’s house.’

‘A follet!’ cried mother. ‘Oh! It wants to drive us out!’

‘What’s a follet?’ asked I.

‘There are untold things ’neath the furrows,’ said he. ‘Creatures that dwell in the dark gloomy regions below the sods. The follets are older than the hills.’

‘What do they look like?’ asked I.

‘They are mostly invisible, yet terrible to behold; some withered like a corpse; some black as coal with fiery eyes; yet others all hair and bone. But they most oft’ appear as an orb of light. My father saw a great many of them dancing on a mound in the wood. Our cold and darkness are heat and light to them. What we hold as good they hate as evil. They love to play tricks and are full of deceits. I once knew a shepherd boy called Bonet, who lived in Tarascon. — Was it during the summer, after the hay had been cut, or in the spring when the meadows were sown? I can’t remember well. — But we were goading our sheep up the mountain path into the high pastures. It might have been noon, or shortly after, when we heard an unholy noise coming from the earth. It sounded like a great hornet’s nest. And when I put my ear to the ground, I heard the blowing of bellows and hammering of iron. Then there appeared on the path a great orb of light. It seemed like the sun had fallen from the sky. I was sore afraid and hid behind the rocks. The sheep scattered down the slopes, and six fell to their deaths. The orb hovered overhead, then swift as an arrow, it shot away, far down the valley. When I next looked, Bonet was gone. The follet snatched him away. When I got home, everyone thought I had done away with him. But I told none of the orb, lest they thought me mad.’

‘What became of Bonet?’ asked I.

‘Bonet returned twelve years later, and I swear, not a day older than when he vanished… I speak the truth. We were mowing the meadows and found him naked in the grass. I didn’t recognise him at first. But his mother knew him at once. Naturally, we were all eager to know what fate had befallen him. We kept on saying: “Speak to us! Say something!” But he would not open his lips. He could neither stand nor walk. He looked very shaken and his skin was pale as milk. They took him home and put him to bed. That night they tried feeding him a broth of salt pork, but he kept his mouth tightly shut. He never spoke a word. He was bewitched. Bonet remained like this for six days and nights. Then on the seventh night, just before dawn, he died. While he was dying, two owls came to the roof of my house; and when they hooted, I knew a follet had come to carry off Bonet’s soul.[iii] Beneath this land lurk many grim horrors and mickle terrors. The follets have driven many to madness and ruin.’

‘We must pray,’ said mother.

‘Prayer is no weapon against follets,’ said father. ‘They do not fear Christ, nor tremble at the Host. The sacraments make them laugh. Exorcism is useless. But one thing they dread above all else is mistletoe. Only the mistletoe can protect us. Only the mistletoe can drive the follet out.’

So off he went, in search of the golden bough.

That autumn brought terrible frosts. The land turned to stone and the river to iron. The vines withered and fruits shattered on the trees. The shepherds wintered in the corrals, but their flocks still perished on the plains, and many a beast died in the fields. Yet father was determined to find the mistletoe. ’Twas a perilous task, for the woods were spangled with hoarfrost and great icicles hung from the boughs. So great was the cold that the heartwood sap froze, splitting the trees from root to crown. Father searched the woods high and low but all the mistletoe was gone. So he daubed our door with hens blood to keep the demon out. Yet the spirit never left and things went from bad to worse.

One day after threshing corn we returned to find all the jars had changed places with the bottles; the stools were stacked in a rick, and our bowls set upon the table with a clod of marl in each one. Then the trivet started jangling and the cauldron raised high in the air; it floated light as a feather, then tipped on the hearth, spilling our pottage in the dirt. We dreaded the long winter nights locked up with the thing.

The snows came early that year, falling thick and deep, hooding the hovels and smothering the fields in an icy fleece. Great drifts gathered round the walls, setting hard as rock, turning our home into an icy prison. But despite the follet, our confinement was a blessing. For ravenous wolves came down from the hills to prowl the vill; they broke through the wattle and snatched many a churl from their beds. But we were entombed in drifts, and the pack never smelt us.

One night, after asking the Virgin to guard my bed, I was assailed by a noise that I never heard before; ’twas like a growling sow and a great weight pressed upon my chest. I dare not tell of the wicked things it bid, nor the state it put me in. It spoke like a man, but his form did not appear. When I refused to obey, it pained my bowels and made me vomit stones and pins. Night after night it hurled things about, or raised me high in the air, so that I hovered in the loft ’til dawn.

The haunting did not abate, and our torment worsened moon by moon. Oft’ the follet would pull our ears or jab us with a nail, so that we never got a wink of sleep. It pelted us with pebbles and beat us with sticks. We never saw the demon bodily, but only as a menacing cloud, or flitting orbs of light. When the thaws came, our nerves were frayed like old rope.

Heaven knows, we tried every spell under sun and moon to rid our home of evil. Mother sprinkled the floor with flax and crumbled bread about. She broke eggs in each corner and bid the spirit leave. Father went out and muttered strange words to the sods and sprinkled them with wine. But this only vexed the follet more. Knives, spoons, spades, rakes and hoes were all thrown about, whilst green orbs darted round the eaves. The whole hovel was in turmoil; our cat was thrown in the fire; stones fell from the rafters, and boots stomped across the floor.

This carried on for three whole years and nearly drove us mad. We could do naught but pray. But when I turned eighteen, the haunting stopped. I was sure that was the end of it. But years later, the evil would return…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2006.